Colombia: Medellín

Medellín, the second fiddle of Colombia, now beckoned me in person. Was this to be the homeland of Pablo Escobar, or the land of the eternal spring (as it was called) writ large? One thing I knew while still in Cartagena was that it was about a dozen or so hours away, with nowhere in between to break up the trip. Crap. With no shortage of reservations I had broken down to take the dreaded night bus.

Otherwise only a few different options had been available, not necessarily with the better bus companies. I was in no mood for a long, uncomfortable ride - I wanted a good bus. Off I went into the night then... and a horror show unfolded, naturally. Shortly after leaving, I found myself reaffirming my broken pledge to avoid these sovereigns of the night, hell-bent-on-wheels hellions that nightly proved themselves threatening to all in their path.

It was the bus's plushy inside that had me most concerned to start, however. I always trusted in the self-preservation instinct of the driver to save me from without (a false security, of a surety, but what else had you?) Shortly upon departure, I quickly found the bus so cold I was shivering. That was continued even after huddled into a ball, then thoughout the journey as I stayed on the verge of falling off my seat. The bus, meanwhile, hurtled forth for-e-ver. M-o-o-o-o-om-m-m-m-y!

In retrospect, the ten or eleven hours I guessed the journey to take was better than the thirteen hours it had been advertised to be. THAT had probably accounted for the relentless swerving around obstacles, come to think of it. At one stop, I ventured to ask the driver if he could make the bus less cold at least... to which he replied that the heat was on. Say what? Indeed, a stop at 4a.m. had me walking out into the frigid mountain air, now found only a little colder than inside the bus. Soon couldn't be soon enough to find us in Medellín.

Upon arriving in Medellín at 6:30am, however, the air outside had turned pleasant, probably in the mid-60s (Fahrenheit.) This was more like it. 'Eternal spring' was sounding both good and true in short order, as the thermostat moved up further to a very agreeable temperature.

From the station I immediately took the railed metro (unique to Colombia) to a decent hostel, even as the preferred ones in the Lonely Planet guidebook had fallen through when I had called ahead. I was now getting into the very highest of high season between Christmas and New Year's, after all.

My new home - Hostal Medellín at the Metro's Suramerica stop - proved a good home base in any event, even if I right away determined to find more space in a room with fewer beds. That's not what I'd have to start, and it wouldn't happen courtesy of the season, either. Stuck for the present, I was long past realizing that I couldn't do two trips at the same time, anyway, both being a tourist and productive with the trumpet and writing. The frustration now had risen uncomfortably high, not being presented with other options beyond spending a healthy chunk of money for my own room in high season.

Considering my competing desires of touring the "new" of a place, or settling in to get some things accomplished, I had been finding that the one seemed to preclude the other. The tourist always seemed to win because of opportunity: "When will I be here again?" was the omnipresent query. This consistently was the state of mind I put myself into concerning the energy put forth in terms of both the daily and weekly schedule. Although I was looking to pick a spot to hole up in, both currently or for later living in Colombia, I realized that Medellín wouldn't be the place. Not that it would be without its charms, it'd just be "no" to the prospect of sticking around too long.

I spent one day recovering from the hellish bus ride, then continued that with more or less another day of loafing. No surprise, this had been anticipated before hopping onto the night bus. It was still too bad, however, that I was effectively repeating the lesson without relearning it.

Once out and about, Medellín struck me as a clean and more kempt place than Bogot´. The metro system, consisting of two lines crossing in a T, was impeccably clean and organized. It soon seemed that the rest of the city was as well. The people of Medellín took pride in this, I'd find, especially since they would always be in the shadow of massive Bogotá. This was much as Chicago always endured New York City, and later Los Angeles as well.

New Year's Eve was celebrated the evening of the day I arrived, a hostel-hosted affair consisting of 15-16 of us eating and drinking together. I chipped in a chili which disappeared quickly, a satisfying fate to watch. It was in turn accompanied by a couple of hams, large bowls of potato salad, some French bread, and a "salsa" for the bread consisting of butter, garlic, cilantro, and (a little too much) salt. Somehow everyone ended up full and almost nothing remained.

That had gone pretty well-planned, yet without any planning, I thought. By the time midnight rolled around, though, few of our mob had any gas left to continue in some stereotypical way like hitting the bars for the countdown. After Midnight came and went only a few went out in search of some hijinx. This was to no avail: New Year's Eve was celebrated in houses in Colombia among friends and family, not discoteques. We certainly had achieved that feeling of family and friends in any case, in my opinion. Not bad for a mixed group of French, many Argentines, some Colombians, a Finn, a Swiss... and me.

Venturing from the hostal after two days of slothful stillness, I was ready to check out the downtown core area. The close-by parques (parks) Berrio and Bolivar were leafy places in front of cathedrals, both well-attended with local Paisa (as they termed themselves in the area) musicians and artisans, respectively. Local (and internationally-renowned) artist Botero otherwise reigned prominently, both in the central sculpture park and in the adjacent Antioquia Museum (handily free on the day I walked by.)

Being the hometown hero, I quickly noticed that Botero's works were found in a few other plazas, too. This included a central one where his bird sculpture stood next to its previous edition. That had been blown up back in the bad, not-so-old days of Escobar's reign in the city and region. I applauded the city's keeping it around for the contrast.

Also at the Antioquia Museum was a large exhibit of the Colombian painter (and all-around artist) Cano, quite impressive as well, but there wasn't too much more to keep me inside when it was so nice out. Outside again, a few other churches were pretty things to pass by with a slowed gait, and the Plazas Cisneros and Mayor were handsome locales. The latter was a popular place to congregate in, what with its arrays of sculptures and open spaces. Cisneros was more stately, though, housing a horde of tall, white, and thin posts which lit up at night and with bamboo stands in between.

In Cisneros case the sculptures were also overshadowed by the (very) modern library at one end of the plaza. It proved well worth the look I took inside for its architecture and use of space. Beyond that it had great views to take in the city, including mural art seen from above. A mystery bathroom, found on its upper deck's corner, was adjacent to a final odd view - almost visible from the toilet itself. I share because, well, I just do.

The Plaza Mayor was a different affair, mostly on the other side of the clustering of municipal buildings that were somewhat blocked off for security from Plaza Cisneros. More interactive in many aspects, its Plaza de Pies Descalzados (Barefoot Park) was extremely well-attended by great numbers of kids and parents. With its plentitude of water - and even a pebble garden - it earned the name.

Ongoing at the same place was the touring exhibition Bodies, something which I couldn't seem to escape anywhere in the world. That was a shame, since I found its use of real Chinese bodies for gawking somewhat repulsive. I had passed it by in Seattle and Sydney previously, plus I recalled sharing another city with it somewhere else as well. I'd do the same once more here - and still it was no, thanks.

One day I made a point of joyriding the Metro system. Since you could turn around at any given station without paying, by merely walking over or under the rails to the other waiting side, I took advantage of this to check out the lay of Medellín from the entire system. Not a bad deal, that.

Curiously, two special wings of the system included in the same CP1500 (< US$1) fee were called the MetroCables. These were gondola-serviced stations reminiscent of ski resorts, each providing nice views from above. They additionally felt sometime downright voyeuristic: it was quite easy to look into people's houses as the gondola gracefully glided by from above.

The lay of all of the roofs that crisscrossed Medellín, and all of the attendant labyrinthine staircases between the buildings, was no less than interesting. The town lay mostly along a north-south valley, surrounded by hills from all sides. A polyglot of red brick - almost none of it painted - made for impressive contouring of the hillsides, too, especially at sundown. During those fleeting moments the vast two-tone reliefs provided excellent contrasts as the shadows began.

Two Metro stops of note I decided on for disembarking were those of University and Poblado. At the former was yet another of Medellín's five modern (public) libraries, each an unusual jewel in South America with an impressive display of architecture. The plenty of grounds offered near and in each of them were for the public to enjoy, each lying conveniently near a Metro stop.

At the University stop's cluster of buildings and attractions, the Jardin Botanico proved oddly underwhelming even for its well-numbered attendance. This was mostly for its small amount of actual botanical content (in Colombia, of all places, with its practically record-setting level of diversity.) Off-putting also were the garish displays set up with Christmas lighting, a national tradition and common thread throughout the country. In Medellín this came to an apex. For the garden, though, it was an anomaly in an otherwise pleasant area. Otherwise beyond the garden at University stop was a great variety of attractions such as a hands-on science center (that I didn't enter but had heard very good reviews of) and another library and water/sand park for kids.

The Poblado stop, although in a rich neighborhood, was a different thing altogether. It housed the nightlife scene, but I soon found that this included daylife in no sense whatsoever. What a complete bore: even its promoted riverside walk was a great disappointment. This latter was essentially a sewage canal, notably entered into and made significantly more filthy by one particular pipe at its center.

Near to this waterway, and viewed from the Metro, I had already seen a few examples of homeless people making homes in the tail ends of these less-than-meter-wide pipes leading toward the main river. I came to realize that a real truth was that the filth was perhaps just better hidden in Medellín; it hadn't miraculously disappeared from this South American city at all.

I soon held the sobering thought that although Medellín was easily the cleanest city in Colombia, there was a ways to go. For example, I next noted a few patches of heavy dumping into the river. These were easily viewed from the Metro lines which paralleled its course to the south, but otherwise they were hidden from the street. To this I wondered how the tap water was still curiously considered drinkable here, as elsewhere in the mountains. My stomach was the ultimate proof of that... for the time being. Still not sick, I thought - for how long?

Enjoying the tourist offerings of Medellín, I also was realizing that I would have to be on the ball to get to Manizales. That city would be my next stop, but the Feria now beginning there was coinciding with my plans entirely by chance. A popular event, it would be a tough squeeze to get in there for at least a week of checking things out without backtracking. Hmmm. I particularly wanted to go there before heading onward to Cali; there I hope to get my visa stamp renewed in a timely fashion.

With these two goals in mind I called ahead to put serendipity to the test, placing myself as a result on a waiting list three days ahead of time in the process. I'd stay in contact, too: the Colombian method of only (sort of) taking reservations, allowing anyone to extend their stay indefinitely, had its pluses and minuses. Now I'd be running into it head on. For all this effort, though, I knew that the best thing often was to just show up on the morning you wanted to be somewhere.

After five nights, then, I was saying goodbye to the Hostel Medellín. It had been a very friendly place (with a good kitchen - no mean feat), but the cramped rooms had been an endurance, too. It was indeed the motorbike haven it advertised itself to be, but it also housed nonstop smoking that couldn't be escaped.

I had nevertheless gotten used to the slightly odd cast of characters led by host (and chain-smoking) Claudia. This incuded her longterm guest Andressa, the man or woman-to-be from Brazil with the impressive motorcycle outfitted for the Outback - or Outer Mongolia. Manizales now had my number, though. I finished up my latest Garcia Marquez gem (De Amor Y Otros Demonios - set in Cartagena), then boarded the five-hour bus. For the journey I'd have yet another Swiss hanger-on to shortly consider murdering - before boredom overcame me. Ah, the traveling life!

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