Colombia Redux: Medellín Redux

Six weeks of mugginess and wet slop at the table of the Amazon River's dully-gilded whore, Leticia, has proven enough. I'm ready for a return to Colombia "proper". Thankfully, a mere two flights, Leticia-Bogotá (the only flight available out of Leticia) and Bogotá-Medellín, will do the trick, rather uneventful affairs of two and one hours respectively. Although increasing rains toward the end of my stay have cooled Leticia down a bit more toward bearable, the "eternal spring" of Medellín sounds awfully good - especially when a layover of a few hours at Bogotá's terminal reminds me of its contrasting cold via a poorly-managed air supply. I'm still most of the mentality that it's high time to mentally leave all things mosquito and sweaty behind.

There'll be no more madness of managing (i.e. occasionally tiptoeing about) a hostel owner, either. Instead I'm headed to the more staid environment of Medellín's Black Sheep, a large and well-kept hostel run by an ex-pat Kiwi. Granted, the clientele here skews heavily toward males between the ages of 20 and 30 looking for a party, but such is what one typically gets in South America's big city hostels (particularly in the more happening countries like Colombia, Brazil, and Argentina). It's not like I don't know how to discriminate between my fellow travelers at the safe distance afforded by well-chosen silence, either.

Immediately I feel a great change by being in a place that has its act together. This is appreciated: If I want a beer, or need to contract someone to do my laundry, there's no question that such will be available. I'm happy to be free of repeatedly asking or waiting for someone to be in the mood to do basic tourist services of even the most mundane things. What a relief, even if I have to spend the first night in a dormitory. If anything, that proves that the place is justifiably popular - which I'll almost immediately realize. But soon enough I've got my own room to spread out my stuff in again. Casa dulce casa!

Getting out of the dorm is especially important in keeping the party boy clientele at arm's length. I'm well past the point of being willing to deal with someone barging in in the middle of the night to possibly barf or, probably worse, get laid. Fine in other rooms, sure, but since these things have happened in my dorms as well, I'm willing to pay double the price. Fortunately this is still only a whopping $22 in Colombia, however sure it is to increase (and probably soon) with the increasing tourism. I take a speedy liking my spacious room, setting up my music stand and laying out my yoga mat as I make my nest. There's something about unpacking COMPLETELY that makes a place a home.

For this Medellín go-round I've decided to lodge myself in a high-rent district, knowing from the outset that I'll be staying for a longer time than the previous year's hurried pass. By coincidence, I note that the two arrivals are almost exactly a year apart. Initial omens are good, too, in chats with the owner about my lackluster first try of the city. He assures me that he'll provide me with some good info for trips not far afield from the city. These will include the obvious ones - to Santa Fe and Guatape, both of which I skipped out on last time - but he hints at many other places that should be well worth my while. I'm game, intending to have loads of relaxed time to make such things possible.

It's further nice to be in an area of such high convenience for once - anything I need to buy is nearby. I can pick up a pair of jeans to replace the pants absolutely thrashed (and thus trashed) from my drenched night out with the Amazon hunter, for example. Or I can get my jacket's zipper fixed for almost nothing - and properly so, too. (Dainty lace used to repair a tear in the same jacket a year before down Salento way comes to mind.) Actually, come to think of it, cheap sewing services such as these might actually suggest packing all clothes one has in disrepair before making a trip to the (more or less) developing world, repairing them on the cheap immediately upon arrival. Call that TripTrumpetTravelTip #5448.

Having rushed to return any borrowed books back to Crazy G's sanctum(s) before leaving Leticia, meanwhile, I'm ready to start on a whole new slew of books with a fresh-if-not-exactly-new city hosting my likes. The page-turning thriller of bound-and-papered junkfood called The Defector will disappear in a hurry, just as expected. Its most memorable feature is its steely-eyed photo of the author on its jacket: now there's someone who takes himself seriously! Opening up my stash finds me immediately replacing it with Muriel Spark's classic, Momento Mori. Something of a morose work of fiction focused on aging, it'll not be terribly long to read through - in the good sense, fortunately.

What I'm really interested in starting, however, is both Twain's Roughing It and García Márquez's 100 Years of Solitude (a second go-round for this latter tome, now in Spanish). Some fifteen years plus have elapsed since "100 Years" initial, eye-popping-with-joy discovery; I'm more than a little excited to give it another go after so long. By now I've read practically all of GGM's works, usually just doing so in Spanish these days, but he's a rare author worth repeating for me. Opening those first pages to reenter the world of Macondo, I welcome placing myself in the hands of such a master again. With that in mind, I decide to only allow myself 10-15 pages a day to make the experience last. (I'll soon decide to repeat, lather and rinse the exercise sometime in the future with Love In The Time Of Cholera as well.)

Trumpetwise, the general idea in Medellín is to continue the good work begun in Leticia. Steady practice should still be the name of the day, in other words. I select a number of pieces for memorization, then add a number more as likely candidates to follow. Jazz tunes like Work Song, Moanin', When Sunny Gets Blue, Blues In The Night, Nature Boy, and Sugar make the cut; So do Latin tunes that I feel I should know by now: Felicidade is one such overdue oversight correction.

More challengingly, I also want to add a number of Latin tunes for which I have no music sheets. Transcribing will be required from the various recordings I have. El Bobo De La Yuca, El Reloj De Pastora and others already came to mind while in Leticia, but here I want to continue the good aura of having a constructive task at hand! I'll even extend this productive strain by constructing Spanish sentences to help commit more idioms to memory. Accomplishing all of the above is dually cheaper and seemingly more novel than doing mere tourism alone in Colombia.

From the pervious year's Medellín foray, meanwhile, that of a mere five nights spent at a different hostel and in a neighborhood both, I've already given the city the most obvious of once-overs. Like in Bogotá, museums of interest and walking about parks of similar touristic appeal have already been done. In Medellín, uniquely, this included riding the length of the Metro. But then I fled, mostly because my living space sucked and the Feria de Manizales was about ready to begin. Now, far more happily ensconced, I'm ready for Medellín to bring on its charms in a more expanded tour(ism).

One thing I didn't do previously was check out the famed Christmas lights of Medellín. Oops? Well, supposedly they *are* the most spectacular in the country, if not the continent. Granted, such things don't exactly typically grab me, but with a new lease on the city I figure "Why the hell not?!?" this time around. It helps that they're only a Metro stop away this time, too.

It turns out that the light display IS more extensive even than advertised. And, while evidently expensive for the city, it's also free for the visitor - nice! The overall scene consists of various displays, garish all, which use untold millions of tiny light bulbs on acre upon acre of colored aluminum foil-covered objects. One can't HELP but be impressed at the scope of the thing at the very least, even if the style points appeal far less. It's BIG.

For one thing, a kilometer or two of timed light displays line the Medellín River. All individually spin round, with jets of water squirting from within each. The water's even recycled, I read somewhere, with almost all of the liquid channeled back into re-use by massive, heavy-duty tarps and piping. Beyond those are numerous themed-if-unrelated, individual displays that are located under bandstand-like tarps of the same material as the recycling chutes. Each represents a scene or concept from the more northern climes and traditions of Europe and North America. Thus in a most un-Colombian way one finds copious numbers of candy canes, gingerbread houses, and allusions to snowy, white Christmases.

Far more interesting to me, however, is the scene which surrounded all this, starting with the chief attraction in my book: the street food galore. Said edibles/drinkables range from the ubiquitous meatsticks of all fair-like events to a tasty cane juice and some types of caramel corn. These innumerable vendor stands (there are perhaps a few hundred of them) further sell booze, soft drinks and full meals. All of this, moreover, is extremely organized in Medellín's atypical way (when compared to the rest of Colombia, which can often resemble a bit of a clusterfart in such attempted diligence). Perhaps that's the most shocking thing of all: That it all works, and well at that.

Naturally, I notice that street performers of many and any an ilk are on show for the assembled masses, too. Both surprisingly and yet not so, these acts focus mostly on guitar trios... with transvestites handling the bulk of the singing and entertaining. Huh? Well, yeah, it's true, but I also get the impression that THESE transvestites have day jobs which find them only draggin'-it when this annual brouhaha comes to town. They don't have a "committed-to-a-different-sexual-identity" look as much as a "I'll-do-anything-for-a-good-party" one.

As for the odd guy doing his little, circular, bitty-step dance, and this while rotating on a platform only the size of his feet that is about 3 stories removed from the ground below? He properly stands out, if only for the odd look on his face that is almost other-worldly. Mostly, however, I find myself pondering just how many circles he's done over of the weeks past and will do in the course of those to come. He looks like he could go forever; I'm sure that I would've fallen off of that thing to my doom in the first hour.

TripTrumpet being TripTrumpet, and TripTrumpet being, well, me, at no time do I forget to notice the hordes of lovely Paisa women, especially with so many dressed up for this partying occasion. Such a phenomenal display of beauty has a way of setting Antioquia (Medellín's region) and the other Paisa provinces apart from the rest of the country (per my taste). And now here they're TRYING to look good. To be honest, I can't imagine how Italy or wherever else their ancestors originated from recovered from such a drain of pretty faces. More dangerous still, many speak in a lilting, coy Spanish that reminds me of Argentina's Salta province (where my jaw significantly dropped so long ago).

Still, the appearance of such fine lass-ery begs one question: why so stylishly attire oneself... if only to be squired about on the arms of a bunch of guys with mullet hairdos? Some questions are perhaps best left unanswered, sure, but I can't help but think that these youths look like about every possible stereotype of a drug runner in virtually every Colombian movie I've seen (which is plenty by now). Then again, it IS drug money that makes Medellín's sheen of shine what is in the first place. Anyway, these are all points to muse on as I slowly stroll some several miles, equally taking in all forms of eye candy provided.

Said walking theme is continued next under daylight, when I go to see a photo exhibit on Richard Shultes at Parque Explora. He coincidentally was the main protagonist of the book "One River", that tome which I particularly enjoyed so much in Leticia. Now here are many photos that he took while in the Amazon region so long ago, blown up and on display for the first time. Back when, their cultural significance was overlooked in favor of the scientific information he was seeking and compiling. They hauntingly speak of a world formed over eons lost, yet not that long ago in the span of some mere decades.

The display being at the Metro's Universidad parada gives me a good excuse to walk the several Metro stops back toward downtown afterward. THAT's interesting, a straight shot of street that sees me wandering through the unadorned commercial heart of the city. It's as if I'm suddenly in HaNoi, VietNam, again, with whole blocks dedicated to one item: motorcyles, bicycles, wire, luggage, shoes, etc. As one who's often overwhelmed with shopping, I can't help but marvel over how this sure makes things simple and the opposite of a Wal-Mart - perfect for my ilk!

The flip side to this - MAYBE, depending on your varying mileage - is the long, outdoor display of porn found outside one of the major churches in downtown. Men and women alike honorably stand upright behind table after table offering assembled rows of DVDs containing unadulterated smut. The jacket covers leave absolutely nothing to the imagination, either, making me surprised to not see half of Medellín's adolescents strolling through at an absolute crawl. To pose an interesting thought, meanwhile, I'm not sure if any purchases of said material are at all inspired one way or the other by the church's lovely choir inside that we all can plainly hear from without in the alley. This isn't anyone's grandma's Colombia anymore, THAT much I realize. I'm not even sure if I've seen one person walking by the church doing the ol' teeny sign of cross, the one that is topped off by a light, worshipful kiss of fingers to lips and eyes momentarily turned skyward. The times, they are a-changin' in Latin America. Here, anyway.

With this central church effectively degraded, it looks like old-fashioned ostentation will have to find itself in another form, like El Castillo, perhaps. This is a museum of gaudy presence, yet one that provides an excellent overlook of the city to hasten its appeal to folks of my ilk. Furthermore, it's handily located near (or in) my chosen El Poblado neighborhood - too convenient.

So it is that a Spanish-British couple cycling to Argentina (or Antarctica or Africa - I forget) accompany me for a walkabout of the grounds. We arrive after a short steep climb up from the Santa Fe Mall, all hoping to be wowed in some sense and, indeed, the rolling gardens make for beautiful picnic or wedding photo spots. But, upon entering the turreted building, we shortly can only but keep ourselves from stifling yawns. Preserved period pieces, plus a shabby attempt at high tea or coffee, try to evoke a history of Victorian epoque that we know never existed here in reality beyond the minds of a cosseted very few. Nothing can hide the fact that this is just some rich guy's legacy to himself and his wealth. But thanks for the (excuse for a) view!

More promisingly, over the holidays many of Medellín's museums open their doors for free. For this helpful occasion, I decide on a repeat of the town's main such of note, the Museo de Antioquia just off the Plaza Botero. It's got pretty much the same as before, granted, but it's nonetheless a pleasure to repeat ogling the oodles of Botero works at full - sometimes massive - scale. I consider him one of the three great cultural legs of the country, after all, along with García Márquez (literature) and Toto la Momposina (traditional music). Shakira still has work to do, as far as I'm concerned, even if I've always thought that her "Ojos Asi" was a respectable start on her road to pop-goddess-hood.

Such museum free-for-alls not coincidentally bring me to the end of 2010, by the way. Woo woo - New Year's! Well, actually hardly: From the previous year, I know that New Year's Eve in Medellín is a family affair. So why not... busk?... if only in the daylight hours, since it likely'll have to be a no go as evening comes and crime accordingly picks up. Fine: I set off with my case on my back. Up to Parque Lleras - the tourist central found in the heart of the Zona Rosa (nightlife district) - I go, setting myself down on a ledge near some painters (in action painting, a nice stunt for sales I'm guessing). I pull out my trusty horn, play my heart out (or play well, anyway) and... make nothing.

Granted, the empty case comes about just as expected, especially since I've stationed myself well back from the sidewalk to practically assure the result. After starting up, however, I am gratified to see that numerous people soon sit nearby to listen - if at safe, non-committal distances. All this occurs as brushes find their way to canvas while I throw my grab-bag of notes into the air. But then that's that, an official busking bust. Sigh - there's nothing even for a coffee, my standby commiseration reward for meagre compensation, a tradition started after some such outings in Oz.

But it still feels plain healthy to play without a mute for the first time since Leticia. From my shaded redoubt I meet the three painters at work, too, something of a payment if only out of my meeting interesting folks. It's not that that's by coincidence, of course, not with me prefiguring that I might as well have some conversation while I ply my half-assed trade away. And one painter does fortunately prove eager enough to yap about his experiences working the streets to ply his art trade. Thus it really DOES all go to script, minus the money bit, and the cultural exchange makes for enough of a successful outing in my book.

A more curious event will lie in my trying to make a go of partying away come evening, even if New Year's Eve is quite a happening thing in the rest of the country EXCEPT where I'm at (as mentioned above). At least I've gained that modicum of wisdom which allows me to not posit any New Year's Eve expectations regardless of WHERE I am in the world - but the rest of the herd of tourists in the hostel will neverthless not be denied a try. So try we do (hey - it's not like I'm against going along for the ride!), guzzling various quantities and styles of booze (and for a not-insignificant some, smoking plenty o' weed and snorting linear grids of coke away) until about 1 a.m. in the area.

The theory is that some time past that witching hour of medianoche is THE appropriate time to head out and see if there's some rumba (action) about. Will the Medellínenses (they preferred to be called Paisas, but SOMEone has to use the word) head out from their families' homes with the dramatic moment of midnight passed through? That's THE question. And the answer is... well, sort of...? Anyway, first our group of stragglers heads over to the nearby party hostel, the well-known Pit Stop, to recruit more gringos just in case. There we find many willing participants, too, allowing us to believe "Hey, it might happen!" By coincidence, this moreover includes the two young Australians met toward the end of my Leticia stay: "Alex! Josh!" "Trip!" See? Excitement is mounting! - and not necessarily even multiplied by this unexpected meeting. Uh huh.

Now our crew moves on to find that rumba. It has to be somewhere, surely. "To the Zona Rosa!" is now our battle cry... only to find upon trudging there that just a few places in this typically bustling nightlife district seem to be going. As for the lines outside of their doors, THOSE aren't going anywhere at all. Hmm. Okay, then how about those OTHER places we've heard word of, the mongo clubs of Carnaval or Mango's? Therein will lie the slight rub of the taxi kind, sure, but it'll turn out that that won't be the worst of it. That's because after a lengthy taxi ride we find the first place closed. Then, after another zip down Medellín's highway, we learn that the second only seems nominally open (even if we'll find out somewhat later that it ultimately will have a large crowd much deeper into the evening). At the moment of our arrival, however, with all of us raring to go, the question is yes... or no? Hmm.

Uh, well, it's no: What with the unpromising look afforded our arrival, none of us can be convinced to shell out 50000CP. That's the necessary entry fee for the right to enter a club mostly notorious for drug lords throwing around money. The word is that they get mighty pissed, too, if you stare at their girlfriends for too long. Several scantily-clad-yet-atrociously-hot women hanging about outside the club assure us that such lecherous longing might turn out to be the case, too, which could be something just as fortunate as unfortunate, depending. Just sayin', of course. We thus perhaps wisely decide to choose life (as in our continuing to have such), heading back to the Zona Rosa. There we'll walk the streets until about 3:30 or 4 a.m. before finally calling it a night. Well, that went about as expected - didn't it?

Far more interesting is being able to continue watching the crew of Australians and Swedes we started the evening with - the NEXT day, since they're still going strong. It's only during this brouhaha of New Year's Eve that the Swedes have finally opened up to the rest of the hostel, becoming conversational and breaking out from their clique. Hey, they actually DO like us, some of us find ourselves thinking! Progress! Until we realize that only one of them is even marginally interesting. Zzz.

So it's thus the former group that's so vastly more entertaining, perhaps frighteningly so, come New Year's Day proper. They've been putting on a clinic of partying, Aussie style - and that's saying something, believe me. For starters, the five of them will end up going for about fifty hours straight without sleeping, slinging beers and bottles of rum down at an alarming rate. I'm caught between mortification and admiration, to be honest. Can a liver survive that? Yes, I'm visually assured, it can - right around each time they head out for another booze run or snort of powder. Good god.

I regardless find them a hilarious bunch, embodying more than a few Aussie stereotypes as if on steroids. The crazy surfer, the Victorian bogans, the boisterous Queenslanders - here they are! Yet each is as full of life and cheer as their livers are being clouded and drowned under a haze of alcohol. It's not until waking up from our own rather stilted evening that I receive any drift of their merrymaking plans, however, when they come rolling in at about 11 a.m. on New Year's Day. I've just woken from my first sleep-of-recovery myself as the surfer comes in prattling away: "Still going strong!", he assures me. Oh... yep.

He has a beer in hand as he next pops a pill: "Back to Pit Stop, mate! It's-a ragin'!" And off he goes to rejoin his buddies (including two women, by no means the slouchers of the bunch). Indeed it IS still rocking at Pit Stop, verifiable when I wander by at 4 p.m. to have a look-see. There are still some souls gyrating like zombies to techno as the Aussies confer on how to continue into the night ahead without sleep. Seriously. And this is especially impressive since I DO NOT operate without much sleep. Period.

It around noon on the 2nd when finally the last one of them passes out on the couch in the hostel's commons. His last beer bottle clinks onto the floor and spills its dregs, creating a mess, but most of us who'll enter the room during this his overdue repose are mostly relieved that it's not vomit. Whew. For my part, I'm content to welcome the New Year myself by sleeping a prodigious amount over two days... until Saxophone Eric (from Leticia) rolls in on a bus, just having escaped the craziness of Cali's own Feria. M'peep, we cry, greeting each other! Back to the jam session, right? Well, not quite: Eric, too, needs to pass out for a couple days.

Apparently all of the above is my cue to do healthier things - like getting my yoga back to some kind of regularity. I do finally have a private room, after all. And with one of the better hostel kitchens around (particularly after having just experienced one of the poorer ones in Leticia), I can actually properly cook as well. Are these New Year's resolutions, or am I just waiting for everyone to just wake up and be sociable again?

Well, I do have a growing list of tunes to memorize, now something like a few dozen. Call it courtesy of the lack of available distractions, perhaps, but I now have a new-found focus that helps in becoming actually productive. I soon begin heaping technical drills onto the ongoing task of song memorization, soon also trying my hand at transcribing old Cuban songs from my iPod. Yes, I indeed have made a small pile of work for myself, but it'll have to do until more musicians show up - so I can take the mute out without reservation.

It turns out that Eric only will spend several nights in town, finding Medellín's locals cold to Cali's hot-n-friendly sort. Staying with musician friends of friends has unknowingly settled the matter, naturally - Medellín (or anywhere else) can't help but play the hangover to that good vibe, that buena onda. Perhaps as a result of this letdown, then, we only (sort of) get together to play a couple of times. Moreover, being both solo instrumentalists wanting accompaniment... well, there's always THAT. A sudden aborting of our first time playing together, done in frustration when our most un-favorite of people (more on them in a sec) make a bit of a stink, doesn't help, either. Cue the big Sigh.

The second try, just before Eric heads off to Cartagena, proves far more boisterous, however. With a crowd about us, and with the courage found in a bottle of pastisse to polish off resting between us, the contentious woman of our previous day's short-circuited attempt can only slink and hide away. We blow a storm of notes while draining the complete bottle in the process, allowing us both to sleep well as result - for Eric, trailing away on the night bus north. I deeply crash at the hostel, still heroically managing to wake and play scales at 7 a.m., as if to prove something to myself... the exact what of which will have to be determined sometime later. Dunno when. In the sobriety of the following day, I'm merely glad to find that our music was well-received after all.

As to the aforementioned Wacky Wicked Witch of Texas who stops our first playing, said moment of contention has hardly been the first scrimmage. We just didn't have the heart then to argue the typically sufficient point of our having started playing before she showed up. Apparently she wanted to watch a movie on her laptop approximately right next to us, her newfound entertainment needs taking priority over ours just because. But even by then Eric and I well knew the price of arguing, suitably preconditioned to these curious creatures (she somehow comes complete with a husband, it's worth noting).

Indeed, this pair of conspiracy theorists has proven to be a thorn in the side of about everyone within hearing distance. The only REAL conspiracy - which they are assuredly oblivious to - lies in how, to date, anyway, they've managed to avoid the rest of us killing them off. Instead we continue to suffer these two Americans evidently out to keep certain unattractive stereotypes alive, starting with their initial blowing-in with a bang on an ill wind of loud voices. They then wasted no time in proceeding to alienate about everybody else in short order. This starts straight away with their agenda, blabbingly conveyed incessantly about the multiple conspiracies in the U.S. against their health. They assure all - indeed all, no one can escape them even if pleading a language barrier - that they've felt chased here... now to open a restaurant based on cardamon pods. Well, okay, this doesn't sound like the usual C.I.A. rant, I'll give them that!

Besides, I like cardamon. But we'll all soon be wondering what else they've been putting into this curious grub they eat... or if their sinister plan of becoming expat restaurateurs in the boonies somewhere secret outside of Medellín will ever come to fruition. More to the moment, however, their luggage has become quite lost on their incoming flight: Surely this is another C.I.A. plot! To that is added the fact which no one can figure out, the bit where their mother (-in-law?, adopted?, assigned by the C.I.A.?) has ALSO become somehow lost in the wreckage. Huh?

That's about the best I can make of THAT part of their saga, anyway, forcibly overheard during the daily (and extended) calls to the dastardly airline. The wailing and whining involved in each communication would put a five-year-old to shame, yet somehow always staying impressively just shy of a tantrum. For once I TRULY and DEEPLY sympathize with the person on the business end of the phone. Especially when they have to deal with the just as odd times when our antagonist switches suddenly from said flow of tears to a strong voice, summoning an inner Sybil that we're all convinced does exist, conspiracy or no. Such a transformation inevitably signals a fresh round of accusations to come, followed by more crying and carrying-on.

I run out of sighs in favor of flight when such a barrage begins: "What do you guys want with our luggage?" "What are you trying to find?!?" "Why are you after us?" "Who's giving the orders?" She quizzes them relentlessly, without pause, with tears squirting at least two meters out from her mug in shotgun blasts. Maybe - possibly - perhaps - I exaggerate ever so slightly, but it's doubtful that I'm the only person who considers buying them a replacement set of gear... ANYthing... to be followed by a swift kick out the door. What a nightmare these folks are, however substantial the fodder they make for writing. Well, there IS that.

Yes, these gems of humanity and the verbage the inspire on all fronts is plentiful, fruitful, and multiplied to boot. Their behavior encourages the development of sufficient adjectives to be added at will in describing them here or among the fellow victims in the hostel, a literary aid to vocabulary-building. Or, rather, they would be if one could only ignore their OTHER salvos. Those come in the form of amplified (generally but not exclusively) right wing radio, courtesy of internet podcasts. They alternately broadcast the blowhards of the fringe aloud for all to enjoy - sigh - or the husband can be spied in various places throughout the hostel, huddled with his headphones, lost in concentration in front of his laptop and taking detailed notes. The quiet half of the dynamic duo (rarely uttering a word), he maintains the most serious countenance as he types away furiously. He only breaks from the routine to occasionally stump about with a wary, determined look, stalking this small number of isolated spaces within the hostel on which he's settled on as roam-able.

Both of these nutjobs further spend an inordinate amount of time accessing a small locker located in the public area. This is evidently needed to access the cases of medications the two are both on (they actually mention this). I shudder to think of the chemical cocktails they are brewing which will subsequently flow through their bloodstreams. Certainly it's tempting to break open their locker to find out, too - if they didn't employ TWO rather sturdy locks on it. Which actually makes the affair that much more of a joke: the locker is so stuffed with their medical wreckage that the door is shortly bent so out of shape as to make jimmy-ing it sufficiently easy.

Then again, whether withholding their meds can abate their generalizations and proclamations is another story. Here's a further sampling from conversations overheard or endured: "You know that it's against the law to grow a garden in the U.S.? It's t-RUE! You have to secretly do it!" Or "Smell this fruit (from an orange growing on a hostel tree)! We aren't allowed to have fruit that smells like this in the U.S.! It's so good to be in a country where you can smell fruit again! By law it all has to be toxically processed..." And so it goes. I only lose track of further threads because I eventually learn to walk out of any area they enter where I am.

It isn't just the content but the volume, too, which unfortunately assists in maintaining that most common of stereotypes concerning Americans. Indeed, until these clowns showed up, I'd actually been pleasantly surprised with the majority of the other Americans on this trip. They've not been nearly so annoying (and thus embarrassing) as typical thus far, giving me hope of a brighter future and peace on earth for all. So... why'd these miserable two have to be Americans? Haven't we finally gotten rid of George Bush? Aren't we in the blessed heyday of Obamamania still? Can't we catch a break? Such is why sighs are so often necessarily audible.

Yet there are those far worse off than I, ones for whom there's almost no escape: their roommates. Three beauties from Perth come to liken as something in the form of a survival test, one which they reckon to be only barely scraping through. They miraculously make it through three nights in the "Snore-a-torium", happy to fly away to Cartagena with eardrums and noses still marginally functioning. A Swedish girl I befriend even miraculously lasts longer - but only because she's too meek to realize that she can demand another room. I practically order her to do so after learning that she's auto-trapped and imprisoned herself in there. Not that all saw the polemic that way: The offending couple blame each and every one of their fleeing roommates as the culprits - THEY're completely innocent. Besides, everyone's out to get them - haven't we heard?

All of this mayhem, of course, causes a conundrum for the hostel owner. He's looking for reasonable means to kick them out, outside of their being super annoying, but such ammunition isn't enough to bolster him to the task of confrontation. They do pay their bills; They haven't been accused of stealing or bringing in prostitutes for wild orgies. As for the snoring, that can force them to take a private room, yes, but they can even buy time for that easily enough by claiming financial hardship in the upgrade. Of most import is that they have no intention of leaving the hostel (and the rest of us in peace) until their luggage arrives. So aren't the rest of us to blame, then, in not finding a way to expedite the matter somehow? We surely need to hatch... a conspiracy.

For my reasoning, I'm just wondering why couldn't they be, say,... Dutch? My typical nemeses would provide the pur-r-r-rfect nationality! But there I'm to be foiled as well: all of this trip's Dutch contingent has been uniformly wonderful. I like them all, damn it! How miserable to see a stereotype gone to seed! For this catastrophe, I soon find myself need scheming on putting together a new theory: it's the ones from Amsterdam! Yeah! The REST of the country is great. It's those snobby Amsterdamners! This feels so much better, a fresh means to lump together an entire nation (or a city, anyway) again. I immediately start an Amsterdam watch group on the internet with a mission to take the fabled city out of commission. I'll have to find some accomplices, of course, some co-conspir... but I digress.

Meanwhile, somehow a life beyond exists in parallel to this annoying subplot which, I'll readily grant, has merited far too many words. For example, we're fully in high season now, so the hordes are arriving at the hostel without abatement. With a healthy capacity of 55 or so, perhaps 30 fresh hunks of tourist flesh enter and leave each day. Wow. Naturally, with such turnover, one has to pick and choose who's worth a chat... or a curious watch, anyway. How many times can someone ask (or answer to) "Where Ya From?" and "Where Ya Been?" (and the potentially scary "Where Ya Going?")? In such peak times, we'd all do well to have such facts available on exchangeable business cards - or name tags.

Here, then, are a handful of those who stand out from my little slice of Black Sheep days:
--- the tattoo guy from Tennessee, who's just added his annual - and always massive, apparently - tattoo to the side of his ribcage. Measuring about 20cmx20cm (8inx8in), it has a few images of Medellín as a remembrance, complete with a Metro car and the tallest skyscraper. No one ventures to ask why he exactly wants THAT permanently on his person, though - we all just think it instead as we compliment him on bearing up with his task so bravely. He grimaces in pain for a few days, as proud of his achievement as the rest of us are dubious. But it does beg the question: When Metro updates its cars, or their paint jobs, will he become a collector's item?
--- the homeopath from Israel, an interesting person I hang out with quite a bit. Similarly satisfied as I am to use Medellín as a base, he finds it especially so in researching local herbs whilst writing articles for an online publication. His passion for all things herbal is indeed impressive, admittedly to the point of over-distraction (so he confides). Putting weight behind his beliefs, too, he's actually far more likely to ingest any type of herbal concoction he makes instead of merely downing a more traditional alcoholic drink (like us others who often enough have one in hand). In spite of - or better yet, because - of this anomaly in behavior, he proves a good person to do some cooking with. He's particularly knowledgeable in spices and the Mediterranean cooking tradition, far from bad things. He holds the cutthroat competitiveness of his native Israel with great disdain, he also repeatedly avers, maintaining that it's too frustrating to exist there without many more relaxed opportunities (and life styles) available. He doesn't see any possibility of someone holding a life-and-let-live mentality in his country, not when so many others are always looking for an angle to take advantage. So here he is looking for a new homeland. I feel his pain, wondering initially if this all patria-bashing is stereotype or reality, but in the end I believe him. He doesn't seem the... conspiracy type.
--- the Swedish girl of about 20 of Colombian birth (adopted at age 1 month), a touching story. She's located her birth mother in the prior year; now she's getting to know her new family in Colombia (which is steadily growing in number as she finds out about them, not an unusual progression in Latin America). Most of this is going well - she already professes to love them. But she still needs to figure out why her mother needs some time away from her at times, too, such as at Christmas. One can only imagine, I tell her, spending the holidays with the daughter you've given away - and imagining what might have been. It's all a positive experience regardless, although her brother might think otherwise on one occasion: Once, left alone by his exiting sister in a taxi in a hoity-toity neighborhood, the taxi driver immediately turned around and put a gun to his face and successfully relieved him of a few unnecessary electronic and cash items. --- two misfit Alaskans, good for many a laugh, and often at their own expense. They're ever ready to take the piss out of any and all the characteristics of their state - from Sarah Palin to bear-fighting to wife-beating to serious drinkin'. One can't help but give the loquacious duo a listen, then watch them try to work their antics into getting laid. I wish them well in their efforts, always appreciative of self-deprecating humor. That this comes from a dead ringer for Ed Norton and the dwarf from the Lord of the Rings (if he danced clowning jigs) does nothing to hurt their showing, either.
--- a Palestinian-German, managing to have his unending vacation paid for by the German government. Outside of looking the part of a wild (yet massively tattooed) jihadist, he turns out to be quite pleasant when I get him to talking hummus and baba ghanouj. Then he disappears without a trace one day.
--- the American who claims he's Mexican (since his parents were/are). The jury remains out. A garrulous man, he's in my room that first night when I arrive in Medellín and have to use a dormitory. And, at the time of this writing and probably still, his luggage is likely still there - just without him. Apparently he's just met a local girl, surprisingly finding that he's intrigued with her even for the massive amounts of pot she's consuming (which he says would otherwise bother him immensely). He returns only long enough to tell this very tale before disappearing a night later... and that's about the last of him seen by anyone. At five days, curiosity begins growing more morbid, but then it begins to look like he's just skipped out on his bill. None of the belongings left behind seem of great value, but neither are they negligible. Eventually, weeks later, a hostel in Cali responds to the all-points-bulletin put out by the Black Sheep that effectively states "Don't Rent To This Man!" A few conversations between the hostels ensue before he skips out of there as well. He probably lives next door to you by now.

The list could go on and on, too. What about Lloyd, the other stumbling disappearing act? Or the big German who always runs back to the hostel late at night to not get robbed en route? Or the Fight Club enthusiast (and participant)? Or the hippie Singaporean, who single-handedly trashes every stereotype of her compatriots as she imbibes her next joint (after joint)? Many others come and go without ever offering their company to the community, either, the only REAL misfits at this gathering spot of nations. And on it goes, new replacements on the way every day.

All the while I'm not forgetting my sordid mission of being a tourist at least some of the time. Using an ongoing determination to find ever-better coffees and empanadas in town (only finding rare success), I do such things as visit the brand spanking new (and nearby) Modern Art Museum. This sounds promising. Unfortunately, though, its exhibition is based solely on Debora Aranga - the same chief "exhibitionist" at the MAMM on my last go-round in the city. This would be great if I liked her stuff - but I don't, like at all. With her having died somewhat recently at the impressive age of 98, I instead find myself wondering if she bought or donated the museum to the exclusion of showing anyone else's stuff. The main library in Bogotá is named Aranga, too - is this a coincidence? Or is it a... I won't say the word, but YOU KNOW. And with Colombia's history of strongmen and oligarchy so strong, I really need to start up a separate website about this stuff.

Guatape town is a different bag, a couple of hours away, where I visit with Eric and Itay (the Israeli above). We only need to survive numerous wending mountain roads on a bus to get there, but then there we are - dumped off at its famous rock, El Penol. A monster of a monolith, this rock indeed stands out - so how can we NOT climb to the top of it? Thus we walk the 700 steps or so to its summit for the sweeping view provided. Okay - that's precisely why we've come here, I'll admit. And it IS nice. To compare I can only posit Yosemite's Half Dome - if it had tourist shops, a lookout tower, and blasting salsa music at the top. And beer and aquardiente, of course.

But what a view! When the area was flooded via a dam to create a reservoir back when, a resulting pile of beautiful little islands (formerly hilltops) and swimming holes galore came in the exchange. Not shabby. Unlike the Cedar River watershed outside of Seattle, though - or any responsible watershed for that matter, and this supposedly is such - you can run jet skis and power boats over this one. I shudder to guess how much else goes into this drinking supply for Medellín beyond the inevitable quantities of liquids from a combustion engine.

From El Penol, meanwhile, we next take a 30-minute walk to get from the Rock to town, a cutesy-enough place with its plentiful painted facades and chiva-fied mototaxis. There we finish up our grand tour by poking about to sample some garlic-laden trout and the local, prided arequipe (a caramel-like sugar goop, made from the milk of a cow or goat, the Colombian form of Argentina's dulce de leche). And, since we easily pass on the few outdoor-minded tourist traps of horses, ziplines, and more, that does it for Guatape.

Perhaps as a consequence of passing up such adrenalin-focused activities, back in Medellín I continually try to find walking paths to get some exercise. Usually I do this by trying to link together various sites I've overlooked to date: Plaza Bolivar, Plaza San Ignacio, Plaza This, Plaza That, various tree-lined boulevards, etc. I always pause for the odd coffee, pastry, fruit cup, ice cream and... well, for such rites of passage, I'd better KEEP walking. Which reminds me to mention that Colombian food does have one thing in ample supply, and always so: carbs! Without proper aerobic exercise, a significant challenge when residing in a city, one can easily become a big, fat pretzel. Or a churro. Or make that a chicharron, which comes from something that goes... "Oink!"

It doesn't help, either, that I'm living in the area with the best restaurants and supermarkets. The massive, WalMart-like Exito ("success") even sports fresh French bread and imported cheeses, fer chrissakes! It thus finds itself both culprit and savior in my book (which everyone must read should it ever exist, naturally). Burp. Such daily pilgrimages prove that I'm not above being hooked on this rare convenience for Latin America. And at the rate I'm going, I, too, might be eventually calling myself a Medellínense, a Paisa. One never knows.

That idea is probably never more true as when the dreaded conspiracy theorists roll of our hostel - finally, gods be praised! - out with a roared whimper. But oh, how the vacuum left in their wake is refreshing! Birds resume their singing as everyone similarly reclaims their normal paths through the hostel - the ones that no longer necessarily include nutjob-avoiding side routes. Accordingly, each person in turn can also slowly begin to put away the assorted-and-previously-necessary gas masks, machetes, and small-caliber weapons. Hopefully those won't be needed again for at least a week or two. Whew. But... NOW what? What can possibly be left to write about? Where can we place all of our assembled frustrations? Come BACK, oh whackjobs! We NEED you! Not even.

No, by the august hour of their departure I've plenty enough on my plate outside of dodging right wing (and sometimes left wing - it got confusing!) broadsides. I've stacked up about fifty tunes to memorize, for instance, with roughly half being jazz standards. The other half is comprised of mostly old-school Latin standards (or grandiose intros to tunes I already know). Familiar already with many of them, this hopefully isn't a ridiculously tall order. But I'll soon top such tomfoolery by also burdening myself with writing proper music charts for their intros. I hope that'll be a sufficient memory-jigger as the list becomes ever more unwieldy. (The jury will have to remain out if this is a futile attempt at delaying senility or a bold experiment in building musical talent and repertoire.)

Roughing It, meanwhile, finally makes it off my plate around this time (for which I'll immediately miss Mr. Twain, even though I still have a short story collection of his to follow). But García Márquez's 100 Years Of Solitude fortunately only marches along much more slowly, still only being meted out at 10-15 pages/day. I never want it to end, and by employing this forestalling mentality I've even made it only more addictive. It's become established with my morning coffee routine, a beloved chore to go along with saying hello to Susana the barista over at the Exito. She efficiently hands over my daily mediano americano with a wink, a smile, and a flourished touch of grandiosity at the register as I sit down to read each day.

A number of other paperbacks to peruse or abuse pass through the hostel, too, each subject to my appraising eye on a daily basis. I grab hold of Levitt and Dubner's latest, SuperFreakonomics, a worthy and captivating successor to the original Freakonomics (highly recommended, in the same vein of using stats to explain phenomena as is found in all of Malcolm Gladwell's works). Peter Mayle's A Year In Provence makes it onto my plate rather randomly as well, a satisfying if brief travelogue in France of sorts. But I quickly bail on Zadie Smith's Changing My Mind after flipping through bits and pieces of it. Snore. Such are the rewards of my taking on the organizing of the hostel's book stack, a shockingly and impressively huge one, including the pitching of ones steadily falling into decay (which seem to inhabit most hostel shelves unto eternity). Books in the hostel world do have a way of first losing covers, then their front sections or the odd page to soon render themselves trash. Yet I'm also still dipping into my treasure stack once more: Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited provides another toehold into English period literature, amusing fare to soon join the hostel's pile that is now so lovingly arranged.

Further surveying Medellín's cultural punch of offerings, I continue with my solemn vow to revisit the worthies from the last time, like Botero's sculpture park. But this time I finally also step into the wacky building that is located right off of it, too: Casa Cultura Rafael Uribe Uribe. Apparently the former seat of government, I previously thought the garish building must have been something of a church (and thus studiously avoided in dread). Now knowing otherwise, and instead of yawning through the stations of the cross, I far more happily (and luckily) take in a few of the displays inside. There are contemporary photos by students, an old-school photo exhibit of greater Medellín, plus numerous architectural models (made of wood pieces akin to toothpicks) of famous buildings in the area. All are well worth a look.

I also wander into a few rooms I probably shouldn't, a tried-and-true modus operandi of mine that sees me ushered out only once this time around. Not bad. For this I get to nevertheless wonder why a collection of ancient guitars is left entirely unprotected, why there's a tiny ballet room complete with footbar, or if anyone EVER goes into the chapel on the roof. If not inspecting all of the above, one WOULD be missing out on some great views of the city, found from numerous vantage points in the building.

Also while atop the structure, I have the excitement of wandering through a dangerous construction site that is aiming to replace the roof. No one bats an eye at the imposing tourist who is exposing himself to imminent danger in every direction by merely walking through. Pieces of roof fall, sparks fly, and dust comes out in clouds. Should I be wearing a hard hat, a filter mask? HAH! Most of the workers aren't bothering them, either - which, by the way, is how people DIE.

Choosing life instead, I summarily exit and stroll over to nearby Parque Berrio, the remnant of a much larger park in Ye Olde Bogotá (or so show the pictures). Now it comes with scads of groups of traditional musicians... and drug searches. The latter are far more amusing to watch for tourist and local alike, what with the ubiquitous tourist police appearing randomly with dogs and sticks to pat down for drugs and armaments. All of their targets are invariably young men, almost all Colombians - or the odd gringo sporting dreadlocks. What, not the old lady with the walker? If you look the part, you'll be spreading them apart.

Meanwhile, and in stark contrast to increasingly prevailing Western norms, the most universally fashionable drug - alcohol - is readily consumed in public. To the binge-minded westerner this might seem an odd thing, sure, but in general this plays out rather easily and usually without problems. It isn't that hard to avoid a drunk, really, and the police will without further ado take away one that pushes it too far - something that is unappealing to either side of that divide and serves as a limiting check. Various U.S. municipalities would do well to learn this art of tolerance, mellowing out in favor of the nuance of circumstances. Then again, maybes the goodly amount of alcohol consumption that helps explain the overly-popular act of having a photo taken with a Botero statue - invariably with one hand resting on a boob, penis, or otherwise. It's no wonder that all are uniformly worn to a bright, gold shine. Salud!

Boozing aside, an appealing number of street photo exhibits are also available in this central area, an outdoor gallery of sorts generally found in the main plazas. Placed on industrial, billboard-like frame stands, each is anchored in heavy cement (to likely prevent nighttime wanderings). Most tell the pictorial story of Medellín's past - while sometimes also foretelling its future via sketches of new buildings. These latter are artistic, computerized renderings, particularly accurate in that some have already been realized. This is yet another reminder of how Medellín strikes me (and most other gringos) as the most forward-thinking part of the country. Such braggadaccio (sp?) feels fair and entirely appropriate, too, what with the reasonable likelihood that each will be accomplished soon.

The Metro is probably the best example of this can-do thinking, the only such functioning service in the country. It looks to me to be on par with many others found elsewhere in the world. But beyond that sleek system there is other architecture in Medellín that has a similarly modern bent, buildings often pleasingly done (and as often as not using established and noteworthy architects). This output is entirely evident across the city, but it's especially so in the five standout libraries - an obvious display of wealth for which Medellín stands out just that much more in Latin America. Even Santa Fe Mall, a paean to designer and name-brand mentality located near my hostel, fits well within the bounds of luxury found in any posh suburb of the U.S. Although not my lieu of choice in general, I readily (and again) sample Colombia's famous C&W offerings found there - that'd be a Crepes and Waffles restaurant, for the record, not a country and western bar. B-rap!

But... but... but... has the time now come to remark a bit on Medellín's notoriety with drugs? Yeah, THAT subject can't be ignored, can it? Certainly not after what played out for so long, when M-town was ground zero for the cocaine wars. Oddly responding to that fact, perhaps, there can be found competing tours of Escobar-alia, the local homeboy druglord made big if not good... and now rather dead these days (and all to come), of course. This city was his official fiefdom for a good while, a national (and local) government-free zone. To explore this history, you can choose one of the competing Escobar tours to putz about some of his estates and gawk and - so I hear, anyway - possibly even chat with his brother. Woo. And woo again. I pass, however, not wanting to give a crummy peso to the memory or pocket of effectively a mass murderer. Not even post-mortem.

For my part, I rather instead enjoy the handful of Botero paintings which show him being blown away (or just thereafter). (By the way, bravo on the hairwork, Fernando!) Such is my feeling in general with supporting the drug trade in Colombia these days. No thanks, and certainly not after learning the modicum necessary to pass a little judgement: There are still too many people literally dying to get this stuff into gringos' hands (locally and abroad) for me to condone the trade, even if I have no issues with partaking per se (for those that wanna, not me). The seemingly unending killings concurrently going on in Mexico make a dramatic case in point, often driven by coke making its way from Colombia to the U.S. via that poor (as in hapless intermediary) land. How can anyone knowingly contribute to such misery?

But it seems like I'm a lone voice in the wilderness in this regard at times - and that's particularly true if in the company of Aussies, Brits, or Americans (in about that order, too, although to the eternal chagrin of Canadians and Kiwis I lump them in with the Americans and Aussies, equally guilty by association - SOOOOORRY). There's an ever-present number of them snorting it out even at this non-party hostel, all eager to sample the local goods at local prices (comparatively cheapest for the Aussies). This is a running theme throughout Colombia, too, not just limited to Medellín by a long shot.

Nevertheless, doing it here isn't particularly hard, not with motorcycle delivery (!) and half the guys on the street who sell chewing gum uttering "Chicle! (Gum!) Chicle! Co-ca. Chicle! Chicle. Co-ca". The "co-ca" bit is uttered usually in a lower voice, granted, casually popped out of the side of the mouth toward any and all passing gringos in particular. Certainly gringos from other countries are equally guilty of supporting what I term the death merchants, but the proclivity of English-language-based countrymen doing so is notable. (As an example of the "worldliness" of such perusal, a German and a Swiss I've befriended both imbibe out of curiosity once, too, when a coke-cycle rolls into the hostel to make the option just too easy to pass up, apparently. It's worth noting that I THINK he was also delivering a pizza, but no matter.) Anyway, such doings are all too typically plenty obvious, what with the overly-charged, giggle-ridden speech of the various someones who just might - possibly, I'm just sayin' - want to check out a mirror for powder residue near their noses.

In the case of my two Germanic friends, neither's overly wowed by the experience. Certainly neither enjoys hearing my opinion of their investment when they broach the topic, either, but hey - they threw it out there. Many like me don't give a rat's ass about the actual snorting action, it should be said - it's just the financial support of villains that's so irksome to a number of us. "Legalize it all!" and all that, we venture as a peace offering, especially when faces grow long in raised consciousness. I don't know how much of a difference us few "preachers" make, but anywho.

Unquestionably it's preferable to return as quickly as possible to our otherwise-engrossing discussion of local Colombian musics, always more interesting grist for the mill in my book. (Then again, as to the story of just *what* happened to the mongo tupperware container absolutely stuffed with pot, left in the free food section one evening (and likely in advance of a plane out of the country)? THAT makes for more interesting speculation.) For all the above, this and other hostels can and do try some to deter this trade - at the least because it can cause them problems with the authorities - but to a good extent this is necessarily in vain, unless everyone is to be strip-searched and cameras located in every room.

Enough of the drugs... and back to nitpicking the choosing of company to keep in high season. Indeed it's still peak tourist time - which means that I can literally go on a bender (sans coke) each night if desired with a different, new arrival (even if I, uh, don't). But nevertheless there's always someone game to light up the night, another fast-moving tourist in Colombia with only one or three weeks to burn who's evidently pumped to achieve a quota of hangovers. In this regard, a Swedish alcoholic and his Norwegian sidekick are particularly available on a continuing basis - if only because the rest of us have no prayer in trying to escape their daily drinking from noon to night in the patio area. The partying girl from Singapore makes an extended stay likely (if surprisingly) on account of them, continuing to break each and every stereotype of her country handily with each sneaked joint (until the staff invariably has to ask them to cut it out when yet again it can be smelled elsewhere in the hostel, floating on in) and glass of rum. She soon finds herself sharing a similar destiny with the German P, neither able to check out from the hostel when yet another night of drinking is getting under way. Hell, I bet they're probably at the hostel to this day, a Sisyphean enactment drowned in booze and a haze of smoke. (Except that they're not, since I know for a fact that they eventually will move on to Bogotá to restart more of the same.)

With January officially underway, Chileans and Argentines now pass through in inflated numbers. Almost all are students on holiday from their universities, about uniformly a ball to hang out with and full of energy with friendship for all. Sharing their stashes of mate (the Argentines) and pisco (the Chileans) makes it all the merrier, too, although the beauty and charm of many of the girls don't hurt in adding to the ambiance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I rather pathetically "regale" these southern cone folks at times, chatting up tales of my former visits to their countries, but I like to think more honorably that I'm stealthily (or not so) gathering more information for return trips thereabouts someday. Wily I am not, maybe, but it does seem that each night DOES increase the likelihood of a return to the fabled south of the continent once more... and soon. Has a decade really passed since I last trod the Austral lands?

Of other travelers that continue flushing through the hostel, I think it's worth including a pair of American girls each (separately) hailing from Southern California. One's notably on a motorbike heading south from Guatamala - THAT's something, one and all agree. But then apparently so does she: her bravado is firmly worn through her swagger for all to take note. Her backstory is nevertheless intriguing, mainly because she's originally from Saudi Arabia (she's half Saudi and spent her first six years there). But now she's nothing but full-on Californ-ese, intermixing otherwise pleasant conversation with a certain amount of too-cool-for-school 'tude that soon finds a growing number of us backing off from further conversation. Frankly, most of us find that it's so much WORK to be cool! And we aren't looking for work on vacation.

Far more disturbing for us, however, is her refusal to believe much about the numerous stories of holdups in the area. She laughs about how she recently walked the streets of Taganga (notorious for police shakedowns of inebriates and the like late at night), completely "coked out" numerous times. But what, we ask, about the Argentines recently held at gunpoint a block from the hostel, or the well-built German who each night runs the ten minute walk back from the Zona Rosa, or the taxi driver pulling that gun on the Swede's brother? What about the murders that happened near the town of Monteria (near the Caribbean) to Colombian tourists, in the same place where she remarked that she had thought about skirting through at the same time? PSHAW! Well, she's an accident waiting to happen, we all figure, and that's that. The general hope is that she'll find the right muddle of luck to make her way through to the bottom of the continent unscathed - even if a (harmless) lesson might probably do her some good along the way.

Maybe it's not a coincidence, then, that nearly all of us eventually end up more in the company of her fellow Californian, a girl similarly strong in character - but one also far more willing to take into account the realities of tourism in a marginally-to-reasonably safe country. Or perhaps the REAL short of it is that no one wants to get attached to a death wish - and we really wish someone would listen to us! Oh, it's a fine line indeed, etched in the rough police chalk of a bodily outline.

Outside of getting to know this growing list of unique personalities, I'm happy to discover a completely different side to staying somewhere for a while - in the routine that begins to form of its own accord. Us humans do seem to roll that way. There's the music, of course, soon ritually broken into three or four sessions each day and thankfully well-received when I blow tunes in the patio areas. But I quickly find the other stuff to be important as well. Coffee seems to figure largely into this, if only for structure (and addiction, in all likelihood). Moreover, what with good literature in hand and my having scouted the 'hood for the best coffees within a 20-minute walk, how can the die HELP but be cast? Not for nothing do I daily perform the most religious of walks to the nearby Exito supermarket - while never failing to note the Juan Valdez Cafe conveniently located in its entryway.

Said pilgrimage is necessarily always preceded by a pleasant walk along the area's nearby creek for several minutes, always with the potential for a special reward. Every day presents a new collection of birds for me to attempt (and almost always fail) to take pictures of: bright, red-headed things (likely woodpeckers), hummingbirds from time to time, blue and grey dovelike birds, and even pigeons (oddly attractive mainly because they look different, with a sharper coloring that sometimes includes a pale blue head). Traversing this path so often, I come to figure that I really should pay for such beauty - which I do in my (apparently) inimitable way: I trash-pick it clean. Much better!, I think, patting myself on the back even as I look over at the one or two potato chip bags lying nearby, and out of reasonable reach, in the creek's questionable waters. Those'll be staying put until the apocalypse or whenever since I know better than to put my toe in a municipal waterway in Latin America (or any other decent-sized city on the planet for that matter).

As I near the end of this Medellín waltz, meanwhile, another day trip has come to seem in order by my meagre reckoning: to Santa Fe de Antioquia!, I whimper. Formerly the seat of government for Antioquia - until Medellín rather forcefully took over the reins - Santa Fe is still one of the more notably colonial towns in Colombia, worth a peek for that alone. Supposedly it's on the scale of Barichara or Villa De Leyva (which I visited the year previous), but it's nevertheless shy in scope when compared to the extended two/three-story city plan found in Cartagena or Popayan (the other two well-known colonial towns of Colombia, also previously visited). No matter: With a pleasant day planned amidst such quaint-if-not-handsome architecture, I set out to the North Bus Terminal and am shortly thereafter under way.

Well, I am once that I realize that there are some quicker wait-till-ya-fill vans handy, those gems that can obviate the need of waiting an hour-plus for a scheduled bus. I soon wish I'd taken the wait and the bus, however, even accounting for the possibility that it could turn out as miserably. Sigh - it's not like I don't know the buseta beasts all too well. But why oh why... please, someone, stop this insanity! Another crap, hell-bent-on-leather bus ride in Colombia is about to get underway.

I choose a rear seat bench, only because it offers the one seat with legroom. Supposedly this is a learned choice for THAT reason - but no other. Of course the seatbelt doesn't work, a given, but on the bright side there'll be the compensation of not being able to see much of the hijinxes that the driver will undoubtedly be up to all the way back from the rear. I do, unfortunately, manage to watch us pass a competing taxi (from the same company, Sotrauraba) at high speed on a steep downhill. That's enough, and apparently it's passing us by serves as the starter's pistol. Yep, once again a pile of souls are going to be left to the mercy of unchecked machismo. Aieeeee!

Naturally I check and recheck the possibility of this forlorn seatbelt saving my life in an unfortunate event, but I can't even tie it off somehow. No, there won't be a chance of THAT saving grace, and especially not with only a puny strap across my chest and nothing more (the lap part? - mysteriously absent) to complete its care. A broken spine is thus assured in an untoward event, but for that I at least know that I won't suffer long - not after getting whipped through the windshield and pitched over a cliff.

Such relief from my current misery won't occur, unfortunately, so I instead spend an hour and a half trying not to steadily slide into the aisle-way. It certainly gives me something to concentrate on! Each bump launches me toward the ceiling on a regular basis as I repeatedly only narrowly miss (or not) bumping my head on the same - which serves only as a prelude to being redeposited ever more horizontal on the seat. I finally (and harshly) toe-in to brace against this, an effort that's only marginally successful. All I effectively can do is vow (hah! - is there always a choice?) to never again choose to sit on the backseat of any of these crappy buses. The likelihood of any having suitable springs or other forms of suspension has already proven itself too many times. I'm simply the fool who hasn't given up on hope. I'd better, and soon.

Eventually exiting from this latest vehicle of my personal nightmares, leaving a pool of cold sweats all over my general seat area in remembrance, I immediately take to walking around beautiful Santa Fe. Soon calm is... restored. I take a deep breath, realizing that now all that'll be left to keep my heart rate up is the necessity to dodge the motorized vehicles on the street. Fortunately, this is something I'm in far greater control of - so it's shortly back to calm gasps of "Ah, Santa Fe...!" Then, randomly, there's another round of heart beatings going Thump-thump! Thumpity thump. Th-thump. T-thump. Thump. Deep... breath... and my zen is restored.

Yes, Santa Fe IS awfully reminiscent of Villa de Leyva and Barichara, an undeniably pretty panoply of painted walls, random cobblestone, and even clocks that have seemingly stopped in time. All these accoutrements quickly find me ushering myself through the relatively quiet streets with something of a smile pasted on my face. Being a Friday is even a plus as well, as I won't quite be experiencing the craziness of a typical weekend. (Santa Fe is a known weekend destination for partiers from Medellín.)

Plenty of modest infrastructure is being set up for the debauchery to come, however. Stalls line the central plaza with handicrafts and sugary foodstuffs, only temporarily unattended venues which'll complete a packaged look and feel of what that'll undoubtedly be termed "waiting-for-a-cruise-ship-to-dock". I waltz a loop or two about the main plaza before deciding myself to temporarily... leave. But not far: I've merely been advised to head out to nearby Sucre town, something to accomplish right after I head over the famous Puente del Occidente. That's the main attraction to me for this Santa Fe side trip, after all, and there's no time like the present.

I thus grab a taxicab - after first verifying a reasonable synchronization of prices among other taxis for the journey, always a smart gringo tactic - and in minutes we make our way to the river 6km away. We quickly drop even further toward sea level for the effort, it's worth noting - Santa Fe lies some hundreds of meters below Medellín - and this allows for an according gain of about 10 degrees Fahrenheit in heat. In any event, we shortly find ourselves nearing the river and next have ourselves crossing the antiquated bridge to make the substantial racket necessary as we plow over its boards. Only one vehicle can cross the bridge at a time (not for both directions, but one period), an interesting anachronism to note while otherwise eying the fast-moving mud below. I can only guess the likelihood of death in a fall. (The verdict: maybe, probably.).

Come the other side, it's only 3km more to Sucre - where I'm eventually relieved of 12000CP. Off goes the driver, asking if I want his phone number for a ride back. No thanks... but thanks!, I say as I begin to wander about this rather abandoned town. Like Santa Fe, it also is waiting for a party, with similar booths being set up for drinking and buying. But for right now there are no goods or people to be found anywhere in their vicinity. So I resign myself to walking around a bit in search of life.

This unsuccessful effort only succeeds in my sticking my nose into the lone church. There I at least get something of a kick out of a sad statue. It shows a grateful native, ostensibly being converted by a nun. Lucky him. Thinking back on the book I've just read (One River), then of the movie The Mosquito Coast, and THEN both the book and film named At Play In The Fields Of The Lord (different and unrelated to each other in story, though not completely so in subject matter, both are recommended), I can't help but behold this odd testimony to history in disdain.

More such "success" will now follow, too, as I soon realize that all I'll be getting to eat is what I've brought with me. Almost everything is closed up until evening, a town in siesta mode such as I haven't seen in a good while. Hmm: If I'm able to listen carefully enough, I undoubtedly should be able to make out a barbershop octet of snores coming from the nearest houses... or not, but hopefully I'll manage to subsist on some nuts and chocolate in my pocket. Granted, the latter is so horrifically melted that I squirt it into my mouth like juice - while trying to remove the torn bits of foil that gets shredded in the mix, unavoidable detritus destined to get caught up in the journey to my gullet. But oh well - so much for Sucre! I lick and wipe my hands - on something - before getting up from my final repose from the blasting sunshine to head back to Santa Fe.

The now-full midday heat helps convince me, anyway, of this sheer futility in my Sucre walkabout as I walk back toward the bridge. In doing so, I try to mentally compensate for my foolish Sucre detour by marveling in the differing views afforded... but even that won't succeed. On such a lonely road, instead, I only succumb to paranoia as I unknowingly build an appetite for a proper bandeja paisa meal. Yeah, I do NOW recognize what easy pickings I could be for the interested thief. Why, any of such could be riding the motorcycles that come by on occasion - each often with a long and contemplating look my way. Hmm - I pick up my pace. (More likely they're wondering what an idiot is doing on foot. Colombians, it can be noted with authority, understood not at all the concept of walking or cycling if ANY form of motorized transport is available. Not for nothing are they considered the Americans of Latin America along with the Chileans, although consistently to the astonished and admonishing refusals of both.)

Perhaps needless to say, I get back to the suspension bridge without incident - before immediately setting myself to the task of walking about it in its detailed entirety. It truly IS a marvel, one of the first suspension bridges in the Americas (built in something like 1898). Moreover, it's picturesque enough to even momentarily debate drawing a picture of it - if it weren't so damnably hot out. That's because its cool little towers at each end (that which I find most inspiring about the structure) are made of rickety, aged wood, that same composition of material that extends to the surface of the thing as well. It's funky cool, seriously.

What the wood DOESN'T cover (by definition) are the random holes that gape along the surface in numerous placez, each offering a quick passage to the nowhere below (with its associated maiming-if-not-death). So I move deliberately, plodding across only at a snail's pace on the pedestrian walkway. At times I pause to listen to the thunder of the isolated motorcycle, mototaxi, or car that dares cross, admittedly not by choice (but still interesting). Each is exquisitely LOUD, only coming in succession from one side at a time until that side is exhausted. Then the other side has its turn at monopolizing the proceedings. Rather unexpectedly in contrast to my initial crossing now hours before, a clusterfart of traffic has now gotten underway during my Sucre interim as the day has been wearing on and the tourists arrive in more serious number. Fri-day!

On the other side, I purchase a beer from one of several men stationed there with coolers. Each is ready to serve the cars that'll surely stack up when the other side is in motion, and each vendor simultaneously offers some kind of service to complete something of a "package". Perhaps the tourist would like to climb onto the structure immediately above; maybe said client would like to listen to a history lecture about the thing... or an item to stuff in a face. For my part, buying beer fortunately seems to lessen their anxiety about me - that I might pass them by without dropping a peso their way. What with the sun's blast, however, it's not like I need any convincing of the genius of their efforts. At least of the cool, refreshing kind.

In no time, then, I'm able to switch to my standard procedure of asking lots of questions... for which I soon find that this clustered mob consists rather entirely of (relatively) illiterate gentry. With a group now quickly forming about me, it's only over time that a few of them actually venture to ask if I'm speaking Spanish. Ouch! Indeed, by this time we've had a few back-and-forths that seemed to go nowhere for them... but equally I've been wondering just what IS this garbled muck coming out of their pieholes? Hmm. Certainly this is odd, I've been thinking, not able to remember the last time a native Spanish-speaker can't understand me. Which leads to some panic on my behalf: Is the language suddenly abandoning me? No, I fortunately and EVENTUALLY am able to answer as some of the mob eventually comes round to understanding me after all. So next it's MY turn to wonder if THEY are all speaking Spanish. I don't ask.

Now we can move on to more important stuff, anyway, now that we're finally conversing freely and famously with the floodgates open. For example, a couple of my new friends want to know the English word for, uh... "cheap". Uh oh. But I'm safe, they assure me - apparently this appellation doesn't apply to me: I bought the beer, remember? Whew. Not that it matters, not with how many times I instruct them to pronounce the P sharply at the end of the word, sounding out as much "puh" as possible: No dice. Maybe they can work on "cheat", instead, I should offer. Or take up sign language.

Tiring of this (and the heat) over time, I catch a buseta which finally rattles across the bridge in the right direction to transport me back to town. I finish another beer onboard as I look outside and soon see... a gringo come running up from town, a bright day-glo spectacle in proper running gear that includes an iPod and headphones. All of my fellow passengers roll their eyes as I'm soon told that this fool does it every day, and always in the maximum heat. More importantly, he doesn't BUY anything, the cardinal sin that lays his reputation to irretrievable waste. "Cheap?", perhaps, I ask. Shockingly, no one tries yelling out the new and marvelous word from the window.

Back in town I beeline it for the overdue bandeja paisa. Although I normally avoid these massive ("hearty" is an understatement) samplings of native food - plantains, rice, beans, meat, salad, egg, and more - this time I'm more than willing to gave it a fair go. I furthermore wash the mess down with a couple of fruit juices of my favorite varieties (lulo and maracuja). Buh-RAP! Now all I need is a hammock! Instead, however, I settle for all of this grub-bage to merely give ballast as I continue walking about town. I wrap up my Santa Fe venture by stopping at each plaza for a read or snapping the odd photo, samples of the latter fortunately improving as the sun steadily cooperates in lowering to soften the lighting. All that remains is to catch the bus back to Medellín... right? Right.

MURDER! Unsurprisingly, THAT word will shortly - and continuously - be next on my mind. My tolerance for putting up with death-wish bus drivers has obviously ebbed to a new low. If EVER we stop, or at least SLOW down on a curve, I'll murder the bastard - I promise myself and the world at large. But there'll be no such luck, even though I (supposedly) have grabbed a front seat WITH A WORKING SEAT BELT. The down side to this polar opposite in seats to that of my arrival is that I also now have an excellent view of every stupid thing the driver is committing us to - namely, insanity. The only tender mercy is that I'm well-strapped in assure my prompt death (sparing maiming) when we go over the cliff. But maybe, just maybe, we'll merely be rammed head-on - into a bus performing similar mechanizations coming from the other direction. All I can do in the end is give my latest driving nemesis a dramatic thumbs-down upon exiting his chariot of a nightmare back at Medellín's main terminal. He shrugs as I fume with visions of sugarcoated airplanes dancing in my head for the next time.

A-ha! That's it! Why yes, I can... FLY to Capurganá! So, with my newfound motto of FUCK THE BUS, that's EXACTLY what I do. And it's not long after returning to Medellín, either. It's time for a beach, sure, but more importantly I'm going to go to one with no buses found anywhere nearby. Capurganá promises both and more, I know. BOATING IT a bit, however, I'll likely have to also accept. That'll likely come when I ease over to Panamá for a visa renewal. As for the infamous boat ride, the horrendous two hour ferry to Turbo? I have yet to hear of its particular details, and ignorance is bliss. If anything, I'm feeling... blissful.

Medellín grafiti, on par with Bogotá's:

The main cemetery, not short on Boteros or Uribes:

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