The secret of Medellin is out

The secret of Medellin is out

Every morning I walk outside and the weather feels the same. Short sleeves and about 75 very comfortable degrees……..every day. Medellin is known as La Ciudad de la Eterna Primavera or The City of Eternal Spring.

The friendly, warm and courteous local people are called “Paisas” or Antioqueños after the larger Colombian region of Antioquia in which Medellin resides. It’s clear the residents have a lot of pride in their city and make efforts to keep it clean and hospitable. Although this is a city of 2.4 million people, it’s not unusual for people to express a daily greeting like, “buenas tardes”, along with a broad smile. Paisas are very straight forward and direct. Unlike many other cities, there is very little to fear about getting ripped off simply because you’re a tourist and automatically a target. Given its reputation from the 80’s as the second most dangerous city in the world, Medellin would surprise many people at home as to how safe and “everyday” pleasant it feels with its supermarkets and shopping malls.

Statues by famous local artist, Fernando Botero, outside the Museum of Antioquia

Statues by famous local artist, Fernando Botero, outside the Museum of Antioquia

As social norms go, there are some things that just are or are not done. For example, although it can get warm here, its unusual to find people dressed in shorts. I’d estimate that 70% of the people in the city regularly wear blue jeans. The men dress casual and are always neat and presentable. The women are impeccably put together without a hair out of place.

Pueblito Paisa: a recreation of a turn of the century Antioquian village

Pueblito Paisa: A recreation of a turn of the century Antioquian village

The only clothes I have are quick-dry t-shirts and pants making it very easy to spot the gringo in the crowd. I wondered if I’d blend in if I put on a plaid shirt and jeans. Cindy assured me that I would not.

cindy enjoying the day

I often see high-end road bikes around the city ridden by cyclists dressed in matching regalia as they do back home. Although Colombia is a relatively poor country, there is a visible population with high disposable incomes.

One of the aspects of ‘life in the big city’ here is that drivers have the right of way and they exercise that right at most times. Not that anyone would intentionally hit you but cars and especially motorbikes go very fast. The general guideline is that the larger vehicle has the right of way so pedestrians rank quite low. Often traffic lights are pitched only towards drivers’ view making it difficult for pedestrians to know when it’s safe to cross the street.

taxi with monkey hanging

I went for a long walk on my own one day unfortunately forgetting my cell phone which I have specifically for situations like this. I didn’t have a map either. So, when I got ‘lost’ and had to ask for directions, it was a game of language survival skills to get back to home base. I thought this was kind of cool. I stopped and asked a gentleman for directions to the metro. I got the drift of what he said but he had also used a term twice that I didn’t understand. He used the word “derecho” (straight ahead) which I took for “derecha” which means “right”. The word came up again with another person I asked after traveling down the street a ways. Then I got it. The second gentleman gave me explicit detailed instructions of how many blocks to go, in which direction, where to turn and how to recognize it because of the gas station on the corner……., of which, I understood 100%. I was on my way. It’s great to have things like this happen as it makes up a bit for all the times I don’t understand most of what people say.

looking to poblado

As were returning from one of our exploration excursions, we stopped at one of the larger plazas at the mall that happens to be on our daily route. Cindy had seen some dancers that morning so it looked promising to see a show.

Sure enough, at about 4pm a band came out for a set. I was surprised to see a harpist/vocalist leading a seasoned professional band playing Latin tunes. After their set, an emcee came out on stage to announce that the show would start at 5pm. What baffled us was the ensuing 3-4 dance groups who appeared to be prepping for the show in the most disorganized and undisciplined fashion possible. We were wondering if it was going to be worth waiting 45 minutes.

The gig started promptly at 5pm when they brought out couple after couple of the most fabulous salsa dancers tearing up the dance floor with ferocious physicality. These young adults were in great shape. I gleaned from the emcee that many of these dancers had competed internationally. There were even a couple of dancers as young as perhaps 8 or 9 years old whose legs were spinning as fast as blades in a blender.

What a treat to see such great local talent.

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In Praise of Men

I often have to wait a while for the afternoon bus, so when I saw it approaching after only a few minutes I jumped on, but only to turn around to see that someone had just sat in the last available seat. I grabbed the back of a seat and tried to brace myself against the herky-jerky motion of the bus all the way home, but today (as always) was really my lucky day. I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around to see two gentlemen offering me their seat. I graciously accepted one and as I sat down I saw an even older woman climb aboard the bus. Now, in Medellin, all the buses have really small turnstiles that everyone must go through and I wasn’t sure this woman was going to fit. She managed to squeeze herself through and another gentlemen stood up and offered her his seat. As she sat down, her change purse opened and coins scattered on the floor. Since the coins looked close, I bent down and gathered them up and returned them to her. Then I noticed some coins on the other side of the bus and tapped the woman on the shoulder and pointed to the coins. From behind me, a gentlemen saw the coins, came forward, knelt down, gathered the remaining coins and returned them to the owner. It was a real team effort and I couldn’t help noticing how courteous the men were. At this point, all the passengers were watching this unfold and there was a chuckle from most people because the whole scene looked kind of funny.

No sooner did I settle in my seat once again, that I saw that the bus diverted from its intended route. I thought that perhaps he was avoiding an accident or the traffic was re-routed for some reason, but when the bus didn’t get back on track after a few blocks I started to worry. I looked at my GPS and, sure enough, I was headed in the opposite direction from where I wanted to go. OK, don’t panic, I said to myself. I didn’t know if I should get off the bus and get on the return bus going the other way. I thought I remembered hearing something about the buses go circular in one direction only. So I stayed on for a while, thinking of what my choices were. I pulled out the phone to call Bill and his phone was off. Still not panicking!

I turned on my translator only to find I had no service. Now, I’m starting to panic. I am a beginner Spanish speaker. I just started speaking in a classroom situation. I make my way to the bus driver to try and tell him where I wanted to get off and when I opened my mouth, I forgot every word of Spanish I learned. I choked! When I finally mumbled something about San Diego, the bus driver realized I didn’t speak English and his eyes bulged out like he was thinking, “Hey lady, I’m only the bus driver. I don’t speak English!” He looked over to the passenger seated next to him and asked her if she knew what I was talking about.

Well, she tried really hard to get her point across in English, but after the first two or three words, everything was in Spanish. I just nodded my head and hoped I would be able to recognize the stop I got on so I could get off and get on the right bus. The lady continued to talk to me and it was clear to all on the bus that we were having trouble communicating.

Again, another gentlemen came to the rescue. He stepped to the front of the bus and asked, in almost perfect English, how he could help me. I told him where I wanted to go and he said he would show me. I thanked him and settled in for a long ride back to town. When things started to look familiar, sure enough, the gentlemen indicated to me that it was time to get off. I saw what I thought was a familiar landmark and started to walk towards it. The gentlemen stopped me and said that this was only a transfer point and we needed to catch another bus. He not only escorted me across a very busy street, he paid my fare on the next bus!

I grabbed the last two seats on the bus and that’s when I had an opportunity to meet Diego, who grew up in Medellin. We had about a 15 minute ride to my stop and Diego and I chatted the whole way. Diego pointed out my stop, told me what direction to go, and I was off. I made it home only an hour later than usual, but what an experience.

I wanted to share this story with everyone because it’s always when you least expect it that you experience random simple acts of kindness. I’m truly grateful to the men who helped me today — from Chucho, who made sure I had the money for the bus, to the gentlemen who offered me their seats, to the bus driver, who never lost his patience, and a special thanks to Diego, who guided me back to my home base.

I’ll save my story of what happened when I went to add more data to my phone for another day!

Buen Dia everyone!

Gratis dancing on the street

Gratis dancing on the street