Medellín prides itself on being a forward-thinking city. It pulled itself up from being the most dangerous city in the world to its current state of relative peace and safety by embracing the newest and poorest citizens living on the periphery. It fosters innovation of all kinds, as exemplified by the Experimental Technologies group I volunteer with. And it’s taking significant action to address the problem of pollution that it currently faces. Measurements show Medellín as having 26 micrograms of PM2.5 particles per cubic metre (annual mean) compared to 15 in Tokyo and London and only 9 in New York. That’s still lower than many South American cities, but it is much higher than the WHO recommended limit of 10, so the government is taking steps to reduce it. The largest contributor is traffic pollution, and ‘pico y placa’ restrictions were recently implemented throughout the city. I can’t translate the term exactly, but it means that only vehicles with certain number plates (eg odds or evens) can be used on certain days. Medellin is far from the first city to implement these restrictions, but it is the first city I’m aware of to ban private vehicles entirely, which happened today. Given how hard a time I had trying to get a photo with only buses and taxis, and with police taking no action against the others I saw, I assume that business vehicles are exempt as well. But as you can see from the empty streets, I had much fewer misleading blinkers to navigate when crossing the road. Live measurements show PM2.5 particles down to 15 micrograms per cubic metre, so the action certainly worked.
Medellin hosts a lighting festival in the lead-up to Christmas each year, and this year the heart of it all was at Parque Norte (North Park), a fun park a few steps from Parque de los Deseos where I met Sandra. I was able to visit in the final week before heading back to Australia, and was hugely impressed. The 'flora and fauna' theme celebrated Colombia's incredible biodiversity, which is second only to Brazil, and ranks first for greatest range of bird species. The park showcased lighting sculptures of toucans, crocodiles, butterflies, waterlilies, jellyfish and myriad other objects, some of which were so large you could walk through them. Sandra and I easily passed a few hours marveling at the artistry of the animals, inspecting each stall in the artisanal market, where I managed to tick many items off my Christmas shopping list, and tasting the street food. Best of all, unlike Vivid in Sydney, I never felt crowded while enjoying the festivities. On arriving home, I noticed that the usual yellow tones of the Medellin street and house lighting had been complemented by a blue hue from homes decorated with Christmas lights. Sitting on the balcony each evening was a special way to spend my last week in Medellin.
I arrived in Colombia with more compassion for people in need than I’ve ever had in my life, which means my heart strings are constantly being pulled. Colombia has opened its doors to the people of Venezuela escaping the political strife there, and they’re everywhere. Most arrive with nothing and in far trouble than I ever was in Cuba. They’re more innovative than I was, though, and few resort to simple begging. I’m constantly coming across, or being approached by, people selling packs of gum, chocolates, biscuits, pens anything that can be bought in bulk and sold individually. Others stand in busy backstreets and direct drivers to parking spots, guiding them into even the easiest spot in the hope of a tip, and they’re usually successful. And people with more skills, who are more probably locals, run out to entertain traffic stopped at lights. Jugglers are common, but I’ve seen acrobats stretch their slacklines across the road and one young man who used a slackline as a trampoline So common are these entrepreneurs that I have to follow the example of many locals and limit myself to helping one per day, and be glad that at least the climate here is generally friendly to people without a roof over their heads.
When I decided to move to Latin America, it was my plan to find a way to contribute to my chosen community. While I wasn’t arrogant enough to think that I could do everything better than people in less developed countries, but I had forgotten how much I can learn from them. For example, libraries in Medellin are more than just a place for reading. They've become hubs that transform the community, with buildings of architectural interest, parks, auditoriums, computer learning labs and a few books. For the past month I’ve been volunteering with the Experimental Technologies Group, part of Bibliolabs, at the Libraries in Medellin. I came in at the tail end of a project to build a device for teaching people how to read / write braille. There was no need to design it from scratch when they could modify something from the open source world, such as a braille keyboard for smart phones, but finding parts that can be used locally is a lot of work in itself. The team had 3D-printed the chassis with buttons and were working on the circuit and coding when I joined them. I was assigned the task of understanding how a keyboard works so the same logic could be applied to detecting button presses on the device. I also kept an eye (my ears weren’t as much help as usual when all conversation was in local slang) on the coding design and noticed a couple of problems. The most significant was that their code required the buttons to be pressed in the order they decided. The letter ‘c’ is denoted by the two dots in the top row. If the learner pressed the top left (button
I recently got a chance to play tejo, a traditional Colombian game involving a metal disc and a target of packed mud and explosives. It was the thirtieth birthday of an expat friend, and despite four Colombians coming along, he was the only one who had ever played before. We threw our discs from the halfway line, marvelling at the skill of the man in the far lane with his own gear, who managed to hit the gunpowder regularly from the full distance of twenty metres. The target is roughly a metre square, and sits on the ground with the far side angled up. You have to throw the disc underhand and have it land in the mud and stay there without ever touching the ground, backboard or sides of the target. In the centre of the mud sits a ring of about fifteen centimetres diameter. Landing the disc in this ring scores six points. Two triangles of paper containing the gunpowder are placed at the top and bottom edges of this ring. Exploding one of these gets three points, so it’s possible to score nine in a single throw. Failing anyone achieving one of these goals, the closest valid shot scores one point. We split into two teams of three and began playing. Jonny and I started using the heaviest disc, and eventually the girls joined us as well, finding that it was more accurate, but the game is as hard as it sounds. Jonny managed a ‘mecha’ or explosion on his second turn, then spent the rest of the night trying to repeat that feat. The rest of us tried to match him, but the targets either side seemed to regularly pull
Feria de los Flores (Festival of Flowers) is the biggest event in Medellin, but was more elusive than I expected. It runs for ten days every August and celebrates the contribution of farmers. From all the hype, I expected to see flower decorations throughout the city, but that wasn’t the case. My Feria de los Flores experience began with a quiz at the language exchange evening held by Colombia Immersion on Friday night. Rather than the usual ice-breaker where I'd receive a slip of paper with the name 'Jekyll' and having to find the person with 'Hyde', last week I was given a quiz with ten questions and asked to obtain each answer from a different person. As a foreigner, my questions were in Spanish and I was expected to get the answers from native speakers. The first with all correct wins. I wasn’t the first, but I was perhaps the only one with all correct, so I won a white poncho, which is the traditional costume for local farmers in the area. The following evening, Sandra and I joined a group from the school at the festival's main event, a concert headlined by Marc Anthony in the stadium. We arrived before five and were directed into gender lines for a police search at the main gate. That might have made sense if the women were searched by female officers, but Sandra was also searched by men. My water and even my pens were confiscated, while others had their belts taken and had to pay a hefty sum to have them returned after the concert. Inside, we found water available at prices higher than you'd pay at an Australian music festival, and tetrapaks of
The second thing I noticed about Colombia was the driving. While distracted by all the beautiful women (the first thing I noticed), I regularly stepped out in front of cars. This wasn’t, as it often is, due to Colombians driving on the other side of the road to Australians. I’d had over two months in Latin America to get used to that. It wasn’t because I expected cars to stop at pedestrian crossings. Two years living in Bhutan disabused me of the notion that white stripes on the road have any meaning at all. In Colombia, the real confusion is caused by cars turning right with their left blinker flashing. At least in Bhutan, where blinkers aren’t used the way they were designed, they were used consistently to indicate whether it was safe for those behind to overtake on the winding mountain roads. In Colombia, they seem to merely be something that drivers bump while turning the wheel, and it’s not uncommon to see a car driving for miles with one blinker or the other going continuously. I should also say that I've been caught out by cars turning left with their left blinker flashing. It's oh, so confusing. Colombian driving, in general, leaves a lot to be desired. 'My Spanish teacher' tells me that drivers here get their licenses from the back of cereal boxes, and swears she didn’t pick the phrasing up from her time in Australia. The roads are scary enough in the cities and towns where people give way to everything they can see through their front windscreen, but out on the single-lane highways fear takes on a new level. On my various bus trips, I’ve almost become used to
I wrote Medellin off well before I arrived. I had nothing against Colombia—I just don’t enjoy the crowds and bustle of cities in general, and Medellin (with its satellite cities) is almost as big as Sydney. This visit was on the recommendation of a friend from the school in Antigua, who was now studying Spanish here and loving it. I gave it a week, having a vague plan to move on to a smaller city or elsewhere in the countryside. My search for a place to contribute socially, rather than just for my own financial gain, seemed more likely to succeed in a less developed locale. Having just escaped living on the streets in Cuba, I probably also had a negative perspective of the world in general. Medellin initially struck me as just another city despite its earthy tones and unique geography, sprawling down a deep valley. On my third day in the city my view began to change. I joined a few Spanish students at the Museo Casa de la Memoria, a museum depicting the changes to Medellin over the past forty years. Not having done any research, the displays and text were overly cryptic, but the museum depicted Medellin as an incredibly violent city gripped by corruption under the power of Pablo Escobar. This image was difficult to correlate with the vibrant, happy place I was staying in now, where parents happily let their children play on the streets after dark. Somehow, the city had pulled itself up from drug capital to legal prosperity in only a few decades. We then went to Parque de los Deseos for an open air concert, which turned out to be Omara Portuondo of Buena Vista
The evening after my friend left Vinales, a restaurant rejected my 100CUC note. They took everything else I had rather than break it. I was frustrated, but not surprised. It had been hard enough to find people to break a 50CUC note. I tried a few more places before someone pointed out that it wasn’t even Cuban money. It was a 100 Quetzales note, left over from Guatemala. When I returned to my casa particular to get more money, I found that all the cash I assumed was CUC was actually unusable currency. How had I managed to spend 350CUC (US$350) in four days? I ran the numbers through my head and stopped when I reached 230CUC in the middle of the third day. It was true. I had used it all. The next morning I tracked down some ATMs, tried a couple of cards in both banks and came up with nothing. I then took all five of my cards from St George and Westpac in to the branch and found that all were rejected. Nor would they change my remaining Australian dollars. I’d done my research and knew that US cards weren’t accepted, but Australian cards should be fine. I connected to the internet to get in touch with my bank to see what was wrong and found an article from Westpac stating that they followed US policy regarding money laundering etc, so cards could not be used in a few countries including Cuba. Being owned by Westpac, St George would have the same policy. Western Union, then, but according to their website they only had branches as far west as Havana. My panic began in earnest. I owed 30CUC to my
In my limited understanding of socialism, everyone is meant to be equal. Everyone pulls their weight and the government ensures that everyone is housed and fed. With that in mind, I couldn’t understand why people mobbed the tourists getting off the bus in Vinales, pushing their casa particular as the best. Or why doctors only get paid 40CUC (US$40) per month but the driver of the vintage car charged 50CUC for an hour drive. Did this money all go to the government? Through numerous discussions with locals, I pieced together a rough view of how their lives work financially. The government takes most of what each person produces or earns—somewhere in the order of 90%--and lets them do them do what they like with the rest. One person wrote out the microeconomics of an average household for me. A family with two children, where Dad is an electrician and Mum is a nurse, has an income of about 50CUC per month. Utilities come to about 35CUC and a basic diet of beans and rice comes to about 17CUC, which leaves them short by 2CUC. When I suggested that cancelling the internet was the obvious solution, he pointed out that 15CUC was still not going to buy much in the way of vegetables and meat for 4 people for a month. So both parents end up taking additional jobs, usually in some form of tourism, which takes them up to, say, 110CUC. It’s still a very basic standard of living. This still doesn’t answer questions of house ownership or how people choose / are assigned careers or whether to live in the city or the country, but my trip to Cuba was cut short as