Coming to Love Medellin

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Coming to Love Medellin

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 Social Club fame. It was difficult not to be happy listening to such great music, sitting in an open environment on a warm evening with thousands of other fans, feeling safe and lucky after my Cuban ordeal. The night was made even more special by the beloved teacher of these students, who became the centre of attention as soon as she joined us. Beautiful, passionate and clearly a gifted teacher, she’d also recently returned from eight years living in Sydney.

We hit it off immediately, and I decided to stay beyond the week. She’s been exploring this city with me, from salsa clubs to art installations, like Plaza Botero, to the surrounding parkland—skip the cable car and tours of Park Arvi and make the walk up there yourself.

Meanwhile I restarted Spanish lessons, joining the others at Colombia Immersion, which provides coaching as well as the usual lessons, homestays and activities. The activities are particularly interesting, with a weekly language exchange that is so well attended by locals that it always spills out onto the street, and tours to various neighbourhoods that have colourful histories. These are usually the poorer districts such as Barrio Trece (neighbourhood thirteen) or Moravia. Barrio Trece was retaken from gangs by the military and is for the most part now a quiet place, made distinct by the outdoor escalators climbing the sides of the valley which make grocery shopping easier for the elderly, and the brightly coloured murals that decorate so many of the walls. Moravia used to be the site of the city’s rubbish dump, which grew into a shanty town as the city’s most impoverished picked over the leavings of others.

In both cases, the government worked, and is working, with the people to redesign the neighbourhoods to be communities of growth, with cultural and sports / fitness centres where people of all ages can improve their health, learn skills and find meaning in their existence. The main arterial road through town shuts down on Sunday mornings so that everyone enjoy cycling in safety, and groups can gather to do zumba.

Whether or not I can contribute, I realise that I can learn a lot from these communities and how they have transitioned from the hopeless, violent neighbourhoods they once were. Between this desire to learn and the company of a certain Spanish teacher, Medellin has quickly become my new home.

By |July 26th, 2018|Categories: Colombia|0 Comments

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