The People of Medellin: Part 1

January 12, 2019

Street Art, El Poblado 

 

One of the first things we noticed about Medellin is how friendly and helpful the people seemed to be. More than once we gawp-eyed gringos would be wandering loose, in utter confusion about either directions, prices, distances, meanings, signage, or you name it, when a Medellinense took over and freed us of our confusion. We’ve had folks walk a city block with us to our destination. In most big cities such an appearance of confusion is ignored, or broadcast as the scent of vulnerability. Not here. These folks seem to be genuinely interested in helping. And not just helping us; they seem to be very courteous and deferential to each other as well.

 

 Medellin Colombia, & the Aburrá Valley

 

First, some relevant background. Medellin’s story is one of astonishing rebirth. In the year 1991 there were 7,273 murders in Medellin. That’s 20 bodies every day! Medellin was cited as the most dangerous city in the world. Today it’s not on the top fifty list, and the city is safer than Baltimore, Detroit, or St. Louis.

Amigos: Fabiola is our favorite vegetal/verdura vendedora, Mario is a street mime 

 

We think this amazing transformation is because of the people of Medellin, their default to courtesy, and their lingering awareness of the awful history of violence that once stained their city.

The Metro System: Medellin's Source of Pride & Accomplishment

 

The Medellin Metro is the pride of the city, and a key element in the reduction of violence here. Prior to the Metro's presence, people in surrounding hills & barrios had no sense of connection or participation in the life of Medellin. They felt dismissed, ignored, overlooked. They had no way to travel into or work in the city. This fragmentation contributed to gang territorial violence, and the sense of alienation in those barrios. 

 

 The Metro System serves all of Medellin

 

Today the Medellin Metro connects everyone here. It's more than trains that cross the central city. It consists of those trains, 4 cable car routes stretching into the surrounding hills, the Tranvia surface train, line T-A with 9 stations, several green Metro buses that deliver people directly to a total of 27 Metro stations on an A and B line, and more than 200 other buses in service across Medellin and attached cities Itagui, Envigado, Sabaneta, and Bello. The Medellin Metro is a world class mass transport system that moves more than a million people every day. In 2013, The Wall Street Journal and CITI awarded Medellin the Urban Land Institute's 'City of the Year' award, partly due its metro system.

 

MetroCable System, Medellin. 

 

The four MetroCable lines, H-J-K-L, with a total of 10 stations, deliver people to either the Tranvia or the Metro itself. The Metro system is also very inexpensive for working people. Every line can be used for any destination, and typical cost to travel anywhere in Medellin can be less than $3,000 COP, one US dollar. 

 

 Escaleras Electricas of Comuna 13

 

Yet another effort to connect the people of Medellin are the 'escaleras electricas,' outdoor escalators in Comuna 13. Once one of the most violent neighborhoods in the city, Comuna 13 is now, like the rest of Medellin, a nice place to visit and live. These escalators, like the Metro system, are part of that rebirth.

 Artwork abounds near the Escaleras Electricas in Comuna 13

 

Rising nearly 1,000 feet into the hillside barrio, the escaleras electricas allow people to go up and down, to work, to play, to meet, and obviously to pursue their artistic efforts. The wall paintings here are some of the most vivid and professional in the city, and well worth a visit.

 

Look for a future post about the amazing transport system in Medellin. This post is about the people. But the transportation system is a manifestation of the cities effort to address the needs of the people who live here. By any measure it's been an amazing success. 

 

The following is a short, entirely unscientific description of Medellin’s people.

 

In no particular order, Colombianos are...

 

•    Very friendly & outgoing. They love it when we inflict our Dick & Jane Spanish on them; they like friendly, engaging people; a good joke; courtesy; helping gawp-eyed gringos; compliments on their beautiful country; awareness of their history. Additionally, they are...

•    Lovers of ‘loud.’ Volume here has two positions: Off & Full.

•    Hard workers; hard partiers. There are 18 annual fiestas in Colombia, and celebrating them often lasts all night.

•    Never resentful or outwardly hostile. In our two years here we’ve never seen or heard angry words between Colombianos. Not even in traffic, which is big-city snarled a lot of the time, but where car horns are seldom heard.

•    Late eaters. We enter restaurants at 6 in the evening and have the place to ourselves, because Colombianos routinely eat dinner at 8 or 9 at night. (!)

•    Generally content with their lot. We have many Colombiano amigos, and they tend to enjoy their lives, their careers, their families, and their social position. It’s possible that they hide complaints from us gringos out of fierce pride in their country. But after living here two years we’d be aware of these things, and we don’t hear it much.

•    Not avaricious. Colombia is a developing country, with an average monthly personal income of $880,000 COP, ($275.00 USD).  This fact has been a concern for us, because by local standards we're wealthy. The ramifications are many: how much to tip? How to dress? What kind of bling to wear? (Answer--not much). Taxi? Bus? Metro? Uber? How to get around? And finally, how much caution is required when we’re out and about? I'll write a future post with specifics.

•    A short list of items Colombianos disdain includes: loud, obnoxious gringos; people flashing $$$ around; people who point; people who toss things to them (very rude here); they hate condescension; sex tourists; drug lords (they shoot them, typically); any mention of a certain high-profile drug lord with the first name Pablo who they did, in fact, shoot in 1993. (*More about this below)

 Amigos al Restaurante. Cada dia está un leccion en espanol!

 

Now some minuses: Colombianos definitely are not...

 

  • In a hurry. A terrible generalization to be sure, but folks here don’t consider every little whipstitch, as my wife says, to be an emergency. Slow and steady is good, but it does take a bit of patience. “You want it when?”

  • Not concerned about personal space. Move in a bit closer. Closer still. Almost there. Now cut that in half. This difference in personal space is most apparent on public transport.

  • Not entirely dedicated to hard truth. Let me explain. Folks here tend to tell us what they think we want to hear. (This has been verified by Colombianos, BTW, I am not making it up, unless they’re telling me...) We’ve heard different explanations for various things, at various times. Yes, it's frustrating. Our advice? Ask several people and get a consensus.

  • *They’re not interested in revisiting the narco years. No, really. Don’t bring this subject up. Most Medellinense DO NOT want to hear about Pablo Escobar and his sicko sicarios. People who flock to see Escobar’s hangouts, or pay for narco tours, or buy the T-shirts, or pass along breathless tales of the violence that once existed here are dredging up terrible memories for these people. They resent this latest version of the drug trade. Escobar was shot dead in 1993. May he rest in pieces and be forgotten.

  • They’re not (generally) interested in missionary activities. Disclosure: I have my own personal disdain for missionaries, so there you have it. Colombianos are heavily catholic; but from their progressive, accepting, guilt-free attitudes you’d never know it. This seems to be a place of live & let live. BTW, as for LGBTQ rights, marriage equality and adoption by LGBT couples are both legal in Colombia. Gays & Lesbians enjoy equal rights here. Like straight couples, they can inherit a spouse's estate, be listed on health care policies, and share in pensions. Within established guidelines, euthanasia is legal here, a rather astonishing fact in such a heavily catholic country. 

 

The Care and Feeding of Colombianos

Some do’s & don’t’s when visiting and/or expatting in Medellin.

 

I mentioned the wealth disparity that exists between us and the average Colombiano. It’s an issue in many ways, something we're aware of all the time. We don't count money in the open, don’t carry around much, and use small bills whenever possible. We don’t wear jewelry. We try to dress like they do, though it’s almost impossible because we can't hide our gringo-ness, try as we might. We avoid certain barrios at night, only because we don’t want folks to label us as tourists who might be studying them. We try to follow their lead in social interactions, customs, expressions, and mannerisms.

 

 MetroCable Line J from San Javier to La Aurora

 

Final Thoughts on the People of Medellin

 

This is a very short outline of what people in Medellin are like, and how we’ve been treated by them in our two year residency here. We make it a point to engage people, whether in restaurants, in taxis, store clerks, street vendors, those we’ve met all over Medellin. We use our sketchy Spanish skills, and they applaud our efforts. We’ve heard tales of stolen personal items, rude exchanges, taxi drivers running up the meter, the typical ‘gringo bingo’ that exists in every place we’ve been. The bottom line is that we’ve not felt threatened, or been robbed or vandalized, never once felt cornered or unwelcome here.

Parque Biblioteca Fernando Botero

 

(Photo Alarmy)

 

The library above is located in San Cristóbal, high above Medellin. San Cristóbal is one of those barrios that was once remote and hidden in the hills, separated from Medellin geographically, socially, and economically. Today, citizens of San Cristóbal can hop on the J line MetroCable, ride down the hill to San Javier station, and take the Metro anywhere in Medellin. The J line and others like it aren't just a physical link to the city, it's a psychological one as well. With Medellin's efforts to connect San Cristóbal & similar barrios, Medellin is now understood by all to be one city, one urban area where everyone has a chance to prosper.

 

I've featured a library as a final photo, because libraries represent another aspect of Medellin's people, their apparent interest in education. People place a high value on education here, and libraries address that value. Medellin's people have a very bright future. We're thrilled to have a small part in it. Thanks for reading. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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