It seems like we just arrived in Medellin, and we've left, much too soon. Places that feel like home are always like that, I suppose. As in the old John Denver song, when we arrived in Medellin four years ago, we felt we were '...coming home to a place we'd never been before.' This city felt like home to us right away. A vibrant, noisy, traffic-heavy, progressive, energetic, sometimes frustrating, often amazing city of 3.5 million souls that manages to have an intimate feel of acceptance, and welcome, and shared comfort for anyone who lives there. Medellin is, as Hemingway might have said if he spoke Spanish, a movable fiesta.
But we had to leave. The coronavirus pandemic, and an older, fearful mom in the states drew us back. As Colombianos recognize, family comes first. Rose lives alone, and she wants us there with her in her final years. So sadly, we've returned to the U.S., something we'd never anticipated doing. Part of being an expat is the necessity of being flexible. That includes the constant possibility that we'd become repats, and return to the land of our birth. So we left the city of eternal springtime, back to Iowa, and the land of three seasons: Summer, Fall, and all winter long. Here's our love letter to Medellin and her amazing people. We miss you already.
A City of Humanity
Medellin is a city immersed in the extremes of human experience: With its history of incredible violence, followed by an astonishing recovery from those terrible, disrupted years, this city has shown the world that rebirth is possible when forgiveness is a guide, and focusing on the future rules peoples' thoughts. I described this spirit in a previous post. We learned right away that people in the Aburrá valley don't wish to discuss their unhappy past; they're much more interested in their bright and promising future.
It's the People
It's the people we'll miss most. We've never felt more welcomed and accepted in a place like we had in Medellin. Despite the fact that we fractured their language, trespassed on their territory, ignored and flouted their customs at times, refused to eat mazamorra*, or to drink Aguardiente! They forgave us when we did our best clueless gringos act. People reached out, embraced us, (often literally!), and took us in. They helped us any way they could, often looking for ways to make us welcome and comfortable. We recall a number of times when people went out of their way to make sure we arrived where we were intending to be, or found what we sought. (*Mazamorra Antioqueña is a very popular concoction here. Across Colombia there are different recipes for different regions. In Antioquia where we lived, the recipe calls for a mixture of corn and milk. I know, right? Buen provecho! )
Metro: The Pride of Medellin
Here's an example of how we were treated and assisted, and one of our very favorite memories: We were heading home on the sardine-can-packed Metro. (This was long before social distancing). The train entered San Antonio station downtown, and the doors opened. We'd been halfway between exits, so we had to scramble toward the door. When the door alarm buzzed, announcing it was about to close, we were still packed in. Then several Colombianos grabbed us two gringos, shoved us hard through the crowd, and propelled us out and onto the platform. When we turned and waved to thank them, they clapped for us, and waved back.
Speaking of the Metro, it may sound a bit odd to salute a train system, but it's part of Medellin we'll truly miss. Medellin's Metro system, light rail, cable cars, buses, and fully integrated public transport system is the best in South America. Trains are efficient, clean, safe, smooth, quiet, inexpensive, and easy to navigate. It's a public transport system with emphasis on the 'public' part.
Urban & Rural
Medellin is nestled into the Aburrá valley, cupped by the Andes all around, so no surprise it offers the best of urban & rural life, both within minutes of each other. Here's an example: Recently, we took the Metro to Acevedo station, caught the cable car up the hill to Parque Arvi, and arrived there around ten am. We wandered through the park for a time immersed in the beauty and stillness of that part of the Andes above 8,000 feet. Then we boarded the cable car again, descended to Acevedo, took the Metro to Universidad station, site of the botanical garden. We walked through the garden to one of our favorite restaurants, En Situ, had a marvelous, very civilized lunch around noon, and then took the train home. The variety of offerings in Medellin appeals to all manner of wants and needs.
Fuerte Abrazos, Amigos!
The author of 'Bowling Alone' was clearly not Colombiano. These folks love life: They love to interact with each other. They love their music, and dancing, and their parties, (often till 6 in the morning. True story!). They love laughing, and joking, and just hanging out with others, including us for the short time we were fortunate to be with them. Here's a gallery of a few of the folks we'll miss.
Top left to right: From EAFIT, Luz Mary, Fernando, Rorey and Kiernan, (you bloody savage!) Juan, Lili, and Pablo—best landlords in the known universe, Alcalde Federico, Taxi Gustavo in Cartagena, Nora and Ramiro, Claudia, best housekeeper in the known universe, (are we lucky, or what?), Fernando, portero extraordinario, John and Sharon, mahalo amigos, Taxi Ramiro and his beautiful family. Good luck, Susanna, and Samuel, hope the arm is all healed up, amigo. Alejo and Abigail, thanks for the trip to SFA, Anja and Esteban, hearts and hopes liebe tochter, Maria, buen suerte amiga, te estrañamos! Puedes beber nuestro mazzamora! Y disfruta!
One of the reasons we enjoyed Medellin and its people was the colorful expressions we heard here and there. Colombianos have a way of putting things that shows a kind of tolerant disgust. Here are a few, with translations:
"Ave Maria, pues!" This expletive marks its speaker as a 'paisa,' that is, someone from Antioquia/Medellin. Roughly translated = 'Hail Mary! What now?'
'Es lo que es.' = 'It is what it is.' (Often said 'es lo que hay')
'Quiubo parce?' = 'What's up, bro?
'A la orden' = 'At your service.'
'No dar la papaya!' = 'Don't make yourself vulnerable.'
'Que chimba!' = 'Wow!' or 'How amazing!'
'Que pena' = 'What a shame'
'Gracias a Dios' = 'Thanks be to god.'
'Lo siento' = 'Pardon me'
'Disculpame' = 'Pardon me' only stronger.
'Perdon' = 'excuse me.'
'Payaso'= A certain president up north. Look it up. (Also, see Pendejo)
'Super bacano!' = 'Great!'
'Maravillosa!' = 'Wonderful!'
And perhaps our favorite Paisa-Ism = 'No, no, no, no... Si!'
Or a variation = 'Si, si, si, si... No!'
To all my Paisa amigos, muchas gracias por tu paciencia, y los clases en español, se lo agradezco.
Here are a few items we won't miss about Colombia. Besides these very few items, there's nothing else that bothered us all that much. We simply loved living there.
As the sign above indicates, folks in the Aburrá Valley certainly are 'amigos de las Mascotas', friends of pets, especially their dogs. For whatever reason—as protection from the ladrones, (a vestige of the bad old days), for companionship, or simply because they're used to having animals around—folks in Medellin love their dogs. The irritating part is that they don't mind one little bit if bowser barks around the damn clock.
Next picture, Colombian cuisine. We found very little to like about the local/national Colombian food. The brown item our amigo Ramiro is holding up is called a buñelo. It's a floured, bread-like concoction that's deep fried, like almost everything else in Colombia, and eaten typically as a breakfast delight. Buñuelos are quite tasty, and they come in all sizes, from golf ball standard up to those nearly the size of a grapefruit. The rest of the fare? Bandeja paisa, chicharron, platano, and the star attraction and daily necessity, Arepas? Meh...there's not much to recommend any of it.
Next picture. Emergency services. Health care in Colombia ranks higher in quality and outcomes than health care in the U.S. (#22 in Colombia, Vs #37 in the U.S., per the WHO) However, access to that health care is another matter. The emergency response system in Medellin exists mainly to intervene in roadway accidents. If you have a medical emergency at home, or need an ambulance at work, you're better off calling a taxi. Especially during high traffic times, it's pretty much 'buen suerte'—good luck.
One last item, and this was truly one of those maddening, frustrating, non-sensical dilemmas that even Colombianos agree is ridiculous: We never figured out how to pay our monthly bills. We had the pesos, (of course), and we understood when bills came due, but paying them was a nightmare. There was no such thing as bank-directed automatic payment; the on-line bill payment portal largely didn't work; paper bills could be delivered to our building—unless they weren't; and even when monthly charges were exactly the same, disputes were common. As this is written we're attempting, through a friend in Medellin, to close down our phone/internet account with Tigo. It's been a week, with several interactions, more texts back and forth than we can count, and still no resolution. If I were to speculate why this system appears to be broken, I suggest this: It must be a vestige of the bad old days, when banks were common targets of hackers and thieves, so security is tight as a tick. Plus, no one working in the banking sector seems willing to try a workaround to get things done, because they don't want to get sideways with a boss. I get that. There are very few times I was tempted to utter the typical expat phrase 'well, in the U.S. we'd just...' I never said it. That's spoiled gringo-speak, so I restrained myself. But...
The climate is a major item to miss in Medellin. There's a reason it's called the city of eternal springtime. Temps remain between 65 F (18 C) and 85 F (29 C) year round. Sunsets are weather here too, as the shots above attest.
Los Pajaros: The Birds
With more than 1,958 bird species, of which 80 are endemic, Colombia has more kinds of birds than any other country. Colombia's avian presence comprises 20% of all bird diversity in the world. Because it has coasts on both the Atlantic/Caribbean and the Pacific Oceans, the only country in South America that does, birds have found a kind of paradise here. Colombia, and Medellin, are seasonal flyway sites as well for many hundreds of bird species heading north and south.
The Microscopic Reason
As sad as we were to leave Medellin, we had to go. Family duty called. My wife's mum asked that we be there for her during the pandemic. Approaching 90, she's afraid, and lonely, and wanted our company. Although she's fairly healthy, she wants family around, and that includes us. Our related fear was not of the virus, or its potential peril for us, but that mom might die alone. That's a reality for many people now, and we decided we'd do whatever we could to avoid that dreaded outcome.
So it's with sadness that we said hasta luego Medellin. We'll miss the city we fell in love with 4 years ago, a place that will always hold a place in our hearts. This is una carta de amor, a love letter to Medellin, and to all of Colombia. Thanks for four years of beauty, excitement, fun, wonder, insight, learning, revelation, and amazing experiences. Four years of exploring a world of different customs, language, perspectives, expressions—ave maria pues!—and benevolent attitudes. Four years of cultivating friendships that we'll keep in our hearts forever. 'No, no. no, no... Si!
We may have left Medellin, but Medellin will never leave us. Gracias para leer. Thanks for reading.