Medellín: The City of Eternal Spring
The first thing you notice upon stepping out of your bus or taxi upon arrival in Medellín is the greenery. It is a chaotic place, with a hive of activity that surpasses Bogota, but somehow the cover found by the large Banyan trees provides a respite to all this. Medellín, Colombia's second city in population but undoubtably its cultural capital, is nestled in the Aburrá Valley within the hills of Antioquía, Colombia's coffee cultivation hub. Paisa culture, emanating from the city like an electric current, is found in Colombian music, movies, food and contains its own distinctive accent, specific to the region and more similar in tone to those of Argentina and Uruguay (the ll is a "j" sound rather than the traditional "y", alongside the use of vos instead of tu). My primary memory of the city from my first time there was its climate. Nicknamed Ciudad de la Eterna Primavera: the City of Eternal Spring, its weather hovers between 25 and 30°C year round, dropping in the evening to a sleepy 15 or so degrees. In the afternoon, rainstorms occasionally arrive and the city slows down at last, but just for a couple of hours. As it hits evening, it rises again and Paisas emerge to eat, drink, and party as sun goes down.
The greenery is distinctive, and adds much needed respite when the heat becomes trapped in the bowl in which the city sits. In 2017 30 "green corridors" were installed, providing an interconnected 20km network of shady routes including new bike lanes and walkways. Tens of thousands of native trees, tropical plants, bamboo and palms have been planted along sidewalks, riverbanks and busy traffic thoroughfares, as well as in squares and parks. An elevated metro network runs throughout the city, with air conditioned trains which run at regular intervals and are impeccably clean. There is also an electric escalator 1,260 feet long in Comuna 13, one of Medellín's poorest neighbourhoods, as well as a cable-car system which climbs the hills of the valley. I took one running up to the Arvi National Park and hiked around one day. The view from the cable car was spectacular, and I was amusingly paired with a group of women who had seemingly never ridden one before, judging by their pained squirming in the car beside me the higher we climbed.
The Fear of Eating Alone
I will admit though, that my first hours in Medellín I was nervous. I didn't have any contacts in the city, and hadn't met anybody staying in the hostel I was in. I was presented with a fear which is known to every solo traveller: the prospect of eating dinner alone. Every solo trip I've done I find that you're given a cup of energy, and a roll of the dice. Sometimes you have a full cup, but the dice rolls you a 1. You have to entertain yourself however is best (something that isn't hard with the plethora of personal entertainment, but feels somehow like wasting precious time in a new place). Sometimes you get lucky and have a mostly full cup and roll high - you meet some great people and don't have any trouble finding fun social activities. And sometimes you get equally lucky and have an empty cup and roll low, and can chill guilt-free.
Indeed what I think I really feared while entering Medellín was "Paris Syndrome", a condition told to me by a fellow traveller: A tourist, upon travelling to Paris with high expectations of romance, beauty, and elegance, is often met with the opposite: unclean pavements, obnoxious waiters, and grey skies. I had always said to myself that Medellín would be the city I would return to to live for a time if I got a chance, and now I was there I wanted it to fulfil my dreams, at least for a week. On a language exchange I went to one night, I met a number of exPats who had made the plunge and were now basing themselves in the city. It has a lot to love: the weather, the nightlife... the attractive local population. I felt a tinge of jealousy when speaking to them; but my body hadn't quite adapted to the sunshine. After months of cold in Berlin, then high-altitude rain in Bogota, it was taking me some time to get used to the sun again.
Jean Paul Saumon
One night at my hostel I was hanging out with some people when the group I was in merged from English to Spanish to French. Lost in this medley of colonial intermingling, I turned to the guy next to me and asked what he did. He responded that he was a poet. And so I met Jean-Paul Saumon, a character with whom I would grow to learn a great deal about Medellín and the life of a modern vagabond poet. Saumon (French for Salmon), was not his real name, but an artistic pseudonym he had taken on in order to reinvent himself for his forthcoming trip to Europe. Tired of struggling in Colombia, his sister had offered him accommodation in Frankfurt, so he was planning on making his dream of one day living, writing, and performing in Paris a reality. The French now made sense.
Chatting late into the night, we shared musings on creativity, the importance of not doing anything for long stretches of time, the poverty of a lot of education, and of course, history. He revealed hidden complexities of Colombian history I hadn't yet been aware of. Simón Bolívar, for example, a hero of the independence movement who has numerous airports, towns, and even a country named after him, was a member of a conservative elite who, once independence had been achieved, quickly consolidated power and attempted to maintain the religious, class, and racial differences that had been embedded during Spanish rule.
Moving on to the 'war' (fought from the late 1940s, arguably until today) which is continually mentioned in grieved tones in conversations throughout the country, according to Saumon represented a continual suppression of communistic values which had taken place since the turn of the 20th century. Capitalists, funded by the US, brutally suppressed any attempts at liberalisation (see the execution of liberal hero Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948) to the extent that even today declaring yourself a socialist, or even in some places a liberal, is a dangerous and radical act. Guerrilla groups sprung up in resistance to this repression, and as such became the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, translated to Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the primary group who continued fighting the government and their paramilitaries until their supposed demilitarisation in 2016 (after which many leading members have been disappeared, assassinated or driven into different Guerrilla groups). These conflicts, which continue to this day in different parts of the country, represent the most brutal form of human warfare, and accounts of the methods of torture, reprisal, and intimidation make for grisly reading.
Jean-Paul held a knowledge of both European, United States, and Latin American history that left me quite staggered. But this seems natural when your country has been so torn apart as Colombia has been. Most people associate the country with its primary elicit export, Cocaine, and its main pop culture figure, Pablo Escobar, who ruled Medellín through his powerful cartel for over 20 years. But this is just the tip of an iceberg which still lurks under the surface. Land is key to Colombia, and its richness in potential, as with so many territories mined, farmed and fought over into poverty, is a key to understanding the current state.
Upon arriving and dominating the indigenous peoples, the Spanish established “haciendas” (estates) as a model of their (failing) society back at home. These were owned by a tiny fraction of society at the time, and always by white Spaniards. This system was established in the 16th century and in most areas is still in place today. Most peasants throughout the 20th Century were effectively made into indentured servants, making a pittance and owing the rental of the land they lived on and the tools they worked with to the landlord.
The national agricultural census during the government of Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018), revealed that of the 113 million hectares in the country, only 6.3% of them, that is, about 7 million hectares, are cultivated. Only 0.44% of landowners control 40.1% of the land in the country. Meanwhile, 69.9% of owners have barely 5% of the land in the country. They represent properties smaller than 5 hectares. Colombia has more than 20 million hectares of land suitable for crops, yet it currently imports 30% of its food in the country. There are about 33.8 million hectares wasted in extensive cattle ranching pastures.
Many Colombians understand this, but as with many Latin American countries... or as with many countries struggling with "development" around the world, it's all part of the circus of life that is living within such a system.
If this reads like a bit of a tirade, I suppose it is. I have come away from a few weeks of travel here feeling angry at how this came about and how difficult it is to break these cycles once they appeared. I'll continue being optimistic for answers, happy to party, eat, drink, and be merry with those who juggle and trapeze through life here, but the simmering feeling that this just isn't fair is locked in.
At the end of our night, Saumon declared to me his intention to take me on a tour of some of Medellín's lesser known neighbourhoods and areas the next day, through the eyes and sensual musings of a vagabond poet who had just lost his mother and was now leaving his land, perhaps for good. How could I say no?