From a Native to a Nomad: My First Week in Medellín
Last week, I caught a flight from Cancún, Mexico to José María Córdova, Colombia in the driftlines of grief. I left the Riviera Maya with a sense of flight, with the wind humming under my leveled wings, but wings still, that are learning to glide on foreign currents.
I trusted this move abroad—this relocation—that would be a continuation of my becoming.
My taxi ride into Medellín was a turbulent jaunt with Andrés at the wheel. We skirted through a downpour that slicked the roads and blurred the view outside. Because my flight was an hour late, it was nearing midnight and it was dark as cafe negra outside. Andrés whipped through red lights and laughed into the radio whose airwaves blasted fast-paced Reggaeton—the cities musical anthem. After a detour of nearly an hour, we dropped off the other rider, a kid from Bogotá whose adapted Jersey accent that he caught after his relocation stateside was jarring against the fluidity of the Spanish beats. We arrived at his mansion atop a hill in the south of the city where his friends and him were staying in a rented house previously owned by Escobar that was now a renovated series of compounds available for the wealthy to dapple in the very same contraband as the cartel king himself once did. Winding our way down vertical hillsides where jungle meets barrios stripped of any architectural design, my driver lit up a joint and gave me all the pricing info on the local marijuana, he spoke heavy and fast and I thought he might be smoking something else on the side. After two hours of hair-whipping turns into the heart of El Poblado, we made our way to my new home away from home. The security guard welcomed me in with a native tongue as I mumbled my way through a weary response and lifted my years worth of luggage into my petite rental room.
Rising the next morning in Medellín was a sight. Man, it took me a minute to get here but this little dream of mine was unfolding in real time and I was here to stay. An espresso and a swing on the patio hammock awakened me to the true vastness of this city. Medellín is comprised of nearly 2.5 million inhabitants with another million spread across the valley floor and into the mountainsides. The pictures I googled months before painted a very different picture of the Antioquia region and was my reminder to go see the world for myself before drawing any conclusions about this spinning marbled.
This was why I was here: to be surprised, a little scared, and a lot inspired.
My first seven days in the City of Eternal Spring were spent settling into my Airbnb and the hip and overtly trendy neighborhood of El Poblado. The Venice, Calif. meets Brooklyn area is nestled against the lush flora and fauna reminiscent of the Caribbean mixed with fast rivers and waterfalls that cut down from the steep hillsides that flank the valley floor. My host, Christian, an Italian transplant who has occupied this city for nearly a decade, is my host and he has a trilingual tongue and a particularly animated style of conversation. He loves saxophone-infused electronica music and local rum and he is teaching me that this city is as welcoming as it is conflicting.
I fell right into my lifestyle in this new hood, in part because it is the safest and most tourist-friendly region of the city, so it welcomed me because it knows my type. I had to choose safety first while re-locating as a solo female traveler, so, choosing the best place for a life of career productivity and cultural exploration was key. I picked up groceries at the local supermercado; filling up on fresh juice, eggs, Colombian cafe, bags of passionfruit and chunks of queso fresca. The dollar goes far here…3 bags of groceries cost me the equivalent of $15. I couldn’t leave without stashing a 6-pack of Aguila beer in the bag for under $2 and managed to make my way through the language barrier between the cashier and I with ease.
After a month of yoga, meditation, and spiritual overdose in Costa Rica, I learned the delicious power of manifestation. There are many ways to bring in new energy and opportunity into ones life and however you need to get there is cool, but I am telling you, don’t forego the power of the mind, she can be a real bitch, yes, but she can also be your warrior in times of creativity and invention. So, before I landed in this vibrant new country, I invited in a few things I knew to be necessary in my life abroad. And the more clear I get with my goal-setting and what I need to help me become a more effective human, the more potential for desired possibilities can happen. Co-creating with the universe. I swear by it.
So, I invited it all in. Mexico reminder me I needed a daily swimming hole, a place to dip and refresh when the city would overwhelm me, a community office of fellow creatives and professionals, a place to practice yoga and potentially teach at, the opportunity to connect with the locals and report on my cultural findings and stories here through literary journalism. I also desperately needed a Spanish immersion class to equip my tongue with the proper Latin flare so my whiteness could fade against my budding language skills.
Within in the first week, I have found myself with each of these manifestations in my hand. The trick is to carry through with what you ask for and as hard as it is to wake up early and stumble my way through an awkward Spanish conversation and count my ABC’s with Camilo in front of all the native CEO’s in our shared office, I do it. And then I treat myself with a moment by the pool and I lounge with my laptop between my forearms at the hip coffee shops and gawk at the Colombian fashion donned by striking Latinas, and then I practice yoga in the pool house next to the on-site janitor in the evenings while listening to the kids shouting out of the apartment windows while trying to translate their boisterous exchanges.
It was shaping up to be a bit of a success. Like one big fat affirmation in the midst of the emotional coaster.
This week, I drank Ron Medellín on ice and flirted with the policia, I went shopping at El Tosoro, the boujee and glamorous mall with my roomie Emma, and we danced amongst aisles of clothing from Colombian designers whose apt for color is imbued into almost every textile. We got matching bathing suits for a trip to the beach we were dreaming up and she introduced me to everyone we met, translating my eager questions about brand names and the meaning of the tattoos on the arms of one of the store clerks. I picked up fresh fruit at the farmer’s market and ate gazpacho at an organic café. I toured the nicest hotel in the district and stood at the edge of their rooftop pool and dared to not jump in. I went out dancing with my new local friend who showed me his secret bars where locals fist pumped almost as aggressively as they sang to music that every single person seemed to know the Spanish lyrics to. I smelled spicy pots of stew and lavender and vanilla floating from neighbors homes and walked amongst clothesline hung between red-bricked hoods and snuck through the tiny alleyways where Communa 13 houses thousands of Colombians from around the country, there are refugees here too, as the border re-opened on Friday from Venezuela and this is where they come.
I chanted with the the millennials who donned Colombian football jerseys and hooted and hollered at their team’s win. I stood in the metro going north pushed against a million other smiling faces and pardoned myself as I moved for the elderly in wheelchairs and gripped my backpack to my chest without seeming too obvious. I met tan men from Holland and London, world-travelers on year-long sabbaticals, and local youth who had a wisdom in their bones that could be felt before it was heard. As I made my way through the night-life with the locals grinding on each other early into morning as EDM-fueled clubs became thick with smoke, I was mesmerized at the freedom of their hips along with the generous smiles that came my way.
I guess this is Colombia. One side at least. Just one week of observation with a little participation. Already I was overwhelmed.
I took the famed escalators up into Communa 13, which was once the murder capital of the city when political regimes and the cartel once held an imposing weight here. And it isn’t gone, the gangs run rank here, but with a lesser density then 20 years past. I touched graffiti clad walls that told stories of their transformation, the devastation of corruption, and the recovery that reminds me change is possible even in the most dire circumstances. Our guide Laura, walked us through the choke of concrete, moving escaleras, bustling streets, homes that were now makeshift bars and cantinas, where in between them stone walls articulated a bloodshed past into CMYK murals of Colombian faces, native insignia, and portraits of exaggerated beauty queens and indigenous handprints. She told us stories of mass graves across the hillside in plain view. ‘These are everywhere,’ she tells us.
She holds her hand over her heart and she says, “I love my country, I love Medellín, but it is a city of contrasts.”
Traveling forces you to feel and be felt. Through the passageways of someone else’s lens, there are some moments that engage you without permission. In the recovering slums of Communa 13, there are conflicting messages, where smiling children ride their Tonka trucks through the sea of photographers capturing the vibrant murals along the streets, and also where poverty sprawls across the barrio rated the poorest in the region. Where electricity isn’t to be expected but the food is some of the best around.
The biggest struggle is speaking and understanding Spanish with the locals. Colombian Spanish is very different from Mexico and Spain, they have their own slang, lingo and a slight accent that sounds different in the mouth, so, my practiced phrases often come out as gringo jargon. Another difference is that compared to back home, L.A., Denver, and the swathe of U.S. cities I have traveled and lived in, people really take their time here. I was warned that Colombian time is a little less strict and so you are expected to be late and on the flip side, you should expect to wait. Latin America is like this. It is called Tico time in Costa Rica and it is as foreign to me as it is to them to be on time. I have even heard that it can be rude to be too punctual. It is another way I am refreshed by the culture. Even in the busyness of the streets, nobody seems to be bothered by having to wait, whether their coffee takes longer than it should or the bank teller chats endlessly with the random in front of you.
Everybody seems to shrug off immediacy and opt instead for fluidity.
Since I have been here I have had long sunny days of elation, sprouting gratitude and wide-eyed joy. I have also had days of depression where I barely can get out of bed and open the curtains to the glittering city below. Traveling can ask a lot of us, not just from the physical body and mind, but from the soul and the subtle body. I have had to face death this past month and haven’t really had a moment alone to truly grieve. Maybe my dark days spent inside without human contact is my form of processing, of feeling the ephemeralness of it all. But my other half knows to fight for positivity and to glean into the things that wake me up and light my fire. And so, I continue to lean out my 15th story window, wave to the days ahead, persist through pages of editorial writing, and practice being local versus transient. I am doing this mostly with rosy-rimmed lenses that are set on potential and possibility, and forgiving the insomnia and constant hunger that pangs me in between adventure.
Seven days in Medellín and I am sinking into this life abroad in a Latin city that is both tranquil and vivacious, a contrast of sentiments and senses, my new home.
Thank you for sharing in the journey…
Hasta la proxima vez