Apr 23, 2010
The plan is not fixed, so today is our last in Medellin. Though the night comes swiftly, the morning seems to last forever. I have no idea what time we’ve been getting up. It seems late — I’m one of the last to rise, and the sun is already high. But after a leisurely breakfast, long conversation, showers, dressing (which includes makeup and hair for the women), and more conversation, we left to arrange for the trip, and it was barely after 10:00.
A taxi took us to the train station, where we took a train to the local airport terminal, which also serves as a hub for long-distance transportation of all sorts. Adriana got us past one really bad set of prices, and we ended up with a taxi to Manizales (a four-hour trip) for three for about 160,000 pesos, or about $80.
I need to make a minor correction. Our elevation in Medellin is only about 4000 feet; I have no idea of the elevation of the peaks all around us. That is why the air seems so “normal” to me, since that’s about the same elevation as Fort Collins. Marta’s home town of Manizales, on the other hand, is at about 7000 feet.
Our trip to downtown Medellin was short and somewhat tense. Papito was with us, and we had to negotiate a lot of staircases. He managed well enough, but Marta and Adriana were impatient and walked ahead while Papito kept up a continuous one-sided conversation that was completely opaque to me.
I felt very conspicuously Gringo: height, weight, clothing, and (worst) the camera around my neck that Adriana assured me was okay to take. I think she regretted that afterwards. Medellin is a very big city, and has all the problems of a big city, including thieves and pickpockets. I’m quite sure the fears of thieves are badly exaggerated, simply because they always are, whether you are in Medellin or New York City or London or Berlin. Whatever the baseless fears or fearful realities, we made it back safely to the apartment (which is gated, by the way), despite the conspicuous Gringo in our midst.
We had a short visit with Carlos, Papito’s brother. Carlos lives on a finca, a farm, near Medellin. He brought us some fresh mangoes and mandarins, and they were a lot like the fruit I’ve had by those names, but a thousand times better. I could follow almost none of the rapid-fire Spanish in the conversation. Carlos is a funny and articulate man who likes to pepper his speech with faces, voices, and gestures: a natural storyteller. At the end, he offered us the hospitality of his finca any time and for as long as we liked. It did not sound like an idle offer.
At three o’clock, we left for Manizales, Marta’s home town, about four hours by road from Medellin. The taxi was an old car, tiny, with a modified gas tank that must have held a hundred gallons. The tank took up most of the trunk space, so we had to arrange the luggage carefully. Even with arrangement, we needed to keep some of the luggage with us in the back seat.
Driving in Colombia is a giant game of chicken, with thousands of simultaneous players. Most of the roads, especially in the countryside, are twisty, mountainous two-lane highways, with heavy trucks struggling up the slopes and trying to avoid catastrophe on the downward stretches. All of the smaller cars pass freely. I saw no evidence that anyone paid any attention to the road striping. In fact, in most places there were effectively three overlapping lanes, with the “middle” lane reserved for drivers looking for an opportunity to pass.
I watched our driver, Fernando Restrepo (it is a common surname here), as he positioned himself for passing on the blind curves. I realized after a very short while that he was an extremely careful and conservative driver, despite what seemed like heart-stopping risks, because there is a common etiquette here. If you pull out to pass, everyone you are passing recognizes that you may need to pull back into the right lane quickly, and that you will do this, regardless of their opinions on right-of-way. After all, pushing them off the road into a thousand-foot canyon is a lot better (for you) than a head-on collision with an eighteen-wheeler. Since they recognize this, they make room for you: unlike, say, Denver, where they take being passed as a personal affront and try to cut you off. No driver here is that stupid or insensitive. The oncoming traffic also recognizes little clues as to whether you are going to complete the pass or back off, so they slow down, too. The result looks far more chaotic than it actually is.
It was only after we arrived that I realized Fernando has only one eye. It was probably best to discover that after the trip was over.
The scenery…. I cannot do it justice.
Everyone has seen the “Colombia Pictures” peak at the movies. That peak exists, and we saw it behind us as we left Medellin. It towers above the surrounding peaks, which are, themselves, gargantuan. The Andes make the Rocky Mountains look like foothills. I have grown up in and around the Rockies, and they are glorious mountains, but the Andes take me to a place of profound astonishment. Unlike the Rockies, they do not fold into valleys that are still eight thousand feet above sea level: they plunge to riverbeds that are only hundreds of feet above the sea. The slopes are precipitously vertical, yet they are covered by deep green forests of eucalyptus, bamboo, and fern in the places they aren’t cultivated with coffee. The slopes seem far too steep for mountain goats, and one misstep could cause a thousand-foot tumble, yet the coffee-pickers go from bush to bush collecting the ripe beans by hand. How, I can’t even guess.
The roads follow the ridges, and the tiny mountain towns along them contain only two rows of buildings, one to the left, and one to the right. If you were to take a running start from the front door through the tiny buildings and leap out the back door, you might fall a hundred feet or more before you touched the steep slopes.
Despite the desperate game of multi-contestant chicken played along these highways, the culture of mountainous Colombia appears to be a “street culture.” The shops don’t possess doors, only open doorways, and people dart across the highway dodging the racing cars, walk up and down the highway alone or hand-in-hand, and sit on the sides of the highway in front of the shops, houses, or on little stone railings that guard against some of the more vertical plunges. They all seem to want to see and be seen.
We saw a number of the traditional arrieros, the bronze-skinned, athletic men you see in all the picture books with the broad straw hats, the open-neck shirts, and the burros with boxes sticking out to both sides. These are traditional working men, not part of a Colombian Disney tour: I saw one young man in a village tightening the traces on a load of wood carried by one of the burros, and it was obviously an everyday delivery. The burros must have nerves of steel, to say nothing of the men, because giant trucks roared past continuously only a dozen feet away, shrieking like demented elephants as drivers hit the worn brakes to slow for a curve.
We stopped for a break at one of the roadside fruit stands, which also sold potato chips, beer, coca-cola, and various breads and cookies. While we were there, they handed us samples of ciruela, a kind of tropical plum, bright yellow with a huge pit.
I also got to taste guanabana. It’s a large, dark green fruit, about the size of a pineapple, with a rind like a smooth avocado but with sharp little points all over it. Inside, it has watermelon-like seeds arranged randomly like the pits of a pomegranate, each seed embedded in a clump of thick, slimy, opaque white goo. You pull a clump (containing one seed) free and pop it into your mouth. The goo is tough and fibrous. Despite the unappetizing appearance and texture, the flavor is exquisite.
Our road trip eventually took us all the way down to the Cauca River, near sea level. Dusk had come, which is greatly prolonged by the high mountains, and the heat rose as we dropped, though we could feel the day’s heat dispersing. We passed quickly through a couple of larger villages (towns?) as the light faded, and they were brightly-lit and full of people cruising the streets.
I need a better word for this than “cruising.” Marta confirms that Colombia in general has a “street culture” that lives and works largely outdoors. People have houses only because they need a place to sleep and cook that is reliably out of the rain. At night, as the daytime temperatures drop, people walk about and gather in different groups to socialize and “hang out.” The women, particularly the younger women (by which I mean under forty) are invariably dressed to the nines. Even when their clothing is emulating Gringo Grunge, it is worn perfectly, with immaculate hair and makeup. The young men seem more casual; many wear jeans and T-shirts, usually with corporate logos, and either simple European-style running shoes or plain leather loafers.
I asked Papito, Marta, and Javier (Marta’s nephew in Manizales) for their word for “cruising,” but Javier shrugged and said they have no word for it. Perhaps salida, meaning to exit or “go out.” After a while, he chuckled and said, perhaps, caceria, which means “the hunt.”
Motorcycles are common, and many of the young men ride them. In traffic, they slip between the cars and trucks like water, taking risks that made Fernando seem like a fearful old man. The motorcycle drivers are required to wear helmets with their license number on the back, as well as reflective jackets with the license on the back, so a large number of young men wear these jackets and motorcycle gear under them.
The last leg of our trip took us from near sea-level back up to 7000 feet in Manizales. By now it was dark, and as we gained elevation we started to see all the small villages and towns on sister-peaks and ridges all around us, like earthbound star clusters.
We’ve settled into a hostel for the weekend, a beautiful reserve. The room is small but very comfortable, the restaurant is superb, the environment is beautiful, and it is only costing us $60 US per night.