Day 3

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.

Palace in MedellinOur 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.

Square in MedellinI 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.

Marta and CarlosWe 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.

Fruit StandWe 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.

Cauca RiverOur 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.

Day 2

Apr 22, 2010

Today has been a very relaxed day, catching up with ourselves and letting our luggage catch up with us.

AdrianaAdriana made us a wonderful lunch of platanos, a kind of very thick-cut bacon fried crispy, the ever-present arepas, and a black bean soup made of beans fresh from the farm.

Much later in the afternoon, Marta, Papito, and I took a walk. Papito was looking for a particular shopping center, but we turned the wrong way at the bottom of the hill and got totally lost. We ended up taking a cab to the shopping center and back home. The “shopping center” was a kind of strip-mall with open-front stores, a bank, and a lot of people who come to drink a beer after work and pick up pan (bread) for breakfast in the morning. The young women dress to the nines, as Marta had indicated.

I stood out a bit because of my height. However, I think I blended reasonably well, since when Papito would ask questions, the respondent would often turn to me (if Marta was not immediately present) and explain in rapid-fire Spanish. I’m getting by on my child’s Spanish, but it is very difficult, and I don’t say much. Papito and I have fun, though. His sense of humor is sophisticated, though it takes a crude turn (exactly like mine), so we have a couple of recurring motifs including eucalyptus and howling like a dog. Don’t ask.

We came home to dinner, and will doubtless be turning in fairly soon. I did manage to get a reasonably good night picture of a tiny slice of the city that gives a small hint of its verticality. But I have not been able to capture the full three-dimensional glory of the place.

Nighttime Medellin

Day 1

Apr 22, 2010 (morning)

Marta at DIAYesterday we rose with that grungy feeling that comes from waking too early in a strange room to the raucous buzz of a wake-up call. We allowed a full hour to get ready — at least half of which I wasted slowly withdrawing from bizarre dreams — but even so, we made it downstairs just in time to walk onto the shuttle.

Joe at DIAWe broke fast on a pair of Sbarro breakfast calzones that tasted just a little rancid, and I broke in my new pants with a hot coffee stain from a cup possessed by a mischievous spirit. However, we arrived in plenty of time for the flight, since a minor mechanical problem delayed it by nearly an hour. On the flight to Miami, I sat next to a delightfully fey young couple. They were just leaving on a vacation to Cancun, followed immediately by a vacation to Maui. They were funny, extremely animated, and already pretty drunk.

The Miami airport is huge, and has no moving walkways or trains. We needed to walk all the way from one end (American) to the other (Avianca) to make our connection, of course. We stopped quickly to get Marta something to eat as we walked, as she had already started to tremble from low blood sugar. The American flight did not serve even peanuts on the four-hour flight. Neither of us took the opportunity to stop at a restroom; even so, we were the last to board the Avianca flight. We think they held it for us. The Airbus was nearly empty.

We enjoyed a magical flight over the Caribbean. I had an entire row to myself on the western side of the plane, and the sun shone bright and warm. Marta took the window on the eastern side, and we’d point out sights to each other. The waters lay calm and flat, marked with thin, dark streaks that seemed almost like wrinkles in the water. The horizon all around vanished into white mist that merged with distant clouds — without the long creases in the ocean below to mark our position, we might have been suspended without motion in an eternal late afternoon.

We passed clusters of Caribbean islands from time to time, and passed directly over Cuba. I don’t believe anyone can look down on Caribbean islands with their bright blue coves and grottoes without fantasizing about moving there and leaving the world behind forever.

I missed crossing the Colombian shoreline — by the time we reached South America, the clouds massed thick and richly textured, swirling as in pictures of Earth from space. However, the clouds cleared from time to time, and I could see the lush deep green below us. The sun had fallen low, so the mountain shadows could be seen, though only faintly through the thick air.

The approach to Medellin is spectacular. The city itself is high in the Andes, at about 7000 feet, and it is surrounded by lush green-clad mountains that make the Rockies look like foothills. Colorado boasts 14,000 foot peaks. The peaks of the Andes are more typically 17,000 or 18,000 feet, yet Colombia is pinned down on the north and west by coastlines. Medellin has one of those airports, like Hong Kong, that requires special piloting skills to approach. It also has a newer airport, where we arrived, that is not so difficult.

Our luggage did not arrive with us, but the airline did not leave us to wonder. An Avianca representative came searching for people whose luggage had not arrived, and took us to file the claim. They knew exactly where the luggage had ended up: it had not left Miami, because our incoming flight had been late, and would be on the next flight, to be delivered to us in the morning.

Arrival in Medellin

Papito, his brother Ricardo, Adrianna (Papito and Ricardo’s neice), and Jorges (one of Ricard’s sons) met us at the airport and then took us to eat and to tour the city at night.

Medellin at night reminded me in some ways of California summers at night. The roads are twisty and steep, the air balmy. Though we are at 7000 feet, the air has the soft, humid feel of the sea.

Marta and Papito

Medellin is situated in a valley that forms a bowl like a pair of cupped hands. The peaks to the east and to the west are steep and high, and the city climbs the slopes of the valley like a magical, luminescent lichen. Several steep hills sit within the bowl, including Cerro Nutibara, which is a combination park and museum that holds the oldest house in the city, nearly 300 years old. From any elevation in the city — and nearly every point seems elevated above something — the lights of the city float around us like a galaxy of stars. Even the skyscrapers do not tower above, as they do in so many cities, but instead float in space, at eye-level. If any city should be strung together with floating bridges and flying cars, this would be it.

They call it the City of Eternal Spring; it’s well-named. Nights plunge to a low of perhaps the mid-50’s, and days seldom rise above the mid-80’s, year-round. Breezes are gentle, and bird sing in the Eucalyptus trees. There are no mosquitos or other flying parasites at this altitude, so no screen or netting blocks the view from the windows and balconies. We slept with the window open last night, and the cool breeze soothed us.

PapitoPapitoThe restaurant last night was typical of Colombia — roofed, to keep off the rain, but open to the air. I had chorizo (smoked sausage), un plantano (fried plantain), una papa (a small baked potato), and una arepa (a flatbread made of corn). Everything has a different and delicious taste. They brought out a very spicy sauce, but the food itself was not spice-hot. The chorizo, in particular, tasted a bit like Polish sausage, but with a rich smoky flavor. Ricardo shared half his arepa, very different from mine, and I got a taste of Marta’s arepa, which I thought was the best of the three. All are corn flatbread, but are made with corn prepared differently. As a beverage I picked guanábana a leche — guanábana is a tropical fruit not available in our area, and it has a flavor that is somehow familiar and yet totally foreign. I have never been able to place the taste.

HowlersToday has dawned bright, warm, and dry. Adriana put us up for the night, and is cooking today: a lovely breakfast of eggs and arepas (different still), and is now cooking up a bit of a Colombian feast for us.

Day Zero

April 20, 2010

We begin our journey to Colombia today.

We discovered that with a 2-week or longer stay, it’s actually cheaper to spend the night in one of the airport hotels and leave the car in their lot. So we’ve left a day early. The result has been an extraordinarily mellow first day of travel.

We both had our hair cut today. It’s normally Barb’s day off, but she was a total sweetheart and fit us both in. We took our time cleaning up the house and packing — though Marta has been packed for several days — and got on the road by about 3:00 p.m. We stopped at the big Mall at 144th street, and had our dinner at the Rock Bottom Brewery. It’s now barely 8:00 p.m., and we’re snug in our hotel room, settling in for an early rise at 5:00 tomorrow.

We’ll be with Marta’s family for two full weeks, arriving the evening of Wed, April 21, and returning home the evening of Thursday, May 6.

The ease of travel in this decade never ceases to amaze me. A few hours’ flight will take us to Miami, Florida, and only three more hours will carry us across the Caribbean and deep into the tropical mountains of Colombia.

What a grueling adventure this would have been century ago! A horse-drawn carriage would have brought us to a train stop, and trains would have taken us east and eventually south, probably to New Orleans. There we would have caught a steamship that would have stopped at ports-of-call throughout the Caribbean until it at last put in somewhere on the northern coast of Colombia, perhaps Cartagena. According to at least one source on the web, Colombia has never had many trains, so we’d have taken carriages, carts, and burros all the way to Medellin, high in the mountains. The trip alone would have taken weeks in each direction. We could not have contemplated such a journey without devoting months to it.

Tomorrow, it will take us only eleven hours, most of that spent waiting in an airport.

The areas we will be visiting, along the line between Medellin and Cali, are on Central time (same as Chicago), so at least we won’t be coping with jet lag. We’ll be at high altitude the whole time: Medellin is around 7000 feet, and Cali is around 3000. Since it is now rainy season, temperatures are in the 80’s in the daytime, and drop to the 50’s at night, with daily rainstorms. Since temperatures in Fort Collins have only occasionally made it above the 50’s this last week, we’ll be feeling very tropical, while the locals will be bundling up and complaining of the cold. We arrive at Medellin, the City of Eternal Spring, and work our way south through the following days.

My Spanish is still ghastly, though Marta and I have been conversing very simply at dinner in Spanish to prepare me. I expect to mostly nod, smile, say “Por favor” and “Gracias” a lot, and occasionally shake my head and say, “No entiendo, la cabeza esta vacia… vacia… vacia….” I will probably omit the echo effects.

No photographs yet, though the first touch of green is furring the branches of the trees and the high plains are once again returning to life. To eyes that have been starved of the color green for months, it seems very beautiful. Colombia will be a shock.