At your service, my queen
Colombia: Medellin and the Art of Reinvention
“Why did you choose Medellin?” Roberto asks me, and for a moment I struggle to find a simple, safe answer that I can hide my true emotions behind. But Roberto is different. I barely know him, but I can tell he has a good heart. I trust my instincts that I can be vulnerable with him and that my real reason will be safe with him: I chose Medellin because in this place where everyone over age 30 has a story about relatives killed, kidnapped, or turned into soldiers on either side of the drug war, at its heart this city is a story of hope, rebirth and possibility. At this moment I am in the first steps of a painful and scary personal reinvention and transformation, and Medellin shrugs this off with a “been there and done that” attitude she wears proudly. I like that swagger. I could use some myself. It’s the perfect place for me to start my journey.
“Banano banano aguacate,” I hear from the open window of the apartment I am renting in the Estadio/Laureles neighborhood of Medellin. It is almost impossible for me to imagine that just a few weeks ago I was a married woman with a beautiful home in San Francisco. It is even harder for me to imagine the fear this vendor of bananas and avocados must have had peddling his cart 30 years ago down what is now a calm residential street.
The Medellin of the 1980’s and 1990’s was a war zone, with bombings, assassinations and kidnappings a daily occurrence as drug cartels battled for turf. The Medellin I see today is a smooth integration of all of its parts: its tall green mountains, its crowded central district, the touristy El Poblado area, and even the poor barrios up the mountainsides that are still run by gangs. There is no one thing like the Golden Gate Bridge or New York City skyline or Eiffel tower that immediately grabs you, but like so many of us humans, it is the sum of Medellin’s collective parts that makes it special and unique. Like the city itself, her people, who call themselves Paisas, are an eclectic blend of skin color, shapes, sizes and economic status.
The glue that holds them together is love. I have never seen so much love, displayed so openly and proudly, as I do every day in Medellin. A man kisses the top of his teenage son’s head (and the son hugs him back). A boy rushes into the Metro to save a seat for his elderly abuela, then sits on her lap while she rests her head on his back with her arms around him. A mother and teenage daughter hold hands while they walk down the street. Tonight on the Metro I made a bet with myself about how long it would take for someone to give up their seat for the man with a baby in his arms. I won: it took less than 30 seconds. This unashamed display of love is beautiful to watch and it’s one of the first things about this culture that captured my heart; I feel cradled by Medellin’s love as I go through my own rebirth.
Everywhere I turn there’s music playing. Sometimes it’s reggaeton, other times salsa or rumba, and still others champeta or the vallenato beat of the Caribbean. There is a sensuality in this country that feels like home to me, and it shows up even in this landlocked city. Paisas are dancers, and they are good. And in true Paisa style, they are generous. Medellin’s women, so confident in themselves and their worth, think nothing of shoving me onto the dance floor with their men. I have never experienced anything like it anywhere in the world.
The people of Medellin are also ambitious and hard working. There is an economic divide here, but there is also plenty of evidence of commercial opportunity for all: the women sewing clothing on the top floor of a factory that I see from the moving Metro; the young men selling fresh strawberries to restaurant patrons; the old men pushing carts of tinto, sweet Colombian coffee. There is a loose definition of “legal vendor” that serves the both the economically challenged portion of society and the government agency that calculates unemployment.
And then there are the street food vendors. Fast, cheap, delicious food is available almost everywhere in the city, especially at night. For less than one US dollar you can fill up on buñuelos, papas rellenas, empanadas and arepas. A few more dollars buys you an enormous plate of ribs and pulled pork. All of it is served with a warm smile and “con gusto,” the national response to “gracias” which means “with pleasure” — so symbolic of how these people live in Medellin.
The pride and joy of Medellin, though, is its Metro system. Serving nearly half a million people each day, the Metro integrates the north and south ends of the city on the A line and links to the west on the B line. There are also three Metrocable lines, which are gondolas that connect up to the poorest barrios up on the steepest hills. I find it symbolic that the Metro was built aboveground, in the light, because Medellin’s Metro system stands as a symbol of the city’s transition out of darkness: safely operating a system of this magnitude would have been impossible in the days of the cartel wars. It is the only metro system in the country, and Paisas are rightly proud of it.
I came to Medellin thinking I needed months of solitude to figure out who I am. After less than two weeks of Paisas engaging with me at every opportunity, I’ve discovered I know exactly who I am. Medellin transformed herself into a culture of joy, love and possibility. Perhaps I am doing the same here. Besides, I don’t know anywhere else in the world that I can hear a dozen times a day, “a la orden, mi reina” (“at your service, my queen”). Who doesn’t want to hear that?