Every morning, after some form of eggs (because eggs are plentiful, healthy and I can cook them with the meager selection of tools available in my rental kitchen) and tropical fruit (to remind us all why we’re here), we walk a kilometer and a half from our apartment to Ana’s apartment, where we leave our kids to study with her. First, we navigate out of our poor-man’s-Club-Med apartment complex with its four 18-story apartment buildings, pool, tiny gym (allegedly open 4-10pm but closed for “vacation” all week, making us wonder how much rest a Stairmaster needs), lush park of 8-story trees, a well-tended shrine to Mary and little-kids soccer/basketball field. We say “Hasta luego” to Tao, our doorman/gate attendant who scrupulously interrogates all comers yet laughs uproariously and shouts greetings every time he sees us. This has been our doorman experience so far; no one seems to find us a threat, just inexplicably entertaining.
Complexes like ours are heavily featured in our section of town — right on the border of Medellin proper and neighboring Envigado. All are ringed with tall walls or fences, mostly aesthetically-pleasing but all communicating a very clear safety-first message through the barbed and razor wire frosting along the top. I expected it to feel threatening, like there was an evil world to be kept at bay, but it’s hard to feel that way when the streets are full of joggers and women walking tiny dogs, and most people we pass greet us with a “Buenas!” only slightly less chipper than Tao’s.
Ana, our children’s professora teaches at EAFIT, the big university in Medellin, but they are on break right now. She is young and expressive and they play Monopoly in Spanish and sing silly songs and go on field trips where they read license plate numbers, taste strange fruits and ice creams, and ask strangers what time it is. Obviously my kids are both huge fans. After a breezy “Hasta la una [See you at 1]” to Ana’s doorman (like we know what we’re doing), Eric and I continue on to the El Dorado Cultural Center around the corner where Robinson (Colombian despite his name) and his Polish wife Ava run a new language school focused primarily on teaching English to Colombians and secondarily on teaching English to Eric and me, as we seem to currently be their only Spanish students. In stereotypical ex-pat relationship-fashion, they met in Turkey teaching English, moved to Poland to start a school there, had a baby and moved to Colombia last year to open a second branch. Their four-year-old daughter Victoria can sing “Let It Go” in both Spanish and Polish and enjoys telling us where to sit and what we can drink. Sometimes our Spanish lessons starts within half an hour of the time we arranged; sometimes not.
Promptly at 1pm (Ana doesn’t seem to keep Colombian time), we return to get the kids and try a new restaurant. We order the menu del dia and choose arbitrarily when asked to make a choice. It’s week 1, so sometimes we’re not even sure whether the options listed are meats or juices. After lunch, we either “run errands” (search for a soccer ball, por ejemplo, or a serrated knife, or see what it takes to get a library card — all activities that take an hour or more with our current fluency) or simply retrace our steps up El Poblado and retreat to the safety of our apartment for awhile, to read or check email. About 4:30pm, the kids gather on the balcony to decide whether it feels safer to go down to the pool, or the soccer field. Their apparent criteria is a complex algorithm of the age, number and perceived friendliness of the children at each. Jack has promised to make friends during week 2, but for now, I’m letting them choose the safety of the less-well-attended option. Other afternoon activities have included exciting time-suckers like figuring out our washing machine, buying groceries and learning to cook Antioquian beans (the local specialty) from the back of the bag. In Spanish.
All of this takes place in Envigado, the Cambridge to Medellin’s Boston, it’s Brooklyn to Medellin’s Manhattan. Pablo Escobar was from Envigado. He did many, many horrible things as kingpin of the Medellin drug cartel, but he loved his hometown and showered money and attention on it. The main road, El Poblado, starts in Medellin lined with car dealerships and international corporations’ office buildings, but when it reaches Envigado, it mellows into a four-lane road divided by a huge line of trees, making a shady green tunnel. The whole area is crisscrossed with tree-lined roads and riddled with parks. The Envigado library is a massive modernist structure. Central Envigado has a small walking district with a plaza and the requisite church, ringed with small shops and panaderias (bakeries) and bodegas (although they don’t call them that) selling everything from soccer balls to wrapping paper. The whole effect is very old-school European.
I’m embarrassed by how Medellin has surprised me. Even after our research, I was expecting a very second-world place, sort of like Thailand or maybe Jordan, where rules aren’t really rules, nothing seems familiar and the poverty is highly visible. But, here, the grocery store near our house looks just like an un-renovated Vons, minus the frozen food aisle and with the addition of a disconcerting array of beans and exotic tropical fruits. The next grocery store down is almost Whole Foods, selling pesto and Barilla pasta. Downstairs from our language school is a line of restaurants: Mexican, Italian, a salad bar. Yesterday, we even discovered Colombian Target — called Exito — where we could buy Levis, Converse, televisions, kitchen gadgets and bedding. It actually made the two-story Target in Mission Valley look a bit quaint.
The one exception to all this first-world-ness are the roads. They are clogged with wildly-painted half-size buses and thousands of motorbikes, plus a heavy smattering of spotless but tiny Kia taxis and late-model, smallest-version Suzukis, Renaults and Hyundais. The road rules here remind of Naples. Namely, there are rules, it seems, but possibly not the ones that are posted on the road. Stopping — in any context — seems to be discretionary. Sometimes drivers stop for pedestrians, even when the car has a green light, unless they speed up. Moto drivers all wear helmets, but sometimes perched precariously on top of their head instead of pulled down in place. Mostly, drivers stick with lane lines, until they don’t. The only time I’ve seen a turn signal in use was a left blinker to indicate that our taxi should pass on the left. Or at least that’s how our taxi driver interpreted it. Our Spanish teacher jokes that they hand out drivers’ licenses at the grocery store as a promotion: buy a second liter of milk and get a drivers license free!
Por eso [because of that], it only took four days in Colombia for one of us to get hit by a car. Luckily, it was Eric, who was larger than the car, and the driver was pulling out of an alley from a dead stop, so no one has yet broken Rule #1 of this trip: stay ignorant about Colombian medical care. It seemed safe to pass the driver since the traffic along the road had approximately six-inch gaps between bumpers, so how could he pull out, right? Apparently, he saw a gap we didn’t. Eric pulled a nice Spiderman, hood-leap action and was totally fine, but it did draw even more attention to our otherness.
Because as lovely and friendly and developed as this region is, we are most assuredly out of place. Everyone’s head swivels when we speak English. And so far, in five days, I’ve seen only two groups in the street that weren’t Colombian: reddish blond hair, inordinate Dutch-like size, and/or Berkinstocks were the tells. There have been others, I’m sure, that I didn’t recognize, because Colombians seem to come in every shape, size and color — except pale and blond. Eric could pass, if he wore long pants, but the rest of us glow a little too bright, and — this week — stick a little too closely to each other to blend in.
(On a related note, Medellin was #11 on NYT’s 52 places to visit in 2015. Read it here.)