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Medellin, Colombia – Paradise on Earth

“Never say anything bad about Medellin to a local here. They think it’s paradise on earth. And never say anything against the Catholic religion either. They think it’s the best religion on earth. Actually, the only religion.”

“Never say anything bad about Medellin to a local here. They think it’s paradise on earth. And never say anything against the Catholic religion either. They think it’s the best religion on earth. Actually, the only religion.”

I nodded at these words of my English friend, Robert, who had been living here in Colombia for three years and had offered to show me around. I followed him up the main street in the kind of blur that always accompanies someone who has arrived somewhere for the first time and cannot focus on anything. Everyone looked at us as we hauled my luggage up the hill and I tried to shrug off my paranoia under the dazzling Christmas lights. This was Colombia, after all and I had already lasted half an hour without being mugged, kidnapped or shot.

“It’s not even funny how much money they waste on all these Christmas lights.” Robert continued, “The streets are full of people without enough to eat, digging through bins and they’ve spent about $250,000 on little lights above the street. And we’re already into January.” We turned the corner and saw a mother huddled in a doorway with her two children slouched in despair in her lap.

The civil war in Colombia is one of the longest-running conflicts in the world and it’s mostly fought in the countryside. One day farmers wake up to find guerrillas armed to the teeth standing over them; a few are executed as an example, they’re chucked off their property with only what they can carry. They head for the city and try to scratch out a living however they can.

Medellin was the home of the infamous Pablo Escobar, a drug lord who rose from poverty in the sticks to being one of the richest men in the world, dominating the world markets of Colombia’s most famous export. And i’I’m not talking about coffee. Under his reign Medellin was a haven for small-time thugs, murderers and extortionists of every description. In this time the city gained the reputation as the most dangerous city in the world for its size. Pablo Escobar himself was eventually shot down and killed and subsequent vigilante gangs put pay to many of his assassins. Thus some five years later things have calmed down significantly and it’s now safe to walk most of the streets by day. It helps that the current president is from Medellin and it’s something of a matter of pride that public safety be maintained.

Still, you have to have a few screws loose to go wandering around after midnight and almost everyone will take a taxi back home after they’ve been out dancing and drinking. Even then they may note the number of the taxi – the driver could be in league with the criminals and drive them straight into a trap.

“I’ve only been mugged once in the three years I’ve been here.” Robert told me philosophically, “And it was my our own stupid fault – i was walking back home with my girlfriend and we were both utterly drunk. When you’re swaying about in the streets like that then you’re an easy target for an entrepreneur with a knife.”

But no one person can tell you how things are, I realised. Over the next few days i heard stories of people who weren’t carrying any money when the mugger jumped out at them and got stabbed as a reward. Someone else told me that a thief once let them keep enough money to catch the bus home. The compassionate criminal.

It was hard to get a notion of just how dangerous things are here. I met Colombians who take taxis absolutely everywhere. In daylight hours too.

“For the price of a dollar you don’t have to walk the streets in paranoia.” They shrugged.

And then there was the Australian guy, Lawrence, who seemed dead set on matching his machismo against his Latino counterparts.

“I walk anywhere, anytime.” He told me with a grin. “But i wouldn’t’t advise you to do the same. I can run like the wind and fight like an animal.” He recounted the last time his boasts had been put to the test; someone had jumped out at him armed with a big lump of wood. His assailant gave a whistle and his partner came running down the street to join the fray. Knowing he didn’t have a moment to lose, Lawrence pulled out his pen-knife and turned the tables by attacking his attacker. Such was their surprise that both guys ended up running away.

“I like to test myself.” He told me.

But why bother? I asked myself. For that matter why come to somewhere as dangerous as Colombia in the first place? Most of my friends had looked at me like I was a madman when i announced my intention to go. They probably even crossed me off their Christmas card lists.

The thing is that in my experience of traveling to out of the way places in the world, the image rarely meets the reality. Iran, Pakistan and Israel were all places with a scary reputation and each turned out to be the most interesting and friendly places i’ve ever been. Most of the people who scaremonger about such places have never actually been there themselves. I hoped Colombia might be another such hidden jewel.

“I teach English to a forensics doctor.” Robert told me the next morning. “She tells me that she sees twenty to thirty bodies brought in each night.” I was glad he told me this in the morning as we headed down to the market. On the way we were accosted by a vendor of home-made rum who had known Robert for some time. The man was in his forties and his fox-like expression contorted gleefully as he asked Robert:

“So, are you well or not? How’s your beautiful girlfriend? I bet you don’t find women like that in England! And there it’s cold, no? Here the climate is perfect. Look at the women! Look at the mountains! Let me tell you a secret, my friend,” He added, leaning closer, “Medellin – It’s called ‘Paradise’.

One might have imagined that he was trying to sell us something, perhaps a time-share villa in the suburbs. But no, he was just a vendor of vinegary alcohol with a tremendous pride of where he lived.

On one hand he was right. The people are friendly and the women are probably worth dying for (never a remote possibility in Medellin). But one wonders how so much violence and crime could exist in Eden. But then, every Paradise has it’s flaws.