Once the most dangerous city in the world.
Medellin is a city with a small town feeling to it. The outlying neighbourhoods climb the slopes on each side of the valley basin and when I get lost at night their lights help me find my way, glittering beacons in the dark.
That’s about as beautiful as these areas get though as they are also the poorest neighbourhoods where i’m repeatedly warned not to visit. The poorest families live up there and the refugees from the civil war, taking over whatever piece of land they can and erecting primitive huts. They barely have electric and the police never set foot in those lanes. Crime and poverty walk side by side in this part of the world and the muggers descend at night to wait on a dark corner with a knife. It’s best to walk on the brightly-lit streets.
In my first few days here the entire city felt something like a giant snakes and ladders board. People kept telling me that where we were sitting was perfectly safe but that just one block to the north or the other side of the street or the bar next door were all hazardous for one’s health. It all seemed so arbitrary.
After a week or so though i began to develop the city sixth sense of knowing intuitively when I’d stumbled into a bad neighbourhood; those streets appear to me now with a woeful, neglected look where no one bothered to pick up the trash in the gutter; people slouch more than they stand, stumble more than they walk; and the only places of commerce are either seedy joints with dim lighting and too many women sitting at the tables or else grocery stores where business is conducted through barred gates.
Generally speaking it’s only between 12pm and 3am that there’s much cause to feel scared in Medellin. That’s when all the scarred, wounded souls take reign of the streets and enact their sad, violent dramas of the night hours. By 4am people are already heading out to work and walking their dogs. I know because I almost got attacked by a pack of them as I wandered home last week, imagining that the streets were now safe. Luckily dogs in Colombia also respond to the age-old trick of pretending to stoop down to the ground in search of a stone. They backed off, snarling and barking.
Still, as far as i’m concerned the principal danger in Colombia are the taxis. There’s this understanding that the responsibility of avoiding them as they speed towards you is entirely in your hands. Their part of the unspoken contract is that without fail they will never slow down if you should be dim enough to get in their way. On my very first night in the city I ihad to throw myself into a bush to avoid a taxi that hadn’t bothered to turn on his lights yet. It was 9pm.
“They don’t stop for anyone,” My English friend, Robert told me, helping me up, “They wouldn’t slow down if the Pope was in their way.” This is one of the few countries in the world where people look actually scared before they cross the road. I read the panic in their faces and wonder why no one is selling pedestrian crossing insurance.
I mean, it’s not like the Colombians are exactly slouches when it comes to entrepreneurial activity. The city is full of refugees displaced from the fighting in the countryside. In their efforts to make a living anything and everything is for sale. Small kids hit you up ten times a day to buy their sweets (am i the only one who sees the irony of that?), adolescents do the rounds of the bars with trays of cigarettes and snacks and the streets are full of every kind of artisan vending home made necklaces and bracelets.
But that’s all run of the mill. Here people sell things that you would never have imagined. People come up to you with packets of coloured pencils for sale while you’re drinking soup. I saw someone in a bar trying to sell some teenagers a pram and an umbrella with only half the spokes missing. One guy even came into a cafe the other day and announced that he was selling garden earth. Go figure.
On one hand it seems to me noble and admirable that people have so much self-respect that they’ll find work, any kind of work to make a living. Of course there are also a mountain of people who just hold out their hand in front of you but the last thing they’d ever use the money for is food.
Appearances are as deceptive here as anywhere though as I learnt sat at a table in a bar the other night with two new friends. All of a sudden our conversation was interrupted by a wave of men selling roses and kids peddling lollipops. We brushed them off politely, wished them luck and continued our chat. A moment later my friends leaped out of their chairs and bolted towards the doors. They mooched back a few moments later with long looks on their faces.
“They stole my mobile phone. I don’t believe it. That’s the third time this year.” My friend sighed, trying to think how many important telephone numbers he’d lost. “The thing is, you see these kids and you think they’ve had a rough time so you feel sorry for them – but they work in teams and rob you blind before you know what’s going on.” He’d just finished speaking when his girlfriend realized that they’d made off with her handbag also.
They have this expression in Colombia about ‘giving papaya’, literally a sweet melon-like fruit. If you ‘give papaya’ it means that you let others take advantage of you. Someone told me that there are two laws:
1: Never give papaya.
2: If you do, everyone will damn well take it.
It’s easy to be wise on paper but few people can be on their guard all the time. My friend Robert has lived here for three years. But the other day some petty gangster approached him in the street with a camera for sale at 10% of the retail cost – he imagined that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and as he had just been paid that day he handed over the cash. Excited by his good luck. Robert took his new purchase into the light to play with the complicated dials of flashing red lights.
I watched his face turn slowly red as moment by moment it dawned on him that he’s just blown a day’s wages on a plastic toy for kids. He turned around to complain but the papaya had already been taken and was now long gone.