*This piece was written in 2007. Has Colombia changed much in the last few years?
The trouble with writing about all the danger, the drug abuse and the misery produced by the war is that it makes Medellin sound like a terrible place. Make no mistake, Colombia is one of the most violent countries in the world, steeped in a civil war that stopped making any kind of sense years ago. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great place to visit.
Life is just so subjective that we find beauty blending with destruction, humour and suffering walking hand in hand along the street. As a writer, the extent of social chaos in this country is less depressing to me than outright fascinating. I don’t feel any choice but to write about the ugly stuff. We can learn as much about the human condition in its fall from grace as in its shining hour.
A dollar goes a hell of along a way in Medellin due to the appalling exchange rate with the dollar but although there are thousands living hand to mouth, the city doesn’t feel poor. Most people have a reasonable education, the streets and buildings are in good condition in most of the city, the tap water is drinkable without being flooded with chloride and there are universities everywhere. Not what you might expect for a country that’s been at war with itself for more than fifty years.
The street air is thick with shouts and cries but tourists are so rare here that no one bothers you as you walk through the heady atmosphere, absorbing the life of the city. Blind men selling lottery tickets call out the lucky numbers they have for sale, small crowds form around the men who are demonstrating their revolutionary automatic screwdrivers and beautiful girls smile at you as they slip a leaflet into your hand:
“Mystic Lucy reads your future and saves you from evil spirits!
Instantly solve any problem of work, love, money or soul!
Also cures cancer, impotence, tuberculosis and acne!”
So yes, hope remains one of the world’s most popular commodities. It reminds me of the mystic soaps I saw in a gaudy natural medicine shop – one of the packets was covered with hearts and the other with dollar signs. Presumably by washing with the esoteric soap good things would magically come your way.
Being a writer is a good excuse to hang around the streets all day doing nothing, watching the life go by in search of more material. One of my favourite places to sit and people-watch is in the Botero Park which is filled with statues of the sculptor of the same name. Botero specializes in sculptures of the absurdly obese, buttocks and bellies and breasts spilling over in black marble. His work is beautiful because it doesn’t try to hide anything. His fat cats and dogs and businessmen pout in self-important poses and i feel sure that Botero must also be an avid people watcher.
A security van has pulled up to take delivery of the returns of a local arts centre. Two men the size of wardrobes lumber and swagger around in exaggerated Rambo postures, their shot guns pointing straight ahead as another guy dashes out with a suitcase handcuffed to his wrist to collect the cash. As funny as it is to watch them play soldiers, I know that they have good reason to be cautious.
Many of the middle class of the city never venture into these parts but I find myself drawn to the sleazier streets south of the park in search of stories. I pass the dark-lit cafes playing cheesy disco tunes at mid-day and arrive at one of the oldest churches in Medellin. The front facade is of a rough, brown stone and is mounted by three huge iron bells. The strange part is that drifting around and leaning against the walls of the House of God in the biggest congregation of working girls in the city.
It seems to fit the incongruity of the scene that a troupe of shaven-headed song and dance men come bouncing onto the scene. It’s the Hari Krishnas. They seem like the only happy people here as they urge everyone to forget all their worries and chant one of the many names of God. Hare Krishna Krishna Hare Rama. Free entertainment always goes down well and though they may not have made any converts today, they’ve certainly cheered everyone up.
My smile falls as flat as a chapatti as i turn the corner and see a boy no older than 9 curled up naked in the gutter. His eyes are wide open but i doubt he sees me. He’s clutching a bag of glue to his mouth as though it were the breast of his absent mother. The fumes distort his senses to the extent that he becomes a stranger to this world. I doubt that he misses it very much.
But this is a city and so we all walk past and let it become just one of the day’s memories that we try not to remember. Millions of lives bustle past each in the streets of the city each moment. The laughter, the sorrow, the joy and the pain all merge together as a day in the life of Medellin.
Sure, there will be people injecting themselves with alcohol tonight to save themselves the trouble of drinking it. Sure, there will be people scattered on the side walk in the morning, a stone slab for a pillow and passed out cold like casualties of the night. But at the same time there will be people falling in love in the park, children will be learning their first words as their mothers drag them proudly around the shopping malls and the full moon will rise above the forgotten neighbourhoods to make us all gulp with awe.
That’s the life of the city. Human life in concentrate. And like most peoples of war-torn countries where death is never far away, Colombians live for the moment and enjoy it as much as they can.
And they’re happy that you came. They want the world to know that they’re not a nation of ignorant criminals and they make you feel as welcome as they can. Every time I go to the market it takes me an hour to do my shopping; the vendors always want to show me all the fruits and vegetables that they can proudly claim to be exclusively Colombian.
I meet some friends for a few drinks and by the time I head home it’s getting late. I walk in the gutter, away from the doorways where someone could be waiting with a knife. A bus pulls past and I’m given my last laugh of the day. Two teenagers on skateboards are holding onto the back bumper for a free ride.