Monday, 30 June 2014

Medellin (don't mention Pablo...)

A 16 hour bus journey to take us halfway down Colombia sounds horrific, considering that Colombia is about the same size as France, Spain, and Portugal combined, and not exactly lacking in mountainous terrain. But even though it became an 18 hour journey for no obvious reason, it was really rather pleasant.

The buses that will take you halfway across the country and beyond are generally very comfortable, some have wifi on board, most will show a (badly dubbed) film, usually violent and at full volume, and all will stop occasionally to allow random guys on selling ice creams, biscuits, crisps, and an assortment of tasteless local food.

In fact, probably the only issue with these buses is the average Colombians disregard for personal space. Watching the guy in front of us spill outwards from his seat in every possible direction and into other passengers kept us briefly entertained, moving CP to comment that the poor lady sat next to him ”doesn't know him from a bar of soap", while he is thrusting an arm across her face in a bid to find the most comfortable position.

We arrive, and negotiate our way through the city's metro system. We'd read that Medellinians (for some reason known as pasias?) are very proud of their shiny new (-ish) metro, and we quickly fall foul of the rules - no food or drink is to be consumed in the station, despite the entrepreneur outside selling bags of fruit. Luckily CP just inhaled all the grapes shed just brought from a man outside the metro station... sharing is caring?

Paying $1 for our metro journey, we make it to our hostel without too much trouble. Medellin (pronounced med-e-jin for those Spanish speakers amongst us) is a popular place and almost everyone we've met in and around Colombia has given us recommendations of places to stay before we got here - somehow we've ignored all of these tips, and when we launch ourselves through the security doors at the Palm Tree Hostel and claim beds in the dorm, CP is immediately making the suggestion that we stay one night only and then GTFO.

This doesn't stop her abusing the receptionists knowledge, or her English skills - apparently one of the concerns about our current lodging was that as our checkin process had been handled entirely in Spanish (go me!), the receptionist had mistakenly assumed that we were both proficient. This is clearly not the case, I can understand enough in context and form a reasonable if basic response, and CP... well I think CP is close to hanging up her Spanish shoes for good!

Once the receptionist realises this, and instantly switches in to more precisely pronounced English than us, CP is a lot happier - returning to the dorm with a glass of lemon infused water and a variety of maps and information. Most importantly the news that for $5 they will wash our now large bag of very dirty washing and return it to us folded and possibly ironed that afternoon.

With map in hand and a few key spots noted down from the Lonely Planet, it's all aboard for another famous RD walking tour, taking in all that downtown has to offer, as well as the occasional unscheduled stroll right through the centre of Dodge Town.

I'm on task to buy a new watch, of the dodgy fake variety, now that we've established that my unbreakable travel watch (that CP got me as a Christmas present) hasn't been seen since Leon, Nicaragua....oops....

The difficulty is that for some reason the guys selling these seem to think that the bigger and shitter looking the better, and also that just allowing me to browse in peace for 3 seconds might result in them missing a sale, so instead rush out to insist that they are all genuine, and best price, and try this massive blue monstrosity. Yes, you're right, it is my experience that genuine Tissot watches are sold from a dodgy wooden stall and come packaged in a little ziplock bag that previously held their sandwiches and/or a quantity of hardcore narcotics.

Despite CPs excitement that it's me that is being forced to peruse these stalls, she doesn't understand that it's very different to her bag buying exploits in Guatemala, where every item needed to be touched to discern that it was either too big, too small, too bright, too dull, too expensive, too cheap... I can instantly survey what is on offer and recognise that all of the options available to me are just "too shit" - and so our search will continue in the next city we visit.

Anyone that's been paying attention to the photos will have seen that my beard has been getting slightly out of hand - last trimmed to grade 2 a full month ago, it's been getting harder to keep clean, especially when a daily shower isn't guaranteed. Luckily we find a selection of barbers, and settle in for a £1 trim - the lady could do with charging a little more and investing in some new tools, but I now look less like a hobo so we can't complain.

As afternoon turns into evening, we board the metro in search of El Poblado, or as we can never remember it's name "the Pube-place". This is a lively area of the city with a cluster of bars, restaurants, where most backpackers will stay and blow their budgets on occasionally overpriced watered down "2 for 1" cocktails. We've read about this amazing mojito bar but can't remember the name or address, and as don't have the LP with us we're mostly looking for some cheap drinks and wifi to track it down.

So we buy some of those overpriced watered down margaritas and the barman gives us the wifi password for the bar next door... still no luck tracking down this mojito bar though so we concede defeat - there's a mass gathering of people in the park for a free music festival and a little shop selling beers for about £1 so we set up there and watch the world go by, before getting a taxi back to the hostel as CP has suffered an unknown foot injury which resulted in an inability to walk and even some held back tears when she thought I wasn't looking.

There's a birthday party at the hostel, and CP is loving the free rum and attention that limping through the middle of it generates. As the revellers head out to the nearby Latin party zone, we retire to our bunks - not before I've had chance to check the LP and discover that the awesome mojito bar we'd been out looking for is in an entirely different city. Oh how we laughed...

Breakfast is supplied by the hostel in the form of eggs that you cook yourself or cereal that you provide your own milk for. CP is still limping ("it's ok but it's not right...") so I'm dispatched to the supermarket to buy bacon to go with our eggs. As days of the week are mostly meaningless to us at the moment, I'm not aware that it's a Sunday and everything is closed. I see a few people heading up the stairs next to the supermarket and assume this must be an alternative route in. It's not, and I walk straight into a room packed with 200 people listening to a church service, and quickly exit... we'll just have to so without bacon today, although I do manage to find a bakery so we have croissants! Apparently CP is less excited than me...

We did a couple of good deeds today for the less fortunate of Medellin, the first one being me offering to purchase a homeless guy whatever pastry or pastries he wanted from the bakery as I got us our breakfast. He had a massive smile on his face when he realised that he could pick whatever he wanted! Over the course of our time in Medellin, we make sure that we buy fruit, ice cream and drinks from the poorest looking vendors (always refusing our change), we buy way more packets of little chewing gum from the poorest of people selling sweets from a wooden plank tied around their neck (often to much appreciation as our refusal of change and smile results in "god bless you", and even on occasion, CP getting her hands held and kissed...), RD brought a bracelet from a very skinny looking guy who looked like he'd not eaten for a week, and we brought some pastries and gave them to a homeless guy close to our hostel who was sorting his newspaper out for his bed as we passed.  We cannot do much to help alleviate all the poverty here, but we can do the little things, so we try in the little ways which ensures that we are not promotion begging, but helping the little micro economies that each individual creates in order to survive.

Today's plan is "the best aqua park in Medellin" (should that be the "only" aqua park in Medellin?), a cable car over the poorest barrios in the city, and a trip to the botanical gardens.

The old man getting out to physically push his bubble-car taxi forwards in the queue doesn't exactly scream "come jump in my cab, together we can see the world!", but we're on our way to Aquaparque Juan Pablo II, with it's flumes, zipline, wave pool, and everything else. Everything else could mean planes as it's next door to the airport, with the runway running parallel to the park.

Everything else could also mean insane rules, as we're quickly being shouted at by a street vendor that we can't go in without a strange cloth swimming cap. This is confirmed by the security guard at the front gate and we stump up a whole £1 each for our choice of coloured rags which some loon thinks are more hygienic than the horror of an exposed head of hair.

There's job creation everywhere - the security guard that taps the outside of your backpack to confirm that it's ok, 2 people to issue your ticket to get in, another to put your wristband on for you, there's no lockers - just a collection of people who will put your stuff in a numbered bag and then guard it for you, meaning that every time you want access to your towel, or wallet, or anything, you need to queue up while 2 people track down your stuff, then repeat the process to put it back again.

There's a lot of queuing involved, which considering Colombians don't know how to queue is a problem. You'll be waiting patiently in line, when a fat, sweaty, and hairy man wearing his hygienic rag cap and Lycra shorts will push through you to the front, which sets in motion a chain reaction of everyone trying to do the same.

Things get worse, as on the way to the lockers we discover that the watersplash zipline is closed for maintenance, no sunscreen is allowed, you can't take a towel poolside, and most importantly, board shorts are not acceptable. I'm told this as I'm about to launch down the waterslide and I'm not amused. There's a guy walking along gobbing into the walkway, you have to cover your head with a piece of cloth bought from a homeless guy outside, kids are definitely peeing in the wave pool,  and used toilet paper still goes in a little bin next to the toilet - but board shorts are unhygienic? Really? The same homeless guy was selling some equally skody swimwear outside but luckily there's a "souvenir shop" in the park selling hot pants for men so I'm saved that ordeal. Nevertheless, it's not a good look.

Finally we're fully equipped and the supervised fun can begin, and despite everything mentioned above, it really is a lot of fun, and our time is divided between the water slides and the chill out area above the wave pool.

When we're ready to leave, we study our tourist map and decide that we can walk to the nearest metro station. We should have learnt yesterday that the scale on the map is slightly unusual, but we eventually get there and jump on the train to the Botanical Gardens. LP describes this as "fabulous gardens covering 14 hectares and showcasing 600 species of trees and plants, a lake, auditorium, and a butterfly enclosure". Maybe we've been spoilt with our wildlife spotting up to now, but after an hour of walking round we'd seen a tortoise, the sloth that lives there remained hidden, and as hunger was setting in we decided to hit up the food stalls near the entrance and head to our final tourist spot of the day.

LP recommends taking the San Javier line cable car, "which offers spectacular views, but complete a full loop and don't get out en route as it passes over some of Medellin's roughest barrios". This is basically free to do, as for the price of one metro ticket ($1) we're able to get the metro from the gardens to San Javier, connect up to the cable car, ride a full loop, and the metro back home again. 3 million people live in Medellin, and riding the cable car it looks like most of them live in the shanty towns on the hill. Tiny houses, mostly packs so close together, with a few bricks or discarded householditems to hold the corrugated iron roofs in place.

Most of the people in the cable cars are tourists of one kind or another, at least during the day, so you have this great piece of transport infrastructure basically being used for voyeurs like us to get a view over the other side of the city. It seems tailor made for an enterprising local to ride the cable car and give guided tours of the barrios, but this isn't happening yet...

Tonight CPs foot has made a full recovery, so we head out from our hostel to the nearby Latin street. It's still early as we walk along, but it's clear that later on this will become a hive of activity, and we set about choosing one of the many street vendors on offer for our dinner. These are bigger structures than we've seen in other cities but still essentially giant trolleys that can be moved to/from the street in no time at all.

We choose one that seems to be most popular with the locals and it's a great pick - the restauranteur is a full of life Brazilian who does a huge double take when he realises there's a couple of gringos at his stall, and in the absence of a menu we choose our food based on "what that guy just got!" - an enormous plate of meats that have been freshly cooked up right in front of us. While we wait we're each given a plastic glove - apparently this can get pretty messy - then it arrives... and wow!

Meanwhile another stall has set up nearby as a little bar, so we're sat with the locals eating his feast and listening to some funky Latin music while sipping on a juice. After this we walk a little further, then head for home as CP has big plans for tomorrow...

This morning begins with epic bacon and egg sandwiches - essential as this will be a big day. We're going paragliding, CPs excited, I'm nonplussed, but we're doing it! It costs $50 here vs apparently anything up to $300 in "developed" countries, and I'm hoping this isn't reflected in the safety of this activity - as a 12 year old kid fits my safety harness.

Medellin sits at 1600m, and we essentially run off a hillside at 2,300m, and within a couple of minutes CP is cruising around in the clouds at 2,950m. My guy takes a slightly less drastic approach to this as we float up through the thermals listening to a bit of Coldplay from his iPod.

We're above the birds, and as I look into the distance there's a plane taking off from way below us and we give a little wave... down below us now, CPs pilot is performing "manoeuvres", tight spirals downwards executed by deliberately collapsing the canopy a little. And it looks mental. "Ah your chica!" says my pilot, "and you?" errrrrrrm... "suave" (gentle) - yeah I'm happy with that! And we drop like a stone towards the ground while spinning. That was heart in mouth stuff for me, so CPs efforts must have been pretty severe!

We pick up the thermals again and cruise back up to sensible levels before coming in for an ultra smooth landing where the kids quickly unclip us and ready the kit for the next people.

There's time for a quick photo to prove that we've both survived, before CP needs to excuse herself for a couple of minutes.

She returns with the line "I enjoyed it... but I need to chew my food more".

A post about Medellin cannot be complete without a mention of arguably Colombia's most famous (former) citizen, Pablo Escobar. In the 1990s, the city was the centre of the worldwide cocaine trade with motorbike riding sicarios (hitmen) carrying out gangland hits for the city's most notorious son, the drug lord who was once so rich and "successful" that he offered to pay off all of Colombia's foreign debt, paid his hitmen $1,000 for every policeman that they killed, and got himself elected to congress. The city was a no go area for foreigners until he was gunned down by a joint US and Colombian security force in 1993 with his bodyguard while attempting to escape over rooftops. He was (and apparently still is) very popular with some because of his generosity to the poor.

We'd heard that there are two Escobar tours that you can do, one of which used to end with a talk by his brother - but that had to stop as he began to describe Pablo as a hero which is at odds with the rest of the modern view of him. Neither tour is advertised as the residents are not proud of his exploits, and our hostel told us that the guy that runs the other tour is in Brazil watching some football tournament... very inconsiderate, but after a couple of days here we've done enough, and don't have much desire to look at an old roof where someone was shot over 20 years ago.

And with that, we finished our short stay in Medellin - next up, onto the bus terminus to get ourselves to Salento, a little town in the heart of Colombia's coffee region... with Colombia so famous for its coffee, could we be on the verge of the first decent cup of joe since we got here??

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