Feb 15, 2018

Medellin Transformations - The Phoenix from the Fire

Today I took a tour worth taking. The owner of my hostel, Yolo International Hostel Medellin, Federico, is a guy with an interesting history in this town - and he takes people on the transformations tour, which tells his own story. And through that, it tells of the history and present day of Medellin - of the city’s rise from abject misery and danger to a relatively safe modern city.
Ok - the ”big man” of Medellin features in the tour and in this post - and how could he not, since the ups and downs of the city are closely connected to this man’s actions. But Federico did not really want to talk more than necessary about Pablo Escobar, since the man was toxic to the whole country, but especially this city. The tour is about the rise of neighbourhoods, the people in the city and the past and present. Also: all the proceeds of the tour are donated to the Children of Colombia foundation! So all for a good cause and off we went. 

Basically and cutting many corners, here’s what went down. A very brief history: Medellin was a smallish coffee growing town in the 70’s. The international drugs business at the time was mainly run through Chile. Then Pinochet cracked down on the drug lords, killed a whole bunch of them and caused many of the rest to flee the country. Many of them fled to Colombia. In Medellin at the time, a very ambitious young man of humble origins was making a name for himself smuggling cheap booze and cigarrettes into the country. The drug lords approached him about running a little cocaine for them. However, the man - Pablo of course - was unimpressed with the offer and immediately realized the huge potential of the business. So he got a few cronies together and they set up a huuuuge cocaine factory themselves, leaving the Chileans out of the picture. That was the beginning. 

What about the rest of Medellin? For the next several years and until the late eighties, business was good and Medellin was a very safe place to grow up as a child up. Escobar certainly wasn’t hiding as this ”house” he built for himself shows. It used to have a big text ”Escobar” on the side - still slightly visible in the dirt though not in the photo. (The house will be pulled down within the year to make a memorial park for Escobar’s victims). 
Our host Federico went to school with Pablo’s son, Pablo Jr, and played in the same sports team. They apparently sucked, but kept winning matches, since nobody wanted to be responsible for Pablo losing. This house was also where the young Federico was invited a few times by Pablo Jr to eat pizza and bicycle around in the countryside - which is what the Poblita area - now the most exclusive and expensive part of town - still was in the late 80’s.

During this time, Pablo Sr became ridiculously wealthy making billions - in US dollars cash - stashed away left right and centre around properties in Medellin. ”Officially” nobody knew where the money came from. It was claimed he got it selling cows (don’t laugh, it was apparently big business at the time). 

On the tour we drove through many parts of town. Some showed what the city was like in the 80’s, when it was still quite small. Back then there were no high rise builidng in town - only one or two story houses with little gardens in the front for the richer people and more humble shacks for the poorer people. Whatever else Escobar did, the city certainly grew during the heyday of his activity. Also a lot of people - even ones not directly working in the drugs industry - were making serious money via Pablo: accountants, layers, architecs, engineers... As Federico said: some rich people in Medellin are very happy to tell you how they made their second million. They don’t want to say how they made their first.

However, things took a nasty turn. A young member of the rival Cali drug cartel thought to make a name for himself and planted a car bomb in front of Escobar’s house. Pablo’s daughter lost hearing in one ear from the blast. This is when Escobar, a loving father, went, to put it mildly, bat-shit-crazy. The resulting carnage and retaliation spree the following years saw loads of drug stores around town owned by the Cali cartel blown up - with quite a few unfortunate customers inside them. Policemen also became major targets as did judges, politicians, other rivals... Things got very bad for the people of Medellin. A curfew was put in place and for several years no-one could leave the house between 7pm and 7am.

The next change in the fortunes of the city happened in 1991, when Escobar, who at the time had been a wanted man for several years, agreed to surrender to the Colombian government on condition that he could build his own prison, choose where to build it, it would be manned only by his own people and the police, army (or anyone else for that matter) could come there only with his permission. Oh, and he could leave it whenever he wanted - by car or helicopter. Seems like a fair deal, right? And indeed the deal was struck. 
So with the police and army now protecting him from the revenge of the Cali cartell, Palbo was free to continue his lucrative trade in his hilltop mansion, la Catedral, a mountaintop villa with great views over Medlling (see above - helicopter pad visible), complete with a football pitch, huge casino and an outdoor jaccuzzi, which had a good view of Medellin airport so that Pablo could monitor his drug planes coming and going. He did, however, compromise and stop the bloodbath so the city had a much wanted reprieve for a while and life became good again for the average Medellin citizen. However, reports of Pablo’s continuing criminal activities made the government decide to move him to a conventional prison. Pablo heard of the plan through his moles and made a well-timed escape, spending what remained of his life fleeing the police.

Things for the locals got messy again - until 1993, when Pablo Escobar was finally shot (or shot himself while fleeing the police over rooftops, when he  saw he couldn’t get away from the police this time). Then things got positively awful for the citizens! 
The king was dead and there was no clear heir to the throne. A full time war between different fractions started and life became more dangerous than ever. Also the active kidnapping for ransome of Medellin’s upper and middle classes began. Federico himself was kidnapped for 18 hours at the age of 17. After this experience our host, as many, many others from Medellin, decided to move abroad. A ten year stretch in London followed, when every call to his family started with the question ”is everyone still alive?”. 
On the tour we also visited area 13, which until 2002 was a definite no go zone. Notorious as the place where the kidnapping victims were usually held. 
Then things changed. 2002 a new president increased the army and police force and came down with a vengeance on Medellin - starting with a three day ”cleanup” of area 13. In practice, there was a long list of names - the wrong doers, drug trafficers, kidnappers - and if your name was on the list, you were killed. Not captured, not prosecuted and imprisoned, but killed. A very brutal justice with many innocent bystanders, but the end result was... well, it worked. Now area 13 is coming alive again, the houses are painted, shop owners have started businesses, escalators have replaced the endless stairs of the hillside area and the lifeline is a wide and curving pathway full of graffiti that connects the whole area. 
Indeed graffiti art plays a key role in the process, where the empowerment of the people and installing a sense of pride in their neighbourhood have been the key aims. Below is one artists version of the government crackdown on area 13: the grey fist of the law enforcement cracking down on the grey and dull area - afterwards the city bursts into colour, flowers and life in the painting.
However, some areas and forces still resist Medellin’s transformation. We also drove through the one neighbourhood still actively dealing drugs - but the police aren’t doing anything about it. On all the street corners there were ”watchers”, people working for the drug bosses, who monitor what’s going on in the area and maintain the peace. This is indeed a very ”safe” neighbourhood, since the people in the drug industry do not want police presence in the area. So they make sure no mobile is pinched and no noses are punched in this neighbourhood. 

However, a truly ingenious government project saw a huge and sports park built just besides this neighbourhood. A swimming pool, football and basketball fields, running track, tennis - and all free. The idea is to give the children something better to do with their time, than to hang around people dealing drugs. A vision of the future even the drug lords approve of, since apparently there is a strict ban on anyone dealing drugs in the sports park.

There is still work to be done, but the transformation from 2002 is nothing short of spectacular and quite unique. And I have to say the municipality and government have done many many things just right! Things such as the sports park, free wifi in public parks, the graffiti road and the teleferico (cablemetro) system build to connect the poorest and most dangerous neighbourhoods of the city to the metro system and so allow the residents to find honest work in the city with reasonable commuting times.

So much changed in and after 2002, that many Paisas (as the people of Medellin are called) returned from exile to their native city - as did Federico in 2006. These returned immigrants, for their part, used the skills and education they got abroad to make the city come alive and invested the money they made abroad into it. Federico, who was living on the streets for the first month of his stay in London worked his way up from cleaner to hotel manager in London and now has his own hostel here in Medellin - and is a member of the foundation for the Children of Colombia. 
This city has a truly nice vibe and feels and apparently is safer than Bogota. A lovely story of the rise of a city from an incredibly bad place to one, where the future looks bright - and good urban projects have played a big part in this. 
Gracias Fedi.

(Posted with permission from Fedi)

Feb 14, 2018

See Cartagena and Leave

Well, I supposet it’s unavoidable: Cartagena.
Key words: colonial, tourist, hot, very pretty, gourmet food. Though less of the latter in my case. I did, however, eat the best meal of the trip (so far). Though originally a Peruvian delicacy, good ceviche is a beautiful thing wherever it’s eaten. The shrimp, squid and octopus ceviche portion ”la bomba” (the bomb, or the petrol station: Take your pick.) was a killer! Served at The Blue Lagoon, a hole in the wall cevicheria featuring pictures of the young Brooke Shields in the movie of the same name. Good things sometimes come in humble packages. The restaurant that is, not young Brooke.
Aaaand, right back to Cartagena.
The city is touted to be the pretties colonial town in South America. Other contestants are Cusco in Peru and some place in Brazil that I haven’t been to. Cusco’s main square is more impressive and there are still some pre-colonial buildings of the Inca standing, but Cartagena is by the sea, more colourful, much larger and enclosed by nearly perfectly preserved early 17th century walls. (Damned pirates such as Francis Drake kept ransacking the place).
These are the go-to place for a shot of the sun setting into the sea 
with the trendy and expensive skyscrapers and shopping malls of Bocagrande towering in the background.
Cartagena boasts street upon street of perfectly preserved colonial houses. 
All very colourful
And what would a street be without the ubiquitous flowering vines - some of which clearly are also hundreds of years old.
Even if they die, the house owners have a hard time cutting them down.
Then there are statues: both historically questionable, such as this Spanish priest consoling an African slave
and by Botero.
A few houses still need love and attention
but they are getting few and far between. Mostly the old buildings have been converted into boutique hotels, restaurants or the homes of the very wealthy.

To emphasize the Caribbean vibe, elderly Afro-Caribbean women dress in totally improbable ruffled dresses the colour of the Colombian flag and carry fruit baskets on their heads. Take a photo, pay the cash. No photo attached.
A lot of beauty is hidden from view in the beautiful inner courtyards, which can be tantalizingly glimpsed from the streets - usually always connected to accommodation out of my price range.
Indeed, the uneven distribution of good luck (aka wealth) is very prominent in this town, where Western tourists and well heeled Columbians lounge in trendy restaurants sipping Helsinki priced frappuccinos, while destitute people try to entice them to buy chewing gum, cheap jewellery, plastic toy-crocodiles with fish in their mouths, maracas and guitar sets... You name it and someone will be trying to sell it to you. Oftentimes these people are Venezuelans fleeing from the situation in their country with slim to no job opportunities in Colombia and families to feed. So far the Columbians I have met have seemed to be more tolerant towards these ”financial refugees” than most Finns have been of our refugees.
About three days of walking around the various old parts of town
Taking a peek at the new part
And dipping into a mud volcano was enough time in Cartagena for me. 

It really is very lovely, but seems stifled not just by the heat and tourists, but by its own awareness of its beauty. Maybe too many of the original Cartagenans have been pushed by rising property prices so far outside the old city, that this has left the centre feeling a little soulless and void. 
Anyway, I need to head for higher ground and some place more rough and ready. So Medellin here I come!

Feb 12, 2018

Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud!

So I am in Cartagena, pearl of the Caribbean and possibly the best preserved colonial city in all of South America. A place chock-a-block with fine buildings and memoreable architecture.
Therefore this posting will be dedicated solely to the theme of MUD!
”Mud, mud, glorious mud 
Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood
So follow me follow, down to the hollow
And there let me wallow in glorious mud!”
So goes the Hippopotamus song of my childhood in England. And indeed, I followed me followed - not to the hollow though, but to a mud volcano!
Oh, well, I suppose technically the Totumo volcano is not a volcano, but it certainly is the right shape for it. And - if we are to believe our guide - over 2000 meters deep, filled with very efficacious minerals and whatnots and a very pleasant 38C warm - which in the basking heat probably did cool the blood.
And what’s best - only 48% water, making it very thick mud!
If Dante had had a bit more imagination, I’m sure he would have added one more level to the inferno: the place where people eternally have to wallow in mud. Because this certainly looked like an image from some medieval depiction of hell - spare limbs and scary mud-faces all around. 
But this would be the hell I would sign up for. Such a smooth texture! Smooth as - well  - wet clay, which is what it is. And so thick that sinking up to your neck just isn’t possible. The Dead Sea of mud.
However, here’s a tip for you ladies: Don’t wear full bathing suits. Swimming suits here are bikinis. Full stop. So I was the only one with a full body suit. The suit nicely filled with warm mud and I entertained myself by impersonating someone vomiting mud by pushing up about 2 litres of runny mud from inside the suit out through the hole for the head. However, when it was time to climb the ladder and go back up... guess which holes in the swimsuit the runny mud was falling out of to the loud amusement of all the bathers. And there was lots of it! The gentleman helping me up the ladder renamed me ”el pequeno volcán” - the little volcano.

But let’s face it: A mud bath really makes your skin just glow!

Feb 10, 2018

The Importance of Soaking

Let’s face it:: This weather is not. made for working. This weather is made for soaking!
Soaking in the sea, soaking in rivers, soaking under waterfalls.
Too much heat is not a good thing for us wilting Northeners. I recently read a very interesting, thought-provoking and quite scary article on climate change. (Highly recommended reading - apparently the most read article ever on New York Magazine: 
Among other things it cited research on how extremely high temperatures are related to increases in violent behaviour. Therefore since the desert and before I punch someone in the face, I have mostly been soaking.
After a short pit stop in Riohacha to stock up on a few more essentials (bags), I returned to Palomino. For some strange reason, possibly connected with the nearby Sierra Nevada mountain range, Palomino enjoys its own microclimate, which is a blessed five or more degrees below that of nearby steaming hot Santa Marta. So every day in Palomino is the ideal Finninsh summer day, not a boiling hot inferno from hell.
Also in Palomino I was living in paradise. The rooms I frequent (10-27 euros per night so far - usually around 15 euros) are of the budget variety. Clean, decent, even charming, but they seldomn have much character, let alone the trimmings of luxyry. My Palomino paradise, Chez Oliv, was a little walled garden world for about 8 guests. 
Amenities included a large garden, hammocks, 
outdoor kitchen and dining area and a large variety of impressive birds and lizards in the garden (my favourite was a biiiig lizard of around 1 metre in length, with a long, black and white stripy tail. He fell out of a tree, when a dry branch cracked under his weight. He was a real sight to behold, but when I rushed for my camera he rushed for the neighbouring garden and beat me to it).
To add to Palomina’s charm, there is not just the stormy sea, but a river of clean mountain water to swim in. And - last but not least - it is one of the nicest tubing rivers I could imagine! Tubing, as you will all know (except maybe mum and dad - hi mum, hi dad!) is floating down a river on the inner tube of a tractor tyre. There you are, feet and bum in the pleasantly cool river water, occasionally paddlng with your hands to steer yourself out of the shallowest part of the river (where feet and bum will stick to pebbles and sand), and the river gently floats you along _amazingly_ beautiful jungle and river scenery. The thing about jungles is that they are hot and sticky to treck in, and often there aren’t many places with good views, because there’s foliage in the way of the perfect shot. So being able to glide in comfort (relative comfort, slightly cold feet and bum) along beautiful and breathtaking jungle scenery is a rare and wonderful thing! For obvious reasons I have no photo of the tubing - but below is a photo of the jungle hills in Tayrona national park - just 20 or so kilometres away and identical to the jungle the river runs though.
After I soaked in Palomino, I headed for the hills and another pleasantly cool place, Minca. 
Minca is a weird mixture of hippie, hipster and regular mountan village. Beautiful nature all around and lots of rivers with water so clear that you can hardly see it. Seriously!
Nothing like a leisurely stroll on mud roads in the jungle mountainside
Admiring the trees in bloom
And the bamboo woods
Then arriving at a nice, cool waterfall, or two, for a dip!
And as in Palomino, so in Minca: Where there’s a river, there will be locals bathing 
I have now rehydrated and soaked up enough cool air and clear water to be ready for the next leg of the journey. Back down to Carribbean coast and Cartagena.