Epiphany in Medellin

***

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Here I am, sitting on the stone tiles of a gated front porch on a block in Colombia, waiting on hold for a hospital back in the USA to send me written proof of a negative COVID test.

Not sure how often cops ask for proof of negative, but the Airbnb host told me to have something ready.

And she told me to practice saying, “I have proof I’m COVID negative,” in Spanish. Tengo prueba de COVID negativa. Or something.

I set the phone’s on hold jazz music to a quiet speaker setting, and watch the block wake up.

People aren’t going to work today. It’s Epiphany, and that’s a national holiday here. That’s when the Three Wise Men brought gold, Frankincense & Myrhh to baby Jesus.

There’s something about watching a day start in a foreign country that’s like seeing a play begin. Queue the woman shaking a washed blue shirt over her balcony and hanging it on a white line. Queue the couple opening the front door of the apartment and assembling a ramp over the steps for the man’s moped to drive down.

This morning, everybody is out on their apartment balcony doing chores or eating breakfast. Each of the four balconies visible is like its own world.

One with a grandmother-age woman and her daughter, one with a couple, one with a family of four, and one family of three, are all having a day-off kind of morning.

Instant coffee and a cigarette while leaning off the rail for one dad, pancakes and orange juice for the kids, and moms bustling around on mom business.

Colombia has barred travel again, but I got here just before the gates closed.

Now, I must stay in my Airbnb unless I can get proof of a negative COVID test. But the hospital’s hold music will not end.

No cabs run, and many restaurants are closed. I start to realize I may not be able to get a bite to eat today.

But no wait, look across the street. A few apartment doors to the left.

A woman is pushing an industrial grill out the door. She and a man walk a big striped restaurant sign out of their front door. The sign reads Donde Toby. (Where is Toby? That’s what that means, right? The street food place is asking me where Toby is? For its name?)

I can’t get over how different the apartments are here. You never think about building codes until you see what happens when they’re not there.

Each building is slightly different creating a patchwork of odd angles and different colors. Motorcyclists and moped buzz down the block.

A skin and bone man in a baggy polo and ripped jeans has two trash bags on his arms. He rifles through bags of trash left on the ground.

Around the corner, on a second story balcony, somebody is reading what must be the gospel through a megaphone. I can hash out enough Spanish to know it’s the gospel, and based on the day it must be the story of the Three Kings.

Black haired mothers in pandemic masks walk their children down the block. And underneath it all that hospital hold music won’t end.

And it’s times like these, hungry in a foreign country that’s closed most of its restaurants, unable to leave and delivery service on holiday, yes, it’s times like these that make you ask the big questions.

Such as, where is Toby?

My patio is four feet above sidewalk level, made of brick-colored stones standing behind a painted white iron gate. If I walk to the end of the patio, I can see down the street where the man is preaching. There are lush green mountains rising behind him. They are covered in mist, but in the morning you can see their looming, rolling shapes.

A voice crackles through the hold music. It thanks me for waiting and asks how it can help. I explain my situation.

Sizzling grill, Spanish megaphone sermon, the rising buzz of a motorcycle’s engine. Dogs yap. A little bit of rain comes and goes. It’s all a symphony nobody could ever write.

Landing in Colombia

10 Best Things To Do In Medellin, Colombia At Night: Blast | Trip101
Medellin at Night

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***

Rain splattering the windows of the airplane.

Dim purple and orange light shining through the little round window.

Going just by the big flat tarmac alone, Medellin, Colombia, looks like Miami, Florida.

I’m watching the tarmac for signs of Colombianism, you might say.

Meaning what? Meaning having seen tarmacs in England, Russia, the USA, and now Colombia, I always watch to see if they, for example, drive the suitcases in a different kind of tiny truck. Yeah, it just looks like more Miami for now.

A couple of friends of mine will be here in a few days. They’ve been before. They said I should come down this time. Just for a few stories. Just for a lark.

And as you do, I larked my luggage out of the overhead bin and larked myself out the double sliding front doors.

“Where you go?” asks a cabbie. And I set one bag down to fish an address out of my pocket, and he grabs my bag and starts stomping towards his cab, being the aggressive salesman he is. And wanting to keep up with my socks and underwear, I stomp after him to his cab. I mean, one ride seems as good as another.

He’s got this stick shift Hyundai. A ceramic Virgin Mary is glued to the dash in front of the passenger. Two rosaries are looped around her stand. He floors the gas pedal shooting between rows of waiting cabs and Ubers, and those rosary beads rattle against the dash.

We drive under palm trees and so far it is nothing I haven’t seen before.

But the cabbie is getting agitated over something.

“Get ready, get ready. Man, you gonna see something here, man!”

Whoosh! The treeline ends, and there is all of Medellin, a city built in a green valley. Yellow town lights run up the sides of purple mountains. Clouds drift in front of the tops of skyscrapers. A yellow biplane circles near the mountainsides.

“Hey! Where we going?”

I can’t stop staring.

“Where we going?”

I hand the cabbie the address of the Airbnb.

“I don’t know, I don’t know!”

I check the dash for a GPS. Nothing.

“Can you use your phone?” I ask.

“No card!”

That’s a shame. My own phone is dead as a brick. The battery decided it couldn’t hold a charge anymore sometime in the middle of my layover at MIA. The charger takes ages to wake it up, if it can bring it to life at all. Bad timing, you know, going to a foreign country, but you can’t put things off forever or wait till everything is perfect. Otherwise, you’ll never do them.

The cabbie barks, “Policia! Policia!”

Oh great. Meaning what? Get passports, bribe or bail money ready? Chuck this bag of coke out the window before he sees us?

There’s the cop in military green with a lime green helmet on a motorcycle by the side of the road.

But then the cabbie screeches the Hyundai to a stop in the dead middle of the road, and tells me to roll down my window. The cop is checking a phone in a heavily padded case.

“Hey, it’s alright, we don’t need to bother him,” I say. “We can go.”

The cabbie whips his hand in circles to tell me to roll down the window again. Grudgingly, I do. The cop looks up.

Cabbie grabs the address. He must be asking the cop how to get there in Spanish. The cop does some gesturing. Left at the this and right when you see that.

And bang, we’re off again!

“I would never, ever stop in the middle of the road to ask a roadside cop for directions in the US,” I say.

“No?”

“No, they’re by the road to give you tickets, you can’t just roll down your window and yell, ‘hey, where’s Dairy Queen?’ at them.”

“La policia es mi seguridad!”

Must be, “police are my security.”

His voice rises to a full bellow in this tiny cab, with just him, me & ceramic Mary. What I lack in Spanish, he’s making up for in sheer volume.

“¡La policía es mi protección!”

He thumps his chest.

Not in the milkiest suburbs of the states could you find this kind of confidence in the boys in blue!

“La policía no es corrupta!”

Not even a little bit corrupta? I’ll still keep my distance, you mad cabbie you!

We scream around a bend in the overpass. His whip the wheel & tilt the tires driving style makes this yellow cab shoot through the dark like a bullet.

But what incredible greed my eyes have for all things Medellin! The dance of mist over moonlit mountains, the jungle plants and flowers growing from every island in the road.

Has my battery pack brought my phone to life yet? I check it. Still dead. A motorcyclist appears in sideview mirror’s reflection.

“Phone down, phone down, other hand, no window hand,” yells the cabbie, who is now sweating heavily into his stiff-collared shirt.

He then mimes and chatters and explanation.

Medellin runs on motorcycles. They rule the streets by day. And sometimes, a motorcyclist will steal an iPhone right out of a driver’s hand, even at a full 60-70mph.

Which strikes me as a rather acrobatic, visually stunning kind of a crime.

Imagine, you’re rocketing along in the passenger seat of a cab. A motorcyclist’s image swells in the sideview mirror.

The biker’s shoulders dip left. His arm swipes through the window, scooping your phone right out of your hand, then zoom, he vanishes off into the night, carrying your drunk texts, your photos, your alarm clocks, your work email, your apps, your absolutely everything down into the underbelly of a world about which you know nothing, and if you’re lucky, you never will.

Anyway, my phone stays in my pocket for the rest of the ride.

Finally, the cabbie pulls off the highway into some side streets. The odd angles of apartment buildings are jammed together. They’re smaller, more cramped than you might see in the states. Everybody has a small balcony.

“Peligrosso, peligrosso,” the hoarse cabbie stage whispers.

There are enormous piles of garbage bags on street corners. Street art of the Joker, for some reason. Windows covered with large metal shutters, and bars. Doors made of solid metal. Possibly bulletproof.

And city zombies (they are in every city) shuffle around in a nearby park. Bug eyed, broken toothed, slack jawed and jonesing for poison, no doubt.

There’s a man with a shopping cart in a poncho and straw hat. There’s a woman in cutoff shorts, heels and a halter top. Nails a puma would envy. I don’t mean to make assumptions, but she probably has an engineering degree.

One rail-thin guy is standing in the middle of the street, arms crossed over his ribs. A cigarette burning in his fingers. He looks like one of the city zombies. The cab squeaks to a stop, and the cabbie shouts for directions again. This cabbie will ask anybody where a street is!

Three turns later, he drops me off at a place. This neighborhood looks a little better.

Iron gate painted white. A lockbox with a key inside. Luckily, I wrote down the code before my phone died.

The room is the exact size of a queen-sized bed. There’s a full-sized bed in the center. You have to scoot sideways like a crab to get around the bed to a miniature bathroom and shower.

Can you drink the tap water here? Folks back home told me no. I boil tap water in this electric kettle, and drink tea-temperature water, unmixed with anything.

But hey, I made it. Bedtime.

To be continued.

Jumping Out an Airplane

skydiver art | Art, Artwork, Moose art

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This tiny plane is climbing and circling higher and higher.

When I say tiny, I mean tiny. There are no seats. Just room for four people to sit on the ground, shoulder to shoulder. Two first-time skydivers practically on the laps of two instructors, crammed on the floor of the airplane.

Outside the windows of the cramped canister, we’re gaining altitude. Big, flat Florida is getting smaller and smaller. It’s an overcast day. We feel every lurch, every tilt, every time the plane tips its wings to turn.

“I know you’re the pilot but do you jump sometimes, too?” Dalina asks the pilot.

“He does, and he’s working now,” her instructor says.

She giggles and claps a hand over her mouth. A confirmed adrenaline junky, she’s practically bouncing off the cabin walls. She and I met when I was surfing, recently. And shockingly, this skydiving trip is the first time we’re hanging out.

And when the plane tips, the vast view of Earth itself rises up the windows, like when you tilt a glass of OJ and the juice runs up the side. Criss-crossing runways, a double baseball diamond, pine-green grassy fields, all rapidly shrinking.

Spiky heads of palm trees. Squiggly, slithering rivers. Roads, quiet, with few cars at this early weekend hour. The beach is misty. You can see the lapping shoreline, but you can’t pick out where the water stops and the sky begins on the horizon. It’s all one grey, foggy, shimmering sheet.

The beach hotels look like dollhouses. The propeller whirs & roars.

Man. Can’t believe I’m going to jump out of this tiny airplane. I have dedicated the past week to not thinking about it.

Now the moment is here. Back on the ground, when the pilot asked who wanted to jump first, Dalina and I both said, “me!” at the same time.

She tried to let me go first, but a, “ladies first” settled the matter. She’s sitting by the window now. It was actually open when we were starting to take off, but they rolled it down.

She and I kill time with some getting to know you chit chat, because after all, we just met by chance on the beach a couple of weeks ago when I was finishing up surfing. She sent me a message in the middle of the night making if I wanted to skydive. I answered yes, and woke up to a screenshot of skydiving ticket receipts.

The plane climbs in higher and higher circles.

Her jump instructor grabs the door handle and lifts it upward. The door rattles open, and there’s a great gaping hole in the airplane cabin, showing a view of wispy clouds & a forever of grey sky out there under the wing. The cabin is drowning in roaring wind, propeller whir, and shivering cold air.

Dalina puts a sneaker out on the metal step over the wheel with all 14,000 feet of air racing away underneath this Campbell soup can of an airplane.

“You’ve got this, you’ve got this,” I yell.

Dalina closes her eyes, and arches back like the instructor told her to do. And then her instructor grabs the doorframe and dives. And they’re gone. Vanished, so fast, and so far. It’s like witnessing an execution.

Scoot! Slide! My jump instructor is sidling on his bum over to the door. Fast. My hands grip my harness.

“Head arched back, feet together pointing back when we go!” the guy yells in Camel cigarette breath.

The wind speed makes putting my boot out onto the metal plate over the wheel like moving underwater. I fight the wind to shove my boot onto that rusty metal step.

Earth curvature, water bodies, moving mist, whipping clouds. Ocean below. System buzzing and clammy like it’s time to die.

View out the airplane: the thin body, and tail of the plane. The wing of the plane above me. Metal ridges, a coffee-color rust stain on the underside of the wing. A red stripe and a yellow stripe on the white wing. A row of white bolts.

Jump!

Stomach drops. Air roaring in ears. Whole body in free fall. Fighting air pressure to inhale thin air. Arms out like wings now. Giddy, terrified. Rushing at the misty morning ground. Like dropping from the top of the world’s tallest rollercoaster, but without the rollercoaster.

A flapping, unfurling snap of fabric overhead. A great jolt. And then silence. No more rush of air. Gentle, downward motion. I look up, and there’s the parachute, spreading overhead like a bodega awning.

“Don’t get scared, I’m going to make your harness a little more comfortable.”

He doesn’t even need to raise his voice anymore. It’s the type of sound quality like when you’re on a ski lift, chatting with somebody.

He unbuckles something on my harness and I drop down on one side. This feeling, I hate. I’m gripping my shoulder straps again. About to tell him not to worry about the harness. Imagine, he unbuckles the wrong thing, and I plunge away from him. There’d be nothing anyone could do. Then he unbuckles something on the other side and I drop-lurch down a little more. He’s done. The worst is over.

I’m swinging in this harness, thousands of feet in the air, with the purest, most unblocked, un-windowed view of a Florida field, town, and beach you could ever have.

We tilt way to the left. Glide in circles. Over a river. Over a highway. Back around towards the jump office.

Now lower, probably even with the height of a skyscraper’s top. Dropping down story after story towards the blown-around long grass in pine & grey colored fields. We swing out hundreds of feet over two big water towers. Then keep dropping.

“Point your feet straight out,” says the instructor. I do.

We circle down, fast now. Green ground skim-skipping away. And ground starts skidding under my calves, under my legs, bootheels skimming and skidding until I stop, watery & high-eyed, every nerve singing.

Stand & stretch. Can’t stop laughing. Glad I did it. Glad it’s over. Glad to be alive. Where am I? Turn, and there’s the one little trailer that serves as the office. I can hear soccer moms cheering their kids in the field on the other side of a chainlink fence. It is all very normal, but I am very different.

They ask me to go to the trailer and return my harness. I do. Weightless Dalina is slower to fall, she’s still gliding hundreds of feet above us.

“How was it?” the next two jumpers beg to know.

“You’ll love it, you’ll love it,” I tell them.

Dalina soon lands. We meet in the trailer with a hug & giddy, garbled recap. Then walk out on the sweet, solid, ground to find breakfast.

Sharing a Surfboard | Florida

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***

They make it look easy as a dream.

Riding green, foamy curling waves on a surfboard.

I rented one while I was back in Florida for a wedding.

Now, in the water off of Cocoa Beach, I’m getting chafed red by a giant, oblong, wobbling blue surfboard that wants to tilt, dip, and pitch me under the water at every second.

I can see other beginners not having much luck on their own tropical colored boards (yellow, pink, key lime green).

The board is twice my size.

Squeaks and slips right out from under me.

The water is cold, but it’s clean.

No seaweed. Cocoa Beach both sounds nice and is nice.

After getting swamped by a few more waves, I swim the board into knee-deep water. The new plan is to catch a little wave and just stand on this thing for once.

It works. I ride the board standing up for maybe ten or fifteen feet.

Feels like being a billionaire.

As I’m sinking down into the now ankle-deep water, I see my small success has not gone unnoticed.

“Can I try that?” a young voice screams.

It’s a bunch of kids. Maybe five of them. Three girls, two boys, and a mom.

One of the girls is asking.

“What’s your name?”

“Gemini,” she says.

“Ask your mom.”

“She says it’s OK!”

I need a rest anyway.

“Sure, give it a try.” I un-velcro the strap from around my ankle.

Gemini, her brothers and sisters swarm the board in a flash. They’re screaming and fighting over it like a game of King of the Hill. I have thrown an entire family into chaos.

Gemini secures the strap around her ankle.

While this may sound like snatching the crown, it’s a serious tactical error. The weight of her three siblings carries the board into shin-deep water. She’s being pulled along as it surges up and down in the water.

I have thrown an entire family into chaos. The blue board seems as alive as a giant eel, bucking and chucking brothers and sisters into the water.

They’re trying to stand on the sinking board. Look-amme-momma-look-amme. This doesn’t last long.

In under a full minute, they figure they’ve got my money’s worth.

They shove the board back to me. It floats towards me in the water.

Their mom calls, “Thank you.”

I return to trying to do short standing rides on the board in shallow water.

I can pop into a standing position and ride the board ten or fifteen feet at a stretch. Tomorrow I should do even better.

The sun is setting. The water is lighting up warm orange. It makes a shimmering, blurry reflection of the sky.

Cold water wipes me out.

After one more standing ride, I figure I can’t top that this evening.

Tuck the board under my arm and return to the shop as the sun goes down.

End

You could be like me

Uganda Political Pin Back Button of General Idi Amin Dada | Pinback, East  africa, Pin backs

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It’s a warm evening on South Beach.

Fish bowls of blue cocktail drink on the table, and friends from back home visiting.

Reggaeton blasting. Crowds of people tramping up and down the block.

The beach is just across the street. You can’t hear, smell, or see it under the music, cooking food, and darkness, but it’s there.

Steve and I are raving drunk. Laughing about something moronic. Our dates are getting to know each other.

“Buttons for sale, buttons for sale.”

A Rasta man with his head in a giant wrap wears a coat completely covered in pin buttons.

He rattles one lapel at me.

“Buttons for sale,” he says.

Jesus, Sinatra, Hailie Selassie, Marley, Marylyn, Elvis, Bogart all on buttons.

“Hey!” I say.

Lurching a little at this point.

“That’s Idi Amin! He’s on your jacket with Elvis and Jesus and whoever.”

“So what?”

“He eats people!”

“So what?”

“So Rastas don’t even eat meat but you got a guy who eats people on your button.”

“That’s not my problem!” he says.

I think about that. Deeply drunk, it sounds like logic.

I mean, who’s problem would it be, then?

“You want to buy that man eater button?”

“No man, I’m good.”

“Can’t be thinkin’ you’re above other people,” he says. But with good humor and a smile.

“I don’t, in fact, I was probably a guy like you in another life.”

Steve drunk laughs at the mental image. My date looks at me suspiciously. I think I’m slurring my words a little.

“You could be a guy like me in this life, too. You don’t need your things.”

“You’re right, take my jacket,” I say.

I unhook it from the back of my chair. Shove it right at the Rasta man, who is shocked.

Steve puts his hand on my jacket.

“You sir, are officially drunk,” Steve says. He’s swaying a little himself, though.

The Rasta man is laughing hysterically now.

He walks away, still laughing.

You can hear his jacket buttons jingling for a mile.