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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.
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, 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.