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.

Unknown Destination

Death, baby! Death.

That’s what’s was on my mind here in the unmanly station of second seat on a moped hurtling down a rolling Colombian highway, somewhere in Medellín.

But beyond the mild seating indignity is the discomforting presence of twelve chainlink fence posts sitting in the truck bed to the front left of us.

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The posts in the truck bed are a mere arm’s reach away, as Colombian roads are much narrower than I-95, and the vehicles are smaller than the Ford F-150 by a long shot. The hollow ends of the fence posts are dark as gun barrels; they seem capable of lance-like flight at a sudden stop. This helmet with its scratchy visor simply isn’t enough.

Cars and trucks merge on and off the highway with all the order of popcorn kernels on a red burner rocketing upward to burst and bloom.

Now Colombia’s mountains are a joy to see, a delight to hike, and no doubt a thrill to motorbike through, but second seat gives you no control over your fate, it’s more of an act of surrender to each steep tilt and turn.

Why then, am I here? I was promised a monumental and world-famous piece of Colombian history, something I would never forget seeing. My friend and guide at the hostel, Andy, told me about it, but he didn’t tell me exactly what it was or where we were going. Who can say no to a mystery? Off we went.

We finally shoot off an exit and roll onto commercial streets, followed by a short road with little development on either side of it.

Surprisingly, we then pull into the parking lot of a church and park there. Where are we going? Confession?

We walk around to the back of the church to a cemetery.

“Now you will come face to face with a man who shaped this nation.”

We walk over well kept grass, then a border of black marble with white patterning, then a bed of white polished stones till we finally come to a black headstone with cursive gold lettering.

“Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria.”

Here they are, six feet below. The bones of a guy who drowned Colombia in blood. The wealthiest criminal in history.

Now here I am, a Gringo whose mental image of Escobar is the Netflix actor more often than his historical face, but our fellow visitor to the grave feels much closer to Pablo.

The other visitor is a bald, heavier guy in an old collared nightclubbing shirt, jeans, and black dress shoes. He is keying himself up, tipping forward on the balls of his feet, trying to absorb the atmosphere around the grave.

He speaks suddenly, his story bursting out of him like shaken up soda. Must be something about my appearance, because he knew to use English.

“I am Escobar’s blood,” he says. “I am his nephew.”

Andy the guide and I nod, and give him a little space.

“Yo brother, this guy’s trash,” Andy mutters to me. “Every bastard in Colombia calls himself the son of Escobar.”

Maybe he’s Pablo’s blood and maybe he isn’t, but pacing and prowling around the white stones on Pablo’s grave, the so-called nephew is surely hunting for a haunting, the type of haunting that will bring him, perhaps, a little respect.

Nephew baldy seems to think Pablo is Scarface or Don Corleone, the type of gangster he can admire on the far side of a flatscreen.

And admittedly, it is hard to process that here lies the grinning coke warlord who murdered nearly the entire Colombian police force in a single night and bombed randomly targeted pharmacies. After all, if Pablo couldn’t have the whole world, no Colombian could have baby formula. It’s difficult to believe it was all real, and not too long ago.

But if Escobar’s tomb by day is chilling and suspect, consider the following scene by night.

Later

Same church, same graveyard, bright moonlight shining on the same white pebbles, and black marble border. But around midnight, a gathering begins. Do you hear the chainlink fence rattling? Figures in hoodies are clambering over it. There’s a low murmur of hoarse voices. Pablo’s acolytes are assembling for a street seance. Andy is hanging back eagerly yet uneasily, as am I.

The guys in hoodies walk up to Pablo’s grave, and unzip their backpacks. Out come clinking, tubular glass objects. A flick of a lighter, and orange firelight show some of the objects to be Virgin Mary and Lazarus candles, and others to be 40 malts. One incense stick in a sandalwood board with a curled end. Flame for wicks, for the incense tip, and a blunt which they pass to the left in their circle.

Now silly with liquor and screwy with weed, they sit in dark communion with Pablo’s bones. With enough chemical distortion, it seems believable that Escobar’s ectoplasm will ooze out between these white polished stones. He will give you a Mercedes and me a speedboat, and we will all live in penthouses. He will be our father, he will once more be El Patron. We have nothing and he had everything, and for that magic trick, we will ignore his every wrong.

Like for nephew baldy, Pablo is something of a folk hero to them. But if you ask most Colombians, under these polished white stones are the white coals of Hell.

Well, burn all the candles and blunts you want, it doesn’t look like any ghosts are coming out tonight. But what does manifest is sidelong looks, and a cold, weighty sense that Andy and I do not belong here.

So quietly, we leave.

Midnight at an Outdoor Gym in a Foreign Land

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After a few strong shots of (what’s that powerful pre-workout called? Ah, yes. Tequila.)

Yes, after a few shots of tequila, my friends and I are at an outdoor gym in the bustling, humid downtown of Medellin called Parque Lleras. It’s midnight.

The yellow streetlights are shining through the mist, and the whole wide nighttime world is a little silly and a little whirly. We’re capping off our first night out on the town. We’ve been holed up for COVID measures for a day or two, and now we’re uncaged and running a little wild.

The city is surrounded by rainforest landscape. Overhead, big green jungle palms are luffing a little bit. There’s a creek somewhere nearby. We can hear rippling water, but we can’t really see it.

Under the palms, there are barbells, pull-up bars, and dip bars. The weights have chains on them so you can’t steal them. All the metal bars are painted yellow. We’re in our night out collared shirts, dress pants and shoes. Not exactly gym wear, but who cares?

I’ve got a deadlift bar that’s linked to a big rattling chain running to the ground. I’m yanking the bar upward. We’re all counting each other’s reps in Spanish.

Uno! Dos! Tres!

Two Colombian gym bros are pumping chained-up barbells in the corner laughing at the drunken Gringos.

Cuatro! Cinco! Seis!

Then a new friend of ours, some mobile phone millionaire who expatriated, is wandering out in the middle of the road, walking off some soreness from the squat rack.

A yellow cab whips around the corner and screeches around him.

“What? Come at me bro!” screams the millionaire, arms spread out.

And what intoxicant can make a creature of flesh and bone look at two tons of 65-mile-an-hour metal and say, “come at me bro?” It’s Colombia. Use your imagination.

All is well once more, but we just have to keep it that way. It’s clearly time to go home, to get off the street.

We say sorry and gracias to the gym bros in the corner.

They laugh and say no, no, thank you guys.

And on that note, we stumble back to the apartment.