I’ve been here in Medellin for over a month but I still feel like I am seeing so many things for the first time. This city alone has so much history, so many communes, so much diversity and so many places to see.
However, by now I should be considered an expat local, right? I had some German friends visit me earlier this week and it was my job to show them around -you know, the local tour guide. But before I become too familiar with the place, I want to remember how exactly it impacted me on my first month.
A lot of how I reacted was based on preconceived expectations about Medellin: salsa (dancing), cocaine, danger and passion. I think I share this Colombian stereotype with a lot of people, even the Colombians know this is what the rest of the world think about them. So when you see successful businesses, free bikes for hire to ride on their extensive cycle paths, thousands of good eateries to explore, a flourishing nightlife, interesting architecture, a healthy balance of vegetation, it comes a little as a surprise. Actually, let me just return to the part about vegetation. Medellin is very green! I think this was one of the biggest things that stood out in my first week. It’s definitely a reminder that I’m not too far from the Amazon.
But there’s more to Medellin than meets the eye. I’m sure we’re all aware of this. In the 90s Medellin was ranked as the most dangerous city in the world, the famous Netflix show, Narcos is a reminder to this, yet today it doesn’t even make the top 50. There are actually hundreds of articles, posts, blogs about the amazing transformation of Medellin, which is true, but there’s still much more than meets the eye.
This is where I’m confused. I feel/hear/see two sides of the story-
a. Dangerous deeds are still going on behind the scenes
b. Medellin is so progressive and the new model city for Latin America.
I feel like I’m living side b. yet I’m always hearing about side a. However, I do work in El Poblado, Medellin’s most popular neighbourhood for foreigners, and I live in Laureles, an upper middle class region for the uni students and local Colombians. So, I am constantly surrounding by some of the best Medellin has to offer. This makes it so much harder to understand Medellin. But for the time being, how has it met those preconceived expectations I previously mentioned?
Salsa – Yep most people know how to salsa. If not dance, they know a handful of traditional songs. Salsa doesn’t necessarily play all the time, but will be mixed in with bachata, porro, reggeaton, banda, merengue, cumbia etc throughout the night.
Cocaine – Yep. I’ve been recommended the best and worst place to buy anything if I ever happened to be interested. Actually in the first week, I didn’t even need to seek it out, but was approached to see if I was interested. (Honestly this is not just a Colombian thing. I’ve been approached in other parts of the world as well. Locals often tend to assume a lot of travellers seek out drugs.)
Danger – Hmm no, not at all. But this is where I’m confused.. should I be? I have never personally felt endangered. If anything, I have been welcomed so much more here than in other countries. People in the streets openly tell me ‘Bienvenida a Medellín’.
Yet I hear stories -businesses still need to pay local street gangs to protect their business (if not “something” will go wrong), there’s the looming integration of the FARC into everyday civilisation (how will this change social structure?), there’s more and more people building up on the hills of Medellin in order to escape the adverse countryside situation… you get the point.
Passion – Umm yes? This is quite a broad concept and really is a personality trait. Yet for the overall population I will say yes – they have a strong short term passion. Street vendors, passersby, workers, students, mothers, dancers tend to put passion into what they’re doing in that moment. I’m not sure how this translates into long term ambitions, but it is noticeable on the short term scale.