Medellín is a big city tucked into a river valley and overflowing onto the surrounding hills. In the 1970s-1990s, violence in the countryside pushed millions of people out of their homes and into the city. They settled in free/cheap land in the hillsides and formed communities that tended to be poorer and more violence ridden.
But the city became more integrated in the 1990s with the completion of the metro system (the only one in Colombia!). The metro connects the poorer communities in the North with the wealthier communities in the South. It also includes a network of cable cars, which make it easier for people to go up and down the hills.
Now, riding the cable car is one of the top tourist attractions of the city. The stacked brick houses may have been built under unfortunate circumstances, but they still make for a most spectacular view.
I arrived in Medellín just in time for Ley Seca, the “dry law” in which no establishments can serve any alcohol starting from 6pm on the day before the election. Unfortunately, elections were on Sunday, so that makes for a quiet weekend indeed. I guess the idea is to make sure that everyone has a clear head before making an important voting decision, but it seems to me that you could just stock up and drink at home!
Chinese people are easy to find anywhere around the world except, for some reason, in South America. So when a Chinese man at my hostel in Bogotá found out that I was also Chinese, he was so excited to use the language again that we talked into the night.
In his mid-sixties and with 64 countries under his belt, he is not the typical Chinese retiree. And being a Communist party member and one year older than Xi Jinping, the current Chinese Premier, he had plenty of things to say about Communism in China.
He told me….
… how, early on, he got passed over for a promotion within the party when he failed to write a party reflection and honestly admitted that he hadn’t done it. But his friend, who also hadn’t written one, got the promotion because he lied and said he did it but forgot it at home. That was when he learned that you can’t get ahead in the system unless you lie.
…how the husband of a beloved teacher gave honest criticism to the Communist government in hopes of making the country better. And in return for it, the government went after the man until one night when they dragged him out of the house and he started stuffing dirt and rocks in his mouth in a fit of insanity.
…how a friend’s father, who was a Nationalist party member that stayed after the Communists took over, used to keep a detailed journal. After the father’s death, the son went through his journals and what he discovered broke his heart. After the Communist revolution, his father had copied the Communist newspaper word for word every day instead of writing his thoughts.
… how a woman who served the Communist party valiently with her husband went insane shortly after the husband’s death. The community knew of her mental state and took care of her because of her past contributions, but one day she had a fit and accidentally ripped a picture of Chairman Mao in half. Even in her insanity, she knew to immediately drop to her knees and sob for forgiveness.
… and how the Chinese government only recently admitted that the right to not go hungry as a human right. During the great famine of 1963 in which millions of people starved to death, they didn’t even have that. People from rural areas, where no food could be found, went to the cities to beg. But every night they were rounded onto trucks to be taken back to their villages, where they meet with certain death.
China now is very different from the China then, but recently the country has started moving backwards (cracking down on VPN services, developing a social credit system, and restricting the flow of money outside the country) rather than forward. Though the one silver lining, my friend mentioned with a sad laugh, is that Chinese people are still allowed to travel. It’s hard to imagine that this liberty could be taken away, but after listening to his stories, I’m not so sure. I AM sure, though, that he’ll take ample advantage of that privilege for as long as his body – or the government – will allow.
Graffiti is illegal in Colombia, but it saw a surge in recent years thanks to an unlikely Canadian icon: Justin Bieber.
While on tour in Bogotá, JB stopped in an underpass of a busy highway and left a graffiti gift while a police escort stopped traffic. There was a huge outcry from the artist community because a teenager around JB’s age had recently been shot for doing graffiti. Afterward, graffiti popped up more around the city and become more wildly accepted, though it is still technically illegal.
As part of a “free” tour of Bogotá with Beyond Colombia, the guide led us to a café and told us the story of Colombia’s historical drink, chicha.
Chicha is a fermented drink traditionally made with corn that originated with the indigenous people of Central and South America thousands of years ago. It was the drink of choice until 130 years ago, when the Bavaria brewing company was established and beer became more popular. Bavaria and the Colombian government waged a massive, decades-long marketing campaign to peg chicha as the root of crime, stupidity, and evil (looking for an alternative? Drink beer instead!). Finally, in 1942, chicha was outlawed in Colombia.
It’s officially still illegal today. But apparently not too illegal, since the guide handed each of us a totuma (hollow seed) shot glass full of chicha and gave us a taste!
Of all the destinations on my list, my parents were most concerned about Colombia. Not without reason, but I heard so many good stories about Colombia from fellow travelers that I was determined to go… And may have let my guard down a bit.
When I arrived at the Bogotá airport at night, I made my way to the official taxi stand but was intercepted by a suited man who asked if I wanted an Uber. That would be easier and cheaper, but don’t I have to call one with the app? No, no, this one is with cash! Well, alright….
The man led me to a car in the parking lot, where he helped me into a waiting car and the driver subtly tipped him some cash. Oh, so he wasn’t the driver, just the recruiter? This wasn’t looking so good. All of a sudden I remembered the stories of unofficial taxi drivers in Bogotá picking up their friends and mugging passengers together. I didn’t even want to think about what else could happen to solo females. I usually tell people who are concerned about travel safety that you’ll be fine as long as you use common sense, but I clearly did not have any that night.
I was on high alert during the entire ride, but thankfully made it to the hostel without any problems. In the end I paid 20,000 pesos and saved 5,000 pesos, which adds up to the grand total of….. *Drumroll* $1.78. Not my brightest moment. But I resolved to be more careful, and I’m glad I didn’t have to learn the lesson the hard way!
Even though living standards in Cuba have improved, there is still a big gap between it and the West. As a guide recounted,
“Funny story, I had a friend from Canada who came over to Cuba, and I told her that I could apply for a license for her to stay with me so that she could save money. She was saying ‘oh no, it’s okay…’, since she actually just didn’t want to be rude, but she agreed.
“She lasted for 2 days.
“I drew the bucket for her when she wanted to shower, and after 7 minutes, I heard no sound of water. So I went to ask if everything was okay, and she said ‘I don’t know how to do it.’ I had to scoop the water and pour it for her.
“My mother asked, ‘how can she not know how to do it?’ But, I said, it’s not hard to understand. ‘She was born with a shower over her head, she’s never used a bucket before.’
Most guesthouses have shower heads now, but a lot of locals, like my guide, still use bucket showers.
The Cuban concept of time is not very exact. A guide warned that if a place posts hours of 9-5, it may not actually open until 9:30 and you shouldn’t expect it to stay open much longer after 4:30.
I experienced this firsthand at the National Museum of Fine Art. It was already afternoon and the museum “closed” at 5, but I stubbornly took the bus and didn’t get there until 3:30. That’s okay, an hour and a half, right? But the place is gigantic, with 4 long and dense wings.
At 4:40pm, the lady guards, stationed every 20m or so to make sure you don’t touch or take photos of the art, started calling “Cerrado” and shooing museum goers out. I protested that I still had 20 minutes, but the guard only pretended to check the time and waved me out of the wing. I snuck into the last wing that I had left to see, but by 4:50 was escorted out of that one too.
Outside in the hallway, all of the guards for all of the other wings were standing impatiently, waiting for the one last guest to GTFO. I walked towards the exit in a large parade with at least 30 guards. By 4:58, the place was locked up. I guess “close at 5” doesn’t mean “operating until 5,” but rather “we’d better be on our way home at 5!”
Internet has come slowly to Cuba. Until 3 years ago, there were only dial up modems that an Airbnb host said sometimes took 30 min to an hour to load a page. Now there is WiFi, but it is only offered by a government agency, ETECSA, in certain public areas. To access it, you need to buy WiFi cards that cost $1/hour for Cubans and foreigners alike.
It looks like there are other WiFi connections available, but these are in reality homeowners or business owners who have purchased antennas to siphon off the same ETECSA WiFi. You still need to buy a card to use it, so the government doesn’t care.
Though WiFi is accessible, Cubans still cannot fully take advantage of it. They cannot buy domains and make their own websites; if a business has a website, it is made with the help of friends or family outside Cuba.
And with few credit cards and none that work outside Cuba, there is no online shopping. The same Airbnb host is now able to watch cooking YouTube videos at home thanks to increased WiFi speeds and an antennae, but she cannot buy the cooking implements that the videos recommend on Amazon. Step by step, she says, step by step. But she hopes – ojalá – that the steps can come faster.
When you live out of a backpack it’s hard to buy souvenirs, as whatever you buy you commit to carrying around. In a market in Trinidad, I came across some unique hand made jewelry with roses crafted from shells, and forced myself to wait 24 hours to see if I really wanted one. Two days later, they were still on my mind, so I made my way back to the market.
The guy at the booth didn’t remember me, and surprsingly the prices had increased by 30% in 2 days. By then, though, I had convinced myself that I wanted one, so I settled for $15 (down from $18) for a necklace instead of the previously quoted $12. It’s hard to find items that are hand made instead of factory-pressed nowadays, and told me he had copyrighted this technique of making roses out of 18 individual shells. He was a bright enterprising man who spoke Spanish, English, French, and also proudly showed me that he could say the word “shell” in Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean. So I got caught in an experiment in pricing; oh well, I don’t mind giving the extra to support him.
Okay, that’s a lie, the extra $3 does bother me. It’s only $3 to me, but that’s a lot in Cuba. Maybe there’s a lesson in there about grasping opportunities the first time, or at least negotiating harder. But I’ll make my peace with it. Best of luck to him with the shell jewelry business!