Tried my hand at graffiti, it’s harder than it looks!
Beautiful artwork of Comuna 13:
- An outdoor slide in commemoration of a young boy who died in a crossfire
- Love birds (and lonely single mushrooms on the right)
- A mother and her fetus
- Elephants mourning their dead
- An eagle, which breaks its beak and plucks its feathers in order to survive and fly higher than before
- A broken panda toy that symbolizes childhoods lost
- “Desarma tus palabras”
In the 1990s, Medellín was one of the most dangerous cities in the world, and Comuna 13 was the most dangerous area of Medellín.
Now, foreigners flock to Comuna 13 to take a graffiti tour, ride the cable car, or simply walk around. Things have clearly changed drastically in the past 20 years, but how much? Well, before entering Comuna 13, the guide warned us to be careful with our cameras…
“…. Because you don’t want to run out of battery or space on your SD card, because those are the only things that might happen to it while you’re here.”
Even though I took Spanish classes throughout middle and high school, I didn’t practice it at all for around 7 years after graduation. So when I first arrived in Chile in November, I could barely remember that to speak is “hablar,” for “yo no hablo español.” After 2 months in Patagonia, I slowly refreshed my vocabulary and verb conjugations, but I wanted to get a more formal review of all the been tenses and grammar rules that I had lost.
I heard that the one of the best countries to study Spanish was Colombia because of it’s neutral accent, so I found the Toucan language school in Medellín and studied there for 2 weeks. I got the wonderful Gabriela as a teacher, who rushed me through all the forms of the subjunctive at my bequest, challenged me to discuss my views on gun control and the Chinese government in Spanish, and whose only fault was the refusal to teach me any palabras malas. Muchas gracias Gabriela, aprendí mucho y me divertí mucho en tus clases!
A couple of times people have asked me why I’m studying Spanish again, and I have to admit that it doesn’t make too much sense. My plan has been to live in Asia, where I likely won’t use any Spanish at all. But I’ve met so many beautiful and kind and fascinating people across Chile, Argentina, Cuba, and Colombia in the past 4 months, and my true motivation is to be able to talk to them in their native language. Some speak such excellent English that I’ll never be able to compete, but for others I hope that speaking Spanish will allow us to communicate even better. Plus with Spanish, English, and Mandarin under my belt, I’m one step closer to world domination! 😉
This eclectic building in downtown Medellín was originally an administrative building, but now it is a palace of culture open to the public. Construction started in 1925, and the building was designed by the Belgian architect Agustín Goovaerts.
According to an unsubstantiated but hilarious story from a guide, Goovaerts supervised the construction of the first 1/4 of the building according to his original Gothic Revival style design. But before the rest was built, Goovaerts had some sort of conflict with the locals and left the city in a huff. The locals thought, “that’s alright, we don’t need this architect, we can finish it ourselves.” But they couldn’t understand the blue prints, so they gave up and finished the building with what the guide kindly described as a “minimalistic” design.
At 9:30pm on June 10th of 1995, during a public celebration in San Antonio square, a bomb exploded and killed around 30 people. Someone put a bomb in a backpack and left it on this Botero statue at the edge of the square.
When the city cleaned up the mess, they planned to remove the ruined statue and trash it. But the mayor received a call from none other than Botero himself, warning that if the statue was removed, the people would forget. So the statue stayed and a second, undamaged one was installed. They remind people of the damage that occurred and send a message of rebirth and renewal.
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.