Teleférico (Medellín, Colombia)

Teleferico in Medellin

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.

Ley Seca (Medellín, Colombia)

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!

Conversation with a Chinese comrade (Bogotá, Colombia)

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 comeback (Bogotá, Colombia)

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.

A taste of chica (Bogotá, Colombia)

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!

Unofficial taxi from the airport (Bogotá, Colombia)

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!