Knowing my time in Colombia’s second city was going to be limited, before setting off I searched “24 Hours in Medellín.”
Our frenetic lives have birthed a cottage industry in guides to cities that have time pressure as a guiding principle: 48 Hours in Hong Kong, 36 Hours in Lagos, 24 Hours in Amsterdam. They follow a useful formula, mixing recommendations for iconic sights with supposedly offbeat suggestions for backstreet bars where you can hang out with the locals and the best places to try out the local delicacy. It’s a ticklist pretending not to be.
Imagine the mild panic then, when arriving in Medellín I quickly realised that the time between lunch, an interview with El Colombiano and my event in the Hay Festival programme, talking about travel writing with Sabrina Duque and Esteban Carlos Mejia, would not be twenty-four hours but something more like a tenth of that time.
‘So there’s plenty of time for you to relax,’ said the host, greeting me with news of the tight schedule. ‘The hotel has a wonderful spa, a gym, and have you seen already the pool?’
I stopped listening at ‘relax’. Did this lady realise she was talking to a man so averse to the claustrophobic comforts of five-star hotels that on the day after his wedding he left the Celtic Manor Resort with his new wife to go to a kebab shop in the vibrant Maindee district of Newport? I had not come to the Formerly Most Dangerous City in the World™ to swim some lengths and pad around in a pair of hotel slippers and a white fluffy dressing gown.
Over lunch – the typical local dish of bandeja paisa, the regional dish of the Antioqua region, a huge brunch platter comprising white rice, red beans, ground meat, chicharron dried pork crackling, a fried egg, plantain, chorizo, morcilla black pudding and avocado that puts the English breakfast to shame (tick!) – I fell into conversation with Irene Vasco, a Colombian children’s author who has made it her mission over the last two decades to visit some of the most remote and dangerous parts of the country to promote education, books and reading.
Telling her of my plan to use my two and a half hours of free time, she insisted I did not go into downtown Medellín alone, and after just a moment’s thought offered herself as a tour guide. What did I want to do? The only thing I said I was set on was riding the cable cars. I had read a few articles and seen a couple of documentaries that featured the former mayor of Medellín and the successful transformation of the city. A brand new metro system had incorporated cable cars to solve the problems presented by geography, reconnecting the former no-go barrios that during the time of Pablo Escobar had been the most dangerous districts in the world with the wealthier areas of the city. I’d also read about a fantastic library that had been built as a community hub in one of these districts, a development that had changed and was changing lives.
I had pressed the right button. It turned out Irene was a library enthusiast. Later in the afternoon, after a short taxi ride to Exposiciones, the metro station at the start of our journey, Irene made a habit of asking passers-by, ‘Hay una biblioteca aqui? – Is there a library here?’ Most met the question with a bemused shrug, but occasionally it opened up a brief conversation that confirmed what I’d also read: that despite the violence that has dogged their country over the last half century, Colombians are one of the happiest, friendliest peoples on earth.
‘Make sure you look after your belongings,’ Irene warned me periodically. ‘This is a big city, and it can be dangerous’. We walked through a busy shopping street crowded with fruit-sellers, sweet-hawkers and people just generally shouting things. ‘You can get anything you like, here,’ she assured me. ‘You want a gun? You can buy a gun, drugs, anything!’ But despite the heat – 28 degrees made this the hottest day I’ve ever experienced in January – and the relative unfamiliarity of the surroundings, I felt no less safe than had I been in London. And here you could talk to people on public transport.
The cable cars were everything I had hoped for, and more. Not only did they afford spectacular views across a sprawling conurbation of four million people, but it was clear what a difference this infrastructural intervention had made to the communities they served. Irene explained that although Medellín had been and still was the most violent city in Colombia, it is also ‘la mas civica’ – the most civic minded. She compared it to her native Bogota, where public sector progress is constantly undermined by corruption. Medellín still has its mafiosos, controlling the businesses, small traders and even the street-hawkers in particular districts. But the gangs no longer control the city itself: in fact, they benefit from the new schools, hospitals, libraries. These basic state interventions offer poor people better alternatives to the grim choices they faced in the past.
Even the arrangement of the seats within each cable car is conducive to social interaction and integration. We share our pod with a wide-featured lady whose racial mix is typical of Colombians who can usually trace Spanish and indigenous ancestors if not African blood too, and two pretty teenage girls, one with ‘Juan Pablo’ tattooed across her forearm in a flourish that makes me hope for her sake that Juan Pablo is one of the good guys. The final member of our newly formed community is a Catholic priest, a man in late middle age with thin greying hair carefully combed backwards from a gentle face. He wears a v-neck grey sleeveless pullover and a lilac coloured shirt; a silver cross hangs from a rosary around his neck.
The priest talks animatedly with the teenagers in a manner that makes me wonder whether this might not be some kind of outing on a social programme. The girls have the slightly disconcerting air of being simultaneously older and younger than their fifteen or so years.
When we reach Juan XIII, Irene points out the name of the station. It means as much to me as Gareth Bale does to the priest, the first time my failsafe icon of Welshness has met with as many blank stares as the name of the country itself. We have had to settle on my coming from somewhere in the unimaginable hinterland between Inglaterra and the sea near the south of Ireland. Learning that Juan XIII was a Papa, a Pope, I apologise to the priest. ‘Lo siento, padre – soy cristiano pero catolico, no.’ He smiles and we agree that through JesuCristo we have more in common than that which divides us.
As Medellin is laid out before us like a map, the priest describes himself as both missionary and exorcist. Irene asks him about the call for such work in the poor barrios of Medellin where he has worked for the last twenty years, since arriving as a young man from Guayaquil in Ecuador. What is clear from his response is that evil still lurks in these neighbourhoods but that the situation has vastly improved during his time here.
While the priest deals with the spiritual fallout of the Medellín Cartel’s reign of terror, Irene’s life has been dedicated to more earthly concerns. We stroll briefly at La Aurora – the top of the hill and the end of Al Occidente, the western line of the metrocable. As we descend, a quieter carriage this time – free of tattooed teenagers and exorcists – Irene points out the schools, hospitals and of course libraries that along with the Metro have formed centres for ramshackle neighbourhoods that would otherwise be simply huge collections of unregulated houses, teetering layers of bricks, wood and rusty corrugated iron, piso piled on piso. Unremarkable in themselves, it is clear what a difference this basic infrastructure has made to the people who live here. A metro ticket costs just two thousand pesos – half the price of a coffee, and therefore within reach of almost everybody.
As we reach San Antonio, where the cable car connects to the train, Irene’s enthusiasm for civic renewal reaches fever pitch. From the metro stop, she points to a building beyond a barbed wire fence: ‘That used to be a prison for women.’ It is now a school. ‘I went there many years ago, to talk to the women about books,’ she says. In the train carriage she adds a detail, as if she could not have brought herself to mention it earlier.
‘Where we were: that was Comuna 13.’ Irene looks at me earnestly, wondering if I have caught the full implication of her meaning. ‘That was the most notorious barrio, wasn’t it?’ I say. She nods in affirmation.
At the next station, she stops at what looks like a small shop, the kind of space that back home would be occupied by Greggs or McDonalds or Dunkin’ Donuts. It is a library.
Staffed by two smart young men sitting at a desk, there are five or six computer terminals and two pentagon-shaped recesses in the wall where a child might cosy up with a book. Shelves are lined with a mix of new and second-hand books, but the décor is fresh and contemporary: sleek lines and san serif fonts. Opposite the desk is a set of laminate steps. A woman sits engrossed in a novel. I struggle to translate a quotation from the Uruguayan poet and journalist Mario Benedetti that appears as if on a transport information board: I love you as if to read you every night, line by line, space after space.
Meanwhile, Irene picks up a small book, the size of a mobile phone. It is called Medellin in 100 words and features the winners of a flash-form competition to describe the city; it is free to take, the idea being that you read it on the metro and leave it in the next station for somebody else to enjoy.
Before hailing one of the city’s yellow taxis to return to the hotel, Irene takes me on a breakneck tour of downtown, the city’s central plazas a riot of noise and colour. She points out the Palacio de la Cultura (tick!), the Nutibara Hotel, an art deco edifice that was once the playground of the great and the good (tick!), we have a two minute sit down in the cathedral, the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Candelaria, its pews packed with people praying or procrastinating (tick!) and then view the weird and wonderful bloated sculptures in the plaza named after Fernando Botero, one of Latin America’s foremost artists and self-described ‘most Colombian of Colombian artists’ (tick!).
No matter that two and a half hours is by no means enough to ‘do’ Medellín, as Irene and I reflected in the cable car, suspended high above this battered, bruised and beautiful metropolis, we can never truly know a city. Even the ones we live in hold secrets from us in their histories and in the lives of strangers. Better perhaps to find just one true ‘hidden gem’.
And here I am, already leaving Medellín with a treasure trove of memories and a small book stuffed tightly into the pocket of my jeans (you can never be too careful!). If Medellinenses can capture something of their city in just a hundred words, I am sure I can live off these 2.4 hours for quite some time to come.
And when South Wales gets its Metro, I’ll leave this hidden gem at a station for you.
Dylan Moore is Creative Wales Hay Festival International Fellow 2018/19, travelling to each Hay Festival edition, exploring issues of displacement and exile. His debut collection, Driving Home Both Ways, is out now.