It’s been a silent few weeks here at the Naked Pun, as uni work has been getting on top of me. A few weeks ago we had Universidad del Rosario’s mid semester break, but because of a general apathy towards university work and a tendency to procrastinate, I could only afford a long weekend’s worth of actual holiday. As ever, partners in crime Chris, Robbie and Johan came along to keep me company and, in the case of Johan and Robbie, take a break from uni schedules that seem far more demanding than my own.
We procrastinated too long to get cheap flights, but the overnight bus was a breeze with the help of a few beers. Upon arrival at Medellin’s humming multilevel bus terminal, we began to realise something horrific – Medellin might just be better than Bogotá. There’s mountains on all sides, it’s warm and hey, check how clean this bus station is! At its most crowded, Medellin’s efficient metro system is virtually empty compared to Bogotás torturous Transmilenio, and although the weather seems more favourable for the destitute, homelessness seems like less of an issue. We found a hostel in the Laureles district, and proceeded to marvel at the heat and all the green space.
The day we arrived was Johan’s birthday. I’ll leave out the details of the night’s celebrations, but just imagine the most foul, depraved, disgusting spectacle that you could possibly think four gringos could find themselves in a city that’s home to Antioqueño aguardiente, Colombia’s worst cocaine traffickers, Medellin Rum, and women who are reputedly the most beautiful in Colombia (and that’s before they get their boob and bum implants). On second thoughts, probably best if you picture the second or third most depraved scene you could imagine. I know what some of you freaks are capable of.
Our second day was spent in recovery and marveling some more at a Colombian city where things seem to actually work. Wide, clean streets! Kids with mullets! A cable car took us up and over the poorer slums and barrios climbing the mountains that surround Medellin on almost all sides, like a pair of cupped hands, and into the mountainous forests that shape the roof of the city. We wandered aimlessly in the rain, Robbie thought an animal growled at him from the bushes, and then we got stuck in the cable car station for an hour or two while the afternoon storms put on a show outside. Johan also got to experience the cringe that comes with meeting fellow countrymen overseas for possibly the first time with two ignorant, middle aged Dutch women. While gringos in Colombia are a relatively rare sight, idiot Australians looking for cocaine and wearing thongs, short shorts, Von Zippers and oversized singlets with pictures of semi-naked women unfortunately make up a sizeable minority.
In the evening I headed out solo to El Poblado – a district of upper class nightclubs that looks a little like Disneyland – to catch up with Juan, a friend who I’d met back in Brisbane while he was learning English. I should thank Juan and his friends for an incredible night, and the shots he bought to start things off where the guy not only managed to light the drinks on fire, but the entire bar as well. Enough said.
Johan, Chris and Robbie wisely stayed in that night, and were fresh and rested to go paragliding the next morning. Paragliding isn’t much of an adrenaline rush – you simply run off the edge of a mountain, hopefully the parachute catches you, and you dangle your feet while the guy on your back steers. But it is a hell of a lot of fun. Hanging over the edge of the city, swirling upwards in thermal currents, gawking at waterfalls and watching birds as they hover below you is probably one of the closest experiences humankind will get to the sensation of flying. Doing so with a monumental hangover is probably closer to hell. After the half hour you paid for, you’re about ready to come down. Usually, you’d be stoked when the guy on your back misses the landing and sends you sailing back out over the abyss. “Bueno, es más tiempo para ti!” (“No worries, more time for you!”) he cries, and off you go searching for another thermal to take you high enough to land. After an hour’s fruitless search, you’re thinking through an emergency strategy to empty your guts from one hundred metres in the air without getting anything on yourself or the guide. Finally he decides to land further down the mountain, then take a taxi together back to meet your friends who have your phone, wallet and camera. Then he decides to abandon you at the bus station, leaving you to beg for the 1800 pesos for a metro ticket. I didn’t have my camera to capture the look of that unfortunate man when he found himself inexplicably approached by a gringo, begging for some change to get home.
We went out once again that night, but nothing too memorable went down. That said, I will never forget the spectacle of a midget getting lap dances in one of the dodgiest strip clubs known to man, and trying to suppress our giggles for fear that he might be some kind of gangster. Every other patron in the place definitely had some suggestive looking bulges in their pants that had nothing to do with the strippers grinding away at their legs. I don’t even know how the hell we ended up in that god-forsaken place.
Another highlight was the Parque Explora Medellin, a science centre/aquarium/reptile house/awesome excuse to regress to childhood. Anacondas were shuddered at, races were run with a virtual cheetah and clown fish were referred to as ‘Nemo’. Here we found the peculiar Colombian obsession with portrait photography in full swing. There are two types of Colombian portrait, divided along gender lines. The first is rather innocent, and practiced exclusively by Colombian women: Here’s me smiling in front of a snake. Here’s me smiling in front of a wind tunnel. Here’s me with my arms around friends in front of an empty fish tank. The background of the Colombian portrait really doesn’t hold much importance. Colombian men take things far more seriously: Here’s me standing side on and scowling in front of a palm tree. Here’s me with my arms crossed, giving the blue steel with a mechanical dinosaur. Here’s me standing side on, hands in the pockets this time, pursing my lips and flexing my biceps in front of an exhibition on sound waves. Thank heavens the ‘selfie’ remains largely undiscovered here.
The bus ride home was another highlight. Unable to find an overnight seat with one of the more conventional bus companies, we entrusted ourselves to a very shady group of men who insisted the bus was two minutes away, so we had to hurry. An hour and a half later the group had swollen to around one hundred people. Everyone was nervous – we knew we weren’t all going to fit on one bus. As a result, each time a bus even looked like it was going to stop nearby, a hundred people would stampede off to swarm around the door, only to be told off by a thoroughly rattled driver. The fine, upstanding men in charge of the whole operation took us five minutes walk up the highway to wait in the rain for another hour, and a child was almost crushed to death in the melee that ensued when the bus finally arrived around 9pm. We didn’t get a seat, but the fine upstanding men in charge promised another one was on the way. Then they disappeared. We waited another hour in the rain until the most pathetic excuse for a bus of all time wheezed to a stop in front of us. The fine, upstanding men in charge reappeared and decided they wanted to charge 10000 pesos more than the agreed price, but Johan had to be back in Bogotá the next day so we were in no place to argue. We waited half an hour while the fine, upstanding men in charge bickered and threw tantrums over the division of the money. I would liken the next ten hours to being trapped in a paint shaker. Bogotá was grey, cold and raining when we arrived in the morning, and remained so for the next week.
Medellin seems a far more livable city than Bogotá. Of course the centre of the city, where we spent most of our time, is more upper class than the rest, so our experience was undoubtedly a little sanitised. We didn’t get much of a look at the poorer barrios beyond a glimpse from behind the glass of a cable car, dangling twenty metres above it all. But the streets are wider and cleaner, the climate is warmer and the trees and gardens are pleasing to the eye. Here in Bogotá, to walk to the Exito supermarket down Calle 11 means being hassled by at least two homeless people, dodging traffic on the potholed roads and swimming through rubbish and pedestrians on too-narrow sidewalks. But I still prefer Bogotá. Life’s a little more edgy here, and there’s always something going on – film festivals, theatre, music festivals, art exhibitions. Medellin’s a place to have a family. Bogotá’s a place to be a reckless youngster, the Sydney or Melbourne to Medellin’s Brisbane. I know some who’d disagree, but I wouldn’t trade Bogotá just yet.
The semester’s almost over, two months of travel is just around the corner, and in four days I’m heading off to do possibly the most irresponsible thing I will do this year. Stay tuned.