Those locals were absolutely right. Screw Domino’s, Pizza Paisa is where it’s at. Me and Brad are enjoying the Thursday special on the sidewalk of La Setenta, this being one large pizza and a bottle of coke (the legal kind) for less than 10 USD total. Spelling this out makes me wonder if we’ve already become complacent after a mere few weeks in our apartment in the homey neighborhood of Laureles. Brad and Dieter, married, no kids, out on Thursdaynight pizzanight. We’re both kind of having a deep thought day, each with our thousand yard stare. Can’t figure out what his deal is exactly. He is pretty mysterious after all. As for me, I’m wondering if we can’t throw a small handgrenade into our schedule to blast something into fun little bits. Whatever that special thing is middle aged guys do to ruin their marriages and put them in that sports car, but like a pocket travel version of that.
It’s an ongoing balancing act. On one hand, I want to be prepared, putting in the work setting up guaranteed appointments with carefully selected individuals to have a drink and a good time, cherrypicking parks to spend an afternoon, looking up events. On the other hand however, I really just want to put my foot on my phone, pull the plug on anything that is connected to any sort of organizational tool and run off into the fields screaming. Talk to the random old man, get into trouble. Both strategies seem to deliver some of the goods. Maybe because we’re not that in control in the first place, that most of daily life is ‘things happening to you’, and the real difference here is that the former strategy resides in denial, the latter in acceptance. The one is frustrating, the other simply frightening.
Fast forward 24 hours. From Poblado Park we notice our favorite balcony has just opened up for business, so it’s time to go grab a few beers there and continue our usual conversational stream of confusion, insights and epiphanies. After a while, as we sit there, a gentleman starts a conversation. “Where are you guys from?”, and so it goes. The man’s been coming to Medellin every year for the past decade to escape after ten months of hard work to do exactly the opposite of that: absolutely nothing. He’s nice enough, and after about an hour of cheersing and plowing through the pleasantries, he invites us along to go check out the center of Medellin.
I’m thinking: this is it. The universe delivers. This is way of life number two that I was thinking of, and the way to live it is to shout out a resounding yes. Hands up in the air, release all control. A man you barely know is about to take you into unknown territory, in a city that not too long ago was known as the murder capital of the world. Very little can go wrong.
We hop in the cab, and on the way there he keeps promising us glorious things. He says the women will be all over us. He hopes we’re not offended by prostitutes and drugs. I’ve seen worse, so I don’t mind that much. There’s a ton of traffic, so after a little while he explains we can walk the last stretch and see some of the lively squares at nighttime. It’s not very late, but the sun has set a while ago. We get out and start walking, crossing huge busy streets with those crazy colorful buses passing by, little shops working late, trinketsalesmen see us and immediately start shouting in English “Hey my brother!” We pass by several fruitsellers shouting the prices and promotions of the day through a megaphone, trying to outdo each other. It is literally the most insane sound you will ever hear. Like listening to seven radiostations at the same time at maximum volume. You just don’t know where it’s coming from anymore. What a novel experience, I keep thinking as I laugh.
A mere block to go to our new acquaintance’s watering hole, we’re walking alongside another busy street. One guy approaches us from the side, his friend following close behind. He seems to be asking for money, which happens about every 30 seconds here, especially if you look white and thus are rich by definition. We say our usual ‘no gracias’ with a big smile as we continue down our path in a normal fashion. But these ones aren’t letting it slide. They come up closer, and closer, until one of them put his hand on our old friend’s pocket as he keeps harassing him. Immediately, the gringo pulls out a baton from his back pocket, extends it into battle mode, and starts yelling as he continues to march backwards. Now the local kids go into battle mode too: knives appear, according to Brad very much larger than potato knives. I am barely aware of this because I’m in front of our old man and he’s blocking my view, but this is the moment we go “Run, they’ve got fucking knives” and we all pick up the pace, hauling ass to the corner, crossing streets ignoring a few red lights. We escape and make it to the bar without a scratch. We’re pretty sure they’ve given up the hunt.
This is not just a bar anymore. This has been upgraded to hideout status, to calm down and reflect on what had just happened. I didn’t personally see the knives, so I’m not as much in shock as the others, so for me this is where life goes on in normal fashion. Then again, I tend to be an oblivious idiot, which might just be my greatest strength. The owner of the bar shows us his sympathy and regrets this happening to us. Several older guys in the bar start chatting us up, all of them introducing themselves very politely. The general message they convey in Spanish is that they’re not used to seeing our kind there, and we should be careful in this area, making a ‘watch out’ gesture as they put their fingers on their cheeks, pointing at their wide open eyes. One curious looking character, with oily sunglasses and a white backwards cap not entirely fixed on his head, comes over to me to wish me all the best of luck, and hands me a little token, a fake little gem. As we continue to drink our oversized underpriced beers, we’re basically all over the place, shaking hands, being welcomed, cheersing new friends. This brings me to a valuable lesson.
Lesson number one: always give value to those around you. We really were fish out of water there, and it’s important to stay aware of that. It’s a form of humility. Anywhere you are, strangers can have bad intentions with you, and it’s vital to keep the ones with good intentions loyally on your side. We will probably mention this now and then on this blog, but one core concept that has been dear to us for many years is that of giving value. You have value in unlimited supply, and you can hand out as much of it as you please. It’s completely free and most people will gladly throw some back at you to return the favor. It comes in the form of acceptance, acknowledgment, genuine eye contact, being thankful, being humble, being nice. Every single person we cheersed and introduced ourselves to in that bar had our back now. Because everyone you see around you, they’re not just mindless extras on the stage of your little dream-trip, they’re real people. So wherever you go, welcome nice people into your life, throw them genuine compliments, have casual chats with the clerks and the old men on the street corners. You never know just when value of any form might get deposited back to your account and make your life even more memorable.
Though most of us are still on edge, the gringo invites us along to another bar just a block away. After what happened we’re not exactly sure about exposing ourselves again, but we’re not on high enough alert yet to push him aside and start running for the hills, so we move. As we sit down at this other bar, we realize this place is even sketchier than the last. Ladies with clothes too revealing and smiles too inviting to just be your average girl next door. People selling little things, extra clingy and intrusive because we look like giant wallets. We befriend a guy next to us who looks like a Colombian Dave Franco, and he takes us under his wing for our time there. He introduces us to his friends, gets rid of people who annoy us too much, offers us little candies stashed away in his phone case. The kind of guy that’s comfortable in a bad place, but has a good heart and a friendly slightly drunk face to prove it. No matter how rough it gets here, most people are very excited that foreigners have accepted Colombia as their tourist destination, and really don’t want any of their fellow citizens to ruin this. Most of them do not like the reputation their country has in the outside world, and they are truly grateful when someone is willing to look past it and give them a chance. It really is mostly superfriendly people and good times here.
People just start asking us for more and more stuff, offering us more and more, until Brad goes: “That’s it, we need to get the fuck out of here, now” with a big smile concealing his concern. My attention is all over the place. I know it’s not 100% safe to just hail a taxi in the street, so I take out my taxi app and request one. In the meantime our gringo has fallen asleep at the bar, probably from the adrenaline rush from before. A friend of our protector keeps asking me if we want another beer, and our protector himself keeps shouting at his taxi driver friend to come over and help us get to safety. I look back at my phone and the app is doing all sorts of weird buggy stuff. It tells me the taxi has arrived but shows me it is still blocks away. We decide to go with the friendly, maybe slightly on edge, taxi driver that has been vouched for by our local Dave Franco, get in the cab, lock the doors, and breathe as we head back to more Disneyfied areas of Medellin.
Funny thing is: by the time we get back to the area dubbed Gringolandia, the hotspot for backpackers and gringos, and we order our beers, it’s only 8 o’clock, still earlier than when we started the party the week before. We put our exhausted friend in another cab home, and spend the next hour lounging in a sofa overlooking Parque Lleras, discussing what we learned from the day, enjoying a few more expensive smaller size beers. We live to tell our tales another day.
Lesson number two: travel lessons aren’t always romantic. They’re not always cute little anecdotes with pink bows around them. We as happy backpackers tend to paint a story of true adventure over our actual reality of staying within walking distance of the hostel, hanging out with other travelers obliviously mispronouncing the places we’ve been, and picking our crazy experiences out of a catalogue for cash. At most we spread second-hand anecdotes of interesting people we met. Basically, the things we learn rarely transcend lessons from living in student housing for the first time, very safe and controlled. It’s only the moments when you turn around and you’re held at gunpoint you might learn something new, and though none of us wish it happens to us, we walk away with a newfound wisdom we should hold tight with both hands. Which brings me to my next point:
Lesson number three: what doesn’t kill you, does make you stronger. Flash back to about three years ago, as I stand by the side of the highway marveling at the beauty of my crashed Peugeot lying on its side, hypnotized by the wheels still spinning madly in fifth gear. I had just climbed out, somehow unharmed, aside from a little bruise on my arm. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for having survived this. Had things gone just slightly differently at any moment, it could have been tons worse. Thank God the highway was fairly empty too. Later I would go on to tell this story with excitement. What always makes people chuckle in confusion is that I think, as long as you get out unharmed, everybody should experience the rush of being in a car as it’s crashing at least once. With respect to people who’ve experienced permanent loss of any kind, of course. Although maybe even that makes one appreciate life in a way that was simply incomprehensible before.
Lessen number four: honestly, this can happen in every big city. We can blame the dangerous streets of Medellin until dawn, but the fact is, every city has its areas that poorer people are forced into. The people that simply got to do what they got to do to get by. Brad lived in Los Angeles for a long time, and reminded me it’s no different. All the way to Amsterdam there’s areas we shouldn’t go showing off our iPhones, right in the cities we call home.
Oh yeah, and lesson number five: steer clear of the old-skool expat mentality. This is what our friend reeked of a bit. The community of older guys who pick these countries to go live, because they deem them less evolved, and the prostitutes are cheaper. The Gringos here have a bad reputation because of this, just as the middleaged German has in Thailand. I’ve been to places where the higher educated locals barely want to have anything to do with me, because they put me in the category of expats who invade their land and want to violate their women. Again, you’re not home, be humble, be respectful, and it might just pull you out of a sticky situation one of these days.
What about you folks? Ever been in a bad spot during traveling that taught you a valuable lesson? Do we still sound like spoiled snots and you want to give us a piece of your mind? By all means, let us know in the comments!