When you arrive in a country and, on day one of a three month stay realise that pretty much no one speaks your language, you know that you have a problem………. The solution? Stay in Medellin for a month to learn more Spanish.
After 4 months on the road, concentrating on anything grown-up was going to be a challenge and as I share many of the characteristics of Joey from friends when it comes to learning a language, this was going to be special.
Due to a small lack of organisation, week one was a bit of a slow start and we only managed to book 3 one hour sessions with the wonderful Diego and Angela from the ABC Spanish School, who were incredibly patient with us as we stumbled our way through the basics. After 3 hours, despite their best efforts, I could only focus on what I didn’t know or understand and felt incredibly stupid. Besides being patient teachers, it turns out that Diego is a rather gifted guitarist and we spent our second Saturday night in the rather nice Café Cliché listening to a fantastic live performance.
Week two saw us start lessons in the Elefun Spanish School, which has structured learning and other activities to help budding students. We signed up to 4 hours a day for three weeks, and for weeks 2&3, for an additional hour of one on one coaching each day. 5 hours a day……… Our heads really, really hurt.
The teachers are great. Young, bright, with a great sense of humour and a teaching style that we could work with. Even with all that, I did at times find myself having flashbacks to French lessons at school when I was completely and utterly lost and just wanted the lesson to end as quickly as possible. I was very low at times and by Friday of week one needed to find solace in 2 for 1 Mojitos. That happened on week 2 as well. Week three had a party at school. Maybe it is just a Friday thing.
J and I were in a class together and only on week two did we have another student in class. He was a charming and patient Swiss who endured the J & J ‘banter’ that our friends will know well with good grace. For the other two weeks it was just us and Jennifer, our teacher, who without doubt understands the English language better than I do and helped us understand Spanish as much as helping us to speak it.
Mostly J & I played nicely in class. Mostly.
Much fun in Elefun
What happens when you forget that there is a masculine and feminine version of the Spanish for teacher
Elefun also offered various classes and experiences. We went along to a ‘understanding chocolate’ class where we learned about good and bad chocolate and the negative effect the big companies (Nestle etc) have on poor farmers of developing countries, got to eat local food and had a free dancing class. Just so you know, I already understand chocolate pretty well......hence the running,,,,,,
The dancing lesson was hilarious. J and I have all the coordination of a Conservative government negotiating a Brexit deal and I think we found the experience far funnier than we ought to have. The best thing is that the man is most definitely the lead…… and J loves that. At times it was less dancing, more wrestling….
Our final ‘event’ was a fiesta to celebrate the immaculate conception and in Colombia, this means people coming out on to the street, lighting candles, drinking, dancing and cooking traditional food. We did a fair amount of drinking, I did a little dancing, we mostly missed out on the eating and those who have seen my Facebook photo will have seen it got a little messy for me. It was a lot of fun.
So, at the end of 70 hours of Spanish lessons, at least 15 minutes of Duolingo a day (it’s a rather fantastic language training app) and listening to bi-lingual podcasts on my runs, how are we doing? Whilst the fact that we still don’t know lots and lots and lots is undeniable, we have to admit we have come along way. We can express ourselves in most scenarios and even managed to get a little irate in Spanish with a mobile phone provider that was being less than helpful. The challenge remains listening. The locals speak Spanish in the same way a Scottish man on speed speaks English. The words can spew out into the air around us and we grapple to make sense, sometimes managing to give a coherent reply, and at other times say things we know how to say, regardless of the question asked………
Buses in all developing countries are a wonderful and sometimes challenging way to get amongst the population. Colombia is no different and is a mixture of the organised and the strange.
Medellin is lovely but everybody told us that there are some lovely places to visit outside the city at a weekend, so we drew up a list of places we wanted to visit. So far we have visited Guatape, a small town on a huge reservoir about 2 hours east of the city, and Jardin (pronounced Harden) allegedly 3 hours to the south (on a Fri afternoon it took us 4.5).
There are two big bus stations in Medellin, one in the north (Teminal Del Norte) and one in the south (………………. Can you guess what it’s called…..? Teminal Del Sur). Both are in the organised department. There are various desks selling tickets for different private companies to different destinations in the large ticket hall, separated from the departure area by security gates. It is all very controlled and whilst there are a few people who may not be the best sorts, they are few and if they are not travelling, they are no where near the buses.
The busses themselves come in varied colours and sizes and are mostly designed for Colombians……… Colombians are in general rather smaller and more lithe than the average westerner, so the seats aren’t huge. The four we have been on have all been comfortable. Two had aircon and the other two plenty of windows. They all had an entertainment system you could access through mobile devices to watch stuff in Spanish.
A ticket bought in a station gets you an allocated seat (and I managed to buy some on line and chose my seat too) and there is a boot for larger items of luggage that gets locked between stops and only the driver has the key, All very secure.
The life on these buses comes once on the trip. The order of the bus station disappears and people hop on and hop off at various places; if there’s room, jump on, so if in a pair, don’t spread out to the free seats as you leave the station as you will soon have a new friend…….who may sleep on your shoulder. There are also various vendors who hop on at various points, selling crisps, fried food, cake, pop, and stuff like selfie sticks, moving down the bus, giving their sales spiel and making transactions whilst the bus is moving. They then hop off, cross to the other side of the road, wave down a bus going the other way and do the same again until they get back to where they started.
The countryside around Medellin is heart-stoppingly beautiful. Firstly, it is very, very green and I think things grow with incredible ease. There are patches of rainforest, coffee and banana plantations, flower nurseries and lush fields everywhere you look, clinging to the dramatically steep mountains and valleys. It really is very very stunning and J and I too often say ‘crikey this is gorgeous/beautiful/amazing/a great place to buy a small farm………..
We got closer to nature in Jardin, once on a horse ride to some waterfalls near town, and once on a long walk to another waterfall that, rather spectacularly, comes through a hole in the roof of a cave.
The first was less about the waterfall and more about getting up high in the hills and being amongst the farmland. We stopped once at a small swimming hole that had a bar next to it and we enjoyed a celebratory beer with the other couple on the ride to toast their recent engagement (and got to practice more Spanish). We then climbed higher above the town and stopped in a small farm to have tea and some very traditional food consisting of sugar, milk and maize (very much not to Jodies taste). Here, and on our walk, we were surrounded by bird song, we got to see some brightly coloured parrots and smaller birds and, were greeted by one beautiful view after another.
In the evening we went to a very small park at the base of a valley that is home to the rather ridiculous yet colourful looking bird called the “Andean Cock of the Rock” whose beaks are hidden by feathers so that they look just a little bit dumb.
People who know me well will know that I love being in the country and in this countryside it is impossible not to smile.
The other feature of Jardin is its horse culture. There are a lot of good looking horses about and on a Saturday night it appears that the thing to do if you have a horse is to put on your best shirt, jeans and hat, and head into the town square. There were close to a hundred there.
The riders seem to either hop off, give the horse to a small child to look after, then go for a beer in a bar, or stay on and get a shot of rum or Aguardiente to down very quickly before trotting to the next bar. J and I found a place to drink beer, and rum and had a lovely hour or so watching a very different and rather wonderful version of a Saturday night. We thought it would be wonderful for Freddie and Mr P to visit .
In Guatape, we got out on the huge lake on a tour to Pablo Escobar’s holiday house, that was bombed by his rivals in the early ‘90s. If you’ve seen Narcos you will know all about him and I have to say he picked a great spot for a house. It remains in ruins and is run by his former security chief who somehow could afford to buy it………. It is an interesting place, but I have mixed feelings about going, as Escobar was a rather ruthless man who ruined thousands, if not millions, of lives. I will talk a bit more about Escobar when I cover the free “City Tour of Medellin”.
The other reason to go to Guatape is to walk up the impressive Piñon, a huge rock that sticks into the air, the summit of which is reached via 750 steps. At the top you can get some great photos…….. and beer with fresh mango in it. We went up at breakfast time and to me, anything with fruit in is a health food so having a glass for breakfast is absolutely fine and normal…..
The bottom line is that getting out and about from Medellin is hugely rewarding and highly recommended. Your Spanish will be tested, as few speak English, but you will find helpful and kind people looking after you in lovely places.
Medellin is a city that has about 4m people in the metro area, some of whom are amongst the richest in the world, and others, the poorest. We are, of course, staying in a suburb nearer the former but have been keen to get out and about and explore.
It is reasonably easy to get out and about thanks to a reasonably good public transport system that combines trains, trams and three ‘metro cables’. The latter are cable cars like the ones in ski resorts that take people high above the higgeldy piggeldy streets of the favelas that climb the hills ringing the city, stopping at ‘stations’ in them. They are hugely efficient and offer great views as well as a glimpse of the favelas without going in to them. They also provide a vital link to the city for those who live in the hills and need access to the city for work, education, healthcare etc. Some of the homes are in modern apartment blocks, some are rough brick and the most basic are wooden structures on stilts, built on slopes so steep a fall from the front door would probably end in a hospital visit. We are looking forward to exploring at ground level soon.
At the top of one of the public systems is a separate cable car which stretches for a couple more Kms, over the top of the hill, across some beautiful woodland into Parque Arvi. This massive park has a visitors centre, a small market and plenty of walks. So essentially, the journey from city centre to countryside takes about 30 minutes. And costs almost nothing for locals and only a little more for tourists.
We have spent a little time in the city centre too, to visit the Plaza Boltero, home of a number of statues from our new favourite artist (the fat peoples one). Whilst our suburb is safe, it is still a little edgy, especially at night. The city centre is rather more edgy, even during the day. There is a move afoot to reclaim the centre from the homeless, the prostitutes and the many people who just seem to spend the day just sitting around looking vaguely intimidating. They have a bit of a way to go. It didn’t feel unsafe, but we were very aware of who was close to us and felt markedly more relaxed when we got back to Laureles. I wouldn’t say ‘don’t go’ in daylight, but I would advise to minimise what you take and ‘give no papayas’.
Colombia is a happy place and shows that through a lot of festivals. There are festivals every month….. except November. ‘Why not November?’ I hear you cry. Coz it’s too friggin wet. It rains pretty much every day. The pattern seems to be that it rains every night and every afternoon, and that rain is very, very intense. In Bogotá, the rain is a little cold too.
We flew into Medellín during the afternoon rains/thunderstorms which caused our medium sized train to be tossed around like a medium sized plane in a thunderstorm. I don’t like bumpy flights but was slightly distracted by Andy, a charming Kiwi orchid grower who had recently relocated to Colombia, as he tried and failed to look calm, using an arm against the roof and the other against the seat in front to wedge himself into the seat whilst he talked rapidly about ‘afternoon rains’.
There was also rare civil disturbance occurring in town as we landed due to a public servants strike getting ugly. This caused the still slightly illegal Uber drivers to be even more paranoid than normal.
When you mentioned Medellín to anyone outside Colombia, they normally want to talk about Pablo Escobar. If you do the same to a Colombian they start to wax lyrical about what a beautiful city it is, about how much we will like it and about its great climate. In November this means the rain is much warmer than Bogotá, but cooler than the Caribbean coast.
We have a flat for a month in the Laureles area of the city, a safe, walking friendly, relatively flat and green suburb to the south west of the centre (Airbnb, 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, AU$40 per night) and are loving being able to unpack, wash pants without a kerffufle, cook for ourselves and occasionally watch Netflix with a glass of wine in hand. The travelling stuff is great, but a bit of normality is great too.
To get to know the area we went to an expats meet and greet in a local pub, called rather imaginatively ‘The Local Pub’. In my head, I had an image of a bunch of people like us, standing around chatting, swapping tips and resulting in people to stay in touch with for the next month. After a twenty something telling us we must push ourselves to get out of our comfort zones, another telling us about his failed Tinder date resulting in him waking up in hospital and an exceptionally dull retired, Trumpesq American cornering us with lines like ‘I don’t mean to name drop, but I used to work for Microsoft’ & “The poor have the Metrocable (a cable car public transport system), to get them into town so they have all the opportunity they need, we left.
One of the nice things about being in a city that has important things like pavements, basic road rules and pedestrian crossings, and lacks thick smog, large piles of rubbish and baking heat is that it is easy to get out and about on foot. Our Middle East leg of the trip had made us more and more immobile and the fact that our calories in had not altered meant that this was a little worrying.
Bogotá has a rather marvellous thing called the Ciclovia that involves closing down 100s of km of roads to motorists every Sunday and public holiday and opening them up to cyclists, runners, walkers, skateboarders and skaters. There are refreshment stalls, security posts and general good cheer all around, and more than one million people use it each day that it is open. It is very far from the image of the city that I had and I loved it, using it twice. The first time was to go for a run on my own. I have been trying to get back into running having had a break mostly due to environment but also missing a couple of opportunities through lack of motivation (one marathon every 10 years may well be my limit) and Bogotá was a bit of a shock to the system. I was kicking myself on my first run, finding that I had let myself go enough to find a relatively short and slow run to be a bit of a strain. It was a bit of a relief to be reminded that Bogotá is the worlds second highest capital city and has only 90% of the oxygen content that our bodies are used to. I am sure the shawarma, wine, beer, pizza etc didn’t help, but this gave me a bit of an excuse.
The second trip took J and I north to the Sunday markets in the suburb of Usequen. They are a little like a larger, more spaced out version Sydney’s Paddington markets, with loads of really interesting local crafts, entertainment and food stalls in a really nice suburb. We felt very at home, brought a hammock for the Folly, drank craft beer and smiled a lot. Well worth a visit.
Towards the end of the day, the heavens opened very seriously and we first took shelter in a boozer before realising that Cinema Paradiso across the road showed films with their original soundtrack and Spanish subtitles, let you take booze into the film and was showing Bohemian Rhapsody. The cinema is great and the film fantastic.
Bogotá is a reasonably diverse city, with different characteristics in different suburbs, although ethnic diversity seems very limited when compared with other major cities like Sydney, London or Paris. We saw some of the more ‘colourful’ areas when we visited the huge fruit and flower market on the edge of Downtown (if you like real, working markets I recommend holding out until you get to Medellin’s more manageable and friendlier Plaza De Mercado La America) and the up and coming area of Chapinero. The latter is allegedly the centre of the cities gay area and this is why we went. Generalising hugely, J and I associate the gay community with style, flair, good places to eat and drink, good music, fun and friendliness. We must have got the wrong place and I cannot imagine any of our gay friends choosing to live there. This area is ok, but a little ropey and the best place we found was a very small craft beer place where we took shelter until our Uber arrived, returning us to our local area and 3 for 1 Mojito’s. The evening got a little messy……
The other bits
Bogotá is not all posh. We concluded that we were staying in the Knightsbridge of the city after taking trips to the Swindon, Hull and Newcastle sink estate parts of town. I should have understood that we were in the posh bit when I found three different types of Fevertree tonic in the local supermarket.
In some ways we hoped that we were in a particularly posh bit as it was also a reasonably expensive bit. Not Singapore expensive but close to Sydney prices, which is fine, except that our budget assumptions were that Colombia would be relatively cheap. As we took shelter from a rain storm in a small bar in the old Downtown area, drinking Caprihinias for about AU$4 each and beers for AU$2, we realised that all was well in the world. This scenario could have gone horribly wrong, except that we knew that this part of town was unsafe after dark so had a reason to leave before it got too messy.
So is Bogoata safe? There is a great expression here; ‘Don’t give papaya’, which basically means don’t let yourself be taken advantage of. In practice this means that we do not wear our rings or watches, I carry a wallet with decoy cards and a little money to give up easily in the event we are ‘asked’ for our money and the minimal amounts of the rest of the stuff I carry is in a deeper hide. We stay aware of who is around us and we don’t go to deserted areas.
On our first night in Medellin, we went along to an expats gathering in a local boozer and met a young man who had been drugged on a Tinder date and woke up in hospital robbed of all his stuff and suffering concussion. J and I have decided not to go on any Tinder dates.
This makes it all sound very dodgy, but all these things are easy to do and we really do feel ok here, walking places at night, drinking in more local places and generally relaxing. It is pretty typical of any large South American city.
Bogotá’s ‘unsafe at night’ downtown area is home to big old buildings, narrow streets of old houses and some great museums so it is worth going there in daylight. We loved the Boltera museum. It has some great international works but is home to many works by the artist the place is named after. He paints and sculpts various normal scenes but everything is fat. The people, the dogs, the horses, the fruit; all fat. But fat in a nice way and J and I smiled all the way around.
The first leg
You know that you have been staying in some pretty dodgy places if you find yourself looking forward to the ‘normality’ of Bogotá. The city has a bit of a reputation….for drug crime, violence, murder and kidnapping, but the FTs view is that the reality rarely lives up to the reputation (mostly……. though Trump really is as big a cockwomble as people thought he would be), so we like to try these places.
We arrived in Bogotá at 4am after a long journey from Amman which took us via Istanbul and London, with long stopovers in both. The joy of flying on points. In Istanbul, after a bad start in a very busy lounge, J managed to nab us two ‘suites’, small rooms with comfortable beds, tvs and showers just across the corridor. It turned a potentially bad experience into a very good one. If you do get stuck in the Turkish Airlines lounge in Istanbul, don’t fret; it is probably the best I have been in, with loads of sitting options, things to do, like pool, and a great range of food and booze (though no Worcestershire sauce for Bloody Mary’s (#firstworldproblems))
London was a little more fun as, we zoomed into Notting Hill to pick up some new UK bank cards (our current ones run out in Jan) then met Guy and Thomas in our old local, the Sun in Splendour at the top of Portobello Road. There, we (or I) drank too much Guinness, talked a lot of rubbish then headed back to Heathrow, nearly leaving it too late…..
The upshot is that we arrived in Bogotá feeling dirty both inside and out.
We got a good deal on a good hotel, the B.O.G Hotel, and had booked in for the previous night so that we could get straight into the room, followed by a shower, then breakfast (that included champagne………..Always get straight back on the horse), then a kip.
My first venture out on the streets took me out into an area that had all the characteristics of a wealthy modern city, full of well known shops, good restaurants and garages selling expensive cars. The only difference was the visibly high security. The signs of poverty (beggars and street performers) were just a variation of the stuff we see in every city we have been too.
Decades of violent crime has had a marked impact on security firms over here though. When I see the teams moving money around in Oz and the UK I am often glad that the threat level is low and they are not moving my money. Old/overweight men, looking like they are auditioning for Dad’s Army. Here it is very very different. The low level skills, tactics and alertness is quite inspiring. Any platoon commander in any operational theatre would be proud to see their troops behaving the same way. Think Special Forces rather than Dad’s Army.
The other slightly disturbing thing was that even in this very wealthy area, very few people spoke any English. Our Spanish will be tested!
The B.O.G Hotel
One thing that was particularly noticeable was how colourful and green everything was after a long period spent mostly looking at desert. It was almost overwhelming. It reminded me a bit of returning to Germany from Iraq after 5 months of staring at sand. Back in 2003 the Army was beginning to understand the importance of decompression even if they didn’t do a good job. For me it meant a drive to a staging area near the Iraq/Kuwaiti border, where we were expected to spend 24 hours decompressing with others on the flight out, sitting with your kit, in a taped off area of desert, with a couple of cam nets and tents for shade. I arrived rather early for my flight so after 30 minutes of ‘decompression’ it was decided to put me on that days flight. The result was that about 12 hours after leaving Basra, I was back in Herford, looking at green stuff in awe, with a smile from ear to ear but feeling rather out of place.
It’s odd, the things that stay with you. Arriving in Bogotá felt a bit like that.
Around the hotel