‘I am sad and shocked’. M put into words what I had been thinking as our tourist bus negotiated its way through the city centre traffic in Medellin. M only had a few days in Medellin before flying home so we had opted to go on one of those big red tourist buses and get a good overview of the city. We had seen some beautiful places and parks but we were now driving along underneath the metro line in the Prado barrio. Our hostel receptionist had marked this on our map with a big red cross for danger and we now knew why. The long central reservation which was straddled by the brightly painted concrete legs of the overpass that held up the railway lines and which ran alongside our road was not peopled by jugglers, families or fruit sellers like in other places. In the cold light of day, or rather in the midday sunlight and sitting, standing or lying in full view were men and women either taking drugs or lying comatose from the effects of them.
A young woman who may have been seventeen or twenty seven with dirty blond hair stared at us with blank eyes as she deeply inhaled from a paper bag. Watching her as she sat alone and cross legged on the paving slabs I could only think with a deep sadness that she was somebody’s daughter or sister or friend. Just a little bit further along a man was heating up and inhaling something from a tin foil wrap and then we spotted countless other men and women doing the same.
It was sad and unsettling and in a country where massive numbers of people are dressed in rags and sleep on pavements or in parks, wash and clean their teeth in fountains and rivers or huddle barefoot under tarpaulins when it rains, it was a reality check. Colombia is one of the richest countries in South America yet it appears to have more social problems, crime and danger than many of the poorer ones, ot at least, the worst of them are on public show.
Our arrival in Medellin a couple of days earlier hadn’t boded too well either. Despite meeting a lady on the bus who offered to negotiate with a cabbie at the station with us and would ensure that he would get us to our hostel safe, it went a bit wrong.
The gross man who had promised that he knew exactly where we were to go promptly stated that he was lost once we had left the lady behind and he drove round and round, whilst also getting cross with me because I had accidentally slammed the door a bit hard. He had originally tried to tell us that we should travel with him with our rucksacks in his OPEN boot because they wouldn’t fit (I wish that I had listened to my instincts and not got in the cab) and then he eventually stopped outside what was obviously not our hotel despite having the name and the address on a piece of paper which he kept referring to. The hotel had the wrong name, was in the wrong street and in totally the wrong area. By now me and M were both very uneasy and M suggested we get out anyway and regroup from within the hotel as the staff had come out to meet us and take our bags. The cabbie then tried to double our bill and I saw red! I stuffed less than we had originally agreed into his hand and told the hotelier that he was a bad man and that we needed to get inside safe! In Spanish! So he heard this and lolloped around the cab at me, obviously threatening me. There was then a little bit of chaos whilst we tried to drag our bags inside and shouted at him and then the staff came to our rescue and locked him out!
Phew! My heart sank as after Cali I had really hoped that I would like Medellin.
But the staff at the Prince Plaza Hotel were fantastic. In the first instance they offered us a room and whilst not overly expensive it was a bit out of our budget since we had booked into a dorm in a backpackers hostel. But the staff were great and didn’t turf us out onto the street. They continued to help us, offering us coffee and water, checking the directions for the correct hostel on the internet for us and they even phoned them to confirm that we had reservations and then got us a guaranteed safe cab to take us there. They were so nice and reassuring and I am sorry that we didn’t stay, but what was really incredible was that this was all on Beatriz’s first day working for the hotel. This all happened a couple of months ago so she may not even remember us that night but I really hope that she is still working at the hotel and that she is enjoying her job. Customer service in Latin America is rather different to what we accept as the norm in the UK but this lady certainly pulled out all the stops to help.
So here we were, after a not too auspicious introduction to Medellin, looking with dismay at the sadder side of life. The previous day we had ridden the cable cars to the enormous park at the top of city and twice we had been turned back from our preferred route by security and warned that we were at risk of kidnap if we continued to hike up there!
As I have already said, M was due to head off to Bogota the following day and fly home and I had arranged to stay and volunteer at a hostel an hour outside the city. I decided that I would honour that commitment but if the region didn’t grow on me soon I would cut my losses and bid farewell to Colombia and head south for Ecuador.
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Note: I have blurred the faces of the people who I have portrayed. They are all somebody’s daughter or son and I would not want them to be identified