What do I want to say about my experience in Medellin? First, the size of Medellin was a surprise. Yes, I knew it was a large city, but it is one that is arrayed across a great valley and then splashes steeply up the sides of high mountains. Its size in terms of density can be appreciated by the lights at night, which seem as close to each other as lights on a Christmas tree. Second, I felt totally unprepared and at the same time overly expectant. I had read a lot and had looked forward to this trip for a long time. Then on my first day there, I tried to get a sim card for a cell phone. It was here that I realized that my Spanish that was somewhat sufficient in Mexico was abysmal in a place where they is no pretense on the part of locals of speaking English. In my previous travels I had relied on local English speakers much more than I realized. The immensity of my endeavor-a year in Latin America on a very tight budget on my own with poor language skills-became all too clear. Finally, I was disappointed in Medellin. I could not connect with the charm that I had read about. I could find no real center, and too much felt either grimy 50s or 60s rundown, or slick, modern and expensive. But there I was, and I did endeavor.
I flew out of Miami on February 1 last year (2016). I had flown to Miami to spend the afternoon with a friend I hadn’t seen in too long. After arriving and wandering around an airport that had been seemingly remodeled by rabbits intent on the escape-proof warren, I finally found my friend. He had arrived by public transport, after leaving his elderly mother (30 years my senior counts as seriously elderly) with a nurse for a brief escape to see me. Previously I would have steered us to one of the wonderful cafe Cubano kiosks that fueled MIA, but this time there were only Starbucks, and the plastic bench seating was common with the other chain outlets. We sat and tried to catch up the best you can after many years of not seeing each other. This lack of contact, punctuated by sometimes rather cryptic emails, caused a layer of distance not relieved in the 2 hours we had. This would come back to be a real problem in 6 months time, but then it just seemed natural for things to not feel natural.
I flew a red eye from Miami to Medellin. Having already seen the first season of
Narcos, the flight felt disconcertingly familiar. Like I had been here before in a dream, or, more likely, on drugs. But I hadn’t, and landing in Medellin confirmed that-I had no idea which way to go either in or outside the airport. I thought I had overcome my media driven ideas about Medellin, but I found myself looking around suspiciously and nervously. Who were these people arriving from all over, and what was their business? My bags arrived almost immediately and no one glanced at them as I made my way to the street. I had no idea how to get a “safe” taxi, so I trusted the odds and grabbed one at the door and gave him the address where I was going. An hour he said. Yikes, I thought.
The airport in Medellin sits on the mountainside above the city, and after rounding a few bends, the city below grows increasingly brighter the higher up the hillsides it goes. It spreads out like an inverse Los Angeles, where the rich live on the hillsides in increasingly larger estates between forests and parks. The lights in the city of angels get more dense the more central you go. In Medellin, the hills hold the barrios which get denser as you go up, as people escaping the drug wars made there way in and stopped at the edges of the existing refuges. Medellin central’s modern high-rises house the affluent and the growing middle class.
I was staying in a house partway up a hillside, maybe a kilometer up from a business district. We arrived very late at night, and the owner rang us in. The house sits at the top of the property and there is a large gate at the road. We wended up a long drive dripping in Spanish moss, to the old building of Salsepuedes. I would learn that Salsipuedes means “leave if you can.” Not a reassuring message. I was led to a small room filled with the odor of old books in the tropics. It opened on either side with doors, but there were no windows, just a single bed and a thousand moldering lonely tomes. As often happens when arriving late to a new place, I felt deeply mistaken and regretful. Of course this would change with the morning sun, and I knew this, so I slept.
When I got up, the sun was out and the household seemed to be about mid-day duties. I discovered that the house was also a piano rental/repair/storage place. The main front room had several pianos, and there was a workshop in the rear. A few pianos were going out to be delivered for events and everyone was busy.
My estranged mood settled in that morning. Pictures and paintings on the wall, sculptures and objets sent off mixed vibes. A large painting featuring merry dancers and drinkers hangs in the main hall illustrating a fiesta held there by the ancestors who built the place.
From some of the paintings I gathered that this was a rather bawdy, bohemian crowd. The name of the place, Salsipuedes, Leave if you can, derives from times when the drunken late nights, rain soaked roads and steep cliffs kept many there for days. The main room itself suggests dancing and singing and music, The front of the room and the outside balcony overlook the entire city and the pianos must have been put to good use.
The current generation, though leaving the imprint of the founders in the art and the dedication to the pianos, has filled the place now with a fundamentalist Christian somberness. My already shaky state of mind found no calm reassurance, just a shuddering cognitive dissonance. I wondered what it must have been like for the ribald founders to see the heir marry the protestant puritanical Christian from up north.
I spent almost two weeks hanging out at Salsipuedes. I sat up some evenings talking with the wife. One evening we sat out on the upstairs balcony and listened to a woman’s off pitch caterwauling from the Catholic church down the hill. I was told that there used to be a exorcist priest at that church, and those “services” could be heard across the hill-side.
When the sun shone and fresh fruit was put out for the birds and ever-decreasing number of monkeys, and the city glowed from below the fruit trees, it felt a paradise, a deeply discordant, unsettling Eden.