Viva, Colombia: fear and living in Medellin

The night was warm in Medellin, even though it was wet. There is something about walking in hot nights that makes me feel comfortable and brave. With a cadence of comfort and bravery, I walked the five, well-lit blocks from the metro stop to my hostel in Medellin on my first night in Colombia.

As I walked and eyed the road for an opportunity to cross, I saw a lanky boy, no older than 15, sprint across traffic and head right towards me. He was holding one of those wooden displays of gum to his chest.

?Chicle? ?Chicle por la chica?

I declined without breaking my pace.

Chica, chica.

He continued in a desperate tone and stepped in front of me, forcing me to stop. He rattled through a string of phrases in Spanish that I didn’t understand.

I tried to be kind even though his persistence was making me uncomfortable: Disculpe, mi español es muy malo.

He tried again, speaking slower, but I still didn’t understand.

No se. No comprendo.

He lifted the box with one hand to reveal his other hand, outstretched with three little white baggies in the palm. !Cocanina! Te gusta cocania.

I was started, one for being naïve enough to not realize I was in the middle of drug deal, but also because the warm night didn’t feel as safe as it had before; I felt the wait of my situation–alone, at night, in a foreign country whose language I barely understood, and being offered cocaine by boy a full foot taller than me. I firmly said “no” and then muttered “no” a few more times as I hurried across the street somehow dodging traffic.

a violent history

For those that are familiar with Colombia’s history, or who have perhaps seen the Netflix show, Narcos, my experience with the young boy and the cocania will not be surprising to you. When my friends in Medellin rattled off dozens of personal stories involving kids peddling drugs in the city, I realized that my story wasn’t as shocking as it felt; kids peddling cocaine is a reality in Medellin.

It is naïve to go to Medellin, Colombia, thinking that things like this never happened anymore; that the dark history of the city and the country has somehow disappeared in just a decade. Medellin had been considered the most dangerous city on earth not so long ago; drug cartels, urban militias and the government all made violent attempts to grab power.

In 1985, left-wing guerrillas from M-19 (the 19th of April Movement) destroyed state documents and murdered half the country’s court judges.

On November 27th, 1989, Pablo Escobar had Avianca Flight 203 blown out of the sky, killing Colombian presidential candidate Csar Gaviria and 109 other souls.

In the early 1990s, Escobar was suspected in having Luis Carlos Galan and two other candidates for Colombian president assassinated. Also attributed to Escobar’s list of crimes are the deaths of a justice minister, an attorney general, over 200 judges, over 1,000 police officers, journalists and many ordinary citizens.

In 1991, the murder rate in Medellin was 380 persons per 100,000, totaling in 6,349 dead.

On July 15, 1997 the paramilitary group, AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia), used chainsaws and machetes to behead, dismember and disembowel civilians in an event called the Mariripan Massacre. They threw the body parts into Rio de Medellin. The U.S. State Department later estimated 30 dead but the exact number is unknown.

In 2000, the number of kidnappings in Colombia peaked at 3,572. The FARC (Fuerzas Armada Revolucionarias de Colombia) kidnapped 2,500 civilians in its career alone.

On October 16, 2002, the Colombian military’s controversial Operation Orion took place. The operation used over one thousand policemen and soldiers to attack the Comuna 13 neighborhood of Medelin in an attempt to drive out rebels. Nine people died, including three children, and hundreds were left wounded without access to medical attention. The attack only stopped once trapped citizens took to the streets, waving white rags in surrender.

the colombia i feared

I discovered all this in my research before going to Colombia. But I had also found the expats in Medellin, the streets where posh coffee shops sat and a few new friends with whom I scheduled lunch-dates. In my head, the violent history of Medellin was separate from the Medellin I planned to visit. The violent history ceased to exist, much like a child finding it difficult to believe their parents were ever young. But the truth of the matter came sprinting towards me in the form of a teenage boy trying to sell cocania.

One cannot ignore the history of the country; the violence and pain and drug industry is still here. Too stubborn to admit I was in over my head—especially after I had shrugged off the concerns of everyone who balked at my going to Colombia—I clenched my fists in the metaphorical way and was prepared to lie low and “get through” my time in Colombia. My internalized fear was corroborated by a tour guide; she made it very clear that in certain parks we were not to wander off or leave the group. People lingered to chat and children ran around at play, and yet these areas were presented to me as something off limits and dangerous.

I adopted fear and decided that I wouldn’t go out after dark and that I would take a cab everywhere I wanted to go; no more walks at night when there were teenage drug dealers lurking.

But this lasted, like, two days.

the colombia i found

During my time in Medellin I rode the busses and trains, I hovered around food-carts to eat my recently purchased treats, and I continued to walk home when the weather was nice. I found Paisaspeople from Medellin, to be kind, energetic and humorous people. My Spanish barely improved, but I found my own way to communicate with charades and smiles. The people I met understood that I didn’t understand, and still did what they could to communicate, sometime involving their own charades.

When musicians played on the streets or climbed aboard a bus during traffic stops, commuters extended their hands in giving.

My first empanada was given to me in a little, plastic tray; the vendor expected me to stand there and eat at the counter like everyone else. The idea that I would walk away, rush on to something else seemed beyond consideration.

They seemed to say, Stand here, for just the time it takes to eat your food, and enjoy that time.

A tour guide told my group something about Paisas that still resonates: Paisas do not linger on the bad that has happened. They pick up, rebuild and move forward. It’s a kind of carpe diem. Surrounded by violence as they were for so long, the citizen of Colombia learned to make the most of good days. They cannot prevent the random acts that reap havoc on their lives, so they enjoy the things they can control and try to treat everyone with kindness.

the take-away

Since 2013, not one Colombian city has appeared on the Economist’s most dangerous cities in the world list, a list that includes four U.S. cities. And in 2016, Colombia was once again named the happiest place in the world by Worldwide Independent Network of Marketing Research.

In a city, a country, a region of the world that others would have me fear for my safety, I didn’t learn to be afraid. For the few situations I faced in Medellin that made me feel uncertain, I have innumerable stories of kindness. I learned to embrace the time I have right now without fear. Colombians move pass the violence so they could live their lives; it’s how they manage to be kind, vibrant people despite everything that would make them be otherwise.

There is much to fear in the world, especially as a woman traveling alone, but going to Medellin, Colombia showed me that there is something even more fearful than all the dangers my acquaintances warn me about: It is far scarier to live a life so afraid of dying that you don’t live.

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