I’ve been trying to make myself sit down and recount the details of my trip for the last few weeks, but the words have been quite successful in escaping me. I guess I can start by sharing that I’ve had my qualms about visiting Colombia for some time now. The warnings and advisories from others when I expressed that this was my next destination didn’t help either. Still, I hopped on a plane and hoped that Colombia would give me the memories that I desired.
After surviving Customs and Immigration, riding the metro cable from the San Javier station all the way to the top was next to be conquered. Costing only $1 to and fro, the ride up definitely surprised me. I wasn’t expecting it to be as shaky and rocky as it was, nor did I think I would be so high in the air. Silent prayers seemed to calm my anxiety long enough to appreciate the area of around me. Homes nestled in the valley and on the mountainside caught my eye immediately. It reminded me of the homes that I saw in South Africa where rocks lined the roofs to keep them in place. I noticed people walking through the make-shift pathways throughout the community. Compared to Western standards, life didn’t appear to be the best, but it is quite evident that those dwelling there are making the best out of what they have.
The cable car reached the top and I immediately searched for the murals. While there were a few, it didn’t take me long to realize that all the murals that I wanted to see, were actually in Comuna 13 and not in Aurora where I was. Making the best of the situation, I hung around with the locals, witnessed a Holy Thursday ceremony, and then rode the metro cable with locals back down to San Javier. On the ride down, I thought about how this was a primary means of transportation for Colombians in the area to make their way up and down the mountain and to and from the city central. It definitely made me make note of all of the conveniences that I have as an American. It also made me realized that I should definitely be more grateful.
Andres picked us up early Saturday morning. It was really foggy so when we stopped at an overlook on the way to Guatape, Medellin didn’t look as beautiful as it did on my ride in from the airport. It was still a nice place to stop, try to get my motion sickness under control, and listen to some of the things that Andres wanted to share with us and the city. We stopped at a produce stand along the way and tried different types of fruit — two of my favorite being mangosteen and lulo.
About an hour later, we arrived in Guatape. We spent time walking around town taking in the sights and sounds of the local Guatapians. Andres had a lot to share about this town and I was all ears to receive all that he had to say. One of the best experiences that I have abroad is when I am engaged in a dialogue learning about the life of the local people.
During lunch, the conversation shifted to comparing the AA experience and the Colombian experience. I used this opportunity to learn as much about the Colombian lifestyle from his personal experiences while I shared tidbits of mine as an African American. His take on race relations was a bit interesting. From his experiences, he felt that discriminatory practices stemmed more from classism than racism, a different experience than that of African Americans since I feel that we are subjected to both.
On the ride back, Andres mentioned how much he loved hip hop. He played a few of his favorite songs, a few that I knew of that allowed me to at least bop my head to the beat. He asked me to explain a lyric to him and we got on the subject of phrases and what they mean in the African American community. And then he asked a question that I wasn’t expecting –“What does ‘Nigga’ mean?”
I really didn’t know how to respond at first. Here was someone outside of my culture asking me to explain the word to him. There’s a part of me that felt that he was really testing my reaction. But the more I explained the complexity associated with the word and how there is so much hatred rooted and embedded within, it sort of seemed as if he was genuinely sorry he even asked. Or maybe he was contemplating if his choice of words meant a bad review for his tour company. Regardless, it was a teachable moment for me and I hope, a learning one for him.
The initial plan was to muster up enough energy after landing in Medellin to attend a group tour to Comuna 13. But Immigration and Customs at Jose Cordorva airport had other plans. After stepping into the queue, I knew I wasn’t going to make the tour on time, but I was adventurous enough to take on Comuna 13 without a tour guide. After leaving Guatape, I headed to Comuna 13, hoping to spend the remaining minutes of the day enjoying the murals. Arriving just after nightfall, it was a bit difficult to see the murals in their vibrancy, but the short time that I spent there was enough.
Seeing the tranformation of an area was once considered extremely dangerous was mindblowing. Mindblowing because the media does such a good job of shaping stories and creating narratives that are miles from the truth. People of all ages communed in the street, kids rolled down the hill on skateboards, vendors were still outside selling their goods. It was like a block party, Colombian style. It made me feel a bit ignorant in my thinking and preconceived notions about visiting Colombia altogether. So far, it was nothing like I the place that everyone warned me about. And I was glad I got a chance to see it for myself.
There was a part of me that wasn’t ready to leave Medellin yet. It was the part of me that felt that I should have allowed myself one more day to stay and take in the culture of the city. Since the time was split between Medellin and Cartagena, I felt I robbed myself of so many experiences that were waiting for me in Medellin based solely on fear, even though I had nothing to be fearful about. I had made so many connections in such a short time and I wanted more.
I wanted more conversations about American and Colombian cultures with Andres–how they varied and where they intersected.
I wanted a little more time to express my gratitude to the Colombian UberEats duo who put in extra effort to find me even though I put in the wrong address to my Airbnb and neither of us could speak each other’s language. But with a few hand gestures and broken phrases on both our ends, we came to an understanding.
I wanted an opportunity to converse more with the lady who translated what we needed to the ticket agent to get back down the mountain via metro to San Javier.
And to the little girl who smiled and waved at me from her home on Remembrance street during my visit in Guatape–well, I just wanted maybe a few more seconds to smile and wave to her.
But I was off to Cartagena the next morning.