Passage Note #66 Part III: Colorful Colombia - Medellín
The transformation of the city of Medellín from the “world’s most dangerous city” to the award winning “Most Innovative City” is nothing short of miraculous. As the home turf and fiefdom of feared narco king Pablo Escobar, Medellín was a murderous, terrorizing place. Today, a short twenty years after Escobar was gunned down on a Medellín rooftop, it is recognized for its vibrancy, livability and amazing recovery of urban spaces once claimed by violence.
William, our guide and newly made friend, is a good exemplar of a fiercely proud, passionate and exceptionally friendly Paisa (one born in Medellín region). Articulate and bilingual (since his 4 year residency in Boston), he took us to a mountain mirador where we stood next to three metal sculptures with a commanding view of the vast urban center nestled in its beautiful green setting. Called the “City of Eternal Spring”, Medellín has an ideal climate due to its altitude and latitude and it felt like a sunny spring day.
The rough sculptures were of ordinary people doing everyday things - selling fruit from a cart, collecting cardboard in a wagon, walking hand in hand with a child. William pointed to the sign above them: “Este joven dia a dia se despierta con el sueño de ser alguien en la gran ciudad” (“This youth wakes up everyday with a dream of being someone in a great city”). He proceeds to explain Medellín's metamorphosis to us: “When we were in our dark period with Escobar and the world had forsaken us, we were forced to turn inward; we had nothing but ourselves to rely on. So the city has embraced the concept of human dignity and the inclusiveness of everyone, even those living in cardboard shacks on the steep hillsides of the city’s poorest barrios.” Sounded too idealistic to be true.
Reinforcing William’s story, though, was the account by highly respected Paisa author Hector Abad: “The changes to Medellín had their roots in ideas that can sound idiotic, cretinous to some people, hippy even. Spend money on the poor to build peace, belief in education, science, medicine, poetry, books, learning.”
In 2012 Medellín was globally recognized by the Urban Land Institute as the “Most Innovative City of the World”, beating out Tel Aviv and NYC in a competition co-sponsored by the Wall Street Journal and Citi. Other awards have followed: Harvard University award for Urban Development Enterprise, Smart Cities of Indra’s first place in best cities to live in South America alongside Barcelona and Lisbon in Europe, host of the UN’s 2014 Habitat World Forum.
Social Urbanism: Cable Cars and Escalators
The key to the reform has been a bold and forward-thinking combination of social programs and urban development, founded on principles and values of respect and opportunity for all its citizens. Social urbanism - social equity thru urban policies and public investment focusing first on the ones with greatest need - was actualized by the masterminds of the strategy - the mayor from 2003-2007 and his urban planner.
The growing slums that climb the slopes with refugee poor and displaced persons are where the most showcased innovation (award-winning sustainable transport) is found: the MetroCable of Barrio Santo Domingo and the giant escalator of Comuna 13. We were anxious to take a look for ourselves (especailly since Linda's professional background is urban planning). William escorted us.
It was rush hour when we took the excellent and famous Metro train to the San Antonio station and got out to stand in a long line of people waiting to transfer to go home - in a sleek cable car system called the MetroCable. It’s the first time we had ever heard of a cable car being used for public transit rather than for recreation or tourism. We boarded a 6 passenger car filled with a few university students and an elderly man with his grandson. The car ascended, dangling high over the shanties, dilapidated red cinder block homes, and a maze of narrow streets of a barrio once built by and named after Pablo Escobar himself, now renamed Barrio Santo Domingo after the patron saint of hopeful mothers.
Here the centerpiece is the Spain Library and Park or Parque Biblioteca España, a trio of modern black glass towers arising out of the chaos “where some of the poorest people in the world come to study, use a computer or just seek respite.” It is a famous and highly touted beacon of the area’s turn around. The young students talked of their pride for their barrio and told us they wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the city. These are the same kids who not so long ago might have been forcibly conscripted by gangs into the drug trade. William told us how the city government erected small apartment buildings there to maintain the community and began “buying” their shanties, thus exchanging slum for decent housing. They then demolished the rundown makeshift houses and replaced them with parks and community food gardens.
The second neighborhood, Comuna 13, is a dense colorful massing of buildings with gaily painted corrugated metal roofs, climbing up the hills in a different area of Medellin. This barrio is a reflection of its mainly Afro-Colombian population and is serviced by a giant urban escalator paralleling the old series of concrete steps. Two women with 3 young children and bags of groceries were riding the escalator up. They told us what had previously been an arduous two hour ascent by foot to reach their houses now took 10 minutes, also making it easier for their elderly parents. Two curious but shy ten year old girls rode up with us to the top and then accompanied us back down. Community “helpers” are hired by the city to station themselves along the escalator to assist anyone who needs it. One young man proudly told us that he had worked on constructing the moving stairs and then had been hired as a helper afterwards. He loved his job and had an obvious rapport with those in the neighborhood we watched him interact with, especially the young children who looked up to him. A wonderful positive role model!
Medellín is not without its problems and challenges and the hard won progress may be very precarious as some believe. We stayed at the edge of the not-so-safe-at-night Prado neighborhood, which made William cringe when we told him. During the day, on our 25 minute walk to the central Plaza Botero and the Antioquia Museum, we could plainly see evidence of the poverty and drug problems that plague the city.
While it is impossible as itinerant travelers to grasp the truth of Medellin’s situation in any real depth, what we saw of the city’s recovery was tangible and the changes palpable. It was eye-opening! The United States could learn a lot. A fascinating article that delves into the complexity of Colombia’s second city was published in the UK’s Guardian in 2013 if you care to know more.
Feria de las Flores (Festival of Flowers)
Our visit to Medellin was timed to attend the annual internationally-known spectacle of La Feria de Las Flores or Festival of Flowers - the city’s grandest tradition and most important social event. Now in its 57th year, it is a 10 day extravaganza culminating in the parade called the Desfile de los Silleteros on the last day, August 10. A silletero is a person who carries a silleta - a large wooden “saddle” or medallion emblazoned with flowers and weighing over a hundred pounds - on their back. Medellin literally blossoms with over 150 events including pageants, evening music concerts and singing competitions, a classic car parade, giant flower sculpture display, an orchid show at the Botanical Gardens, fireworks, and much more. Unfortunately, the Guinness World Record Horse Parade (7,000 horses) had increasingly become controversial (due to drinking and allegations of cruelty to animals) and was suspended this year. Shopping malls (a big deal in the life of the city with over 35) displayed flower carpets and flower garlands hung everywhere - on taxi cabs, dog collars, people’s hats, and shop signs.
We had time for a side trip with William on the Friday before the big Sunday Desfile de Los Silleteros to go up into the mountains 30 minutes south to visit the village of Santa Elena, the epicenter for the source of the blossoms where the silletas are prepared. Colombia is the number two supplier of live flowers to world markets, just behind Holland, and Santa Elena is an important part of that industry.
Here growing flowers is a time honored tradition where fincas (farms), as well as the privilege of being a silletero, are handed down from generation to generation. The Grand Prize for the best silleta in the parade is a vied-for recognition and we visited the Londoño family who won last year’s award, considered the best artisans around. They were busily glueing and drawing and constructing two entries - one with the theme of child labor and the other addressing world peace with visual references to the recently renewed warfare between Palestinians and Israelis. One of the younger sons gave us a tour. The presentations, music, and paisa food being served to the crowd of visitors gave the farm a carnival atmosphere.
Actually, the origin of the silleta is not so illustrious. The wooden “saddles” were used as a practical transport system in colonial times, when slaves would carry wealthy men and women on their backs through the mountains. In post slavery time, farmers were inspired to haul their produce and flowers to the lowland markets on their backs using this method.
We left after lunch to explore more of the countryside around Medellin.
El Peñol and Guatape
One morning a few weeks ago as we sat at breakfast in our hotel in Bogota, our waiter Jaime came up to us after a conversation about the expansiveness and beauty of his country and slipped us a piece of paper with the words “El Peñol” on it. “Go here” the older man instructed with a broad smile. So we did.
El Peñol is a rock - a big, big rock......a giant dramatic monolith, some say a meteorite. But whatever its origin, natural or cosmic, it is pretty spectacular - shooting up 650 feet into the blue sky (7000 above sea level). It is so eerie you know it must have been a sacred site to some indigenous tribe long ago. We climbed the 649 steps stitched into a crack on one side to the top of the National Monument and enjoyed the stunning scenic vista of the large islanded lake that surrounds it (artificially created by a hydroelectric dam built in the 1970’s).
A three story observation tower added another 100 steps above the cafe and souvenir shop. There is where a young American guy had the good fortune to ask William to take his photo. Evan was teaching english in Bogota but taking a vacation to Medellín with some friends who had partied too hard the night before to accompany him to El Peñol. He was by himself. We had room in the car so we invited him to come along in our excursion and spent the rest of the day with him. Evan joined the ranks of our “adopted” sons, interesting twenty-somethings we meet along the way (most often when we stay at backpacker hostels).
Off we went to nearby Guatape, a small town big on character. Bright polychromatic houses lined small winding cobblestones streets. Every facade had gaily painted and sculpted panels on the lower half depicting a design, the nature of the area or an occupation of the resident. We stopped into a studio of an artist who was a big fan of Van Gogh and had a lively chat about his work and his students.
Although it was getting late in the day, there’s no stopping William when he wants to show you around. We ate an early dinner of bandeja paisa - a plate engorged with rice, beans, ground beef, plantain and patacones, arepa, 2 kinds of sausage, pork, chicharron, avocado, and with a fried egg for extra measure. A heart attack in the making! But it is a very popular Colombian platter that is unofficially the national dish.
Afterwards we walked around an historical amusement park and then off to another small village just to look around. It was close to 8 pm by the time we dropped Evan off at his hostel and returned to our hotel - a really full day.
Desfile de los Silleteros (Parade of the Silleteros)
Sunday, the day of the Desfile de los Silleteros, was an exciting day.
We had almost accidentally, by the seat of our pants, gotten tickets for bleacher seats a viewing area near the end of the parade route. Thanks to a woman at the Botero Museum who first told of us of the existence of tickets and to William, who hired his aunt to stand in the long lines that snaked around the ticket booth for blocks on Friday to purchase two for us (while we went with him exploring the countryside for the day), we would be able to view the parade more comfortably in covered stands with port-a-potty toilets behind - thus avoid waiting in the hot sun and getting swallowed up by the massive crowds.
Tickets had gone on sale for that one Friday only and were sold out by the end of the day. The parade was scheduled to begin at 1:00 but since we were situated at the end of the route, we expected it to reach us at 3:00. Even so, we left the hotel with a picnic lunch at 10:00 am and hailed a taxi that dropped us off within walking distance. We found our way to our section and sat on the hard metal benches between a group of 4 women friends and a couple with their young son. The bleachers were half full.
The waiting turned out to be exquisite. There was great camaraderie among all of us sitting together which ended six hours later in phone and email exchanges and mutual photo-taking. We got an interesting dose of culture talking to our neighbors who were all paisas, as well as watching the behavior of the crowds across the parade path. Some enterprising people had spent the night on the street (kinda reminiscent of the Rose Bowl Parade in the US) with carts under umbrellas and were selling shady sitting and standing room to others. The highway overpasses also started to fill with thousands of umbrella toting observers.
The party atmosphere started to escalate with the gathered masses. Our bleachers were now full and overflowing (apparently oversold) as people began to sit on the steps and in the aisles. At about 2 pm, the first of the floats and parade participants reached us. There were Afro-Caribbean bands from Comuna 13, military men on garlanded horses, flower-collard dog walkers, clowns and jugglers, music groups and dancing troupes of all sorts, the sleek newly purchased French train cars the city would install soon to extend the transit system, a long string of shiny orange garbage trucks with municipal workers, etc. Our favorite was the Police float with its salsa band. As it slowly passed by, uniformed (and armed) police men and women salsa danced alongside ---and locals from the audience of bystanders would break free of the barriers to jump in and dance with them in the street.
Finally, the long anticipated highlight came at about 3 pm when the first of the silleteros - 500 men, women and children traditionally dressed - started to appear. A sea of flowers moved through the streets as super-sized floral arrangements made up of 25-70 varieties of flowers were carried on their backs on heavy wooden saddles (silletas), some weighing more than 100 kilos (220 pounds). Color blurred the eyes.
There were several categories of silletas - traditional, emblematic, monumental, logo, and children's silletas - each category with awards given by a panel of 12 judges.
Boy scouts accompany the silleteros to assist them as they walk under the weight and it was needed by the time they reached us. Many of the silleteros were visibly tired in the heat of the late afternoon but zig zagged across the route to show off their flower art at closer range to the cheering crowds who commanded “Revuelta! Revuelta!” ("Turn around, Turn around"). Some put them down on their supports and bowed and tipped their hats to the adoration. A few nearly collapsed and sat on the curb for a moment to guzzle some water as the audience encouragingly yelled “Sí puedes, Sí puedes” ("Yes you can, yes you can"). They stood up with renewed energy to finish their pilgrimage.
Overhead, small drones hovered to film the parade and supersonic military jets blasted the sound barrier to heighten everyone’s excitement. Colombians really know how to celebrate and it was amazing to see what you could do with a million flowers!!
We were exhausted by 6 pm when it was over - we said teary goodbyes to our new friends and headed back through the dispersing crowds to our hotel.