Margaret and Dick   


April 2012: The Colombia chronicles
Think Colombia isn't a vacation destination?  Think again!  From the romantic colonial streets of Cartagena to the vibrant metropolis of Medellin, we've got some stories for you.  It's all good!

Medellin past and future 
Street scenes in Cartagena  


Medellin past and future
We passed our last evening in Medellin at a restaurant serving traditional food of the Antioquia region, attacking the formidable (but quasi-obligatory) bandeja paisa.  We were in the Zona Rosa, an upscale travelers’ happy refuge of restaurants and boutiques surrounding the tree-shaded Parque Lleras.  To provide the historical context and counterpoint to this scene, I read to Dick the Wikipedia history of Pablo Escobar.

Many of our readers will be too young to remember the days of Pablo Escobar, one of the most brilliant and successful criminals of the modern era.  At the time of his assassination (suicide?) in 1993, his Medellin cartel controlled 80% of the world’s cocaine traffic, and Escobar was one of the richest people in the world.  At the height of its power, the Medellin cartel was smuggling over 70 tons of cocaine into the US every month.  Escobar’s method was simple:  present officials with the choice of silver (a bribe) or lead (a bullet); present himself publicly as a modern-day Robin Hood by providing the poor with hospitals, schools, and churches.  Eventually he made enough enemies to make possible the ambush that led to his death.

The people of Medellin remember the Escobar era.  Colombia had become the “murder capital of the world” with over 27,000 violent deaths in 1992.  The drug trade continued to be a dominant force in Colombian life until the tide began to turn around 2002.  Indeed, our driver reported that the road from the Medellin airport to the city, a winding 35km (21mi) trip over a mountain pass, was unusable until about 2000.  We met several young people who grew up in the US – from the age of kindergarten – and returned only recently to Colombia.  If we had been parents in Colombia in the bad old days, we would certainly have made the same choices.   We asked other young people who grew up in Colombia if their lives were affected by the difficulties.  One young woman, wide-eyed, said “Of course!  You are staying in a wonderful neighborhood, El Poblado.  But I grew up in a neighborhood where it was all happening.”  She shook her head and did not elaborate.

Eventually, many years after Escobar’s death, a concerted effort by the government has improved security.  Yes there are still pockets of problems around the country, and yes the history of violence continues to present an atmosphere of violence in some Medellin neighborhoods, especially after dark.  If you’re walking home tipsy at 3am, there’s a fair chance you’ll be giving up your wallet.  But if you listen to the advice of your hotel receptionist and exercise some common sense, you’ll be just fine.  We were stunned to read about President Santos running a public 10k race with his son in Bogota.  Mr. Obama, we beg you not to try this in the USA.

The big news is that Medellin is now a vibrant city with a bright future.  The economy is bustling, the Metro provides efficient transportation along the spine of the metropolis, and the arts are thriving.  Many of the warnings that you hear about the place (the dangerous countryside around Medellin…) are obsolete.  We felt perfectly comfortable on the Metro and wandering around the town center, watching families stroll and children cavort on the Botero statues.  Medellin is a wonderful place to visit, the people are warm and welcoming, and the food is great.  (Did I mention the bandeja paisa?  And don’t get me started about the world-class street food.)

Come!  Enjoy!


Street scenes in Cartagena

We were eating breakfast in the hotel lobby, just inside the window that opens onto the street.  The fruit seller, pushing her heavy cart along the street, was calling out her wares.  “Hay mango! Papaya!  Mango!  Papaya!” 

The historic center of Cartagena is surrounded by thick walls that were erected in the 1600s for protection against pirates.  We didn’t venture out of this small bastion during our three-day visit, electing instead to just settle in to a relaxed vacation mood.  Walk, watch people, take photos, eat ceviche, drink, and write Limoux stories.  And eat some more ceviche.

Our seven-room boutique hotel was in an old colonial house.  The friendly staff took care of our needs and taught us a little Spanish.  “Como amanecer?”  (“How is your day-break?”) was our morning greeting.  

The Gold Museum was one of our many museum stops.  The indigenous culture at its peak (1000-1500 AD) developed an extraordinary level of artisanship, especially in gold.  The Spanish took considerable, er, interest in this aspect of the culture.  Or more accurately, the Spanish took considerable amounts of this culture, but they missed some that is proudly displayed in the museum.   

Artisanship is harder to find in Cartagena these days.  Lots of locals spread blankets on the sidewalks to display handicrafts, but unfortunately they are all the same.  Many articles bear a striking resemblance to items we found in Egypt, probably factory-made in China.

Finally, on our last evening, we found some original work in jewelry outside the fabulous Santa Clara hotel.  “What is this necklace?” Margaret asked.  The vendor, age about fourteen, replied, “Pre-Colombian.”  Uh, no.  “Y cuànto cuesta?”  “250,000 pesos.”  $130 for a genuine fake pre-Colombian carved rock necklace?  No way!  Perhaps it’s not wise to shop in front of the fanciest hotel in the old town.  Later that night we got lucky just outside our last ceviche restaurant.  A young couple displayed polished stone, shell, horn, and leather jewelry on their sidewalk blanket, and an older man displayed his precision-carved woodwork.

Margaret fell in love with a semi-precious stone pendant on an intricately woven necklace of amber beads and sea shells; two more lovely horn necklaces assured her welcome back to the office.  The price:  reasonable for unique hand work.  Let’s add in some earrings.  We had fun hearing their stories, and they were so very cute together.

As for me, I don’t need anything!  But then my eyes fell on a colorfully painted wood carving of the palenqueras, the dark-skinned women in bright floral skirts and blouses who sell fruit on the street.  We had enjoyed a plate of fruits from just such a vendor, so this carving would be a trip memory to savor.  The woman’s silhouette was band-sawed into a rectangular piece of wood.  Inset like a picture puzzle was a carved mosaic that made up the colorful figure.   “Cuànto cuesta?”  The price was reasonable for us and a good deal for the artist.  Sold! 

As he wrapped up my purchase, I realized that Margaret had spent all our cash on jewelry.  “No problema,” I assured him, “Our hotel is just down the street.  We’ll be right back.”  “Okay,” he said, “but don’t forget your carving.”   He handed me the package.  “I know you’ll come back,” he said with a wink.  

Did he make a judgment call that we were honest?  Perhaps, since we had been so respectful in discussing the young couple’s jewelry and his woodwork.  Of course we went back.

The genius of his method occurred to me much later.  If we had not taken the carving back to the hotel, we would have ample time to talk ourselves out of the purchase.  “Oh, forget it, I don’t really need that carving.  It’s too late.  It’s too hot.”

Instead, he made the intelligent call.  He was willing to risk his labor cost if we kept the carving and did not come back with the money.  But by taking that risk, he ensured a nice profit if we came back.  

He guessed right.  And we took away a priceless trip memory. 

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