Jul 14, 2014

First impressions of Medellín | Primeras impresiones del Medellín

Andrea Gordillo

Recently, a friend of mine passed on a bit of light to me with the following sentences in a Facebook message: 

“When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.”

I arrived in Medellin this week after spending a month in my hometown Lima, where I sought to reconnect with my family and the land where I was born. In my efforts to find some vestige of “home” in the land and the people, I learned much history of the country and my own family. I learned for the first time that my family had lived through the period of terrorism in Peru, where the terrorist group, Sendero Luminoso, and the government fought a war that started in el campo and trickled into the city. Tens of thousands of people were killed, tortured, maimed, abused, and displaced. My family grandfather was threatened and forced to move from his lands in el campo, and we, who lived in the city, chose to flee the violence to the United States. By the time we left, the violence had died down, however, and we were not able to seek asylum. All of this was difficult to hear, for I was surprised that my parents had never before spoken to me about this. Albeit my confusion, anger, and frustration, I did not want this to be the only lens through which I looked at my hometown; I tried to look for the beauty in Lima, the places where cracks were filled with gold. I found it manifested in random acts of kindness in the otherwise cold, hurried streets, in the wonderful works of theatre and art exhibitions that spoke of and urged audiences to address the pain of the past, and in the colorful vegetation that occasionally adorned the dust-covered buildings constantly in construction. 

I look, now, to the gold in Medellin. I do not pretend to understand or know very much about this country’s rich history yet, but I know enough to tell that Medellin, too, has seen its share of pain and that barrio Carlos E. Restrepo is one of those gold-filled cracks. It is not difficult to spot the beauty here; it is highlighted in everything from the people to the buildings to the vegetation.

At the Biblioteca Pública Piloto, a woman who works at the archives opinionated that it is difficult for a society to move on from a period of struggle when the remnants of that struggle are still alive: the people, the buildings, the loss. Everywhere I turn, however, I see that the city of Medellín is determined on driving their own narrative away from pain and loss. Everything from the expressive art to the innovative infrastructure to the rich cultural centers speaks the story of rebirth and growth, of creation rather than despair, paranoia, or resentment. It makes me think of how easy it is to fixate on a history of struggle--it is so much more difficult sometimes, I think, to forgive and move forward. Medellin's attitude reminds me that it is possible to remember and rebuild.

This weekend, I found another gold-filled crack of the city at the Medellín Marcha por la Vida y la Diversidad Sexual y De Género. It was as extravagant as any other Pride march, but I understood a little better just how special it was after talking with some people at the march, who expressed how rare it was to have a gathering of the LGBTI community like this. This march, apparently, was the only time the community had a space to be free. Residents of Medellín, the most Catholic city in Colombia, many said that they have directly experienced all forms discrimination, from being harassed to being thrown out of clubs because of their sexual identity or gender expression. That hit me hard. I came out as queer within the past year and a half, but I have not, until traveling to South America, lived in an unsupportive or exclusionary environment. I see now how stifling it is to not be fully accepted in your home. I thought it was beautiful, however, that despite all this so many people came out (pun intended) to celebrate their community and their identity; the very fact that they were there told a story of resilience and hope for a more inclusive future. 

I look forward to exploring more and more this city; it is pulsing with stories eager to be heard. 

Chrislyn Choo

The night we arrived, a glittering canopy of stars welcomed us. Not from the sky but from the valley, as we drove down the mountain towards the glimmering city lights of Medellin. It was breathtaking. As I drifted to sleep that night, I could only wonder at what sights the morning would bring. I am not an early riser, but six a.m. found me slightly awake and very much in awe. With a soft orange glow under my eyelids and light birdsong tickling my ear canals, I awoke in a cocoon of light. While a babe only knows darkness in the womb, Medellin enfolded me in a sunrise glimpse of the warmth that permeates her people. I am a very visual learner and consider my eyes my most acute sense, but lying there in my sun-kissed room, I realized that I could see Colombia clearer with my eyes shut. In the two full days that have since passed, the rest of my senses have begun to experience a similar tuning in vision as the people of Colombia teach me new ways to see through touch, taste, and sound.

TOUCH: Physical expression of love is a defining quality of human interaction in Latin American culture. Coming from a Malaysian-Chinese family that expresses affection through non-physical gestures, I am really enjoying the novel presence of the “touch love language” in my life. The way we greet old and new friends cheek-to-cheek with a beso; the way my host father Don Enrique grasps my hand in his excitement to play chess with me; the way my host mom Doña Merce affectionately squeezes my leg or leans up to take my face with both hands to plant a tender kiss on my face - all of it speaks to me, profoundly. I came expecting to improve my Spanish, but this linguistic reality is much better. Though I am still learning to be comfortable with the language of touch, I am continually amazed at how a simple pat on my back can transcend age, speech, and culture to communicate real trust, as if we’ve always been family.

TASTE: Food holds a special place in my heart (or rather, belly). My palate is utterly satisfied by the flavorful sabor of frutas tropicales, carne, jugos, postres…everything! Beyond the gastronomic delightfulness, I see Doña Merce's love through her attention to the details, like artistically arranging the strawberries of our salads. I see how deeply the people value quality time with each other. Meals aren’t hurried, and it is refreshing to see the locals take their time to savor the food and the company. This week the girls all felt closer after sharing cathartic girl talk over pineapple juice and meatball soup; it was a beautiful bloom on our budding friendships. My appetite is learning to value food in terms of the community it fosters, and I hope to bring this appreciation back with me when I share meals with my friends at Duke.

SOUND: Even as I write this, I feel so peaceful listening to the rhythm of rain against the rustling leaves, the trills of birds harmonizing every so often with the pulsing echo of passing traffic. I cannot wait for the scene that will come after the rain, of sun rays filtering through the iridescent canopy, lush leaves rippling in the cool rain-kissed breeze. The music of the rainforest is comforting. It mirrors the ease I feel among the people I have met. During our first conversation with Doña Merce and Don Enrique over breakfast, I was so struck by the special attention they paid to me and Elena. Our host parents encouraged the both of us to speak and probed for more details as we shared stories about our families and interests. I really appreciated their insightful questions, which revealed how well they listened and cared about me. Likewise with my compañero Santiago, whose exuberant enthusiasm to get to know me enhanced our lively World Cup watch party with quality talk and quality listening. I want to grow as a storyteller, and by internalizing how others express sincere curiosity in my stories in such a way that I feel comfortable opening up to them, I hope to externalize that warmth and acceptance when I ask a family to trust me with their story too. I am grateful that the people who have entered my life in Medellin are teaching me how to see with my ears through their example.

I feel immense kinship with this plant in my host family's dining room, called un tronco de la felicidad. It dislikes direct exposure to the sun, but it thrives in light. While the weather has reminded me of my tendency to wilt like a vegetable in high humidity and heat, I have felt so joyfully alive in the warm light of Latin American community and hospitality. It’s hard to believe that it’s only been two days. I know the eight weeks will pass by quickly, so I want to be present in each moment. I look forward to fully resting in the revelations of each sunrise, meal, and conversation to come!

Elena Elliott
I don't believe you can ever know what to fully expect when going to a new place whether that be another country or simply another city. You can anticipate the weather, learn about the food, or determine the best sights, but beyond that, there is little else you can anticipate. Too often we are filled with preconceived expectations of what we will find and, more often than not, those expectations are false, or at least that has been my case in the city of Medellin, Colombia.

In the months leading up to my trip, I only heard about the dangers within  the city of Medellin. However, when I arrived, that is not what I found. My first night in Medellin, my fellow students and I were greeted at the airport by our program directors and their friend Don Orlando. Don Orlando did us a favor by driving us easily down the mountain to the neighborhood of Carlos E. Restrepo, our home for the next couple of months. Upon arrival to Carlos E. Restrepo, my homestay mother, Doña Mercedes, warmly received us with a kiss on our cheeks, despite the late hour.
The next morning I woke to find breakfast already prepared, and Don Enrique, my homestay dad, eager to discuss everything from his love of President John F. Kennedy to the most recent World Cup matches. As the days have gone on, I have met Don Ulysses, our go-to guy when a taxi is needed; Ceci, a remarkable woman that found us a place to watch the U.S. vs. Germany match; and Erica, a local lawyer that helps with our program and well-being. The cast of characters goes on forever; There are tons of members of this community who met us only days ago and are already looking out for us.
Although I have only spent a few days in Medellin, it has already become clear that while Medellin's infamous past cannot be denied, it certainly is not what defines this city.  It is the people of the communities and of the neighborhoods that characterize this colorful and innovative city.

Ishani Purohit
One formative moment in my discovery of Medellin was the visit to the library in Carlos E. Restrepo. Upon entering, a security guard stored our bags for us before we were allowed into the actual venue. At home, I would have never thought to store my bag with the security at the public library. Already I could realize that the people around me took the library very seriously, which is interesting, because I cannot even remember the last time I visited a public library at home.

We went upstairs to a special exhibit with a guide to view the history of photography. This room contained some of the oldest photographs and cameras that had ever been made. It went back as early as the daguerrotype, which was the first photographic process that had widespread use. Later on, we walked to another part of the library in which there were small cartoon depictions of prominent figures. One of the figures was Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and beneath his portrait was a quote from my favorite book, A Hundred Years of Solitude. For those who don’t know, a common theme in the novel is the effects of the cyclical nature of history, and how that influences future generations. The quote read, “Aureliano no entendía cómo se llegaba al extremo de hacer una guerra por cosas que no podían tocarse con las manos…” Roughly translated, that means, “Aureliano didn’t understand how something so extreme as a war could come about over things that one cannot touch with one’s hands.” I began to think about the connection between the portrait of Colombia’s most esteemed author and the room dedicated to photographs, and what that means to this beautiful city.

The library visit made me realize how much Medellin takes pride in and also acknowledges its own history. The photograph museum shows how much the city values keeping a record of what happened before, and the depiction of Gabriel Garcia Marquez with the quote from A Hundred Years of Solitude on the absurdity of war shows their acknowledgment of the events that once deemed Medellín the most violent city in the world. That’s much more than I can say for the United States. Our society is built around the premise of “freedom” and “liberation”, which honestly just means we don’t want to deal with messes we never cleaned up from the past. Rather than looking back, we like to just look forward. But recently, I have begun to question why we do this, because the history of our country is crucial to the foundation of modern day society. And there is no way we can move forward without acknowledging the past.

For example, the question of reparations for slavery will occasionally come up among American politicians. Questions arise such as who pays, what to pay, how to pay, and who receives the payment, and because these questions are too hard to answer, no real amends are made. We fail to recognize that the disenfranchisement of an entire community can be traced back to a time period that is almost alien to us. And because it’s so alien to us, we don’t talk about it; it seemingly has no effect on our lives. Not talking about the past is pretending it doesn’t exist. But pretending it doesn’t exist does not erase the damage it has done to the community. It only invalidates the sorrow and spilled blood that happened as a result.

My friend once told me I had “too much empathy for my little body”. While this was meant to be a joke, I know that it’s often very true. I feel physically hurt by other people’s pain even just by reading it. And I hate the saying “time heals everything”, because it doesn’t work that way at all. Talking about the past, validating the events of the past – that’s really what “heals”. I think that’s why I cared so much about the library visit. I was both fascinated and saddened by the self-reflective nature of the place. While the library could not erase the damage that had been done in Medellín, it still validated the pain. And that is the first step to healing.

Miurel Price
On the second day that we were in Medellín, we visited the library in Carlos E. Restrepo. That was the first time that I became aware of color representation in Colombia. We visited photographic exhibits and I did not see one Afro-Colombian represented. This could have been because these groups of people may have been represented in another area of the library; however, my experience still led me to have a heightened awareness of the way Colombians are represented. Later that day, I asked to go to an Afro-Colombian salon, and discovered that their shops are located in one area. I am not sure if this is considered exclusion or exclusiveness, but to me it seemed like a sense of division. The next day, I started to realize that the billboards I saw resembled Spaniards, and no one else. Not that there is anything wrong with that—I just feel as though there is much more beauty in Colombia because of its diversity, which unfortunately, does not seem to be capitalized on, in my opinion. Sometimes I feel I may not choose the most politically correct way to express my feelings in a way that can understood by everyone and I am open to learning how to do that, but as of now this is my best.

My host brother and I traveling the city of Medellín.
I told my host brother of my observations and he told me that he never thought about it. He said that it was normal for lighter people to be publicized. I told him that I think I notice it more because I am black Panamanian and I live in the U.S. where I am used to more diverse people being represented in the media. He was really surprised and that made me realize that this issue may not even be a concern yet, here in Colombia, but I would have to do more research to know this for sure. These are just my first impressions.

 In the U.S., I have encountered many people who do not believe that black Hispanics exist. This may be because of the way Latin Americans are portrayed as being lighter skinned on television and any other public media outlets. However, black Latinos comprise a huge part of the Latin American population. My experiences in Colombia are wonderful because of its diversity. I love Latin culture, especially in the way that Spaniards, Africans, indigenous peoples, etc have collaborated to create such beautiful Latin American countries. 

Nathaniel Sizemore
“It's in your blood”, one of my friends remarked. We were in a salsa club late one night in Medellin, and I had told him there was no way I would go dance. Eventually they coaxed me into getting up and trying my hand at a few songs. I wasn’t very good, but I haven’t stopped thinking about that phrase. It’s a phrase I’ve heard a lot during my first week in Medellin. Because I grew up in an English-speaking household and did not learn Spanish till much later in life, I’ve always thought of myself as an American first and foremost. I grew up learning that talking about the Colombian side of me was redundant in the minds of my friends. They would always roll their eyes. I became ashamed I didn’t speak Spanish, that I didn’t know more about Colombia, that I had never visited the country itself. I am an American and always will be, but now that I’m here, I’m finally starting acknowledge both parts of my blood. 

Descending down into the heart of Medellin on our first night, I was struck by the seeming chaotic layout of the lights gleaming below me. The middle of the city glowed bright, but out of Medellin’s center stemmed veins of light that crawled up the mountains encircling the city. This was my first image of Medellin, and one that will stay with me for a very long time. The organized sprawl of Medellin is something I have already grown to love; America’s many planned cities, with perfect grids and flat lines often suffocate the creative nature of urban development. When I think of my first days in Medellin, creativity and ingenuity seem to be a running theme among its inhabitants. Whether is a building like the aula, a urban park, or the banana’s my home stay mom leaves out for the many birds that frequent her kitchen window sill, the open minded, loving, and innovative way in which many people carry themselves is something I have come to admire over the short time I’ve been here. I’m also struck by how at home at a feel in this country; walking along Carlos E or talking with my homestay mom, I can’t help but think of my Colombian side of the family and the honest similarities they share with the residents of Medellin. This trip for me has already become a chance to delve deeper into a part of my history that I’ve never really had the chance to explore.   

Rekha Korlipara
The first thing I noticed upon entering my Colombian homestay was a large—almost life-sized—photograph of Sathya Sai Baba hanging on a dining room wall. Sathya Sai Baba was a widely followed spiritual leader in India who passed away in 2011. He claimed that he was a reincarnation of the Hindu saint Sai Baba. If that photograph hadn’t already excited my sense of curiosity, the Ganesha statue I saw a few minutes later definitely did. Because there are so many Hindu gods, most practicing Hindus devote themselves more to one god; my main god is Ganesha, so seeing the statue struck me a little bit more than it may have if it was a different god. I do not consider myself to be a very religious person; I don’t go to temple very often or celebrate most Hindu holidays, and I believe in free will. I do, however, have my own personal sense of faith. I don’t need a temple or idols to feel secure about my religion. And one of the things that I appreciate most about the Hindu religion is that it is open enough to allow that. As far as I know, people do not try to spread Hinduism; rather, people gravitate towards it.

At breakfast the next morning, I asked my homestay mom, Doña Estella, if she followed Sathya Sai Baba. Her face lit up as she said, “El es mi guru. Estoy totalmente dedicado a él.” (“He is my guru. I am totally dedicated to him.”) When I mentioned the statue, she pointed out three other Ganesha statues around the room. She talked about Ganesha’s ability to remove obstacles, and how he has helped her.

Before coming to Medellín, I was not even aware that Hinduism was practiced in Colombia. I have noticed similarities in the Indian and Colombian cultures, from small things like the drink known as a ‘mango lassi’ in India, but ‘jugo de mango en leche’ in Colombia, to bigger things like the way that people treat each other. For example, I have always appreciated that Indian people are very generous with time, not only willing, but wanting, to spend time with/on others. Colombians are the same way. Some Indians and Colombians even look alike; my friend Ana’s family once commented (and others have agreed) that Ana and I look like sisters.

Regardless of the many obvious cultural similarities, it probably would not have occurred to me that there are Colombians who practice Hinduism if I didn’t have Doña Estella as my homestay mom. According to Doña Estella, there are Colombians who travel to India to explore spiritual and religious sites. These Colombian Hindus have helped to bring the religion to this area of the world, to people like Doña Estella. She attributes much of her spirituality to Hinduism (although she also incorporates elements of other religions), and much of her sense of self to her spirituality.

Right before I left for the airport on Monday, my mom (biological) reminded me to pray. I never would have imagined then, while I was praying to my own Ganesha statue, that I would have four others within ten feet of my room in Colombia.

Sandy Ren
City lights at night, hi-res
Hailing from the flat, treeless, ranch-filled Central Texas, my visual senses were overloaded when I first arrived in Medellín. I still remember the first time I flew into North Carolina: I was mesmerized by the abundance of green and blue in the landscape from my aerial view. It heavily contrasted with the patchwork quilt of the Texas landscape sewn in hues of yellow and brown. Medellín is even more saturated with the viridian part of the visual spectrum. After spending a few days walking around the South American city, I continue to be enthralled by the beauty of the mountains surrounding our valley and the lush greenery of tropical plants, amidst skyscrapers and small businesses. At night, it is just as beautiful. When we had dinner in Tam and Jota's seventeenth floor apartment, we were welcomed by the breathtaking view of brilliant lights dotting the valley and mountains. The juxtaposition of urban landscape and nature here never ceases to amaze me.

Urban city and natural landscape, hi-res
While this juxtaposition is amazing, it also often confuses me. Before my departure from the States, the knowledge that I was going to a highly urban area somehow did not register. To qualify, I did expect to have safe water, supermarkets, and modern transportation, but I failed to brace myself for a metropolitan city. As a suburban girl, I am used to having a generous amount of living space, eating in large restaurants, and driving between destinations. Medellín is a population dense locale with approximately three million people in about a one hundred fifty square mile space. Between my lack of remembrance that we were coming to a metropolis and the ubiquitous presence of botanical species (typically indicative of a suburban or rural area), I was confused by the abundance of high rises in the city, cozily stacked small shops, and walking-distance proximity of my home stay to (almost) everything I needed. Despite the disparity between my expectations and reality, I am sure the two will meet and meld over time as I become accustomed to beautiful Medellín.