Medellin: A Tale of Two Cities
Pan-American Transmissions: Part 7
“Pan-American Transmissions” is a travel series from Special Contributor Diego Cupolo as he travels south from Nicaragua to Argentina. He has few plans, a $10-a-day budget and one flute-playing gypsy companion. Check back as new dispatches are posted from the road.
Fourteen-year-old hookers stand at the corner from Medellin’s central plaza waiting to be picked up by the next businessman on lunch break. They stay there every day in groups of three or four chewing pink bubble gum under the shade of “voluminous” Fernando Botero sculptures.
When the girls are done working, they walk home to the Zona Rosa (Red Light District) or go up into the mountains, to the brick-red tsunami of slums that surrounds the city. Their white-collared clients, on the other hand, go far south to El Poblado, the wealthy, tree-lined neighborhood full of shopping malls, fashionable bars and fashionable restaurants. The two groups tuck into bed on opposite sides of the city, but each lunch hour they meet in the center to get what they need from life: money and more exciting ways to use it.
Few regions in the world demonstrate the gap between the rich and poor more dramatically than Latin America and for those interested in exploring both sides — diving headfirst into both sides — few cities in the world display the two realms like Medellin, Colombia.
Once home to Colombia’s most notorious drug-trafficking cartel, Medellin began adopting a series of progressive policies after Pablo Escobar’s assassination in 1993. The city quickly shifted into “renaissance mode” by expanding social programs and health services, but most notably, by installing a pioneering public transportation network that connected its poorest residents to the city center.
Today, people living in mountaintop comunas (slums) can get to downtown metro lines via cable cars in less than 30 minutes. The goal was to give more residents a chance to work and study in the city center, a measure that’s being lauded throughout the continent.
What this translates to for visitors is: 1) Unprecedented access to poor areas and life outside the center, 2) Cheap cable car rides above an endless network of slums, full of unimaginable urban scenery, and 3) A taste of what Latin America is really about.
Ania and I spent a couple weeks exploring the two sides of Medellin. One week in the gritty Red Light District. The other in the posh El Poblado district. The experience left a big ball of injustice in our throats and a book full of stories in our heads. The following is a 21st century Tale of Two Cities.
The Afro-Caribbean whores at the front door told us not to stay there because it was “indecent”; the owner told us not to stay there because “he charged hourly rates, not daily”; and the cleaning lady, well, she didn’t really care. It took a little convincing, but with a few jokes and some shameless effort we got into Hospedaje Media Luna on Avenida Bolivar, a cheap sex hotel in the middle of the Red Light District. The room was $5 a night and it came with clean sheets, a private bathroom, a television and free mini soap bars.
It was surprisingly good.
The street outside was a different story. Ania and I went to buy bread and in one block’s distance we saw about 15 tales of insanity, drug abuse and poverty: a homeless man with one leg shooting up on the pavement; an old women dragging 50 filthy plastic bags, vomiting into the sewer grate; five tranny hookers sitting in a hotel stairwell, wearing nothing but g-strings, making cat calls at the passing traffic; a crackhead walking in circles, talking out loud to no one in front of a fruit stand; little boys, none older than 11, all huffing shoe glue out of black plastic bags to get a 10-minute high; and a group of plump ladies sorting through garbage in the street, looking for old produce that can be re-bagged and re-sold at discount prices.
All this, and it was only 7 p.m., a few minutes after sunset. I stood with my back against the wall, looked up at the purple sky and figured it was best to get to the hotel before it got any later. We got the bread, walked back to Media Luna, shut the door tight and that’s where we stayed. Ania and I passed our first night in Medellin eating tuna sandwiches and watching Saturday Night Fever in Spanish.
When the sun rose again and the addicts went back to sleep we went out for a walk to the nearby Botero Plaza. It was full of fat sculptures (or as Botero calls them, “voluminous”). Somebody handed us free tickets to the Museo de Antioquia so we entered and looked at more fat people art. It was nice. Classical art with a twist, but repetitive. Regardless, Medellin-born Botero is the most famous Latin artist alive and, along with Shakira, he is the pride of Colombia.
After a few more strolls through the city center, Ania and I took a ride in the cable cars to the slums up high in the mountains. It’s hard to describe the experience. We watched a somewhat functional cityscape turn gradually into a shantytown labyrinth of terrible roads and corrugated metal rooftops. People living in rubble. Kids walking barefoot through black tar rivers, soccer ball in hand. It makes the stomach turn and the mind pound against the skull.
“What is the difference between us and the people below?” I wondered.
“Nothing. Just the place you were born,” a voice responded.
When we got to the top there was a nice, somewhat safe neighborhood to explore. The slum had been slowly evolving since the cable car line was built. There were restaurants, fruit stores and pharmacies. Transportation raises property value, sure, but in slums, any attention at all raises hope.
We found a newly built library full of local schoolchildren, all of them reading books and doing their homework. Ania and I walked around, enjoyed marvelous views of the city and left the slum feeling more optimistic about the world.
Things can get better.
Then we got back to the Red Light District. Ania and I were walking back to our hotel on Avenida Bolivar when a tranny in a bath towel ran out in front of us. Everybody on the block stopped to watch as she dashed across the street and started punching a big Afro-Caribbean mama. It was violent. The big mama was defenseless as both her hands held a big bucket of candy.
The tranny wasn’t slowing down with the punches so the big mama hit her with everything she had: the big bucket of candies. A thousand colored wrappers exploded into the air like fireworks, and the the two came out from the smoke, this time running back across the street. They were both yelling something before they disappeared back into the hotel.
Then there was silence. Just when we thought it was over, the two ran back out. This time the tranny was holding a long piece of plywood and chasing after the big mama. When they reached the middle of the street, the tranny threw the plywood at the big mama and missed. Everyone laughed, some clapped, and the show had become a spectacle. The tranny, red in the face and sweating off her makeup, ran back in the hotel at that point. To my surprise, her towel stayed on the entire time.
As for the big mama, she looked around and breathed heavily for a moment. She seemed confused, replaying everything that just happened in her mind. Eventually, she walked back to her candies — which were now spread out all over the street — and she began picking them up, one by one, as she cried.
It was hard to watch, but after a few quick inquiries we were told the big mama walked out on the tranny without paying her bill. The moral of the story: never cheat a tranny.
After a week of watching kids huff glue and have seizures in the street, Ania and I decided to move to El Pobaldo, a wealthy neighborhood on the other side of the city. A friend in Cartagena told us we could get free lodging at the Hostal Sunshine on Calle 9 if we worked the reception desk so we followed the tip . . .
. . . and it turned out to be true. A nice Israeli guy with long hair and big pupils owned the place. He gave us work without asking too many questions. The deal was simple: work three shifts at the reception desk and receive one free week of lodging, wi-fi, laundry service and kitchen use — not bad.
We put our bags in our new room and went out to see the neighborhood. It was the polar opposite of everything we saw in the city center. People wore designer clothes, drank Heinekens and spent their time thumbing iPhones as they walked poofy little dogs. The sky was lined with shiny white luxury apartments and the streets were lined with their shiny white electric fences. Green was everywhere. The streets had gardens and trees and nice, clean parks with swing sets and hopscotch. Organic grocery stores existed. There were bars, restaurants and little streams with benches next to them. El Poblado had it all and because of this it was home to the majority of backpackers’ hostels in Medellin.
With good reason, too. The neighborhood’s known for its all-night parties and extravagant nightclubs. To put it simply: There’s a lot of blow going around. Unfortunately, Ania and I didn’t have the money, the clothes nor the appetite to get into El Poblado’s party scene. During our stay at Hostal Sunshine we kept living between the two sides of the city (or better said: the two sides of Latin America).
We’d buy cheap groceries from desperate street vendors in the Red Light District and then help manicured tourists call taxis in El Poblado. It took some time and patience to adjust in our new roles as hostel receptionists, but, then again, most of the job involved doing nothing. We cleaned a few things and made sure the bathrooms had toilet paper. Everything was great. Everything was easy.
Until the weekend.
I was assigned night shift on Friday and Saturday. This meant sleeping by the front door to let in the drunks as they stumbled home. I slept on a couch and when someone buzzed, I’d get up, let them in, and watch them walk to the back room with a bottle of aguardiente to keep partying and snorting lines till the next afternoon. How they yelled.
I wanted to sleep, but couldn’t. It was unpleasant, to say the least.
The second night was the same only there was a car robbery in front of the hostel at 3 a.m. A girl was pulled out of her Chevy at gunpoint and the thieves hopped in and drove away. I woke up to the sound of the screeching tires zipping by the front door. When I opened the door, I found the girl crying on the sidewalk so I let her into the hostel to calm down, call the police and shiver for a while as she waited.
By pure luck, the cops tracked down the car in the city center and returned it unscratched. The thieves went to jail.
In the morning, all hostel guests were shocked by the car robbery. These things weren’t supposed to happen in El Poblado, but they did and to rub it in, the next night there was another robbery in front of the hostel. This time it was a purse.
I barely got to sleep that weekend and in my zombie daze I thought over the circumstances in Medellin.
It’s plain and obvious: Even if El Poblado is the city’s safest neighborhood, there’s a mass of people living in deep, wretched misery on the other side of the green parks, the jogging tracks, and the rooftop swimming pools. It doesn’t matter how high the electric fences are built, misery breeds crime that seeps through all barriers.
The scenes Ania and I saw in Medellin happen in all urban areas throughout Latin America and, most likely, throughout the rest of the developing world. It’s not just a few people living in a few slums either, it’s the majority of the world’s population that suffers these unnecessary conditions on a daily basis.
Medellin illustrates a severe tale of inequality, but with its progressive social programs, its mountaintop libraries and its all-inclusive transit system, the city’s also setting an example for the rest of the world: inequality lowers everyone’s living standards, no matter which side of the city we live on. The only way to make improvements is by making sure they reach all parts of a city and benefit all levels of society.
By Diego Cupolo
Coming up next from Pan-American Transmissions: Into the Andes: The High Road Through Ecuador. Read all of the other Pan-American Transmissions entries here.
About the Author
Diego Cupolo is a freelance photojournalist currently on the road to Tierra del Fuego. Most recently he served as Associate Editor for BushwickBK.com, an online newspaper in Brooklyn, and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Star-Ledger, The Australian Times, Discover Magazine and many other publications. View more of his work at DiegoCupolo.com.