Sunday, August 26, 2012

A tale of two cities

We’ve had a couple of days now to explore Medellin and the contrast with Bogota couldn’t be more extreme. Sometimes we wonder if we’re in a different country let alone a different city. It’s that extreme. For those of you that haven’t traveled if I asked you to close your eyes and picture a major city in a third world Latin American county I’m sure what you’d describe would be Bogota. And to my new found friends in Bogota, my apologies. Your city certainly has it’s charms - and it’s the people that make a city, not it’s buildings, and in this respect Bogota is truly beautiful - but on the surface it’s a hard city to love. Garbage lines a lot of the streets, infrastructure is crumbling anywhere you look, the traffic is snarled and graffiti covers everything. And I mean literally, not figuratively. We’ve never seen so much graffiti in all our travels and it’s so sad because it sets a tone of lawlessness and despair that may not be how the people really feel but it’s certainly the picture that’s being painted.

Now flash forward to Medellin. If I asked my same friends to close their eyes again, and picture a second major Latin American city set in the beautiful lush mountain highlands, I know for a fact Medellin isn’t what they would imagine. Until you’ve seen it, it simply isn’t what you think of, which is sad in a way because for all we know this is the rule rather than the exception. All I can tell you is Medellin is beautiful, possibly one of the prettiest cities we’ve visited. It’s a spotlessly clean, modern city with glass and brick high rises, lush green parks, a fantastic commuter light rail system with a cable car into the mountains and hardly any graffiti to be seen. The overriding impression is one of greenery. There are parks and trees everywhere and the buildings seem to rise organically from the surrounding mountains rather than the clear cut concrete jungles we seem to favour at home. It’s more like a cross between a beautiful cosmopolitan city in Europe and the best of Toronto than any city we’ve visited in Mexico or Central America.

Yes, the downtown core is more than a little rough around the edges - and today we were warned about one particular area being too dodgy for tourists that stick out as much as we do - but on the whole it’s an amazing place and our time here will all too short.

On a personal note, about a week ago I developed a bad chest cold and I was afraid I might have pneumonia again so I visited a pharmacy and received the obligatory antibiotics that are the drug de jour here in Colombia. For a while I felt better but by the time we arrived here in Medellin I was run down again and coughing quite a bit so yesterday we decided I should see a doctor rather than self diagnose / self medicate.

We visited Clinica Medellin in the heart of the Zona Rosa. It’s a large medical facility that includes doctor’s offices, a hospital, a medical clinic and a pharmacy - and it puts any comparable facility at home to shame. It was spotlessly clean, incredibly professional and the service and care I received was second to none.

It took us a while to check in and arrange to see a doctor because of the language barrier but eventually we were taken to an examining room similar to our emergency rooms at home except this one was sparkling clean , orderly and professional. The exam I was given was thorough and a far cry from the revolving door a visit to my GP at home has become. First I was questioned at length by an RN that took a full history and then my vital signs like blood pressure and temperature. The next visit was by a very nice doctor. She spoke fairly good English as long as we spoke slow and she followed up on the nurses exam by listening to my lungs and palpating my chest and stomach. She heard something she didn’t like so she ordered a blood test and a chest x-ray - both attended to by attentive (and very attractive) professional technicians. From there they put me on an IV which turned out to include an analgesic and I waited for the results. The good news is I don’t have any infection; no pneumonia or strep throat, just an old fashioned case of influenza. The antibiotics, which the doctor was most concerned the pharmacist had handed out like candy, were thrown in the garbage and I was given an prescription for a strong analgesic and something for my throat and my cough. After that it’s the tried and true: lots of rest and lots of liquids. I’m doing my best on the latter but the former is proving to be a challenge :-)

Today we were up and out of the hotel by 9:00 but not before a fantastic breakfast buffet on the rooftop patio overlooking the city. Fruits and muffins, rice, sausages and scrambled eggs, omelets’ made to order, juice, coffee and hot chocolate……. but after that I was full :-)  Rosi on the other hand exercised much more restraint.

We walked to the closest metro station with the intent of taking the metro to the town square but instead we rode the train to the end of the line so we could transfer to the mtero-cable system that took us up to the mountain top overlooking the city. And then, this is cool, we transferred to a second cable car that left the city and took us on a line that goes to a national park approx 5 klm outside of the city, where we wandered around and took in the sites. From there we back tracked until we arrived at the main town square in the old colonial centre of the city.

This area of town however is really quite sketchy. Maybe it’s just because it was Sunday and a lot of the businesses were closed but we knew it wasn’t a great area. We didn’t feel threatened at all, just very aware we should be vigilant - but what the hell, walk down East Hastings or around Victoria Square on a Sunday afternoon and tell me you don’t feel the same way.

But just as we’d pretty much told ourselves that we didn’t need one more picture of a 400 year old church and we might go back to our hotel, two young girls approached us. The oldest, about 16 or so and her sister, who looked to be a few years younger, were VERY concerned for our welfare. She spoke very broken English but she was able to convey that we stood out like sore thumbs (this we knew :-)) and that this area definitely wasn’t safe for us. We chatted for a few minutes and thanked them their advice, and said we’d be careful, but when they left we talked about it and agreed that we’re pretty savvy and we’d be fine - so we continued our walk to circumnavigate the square. We didn’t get ten feet before they realized we were still walking in the square so they turned around, tracked us down and stopped us again except this time they were even more insistent; this area is NOT safe for two gringo’s wandering about with backpacks and a camera and we should leave, now. So after much thanks and exchanging names and emails we heeded their advice. She even insisted on giving us her name and phone number so we could call if we ran into any problems at all getting back. This is a huge city of 2 ½ million and a young girl did this for two old gringos and you have to ask yourself, would this happen at home? I’d like to hope so but I somehow doubt it.

We then had a quick beer overlooking the square and caught a cab back to the Zona Rosa where we had a nice lunch, chatted with a couple from the US here for the flower festival and then headed back to our hotel for a beer and a siesta.

Were we in real danger? - who knows, but the level of caring and concern two strangers showed for two gringo’s speaks more about the country and city than a few rough characters in a sketchy area of town. If I could I’d compliment their parents on the great job they’re doing raising two lovely young ladies. I’ve sent an email to her and her sister to thank them and I hope their parents get the message. Viva Colombia!

And just one more interesting point about the metro. The city purposely ran the metro line into the barrios at the east and west edges of the city as an act of inclusion. Giving the poorest citizens cheap and easy access to the rest of the city also gave them a sense of belonging and pride. Even in the poorest areas - and we had to visit these areas in order to transfer to the cable car at the end of the line - the stations are spotless and there’s no evidence of vandalism or graffiti. And by giving the poor access to jobs in the city the town planners were able to raise the living standard in ways not possible in the past. Does it work? According to our guide books the murder rate in the poorest, most dangerous Barrio dropped from 2,500 murders per year to less than 500 once the metro was complete. On top of this, in the poorest, most dangerous, most crime ridden area of Medellin the city built a multi-million dollar library that was opened by the king and queen of Spain just a couple of years ago. The library, filled with more than 14,000 donated books, is the jewel of the city and this area is now safe to walk around day or night, with no crime problems at all. A lesson maybe we can all learn from.

Safe and sound in Medellin

Dale and Rosi

No comments:

Post a Comment