The local people refer to me as la gringa de Boston – the English speaking woman who lives in Boston, the name of our barrio (suburb). My youngest brother – darling sibling that he is – retranslated it and insisted that it means “that dense woman who doesn’t speak Spanish properly.” Yes, yes, I know I come from a loving and nurturing family.
Like living in Kurgwi, Nigeria or Derb Omar in Morocco –where I was the only foreigner – I am a bit of a novelty. Eventually it will wear off and shift from being a rock star to “Oh right, her again.” But for the time being, however, I am enjoying my notoriety.
My ambition is to grow up to be an Antiquina. Like the portenos of Buenos Aires, the people in this area have no doubt that they are friendlier, more intelligent and simply better than those from Bogotá.
Like the rivalries between, say, Melbourne and Sydney or Neudorf and Lemburg it really isn’t all that important to anyone who isn’t involved.
Medellin may be a city of 2.2 million, but I really live in a small town. Consequently, I walk everywhere. I have decided not to buy a bicycle. To own one, it has to be expensive. Moreover, you have to be male and wear color-coordinated spandex and matching runners. Everything I need is close by that it would be more trouble to get the bike out from the underground parking area.
In Boston, everyone knows everyone else. Sandra – my fourth floor window overlooks her patio – has three yappy dogs. Almost every night she lets Raya – which means “stripped” and he really is ugly – out to wander the streets. When he is ready to go home he scratches on the door. Somebody will ring the doorbell and Sandra comes down from her second floor apartment to let him in.
The bars in the barrio are interesting little – as that is the operative adjective for them – places. There are generally a few tables inside and a few outside. The choice of drinks are beer, aguardiente – a local hooch that literally translates as firewater – and run. If you want wine or Scotch or a cocktail, catch a taxi to El Poblado and go to an expensive expat place.
Now that I have been here for three months the essentials are covered off. I have found a place for manicures and pedicures – $7.50 plus $1 tip – and a hairstylist who charges $8 for a decent cut. And I also have a taxi driver on call. He doesn’t take the long way and he will find what I want.
In the Kingdom my friends were expats. Except for a couple of people I casually met at a couple of Internations events, I don’t know any other foreigners. Further, given that I live in Boston, it is unlikely I will meet any here. But I am developing an interesting network of local friends and acquaintances. Consequently, I might get three kisses between leaving the apartment door and getting to the corner.
It was a Sunday afternoon and I was on my way home, except I wanted to stay out longer. I strolled by a bar. All the tables were taken, but there was an empty chair at one. So I turned around and asked if it was free. A brilliant move as that is when I met Alvaro.
As it turns out he was a chef who lived in New York for 12 years and speaks English. And he has become my go-to person.
We spend a lot of time together and everyone thinks we are an item. He is 66 and gay and I am 62 and celibate, so that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. But like coffee row in Mudhole, there is no point in clarifying the situation because the decision has already been made and everyone knows it is the truth.
Sylvia has run a bar/slow hamburger joint on the corner of Calle 50 and Avenida de Playa for 26 years and she is the matriarch of the neighborhood. Via Alvaro I learned that she adores me.
The conversations between Sylvia and I are limited because of my Spanish – Alvero figures I can speak like a three or a four year old – but Sylvia and I enjoy each other’s company. I’ve dubbed her mi madre de Medellin – my Medellin mother – which always makes her smile.
I’m living on my New Zealand passport as Canadians have to pay $160 as a reciprocity tax every time they cross the border. Fortunately, visas can be extended for an additional 90 days. So I did my research, downloaded the form and showed up at the immigration office with all the required paperwork.
When my name was called, the woman processing the forms said “There is a problem with your visa.” Next to “You have AIDS or cancer” I figure that is about the most frightening sentence in any language when you live overseas.
As it turns out, I had a PI6 – which is a work permit that foreigners kill for – when it should have been a PI5 tourist visa. The PI6 requires a letter from the employer, but given that I work on the Internet and live under the radar, I can’t produce a document.
An official who spoke English came along and took my passport to his supervisor. After 20 minutes of heart palpations I was granted the 90-days I’d requested. Then I was photographed, fingerprinted and signed on an electronic screen so they have all my details on file.
Now that I am legally here until 06 August I can start planning my annual sojourn to Canada.
Life in Medellin
I am enjoying being totally immersed in the Antiquina language and culture. I spend most of the day picking and pecking for work on the Internet. If I want to speak English I call someone on Skype.
Frequently Alvaro and I meet up at Sylvia’s about 18:00. By 20:00 it is time for him to go home to cook dinner and for me to return to the apartment to watch Spanish television on the computer while I do my stretching exercises.
Boring and predictable? Perhaps, but it is what suits me at this point.
My ambition is to speak like a six or seven year old by the end of the year.
The black mark
No place on the planet is perfect, and that holds true for Medellin.
The traffic here is frightening and crossing the street is literally a life-risking activity. The worst are the bus drivers who careen around the corners as though they are Formula One drivers. A woman was killed by a bus on the next street a couple of weeks ago.
The other annoyance is the evangelicals. Their evening meetings every night aren’t too bad as I can drown them out with my Spanish lessons. But they sing so off-key and badly that even Sandra’s dogs quit barking.
But Sunday morning from 10:00 to 13:00 is impossible as they crank it up to full force. So I generally walk into the center of the city to visit a park or have brunch.
Still, all considered, Medellin truly is a magical place and I’m glad I live here. And you are invited to come and visit.