Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Made in Medellin

Colombia is famous...or infamous...for many things. The FARC and drug trafficking are two subjects that often come to mind. However, my month and a half here has confirmed what I already believed before leaving the US: that Colombia is turning around. A couple of weeks ago I met the head of security for all American armed forces in Colombia, and according to him, only a few years ago cities such as Medellin were still largely unsecured. Today that has changed.

Medellin is known most widely as the birthplace and burial place of Pablo Escobar. For those of us who are not loyal fans of HBO's Entourage, or who think that Vinny Chase's bloody portrayal of SeƱor Escobar may not be entirely accurate, Pablo Escobar is Colombia's most famous drug lord. At one point it is said that his Medellin cartel controlled 80% of cocaine shipped to the United States. This feat helped land him on Forbes Magazine's 1989 list of the 10 richest men in the world. The drug lord/billionaire even had the audacity to visit the White House at the time he was one of the most wanted men in the world. In his biography, there's a picture of him standing with his son in front of the White House lawn. Unfortunately, life tends to be rather nasty, brutish, and short for drug lords, and Escobar was no exception. He died in 1993.

All interest in drug cartels and the US government aside, my friends and I did not go to Medellin for the Pablo Escobar tour. We were going for La Feria de las Flores. After all, more than cocaine is made in Medellin.

La Feria de las Flores is a two-week long celebration guessed! Historically Medellin was a flower mecca; peasants from the surrounding mountains would decend to the city carrying flowers on giant woven circles attached to their backs. At the flower parade we went to on Friday, puppets of hummingbirds, flower beauty queens, and people carrying flower displays on their backs paraded slowly past us. I couldn't help thinking how few men I knew in the United States who would willingly adorn themselves with bright pink tulips and go out in public. A city that devotes two whole weeks to a celebration entirely about flowers? You had me at 'hydrangea.'

That night my friends and I met up with other members of AIESEC in Medellin. They told us we were going on a Chiva Tour. A Chiva Tour is basically a Colombian version of a party bus. Directions for proper Chiva Tour: take roughly 6 dozen twentysomethings and put them on what looks like an overgrown schoolbus with no seats. Add alcohol and filter in very loud latin music. Start driving. Voila - chaos, shaken, not stirred.

Saturday and Sunday passed by in an instant. We shopped, we ate delicious food, we walked around the botanical garden exhibition and saw beautiful flowers and handicrafts,

we rode the cable car up the hill to watch the sun set,

went to the Botero museum, and of course we took advantage of Medellin's very active nightlife.

Unfortunately the bus coming back to Cartagena took 14 hours instead of 12, and we were a little late to class on Monday morning. Our boss wasn't too pleased, but we'll know better for next time. Lessons learned this weekend? Medellin is an amazing city, absolutely anything can be decorated with flowers, and when in doubt, take the 10:30 bus. I can't wait to go back.