A regularly updated piece detailing my experiences as a naive Western traveller in Colombia
27.01.19. Part 1: Bogota
A man with no income will do many desperate things. Apparently, one of these is to undertake a 35 hour journey in exchange for cheap plane tickets (shout out to Jack’s Flight Club for making it happen). At 3am, as my poor dutiful and soon to be heartbroken Mother drove me to Birmingham Airport, it dawned on me that perhaps I had made a mistake. But then I remembered that I am a weirdo. I adore long journeys. Give me a pillow, some headphones, a decent Spotify playlist and a ‘Codename Villanelle’ loaded Kindle, and I assure you I will prevail. I’d have done 45 hours if it saved me a few more shillings.
Swiftly through Zurich and on to Miami. I ate that ten hour flight for breakfast, largely thanks to three films and a sensational nap. A 9 hour evening stopover ensured that I headed out into the city – Miami being reasonably high on the list of places that would render this worthwhile. Whereas such a lengthy delay would irritate most people, I saw it as a freebie, serendipity doing her thing. When life gives you lemons, be grateful as they are a useful ingredient from time to time. I lugged my two overpacked bags into an Uber and headed downtown, via a swiftly gobbled Wendy’s.
Within 45 seconds of entering the first bar, I encountered an enormously fat man with a snake draped over his face. Terrified but transfixed, I asked if I could take a photo. Somehow, I didn’t think he would mind. He obliged with transparent glee. An edgy haircut isn’t enough anymore, I pondered. Nowadays, to draw attention to yourself you need to wear a hideous reptile as a necklace. Bienvenidos a Miami. The same bar soon became a trivia den, hosted by a magnificently salty drag Queen. Her barbed tongue worried me as much as the snake, and I experienced the same rumbling dread as when I landed front row seats at a Frankie Boyle gig.
I drunk enough beers to knock me out for the final flight, but not enough to give me a hangover. A fine line, delicately negotiated. The thump of the runway awoke me in Bogota somewhat bewildered, my Chewbacca-furry teeth really putting a dampener on things. This morning belligerence was swiftly ousted when I exited the baggage claim to see a sign with my name on it, being held aloft by a tough and handsome-looking Colombian. Hola, Juan-Sebastian, my chauffeur to the Air B n B that I had booked in a rare moment of extravagance.
To be fair, I was fucked. The thought of a shared dorm or even a private room in a noisy hostel did not bear thinking about. We arrived at the flat and it felt almost mirage-like in its allure. 30 thousand pesos sounded expensive, but the reality was that I had just been charged £7.50 for what must have been a 90 minute round trip. This was a conversion rate that I could get down with. Despite the absence of a shared Mother tongue, I quickly clicked with Juan. His English (while far superior to my pathetic command of Spanish) was pretty good but not perfect, yet his purity of spirit shone through very clearly. He lived in the same apartment complex as me (hence the arrangement with my host), lugging my 24kg suitcase up 4 flights of stairs just to ease my burden. We exchanged numbers and arranged to meet for a beer later that evening. I can’t be sure, but I don’t even think it was out of obligation.
I jubilantly showered the journey off of me, before plotting up in the crisp linen of what was a gorgeous apartment. I blinked and it was 4pm. 5 hours had passed and I felt fully revitalised. The WiFi had been put to good use, with some excited and exciting messages from Robyn littering my WhatsApp inbox. Firstly, a word about Robyn, as she is pivotal to my entire journey.
We met 10 years ago through mutual friends in Manchester. She was visiting the city and I had lived there for 3 years, but home advantage counted for nothing in this relationship. Within our first few encounters she had stolen my favourite jumper from a house party and spat a gobful of beer and bhuna into my lap at an ill-advised post-clubbing curry. It is mysterious why I remained friends with someone displaying such twerpish tendencies, but it happened. The following year she moved to Manchester, and we never looked back. A massively tight group of friends was formed, that went out as often as we could afford and got into the sort of the shenanigans that she would never forgive me for mentioning. Obviously we grew up and this calmed down, but our friendship and love of silliness remained. 3 and half years ago she took the decision to move to Medellin, and needless to say her encouragement and evaluation of the city were major factors in my decision to follow suit. I recently asked her what was the best plan for me in terms of accommodation. Within half an hour she had arranged somewhere for me to stay, rent free, until I found something. By the end of that afternoon she had found me a wonderful house where I could reside, long-term, with friends of hers for a very reasonable rate. I think this tells you all you need to know about Robyn.
With two days until my arrival in Medellin, we enthusiastically made plans to meet for beers on Friday night, and hike through the mountains and waterfalls on a more wholesome Sunday. The excitement was really starting to take hold now. I headed out for a delicious meal on a tip from my host, Ester, and was delighted to hear some music that I recognised. Reggaeton and salsa have never been my bag, and I was quite worried that it would be all that I would hear. My lack of love for these particular Latin genres is probably because to me they are synonymous with dancefloor humiliation at the hands of snake-hipped lotharios. It slowly dawned on me how regularly this would now be happening, and salsa lessons quickly usurped Spanish at the top of the to-do-list. I was not prepared to go from party to party feeling like Theresa May in Kenya.
I returned home to find a message from the head of a teaching firm that I had recently created a profile for, ‘Minga Teachers’. I didn’t know whether to be pleased or insulted. The news was simultaneously encouraging and highly frustrating. He liked my application and would love to offer me a job anywhere, except Medellin of course, where the positions were oversubscribed. This should have created a major dilemma in me, and would have done if my intentions were more professionally motivated. But it didn’t. For me, this experience is more about subsidising an adventure than driving my career. It was very clear to me that the best escapades would be had in Medellin. I was fully committed to the city and had given my word on the rental of the property. I also wanted to see my friend. Booking flights to another continent where I don’t speak the language is a clue to my nature. I like to chance things and think that the best situations are often a consequence of this attitude. I’m certain that I won’t regret it.
I gave Juan a buzz and we headed out for some beers at a local bar. I had judged his character correctly, and so began my first bromance of the trip. I felt very welcome in his city, and liked learning about his life. A recent graduate of psychology, hidden depths were revealed and the odd consultancy with our translator app notwithstanding, the conversation was wonderful. I felt privileged as a British tourist in South America as he explained how difficult it was to travel as a Colombian, not only due to financial restrictions but also their reputation as a people. It felt as if 22 year olds like Juan were paying for the sins of their trigger-happy predecessors. We went for a stroll, each buying a single cigarette from a cart, a lighter being attached to a nearby branch with a piece of string. You can’t knock the hustle, not in Bogota. We decided to head back; I was reasonably tired and (contrary to the last few weeks in Manchester) not feeling the need to go absolutely ballistic every single night. Also, Juan had invited me to play ‘tejo’ for his friend’s birthday party the following afternoon. I wasn’t sure whether anything had been lost in translation, but he described this as a game in which you threw ‘bricks made of iron at explosive grass’. It couldn’t have been a more definitive yes.
Tejo wasn’t until 2pm, so I had a relaxing morning before taking myself out for some brunch. It was here that I had a horrifying realisation; builders tea is just not available here. I ordered te con leche and received a pretty cup of sweet, steamed milk with a teabag absurdly plonked within. The kick-off cuppa was as established a morning ritual as opening my eyes, therefore I didn’t know how to proceed other than to forlornly sip the abomination. Mornings were going to be very tough from now on for this coffee-loathing Philistine. I paid up, with service being included, leaving an additional 3000 pesos for the kind waitress. Although a reasonable proportion of the bill, I had left an extra 75 pence and walked out of the place like Bob Geldof circa 1985. I had a quiet word with myself, and vowed to stop being a Gringo dickhead.
As I got back to the flat, it felt like I had returned to my sanctuary of sorts. Although rewarding and exciting, I felt like I was bracing myself every time I left the b n b to enter a land where I was effectively mute, running a neverending gauntlet of social embarrassment. Knowledge is power and so you are, by default, subservient in every social situation. And rightfully so. Even after just 1 day, it became clear that this ongoing process would require a thick skin and plenty of courage. As a poet, renowned waffler and sometime party animal it’s difficult for me to accept being silenced. This creates great motivation for me to learn the language quickly and inflict my bullshit on another civilisation.
Speaking of which, I received a gift from the gods in the form of Google Translate, which I discovered could be used without mobile data. It would cost me something like £4 a day to use the internet on my British sim card outside of the WiFi, a rate of linguistic taxation comparable to giving Father Jack a swear jar. I shouldn’t ever really be in a totally hopeless situation again conversation-wise, and so anxiety levels were gradually reducing.
I soon discovered that Juan’s friend’s birthday had been postponed until the Friday, which I unfortunately wouldn’t be able to make due to my flight. This was mildly annoying due to the fact that it was my only full day in Bogota and was now too late for me to really do many tourist activities, a significant chunk of the day having already escaped us. It is further testament to Juan’s character that he sensed my disappointment and took me anyway, just the two of us. It was a shame not to meet his friends, although I was mildly relieved not to be the lanky, silent stranger at the party. I could picture the undeserved guilt that they would feel towards me for being excluded from their well-earned Latino banter. To my mind, this was not an ideal way to spend one’s cumpleanos.
I did, however meet Juan’s ex-girlfriend-but-still-close-friend en route. She was just as beautiful as I anticipated (based on Juan’s obvious merits), but unfortunately couldn’t join us. Tejo was great fun, but I was so shit at it that the coveted explosions were not particularly forthcoming. Also, you have to excavate your errant missile from wet clay every time you miss the target, which was approximately once every 40 seconds for an hour. By the end of the afternoon I looked like I’d cartwheeled around Glastonbury. The building that we played in was a bus ride away, an undoubtedly old-school den of iniquity. It was the most masculine environment since perhaps the BBC in the 1970s; there were of course tejo stalls, beers, retired old barflies shooting pool, arbitrary motorcycles and what looked like pinball machines covered in scantily clad mamacitas and footballers, all under a blinding blue and yellow colour scheme that recalled Ikea, or Flounder from The Little Mermaid.
Having made it out of there alive, we headed home and went our separate ways hasta manana, when Juan would drive me to the airport. I was very excited for the next chapter of my Bogota adventure; meeting Jamie. This was a chap that I had met at the practical element of my TEFL qualification. Out of the 15 or so enrolled in that particular group, he is the person that I ended up befriending and going for a couple of pints with to celebrate the course’s completion. In another bizarre example of circumstantial harmony, it transpired that he would be flying to the same city on the same day as me, with no prior knowledge from either of us what the other was doing. I hopped in a preposterously cheap taxi and whizzed across the mountains to his hostel, taking in the stunning view of Bogota by night from on high. I was excited to communicate not just in the English language, but in the cultural shorthand that we shared and that I had not experienced for what felt like a while.
We greeted each other like the old friends that we weren’t, but hopefully one day will be. With little fuss, we settled on another local hostel known for its party vibes, sitting down for a beer, a meal and a catch-up. Before long, karaoke began and the rowdiness began to crank up significantly. Two European girls joined us at the table, more out of necessity than any kind of flirtation, and before long we were in heated debate about what song we would be murdering. Jamie and I both sighed, resigned to our inevitable fate as tuneless crooners. Dos cerveza mas por favor.
It was actually quite pleasant in the end, remedying the afternoon’s macho onslaught by warbling through Queen and David Bowie, followed by a full bar singalong of underrated Sophie Ellis-Bextor classic, ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’. By now we were merry but not drunk, the point at which I would usually hurtle headfirst into oblivion. But I didn’t. A pattern was emerging, and one that made me feel a lot better about myself. To accompany this new found sense of self-control, I had the news that Jamie was also en route to Medellin. The crew was really starting to take shape, and exciting times were surely ahead.
Part 2: Medellin Arrival
The flight to Medellin would barely have spanned two episodes of The Simpsons. Despite this tiny window, the turbulence still managed to be reasonably horrifying, and so I was particularly delighted to land. It turns out that the article on Emiliano Sala was not an ideal pre-flight read. I had received worryingly detailed instructions from Robyn’s friend Alice (whom I would be staying with) about how to reach the apartment, as they would both be at work and so it made sense for me to drop off the albatross that was my broken suitcase. I was mobbed by taxi drivers at the Airport Exit, and presented my Google Maps screen, hoping for a flicker of recognition. One of them pretended that he knew where he was going, and off we headed. It turns out that the directions were merely a distracting sideshow, and what I really should have been worried about was this man’s driving.
He put on his seatbelt as we approached a police roadblock, only to remove it the second we had passed them. Seatbelts are not particularly restrictive. He literally went out of his way to be less safe. It felt quite childish, an empty act of rebellion against…what exactly? The worrying thing was that he did everything with such confidence, that it almost put you at ease. And then you thought about it. I’m aware that nobody likes a recently-passed driver (of which I am one), but this is a man that overtook in the oncoming lane, approaching a (blind) bend on a mountainside, driving no handed and eating a packet of peanuts. He then offered me them, somehow making me complicit in this madness, as if he’d done it for me. Why not drag me into a volcano and then offer me a toasted marshmallow? Or drop me off alone in the barrio to help me learn some Spanish? This could have been funny, a silly little anecdote until we (eventually) pulled into the car park of my Complex. Such was his irrational sense of pride that he waited until the very last second to deviate from what must have been a 5 year old girl, on her pink bicycle. I yelped, paid the oddball and wandered off with a chill running down my spine.
Despite this terrifying diversion, I loved Medellin immediately. The majority of times that I arrive in a new city, I find the initial impression underwhelming. This is partly because you are usually travelling from an airport in the arse end of nowhere, and invariably hit the tackiest spots because you simply know no better. When Evel Knievel sped us down the mountainside and I first glanced the sprawling utopia that was to now be called home, the beauty was breathtaking. Despite (and perhaps because of) many years of UK city living, the sheer scale of natural magnificence surrounding me made it feel at once exotic, bright and intoxicating. The contrast of a loud, bustling city within this illuminated Ferngully recalled Rio, a city that stole my heart when Brazil hosted the World Cup 5 years ago. It was the kind of view that no photo could really do justice, especially with Thumb-bomb McGhee operating the lens.
The taxi ride acted as a microcosm of one element of Colombian culture which I found surprising. The man just could not get off his phone. I realise that to a Western (hold on…Eastern?) audience, this may not sound particularly shocking (if I hear another ‘innovative’ poem on the subject I swear I will scream). But this was just not reasonable. He seemingly had 20 Whatsapp conversations on the go at any given time, his dedication to each stronger than mine to actual friendships. This was not an isolated incident, and if you consider the additional impact of Instagram (particularly on the young female population here), it feels like a strangely superficial element to an extremely traditional, soulful culture.
I arrived at Alice’s beautiful, plant-laden flat having successfully negotiated a heartstopping exchange with the key-wielding portero. Party time. I slung my battered baggage into the immaculate guest-room, cranked up the speakers and poured myself a cup of the one true elixir, Yorkshire Tea. Arsenal had just been spanked by Man United, but the geographical distance helped to alleviate the pain. I barely cared, and for a Gooner that has spent the last 13 years in Manchester, that is saying something. One of the things that I love about travelling is that you realise what it is that you take for granted. For example, you forget how much you cherish a good shower, and the ecstasy that greeted those hot, soothing rapids was undeniable.
I shuffled into my gladrags and ordered an Uber. The plan was to meet Robyn, Alice and crew in the party town of Poblado. I was beyond excited to eat, booze and generally be giddy with my old pal, whilst meeting her boyfriend and merry band of revellers. My driver didn’t get the memo, and really seemed to struggle to follow the GPS. The graphic on the Uber app made it more painful if anything. I wore my sigh for 20 minutes, watching Orlando’s vehicle relentlessly spin on the spot like a defective Catherine Wheel. Over and over again he would approach the correct street, halt for a teasing moment, then career on down the same doomed avenue as always. The minute I left my spot and headed in his direction, he of course zoomed past me to the original meeting point. Transportation was swiftly establishing itself as my nemesis.
The reunion, when it came, was wonderful. I barely caught up with Robyn in the time since she left Manchester, bar a couple of brief visits on her part. It didn’t matter. She is one of the people with whom I slip straight back into the old repartee immediately. There is no animosity on either of our parts as we are both equally dreadful at staying in touch. I have a natural hostility towards Skype, and if anything feel like it is a bit of a tease when it’s somebody that I really miss. Seeing a good friend’s pixelated face through a webcam just doesn’t cut it unfortunately; I would often rather put them out of my mind and forget how much I miss them. There was a good group of 7 or so of us, plus Reggie, my soon to be canine companion. Everybody made me feel very welcome and tolerated my pidgin Spanish like seasoned gringo-encounterers. We had a few beers before heading for the bonkers creation that was a sushi-burrito. I couldn’t quite get my head round the concept, so I’ll keep it simple. Imagine a solitary piece of sushi, magnified to the size of a hearty burrito. There we have it. Breaded prawns and avocado tumbled out of the rice fiesta, and for £10 each including drinks (at an upmarket part of town), I felt like my money was significantly more powerful than usual. This was lucky considering my lack of job and (historically) self control.
Speaking of which, I was introduced to a friend of Robyn’s, a Croydon lad called Julian. Julian part-owned a reggaeton club in Poblado, and when the rest of the guys decided to call it a night, I could feel his desire to corrupt the fresh meat, especially with me being a fellow Southern boy. I can’t say I wasn’t tempted , but I had just arrived and could see where this was heading. I surprised myself by declining his invitation, choosing to accompany Alice back to the flat with Reggie. During this journey, some linguistic conundrums were resolved, while some were encountered. I had wondered why dogs (perros) were coming up so regularly in conversation, when in reality I just hadn’t realised the distinction between that and pero, meaning but. While listening to Alice and Johann give directions to our taxi driver, I wondered what kind of maniac would use the word derecho for straight ahead, and (out of the limitless lexical possibilities out there) derecha for right. This prompted me to consider the villainy of my own Mother Tongue, accepting it as vengeance for the whole their, there, they’re debacle.
My first morning in the apartment, I awoke to the aroma of the Colombian equivalent of a bacon sandwich; huevos revueltos with arepas, a frisbee of carbohydrate that Paisas (Medellin folk) swear by. It was the kind of bland, underwhelming (yet simple) snack that was certain to dominate breakfast plates for months to come. Chuck some hot sauce on there and by golly, we’re talking. Dearest Reginald needed a walk and I needed to be shown the grounds, seeing as I was to be moonlighting as dog-sitter. Alice led the way around the impressive complex, showing me the swimming pool, outdoor gym (too hot, baby) and bamboo trees where Reggie liked to have a wee and skirmish with rodents. We scrambled down a slightly uncharted path to a secluded riverbed, Reggie bounding around off of his lead and leaping playfully amongst a kaleidoscope of butterflies. I was constantly spotting plants that I had never seen before, outlandishly coloured and reaching for the sun, gratefully. This was truly another planet.
We headed back up to the small eco-park and got chatting to Willian, the tiny old Gepeto-a-like running the park shop, plus a customer named Johan. He wanted to talk to me and certainly wasn’t having any of it when I declined a coffee. Similar to the hot-sauce approach, I loaded the bugger with sugar and smiled gratefully. I decided to just go for it; they clearly knew that I couldn’t speak Spanish but hell, you might as well try. This felt like a breakthrough. We communicated in the international language of football, which was perhaps a bit of a cheat, but sometimes an ace up your sleeve can be useful. Feeling your confidence grow as people understand you (and trust you to understand them) is empowering, and I recalled the dark days of Bogota when I could barely summon the courage to make eye contact with anybody. Reggie derailed this momentum by having a row with an iguana, and I could have killed the scrappy little so and so. Thankfully, this surly reptile intrigued Adriana, a jogger that began chatting to us after taking some snaps for her sister. She was involved in an International Language firm that had strong links with teaching, and cheerfully took down my details. I had known this lady for no time at all, and she wanted to help me. This was the kind of luck I had been counting on, and these leaps of faith certainly seemed more prominent in Medellin than most places I was used to.
Today was to be a busy day, and I was excited for Phase 2; El Estadio. I had decided (based on preferring their kit) that Atletico Nacional were to be my adopted team. I later found out that they were one of the best teams in the country, let alone the city. Not only that, but I would eventually be living on their doorstep in Laureles. Show me a glory-hunter, and I’ll show you a slanderer. Alice did the typical late thing and we steamed into a taxi to try and make kick off, her friend Daniel waiting patiently with our tickets alongside his amigo, Sebastian. We burrowed through the green-and-white army with laser efficiency, the pair of us expertly downing pints whilst careering forward through impossible gaps. Well-trained Brits, the pair of us. We were greeted by our Paisa hosts and taken to our seats as the opening whistle blew.
Three-quarters of the stadium were more serene than anything I’d ever seen in the Premier League. Barely half filled and with the majority of fans too laid-back to raise their voice, it was a calm and spacious viewing experience. I glanced over to the stand behind the opposing goalkeeper. It was as if a key lime pie had been baked in Hades; an inland armada of baying hysteria. Drums thumped, ominous and relentless, while gravity-denying runts dangled over the stands, clinging onto nothing but brotherhood. The majority of them bounced with the unquestionable intensity of men powered by cocaine… it was spectacular to behold. I was particularly thankful for this considering the game ended a goalless stalemate. The players showed plenty of endeavour but no composure, resulting in a wild, frantic and absolutely never boring display. The snack vendors were a constantly irksome apparition, peeping up from the depths and imploring you to take some 0% lager off their hands. They eventually wore me down, and my medley of nutrition continued with a footlong polita de queso (stick of cheese), followed by a perrito (melted rubber cheese filled hotdog with anaemic tinned frankfurter). We made our way out and sat down for a beer, Daniel and Sebastian soon instigating the linguistic initiation that is… being taught all the foulest phrases imaginable. The boys smirked with barely-concealed glee as I submitted to the role of profane Paisa parrot. On a side note, it was interesting to hear that phrases such as blacky ‘negrito’ and fatty ‘gordito’ were cheeky terms of affection. I accepted that people here weren’t sensitive about such things, and mentally trained myself to smile when I was invariably labelled a lanky prick.
The main event came after the football, with us attending the leaving party of a colleague that was heading back to the States. The oddness stemmed from the fact that this was the house that I would be living in in a fortnight, so it felt almost like an audition. Alice and I bought a big bottle of rum and some beers and headed down the side street from the main strip, the setenta. We headed in and were greeted by the awesome sight of the rooftop in full swing, with a DJ and speaker set-up draped with fairy lights, and a huge seating area of pallets loaded with people chilling on cushions, chatting, drinking and just having a good time. A barbecue was grilling away, and all sorts of scrumptious treats were doing the rounds. There were a good 30-40 people in attendance and still about two-thirds of the rooftop remained untouched. The potential here is enormous, I pondered. Give me six months and I’ll be King of the Rooftop Disco.
I got chatting to my soon-to-be housemate Richard, a Texan, asking what the enormous spotlight was, dancing through the sky in the distance. The little boy in me was praying for some kind of Bat-Signal situation, and pondered who was to be Medellin’s vigilante saviour this evening. ‘Oh, that’s the brothel’, he replied, prompting us to both chuckle childishly, and for me personally to admire the cojones of a city that illuminates it’s premier bordello like the Statue of Liberty. The night continued in a great vein, meeting interesting people and hearing their stories. When you enter a new city as an outsider, it’s exciting to consider the lasting friendships and relationships that you will make. At home your mates are established, and I’m ashamed to say that in a lot of social situations I just could never be bothered to go through the rigmarole of introducing myself to anybody new. Travelling recalibrates that malfunction within you. Yes, I did have a great friend here already, but the truth is that every new person that I meet has the potential to be a lifelong companion. As I considered this, Biggy Smalls’ boy-dun-good anthem ‘Juicy’ bounded out of the speakers. As I nodded my head, gazing over the shimmering illuminations of the mountains and tipsily surveying a group of friends I quite possibly now loved, it felt like a seminal moment. Life is what you make it, I thought. And this could well be one of my favourite chapters.
Part 3: Settling in
That particular evening culminated in some top-drawer bonding with Alice. For the second time in three nights, I found myself drunkenly wailing along to a Queen classic, this time in a taxi home with my (hammered) new landlord. I know this because she documented it, much to my dismay. We got home, raided the fridge of beers and sat outside in the cool, early-morning breeze of the apartment complex. Eventually, Alice’s deafening gob saw to the party being cut short by numerous complaints from the poor, sleeping Paisas. On a Sunday no less. This was literal sacrilege, but I felt that Alice was notorious around the place; the quintessential wild Gringette. I wouldn’t change her for the world.
The following day went the way that I expected and perhaps needed. We had planned a long hike to experience some of the natural beauty outside of the city. Thank fuck for the monsoon. After an intense week or so, I really enjoyed lounging around, barely communicating and attempting to write, whilst hardly breaching a paragraph an hour. I continued this charade for 10 hours, and was intermittently dazed for the majority of it. The start of a trip is often overwhelmingly busy, to the point that you forget that you actually need some time to recharge, invariably burning yourself out. Chuck in my first reasonable hangover, and anyone over the age of 30 will testify that these are the kind of days that snooze buttons are designed for. I often get back from a holiday more in need of a holiday than ever before. This wasn’t travelling; I was here to make a life, at least for a year in my mind. It was time to slow down and accept that duvet days were inevitable. One good thing did come from this farce of an afternoon; a voice note from Adriana summoned me to a meeting at her office the following day, to talk about job opportunities. Surely I hadn’t bagged a job on my first weekend here, having not actually applied for anything? We’ll get to that later.
I awoke on the Monday to the sound of the maid outside singing in joyous harmony with her phone, one earpiece in, like a true veteran of workplace escapism. This Maria Poppins didn’t just give the place a two bob once-over, but a full, 8 hour blitz. She stripped the beds, cleaned and tidied every room, sorted the fridge, tidied the cupboards, scrubbed the toilets, washed our clothes, and sang. I couldn’t believe how happy she sounded, and half-anticipated her to transform at any given moment into the indignant wretch that her paycheck perhaps warranted. But no; she maintained her impervious aura of cheerful, maternal warmth for the duration of my time spent with her. I was wary of the fact that I was probably in the way, a useless Western lummox that was apparently entitled enough to pay her to wash my dirty underwear. She never made me feel like this, proudly showing me photos of her Nephew and indulging in as much banter as language could permit. The only problem arose when I attempted to wash my bowl after finishing my breakfast. This resulted in a death stare and severe scolding. It is part of the culture out here, and when I eventually leave, this weekly visitor is going to be a tough luxury to lose.
I headed out for the first time in the my briefly adopted neighbourhood of Envigado. This was a relatively wealthy suburb right on the periphery of the city border, if not just outside. This particular quest was in the name of groceries and the coveted Colombian simcard. I was heading to Viva, a huge and impressive shopping mall with an Exito supermarket and badboy IMAX cinema. I knew this because we had arranged to go the previous evening following the aborted hike. Even that was beyond our capabilities. The journey allowed me to take in the pleasant, lively neighbourhood vibe. I noticed an abundance of small, specialised businesses that were regrettably starting to vanish from the UK high street, a demographic that seemed to have been sold a lie by Farage and co. I took in seamstresses, fishmongers, butchers, fruit and veg shops, bakers; all of the services that leave you feeling infinitely better than their Tesco counterpart. I also considered that these skillsets may begin to disappear as their viability as a lucrative skill dwindles. A sad thought indeed.
Exito was interesting in that so many things that you would consider the absolute basics of a big shop were either unavailable, or at a grossly inflated cost due to importation. ‘Normal’ (non-sweet) bread was a nightmare to track down. Pepper was a struggle. Chopped tomatoes were about £3 a tin. I finally came to the realisation that I may have to just chop up tomatoes myself, a concept that had embarrassingly never once crossed my mind as a plausible option. On the other hand, you could buy an enormous Aloe Vera leaf for 50p, which would see to the angry storm of burnt tissue invading my body. I also realised that it would probably be similarly economical to eat out for dinner literally all the time, than to cook (within reason, restaurant wise). This softened the blow on the passata.
The Simcard was a much greater stress than the shopping. Negotiating a new tariff in your mother tongue is a disastrous way to spend an hour. Chuck in an unhealthy grasp of Spanish and you’ve got yourself a horror show. It is often joked that English people resolve a lack of foreign comprehension by just speaking louder, with more frenzied gesticulation. This was the approach that the initial sales assistant favoured, before finally calling people over to help, one staff member at a time. Like clowns from a mini they just kept coming, my embarrassment growing by the second as the sullen faces multiplied. This was how I always imagined an orgy would go. Eventually, I ended up with a working Colombian line, the sales team piecing everything together like some kind of Chinese Whispers jigsaw. I didn’t really have any idea what I’d signed up for, but it cost me a tenner. This was pretty much happy days considering I’d rather hurl myself off of a mountain than continue the bewildering exchange.
By this point, I was in a rush. My meeting with Adriana was imminent, and I had no idea where it was besides the address. Traffic and a bonkers taxi service (the ‘available’ light has absolutely no relevance to availability) meant that I was feeling anxious and had to get my skates on pronto. True to form, I was dropped at the wrong place with my two huge bags of shopping. This meant that I had no choice but to sprint, arriving in the cool, air-conditioned office looking like I’d just broken all records on Supermarket Sweep. It was a regrettable impression to make; red, wheezing and lacquered in sweat. I had to turn this around somehow. Thankfully, I had bought Alice some flowers to thank her for her hospitality. Jackpot. Machiavellian instinct kicked in as I strategically placed the gorgeous bouquet in Adrana’s eyeline, peering out of the bag over the mincemeat and Doritos. Right on cue, she queried what they were for, seemingly confounded that a male would buy such a thing. As I explained, warmth enveloped her face, much as it had mine on the gruelling dash to her office. I’ve got this sucker now. Karma retaliated with the realisation that she couldn’t offer me anything without an RUT number, which would require a Visa that I didn’t have and that she couldn’t provide for such casual work. My first weekday in the city had resulted in professional frustration, and would mentally prepare me for the gauntlet of irritating bureaucracy and inevitable rejection that one should perhaps expect as a foreigner that has worked in a bar for the last ten years.
I made my way home disappointed, but relieved that I didn’t have to do any more rushing around. I was out of practice life-admin wise, and the meeting had taken it out of me. The elongated afternoon had meant that I had left Reggie for longer than I would have anticipated. I entered the flat and was immediately smothered with a howling waltz by the hind-legged sweetheart. I eventually calmed him down, cuddling and reassuring him whilst taking several grasping paws to the face. As I grabbed the lead to take him out for his wee, the tail wagged hysterically, before Alice strolled through the door and unravelled the whole excursion. He was no longer interested in relieving his bladder, but I took him anyway. I had never seen him go so quickly. Like a piss artist at the cup final, he was practically still dribbling as we madly dashed back to the apartment to see Mama. Never in my life did I expect to be bellowing ‘tranquilo!’ at a Hispanic Doberman with abandonment issues, as he strangled himself with excitement.
Having failed to embark on any real tourist escapades, I decided to sign up for the Comuna 13 Graffiti Walk, which had been recommended by Robyn. To be quite frank, I love graffiti, but feel that it can be a bit of a refuge for the culturally unsure. Want to look cool in Berlin? Whack on some overalls and stand by this mural. Into hip-hop? Better cop that NY subway shot. By this, I am not detracting from those involved in the scene. It is a skill that I admire and a daring culture that should be revered, albeit perhaps one with too many tourists that just don’t know what else to do in a new city besides standing by the established cool thing. It’s too obvious, like a traveller reading On the Road, or a DJ finishing a festival set with Bob Marley. The idea of a Graffiti Tour therefore puzzled my (clearly hipster) soul. It needn’t have, I had a blast.
I headed over there to San Javier, taking in my first experience on the fabled Metro. I had heard great things, mainly from a 2018 Telegraph article that I had shared with family and friends to reassure them that I wasn’t entering Mordor. They had stated that the metro had been instrumental in getting the city back on it’s feet after years of corruption and tyranny, giving people the power of travel in and around the city where before they were perhaps confined to their (often destitute) region. This of course increased education opportunities and more importantly showed the Paisas that things could change, providing ‘a bridge to a different world’. I was prepared to be underwhelmed.
The stations and carriages were extremely clean, spacious and cool, and the overall experience was welcomingly pleasant; bolted to the overground line, soaring through the city. It was thrilling to see all manner of tall offices, humble houses and tin-roof barrios protruding out of the blue-sky mountainsides on what looked like highly improbable slopes. People were serene and well behaved despite the often cramped conditions, but my God were they starers. Medellin being a travellers’ haven, I hadn’t imagined that I would stand out quite like I did. They were transfixed, and would continue to be every time I got the metro henceforth. This is nothing to do with sexual allure (as I’m sure you will have guessed). Guys and children were usually just as engrossed by my pasty shins and Dairylea noggin as the ladies are; throw in a bit of English speech, and you may as well be in The Truman Show, such is everybody’s elevated level of interest.
I had literally never felt like this. There was no malice whatsoever and I wasn’t particularly bothered, but it is important to know what it feels like to be regarded like a zoo animal, particularly as a healthy, white, English, heterosexual, working/middle-class (it’s complicated) male. I pondered the London Underground, and how I felt that Cockneys generally got a bad rap in that regard. It wasn’t their fault. During my years in Manchester it was a common source of mockery, the Northerners preferring to portray themselves as salt-of-the-earth, tram-riding men of the people compared to the belligerent, snooty Londoners. But this is not a reasonable comparison. London is enormous, the population is mind-boggling, the working hours are longer, and trams are not trains. The reality of the situation is that if you placed Barney the Dinosaur on the London Underground, he would undoubtedly emerge frazzled and neurotic. On the Medellin Metro, at least he’d have taken some of my limelight.
I sought out the blue umbrellas and linked up with the start of the tour at San Javier station. The group was big enough to divide us into two, me being placed with a plump little lady of overwhelming conviction. Delicately dishing out instructions in assertive yet agreeable English, she clearly knew exactly what she was doing. And so began a gorgeous morning, working our way upward and inward through the Comuna and taking in all manner of street art and historical context under the beating sunshine.
The story of the Comuna is too elaborate to detail here, but needless to say it is harrowing. The murals all seemed to have some sort of message about peace, regeneration or acceptance; the citizens of Comuna 13 have seen plenty of the dark stuff and are not interested in basking in the gangster bullshit. To them it is not a glamorous fantasy, but a painful memory. Our guide couldn’t mention Escobar openly, for fear of native reprisal from locals who may misinterpret the context and accuse her of profiting from their pain. She was also afraid of giving the tour in Spanish, worried that the factions that she openly condemned could still have ears in the barrio. The truth is that she herself was from here, growing up and enduring through the most heinous and testing tribulations. She learned English from some teachers up in the Comuna, eventually getting good enough to deliver the tour herself to scores of foreigners, and bringing enough cash into the district to really make a difference. The lady was impressive, this was indisputable, and the fact that she had to hide her intentions from the community (which she had done so much to heal) did not sit right with me. Her tone was proud and hopeful, with an enthusiasm which came from deep within and defied the constant repetition of the same visceral fable. We ended the tour on the very balcony where she had studied her grammar and devised her plan, a rousing speech imploring us to spread the positive vibes of Colombia and hopefully overcome the horror that their reputation conjures, to those that don’t know better. It was a spine-tingling moment, littered with optimism and humility.
I was heading to Robyn’s for dinner that evening, but still decided to squeeze in ‘bandeja Paisa’, a local delicacy a little like a fry up; pork 4 ways (sausage, strip, chicharron, crackling), egg, avocado, beans and of course arepa. Two thumbs all the way up. Robyn and Jhon collected me in Poblado, feeling rather buzzed having just bought myself a snide Nacional shirt from a street vendor. We headed back in the motor and had a lovely evening of sterling grub, cute cats, nostalgia and, of course, tunes. I was puzzled but excited by the cheese delivery. You can seemingly order anything here, not just fast food. One day, Alice had an awful headache so ordered some painkillers. In the UK, this is not a gap in the market, but a cavern. We glugged a load of wine and nattered away like the crass foreigners we are, poor Jhon excluded from our excursion down memory lane, yet remaining a convivial host throughout. Time vanished swiftly, and before I knew it I was probably encroaching on their bedtime. The apartment was high up in the mountains of Buenos Aires (don’t make the idiotic comment that I did), meaning that in my merry haze, this was the ideal occasion to pop my ‘Picap’ cherry. A Picap is essentially a motorcycle Uber; a network of young lads whizzing passengers about, a roadman rally. I clung onto the chap, and off we went. As the wind sailed through my visor, I realised that this was my Drew Barrymore, teenage rebellion moment. All I needed now was a tight leather jacket, a perm and Metallica. It was late and traffic was non-existent, so the ride was exhilarating, skinning the guys on mopeds and leaving them for dead. I eventually arrived at the apartment, hopping off with shaking legs and a profound feeling of naughtiness, like our pal Theresa bounding through the cornfields. It was only later that I realised that I was supposed to grab the handle on the back of the bike rather than clutch this poor kid’s abdomen, Robyn explaining that I had left both her and Jhon in hysterics, through snorts of howling derision.
A few quirks of Colombian life were starting to hit me. The most unexpected example was perhaps also the most annoying. Nobody wears shorts, and if you do (especially at night) then you might as well scrawl ‘basic’ all the way down your sweltering shins. As a sun-starved Brit, this comes in direct conflict with our entire way of being. Granted, the dreaded ¾ lengths are possibly among our dodgiest exports, but sunburnt calves are as established a rite of passage as getting hammered on the aeroplane. Secondly, it was an interesting dichotomy comparing the deep-fried, fattening menus offered everywhere with the absolute abundance of health and sporting facilities. Obviously as a tourist you are more likely to encounter the naughty stuff food-wise (Westerners are not exactly renowned for their dietary willpower), but it does feel difficult to eat healthily in many places. And yet it feels like there is a gym on every block, as well as a great deal of football pitches and running tracks. The DIY nature of the outdoor gyms is extraordinary. Varying weight sizes are achieved by attaching a bar to different sized paint pots filled with concrete. There is something brutally humble about this image, primitive yet ingenious. I couldn’t help but think of Rocky lugging immense logs through a Russian snowstorm and dragging his trainer on a sled, in preparation to take on Soviet tyrant Ivan Drago.
The bin situation was also very different to what I was used to. Manchester City Council had seen fit to give a household of 3 people one thin black bin which they would pick up fortnightly. Miss one of those, and expect to have a smelly front garden for some time. Here, you put them out twice a week and don’t even have to worry about the binmen doing their job. On one occasion, after a big joint party at the house (the new place), we had 9 bags full of beer bottles and hotdog remnants which Conor and I hauled outside. Within half an hour we heard a strange jingling outside. Conor investigated, returning gobsmacked to inform me that a local vagrant had taken the entire lot, at once, shuffling down the road like a very unfortunate version of Santa Claus. This is of course not funny; the depths of poverty here in some cases make scenes such as this not particularly shocking, which is shocking in itself. I had also been informed by Alice that vultures would often make an appearance on bin day. My brain immediately recalled the evil-looking creatures of Disney folklore, and my heart sank. I had just about come to terms with the bats, who whizzed around Laureles of a night like some kind of bad Hunter S Thompson trip.
Jamie had arrived by this point, and we headed to a language exchange at his hostel. Unfortunately, this ended up being a load of English speaking people standing together while attempting the odd phrase and praying not to make a fool of themselves. All of the Colombian contingent were sat down on a table together and seemingly reluctant to move despite the logistical catastrophe that this created. But never mind. At 3,000 (or 75p) a beer, it was good fun and at the end of the day it was good to make friends whether they were Colombian or not. We drank a semi-skinful and called it a night. A personal highlight came the following morning, when I managed to convince myself I wasn’t hungover, before proceeding to load the washing machine with dog-food. A swim with Alice (off sick and with a doctors note to prove it) in the pool swiftly sorted me out though. I had been warned that hangovers here would be worse because of the altitude and humidity. This had not been the case so far. Perhaps it was still the honeymoon period, but waking up in a blue-skied, horticultural paradise before collapsing into a swimming pool will always defeat the doom of a bleak Manchester Winter. I prayed that this would continue, with a big weekend of partying and hiking ahead of us. Plus something very important beckoned, starting on Monday: Spanish School.
Part 4: Fast Forward
ASIDE – My aim with this post is to bring us up to date a little. It’s natural that when you first arrive somewhere that there is more to say, as everything is so new and exciting, and still feels otherworldly. I can’t say that this has changed much, but this blog is perhaps pointless if you can only hear how I was getting on 2 months ago. I’m going to pick up the pace, and stop waffling about dustbins and chopped tomatoes.
After two weeks of booze-littered bliss with Alice, my stay in Envigado came to an end. She had some things to deal with on the relationship front, so I decided to remove myself from the equation a couple of days prior to my new place becoming available. The final night was one of the best, with her, Danny and I just sat around glugging wine and chatting for hours. Danny’s English was making great strides; the wine surely helped. It was here that I learnt about perhaps my favourite cultural custom since Finland’s Wife-Carrying Championship; Burro-teca. Danny was from the mountains of Manizales, a beautiful, highly conservative city outside Medellin where horse-riding skill appears to be directly linked to one’s manhood. He explained how he and his friends would ride their cavalry into the mountains blind drunk, armed with liquor, cigarillos and hopefully nobody of an anxious disposition. They would lead one mule along the expedition, with no rider, but wearing a saddle modified to accommodate speakers. Donkey disco indeed.
My two days between homes meant a stay in Jamie’s hostel, which I was already familiar with due to their weekly language exchanges (which I mentioned last time round). I had met some interesting characters at these events, Barry from Brighton being a pleasant example. He was an older chap (in his late 40s) who had relayed a remarkable tale to me about his visit to Santa Marta, a beautiful city (the oldest in Colombia) sat near the top of my to-visit list. His pal had been caught with some weed by the local fuzz, who had then confiscated all of his essentials and driven him to the cash machine. There was nothing too shocking about this element, until I heard that they sat there, openly smoking his bud as they waited to inherit his haul from the ATM. The audacity almost impressed me. There was nothing sneaky about this; they wore their corruption as a badge of honour.
I must admit, I was not particularly excited about the hostel. I can sleep anywhere within reason, but Brazil had really damaged me with regard to shared bathrooms. Imagine a lodging full of international football fans, and all of the regurgitation that that entails. Multiply it by a healthy dose of disdain (for the English), and you’ll come somewhere close to my level of discomfort throughout that dreadful week. Also, I have found that age has made me more and more grateful for personal space. My peculiar routines are well established by now, and imposed silence has always been quite the struggle. It wasn’t too bad. The dorms were pretty tight and our roommates were dull as dishwater, but the place had a warmth to it that really seeped in and took hold of you. The cheap beer, courteous staff and dangling hammocks won me over, and I’m glad that my princely standards have been challenged and overcome. I have since become friends (and quiz-mates) with the owner Brent, a perpetual breath of fresh air with a strong sense of fun and a killer command of the music round. The place is in good hands.
I moved into the new place with Richard from the rooftop and the as-yet-unmet Conor on the Saturday morning. It was an embarrassing opener. I had gotten hammered with a lank-haired bozo called Mike on the Friday night, ending up in a club until twat o ‘clock and just generally doing myself no favours. My move was just around the corner so it was no big issue, until I accidentally text Richard a message that was meant for Robyn. It read something along the lines of, ‘Poor Richard, I’m battered’. Thankfully, my penchant for the nightlife had preceded me, and the mockery was gentle. The guys headed to Price Mart to stock up on goodies, me thankfully swerving it, albeit for an altogether more harrowing experience at ‘Senor Gol’, a six-a-side complex in Envigado. The sun was already kicking my arse on a daily basis. Chuck in immense dehydration, high altitude (we are above Ben Nevis) and 90% humidity, and you have yourself a useless centre half. Thankfully, the guys were not the most demanding bunch; a cheeky, podgy dozen of Colombianos, not quite as robust and psychotic as many that I have encountered since.
I returned to the casa and began to acclimatise to my cavernous new surroundings. I was enamoured by the dining table, an asymmetrical slab of thick wood that looked like it could probably hold a rhino. I headed up to the rooftop, viewing it in a literal different light with it being daytime. This was the writing spot of my dreams. Drenched in sun and with a gorgeous vista overlooking the city and through to the mountains, I was smitten. This must be how Hemingway felt when he wrote Fiesta, I speculated. I will compose my masterpiece on this very rooftop. And yet, things are not always as they seem. I felt very sophisticated indeed on my first foray up to my new office. One issue… it was fucking boiling. I valiantly battled through, the inverse of the blanket-clad Brit, braving a barbecue in mid-April. It’ll be fine I fibbed, regarding the dazzling screen with a cock-eyed squint usually reserved for dancefloors. Eventually I submitted to the allure of the shade, shuffling downstairs sun-scorched, half blind and rather ill.
The Casa de Papel squad (house of paper? I think it’s a TV show) indulged in an inaugural evening out on the piss together, gate-crashing the birthday of one of Richard’s colleagues, Rosi. It was expensive and reggaeton-fuelled, but being surrounded by good people is never too much of a chore. We called it a night at a reasonable hour, residual fatigue creeping in from my excursion with blowhard Mike one night prior. The following day, Robyn and Jhon were being typically delightful, and had arranged to drive me to Home Centre (aka Colombian IKEA) to pick up some essentials. Ten minutes prior to their arrival, I wandered out onto the balcony. I was still getting used to having one. I thought little of it when the door closed behind me, gently tapping on Conor’s window for him to let me back in. Of course, nobody was home. My ride arrived with me stranded, eventually having to shimmy over a ledge between the balconies and leap down from the centre in order to avoid a large rock. I wish I could say that was the last time. I was driven home from football one night a week or so later as I was unable to walk, having sprained both my knee and ankle in one hefty 50/50 with a bigger chap. Topless, barefoot and in great pain, I limped out for some air, eventually confronted with the same devastating click. The nude descent was quite the show for the neighbours, my pronounced farmer tan at least lightening the mood slightly. To make matters worse, Robyn and I smashed a brace of mirrors between us on the return leg from Home Centre. 14 more years of this bullshit, I groaned.
I finally began my Spanish lessons, our group comprising a quartet of international wanderers. We had myself, Frank from Berlin, Tanguy of Brittany and Michael of Somewhereville, USA. Michael tickled me immediately, constantly interrupting his verb tables by scrambling through Tinder on his laptop, due to his phone having been ‘raaabed by some Caps’ in Mexico. The ‘Colombia Immersion’ language school premises were intriguing, with a newspaper clipping on the wall explaining that this was the residence for the last days of Mr Escobar. In fact, it was fleeing across this very rooftop that he was finally gunned down (spoiler alert, guys). Similar to the Comuna 13 tour, I think that many were seduced by the romantic notion of regeneration, perfectly exemplified by this blood-spattered tomb becoming a hub of education and progress. Our teacher would be Sandra, a beaming sun ray that showered us in warmth and definitely provoked an unwelcome cougar-crush on my part. For two hours each afternoon we were administered the basics (two forms of ‘to be’? *gulp*), which were actually nowhere near as simple as I had anticipated.
The cocky linguist that I identified as was under threat…. In fact I am ashamed to say that I am still pretty hopeless, 4 months in. This could be down to a variety of reasons, but lack of dedication is the clear frontrunner. Despite having Colombian friends, they all speak great English, and so I have entered a comfort zone whereby I only need to speak Spanish in shops, on public transport or during my monthly phone-top-up meltdowns. This is not acceptable. Work developments and a resultant lack of time meant that Spanish lessons were tougher to organise. After a few weeks at the language school, I had settled for the far cheaper and more personal option of having one-to-one lessons with Richard’s girlfriend, Laura. She was great, and I still hope to have more lessons with her once her work schedule settles down a bit, but the truth is that I need to devote an hour or two, every day, to my own research and study. Whereas even a week ago this may not have been possible (due to my work timetable), I have been bold and made some changes which have freed me up a great deal. We will get to that shortly.
The initial job hunt was pretty disheartening. My plans to teach were gradually jettisoned as I realised how low the pay would be and how scarce the jobs actually were, with term having already started. I applied everywhere, with a minute proportion getting back to me. I had one interview at a language centre with a bizarre, philosophical type, where I was offered 1.5 million pesos (less than £400) per month to work 48 hrs per week, with 1 day off and no breaks throughout the day. I decided to embark on the far more lucrative (albeit less sociable) path of online teaching. Here, I could earn $20 for less than an hours work, the reason being that I’d be teaching Chinese kids and so whoring myself to a booming economy. I didn’t even need to plan any lessons. I hate the phrase, but this felt like a life hack of the highest order; A British mercenary on Colombian shores, mobilising the Chinese and being paid in Yuan. Not only that, but I would get to interact with 8 year old children with names like ‘CiCi’ and ‘Robot’. I recalled an Oriental University buddy, ‘Arnold’, who had adopted this moniker based on the physical strength of Mr Schwarzenegger, the Austrian oak. I braced myself for some cultural disparity in my new arena.
I completed an interview with one of the multitude of online companies, with everything going swimmingly until the mock lesson. Here you are provided with software which you work through, sharing a screen with the student and taking it one page at a time, almost like an interactive textbook. I was already a little out of my comfort zone before my twenty-something interviewer revealed that she would be playing my student. I can confirm that she was a method actress. The voice went up a couple of octaves, the frequency of giggles multiplied and, as I made Richard’s stuffed Winnie the Pooh give the camera a high-five, I struggled to shake the intense discomfort of this reverse-catfish scenario. I also signed up for Palfish, a phone app with a similar function. Here, lessons were not necessarily scheduled, and students could just contact you as and when they wished. My first message came from a child that sent me a picture of Kurt Cobain, asking if I knew who it was. This was before he had even said hello. Having successfully negotiated this bizarre initiation, I invited him to enter a lesson; a requirement for me to be paid for my time. This proved an absurd request for ‘KingJORDAN23’, who told me to ‘BE PATIENT!!!’, ended the conversation and vanished forever, presumably to passive-aggressively confuse more people with pictures of dead rockstars.
I passed my interview, although it turned out that my internet upload speed was too slow for me to be signed off. As soon as that was arranged and I sent a screenshot of a successful speed test, the job was mine. If only I wasn’t in Colombia, the land of ‘manana’. It took 6 weeks for this to happen, and even then they turned up 2 hours late with the wrong cable, dressed like fucking Ghostbusters. A couple of days later it was finally resolved, although at this point so much time had passed that I had needed to find another job to keep me going. Money evaporates swiftly when none is coming in, even when Pounds become Pesos. I had reluctantly applied for a sales company through a loose friend of the guys that I played football with. I have nothing against sales, apart from the fact that cold calling is perhaps the most depressing thing I have ever done in my life. A job in my teens had terrified me in that regard, and yet I needed a job. Also, I was vaguely enticed by a corporate culture that I had never really experienced, more out of intrigue than anything else. After years of running bars and having sporadic days off (which I shared with no one), a little bit of structure didn’t seem like the worst idea in the world. I consulted my wardrobe, gave my shoes a once over and headed to the assessment day.
It was one of the funniest hours of my life, and for that we can thank ‘Marie Elizabeth’. First things first; I loved the office. People seemed happy, and the members of staff running the assessment were professional whilst also very kind and welcoming. The pay, again, was a worry at 2million pesos, and 7 days holiday a year was a real stumbling block for me (an immigrant). Commission is a dangerous thing to rely on, but I hoped that it could be sufficient to drag my pay closer to the 3 million mark. And then came the light relief. Marie Elizabeth was the kind of person who personifies the mystery of absolute, misplaced confidence. She had such conviction in her nonsense, that it made you second guess yourself. She oversaw a medley of constant interruption and passive aggressive smiles, sat opposite me and so forcing me to engage. I was out of my depth, and hoped that I wasn’t guilty by association. Our final, decisive exercise was to come up with a brand and call another company, performing a role play where we would try to sell our product to them. I leaned on my bar experience, trying to sell independent craft beer to a pub chain. Somebody tried to sell mobile phone contracts to an electronics supplier. Marie Elizabeth tried to sell purple unicorn T shirts to a bank manager.
The morning after, I was called in for an interview that very afternoon. I headed in, and was offered the role immediately afterwards. I have to admit, I was quite proud. This was not my domain, and I’d nailed it first time. 3 of us had made it through out of 10. Not bad. Despite my misgivings (the main one being a lack of VISA provision), I accepted their offer. Cabin fever had settled in by this point, and I really wanted to crack on with something new and meet some people outside of my limited social sphere. I stayed for 2 months in total, growing totally enamoured with my colleagues and a company culture that was kind and supportive, letting you work at your own pace and come up with your own methods. Despite all this, the nature of the work was just not my cup of tea. The dread at the start of a day, when I considered that I would be having the same 30 second conversation on a perpetual loop for 9 hours…. I struggled to cope. The mental strength required to deal with this level of repetition and rejection was unfortunately beyond my capabilities. It is a testament to my colleagues that I lasted as long as I did, eventually handing in my notice for the legitimate reason that I needed to find somewhere that could provide me with a working VISA. Plus, spending 11 hours a day out at the office had started to make less sense, considering that I could earn more than double teaching at home, in a fraction of the time. This would give me a lot more time to find the role that I needed. Sod’s Law stepped in however, a company where I had formerly applied inviting me to go for a new marketing role, on the day that I handed in my notice. What a strange Universe this is, I pondered.
Despite the relative boredom of a working week, we were still finding plenty of opportunities to get together at the weekends. The crew was expanding, with Manchester pal Dresden deciding to take the plunge after visiting for a week or so and listening to her impulse. Before we knew it, Robyn’s 30th was upon us, meaning my first experience of the famous ‘finca’ weekends, so popular in Colombia. The idea is simple; invite 20-25 mates along, hire out a mansion with a swimming pool in the mountains, bring a load of food and booze (there are staff to clean up and prepare the meals) and get hammered all weekend. It is a simple formula and actually very cost effective, despite the luxury that it entails. There were multi-storey outhouses that we only used to adorn with decorations. I felt like Drake, and it cost about £50-£60 for everything, including the minibus. The dedication of the staff was also commendable. The meat that we had brought had rotted on the journey, so they wandered off and slaughtered a pig on our behalf. Decisive to say the least, and no more primitive than the behaviour we were collectively displaying. Until you experience it outside of a holiday scenario, you fail to realise that ‘Brits abroad’ is truly a thing. It is, even with the more sophisticated occupants of my Filofax.
I don’t usually discuss anything romantic, as for me these tales are both sparse and dull. However, I did manage to engineer a date so farcical that it must be mentioned. It was actually our 2nd outing, the first having been quite brief with it being a weeknight. Neither of us spoke each other’s language, which was a significant hurdle albeit not necessarily a critical one. I was picking her up from home in Robledo, a shady part of town judging by Richard’s raised eyebrows, and felt slightly wary; she had an air of the gringo-hunter about her. Even the taxi ride was perilous. We had to go back on ourselves significantly due to the normal route up the mountain being dangerously steep, with the crater-laden road too broken for any sane motorist. I arrived 30 minutes late, yet she greeted me outside her housing project, walking two fat French bulldogs, in her pyjamas. The estate had the feel of how I’d imagine a New York block in the late 80s, loud and buzzing with life, but very disconcerting. I actually recalled the Wire episode where Herc and Carver get drunk and wander to the Baltimore towers, before having television sets hurled at their heads. She instructed me to sit on the sofa as she showered and got ready, kissing me passionately on the mouth as she left. I spent the next 15 minutes positioned 1 metre away from her silent, older brother, petting the dogs vigorously to divert my attention from this mortifying scenario. Eventually, paranoia set in. Why was she taking so long? And why did her brother keep sending messages, then glancing out of the window? It didn’t feel right, and once again my mind was cast to a bleak celluloid scenario; this time the apartment scene in Scarface that culminated in a chainsaw attack in the shower. Dates make me anxious enough as it is. There was seemingly a party happening in the apartment above, and I genuinely don’t think I can conjure a more ominous song to soundtrack my ordeal than Led Zepellin’s Kashmir. The piercing strings unsettled me to the point of helplessness. Fonzy I was not, banding out of the door like a greyhound when she finally settled on an outfit.
It didn’t get much better. If I wasn’t so relieved, I’d have cursed her for suggesting that we head back to within two streets of my place. We settled on a spot playing the kind of local music to which I am physically incapable of moving rhythmically. Of course we got drunk. What else could we do, talk? I inevitably footed the monstrous bill. I don’t even think she brought any money. For a small girl she had fared well, and yet as soon as we left and the air hit her, her skeleton evaporated. Luckily, I lived nearby. There was no chance she could get back to Robledo, and after my panic attack hours earlier, there was no way I was taking her. I let us into the house, her staggering around unintelligibly for a few minutes before hurtling floorwards, taking our largest plant with her. Romance may well be dead, particularly in the event of your date rolling around sobbing in soil and shattered terracotta.
My brief vacation as a commuter was enlightening in many ways. Remember when I said that the Metro was generally a very pleasant experience? Try again. Now I had to negotiate rush hour, and all of the hustle and bustle that that entailed. Not only that, but my first week at the office coincided with Pico y Placa. This is a government initiative whereby half of the city’s motorists are banned from driving, in order to combat pollution issues in the valley. In my mind it’s a decisive and refreshing ruling, but blimey does it wreak havoc. People seemed to just launch themselves at the carriage and hope they’d stay put, a little like that kamikaze move in W*O*R*M*S. The thing is, they mostly did it with a grin on their face rather than a scowl. As JME famously once tweeted, you can’t be angry at traffic when you are part of it. The general cordiality made being rhino-speared every 3 minutes far more palatable, although it was a statistical certainty that it was just a matter of time before I squashed a Granny. As a healthy 31 year old male it was gruelling enough; I don’t know how kids and the elderly managed it. At one point, a girl was overwhelmed by the heat and claustrophobia, splatting at my feet like a dropped rollmop. I had to carry her off the carriage with a policeman, thankfully seeing her come to as we trundled away. That would have been a worry.
One perk of the metro pandemonium was the greater scope for people-watching. I noticed the disproportionate amount of young ladies wearing T shirts covered in cringeworthy English slogans. These include ‘A Date with Destiny’, ‘Normal is Boring’ or (my personal favourite), ‘I Don’t need Mistletoe’. To be fair, ‘Chic Happens’, was pretty cool though. I wondered if the novelty of the English language lent some kind of mystical allure to these hapless utterings. It wasn’t relevant to the Metro, but another quirk that I had noticed was that no Colombians seems to smoke, unless they work in a mechanics. It’s as if they need to be surrounded by (and indeed smothered in) combustible fluid for it to be worthwhile. There is of course a chop shop on every street , inevitable in a city of such automotive lunacy.
In one of the more surprising moments of my stay, I wandered home from football through a scorching Sunday afternoon in Laureles. A cyclist ambled past with a speaker attached, inexplicably serenading me with the saxophone solo from Baker Street. Magnificent. The level of street performers out here is continually surprising. I cast my mind back to Manchester, and all that really come to mind are the Syrian emo beatboxer, and that 7 foot statue guy that looks like he’s been dipped in Tipp-Ex. Here, a man wanders the Setenta juggling butchers knives for the odd 25 pence. I pay him when I see him, always saddened by the tributaries of scar tissue on his hardened mitts. The Venezuelan crisis has seen to a surge in this kind of activity, generally at traffic lights. I have seen somebody in front of a queue of vehicles, on an 8 foot unicycle, juggling while spinning a basketball on a tee which he has balanced on his chin. The most awful part about it is that they often don’t have enough time to collect their earnings, the green light catching them in the middle of their otherworldly artistry. The circus in Venezuela must be quite something. One heartwarming aspect of this tragedy is the way that Colombia treats their citizens. I am by no means an expert on the crisis, but the doors were certainly open (until Venezuelan troops put a stop to it) and VISAs were attainable for the desperate migrants. As far as I know, there had been a reverse scenario in the 70s, where Venezuela had really looked out for their neighbour. I have worked alongside these people, with young families, and it is wonderful to know that there is salvation for many due to a humanitarian immigration policy.
At the start of my sales job, I spent a fortnight moonlighting as an English tutor for a lady in Poblado. It was a daily gig, and so brought in some much needed dosh, while making the days quite elongated and tiring. It wasn’t an ordinary scenario. Maria Clara was a 55 year old Paisa Europhile, having relocated to Brussels where she practiced law. She was visiting her mother, and wanted to brush up on her English while here, presumably out of boredom. The apartment was on the top floor of an impressive complex, and I was greeted by a formally-dressed maid who couldn’t meet my eye. The place was opulent and immaculate, a beautiful china tea set being presented to me as I awaited the lady of the hour. The first impression was confusing. She strutted out in high heels and an elegant gown, but her face was badly mangled and she wasn’t quite comfortable in her own skin. I found this endearing, eventually noticing the strip over her nose and realising that she had undergone a rhinoplasty. A veteran of the procedure myself, this felt like common ground. I stifled my smirk as she explained that she had simply walked face first into a glass door, presumably after a few vinos.
This was clearly somebody for whom sophistication mattered, and yet she was less Black Swan and more of a dopey pigeon, like Lady Chatterley imbued with Bridget Jones. An absolute hoot. For around a week we trundled through grammar and vocabulary before I realised that all that she wanted was somebody to discuss heady philosophical ideas with, often in her own language. I believe that to her, my Britishness signified the refinement that she enjoyed associating with. Imagine that. This is a household in which I counted 11 bottles of Chanel no 5 in the bathroom. 10 of them were empty. Her appetite for status notwithstanding, I had a great time and she clearly took a shine to me. She would try to arrange dates for me with her younger ‘architect friends’, and even invited me to a dinner party, hastening to add that one of the guests would be a ‘professor from Juilliard’. She would pour me glasses of expensive wine, and cook the most gorgeous fillet steak with blue cheese and walnut salad. It did cross my mind that it was not a typical teacher/student relationship. Who cares, I thought, enjoying my brief reign as anointed Prince of Poblado. I was sad to see her go.
As promised, it’s time to summarise my current scenario. I am teaching for the Chinese company at the nauseating hour of 5-8am, but with many gaps in between. I need more lessons and so have applied for another firm, which should hopefully fill in the spaces and pay me far more than I deserve. I have also applied for a (VISA-providing) marketing role for which I have interviewed, and that I believe went well. I really hope that I get it. Until then, I will be sure to enjoy the 21 free hours I have every day; reading, writing, cooking nice meals, hammering the Spanish and basking on the rooftop. I also have a trip home to look forward to in a month, where I will get my fill of 568ml pints, good kebabs and baths. It’s nice to miss the things that you take for granted. Friends and family probably make that list, too.