Saturday morning. 4:30am. Medellin’s main bus terminal.
I’m trying to catch a semblance of rest after a sleepless night on an overnight bus, when a police officer taps my leg. I swipe off my sleep mask, guarded, and meet eyes with the uniformed young man no older than 22.
“You can’t sleep here,” he tells me, the fluidity of Medellin Spanish alive on his tongue.
Exhausted and disoriented, I reluctantly sit-up, only to see that a few benches away, several Colombians are passed out in peaceful slumber.
“But there are people sleeping over there,” I said, red-eyed and in broken Spanish.
“They are in the sick section. Are you sick?”
“No, not right now.”
“Bueno. Buenos dias.”
I sat there, puzzled, watching the people in the sick section rest undisturbed. Was he joking? Was I being picked-on as a foreigner? Why was it such a concern that I was sleeping in the bus station?
At the time, this seemed senseless. But after five days in Medellin, the answers finally revealed themselves on a bus headed out of the city: he was protecting me. Not only was he protecting me, he was protecting the image of Medellin – the image of a city, his city, that is being safeguarded, honored, and transformed, every day.
During our time in “the city of eternal spring,” we couldn’t walk anywhere without hearing “Welcome to Medellin!” It was bellowed across the street. It was muttered in passing. No other city in Colombia had displayed such forward hospitality, such boastful declaration of a geographic definition.
People held themselves differently here, not in arrogance, but proud stature. Shoulders were broader. Chests more pronounced. Women wore high heels and tighter jeans. Men, form-fitting button downs and leather shoes.
Not only did people act differently, the city operated differently, too.
Cable cars swung overhead between emerald hillsides. Colombia’s only metro-line swam spotless, and seamless, between colorful barrios. Elaborate, rich murals decorated everything from underpasses to shop fronts to school entrances.
These images weren’t scenes of the city that was once the murder capital of the world. This hospitality didn’t speak of a history of horrific violence, poverty, and deep division.
Was this the same city my father asked me not to go to? How did my experience and his perspective differ so profoundly?
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Colombia’s civil war brought the country to its knees. Non-state groups – drug lords, armed militias, paramilitary, etc. – profited from the instability of a weak, deteriorating government and fought for control of much of Colombia. Nowhere was more of a battleground than Medellin.
It was here that infamous drug lord, Pablo Escobar, established the capitol of his Cocaine Empire. In the decades that followed, international drug trafficking, extreme poverty, and unprecedented violence dominated Medellin, earning it the title of the most dangerous city in the world by the early ‘90s.
The affects and consequences of Escobar’s operations were felt most profoundly in Comuna 13. A hillside area on Medellin’s outskirts, its proximity to the drug highway made it the epicenter for drug trafficking and a battleground for control between guerillas, gangs, and drug lords. For decades, this was Colombia’s most notorious neighborhood.
And then in 2002, during the decline of Escobar, a controversial, albeit successful government operation – Operation Orion – was the first step in regaining control of the neighborhood.
Since then, the government has invested heavily in stabilization efforts through an impressive combination of public infrastructure, education, and social services.
The most distinguishable of the ongoing revitalization projects is the Escaleras Electricas, a series of brightly colored outdoor escalators that scale the hillside neighborhood of Comuna 13.
Designed to bring safety and accessibility to Comuna 13, the escalators have become a powerful, international symbol of the transformation of Medellin and Colombia as a whole.
The escalator’s bright colored roofs against a two-toned palette of brick homes and green mountainside signify a lightness, an exhale, a renewed sense of hope. Intricate murals promote a rich pride that is strongest here, in this city, the city that was once cast aside and considered hopeless.
I’m not naively assuming that Medellin has been absolved of its problems – a walk through the city center is enough to demystify that myth. The homeless population remains significant. Abject poverty still divides the city. Prostitutes and drug addicts loiter on corners and outside of churches. Substance is easily accessible.
But despite these unfortunate difficulties, one thing is certain: this is not the same city it was 15 years ago. This is not the same city my father asked me not to go to.
Medellin is transforming, and the spirit of transformation is alive in everything.
It’s in flower boxes made from old cooking oil tins outside of homes. It’s in young children who feel safe enough to play soccer in the street. It’s in men who gather to play music in the city square. It’s in the stalls that sell fresh-cut mango. The stands that boast the countries best empanadas.
And this spirit that’s animated in the residents of Medellin is sustained by the continued efforts of the city: free bike rentals and swimming pools, social service centers including an incredible network of hospitals and clinics, addiction and recovery support, wi-fi in city parks, community gardens, and an impeccably clean metro-line.
But neither the city, nor its people, is asking that the difficult history be forgotten. Placards with stories of hardship, told in multiple languages, are prominent on monuments. Formally Colombia’s largest drug warehouse was not destroyed, but converted into an education center.
Medellin carries the weight of it’s past, the momentum of the present, and it’s hope for the future. It reminds us that change is possible; that nothing, regardless of how grim, desperate, or hopeless it may seem, lasts forever.
Even with great challenges ahead, Medellin is a city of positivity. It doesn’t ask for things to be perfect – it just asks that they continue to become better than they were.
It is a city of inspiration.
A city of innovation.
A city of transformation.