My mom, who loves to visit her son wherever he may be including such exotic locales such as Mexico City, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, recently inquired about visiting me in Medellin. I thought for a moment but couldn’t warrant enough of a reason to justify the expense of her flying down and spending her precious vacation time. There are probably two or three things that would be worthy of her seeing, but neither one is so earth-shattering that truly justifies a trip. “Save your money and travel time for our planned trip to Lisbon, Portugal,” I ended the phone conversation. As I was itching to speak some Portuguese again, we both agreed a small country in Southern Europe made much more sense.
As I write this I’m exactly a week short of three months living here in Medellin, a city that I still can’t quite come grips with and figure out. As much I try making sense of the city, I feel that during my time here I’ve either barely scratched the surface or stayed two months longer than necessary.
I usually figure out cities pretty quickly. My previous stints in some of Latin America’s largest metropolises gave me the experiences to appreciate the diversity of the cities. Cities have a unique way of letting you automatically organize them. I appreciated Mexico City for its “in your face” Latin culture and overall largesse. I credited Buenos Aires for its European feel and unique style. I loved Rio for it’s beach life and its colorful tropical setting. But after three months here, I’ve yet to find what I think of this city, and it troubles me.
I was originally lured to this city when various bloggers called it a “must see” city in Latin America, surely helped by its year-around spring-like climate and cheap but high standard of living. The water is also supposed to be of very high quality, but unfortunately that rounds out the pros this city has going for itself.
The negatives come in droves. It’s a landlocked city with no beautiful oceans and accompanying views. The people are nice, but I’ve definitely met friendlier locals elsewhere. I can count on one hand how many nice sunny days I’ve witnessed in three months (lately it’s been raining daily).
The unique social scene makes it difficult to meet people — especially during nighttime.
I remember than even after two years of living in Rio, I would wake up and still pinch myself to see if it was just a dream: I couldn’t believe that I was living in paradise. Perhaps the most beautiful city in the world, even though I started to find the locals a bit snobby towards the end of my stay.
When I lived in Buenos Aires, I loved the city for its charm and even it’s overall arrogance of not wanting to be considered Latin American but European. It’s still an amazing city and that’ll never change.
But Medellin for me is something a kin of a small country city that grew beyond its means in population but not in mentality.
It’s an incredibly organized city (for Latin American standards anyway) with solid infrastructure, honest, hard working people, but also a city where everyone sticks to themselves. On the weekends, you see large families hanging out in the malls, drinking coffee and talking, but overall people are serious, and are rarely joking around with each other like you would constantly see in Brazil.
The locals would never forego an opportunity to greed you with the typical “Buenos dias” and later, “Hasta luego”, but beyond that you’d met with silence on the ascent to your 10th floor apartment. Do the same in Brazil or Mexico; you’d probably trade life stories in that time span.
Even in my Jiu Jitsu class, which is a great barometer of how friendly the culture is, nobody greets each other on their way in or on their way out. Everyone sticks to themselves, where as in Brazil I’ve made some close friends that I continue to stay in touch with until this day.
Ironically, the coolest guy I’ve met here has been my Jiu Jitsu instructor, but he’s from Panama and is more social, open and interesting than any other local I’ve met here so far.
Walking around the city has a distinct grey and monotone feel. All the buildings are the same brick color. Add the typical grey skies and you have the city’s depressingly omnipresent grey/maroon color scheme.
The locals are not much of help either. Most are very reserved and closed off, a sure anomaly in what should be an outgoing Colombian culture. It’s almost like there’s something bubbling up and lurking under the surface as remnants of the violent past this city endured.
Maybe it’s because I’ve lived so long in Brazil, and after Brazil everything else in Latin America becomes monotone. But I still vividly remember my time in Mexico and Argentina. My stay in Lima, Peru, however, was quick without any regret, something I’d probably would’ve done here if I wasn’t so stubborn of adding yet another city to my “cities lived abroad” list.
Perhaps we all make mistakes, get seduced by positive reports from previous travelers who make a destination into something it definitely it’s not. Or perhaps with continued travel experience, we begin to demand more from our cities, trying to best the next to the previous, kind of like always comparing a new girl to that beautiful ex-girlfriend who got away.
As hard as I try to find something positive here, something to justify my time investment here, I keep coming short. It just doesn’t seem compatible with my personality and my travel experience.
In many ways it’s a city without a soul, a city without charm. A city where everything works but nothing is special that motivates you to return or convince others to come and visit. Sometimes it’s those imperfections that make a city standout, and prevent a city from becoming too generic. For some, a well functioning city is enough, but I’ll take an imperfect city with a soul anytime.
I’m glad that my mom is saving her vacation time for a more deserving destination. Whether it’ll be Lisbon or Istanbul, some cities give to the visitor more in terms of culture and tradition and as a result warrant that visitor’s precious time and money. Medellin still has many, many ways to go if it’ll ever join the ranks of those world cities.
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James Maverick used to work in a cubicle as a code monkey in Silicon Valley. Then, in 2007, he quit his job and a one-way ticket to Brazil. Ever since, he continued to travel, visiting over 85 countries and living in more than a dozen of them. He loved his location-independent lifestyle and has no plans to live in America.