The Winterim was one of the aspects of Thunderbird I most looked forward to when choosing to pursue a Master’s in Business. Traveling the world with fellow students for a month, meeting with companies, what’s not to like?
I quickly found out that what I did not enjoy was the price tag of such excursions. Sure, travel is expensive (sometimes), but I decided the cost was just too high for me to attend one of the winterims. However, I was not going to sit at home in Texas for a month. As much as I love my parents, it’s best we keep our visits short and sweet.
So, I decided on Colombia. When I announced I was travelling there, most of my American friends followed up with a question- “You mean Columbia, the University?” or “Like, the District of Columbia?” When I corrected them, very few failed to make a joke about kidnappings, cocaine, or Pablo Escobar. It’s understandable.
Living the past month in Medellin has been a surprise. Doing my research, I knew Colombia wasn’t as dangerous as they all said it would be. I figured the neighborhood I would be living in, El Poblado, would be safe enough, but still be looking over my shoulder for pickpockets.
Medellin was the most dangerous city in the world in the 1990s, with more deaths occurring here than in Beirut, which was having a civil war at the time. For that reason, and many others (drugs), Colombia has remained a “no-go” destination for most not on a cruise stopping in Cartagena.
Not anymore. Opening in the middle of all the 1990s chaos, the Medellin Metro began a turnaround for the city after Escobar’s death that no one saw coming. Giving the poor mobility (Paisas, people from Medellin, can travel any distance on the line for about $1) allows many to seek jobs wherever they can be found in the valley. A city with much elevation change, the slums scale the hills like a ring around the city. Medellin, attempting something no one had tried before, built gondolas you’d normally see climbing mountains in Colorado full of skiiers to reach those high in the hilltops. Now, even the ultra-poor can reach the city.
Yesterday, I took a tour with Pablo, a well-traveled Paisa who grew up in the depths of Medellin’s troubles. He runs Real City Tours, a free walking tour of the center of Medellin, a place that has seen much change in the past twenty years, while still keeping a rough-and-tumble mood about it. He introduced me to a term called “democratic architecture.” Democratic Architecture is the building of public spaces for the benefit of all people, in order to transform a social or economic problem the city faces.
The evidence is everywhere in Medellin. Many poor neighborhoods now have gleaming libraries open to all. The less fortunate now have a chance to study, a place to use the use a computer (some for the first time). Public spaces once run by drug dealers and squatters now are beautiful open public squares. All of this infrastructure spending has led to Medellin’s turnaround.
I love a city that challenges my expectations. I expected more from Medellin than many of my friends at home, but I was impressed. People from Medellin are excited that more visitors are coming, too. Dozens have stopped my friend and I in the street, saying “Welcome to my country.”
There are problems still to fix. This city is the first time I’ve seen heroin use in broad daylight (during rush hour traffic, no less). Not everyone has seen the direct benefit of the transformation. But, soon, they will. Medellin is one of those rare places on this earth that is trying new things, and getting results.