Friday, April 16, 2010

Monday, April 12, 2010

I find myself here.

I find myself here, in Denver.

As I lay here typing away past the bewitching hour in the guest bedroom - it would be hard to tell I had ever left. If not for the issue of "El Grafica" at the corner of the bed, my River Plate and Atletico Nacional tops on the floor, my Spanish/English dictionary and the chessboard from Ecuador on the nightstand, and of course the millions of words and images in my mind.

We arrived safely back in Denver nearly a week ago. The first two days I was preoccupied with feeling out of sorts. Since then Kaitlin's home has stripped me of the pensive brooding which spawned so many entries and replaced it with fine food and drink, a comfy stable living quarter, and thoughts of moving on to California..

I almost feel ashamed to come back here and write about our last few days in Colombia when I am so quickly preoccupied by new events and decisions. I am seeing, yet again, just how easy it is to forget about the greater world out there. A crime. To think that I have been back here five days and how little I have "done" compared to that stretch of time during the trip - it is bizarre.

But there are new standards now and I can't forget that I have earned a little leniency. Our trip was incredible, profound, heroic, epic, as well as, mundane, frivolous, naive, and easy. But most importantly, it was living, and we did it well. And that is enough for me to feel comfortable "wrapping it up" because what more can I say beyond the body of work before this point..

Any postulation here after returning would be unfair. I am tainted again.

I will return here to post pictures as they come in. That aside, I am done with this blog. I hope it has provided some better-than-average or at least unorthodox insights into all that encompasses a five month journey through six nations. I have no lofty ending to suit my garish beginning. Just the body of work that I hope can stand on its own.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

In the Coffee Triangle

It's now April 3rd.

We arrived in Salento via a night bus from Medellin to Armenia and then a local commuter from Armenia into the misty hills of Salento.

It's hard to say what this place is like on an ordinary day. Our hostel owner says it is very tranquil, which it is possible to imagine in the early morning hours. However, the steady stream of families from the city on holiday for Semana Santa have clogged the modest, though freshly painted streets of Salento.

Despite the massive influx of tourists, it is a place where you feel you can sense its character. Kaitlin says it's something about mountain towns. Though I don't have enough experience to confirm or deny - I do know what the sound of old wooden floors makes me feel..and it is a possible connection between this place, Kaitlin's mountain towns, and the more than century old establishments that still survive in Camden, South Carolina. We have relished such spaces in the little time we have had. Allowing the musty smell to ferment conversations in our hostel with travellers from Cali and Manizales.

Those conversations morphing what we thought would be a lazy, uneventful end of the trip - into an exciting and emotional evening - and now an impromptu change of plans.

Our new friends from Manizales (a university town in the mountains closer to Medellin) Santiago and Irene have offered to be our transportation, from Salento to Manizales, from Manizales to Bogota, and from our hostel in Bogota to the airport.

I have been equally on the fence about changing our last few days in South America from a lazy three days to a whirlwind weekend. But after my overreaction in Viedma, I'm willing to calm my doubts for the potential of one last great experience.

So, in less than two hours we leave for Manizales. Tomorrow we'll spend the day (presumably) with Santiago and Irene - seeing what there is to see on Easter in Manizales. Monday Bogota. Tuesday early to the airport to begin the journey home.

With so much movement, I can't say when I will be able to post again. Hopefully before we leave the continent, but we shall see. To the whirlwind!

Atletico Nacional vs Atletico Huila

As my last experience with soccer on this continent (not to mention the stories floating in my head from Marko's experiences in Medellin), it is safe to say there was quite a bit of anticipation surrounding this match.

That being so, I went above and beyond to prepare for this excursion. Triangulating time and place between the varying accounts listed on the club's website, the league website, and

Beyond that, I confirmed with locals that all of the soccer matches in Medellin took place at the Estadio Atanasio Girardot - a 50,000+ facility shared by Atletico Nacional and Independiente Medellin - conveniently located on the "Estadio" Metro stop, adjacent to the facilities for the Juegos Suramericanos.

Having already been to the area for the Juegos during daylight, I was unconcerned about the game being at night. I knew the area was well lit, well policed, and being familiar with the layout - I could walk the grounds with confidence.

The evening of the game arrived and though I had invited a group of Sconnies (U of Wisconsin grads) - they decided to accept my invitation but to go to the game separately?? Alas, I had so many factors in my favor, I told Kaitlin not to worry - that I would be fine by myself - it wouldn't be necessary for me to drag her along. After a surprisingly delightful Mexican dinner, I was on my way down Calle 10 for the Poblado Metro station.

I made my way to the Estadio stop, no problem, as we had made the trip multiple times in the previous five days. Arriving at the stop I could see stadium lights in the distance, with about twenty-thirty minutes to kickoff - I was sitting pretty. Yet, as I confidently strode closer and closer to the grounds I grew concerned by the lack of activity in the area. As I passed the last Olympic facility obstructing my view, my pregame adrenaline collapsed into despair as I could see clearly that the stadium lights were as dead as the area around the grounds.

. . .

After standing there dumbfounded for a minute or two, I found a concession stand (I'm not sure why it was open) tended by some friendly Caribbean guys. Over the next five-ten minutes (using every morsel of my intermediate Spanish skills) I was able to ascertain that there was indeed a game tonight - it was indeed in Medellin - it was indeed at 8:30 - but in some other part of the Metro line - a place called "Envigado."

So, I thanked the men and ran for the Metro station. Leaping three steps at a time I purchased my ticket and made my way to the platform. No train, so I looked at the station map. Sure enough, "Envigado" only three stops IN THE OTHER DIRECTION from my home base of Poblado.

As I made my way from the middle of the Orange line back to the transfer at San Antonio - I weighed my options.

I would surely be late - possibly missing the entire first half.
I would be in an unfamiliar area, at night, alone, in Medellin.


This was my last chance for professional futbol on this continent of passion.
I'd spent four weeks with Marko talking about his days in Medellin and the genius that is Giovanni Moreno (Atletico Nacional's highest rated player).
I was battle tested by my solo efforts in Buenos Aires - I knew what to expect, I wasn't brash, I would play it safe.

By the time I resolved to go, my connection was pulling up and I hopped on, pacing as the southern stations trickled by..

With the station name and the direction that the stadium would be "on my left" - I was anxious about what exactly would happen once I reached the stop. Perhaps out of desperation I convinced myself that two drunk girls (one wearing a Nacional top), a young boy (wearing an Andres Escobar Nacional jacket), and an older man (in his mid-50s) were a family on there way to the game, since they were conversing as if they were familiar.

So with two stops to go before the stadium I asked the man in Spanish if they were going to the game. Of course they were! And I'm coming too! I was excited by such a positive reaction and the prospect of a local guide to walk me through the process.

We chatted as much as possible (which wasn't much) until I went to get off at the Envigado stop. "No, no! Una mas!" Okay, so maybe there was a better way to get to the stadium..and though I could see the glow of the stadium lights in the sky - I stayed with this group one more stop, to the end of the line Itagüí.

At Itagüí we rushed down the platform to street-level. We were surrounded by bars filled with people in green and white watching the game. There were buses, perhaps shuttles to the stadium, but we passed them on foot without a second glance (all but me).

For the next block the girls asked me if I wanted a beer, but I declined with a laugh and tried to keep up with the little boy and older man as we ran across two freeways..

On the other side of the freeways we were in desolate stretch of abandoned urban sprawl. At this point, the boy who I had assumed was part of our group all along, bolted ahead of us out of sight - no one else seemed to notice.

So now the four of us walked quickly through the nothing, seemingly forever if not for the stadium lights gradually growing in intensity.

About four blocks from the stadium grounds, we started to pass some less than savory characters headed in the opposite direction. I tried to stay as close to our group as possible, laughing at their nonexistent jokes, trying (perhaps too hard) to look natural. The occasional police presence and the beginnings of a stadium grounds in the distance were the only factors keeping me steady.

Eventually we reached what looked to be a gate to the grounds. There were just as many police on horseback with automatic weapons as derelict loiterers scattered between myself and the ticket booth. My group continued past the booth to have a conversation with a man, they told me there were no tickets left, that we had to get them from this guy on the street.


I didn't even respond. I just turned around and went for the ticket booth. While the man behind the glass arranged his papers, my group continued to talk with the man. By the time I was speaking to the ticket vendor the older man was at my side taking over. Did I want "Norte, Sur, o Occidente" - it didn't matter to me - I knew nothing about the grounds. So I got a ticket for the North stands for 12,000 (six dollars). I was feeling better about the fact that I had purchased a ticket (and that it was quite cheap), but was still outside the grounds with no clue how to enter. I walked along the fence with my older friend in tow as they told us that we would have to walk around, though there was an entrance right infront of us.

So after the man told the girls to "Wait here" we began our walk around the grounds. At this point, I will admit that the events had been a gradual progression of feeling more and more like something bad was mere seconds away. I was sure that as I turned the corner with the older man that the ticket scalper would run up behind me and take what little cash I had on me at the very least.

But as we turned the corner and just after the man had finished joking about how the girls didn't have any money to get into the game, it was not a muggers feet that I heard behind me, but the girls, running to catch up with tickets in hand. I was completely confused about the relationship of everyone involved, but I could sense we were quite close to our entrance so I was trying to stay positive.

Of course, the last corner we turned brought us to the mouth of the entrance to the stadium. A block and a half of young men, drinking, smoking, and cooking, each equally (if not more so) unfriendly as the worst of my encounters in Buenos Aires - only compounded by the fact that it was night and I was the only gringo in sight.

But I relied on the now tried and true tactic of laughing at the nonexistent comments of my "companions" and keeping my eyes riveted to their faces or the security gate in front of me.

Finally through the first wave of security and inside the grounds - my anxiety switched from potential violence to the fact that I was incredibly late and that we would have to back-track the way we had come (only this time inside the wall) to make our way to the North stand.

Practically running through security and up the steps we finally arrived at the mouth of the entrance to the North stand..and all I could see was a wall of young men in green and white.

In retrospect, it was better to be in the North stand. Though I was the only gringo surrounded by a standing room only (including the walls around the steps) crowd of young, high and drunk, locals - at least these were not the completely mental fanactics of the South stand who were jumping incessantly and screaming lyrics to the beat of their drums and the melody of their horns.

I did my best to let my worries be eased by the flow of the game. For the next ten minutes I peered through the spaces between shoulders and necks and heads - perhaps overreacting when there were even a remote chance at goal.

With what I would find out was five minutes to go before half-time my older friend appeared four rows below - calling for me to come join him. I did so.

As I sat there and he questioned me about my visit to Medellin, which hostel I was staying at, in which part of town, I resolved that lying to this man was the lesser of two evils. At least with a seat I could blend in and attempt to enjoy the game - all I had to do was give this man false information.

The fifteen minutes before half time passed without major incident (aside from some mediocre chances from the away team*). At halftime I learned that the score was 1-1. I had missed two goals, the first scored by none other than Giovanni Moreno.

*The away team happened to be mostly "black." When they would take corners or miss a shot on goal - the Nacional fans would yell the usual insults: puto and maracon - vulgar as they were they were nothing I hadn't heard grown men yell infront of their sons in Buenos Aires - but I hadn't heard "Negra!" and "Negrita!" before. I tried not to assume anything, tried to sum it up to cultural differences..something lost in translation..

Though I would witness the winning goal for Nacional in the 85th minute (which would result in my first rush down the stands) and a few moments of brillance from Moreno - the evening took a different tone after my experience during halftime.

Towards the end of the half it began to drizzle a bit. Those better prepared dawned their ponchos. My older friend purchased one and was kind enough to share. It was a double blessing because while he wore his over his head, I was able to hide under the excess not only from the rain, but from his questions.

While pondering my exit strategy under the tarp, my thoughts were broken by commotion in the stands. A vendor was selling bags of water shouting, "Agua! Agua!" only to be mocked by groups throughout the crowd. I thought it at most immature and let it go. Then about five minutes later, there was more commotion, but this time people were standing up looking behind me away from the field. So I stood and turned.

Some men in the crowd had taken the vendor's (a black man) box of bagged water. They were ripping open the bags, squirting him with water, yelling "PUTO! NEGRA!" with more rage than they had directed at the players. As the vendor struggled to escape the crowd someone stole his hat and lifted it in the air to which everyone cheered and laughed. I attempted to mask my horror as I panned the faces around me for disapproval. At most there was disinterest. At worst they were joining in.

The rest of the match was a blur, despite the dramatic finish, I was in another world. The fans had overshadowed the match and I was stuck in my head contemplating how to rectify what I had seen and my instinct to remain culturally relative.

When the game winner was scored it was announced that there were five minutes left in the match. I knew I couldn't be caught in this crowd and that I couldn't accept any offers from the "friends" that had gotten me to the stadium.

So without waiting for a reply, I told them that I was going to the bathroom (a blatant lie with five minutes left to go in a close match) and bolted for the exit. Literally running out of the stadium I could see that the first entrance that was originally closed was now open and there were taxis!

Without a glance at the unsavories patrolling the area I walked down the street waving at every taxi. Eventually one stopped. I was inside a cab, giving my pathetic directions, happy to have this potentially disasterous dilemma in place of the previous. Happy to be dumb, but in friendly company I chatted with the man about the directions I had given him and despite some uncertainty and a lot of hand gestures - we made it back to Calle 10. I could breathe again..

I still haven't talked to Marko about the things I witnessed. Him having lived in Medellin for some time and having travelled for Nacional matches - I suspect he won't be totally surprised. I suspect I shouldn't be totally surprised myself. Medellin and the region as a whole (Antioquia) is commonly known as one of the "whitest" regions in Colombia (while most of the "blacks" are along the coast). Still, I'm struggling to come to any conclusions - maybe with something like racism it is impossible to rationalize - it can only be erased.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Medellin: Part 2

Somehow six days have slipped by in Medellin. Kaitlin and I now find ourselves seven hours away in the coffee hills of Salento.

The ups and downs in Medellin continued throughout, but the overall impression was good. We managed some splendid weather, as well as finding the good places to eat. It couldn't be helped to feel that if Marko had been there with us from day one - things could have been totally different.

Still we soldiered on and explored. One particular high point (literally) was our trip to the end of the Metro which meant walking up a flight of stairs to the entrance for the "Metro Cable" - a series of elevated gondola lifts that took us over the destitute hills of the Medellin's suburbs to the Olympic Village built for the Juegoes Suramericanos 2010. The ride is an absolute must (and included in your Metro fare) as it offers a thorough view of the valley in which the city is situated.

Aside from a visit to the aquarium, the rest of our time in Medellin was spent with some quality Colombian cuisine, as well as pastries with coffee, and surprise surprise - a spectacular Mexican restaurant.

All told, we left Medellin with the sense that it is a quality International city. With just as much to offer locals and tourists - the key is patience and a little local insight.

There is one experience left to be told, Atletico Nacional vs Atletico Huila, that it requires its own space.