Arrival in Medellín

I entered the airport terminal, a large hallway that wound around with marble floors and stone walls. I felt a warm reception, as if I were being received by people, as I slid through the crowds of families greeting loved ones long missed. I was greeted by no one; the prospect of a new experience received me.

I moved through to an airy, olive-colored hallway. Large windows lined the wall. I couldn’t see anything outside.

I continued in motion, dragging the rolly suitcase with one hand, carrying a bag over each shoulder. I wanted to check the time, so I reached into the front pocket of the backpack with some weird twist of the arm and grabbed my phone: MacGyvered device around, pressed the on button with a single finger; it powered on instantly. Seconds later, a beep: an email from a client in New York about freelance work.  Shit, I thought, as I realized the international data roaming had kicked in. That was expensive. I turned the phone back off.

It was late, and I was tired from traveling, and I hadn’t eaten in a while—airplane food is the devil–so I resolved a to find a place to get something to eat. I was in Colombia, afterall, where ubiquitous kiosks stood inside the crack and crevice of every wall, offering fried eats at a cheap cheap price. I went to an ATM to withdraw pesos, then I continued over to the nearest kiosk, up to the glass counter and a brown-skinned woman behind it, wearing a blue and white server’s uniform and sharp eyebrows and big lips.

Her eyes went straight through me. I felt hot, wondered if my tongue would make the Spanish sound: “Qué es?” I asked, pointing at the mound of fried things in the case.

“Buñelo. Patatas o carne?” I wasn’t really sure what a buñelo was, but I carne was no because I didn’t eat meat.

“Uno de esa con patatas,” and received a typical Colombian street eat–a stuffed dough-ball, full of potatoes.

I paid, and said nothing more. I dragged myself, my suitcase and bags quickly, as I hoped the bags that were burning on my shoulders now didn’t fall. The wall next the kiosk was empty. I squatted next to my suitcase and dropped the shoulder bags. I ate fast and I gasped a little at the sudden dryness of fried food in my throat.  I stuffed the last piece in my mouth, stood, and went back to the kiosk, pointed to a Coke in the refrigerator case behind the counter, said “Uno,” paid, took it from her, then turned around. I could feel the woman’s eyes still on me. It was part of the experience.

I walked out. The lighting from the airport cast a golden glow on the soft black shadows pushing to the building. I let my suitcase go and the shoulder bags fell, slid down with my back against the wall of the airport. Now, sweet hummus-smelling air hit my nostrils: Ah, South America.

I had been standing five minutes in sniffing silence, sipping my Coke, when a cab zoomed up. The driver stuck his head out at me, took one look, arched his eyebrows; I saw his eyes scan my body, my tattoo-covered arms, my large handbag (with my notebooks peeking out of the top) and my large backpack. He propped his head and chest out of the car window—leaned in, sideways.

“Hasta El Poblado,” I said.

He laughed and waved his dangling arm. “Si.”

I clumsily rolled the suitcase over as the driver got out—speedy fast—and whisked it away from me. I let him put the backpack in the trunk with the suitcase, but I held tight to my (now empty) Coke and bag full of notebooks. The driver opened the side door for me, then got back in and asked where I was going. This time, I gave him the full address. He asked me where the address was. Medellín was a big city—How should I know where he’s going? I simply repeated the address. This time, he repeated it three times, then turned up the radio.

He drove, zoomed and slid down the highway toward the northwestern part of the sprawl. The bright screen of my fone flashed. Dark inside the cab. Soft cumbia music on the radio. The rhythm: tick-a-tack, tick-a-tack, tick-a-tack.

I repeated the address in my head, again and again and again, wondering if my accent was pronounced. He must have understood what I said. I couldn’t believe this had all worked: I had sought out a city where I knew no one, where I had not been before, where nothing was expected of me, except adventure. The address came from an ad on Craigslist. The address was the apartment I would stay in for the next 6 weeks. And the adventure was beginning…

I was lulled into an instant of exaltation and then a soft cool down by the air sliding through the open back windows caressed me… a warm sensation, floating, surreal being…stayed like that for a while…

Till a jolt of electricity set in: I sat up.

The taxi was pulling into a driveway, slowing to a stop under the direct lamplight of the guard shack. I saw the back of the driver’s head slightly less dark, his bust a lighter shadow. He was a slender man with a melon-shaped head. I looked at the guard, an older man in a suit with a hat that was too big, a skinny man. A too-big gun propped against his shoulder, hanging on the large chest strap. I couldn’t see around the exterior of the building—not a color or design—but I could sense that it was tall. I could sense an enclosed space.

The driver and the guard exchanged information, but I couldn’t understand. The guard’s right hand went up: we were waved through. The taxi rolled to another stop, just beyond the gate, in a well-groomed tropical parking lot. That much I could see so much from the car’s headlights: Leggy purple vines covered the ground and had small droplets of water on them. I saw lush blooms on tall stems, not a scrap on the ground, leaves cut short. Rich humus-smelling air: pungent, sickening, and inviting.

We pulled into a bright parking garage, right next to the elevator. My eyes burned from the sudden bright light. I moved slow, and he moved fast. By the time I had gotten out and stood, he was standing in front of me and handing me my bags.

“Gracias,” I said.

And just like that, he was back in the taxi. It zoomed off. Diesel smoke from the tailpipe. I ate a mouthful. I decided that was the taste of Colombia. I had arrived.

October 2010