“Teacher, teacher! Hola todos! Bienveniedos a Colombia!” the old men yelled from Bolivar Park.
I’ve been on many walking tours of cities that I’ve been to all over the world. They’re typically free, although a tip is expected at the end. I’ve been on good tours and I’ve been on not so good tours. But typically I’m always feeling a bit reluctant to go on a walking tour of a city center since I usually hate the feeling of being ‘outed’ as a tourist and sensing some animosity from the locals who see our large group passing though. However, this particular tour was something special.
Real City Tour’s Free Walking Tour of Medellin was given by the founder of the company, Pablo, who took us on an approximately 5 hour walk of the city center. Pablo was animated, passionate, and excited about his country and sharing it with the people who were interested enough to visit. We started the tour inside the historic train station located right next to the Alpujarra metro where Pablo gave a description of the country’s timeline from the indigenous people, to the arrival of Christopher Colombus, the industrial revolution, through the exploits by a narcotics dealer and terrorist who shares a first name with our guide.
We got a truly authentic look at not just the tourist hot-spots but where the locals go to spend their afternoons and Pablo kept things truly entertaining while also giving a view of the past and current political events. I also discovered some of my favorite empenadas right next in Botero Plaza.
But highlighting all of the great things on the tour was the fact that I found out that Pablo used to be* an engineer until he quit is job to travel the world for a few years before returning to his home in Medellin to start Real City Tours. It was encouraging to see someone so good at a job in a field that they did not go to school for. I’m still not sure what I want to be “when I grow up” but I’m realizing again and again that you have every opportunity to reinvent yourself.
In another act of the universe looking out for me, Pablo always answered the exact question I asked two days ago: Why is it that cities known for their violent crime statistics also happen to be some of my favorites? In his story about the creation of the metro, Pablo said that they people of Colombia have been living for many years in a quicksand like reality. When a bomb is set off by terrorists or a palace is taken by paramilitary forces, the country sinks down to its waist. When a volcano kills over 20,000 people in Tolima, the country sinks to its neck. But before drowning, the Colombian people have always reached out and grabbed on to something positive. And when they keep themselves from drowning, they laugh, they celebrate, and they dance. When the metro was built in 1995, Medellin had been classified as the most dangerous city in the world. All of the work seemed impossible, but when it was completed, the metro became a symbol of hope for all Colombians. It’s why (as Pablo pointed out) that whenever you step onto the metro, you’ll notice a calmness with everyone in the cars. You’ll notice that none of the seats, window, or floors have any scratches or gum on them. I think I like these cities because the people are trying. They know that this life isn’t something that you can expect to have forever and you must enjoy it while you can.
*we’ll always be engineers