Medellin Colombia: People on the Street

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The Beginning

My wife Janet and I moved to Medellin, Colombia roughly 20 months ago. It wasn’t a rational move for work or cheaper housing. We just needed a break from Trump and the Republicans, and the chaos they were sowing, especially the “white is right” ugliness. Janet’s friend Tina has a daughter who married a Colombian from Medellin. Their enthusiasm about this city convinced us to pack up and go.

Medellin is a gift in our lives. Those who live here and in the department of Antioquia (like a state) are referred to affectionately as Paisas. Paisas are proud of their city, and this pride is palpable everywhere, on the street, in stores, in taxis -everywhere. The first question a Paisa asks you after they say hello is “What do you think of Medellin?”

Paisas, for the most part, have generously welcomed thousands of Venezuelans who have fled their country and relocated here. Colombia overall has accepted over 1.2 million migrants from Venezuela. The overwhelming majority lack formal jobs and arrive seeking work.  In order to secure food or money for shelter many have joined the ranks of locals selling items on the street. The political forces driving individuals and families to flee Venezuela combined with the economic fallout of the pandemic have created a vibrant, informal street economy. Informal employment as a percentage of total employment in Colombia is over 60 percent.

We are active participants in this economy. We buy fruits, vegetables, flowers, sweets, jewelry and gifts on the street, often on the way to or from the gym, café, or grocery store.  We have become regular street shoppers.

Our Luck

Street shopping isn’t the same as shopping in a store, where clear roles and social distance normally define transactions. When shopping in a store, time is limited because another customer is waiting in line behind you. Relationships are for the most part functional and transactional. On the street, however, distance evaporates and you easily find yourself entering the lives of others as they cease being “other.” Many of our everyday exchanges have connected us more deeply into our community.  Street shopping invites us to partake in the lives of others that we normally might not experience or choose to see.

Emily is eleven. She has an older sister at home. She sits quietly next to her mother’s side on a busy street corner while her mother sells candy. Emily is often doing her homework, or practicing writing English to try and learn a new language. In some ways, she’s a model student, as it takes intense concentration to study with all the distractions and noise around her.

I often give Emily or her mom 2,000 Colombian pesos on the way to the café across the street. That’s roughly 60 cents. One day, I asked Emily and her mom to join me at the café, telling them they can order whatever they want. Emily said that she wanted a hot chocolate.  Then I asked her mother what she wanted. She said that she would share the hot chocolate with her daughter. “Are you sure”, I asked, “Yes, the hot chocolate is fine”.

Juan sells strawberries and peaches, which he carries in plastic buckets. He walks the streets looking for customers. When he sees us, he raises his hands high into the air and “thanks God” for our presence. Juan is full of personality, offering us a couple of tasty samples for free, and then selling us a full bag of fresh, tasty “fresas.” He’s thrilled that we are buying from him, and often throws in an extra peach or two.

Pergamino Café is located on Calle 10b. I met Victor while buying coffee and sitting outside. Victor seemed to appoint himself as caretaker of the street that fronts the cafe. He seemed proud to clean it and asked for donations from persons in the area. I guess you could say he was in the service business.  I got to know Victor over several months as he had made great progress in cleaning the street. As I got to know him, I found out that he had a six-year-old son at home who was diagnosed with heart problems. He needed extra work and donations to pay for medications. I was glad to help and the donations were small. Over time, I got to see pictures of his son. One day, I offered to buy him coffee and asked about his son; he looked sad. “My son died”, he said. “It’s been very hard on my wife and me.” Victor has been recovering slowly, and I imagine cleaning the street has become even more important for him now. 

Cruz is a grandmother to twin 9 years old girls. She sells small snack items near the exit of a popular restaurant. Sometimes she moves to another location. The girls usually sit on either side of her coloring or doing homework. They are nicely dressed, and hair brushed. Cruz has responsibility for raising her granddaughters, with two other kids at home, one younger, one older. When the girls see us coming, big smiles appear on their face, and they make sure to let their grandmother know that we are approaching. Cruz hasn’t been feeling well of late, and thinks that she might be sick. We are watching carefully, as they have become part of our family on the street. The girls are visibly excited because Janet is scheduling an appointment to get their nails done.

I purchase flowers from an open-air vendor just off the street. I buy 3-dozen assorted bunches for US $6.00. One day, after buying flowers, I went onto the street to try to locate a taxi to take me home. No luck. Then, out of a small grove of trees, a young man emerged and asked if I needed help getting a taxi. “Yes, thanks”.  He yelled up to a person on the next corner, “Taxi!” Then a person on the next corner yelled “Taxi!” And finally two more blocks up the street another person went to hail a taxi. Moments later the taxi arrived to pick me up. Shopping and personal interactions with others on the street has become an ever-growing community of helpers and friends.  

The Case of The Lost Wallet

Last week we met friends for dinner. After dinner, we exited the restaurant onto a busy street adjacent to a large park and hugged goodbye. We walked a couple of blocks to hail a cab and got in. Janet reached for her wallet and noticed that it was missing, not to be found in the cab. We quickly retraced our steps back to the restaurant. No luck. The security film revealed nothing. Our search of the street revealed nothing.

Two days later Janet’s mobile phone rings. The wallet had been found with everything in it; credit cards, drivers license, document to stay in country. It was missing $25.00 USD.  How could this be possible without a phone number or contacting information attached to the wallet?

It turns out that a homeless man found the wallet and took it to a convenience store. The manager of the store found a card in the wallet for a local hairdresser. She called the hairdresser and explained the situation, asking for Janet’s WhatsApp number. When Janet went to the store to retrieve the wallet, she offered the manager a financial reward. The manager thanked her and without stopping to think said she’d buy some things for the man who brought it in.

The Street and The State

The U.S. government has painted Colombia with a broad brush. They tell Americans to avoid traveling here because of dangerous levels of Covid and theft. They have used fear to dissuade U.S. citizens from traveling to Medellin. This is a mistake. Fewer tourists mean less money in circulation, which only increases the level of economic struggles on the street. This hurts individuals in our community and the people with whom we share our lives.

While every city has dangerous areas to be sure, citizens in Medellin are unarmed. It is very difficult to obtain weapons here; and is unlikely that you will be shot or hurt while visiting. The U.S. government would do well to look inward and warn visitors traveling to the U.S. about the dangers of mass shootings or killings in bars, parking lots, and alleyways or on the street. It might be a good time to stop exporting fear, and tell a more humane and accurate story.    

Our lives are richer for the people that we have met on the street in Medellin. Come visit.

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