Living the dream… in the city of eternal spring.
It’s been a little over a month now that I’ve been living in Medellín, Colombia. I’m starting to find my way here and it’s really been starting to sink in that I’m a “digital nomad” – that I’m really living my dream life!!
Though, please don’t have any illusions: just because I said I am living my dream, that doesn’t mean it has been perfect every day or without challenges and emotional/physical peaks and valleys. This is real life after all! But, overall, I’ve started to feel much more in alignment and notice more gratitude, excitement, peace, pride, and confidence, as well as to realize how far I’ve come.
It’s been a major adjustment coming from rural Domincan Republic to metropolitan Colombia – and before that, semi-urban/rural small city “upstate” NY for many years. The last time I lived in a city even remotely close to the size of Medellín was in 2009 when I studied abroad in Paris. (And, upon recent search – Medellín actually has a slightly higher population.) But even so, that was only for 3 months, 14 years ago; the majority of my life has been spent in towns with populations of about 25-30,000. But, Medellín? 2.5+ million. Cabarete (where I stayed most of the time in DR)? The accuracy is unclear, but Google says ~14,600 in 2010.
Outside of the size and population density – it was a big change (in the right direction) with the climate! Situated in the Andes at an elevation of around 5,000 ft, only slightly north of the equator, Medellín is also known as the “City of Eternal Spring” – with sunshine and temperatures ranging between mid 60s and mid 80s (F) every day of the year. It’s ideal – like June in NY – much better than the horrid humidity and ever increasingly unbearable heat I was beginning to have in the Dominican Republic before I left in May (high 80s/90s with humidity bringing the “feels like” temp to over 104 – AY DIOS MIO! – Sticky and sweating while sitting still, 4 showers a day and clothing changes). In addition to the perfect climate (which some people still seem to complain about), the city is full of trees, everywhere, parks, free outdoor gyms, and walking paths along natural and manmade waterways. Because the city sprawls over a valley, you have tremendous mountain views from all over.
It’s been a trip. Since my arrival, I’ve been so busy that it’s been hard to come up for air – ahem – to get myself into a state where I could write an update.
Before getting here, I felt a bit nervous about where to go and being alone in Medellín – a city whose reputation precedes itself, if you’ve paid any attention Colombia’s storied past with cocaine, narcotics and Pablo Escobar. Not to mention, the scare stories of robberies and poverty-related violence that you’ll come across on the internet. Given that, and the range of socioeconomic status/neighborhoods I had previously observed in Bogotá, it was important to me to land here with locals who could guide me a bit about the place and how to maneuver. I did some research on the neighborhoods, and found an Airbnb in Laureles-Estadio. I stayed there for the first couple of weeks – in a private room in a family home with adult children, coming in and out, and a cat – until I found a place I could stay longer term. It was definitely more of a “homestay” vibe than Airbnb – which is exactly what I was looking for.
It was nice to stay with locals and be fully immersed in Spanish language – and Colombian life. That is, except when it’s the morning and you’re trying to make your way to the bathroom to take care of your routine and you find yourself – half awake – being bombarded by a lady talking at you in fast Spanish, with an accent you’re not quite accustomed to. 😬
On the other hand, overall, with a few exceptions such as my Airbnb hostess, communication has been SO MUCH easier here than it was the entire time in DR. I’m able to participate in group conversations, have lively conversations with Uber/Cab drivers, do speed-dating in Spanish, and find my way around with cabs/buses. From the first trip – a taxi ride from the airport to my Airbnb – it felt like a breath of fresh air. Man, the accent, the speed and the slang in DR was so difficult. I mean, why don’t they pronounce the letter s? I still don’t understand 100%, but it is MUCH easier.
Life in Medellín has been a whirlwind, from the very beginning. The first few weeks, while in the Airbnb, I had extra French classes to teach – thanks to it being finals week in the US. Between that and having physical therapy sessions for my ankle (which I had sprained a few weeks prior in Las Terrenas, DR), not to mention, walking being a problem… For a while, frustratingly, I was only able to explore the immediate neighborhood. But, tranquilo. It was so quiet, residential and not dangerous. I was worried for nothing (fortunately). Kind of how I felt with Newburgh (ahem – the “murder capital of NY”… per capita). Sure, reputations come from somewhere (namely, the past, statistics, or “looks”), but also, between time changing things, having some common sense/awareness of where you are, practicing basic security measures, being smart about risk management, “walking with purpose”, and not getting involved with the wrong kind of people… It’s a lot less dangerous than you might think. That being said – I have semi-witnessed a couple of sketchy incidents in the street – though, nothing that couldn’t have happened in any major US city, for that matter.
And yes – of course – there are some barrios (neighborhoods) where you want to pay special attention, carry your bag on your front, and “no dar papaya”, there are other areas where I felt like I could easily be in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (hello gentrification, posh restaurants, tourists/gringos speaking English and “gringo prices”), or Alexandria, Northern VA (hello brick high rises with manicured garden areas, cute cafes, boutiques, and moderate climate). I mean seriously, I was questioning – am I really in COLOMBIA?!
But indeed I am… and that is sometimes abundantly clear – like with the omnipresent arepas. And the salsa music playing in any random cafe or on the bus. Convenience stores with tables/chairs and full of locals hanging around at night. The overabundance of bakeries – complete with pastries, empanadas and deep fried cheese balls. Not to mention, the laissez-faire attitude toward time management and poor service in restaurants. Oh… and the Colombian flags. And, it’s hard to ignore the religious shrines throughout the city – on random street corners, on buildings (not churches), and in parks. How about paying for things in the order of 10s of thousands of PESOS! (That’s been a major adjustment – especially when you take out hundreds of thousands of pesos from the ATM, but it’s only like $100-150 USD.) And, how can I forget – the men pushing huge wheeled carts (or riding around a converted motorcycle of the same) full of fresh fruit/veggies with a giant umbrella (for shade) with megaphones shouting, “Aguacates! Piñas! Platanos verdes! Papas! Mangos!” (etc.) And the street food – corn on cob, kebabs/skewers, arepas with cheese, and even fresh tropical fruit cut into slices, placed neatly into cups.
Speaking of food, in my first neighborhood, I managed to find a great little hole-in-the-wall restaurant that only has a menu-del-dia – so you have to ask what they have. Because I feel so much more confident with the language here, I was able to do it – whereas, in DR, I sort of avoided those types of places – que pena. I ate breakfast there a few times for 10-14,000 pesos ($2.50-3 USD), which consisted of scrambled eggs with onions/tomatoes, arepa, queso, sausage, coffee and hot chocolate. One day it had rice and beans, instead of sausage. (For reference, in a fancier cafe, you might pay $20-40k pesos for your plate, and $4,500-10,000 for your coffee or fancy drink – $20k for a cocktail.) One of my favorite things is the popularity of fresh fruit juices, as well as “sodas saborizadas” – basically, fancy soda water with fresh fruits/herb combos made in the cafe/restaurant. It’s wonderful to have these options – outside of typical beer and cocktails. Everyone says the Paisa (people of Medellín) are friendly… and I’ve also experienced just how trusting they really can be, here in the “city of eternal spring”, when, after I visited the same bakery for a couple days in a row… on the third day, I started by asking if they accepted debit cards. I was told I could come back to pay later or the next day! Imagine! In a city of 2.5 million – after seeing me only for a day or two, I’m trusted to come back to a bakery to pay for a pastry the next day!
It’s been a few weeks since then. I’m now much more settled and starting to find more of a rhythm and deeper connections. I managed to find a place to live where I’m sharing a large apartment in a 2-family house with a young couple – a Colombian chica and a Russian guy – and their cat, who has one blue and one green eye. It may be the first cat I’ve ever met who likes me. At home, we speak Spanglish. We’re becoming friends, and it’s nice. It’s a process, but I’m getting used to living with other people again – after a few years living by myself (including during the pandemic).
I’m eager for my ankle to heal so I can get to dancing and proper hiking in the mountains/very long walks around the city, but in the meantime, I’m using the time to engage in other forms of social and cultural exchanges, short walking explorations (also for my St Jude’s challenge/fundraiser) and business and creative development (podcast rebrand/relaunch is happening!). And when I’m not doing that, I’m still teaching French online, editing photos and so on and so forth. … from COLOMBIA! Wow!
Since I’ve arrived there’s been an International Tango Festival, a Poetry Festival (haven’t been to that) and a concert with the Medellín Metropolitan Philharmonic and Metropolitan Ballet. There are language exchange events basically every day (not that I make it to most of them – it’s a process learning to say no, be selective about my energy/what I attend and realize it’s ok, I don’t HAVE to attend everything). I even was able to start my own exchange between French and Spanish – where English is forbidden. It’s a fun workout for my brain – which likes to start a sentence in French and finish it in Spanish without realizing. I’m also meeting friends to draw/paint and others to eventually go dancing. From the very beginning, I’ve been tapped into various social networks, thanks to Facebook groups leading me to Whatsapp communities. It’s been great – there is even a Linktree for Medellín Whatsapp communities! I ended up meeting new people almost immediately, and a bit serendipitously through a coworking community. And thus, it started to sink in that I’m a really digital nomad – giving a French class online, going out to check out a different neighborhood, in a different country, from where I had been even the previous week. Then, head to a cafe to meet and co-work with other new people. Wow! I did it!
If you’d have told me that a few years ago… I’d have said you were insane. Before 2020, I never would have imagined myself visiting Colombia, let alone living here, navigating the convoluted bus system, speaking fluent Spanish, or holding my own and organizing community events in a Latin American city while developing my art, my polyglot tendencies, my business, and working online, for myself. But, here we are! My bohemian, creative, entrepreneurial, philanthropic, social and vagabond fantasies are coming true.
And when my ankle is better? Just watch out! 😉
It’s been a crazy journey – and it isn’t stopping.
Thanks for coming along for the ride.
Until next time – cuidate!
Enjoy some phone snapshots from around the city.