Astute readers will notice a departure from my usual [Country Name] Happy and Crappy blog post title. This is deliberate. Keep reading and you’ll see why.
As always, let’s start with the Crappy so we can end on a good note about our almost-2nd-home-by-now, Colombia.
Transportation: You’ll notice a lot of the crappy list is along this same theme, but they deserve separate bullet points. We did not drive a car, not even once, while we were here. It’s the first country we’ve lived in where we did not rent or own a car. This is pretty surprising given that Dan loves to drive and loves the freedom of having a car. But we arrived, took a few days to watch the city patterns with driving and said no gracias. The good news is that taxis and Ubers are pretty easy to find (unless it’s raining, or it’s a holiday, or you are going too far, or it’s game day for the soccer team). But the bad news is that it involves a level of coordination that gets tiring for every.single.errand. I missed being able to jump in the car and run to the market for whatever thing I needed.
Traffic: Traffic in Medellin was horrrriblllle. Like, the worst I’ve seen. Poor Medellin has the trifecta going on: 1. rapid – and I mean RAPID – growth, 2. formidable geographic barriers including a river and LOTS of steep hills and 3. poor city planning in the way of streets.
Just to throw some figures at you… between 2005 and 2015, the number of vehicles in the Aburrá Valley increased 182 percent from 478,000 in 2005 to 1.35 million in 2015. The biggest increase from 2005 to 2015 was in motorcycles, which increased 411 percent from 139,000 motorcycles in 2005 to 710,186 motorcycles in 2015. Source: Medellin Guru blog.
There are very few thoroughfares that will get you to your destination quickly and easily. Streets randomly change from one way to two way, some streets are quick and easy for one way to your destination but incredibly complicated to go the return route. The good part of this scenario is that vehicles rarely go fast because they just don’t have the opportunity. We saw quite a few accidents while living in Medellin but never witnessed any bad injuries.
Pollution – air and noise: We lived in the sweet spot of not too far up the hill and close to the mall and restaurants, but along with that came the NOISE. This is what bothered Dan the most. The buses and the squeaky brakes going down the hill, the backfiring motos or the Cool Dude Wanna-Be with his super loud muffler. And don’t get me started on the music or fireworks. In Medellin, you have no need for A/C nor heat so we kept the patio door open all day. But sometimes at night while watching TV it got so loud that we had to “close the speaker” (our phrase) to make it a little quieter inside. During holidays we had the pleasure of seeing a lot of fireworks from our balcony, but that also meant that random fireworks – LOUD ONES – would be thrown into the sewer (on purpose, for louder affect) and create such a ruckus we were sure the building had just exploded. When those wake you from a dead sleep, it gets annoying.
The air pollution was also pretty intense, especially during the February / March months when the weather patterns prevented the winds from moving the air through the city. Every day during these months there’s a blue -grey haze that sit on top of the urban area. The driving restrictions increased and a lot of schools cancelled outdoor PE class.
Crime: I’ll admit it, the potentiality for crime had me on edge. Many expats had some run-in with being robbed of a phone or wallet. Motos whizzing by while you were waiting in the back of a taxi at stoplights left me feeling vulnerable to drive-by robberies. We never lost anything to a crime and I personally never saw one happen. But it was around, even in the upscale area where we lived. It was rarely violent from the stories I’ve heard, but crime is a bigger part of the equation here that what I would prefer. Not as bad as South Africa (of course) but it wasn’t Gilbert, AZ either.
Banking: Boy do American banks NOT like Colombian banks! It was not so easy to do banking here. Whether it was transferring money to pay rent or getting money out of the ATM, our USA bank had to be reassured multiple times that we really wanted to do these things. And trying to set up a payment with a new transfer service was also complicated, involving a telephone conversation (at which time we did not have a USA phone number for the bank to call) and more reassurances.
Lack of Exploring: Road trips really are part of the culture of our family. We do them everywhere we can. Crank up the 80’s music, assume the traditional spots in the car and off we go. It’s as comfortable as an old sweater. But with no car, our weekend exploring capabilities were more limited. Sure, we had our Trusty Drivers, but that means 1. planning ahead 2. squeezing 5 people + luggage into a generally small car and 3. paying the driver to take us there AND get us back. Not to mention 4. having no car in whatever place we were exploring. We looked into taking some road trips a few times, either with a private driver or a bus. Every time we just had a big sense of “MEH”. Nothing was so exciting that we wanted to expend the time and effort and cost. So we did no exploring other than a few day trips when friends came to visit. And so, our experience in Colombia is limited only to Medellin, not all of Colombia.
Expensive Country Hopping: South and Central American countries have definitely not yet discovered the “cheap hopper flights” that Asia and Europe have going on. We looked into doing a few hops to Ecuador, Peru, Argentina or other interesting places. Thinking that it would be easy to travel from our base in Medellin, we had a whole list of places we were ready to explore. And then we looked at flights. Just to get us out of Colombia, even to nearby Quito, Ecuador, was $500 – $700 a person. That’s USD!!! We looked into it several times, thinking surely we must be missing something. But nope. There was no cheap way to explore the neighboring countries. And buses were not a popular option due to the crazy driving, narrow roads and multiple mountain passes. A friend went to a town a few hours away by bus and ended up taking a private driver home. And she’s no softie. That was enough for me. No buses, no gracias.
No mail: Dan will say this is happy but the girls and I think it’s a little crappy. There was no mail service to speak of between the USA and Colombia. We were completely outside of Amazon’s reach, unless we wanted to use the mail forwarding service at the cost of $30 per small box. The one time we tried to send a letter to the USA, it cost $30 and never made it. It was very expensive to get new credit or debit cards mailed to us and we were forced to rely on the muling service of people coming and going between the two countries. It was an added complication.
But alas, we did love it here. We loved it enough to invest $2500 for visas that allowed us to stay 15 months, and we chose to stay the longest amount of time of any of our 8 countries we have lived. Here’s what we loved.
Amigos: My social network at Pilates, my Spanish teacher, my building friends, the girls’ school, expat friends, Dan’s poker game and the grandaddy of them all: The Cates, who get their very own bullet point later in this list. We had a lot of friends here and it was wonderful. There were quite a few expat families and a few in particular who became family.
Weather: It’s true, it’s the land of eternal spring. We had no heat, nor A/C. We used the shades to shield the living room from the afternoon sun and we turned on fans at strategic times during the hottest days. Other than that we were always comfortable with the ambient temperature. The longer we lived in Medellin the more we noticed subtle changes during the year, with more or less rain depending on the season. But it was 99% pleasant, all the time.
Rappi: The upside of the transportation issue is that you could get just about anything delivered via Rappi or some other delivery service. It was easy and cheap. We had Rappi deliver something just about every other day. But just when you became confident in Rappi’s mad delivery skillz, they would mess up and take dinner to some far away place in the city because their map couldn’t find our building. But 90% of the time Rappi was awesome. One time I went to a pharmacy at 4 p.m. but they didn’t have the item I needed. They offered to deliver it later that day. I did not believe it would arrive later that day, but I accepted their offer and paid for the item. 8 p.m. rolls around and the delivery guy shows up for no extra charge.
Our Apartment: We had a fantastic apartment. Everyone had their own bathroom, Dan had his own office, the kitchen was fully functioning and it was bright and cheery. The location had it’s good parts (convenient!) and bad parts (noisy!) but it was home for 15 months. It had a heated pool, a common area, a gym and a social room for all the extra gatherings we had over the year. Those features allowed us to host several months of twice-weekly dance practice, pool parties and the Halloween Party. Having a common area available for our use (but that we do not have to maintain) was excellent. Zoe met all kinds of doggie friends and even recruited a few clients for her dog sitting business. And we can’t mention the apartment without reminding you of our friendly guards. They were always so nice to us and such cheery faces as we walked through the lobby. They were endlessly amused by the gringo families.
Food: It’s not that we love Colombian food, although I liked it pretty well. But for the most part we could find any food we wanted. Colombians seem to love trying new foods (you could learn from that, Panama!) so we had Indian food and Argentinian steaks and American burgers and Japanese sushi and Texas ribs and Caribbean food and even Dan’s best friend KFC. It was easy to find what we liked to eat, either at restaurants or the grocery store. We imported an Instant Pot so that was also a blessing in the kitchen. Haley and I found the best gluten free bread we’ve ever tasted and we loved making hamburgers with the gluten free buns. We’re hoping that by the time we get back to Arizona, Dushi will have figured out how to import their bread to us there.
The School: We didn’t know what a gem we had discovered until later as we helped other people hunt for schools. From Day 1 when we walked into Santa Maria del Rosario with big smiles and a request to attend, they were welcoming and inviting. It was not too far away, it was on the cheaper side ($175 per kid per month) and class sizes were small. But most importantly, the niñas met some great friends, made amazing memories and their Spanish improved dramatically. I will forever appreciate the amazing experience the school offered us.
Spanish: Mind you, this is not a “happy” part for Dan, although for the most part he was indifferent to the amount of Spanish spoken, mostly because he had 3 translators at his side at any given time. And when he didn’t, he had trusty Google translate. But if you want to learn Spanish, this is a great place to do it. There’s NOT a lot of English spoken here. There’s a lot of English Speaking Wannabees among service workers, but not a lot of actual English. The flip side is that Medellin is a tough gig if you speak no Spanish. If you are going to live here with little or no Spanish, just be prepared for a heavy layer of complication because Google translate is tedious for conversations. My Spanish became Best Ever after living in Medellin. The friendliness of strangers in Medellin really assisted in this area. Anywhere I went I found people who were happy to chat with me. Or at least listen to me tell stories in sometimes-broken past tense Spanish.
Friendly people: It’s true. Colombians are one of the friendliest people we have ever met. Each day we were met with smiles, asking if we are content here, greetings in elevators and always being greeted with kisses on the cheeks. I found it lovely and made new BFFs everywhere I went. I knew all the guards by name and voice when they would call to announce Rappi. I knew the names of the guys who called taxis at the nearby hotel, the guards down the street who I walked by to get to my hair appointment and the guy at the front desk of the hotel where I went to Pilates. Everyone always had a smile and wave.
Family – and dog – friendly: Medellin is incredibly family friendly, and that includes the 4-legged members. Every Sunday and holidays the city closes a huge section of the main city roads. Bikers, joggers and pet owners come out to enjoy the weather and social time. Dogs are welcome at all stores and malls and even the food courts have a special doggie area. There are a lot of activities for kids including camps, music lessons, dance lessons, martial arts and of course,
soccer futbol. Even the school offered a lot of extra curricular activities for very low cost.
Prices: Colombia was our third-cheapest country, after Thailand and Mexico. Rent for us ranged from $1700 to $1950 a month (depending on exchange rate and it went up our last few months). We had a 3-bedroom, furnished 180-square meter apartment in the highest strata (economic class) in a secure building with walking distance to everything. The owners paid the first $100 of utilities and we usually paid $75 more. Phone plans were $15 per person per month, with 2 GB of data allowed. Taxis home from the mall were usually $2 or a long ride of 30 minutes might be as much as $7 or $8. Getting my hair washed and dried was $8. Private taxis to take the girls to school cost $5 per trip (because we paid extra to have them on tap). A full day of apartment cleaning cost $30 (and that’s with a 30% tip). Services usually were a very low cost, but imported goods like electronics or American brands were usually 20-30% higher than in the USA. One does not come to Colombia to shop for goods that are made outside Colombia. That’s for sure.
Communal Living: This was the best part of living in Medellin for us: living across the hall from the beloved Cate family. They worked really hard to move into the apartment across the hall and for a year we had communal dinners, video game nights that lasted late into the night, sharing of all types of foods and the two families were interchangeable to the guards who often did not know which kids belonged to whom. Jamie was an endless source of support, a patient and kind ear, an advice giver and of course provided
a little a lot of entertainment with her crazy situations. And the kids became siblings to one another with an unending and unquenchable desire to hang out. They could also fight like siblings too. There was a big hole left in the Atenas Building when the 11th floor moved out at the same time. There’s a hole in our hearts too! We are from the same town in Arizona (coincidentally) so we’ll be back together again someday.
And so, that wraps up Medellin’s Happy and Crappy. It was a long chapter, filled with a lot of things we have not had in awhile due to our fast travelling. But all the members of the family are ready to move on and explore new lands. Our Worldschooler feet are getting itchy and are ready to go. Hasta luego, Medellin. Te quiero mucho.