My last day in Medellin was quite wonderful. It was a Saturday, classes were over, and my day was free, except of course, for the volunteer English teaching gig I had accepted. I set off in the morning, thinking that perhaps I would take the Metro to the Parque Explora, a science park that people in Medellin are quite proud of. But I caught a bus that took me to El Centro rather than to the Metro station in Poblado and as it was a clear, sunny morning, which in Medellin means hot in the sun and cool in the shade, and the crowds weren't too bad, and the whole city seemed to be in a good mood after qualifying for the World Cup (on the other hand, people in Medellin always seem to be in a good mood, except when they are having a passionate discussion about some tiny issue, such as why the upstairs neighbor's remote control isn't working, and then they sound like they are about to murder each other), anyway, I decided to try shopping in El Centro one more time. But first I went to the Edificio Antioquena, an abandoned office building in the process of becoming a satellite of the Museo de Arte Moderno, and saw the Saber Desconocer exhibition, a "salon" of contemporary art. The show was quite strong. Then I bought a few souvenirs (I finally found the courage to take out my wallet on the street in El Centro), had lunch in a very good, very cheap, and surprisingly peaceful (if a little bit cult-y) vegetarian restaurant, up on the third piso and overlooking one of the craziest plazas in El Centro--a church full of people praying, drug dealers and prostitutes plying their trades, porta-potties with doors that don't close, etc.

On the way back to my room at Doña E's, I bought her some flowers (Colombian jungle style flowers, not dainty American style flowers, both of which were available at Carulla) and she seemed to really like them, especially as the the management of her building had just that day required her to remove all the potted plants form her outside window sills, so they could redo the building's facade.) She went out and cut some palm fronds from the front yard, trimmed them, and dressed the flowers I had bought, and the arrangements she came up with looked muy bonita indeed. Then, over a tinto, I asked her, in Spanish of course, because she speaks exactly two words of English, about talking a cab to the airport, and she made the first of what would eventually be four calls to her favorite taxi agency, to set up my ride in the morning.

Outside her building, I hailed a cab to the community center where I'd been volunteering. (I had just explained to Doña E that I had no fear of hailing cabs on the street in Poblado, but I would never try that in El Centro--and I wouldn't.) The cab driver was talkative, and I think I successfully explained to him where I was from, what I was doing in Medellin, and why I was taking a cab to a spot tres kilometros arriba de Medellin, on the road to Santa Elena. He seemed very eager to learn English himself, and then move to California.

Five minutes after I arrived at the community center, it began to rain, hard, with thunder and lightning. Apparently the rain always falls straight down in the Valle de Aburra, because big room at the center had several open windows, windows with spectacular views of the city by the way, and nobody seemed to worry about rain coming in. The class of (eventually) six adult students went very well (some of them, very sensibly, waited for the rain to end), and afterwards I took the bus down to El Centro. This was the sixth time I had taken that bus down through the barrio of Buenos Aires, and it was the usual amazing adventure. One detail, out of hundreds: the little catwalk over a little creek/open sewer, a decaying thing, like something from a pirate movie, but it's how people get to their houses: it works.

When I got to El Centro, my plan was to to take the Metro back to Poblado, but there was something going on in the Plaza del Luces, so I stopped to check. It turned out the be an African fiesta--the big sign on the stage said afrodescendientes somos, and it seemed like every black person in Medellin was there, niños to abuelas, babies to grandmas. The party was wild, warm, very African, and, and for all the frenzied dancing, it felt quite safe.

This morning, on the way to the airport at 4:30 a.m., there was another storm, the most intense I'd seen in Medellin. I had heard that there are often heavy rainstorms, with thunder and lightning in the hours before dawn, tormentas en la madrugada, and had occasionally been awakened by them, but this was the first I saw. The mountain roads were criss-crossed with puddles of rainwater, currents really, furious little rapids. The driver actually slowed down occasionally because of the hazardous conditions, for which I was very glad.

This post written aboard the plane from Miami to Chicago, using the one of the free GoGo wifi passes that come with a Chromebook. It was edited later, because I was in a middle seat, and with the big guy sleeping next to me, it was really hard to use the trackpad.

I just learned, to my shock, that this happened just up the hill from where I was staying, on the last night I was in Medellin:

Click for the full story in El Colombiano

At 8:20 pm, when the collapse occurred, I was sitting in an internet cafe near Doña E's apartment. I didn't hear a thing, and there were no interruptions in power at the cafe. When I returned home at 9 p.m., Doña E seemed somewhat agitated. She was very excited about the Luz. Eventually I figured out that the power had gone out for fifteen minutes, and Doña E had been ready to evacuate. A few minutes later she called one of her friends, and afterwards told me that the Hotel Intercontinental had collapsed. I nodded, assumed that my Spanish was failing me, and went to bed. I had a long day of travel ahead of me, beginning with a taxi at 4:30 a.m. And besides, there was no way (I thought) that a large building could have collapsed in the neighborhood without me hearing it. Once I got to the airport, like all wise travelers, my thoughts were on my destination.

According to Google Maps, the tragedy occurred about 1,000 feet away from where I was sitting, as the crow flies--but it's also straight uphill, and there was a large office building and a major hotel in between, which would have acted like baffles. Perhaps there was a rumble, and I just assumed it was a passing truck.

In the following map, A is where the building collapsed, B is the cafe where I was at the time.


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An English language version of the story is here.

Both my arrival and departure from El Poblado were marked by tragedies in the neighborhood: in one luxury building, a internationally wanted fugitive murdered his local girlfriend and jumped or fell to his death about 15 minutes before I arrived, completely befuddled; and another luxury building collapsed while I browsed the internet and sipped a glass of wine, completely oblivious. But I still don't think Poblado is dangerous, not the way Medellin used to be. These weren't the grim embattled tragedies of all the years of La Violencia (the various wars, both civil and narco, that have torn Colombia apart since 1948), but more like the gaudy tragedies of early Hollywood: a place where foreigners can reinvent themselves, money is to be made, and the reach often exceeds the grasp.