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El taxista drove fast, very fast, considering the narrowness of the roads. The route from Jose Maria Cord0va airport to Medellin seems to consist of some winding rural roads and then a long descent into the Valle de Aburra, where the lights of Medellin and its neighboring city, Envigado, twinkle below. How steep is the descent to Medellin? My ears popped twice during the drive downhill, as the lights of the city came in and out of view. On the other side of the road, people were parked along the side of the road, crowds of them, along with what seemed like impromptu food and drink vendors. Para la mirada, said el taxista when I asked what was going on, for the view.
El taxista had seemed somewhat unsure of la direccion, the address, at the airport, but I said it was muy cerca del Hotel Intercontinental, he seemed very sure of the neighborhood. Now I don't want to share the exact address in a blog post, but let's just say that Colombian street addresses are both complicated and systematic--it seems like an attempt to impose a New York type grid system upon a landscape rather inhospitable to imagining its space as a cartesian graph. Medellin is built on the steep sides of a valley in the Andes--a very pleasant valley, but it's still the Andes, so nearly every street twists and turns to avoid the sudden changes in elevation, and occasionally, steep ascents to surmount them. I imagine a progressive urban planner in the 19th saying: "Come on! Las calles on the X axis, and las carreras on the Y axis! It will make every location easy to find! It's the modern thing to do! It worked in New York and Chicago! It can work here!" And to a surprising extent, it does work, at least compared to the alternative, which would be utter confusion.
Which means that if you want to fully describe an address in Medellin, you should probably have the following: The street name and address. Calles and Carreras usually have numerical names, so the full address includes the number of the calle or carrera you're on, the number of the cross street in a system I haven't quite figured out yet, and also includes the exact number of the building).
Whether it's the "a" or "b" or "c" version of the street in question.
The name of the building, if it has one. This isn't like an English village, where every house has a name, and you just have to know, but in Medellin, it really helps.
The actual name of the street that is on the street sign outside. This one is a real killer, in that the particular address that I gave el taxista does not correspond to the sign on the street outside.
The name of the neighborhood.
In this particular case, I had about half the information, which might have been fine if el taxista had been a local taxista here in the city, but he was an airport taxista, with a white airport cab instead of a yellow local cab, and he just didn't know this particular building. So we got lost. Or to be exact, el taxista drove right to the right spot, in the right neighborhood, and stopped outside the right building, but we couldn't find the front door, or any door that seemed to have an address in the same series. So we drove around the neighborhood. Which means, in this neighborhood, driving down steep ravines where modern apartment buildings and walled villas jut out at odd angles. In front of one very large elegant building was a fire truck, and los bomberos were standing around looking very serious, although there wasn't any smoke or fire and nobody seemed to have been evacuated. We got stuck for a while behind a police car, who was driving very slow and stopping to talk with various bomberos. (This morning, la policia were still outside the building when I went for a walk, along with a crew from Caracol TV, and my doña de la casa discovered, when she went to Mass, that a man had murdered his wife in that building.) There were two taxistas parked on one of the side streets, their yellow cars facing each other, and both of them working on some mechanical problem in one of the cars. My taxista stopped and asked for help, showing them the address I had printed out in big letters before I left home (obsessive worrying about international travel plans sometimes pays off!) The other guys were very helpful, (taxista-solidarity apparently extending across the divide between amarillo y blanco). One of them gave my guy the following directions, which I've reconstructed based on my understanding of his español (30%), the universal language of gestures (30%) and what my taxista did immediately afterward (40%).
"Go around over there on Calle XXa, and drive up to the street sign that says something else, and turn right, and you'll be on Carrera YYa. Stop right there, and you'll see the front door."
Which turned out to be exactly right. We were enfrente of a building with the exact address I had printed out the night before. I paid my fare and tipped el taxista (probably a little excessively considering that he had given me the gringo price (en dolares) at the airport, and getting lost was really his fault, not mine, but he had been muy amable and had just given me a lesson in Colombia conviviencia and had spent an extra twenty minutes on me). Then he drove off and I realized that I was standing in front of a padlocked gate with no doorbell.
So I took my phone out of airplane mode and let it find the local roaming cell phone carrier. Then I bit the bullet and made an international roaming call to Frederico, the director of the language school that I'll be attending, who called the folks inside el apartemento, who went down to the garage and and found el portero for the building, who upstairs and unlocked the padlock.
Journey completed. I had arrived at my destination.