• Cassie Stockamp

Exploring Colombia, a bruised ego, and living with the pandemic...

Updated: Mar 23


So it was a wild experience feeling the transfer of fear and anxiousness from those around me in response to what felt like an unraveling world.The current of anxiety from the young hostelers from around the world trying to get home in fear of getting stuck in Colombia was contagious! I had to really lean into my meditation practice,TRE exercises and started each yoga class I taught with gratitude in order to redirect the erratic energy...


And I had much to be grateful for as I was living in a small, but well appointed apartment owned by the founder of the language school I was attending; he offered me his place to stay while he was visiting his mom in the US (he got stuck in the US btw). I had been teaching yoga for free to the other students and walking his wild puppy (Mia) every day, so it seemed my good deeds were noticed. Lucky, lucky me!


At night I sat on the balcony listening to the laughter coming from the street below and often a soulful saxophone playing a comforting tune would waft across the night air. The stores were full of fresh fruit and veggies (and toilet paper), and the sunshine provided vitamin D and warmth to combat the virus. Medellin is called the ‘City of Eternal Spring’ as the weather hovers between 65-85 EVERY day. Glorious!


My time in Colombia was muy bueno (!) and hope to get back someday to visit the friends I made, which is in contrast to the way it started... When I arrived to this city of 4 million people I thought, “What the hell have I done?!” It is a biggish city with a pollution problem and lacks a quaint colonial center because there “ain’t no gold in those hills....” A good friend joined me at the onset of the trip, and we planned to have no plans and discover Medellin as it unfolded and fortunately, on the second day we took a walking tour of the City which began my love affair with Medellin. This country - and City - have been through a hell of a lot...


Medellin is pretty remarkable, and the the more I learned of its history and how it has turned itself around from the grips of a pretty dark period in Columbia’s history, the more impressed I became.


Try to get your head around these numbers:

Pablo Escobar: Drug Cartel Boss

Cocaine sales: $420 million each week / $22 billion annually

1993 net worth: $30 billion

2020 net worth equivalent: $100 billion+

2020 comparison net worth: Elon Musk - $43.2 billion


Escobar’s ruling hand was ruthless, dangerous and the destructive tendrils resulted in the City of Medellin being named the murder capitol of the world. In1991(almost 30 years ago) there were 17 murders a day in the City... Brutal. Today the City, surrounded by mountains, is full of public art, modern neighborhoods, equipped with a great metro and brimming with an enormous amount of civic pride. The people I met quietly talked about the gang killings and walking over dead bodies in the days of their youth. This City and its people are true survivors. I can’t imagine what living in those times must have been like...


It was rewarding to see how the public investment in both infrastructure and art was a targeted way in which the City of Medellin rebuilt its reputation and made the City a safe place to live. My Spanish teacher took me on her moto to the beautiful Parques de Rio; the ground on which the park is situated was recovered after the freeway was redirected underground and the City turned the new found land into beautiful public space. In another part of the City, government funds were used to install cable cars, not as a tourist attraction, but as a way to economically and creatively provide transportation for the locals to movie up and down the mountain. In Comuna 13, the MOST dangerous bario in the City in its day (it provided the most direct drug route from the City to the coast) now uses escalators to move the people around this steep neighborhoods connecting the residents to the metro system. The City has received multiple urban planning awards, is aggressively tackling climate change and is contemplating the impact of rising temperatures and its influence on the existing pollution problem. It was inspiring to see progressive public policy in action!


Tracey and I explored Medellin for 8 days and we became experts on riding the metro. Now I gotta’ say it is one of the more impressive metros I’ve ever used. And clean - there isn’t a scrap of paper on the ground and NO graffiti can be found on the walls. The metro system was another huge public infrastructure project that the government invested in as a result of waves of Colombians fleeing the countryside as the rural areas were being overtaken by the drug cartels. The city and it’s people are still proud of this almost 30 year old system which moves half a million people a day. Yup, it’s impressive.


One afternoon on the metro (a perqu at rush hour as it is more than a wee bit busy...) a woman got on and and took the seat next to me. Her eyes were abnormally blood shot. She was clutching a tissue and dabbing the tears running down her face. I put my hand on her shoulder to console her which made the tears and sobbing start again. She squeezed her eyes shut to hide from the world and tried to use the tissue to catch the flowing tears. I noticed the woman on the other side also had a hand on her should and was whispering words of encouragement. I watched the other passengers take notice and quickly divert their eyes in an effort to let her have her privacy. We sat with her in her grief and when we got up to leave, I put my hand on her shoulder and looked her in the eye. No language was needed... I wondered if she had learned about a death of a family member, the scorn of a lover or the loss of a job... I’ll never know, but the pain was evident and everyone on that metro car felt it. I was an empathetic touch of humanity...


I met Rob from Ottawa at a yoga class; now I must admit meeting people my age hasn’t been the easiest thing! We both found that it was great to have a comrade and took a bus trip to a small town south of Medellin that was described by my fellow travelers as a quaint little pueblo called Jardin that was complete with gauchos.... Saturday morning found us hiring a tuk tuk to take us 20 minutes up the mountain. We grazed on blackberries and raspberries that were growing wild on the side of the trail as we hiked the last 5 kilometers up the steep incline to “El Esplendor” - a cave with a waterfall cascading through its roof. It was a pretty cool find. My Canadian friend talked me into taking a 10 kilometer hike back to Jardin which took us over the saddle of not one, but two mountains. We followed cow paths that had been etched 3’ deep into the red clay, walked around cows laying on the path chewing their cud, criss crossed stream after stream and hopped over “Magic Mushrooms” growing out of cow patties. We locked gates as we moseyed from one field to the next, and I know this will sound hokey, but it truly was bucolic. At one point we both started laughing as it was plausible to imagine Julie Andrews running over the rise with arms outstretched singing “the hills are alive with the sound of music....” lol!!

Magic!

At some point Rob picked up a ripe fallen fruit and at that exact moment - a young local hombre with a guitar slung over his back materialized. He told us in broken English that what we held was an edible fruit called guanabana, and he watched us scoop out the fruit with our fingers. Now mind you we had not seen another human on the trail in over 2 hours and after our brief exchange, we watched him round the corner and disappear.... Rob and I looked at each other and grinned. Did that really just happened? Magic...


After hours of hiking, we finally arrived at a statue of Jesus that we had noticed the night before that sat elevated on the side of the mountain. At that point I turned and looked behind us and saw the vastness of the mountains we had just crossed. Epic hike.....


On Saturday night we heard the sound of hooves on the cobble stone streets and saw the gauchos riding their ”Paso Fino” (fine step) horses around the colorful main square; the plaza seemed to be alive with everyone from Jardin sitting at colorful tables! The music, laughter and cerbeza flowed until late into the evening.

The high stepping small horses left their mark and we walked over fresh horse piles the next morning.... The curb in front of each residence or small business was swept daily by the owner leaving the city spotless, well, except for maybe a pile of horse poop here or there... This small town boasts a population of 13,000 and is nestled in a valley between soaring mountains replete with banana trees and cascading waterfalls. The air was fresh and clean which was a much needed respite as Medellin was experiencing red alert days due to the high pollution that was concentrated in its valley.


And I was grinning as I wrote this remembering how the “tribe” unfolded in Medellin... On day two I met a woman who shared her triphala with me. This Indian herb was magical as I was having another intestinal bout.... Amazing how my body is talking to me. Yup, I was feeling anxiety over some changed plans and realized what was happening - again - but this time I caught it much earlier. I leaned into the emotional (and physical) discomfort and realized I wasn’t really “flowing,” and that I was attempting to control virtually every step. SO.... after more serious meditation, I found that my word for the balance of the year is “Surrender.” Yup, the market is tanking, I may have to go back to work - and all I can do is surrender to it...


I somehow found two Wim Hof experiences which included “lounging” in cold, cold water. I know it sounds pretty weird, but google him and then pass judgment - LOL! One plunge was in a beautiful cold river (20 min - 50 degrees) and the other with 40 other folks from around the world taking turns soaking for 5 minutes in a tub full of ice water... Another evening a friend and I (pretty sure we were the only gringos in the crowd) along with 500+ others did a 17K night bike ride around the City. This weekly ride has been going on for over10 years and on a warm summer night, over 1,000 people will join creating a swarm of bikes!


And my Spanish classes. Whew. I gotta admit to feeling a bit defeated several times as the information was layered on week after week and this brain took a hot minute to assimilate it.This is the first language I’ve attempted to learn after English and my supportive daughter reminded me that the first language you learn after your primary one is the most difficult! I found myself surrounded by young people from around the world that spoke 2,3,4 sometimes 5 languages and their pliable brains understood sentence structure, tenses and possessed shared vocabulary. I felt pretty inferior...

One incredibly fun, vivacious young nurse from England had taught herself Mermish (the language from Harry Potter) just for fun!! Gggeeeeeeeezzzeeee!! Lol!!!

I spent three weeks in group classes getting filled with grammar, present subjunctive, past perfect, indirect objects, direct objects, irregular verbs and, and, and!! GEEEZE!!! My brain was literally tired after 4-5 hours of class a day. I realized I had had enough structure and wanted to be able to merely cobble together sentences. I am kinda’ embarrassed to tell you that all the new information made it harder for me to speak as I found I was mentally stopping on each word searching for the right tense, word placement and checking the masculine/feminine nature of every noun. It felt horrible and stilted!!! My ego was shot, and I had to give myself a pep talk to keep going. I determined that in the the last two weeks I would only take private lessons and try to put into practice all I had learned. I was placed with a 23 year old that had an incredible amount of patience, and we became fast friends as we shared life stories and common themes - all in español - well, mostly!


Dalia, my teacher and I shared philosophy and the feelings of not always fitting in. Her patience and gentle humor gave me the courage to start to cobble together sentences, and then more complicated thoughts and with each step she gently corrected a verb tense or provided a forgotten word. We bonded over Buddhism and she shared the frustration she feels for her peers as she believes (yo creo...) that their interest in makeup and clothes are shallow. She seeks friends that are interested in asking the hard questions... No wonder we bonded...


I was typing this while standing in the Medellin airport waiting to board a flight to Panama City - Miami - Charlotte - Indy. How am I feeling? So many emotions.... What will my city/country feel like when I get home? How will I be able to get to my girls? Do I need to get a job since the stock market is a wee bit under the weather? Can I still get on my bike and ride around the Midwest? What will my/our lives look like in the new era? I haven’t had these pangs of uncertainty since 9-11. The feelings are similar, but this feels well, bigger. It feels like the world is taking a corrective action to heal itself in some huge way. I have no idea what that means, but merely a sense of something - obviously - pretty huge going on... The State Department issued a warning that US citizens needed to return home or suffer the possibility of being stranded wherever they were. I cut my trip short by a week as I felt the urgency to be closer to my girls. Not sure that my presence can change anything, but... We’re all entering a new world. Building grit? Perseverance?

Let’s do this friends.

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