Medellín - a city of contrasts
2018-05-01 15:11:37 -
Art & Culture
Photo Source: Deidre Molloy
Deirdre Molloy’s Dance Odyssey
Dance Odyssey is a blog by Deirdre Molloy about a unique opportunity – a sabbatical to travel the world and dance for a year. 
Previously she toured Spain and Portugal, explored the dancefloors of Cuba and took what she learned back home to Dublin. This time, she’s taken her dancing shoes to Colombia…
   I joined a walking tour of Medellín with a local guide called Milo. He told us that the people in the region of Colombia’s second largest city are known as Paisas, mainly descended from Basque and Jewish immigrants who arrived in the 1930s. He outlined the country’s post-colonial history of violent conflict between drug barons, extremists from left and right, and the army. Milo communicated with passion the optimism of Paisas as the security situation gradually improves, and emphasised the positive role of tourism in the transformation.
  One city zone not covered in this tour, but popular with tourists, is known as Comuna 13. This formerly dangerous neighbourhood is seen as symbolic of the new, more secure trajectory of Medellín and of Colombia as a whole. The most famous landmark here is the ‘Elevator’, a series of escalators and street-art covered terraces linking the steep hillside neighbourhood to municipal transport. For me, though, the Comuna 13 cemetery, with its memorial portraits and view over the city, provided a more concrete link between a violent past and a hopeful future.
  After getting a bit lost on the way to Elevator, I was drawn in by colourful art on the cemetery boundary and gatehouse walls. In this symmetrical garden of ashes were no gravestones, no grass. Small, engraved ash compartments were housed in the boundary walls and in two circular buildings connected by a footpath. In the centre of the slope was the main white building, enclosed a circular courtyard lined with ash cases opened to the sky. 
  As I mounted the steps and rounded the curves of the courtyard walls, I was greeted by a dazzling display of colourful murals dedicated to deceased young Colombians. From the highest entrance, there was a lovely view over the redbrick city and emerald green mountains. A few white angels looked down from the highest walls. Lush, tropical trees gave a calm, green aspect. Across the courtyard, I saw a few mourners. Grateful to be the only tourist, I hoped my discrete photography would not give offence.
  Since 2013, a new swing dance community has sprung up in Medellín – another sign of optimism and connection to the international world. I was looking forward to seeing a live band at a city centre venue in the evening. “It’s not safe to take the train so late,  the kindly hostel receptionist advised me. Even the Uber driver seemed nervous, locking the car doors as we neared the city’s core. 
  There was not much life visible on the way — just ghostly figures living rough in the dirty cement shadows of underpasses. These lonely grey scenes gave way to a slightly more animated urban landscape of shuttered shops and a few brightly lit restaurants. Dodging a ragged parking tout, I ran from the taxi across the road and up the stairs into a charming bar with a wooden floor: Casa Cultura Centro.
  Colombian locals gave me a very warm welcome. A young man pulled up a chair, inviting me to join him and his friends. I sat down with them and put on my dance shoes. It was the first set of Merender Swing, a jazz quartet with a sweet, brassy vocal that wove through the strings like a golden thread. I danced a few songs solo, then was invited to dance by a few locals – scene leader Luz recognised me from Facebook. A lady in red called Joanna also invited me to lead and follow; she’s a swing teacher and DJ. I danced with a few local guys and two tourists: a tall Swedish woman and a South African man. “Her voice is special,” said the South African as we danced to Merender Swing’s rendition of ‘Blue Skies’.
  There were also a few great dances with a tall, handsome Colombian called Mauro.
  Between dances, an older local lady called Luzmilla invited me to join her, moving her big gold leather handbag off the seat for me. When my feet got sore at around half past 11, I checked with her about options for going home. The inner city insecurity is such that Luzmilla would not walk two blocks to her car; instead she ordered a taxi to her own ride. Like me, the Swedish lady was staying in the ‘tourist safe zone’ of Poblado, so the three of us shared a cab to get us home safely. 
  It had been a great night, working up a sweat, drinking coconut water and soda water, rejoicing in jazz and community.

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