I have an intimate knowledge of life in an old Medellín barrio through my extended family. I’ll try to describe what it’s like, but let’s be clear that this isn’t a critical point of view, just observations.
The house is big, 3 floors, on a corner, built by my relative decades ago. The exterior is stuccoed and painted unlike many similar homes in the area that have exposed brick (those big ones like cinder block) . There’s a small tiled and gated patio at the front and balconies on the upper floors. At one corner of the house is a small shop offering ice cream and sweets.
My in-laws live on the two bottom floors and the aunt lives on the top floor. The stairs are uneven and more than one kid or senior has taken a tumble on them but nothing changes! The showers have hot water, a luxury, but they’re the electrical kind with exposed wires that are affixed right to the shower head. The lights flicker when you have a shower and just a thin stream comes out of that apparatus, but decades later, nothing changes! There’s a clothes washer and everything is hung to dry in an atrium open to the air at the back of the second floor, same place where the pets do their business.
The street out front is a beehive of activity at all hours, and everybody knows everybody. Early in the morning, here comes the fruit and veggie cart guy who broadcasts his presence with a megaphone. The mazamorra (a sweet creamed corn treat Colombians love) vendor on a bike yells and squeezes a bicycle horn. Another guy on foot is selling brooms and mops and you guessed it, yells his message at top volume. Yet another guy sings off key in a microphone plugged into a small speaker and waits for donations. A beat up old Renault wagon armed with a megaphone offers to buy your junk, any junk.
At the house in front, the ever present illegal car repair business comes to life: The old man works on vehicles occupying several curbside parking spots, welding at times, spray painting at others. Down the street, the buñuelo cart with the umbrella is already busy with customers. Better or more perfectly spherical buñuelos (corn flour and cheese delights) you will not find!
Anybody with a garage or a front window can open a business, and many do. One neighbor offers emergency groceries, while another stationary and yet another cuts your hair. Down the street there’s full mini markets and several panaderias where locals sip their tintos with croissants stuffed with ham and cheese. Food is never more than a few steps away in a Colombian city or town!
At night, during weekends or holidays, the taxi driver who has forever lived at a house just across the street and has a permanent awning over the sidewalk and big speakers hanging from the windows will without fail blast his Vallenato and carouse loudly with his buddies. The window panes in my in-laws place vibrate. Nobody complains, ever, even if it goes on all night. On special occasions, he’ll have a truck bring a huge pig, which they’ll summarily execute on the street (bone chilling squeals) then use a blow torch to singe the hairs off before butchering the beast and cooking the meat. I admit the aromas are delicious, but I don’t ask for a bite!
This is life is the barrio. To its inhabitants, it’s normal, and for an observer it can be quite interesting!
SIDENOTE: The barrio I described did NOT begin as an “invasion”, that is an illegal settlement, but rather as a planned community in the 1960’s for people of limited means. It did suffer from the violence inflicted by narco-traffickers in the 1980’s just like pretty much all of the Medellín area. It is considered a middle class neighborhood and fairly safe. If I hide the area’s identity it’s to protect my extended family. The photo is of another barrio.
Photo credit: Carolina Yepes via Creative Commons License.
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