Note: As this post progresses, please note the circumstance of its creation. I am currently sitting on the night shift of the hostel in Prague, working as drunken guests stream back into the hostel after the bars. A lovely Canadian girl named Lisa gave me a bottle of Bombay Gin, which is why this post might meander a bit near the end. Hamish the Amish Gentleman and Aldana the Argentinian Mamacita, two of my lovely hostel coworkers, are currently sitting with me and enjoying a lovely bowl of curry. They are fantastic humans, and I love them very much. Jess just walked in with a similar bowl of curry. She seems ecstatic about her future and I love her just as much. In any any case, please enjoy.
Powering through a hangover might be one of the most important traits of an avid traveler. Those first moments after a long night out, when your crusted eyes crack open and the bright mid morning sun nearly blinds you to tears, and your head truly begins to start pounding, are feelings we all know. In college, normally you just turn off your alarm, alert your professor by email that you must be coming down with a sinus infection, and return to bed until your roommate barges in asking why you drunkenly ate all of his Cinnamon Toast Crunch last night.
But when traveling, there is a bit more pressure to get up, to get out and do something cultural or new and exciting. You paid all that money to fly out to a foreign country, to sleep in an uncomfortable hostel bed, and to get at least one rampaging stomach infection. You might as well get out and do something instead of sleeping the day away. Travelers can run on two speeds. One is the laid back and relaxing style, where taking a day to recover and chill is not only accepted but mandatory. This is usually the long term traveler, one who is out for months on end and needs days to decompress and catch up on sleep or more importantly Stranger Things.
The other traveler, the short termer, doesn’t usually get that luxury. Your goal is to jam pack as much you can into the short amount of time given to you. When you only have 21 days, its hard to rationalize spending a section of that sleeping away the day in a hostel bed surrounded by hungover folks snoring away their hangovers.
Which is how, at eight in the morning, I stumbled out of bed in Medellin, ready to start my second day in the city. Last night, JJ, Anya and I had agreed to go paragliding, something I had never done before. We talked at length about how the word “no” should not be in our vocabulary, and that speech bounced around my hungover head as I slid off my top bunk. Luckily, I was still wearing the same clothes I had worn when I crawled into bed only a few hours before, so getting dressed was a breeze. I looked over at JJ and nudged his foot.
“Hey man, yo J, you awake?”
JJ grunted somewhat in response.
“We have like thirty minutes before we gotta get going for paragliding.”
Another grunt, this one a bit longer and more concerned.
“What do you think, you up for it?”
A long pause. And then, a distinct “idunnah,” which I took for probably not.
“Fair man, yeah, we’ll see you in a bit.”
J groaned his understanding, rolled over and promptly fell asleep again.
Downstairs, after some frantic money exchanging with the panicked hostel clerk, we ran across the street to a large truck, where inside a small officer was erected, offering tours of Pablo Escobar’s former estate now turned into a paintball facility (I’m sure he’d love that if he was still alive), ATV rides, and paragliding over the Medellin Valley. The owner, a jovial man named Dekker, introduced us to our driver and explained the process. I chatted with him a bit about my job in Alaska doing dogsledding tours, and when I told him the price of our tour his brain nearly imploded into a small shell. I could tell he was already scheming on ways to sell the ATV’s and replace them with sled dogs.
After a beautiful drive up the side of the valley, we arrived near the top and walked to the small shack built into the hillside where we met the owner of Parapente San Felix, Cesar. He was a shorter guy and exuded the confidence of a retired military man. His English was fairly decent, but it was still slightly disconcerting to hear him work his way through the safety speech, where every now and then words like “death” and “crash” became far too clear for my taste. However, their safety record is perfect, with over 10,000 flights a year and not a single incident. That’s something we can’t even boast at our dogsledding camp; every year there is always someone that trips and breaks a wrist or collapses into a panic attack, or is scratched by a puppy and reacts as if they were just mauled by a mountain lion.
So with the comfort of their statistics in my head, I met my driver (Pilot? Flier? Conductor?) Gustav, strapped in via chest and legs, was told repeatedly to not touch the seat buckle, and began to run towards the edge of the cliff. It’s a bizarre feeling, running towards a steep drop off hoping to god that physics and gravity work together to send you flying into the air. Luckily, today was one of those days, and as we ran my feet began spinning on nothing and we flew off into the air. I had never paragliding before; it’s a pretty incredible feeling to soar through the air connected to nothing but a Colombian gentleman and a large piece of fabric. Gustav expertly worked the controls, arcing us around the valley walls and up higher into the air. At one point, a bird glided only a few meters below us, and together we flew towards Medellin hundreds of feet in the air. Throughout most of the flight I laughed uncontrollably, apparently my reaction to paragliding. I’m sure Gustav was wondering what the hell was wrong with me, but at the time I couldn’t care at all.
From above you can see how expansive the city is, how it spread throughout the valley like an amoeba expanding through the body. During the troublesome years of the 20th century, millions of people fled the countryside and sought refuge in the city, filling up the valley, the sides of it, and expanding outwards into the surrounding towns. Medellin soon engulfed surrounding towns like Envigado and Bello. High above the city, the Aburrá Valley folds outwards, its green sides dotted with small outcroppings of buildings, expanding until the entire valley is populated with Colombians. It’s hard to see the enormity of the area unless your strapped into a paraglider and floating thousands of feet above it.
After thirty minutes, but what felt like five, we drifted back towards the shack and landed perfectly on the hillside. I looked around for Anya and realized she had taken off a few minutes before me and was still flying high with her paraglider Felix. A moment later the two returned, a huge smile plastered on her face. We high fived triumphantly. J was going to be so pissed.
Anya and I hustled back to Medellin, because this was the day that Nicole arrived into town. I haven’t mentioned Nicole yet; she was a late addition to the Colombia Agenda. Essentially, Renae (the Montanan from articles past), encouraged me to come. However, since she left a few days after I showed up, I wanted to stay a bit longer and explore a bit more. A few weeks before I left, I messaged my friend Nicole, a long time friend from Semester at Sea. I’m not sure if I’m explained Semester at Sea (or SAS, we lovingly call it), but it was in essence a four-month cruise around the world, stopping in at various ports in Asia and Africa. We would take classes on the ship, and then spend a week discovering in person what we had only read in books. It was most likely the greatest thing I will ever do in my life, and I guarantee the catalyst for my life since then, and the reason why I’m currently sitting at a hostel desk in Prague rather than a desk in Wichita, Kansas pouring over spreadsheets and talking with Karen in HR about her upcoming cousins wedding in Sioux Falls.
Anyways, Nicole and I were good friends, and when a fellow SASer asks you to come on an adventure, its hard to say no. So it was set, Nicole would fly in a week after Renae left, and would round out my Colombia adventure. So after a quick fifteen-minute power nap, Nicole messaged me, I ran downstairs, and we reunited again after nearly two years.
We got some coffee and caught up at Café Velvet, a lovely little coffee shop that looked like it was transplanted right off of Santa Monica Blvd. and plopped down in the middle of the Colombian midlands. It was amazing to see her again; the last time we had traveled had been on camelback in the deserts of Morocco, shuffling through the sands as our camel brethren spit and jostled us around on their backs. We called our crew The Royal Habibis, or the Royal Princesses, due to our friend Raj hooking up with Moroccan royalty while out in a Berber encampment in the Sahara. We reminisced about that, our mutual love for our friend Jerry (who’s a dick with a heart of gold) and everything else we had missed over the last few years. Nicole had worked at a record company in Los Angeles for the past three years, assisting a producer and generally being unhappy with her job. After a little motivation, she quit and decided to travel the world. It seems like a growing trend in America; work in the real world for a moment, save up you cash, quit, and blow it all on an overseas extravaganza.
For dinner, Nicole and I met up with J and Anya at Burdo, where I had some tenderloin tacos that put Southern California on a run for its Mexican food. The place was super trendy, with lots of outdoor seating near the street. At one point in our meal, a homeless man came up to our table. He had a long beard and a weathered face, and offered to draw us where we sat. He mentioned numerous times how he was ugly and seemed high but promised he was sober. He spoke for nearly five minutes straight, and after our polite decline, nodded quietly, said “I thought so,” and shuffled off again into the night. Normally with people that approach your table and request something, a polite no sends them off on their way without too much bother. This case, however, the man seemed genuinely hurt by our decline. In retrospect, maybe we should have seen what he would have offered, but when traveling you have such an immediate reaction to say no and refuse any solicitation, almost as if we are conditioned.
Regardless, we finished our meal and get drinks at Thaico, the bar where J and I had met Anya the night before. We had three for one drinks, an absurd deal that made us incredibly happy and perfectly intoxicated. Anya and Nicole really started to bond, and we marveled at the connection that had to happen to get to this point. I had to meet JJ just as his Tinder date was failing in Bogota, and then he had to happen to be at the same hostel as me at the same time, and happen to end up meeting Anya that night and inviting me. I, meanwhile, had to happen to talk to Renae about Colombia, decide to go, and decide to invite Nicole who had to show up that exact time to meet the other timeline. What a hell of a series of events to make this group of four happen.
From here, the night progresses as you imagine it would. We go to the hostel, drinks. We met Connor, Australian, who joins our crew. We go to La Octava, a bar with a massive plastic ball pit in the back. We jump in and act like immature five year olds drunk off their asses on sparkling apple cider. We go to Tabu, a salsa bar where we dance the night away. It’s a perfectly lovely time out. Our whole night was being led by Hernando, the extraordinarily happy homosexual man from the previous night who continued to scream PAPA SITO at me the entire evening. He brought us around the neighborhood as if we were his lucky entourage, shaking hands with bounces, club owners, salsa dancers, DJs, and pretty much every other person out that evening. I was beginning to suspect that Hernando was some sort of celebrity in the area, a local phenomenon known throughout all of Poblado. He would enter a bar, reemerge moments later with drinks, people, or at one point a large bowl of popcorn. We followed his lead like puppies following their mama dog, moving from drinks to dancing to all sorts of shenanigans.
Nicole had an absolute blast for her first night. At first I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it, go out for the second night in a row. I even floated the thought to Nicole when she arrived that there was no way she would want to go out on her first night, right? She was far too tired, right? She looked at me with a scowl, a face that said to me “are you fucking serious?” I meekly responded “no of course I’m ready too,” and mentally prepared for another night. But thank god I did, because it was even more fun than the previous outing. That’s the thing about traveling, whether your incredibly tired, or hungover, or whatever, you just need to power through it. Because at the other side of all that pain and misery is a day full of paragliding or a night to remember, being led around Medellin by Hernando the Homosexual Man with his Merry Band of Medellin Partygoers. Certainly one for the record books.
Next Time, on The Wandering Minnesotan: Tourists Again