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last cigarette!

My friend Lore needed to quit smoking cigarettes. She knew about a clinic in Colombia run by one Dr. Enrique Ramírez who has helped some of her friends quit and Lore was convinced that he could help her too. So I went for five days to Medellín in May, accompanying Lore, providing support and distraction from this difficult challenge.

I can’t tell you what he did. It has to do with pulse adjustment, lowering your anxiety level, and some other magic. Well, it’s not magic, it is a combination of bio-physics and something called Sensible Pulse Gymnastics (and of course effort on the part of the smoker – this is never done without some struggle) but it all seemed quite mysterious. Even Lore couldn’t explain what happened when she went behind closed doors. You can read about the treatment yourself at the website

What I do know is that with a minimum of fuss, by barely touching her fingers, within three short hour-long visits (that, according to Lore, were mostly spent relaxing on the examination table) Lore quit smoking. After the first hour, when she returned to the waiting room of the clinic (a very unassuming house in a residential area near the big football stadium of Medellín) the doctor held one of her cigarettes near her nose and she was immediately repulsed, an adversity that would continue for several days as we wandered the city. And fortunately, since these treatments only took a couple hours out of each day, we had lots of time to look around Medellín.

I’ve never been to Colombia before but had heard, rightfully, that Colombians are real friendly folk. True true, we met a lot of outgoing, helpful people. Apparently Medellín was once known as one of the most dangerous cities on the planet (Murder Capital of the World!) when the drug cartels were a booming business, specifically in the heyday of Pablo Escobar, a notorious criminal who became a billionaire by controlling most of the cocaine economy of the world in the 1980s. He turned the city into a blood bath when he paid his hitmen to kill policemen and when he eliminated his competition in an all-out war against other drug families. Quite the character was Escobar. As is often the case, he was also known for his public service, a Zorro-type, building housing projects, hospitals and football fields which endeared him to the poverty stricken residents of Medellín and kept him somewhat beloved at the same time he was feared and reviled. He was finally gunned down in 1993 by Colombian police in a spectacular manner that was captured on canvas by another of Medellín’s favorite sons, artist Fernando Botero.

Since Escobar’s demise, the government has done a lot to lower the crime rate in Medellín and many people spoke with pride about this. More than once, we heard citizens condemning some suspicious character on the street or on the metro (“ladron, ladron!”). I got the sense from talking to people that they feel their city is much calmer than it was not that long ago, but it is still a hot-headed place. And in the center of this colourful, brick lined urbanicity of about three and a half million, is a beautiful courtyard filled with the great artist Botero’s voluptuous sculptures, and it is one of the most artistically peaceful, if busy, plazas on the planet.

Botero’s art is well-known. His large imperfect people painted on large perfect canvases capture the heart of Colombian family life, the cruel yet archaically noble world of bullfighting, political events (such as the demise of Escobar) and even the passion of Christ, an examination of the final days of Jesus Christ that Botero prepared for his 80th birthday, on exhibit in the Museum of Antioquia while we were there. As a round-around-the-edges woman myself, I have always loved Botero’s gracious approach to over-sized people. Botero at one time called his characters “fat people” but now insists that they aren’t “fat” but instead that he rounds them up as it is more interesting to paint and sculpt substantial figures than skeletons. They are more sensuous and offer the artist a larger character and greater expression to work with. I know that you don’t have to be large and round to love Botero’s art, but I think that he can put a self-satisfied smile on a chubby face and certainly add a little confidence to a voluptuous body in a sensual moment of disrobing. We lingered among his paintings which are highlighted by his amazing sensitivity to light and colour, and amidst his robust bronze sculptures that capture not only men, women and children in repose but also sympathetic animals and hands and guitars, inanimate objects to which the artist applies motion. We returned a second and then third time to the plaza. We were gluttonous admirers, unable to get our fill of Botero.

The best meal we had in the city was at a tiny café called La Meza del Barrio. It sits up on the mountainside overlooking the city, next door to the Biblioteca Espagna, a rather dramatic outcropping of three concrete and glazed stone buildings that house a public library and serve a somewhat impoverished neighbourhood. La Meza was a bustling little restaurant with regional foods but one dish blew us away – Cazuela de Frijoles – a multi-layered bean soup with a bean base, tomatillo broth and, mmmm, wait for it – chicharones mixed in. Somehow those little fried pork rinds remained crunchy yet soft and delectable while blending flavors with the beans and other vegetables. We ate in some finer restaurants while in Colombia, but both Lore and I remembered that simple Antioqueño stew, cheap and wholesome, as pure campesino delight for the taste buds.

Going up in the metro cable car was part of the adventure to find that little bowl of pleasure. Medellín has the only metro system – urban rail – in Colombia and one of the best public transit systems in Latin America. Because of its projects on sustainable transport, the city received, along with San Francisco, the 2012 Sustainable Transport Award, given by the New York-based Institute for Transport & Development Policy. It was a fast and cheap way to get around this big city and the price of admission (a bit over a buck) included the cable car that takes you up to that stunning library, and higher yet to what is reputed to be a fabulous place to walk, Arvi Park (on my list for “next time”).

The cable car swayed over the zinc and tiled rooftops, many decorated with gigantic photographs and posters. You looked down into laundry drying on balconies, children playing, sky high gardens and the hidden recesses of simple lives. The city receded into a clay-coloured desert as the monolithic library rose up like boulders on a cliff edge in front of us. There was also a strange red bamboo bridge set in the same vignette but it was apparently unsafe and therefore had been closed. The journey up and down the mountainside was a fantastic way to view this expansive city.

One morning while Lore was at the doctor’s, I went to the brand new Museo del Agua, devoted to the story of water – its origins, its uses, its abuses and its precarious future.  Everywhere we went in Medellín we were surrounded by groups of young school children, escorted by energetic teachers,  which was encouraging to see them learning through the use of their city’s resources. This museum was very interactive, filled with modern technology that used videos and touch screens to inform about our most precious life force and resource, water.

They gave me my own English guide, the sweet Daniel, who, understanding I was on a time constraint, whisked me through the normally three hour tour in about half the time, practicing his English as he went. I wouldn’t call myself a museum fanatic, but I really enjoyed this place as it was not only entertaining but obviously trying to encourage the wise use of water. There were displays of the flora and fauna of the various geographical regions of the country, from the Andean highlands to the Caribbean coast, from the jungles of the Amazon to the savannahs of the Llanos,  and the role that water plays in each of those ecosystems. I am definitely intrigued with the idea of returning to Colombia, with more time to visit its many fascinating corners, to eat its regional cuisines, to dance to its many rhythms, and to know its friendly folk.

The last room of the museum was a mixed media art installation that provided the feeling of walking through a cave of stalactites, created out of metal watering cans and pails, with screens inlaid in the floor playing fishy videos. It was a refreshing finale to the story of water. At the exit, after all that talk of roaring rivers, images of pounding waves and rising flood waters, and the sound of drips accompanying us everywhere, was the bathroom… the museum’s designers recognized that a toilet would be very necessary for full and triggered bladders at the end of this watery journey.

We stayed in a perfect little place called 61 Prado Inn, situated in the Zona Patrimonial, or historic section of the city. It was a quiet neighbourhood and only a two block walk to the metro station. Nothing to look at from outside, the inside of this small boutique-like pension has been redone with designer elements that gave it a very sophisticated atmosphere. I think we paid about $50 a night for a room the size of a small classroom. The staff was friendly and helpful, there was a kitchen we could use or buy breakfast from, there was cable and wireless, and it was simply a great deal.

I always find that having access to a rooftop elevates cheap lodging into first class enjoyment. This was no exception. We could see the whole city from the rooftop patio including the miles and miles of clay tile roofs and the stunning view of the Iglesia Jesus Nazareno.

I took a walk around the area. Unfortunately the church wasn’t open when I was there, but it was beautiful to behold the stone structure both day and night. I continued wandering through El Prado, where the styles of construction and details blended art deco with colonial, stone with metal, stucco with wood. The predominant material of construction though was brick, seen in churches, hospitals, museums, modern high rise buildings, and almost every residential dwelling throughout the city. As a girl raised in a red brick house in a red brick city in Ontario, it felt like home to me.

El Hueco

Since I was there to support Lore, I ended up doing more shopping in those few days than I would usually do in a year. We discovered that there wasn’t much that was any cheaper than you could find in Costa Rica or Canada which was disappointing for Lore who went with the belief that Columbia – a textile and fashion center in South America – would be great quality for cheap prices. They have been building ultramodern and grandiose malls, as big as any I have seen, which seemed to be mostly empty of shoppers – after all, except for professionals, foreigners, or those rolling in laundered drug money, where do the local people get the money to shop in these luxurious places? On the other hand, the masses were gathered in the downtown streets, buying shoes and jeans (made in Colombia) and fabrics from the small vendors, including in a palace of a building known as “el Hueco”, a place repurposed into a huge market of mostly cheap plastic shoes and poorly made T-shirts.

Colombian women are supposedly the most beautiful in the world (don’t they actually exist everywhere – beautiful women?) and their salons are reknowned. So our last morning, we went to a little salon recommended by our hotel and it was fun, cheap, relaxing and left us looking good for our return to Costa Rica!

Medellín is called the City of Eternal Spring. If you look up the temperature online, often the information comes from a weather station at the airport which is not only 45 minutes outside of the city, but at a much higher elevation and therefore significantly colder. Once on the road leaving the airport, the highway brings you to the precipice of a ring of mountains and you start plunging down into the city, where there is a whole different climate from that at the airport. So don’t be fooled. It was much warmer, day and night, in the city. We were there at the beginning of the rainy season, so we definitely used my umbrella that I insisted on bringing. It was a very short visit in a very big city, but it gave me a taste for Colombia, for cazuela de frijoles, and for planning a return. And I’m very happy to report that two months later, Lore is smoke-free!  So maybe Dr. Cigarro knows what he’s doing!

July 2020