By Alex Connelly | KF17 | Colombia

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(Rooftops of Medellin)

After living and working in Medellin for over a year (most recently as a Kiva Fellow), it seemed a good idea to write a post filled with all the hard-won insight that only 12 months on the ground can give you. Unfortunately Betsy McCormick (KF’12) beat me to it, in an awesome post entitled – aggravatingly enough – “First Impressions of Medellin”. So instead, as a tribute to the city I’ve left but will always love, here are 4 Things You Didn’t Know About Medellin!

#1: It’s not (quite) as dangerous as you think

Pablo Escobar, cocaine trafficking, hitmen on motorcycles, Andres Escobar (the soccer player gunned down in the wake of his own-goal in the ’94 World Cup) – the tiny corner Medellin occupies in our collective consciousness is still a decidedly bleak one. That said, the Colombia of popular imagination is largely the Colombia of 15 years ago, when warring drug cartels fought openly in the streets and Medellin was considered the most dangerous city in the world. The tide took a decisive turn with the 2002 election of President Alvaro Uribe, whose heavy military crackdowns have helped to cut drug-related violence in half over the last 10 years and push FARC – a leftist guerrilla army waging war with the government – to the country’s periphery. Heavy violence still afflicts the city (9 murders per day as of 2009) but it is increasingly contained within the city’s poor outlying regions (see #2) and is generally invisible to most visitors.

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(Graffiti mural in Medellin protesting inner-city homicides, forced displacement from war zones, land mines, and violence against women)

On an anecdotal level, I’ve never met friendlier people and usually felt quite safe during my time in Medellin (one armed robbery notwithstanding). Of much more concern was the security guard my neighborhood hired to bicycle up and down the street all night with a machete strapped to his back, honking his horn every few minutes to signal his vigilance (and slowly drive me insane).

#2) It’s six cities in one

Most visitors spend all their time in the El Poblado neighborhood, Medellin’s hub for both commerce and nightlife. Here gorgeous women with impossible proportions (plastic surgery is very much in vogue) stroll past gawking backpackers and suited-down businessman alike, and every night’s party is more lavish than the last. But if you go for a ride on the modern metro system and glance out the window you’ll notice something strange: As the stops flash by the city begins to un-develop before your eyes, apartment towers melting into shacks in a sort of depressing flipbook effect.

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(Two sides of Medellin)

In fact, Colombia bears possibly the most uneven distribution of wealth in all of Latin America, a reality rendered stark by the severe economic stratification of Medellin. Residential zones in Medellin (like in all of Colombia) are given official classifications based on their relative wealth, with slums being Stratum 1 (the lowest classification) and the poshest neighborhoods being Stratum 6 (the highest). Taxes and utilities are charged at adjusted rates, with the idea of making sure even the poorest households can afford water and electricity. While a progressive pricing structure undoubtedly makes sense, this state-sponsored system of rigid stratification strikes many outsiders as peculiar, and more than once I’ve heard it compared to a caste-system. That characterization is a bit hysterical, but from my experience the system does seem to have resulted in two unfortunate outcomes: 1) the demarcation of cities and people into strict economic regions, and 2) at the very least a benign discrimination. I’ve heard individuals casually dismissed as “low-strata”, been warned away from entire sectors of the city for the same reason, and even seen strata listed in personal ads (“tall, athletic build, Stratum 5”). While this seems to be less a case of prejudice inherent in the system than of some individuals perverting it, it is unsettling all the same.

#3: It’s home to one of Kiva’s most innovative partners

Training week in San Francisco is geared towards making sure we are prepared to best serve our partner MFIs, whatever their office culture or IT profile. This only makes sense, but after 5 days of learning how to do everything from de-bug 15 year-old computers to ingratiate myself to overworked local staff, I admit I showed up for my first day of work a bit nervous. How stupid of me. From the moment I stepped into Interactuar’s office in downtown Medellin I was blown away by the hospitality and professionalism of everyone there. More importantly, I was blown away by just how effectively Interactuar serves its portfolio of borrowers. Microcredit is an invaluable tool in the struggle against poverty, but Interactuar realizes that it is not sufficient in and of itself. Accordingly, they offer their borrowers a wide-range of complementary services, including (but not limited to): marketing and design courses, consulting for established businesses and new entrepreneurs alike, job-specific training in everything from beauty salons to bakeries, and even a Food Laboratory where borrowers can analyze the health content of their products and print nutrition labels.

I realize that not every MFI has the infrastructure and resources of Interactuar, but starting my Fellowship there gave me a chance to see just how innovative and effective Kiva’s partners can truly be in providing our borrowers with the tools for a better future.

#4: It will ruin your diet

I love to travel, and one of my favorite pre-departure rituals is to watch the Anthony Bourdain episode pertaining to whichever city/country I’m about to visit (availability is never a problem. The guy’s been everywhere). But while the Medellin episode did a great job of showcasing the natural beauty and charm of the city, Anthony’s take on the local cuisine was largely one of shock: “it makes the Grand Slam at Denny’s look like a carrot stick.” I couldn’t agree more. The food in Medellin is among the heaviest I’ve seen anywhere in the world, and definitely not for those looking to cut back on calories. For evidence, look no further than the famed Bandeja Paisa, Medellin’s signature dish:

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 (A light snack)

That’s right. Sausage, pork rind, fried eggs, black pudding, red beans, white rice, fried plantain, and ground beef, all on one gigantic plate. Plus a little salad for garnish, of course.

God I already miss it.

Alex Connelly is a roving Kiva Fellow who just finished up two inspiring weeks working with the folks at Interactuar in Medellin.

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