We woke up early in Medellin and took a taxi to the bus station, “Terminal del Sur.” While waiting at the station, we were struck by how nice bus stations were. Clean, open areas, lack of any stank odors or grungy sots. There were people milling about, eating, shopping: in a bus station. There was even a two-story slide for children. A stark contrast from America where one would frequently meet all flavors of seedy characters in a generally dilapidated setting. The pleasantness of the Colombian bus stations make sense when you consider buses are the primary form of transportation through the winding Andes. It seems to be prohibitively expensive to build a train through this terrain.
We soon boarded and began the three hour journey through the emerald-green mountains. At every other town we passed, vendors of odd goods hopped on offering mango biche (green, unripe mango slices with lime and salt), empanadas (you seriously cannot escape empanadas on this continent), and other such snacks. As we traveled, we got an eyefull of the stunning Andean landscape, remarked on how our bus driver mistook his job as that of a formula one racer, and were entertained slash terrified by the occasional child riding his bike while hanging onto the back of a tractor trailer pulling him about 60 km/hour.
After countless twists and turns around wrinkled green mountain sides, and through the many coupled cultivations of coffee and banana plantations, we came upon our destination: Jardin.
The aptly named Jardin (“garden” in Spanish) is a small valley town nestled between towering green mountains. The town landscape consists of brightly colored two-story homes and shops in a vivid array of colors: lime green with yellow accents, neon orange, blue and yellow, and bold reds with white accents, to name a few. These myriad shaded facades converge around the downtown square, where elderly pancho-clad gentlemen and ladies sip coffee (“tinto” in the vernacular) and crack jokes with their amigos, gauchos strut their gaited horses or donkeys down the street, and where rickshaw is the motor vehicle of choice.
The town plaza is dominated by ancient trees that reach across most of the open sky, dripping with Christmas lights in the shape of bells, flowers, stars, and colored lights, (no snowflakes, perhaps unsurprisingly). Vendors offer their wares under these trees from their small carts selling fruit and candy.
Rising above vendors and tree branches are two neogothic church steeples stemming from the town’s cathedral, which anchors the surrounding shops and buildings. The church’s bell rings in incomprehensible intervals that leaves one either laughing at the madness of it all, or angrily staring at the ceiling at 4:13 AM in exhausted vexation…
We arrived at the hotel La Casona, our abode for the next few days. La Casona sits a mere 20 feet from the main square and is decorated in typical Jardin fashion, with bold colors in stark contrasts. Ours was a bold red with white accents. It was also decorated with an enormous painting of Jesus and other Christmas trappings. All this for $25/night.
We checked in and walked across the town square for some food. After receiving a tip from the receptionist/owner, we headed to Margarita’s, a local restaurant, where I made one last and futile attempt to appreciate Colombian cuisine. We ended up choking down some particularly bland food along with my last bit of hope for the local grub. Afterwards, we wandered a few blocks back across the town square into what was advertised as a museum. It turned out to be a collection of random items from certain epochs and areas of Colombia and the world. There were typewriters, toasters, a painting of some anonymous person, some furniture, books suspended from a string tied to the ceiling. Nothing made sense. Some elderly woman, who one might expect to find on an episode of “Hoarders,” left these items littered about her estate and apparently someone decided to turn it into a museum.
We didn’t have much time to orient ourselves in this strange place before being swept up by an extremely enthusiastic tour guide who corralled all 5 museum guests and whisked them onto a tour of the premises. He spoke no English, so our interactions were mostly exchanges of nods and smiles, coupled with occasional attempts to speak each other’s language in three words or less.
I told the guide we were from the USA. In so answering, we were overheard by two young boys, one of whom hurried over and asked if we were really from America. “Yes, really,” I answered with a smile. The boy had an expression of wild curiosity and darted away abruptly. He returned a moment later wearing a silly grin and recited an English phrase. “What is your name,” he pronounced with some effort. His expression of pride in what may have been his first English conversation was rather endearing. I responded, “I’m Andrew. What’s your name?” He glanced upwards with a perplexed smile, obviously deep in thought, before quickly darting away again. Returning a moment later wearing the same silly grin, he pronounced “My name is Esteban,” with great satisfaction. Someone around the corner was clearly coaching him. At this point our tour guide decided to begin his indecipherable, yet enthusiastic explanation of the museum’s wares and I said goodbye to Esteban.
After the rather awkward “museum” tour, we sought out some local coffee. Surrounded by thousands of coffee plants we assumed that we would be enjoying the freshest/tastiest coffee we had ever experienced. A quick glance around the town square and you would find half the village sipping this steamy black drink from quaint teacups. Tinto is what the Colombian’s call black coffee, and that’s all they drink. However, we quickly discovered that this so-called Tinto is the worst coffee either of us has ever had; it was burnt and bitter tasting with coffee granules floating throughout. After the first disastrous cup of steeped ash we thought it might be a fluke. It was not. We later learned from a German ex-pat that the Colombians import cheap coffee from Brazil. However, he directed us to the one cafe in Jardin that sold coffee from the local plantations, “Cafe de los Andes.” He was right, de los Andes had the coffee we were looking for. It was delicious. So good in fact that we bought several bags of whole roasted beans (only $5, what would cost in the US at least $15).
Lunch in Three Languages
As it turns out, knowing German is useful in Colombia. After being exhausted with the local cuisine, we stopped by Cafe Europe after seeing a tip online about this German-run restaurant. Sure enough, I met Rheinhold prepping his cafe for lunch. I addressed him in German and we immediately hit it off, talking about his time in Central and South America, and how ended up here. He had some interesting reflections on Colombian culture, that I’ve taken with a grain of salt. He opined that criminality is an integral part of Colombian culture and way of life. He said that even in Jardin, a quaint town of no more than 20,000,there was evidence of organized crime. I asked him if he thought things were getting better and he shrugged.
While talking with Rheinhold was fun and insightful, it was more interesting how we meandered seamlessly through three different languages in a single conversation. One would ask a question in German, the other would answer in English, but using Spanish conjunctives, or some cryptic combination of the three.
And this wasn’t just a place for conversation; his pizza was the best we had in Colombia. We did make some comparisons. The following night we stopped at another pizza place run by some locals. Sydney ordered the standard pepperoni pizza and I ordered a pizza that I could not translate, naively hoping it would be somehow different and exciting. Sydney’s pizza came out on a tortilla thin crust, no sauce, topped with thick greasy pepperoni and an inch of rubbery cheese. Mine was the same with no sauce but topped with corn, bad bacon, and thick layer of said cheese on top. Both pizzas were almost impossible to consume. Some local kids at a table behind us had ordered the same pizza as me, except opting to cover theirs in sweetened condensed milk (which seems like a Colombian ketchup substitute). I did not participate.