Ever since the end of my freshman year of college, it’s been my dream to live as a digital nomad. To run a business online and work from anywhere in the world…anywhere with WiFi, at least. Now, 3.5 years later, I’m writing these words from a café in Medellín, Colombia, while sipping fruit tea and enjoying another sunny, 70 degree day. I am, in a sense, living the dream.
But I’m not here to write about the digital nomad lifestyle. I’ll leave that to the likes of Sean Ogle. No, I’m here to tell you about solo travel in the surprising, lively city that is Medellín. Originally, my plan had been to write a post about my experience here every week. I’m now a week behind on that plan, so maybe every two weeks will be better. Or whenever I have something to share. And boy, do I have lots to share today.
For this first update, I’m going to cover my first 24 hours in Medellín. The highs, the lows, and the No entiendo‘s. Here it goes.
Planes, Phones, and Locksmiths
The day started at around 9 AM, with a couple hours of last minute packing and standing on the bathroom scale with my suitcase to make sure it was under the 50 lb weight limit. Then off to Nashville International Airport, goodbyes to family, and the first flight to Miami. A layover there of less than an hour, and then I was presenting my passport as I boarded the flight to Medellín. On the way, I watched Get Out dubbed in Spanish (my first time seeing the film in any language).
And then, touch down. A long walk to immigration/border control. Realizing I didn’t have a pen to fill out the customs form, I made my way up to the border agent. Who proceeded to ask if I was here for vacation (Sí), before stamping my passport without any further questions. Easiest border crossing experience of my life. Then, I stood at a little table and filled out the customs form (nothing to declare), before finally crossing the border.
And realizing I’d left my phone on the table. Mierda.
I managed to explain to the border guard what had happened, and eventually a nice fellow returned with it in hand. After proving it was my phone by entering my passcode, it was off to an ATM and then to take a taxi into the city. The driver was quite kind despite my lack of ability to give directions in Spanish, and soon we were off.
Now, it’s important to understand that José María Córdova International Airport is located up in the mountains and is a good 60 minute drive from Laureles, the neighborhood in which I’m staying. I knew the drive would take a while; I didn’t know how harrowing it would be. As I said, the airport is up in the mountains, so most of the drive was downhill, swerving past motorcycles and taking the traffic signs as “suggestions.”
The view was pretty amazing, though.
After lots of patience on the driver’s part, we finally arrived to my apartment in Laureles. I managed to contact my host, and they proceeded to show me the apartment. The tour happened entirely in Spanish, and in my road-weary state I understood probably 70%. Good enough for jazz. I then collapsed into bed, sleeping quite well despite the warmth of the bedroom (air conditioning is neither common nor necessary here, but it was still an adjustment the first couple days).
The next day, naturally, I wanted to get out and explore…and buy some groceries. I had heard that the place to shop was Tiendas D1, a chain of small neighborhood grocery stores that are a lot like Aldi (with the important difference of being cash only). So I pulled out my phone to look up directions.
Except, my phone wouldn’t turn on.
I figured it was probably just a charging issue, so I left it plugged in for a while. It still wouldn’t turn on. I started to get a bit concerned, and I began to Google the problem I was having. I’ll spare you the technical details, but I learned that my phone was stuck in a “boot loop”, which is a common problem for my model of phone (LG Nexus 5X–to be fair, mine was “refurbished”). I searched around for a repair place, and learned that none would be open until Monday (it was Saturday at the time).
So in the meantime, I decided to just go exploring. For a place to buy food. I took my backpack, wallet, keys, passport, and headed down to the street to Consumo, a grocery store I’d noticed on Google Maps. They were in the middle of renovating, but I nonetheless managed to get some basic provisions.
Food stowed in my backpack (No bolsa, por favor, voy a usar mi mochila), I headed back to my apartment. Now, the property manager had explained to me which of the four color-coded keys was for which door, but I promptly forgot. So I had to fiddle with the keys each time I wanted to get in the building. No problem…in theory.
So like the several other times, I tried both the red and the yellow key. I was 90% sure it was the red one, but something was wrong. If fit the lock, but it wouldn’t turn. No big deal, I’ll just try the other direction. Metal grating on metal. I try to pull it out. I pull harder. I twist the other way and pull some more. Still no movement.
It was stuck.
It was stuck, and I had no idea what to do. Since I didn’t have a working phone, I couldn’t call my landlord. I rang the doorbell several times for each floor. Either no one was home, or no one wanted to answer the door. I didn’t want to just leave–what if another resident showed up and needed to get in? But I didn’t really have a choice–I needed someone to help me.
It was then that I saw it. Just on the other side of the street, toothed and glowing yellow, it shone as a beacon to my predicament. “Llaves Medellín,” the sign said. The sign was a key. The shop was a locksmith’s.
So I head across the street, frantically wracking my brain for the words for “lock” and “key” and “stuck”. I manage to babble out something along the lines of “The key to my apartment building is stuck in the door” to the (clearly confused) man behind the counter. Eventually, I make myself understood, learning in the process that around here the word for “lock” is la chapa, not la cerradura (it would be the first of many ongoing Spanish vocab lessons).
The two gentlemen are very patient with my level of Spanish, and we head across the street so they can inspect the problem. After some prying and twisting, they decide that they’ll have to take the lock off the door. One of the fellows heads back across the street to grab more tools, returning with a 2-foot crowbar and hammer. Passersby seem unperturbed by what to me would have looked like a breaking and entering, with one of the locksmiths hammering the crowbar into the lock mechanism with a sound that I was sure would prompt someone to call the police.
But no police arrive, and eventually they pry the lock off and replace it with a new mechanism. They explain that new keys will be necessary, which is exactly what I was afraid of. They ask me how many, and I of course have no idea, so I arbitrarily settle on five. All in all, the lock removal and replacement, plus the new keys, cost around $60. I shudder to imagine what it would have cost in the U.S.–ten times as much, probably.
So now half my problem is solved, but I still have to wait around and give out the new keys to the other residents as they show up. Again, really stretching my Spanish abilities here. I also message my landlord on Airbnb, and he tells me he’ll be there in an hour or so, as well as informing me that we’ll need fourteen new keys in total. I wait, feeling that my judgment is imminent.
He finally arrives, driving a pickup truck that looks comically huge next to the compacts and motorcycles parked along the street. And he was really cool about the whole thing. Not only was he not upset, but he was super welcoming, even offering to take me out to his ranch sometime (as of this writing that has yet to happen, but rest assured it will receive a write-up when/if it does). So all my worry was for nothing.
This whole incident was one of those things that, as it was happening, made me think, This will make a great story once it’s over. And indeed it has. All my foolish, cortisol-fueled fears of getting evicted, arrested, or deported were as silly as they seem when I write about them now.
All, finally, is well. I’ve loads more to share, but I don’t want this post to run too long, so I’ll save the rest for another article. Expect that one later this week. I’ll cover more about what day to day life is like in Medellin, as well as some of my other adventures.
In the meantime, what crazy travel stories do you have? Did you ever get into a situation like this? I’d love you to share your story in the comments section below.