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Expat Life And Safety Concerns

Padlocks, Painters, and Pepperidge Farm

Señora, señora!” the young man called out as he sped toward us on his motorcycle.

My assistant Marion and I were walking down the hill, a couple of blocks from my apartment in Medellin, headed for the bank. The young man calling out to me from a little farther ahead continued shouting enthusiastically (in Spanish…but I’ll translate), as he pulled his motorcycle up alongside where we’d paused on the sidewalk and killed the engine:

Señora, I’d like to paint your office!”

I looked at Marion, and she looked back at me, then we both looked again at the young man before us, who was now grinning from ear to ear and waving his arm in greeting.

Señora, which way? To your office? Which way?”

Neither Marion nor I had ever seen this young man before. We were just walking down the street, headed out for a morning of errands. We weren’t alone. There were others walking up and down the hill with us. Why was this man speaking to us, out of nowhere, on the street, this bright and sunny Medellin morning, asking about my office? He must be confused…

“I’m the painter!” he said finally when he could see that Marion and I had no idea how to respond to his initial remarks. “Carlos sent me to paint your office…your library,” he explained further.

Indeed, we were expecting a painter today, to paint the little office in the apartment, along with a few other rooms. But how had this young painter identified us driving by on his motorcycle? Picked us out from among all the other passers-by? Known from a distance and without any context that we were associated with the apartment he was on his way to paint?

Here in Medellin, in this outside-the-tourist-zone neighborhood, we stand out. We’re obviously not locals. Instantly recognizable as the gringo ladies renovating an apartment near the little church…

As I write, my new painter friend is finishing the library and preparing to move on to the salon. Meantime, two carpenters are installing the remaining door handles. Come nightfall, Marion and I should be able to lock ourselves in tight.

Of course, we’ve spent the past two nights in the apartment without being able to lock all the doors and windows. I’ve kept the terrace door to my bedroom open all night each night, to let in the cool, fresh night air.

As recently as two days ago, even the front door had no lock. Carlos, our contractor, didn’t seem concerned. He and his crews have left their tools and all the materials of the renovation in the unlocked, completely open apartment night after night, week after week, for the eight months that they’ve been working here. Nothing has been taken…not a hammer, not a tile. Carlos wasn’t worried…so I haven’t been either.

Our building is watched around-the-clock by doormen, working in eight-hour shifts. Good guys who take a personal interest in their tenants, who have watched our renovation, and who have seemed to take pleasure in the improvements being made around them.

We have no high-tech security system. Today we have handles and locks, but, again, those are recent additions. We have four guys who take turns watching the front door and wandering through the building…even, before we began closing and locking the front door this week, wandering through our apartment to monitor the process of the renovations. It was one of these guys who, during his rounds, noticed the flood in the master bedroom one night last week…who turned off the water to stop the flow and then mopped the floor.

Overnight, one concerned reader forwarded a clip from yesterday’s online Guardian. The article is about the history of the drug cartels and drug-related violence in Medellin…and about current worries that the troubles are on the verge of heating up again. (You can read the clip here.)

“Are you okay, Kathleen?” the reader asked in his e-mail.

I appreciate the concern…but, I can assure, yes, I’m fine.

Marion and I have been all over this city these past few days…shopping for mattresses, paint, lighting fixtures, cleaning supplies… We’ve visited Carrefour for groceries, the Home Center for sheets and towels, the bank for cash…

I know this other face of Medellin exists, the nasty face of the drug underworld. But it’s a world apart from most of everyday Medellin.

As I write, I’m looking out the (now-lockable) terrace doors of the living room in my apartment here…out over the valley of Medellin…out to the mountains that surround her…out, beyond, to today’s blue sky. I see trees and flowers and red brick structures.

When I want a break from writing, I walk out the front door (reminding myself now to take the key with me, because, now, I’ll need it to get back inside) and down the street. To the right is a little local restaurant, where Marion and I have been having breakfast each morning. Two dollars a plate for scrambled eggs and toast.

To the left is the little colonial-style church I use as a landmark when telling taxi drivers how to take me home.

Down the road a little farther, but within easy walking distance, is Carrefour, our bank, a pharmacy, a beauty salon, a gym, and one of the most interesting local corner shops I’ve seen anywhere in the world.

Here in Medellin, you don’t find 7-11’s. Instead, when you run out of milk or eggs, you walk down to the corner shop. The one down the road from us carries milk and eggs…but, as well, I noticed this morning, Hershey’s chocolate syrup, Nutella (a favorite of young Jackson), Jose Cuervo, specialty Guatemalan rum, Pepperidge Farm cookies, Grey Poupon mustard, and several kinds of imported beer, which you can buy by the bottle to drink on the spot if you’d like. They’ll even provide an iced mug.

Kathleen Peddicord

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