Medellin Nights

by Emily Porrello (Australia)

Making a local connection Colombia


The room is cramped, the ceiling is low and a steamy fog drifts through the dance floor. Her dark hands are laced around his neck and their bodies shadow one another in a salsa rhapsody. She is tall and wears a red dress. He is unremarkable but it doesn’t matter. All that counts in Colombian salsa is the poetry your bodies make with the music and the two of them moved together like a red paintbrush across the night sky. I stir the melting ice cubes in my pina colada. It’s hard to imagine Medellin as the former "murder capital" of the world when my biggest worry now is being on the wrong side of a passionate dip. Luis had invited me to see his home city when we met four years ago on my first trip to South America. Medellin’s reputation made me nervous and I’d politely declined. But here I was a few years later with a stranger I’d once crossed paths with in an Ecuadorian museum, and in a salsa bar that drug lord Pablo Escobar could’ve once ransacked. I wondered if I’d become more brave or simply sought out more fear. One night, I’d asked Luis about growing up in Escobar’s era. He remembered it well: the sound of shooting, the smell of blood, the penetrating fear that struck everyone. I was quiet. Thirty years later, we sat eating warm cheese empanadas in a park where people had killed. “And now they walk among us," Luis had told me, nodding at an old man sitting on the street opposite us, alone. I’d asked about it so casually, as if his life were a chapter from a mystery novel. Then here was this old man, broken by history, and here was Luis, a living artefact of Medellin’s transformation and the reason why people like me could come here today, ask about Escobar and dance salsa. “Everybody knows salsa,” an unfamiliar voice tells me as I watch the woman in red. His name is Matias and he’s from Venezuela. I know enough of Venezuela’s political situation to know he’s not here on a holiday like me but his whole face is smiling, from the crinkles around his eyes to the dimples in his cheeks. “We start from when we’re babies, and it’s a necessity of life,” he says cheekily, asking me if I want to learn. So we float into the sea of couples, hand in hand, laughing, and not realising what was about to happen. Here was I, a tourist passing through and ready to leave tomorrow. Here was Matias, working out his next move in a nightmare. And here we were together, two strangers creating poetry in Medellin’s history that nobody would ever read about.