Crossing the road in Medellin

In case my previous post about Medellín wasn't lengthy enough for you, here's an entire post dedicated to the art of pedestrianism in Medellín.

Forget the Venezuelan tanks massing on Colombia's border, or Rafael Correa's General Hospital-ish scowl at accusations of ties to the FARC. The true threat to all of Antioquia's fine citizens comes from within.

In my travels as a mainly bike-riding, trail-hiking, city-walking spectre, I've come across more than my share of close calls with close cars. During my bicycle tour of Cuba in 2005, an oncoming, swerving 50s Chevy narrowly missed sending me into a drainage ditch at the side of the carretera central at 6am. In Budapest, for the World Science Forum last year, the narrow streets and confusing signage had me hugging the sidewalks more than usual, and I'm sure I've annoyed more than one London cab driver by not looking at the right side of the road while crossing, but instead trying to read the faded paint signage on the asphalt instructing me to ``Look Right ->''.

Ahh, London cabs. The kind of car that only looks cool if someone is leaning out the back window firing off a Tommy Gun. Otherwise, they're just lame. The identical-looking drivers who all dress like not-so-distance relatives of Mr. Peanut don't help.

Perhaps I'm just spoiled because I live in Quebec... home - along with the United States - to some of the most courteous drivers you've ever met. Or maybe there's something about the Colombian driving psyche that gets lost in translation when you try to understand why they speed up instead of slow down when a pedestrian appears on the horizon. Whatever it is, the fact of the matter is that your average Colombian driver makes a monster truck demolition derby look like a canine fashion show.

If it's not clear enough by now, let it be stated plainly - Medellín drivers are, by leaps and bounds, the worst drivers I have or will ever come across in the entire known galaxy. They completely ignore crosswalks. They incessantly jackrabbit their vehicles - even tractor-trailers or small diesel cars - away from stop signs and red lights. They do not use the brakes unless it is a last resort after all else has failed. They swerve and speed while changing lanes at an intersection while adjusting the radio while fixing their makeup while drinking coffee while playing Sudoku. And they never, ever, under any circumstance, give pedestrians the right of way. If you're crossing the street at a crosswalk, and a girl is speeding towards you in her SUV at 90km/h while listening to crappy music and talking on her cell phone, she will not bother to swerve, slow down or otherwise make any effort whatsoever to avoid the unpleasant inconvenience that will inevitably occur later on, when she has to impatiently shrug off a bored police officer's questions while they clean you off her Toyota with a shovel and a bucket.

Make no mistake - Colombians are awesome people, as I wrote before. These are among the friendliest, most sincere, most courteous people you will ever meet. However, take the kindest, sweetest paisa couple and put them behind the wheel of a car, and suddenly they become the unrelenting fifth horseman of the apocalypse, trailing a bloodthirsty path of twisted metal, broken glass, screams, pain, and possibly fire, from their suburban apartment all the way to the Exito supermarket. It's as if Colombian cars have a hidden sorcerous screen where the doors are, to prevent Colombians from bringing their souls with them when they get into the car.

As with all others, there are different ways to approach this particular problem. There's David's way, which is to convince yourself that a battle between a 4000lb speeding SUV and 170lbs of skin, muscle and bones would be a fair one. The man would walk in front of any approaching vehicle - even in circumstances where he wouldn't technically have right-of-way - and stare down the driver with the same icy stare that they would look at him with. Against all odds, and despite the implicit pussification process undergone by anybody living in SoCal for any amount of time, he would manage to cross the street quicker than anyone else relatively unscathed. I had come to admire his boldness and resolve. The man showed cojones - ever so useful in helping him get to the other side of the street. And when he did get challenged by a vehicle, he'd show his contempt by slamming his hand hard onto the back of it as it passed when it cut him off or came too dangerously close to him. I'm totally fucking serious. He bitch-slapped the shit outta cars, honest to God.

Another coping method, this one employed by the otherwise stalwart Eddie, involved the opposite reaction - waiting until there were absolutely no moving vehicles within visual range or earshot in order to begin considering the possibility that it might be safe to attempt crossing the road. Betraying his roots, he viewed oncoming cars with what I imagined was much the same look on his face as that of indigenous natives in the Americas several centuries ago, seeing white Europeans with their strange clothing and boomsticks for the first time. As great a guy as Eddie is, I would always cringe when we'd approach a street crossing together as I knew we'd be there for a while.

Then, there's the measured, rational approach - mine, of course. Somewhere in between attacking cars in a blind rage with my bare fists (David) and running away from them in sheer terror (Eddie), lies the Zen, balanced method of mentally, instantaneously calculating the trajectory of each piece of oncoming traffic and extrapolating their positions in time and space relative to how far along I would be crossing the road. It's a bit like bullet time in The Matrix; I don't expect many of you to understand. You look at the other side of the street, slowly turn your head to look at the stream of oncoming cars, time slows down a little, some white doves take to the skies behind you in slow-motion as the camera pans around your face, and then you just go. It just happens. It's another state of consciousness. I stick out my palm, look directly into the eye of the beast, and - in a Jedi-ish display of raw power - make my way through them. "These are not the droids you are looking for." David calls it ``The Hand'', which I suppose is an apt name. I'm told I look rather heroic when I'm doing it too:

Oh, and when I call them ``pieces of oncoming traffic'', I'm not kidding. Traffic in this city is not composed of individual cars - rather, it is a single, devastating entity, like some perverted Transformer Decepticon.

Motorcycles are just as bad, if not worse than, cars. On more than one occasion a motorcyclist nearly swerved into another vehicle instead of slowing down to let me cross the road, since the opportunity to save 300 milliseconds on your way home from work is worth any risk you might, you know, die horribly under the tires of a pickup truck and stuff. Actually, motorcyclists are definitely worse in my eyes because they are far less protected by their vehicles than anyone else on the road, and you can easily see them making eye contact with you while continuing to challenge your right to exist, so their temerity is that much more insolent. It often took all of my willpower to stop myself from savagely clotheslining a speeding motorcyclist passing me too closely.

Believe me, the temptation to do so was very fucking strong at times.

Oh, and lest you think it's just me complaining.


Tuesday, March 4th, 2008
range's picture

Looks scary.

I've been told that the drivers in India are by far the worst on the planet. This comes from a diplomat in the foreign service. Particularly, Chennai is supposed to be worse than Delhi.

Then again, I've never been to Columbia. Taiwan is bad, but there is a strange order to their chaos. That can be said of most Chinese countries.

Tuesday, March 4th, 2008
panazonie's picture

hey! so you know Steve, reading your blog only reminded me of my past which you might get a kick out of..2 summations.

1. to the extent the young and the dead are on the road. their biggest fear is confrontation. here's why: since before the 70's this country had typically 2 casts, rich and poor, nothing has changed since. exception peddlers, junkies and couriers(they carry guns too). To this day these are the ones that inhabit the roadways as everybody else walks(pub transport) or is driven. I'll allude to more in a moment.

2. since those past years there are two laws. the in-laws and the outlaws. as you well know, there, in Central and South America are two upbringings. Matriarchal and Patriarchal. Families like in Mexico are matriarchal in the fact that the good things are handed down from mother to daughter and they keep men in line. (yet i see no actual sign of that) as they always get thrown out and are drunken bums on the street..hmm must be working.

Whereas in South America the patriarchal system is run like "the godfather". and families get big and ruthless. now what about those crime lords.. they don't fight each other like they talk about in movies, in fact, they treat everybody like uncles, and with their riches they get the job done.

the Mob!, is territorial and in Medellin they keep others from stepping on their turf! and have been doing this since the seventies. if a neighbor from another side of town opens up a store and the convenience isn't collateral, that store manager or his daughter, working there, will be kidnapped anywhere, at any time.

This fear has transcended Beirut and is quite commonplace in all of Colombia. Ransoms usually consist of cash or death residual in body parts. for your sake, I would be careful what you say, here! or your next trip could be well, real expensive or short lived. Anyway this issue "the speedup" is in order to not get hijacked or taken by a thug on the street. whether in the city or on the countryside that policy is the rule for: couriers, junkies and peddlers or anybody capable of owning a car, junket or bicycle.. your friends method to stare them down as genuinely hostile as it is, is inline with the people driving. you are ROADKILL!

Oh be aware if you have a stick or bat in your hand they will target practice with you as they know why you carry it. they may even slam you with the door. hey been there seen it. Now the people in close personal contact or aggregated at events are very personable, but you are their guest, visitor, tourista. and in no uncertain terms they will always let you know that.

hope this nonsense gives you a more reasonable opinion on the hows and whys
as the experience is the same in the lower parts of Central America as well, and the reason why the "Junta" usually guard the street, oh and they take tips too...

Tuesday, March 4th, 2008
mir's picture

"Perhaps I'm just spoiled because I live in Quebec... home - along with the United States - to some of the most courteous drivers you've ever met."

Seriously? I mean seriously?? Have you never been to Ontario? I am not going to comment on Colombian drivers I have no idea, but Quebec drivers are hate-machines compared to Ontario drivers.

I once saw a head on collision because one Quebec motorist decided to jump the light and the other decided to sneak a yellow at about 50 miles and hour. That's Quebec for you - all about the wiggle room.

Yes, I know I failed my drivers test - Out of FEAR.

Just to add to your description of insane global car etiquette:

In Manila the roads are equally shared between SUVs minicabs Jeepneys pony and cart and large sort of flat-bed tricycles usually full of children who's snots fly out of their noses and adhere to the windows of the SUVs. On a six lane motorway, normal.

In Seoul, everyone goes 100 miles an hour everywhere. There are no wheeled vehicles other than cars or motorbikes and even if the truck you are driving is holding a perilous amount of fresh vegetable stock, weirdly unboxed and open to the elements you still go 100 miles an hour. In fact there were so many trucks full of vegetables and then that wacky anthropomorphic signage that I felt like I was visiting a

Tuesday, March 4th, 2008
mir's picture

Hey your comment erased my link...

a Richard Scarry book...

you can fix it maybe???

Saturday, March 8th, 2008
elizita's picture

HILARANT!! and true!

I've just busted my rib cage... laughing so hard! After a long and hardous day out battling the snow, the wind, the fucking sting of our 1millionth snowstorm this year alone... I was like... yeah a piece of sun to read about! jajaja

Truth be told, Medellin looks and sounds like San José (Costa Rica)! Those guys are just exactly that.. Dr Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde! Supra sweet on foot and absofuckinlutely devilish on wheels! I like your explanation:

However, take the kindest, sweetest paisa couple and put them behind the wheel of a car, and suddenly they become the unrelenting fifth horseman of the apocalypse, trailing a bloodthirsty path of twisted metal, broken glass, screams, pain, and possibly fire, from their suburban apartment all the way to the Exito supermarket. It's as if Colombian [or any] cars have a hidden sorcerous screen where the doors are, to prevent [or any]Colombians from bringing their souls with them when they get into the car.

Well said! I subscribe to this theory!! But I would not say that Quebec drivers are the courteous, nor that Americans are either... I

Having travelled in Europe (Germany's Autoban man.... France fucking circle intersections... Italies crazy carabinieris!!!), Costa Rica, Canada and USA... I must confess that the friendliest and most adorable (I was in total disbelief the first few times) drivers reside in Ottawa and P.E.I. (Prince-Edward's entire Island... from Souris to Charlottown and Summerside included!)

Over there, be it when I was on bike or on foot... the first microsecond I even thought of crossing the road (my big toe had just gone over the white marked lane... pointing the other sidewalk across the street) everyone just STOPPED! like pure magic and disbelief...

No kidding! the drivers and cars coming both ways were smiling and friendly showing me the way... while I, completely stuned, mouth opened wide just froze!!! and started looking for an incoming ambulance or some other logical reason why everything would just freeze in motion like that. I mean SOMETHING had to be wrong right!?! I remember I even looked back to see if a big brown bear or else was not making its way the same crosswalk I was attempting to cross...

Since my Ottawa encounter happened in summer, was able to hear through the open window of one the cars a passenger mention: Probably another one from Quebec... they can't seem to get it, do they!

So mir you are right!! for once... Ontario does have something that we do not!;0P hehehehe

Speaking of which, I gotta go back to snowshovelling...

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008
medea's picture

ROFL. I had no idea it was such a trauma for you guys: I mean, I did hear you complaining and irate, but I thought it was just extra drama to add spice to the daily anecdotes. However, reading over the post and comments I have my 2 cents to add:

1. Drivers in Medellín are Awful. They are worse than in San José Costa Rica, where I lived for more than a decade. But the worst I´ve EVER seen is in Mumbai, India. I´m talking about drivers who ONLY stop for cows... and that´s if they are gridlocked and all the cars around them are bigger than theirs. We´re talking about 4 lane roads with 8 lines of cars waiting for the light to change. And then gunning the engines and honking and swerving and leaving melted puddles of rubber on the asphalt from spinning their tires so hard. Just to stop in another traffic jam a block away. Insanity and motion sickness inducing.

2. About the chickens... those are the lucky ones who were caught BEFORE they crossed the road. The ones that did cross went to make ground chicken burger patties.

PS. Your crossing technique rocked :P

Sunday, March 30th, 2008
Incognito's picture

"Medellín drivers are, by leaps and bounds, the worst drivers I have or will ever come across in the entire known galaxy"
que exagerado... me parece q tiene q viajar más! si va a decir algo: mas vale q sea bueno, sino...

Monday, March 31st, 2008
stevenmansour's picture

que exagerado...

¡Cómo perceptive! Bravo!

What gave it away? Was it the "entire known galaxy" bit?

me parece q tiene q leer y estudiar mas! Dios mio...

Suerte, mi hijo... la necesitas. :p

Monday, March 31st, 2008
stevenmansour's picture


You're probably right about India, though I've never been there everyone corroborates your story.

Poor chickens.

Mr. Zero (I am ...
Friday, April 11th, 2008
Mr. Zero (I am not related to Mr. X, please don't ask)'s picture

I came across this post by accident, while looking for a Linux Group in Medellin. I lived in London and Barcelona, after leaving my home town in south Brazil (state capital named Florianopolis, small town, small people, small minds). I thought we where kind of half-civilized in Brazil about pedestrians and general traffic issues, but it was a grateful surprise to see, in London, that, for a 3rd world country, we are up to most of the standards. Things reached a European level by now: like in the U.K., now everybody has to stop when you cross the roads (and the vast majority of the do it – amazing!). English drivers are the most polite and respectful I have met until now. You do not mess with pedestrians in London, they have cameras, a keen police (keen folks are dangerous, they tend to do their jobs) and reasonably fair and good Courts. All in all, U.K. is a country to live if you want law abiding, respectful and polite buggers. When I moved to Barcelona, I thought I was back in a 3rd world country while crossing the streets. It seems Italians (my father is Italian), Portuguese, Greek and Spanish are amongst the worse in Europe. Holidays in Spain have a high rate of highway body count. Spanish men are keen on racing and tuning cars, and more than often they kill people while speeding in remote countryside roads. They complain a lot about traffic laws, they refuse to pay the fines, and Spanish Courts are permissive, to say the least, about these road psychopaths. Spanish police often kicks your ass for nothing if they catch you breaking the law, but they tend to close their eyes about speeding, because people are often considered not guilty of speeding in Courts, so why bother? After leaving London, I had to get used to the idea of being a target again. And I thought that maybe, just maybe, we where not so helpless in Brazil, considering the fact that I started felling safer crossing the roads and avenues in São Paulo, for instance, than in Madrid. Then I met my ex-wife, who is Colombian. She said she felt safer in Barcelona than in Medellín. I thought it was an exaggeration. Now I live in Medellín for almost three years, and I know what she meant: the very moment I arrived in the country, I was shocked about the killer traffic. Took me about a year to get used to it, and my hope came back when I visited Bogotá, where drivers are a bit more respectful (“So, it is possible? I mean, Colombians and cars? Do they… you know… work together?”). Everything said by Steven is absolutely true. Colombians are lovely people. Most of them. They work hard, they are friendly, and they are ready to help, even if they are far worse broken than you. But Colombia is at war. It messes up peoples’ views about everything. Sometimes, right is wrong, and wrong is common, and so on and so forth. The Government uses the war to justify human rights’ violations, corruption, you name it. The guerrilla and paramilitary groups use the war excuse to commit atrocities (the price to pay for the war, they say – and you pay, even though you did not order the extra prawns, or even were at the restaurant). The population, by and large, do not have good examples set from the ones who are in charge. Colombians tend to resist the laws and ordinances, they do not believe the laws serve them, which is true, it is a kind of private law, if you are rich and/or well connected, the law serves you. If not, you go to jail because of a chicken theft. If you have a SUV, you can afford the lawyer as well. If you own a motorcycle, most probably you will sell it to pay for a crash and many other fees that tend to accumulate if you do not plead guilty in first instance. With this kind of law, you will be willing to break them hard and good. I try to avoid taxes as much as I can, for instance, because most of the taxes in this country end up financing the army instead of feeding, healing and educating the People (yes, with a capital P, this strange creature nobody knows but everybody talks about).Or they end up as automatic weapons in the hands of the paramilitary groups (death squads), which are well connected to the Government. I have read the past comment advising Steven to “travel more, learn more”. Usually, Colombians are proud of their heritage, and refuse to admit that “there is a problem”. It is more or less like in Spain during Franco’s reign of horror: “It is all well in Spain” (Colombia is not too far from being a dictatorship, it is a cardboard-and-sticks-glued-with-spit kind of democracy – everything works, more or less, but the Government and the Official Institutions). They are brainwashed on a daily basis by the media which is aligned to the Big Interests, they refuse to acknowledge their own dead ones as victims and not criminals, and when doing so, they tend to blame the guilty on someone else, like children. The most common excuse is “everybody does the same, so why not me?”. I have seen people using cell phones while driving, I have seen red lights ignored. I have seen a large truck mincing an imprudent motorcyclist (it is not a pretty sight). I have seen people driving in the wrong way to get a shortcut. I have seen more than once people bribing traffic wardens in order to escape Court or fines. The list is big. The worse of all are the bus and taxi drivers, they tend to think they own the streets and do not care about anything else. They usually are supported by the ones who are covered by private law: the bus companies are dominated by the paramilitary groups, and the taxi drivers buy cheap stolen gas from the paramilitary as well. I really believe that these folks could live in one of the best country in the world, if it was not for the war. It is an invisible civil war that tend to radicalize everything. It is brother against brother, father against son, and everyone is invisibly plotting (apart from the guerrillas and the Government who wear uniforms – most of the time). They do not have good examples set by the Government, which frankly is a Joke (another capital letter, they deserve it). They do not have means to right the wrongs (private law rules). They do not know even who is in charge; in some areas (mostly urban centers) is the Government, but mainly the guerrillas or paramilitaries everywhere else, although it changes constantly – yesterday’s king might be today’s corpse floating in the river, there is a new king today with new rules, and it is capital punishment for those who disobey them. I am not justifying the attitude, but I understand why they act like that. The worst problem in Colombia is the radicalization of the conflict, some kind of Bush-like line of thought that goes “you are either with me or against me, there is no neutrality sort of thing”. You are utterly forced to take sides, and sometimes it implies breaking the law. But it is not only driving that they became lawbreakers, is almost everywhere. Also there are a lot of outdated, complicated, stupid laws that tend to make their lives more and more difficult. On the other hand, those laws do not apply to rich and powerful people. Nobody in Colombia believes much in laws or even in the Government. To say that the Government is a fraud is one thing, which I can understand, who are we supposed to complain to, if we can end dead by doing so? But another completely different story is to deny the problem, as if ignoring it would make it disappear. This is why I think the comment advising Steven to learn more and travel more is out of place, not to say rude. There is a problem – there are several problems! –, which could start being solved by simply admitting the problem itself. I love this country and the people but, oh boy, it is a mess. It is not their fault, either. It is cultural (almost 200 years since independence with nothing but internal, bloody struggles), and somehow “cultural” excuses a lot of bad things (although I do not agree with this, it seems to me it is an easy way out – you do not want to correct your ways, you say it is cultural). But in the end, we are all humans, prone to make the most horrible mistakes, despite (or because) of our good intentions, story of Humanity sort of thing. We all should care more about the ones who are in a defenseless situation, because we have the means to help ending their suffering, and everything else is bullshit. The situation in Colombia would be funny if it wasn’t sad, no one in the world deserves what is going on here. Actually, the fact that this country works at all is an amazing proof of this people’s hope, and their capacity to keep trying to sort things out. I would have given up by now, I am not as strong as them, and there is a limit to misery (it does not apply to Dick Cheney, he is limitless in the amount of misery he can spread around him). It will take a long, long time to clean it up. Shame none of us will be alive to see the results which (I take it for granted) will be awesome.

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