Will stumbles all over a cherished local holiday when he has to poop at the worst moment. The Flower Festival in Medellin, Colombia is a wonderful tradition. Will maybe ruined it. To be named at the end of a future show, text FRIEND to (332) 877-9540. As always, you can text POD for a more laid-back relationship (I'll text you new shows when they go live). Or sign up here if you're outside the US and Canada.
Weird trivia and stuff Will wants to say
- I fought with this episode for a long time. I really wanted to include a long section about the fascinating history of the silleros, but the episode really wanted to be a seven-minute fart joke. The episode won. I feel bad about that, but I thought we all needed a break after spending 22 minutes confronting mortality last week. I wrote this piece about the silleros which you'll enjoy if you're into colonial history. They’re incredible and their legacy is fascinating.
- I didn’t explain it in the episode, but charging money for toilet paper at public or semi-public toilets is only weird from the perspective of a North American/European. It’s not unusual in South America. Most public bathrooms cost something, and if they don’t, charging for toilet paper is usually a thing.
- Something tragic happened on the day of the story. The city had two helicopters fly down the parade route with soldiers suspended off the bottom with a waving Colombian flag. One of the ropes snapped, and two soldiers died. I saw the helicopters before the accident, and the whole setup seemed absurdly unsafe. There’s a video of the tragedy here, but viewer discretion advised.
- I’ll be in Medellin for two of the next three episodes (but not the next one). That’s because I love that city so much and it offers so many wonderful stories.
- Tay Zonday is the most underrated vocalist of our generation.
Things I wrote that you should read
I hear with my little ear (AKA credits)
- Only one sound credit this week! The whole episode is backdropped to a loop of street noise from Cusco, Peru. It’s odd, I’ve been to both cities and the loop feels more like Medellin to me.
[Sounds of murmurs on the street]
Someone famous surely said at some point that there is history and there is culture and there is the human body, and when these things come in conflict, the man in the center is the one who loses.
I don’t know, it sounded cool so I’m sure someone’s said it. But there’s another way to say it. It’s a little more concise: poop waits for no man.
I’m on a street in Medellin. It’s the Flower Festival - Medellin’s biggest annual celebration. I’m right against a chain-link fence, smushed in with Julia, the lovely Irish gal I met in Cartagena, and there are at least thirty heads behind us between the fence and the freedom to walk where we please. We’ve been smushed in for hours in the heat of the sun, and the claustrophobia has long since passed. But still, my face goes flush all at once, and Julia raises her eyebrows.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
“I uh… I have to poop.”
[Theme Music Begins]
This is Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells.
You may have been under the impression this is an angsty, high-brow affair. Well yeah, not today. Let's go.
[Theme Music Ends]
Arturo Uribe. That’s the name of the man who ruined my Saturday. He was a member of the Board of the Office of Development and Tourism in Medellin in 1957. He launched the Flower Festival. It’s an annual celebration of the silleros. They’re a population of indigenous porters. They carry flowers down from the hills and into the city, and Uribe, the bastard, decided that their annual tradition was beautiful. And so it was in 1957 that the city of Medellin hosted the first flower festival. That festival continued all the way through 2019, with me sandwiched in a hoard of thousands of people smushed into a chainlink fence, watching these hundred-year-old men and women with wrinkled faces and missing teeth and hunchbacks schlep hundreds of pounds of flowers six miles through 90-degree heat to cheers of onlooking tourists.
So take yourself through that. You’re smushed against a fence, surrounded by a crowd of thousands in a city where you’ve spent all of 48 hours. Even if I break free of the insanity - somehow weave through the crowd - I still have to, y'know, find a bathroom, in the middle of a city in the middle of their biggest annual festival, while asking for directions in a language I don’t speak.
Julia takes one look at the sweat dripping down my brow and decides we’ve just gotta push. She starts yelling “lo siento, permiso,” and we push through the mosh of Colombians groaning at the annoying gringos. But we get separated almost immediately, and I can’t see her anymore. She’s gone. I’ve gotta go. I keep pushing and pushing and mumbling “permiso permiso” and, finally, the crowd thins and I’m free. I yell for Julia and I hear English somewhere in the Spanish murmur but I can’t see her and I’m completely out of time and I yell “I’m sorry!” and I turn and I break into a full sprint.
I’m holding out hope for porta potties, as gross as that would be, but I’m not really in a position for a luxury toilet selection. I’m weaving through a crowd of people and there’s a guy selling street food.
“Dónde están los baños?” I ask, sweaty and gross and clenching my ass with everything I’ve got, but he just laughs and shakes his head. And so I turn and sprint-waddle, like that penguin from Planet Earth climbing up an island volcano and searching for his family.
Now I’m at the closing point of the parade, where dozens of ancient wrinkly silleros are still strapped into their flower pallets, and so I’m dodging them like a running back, spinning and weaving as best I can but I can’t run anymore, so I slow to an aggressive power walk, ass clenched and fists clenched and forehead dripping and I’ve got a fever now. It’s 90-something degrees but I can’t tell if it’s hot or cold and I’m sweating and someone is yelling at me and I’m apologizing and I’m away from the parade now and on the street, but they’re still crowded and holy shit it might just happen right here in the middle of the street in Colombia. I’m from America, and I came here to shit on your street. Take that, Colombia.
A block away, there’s a sign for a panadería - a little corner bakery - and I think I might be in luck. I power-walk with everything I’ve got but my heart drops as I walk in the front door.
There’s a line.
But then I realize those are women waiting for the women’s room, and the men’s line is empty. Gender norms for the win on this day. But I march into the men’s room and there’s no stall - it’s just a urinal. And I march back out and stand at the back of the women’s line, doing a little dance like I’m Prince or like I think I’m Prince or maybe Prince isn’t involved at all and it’s just that I can’t stop singing Chocolate Rain in my head and that reminded me of Purple Rain.
But then the man who owns the place yells at me and tells me “hombres, hombres,” and he wants me in the men’s room. But I don’t have the language to explain all the reasons that’s just not gonna work for me today. And I’m sweating and my face is red and I just say “necessito necessito” over and over again and he shakes his head. And then the woman ahead of me sees me and sees the owner of the place, and she just starts yelling at him. And I make up the conversation in my head. “Look at this white boy,” she’s saying, “he’s dancing and sweating and his face is puffy and he’s going to shit on your floor. Just let him in.”
And I’m behind her just saying “por favor por favor” over and over and he finally waves his hand and asks for two thousand pesos for toilet paper which is weird, but I scrounge for some coins in my pocket and all I’ve got is 1500, and he just says “puta madre” and waves me in. "Gracias, gracias," I say and I waddle in. But it’s saloon style doors. There’s no privacy to be had.
And so I’m sweating and sliding all over the toilet in the lady’s room and I can still hear the people outside breathing and holy hell this is going to be bad.
But poop waits for no man. And so relief comes.
And then I finish up and sit for a long moment. Collect my ego off the dingy bathroom floor. I cough and I stand, and I march out of the saloon doors like a cowboy in a wild west movie, and the whole place plays their part, staring at me like there’s a wanted poster on the door with my face on it.
I walk outside and I can feel my face again and I walk back to the crowd, nothing but relieved. Finally, I find Julia and she looks me in the eye.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
"Uh, yeah," I say.
But in reality, I’m not okay. I can’t understand what these silleros do when they have to poop and they’re strapped to that flower pallet.
[Theme Music Begins]
That was Baggage Claim, and I'm Will Conway
Hey, I just want to take a minute to say "thank you." Two weeks ago, this whole project was just a weird set of ideas and documents on my computer. It existed in my head and in my headphones. If you're hearing this right now - if you've heard any episode - you've made my day. Individually. You, personally. I need you to know that.
We're going to start doing something next week. I'm going to start naming off people at the end of the show who've done a ton for the show. If you're interested, text FRIEND to (332) 877-9540 and I'll get you set up. Don't worry, no one's asking you for money. This isn't PBS. Just trying to get the word out about the show.
Thanks so much, guys. See you next week.
[Theme Music Ends]