This is the third and final segment of the Volkswagen Diaries by Joe Greco. The first two are available at these links :
Joe will be featured on the Overseas Radio Network Show, ”The Accidental Expat” on Thursday, November 20, 2014. If you miss it follow this link – http://overseasradio.com/the-accidental-expat/
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I had always had a love for the mystical qualities of the Volkswagen Van. They offered the idealistic image of the hippie era, freedom and travel. It was a simpler time, when life was not so cluttered with priorities. When I was 15, I bought a rundown VW van from one of my neighbors with the hopes of restoring it to working condition. Somehow, the days turned to weeks and the weeks turned to years, and the next thing I knew I was re-selling the same van, in the same condition that I had purchased it. The practicality of college and work priorities had won out over the dream of restoring my van. In some ways, this may have been why I instinctively ended up buying a VW van a second time (over 20 years later) for my South American road trip. You might say that it is life’s way of reclaiming my childhood dreams.
I was only about 30 minutes out of Yarumal, Colombia when I heard an extremely uncomforting sound coming from the engine. Although I was far from a mechanic, it was obviously a noise that meant trouble and sent the chill of fear running down my spine. I pulled over, shut down the motor and opened up the rear engine compartment. At first glance I did not see anything out of place, nor did I see any signs of trouble. I restarted the engine, but heard the same discomforting clatter again. At this point, I figured it was best to find some expert help. Luckily, the day was still early and I had plenty of time to get this sorted out and back on the road.
I flagged down a passing motorcyclist and requested that he assist me in finding a ‘mecanico’. It sounded like there was one just up the road, so he left and returned quickly with someone on the back of his motorbike. The mechanic did a quick inspection and requested that I start the engine again. I did and the nasty noise persisted. Nonetheless, he insisted that we drive the van up to his workshop where we could take a better look. As we pulled of the side of the road the sound went from bad to worse and the engine died on its own. At that point I knew I had a serious problem.
Frustrated that I took the recommendation of ‘the mechanic’ and agreed to drive the vehicle to his shop (which was probably the worst piece of advice I could have been given). I decided to head back to the town of Yarumal with the motorcyclist and ask for help at the gas station where I had filled up my tank the night before.
Here began my gradual descent into disappointment. I faced an expensive tow truck, a friendly, but in-experienced mechanic in the town of Yarumal and multiple three hour bus rides to Bogota (Colombia’s capita city) to locate parts. Add to this mix a desperate plea to my mother to help me find replacement parts back in Washington State and have them shipped to Colombia and a second mechanic (just as friendly as the first) in the big city of Medellin. The result was an utterly exhausting and trying experience in getting my vehicle repaired in a county with essentially no VW vans, limited parts and on top of it all battling through a language barrier in a field (mechanics) that I knew little about.
As the process continued to spiral out of control, I was left somewhat deserted in the city of Medellin. In actual fact it would take me over a year before my van was fully functional again and by then, my priorities had changed.
I spent my first week in Medellin at a hostel. I considered myself a tourist and spent that time with fellow hostel mates checking out the sites the city had to offer. Each day that we set out I was surprised to find Medellin was a lot more modern then I would have ever imagined. The people were full of pride for their city and their municipal government who had managed to build a very commendable city infrastructure. This was despite the years of hardship and turmoil the city experienced in the Colombian Drug Cartel days. Probably the most impressive thing for me was the spotless, clean and efficient Metro system that spans the Aburra Valley. At the end of the Metro system, there was a cable car system that took commuters up into the far reaching city hills and poorest barrios. This was about the last thing I would have expected to see in Latin America.
After my week at the hostel (and little, to no signs of progress on my van), I decided to relocate to a small hotel/studio room that offered a bit more privacy and less noise then the hostel. The owner was a real estate investor that had recently built the hostel. He was happy to take me under his wing and help me work through some of the van issues, including a thirteen hour ride to Bogota in search of parts.
As I became more and more familiar with the city, I did as I usually do, and started checking into some of the real estate options. Soon I had come upon the website for First American Realty Medellin, owned by Rich Holman – www.firstamericanrealtymedellin.com . I decided to set up a meeting to get more educated on the local goings on.
Rich’s enthusiasm for Medellin is an understatement. He was convinced that Medellin was to become the next big thing in international real estate investment opportunities and he had a long list of reasons, ideas and articles to support his predictions.
Although I had never envisioned setting up shop in a mountain town, Medellin did have a long list of pro’s. It was still very undiscovered. It was a large urban center which allowed for lots of real estate opportunities. The city was on the rise. The economy was booming. The culture was the most playful, helpful and friendly cultures I had ever experienced. The weather was ideal and consistent. There was no negativity toward foreigners, and the locals were actually overly excited to see the international traveler finally coming to see their great and much maligned home. Real estate prices were low and affordable enough to get your foot in the door. Investments were being made by some very large multination corporations (such as HP and Kimberly-Clark). All of this hinted toward the signs to what was to come.
After a few meetings and a few brainstorming sessions with Rich, it was decided that I would work with him on the commercial and development aspects of First American Realty. This was right up my alley and Rich had been looking for someone to lead these efforts. For me, this would be a good distraction from my van woes, which seemed to be moving at a snail’s pace. I really had nothing to lose as Rich already had his infrastructure in place (website, office and a small staff) and I could just leverage his efforts and see where things led.
In looking back, over 4 years later, I was fortunate that my Volkswagen van had held me hostage in Medellin. I would have never given the city or Colombia a second look and just driven right through on my way to the coast. Over the years, my appreciation of the city and culture have continued to grow and business has expanded nicely for both Rich and I.
These days the van is running better than ever. She quietly waits for the opportunity to hit the road again. I foresee finishing my trip to Buenos Aires in the next year or two, in search of a new city to open a First American Realty branch office. We have been fine tuning our business model and strategies and expanding our offerings, and this concept should work in many other locations in South and Central America.
For those out there waiting in the wings or considering a life’s journey or adventure, I truly encourage you to take those next steps to make it a reality. You won’t regret it. And when you do set out… keep an open mind and a carefree heart, as you never know what windy road you may end up on! You too could write your own Volkswagen Diaries.