Medellin is the 2nd largest city in Columbia with about two and a half million people. It is most famous to Americans as the home of the Medellin cartel, the cocaine distribution outfit presided over by Pablo Escobar at its height in the 80s. He was finally killed after a large manhunt in one of the barrios in Medellin in 1993, after a big shootout with Columbian police, aided in the manhunt by U.S. Special Forces.
After the weeklong sailing trip I took from Panama to Columbia, the first town I ended up in here was Medellin. Garret, one the fellow travelers on the sailboat trip, was headed this way also and he knew a couple other guys that were in town: Scott, a Canadian that is teaching here for two years and Morton, a Danish traveler.
On our second night in town, we decided to go get some cheap pizza around the corner and then go get some beers. Since Scott was the semi-local, we let him choose the location for drinks. It had been raining on and off all afternoon and he said that the nightlife scene would be fairly lame until the skies cleared, so he said we should go to the center of the city and just find a pub there for a couple cheap drinks.
We took a cab down there and walked around for a bit in the drizzle. The couple of places that Scott knew have down there weren’t open yet (it was only about 8 p.m.), so as we walked down another street, he said, “over there is a sort of strange strip club that I’ve been to once before. Looks open. What do ya think?” Morton had never been to a strip club in his life – needless to say, that was plenty of reason to go on in and Garret and I pretty much forced Morton into it.
As a side note, I consider myself a bit of a strip club connoisseur – and yes, I can handle the inevitable comments that will generate. In college, one of my good buddie (Ken — I’m sure he will appreciate being named in this context), dated a stripper for about six months or so. Of course, our regular drinking establishment became her place of employment, as we were friends of one of the regular dancers. We got complimentary VIP cards, didn’t have to pay cover, and most of the dancers would sit at our table and talk with us, while they waited to go on stage. Right out of college, I got a job working on Capitol Hill. One of the lobbyists that regularly worked our office was a guy named Jeff. He needed a Congressional staffer to accompany him to his favorite strip club, a place called Joanna’s, so that he could write the whole thing off as a lobbying expense to one of his clients. (though lobbying me was fairly futile, since I was only a low-level letter writer for the Senator I worked for). So every Friday afternoon, I had a “committee hearing” at about 2 that I needed to attend, assuming I didn’t have any real work to do. I probably went to Joanna’s with Jeff over a 100 times. Jump forward to my living in Fayetteville after law school – the closest bar to the condo that I owned was the strip club in town, about 50 yards from my front door. I made it by for a beer or three a few times a week. In between those regular stops, I’ve managed to survey clubs in a number of different places.
Amusing additional side note — I had no idea we were going to a strip joint before we went out. When I packed, I pretty much randomly threw five T-shirts into my backpack. I thought all were plain, one color shirts with no writing on them. One of them is a blue T-shirt and I didn’t notice it had a small logo on the top left side of the front of the shirt: Scarlet’s in New Orleans. Its a strip joint, needless to say.
This was a whole new world from anything I’d experienced before.
The doorman frisked each of us as we entered. We went down into the basement of this building and grabbed a corner table. The place wasn’t too big, probably a capacity of 60 or so and it was pretty packed. The crowd was almost evenly divided between men and women. The reason for that was that it was part-strip club/part-regular dancing place.
Scott had given us the rough outline before we walked in, but it was strange to see it in person. Against the opposite wall from us was a very small stage, about eight feet by eight feet, where the stripper would normally be dancing. About three or four couples were up there dancing what appeared to be the salsa. Traditional Columbia music was blaring from the speakers in the room and couples were dancing, mingling and drinking. If Scott hadn’t told us this was a strip joint, we’d have never known. We drank a couple beers and caught up on all of our respective adventures in Panama. A few songs went by, then the couples exited the stage, some American rock music started up, and out came the stripper from a back room.
Now, the regular people and the stripper alternating on the stage was certainly a new experience for me, but about two minutes after the stripper took the stage, the music abruptly stopped, the lights came on, and the stripper quickly exited the stage and took a seat at a table next to the stage.
And down the stairs came a dozen policemen and women.
Now we were in new territory. First time I’ve ever been in the middle of a police raid.
Initially, we thought that the cops were there to arrest someone specifically. It looked like they went right up to one particular guy, and he stood up, turned around, and put his hands over his head. I said, “Morton, how cool is this? We get to see an arrest and you get your first strip club experience.”
But it turned out that this guy apparently had just gone through this drill before. The cops frisked him and he sat down. They then proceeded to frisk everyone in the bar, including the wait staff and bartender. . .except for us, the only four gringos in there. One of the cops came over to us while the frisking was going on elsewhere in the room and asked us for some identification in Spanish. Scott translated for us and he was the only one with any form of ID on him. He explained that he was living in town and the other three of us were just in town for a couple days. The cop just nodded and waved us off, in the unmistakable sign language that they didn’t care about us.
I’m getting pretty good at the sort of ¾ sign language, ¼ facial expression and the occasionally-understood-Spanish-word thing.
The cops finished their searches, didn’t arrest anyone, and then all trooped back up the stairs and left. We asked our waitress what they were looking for and she said she had no idea, though you could tell from her expression that this wasn’t her first time to be on the receiving end of a female officer frisking her on the job. One of the busboys came up to gather up our empty beers and said they were looking for guns or drugs. Seemed like a reasonable explanation.
And with that, the stripper got back up from her chair, retook the stage, the lights dimmed and she went back to work. Two songs and then she left the stage and went table to table to ask for tips from the audience (again, Scott explained the protocol to us). We each threw in 500 Columbian pesos or so – the current exchange rate is about 2000 pesos per U.S. dollar – when she came by. Then the local music started up again and the couples went back up on stage.
The whole thing was a bit surreal.
O’, but we weren’t done yet.
We left that place and caught a cab to a different part of town. The cabbie didn’t understand where Scott wanted him to drop us off and rather than try to explain it to him, we decided to get out near a local casino and ATM location, since Garret needed to get some cash (and I wanted to see if there was poker at the casino). Garret got his money and I verified there was a game I could play in the next night and Scott said, “Well, there is this other, very popular strip joint around the corner.”
At this point, Morton had gone from reluctant participant to avid fan. The rest of us felt like we sort of owed him another place, since he had been quizzing us about American strip joints and how they opporated ever since we walked out of the last one.
The second place was more ‘normal’ in most aspects: there were a lot of strippers milling about, very few couples in the crowd, fog machine, strobe lights, much bigger room and in the middle of the room, a 15-20 foot long glass stage, held up about four feet off the ground. It was about four or five feet wide and on each end there was a traditional stripper pole, but the two poles were connected to each other with a metal, ladder-like thing and there were two ropes also strung lengthwise on the outside of the ladder.
More about that later.
I say this strip club was more normal than the last one, but there was one rather large caveat to that proclamation – it was also a whorehouse.
Scott had never been to this place before, but some of his fellow gringo teachers had filled him in on the basic details. The strippers also turned tricks after dancing in some private rooms behind the bar area. According to his friends, the going rate was anywhere between $80,000 and $100,000 Columbian pesos ($40 to $50 U.S. dollars).
A couple interesting things about Columbia in this regard: (1) supposedly the highest per capita rate of plastic surgery of any country in the world – though Venezuela also claims that distinction, (2) I saw a lot of prostitutes in Panama as well and almost all of them were Columbian, according to the locals I was hanging with, and (3) apparently there is much less societal stigma about prostitution here – according to Scott, a good number of the prostitutes are just university students who do it occasionally for a little side money.
Looking around, I think I think one and three were probably true. About 80% of the women were artificially enhanced, though that’s pretty normal in strip joints in the States also, and although it did look like there was a fair number ‘professional’ working girls dancing, there were also a fair number that didn’t look like pros.
So we settled in and ordered our expensive strip joint beers — $5,000 pesos each. Damn. Two dollars and fifty cents each. Two drink minimum. Jeez.
And out came the first dancer, and I shit you not. . . well, check that.
I’ve said for a long time that I want to make a CD called “Strip Joint Hits.” If you’ve watched any late night TV, you’ve seen the advertisements for CDs like “Mob Hits” and other themed typed CDs. There is a certain type of music that is played almost universally in strip joints, alternating between urban/rap/dance stuff and more classic, heavy metal stuff. I’m not a huge fan of the former, but “Love in an Elevator” by Aerosmith makes my “Strip Joint Hits,” as does “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses, “Girls, Girls, Girls” by Motley Crew, “Hot for Teacher” by Van Halen, and some good 80s type stuff, like Frankie Goes to Hollywood doing “Relax.” You get the general point.
So the first girl comes up and starts dancing to. . . “Hotel California” by The Eagles. I think I can conservatively say that I’ve heard well over a couple thousand songs in strip clubs before – and it was the first time I’d ever heard this song in one. Besides it being a really horrible song to dance to, it is really, really long. In a US strip club environment that makes some sense, because the customers are coming up to the stage and tipping the dancers as they dance. Longer song = more time for tips. But here, you don’t go to the stage to tip the dancers, they come around to the tables after they get off stage and collect their tips. I was laughing my ass off.
And of course I figured that song selection could not be topped – until her next song cranked up. It was a medley of songs from the movie “Grease.” Yep. “The Grease Megamix: You’re the One That I Want/Greased Lightnin’/Summer Nights.” As looked up and verified just now on wikipedia.com.
Alternative strip joint universe world was pretty much complete.
She came down off stage and we each pitched in about $1,000 pesos (50 cents each) to tip her, which appeared to be about the going rate after watching other locals tip. Another dancer came up and danced a few songs and we again tipped her about a couple bucks. We had to get some change for our bigger bills at one point, because we didn’t have any more thousand or two thousand peso notes for tip purposes.
I made Scott ask one of the dancers that looked like she was a university student what her price was for a “private room dance,” and she said $75,000 – or about $35 dollars or so.
Then the gymnast came on stage. She didn’t have the traditional Columbian look. She was blonde, for one. And didn’t have ‘store boughts,’ as I like to refer to them. But you could tell from the murmurs from the crowd as she came on stage, she was one of the prime attractions here.
The DJ seemed to use double the normal amount of fake fog/smoke to announce her appearance on stage and she began dancing – actually to some Columbian music, which was unusual. Basic pole work and prancing around the stage to start off with, but she then climbed up the pole and started swinging off the ladder suspended over the stage. She locked her legs over some of the rungs of the ladder and took off her top, hanging upside down over the stage. She swung from the two hanging ropes, did some slow back-flip type moves from the ladder to the stage a few times. Somehow she managed to get her skirt and G string off while suspended from the ladder also. This was some serious rope and ladder work.
As she came off stage, to a quite boisterous round of applause from the otherwise very quiet crowd, I turned to my three new friends and proclaimed, “I don’t care what you guys do, but I’m tipping her a full dollar!”
We decided to leave on that note – the night wasn’t going to get any better than that.
Postscript – I made Scott ask. She must have been had the highest rate in the whole place. $120,000 pesos. $60 U.S. dollars.