A Study in Contrasts – the Medellin Metro and the Boston T

I’ve used a lot of different metropolitan transit systems in cities I’ve either visited or lived in. From Istanbul to Berlin to Washington, DC, it’s fascinating to see how different cultures and countries treat their metro systems. Some cities emphasize the ability to eat and drink at established vendors right next to the platform, while others emphasize the ability to know exactly when the next train will be arriving with real-time updates. In a way, these metro systems are a microcosm of a country’s culture. Unbeknownst to most travelers, you can learn a lot about a city and a country as a whole based on how they approach their public transportation. Each metro system I’ve used has had their own kind of flair to them whether it’s the London Underground’s cleanliness, New York Subway’s 24-hour service, and Istanbul’s kind food merchants.

Out of all the metro systems I’ve rode on, there are currently two in the world that stand out to me in their approach to customer service. While most systems rarely have attendants to help people enter or leave the train, the two cities that are the exception to this rule are Boston and Medellin. These two transit systems actually have attendants working on behalf of the transportation authority to help passengers to use the metro effectively but with different approaches. For example, the way Boston does its’ customer service would be more hands-off while in Medellin it is much more hands on.

This difference in culture may play into the fact that the Boston T system has been in operation since 1897 and the locals are pretty adept at navigating the transit system considering its’ more than a century old. When it comes to Medellin, the metro system there began in 1995, which is a little over twenty years old. Medellin currently has the only urban train network in Colombia. Still though, you could draw the conclusion that the way the customer service of these two transit systems functions is reflective of the overall culture. In the U.S., we tend to be more individualistic especially when it comes to our urban transportation. When I lived in Medellin, I was enamored with how collective the metro system was when compared to where I’m currently living. In Boston, it’s much more about every man or woman for himself or herself as they try to navigate the system regardless of whether you’re a long-time local or a first-time visitor.

For Medellin, the aspect of their metro system that stood out most to me was the number of attendants who would help riders enter the train platform, instruct users on how to board and exit the trains, and how to refill and use their metro cards. Instead of just one or two attendants there on behalf of the transportation authority, there were usually up to a dozen workers assisting customers at each station. It was really nice for me to see the attention to detail that the metro system had in terms of assisting passengers to use the system effectively. This approach was crucial especially during a busy rush hour when there would be thousands of passengers wanting to enter and exit the train station.

Having a dedicated group of workers on hand to help smooth things over and make sure passengers were respecting each other and the transit system was a really impressive thing to witness. It doesn’t hurt that the entire Medellin metro system is well kept and has no littering, little rats running around etc. at any of its’ dozens of train stations. Compared to other cities, Medellin does a great job with its’ communal approach to the metro system. One of the catchphrases of their advertising is to ‘Vive La Cultura de Metro’, which basically translates to living the metro culture by respecting others and keeping the system clean.

Other cities could benefit from replicating the effective customer service, the emphasis on cleanliness, and the easy access to information that the Medellin Metro provides. Like any other transit system in a major city, it still does get quite congested during rush hour, and it can be hard to get on the train during peak hours due to lack of trains available. I know this from my own past experiences of having to fight to get on the train at 6 AM some mornings when I was a teacher there.

When it comes to the Boston T system, it’s the oldest in the United States and doesn’t take much time to get acclimated to. However, compared to the New York or Washington, DC transit systems, there is some customer service and assistance given. However, when you compare Boston to Medellin in this regard, it’s really no contest. While there are usually one or two attendants from the transit authority present, they don’t really actively help passengers. Sometimes, you can see a transit worker more interested in a smartphone game than to see if anyone needs help or has a question. Instead of being on the train platform to help riders get on and get off the train without issue, they usually just stand by the entrance to the station making sure everybody pays their fare.

Coming from where I was living in Medellin before I moved to Boston, this was a bit of a culture shock to me. It’s nice to have one or two more customer service attendants around to ask questions but I wish there were more attendants on the platform handling crowd control and enforcing the unwritten rules of getting on or leaving the train especially during rush hour. Also, compared to the dozen workers at any train station platform in Medellin, a city like Boston should have a few more people helping out compared to one or two workers per station.

Perhaps this cultural contrast is due to the fact that metro systems in the United States are much more individualistic in nature and the fact that public transit has been part of cities’ makeup for decades especially in the Northeast. I’m guessing that the majority of Bostonians would prefer to be left alone during the morning and evening commute rather than have hands-on help from transit service officials especially at a station platform. However, it might make everyone’s day a bit better and smoother if there were workers actively helping to assist people to refill their transit cards, making sure the rush hour commute goes smoothly, and aiding travelers to the city with directions.

When you travel to different countries, it is tempting to compare and contrast approaches to daily life. In any city, the transit system is an extension of the culture and I find it interesting to see the similarities and differences between countries in how they run their metro systems. It’s good to see how other cities and other countries do things because you’re able to see within your own culture what could be better or more improved. However, what may suit your own tastes may not suit others as much, even your own countrymen.

Train systems like whole cultures tend to be more individualistic or communal. What one city may lack in efficiency, they can make up for it in customer service. I believe it’s best to shoot for improvement in all areas to create a better travel experience. Having the trains run on time, being treated fairly by attendants, and enjoying clean, safe rides are keys for any metro system to achieve. Hopefully as more and more people travel and see the world, we can better see what ways we can improve our own cities and countries by seeing how others do it themselves.


The Blog Turns Two

Today, September 16th marks the 2nd anniversary of www.benjweinberg.com, my personal blog and website which I have been proud to create and build up over the past two years. I have to say that it’s been the most successful year yet in terms of both overall viewership and unique visitors. I am proud to note that I have reached thousands of people from around the world each month, and have published over one hundred and fifty and photo-blog posts total over the past two years.

In the last year, I’ve documented my travels throughout Colombia and have really made the ‘English Corner’ series a cornerstone of this blog. In addition, I have reviewed many films and analyzed them such as ‘Collateral’, ‘Traffic’, and ‘Lord of War.’ I continue to write about psychological themes that are highlighted in articles such as ‘How You Think Affects Everything You Get’ and ‘Reaching the Gold Standard.’

In this 2nd year of blogging, I have done my best to improve my writing and editing skills in order to create useful content for my site visitors. In the third year of my website, I hope to write longer-form posts at 2,000 or 3,000 words total in order to dive deeper into topics of my choosing. I continue to devote a lot of time and effort into this blog and I am very thankful to all of the readers, friends, and family who have supported it by reading my articles, leaving comments, and giving me constructive feedback.

I’ve recently moved to Boston, Massachusetts so I do hope to focus on some cultural aspects of living in this historical New England city and to highlight some of the destinations that are popular here. I will continue to write about ESL topics in my ‘English Corner’ posts but also focus more on personal and professional development ideas that I think will help my readers to succeed and advance themselves in different parts of life.

As this blog enters year three, I will continue to produce consistent content on a weekly basis, and to also update the layout and design of the website to be more viewer friendly. If you’re new to this blog and don’t know much about me or my writings, I have an archives section which has the location of all one-hundred and fifty of my posts which have occurred in the past two years. I also have a ‘Best Of’ Articles page where I highlight the ten-blog posts that I like the most when it comes to culture, lifestyle, traveling, music/movies/books, and personal development. You can find the individual links to these ten top posts here: https://benjweinberg.com/best-of-articles/.

Lastly, the biggest changes that I’ve made to my website are to incorporate the ability of ESL students to sign-up and take private English lessons with me if they are interested in doing so. If you go to the ‘Learn English With Me’ page, you can find out more about which kinds of private lessons I’m offering as well as my pricing per lesson. There’s a sign-up interest form at the bottom of this webpage, and you can also check out my ESL teaching background and experience here: https://benjweinberg.com/learn-english-with-me/.

I also have advertised my freelancing services in writing and editing. I have done freelance writing and editing jobs for clients over the past couple of years and am looking to expand my clientele. If you would like to find out more information about my pricing, experience, and see my portfolio, you can check it out at this webpage: https://benjweinberg.com/freelance-services/. There is a sign-up interest form at the bottom of that webpage too so you can get in touch with me through an e-mail message.

In this third year, I hope that my website will continue to grow in terms of audience and produce better and more useful content. I want to say thank you to all the readers and supporters of benjweinberg.com. I look forward to keeping in touch with you throughout the rest of the year and into 2018. As always, you are free to comment on any and all of my articles, give me helpful feedback through a direct message, or to show interest in my freelance and teaching services by completing a sign-up form. Thank you again for your readership and I think that this 3rd year of benjweinberg.com will be the best one yet. Cheers!

Cultural Spotlight – Vallenato

For my last blog post regarding Colombian culture for a while, I’d like to focus on a form of dance that is very popular there, especially on the Caribbean coast. Similar to cumbia, vallenato is a form of Colombian folk music that is both traditional and innovative in its’ instrumentation, interpretation. If we were to translate vallenato to English, it would roughly mean, “born in the valley,” which refers to vallenato’s roots coming from the Caribbean region of Colombia.

The valley that is being referenced as having started this popular music is located between Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the Serrania de Perija. Vallenato is also partly named after the Colombian city of Valledupar where this genre of music originated. Vallenato has become so popular not just in Colombia but also in rest of Latin America making it apart of mainstream Latin music that is apart of the cultural heritage of that country and that region of the world.

Vallenato originated from the tradition of farmers who would travel from Colombian village to village on long journeys in their quest to sell cattle in local fairs or look for greener pastures for them. During these trips, the farmers would sing together, play guitars and other instruments like gaita flutes (kuisis), which were indigenous to the local culture. Since these farmers would travel often, they would often bring news and information to the different towns that they visited. Sometimes, these messages to the village folk would be delivered in the song form so that the towns would know what’s going on nearby in the valley.

Vallenato is an eclectic mix of different kinds of world music such as Spanish, African, and Amerindian. Vallenato songs started to become common during the early 1900’s from the Caribbean region of Colombia. The early forms of vallenato would come with instruments such as gaita flutes, guacharaca (percussion), caja, bass guitar, and acoustic guitar. Additionally, you could make the sounds more European by adding instruments like the accordion or the piano.

Since the early days of vallenato, the accordion has become an increasingly large part of the sound of the songs of this particular genre of music. While vallenato was originally a genre of music for lower class folk and farmers in particular, it has since become popular across all spectrums and social classes within Colombian society. Many subgenres have come out of traditional vallenato such as romantic vallenato, commercial vallenato, and new wave vallenato.

Since the heart of the vallenato genre deals with telling stories, it is a very social form of music. You can drink liquor, enjoy a nice meal, and even dance with a partner to this genre. Listening to vallenato can go well with having a family party, attending a festival, or checking out a carnival. Vallenato has become so popular that there are two main festivals devoted to it: the Vallenato Legend Festival and the Cradle of Accordions festival. Valledupar has also become one of Colombia’s most famous cities given the fact that it was the birthplace of one of its most popular music genres, Vallenato.

When it comes to vallenato, you cannot have a song without the caja, the guacharaca, and the accordion to flesh out the sound and rhythm. The caja, is a small drum, that you can place between your knees and play with your bare hands. This drum was originally brought over by the Europeans during colonization and was mainly used by African slaves for entertainment.

The guacharaca, a wooden, ribbed stick that most looks like sugar cane can be rubbed together with a small fork in order to create a scraping sound. This instrument is meant to imitate the sound of the guacharaco bird from the Cesar region of Colombia, who is known to hunt for food and dance to perform the mating ritual. Lastly, you can’t forget to use the accordion of German origin in order to get the different tones needed to fill out the vallenato sound. By using the right buttons and hitting the right reeds, you should be able to get the rhythm down.

Speaking of the rhythms of vallenato, there are four different beats that create a rhythmic structure and a melody chord structure to form the basis for a song. The four rhythms are known as son, paseo, merengue, and puya. The son and paseo are played in a 2/4 time while the merengue and puya are played in a 6/8 time or ¾ time structure. ‘Son’ is known as being the slowest and most somber movement of vallenato and also has a heavy cadence. ‘Paseo’ is probably the most widely recorded rhythm of vallenato is known as being the most consistent of the four rhythms.

When it comes to ‘puya’, it’s the easiest rhythm of vallenato for each musician to have a solo with one of the three main instruments. It also has a faster up-tempo and is the oldest of the four rhythms. ‘Merengue’, which is not the same type of music as the original genre, but is the fourth and last vallenato rhythm, and was brought to Colombia by some African tribal groups. It’s a more narrative style of vallenato and is played in decimas, which is a 10-line format with Spanish internal rhythms the came over to Colombia originally during the 16th century.

There have been many composers, singers, and groups of Vallenato bands that have emerged over the past century who have helped to contribute to this genre of music. Perhaps the most famous Colombian composer of Vallenato was Rafael Escalona, who composed a number of famous songs and was one of the co-founders of the Vallenato Legend Festival along with Consuelo Araujo and Alfonso Lopez Michelsen.

Many Vallenato groups have also become orchestras in both their large size and instrumentation. The most popular of these orchestras are Binomio de Oro de America, Carlos Vives y la provincia, and Los Diablitos del Vallenato. You also can’t talk about Vallenato without mentioning Silvestre Dangond, who has become maybe the most famous modern day singer and composer of songs in this genre.

He has become popular not only in his native Colombia but also in Latin America and worldwide. While originally a genre of music from Colombia, Vallenato has expanded its’ popularity to Latin America and the rest of the world to share with its’ listeners both the joys, sadness, and romance of life itself.

Cerro El Volador


Camera: Canon PowerShot SX710 HS

Location: Medellin, Antioquia, Colombia

Cuisine Spotlight – Patacones

Patacones are one of my favorite side dishes or entrees that you can find in Latin America. It’s a versatile kind of food that can be a side dish with fish, chicken, or beef but you can also make it a kind of entrée by putting two patacones together with a type of meat or fish inside along with lettuce, tomatoes, and other toppings. This food also makes for a wonderful snack if you want to munch on something between lunch and dinner. Patacones are relatively easy to make and don’t take too much skill because the recipe is pretty simple to follow.

Commonly known as ‘Tostones’, which comes from the verb tostar, “to toast” in Spanish are slices or pieces of plantain that have been fried twice over. While they are known as ‘tostones’ in countries such as Puerto Rico, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, etc. They also have a different nickname of ‘tachinos’ (Cuba), ‘bananas pesees’ (Haiti). However, since I have been living in Colombia for almost a year now, I will refer to this delicious food as ‘Patacones’, which is the common name here and also in countries like Panama, Peru, Costa Rica, and Ecuador. You can find patacones of all shapes and sizes across both Central and South America, and there are many ways to put this food to good use.

When it comes to preparing and cooking patacones, you first have to pick up a few unripe plantains (green in color) from the local food market. After buying the plantains, you’re going to have to peel them and then slice into individual pieces that are circular in appearance. You should make sure that they’re big enough in length and width before you decide to begin frying them.

It’s important to put enough cooking oil in your frying pan, and to heat up the pan sufficiently first before putting the raw slices of plantains in there. For the first time, you’re going to want to fry the plantains for one to two minutes on each side until they start to look cooked enough by showing a golden color. One time isn’t enough to make patacones so you’re going to want to fry these patacones a second time to finish the job. However, before you decide to do that, it’s important to remove the patacones from the frying pan for a few minutes in order to get rid of excess cooking oil.

The patacones should be patted down and flattened before being fried a second time in the pan. For the second frying, the patacones should only be fried for a minute or two on each side before they are finished cooking. After they have been thoroughly fried, you should make sure to pound them flat with some kind of utensil that has a large flat surface like a bowl or a pot cover. By the time you’re done, your patacones should be golden, and crispy brown. It’s pretty common to add extra ingredients like salt, or some seasoning depending on if you want this food to be a bit spicy or not.

Patacones can also be served with garlic sauce (ajo in Spanish) or with hogao sauce as is done here in Colombia. You can make the comparison that Patacones are almost like French fries in that you can have them as a side dish or snack without too much effort. It’s easy to make between six to ten patacones to serve you and your guests. If you’re looking for an appetizer or a snack dish to serve friends and family at a house party, patacones are a great option. Patacones have their origin in West African cuisine, and made their way over to Latin America within the colonial period of Gran Colombia during the eighteenth century.

The best thing about a dish like patacones is how versatile it is. You can put anything on top of it whether its’ shrimp ceviche or avocado paste. It can function as a sandwich if you put two of them together with a kind of meat or fish in between to add additional flavor. They’re easy to cook, prepare, and delicious to eat. Be careful though because it’s likely you won’t be able to stop at just eating one patacone.

Whether it’s in the Caribbean, or in Latin America, or throughout the rest of the world, you’re likely to find patacones being served at a restaurant, or being sold as the original plantains in the supermarket. Personally, I look forward to learn how to cook patacones, and serving them to friends and family in the future. Now that I’ve tasted patacones many times and enjoyed this food, I’d like to make my own and have a taste of Colombia when I’m outside of this lovely country.

Santa Elena


Camera: Canon PowerShot SX710 HS

Location: Santa Elena, Antioquia, Colombia



Camera: Canon PowerShot SX710 HS

Location: Monserrate, Bogota, Colombia