World Traveler Part 1: Colombia

This past month, I stepped and stayed out of my comfort zone by spending just over 3 weeks in the beautiful country of Colombia. To sum my trip up in one word, it was life-changing. (I think technically that’s two words but
I don’t care).

As I flew away from Chicago, I felt different this time, probably because this time was different. While I’d flown before, this was my first time flying across the US’s border.

My layover in Panama already was a huge shock compared to the airport I left. Rather than dinky, tourist shops this airport felt like a mall; shops like Kate Spade, Tommy Hilfiger, and MAC cosmetics were everywhere. The shopping section was the only air conditioned part of the airport so the sweltering heat drove everyone to the stores, causing you to force your way through the bustling crowd.

And the Spanish. Obviously it was everywhere I turned considering Panama is a Spanish speaking country, but the accents assailing my ears made me doubt my Spanish was enough to get me through the next 3 weeks.

After landing and eventually making it through customs, I was so grateful to finally see a familiar face.

Upon greeting my friend, I was immediately told that when I got to the house, I would need to pack a smaller bag because the next day we were driving 10 hours to Medellín and staying a few days. I just kept nodding as they spoke because I was so overwhelmed.

The drive to the house was full of new sights and smells, I felt like a dog with its head out the window.

When we arrived to her town of Yumbo, I couldn’t help but admire all the murals painted on the buildings throughout town. Nature, cartoon characters, and people were painted everywhere. I wasn’t always able to get a clear look of the art as motorcycles were constantly whizzing past.

After picking up empanadas for dinner, we finally arrived at her home. Her mother runs a school out of half of their home so the first thing I noticed was the bright red sign above the garage, stating the name of their school: “Segrado Corazón”.

I was so grateful to eat, and the empanadas and homemade salsa were exactly what I needed after a long day of traveling. Once I finished, it was time to pack again.

We woke up at 5 am the next day and while I slept for 5 hours, it felt like I only slept for 5 minutes. After greeting my friend’s mother’s boyfriend and his family as well as her friend and her mom, we were on our way.

*SPOILER ALERT: I slept most of the trip*

As we drove, I kept noticing the differences between Colombia and the States. Here are just a few:

  1. There are stray dogs and cats almost everywhere
  2. Public toilets usually don’t have toilet seats
  3. You can NOT flush toilet paper, bad things will happen
  4. You can walk or bike anywhere, even on the sides of busy roads
  5. Seat belts are never used (sorry mom)
  6. Motorcycles are incredibly reckless
  7. People drink juice with EVERYTHING

We arrived in Medellín later that day and after dropping our things off at the hotel, explored Pueblito Paisa, a miniature version of the old Medellín.

The next day we took the only train in Colombia to Botero Plaza, a park dedicated to the artwork of Fernando Botero, an artist renowned for depicting his subjects as overweight.

I would later discover that the reason we took the train rather than driving, is because in Colombia there are so many people and cars that there is one day of the week where you can only drive at select times, and that day is determined by the last number of your license plate. This was that day.

In our 2 hours of allowed driving time, we drove to Peñón de Guatapé, or the Big Rock of Guatapé.

The climb was long and I could feel my legs shaking the higher I went but man was it worth it.
With just over 740 steps, it takes around an hour total to go up and down this rock.

At this point in the trip I already noticed my Spanish improving. Funny how being immersed in a language forces you to use it.

The next morning we would drive back to Yumbo, saying goodbye to the beautiful city.

We spent Saturday in Cali, a large city near Yumbo. While we had fun at the zoo, shopping, and enjoying the art, I couldn’t help but notice all the homeless people living in makeshift homes wherever they could.

I was told they were Venezuelans and that with the new president in their country, many people could no longer afford to stay and came to Colombia in hopes of a new life. Many people left with the clothes on their back and nothing more.

Unfortunately, this new life consisted of makeshift tents, bathing in the Rìo de Cali, and begging for money or even a prayer. My heart went out to these people who were forced to leave their lives for this one.

Sunday was spent in San Cipriano, where in order to make it into the actual city, you must take a brujita, or a small train of wooden benches powered by a motorcycle, down the railroad tracks.

The brujita

This little town was surrounded by jungle and waterfalls, where the only true source of income is tourism. Our day was full of swimming, hot sun, and good food.

On Monday we traveled to Popayán, where my friend attends university, so that I could interview people for my research project. While beautiful, Popayán is another city ravaged by politics. After the government announced they were privatizing the university, students went on strike to protest such a change. Privatization would destroy any opportunity of higher education for low income students.

Just one of many graffitied statues around Popayán.

Known as the White City for its stark white buildings, it was semi-shocking to see graffiti all over the buildings, protesting the privatization. The university especially was covered in demands for public education.

During my interviews, I was able to discover some social aspects of Colombia. Machisimo is everywhere, in the way men treat women in social groups, in how men conduct themselves, to what kind of chores boys do around the house compared to their sisters.

One thing many of my interviewees talked about, that I personally experienced was street harassment. Women are constantly assailed with comments such as “You look delicious, give me a taste” or “Mamacita, ven aquí”, they’re followed as they walk, I personally had my butt grabbed while shopping, and overall women constantly needed to have their guard up as they walked.

One of my interviewees was actually a tour guide and was more than willing to give us a personal tour of the White City. Our tour ended at one of the most popular bars, named Monk’s, where they remodeled a condemned building and gave it an indie aesthetic.

We returned to Yumbo the following day and over the net week continued to explore Cali and Yumbo, visiting tourist places as well as places only locals frequent. At this point, I only had 10 days left before I went home. I was missing my family and things from home like warm showers and cat snuggles.

My last weekend in Colombia, we visited Valle de Cocora, a valley famous for its massive palm trees. We rode horses down the gravel path and through a river and I couldn’t help but imagine I was an adventurer in the wild west or somewhere along those lines.

Valle de Cocora was breath-taking, with massive palm trees and rolling green hills. We climbed a massive hill that had to have at last been at a 70 degree angle because after 4 steps you were out of breath. To put it into perspective, we started climbing just before sunset and by the time we reached the top the sun was basically done setting. We had to stumble down the hill in darkness, I don’t know how I didn’t fall more than once.

This day was also a challenge for me as we decided that as a test of my skills, I could only speak in Spanish. I can proudly say that both my hike and my Spanish test was successful.

While I learned a lot about Colombia, I also learned a lot about myself and grew along the way. I learned to go with the flow, even if you didn’t have all the details. Colombians are habitually late and last minute planners, the complete opposite of how I generally live (this was really hard to get used to). I learned to trust when I took the brujita and when I went paragliding, normally I would never take “risks” that big.

I think (or I hope) that I’ve become more confident and comfortable with myself and my body. I could only use my phone when I had wifi (which was not often) and the lack of social media actually improved my self-image. I found that I was comparing myself to others less and that I was simply happier with who I am.

I feel more appreciative of the little things too, thanks to my lack of wifi. I often would just look out a window and watch life pass or listen to the sounds of life. I felt more in the moment and genuinely enjoyed myself more than usual.

Going forward, I don’t want to lose these things I gained during my trip because I believe they make me a better, happier person. Colombia changed me, the me who is writing this is different from the me that got on a plane on January 6th.

While I am happy to be home, I am already excited for my future travels. I definitely plan to visit Colombia again because in my time there, I fell in love with that country. Most Americans only know Colombia for cocaine and coffee but it is so much more than that. It’s family, love, art, being carefree, and happiness. Colombia es mi tierra.

Have you traveled? If so, where to and what was your favorite part of it? Leave a comment below and tell me about your travels!

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