Colombia / South America

Volunteering In The Old Murder Capital Of The World

When I turned 19, I decided to do a volunteer program as an English teacher in Medellín, Colombia. This city was once one of the most dangerous places on the planet, but it is now transforming into a hub for artists from all over the world. Let me tell you about my experiences in this fascinating city and what you can take away from them.

How it all started

I was walking through my university in Germany one day when I came across a poster that said, “Volunteer in Colombia now!“. As an adventurous young guy, I was definitely intrigued. Colombia appealed to me because of its natural beauty and authentic culture. This opportunity was also ideal because I wanted to learn Spanish in my native country. So, eventually, I applied and, thankfully, was accepted. When it came time to leave, I was nervous because it was my first time traveling alone to a place so far away from home.

My first day and the nightmare bus

After a 12-hour flight, I arrived in Colombia, a country across the Atlantic with a completely different culture than the one I was used to. I got picked up by my host family and was very excited, to say the least. After a few days, I began to feel more normal. I spoke with my host family and a few locals, and everyone was extremely welcoming and friendly.

After a week of adjusting, I began my first day as a teacher the following week. I got up at 7:00 a.m. because class started at 8:00 a.m. and the ride was approximately 40 minutes. And what a ride it was. I took the metro to the city center and then boarded the nightmare bus. You might be wondering why I call it the nightmare bus. So, let me explain…

Going up the death road

You should know that central Medellín is located in a valley and is surrounded by mountains.  And, because the city has grown tremendously over time, there are many uneven streets that wind their way up and down the mountains. It just so happened that the school where I was going to teach was in one of Medellín’s most remote areas.

As a result, I had to take one of the small buses that traveled up these bumpy roads. Let’s just say that these buses defied all known physical laws. On a one-way street, imagine going 90 degrees uphill. It felt like we were on our way to the summit of Mount Everest. However, I have the utmost respect for these bus drivers. Fortunately, all of us volunteers got used to it after a week and ended up enjoying these rides.

A typical Barrio in Medellín

Meeting the kids

Anyway, I was looking for a school after finally reaching the top. It turned out that I’d be teaching in a tiny shack with no real materials (e.g. pens, paper). Me and the other new volunteers had a quick moment of demoralization, which quickly vanished when we met the children who would be our future students. The system works like this: the teachers change every two months or so. This ensured that the kids took a unique approach to learning English.

I met volunteers from all over the world, including Canada, Italy, and Switzerland. They explained how they had been teaching the children for the previous two months and gave us advice on how to help them learn better. It was difficult at first, but we quickly adjusted. We eventually grew into a large family.

Chaos was always part of the programm 🙂

Exploring Medellin

We only had to work from Monday to Thursday, which allowed us to spend a significant amount of time exploring the city. Often, the volunteers stayed together and did more touristy activities. I wasn’t a fan of it at the time, and I still am not. I preferred living like a local, and I was fortunate enough to have met some great Colombians who showed me around.

Campus Lifestyle

I spent a lot of time at the University of Antioquia and had a lot of fun there. I felt like a student in an American movie because I had never been to one of these campus-style universities before. Students typically went there in the morning and returned in the evening. They never have to leave the campus because it has everything they need, including a gym, pools, and football fields.

Honestly, I was blown away by it and wished there were more universities like that in Germany. I met a lot of people just by eating in their large cafeteria. Sometimes I even found myself playing volleyball with complete strangers while a salsa class was taking place right next to us. Simply amazing.

Nature everywhere

When I first toured the city, all I saw were bricks and concrete, but as time went on, I discovered the city’s natural surroundings. There are many parks in Medellin, and while the most famous one (Parque Lleras) lacks in natural beauty, the others all have plenty of greenery. The Jardín Botánico was the first park I visited, and it blew me away. It was also very lively, in addition to having lovely trees and flowers. When we went, for example, there was a concert going on.

Jardín Botánico

Parque Arví

One of the highlights of my trip to Colombia was going to Parque Arví, and the best part was that I got to go with an architecture class. So not only did I get to see new areas, but I also learned a lot about the history of that particular location. Parque Arví is a Pre-Hispanic archeological site as well as an ecological nature preserve.

The journey there is an adventure in and of itself, as the cable car takes you nearly 20 minutes through the Colombian forest. Beautiful nature coexists with a multitude of historical sites and old houses in the park. It was fascinating to see how people lived in those days. It was fascinating to see how people lived in those days. This is an experience that I would strongly recommend to anyone who has some spare time in Medellín.

Transformation of the City

As I previously stated, the people of Medellín are working to overcome their horrific past and create a hub for artists and creatives.  Walking around in the once-violent comunas and barrios gives you a good idea of this.

Comuna 13, the most notorious example, was once the most dangerous part of Medellin (or even Colombia) twenty years ago. As a tourist, you wouldn’t even consider walking through this neighborhood. But now things are different. From dancing groups to beautiful graffiti, this location has essentially become the embodiment of Medellín’s transformation. You can get a fantastic view of the city after moving up the outdoor escalators.

Just an example of the beautiful graffiti art

Don’t trust the media (safety issue)

Yes, I know it sounds dramatic, but hear me out first. I was nervous after researching the city and its history, and to be honest, I was influenced by how the media portrayed Colombia. I came across titles like “Is Medellín safe?” and “How dangerous is Medellín at night?” every time I looked up the city. It didn’t help that I arrived at 1 a.m.

After some time adjusting to the new culture and way of life, I was finally able to see things clearly. Even though there are still issues in the city, such as petty theft and robbery, it would be wrong to claim that the city is dangerous and unwelcoming.

What I learned and what you need to know

Enough about this fascinating city; let me tell you about the most important lessons I learned as a volunteer. The first thing I learned is that you must be open-minded when visiting a place so far away from home and so different from your everyday life. I’ve spent my entire life in Germany, so I’m used to being on time. Let’s just say the Colombian way of doing things is a little different. When someone says you’ll meet at 9 a.m., plan on seeing him around 10.

Another aspect is accountability. Basically, you’re in charge of everything, and you must be able to perform even if you’re feeling lazy or unmotivated.

Last but not least, I learned to have empathy and understanding for the families who lived there. You must understand that parents go out of their way to send their children to these free English classes so that their children can have a better future.

Pro Tip: Don’t just stay in Medellín

One last thing, even though I really love Medellín and did not get bored one second in this city, I really advise you to explore the beautiful country of Colombia more if you can. I visited Cartagena, Guatapé, and the Coffee District. All three surprised me in different ways and were an experience in itself. So, if you have the time, definitely broaden your horizons by visiting places near and far from Medellín.

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