"To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries" Aldous Huxley
I am writing this just as the Sunday church bells are ringing out across the valley to the tune of "Once in Royal David´s City", a musical reminder of the very prevalent Christian faith here in Colombia and many of her neighbouring countries throughout the continent.
Coming to South America was always an idea that has been in the back of my mind ever since I was about 17 and I realised how much I enjoyed learning Spanish. With the encouragement of my best friend Alexi who was always telling me how much she could imagine me loving the culture and the music of Colombia, I decided to apply with the British Council and got a job as an English language assistant in a private university in the beautiful city of Manizales. A small city of 350 000 people, Manizales´ many universities attract an abundance of students from all over the country, and its very comfortable year-round temperature of 20 degrees makes for a perfect living and working environment. When Pablo Neruda came here, he called it "a factory of sunsets"; he wasn´t wrong.
I am temporarily staying in the house of Doña Olga, a typical Paisa woman whose thick accent sometimes makes her difficult to comprehend, but whose evident kindness and patience mends our frequent misunderstandings. It´s great to temporarily live with a local, not only for Spanish practice but for all the people she has introduced me to. She has cooked us many different types of Colombian food including ajiaco (chicken and corn soup), homemade salted mango ice lollies (yes, she put salt in an ice lolly), and arepa, a typical corn flat bread which I initially thought tasted like cardboard but I have now come to like, especially as I have started adding butter and marmite to it, mm mmm! There have been a few mishaps however such as Doña Olga insisting on making my cup of tea for me by boiling the water, teabag and too much milk altogether on the stove. I didn´t have the heart to tell her she wasn´t doing it right, and sipped it gratefully muttering "Gracias Señora, muy amable". Luckily, I have now found a great one-bedroom studio apartment with a private terrace and a lovely view of the mountains which I will be moving into in September. Needless to say I am very excited at the prospect of cooking for myself and making my own tea in the mornings.
I have visited the beautiful nature reserve of Recinto del Pensamiento set among cloud forest and home to many species of orchid, bird and butterfly including hummingbirds and mariposas cristales (transparent butterflies!) We also visited one of the many natural hot springs near the city which is a pool of 40 degree sulphuric water directly heated by the nearby Nevado del Ruiz, an active volcano. I was also lucky enough to receive a visit from my dear friend Arielle and her mate Fede who were travelling Colombia and couldn't miss the opportunity to catch up after a year of not seeing me. What a girl, thanks so much for a burst of familiarity!
On my second weekend of arriving in Colombia the famous Feria de la Flores was due to take place and I knew I couldn´t miss the opportunity to see it and take my first visit to the famed city of Medellín. Along with my two housemates Brazilian Gabriel and Mexican Archibaldo, we took a bus from the terminal in Manizales and prepared for what was supposed to be a 4 hour journey. One thing you have to try to imagine is that the crumpled nature of the landscape in the coffee axis is some of the best aesthetic splendour I have ever borne witness to; whilst also provoking the most restless, winding, neck breaking drive I have yet encountered (beaten only by one in Morocco). The flight route between Manizales and Medellín is the most expensive domestic flight in Colombia and so most people opt to endure the bus ride. They are small buses run by private companies fitting about 12-15 people onboard and offering free wifi. I however, was completely distracted by the night sky which was splattered with stars and illuminated every so often by a distant orange lightning that revealed the outline of the rolling hills all around us but without the presence of thunder. Unfortunately there was an accident and we had to wait for more than an hour, but we just lay quietly outside on the still warm road watching the brilliant sky, listening to the crickets and even spotting a few fireflies! I felt very lucky to be there. We continued what was to become a six hour journey winding up and down through the forests and coffee plantations which I´m sure would have been stunning had there been daylight to see by. We drove past countless road stops with BLARING salsa music offering an array of fried foods to satiate hungry travellers. I was certainly looking forward to the famed fruit trucks of Medellín selling freshly squeezed juices and ice cream.
My first impression of Medellín was that it was a fantastically huge and bustling city which is working hard to rid itself of its bad reputation (it won the Lee Yuan Kew World City prize in March 2016 which claimed that… "Withina span of just two decades, Medellín had overcome challenges of uncontrolled urban expansion, and transformed itself from a notoriously violent city to one that is being held up as a model for urban innovation". We took a ride on the cable cars which offered incredible views of the urban sprawl and overlooked the notorious makeshift neighbourhoods below. Whilst on the cable car we got chatting to an old woman who took an interest in me, as I´m told I look really foreign due to my blonde hair, and she asked where I was from. I replied "cerca de Londres en Inglaterra", to which she gave a puzzled look and wanted to clarify that it was somewhere in the United States. As surprised as I was at her reply, I didn´t want to embarrass her so I said "Almost, its actually in Europe" to which her face settled into understanding and she wisely nodded "Ahh, España". "Yeah, Spain", I smiled and we continued chatting on our journey up the slope. As well as this, a taxi driver here in Manizales just asked me where I was from, I replied "Inglaterra" and he responded "Alemania entonces" (So, Germany then?) and I said "No I´m from England not Germany" to which he replied "Oh, are they different then?". England, it seems isn´t the centre of the world for everyone, as many would have us believe.
The Flower festival itself was an absolute spectacle with a parade of gorgeously dressed dancers, brass bands and the stars of the show, the Silleteros, young and old, males and females, who design, make and carry very very heavy silletas made from real fresh flowers. All that standing up, peeking through the crowd for hours under the relentless heat of the midday sun however made me dizzy and I nearly fainted, what a gringo! I had to lie down in the shade and drink some cold water whilst a local good-naturedly shouted to me "Mona, you´re missing the show!" I also ate my first hormiga colona, an ant´s butt, dried and crunchy and considered a delightful almondy-tasting snack by Colombians. I liked Medellín a lot, but I found the sheer size of it quite overwhelming and I was glad to be heading back to little Manizales later that day.
As for working in a university, so far so good! My colleagues are all so friendly and eager to improve their English asking me to correct them if ever they make a mistake which isn´t often. Enjoying working with adult students has also been a pleasant surprise as they are very curious, funny and mostly outgoing which makes for the classes to pass quickly. One of my classes even requested to bring in typical Colombian food to let me try it and then they each took it in turns to explain the ingredients and cultural significance of their chosen dish, so interesting and sweet of them.
There is so much to see and do in Colombia as my students keep reminding me when I ask for their recommendations. Being the second most bio-diverse country in the world, I am looking forward to so much. But for now, I am doing my best to settle in and make friends, accustom myself to the lifestyle and language of the coffee region and work hard in this very busy job of mine!