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Language immersion in Medellin

The lights blink off briefly on the plane as I’m shaken awake by a particularly violent patch of turbulence. There’s an announcement, too rapid for my waking mind to process. It’s not translated. The ground beneath my window is dramatic and strangely close. It’s not long since we took off. The aircraft continues to shake itself from side to side and I sense too the definite lurching sensation of steady descent. The lights fade to blackness and I’m left without the means to search for panic in the eyes of my fellow passengers. Only to look into the inexplicably approaching mountains. I sit back in my seat and close my eyes.

Such are the fictions we create for ourselves when travelling alone. After six frustrating hours waiting in Bogota airport with few distractions, I fell asleep into my window frame as soon as I boarded the plane. But I hadn’t really understood how short the journey would be and awoke bewildered and, without reference points, convinced myself of a different fate for that journey. But Google Maps assured me we had landed safely in the right airport, and in the end the worst that happened was the missing taxi driver I’d organised for my pick-up and subsequently some small confusion about my destination.

I’m in Medellin for two weeks for intensive Spanish classes and the further immersion of staying with a Colombian family – by the end of which I’ll hopefully be slightly more able to cope with sticky moments like taxi journeys and unexpected plane landings.

Carlos, my Colombian father, meets me at the front of our rather fancy apartment block and takes me up to the flat as I explain in broken Spanish about my flight delay. As I’m introduced to his wife Gloria, who cooks a late dinner for me, I start to realise this will be a rather different experience to the one I was expecting. Neither of them actually live there, but in a nearby apartment, coming to visit at breakfast and for some evenings to practice Spanish with us. I won’t be overhearing family domestics and building up my colloquial vocabulary, as I’d imagined. Instead I’ll be living with other Spanish-learning home-stayers and speaking mainly… English.

And true to form, the first of my flatmates, who I meet later that same night, is from London. Despite everything, it’s such a welcome relief to be able to speak English with her – and by that I mean not only the language itself but speech in the same rapid comfort you share only with someone from your own country. Even in America I’d felt my motorways tugged into freeways, my bathrooms to restrooms, my bills to cheques, adapting irresistibly to the vocabulary around me. But with Katie I feel instantly at home in this strange apartment and its chintz decor. We exault in the luxury of our private rooms and bond over the fact we both travel with Twinings Earl Grey teabags.

Medellin

The next morning I wake up to the amazing view of Medellin from our 10th storey, its high-rises flooding up the sides of the wide valley – and also with a newfound sense of productivity. I’m keen to get as much as I can from my weeks of Spanish classes – which weren’t cheap – and Katie is a great influence. We work a lot together that first weekend, as well as spending some time exploring some of the city. We find ourselves in Parque Explora – something like the Science Museum but with live reptiles. We spend a long time playing with a life-size pin art board, laughing at the very stark impressions we leave with our bodies, and another long while making nauseated noises at the many large and repugnant snakes.

Back at the apartment we have a new housemate – another Katey and from California. The next morning she wins my complete respect by bringing Twinings tea bags to the breakfast table.

I’d like to say I was as industrious and studious over the next two weeks as that first weekend. That I got buried into school and language learning. That it was just a few days before I was having deep and extensive conversations with my host parents on a variety of subjects. And that’s the optimism I myself held on that first day going into the classroom, on that first free afternoon where I copied out what I’d learned in class and stayed up late that night reading my Spanish grammar book.

But the truth is, as much as I did learn in those classes, I wasn’t the dedicated student I hoped I’d be. For in the rest of my time I let myself get far too absorbed in the luxury of having something of a social scene, spending it with my housemates and others I met at the school. The two Katie(ey)s were soon joined by Charlotte, also from London, who was struggling to find an acceptable hostel, and we invited into our remaining bedroom. There were Woody Allen films to watch, beers to sample at the local brewery, rooftop bars, salsa bands and two whole weekends to visit neighbouring regions of Colombia.

Cocora

The first of these we spent in Salento, in the coffee region of Colombia, walking through the impossibly tall palm trees of the Cocora Valley, wandering around a coffee farm and learning its processes (complete with samples), standing up at the back of our open-aired taxi jeeps and watching the rolling hills framing the town skip past. The second we make it to Rio Claro where we’re staying in a three-walled room open to the noises of the rainforest around us, our soothing backdrop to sleep. We walk among the trees and explore the banks and breaks in the river, taking a raft along it later that day. Our guide takes a sadistic delight in capsizing our boat at frequent intervals.

Of Medellin itself I see mainly Poblado – the apt translation ‘small village’ – which is not far from my apartment and home to our Spanish school, and has as many hipster cafes and vegan restaurants as Dalston – and an equally lively night life. I do manage to do the free Real City Walking tour around the center of downtown Medellin and learn a fair bit in these four hours about the city’s traumatic history and drug violence which ten years ago made it one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

Democratic Architecture

Some incredible things have been done here to transform the space and make it safer, particularly with architecture. One of the most dangerous squares has been filled with sculpture-like lights. A huge rubbish dump has been covered up and transformed into a garden. Escalators have been introduced to the steep streets of one dangerous district. These innovations are supposed to instill pride and respect from locals for their surroundings and reduce crime. And this seems to have worked. Local governments even built huge new education centers and libraries close to these areas, offering an alternative to a life of crime.

I also see a very different few districts of Medellin whilst doing some volunteering for a local children’s education charity – an experience which adds to my awe for the city and its remarkable recovery. By a lucky coincidence I spot the Global Giving logo on the marketing for the charity supported by the school. I explain who I work for and am given a special afternoon tour of the school programmes of the Solidarity Foundation.

Volunteering Medellin

Other than this, I find myself frequently in various supermarkets and shopping centers with my friend Daniel – also from the UK – whose quest to replace his stolen phone seems to take many attempts, owing both to his indecisiveness and our poor Spanish. We also take a picnic up to Pueblito Paisa – an inexplicable hill in the centre of the city where we look out on to the city.

Even though Medellin may not have been the language-immersion experience I was expecting, and I spent most of my time with English-speaking people, it was the best possible introduction to my time in South America. The very comfortable set-up of the homestay, my housemates – all solo female travelers – and the school itself, gave me a very strong self-confidence and excitement for the next few months traveling in difficult countries.

So much so, in fact, that I’ve decided to extend my trip by an extra two months. This will give me the time to explore Chile and Argentina as well as Bolivia and Brasil, and also the chance to really perfect my Spanish. I’ve even already got plans to meet up with two of my flatmates in Patagonia for Christmas. So, sorry London – Latin America has seduced me. I’ll see you in February.

Flatmates

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