Most travellers only spend a couple of days in Cartagena. It doesn’t take long to see the beautiful old city, wander the coloured streets and enjoy the humid days and the warm, windy nights. But I was fortunate enough to spend a full four weeks living in this charming little Colombian city, and I know that my experience of Cartagena went far beyond the classic tourist tour. Although I was very at home in Paris and Buenos Aires, I don’t feel like I completely immersed myself in the local lifestyle. In Cartagena, I was living in a homely volunteer apartment in Barrio Crespo in the north of the city. On my first night I was slightly disappointed to discover that I was living next to the airport, a 20 minute walk away from the centre, but Crespo turned out to be perfect. Our apartment was right on the beach front, an 80p bus journey from the centre, and in a really safe area with a nice community. I spent a large part of my time chilling in a hammock on our front balcony, reading my book and enjoying the breeze coming in from the seaside. In the afternoons, after my projects finished, I would take a bus into town to stroll the coloured streets with the hoards of American tourists and then walk back home along the windy (black sand) beach. So, why Cartagena?
Obviously the sun strongly influenced my decision to volunteer in Cartagena rather than Arequipa, Peru. But I actually heard about Emerging Voices on Instagram, looked up IVHQ (the international volunteer organisation through which I have organised both my Colombia and my Ecuador programs) and instantly set my heart on going there. I already knew that I wanted to visit Cartagena during my travels, but the reviews on the IVHQ website made the Cartagena project sound particularly rewarding, and I decided to spend a month working there.
What is Emerging Voices, and what does the organisation do? Emerging Voices was originally set up in Bogota, and opened in Cartagena a few years ago. The project is still small, so although that means that there aren’t hundreds of volunteers working there at one time, it gives it an incredible family atmosphere: I instantly felt at home. Emerging Voices currently works with five different projects, which principally revolve around teaching English. In our first week, we went to a different project every day so that we could try them all and figure out which one was best suited for us. This is extremely important to the Emerging Voices coordinators: they want you to enjoy the work you are doing and to feel like your contribution is valuable. On my first day, I went to teach English at a school called Nelson Mandela. I had to help a group of 15 year olds read Genesis in English, even though none of them understood a word of the language! On the Tuesday, we went to look after children with cancer, who live together in a little house in the city during their treatment, since their homes are too far away from the hospitals. We played games with them and did some colouring in, and it was incredibly inspiring to see how cheerful and optimistic they were about everything. In the afternoon, we went to help at a food bank, my least favourite activity of the week. It was good for my Spanish to talk to the workers at the factory, but I had hoped to be able to help others more directly, and did not feel like this was a particularly rewarding experience. On the Wednesday, I went to teach English at the Santa Rita Community Church. This then became one of my favourite projects, and I went back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, eventually leading the ‘basic’ English class. In the beginning, I accompanied my friend Matt in his classes with the ‘Advanced’ students. We read ‘The Little Prince’ and played various games; Matt was an amazing teacher and I learned a lot from watching him engage with his students. Everyone at Santa Rita was extremely friendly; it was such a lovely, welcoming Christian community. My mornings at Santa Rita always put me in the most fantastic mood for the rest of the day! On the fourth day, we got two buses and a golf cart to take us to Marea, a youth rehab centre in the middle of nowhere. We introduced ourselves to the thirty kids, danced with them, and taught them some basic English. In the afternoon, the boys played football while we chatted with the girls on the sidelines. After spending a day at Marea and meeting the inspiring children, I could not stay away, and we all went back every Tuesday and Thursday for the next few weeks. Although we were there to help the children, we all agree that we also learned so much from them. Juan, one of the Emerging Voices coordinators, would begin every day at Marea by reading the children a meaningful poem or story. On the whiteboard in the outdoor classroom, someone had written ‘La gratitud es la memoria del alma’ (Gratitude is the soul’s memory). The children’s motivation was incredibly inspiring: when we greeted them every morning and Juan asked them how they were feeling, they would all shout back “motivados!” Many of these children had checked themselves into the centre, and they are all determined to recover from their addictions. II became incredibly attached to the children, the girls in particular. On my free afternoons, I would go into the centre of town to buy beads and thread from the little shops, so that the kids could make rosaries and friendship bracelets with us during our hot afternoons in the Marea playground. When I left, one of the girls wrote me a letter, thanking me for helping her in such a difficult time of her life and for bringing smiles and giggles into her days at Marea. One of the boys, Esteban, made me a rosary, while the two identical twins made us all little insects out of twisted wire. Despite their troubled backgrounds, the children were generally extremely determined, optimistic and affectionate. I know that I learned a huge amount from my days at Marea, and I will never forget the experience.
What was it like living in the volunteer apartment? What were the other volunteers like?
I was even more comfortable in our apartment in Crespo than I could have imagined. Our small, sweaty girls dorm room could have been cramped and claustrophobic, but for some reason I always slept well there. We had a nice, open living area, and the hammock area at the front was the perfect spot for relaxing. Rita, a lovely old Colombian lady with a tiny, squeaky voice, prepared delicious Colombian meals for us three times a day. We ate a lot of rice and beans, but she also cooked some really good meat and fish dishes, and prepared lovely fresh juices every day. At the weekends, we would cook for ourselves or head into the centre for an overpriced meal (I only did this once – central Cartagena really is pretty expensive), while there were plenty of cheap fast-food restaurants in Crespo. In the evenings, we would often head to the little corner store just up the road, to drink a few rum and cokes and relax after a hard day’s work. When we were feeling more energetic, we’d get a taxi into the centre and go for £3 mojitos in the Plaza de la Trinidad in the Getsemani neighbourhood. On Friday nights, Plaza Trinidad really livened up: children would dance in the square, a super cheap shot van would roll up, and the boys would feast on the famous ‘Plaza Trinidad Burgers’.
This is the place to be in the evenings, and it would fill up with locals and tourists alike. Although we had a 3pm curfew at the weekends, we could still fit in a good few hours of dancing at Mister Bambilla, a cute little club near to the Plaza. My first night here was particularly fun – by then, I knew most of the Colombian songs, and I could dance (in my awkward English style) to my heart’s content! My volunteer companions were great. Although there had been up to 18 volunteers at one time in January, we were a small group of around 8 people, which fluctuated a bit over the four weeks. The volunteers came from all over: England, Portugal, Canada, Mexico, and lots from America. I really loved getting to know this eclectic group of people. Everyone had their own story, and I definitely feel like I learned something different from each of my new friends. I really enjoyed our week’s holiday on the North Coast – it was nice to have some time off work and to see each other in different contexts. I had a fantastic time at Emerging Voices and know that I will stay in touch with many of my new friends. I just hope that my experience in Quito is as successful!
And what about the Spanish?
I had not been expecting my level of Spanish to improve quite so much during my time in Cartagena. Although we spoke English in the volunteer apartment, the two coordinators who lived with us were both Colombian, and I tried to practise my Spanish with them as much as possible. Although a high level of Spanish wasn’t essential for the projects (many of the other volunteers could barely speak a word), my ability to communicate with the students really made a difference. It meant that I could fully engage with the students at the community project, and really get to know the children at Marea, whose level of English was not always very high.
What about the touristy side of Cartagena?
Of course, I still wanted to see the classic Cartagenan sites. I decided not to pay to visit the castle, the Palacio de Inquisión or the Gold Museum (although I did visit the Modern Art museum), but to do a free walking tour of the city instead. I downloaded a really great (free) app called Triposo (it has guides for all over Colombia, and I really hope it does other countries as well), which will create you a nice walking route of the city, highlighting all the famous sites and providing some basic background information. The app also recommends restaurants, bars and shops, and I have used it in every city I have been to so far, including Santa Marta, Medellin, Salento and now in Cali. I created a 10km walk from my apartment, which took me along the beach until I got to the centre of town, where I then walked past many famous sights such as Las Bovedas, the Naval Museum and the Plaza Bolivar. Although I have been trying to do as much Oxford reading as possible during my trip, I decided to put away my Cortázar and read some Gabriel García Marquez for fun during my time in Cartagena. I studied 100 Years of Solitude for my Latin American paper last year, but hadn’t read Love in the Time of Cholera since I was 16. Seeing at this famous ‘Gabo’ (Marquez’ nickname) novel was set in beautiful, romantic Cartagena, I decided to buy myself a shiny new Spanish edition of the book from a cute little librería in the city centre, and started to devour the love story on my bus journeys to the projects and in the hammock at the apartment. I had read about a García Marquez tour of Cartagena, and found a great app for £1.50 called ‘La Cartagena de Gabo’. At every point during my Tripsoso walking tour, I would find the corresponding clip on the Gabo app and listen to a 5 minute podcast about the location. This might be a building where one of the characters lived (or even Gabo’s own house), a square where an important scene took place, or a street that the writer used to visit himself. There were also extracts from various books, and occasionally a brief explanation of the historical context behind a location. I absolutely loved this tour, and really enjoyed sitting on benches at every stopping point and learning the stories behind one of my favourite novels.
So, to sum up…
Sorry for the rambling post. I had really hoped to write separate blog posts about Emerging Voices, the touristy side to Cartagena and what I learned from my month in the city, but I just ran out of time and thought I’d bung it all into one long, boring post. There are many things I’ve forgotten to mention, such as lovely Carlos, the constantly giggling 65 year old man who is an important part of the Emerging Voices family, my enjoyable weekend trip to Playa Blanca, where we slept in hammocks on the beach and enjoyed fresh coconuts in the scorching sun, and the delicious coffees we’d go and get from Juan Valdez (Colombia’s equivalent to Starbucks) at the airport.
My time in Cartagena was even better than I had expected it to be, and I was extremely sad to say goodbye when my four weeks were up. I found it really hard visiting the projects for the last time, and even more difficult to my new friends.