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Why I Decided to Volunteer in Medellín, Colombia

Nadine planned to go to Europe, but wound up in South America. Here's why.

A few months ago no one would have suspected I would end up preparing to spend three months in Colombia—least of all me. My goal was always to go abroad after graduation but the original target destination was somewhere in Europe. That changed sometime in January 2012. So what led me to this point?

Inspiration. For me it came in the form of a book. I began reading a novel by Brazilian author Aluísio de Azevedo. Prior to this I had never really considered South American as a place I would want to visit for a prolonged period of time. The novel ignited my imagination. Soon I wanted to know more about South American countries and their cultures. I started watching films, browsing music charts and Googling facts about these fascinating places.

The desire to learn something new. I speak passable (European) Portuguese, a gift from my mother. This led me to consider Brazil as my most logical destination choice, I could improve my language skills and perhaps pick up a cool new accent. Then I began thinking, why not learn Spanish as well? My sister had just taken it up at university and during the holidays I loved listening to her practice.

Reading Daniel Franklin's article in Intelligent Life convinced me it was a good idea—Spanish is the native tongue of nearly 400 million people and quite simply a beautiful language. I broadened my search and eventually I found something I thought would best fit my desires and talents: a three-month position working as an assistant in an English classroom located in the city of Medellin, Colombia.

Curiosity. I didn’t know a lot about Colombia before I started planning this trip. To be honest I could probably have listed what I knew about the country on one hand:

a.    The capital city is Bogota.
b.    It grows some of the world’s finest coffee.
c.    Shakira and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are both Colombian nationals.
d.    It gets a lot of bad press due to drug related issues, kidnappings and rebels.

I knew absolutely nothing about Medellin. Before I accepted the volunteer position, I spent a couple days researching the city and its history. This is what I learned about Medellin from Wikipedia and some local bloggers who are living or have lived in the city:

e.    It is known as “The City of Eternal Spring.”
f.    Paisas (residents of the province of Antioquia, Medellin being the capital) are some of the most friendly people you could meet.
g.    It is a very modern city and home to the only metro system in Colombia.
h.    The city was once plagued by violence associated with the drug trade but has since experienced a renaissance.

Medellin is a global city, a commercial hub and tourist destination. One of its most famous events is the 'Feria de las Flores', a festival held annually in August. It includes a pageant, a parade and concerts, all celebrating Antioquian culture. It’s a pity I won’t be able to witness the festivities but I am incredibly excited to simply explore the city and discover what it has to offer! Getting beyond the stereotypes some continue to associate with Colombia and immerse myself in Colombian culture is one of the main reasons I was drawn to this opportunity.

To be honest I’m not sure what to expect from this experience and I am slightly nervous about the whole thing. It’s not that this is my first time away from my small town in rural Ontario, I was lucky enough to spend a year in Paris as an au pair for a wonderful family between my third and fourth year of university. I was nervous then too but everything worked out just fine. The difference is I had visited France before, while I still experienced some culture shock I felt more prepared for it. This feels like something completely beyond anything I am familiar with—something that excites me, but also generates doubts and second thoughts.

A while back I saw an image somewhere online that read something like “replace your fear of the unknown with curiosity.” Now I am a naturally anxious person and not what you would call impulsive by any mean. The past couple of years this has more or less been my motto. Instead of letting myself get caught up in fear and anxiety I have tried to spin these overwhelming emotions into curiosity and ambition. Some days I am more successful than others. The day I decided to go to Medellin was definitely a success!

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Nadine Van Deuren

Nadine Van Deuren is a recent graduate of Western University who is spending three months in Medellín, Colombia through AIESEC. While there she will be working with students at the Fundación Educativa CENSA Juan Sebastián Gutiérrez Bustamante to improve their English langauge skills. Her goals? To improve her very basic Spanish, learn more about Colombia and hopefully pick up some salsa skills. In her spare time she likes to dabble in other languages, write letters and make plans for future travels.

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