¡Viaja, explora, disfruta! – Travel, explore, enjoy! That was my motto during my five week Global Volunteer project with AIESEC in Bucaramanga, Colombia, in February 2020. And it could not have been more fitting:
I explored a culture and lifestyles that were completely new to me and learned to love Colombia’s people, cuisine and music. I ate hundreds of arepas, empanadas and obleas de Floridablanca and had a cup of aguapanela every morning. I tried to dance cumbia and vallenato and listened to a lot of reggaeton.
However, working with socially deprived teenagers also opened my eyes to the reality of poverty and crime in Middle and South America. Nevertheless (or maybe because of this), I met the most friendly, kind and endearing people who made me feel very welcome right from the start. It made me rethink a lot of prejudices and realize how privileged I am as a white person from Central Europe. It also taught me deep gratitude for my family, friends, hot water, reliable public transport and many other “minor” things I took for granted.
Me at the project
Furthermore, I had the possibility to travel through Colombia with friends I made at AIESEC. We hiked through the forests to beautiful waterfalls and lied on the beach in Cartagena in the Caribbean. One day before I left, we even went to San Gil crawling through a cave and bungee jumping.
All in all, I enjoyed every moment of my time in Colombia a lot. Here are some things that helped me to feel good on the other side of the world: It is important to take your time – for yourself and to adjust to the new environment. Do not be frustrated if you do not know how to handle certain situations or if you do not know how something works in your host country – Nobody expects you to! For example, I did not know how public transport in Colombia works and how to behave walking on the streets. Allow yourself to find out and most importantly: Ask! Ask people about everything – about food, traditions, about this and that and everything you want to know. Be curious, open-minded and respectful!
Still, if you need time for yourself take it! I can tell from experience that, especially in the first couple of days, all these new situations and (maybe) having to speak a different language can be overwhelming and exhausting. I used to watch my favorite tv show when I was tired, it also helps to go to bed early and to text your friends/family. This leads me to my next point: Find friends! I am usually not a very sociable person but I loved laughing, going out and travelling with my friends from Colombia. It helps you integrate and feel good in general.
Finally, my last “feel-good factor abroad” is to focus on things or values you have in common rather than the ones that separate you. Even though it may not seem like much, you might like the same music or sports or just have a common interest in other cultures. In a world with so many different political views, interests and also much hate, it should be the goal of all volunteers (actually of all travelers) to be a mediator between cultures and bring people together.
In the end, volunteering abroad has helped me grow as a person and broaden my horizons, apart from giving me the opportunity to make a small place in Bucaramanga a little bit better. And these are things that everybody deciding to do volunteer work abroad can benefit from.
My friends and I in Cartagena
– Katharina Fischer