I started my post-graduation travels on November 23rd. After a week in Dubai and Oman I returned to Paris for one day, only to pack my bags, see some of my best friends one last time, and leave again. Now, via Finland, Sweden, Denmark, US, Jamaica and Cuba, I have finally arrived to my new hometown: Cartagena, in northern Colombia. My plan is to stay here for some four or five months but nothing is fixed, we’ll see.
A couple of months ago I decided two things: 1) that after graduation I would spend some time in a Spanish speaking country (but not Spain) and 2) that instead of looking for a “real” job right away, I would go volunteering. I started planning my trip by Facebook-messaging everyone I know from South/Central America. My goal was to find the ideal destination but obviously they all recommended a different country (I understand, almost any place here must be an ideal destination). Even if I narrowed my options to a city by the sea that would not be too dangerous, there where still quite many places to choose from. And since I had never been to this continent before, I really had no preferences.
However, I got one good tip through my Facebook inquires, that was an organization called Moving Worlds. Instead of ordinary volunteering missions they organize something they call “Experteering”, that comes from the words “expert” and “volunteering”. I will tell you more about it later but basically the idea is to work with a local company or association, volunteering specific, often business-related “skills”. The goal is to contribute to an impactful project in a foreign country, that is at the same time beneficial for one’s future career. At the best, the "Experteering" project is an exchange of cultures and competences, an experience that both sides can learn something from. The website works like Tinder: you create a profile, write about yourself (one picture is enough) and tick the box with your preferences regarding the project and the location. Moving Worlds will then match you with a suitable project and you can get in touch with the representative of the company or association. I found the concept very interesting so I decided to give it a try. I think that in life things often happen quite randomly and by chance. You know someone who knows someone, or you are simply at the right place at the right time. Life is full of options and it is hard to choose. But when you just go with the flow and let things happen, it usually goes well. So that’s what I did and through lucky coincidences and helpful connections I came across a volunteering project with Fundación La Vecina, and ended up here in Cartagena.
I have been here now for a week. My blog is a bit late again, it took so much time and energy to catch up and post everything from Cuba that I needed a break. Besides, this first week has of course been very hectic. I have settled to one place and then moved to another, started at work, discovered five different neighborhoods, managed to take a bus without getting lost or robbed, met one old friend and made some new. Really, I haven’t seen the time pass. So far I like this place a lot, and I should write down my first impressions while everything is still fresh in my mind.
I think it is exciting to be in a new city that I don’t know at all yet. I have so much to discover! Cartagena is a lot bigger than what I thought, I haven’t yet seen all the different areas. The first days I felt very lost and out of my place because this city somehow reminds me of many places where I have been, but then again it is not like anything else. The first house I stayed at was in a quartier called Manga. It is very residential and quiet, and looks quite fancy. The houses are beautiful and have gardens and patios, and I saw for example lots of medical clinics that looked expensive. I got the same feeling than when walking around in South Beach, in Miami. Apart from houses there are also high buildings that are apartment complexes, or how do you call them, residences that share the facilities like a garden, pool area and a gym. I don’t know why but it also made me think of Hong Kong and the quartier where my friend X lived before she moved to the US. That is also because when I walked five minutes from my house I came to the seaside, which was exactly like in Hong Kong. Manga is not on the beach but there is an elegant fishing club and a nice park, and you see skyscrapers on the other side on the bay.
The area where I live now, Marbella, reminds me also a bit of Miami because it is literally on the beach (it is not the nicest beach to go swim to but it is a beach anyway and that’s all that counts!). This area is residential as well but there are apartment buildings, not houses, and it is by a big road with heavy traffic. In a way Cartagena also makes me think of Dubai, and not only because of the heat. In order to get from one neighborhood to another you have to walk along big roads and “traverser à l’Omani”, like we said with my friend M in Dubai and Oman, meaning that when you want to cross the street you look for a break between two cars and you run. Because the cars will never stop to let you go. Driving is crazy and the chances of getting hit by a car are way higher than in Paris. But the odds to get in an accident twice in such a short period of time must be minimal so I’m not scared, I just try to be extra careful. I heard that there are motorcycles taxis here but that is one thing I promise I will never take, I heard they are insane and I don't want to die. But clearly the roads are not made for walking. Then again, a taxi (car, not a motorcycle, to anywhere in the central area costs around 1.8 euros which is tempting and a lot safer option.
Views from Manga:
My beach in Marbella:
Then the center, or historical old town, as well as a neighborhood called Getsemani, are completely different. There I feel like being in Trinidad again, or alternatively in an old Spanish town. The houses are picturesque and just adorable. In Trinidad I admired and envied people’s rooftop terraces, here they have amazing balconies! The area is filled with plazas, churches, boutiques, restaurants, cafés and bars. It is lively and animated, especially in the evening. At every corner you can buy handmade jewelry or accessories (and they actually look pretty!) and there are music and dance everywhere. And of course horse carriages but this time just to take tourists around. I went out there a couple of times already and I really like it. What makes the old center special is that it is surrounded by a wall, which was built long ago to protect the city. In Cartagena everything is by the water, either at a bay or facing the ocean, and I just love it. I haven’t seen all the neighborhoods yet but so far Cartagena looks like a mix of skyscrapers and big roads, residential areas, beaches, hotels and historical districts. And then there is La Boquilla, the neighborhood where I work, which is a bit further away from the center. That is again a totally different story, I’ll tell you more about it in an other post.
I don’t have many pictures yet because for once I have been enjoying walking around without photographing all the time. But I have time to take plenty, I’ll post more soon.
I had, well in advance, rented a room at a Colombian woman’s house in Manga. I was happy to have found it through the foundation and without any trouble. She is very nice and the house is beautiful, like they are in that quartier. However, I soon noticed that I would go crazy in a while if I lived there. The thing is, this woman lives with her husband and her parents, and they are all always at home. There are also plenty of friends, neighbors and other family members that frequently stop by. They all seem very friendly but I feel like being a guest in a casa particular like in Cuba (which was wonderful but each time only for a couple of days). I need my space and I need to be alone sometimes, without having to lock myself in my tiny room. I also don’t fancy sharing the kitchen and the bathroom with a whole family that I don’t know. No but seriously, I wasn’t thinking of moving anywhere yet but maybe to start looking for something else in a couple of weeks when I will be more settled here. But then, I was lucky again and just happened to get an opportunity that I couldn’t say no to. A young Mexican woman, A, who works as a teacher at the foundation, recently moved to a new apartment and was looking for a roommate. Perfect timing, I saw her and the apartment on Thursday and I moved here yesterday. She seems super nice and I like the fact that we can actually spend time together, like real roommates. This place is also a lot closer to my work so that's another great thing. I already feel at home here and not like a guest at someone else’s place. The apartment is not in a perfect condition but I think that for Colombia this is quite ok. My room is simple but I have everything I need (or almost, I’ll need to do some shopping), I like the kitchen a lot and we even have a hammock in the living room! All in all, it is charming and cozy here. It is also nice for a change to have a bigger apartment, after living for so many years in a 24m2 studio. And the rent is ridiculously cheap so I’m not complaining (ok I’m not earning any money either but still, it could be worse).
So when I will write about my roommate A, this is her:
Yesterday when I moved in I was welcomed by her and a friend of hers, a Colombian woman, R. They were just preparing lunch so I contributed by making melon juice (thank god we have a blender, that’s an other great point!) and the we ate all together. I already have a feeling that living with a Mexican woman may have its benefits...
After weeks of traveling in thousand different places it feels so good to be here. Last Monday when I arrived to Cartagena, guess what was the first thing I did. I went to a supermarket. Imagine, a real supermarket! After six weeks of struggling with grocery shopping (Kingston was ok but still, this is so much better), I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw all the fruits and vegetables and shelves full of all kinds of products. I was just standing there and staring, it must have looked funny.
On Saturday I also decided that I deserved some pampering, in the form of a little tour in a shopping mall. I justified it with the fact that I had to leave so many nice things in Paris, and that I really didn’t have anything to wear in this heat. I didn’t think it would be this hot and humid but it is and I’m determined to survive! Now I’m happy about my purchases, I guess I found my true materialistic self again... An interesting thing here is money. I am still so confused that most of the time I have no idea of how much I’m spending so I just try to reassure myself that Colombia is a cheap country. To give you an idea: 1 euro is around 3800 Colombian pesos (COP). And 1 COP is then 0,0003 euros. So the two currencies have absolutely nothing to do with each other. The funny thing is that I feel very rich when using pesos, throwing around 20 000 or 50 000 bills. I know that I did a lot of shopping on Saturday but never in my life have I spent almost a million during one afternoon. Imagine if it was in euros!
Saturday was a perfect day also because I met my Spanish friend, M, the one I spent time with in Jamaica. She is on her way to Brazil, via Jamaica, Costa Rica, now Colombia, and then Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. Not a bad itinerary. We walked around the old town and enjoyed some nice drinks and girl talk. It felt like so much had happen since I last saw him in Port Antonio, even if it was only a month ago. I hope we meet somewhere soon again, M!
Oh and about the Spanish they speak here. Of course it is completely different from Cuba. In Cuba I already learnt not to pronounce the R:s and to cut all the S:s in the end of the word, here I have to start articulating again. I think when I get used to it the Colombian Spanish will be relatively easy to understand because they seem to speak more clearly. But then again, it depends on where in Colombia the people are from. Well, at least with A I am talking a lot and also at work so I practice all the time. That (together with the heat and starting a new job) must be why I have been so tired this week. It feels exactly like the first semester in a French University, more than five years ago. I remember that I was exhausted every evening, after hours of concentration and trying to understand and speak French. Now at least I am less stressed than back then because I have grown up a lot and finally learnt not to worry about everything all the time because there is no point and because things tend to work themselves out. So I try to stay zen and try my best, it is ok to be a little bit lost, right?
Next I will tell you something about work and la Boquilla neighborhood, stay tuned!
Read the next story here.
I'm Emilia, Finnish-Parisian, a recent Master's graduate. I'm currently traveling around the Caribbean and on a volunteering mission in Colombia. I'm passionate about writing, music and different kinds of sports. I can't wait to discover new places and cultures - and share my adventures with you!