As I sat at work one dull day, my thoughts wandered to travelling. I’d been thinking I’d like to go to Colombia for a while, but I hadn’t taken the plunge. I knew I wanted to do more than just be a tourist but I didn’t know how or even what that meant. I Googled “art travel workshop” and eventually wound up on the International Volunteer HQ website. I’d heard about volunteering abroad before, and while I didn’t know much about it, it looked promising.
So promising, in fact, that when I found the volunteer program in Colombia - Bogota I applied right away. This is what I had been looking for. There were lots of projects that appealed to me but I ended up opting for one week on the Teaching project. I didn’t hesitate and it was the best decision. I was accepted by IVHQ and they were great at sorting out all the details and answering my questions. By the time I got to the airport to head to Colombia, I couldn’t wait to get there. As excited as I was, I wasn’t to know just how much this trip would awaken my soul.
I was met at El Dorado Airport in Colombia by my volunteer coordinators Lilly and Gloria. Straight away they were lovely - I’d flown thousands of miles but they made me feel as if I’d never left home. When we arrived at the volunteer house I was introduced to my fellow volunteers. The room was full of people from all over the world, but we had so much in common. Things were off to a great start.
I wasn’t quite sure about how I would be as a teacher. I really wanted to try it and I guess I thought I could help from a unique perspective because English is my second language, as it would be for these kids. Of course, when you don’t speak Spanish, there is a barrier between you and the people you’re teaching. What really surprised me, though, is how easy it is to overcome that. You actually have more in common with the kids than you first realize.
I taught boys between 8-14 years old and they were amazing. I still remember their smiling faces, full of love and eager to learn. The highlight was a drawing activity I organized for my final day. I was rapt with how well it went and I felt so lucky to be gifted one of the drawings. I will treasure it forever.
I’ll never forget what it was like saying goodbye. I naively thought before I went that it was about me giving something to them, but actually I was the one who received so much.
As well as volunteering on the teaching project, I spent a bit of extra time on the Feeding the Homeless project. I’d only initially signed up for one project but my local coordinators were flexible and allowed me to do something else. We worked out of a homeless shelter and helped prepare a big meal of scrambled eggs, bread and hot chocolate for around 50 elderly homeless people. We introduced ourselves and hugged each and every person who’d come in for a meal. My broken Spanish meant we couldn’t have much of a conversation but it was abundantly clear how much they appreciated what we’d done for them.
Outside of my time volunteering, I spent lots of time with my fellow volunteers. This lasted even after our volunteer time was up, because we just got along so well. Bogota is a great city and Colombians are really friendly. We went to a few of the main attractions around Bogota and they all lived up to their reputations.
Bogota Graffiti Tour. This is a free tour around the city taking in the local street art. What I didn’t know beforehand is that Bogota is one of the most graffitied cities in the world. The art is incredible and the two hour tour is hosted by an informed guide who gives you great information about the influence street art has had on the city.
Monserrate. Monserrate is a mountain in the city that is a must-see for all visitors. The views are as amazing as you’d expect but what I really enjoyed was the food. There’s a few restaurants at one point but if you keep going up there’s a great little market with local food stores and artists.
La Candelaria. This is Bogota’s old town and it’s amazing. It’s not like other old city centers - it’s so full of color! It’s really hard to keep up with everything because just when you think you’ve seen something beautiful you come across something that is even better. I particularly fell in love with Bolivar Square and the ancient cathedral that was built in the 16th century.
Plaza de Mercado de Paloquemao. If you want to see an authentic food market, this is the place to go. It’s the biggest food market in Bogota and it’s got so much food that I hadn’t seen before. The vendors are also really friendly and I even got a few free tastings.
Honestly, it’s hard to do justice to this volunteer trip with words. I could never have anticipated the effect it would have on me. I feel like I was a zombie before I did this, and now I have so much life and love in me. It doesn’t take much to make people happy - you will see that in people in Bogota. They are so grateful just for you being there, and that gratitude becomes your own for the experience…it truly is authentic and rewarding.
It’s also hard to know what to say to IVHQ, who helped make this happen. Thank you. Thank you so much.