Having volunteered at home in London for many years, British volunteer Danny Chalkley decided to combine his passion for travel, culture and helping others by becoming a volunteer in Colombia. After 4 weeks abroad, Danny shares his story and the lessons he learnt from Cartagena…
This summer I headed to South America to volunteer in Colombia. Like too many people, ignorance limited my knowledge of Colombia to coffee, drugs and associated violence, salsa and Gabriel García Márquez, in that order. Plus, thanks to Brasil 2014, I knew Colombia play fantastic football.
My base for the summer was Colombia’s fifth largest city, Cartagena, located on the Caribbean coast. Founded in 1533 by the Spanish, today the city has 900,000 inhabitants but is still dominated by its colonial past. I volunteered with neglected and deprived young people, teaching english and sports across 5 projects. Much of my time was spent in one of Cartagena’s poorest districts, the infamous Nelson Mandela Barrio. After six wonderful weeks, spent volunteering and working with amazing people and living with the locals, I took my final dawn run on the beach and said my sad farewells. It was an truly inspiring, life enhancing and sometimes shocking experience.
But what did I learn about Colombia from my time as a volunteer in Cartagena?
1) Colombia is still a developing country with many poor and needy people living in conditions which are unimaginable to most Westerners and who possess literally less than nothing. Mercifully, there are many good hearted volunteers willing to donate time to help. Volunteers, that are welcomed and very much appreciated by Colombians.
2) Despite Colombia’s reputation, it’s a safe and very welcoming country for travellers. At no point did I feel unsafe.
3) Colombia is a beautiful country and becoming increasingly popular as a tourist destination as perceptions change.
4) Colombians are super friendly and helpful.
5) Colombia is a football crazy nation with men, women and children proudly wearing the national team shirt like a uniform.
6) Colombians LOVE music and dancing. It’s everywhere !
7) Colombians are hard working and a nation of natural entrepreneurs.
8) By western standards, the infrastructure is poor and often non existent. Colombians just get on with it.
9) And about myself? Well, I discovered that I enjoy teaching. And my Spanish is not too bad.
10) I totally LOVE Colombia and will be back !