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Published: September 20th 2014
Steve and I have spent most of our adult life living in cities so it makes a nice change to unwind and live for a while in a small town. Travelling also takes its toll so it is nice to stay still for a while. We have taken a volunteering opportunity to teach English with a foundation based in schools throughout Medellin. Our time is split between two schools in the town of El Carmen de Viboral, high up in the mountains outside of the city.
Our accommodation is provided by the foundation and we are living with a Colombian family who have been amazing. They have accepted us into their family at the same time as giving us the space and privacy that we need. We are being fed well (the eggs are fresh from the grandmothers chickens who live in the garden, the chickens that is, not the grandmother) and we have met the entire extended family which gives us ample opportunity to practice our Spanish. As we are in rural Antioquia it can be difficult to understand the accent and colloquialisms but we are getting there slowly and our Spanish has dramatically improved
in the last couple of months.
El Carmen itself is a small town but the region extends far into the countryside which is covered with fincas producing cut flowers and corn. The town is famous for ceramics and there are plenty of small shops where you can watch the artisans at work. There is even a street of ceramics, inspired by the Guadi park in Barcelona, which has murals on the walls and pavements and plates embedded into the brickwork. The murals depict local customs and traditions as well as trees and crops from the surrounding countryside. my favourite is of a traditional farmer. Through a video project which Steve is doing in the school we even got a free guided tour of the town from the lovely people in the Casa de la Cultura. We got to try the most amazing chorizo which is a recipe handed down through three generations. There are three siblings who make it in the town and they all make it slightly differently.
The surrounding countryside makes for lovely walks although at 2200m, the altitude has affected my fitness levels. My favourite
thing about the town is the sky. It is sunny almost every day and the sky is an amazing shade of bright blue. Coming from the UK it came as something of a shock to find out that I was happy when it rained, like seeing an old friend. Steve and I both choose to walk the 30 minutes to one of the schools which the kids and parents find baffling. I am constantly being stopped by buses, motorbikes, horse and carts and asked if I want a lift.
The people of this region are known for being extremely friendly and polite. Every person you pass on the street will smile and say hello. We have quickly become known around the town, as Steve puts it, a ginger and a giant stand out a bit. We can’t walk down the road without hearing ‘teacher!’, which I’m sure teachers all over the world are familiar with. Most people have been welcoming to us, although a few have been suspicious. This is not really surprising given the history of the area. I was a little shocked however, when a child asked us if we were here to
steal children! Apparently there was a rumour going around that a foreign couple were stealing children and selling their organs. The rumours turned out not to be true and a local paper had to print a headline saying ‘the rumour is not true!’
Like most Latin American towns, the town has a parque in the centre with a grand church. The central church in El Carmen is relatively new with gorgeous stained glass windows. Colombia is a Catholic country and this town is very religious. On a Saturday and Sunday the church has services all day and each service is full. The park becomes the social centre on Saturday and Sunday nights with families, friends and couples sitting outside the bars or having popcorn or an arepa from the food stands. It is a great place for people watching. For such a small town there are a surprising number of cool little bars to have a drink at the weekend. I have even found a wine bar which has kept me happy.
The town is a little rough around the edges, not all of the roads are finished
so you have to walk down a lot of dirt tracks which go very quickly from rocky and dusty to mud when it rains. There are plenty of stray dogs and pet dogs who roam free, along with horses wandering the streets but all of this only adds to the towns charm.
Our work is varied and interesting and we get to work with children from a range of ages. The foundation has looked at our skill sets and utilized them. As the younger kids are only in school in the morning and the older kids in the afternoon, we run clubs outside of these hours for them to have some extra schooling. Steve has an art club and helps out with teaching the parents how to use the laptops provided by the ‘one laptop per child’ scheme. I have an English for Tourism club and we both help the older kids prepare for their English exams, as well as English lessons for teachers.
Living in a quiet town has given us the time and space to do other things. We are improving our Spanish, Steve has started work on
a portrait project and I have started going to the gym (which I hate but I need to do something with the vast amounts of food we are being fed, Colombians love their carbs). Generally we are relaxing into the way of life and getting to know another side of Colombia. Muy tranquila.
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