Friday, Mar 29, 2019

This has been my last week in Medellin. I fly home to Ecuador today. What a great experience I have had learning Spanish and immersing myself in the culture in Medellin. I highly recommend anyone wanting to learn Spanish to check out Colombia Immersion. The instructors are smart and talented, the learning environment is relaxed and open, the activities are focused and fun. Everything about this school and community is committed to a deep learning of Spanish.

Another Mountain Town Trip

I managed a trip to another small town in the mountains. This time it was an afternoon in Guatape (which I went to when I first arrived in Medellin) and then a couple of days in San Rafael. Monday was a holiday here so it created a 3 day weekend for everyone in the country. Even our school was closed.

This time we had 18 of us going. The party just keeps getting bigger!

Quick Stop in Guatape

View of the Lakes at Guatape

Me and Flo at the top

This time the sun was shining when I was at the top of La Piedra, the giant rock with 740 steep steps to climb. It seemed faster getting to the top this time, but that may have been because I was trying to keep up with my friend Flo.

I figured if I did have a heart attack on the way up, Flo (who is a doctor) would feel obligated to try to save me since he was the one setting the pace. Fortunately neither of us had to discover how good a doctor he really is. 😉

The Ride to San Rafael

When all of us had seen enough of Guatape we needed to get to San Rafael. Originally we had talked about finding a bus that goes between the two towns. Now, however, Flo thought taking tuk tuks for the 45 minute trip to San Rafael would be fun.

I wasn’t so sure. In fact I balked at the idea, thinking that it would be dangerous, uncomfortable, and just not very fun. I’m not sure who that guy was that showed up in that moment; I guess he missed his nap. 😉 Nevertheless, Flo was determined.

He had the tuk tuk station send us a tuk tuk that had music and a good sound system, and then we loaded up with beer to take with us on the drive. This trip was definitely sounding better to me. There were 12 in our group at this point so, with 3 to a tuk tuk, we had a 4 tuk tuk caravan going to San Rafael. John, Flo, and I teamed up in the front tuk tuk.

I took a 30 minute hyperlapse picture of this part of our journey. It is condensed down into a 32 second video (no sound). Buckle up!


San Rafael

San Rafael is a cool Colombian town. The fact we are able to visit it also speaks to the change that Colombia has seen in the last 20 years. This is FARC country, and in the past, even Colombians from outside of San Rafael did not come here, because you would just disappear and never be heard from again.

I felt completely safe in this community during our stay.

The views walking into town from our hostel were beautiful. We even got to walk over the river on a suspension bridge (above).

Saturday Night Shenanigans

And how can you not feel safe in a town with monkeys all around? On the walk from town to our hostel there is a section of road where tree branches overhang from both sides. The monkeys like to run across the “bridge”.

Holy Hostel

We stayed in a hostel that was about a 20 minute walk from town. This place had two huge rooms filled with bunk beds. The 18 of us entirely took up one of the rooms.

Now it only cost about $8 USD per person per night, so whatever bitching that follows from me, please take with a grain of Ecuadorian beach sand.

On one hand the sleeping arrangement was great because we could all hang out in the same room. On the other hand, with 18 people in one room, how many farts does it take to use up all the breathable oxygen? No joke, I think we were close.

The Basics

The hostel had one shower in the men’s bathroom and one shower in the women’s, and it was cold water only. Now there were 18 of us in one room from our group, and about 12 other travelers staying in the other big room. There were only 2 sit down toilets in each bathroom, and one of the toilets had the shower in the stall with it, so basically that toilet was useless.

Toilet paper seemed to be an issue. Often there wasn’t a square to be had. Fortunately, after 3 years traveling around Ecuador and adjoining countries, I know that toilet paper is not a given, so I pack my own. The real problem, we discovered, was with the group in the other big room. We caught them taking the fucking rolls of paper out of the bathroom right after the owner restocked. Savages! Again (sigh) I only paid $8 USD per night,

A Goldilocks Event

On both nights in our room someone lost their bed; their place to sleep. Now, thank god this didn’t happen to me, because at 56 I’m too old to have some “kid” move my stuff off my bed and claim the bed as his own. Can you believe people in the other room actually did this? I know I know…$8 USD per night.

Evidently there was someone who snored very loudly in the other group’s room so on both nights, a person came into our room while we were all partying in town, and took one of our beds. There were no extra beds in our room. WTF is that action?

When I woke up in the morning and went into the “living room” area, I saw John sleeping on the couch. We were all so drunk when we came home, I thought he just passed out right there. Later I found out that when he went to his bed, just like Goldilocks and the three bears, someone was sleeping in his bed…and the person had moved all his stuff to the floor.

Still, It Was A Blast

Ok I’m done. I just had to get that off my chest. The truth is, it all worked out, and we had so much fun. The hostel was next to the river that flows through San Rafael. This river is clear, not terribly cold, with mellow deep pools and fast running sections. It was gorgeous.

This is the section of river that flowed next to our hostel.

Teusaca River

The Teuasca river runs through San Rafael. It is the reason we made the journey this weekend. The water is crystal clear, only a tad chilly, and a great place to spend the day in the sun. The current is strong enough that it will push you along if you want. I found it best to settle between some rocks and create my own jacuzzi action.

Here are some pics of a place we hung out along the river.



Got tat?


Close up of my tattoo

Sooooo, did I tell you I got a tatuaje (tattoo)? About 4 weeks ago I met with an artist I found in Medellin. He made the tattoo I have been thinking about for more than 15 years now.

It is a lion, my spirit animal, with symbols I chose to represent the 4 archetypes of masculinity (I am a men’s life coach). I had the symbols placed in the fur of the lion in the appropriate directional energy of the archetype. I think he did a great job!

If you are in Medellin, check out Angry Mom Tattoo (gotta love that name) and ask for Camilo. They are on Instagram and Facebook. Just don’t tell your mom. 😉

Comuna 13

The last thing I did this week was visit Comuna Trece in Medellin. This barrio has the most severe history of violence in Medellin. It was a community built with only the poorest of people who couldn’t afford to live in central Medellin. They literally had nothing, except the promises of the most violent gangs to take care of them if they would take up arms.

In reality it was only that option they had or soon be killed. Comuna Trece became a haven for guerrillas and narcos fighting the police and government. In 2002 there was a slaughter of the people there orchestrated by the government.

Times Have Changed

Since then, there has been a lot of investment by the government into this barrio. One of the things that has made a difference is the escalator system that allows people to easily get up and down the barrio on the steep mountainside. When the barrio was originally built there was no thought of roads or access. Every house was just built against the one next to it, continuing up the mountainside.

The orange edged roofs are the coverings over the escalators

The houses are so tightly intertwined that there was no room for the government to build cable cars, like in other barrios, to carry people up and down the side of the mountain in the barrio.

So the government put in escalators where the narrow and steep steps already existed. This may be one of the only communities in the world utilizing outdoor escalators to help move the people in a community.

Flo, Alex, Debora, Me

Even now in Comuna Trece there are only some areas that would be considered safe for tourists to be walking in, and I have heard all bets are off after dark. Fortunately I was there during the day to check out the great graffiti art.

One of the Spanish students, Debora, is in Medellin doing her graduate thesis on urban movement and design. She is working with one of the local businessmen in Comuna Trece, so she has a feel for the place. She was kind enough to take us around one day.

Take a look.

The graffiti below has bullet holes in the wall from a shooting about 5 years ago.

My Spanish Immersion Experience

So where am I at now with my language? First, I am exhausted. There have been days I just wish I could turn the Spanish off. Of course that’s not what I really want, but the reality is that it is difficult to operate in an environment where I am catching anywhere from 30-90% depending on who I am speaking with and where I am at. My brain is constantly on.

It’s more than the brain thing too. I have to deal with a lot of emotions while I am speaking and listening. Things like frustration, anxiousness, disappointment, uncertainty when a conversation is passing me by or I’m not getting it. What I have had to get real clear on is this: learning Spanish for me will take time and a lot of practice.

Learning Spanish Is Two Fold

And learning Spanish involves two parts. One is knowing the grammar and how to speak it. Second, and equally important, is training the ear to hear the words being spoken. I can’t tell you how many times my host has said something to me and it might as well have been in German for what I understood. And that has been this week!

When I ask her to say it again slowly, and literally this–means–one–word–at–a–time, I do know what she is saying. This gives me hope. It also confirms that I have learned a lot since being here. Because there are several spoken tenses in Spanish, and each tense has a different conjugation, spelling, and/or pronunciation for the same word, this says a lot about how far I have come.

What Is Ahead

I am excited for what I will be able to speak Spanish in the months to come, assuming I keep up the practice and use of the language. It is very apparent that without daily and lengthy periods of conversational Spanish, I won’t retain what I have learned, never mind get better.

I had a good bye lunch with my host Alicia this week. She has been a wonderful person to help me in my language journey. I could count on her for conversation every morning for 45 minutes or so before I headed for class.

Living with her was arranged by the school, and it couldn’t have turned out better for me. The experience added a real depth of authenticity to my Spanish language learning. Thank you Alicia for being a wonderful host!