By: Rebecca Sirull
If you’re looking into teaching abroad, you’ll probably find tons of posts online about the amazing adventures, transformative experiences, and breathtaking sights. But it’s not always sunshine and crystal blue waters. It takes a lot of hard work to get set up in a new place and it can come with plenty of challenges to overcome. Here are some of the more difficult experiences I had when adjusting to life in Colombia.
1. Organizational Differences
Latin America in general is not famous for being incredibly organized and Colombia is no exception. Everything from acquiring a visa to making a doctor’s appointment involves at least ten extra steps that don’t necessarily have much logical order. Anything scheduled ahead of time is rarely adhered to, and appointments are sometimes cancelled or made at the very last minute. If I ever need to go to the bank, the doctor’s, or anywhere else that requires personal attention, I can usually count on at least an hour or two wait time.
It can be very frustrating, especially when it’s related to something important like a visa. I always try to keep a level head about it and prepare as much as I can ahead of time to anticipate any potential issues and avoid them.
2. Crazy Driving
Cross the street in Colombia at your own risk as drivers pay no mind to pesky things like pedestrians or lanes. Even when in bumper to bumper traffic, you have to watch out for motorcycles weaving in between the cars. I’ve gotten really good at gauging exactly how fast a car is going and figuring out if I have enough time to sprint across the road before it gets to me.
You also may need to remind your taxi drivers to keep their eyes on the road and not their cell phones. I used to ride my bike everywhere in the US, but I haven’t been willing to risk it here, so I mostly stick to walking and taking taxis.
3. Conservative Culture
This could be more or less of a culture shock depending on where you’re coming from, but after spending the better part of my life in liberal Massachusetts, I had to adjust to more conservative attitudes towards gender norms in Colombia. Things like gender fluidity and non-hetero sexualities aren’t a huge part of everyday life here. I was pleasantly surprised to see a pride parade, but have also spoken to some non-hetero Colombian friends who feel the country has a long way to go towards accepting them.
That being said, the majority of young people I’ve met here are open-minded and eager to see their country move in a more progressive direction.
No home in Colombia is complete without a set of enormous speakers, ready to use at all hours of the day and night. You can expect a regular rotation of whatever five reggaeton songs are popular at the time alongside the traditional vallenato, an ear-piercing combo of accordion, drum, and the guacharaca, which resembles a cheese grater. I once had the pleasant surprise of a live vallenato band at my neighbor’s Tuesday night birthday party, carrying on into the wee hours of the morning.
The omnipresent music is a bit of a double edged sword for me. A fun salsa song can always brighten my mood and make a normal walk to work feel like a big party. But I’ve also been woken up by maxed out volume at 4 in the morning enough times to not have an entirely positive relationship with it.
5. Vegetarian Food
There’s always a bit of confusion when I walk into a local menu del dia and ask if they serve vegetarian food. Among the responses I’ve gotten… So you still eat chicken right? How about pork? Is rice vegetarian? It’s not a very common lifestyle here, so it can sometimes be difficult to find restaurants that accomodate, especially any of the cheap local places. Now that I’ve lived here for a while, I’ve built up a solid list of restaurants with delicious vegetarian options, but it was hard at first when I didn’t feel like I could just wander into any place.
As a handy trick, you can usually ask restaurants that offer fixed lunch plates to replace the meat with eggs or lentils, but don’t expect a reduced price. And always steer clear of the soup - it’s usually made with chicken broth, even if they say it’s veggie.
Especially at the beginning, it’s not always easy moving to a new country. It can be challenging to get set up, and even more so when you factor in language barriers, visas, and cultural differences. But all those challenges will just make you feel even more proud when you overcome them and start enjoying the new life you’ve created for yourself.
Never one for 5-year plans, Rebecca graduated with a communications degree and no idea what to do with it (or rather, too many ideas what to do with it). A month after throwing her cap in the air, she boarded a plane to begin teaching in Peru, and later Colombia. Read more about Rebecca.