Cartagena: Vibrant, Colourful, and Full of Contrasts
Updated: Apr 17, 2019
By Kim Riemensperger, a volunteer from Germany who joined Domino Volunteers to assist with English classes at a public high school in Cartagena.
I have volunteered in Cartagena for three weeks. I decided to volunteer because I wanted to get involved with the local community to give back to the community, work with children in less privileged areas, and also enhance my teaching skills. Moreover, I wanted to get to know locals and the real Cartagena and its culture, away from the touristy spots. I worked at a public school located right by the ocean on the island of Tierra Bomba, which is a ten-minute boat ride from the mainland.
I supported the wonderful teacher Astrid in teaching English to students from pre-school all the way to 11th grade. The students' English levels were generally very low, however, it is important that the children learn some adequate amount of English, as the tourism and travel industry on the coast is very big, and thus speaking English will increase their chances for a better job. We also combined teaching English words with arts & crafts, for example by re-making an old wall of the school by making it look more friendly and colourful with painting English words and Emoji`s on it.
On my first day when I met the other teachers, one of them said to me, Welcome to the family.
There are no words of how wonderful and rewarding these past few weeks working with all the children at the school were. The community of Tierra Bomba was very welcoming and I never felt unsafe. On my first day when I met the other teachers, one of them said to me `Welcome to the family`. The children I met at the school were so joyful, happy, optimistic, and full of energy. They love music, singing and dancing. Several students asked me if I have children. When I said no, one student said that once I do have a child, I should bring him/her to visit their school in Tierra Bomba. That was very sweet.
I was very lucky to be working at the school right before `Semana Santa`, which is the Easter week here in Colombia. The school is closed for holidays during Easter week and on the Friday before the holiday week was a big festival at the school. The students performed dance shows – dancing to Afro-Colombian music – and there were different food stalls with e.g. seafood rice, Patacones, and local different sweets, such as Dulce de Mango. This was something very special to be part of, as I got to learn about the Caribbean cuisine, music, and party vibes.
One interesting aspect I had to learn during my time in Colombia is that communication is very different – especially here on the Caribbean coast – than to my home country Germany. Back home we communicate very directly, and very clearly state and speak out loud whatever we have to say. Here, people use a lot of facial expressions and body language to communicate, which is something that confused me a lot in the beginning.
In Cartagena I lived in a district called Manga, which is next to Getsemani. I stayed with a Colombian host family. Manga is a very residential, cute and hip area of town, and also away from the touristy crowds. There are a bunch of cute coffee houses, restaurants, and there is a nice sidewalk right by the waterfront for runners and walkers, which I often went on a run to. I especially enjoyed going running there during sunsets. From the sidewalk one has a scenic view onto Bocagrande.
I took the public transportation from Manga to Castillo Grande (where the boats to the school on the Tierra Bomba island leave) every morning. In the beginning I was a bit skeptical and scared taking the public transit by myself. However, it turned out to very fun and enjoyable: the buses drive a bit crazy, it's sometimes like going on a rollercoaster. There is no bus schedule and there are no official bus stops. You just have to stand by the big main street and wait for a bus to pass by; but buses pass by quite often. When you see a bus, you raise your hand, signaling you want to hop on. Generally in Cartagena, the public transit is very easy, affordable, simple and safe to use during the day. There are also `Colectivo` Taxi's (which are shared rides like Uber Pool), which leave only from certain spots in the city and usually only locals know where. One ride is as little as 2000 Colombian pesos (less than 1$).
Through Domino Volunteers, I got the opportunity to see how locals live and work, through the social project as well as living with a Colombian host family. Also, they have connected me with Café Stepping Stone, a social enterprise and Café/restaurant in Getsemani, which sells homemade, healthy dishes, including many vegetarian and no-fried options, plenty of vegetables, and not just rice and beans (which is kind of hard to find on the coast).
Overall, what I learned through this experience is that 'community' in a world that is becoming more individualistic is so important. Supporting each other and sticking together can be so powerful and is key for success!