My Cartagena Learning Curve
Updated: May 23, 2019
By Sarah Casey, a volunteer from England who joined Domino Volunteers to assist with English classes at a community-based foundation in Cartagena.
My two months volunteering in Cartagena with Domino Volunteers and Fundacion CoraJem was a huge learning curve. I arrived with a pitiful knowledge of Spanish, never having visited Colombia before and knowing no one…I was definitely a little apprehensive but mostly excited to arrive and get stuck into Costeño life, and it did not disappoint. That little nagging nervous feeling I had on my arrival disappeared as soon as I met Christina and Alex and at my very first planning meeting with the foundation, where I was met with open arms, literally!
I quickly realised that it’s ok to do some things outside of your comfort zone which may at first seem embarrassing. These lessons were so much fun for us and the students and have made me more ready to put myself outside of my comfort zone in my daily life!
Christina and Alex are so welcoming and helpful and make you feel part of the Dominos family straight away. Similarly, the group that I volunteered with at the foundation made me feel part of something fantastic right away. Although all the other volunteers knew each other (having been part of the foundation before I arrived), all spoke Spanish and were a variety of ages from many countries, I felt like I was part of a little family on my first day.
After these initial introductions, the first day of teaching came around and that little feeling of apprehensiveness set in. However, yet again, this vanished as soon as I set foot off the bus in La Boquilla and all the children came running up to us, smiling, laughing and chatting.
The first thing I learnt whilst teaching English in La Boquilla is how much you can say without words. When I first arrived, as I mentioned, my Spanish was abysmal! Considering that the students didn’t speak much English, you can see how communication could have been difficult at times. However, I became an amateur actress, waving my hands in all sorts of directions and during one lesson, trying to act out the word ‘sunbathing.’ I proceeded by shaking out my invisible towel, laying it on the ground then lowering myself onto it and pretending to bask in the sun – you can imagine how this was extremely entertaining for the young students, who had such enthusiasm and energy!
...I left Cartagena ... feeling part of a Colombian family, from everyone at Dominos, everyone I volunteered with at the foundation, the students I taught and local friends I made.
The point here though is not my acting skills, but the realisation that relationships can really be built without words. Through facial expressions, actions and body language, I really managed to convey messages to the students, and them to me too. Obviously, after a few weeks my Spanish improved and of course, there were Spanish speaking volunteers but none the less, my time volunteering in La Boquilla really taught me just how much you can communicate without words.
Another realisation I had whilst volunteering was that it is definitely ok to make mistakes and do embarrassing things. I am pretty clumsy, often tripping over and I have been known to walk into a door frame (although I am tall so may be forgiven for this?) In the children's classes, we often sung (I have a terrible voice), danced (I’m not very coordinated) and generally made a bit of fools of ourselves to catch the attention of the kids and keep them engaged. Whilst this seemed super embarrassing to me at the beginning, I quickly realised that it’s ok to do some things outside of your comfort zone which may at first seem embarrassing. These lessons were so much fun for us and the students and have made me more ready to put myself outside of my comfort zone in my daily life!
So I left Cartagena with a knowledge of Spanish I’m pretty proud of, great charade skills and being more at ease with embarrassing myself sometimes! I also left feeling part of a Colombian family, from everyone at Dominos, everyone I volunteered with at the foundation, the students I taught and local friends I made. Costeños are so friendly, respectful and warm. They know how to laugh, party and I think generally enjoy life. I learnt so much about the people there and Colombia, but also I learnt a lot about myself through this experience and am so happy I made the decision to volunteer in Cartagena.