My Solo Trip to Comuna 13, Colombia

Leesa in Medellin in 2015A solo trip to Comuna 13, solo travel in general, is not only a way of traveling — it’s a mindset. In an earlier article, I spoke about What I Know Now after solo traveling. Since my first international flight abroad to Medellin in 2015, my mindset has evolved and grown. It’s taken me almost two years to write about this trip back to Medellin since my initial summer abroad where I studied and did an internship. I made friends, worked really hard to complete the research I needed for my master’s degree, and went home to graduate. Although I did get a chance to travel and explore (some) while I was there, the majority of my summer was spent working and completing class assignments.

Fast forward to November 2019 — I fly back to Medellin after living a year abroad in Madrid and working in the US. It’s my first return since that initial summer solo trip. I worked a lot when I got back to the US. I traveled back to Medellin that November because I missed being abroad. As I was no longer employed, and I wanted to explore. My soul was on the rebound and needed a good awakening, and it got it. Solo travel to Comuna 13 — and the locals I met on this trip made me feel even more empowered to connect with the world around me. 

My Solo Trip to Comuna 13

Here are three examples from my previous What I Know Now coupled with my solo trip to Comuna 13.  I merely scratched the surface on my trip to Comuna 13 and highly recommend anyone traveling to Medellin, Colombia to visit this bright and colorful neighborhood. It’s also on the rebound. I look forward to going back and exploring more because there is so much to see. It’s best to hear the history straight from a local rather than from me. However, I can touch on preparation and getting there (pre-COVID) from the perspective of someone who lived there. 

Backstory on Comuna 13: I lived in Medellin to study and work, so I have locals who were able to give me guidance and referrals on which companies to use. I had not been back to Medellin since the summer of 2015 when I had been working and completing an internship. Comuna 13 was around but it was not an area that I knew about at the time. In the fall of 2019, I was in Medellin, looking at perhaps moving back for a teaching role. A friend told me to check it out amongst other places. Here are three of five things from the WIKN I mentioned above that I used specifically while on my trip to Comuna 13:

Be Flexible

While traveling, it’s important to remember things are going to change. Embrace it and enjoy it. I hadn’t been back to Medellin and I could feel the growth. My first international solo trip abroad was to Colombia, and I wound up living there! It was terrifying and thrilling at the same time. It felt scary and unsettling because I was leaving my comfort zone and heading to someone else’s. Keeping a go-with-the-flow mindset and knowing that things are going to get mixed up will alleviate stress and anxiety while traveling. Embrace the mix-up and enjoy the ride. 

Say what? Enjoy the ride? I can’t say more about transport to and from locations, especially those that you know are going to be hard to find. When it was time for me to get to Comuna 13, I wanted to try something new. Uber had recently launched in the country and I am a fan of this app. I could write an article about my Uber encounters — this is how much I enjoy using it. So, instead of taking the metro to the location where I would find my Zippy Tour 13 guide, I took an Uber.

This Uber ride is a post within itself. I smile thinking about the driver/attorney who began her first day of driving the day I stepped into her car. She was no longer practicing law and I happened to be her first client! I was so glad I ordered the Uber early — let’s just say that. She and I made it to the San Javier metro stop and I had one minute to find the blue umbrella for the Zippy Tour. I ran quickly across the street and checked in. I made it!

Plan But Don’t Over-Plan (Go With the Flow)

I usually tend to over-plan — I am the traveler who has an itinerary with a backup in case that one does not work out. However, for this trip, since it was more of a business trip, I used my go with the flow mentality when planning. My day was full and the extracurricular activities weren’t at the top of my list for this trip. I didn’t plan on which ones I would do while visiting Colombia and this turned out to be one of the best decisions I made.

I went to the university to find out about the job, met some friends, and they made several recommendations about where to go. This method has proved to be a great one. Over-planning can sometimes backfire. When on a trip, the plan might not work out and you spend time thinking about that disappointment rather than living in the moment. Enjoy the moment!

Make New Friends

When I arrived, I was placed in one of the three groups. Each group for Zippy Tours is led by a local who knows the area. My guide, Stiven, was born in Comuna 13. He talked to us about the community, the graffiti walls, plus the escalators that you can find online everywhere. The escalators remind me of a reference to the stairway to heaven song. You see art and brightness in this community and then escalators… It’s interesting. 

What you can’t find online or anywhere else are the lives of the locals who live there. Stiven spoke to us about his childhood and growing up with invisible lines that he could not cross. Crossing these lines was forbidden. His story should be told by him but it did affect me, because how could it not? 

Stiven was born in 1998 and grew up during Medellin’s dangerous and violent period. This is a tour that should be seen and heard from him. However, having connected with the locals before doing this tour, made me appreciate Stiven’s courage and childhood all the more. We all have a story. Even so, some have invisible lines drawn from trauma from a young age and turn that into a blessing and awakening for others.

For me, Stiven’s life and landscape not only touched my heart but encouraged me to come home and look into programs in the US for higher education Ed.D degrees in social disparity and conflict. I ended up applying for a degree (which unfortunately turned out to be the wrong fit). In hindsight, lines get blurred and I might look into this field once again. Stiven’s story still remains in my mind and heart. 

Leesa taking a selfie overlooking the vista of Comuna 13

Wrap Up

Solo travel to Comuna 13 opened my mind and heart to a population that was negatively impacted way beyond their control. My experience and interaction with this community positively transformed and shaped my views about Medellin even more. Had I not been flexible, able to jump in an Uber ride to get there, and use a local guide (now friend), this experience might have been different — maybe even boring (oh!). I encourage travelers from around the world to embrace solo travel at least once in their lifetime. Women should see this as a strength and embrace the world around them. You might just meet your next best friend that can transform your life. 

Stay tuned for more articles on Medellin, Colombia. 

Ciao for now. 

Lamon Chapman Talks Travel Restrictions

Lamon Chapman standing on a balcony above the city.Lamon Chapman has been busy this year despite the various travel restrictions around the world. He has released three songs, created an app, flown to Mexico for a month, and is now residing in Connecticut until the restrictions in Medellin lift. Lamon plans to head home to Medellin to complete his next musical project with Explosión Negra, the band whose 2016 Levántate album earned him a Latin GRAMMY nomination.

He filled us in about his current situation and the curfew in Medellin. He’s flown back and forth a couple of times after his 90-day stay in a finca last March. Here’s Lamon’s current status update, with his insight on navigating travel restrictions.

How easy is it to travel within Colombia at the moment?”

Travel within Colombia did revert to normal in March. The only requirement was the use of a face mask throughout the country. Then Semana Santana came around and the authorities brought in a modified curfew. Holy Week involves religious parades and after this week, hospitals began to fill capacity. The influx in cases and hospitalizations resulted in the current curfew that is in place. At the moment, people have to stay at home from Thursdays at 8 pm until Mondays at 5 am. These travel restrictions may not apply to other areas outside the city where there could be fewer COVID cases, though. There are smaller pueblos and villages that haven’t seen high numbers of cases but for the most part, the entire country has been affected.

A Colombian finca, which Lamon stayed at during the travel restrictions in Colombia.

Are there any travel restrictions in place regarding international flights?”

International requirements vary depending on the destination, although you are only able to enter the airport if you have a ticket for a flight. Some countries like the United States require a negative COVID PCR or Antigen test before departure. Mexico, on the other hand, does not require a test. Colombia Border Control specifies that all passengers complete an online questionnaire about their exposure to COVID. 

How safe did you feel traveling within Colombia?”

I feel very safe and have no major concerns as most Colombians follow the protocol and wear a mask. Of course, there are some individuals who fail to comply but they are very much the minority. The health regulations aren’t so loose as they are in the US. Stores take your temperature before entering and always provide hand sanitizer. Colombia is a smaller country though, so it might be easier to manage 50 million inhabitants rather than the US’s 328 million population. 

What about flying to the US?”

Airport staff checks your temperature before you board a plane. Generally, airlines do a pretty good job of minimizing the spread of COVID. I always use a facemask and shield when traveling which provides an extra layer of protection. 

When I flew back to Miami, everybody on the plane felt tenser. Someone coughed and heads swiveled around to identify the culprit. Paranoia was high. 

Can you describe what has changed regarding work and play?”

More businesses have reopened over the last few months. Most employees who were working from home have returned to work in the office and restaurants and bars are operating at “limited” capacities. The majority of these establishments require you to enter with a mask on but once you are inside and seated, the policy is a bit more relaxed.

What long-term effect will the pandemic have on Colombia? This is a country that loves to party. Is the party over?  

I’m not an expert on the subject matter, but in the long term, we will see an economic effect. We’ve seen many businesses close. There is a stimulus check in the US but not in Colombia. Citizens are not receiving government assistance. You will see vaccination tourism where people who have not gotten the vaccine fly to the US to receive the shot and then return home. 

Medellin from the sky during travel restrictions.

What one piece of advice would you give regarding COVID-era travel restrictions?”

I’d say to make sure you know and meet the requirements of the country you are flying to. Every country has different entry requirements with respect to COVID. Do your research to see what you need and what type of test is required because there are different ones you will need to take. Wear a mask but prepare to become stuck in a country that you visit. 

The cafeteria of the airport in Colombia under travel restrictions.

What are your upcoming travel plans? How are you planning for it?” 

We are heading to Disney World in a couple of weeks’ time. I had planned to fly back to Colombia from Florida. However, since things are uncertain with the lockdown, I will remain in the States until further notice. 

What resources do you recommend for travel safety guidelines before travel?”

 

 

If flying into the USA, check with the Department of State for travel restriction guidelines. When flying into a different country, look at their local government’s website. You don’t want a wasted journey, after all. Be sure to join Leesa Truesdell and Lamon Chapman at our next Facebook Live, on Saturday, May 29, 2021.

by Leesa Truesdell

Teaching at a University in Medellin, Colombia

Catholic School Medellin ColombiaLeesa and Lamon met while he was teaching at a university in Medellin, Colombia in 2015 while Leesa studied Spanish over the summer. The Spanish language coordinator at the time, Juan, introduced Leesa to Lamon. Juan worked directly with Lamon and Leesa, but at different times over the course of their studies at the university in Medellin, Colombia. Leesa attended one of Lamon’s classes while he was teaching at the university and thanks Juan to this day for this great connection.

Lamon describes his Spanish studies, English language teaching, and how he started out as an expat living in Colombia.

How did you learn Spanish after you stopped working at the Catholic school?

“After I finished at the Catholic school, I applied for and was awarded the Beca Cultura scholarship at EAFIT University. Essentially, the scholarship allowed recipients to receive language classes at no monetary cost in exchange for facilitating lectures about the culture of your home country. The scholarship was a six-month commitment with the option to extend it for an additional six months. The majority of my lectures were related to popular holidays in the United States, sports, and music.”

When did you start teaching at EAFIT University? How did the opportunity arise?

“I started teaching at EAFIT University in Medellin, Colombia after I completed my six-month commitment to the scholarship program. During my lectures, the language department observed my ability to present and manage a classroom. This ultimately led to a job offer.”

What was your best memory while studying at EAFIT?

“One of my best memories at EAFIT was during a Spanish class with language learners from all over the world: China, Japan, France, and Russia, if I remember correctly. It was a great experience because not one learner spoke the native language of the others, but we could all communicate in Spanish. I remember stopping for a moment to absorb what was occurring at the moment and feeling thrilled.”

Did you use the same method of teaching at EAFIT that you used at the Catholic school? Why or why not?

Teaching at a University in Colombia“Yes, I used the same method. When I started teaching at EAFIT, I realized from the first day that the university heavily supported and preferred the incorporation of technology and group activities. For me, it provided a great sense of relief and appreciation. As mentioned previously, creative methods of teaching were not well-tolerated when I taught at the Catholic high school.”

What was an important lesson you learned from working there?

“Don’t repeat words you don’t really understand! When I taught at the high school, my students gave me the nickname of Lamonda. At the time, I didn’t really know what it meant; I just assumed it was cool and perhaps the Spanish equivalent of my name, Lamon. For the next six months and even when I started teaching at EAFIT, I often introduced myself as Lamonda, and locals would always laugh. I assumed it was because my name was different. 

During a staff meeting with about 50 other teachers, I introduced myself as Lamonda. A dead silence punctuated with a few laughs. Later that day, a co-worker asked me if I knew the origin or meaning of the word and I responded by saying it was my Colombian nickname. Right then and there, after introducing myself to an entire room of all my co-workers as Lamonda, I learned that it means a big penis. So yes… for more than six months, I walked around Colombia introducing myself as a big penis and had no idea… Lesson learned.”

How long did you work at the university in Medellin, Colombia and why did you stop?

“I worked at EAFIT for five consecutive years. After my fifth year, I wanted to have more free time and flexibility to travel to the States to spend more time with my family. Teaching at EAFIT had many perks, but it also required a certain level of commitment to the university and my students. I didn’t have the option to move freely when I desired, which became a problem for me after five years.”

What did you do for fun while you worked for the university in Medellin, Colombia?

best memory at EAFIT“Salsa. During my first two years, I didn’t enjoy or want to listen to salsa music. As I immersed myself more and more into the culture, I learned to appreciate salsa and became a pretty good dancer. When I wasn’t working, I tried to find time to dance or take lessons to learn new steps and embrace my new-found passion.”

What tips would you give to someone who wants to move to Medellin, Colombia?

“Learn the language… even at a basic level. It will open up so many opportunities to meet new people and experience the culture.”

How did you prepare for your new life in Colombia?

“Three months prior to moving to Colombia, I committed to studying for two hours Monday through Friday; one hour in the morning, and one in the early evening. My morning started off with 30 minutes of listening to and repeating Pimsleur audio lessons. After, I would read about current events out loud and write down new vocabulary. In the evening, I would review the new vocabulary and write a sentence for each new word. My evenings concluded with practicing verb conjugations. On Saturdays, I would try to do something fun like watching a movie in Spanish or attend a language exchange event posted on Meetup.”

What did you do to adapt in your first six months?

“During my first six months in Medellin, I focused on functional/survival Spanish: How to order food; How to ask for directions; How to ask for my change back from a taxi; etc. During my first six months, I didn’t see an immediate need to learn vocabulary across the board, but rather an immediate need to learn how to survive in Spanish. I often walked around with a small pocket notebook and would listen for keywords that seemed to be important.”

How about after that?

“After six months, I had a really good foundation in survival Spanish but was not yet conversational. I started thinking about topics that I wanted to practice and would talk to as many people as I could about the same topic. For example, if I took a taxi with five different drivers, I would bring up the selected topic with each driver; or, I would sit in the park and talk to locals. Hint: Colombians love to talk. 

Talk to other expats! Speak to credible sources that live or have spent a sufficient amount of time in Colombia. If you don’t have a contact, there are plenty of groups on Facebook with experienced expats. Be sure to speak to multiple sources as everyone has a different experience and perspective of Colombia. AVOID OR BE CAUTIOUS WITH MISLEADING INFORMATION!”

How much did you miss the United States?

Move With an Open Mind“One mistake that I made early on was comparing Colombia to the United States; don’t do it. You will become miserable. When you make the move, it’s important to understand that both cultures are completely different. For example, in Colombia, things move a bit slower than in the United States. Going to the bank to make a deposit may require an entire day’s commitment versus the 15 minutes in the States; or, adjusting to putting toilet paper in a garbage pail versus in the toilet. Things may require some time to adapt to. Be patient with yourself.”

Why did you leave Medellin after five consecutive years of living there?

After living five years straight in Medellin, I felt that I had completed everything that I wanted to complete. My Spanish level had increased from A1 to C1. I had experienced life in another country and I had received a Grammy Nomination. Taking all those achievements into account and wanting to spend more time with my family, I decided it was time to leave and think about the next chapter in my life.”

Wrap Up – Teaching at a University in Medellin, Colombia

Lamon and I spoke during the first weekend of May, 2020. He was speaking to me from a finca in Envigado. I said: “Lamon, what is a finca?” After I Googled “finca Medellin,” we both agreed that I need to go back to Colombia to experience a finca. I hadn’t been there long enough. In 2015, I was working on finishing a master’s and didn’t explore Colombia as Lamon has described it. 

Speaking of long enough, Lamon arrived in Medellin on February 25, 2020, and didn’t realize he would not be able to fly back to the US after his Primeros Cinco event. Lamon had planned to fly to Colombia for his quarterly event and return back to the US per his usual routine. This time, he got stuck when the Colombian government restricted all flights coming in and out of Colombia due to COVID-19. 

Lamon is not sure how much longer he will be at the finca but he knows it will be at least until June 1, 2020. He is excited to announce that on May 16, 2020, his debut single Spotlight will be released. It can be found on Apple Music, Amazon, and Spotify. Be sure to check it out and find Lamon on his social media to send him your feedback. Catch up with Lamon Chapman’s first interview.

Latin Grammy music award

Working at a Catholic School in Medellin, Colombia

Catholic School Medellin Colombia

Lamon Chapman graduated from Hamilton College in upstate New York with a degree in Economics. He originally wanted to be an investment banker. However, Lamon decided to move to Los Angeles, California to pursue his musical dreams instead. He enrolled in music classes at the Musicians Institute. Lamon played for a variety of shows and bands while living in Los Angeles. 

He aspired to learn a different language while living in Los Angeles and thought that moving to a different country would help him with his language learning. Lamon decided to move to Ecuador for two months. He traveled from Quito to Guayaquil and everywhere in between. Then, he headed back to LA. 

Lamon decided that he wanted to become more fluent in Spanish and moved to Medellin, Colombia. A close friend of his told him that Medellin was going to be the next up-and-coming place for urban music. Lamon was ready to give his musical talent a new start. However, he also wanted to have another source of income while living in Medellin. After researching, he learned that teaching English abroad could be a good way to make extra income. 

Lamon volunteered at a library assisting immigrants with their English for six months. Prior to that, he had never taught English. After he received great feedback from his peers and students, he realized he was pretty good at it. That’s when he realized he had a skill for teaching others a language and for teaching in general. Soon after, he made his move to Medellin and lived there for five consecutive years, teaching and playing music. His first job while in Colombia was at a Catholic school for six months. 

Meet Lamon Chapman: 

How did you find your job teaching at a Catholic School?

“I found my job through an old high school friend. They were born in Medellin, but completed high school in the states.”

What was the process of getting hired?

“The process was rather involved. I had to pass a reading, speaking, and listening assessment; not to measure my competencies but rather to ensure I didn’t have speaking, hearing, or vision problems. Also, I had to complete a medical exam and a test in Spanish. Funnily enough, I just sat there during the Spanish test and didn’t take it because I didn’t speak or understand Spanish at the time.”

Who made up the population of students that you taught?

Catholic school“The boys that I taught were aged thirteen through fifteen. I taught four classes with an average class size of twenty. 

In Colombia, if you are single and teach at this particular Catholic school, you can only teach the same sex. For, example, I don’t have a wife, so they only allowed me to teach boys. If I had a wife, then I could have taught both girls and boys. The same applies to single women. If they do not have a husband, they can only teach girls.”

What did you like most about teaching these students? The least?

“For me, the blessing of being an educator lies in the opportunity to change someone’s life for the better and develop positive life-long relationships. There was always a sense of pride and achievement when a student would report to me how an activity or classroom experience benefited their life outside of the classroom. Whether it was translating for their parents at the customs office or simply instilling confidence to use the language, it always felt and continues to feel good to hear those stories.

The only thing I would say that I disliked about my job was being monitored constantly by nuns and priests.” 

What did you find to be the most challenging part of teaching at a Catholic school?

“I had a hard time adjusting to Catholic culture. Things like making sure all kids had dressed according to school standards did not come naturally to me initially. I also had a difficult time receiving negative feedback about group activities from the school administrators (nuns and priests). 

Side note: I never interacted directly with the parents… the school had a specific employee assigned to ‘parent relations.’ All the negative feedback came from the nuns that monitored each class and my superior; they didn’t support my decision to facilitate group activities. Additionally, they often reprimanded me for sitting down. They didn’t allow teachers to sit down.”

What are the differences that you saw while teaching at the Catholic school in Envigado, Colombia compared to volunteering at the library in Los Angeles, California?

South Korea classroom“Prior to teaching in Medellin, I volunteered at a library in Los Angeles. I worked with immigrants who had become US citizens and needed to learn English to live and function in Los Angeles. Volunteering gave me a better understanding of what it was like to teach a second language before moving to Medellin, Colombia.

My first teaching position in Envigado, Colombia was at a Catholic school. If I had to compare the two experiences (in general), here is what the main differences were: 

  • Security: Most schools in Colombia have armed security at the entrance. In the US, and at the library in LA, the immigrants did not have security guard protection.
  • Grading: If a student fails a class, the teacher must be prepared to explain why the student failed. They must also give them an opportunity to take a make-up exam and/or additional activities to pass the course. In the USA, if you fail a course… you fail.”

Explain the motivations of the groups of students for learning a second language. Were the motivations the same? How many classes did you teach?

“I taught at a bilingual school… so students were motivated to learn English because it was a requirement. They didn’t necessarily want to and this was the mentality for many kids at the Catholic school. I taught English, geography, world history, and ethics all in English.”

How did you handle classroom management for these classes? Was it regulated by the school because it was a Catholic school?

“I tried to incorporate group activities versus individual assignments into the classroom. I also tried to incorporate the use of technology in the classroom as well. Unfortunately, school officials did NOT widely accept the use of technology. I had to stop doing group assignments and I mostly assigned individual assignments without the use of technology per the request of the school.”

What advice would you give to someone who works with people from other cultural backgrounds?

  • Learn the culture
  • Learn the language
  • Be patient with the adjustment… CULTURE SHOCK is real
  • Accept the differences… don’t fight it or allow it to disrupt your experience
  • Don’t assume that everyone will understand your culture and viewpoints

Are you still living in Medellin, Colombia, and teaching at the Catholic School?  What happens next?

“Yes, I am still living in Medellin. However, I no longer work at the Catholic School. In 2016, I was nominated for a Latin Grammy music award. Since the nomination, I’ve taken my passion for music and talents to another level. This year, four close friends and I formed an entertainment company in Medellin: PRIMEROS 5 ENTERTAINMENT. Follow us at primeroscincoent. We plan and organize entertainment events that are changing the face of entertainment throughout Colombia.” 

At La Presentation College in commune 12 La América, approximately 150 students learn about caring for life on the road.
Photo by Secretaría de Movilidad de Medellín.

Looking Beyond Catholic School

Lamon stayed at the Catholic school for six months even though the odds were against him. His students misbehaved and he couldn’t provide student-centered lessons. Not to mention, nuns constantly corrected his teaching methods and conduct. Later in the school year, Lamon realized he was the first teacher to stay longer than two weeks. The other teachers congratulated him for his success and informed him that he endured the brutal challenge of teaching and disciplining this specific class of fourteen-year-old boys that no one wanted to teach.

Stay tuned for the second part of Lamon’s teaching English as a foreign language journey in Medellin, where he talks about his career of teaching English at a university abroad.

by Leesa Truesdell