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. 

How Going Abroad Can Make a Difference

 

tyler black islandTyler Black moved to Extremadura, Spain for what he thought would be a teaching assistant role. He began teaching on his first day and developed lesson plans each week. Tyler led class discussions and began managing his classroom sometimes by himself. He was an unofficial but official teacher. After a year in Extremadura, he decided he wanted to make a change and head north east to live in a big city. He moved to Madrid where he worked as a language assistant and would actually be a language assistant. His role was much more defined and the tasks were more clear in his day to day role as an auxiliar in Madrid. Tyler traveled around Spain and many parts of Europe for a solid two years of living abroad.

After his two years abroad, he moved back to his hometown near Philadelphia. Here, Tyler worked at his family’s company before moving to Pittsburgh. Tyler has taught me a lot about the culture in Pennsylvania. I recently learned that there is about a four-hour drive between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and that people from Philly really don’t get to the “‘burgh” that often. He’s told me more but I had to share, since it seems like the two cities, although located in the same state, have nothing in common with one another. I hadn’t thought about visiting Pennsylvania until I met Tyler!

How did you hear about Dreams Abroad?

“One afternoon, I was sitting on the couch when my sister called to tell me that she met a woman in her salon who had taught English in Spain just like I had. We had even taught in Madrid during the same school year. This woman turned out to be Leesa, the founder of Dreams Abroad. My sister had given her my contact information, and shortly after, Leesa got in touch to discuss interviewing me about my time in Spain. That’s when I realized how important the community Dreams Abroad was for those wishing to study, teach, or travel abroad. Dreams Abroad can really make a difference for those in love with travel.”

Where were you when you first joined?

lama in peru tyler black traveling“When I first joined, I was living back in my hometown in Pennsylvania, recovering from my post-Spain hangover. I really had no idea what I wanted to do at that point so I began working for my family, and traveling whenever possible. About a year after being interviewed by Leesa, I went on a solo trip to Peru to hike to Machu Picchu. Upon my return, Leesa called to ask if I’d be interested in writing about my trip. I happily accepted, and haven’t stopped writing for Dreams Abroad since.”

How has your life changed since then?

“A lot has changed. Living at home just wasn’t cutting it for me. I had just spent two years on my own in Spain and wanted to continue on with that independence. I knew I needed to make a difference and I wanted to work in the travel industry. To my delight, I was asked to interview for a travel consultant position at BCD Travel in Pittsburgh. On my drive home, I got a call saying they wanted to hire me. So, a week later, I packed my entire life into my car and moved to the other side of Pennsylvania. Now I get to talk about travel every single day and learn so much about the industry.”

What did you learn from your experience of traveling abroad?

“I learned an absurd amount of things from living in Spain. First and foremost, I learned how to be comfortable on my own. Where I once couldn’t cross the street to get food by myself, I was now traveling to foreign countries solo and loving every minute of it. Instead of feeling out of place, I was now absorbing myself into the ambiance surrounding me. I became more confident in my decisions instead of letting others dictate how things should be done. This led me to become more open-minded and try new things like eating guinea pig in Peru or putting snakes around my neck in Morocco. I would never have been caught dead doing those things before going abroad.”

What have you been doing this year?

“This year I have been going through a lot of changes. I transitioned careers and moved to a new city so I’ve spent a lot of time learning as much as I can at my new job. I’ve also been getting to know Pittsburgh and all it has to offer, including learning how to speak like a proper Pittsburgher. Yinz will see one day! I’ve also been getting more involved with Dreams Abroad and brainstorming ways to generate more content and reach more people. It’s been a lot of fun seeing the site grow and start to gain a rather large following.”

Make a difference pittsburgh

What are your future plans?

“I plan on staying in Pittsburgh for a couple of years and learning as much as I can about travel management. Ideally, I would like to become an operations manager, a project manager, or an account manager. The company I work for, BCD Travel, has a lot of offices all over the world. I would be ecstatic if I could live abroad again AND work in travel management. That would be a dream come true. In my personal life, I’m going to continue traveling as much as I can to new places and experiencing new cultures. That’s something I’ll never be able to stop doing.”

make a difference to form a future

Paths Abroad Make a Difference

Tyler’s been working with Dreams Abroad for about two years. His first piece was his What I Know Now (WIKN) about things to consider before moving or working abroad. It was my first interview with him after he returned from Spain. I can’t believe how much we both have grown and how much Dreams Abroad has evolved. Since then, Tyler has written at least one piece a month, taken the lead on social media, and also become our travel coordinator. I couldn’t have asked for a more passionate team member than Tyler. He is dedicated to our mission and focused on ways to make a difference for our team members. He always hopes that they have a great experience albeit online or in the future, (fingers crossed) in person.

by Leesa Truesdell

Tyler Black