AEGEEans are usually big travellers, and cross borders do not scare them. No doubt that many of them have had an occasion to go to other continents as well, and they could tell wonderful stories about it. Kimberly Townend, from AEGEE-Valencia, enjoyed a study-trip in Colombia and shared her experience with the readers of The AEGEEan.
From the 26th of January to the 5th of February I went on a study trip to Colombia with 42 other students and four faculty members of my Master’s Degree in Criminology. Over 13 nationalities from all over the world were represented in our group, a varied mix with different levels of experience in travelling -some people had already visited Latin America on several occasions, for others, like me, it was the first time.
The aim of our trip was to learn more about drug trafficking and transitional justice after the armed conflict in this country. Our programme has a very international orientation and thus, it was great interest for us to approach these topics from a comparative perspective: how different is the situation of drugs in Colombia to that of different European countries? What can we learn about the peace agreement with the FARC, and what could be improved? These and many other questions came up in our academic activities, including lectures with well-known experts and visits to NGOs working on issues such as drug addictions or social exclusion.
Throughout our trip, we spent five days in Bogotá and three days in Medellín. During our time in Bogotá, we participated in a highly interesting graffiti tour, in which we learnt lots of local and national history through tags and murals. Painting graffitis is legal in Colombia, unless the police catch you in the act, and in this case, they sometimes make exceptions. Therefore, neighbourhoods in the capital are basically covered by colourful drawings and messages, independently of their socioeconomic status.
The highlight of our trip to Medellín was our visit to the Comuna 1-Popular. Comuna 1 is a low socioeconomic neighbourhood situated on a hillside on the outskirts of Medellín. It has thousands of brick and cement homes built right by or on top of each other. A cableway connects its inhabitants with the city. This is in contrast with the situation in Bogotá, where inhabitants of the Comunas have to walk sometimes for hours in order to reach the city centre, as there is no infrastructure of this kind yet. Comuna 1 was of particular relevance to our studies due to its long history of gang control, drugs and conflict. First, we had a lecture from the local assembly body, in which we learnt how the Comunas are organised nowadays, their current social problems and the impact the armed conflict has had on them. Then, the same locals that had given us the lecture took us on a tour of the neighbourhood. Comuna 1 still faces many social problems such as the prevalence of drug use, unemployment and lack of higher education; however, it is in a process of ongoing transformation and the atmosphere of fear in which their inhabitants used to live years ago is gradually fading.
On the fourth day of our trip, we went on a day-trip to the beautiful town of Guatapé, in which we climbed the famous Peñón –this was quite a challenging task, but the stunning views that awaited us at the top were surely rewarding. That night some of us went dancing salsa in downtown Medellín –a must-do for anyone visiting Colombia.
With a smaller group, I also visited the very touristic salt cathedral in Zipaquirá, 30 minutes away from Bogotá, and enjoyed a very pleasant lunch with our friendly van driver, who was a person like most people in Colombia that could not speak English very well but still provided us with some very entertaining moments. Food in Colombia is very cheap and tasty. A normal dish consists of fish or meat, some kind of potatoes and lots of salad. Traditional snacks include arepas and empanadas, both made out of bread filled with chicken, beef or vegetables. As much as I enjoyed food, however, the thing I miss the most by far are juices. Everywhere in Colombia, it was possible to get natural juices from the widest variety of fruits –ranging from simple orange juice to ‘no idea, but tasty’ for very reasonable prices.
Overall, my experience in Colombia was amazing and well worth-repeating. People were friendly and welcoming, and it did not take us long to feel at home. Although it is widely different from Europe, cultural differences just added to our experience and we quickly learnt that, despite Colombia’s very real problems, there are many myths surrounding this country and its people.
Written by Kimberly Townend, AEGEE-Valencia