Volunteering in Colombia
As I crawl towards our half-term holiday, having nearly completed my second month in Colombia, it is fair to say I am both extremely tired and excited. One thing I certainly did not expect before arriving here was how accustomed I had become to Warwick’s short but intense 10 week term, complete with reading week. Given that my term in Colombia is an 18 week extravaganza, luckily with a week break, or “reflection week” if you will, I am totally ready for a week away from university, before I have to challenge the next 9 weeks before Christmas.
Well, it wouldn’t be a true Catherine blog without a photo of a nice view, this time not actually of Bogotá, but the quaint, nearby town of Zipaquira.
Another very important difference between Javeriana University and Warwick is timetabling, as believe it or not, 7AMs exist here, as well as three-hour lectures, and it is quite possible to finally finish all your classes at 9 PM! Luckily, Warwick does not expect us to do a full emersion by embracing the 7-9 life (which is quite a normal day here) leaving me with a bit of free time to do some volunteering whilst studying here.
Javeriana offers all exchange students the opportunity to join their volunteering scheme, with a range of different projects and timetables to suit everyone. After applying in May online, within my second week here, I did an interview and a welcome workshop and was able to finally choose what project I wanted to volunteer towards.
I do believe where I volunteer is one of the cutest places in Bogotá- The House of the Grandparents
The projects vary depending on their personal timetable, however, broadly speaking there are 6 main categories: teaching children in a nursery; teaching primary school aged children through art or science; working with the elderly; doing environmental work and finally, a slightly more liberal option, where you can tailor your project’s goal according to an existing problem, for instance, in the past they have focused on teaching various members of the public internet safety. However, rather famously, this project has also previously helped to produce a mural with the Spanish word for peace, on a set of buildings very near to my university.
As you can see, there are lots of opportunities to work with children, however, I decided to volunteer with the elderly. Therefore, for the past month, I have found myself every Wednesday afternoon walking, or rather hiking, up the mountains to the community of Paraíso, which is just behind my university, and spending time with the elderly there in their community centre. From dancing and karaoke “Colombian style” one week, to teaching them how to recycle through painting their own bins, every week is different, with new faces and lots of opportunities to test my Spanish.
In fact, today we spent the afternoon celebrating the national day of the elderly, with cake and dancing, and plenty of singing. In order to plan the sessions, my team has a meeting every Monday for two hours, where we decide the structure and lesson plan of Wednesday, as well as deciding what food we need to buy on the way! With plans for Halloween decoration making, more dancing lessons (Colombia has several folkloric or traditional styles of dance), and a traditional celebration of the Mexican festival of Day of the Dead, volunteering seems to change every week.
The flower garden: one of the volunteering projects completed last term outside of their community house
However, last week I was also able to visit the small town of Zipaquira, famous for its salt mine, situated just above the historic centre. The fame of the mine comes from having its very own Cathedral, carved into the salt, 200m underground.
The acoustics are so good inside the Cathedral, that they even put on concerts and performances in it
The trip to the Cathedral was organised by a student-run group based in the University, which organises several events for all the international students so that we can get to know one another, and see more of the country. As well as day trips like this, they have also organised parties and meet-ups within Bogotá, and perhaps more importantly, they are available on WhatsApp for whatever ridiculous question I may have.
After touring the mine, we had lunch and a walk around the town of Zipaquira, which should have involved us simply admiring the colonial architecture of its square, but actually saw us become spectators at a free heavy-metal concert.
Only in Colombia!
Even with a rather low turnout, the backdrop of the colonial Church, and the soundtrack made for a rather interesting experience to say the least.
So, with a week and a half to go, as well as the joys of mid-term exams, or “parciales” as they are called here, I am set for another tiring, sometimes stressful, always exciting time in Colombia.