My decision to move to Medellin was three-fold: to improve my Spanish, to learn more about Colombia by living here, and to take my first steps in journalism.
After over a year of travelling throughout South America, I've been harbouring an urge to settle down somewhere and work on my writing: an urge which has only been getting stronger.
While I love writing at Flora the Explorer, there's only so much blogging that can satisfy me – which is why I started looking for writing opportunities in South America, and last year found an internship at an English speaking online newspaper, based in Medellin, Colombia.
But wait – isn't Colombia really dangerous?
Colombia was a country I'd long heard whispers about – the drugs, the kidnappings, the danger – but I'd never really thought I'd make it there. When I arrived last July, though, I was fascinated from the moment I crossed the border.
Spending a few weeks on the Caribbean coast was a sweaty, sun cream covered mess of (fun?); visiting Medellin during the city's biggest festival of the year meant flowers, parades and more flowers; and living in a stranger's Bogota apartment while I took Spanish classes each morning and explored the city on the back of said stranger's motorbike was wonderfully bizarre.
Essentially, every experience I had in Colombia was something I wanted more of. When I boarded a plane to leave the country, I knew I'd be back.
Embarking on an internship in journalism, though? The world of the newspaper is something I've never experienced. I've never been involved in politics or known anything about the state of the economy in England, let alone another country; more often than not, the news stories I read and the ones that grab my attention are more focused on travel and personal stories than anything else.
But once I found that internship, I quickly realised that working at a newspaper would probably make a huge impact on my writing, and shake things up a bit – which is exactly what I've been after. Not to mention it would allow me to really get into the meat of the country and make a transitory home in a city I'd loved as soon as I arrived in it.
So a few weeks ago I rocked up in Medellin, fresh from the dazed non-sleep of a twelve hour night bus, and fell into two days of casual hostel life at the Laureles-based Wandering Paisa.
There I wrote, caught up on sleep, drank numerous beers at the hostel bar – but eventually I arrived at a third floor apartment in the centre of Medellin, and opened the door to my first newspaper office.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
“Journalism is storytelling with a purpose.”
I scanned the line again as my new editor continued to read out loud from the article on his computer screen. My elbow balanced precariously against a desk corner littered with ashtrays and coffee cups: I picked up my own chipped mug and sipped black Colombian coffee as I listened.
Within minutes of entering the apartment, I'd been greeted by chaos and early morning energy, tinged with cigarette smoke and a thousand cups of Colombian coffee littering every surface possible – even an espresso shot lingering in a paper cup in the bathroom. People were everywhere, getting as close to power outlets as possible: settling cross legged on the floor, or crunching legs against cupboards in order to provide themselves with an adequate writing surface.
The team of twelve journalists was split almost evenly between men and women. All were in their mid twenties and most were English speaking – from the States, England, Australia. A few had been working for just a few days, and many had been there for months. There were even two guys who'd returned to work at the paper for a second stint.
Everyone also seemed to have impeccable Spanish, swiftly walking from room to room as the language tumbled from their mouths into mobile phones; asking for interviews, making enquiries, talking, talking, talking.
I was a little taken aback by it all, to be honest. I've spent the last two years writing stories from behind my computer screen, without interacting with a team of people to crosscheck and examine the information I put down. I hadn't even considered the idea of conducting phone interviews in Spanish.
But everyone had something similar in common, and I saw it plainly from the outset . An absolute passion to get a story across.
Task #1: shaking up my writing
That first morning I was given the first taste of my education in journalism. The editor, sat at his desk amid coffee and cigarettes, explained everything there is to know about how to begin the writing style I'm intent on adopting for the next four months.
Not just adopting; applying to everything I already write, in fact. Condensing the idea of each piece to its single strand of storytelling before I even begin to type.
By the end of the first week, I had cut my teeth on numerous pieces of hard hitting journalism. There was the tenth album release from superstar Shakira; the expansion of the Juan Valdez Colombian coffee shop chain to South Korea; a coastal fashion show opening; and an Easter festival in a small pueblo where locals dress their farming donkeys in clothes and make up. Not to mention an intense write up on the ten best trekking destinations in Colombia.
I joke, but in actual fact I couldn't have handled much more intense subject matter. I realised very fast that I don't know much about how to write like a journalist: the need to constantly check and recheck facts; resisting the desire to elaborate; even ensuring the basics, that the reader understands exactly what the article is about.
More of my non journalistic abilities were highlighted when I also had two pieces 'killed' – resigned to the trash – because they simply didn't say anything new or valuable for the reader. I very quickly understood that it's paramount, above all else, to write an article with a point.
And the worst point of the week? Spending ten agonising minutes on the phone, being transferred from person to person while I tried desperately to formulate questions in Spanish about a political subject I really knew nothing about.
The answers I was hearing in response didn't make much sense either.
Task #2: improving my Spanish
Before arriving in the city, I'd been happily content with my Spanish level. By no means fluent, I was still easily able to hold a conversation, speaking with enough clarity and confidence that many people asked if I was Argentinian. Which is a morale booster if ever there was one.
Within a few days in Medellin, however, I grew uncomfortably aware that there were still a number of things I'd forgotten between me and the whole Spanish thing.
Namely: I'm not actually fluent. Not even close. And I really need to push myself again if I want to swim with the Spanish here, rather than sink.
There's something about being around near-fluent Spanish speaking travellers that can either make or break your spirit.
Most of the people I spent time with in the Wandering Paisa seemed to all be strangely good at the language – from the woman working the hostel bar whose ex husband was from the Dominican Republic; to the Canadian first-time-traveler who's fluent in three languages; to the fellow writer at the newspaper who quietly let out a rapid stream of Spanish, and later explained he'd been living in Guatemala City for the last six months.
And then came working in the office, where it became apparent that in order to work on stories about everything Colombia related, I needed to be researching every Spanish language site possible.
Suddenly gone are my days of listening and nodding along to Spanish that I didn't completely understand – a method I long ago adopted with the opinion that I'd “kind of got the gist” of what was being said.
Instead, the fear of submitting an article to the editor with potentially grave errors due to a mistranslation on my part has led to me spending hours comparing various online translator programs with dictionaries. I barely even trust my own brain to decipher the meaning of the articles.
For one article, the newsroom co-ordinator mentioned – in Spanish – that I should probably phone a contact for a quote. The terror set in; I spent ages deliberating as my brain went haywire; and when I eventually tried to get some information, the guy on the other end of the phone clearly didn't understand my basic questions and kept replying solely with 'si' until I ended the call in frustration.
Some phone calls, though, I simply have to make: like ones to a potential landlord.
You didn't think I was going to live in a hostel forever, did you?
#Task 3: living in Colombia
One of the biggest tasks when arriving in Medellin was finding myself somewhere to live. Despite being told that there were multitudes of places to rent and lots of online resources, I'd already been working at the newspaper two days without finding a single suitable property – and I was fast understanding that work wasn't going to give me much spare time to keep looking.
So I abandoned the popular CompartoApto and turned instead to CouchSurfing, leaving messages in the Medellin Classified forums.
Within no time I'd found a place: located in Laureles, a fun area with lots of bars, restaurants and supermarkets nearby, and with an eclectic mix of housemate couples from Portugal, Spain, France, and Bolivia. Without really thinking twice, on an evening viewing after work and desperate to get out of the hostel to “start” my life here, I said I'd take it.
After a few days, though, a tinge of regret began to set in. There was about 6 inches of spare space around the edges of my 'bed' – a heavily worn out mattress balanced on a piece of hardwood – and the kitchen fridge opposite my room made a manic buzzing sound for minutes at a time whenever someone opened the door. My shared bathroom was attached to the outside corridor by a second door, there was no natural light, and the room got steadily hotter when I entered it.
I started to panic. And panic led to stress.
Luckily I still had a few open leads on CouchSurfing. A few more emails later and I was taking a tour around a spacious flat above a retired yoga studio: prayer flags along the corridor, watermelon place mats, numerous glittering paintings of Hindu gods adorning the walls – and actual floor space in a bedroom with a comfortable double bed and a fan.
I moved in the next afternoon.
In Medellin, life is busy.
After two weeks in my new Medellin lifestyle, I don't get to spend that much time in my new little yoga apartment. I also know the one thing I need to learn above all else.
During the week, I wake up at any time between 6am and 6.30am (depending on how many snooze buttons I hit), leave the house at 7.15am, and wait on the street for a bus, inside which I have to question the driver to ensure I'm actually going to end up at the office.
At 7.50am, my bus goes careering straight past the office as I shout in politely stressed Spanish to the driver that I'd like to get off. My consequent few blocks of walking then involves a cup filled with fruit from a street vendor, before I eventually reach the office.
From 8am I work at a newspaper. Articles that need writing are posted in a spreadsheet and various journalists will claim them; then it's a method of researching the topic on other news sources, seeing what else we've written about it in the past, and making a story out of it. People head out for lunch together: most often to a local place where the waitress knows who usually wants fish if there is any, and what juice preferences people have.
At 5pm, I catch a bus home. If I'm lucky, it's the right bus: if not, I have an impromptu detour/adventure up into the barrios for an hour or so. In the evenings, I cook, do some of my own writing,
Weekends are currently reserved exclusively for sleep. I'm willing to compromise on how many hours of it, but sleep will always be a predominant part.
There's a great feeling that comes with knowing you'll be around the same group of people for a while, though. Travelling so much and so quickly tends to close you off to making connections – but by staying put for a while, I'm able to actually relax into forging some friendships.
I can also look for ingredients that I've wanted to cook with for ages – like officially being on the hunt for garam masala so I can finally make my dad's famous prawn and coconut curry.
And let's not forget the absolute joy in actually being able to UNPACK. As a long term traveller, there is sometimes nothing better than pushing the backpack under the bed and revel in looking at shelves and cupboards and tables littered with all the stuff that usually belongs on your back. Which is also when you finally unbury the tube of Colman's English mustard and the squeezy bottle of Marmite that have been hiding in your bag since you were in England.
Officially moved into Medellin
I'll be here for the next three or four months, carving out a niche for myself in the world of journalism and hopefully mustering up the courage to make at least one phonecall exclusively in Spanish.
I apologise in advance if my ability to write and publish on Flora the Explorer slows somewhat. Since I started my journey through South America I've posted every single week without fail: something that I'm extremely proud of. But I also want to really dedicate myself to this new role and I have to prioritise it, free of worrying about (and getting distracted by) the weekly need to write here.
What I will hopefully be doing regardless, though, is a roundup of the articles I write for the newspaper and the process behind writing them, so I can see the progress I make over the next few months.
But one thing I'm sure of – it's going to be a hell of a stay in Medellin.