Moving to Medellin

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.

Ok - I do also read articles about myself from time to time.

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.

Plus I've been spending way too much time on beaches recently anyway.

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.

For example: these kind of tables (at Angeles de Medellin) would actually have been better.

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.

It's like navigating a rather indecipherable map...

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.

You can never go wrong with a fat baby Krishna poster.

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.

Time management.

My last visit to Colombia - when I clearly was in no way worried about the time.

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.

Sometimes arepas are eaten for lunch. Actually, any food out of a cart is an adventurous choice.

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.

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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41 Responses to Moving to Medellin

  1. Adam Pervez April 3, 2014 at 7:05 pm #

    Good luck with this new adventure! Just a friendly word of advice though: ditch the Marmite! If we ever meet I have a funny story about it.

    Suerte!

    • Flora April 7, 2014 at 3:44 pm #

      Thanks Adam! Although I don’t think you know quite how obsessed with Marmite I am…

  2. David @ That Gay Backpacker April 3, 2014 at 9:01 pm #

    Your journey is so exciting! And actually our paths arenot so different. I was travelling a lot last year and decided I wanted more of a base, and now I am all settled in Mexico City and working as a writer. Unfortunately, my Spanish is not really improving.I just find it SO HARD and also seemto have loads of fluent Spanish people around me :/ Hopefully we’ll both get there. And should I ever make it to Medellin, I will let you know.

    • Flora April 7, 2014 at 3:45 pm #

      Sounds great that you’re settled in Mexico, David! I’m sure the Spanish will come eventually – are you taking lessons? I’ve found I need a mix of speaking with locals and actually grasping the fundamentals in a classroom setting.

      Definitely let me know if/when you make it here!

  3. Victoria April 3, 2014 at 9:54 pm #

    What you’re doing sounds awesome! Working on a paper is tough let alone when you have to research in Spanish! Kudos to you. And good luck x

    • Flora April 7, 2014 at 3:46 pm #

      Thanks Victoria :) Hopefully the stressing over Spanish research will eventually diminish. I’ve just signed up for a Spanish class a week though as I think I need the extra work..!

  4. Casey April 4, 2014 at 1:02 am #

    With the pain will come gain. IMHO, you are doing exactly the righ thing, forced immersion. The more you stay away from English, the better.

    By the way, there is a great segment on Bogota’s transportation system in the documentary Urbanization. Really, it’s one of the highlights of the film. Check it.

    • Flora April 7, 2014 at 3:50 pm #

      Sadly it’s difficult to stray too far from English as I’m writing in English at an English newspaper – but I’m still trying! Cheers for the documentary recommendation too, I’ll check it out.

  5. Ali April 5, 2014 at 1:31 am #

    Hey, Medellin is an awesome part of Colombia, but they need to focus on helping the street kids find a better life. By-the-way, you should visit Cartagena as well.

    • Flora April 7, 2014 at 3:51 pm #

      I actually visited Cartagena last year, but hopefully I’ll be going again. Such an incredible city!

  6. Shaneybo April 5, 2014 at 9:11 am #

    Irish myself – it’s nice to see another European living in Medellin! Will live there for a few months with my fella so maybe we can meet up and discuss the joys of living in the City of Everlasting Spring…now that sounds quite like Narnia? :p

    • Flora April 7, 2014 at 9:43 pm #

      There’s a number of expats in Medellin but you’re right, not so many Europeans :)

  7. Naomi April 5, 2014 at 2:51 pm #

    Medellín is my second home and I’m so glad for Couchsurfing and Wandering Paisa as a lot of my good friends I made there were thanks to them. Que disfrutes!

    • Flora April 7, 2014 at 9:45 pm #

      Muchas gracias Naomi!

  8. TammyOnTheMove April 5, 2014 at 10:18 pm #

    How exciting. Good luck with your internship. Enjoy Medellin, it looks like an amazing city to live in.

    • Flora April 7, 2014 at 9:45 pm #

      It’s a pretty awesome place to spend a few months :) Thanks!

  9. Claire April 6, 2014 at 9:18 pm #

    It sounds really exciting, best of luck with your time at the paper.

    • Flora April 15, 2014 at 10:36 pm #

      Thanks Claire!

  10. Lauren April 7, 2014 at 2:26 am #

    What an exciting time! I would be a bit scared at the notion of working somewhere having to communicate in another language! I’m glad that you are jumping at the opportunity and learning so much! Best of luck with everything!

    • Flora April 15, 2014 at 10:38 pm #

      Ohh the language thing was a notion I somehow managed to avoid thinking about until it was too late! I’m glad I jumped in headfirst though – it’s definitely starting to pay off after a month of being here :)

  11. Michael Hodson April 10, 2014 at 4:44 am #

    Congrats. Sounds like a grand adventure in a city that I really love. You’ll have a great time.

    • Flora April 15, 2014 at 10:34 pm #

      I didn’t know you were so enamoured of Medellin, Michael! Cheers though :)

  12. Sarepa April 10, 2014 at 8:54 am #

    Oh, Medellin! How I love that city. I hope you’re having a great time. It sounds like you’re learning a lot and making the most of it. Have fun!

    • Flora April 15, 2014 at 10:39 pm #

      Glad to hear you love this city too Sarepa :)

  13. miviajar April 10, 2014 at 9:15 am #

    You have done a good choice to improve spanish ;). “Paisas” are very kind. Enjoy Colombia!

    • Flora April 15, 2014 at 10:39 pm #

      I love the Paisa lifestyle!

  14. Torsten April 19, 2014 at 5:11 am #

    An enviable experience! Hopefully the newspaper will give you what you need for now – until your next adventure :)

    • Flora April 25, 2014 at 6:44 pm #

      Cheers Torsten :)

  15. Hamish Healys April 21, 2014 at 9:35 am #

    To take on a writing job in Medellin, Colombia is a real challenge. I can sense you’ve got the heart of a journalist who’s not fussy about places and has the guts to try things. Kudos!

    • Flora April 25, 2014 at 6:45 pm #

      Well, I’d like to hope I have a few of those qualities :p Thanks for the compliment, Hamish!

  16. jen April 25, 2014 at 1:00 pm #

    My husband and I just arrived in Medellin and plan to be here for about 5 weeks. I agree it’s nice to have a home base. Also trying to improve my Spanish. Best of luck!

    • Flora April 25, 2014 at 6:48 pm #

      Great to hear it Jen – will you be taking Spanish classes in the city? Hope you’re having a great time so far :)

  17. Sarah@Travelcake May 6, 2014 at 6:21 pm #

    I’m not sure after reading this article: how much do you like the city/ it’s vibe? I’m curious because I’m considering moving there… :)

    • Flora May 18, 2014 at 10:16 pm #

      Hey Sarah, I really like Medellin, although there’s not really a huge amount to do as a tourist. People seem to love it a lot more when they either move here permanently and set up a network of friends etc, or if they spend a good few months volunteering, working, learning Spanish etc. I have another couple of posts about Medellin on here if you haven’t read them – and I’d suggest looking at MedellinLiving.com – it’s run by an expat named David who writes extensively about the process of moving to Medellin :)

  18. Melissa Geere July 22, 2014 at 6:15 pm #

    hi Flora, I’m an English teacher living in Medellin who has also worked on newspapers and studied Italian in Florence… freaky. would be cool to meet up if you want!

    • Flora July 25, 2014 at 10:11 pm #

      Aha amazing! Although unfortunately I don’t live in Medellin anymore. Hope you’re having a great time living there though :)

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