I have spent the last four and a half months in Colombia and I am no way near ready to leave. I am in my final few weeks of my time here so I thought I would share some little tips or pieces of advice for those starting to think about a year abroad in South America. First and foremost, if you get the opportunity to go to Colombia, do! I have fallen in love with this country and definitely will be back one day. It is such a special and magical country that it’s no wonder that Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ magical realism hailed from here.
1.Don’t panic if you are scared or struggle with accents at first.
In the taxi from when I arrived at Medellin airport I understood all of about three words from my taxi driver, two of them being ‘Buenas noches’. Not the greatest start for my confidence in speaking Spanish but I blame it on the nearly 24-hour journey and jetlag... Accents all over South America and Spain vary so much and it takes time to adjust to them. Even now, nearly five months later, I still struggle with some people’s accents but you grow used to them and will even start picking up the accent and local lingo yourself too.
2.Take your time with settling in
Yes, it takes a while to get used to living away from family and friends and always communicating in a foreign language. Do not panic after two, three weeks or even a month if you still don’t feel settled or you think your language hasn’t improved (trust me it has). It took me way over a month to get settled and only now, when I have just over week to go, do I feel fully comfortable in my town and role at my job. Take your time, be easy on yourself, you’re going to be here for at least four months, probably more, so don’t force yourself to do everything in your first few weeks and panic or exhaust yourself. Go at your own pace and own rhythm, and don’t measure your experiences against others.
3.Make the most of every opportunity you get
You are only here for a short time, and may never return to your country, so take every opportunity that comes your way. Travel, explore, try something new: a new sport or a new food, make new friends. Being in Colombia, hailed the ‘Land of Salsa’, I gave it a go and went to some salsa classes. I was truly terrible so I only went to two but at least I tried and put myself out there. If you never try you’ll never know what you like or don’t like, and what you are really capable of! You’ll probably surprise yourself. With everything being in a foreign language it can appear intimidating to throw yourself into something completely new, but it really will do wonders for your confidence and language and communication skills.
4.If you have the chance to live with a host family, do it!
I was given the option to live with a Colombian family or find my own accommodation. I chose to live with a family and it was definitely the right decision for me. You get to experience what life is really like for families living here, eating meals with them and seeing what their daily life is like. I also got the chance to go to a quinceañera (a 15th birthday party which are a BIG deal in most of South America), which was a once in a lifetime experience and one of my highlights from Colombia. I’m not saying you have to live with a host family to experience the country’s culture, but for me it really helped as a starting point and a way to understand the way of life in South America. It can open your eyes to a completely different way of life.
5.Most importantly- enjoy!
My last piece of advice is to enjoy yourself! Don’t sit at your accommodation scrolling through Instagram and Snapchat stories (I’ll admit I am very much guilty of this) of all your uni friends going out together, you can do that next year. Durham isn’t going anywhere but you are. This is a once in a lifetime experience and a chance to be the best version of yourself. You can go out anywhere, spend weekends travelling or partying with new friends and embrace your year abroad as much as you can. As cheesy as it may sound, this is your opportunity to really grow as a person, don’t let it go to waste.