I arrived in Bogotá in July 2009, a 23 year old Scot, fresh from graduation, suddenly immersed in the noise and dust of the Colombian capital. I had known since early childhood that I wished to become a teacher but the previous winter I had decided to put off applying for teacher training and instead to spend a year teaching English in South America, feeling that with no ties or responsibilities this might be my only chance to do so.
In many ways my year in Colombia was the most difficult of my life as I had underestimated the difficulties associated with being so far away from family and friends for such an extended period of time. Having only ever previously travelled and lived within Europe, I was also very quickly struck by the almost palpable difference in culture I experienced in Colombia, many aspects of which I am sure are mirrored across Latin America.
Yet it was also a wonderful, beautiful adventure and one which I believe has changed every aspect of who I am as a person. Even now, whenever I tell someone that I used to live in Colombia their first question is always, ‘Was it not really dangerous?’ I take great joy in being able to tell them about the overwhelmingly friendly people, the stunning mountains and beaches, the music, the dancing, and the exquisite fresh fruit which I miss so much!
During my time in Colombia I was asked to speak to a group of students at the university where I worked about life in Scotland. I told them that while I was living in their country I was an ambassador for Scotland, the UK, and to some extent Europe, as for many of them I was the first European they had ever met. However, I also assured them that on my return to my own country I would become an ambassador for Colombia and it gives me great pleasure to be able to go some way towards dispelling the vision of a war torn and dangerous country which is so heavily present in the international press.
Yet, I did of course also see the extreme poverty which has resulted from high levels of unemployment, internal displacement, and conflict. I saw people living on the streets and passed squalid and overcrowded slums on the edge of Bogota and other major cities. On a few occasions, I also met people at the other end of the scale who were ostentatiously and for me, nauseatingly wealthy.
However, what I had not appreciated before I arrived in Colombia was the absence of any real middle class and the way in which professionals who would have been comfortably off in the UK would be constantly struggling to feed their family and pay their bills. These are the memories which have stuck with me the most. I am still haunted by the university secretary who had to ask me to borrow the equivalent of £5 in order to take her daughter to the doctors. I will never forget my boss having to borrow money from me to pay his bills one month when he was sent on a business trip to Argentina and had to miss several evenings of tutoring. Most of all, the more I work in schools, the more I think of the children with special needs who I volunteered with whose difficulties meant that they were often unable to go to school but who would have been able to access mainstream education in the UK.
I am about to begin my first year as a teacher back in Scotland and hope that I can use my experiences in Colombia to increase the empathy of my pupils for the struggles of others as well as to teach them not to accept everything that they read in the press. However, most of all, I hope I can help the young people I work with to realise that the world is not so big after all and that we have more in common with others than it first might appear!
Muchas gracias a Marie for writing this Guest Blog for us : ) So interesting to hear about her experience living in Colombia for a year. And delighted that she’s going to be a teacher in Scotland, and able to pass on her experiences to her students.
If you’re interested in writing a Guest Blog for us then get in touch: theSALSAcollective@gmail.com