Today, I have spent two weeks in Colombia. It feels both like yesterday and an eternity ago that I first arrived at an apartment that I would soon call my home. I never felt the dreaded culture shock that past exchanges talked about or experienced the graph that was handed out on our exchange training day. Instead, Colombia to me is like a modified San Francisco. Upon arriving in Bogota, I instantly felt the vibe of the city. With reggaetón music playing and vendors attempting to sell you hats, food, or bags at every stoplight, Bogota gives you a feeling of freedom and excitement. On my first night, my exchange, her closest friends, and I drove around Bogota at eleven o’clock, eating at the restaurants of contestants for the popular “Best Burger Competition.” The next night, I ate at a restaurant that had people dressed up as dogs chasing you around and pretending to bite your shoes. Of course, all the excitement of the first weekend had to come to a halt with the first day of school.
Colegio Los Nogales shares many of the same values that Athenian holds. The school itself is not that different. It is a big campus with a view of the mountains and the class structure has not been challenging. I do admit, that I have gotten lost once (maybe five) times, but after the first week, I started to get the flow of things. Also, the school day starts at 7:10 and the school is in the middle of nowhere, so that forces almost all the students to wake up at 5:00 in the morning and take the bus. The class body is about 70 students, much like Athenian, and has about 15 students per class.
Although the classes are very enriching, most of them are in Spanish. Even though the school told me that some classes would be in Spanish and others in English, the only thing in English are the text books. The questions and clarifying answers are asked and answered in Spanish. I am also taking a Spanish Literature class that is currently reading Don Quijote (a Shakespeare written play equivalent in Spanish). Although this has forced me to use my Spanish, it has been challenging at times. The only thing that has helped me survive these challenging classes have been the teachers. The teachers have a close relationship with the students and proved to be very helpful in times of need. Especially for me, being from the US, they understood that the classes are difficult and gave me a review in English. In my Spanish class, my teacher gave me a version of Don Quijote for first graders without any judgement, so I could semi-understand what was happening in the novel. The school day ends at 3:10, and the school days consists of students studying and doing homework.
I haven’t had problems with any of the students. They have all been extremely helpful and kind to me, but the language barrier is definitely apparent. Although I am in Spanish 3 Honors, their way of speaking is very different than what I have been taught. Their Spanish is faster and filled with slang, making it extremely difficult for me to follow along. They have also known each other since first grade. This closeness makes it difficult to catch on to inside jokes built on years of friendship. There have been times where I have felt so uncomfortably awkward that I did not know what to do or say, so I remained quiet. This feeling of quietness is foreign to me. At times, I wished nothing more than to have my friends here with me. Something I have been forced to learn is how to be awkward and be OK with it.
I am the only exchange at the school, so it has forced me to only be with Colombian natives. The first few days were a mix of feeling included and feeling like an outsider to this culture, but I always looked back at the day appreciating all the memories I made. By the end of the first week, I started to speak Spanish more, and their fast speaking became easier for me to understand. I started to learn how to handle myself in these awkward situations and find more people to hang out with when I am completely lost in the current conversation. My confidence has increased, and I have learned to appreciate the moments of awkwardness and grow from them. Anyone going on exchange, trust me, it will get better.
My host family has also been incredible in my assimilation to Colombia. I have always wanted an older brother and recently, with my sister away, a younger one. Now, I have both. My younger brother is six years old, and the older, seventeen. The house is never quiet and there is always someone yelling or the sound of “Teen Titans Go” on the television at full blast. My apartment also has a house cleaner who has been with the family for ten years. Having maids is very common in Colombia, and they are seen as part of the family. She only speaks Spanish, so at times it makes it difficult to communicate; however, recently, we have been able to talk and laugh about things and further improve my Spanish. The mother and I have become quite close, so when my host is busy doing homework I can hang out with her mother.
Every day seems to get better. I meet new people who are excited to hear all about my life. My host and I are becoming closer with every late-night ice cream binge and early morning frenzies. We are starting to reference each other as sisters. I’m very excited to see what else Colombia has in store for me!