This time last week, I was sitting on a beanbag at a foreign language exchange in Medellin, Colombia.
The place was full of young people joking and laughing, often alternating in their conversations between Spanish and English, so the extranjeros, the foreigners, would get a chance to practice their Spanish and then the native Spanish speakers would get a chance to practice their English.
It was a warm Friday night. Maybe 25 degrees. Every night’s a warm night in Medellin – they call it the City of Eternal Spring. And so I was surprised to see a young man walk through the front door, wearing a stripey woollen sweater.
He had braces and a big smile, and he looked really young. I shook his hand and introduced myself.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked.
Jesus. 19 years old. A kid from across the border in Venezuela who knew almost no English whatsoever.
How long have you been in Colombia? I asked.
2 weeks he told me. Did you family come too? No. All of my family are still in Venezuela, he told me.
‘The journey was very hard but I am very happy to be here.’
By some estimates, there are as many as 2 million Venezuelans who’ve fled their country’s violence and disastrous economy for life in Colombia. Four thousand cross the border people a day. Think about that. The population of Colombia is fifty million. It’s ten times New Zealand. Imagine if we had four hundred refugees arriving here every day.
Venezuelans speak Spanish, but still, an influx like that causes some problems. There are Colombians who are deeply unhappy with the number of Venezuelans in their country. But many also recognise that Venezuela took in huge numbers of Colombians when their shoe was on the other foot during the civil wars and drug cartel violence of the last thirty years. In a way, Colombia is returning the favour.
Some Venezuelans are just trying to make the best of it. I ate lunch every day at a small restaurant run by two Venezuelan women who’d fled their homes. It was a classic hole in the wall and the menu of the day changed constantly. Chicken soup, fish in coconut cream, beef tongue in salsa. Rice. Beans. Maybe a bit of flirting with the extranjeros on the side. I went Salsa dancing with two infectiously funny Venezuelan sisters. I can tell you that Para sudar como un cerdo, To sweat like a pig. The older sister has a job and speaks English. She supports her younger sister, who’s waiting on papers to legally work.
Venezuela has a dazzling coastline, masses of natural resources, and the largest confirmed oil reserves in the World. Those young women told me they don’t see any future back home.
Anyway, I wanted to tell you this, not to go into a big sob story or anything like that. But because it’s these interactions, these friendships, that make the experience of travelling so special for me. I’m very fortunate to have enjoyed an extended break this year.
I had a week in India, and then a really special time travelling with my brother in Pakistan for a few weeks. Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Karachi. I took a good decent hike along the Bosphorous in Istanbul. Then I parked up Medellin, Colombia, one of my favourite cities anywhere, to study Spanish full time for the best part of a month.
You might associate Medellin as the home of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel, but actually the city is even more remarkable for its astonishing transformation. After listening to my Colombian friend describe the bloody reality of Medellin’s entrenched urban warfare. Life in a city where gangs and paramilitaries gunned each other down for a few yards of territory. Violence that had families sleeping on the floor every night. Violence that only a few years ago made her home the most dangerous city in the World.
My friend asked about life in New Zealand.
‘Tienen muchos ovejas, si?’
‘You got a lot of sheep, right?’ She asked. I felt almost embarrassed to answer.
Last week when our language exchange wrapped, I shared a cab back across Medellin with some friends. Jesus was sitting in the back. I was packing to fly home, and so I gave him my Medellin metro card with a few bucks worth of public transport credit on it. It was nothing, but he thanked me several times, earnestly.
You learn so much in an interaction like that. As much about Latin America, Venezuela or Colombia, as you do about New Zealand. Why? Well there’s honestly not much difference between me and Jesus. A few years and a woollen sweatshirt. Except I can see my family when I want. I don’t have to worry about where my next meals comes from. The more I travel, the more I feel I’ve hit the jackpot in the great lottery of life.