I arrived in Medellín on Thursday, June 16, first visited the school where I’ll be teaching the following Wednesday, and during the visit learned that the next time they needed me back was nearly two weeks later on July 5th.
Of course, the obvious thing to do was take a vacation. (Tough life, I know!)
My friend Cammy (another teacher placed in Medellín) and I hastily found some cheap plane tickets to Barranquilla, a city on Colombia’s Carribbean coast. We left without much of a plan, only knowing that we wanted to travel around and get to a beach (or two or three).
As we were setting off for the airport, Cammy told me that she’d set up a place to stay that night in Barranquilla using the website Couchsurfing. If I wanted to stay too, the host had told her that he had space for both of us.
I’ve known about and been intrigued by the idea of Couchsurfing for many years, but had always been too nervous to use it myself. (For those who don’t know, Couchsurfing is a website where people can volunteer to host travelers for free, and travelers can look for hosts.)
I was apprehensive about staying with someone I’d never met in a city I’d never been to, but Cammy assured me that she’d couchsurfed many times without incident, and furthermore that the guy who had offered to host us had tons of good reviews on his Couchsurfing profile, both from people he’d hosted and from people who had hosted him. With this in mind, and figuring that at least I wouldn’t be alone with this strange guy, I decided to tag along.
We arrived in Barranquilla, and stepping off the plane were hit with a wall of warm night air. I was in heaven! Cammy and I got into a taxi, gave the driver directions to our host’s apartment, and half an hour later we pulled up outside a large stucco high-rise in a quiet neighborhood full of palm trees.
We called our host, and a minute later he came down to meet us. After speaking to him for a moment any fears I had were quickly put to rest, as Daniel (as I will call him here) was extremely kind and welcoming,
He brought us upstairs to a lovely apartment, filled with art and decorations from around the world. After chatting for a few minutes we learned that he had grown up in Barranquilla but now works in Germany as an attorney. He was home on an extended vacation, and we were staying at his mom’s apartment.
Daniel then showed us to where we would be sleeping, a lovely little room perfectly set up with two twin beds. Cammy and I quickly changed out of our long pants (way too hot for those in Barranquilla, no matter what Colombians seem to think), and then we all headed out to a bar for a few drinks.
The walk over was lovely:
The bar we went to was USA/80’s themed; and once inside I felt like I could have been anywhere back in the States.
Over some Cervezas we learned more about Daniel, who was exceedingly interesting to talk to. (We originally tried speaking in Spanish, but Daniel spoke perfect English, and we eventually switched to English because it was so much easier. Sigh!)
He had couchsurfed all over the world, from Iran to China, and was full of amazing stories from his travels. I had always thought that couchsurfing was mainly a way for travelers to save money by not paying for hotels, but after talking to Daniel I came to see that it can be much more than that. By couchsurfing he’d had the chance to meet local people everywhere he’d gone, and to do things and see places not written about in any guidebook. He’d also hosted people from all over the world, both in Colombia and in his apartment in Germany.
It was a really fun and eye-opening evening.
The next morning Cammy and I decided to stroll around the city. Barranquilla gets a bit of a bad rap in guidebooks (Lonely Planet: “There’s little reason to visit Barranquilla outside of Mardi Gras madness. At any other time of the year, you’ll likely only visit the bus station on your way to much more agreeable Santa Marta or Minca, and your experience of Barranquilla will simply be of its bad traffic.”) – Sheesh! Having read this I was really expecting Barranquilla to be a pretty miserable place, and I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised.
We only walked around for a few hours, but I was just blown away by how beautiful and green the streets were and how friendly everyone we met was. I loved that it wasn’t touristy at all. I could have happily walked around for many more hours.
Of course it was hot, but not as crazy-can’t-even-move-hot as I’d heard other people say it is. It was no hotter than Chicago on a hot summer day. Obviously someone who hates the heat might not like it much, but as a hot-weather-lover I was as happy as a clam, if a little sweaty.
I really hope that I can go back and spend some more time there while I’m in Colombia.
After our walk we went back to Daniel’s apartment, where his mom had made lunch and insisted that we share.
Daniel, his mom, one of her friends, Cammy and I all ate and talked for several hours, before we finally had to leave to catch our bus to Santa Marta. It was wonderful, and I was very sad to go!
The whole experience was just astonishing. The entire time I was there I just couldn’t believe that people would do so much for us, total strangers, all without any expectation of repayment – and yet it happened. I left overwhelmed, my heart full of gratitude and amazement at the goodness and generosity in the world, as well as determination to pay it forward. Gracias, Barranquilla!