Paisas are some of the most welcoming people in the world. It isn’t unusual for the person giving you an empanada, driving you in their taxi, or simply standing next to you on the metro to ask, “Where are you from?” and then enthusiastically proclaim, “Welcome to my country! Bienvenidos!” This enthusiasm for inclusion and for kindness and conversation amongst strangers made my two week intensive Spanish study program in Medellín more productive as well as enjoyable.
I spent two weeks at the EAFit University, down the street from Ivy Hostel, studying level four Spanish. I had a long way to go to regain the Spanish speaking abilities of my youth that I had since lost. I was in Ecuador prior to visiting Colombia and no one there spoke a word of English, so I decided it would be worthwhile for the rest of my travels through South America to brush up. In Medellín most people can speak at least some English. And they are happy to. They don’t do it begrudgingly. They’ll gladly ask, “Where are you from?” and reiterate, “Welcome to my country!” However, try telling a Paisa in Spanish that you are currently studying Español at their University — they get so excited! They will congratulate you, “Spanish is very difficult!” After speaking with you a little bit, they will praise you, “You speak Spanish very well! Very well!” They will say these two things that you know are not really true, but they will mean it. They are genuinely so excited that you are taking an interest in their language and their culture, when you simply don’t have to. It’s an attitude that the whole word would benefit from by adopting but which, from what I’ve seen, is uniquely common and pronounced in Medellín.
My classes at EAFit were fantastic! EAFit is a real University, so I was on campus with Colombians studying all subject matters. I had access to the sporting facilities, the dining options, studying amenities and much more. Moreover, the Spanish language program actively updated their Facebook page and sent out emails letting all of us know the cultural activities, language exchanges and on campus events that were available to us to enrich our Colombian experience and improve our Spanish.
My favorite activity that I found through the EAFit Facebook group was a concert in the plaza behind the Modern Art Museum: La Travesía del Alma. Described as “a fusion of ancestral sounds,” this performance combined all sorts of instruments — didgeridoo, electric guitar, drums, xylophone, bass, and more — with as much as five part melodic (lyric-less) vocal harmonies. It combines Afro rhythms with rock melody and sound while interweaving various ethnic vocal and instrumental traditions. It was a sight to see, and also to not see. The museum staff handed everyone eye masks to be worn as desired throughout the show in order to hear the symphony free from visual distraction. It was definitely a unique auditory experience.
After two weeks, exhausted from days of study and nights of culture seeking and socializing, I left my final exam on Friday. I did very well in my class, but wondered if I’d really gotten better at Spanish. It’s all fine and dandy to learn new tenses and accumulate more vocabulary, but could I actually better interact with locals? I wasn’t sure; but I’d done all I could. With no more obligations, I signed up for the activity I’d been dying to do since my arrival in Medellín: paragliding. On Saturday morning I headed way up into the hills to take flight, held aloft only by the resistance of air on a strip of fabric. Because I have absolutely no experience paragliding, or any kind of gliding for that matter, I did a tandem flight, with a local pilot sitting behind me and really doing the work while I put my arms out like wings and pretended I was a bird. To my surprise, and absolute delight, my pilot knew almost no English. We exchanged greetings in Spanish and we took off. With every gust of wind we elevated and more of Medellín appeared, peaking out from beyond hill crests and buildings. My pilot pointed out Parque Arví, El Centro Commercial, and other places I’d been. I told him about my experiences at each of them. As I watched the city unfold beneath me, it was like a new home. I had spent a total of three weeks here, and I knew that this was now a place I will always come back to, a place to which I feel uniquely connected. My pilot pointed out other areas to which I haven’t been and told me about the amazing things I can see and do there. I fully intend to.
In Medellín I discovered a people, a language, and a place, inextricable from one another, that I absolutely adore. Hasta proxima vez (until next time) …