A summary of my experience in Colombia

Greetings, I am Arthur Wagner, proudly representing the charming nation of Austria. I recently turned 19, and not too long ago, I wrapped up high school back in Austria. I live on a farm in Carinthia, an Austrian region known for its scenic mountains and high living standard. While I harbor a diverse range of interests, my farm offers me ample opportunity to indulge in nature’s wonders, whether it is on my KTM 450 or the tranquility of a simple walk. In addition I have a deep-rooted fascination with the world of fashion and its accompanying allure. In the upcoming paragraphs, I will share the captivating story of my volunteer year in Colombia.

The decision to spend nearly a year in Colombia was rooted in several compelling reasons. Firstly, it provided a way to fulfill my obligatory military service, which I was determined to avoid for a multitude of personal reasons. I have a penchant for seeking out extreme situations, as I believe they contribute significantly to character development and personal growth. Moreover, as I approached the end of my high school journey, I found myself at a crossroads, unsure of what path to follow in life. Venturing to a country 11,000 kilometers away from home held the hope of unraveling that uncertainty. It was during this experience that I discovered my passion for chemistry, a subject that had always been a part of my life and held my genuine interest during my school days

Undoubtedly, my journey in Colombia was marked by a series of significant challenges. The initial hurdle I faced was arriving in a country vastly different from Austria, armed with not a single word of Spanish in my linguistic arsenal. The language barrier loomed large. Within my host family, Spanish was the exclusive mode of communication, with no one speaking any other language. Even at my workplace, where English was spoken to some extent, the working language and conversational medium remained resolutely Spanish. Initially, establishing communication with people proved exceptionally arduous. However, it was this constant necessity to converse in Spanish that propelled my language skills. After about three months, I began to grasp the nuances, and by the five-month mark, my Spanish proficiency had surpassed my six years of learning French. Today, communication poses no challenge, especially in terms of comprehension; I can grasp nearly everything.

Another major challenge was adapting to a completely distinct lifestyle. Despite having greater purchasing power than in Austria, I encountered lower food quality. Regardless of where I searched or what I tried, the culinary experience never quite matched the Austrian standard. Coping with Bogotá, a colossal city housing more inhabitants than my entire home country, initially proved exhausting. Due to traffic and an inefficient transport system, escaping the city’s clutches became a formidable task. Almost every leisure activity required a financial investment and substantial time commitment. For instance, a simple evening outing would consume hours, whereas back home, a 20-minute drive sufficed. Furthermore, I had assumed that in a city larger than some entire nations, I’d find anything I desired; however, the reality was quite different. Either the item I sought was elusive or, when located, it carried an exorbitant price tag, often far higher than in Austria. High-quality bread and good cheese, for instance, were rare commodities. Basic essentials like sourdough were virtually nonexistent. One could unmistakably discern the pervasive influence of capitalism.

Amidst the hustle and bustle of the sprawling Colombian metropolis, I was fortunate to experience the most incredible aspect of this country – its rich and varied natural beauty. Colombia offers a stunning array of landscapes, from the scorching coastal regions with their pristine white sand beaches to the unique desserts that unfold before your eyes, unlike anything you’ve ever seen. You can venture into areas where the complex ecosystems of the rainforest remain untouched, or simply stay close to Bogotá and explore the breathtaking beauty of the Andes.

One of my initial hiking experiences in Colombia took me to a place nestled in the mountains behind Usaquen, known as La Calera. To this day, it remains one of the closest escapes from the urban chaos of the big city. What’s convenient is that you can utilize Bogota’s public bus system, the SITP, to reach this tranquil haven. In La Calera, we decided to spend the night in hammocks we’d strung between the trees. Despite the absolutely breathtaking views, the combination of chilling winds and the high elevation made for a frigid night, and none of us managed to get much sleep due to the plummeting temperatures. Nevertheless, the following morning, we resolved to make the descent back to Bogota on foot. Our trusty hiking app guided us through a route cutting right through the dense jungle. Regrettably, after approximately 1 kilometer, our path was obliterated by a massive landslide. Undeterred, we decided to descend through the gaping hole created by the landslide right in the heart of the jungle. It took us several hours and proved to be a rather unsettling experience. At the end of the landslide area, we stumbled upon what appeared to be Usaquen’s water source, hidden in the middle of the forest, but in a state of complete disrepair from the outside. Finally, we encountered an asphalt road and followed it to a gated area where we realized we had inadvertently entered a restricted zone. At the gate, a security guard threatened to involve the police, suspecting we had trespassed. Despite our limited grasp of Spanish at the time, we managed to talk ourselves out of the situation.

Another unforgettable adventure was a road trip I embarked upon with a few friends, where we journeyed all the way from Bogotá to the coast, visiting the vibrant cities of Santa Marta and Barranquilla. The drive itself was an adventure in its own right, covering approximately 1,000 kilometers and lasting a daunting 18 hours. Along the way, we traversed various ecological zones, and it’s worth noting that we spent more on road tolls and highway usage than on fuel, as maintaining modern, well-kept roads can be quite pricey in Colombia.

I also had the chance to explore a charming little town nestled next to the highway between Bogotá and Villavicencio. In Guayabetal, I embarked on a hiking expedition with a friend and my girlfriend, who joined me on my Colombian journey. The town is surrounded by numerous rivers cascading down from the mountains, and we set up camp beside a crystal-clear river.

Yet, the most remarkable experience of my year was a recent hiking adventure with a close friend. We set out on a quest to reach another pristine lagoon. We took a bus from Bogotá to Pasquilla, a tiny town located 25 kilometers outside Bogotá at an altitude of about 3,000 meters. Our hike, according to our app, covered 6 kilometers and an elevation gain of 600 meters. The first 3 kilometers took us through cow meadows and resembled the landscapes of Austria. But as we ventured higher, we entered the typical highland terrain, characterized by low-lying vegetation and the unique plants adapted to these conditions. After about 3 hours, we arrived at the lagoon, where we spent a bone-chilling night due to the high altitude. The following day, we decided to stash our backpacks and tackle the highest summit within our sight, which required ascending 400 meters more in elevation. It was truly astounding how much more exhausting it was to cover those 400 meters when you’re already at an altitude of around 3,600 meters. After an hour of strenuous effort, we finally reached the summit, and the view was nothing short of breathtaking. From that vantage point, you could see all the surrounding peaks, with a clear line of sight extending as far as Bogotá. After a brief pause to soak in the magnificent panorama, we began our descent and headed back.