Studying in the field: A personal account of experiential learning in Colombia

During the spring of 2018, I visited Colombia as a student in Professor Kelly Allen’s breakout study abroad program, “Sustainable Food Systems in Emerging Markets.” The weeklong trip was my first time out of the United States. In that short period of time, I was exposed to a new land, culture, and experiences that I will not forget. While the U.S. itself has a vast array of cultures and diversity, stepping outside of the borders of the nation I call home, was an experience completely different from interstate travel.

As we flew over the Caribbean Sea, darkness pervaded. When I saw the orange glow of lights from the coastal cities of Baranquilla and Carrtagena, I knew we had reached Colombia. Soon thereafter, darkness reclaimed the landscape. The jungle. Cordillera de los Andes. Electricity had not yet stolen the night in this part of the world. As we neared our destination, the city of Medellin, the lights grew in intensity. It called to mind driving from the dark expanse of Tehachapi in the Mojave and seeing the bright sprawling city of Bakersfield, California coming into view. The U.S. is very developed and there are few places on the East coast that remain unpolluted by light.

As we disembarked, the noxious smell of diesel filled the night air. It was terrible. How could they stand to breathe it in everyday? My miserable attitude toward air quality soon melted as we drove down the mountain and into the heart of the city. Medellin was a beautiful place. The streetlights glowed warm in the sub-tropic night. People were everywhere and I could feel the energy and life that vibrated from the city. Murals and graffiti covered walls and buildings turning each structure into a work of art. I was enthralled. The romance of the place was all I could see. I was blinded by the honeymoon phase of culture shock. From this perspective, everything appeared beautiful and harmonious, even the traffic. Motorcycles were whirring in and out of lanes, car horns were honking, bicyclists and pedestrians were weaving past, there were even unicyclists juggling at the stoplights hoping to earn a few spare pesos. All of the chaos felt like a perfect orchestration.

The next few days were spent in the city. My class visited two of the National Vocational Training Agencies, organizations that provide education and training in order to help improve the social and economic strength of the country. After nearly 50 years of civil war, the government was able to come up with a plan to help ease unrest, which included education and healthcare for its citizens. The people that we met cared very deeply for the future of their country. They believed very strongly that education is of paramount importance and should be available to all citizens.

Medellin is known as the “City of Eternal Spring”. The weather is always between 50-70 degrees Fahrenheit. Many people walked or took advantage of public transportation. Agriculture is Colombia’s economic strength. They grow coffee, cacao, mangoes, pineapple, and countless other tropical fruits. We spent the last few days of our trip visiting farms in Santa Rosa de Osos. We ate traditional meals of rice, beans, fish, and plantains. We were often served tinto, small 4oz. cups of black coffee, every few hours, a tradition that we were pleased to partake in. The foods we consumed were grown regionally and everything was fresh. I’ll never forget the banana that I ate. It was like I had never actually had a banana before. It was tree-ripened and the flesh was a warm yellow hue with a creamy custard texture. The food heritage in the country was a definite highlight.

The trip to Colombia was an incredible experience. Travel is a remarkable exploration that has taught me time and time again, how very little I know. But I keep seeking.