Friday, 26 May 2017


Since I've been here four months, I have a bit of catching up to do with this blog - I'll get to the 'good stuff' soon enough, but first I'll fill you in on events leading up to me writing this right now. Think of it as like literary time travel. Now squint your eyes, make a sound like a xylophone glissando, and pretend everything's going wavy - that's right, chums; you're having a flashback!


Generally, the process to become a co-teacher here was pretty painless, though it wasn't all smooth sailing to get to this point. Today, I'll give you the skinny on the application process and what happened up to, and including, my arrival in Colombia.

July 2016: I applied through a recruitment company called Greenheart (they handle everything, from visa details to city placement). I had to complete a form detailing not only what I expected to get from the experience, but why I wanted to teach in Colombia, as well as any relevant experience that I thought might help me get a position.

Obviously this depends on the individual, but for me, I worked extensively with kids and young adults (in and out of education settings) back in the UK, plus travelled a lot over the last four years, so all that sort of stuff can be used to show relevant skills/interests.

sidenote: I also have a PTTLS certificate from the UK (this allows me to teach in the "post-16 sector" ie college and adult education level. I didn't have a TEFL certification (which you don't need for this job) but figured I'd get one, because it would only be a good thing to have (I completed and received this in October 2016). I would recommend getting this before you come if you don't have it already, as it definitely reminded me that certain skills teaching to native English speakers aren't necessarily useful for non-native speakers eg. I have no trouble talking and keeping people's attention, but this is to my detriment here as I need to give students the chance to process what I'm saying.

August 2016: I had three Skype interviews, that covered 1) any initial questions I might have about the programme, then 2) a follow-up to my initial application form and finally 3) a chat with an existing Fellow here in Colombia, who asked me a bunch of questions, as well as once again ran through my application form. Around this time, I was also asked to submit preferences for where I'd like to be placed. I said 'anywhere cool and mountainous', but after my third chat was given a few places to research. Armenia was one, and luckily enough that's where I ended up.

September 2016: Offered a place on the programme! I had to pay a $500 US deposit, which was to secure my placement. This was the only cost directly related to Greenheart (I did have to pay for insurance, which I think was around $300 US, but that's for me and didn't go to Greenheart). The cost is the number one thing that attracted me to this particular company, along with the prospect of a bonus for completing my contract (I signed up for a year) AND having my first month's accommodation in my placement city paid for.

December 2016: Spent the next few months sorting out paperwork, such as stuff for the visa and insurance, and in mid-December found out I was being placed in Armenia! The only downside is that, due to a funding cut (from the Colombian government) they pulled the initial benefit of paying for the first month's accommodation in the placement city, as well as knocked a chunk off the contract completion bonus.

January 2017: I left Australia and headed to Bogota! There was a lot of last minute changes and waiting around for news on the start date (the 22nd), which was my first taste of what the Colombian government is actually like. I packed comfortable smart/casual clothes and a bunch of my favourite t-shirts, had a restful night in Florida, then arrived in Bogota for...


So this was nuts. My flight arrived at lunchtime on the 22nd, and I met a few other Fellows at the airport. We were bundled into a minivan and taken to the Hotel Estelar La Fontana. The place was like a swanky fortress village, all self-contained plazas and cafes. There were a bunch of rooftop terraces that afforded top views of the surrounding mountains, too:

Rooms were mini apartments, single sex, and I was put with a chap from Australia who'd just extended his contract for another six months. He was only around for a few days, but all us newbies had ten days of 8am - 5pm (breakfast was from 7am, tea (aka dinner) from 6pm), which were crammed with intense (and HIGHLY repetitive) presentations and exercises. I don't know about you, but maybe you go bananas for having the same information delivered to you in different ways. In which case, you'd do absolutely fine in orientation. Anyone else looking at doing this: buckle up for one hell of an infodump. These were all lead by representatives of either Heart For Change/Volunteers Colombia (who I'm actually employed by) or the Ministry of Education, and covered quite literally everything from safety tips to culture shock to lesson planning and god knows what else. It was INTENSE and there was absolutely no need for it to be so hardcore.

However, one great thing about all this is that we were all in the same boat, so it immediately gave us something to bond over. I also got to finally meet some Fellows I'd connected with via Facebook (Greenheart run a page for new and old Fellows to get info from each other) and there was such a strong sense of community and camaraderie that it somewhat negated all the boring and redundant meetings.

There wasn't a lot of actual free time to do stuff and get out and see Bogota, so we all grabbed what chances we could. There was a cool huge park nearby so a bunch of us would go there and play frisbee:

One dusk a load of us went to the top of Montserrate (a mountain) which afforded a stunning sunset view of the city. In fact, Bogota is ringed by mountains and is something like 2000m above sea level - I did have trouble breathing quite often due to the altitude, which coupled with my jet lag really knocked me for six. Ultimately though it was worth it, as I got to eyeball stuff like THIS:


Before we knew it, orientation was over and we had to leave at 3:30am(!) to catch a flight to Armenia. We were all worried about finding proper places to stay, but for the first week or so most of us hunkered down in a really nice hostel called Wanderlust. Sharing the same worries and being joint strangers in a new place really forged a strong sense of community between us all, and it's one that's seen the Armenia Fellows remain one of the closest-knit groups on the programme (I reckon).

Make no mistake: the first month was HECTIC. We all had to find places to live, get to know each other better, find out exactly where our schools were, and generally acclimatize to a completely different lifestyle. But, as I mentioned in my previous post, pretty much everyone I've met here shares the same desire to travel, experience new things, and teach, and that is extremely refreshing for me personally, after dealing with people who aren't bothered by such things - or worse, have become jaded and unpleasant about them.

Something that was rammed home in orientation was this need to be flexible. Basically, if you're not willing to bend to the Colombian way of doing things, you're not going to do well here. This is absolutely true. In the four months I've been here, I've seen and heard of Fellows who can't really handle this lifestyle and it's not worked out for them, because the Colombians (and in some cases, the programme leaders) do pick up on it. As the mentor at my school put it: "Culture shock works both ways." Maybe that all sounds a little doomy, but really it mainly involves either a stubborn refusal to adapt or being a victim of immaturity and not giving this opportunity the respect it deserves.


Mountains! Mountains everywhere!
But enough if that! Let me tell you a bit about ARMENIARGH! It's in the Quindio region and forms part of the so-called 'coffee triangle'. There are fincas (coffee farms) everywhere here, and it's surrounded by, and comprised of, some truly awesome mountains. What I personally like about this city is that it's small enough to walk around without taking ages to get anywhere, and there are a load of picturesque towns/hikes littering the surrounding area.

The city is effectively split by an exceptionally long street called Carrera 14 that runs right down the middle, from the very north to Plaza Bolivar in the south (this area is known as centro and is home to a staggering amount of stalls and shops). The north is ostensibly the 'nice part', with the south being home to more shanty type homes and beggars. It's somewhere that is perfectly safe to walk around during the day on your own, provided you don't actively look like a gringo (ie. keep your phone hidden, don't wear ear/headphones, and keep your bag closed and either in front of you or slung over your shoulders so that it can't possibly be tugged free). It's not somewhere I would suggest venturing at night on your own, but I go there with friends after dark and feel perfectly safe.

View from behind our hostel

A snapshot of Carrera 14

It's almost impossible to not find mountains peeking from behind buildings here
Compared to much bigger cities like Medellin (which is BRILLIANT) the nightlife isn't as vibrant, but there are still plenty of bars, restaurants and cafes. More than enough to provide a new place to eat/drink every few nights if you wanted. Salsa is, of course, extremely popular, with most clubs here offering that sort of environment (karaoke is also popular here). Armenia is home to a few university campuses, so there's a nice 'young' vibe to the north, with tons of students always wandering about (they all seem remarkably well-behaved too!).

Activity-wise, Aremnia is pretty, well, moderate. There's a museum to the far north, a nice rainforest-y park in the middle...and that's about it. We have cinemas and go-karting, and tejo (more on THAT soon!) but compared to other cities it's all rather sedate. I, however, like this and living here is muy tranquilo - very relaxing.

Leafcutter ants live absolutely everywhere here
Life is generally pretty cheap here, and I'll go into detail about all this next time, but suffice to say the stipend provided by the programme lasts perfectly well. There were a few unexpected costs upon arrival here, such as paying for our cedulas (an ID card) and (in the case of my housemates and I) paying a deposit on our apartments, but the cedula cost was reimbursed and (hopefully) we'll get our deposits back - although we didn't sign contracts, which to me is a huge no-no but apparently very common here. So far, our landlady's been pretty good and approachable so we're probably going to be fine *fingers crossed*


I'll talk more about MONEY and THE LIFESTYLE, with more info on actual teaching coming soon after that. I'll also reveal a few cool stories from my first month, which demonstrates the general helpful and friendly nature of Armenians.

Also, you should leave the flashback now before you get stuck in the past!

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