DukeEngage Medellín
La Violencia is Not the Whole Story

Living Here

Whether it's being the newest hija/o of host moms, falling in love with Carlos E Restrepo, or discovering something new about the lifestyle here, simply living in Medellin itself is one of the most remarkable experiences.

"The Morning Ritual
Half asleep, I can feel the sun streaming into my room. The fruit man is shouting in the distance about piñas and aguacate. I can hear Merce, my host mom, chattering away on the phone in the living room. She speaks so fast that I cannot understand a word she’s saying.

I get out of bed and walk to the bathroom, waving hi to Merce as she continues to talk. By the time I brush my teeth and get dressed, there’s breakfast waiting on the table. The firsrt week or two, breakfast was pretty predictable. A big plate of fruit and a little bowl of what look like ChocoPuffs. Either Merce really likes papaya or she thinks I really like papaya because the fruit is usually lots of papaya with some other fruit mixed in. Or sometimes it’s just papaya. I pour my milk-in-a-bag into my cereal, hoping that I don’t get strawberry milk like I did one time last week. Instead, this time I get lactose-free milk by accident because Angelica, one of the boarders living in my house, is lactose-intolerant.

Nowadays, however, breakfast is a little different. Angelica was telling me that Merce was worried that I don’t like the food she makes because I don’t eat very much. I told Angelica to tell her that I definitely like everything she’s made so far. I think she was very happy to hear this because ever since then, breakfast has been expanding. It’s really quite an adventure. She started by adding hot chocolate to my daily glass of juice, then an egg or two and a few chunks of bread, and now a banana or orange also pops up along with a stack of saltine crackers. Occasionally I get an arepa with a piece of quesito, but there is nothing –ito about it. The offer of Tosh graham crackers always stands but I generally decline because I feel like I’m about to explode. I suppose it would be relevant now to add that I usually don’t eat breakfast at home or at Duke.

Though breakfast sometimes seems like a 5K marathon, I like it. Enrique, my host father, often sits with me and sometimes I help him fill in the English words in his crossword puzzle. Otherwise, we talk about really random things like the International Space Station, Shakira or the grammatical difficulties of Spanish and English. It makes for some interesting vocab practice. The other day he taught me what I think is an inappropriate word to call a male friend, but I’m not exactly sure. In any case, Merce heard this while walking by and shook her head in kind of a mock disapproval.

Meanwhile, Merce will shout from the kitchen for Enrique to shut up and let me talk more. The other day, she came in rather aghast about the state of my jeans, after my hike through mud and cow poop in the mountains last weekend. I tried to tell her that it’s OK, that even though the mud stains are probably permanent, I could just wear them at home. She marched off with declarations of defeating the stains, no matter what happens. I still haven’t seen those jeans yet; they must be undergoing quite a scrubbing!

Now Merce comes in and sits down to tell Enrique about what happened last night. It was probably the most amusing thing I’ve seen happen in the house yet. I came home to find Merce and Julián, the other student boarder, trying to shoo away a giant moth that flew into the bathroom. I decided this would be a good time to tell them about another moth that had taken up residence in my room the whole day. Merce bursts out laughing, comes back armed with a bucket and broom, and the two of them begin an epic battle against the two moths. There’s just something about seeing your 4’10” host mother run around frantically waving a broom at 10pm at night that makes you feel like part of the family.

Back to breakfast. After I chug down the last of the hot chocolate, I rush to my room to pick up my things and head out the door, kissing Enrique and Merce good-bye and reassuring her that I do indeed have my keys, my sunscreen/sunglasses if we’re going outside all day, and that I’ll be home for dinner. She wishes me well and I’m off for another day."

"I love Carlos E. After only a month, I know Carlos E. is one of the most fascinating neighborhoods I’ve ever been in. Day after day I find myself spending hours sitting in the cafes or simply lying back by those absurd modern art pipes. I think I laid back and looked at the sky maybe 3 times before coming to Medellin. Something about the area is extremely calming and gives rise to reflection. In Cleveland (a city already lacking excitement for youth), I live in the suburbs where this type of hippie-culture is largely relegated to people’s basements. The situation is largely similar at Duke… except for maybe the Coffee House. What makes Carlos E. so unique and inviting to me is how open people are. Any night of the week, you sit on one of the benches and you will hear several guitar players strumming freely, be offered countless trinkets and bracelets, and sometimes get a pretty decent contact high.
Given this neighborhood’s remarkable history as the first social housing project in Medellin, the infusion of youth culture and ideals is particularly intriguing. I feel that Medellin is a very youth-driven city, and Carlos E. epitomizes this idea.

Earlier this week, a kid who couldn’t have been older than 13 wearing a Bob Marley t-shirt and a massive Rastafarian hat asked me for a light for his very large… cigarette. I paused for a second, because he almost seemed like a caricature, a perfect representation of every Rasta stereotype I’ve seen on television or in films. Where I’ve lived in the United States (I can only speak for Cleveland really; I have to imagine somewhere like San Francisco is entirely different), I think that a combination of stricter policing and a much more pervasive obsession with self-image would have prevented this kid from leaving his house. Instead, here in Medellin he can relax in a beautiful park with hundreds of others.

All of this brings me back to why I love Carlos E: the lack of concern for appearance, lack of pretense, and full genuine embrace of its own culture and history. For me, there’s no place like it."

"Doña Clara reminds me of my grandmother – and in all the best ways. She wants to feed me too much all the time, she has lunch with her friends to gossip and brag about their grandchildren, she watches her telenovelas (soap operas) religiously, and her gestures and words are always backed with love and affection. I couldn’t think of any better way to experience the culture of a city and its people than to live with them, and I think that’s the real beauty of homestay families. In Medellín, you’re not a boarder – you’re a son or a daughter that has just recently arrived into the family. This past weekend I had some sort of bacterial stomach infection, and I practically passed out on my bed for 48 hours. And though Doña Clara didn’t poke and prod me, she was always there for me and I could see the concern in her eyes – the same that I would have seen in my grandmother’s. She asked if it was anything she had cooked, what she should change differently about my diet to accommodate me – anything that could be done, she wanted to do it. Being sick in a foreign place is one of the most uncomfortable situations in existence; I really wanted to be back home and in my own bed with familiar food. But Doña Clara’s care and affection and homemade chicken soup made me realize that I was in a home, and I was part of the family, and I couldn’t have asked for better attention than what she gave me.

On Friday, she went on a daytrip to Santa Fe de Antioquia and left bright and early at 6 am. When I woke up about four hours later, she had fruit lying out for me for breakfast, along with an assortment of breads and crackers, and hot chocolate waiting in a thermos. Even when she isn’t in the house, I still feel like she’s there to watch over me. I was really excited this Sunday when I asked if I could go with her to mass. She said yes, that she’d love to go with me, and we walked over to a gorgeous church only about five minutes away from home. Although I could barely understand the priest because he spoke through a horrible microphone system, I followed cues from Doña Clara on when to kneel and when to stand, and she seemed really proud that I went with her. On the walk back, we discussed various Christian faiths. I explained that I am Episcopalian, and the services are similar to Catholic services; her greatest interest laid in how priests are allowed to marry in the Episcopalian Church but not the Catholic Church. We even discussed evangelical services, with their less formal rites and more emphasis on expression of faith through music. Sunday morning turned out to be the perfect bonding time, and once again I felt like I was part of the family."

"To say the least, my host mother wants to make sure I have everything I need. From food, to clothing, to my daily routine, Marta wants to make sure that I am happy; and if anything is lacking, she does everything she can to help me fix my issue (no matter how small it is; no matter how many times I tell her “no importa”).

The first evidence I saw of this was when I wanted to use the gym in Anne’s building. When my host mother learned that the doorman turned me away, she was quite upset. Before the phone call was made to Doña Clara, the entire family discussed the issue (we were all in Doña Marta’s bed room: Luisa, Doña Marta, Esteban, Samuel, and I), and the conclusion was that Doña Clara should talk to the doorman. Marta then called Doña Clara, and Doña Clara promptly spoke with the doorman, who then proceeded to illegally allow me to use the gym! This was the first time I learned how things got done in my family: as a collective.

The second time I noticed how much family involvement is needed to accomplish something was when I found that one of my shirts was missing. I told my host mother about it, because it had been two weeks since I had put the shirt in the laundry.

I suppose I should have known this, but she was very bothered by the missing shirt. First my host mother asked her daughter if the maid had given her the shirt by accident; but the shirt was not to be found in her closet. My host mother then asked the maid to look out on the porch (where all of the clothes are hung up); the shirt was not there. Please keep in mind: during this process, I tried several times to say that we could wait, maybe it would turn up, maybe it fell behind something: but my host mother was not to be stopped!

Next, Marta came in and sat on my bed, and told the maid to come in my room. The both of them proceeded to tell me to open my closet, take out each piece of clothing (to make sure the shirt wasn't "stuck" to anything), then go through each drawer and take out EVERYTHING and MAKE SURE the shirt was not there. The shirt did not appear.

At this point, my host mother appeared somewhat put out. The missing shirt defeated her. However, soon a light came into her eyes, when she remembered that a few weeks ago her younger granddaughter had been staying with us, and that perhaps the maid had given the shirt to the girl, thinking it was hers. Sure enough, my host mother called the house, and the shirt was there!

This incident again proved to me that Colombian families are extremely close. They want to know EXACTLY what is going on at all times, and if you have everything you need. If you don't, they will do whatever they can to help you fix whatever problem (no matter how small) you may have. They also will not hesitate to call up their relatives, tell them all about your problems, and ask them if they can help you. Although this can seem somewhat stifling at times, for the most part I find it rather endearing.

This week, I feel as though I got to know a different side of the family as well. Luisa and I spent about two hours looking through all of their family pictures and videos. Most of them were of Samuel when he was born, but there were also pictures of Christmas, birthday parties, etc. It seems like any child’s birthday, any holiday, even any Sunday is an excuse for everyone to get together, get a cake, and hang out. I really admire the sense of family that they have- they clearly rely on each other for a lot of support (emotional and otherwise) and genuinely enjoy spending time together.

I often wish that my siblings and I shared this kind of closeness. Although we are close, we live far away from each other and I do not see them as often as I would like. I thought about this before I came to Colombia, but now seeing an example up close, I see how it can be easily accomplished. "

"Colombians don’t sleep. Or if they do I cannot figure out when. Our Compañeros are currently enjoying their summer vacation. In Colombia, this vacation means taking on one or two jobs in addition to a “concurso”, an architectural competition that is apparently very important to the career of a future architect. During these months when they are out of school it seems to me they work harder than when I am in school. My compañero gets up at 7 am daily and after work meets up with his group and works on his concurso. One Saturday day night he couldn’t go out and I told him I was sorry he had to stay in working. He said he wasn’t, that he really enjoys the work that he does. I don’t know how our compañeros remain healthy, kind, relaxed individuals.

The two students we are interviewing for EPM have a similar view of sleep. We were making plans to meet to shadow their community service and Allison and I balked at the thought of meeting at seven. Both students laughed and said that 7 was nothing, sometimes they have to be at class at 6. As we made our way to the Nacional at 6:50, the street was full of people, young and old, all getting a start on their day. I’ve been told the people in Medellín work harder then anywhere else in Colombia, and I can believe it.

The one time we went out all night, Carlos, one of our Colombian professors had to work the next day. How a man can go into the office after hours dancing salsa and watching the sun rise is beyond me. Where does this work ethic come from? How can Colombians make time for full careers and time to enjoy themselves? I value the way Paisas seem to live their lives, full of work, but full of enjoyment as well."


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Funded by generous grants from Duke University and donations from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, DukeEngage has made it possible for us, a group of six Duke students, to embark on a 7-week civic engagement project, The Historical Memory/Community Literacy Project, in Medellin, Colombia. Our team also includes 57 students from Emerson College in Boston who created a multi-media catalog & a short film "108 things you might not know about medellín".

In collaboration with our directors, Dr. Tamera Marko of Emerson College and Jota Samper of MIT, we are producing 7 short documentaries about various communities in Medellin. We want you know to know that in Medellin, a city in the process of peace, la violencia is not the whole story.

Emerson College Medellin
DukeEngage Colombia 08
Parques Bibliotecas
Universidad Nacional de Colombia
Carlos E. Restrepo
Pajarito Vivienda


Tamera Marko, Ph.D.

Jota Samper