I’d travelled through Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and now I’d arrived in the country that I’d heard so much about…Colombia. “Just you wait,” new friends had said, knowing smiles on their faces. “Ah man, I wish I was going back there”, said others heading in the opposite direction. “Don’t get me wrong, other places are great. Colombia is just better.” I heard, time and time again..
I heeded these tips, and scheduled five weeks in the country, assuming that would give me ample time before I set out for Brazil, then home to the UK. But, it took me less than five minutes to fall in love with Colombia. So, that plan soon went out the window… About a week and a half in, I was smitten. By the people, their smiles, their attitudes, their priorities. By the heat, the landscape, the noise. Three weeks in and I felt at home. The pace of life felt right. A month in and I’d made the type of friends you don’t just high five and walk away from. I didn’t want to leave. No one could make me do it. I wasn’t going anywhere. Alas, I had one problem, how could I stay when my dwindling funds meant soon I’d have to survive on a diet of free hostel breakfasts and the odd empanada? Fortunately a place to stay came to me unexpectedly. A friend told me about Casa Elemento, a hostel on top of a mountain in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, run by her good friends that she wanted to take me to immediately. “On top of a mountain you say? How lovely.” So, off we went.
To reach Casa Elemento you either have to brave a motorcycle ride, or hike up through the jungle. We opted to hike. We arrived, sweaty and tired but it was worth it for the view – snowy mountain peaks above, thick jungle and a city below, and the Caribbean Sea twinkling in the distance. Just as I was twirling around in delighted circles taking in their tree house, the pool, the welcoming faces of the owners, and their piece de resistance – a giant hammock fit for a 20 person snuggle-fest – Jean, one of the owners, offered me a cup of tea…PG Tips to be exact. Now, I’d been travelling for five months, and in that time I’d not been able to find a decent cup of tea anywhere, and I’d tried…desperately. Lashings of sugar didn’t help, double bagging was pointless. Maybe it was the hike, maybe it was the fact we were looking down on actual clouds, but I had to fight back tears of pure joy sipping from that blue plastic camping mug with a cigarette burn in the side. It was a perfect moment, and I thought, ‘Well this is nice, I’m going to ask if I can stay!”
The gang welcomed me into their fold immediately, and I quickly got into the swing of volunteering. A typical day at Casa Elemento started with me rising early to put on the all-important coffee. Despite the early wake up call, this was an incredible time of day to be the only person awake. After I’d filled the urn, and cleared up any destruction caused by the newly acquired piglets who appeared capable of escaping any form of enclosure, I’d take the opportunity to go for a run through the jungle, or I’d simply sit and marvel at the view. Some days, most in fact, I’d be treated to the whooping sound of Howler Monkeys swinging through the jungle below, toucans would stop by, and parakeets would dive-bomb the pool. I’ve never been anywhere more beautiful, or more serene.
There were so many great things about being there doing what I was doing. For one, after months of having no real purpose it felt good to feel useful. Whether I was painting, making beds, baking, serving beers, or just mingling, it never felt like work. Ed, Andrew, Jean and Jack had worked hard to make Casa Elemento a home away from home, and that’s what it felt like – as though we were simply making sure guests in our home were comfortable and happy.
We never knew who was going to arrive on any given day or who we were going to meet. New friends would rock up on the back of a motorbike, or emerge from the jungle, just as I had, and my job was to welcome them, feed and water them, and have a chat. And, there was a lot to chat about, we had much in common after all…everyone there was a traveller out seeing the world, making sense of things too, actively looking for what makes them happy. Discovering that you have so much in common with strangers day in, day out, makes you feel part of something. It makes sense that you form fast friendships with people who want to experience life, see things, visit places, and really live. My time there was a constant cycle of meeting cool people doing cool things.
By far the best thing about my time at Casa Elemento was getting to know the owners – people who’d found this corner of Colombia, that they didn’t want to leave either, and rather than resigning themselves to returning to a “normal life”, decided to make their dream happen. They took a chance and it paid off – they worked hard every single day, and are still working hard to make Casa Elemento one of the best hostels in Colombia, and they’ve succeeded. It was incredible to be around people so committed to doing whatever was needed to make this place perfect. I know it sounds like a big ol’cliché, but I mean it when I say my time there inspired me. It made me sit down and work out a few things. What did I care about as much as the people I was working for? What would I happily work as hard for? What could my life be like if I pursued what I wanted as relentlessly as they had? My time there focused me. It made me realise the direction I wanted, and needed, to point myself in when the time came to finally leave that mountain.
If you haven’t got the luxury of time, travelling can be a tiring series of different stops. Two nights here, three nights there, the odd place where you stick around for a bit longer but always with one eye on the date. If you can, make the time, stay put…especially if a place speaks to you. Choose somewhere that you want to get to know. Think about what you can offer, and be prepared to muck in and get dirty. I’m not particularly skilled, but I was inventive and eager, plus I can paint walls like a champion, bake cakes that’ll make you cry real tears, and chat to anyone. That was it. Everyone can do it. Just make sure that if you do, you are willing to help contribute to someone’s vision. You’re helping them to realise their ambitions, remember and respect that.
Volunteering gave me much-needed time to stand still, and to gather my thoughts on everything that had come before it. All the people and places I’d hurtled past on my way there, all the things I’d seen, done, and learnt. It gave me the opportunity to realise what I now knew about myself having spent some time actually listening, and to let it sink in. It allowed me to finally determine what made me happy, and what didn’t. It gave me the space to figure out where I wanted my life to go next. It showed me what can come as a result of hard work, and ignited my ambition and belief that I’m more than capable of achieving my dreams too…and for these reasons I recommend it to you all.
Guest post by Amy Baker