Aug 11, 2011

Letters to DukeEngage Medellín 2012


Dear future DEColombia student,

First of all, congratulations on getting into this program! You don’t fully understand this yet, but you are one of the luckiest people alive- get ready for the best summer of your life.
We’ve been asked to pass on some advice for you so this is what I think:
1. Do everything. It doesn’t matter if you’re exhausted, if you don’t know who else is going or where exactly the place is, if you’re invited somewhere by a compañero or your host family- just say yes. Don’t ask questions. Just be enthusiastic and say “I’d love to!”
2. Treat your compañeros like gold- and be greedy. Try to get as much time with them as possible, and not just the ones assigned to you- all of them. They are the greatest people on earth and they are what make this program special. All DE programs involve meaningful work, but what makes ours unique is this aspect that allows us to experience Colombia like a paisa- to go out socially with them, see their band play, let them teach us slang here and how to dance, everything a college kid here needs to know. The compañeros are who take us from being tourists to being actual residents who are living here for a few months. They, along with our host families, are who make Colombia feel like a home, not like a temporary destination. (Also try to talk to your host siblings and host parents as often as you can- they will give you a much better idea of life, especially home life, here in Colombia.)
3. Become friends with your cogestoro/a- he/she can make your life SO much easier. I recommend bringing them a present and writing a nice hand-written note after a few days with them telling them how much you appreciate them. My cogestora helped enormously with my videos, took me to families she knew to have good stories, and bought me ice cream all the time. I loved her!
4. Get a gym buddy that wants to work out as much as you do. I am very glad there was someone else on my trip as committed to going as I was, because the most frustrating part of the program is that you can’t go anywhere by yourself, so if I was harassing the people who didn’t want to go all the time, I would have been very upset. Just ask at the beginning of the trip who would be willing to go everyday, in the morning, or at night, whenever you prefer and then make them stick to it!
5. Make a facebook group immediately. Cell phones here are expensive to use, so most of our communication was via the internet, and it worked well.
6. Do as much as you can work wise- it’s worth it. If you have a lot of stories you like but are worried about the amount of time it would take to complete the final videos, just think about how many long nights in Perkins you’ve put in for stupid classes, and how this is a project that means a lot to the people in the videos, so a few all-nighters, in the long run, are well worth the effort.
7. Try every food at least once. There are so many cool fruits and foods here that don’t exist in the US. Some of them look weird, and the dishes may be foreign, but I say try everything even if you’re skeptical. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it again, but food is a big part of the culture here, so go for it.
8. Don’t listen to Jota when he says no one dresses up here. Throw in a hot dress and heels just in case so you don’t have to waste money here when you know you’ve got them at home.
9. Talk to everyone, even if you think your Spanish sucks. I have strugglebussed my way through many conversations here, but the people are pretty nice about meeting you half way and guessing what you’re talking about. Just smile and use lots of hand gestures and try your best to communicate. Even if you mess up, say inappropriate things by accident, or just feel foolish, it’s always better to try and laugh about later it than to keep quiet. They appreciate that you’re doing your best to participate and get to know them. (Once, I tried to say I was “amable” which means friendly, but I stumbled on the word and said “mamable” which means suckable…it was awkward.)
10. Appreciate what you have here. Don’t waste any time- go out and explore the city, party at night, make as many friends as you can, embrace the life and the culture immediately. Don’t take anything for granted. You will be shocked how quickly the summer goes by, so be active and friendly and happy all the time.

I’m so jealous of you right now. I wish I could go again with you. Have fun, tell everyone there I say “I MISS YOU!” and dive right in. Use the slang. Go to fincas. Go anywhere at all that you’re invited. Be as paisa as possible. Fall in love with the neighborhood you’re assigned to for work, and love the people in it. Soak in Colombia- its perfect.


To future DukeEngage Medellín students:

The Medellín program is one of the latest to start during the summer. While my friends were packing and taking flights out to Kenya, India, and a host of other countries for DukeEngage programs, I sat at home for about a month wondering and freaking out about where I was going and what I would be doing. Here is a list of a few miscellaneous things that I would have loved to know about the program at that time:

1. The first two weeks that you spend here without going to work will help you ease into communicating in Spanish, getting to know the city and people of Medellín, and learning how to work with your group.
2. Wear comfortable shoes, especially when you’ll be walking a lot. Girls: bring flats, and socks that go with them…rain and sweat and bare feet are a horrible combination and I had to throw out two pairs of shoes. Sorry if that’s too much information.
3. No one in our group enjoyed plain arepas…add butter, salt, meat, tuna, eggs, or whatever else is offered and you’ll learn to love them.
4. Because I’ve grown up in the U.S., the compañero program was hard for me to completely understand. My main concern was that these three 20-something strangers I was paired with would rather be spending time with their own friends than showing me around the city and taking me out. People in Medellín are hospitable in a way I couldn’t understand until I got here. Our interactions were never awkward, as I had imagined, and we became friends faster than could ever happen in the U.S.
5. iMovie crashes. Always be prepared. Back up everything. Our titles and subtitles were flaky and we had to re-enter them multiple times. Patience is essential.
6. Try the granizado de café (with chocolate) at the Panadería near Frutti Jhon. Our group was obsessed with it.
7. If you’re too tired to go out, or don’t feel like spending money, the aula is a perfect place for a movie night.
8. Get names of popular songs from your compañeros so that you can recognize them and sing along to them when you go to clubs. Dancing to unknown reggaeton songs is only fun for so long.
9. Don’t listen to Jota when he tells the girls not to bring dresses or heels. He’s just being a Dad. But only one pair of heels, a couple of summer dresses, and one fancy dress in case of a special event are sufficient. Jeans and nice shirts are most useful.
10. We started a Facebook group for just the DukeEngage students to post questions, complaints, links, plans for outings, etc. It was the most useful thing ever, especially when we were all sitting around at home wondering what to pack for the trip.

Contact one of us if you have any questions, we’d love to help out!!


Dear Newbies (AKA DukeEngage Colombia 2012),

To be honest, I don’t really know what the program will be like next year. Will Medellín Solidaria still exist? Will Tam and Jota decide that we young’uns are too much trouble and abandon the idea entirely? Will the world come to an end in 2012? All of this remains to be seen. So I guess I’ll just give you some basic survival tips and you, whoever you are, can take it from there.

1. Do not start your blogposts at 3am the night before they are due. Especially not when you still have an entire video left to subtitle (hypothetical situation, of course . . . editing takes time. Be warned)
2. Write about something other than editing, iMovie, and general frustration. For example, write about all of the cool experiences you’ve had this week (like going to a U-20 world cup match or the Feria de las Flores)
3. Bring good, sturdy walking shoes. Preferably waterproof. And not ones you are super attached to—unidentifiable brown murky substances are a constant on the streets of the barrios.
4. Umbrella, rain coat, change of socks
5. Learn to go with the flow. Don’t be too rigid about making plans with, say, compañeros. To quote Douglas Adams, “Time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so.” This is often the case in Colombia. Dates and times are a lot more fluid here. *Disclaimer: do not use this excuse with Tam or Jota. Just don’t.
6. Don’t pay too much attention to this advice. Like I said, it is 3 am. I’ve got an allnighter ahead of me. I’m waiting for my video to finish exporting. I’ve got 23 minutes to go.
7. That said, don’t forget the umbrella. Or the shoes.
8. And appreciate warm water, soft beds, functional cell phones, and cafes with both wifi and plugs, while you have them.
9. As for interviewing—honestly, just calm down, set up your camera, press record, and listen. Even if you don’t know what the hell your interviewee is saying. Just go with it.
10. And then take a lot of photos. A lot a lot. Tam and Jota will inevitably ask you for the one photo you didn’t take, so just snap everything!
*Bonus* (AKA my video still hasn’t finished exporting) Enjoy it! Explore the city, make friends, hang out with your host family—just say yes to things! (except for drugs—just say no to drugs!)

Really, I don’t have much to tell you. You’ll figure it out on your own. Just, pack your walking shoes and your rain jacket and leave your expectations behind. And if you can, take me with you!
Best of luck,
--Lydia Rose (LR)


Dear DukeEngage Colombia 2012 participant,
Okay, so school’s over with and you have to start mentally preparing yourself for this two-month trip to Medellín, Colombia. At first, you might block out the idea for a little while because you want to enjoy what little time you have left in the States. But then a week or two before you leave, you realize, “Wow. There’s no turning back now. I’m really doing this.”
You’ll go to all of your favorite restaurants and places before you leave. You’ll visit your friends and spend time with your family, too, soaking it all in. But the idea of being in a different country away from home for a while is looming over you. It’s the calm before the storm. Except the storm is really awesome (This all being from the perspective of someone who basically hasn’t left the country ever).
The hardest challenge you will first face is talking/responding in Spanish to people who think/expect you to be Hispanic. Or, at least, able to communicate well in Spanish. Going to the Miami Airport is a good test run. When a couple of us girls we moved from one gate to another, a woman came up to us, asking, “A ustedes van por Medellín?” The confused, frozen looks on our faces immediately labeled us “non-Hispanic.” We all managed a “Siii,” but turned to one another, laughing nervously, knowing this was only the beginning. The big test is managing a flight with other paisas (Medellín locals) and communicating with the stewardesses, possibly the person sitting next to you, and then immigration services. It’s all overwhelming, but you’ll have at least six or seven more people going through the same thing as you. I promise you’ll get through it. I was shaking in my boots when I first met my host family. But the people here are amazing and super understanding. Use hand signals as much as you need to. You might as well go for it instead of analyzing every single grammatical error you’re making. Just do it. You’ll get better at Spanish, I promise.
The first night, you will go to sleep extremely exhausted. Then you’ll wake up to some wonderful breakfast with either the most amazing cup of café con leche or jugo de [insert some fruit you’ve never had before]. Your first week or so will involve seeing the city a lot. You’ll probably meet a lot of important people who will give a lot of Powerpoint presentations, explaining whatever it is they do. You will be overwhelmed, but try to come up with some really good answer as to why you’ve come to Medellín. Memorizing that and keeping calm and relaxed will help a lot.
The second week you’ll probably meet your compañeros. I’ll be honest now, and say at least half of them you may never see again. Although there will be a solid ten to twelve people who will constantly invite you out to things, and you’ll get to know them really well throughout the trip. You’ll probably have an amazing time at a finca with them (which is basically a weekend retreat somewhere beautiful in or outside of Medellín meant from complete and utter fun). You’ll get to know the nightlife pretty well with them at your side, seeing Parque Lleras, Parque Poblado, El Centro, Barrio Colombia, La Strada etc. They’ll also take you to amazing gardens, interactive museums, and parks any other time you want to. They’re kind of busy though, so although they’ll be really selfless about showing you around, remember that they’ll be doing all that while they have work or school.
During the second week, work-wise, you’ll be prepping for your first week out in the field. Literally, everyone might be freaking out, whether about communicating in Spanish, talking in Spanish, interviewing in Spanish, you know, something along those lines. And honestly, it’ll be fine. There will be days in the field where you might make the families extremely nervous and thus, mean that you won’t get such a great interview. And you also have days where you’ll get an interview that you know will be in the final DVD. But just remember, you’re there to listen. And as long as you remember that, you’ll know that if your camera dies, or you forgot your consent forms, that just being there to listen means more than you think.
The next two weeks in the field will be exhausting, and uploading your videos, getting the transcripts, calling your cogestores for more information about the families…it all means that you’ll need at least a two hour nap every day.
After all of that, you start breaking down which interview you’ll use for the DVD. You may pick one or two stories, and then you’re going to pitch them; remember that you need to write down all of the information that the cogestores/families give you. It’s more important than you think. Yes, the fact that the mother you interviewed last Thursday was displaced from Moravia to Pajarito will matter, as well as the fact that all her kids have graduated from high school.
Finally, the last two weeks will be the most stressful. Subtitles, picking background music, providing/researching information about the neighborhood that you worked in, staying up really late…it’ll feel like Duke again. But it only last about a week or so. Your iMovie may crash. Twice. But I promise, with a little Red Bull and a lot of patience, your video is going to be kickass.
Right now, I have less than a week left. I will be buying as many trinkets, food (aka arequipe) and goodies as I can. I think we’ll all be spending a lot of time with our compañeros after the final presentation. Early Monday morning, when we go to the airport, we’re all going to dread leaving Carlos E. and the beautiful city behind us. But we had such an awesome experience here. I wish the same, if not better, for you when you get here.

P.S. The Papitienda next to the Aula have the best mora popsicles. Your job is to eat as many of them as you can. Good luck.


Dear Future DukeEngager,

As the abuelita of the group, I would like to share some words of wisdom with you in hopes of helping you through these challenging two months in Colombia.

#1: Patience is a Virtue
As cheesy as that sounds, I’ve found that a little patience with the project, with the compañeros, with your DukeEngage family and with the country in general, will make a huge difference. Colombia does not run on US time. While that can get extremely frustrating, you shouldn’t let that hold you back from trying to organized planes because eventually they will get done. Compañeros might make plans with you and show up late or change something at the last minute, but for the most part, new plans will be made and might turn out better than expected. Patience with your fellow DukeEnagers will also go a long way. You will not agree on everything, you will argue with each other, but you’ll also make some of the best friends you might not have had the change to get to know at Duke. I promise these two months you spend together will fly by. Above all, patience with the project is the only way you will survive. You will have tons of meetings with Tam and Jota once editing time comes around and things will get stressful. Meetings will be made and cancelled all within 24 hours of each other, but you’ll have to take a moment and try to go with the flow. Difficult changes will be made in your videos and imovie will drive you crazier than you ever thought a computer program could. In the end, you should be proud of the movies you produce and the time you spent interviewing families.

#2: Have each other’s backs
The group dynamics will change throughout the course of the trip and some might become closer friends than others, but in the end you’re all in this together. Your DukeEngage friends are the ones you can call to see what the plans are for the night. They are the ones you call to go to the gym, to watch a movie, to complain to about imovie, to get coffee, to feel homesick with. You will spend hours together editing and many nights together going out. The easiest and most important thing you can do is always look out for each other. Whether it’s a creepy guy at the bar or a problem with imovie, if you have to call over 6 times and send multiple texts to get in contact with one another, do it. Knowing someone is safe or passing along an important message about the project are essential for having a good group dynamic. I’m not saying you have to know every little detail about who is going where and why, but in general it’s always in everyone’s best interest to have each other’s backs.

This letter could have been about all the wonderful places I’ve seen, cool clubs I’ve been to and fun museums to go to, but I’ll leave that up to my fellow DukeEngagers to tell you about. Better yet, I’ll leave that stuff for you to find out about on your own.

Have fun, be safe & find your inner Paisa,
Gabby aka Gabuelita J

PS. Don’t listen to Jota when he says not to bring dresses or heels.


Dear fellow Duke Engagers. Here are some tips, things to know, and expectations for your trip to Medellín, Colombia:

1. 1. Prepare to wake up EARLY!

2. 2.Try a dish called Mondongo, you’ll LOVE it (just don’t ask what’s in it)>> pure sarcasm if you didn’t catch that.

3. 3. Colombians aren’t the best at making plans, so go with the flow!

4. 4. Not all things can be directly translated from English to Spanish (i.e. keep “That’s what she sais” to your group of Duke Engagers or leave it back in the U.S.)

5. 5. Do NOT, under any circumstance, piss off Jota. Ways to avoid this: answer your phone, do NOT leave the city without his permission, and if you do leave the city, you must call him THREE times a day. (P.S. Parque RV is considered to be outside of the city to Jota).

6. 6. Cabs are cheap here! Forget about an absurd $40 cab trip to Southpoint! Once you split the cab fair amongst your group, you won’t waste more than 5,000 pesos, the equivalence of almost 3 bucks.

7. 7. Don’t assume the compañeros or any Colombians for that matter do not understand what you are saying; they learn a lot from TV, movies, and music!

8. 8. Your home stay families will feed you A LOT!

9. 9. I didn’t know how essential the Facebook group I started would be, but it was VERY useful when our “wonderful” cell phones weren’t working.

10.10. Wearing heels to the gym is commonplace, so don’t freak out if you see Colombian women all dressed to impress without breaking a sweat in the gym.

11. 11. There is this wonderful place called the Hueco……you should go! (My infamous line here in Colombia…..oh you need_____, it is really cheap at the Hueco)

12. 12. Take advantage of all the opportunities you have here because 2 months goes by relatively quickly.

13. 13. You will receive these high tech cell phones that turn off on their own and have occasional network problems. (Suggestion: have people call you—its cheaper)

14. 14. If you have blue eyes and blonde hair, you will be stared at. If not, be prepared for people to be shocked. Americans are seen as monos—fair-skinned, light-haired individuals.

15. 15. Medellín lingo consists of the words: parce (friend), chimba (awesome, but if used wrong can mean a certain lady part), bacano (like really cool), and prepare to hear the words pues, listo, and a la orden A LOT! Also, the phrase que mas pues is real popular here (you should listen to the J.Alvarez song Sexo, Sudor y Calor for reference).

16. 16. Try to speak Spanish in front of the compañeros so they don’t feel left out.

17. 17. Prepare to climb LOTS of stairs on the field.

18. 18. Don’t be alarmed by the random security cops in Carlos E, they are only there for security purposes.

19. 19. Fiera de las Flores is amazing, but it is HOT and you will be waiting around for a while (Suggestion: do NOT go out the night before).

20. 20. Girls: guys will wink, holler, and gawk at you. Do NOT entertain them. Simply walk away and ignore them.

21. 21. Befriend your home stay families and compañeros because they will prove to be very helpful. Your home stay families make you feel at home and the compañeros will make you feel like a true Paisa.

22. 22. Dora the Explorer is actually in Spanish with English sayings. Oh, and the poor children also have Hannah Montana -__-

23. 23. Sevens have a dash on them (they do not look like this: 7). If you don’t dash your sevens, you might loose around 20,000 pesos when charging/recharging your cell phones.

24. 24. Fruit juices are to die for! Oh, and John, the Frutti John owner, has your back.

25. 25. iMovie will give you problems to make sure you write down ALL changes Tam and Jota tell you to make.

26. 26. DO NOT slam the taxicab doors: (1) it will piss them off, and (2) they will know you are a foreigner.

27. 27. Do not be flashy or wear lots of gold/silver jewelry (flip-flops to nice places are also seen as extranjero). Traveling in a pack of 8 Americans already draws attention to you guys.

28. 28: Girls: Do NOT listen to Jota when he says not to bring dresses. You will wish you had! Also, bring flats.

29. 29. Communication with your cogestor(a) is important, especially if Spanish is not your forte. They are really helpful!

30.30. Have fun, but be cautious. Never travel alone!

Don’t take anything for granted. I wish I could join you next summer, but it is your experience to have, and you will have a great time! If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at any time ( or

Chao. Besos XoXo



1) Try and convince other guys that you know to apply to the program. But if you are the only guy, don’t worry, you’ll still have a great time.
2) Practice Spanish in the free time that you have before coming. You have a lot of time in between school and the program so use it well.
3) Bring a lot of polos, you’re going to be going out a lot.
4) Make your own plans. A lot of the times the companeros are really busy, so look online for places you want to go. So find the touristy places and make the companeros take you there.
5) It is essential that you go to La Piedra de Pinol.
6) Pegram when possible. It will save you a lot of money.
7) Donde Chepe on Wednesdays.
8) Los Contanadores (Zona Libre) is by far my favorite place in Medellin. Check it out.
9) If you are confused about the purpose of the program its fine. It’s not something you can really understand or appreciate until you experience it yourself. If you still have any questions though feel free to ask me.
10) Don’t listen to Jota when he says that no one here wears dresses.