When I was 22, young and physically fit, I decided that I should start traveling the world. Due to the consistent transformation in my life, I've been a solo female traveler, luxury traveler, backpacker, etc.
My living with a Colombian family experience took place between December 2013 to March 2014. All of the stories below are based on real-life experiences. Photos are also very old (in low-res, poorly taken) because I didn’t have the energy to take nice pictures nor did I have the resources to do it. Everything was taken with an iPhone.
Since 2010, I was an active member of the Couchsurfing community. Back then, I was still a University student and didn’t have the opportunity to travel a lot because of school. I vowed to myself that I will actively host people in my apartment so when it’s my time to travel, I will have contacts from all over the world, who, without obligations, will return the favour.
In Manila, I met a girl called Andrea, a Colombian living in China who was teaching zumba at the time. She had a 2-week break and she chose the Philippines as her travel destination. When I met Andrea, I didn’t have plans to travel South America yet (or ever imagined that I would) but I still hosted her. It was so interesting for me to know someone from the other side of the globe who will travel in my country.
Couchsurfing schedules are nuts. I say yes to everyone and at the time Andrea contacted me, I already was hosting 2 guys from Germany so I didn’t have enough space. She said she already have accommodations (she was traveling with other zumba instructors) and she just wanted to meet locals.
I had prior commitments that day so I asked my friends if a Colombian friend can tag along. They said yes and everyone got to meet Andrea! In return, Andrea had a chance to see the Filipino circle of friends dynamics. We had so much fun and that drinking session was followed by 2 more nights of gathering with my different set of friends. Andrea was very happy!
“If you ever come to Colombia, remember that you are most welcome to stay with me.”
The following year, I went to South America without a plan and never thought I would use the invitation card Andrea gave me when we met in the Philippines. I texted Andrea and said, “Hey, I’m in Brasil now and planning to go to Colombia soon. I was wondering if…”
“Of course! Stay with me!” I didn’t know how it will work. She was still living in China so I asked her how will that be possible. Little did I know that she already told her parents about it. They were willing to host me even if Andrea wasn’t around.
“I will come for Christmas and New Years. I will see you there!” she said.
Barranquilla is a northern coastal city in Colombia which is more famous as Shakira’s hometown. It’s not part of the touristic circuit. Not everyone goes there. Andrea grew up in Barranquilla and her family owns a house in an upper-middle-class neighbourhood. Their extended family members live in the area as well.
Arriving in Colombia
Some of my friends thought I was completely out of my mind for staying with people whom I never met before. Colombia, unfortunately, doesn’t have a good reputation because of the huge shenanigan with the drug cartels. Even if I’ve never been, I wasn’t scared because I met a real Colombian in the flesh who talked about so much good things about her country. That is the assurance. I will always believe people who have been there (let alone a local!) than those who haven’t been, even if it’s my family.
I landed Colombia with three beautiful girls waiting for me at the arrival gate. Andrea came with her sisters, Daniella and Mariana, plus their father, Mario. Their mother, Patricia stayed behind. They said she was really busy cooking dinner and fixing my “room-to-be”.
It was already my fourth month traveling South America and I didn’t know I was longing for this kind of treatment. You know, like having family around. Picking me up at the airport (even if there’s no need) with the whole family is a gesture that not everyone are willing to do. It wasn’t necessary because I can always take public transport or a taxi to their house but still, they did it.
I feel like I was in the Philippines the first time I stepped into their home! Colombian families are very hospitable, kind and caring. Imagine, I had my own room with a private bathroom. Everyday, beautiful meals were served on their table and all I had to do was to eat.
Family is important to Colombians and that it should always come first — more than themselves, more than anything. Every week (literally), I found myself in different houses of their relatives to have lunch/dinner, talk, talk and talk. Although I didn’t speak much Spanish at first, this family talked to me and I really felt the sincerity of their words. I felt so welcome!
As a long-term traveler, I learned how to be less picky with places I sleep on but promised myself that no matter how expensive it is, I will always eat good food. I will never be cheap on food. I honestly thought I would sleep in their living room but I was given my own private room, my own bathroom, a huge bed and a big window with the view of the neighbourhood.
For three months, I didn’t pay for food and accommodations. I just needed to live like them, eat with them, participate in their life as part of the family.
Three months is a long time. What did you do?!
I know three months is a long time but during my stay, I discovered that visiting has a different perspective than staying. It feels so weird to live another culture that is so far away from mine but I enjoyed every minute of it. Andrea, her sisters Daniela and Mariana can speak English pretty well but in their house, their setting was Spanish.
Every day, I wake up at 7:00, start running and/or do Zumba with Andrea and Daniela. Mariana (the youngest daughter) goes to school while Mario (Father) and Patricia (Mother) go to their day jobs. We do our own breakfast since Patricia is not around. Andrea is a fitness buff so she always made amazing breakfast food! I didn’t have to do much! By noon, only Andrea, Daniela and I are in the house. Andrea works online and Daniela is on vacation (she’s studying in a University in Buenos Aires) so we have the house to ourselves the whole day. Each one of us have our own things to do. Daniela goes out a lot to see her friends while Andrea and I work on our computers. The house is unbelievably quiet.
In the afternoon, I go running again or do zumba with Andrea and Daniela. Mariana also joins us as soon as she arrives from school around 17:00. Patricia makes dinner and by 20:00, we are all sitting at their porch or living room to share stories. Stories that at first were very weird to me because I don’t speak Spanish. For a time, I had to sit there, smile, and pretend I understand everything but I really was trying. On some nights, we also do karaoke with the whole family.
Weekends are a bit different. I went a lot with Andrea and Daniela’s high school friends every Friday. We sat in bars, went to clubs, danced on the street and ate street food while we were drunk. It was good for me to have friends while I was staying there. With this, I also got a chance to learn about Colombian circle of friends dynamics. On Saturdays, we sleep in. No workouts. Nothing. For dinner, the whole family goes out to eat in restaurants.
Colombian families don’t have stay-in helpers so me and the girls in the house help Patricia in washing the dishes, doing laundry, cleaning our rooms, etc. Even if I was regarded as a guest, I offered help every time I can because I want to participate and be part of the family. I never wanted them to think I was treating their house like a hotel.
Since I’m always in the house, I told Patricia (in my broken Spanish) to tell me if she needs help with anything. For example, simple things like buying milk and eggs in the store are the least I can do as everyone in-charge seems to be busy with a lot of things. Sometimes, I walk their dog without being asked because I also need to breathe fresh air and get to know the neighbourhood.
Holidays and special occasions
This is the most interesting part. Birthdays, weddings, Christmas – I got to experience it all while living with a Colombian family. Colombian families are close-knit and they are always present in every important family events. I met Andrea’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews – all the family members you can think of! They asked a lot of questions about my culture and I always tell them that it’s exactly the same as theirs. It’s their first time to meet someone from the Philippines so I had to put out a good word about my country.
I already mentioned the setting: not everyone in Andrea’s family can speak English so I was forced to learn Spanish. For one hour every day, I practice Spanish with a language partner via Skype and I honestly don’t remember how I met him. It must be some language exchange website but I don’t remember pretty well. I didn’t want to be rude. I can choose not to learn Spanish and just struggle with the sign language but I couldn’t bear the idea of not communicating with them while they are hosting me, feeding me and being nice to me the best possible way they can. I wanted to have a meaningful relationship during my stay. That drive lead me to being fluent in Spanish. By the end of my Colombian family stay, I can maneuver Spanish perfectly. It was one of the greatest moments where I surprised myself by learning a new language and being fluent with it.
By the end of my stay, I was able to:
Be fluent in Spanish in less than 6 months
Learn the dynamics of Colombian families
Learn how to cook Colombian food
Make new friends and gain new contacts
Get to know the city of Barranquilla and nearby towns in a slow and understandable way
Live a culture and a life that is far away from mine
Some tips on how to live with a Colombian family
They do things together so you should join the band as well. Here are some points I want to share to you in case you’ll be staying with a Colombian family in the future.
Always help with household chores. Take the initiative. Wash the plates, sweep the yard, make your own bed, etc. Andrea and her family has a housekeeper but there are days that she can’t come so we share the chores among ourselves — like I am really a part of their family.
Express yourself. When you don’t speak Spanish, sure, it’s very hard to do this. However, you should try. Colombians are huggers and kissers and they actually transformed me into one. They hug and kiss before they go to sleep, when they wake up and even if you just saw each other two hours ago. They are very expressive with their feelings! At first, I was very intimidated with their father, Mario, because of my lack of Spanish skills but after three months, I was able to cope.
Follow house rules. Treat their home like it’s yours. They might not be your parents but they also want the best for you.
Consider yourself as a part of the family. When there is a family reunion, you need not ask if, “Am I going?” You are in an immersion activity so you are definitely included in all the families activities. Never use the I think I’m gonna pass card. You will learn so much with these little family gatherings and it’s the best way to practice your Spanish!
The day I left Colombia was strange. Never have I thought that I would feel really sad leaving someone behind. Patricia was crying and I did cry, too. After my family stay in Colombia, I continued my journey in the coast. I visited places like Cartagena, Santa Marta, etc Taganga at my own expense. I saved enough money when I was staying with them so I thought I’ll take a break and go around a bit. Even if I am already in another country, Patricia and Mario are listed as my emergency contact numbers in case something happens to me in my travels. Three months is not a long time but one day, if I ever come back to Colombia, I know I have a family to go home to.
2 years after that, I was still traveling South America. Even if I am already in another country, Patricia and Mario are listed as my emergency contact numbers in case something happens to me in my travels. Three months is not a long time but one day, if I ever come back to Colombia, I know I have a family to go home to.
Editor’s NoteThis journal entry was originally written in a notebook on 21 March 2014 in Barranquilla, Colombia.
For a year, I pretended to be married due to a bitter adversary that I am really sick of incorporating my life with but it all boils to that. Oh well. I bought some cheap wedding ring in Brasil and wore it for an entire year because, yes, I was pretending to be married. At first, I did it so I can avoid men who have the habit of picking up women at the hostel bar. I just wanted to enjoy my bottle of wine peacefully even if I was alone. Solo female travel can be really challenging but I found my way through it, happily.
Fortunately, it worked. Whenever I am sitting by the bar, I had the habit of showing off the ring by holding my wine glass in a manner that everyone (I mean everyone) can see it in all angles. It’s surprising to see how a lot of travelers are familiar with the ring — and they actually respond to it. Everyone left me alone and they didn’t even bother to talk to me or say “excuse me.” I sat there like an invisible person. It felt so powerful. However, not everyone responded the same.
Some took the ring as a challenge.
In age of millennial travel, I realised there are some people who are actually challenged with the idea of dating someone married. Exhibit A: a 26 year old American traveler who I will always remember because he was the first one to bravely come up to me in the presence of the ring. The first thing that he said was, “so you are married?” Not even asked for my name or where I am from which is usually the basic backpacker conversation starter. At the time, I did not know how to respond because I never thought someone would come up to me wearing the ring.
Should I come up with a story about my fake marriage? I was caught off guard and wasn’t really prepared so I did what I had to do — I diverted the conversation towards him. “So you are interested in married women?” I bounced back. He is younger than me and I figured that not only that he was into married women but also into older ones. Well, I wasn’t that far from his age. It’s just that he really looks young — wife beater, slippers, ball cap backwards and pulls his shirt over his head with one swoop. Like a boy. It was summer. I knew this because he was staying in the hostel for as long as I was.
“Don’t start. I am not interested. I am married.” He then started talking about sensible stuff as if he got out of the boy cage. “You’ll never know. You can never choose who to fall in love with. Who knows, the love of my life just might be you — a married woman.” Okay, so he was indecently proposing now but what he said actually made sense. We can never choose who to love and what can we do when some of us gets really excited with this kind of relationship. First lesson from wearing a fake wedding ring, actually.
Some find it incomprehensible that I am traveling alone, without ‘my husband’.
They find it hard to believe that I will choose to travel by myself, without my husband, which at the age of 28, should have already included a child — not doing the solo female travel hurrah. It was then that my love for culture grew stronger. It was a clear evidence of the different take on having family at the age of ____, which are so different from the values of my family. The VVDH (Velarmino-van der Heijde) Rule Book did not say that I have to be married at a certain age. But in other parts of the world, it really is a big deal.
I got out of conversations like this by saying my ‘husband’ is doing some errands in the next town, sending stuff to our family back home, excuses like that. Sometimes, I tend to be creative and say, “he just took the kids somewhere and won’t be back for a few days. I am sick so I stayed.” Sick but drinking wine. Well done, Trish.
A lot of them gave me so much respect.
Though it is not possible to give an accurate generalisation about every culture, I know one thing is for sure when it comes to Latin Americans: anything about family is important. Women who are married get the same respect as their spouses. For example, when I was applying for an Argentine visa in Uruguay, my personal life was scrutinised because that’s how it is in all Embassies, based on my experience. They will ask everything about you and I noticed that you need three things in order for them to grant you the visa: (1) You should have a job to prove your financial capability; (2) a proof of your financial resources; (3) they will ask if you are married and have any dependents.
I don’t know what does being married had to do with successfully processing my visa but I believe it’s been a great challenge to solo female travel lately because of women trafficking. 20+ million people are involved in human trafficking every year: 49% are single women.
And the rest totally ignored me.
Which got me thinking: wow, the deterrent ring kept me really safe without even knowing it. It was some kind of a force, a signal that I subliminally sent to everyone. Even my fellow women get curious sometimes: “Ah, you’re married. But what brings you here?”
Bottom line is that everyone responded to the deterrent ring whether I showed it off or not. At present, I just wear it when I feel like there is a threat or if I want to excuse myself from talking to someone at the bar. It’s weird but more often than not, I really enjoy being with myself, with my usual glass (or bottle) of wine. The ring saved me when I really wanted to be alone.