Last week should have been my first full week as a full-time English teacher in Medellín, Colombia.
But it wasn’t.
It was my first full week in quarantine instead.
Here I am, doing something I do a lot of these days, eating. Eating a tostada. This is not just any tostada though, this is a very special tostada…
Let me explain…
On February 11, 2020, I arrived in Medellín, Colombia- hoping it was somewhere I could “settle down” for a bit. (I obviously had no idea how “settled down” the whole world was about to get).
I debated between settling down in Medellín, Mexico City and for a brief moment, Lima. Mostly, I was looking for a big(ish) city with good weather and a decent market for teaching English. Despite knowing next to nothing about Colombia, Medellín called to me more than any other city. However, my friend Robert, who I attended the International TEFL Academy in Chicago with, lived in Mexico City. The thought of already knowing someone in my new “home” city made me lean towards Mexico City.
On the day I arrived in Guatemala, where I’d arranged to take Spanish lessons before settling down somewhere in Latin America, I found out Robert, and his boyfriend Adrian who he had met in Mexico City, were moving to Medellín!
I wrapped up my Spanish lessons in Antigua, spent a week relaxing at Lake Atitlan, then headed to Medellín!
I arrived in Medellín late in the evening and headed directly to the nearby Vipassana meditation center- where I would spend the next 11 days serving (cooking, cleaning and doing odd jobs) at the center.
I could write a whole novel just about getting to the meditation center and the 11 days I spent there. From hiring a DiDi (the local ride share service), to pulling up to the dark, gated facility that looked to be a cross between a convent and an abandoned hospital, to waking up everyday before the sun, to cooking for 50+ people everyday, to taking ice cold showers, to the inspiring Latvian, Korean, Venezuelan, German and Colombian servers I shared the experience with, I have many stories.
But for now, I will just say this…
Since completing my ten day Vipassana meditation course last summer, I have wanted to serve at a course. Envisioning the responsibilities of settled life in Medellín around the corner- a full time job, bills, and an apartment- I figured this would be my last chance to do so for awhile.
Now, more than ever, I am so glad I did.
Not only did I get to serve and meditate for 11 days, I got exposure to Colombian language, customs, culture and people before having to orient myself in my new home country. I left feeling centered and ready to tackle just about anything Colombia threw my way.
Sweet Home Medellin
I stayed at a tiny hostel in Poblado for the first few nights after I left the meditation center. A fellow Vipassana server, a local woman, knew the area well and recommended it. She even drove me there from the meditation center and gave me a tour of the neighborhood.
Walking around Medellín that first morning, I knew I’d chosen the right city. Medellín is the first city I have visited, since visiting Las Vegas for the first time in 2008, where I thought, “I have to live here!”
The next day I met up with Robert and Adrian. First they showed me their beautiful, 19th story, downtown apartment (with panoramic views of the city), then took me on a tour of their neighborhood. They were as excited as I was that I was finally here!
Finding An Apartment
While at the hostel I searched Airbnb for a place to live. After several hours of searching, comparing and messaging, I managed to arrange showings at 3 apartments prior to booking.
The first place I saw was a studio in Poblado. I quickly learned that Poblado is considered the “Gringo” part of town. It’s full of western tourists and expats, fancy bars and restaurants, boutiques, and green landscaping. Because it is such a desirable area, it is expensive. This apartment was no exception. It was new, nice and had great WiFi, but was way too small and cramped for the price. I thanked the woman for her time and moved on.
The next place was in Laureles. Another nice neighborhood, but not as whitewashed as Poblado. A distinguished, middle aged man, in designer jeans and dress shoes, showed me a 6th floor studio. The place was clean and modern. Still a studio but much more spacious than the first. The price was right. But something didn’t feel right. It was… sterile. That is the only word I can think of to describe the bright white walls and the only window looking out over a city construction project.
He offered to show me another place that wasn’t listed on Airbnb. Knowing I already disliked two of the three places on my list, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to check it out. He drove us there in his car. I am sure it was an average car, but because he seemed so fancy to me, my memory of it is BMW-esque. We chatted, in English, for the 15 minute drive to the other place. He couldn’t understand why I, or anyone else, loved Medellín. He was born and raised here and was clearly not a fan of his hometown.
The place he took me to was basically a hotel room. I knew immediately that I was not interested. I specifically remember thinking how I would be confined to my bed on days I did not want to leave the house. (I had no clue I would be facing several weeks, if not more, of days where I could not leave the house.) Plus, it was not at all conducive for visitors and I had a friend coming to visit the next week. There is no way the two of us could have stayed in that room comfortably, especially with me teaching online! I told the fancy man, and his equally fancy wife, who was sitting at the front desk of the second apartment building, that I’d be in touch after I visited the last apartment. (The “sterile” place would have to do if I didn’t like the last place on my list).
I walked about 25 minutes back to Laureles to see the last apartment on my list. As soon as I spotted the building, I knew I was home. There were tons of people in the street. A bakery stood on one corner of the block and a bar on the other. A few restaurants, including a fast food joint on the bottom floor of the apartment building I was interested in, lined the streets. I loved everything about the city scene.
I got nervous when the time I was supposed to meet the landlord passed and he wasn’t there. The more time that passed without hearing from him, the more I wanted the apartment. He finally pulled up on a motorbike, about 15 minutes late. He seemed to be about my age and someone I’d be friends with. A normal dude. He was wearing a casual t-shirt and jeans. He took off his full faced helmet and his hair glistened with sweat in the afternoon sun. When we got up to the second story apartment he offered me a beer from the fridge that the last tenant had left behind. I politely declined, but so appreciated the candidness of his offer.
Before looking around thoroughly, or asking all the questions I had written down, I knew I was going to take the place. It wasn’t perfect but it was perfect for me. It was spacious (two bedrooms and two and half baths), had excellent WiFi, came with a nice big table I could use to teach online until I found a job, and had a balcony that overlooked all the city commotion in the street.
We worked out a deal (that was not much more expensive than the sterile studio) and I moved in the next day.
A few days later Robert and Adrian came over to celebrate. They even entertained my calling our three person gathering a “house warming” party.
Looking for a Teaching Job
As soon as I settled in, I started applying for teaching jobs. I have taught English online for about a year and a half now and it’s been great. But, I wanted to get a “real” job- something more challenging and that would integrate me into my new community. I applied at three or four schools. Within an hour I heard back from a school that I almost didn’t apply at because I didn’t think I was qualified. They wanted me to come in for an interview the next day.
I did not expect to hear back from any of the schools so quickly, but especially not that one. It dawned on me that I had nothing appropriate to wear to an interview! I had a dress that wasn’t ideal but paired with leggings and the right color headband, I made it work. But not one of the three pairs of shoes I owned- gym shoes, hiking boots, and Birkenstocks- would cut it though.
After looking all over my neighborhood for shoes, and potentially a different outfit, with no luck, I got on the Metro and went to the Exito (the Walmart of Colombia), in Poblado. The Exito in my neighborhood only sells basic groceries and household supplies, but the Exito in Poblado sells everything from food and medicine to tvs, kitchen appliances, clothes and shoes. I found a cheap pair of black flats.
The interview was at one of the school’s satellite campuses in Poblado. Already familiar with the Metro route, I took the train there. I shouldn’t have. When Google maps said it would be a twenty minute walk from the Poblado Metro station, I wasn’t worried. I left with plenty of time and the weather in Medellín is mild. A 20 minute walk on a flat road and a 20 minute walk straight uphill, are two totally different things. The road to the school might as well have been vertical! I arrived covered in sweat with a giant blister on each heel. Thank goodness I still had enough time and was able to find a bathroom to clean up in before the interview.
The interview went great! The school was prestigious, as I’d suspected, and the workload intense (40+ hours per week). But those things were met with great pay (for Colombian standards) and benefits, including a work visa and health insurance. As nervous as all this made me, it seemed to be the challenge I was seeking. I was invited back for a second interview. My first thought was “Sweet!”, my second thought was, “What the heck am I going to wear to a second interview?”
My Second Interview
When I announced my move to Medellín on Facebook, a childhood friend got me in touch with her fiance’s cousin who was a 5th grade teacher here. I met her for dinner after my first interview. We hit it off right away. When I told her I didn’t have clothes to wear to the second interview, she invited me to come to her place after dinner to pick out an outfit. She was a teacher after all and had a closet full of teacher clothes! I couldn’t believe my luck.
The second interview, which was at the downtown location where I’d actually be teaching, was more intense, more inspiring and made me want the job even more. I loved the downtown vibe and there were TWO vegan restaurants directly across the street from the school. During the interview, I had to write and present a lesson plan. Several teachers and administrators came in to assess. They told me several times how much of a commitment the job would be and to really consider how much it would change my lifestyle before accepting it.
On March 9th, after a third interview (yes, I had to find a third outfit to wear), I was officially offered the job!
My Friend Comes to Visit
With the offer letter sitting in my inbox, I went home to prepare for my friend, Michael, to come later that night.
Michael and I stayed in the same house and attended the same Spanish school in Antigua. When I left Guatemala, I said goodbye to him, hoping we’d cross paths again someday, but assuming we never would. I was pleasantly surprised when he said that he was coming to Medellín.
I figured we’d have about a week to hang out and explore Medellín before I started my new job on the 18th. (HA! Little did I know, the universe had something else in store!)
Things started off normal.
I took him to some of my favorite restaurants and cafes, we went to the overwhelmingly huge and chaotic downtown market, known around here simply as “Centro”, and Robert and Adrian had us over for dinner. Adrian, a professional chef, prepared a gourmet pasta bolognese dinner for us. He went out of his way to make me my own vegan version. Michael and I enjoyed eating the food as much as Adrian loved cooking it and Robert loved hosting us!
Quarantine in Medellín
As I am sure they did everywhere around the world, COVID-19 related restrictions escalated quickly in Medellín.
On the 10th, 11th and 12th I was hanging out in cafes, eating at restaurants, shopping for work attire, and preparing for my new life in Colombia.
On the 13th I received the first sign that things were not going to go the way I thought they would (even though I didn’t recognize it as a sign at the time). It was an email from the school I’d just been offered the job at, informing me that they were waiting to proceed until they knew how the coronavirus would impact the next course (the one I’d just been hired to teach).
Knowing there was nothing I could do but wait I decided to enjoy the weekend. Michael and I went to Guatepé, a small town a few hours outside of Medellin, known for its colorful buildings and beautiful landscapes.
When we returned to Medellín in the evening on Sunday the 15th, we went out to dinner in Poblado. The restaurant was busy. Everything seemed to be business as usual. We had no clue that it would be the last time we would eat in a restaurant for a while.
On Monday the 16th I got a text from a fellow ITA graduate, who worked at the school I’d been hired to teach at, saying that the school was closing until April 1st, possibly longer. My friend’s fiance’s cousin also texted me saying that her school would be closing until the end of April.
I hadn’t heard back about the job yet, but I already knew that it wasn’t going to happen.
Over the next few days many of my traveling friends fled the country, one got stuck here (the Latvian borders closed, even to Latvian nationals, with little notice), and the rest of us had to decide between staying in Medellín or going home. It was becoming pretty clear that if we wanted to go home, we needed to go asap, because before long, going home would no longer be an option.
I never considered going back to the States. For one, the virus was already way more out of control there than it was here and two, I felt so at home here, in this city, in this apartment, no part of me felt an urge to leave.
Sure enough, Colombia closed its borders and all flights in and out of the country were suspended.
I am still here. Michael is still here.
So About This Tostada
Adrian and Robert had invited Michael and I over for dinner again on Sunday, March 22nd. Earlier in the week, when we made the plans and they went grocery shopping, we had no reason to believe we wouldn’t be able to come over due to a citywide quarantine. (By that point large gatherings had been cancelled and we thought restaurants might close, but not being allowed to visit a friend’s house was still unfathomable).
Well, that is exactly what happened. The quarantine in Medellín began on Friday, March 20th at 7pm and was to go until 3am on Tuesday, March 24th. We were not to leave the house unless it was “essential.” We could not go to Robert and Adrian’s.
It seemed as if we were going to get a little “break” from quarantine on Tuesday. The citywide quarantine was scheduled to end in the morning and the 19 day countrywide quarantine wasn’t scheduled to start until that evening. We rescheduled our dinner party for lunchtime on Tuesday. (We clearly weren’t understanding the severity of the situation yet). But our plans changed yet again when the “break” was cancelled (as it should have been).
The quarantine in Medellín was set to go straight through until April 13th.
Quarantine is strictly enforced here. Only one person per household is allowed to leave at a time and only for food or medicine. There is no walking around the neighborhood, running in the park or going through the Dunkin’ Donuts drive thru like I see on so many American Instagram stories.
With the strict quarantine extended and panic rising, Adrian decided to go home to Mexico City, to be with his family. He took one of the last flights out of Medellín before all flights in and out of Colombia were suspended. But before he left, he cooked the entire dinner he’d planned for us, including a special vegan dish just for me, and froze it.
On Tuesday, the day we had planned to have our lunchtime dinner party, Robert delivered the food to Michael and I. He brought over a suitcase filled with everything we’d need to have a quarantine feast- two types of tinga (chicken for Michael, vegan for me), cilantro, sour cream, VEGAN CHEESE, salsa, chips, tostadas, avocados, tomatoes and Mexican cheese.
I was overwhelmed with appreciation for Robert, for Adrian, for Michael, for this apartment, for this city, and for THIS HOMEMADE VEGAN TINGA TOSTADA!