¿Estás Amañada? It’s a question I’ve been asked countless times while in Colombia.
‘Amañada’ is essentially a very local way of saying ‘settled in’ – and finally, when I smile and nod enthusiastically in response, I am being completely honest.
Because I really struggled with settling into my placement city when I first got here.
I’ve lived abroad a number of times, spending a decent chunk of time in rural Nepal, small-town Nigeria, southern Spain and the gorgeous New Zealand. I’ve also travelled pretty extensively in South America, and speak decent enough Spanish to have a chat with whoever I bump into.
So when we were warned about culture shock in the induction week of my teaching programme I scoffed (inside of course – got to make a good impression) and was happy that at least I wouldn’t have to worry about that one.
Boy, was I wrong. I feel like Girardot pulled out all the stops to teach me a lesson about how difficult it can be to settle in somewhere new.
For the first 2 months of my placement I cried. A lot. And I mean a lot for a normal person, and therefore a shit-tonne for someone who is rarely fussed enough about something to cry.
I genuinely considered quitting. I felt frustrated, let down and angry about where I was going to have to spend the next 9 months of my life.
I went from being the girl who hates the idea of going back to London for more than a temporary pitstop – however much I might miss family and friends – to dreaming of doing it every afternoon while trying not to focus on how hot I was.
And now? Now I can happily say that I am well and truly amañada.
I have neighbours I chat to on my way in and out of the flat every day. Kids I high-five and race down my street, both of us vying to be Usain Bolt. I’ve found exercise and dance classes that knacker me out and keep me sane, forcing me to actually use my body in the daily 40 °C heat rather than just suffer from it.
And the thought of being here for months doesn’t fill me with dread any more – instead I’m already shivering at the thought of being back in London in December after 2 years of pure summer.
So what have I learnt from this experience?
- Sleep might just be the most important thing in the world. Due to a combination of 6am school starts and sweltering nights, I was probably averaging 4 hours of sleep a night at one point. For most people – and definitely me – this is a perfect recipe for stress, tears, and feeling like you can’t cope. Avoid at all costs.
- Share those feelings. Things only started to get better when I admitted to the other girl in my town just how much I was struggling. Being able to cry on her shoulder, and hear that she also found it tough, was a massive help! All it might take is having a chat with a friend back home to realise that you’ve got it pretty great.
- Find a way to work home comforts into your strange new life. We realised that we could pay a pretty extortionate amount of pesos for some Lindt chocolate and a bottle of wine. And then get onto Netflix. It helps, and it’s so worth it.
- Find new comforts. Local beers taste pretty great everywhere and will be less bank-breaking in the long run. Alcohol seems to be a theme here.
- Exercise is important. It was driving me crazy not to be able to run in Girardot. That’s still not going to happen but I’ve replaced the running with Tabata and Zumba classes and they make me sweat enough to keep me feeling like I’ve had a workout. Plus they’re sociable, and I get to wear fluorescent work-out gear.
- Keeping positive makes a big difference. Ok, it’s pretty basic advice – but it’s important. Letting myself wallow meant I started to feel more and more negative about life. It’s cringey, but I made a list of all of the things I had to be thankful for in Girardot. Some were a bit ironic – not having to moisturise because I am always sweaty is a bit of a catch-22 I guess – but it helped me see that the situation wasn’t quite as drastic as my sleep-deprived mind made it seem.
- Don’t feel like you have to be OK straight away. However much you’ve travelled or lived abroad, you might feel like this at some point. I was putting pressure on myself to feel normal within a few weeks of arriving in a new country and a new city, where I was working an entirely new job.
- Don’t compare your experience to other people’s. At first I was really jealous of all those lucky buggers who got placed up on the Caribbean coast. I still am, a bit, but I can see the downsides they face too, and I focus on those. Like the fact that they’ll be completely spoilt for other places after living in paradise. Ha.
- Is something else bugging you? It took me a while to realise that part of the problem was probably my still recent break-up and sudden fleeing from NZ/complete change in life plan in response to said break-up. I just delayed my crying for some reason.
Five months later, and it is no longer weird to have 4 showers a day, or sleep in wet clothes in front of a fan most nights.
I don’t even flinch when we have no water and need to have bucket showers. I have well and truly got over my British instinct to queue, and no longer expect anything at all to happen on time. Except the cinema, for some reason.
And although I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the heat in the sense that I like it, I can definitely say that I am now used to being constantly affected by how hot it is here. That’s almost the same, right?
So goodbye shellshocked, miserable new recruit, and welcome fully amañada local – now I just need to bear this all in mind for when I head back home mid-winter.. Hello reverse culture shock!
Do you have other things you do to help yourself feel more at home somewhere new? Or other experiences of culture shock that took you by surprise?