Teach English in Colombia: Colourful Cartagena

Kristy and her partner, Jarryd, decided to spend two days relaxing in Cartagena before embarking on their two month Colombia TEFL Experience. Here’s what they got up to.

Our South American odyssey begins with a flight into Bogota, (where it’s a chilly 15 degrees – not at all what we were expecting!) and then another flight into Cartagena, where we will spend two days exploring before heading to bustling Barranquilla.

Food cart in Cartagena, Colombia

Balmy Beachside Living

The weather in Cartagena is completely different to the country’s capital: 27 degrees, even at 5.30pm.

The sun is glowing and the sky turns pink as we make our way in a taxi along the coastline to our hostel.

We stare at the crashing waves and people frolicking in the water, families enjoying some late afternoon beach time.

On the other side of the road, opposite the beach, there are people already taking up their positions on the city’s famous fortress walls to watch what will no doubt be a stunning sunset.

A street in Colombia at night

The Fun Begins

We check into our hostel, which is in a funky part of town full of restaurants, bars and street art.

Cartagena is buzzing and it’s only a Wednesday night.

At the end of our street is a small plaza, where buskers are juggling, children bounce on a trampoline and lively music blares loudly into the balmy night.

People are dining and sipping cocktails on the street, while staff members do their best to entice passers-by with a look at the menu.

Busy street with restaurants in Colombia

We walk through a gated park with market stalls selling sizzling street food, souvenirs and secondhand books, as heavy traffic circles around, causing a traffic jam of yellow taxis and blaring horns at one street corner.

We pass beautiful historic buildings with Romeo and Juliet-style balconies adorned with pretty flowers.

We gape at oversized arched doorways with their elaborate carvings and big brass knockers, which look more like they belong to the drawbridge of a fairytale castle than something you’d see in this day and age.

Cobbled street in Cartagena, Colombia at night

We stroll cobbled streets until we arrive at another plaza with upbeat Colombian music, outdoor dining, late-night shopping, souvenir stands and street food carts.

It is an absolute feast for the senses – chaotic, busy, fun, fascinating.

Colombian food at a restaurant

Our First Dinner in Colombia

We find a lovely restaurant for dinner and take a seat by the window so we can continue to watch the hordes of people passing by.

We don’t want to be left out of anything that is happening on the streets outside.

We order entrees of lentil croquettes and falafel with tahini, followed by a delicious quinoa risotto and vegetarian paella for mains.

The falafel is the best I have ever tasted and the tahini is light and flavoursome, not at all like the thick, heavy versions you get back home.

Hummus dish in Colombian Restaurant

The paella is packed with beans, vegetables and olives and we leave the restaurant with full bellies and happy hearts.

Exploring Cartagena’s Old Town

The next day we are up and at it, as we brave the scorching sun to spend a few hours exploring Cartagena’s famous historic city.

Streetart in Cartagena, Colombia

The walk to the old town is just as exciting as the previous night, and we are constantly surprised and delighted by the impressive street art and beautiful, vibrant, old buildings.

Street art of an old man with a beard in Cartagena, Colombia

When we arrive inside the walled city, we see hawkers selling colourful wares and local women parading around in brightly-coloured traditional dresses.

 

Colourful doorway in Catanega, Colombia

We photograph beautiful doorways and eat fresh fruit bought from street vendors for just $1USD – such a refreshing snack on a hot day.

Kristy, TEFL intern in front of colurful wall in Colombia

Jarryd and I are so blown away by all the bright and colourful buildings that we can’t help but take a bunch of silly photos in front of them, which we later use to make a selfie montage.

Kristy and Jarryd Selfie Montage in Colombia using colourful walls as background

Street along the beach in Catanega Colombia

Time for the Beach

It’s humid and the streets are busy, so we walk to the closest beach for a quick swim before heading back into town to find a restaurant on top of the fortress walls where we can sit, sip cocktails and get an unrivalled view of the sunset.

Sunset on beach in Catanega, Colombia

Sunset and Margaritas

It’s a gorgeous sunset with a fiery hot pink sun that makes for great photos, particularly with the barrel of an old cannon in the foreground.

We then head off to settle our rumbling stomachs with a satisfying dinner of veggie burgers, fries and huge frozen margaritas with a thick layer of salt lining the glasses – just what we need after a long, hot day exploring Cartagena.

We slurp the drinks down greedily and order another round, as we chat about how beautiful the city is and how much we have loved visiting the old town.

We are excited to spend more time in Colombia and to start our teaching roles, and we can’t wait to see what Barranquilla and Santa Veronica have in store for us.

Dear Vietnam… I don’t think you have enough scooters

So it has all begun. After a torturous 24 hour journey, in which I nearly missed a flight resulting in my name being called over the airport intercom, I am finally here! I’m 3 days in and to say that the experience has been crazy would be an understatement. I wanted a change – a jolt to my system – yet Hanoi has been more of an electric shock than a jolt. However, despite my severe electrocution, this place is slowly growing on me. The more damp, narrow alleys I walk down, the more vibrantly coloured buildings I pass, the more coffee I drink and the more humility I see in the locals’ eyes, the broader my smile becomes.

Aerial view of flats in Hanoi, Vietnam

First impression of Vietnam: controlled chaos. I am SO glad I had a team of people to help and guide me as, if not, I’m pretty sure my face would be on the back of a milk carton right now. The entire team has been amazing and in all honesty, I can’t imagine doing any of it without them. They’ve settled me in, calmed my nerves and assured me that after orientation week, I’ll have more confidence in my teaching abilities. All is run from the comfort of our hotel, which is much more comfy and air conditioned (thank goodness!)  than what I was expecting. The whole place is swarmed with interns and so you’re never alone in the elevator or without someone to chat to. Meals have become a huge social event with lunch and dinner being served ‘family style’. This makes it so much easier to mingle with different people and to try get accustomed to everyone’s accents! You would never think that we’re all speaking English. It’s pretty clear that there’s still lots to learn and adjust to but I know that’ll come as this orientation week progresses.

 

So despite the fact that all is running smoothly and I’ve been assured that I won’t be a completely useless teacher, there is one activity  that has blown me away and that I know I will never be able to do – navigate a vehicle on the streets of Hanoi. Oh my sweet, lovely, baby Buddha! There are approximately 3.4 million scooters in the city of Hanoi and this becomes overwhelmingly apparent when you step outside. When gazing at a street the roads get continuously hit with one tsunami of scooters, mopeds and motorbikes after another. Some carrying a family of 5, some carrying a family of 5 and their dog, some carrying what seems like a year’s worth of toilet paper.

Crowds of motorbikes and mopeds on the street in Hanoi, Vietnam

 

It is frighteningly impressive. To add to this, the rules of the roads are more like loose guidelines. The streets buzz with the constant sound of honking and  hooting. From what I’ve gathered, all the noise is to notify other drivers that they’re riding beside them or want to pass, because clearly the use of review mirrors and indicators are too much of a bother. The most amazing thing however, is the fact that amongst the sea of horns, a driver knows if a honk or hoot is meant for them. It’s become very apparent that the Vietnamese simply have superior hearing. So as you can imagine, as a pedestrian, it is a harrowing experience trying to cross the road! I’m not exactly what one would call a spiritual person but I can’t help doing a couple of ‘Hail Marys’ before frantically running across. I think it’s fair to assume that in Vietnam, the chicken simply didn’t make it to the other side.

Flats in Hanoi, Vietnam

So to sum up these past few days: beautiful, sweaty, busy, eye-opening, exciting and humbling. As I fall asleep tonight to the soundtrack of the streets, I simply cannot wait to see what the rest of my time will have in store for me.

Kanchanaburi, Thailand: an insider’s guide

I am falling in love with this city, and I want to give you a piece of it! I have compiled a list of tips for you based on my experiences so far. Hopefully you can use them someday if you’re ever able to visit. If not, you can live vicariously through me.

Backpacker’s Strip

If you’re traveling through Kanchanaburi, then you absolutely HAVE to stay on the backpacker strip (also known as foreigner’s road) in the heart of the city. There are many quaint and affordable guesthouses, as well as a variety of food and bars. On our first night there the westerners were craving pizza, so we stopped by Bell’s Pizzeria and it hit the spot. However, if you’re just passing through and want some good Thai food there are many restaurants you can try, including On’s Thai Issan or Nut’s Restaurant. I spent my first two weekends in Kanchanaburi town, and I stayed in two different guesthouses. Blue Star Guest House was absolutely beautiful and very affordable. You walk outside of your room and you are surrounded by nature.  However, I would not recommend this place if you are looking for a hot shower, Wi-Fi, and a spacious room. The accommodation is very basic and you also run the risk of some “friends” in your room. I found a bug in my blanket in the morning! Otherwise the experience was wonderful. The next weekend I stayed at Noble Night, which was only a little more expensive and very nice. There is a pool, more space in the room and bathroom, Wi-Fi, a hot shower, and a comfy bed. I would highly recommend Noble Night and would definitely go back again. Other recommended guesthouses are Sam’s guesthouse and Tara Bed & Breakfast.

i-to-i interns relaxing at Bells' Pizzeria in Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Waterfalls

Kanchanaburi is known for its plethora of beautiful nature spots, and I can attest to this. By tuk-tuk or taxi, you can get to the Erawan waterfalls in about an hour. Sai Yok is also an option for waterfalls, but my travel group chose to go to Erawan. Be sure to bring some cash, the entrance fee is 300 baht (8.50 USD or 6.50 British Pounds). Also keep in mind that if you are going during Thailand’s hot season (March-May) there is a chance that the waterfalls will be dry, so check beforehand.  I had a blast at Erawan, but I definitely ran into some surprises that I was not prepared for. First off, dress appropriately. The Thai culture has a strict dress code and they do not allow bikinis or men without a shirt. I wore sandals expecting an easy walk, and I was absolutely not prepared for a rigorous hike. Wear good hiking shoes or you’ll be slipping and falling like me, oops! Another thing I was not prepared for was the fish in the water. Yes, real fish, and they’re not shy. Don’t get in the water unless you’re ready for a swarm of fish to swim up to you and nibble (gently) at your feet. It is also important to pack lightly if you’re going to hike all the way up to the 7th waterfall. The hike is an hour up and an hour down. Overall, Erawan was a beautiful experience, and I hope to go back again.

i-to-i TEFL interns sitting at Erawan falls in Kanchanaburi, Thailand

WW2 History

Kanchanaburi is also full of World War II History, including Death Railway and the River Kwai Bridge.  I recommend starting your day at the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre and then catching the train and on the Death Railway from Kanchanaburi, over the River Kwai Bridge, through the Wampo Viaduct, and all the way to Hellfire Pass. At the end of the train is Hellfire Pass where you can find the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum. To give you a little backstory, during WWII Australians and English prisoners of war were captured by the Japanese and were forced to build the Death Railway, which the Japanese were hoping to use to get materials to Burma. It is a fascinating piece of history, and also offers some beautiful scenery if you go by train. My group stopped at the Krasae Cave instead of going all the way to Hellfire Pass on the train, and that was a really cool experience. There is a giant gold Buddha in the center of the cave that tourists often pray to for good luck. This is also a great place to get off and take some pictures of the railway and the river.

i-to-i interns in a tuk-tuk in Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Elephants World

This past weekend I visited Elephants World in Kanchanaburi, which was my favorite experience yet. Elephants World is a sanctuary for retired elephants, and it is a safe place for the elephants. Their motto is “Where we work for the elephants, and the elephants not for us”. They are a non-profit, and the only place I would recommend in Kanchanaburi for interacting with elephants. You can feed them, bathe them, and watch them give themselves mud baths and swim. The staff is also friendly and really cares about the animals. I highly recommend Elephants World!

Elephants at Elephants World in Kanchanaburi, Thailand