Many backpackers travel the world like stones skimming across a lake. They bounce from hostel to hostel, drinking the same beers and playing the same games, experiencing nothing of the places they 'see.' I spent a few weeks doing exactly that on Colombia's Caribbean coast, but living amongst Paisas just outside Medellin has given my travelling a massive shot in the arm.
At the start of our trip, my girlfriend and I met another English couple (let's call them Bonnie n' Clyde) at a gloriously air-conditioned hostel in Cartagena. We were pale, fresh and seriously wet behind the ears. They were weather-beaten, road-weary and ready to go home. Just short of a year spent working their way around South America had taken its toll on the pair so Clyde slinked off to bed, leaving Bonnie outnumbered. She looked like she could use a moment of solitude but we weren't about to let travel-info like that go unmined. She gave us tips on everything from hostels and buses to food and bars, but it was a throwaway comment that really stuck with us. When we asked how her Spanish was, she shrugged; said 'you don't really need it' and returned her focus to the local bus timetable without pausing for breath. The look that we shot each other across the dinner table asked the same question. If you've been travelling around South America for 10 months and not 'needed' to speak Spanish, have you really seen South America?
I once worked with a guy who came into some money as a young man, handed in his notice and spent 18 months checking off every famous backpacking travel-route you've ever heard of. Party Pete (unfortunately not his real name) saw every beach and hotspot, but that was all. My reflex travel envy quickly evaporated when I began to see a pattern developing in his stories. The quintessential boozer abroad, the ghost of parties past would follow the same formula in every anecdote:
1. Find some Brits
2. Get smashed on cheap beers
3. Fall asleep somewhere strange
4. Return to the hostel and recuperate until late afternoon
Pete came back to England with one shoe, no money, a banging headache and zero insight into the many wonderful cultures that he stagger-floated past during his global binge. His, sadly, is a well-worn path for English-speaking travellers and the path of least resistance. No-one is going to force you to engage with local customs and activities - they were here long before you pitched up and they'll be here long after you've caught your plane back home. Learn the language and you'll reap instant rewards.
This is a continent teeming with vibrant cultures, but it's easy to miss them. There's a lot to be said for happy accident but treasure hunters need treasure maps and every person you come across is a map entirely of their own. I have spent more time with Colombians and learned more about their culture in 1 week at Spanish Adventure than during the rest of my travel time combined. My stomach hit the floor and started digging when I was sent on my first cultural adventure in the town, but the first person I spoke to quickly settled my heart rate. This is a place that welcomes anyone willing to participate. It's not just interesting, it's interested in you. A planned 1 hour excursion morphed into a 3 hour parade of free ice cream, break-dance, gifts and a serious amount of smiling.
Yesterday, I went for an early morning run around the town. Around 10 minutes in, a smiley young buck started to run alongside me. Later on, Diego (real name this time) showed Ellie and I all around the town. We tried local delicacies, learned about the town's history and made a LOT of friends but none of that would have been possible without a desire to learn. My Spanish is improving, no doubt, but I'm still getting my sea legs. Even so, what little Spanish I do have allowed me to get under the skin of San Carlos and I am so much the better for it. Yesterday was the best day I've spent travelling so far, hands down.
If it wasn't for this language school, I could quite easily have spent all my time travelling as an invisible spectator - neither giving nor gaining anything along the way. The last week has taught me that there's an enormous difference between seeing and doing. Here, learning is not a passive experience. It's called Spanish adventure for a reason. From midday onwards - if you're not practising your language skills with the locals - you're out trying traditional games, riding through the mountains or climbing through waterfalls.
It's simple really: your key to experiencing a place with any depth is interacting with the locals. Your key to interacting with the locals is their language. The lake will live and breathe as it always has done, with or without you. Stop skimming, take a deep breath and allow yourself to sink.