House Building Experience in Colombia

DukeofEd_Colombia_2018This March break, I, along with 31 of my peers, went on the Duke of Ed gold trip to Colombia where we built a house and went on a five-day hike to the lost city.

During the first two days after landing in Bogotá, we aided in the construction of a house in a borough of Bogotá called Soacha. We arrived at the building site early the first morning after a long bus ride from our hostel in Bogotá. After receiving instructions for the day, we began unloading the building materials from the truck and carrying them up a slope to the structure of the house we would be making. We worked quickly on the task and went on our lunch break. Before the workday and during the lunch break, my friends and I had time to get to know some of the people we were working with as well as the people we were helping by building this house. One of the young neighbourhood children, Philippe, came over to the work site to get a look at what we were up to. He got along very well with my classmates and me, and we all ended up dancing, laughing, and talking to him for the majority of our day. Sofia, Tomas, and Camila helped the rest of us by translating Philippe’s Spanish and our English so we could all communicate. Talking to Philippe allowed us to catch a glimpse of what it was like to live in a neighbourhood like Soacha, which has one of the highest concentrations of displaced people in the country due to the civil war between the government of Colombia and the FARC, the country’s largest rebel group. His childhood was, in fact, extremely similar to each of ours! He enjoyed playing sports, hanging out with his friends, and watching superhero movies. We were all very sad to leave by the end of the day, knowing that we would not be able to see Philippe again because he had his first soccer lesson the next day. We eventually said our goodbyes to our new friend and prepared for the long bus ride back to the city.

The following day, we arrived even earlier at the construction site and finally commenced building the house. Several people, including some university students from Bogotá not much older than us, helped our group with the construction project. Most of us did not know what to expect from the experience as we had never gone on a community service trip similar to this one, so we relied heavily on the help of these volunteers. They spoke to us primarily in Spanish, which ended up improving all of our vocabularies in the foreign language. One of the younger volunteers helped my friends and I speak to the two children who were living with the recipient of the house we were building. The two kids, José and Maya, were thrilled to introduce me to their other friends in their neighbourhood and loved taking pictures with the camera I had brought. At first, they were slightly nervous to talk to us, but after a while of speaking with the aid of the other volunteers, they both opened up! It was important to get to know the people that we were helping in order to find meaning and purpose in the project and have a connection to the community.

Both my group and the other group that was building a different house did not end up finishing due to weather constraints. As much as it was disappointing to not have given the completed house to its new owner, it felt good to know that we had made a difference in the lives of others. The community service project that took us just two days (almost) to complete resulted in a place for someone to call home. This experience was both inspiring and humbling, and I believe that those who participated in the Colombia trip this year would recommend it to anyone considering completing the Duke of Ed gold, or to those simply looking for the trip of a lifetime. – Stephanie Nofz ’18

Reflections on the Duke of Ed Gold Trip to Colombia

Colombia_HikeOn March 5, 2018, I, along with 31 other students, left Bogotá in search of the Ciudad Perdida. We embarked on a journey that would eventually put our physical and psychological limitations to the test, and allow us to look at ourselves and others in a different light.

Coming from Montreal, or the West in general, we almost always take things for granted. It is part of who we are and the way in which our lives work. However, in Colombia, that is not a relatively universal concept. While hiking through the jungles and exploring the beauty that is nature, we often encountered other people – not tourists, but locals. Even our guides and staff were local Colombian workers, waking up before sunrise to make our journeys more comfortable. They would still have to hike the same treacherous paths that we did, but with the weight of cutlery, crockery, water, and several others on their backs.

The other type of locals that we observed and, in one evening, listened to, were the indigenous peoples. The native Kogui tribe has been a significant part of Colombia’s rich history for centuries. Often, they are the voice of all native tribes in the nation, unwavered by the events that have taken place, socially or politically. One of their most respected leaders discussed their culture and the context in which they live. He explained the idea of ‘Big Brothers’ and ‘Little Brothers’, the former being the indigenous and the latter being the immigrants. That idea elicited an internal reaction from all of us. In Canada, the deep-seated issues between the natives and the nationals have been the root cause of many problems that have arisen. We have all been taught about the hardships and unfair treatment that the native peoples have had to undergo. Listening to the leader of the tribe and his calmness was an incredible experience for us.

In terms of the actual hike, words cannot express our emotions and feelings. Hiking and struggling together brought everyone closer to one another, creating bonds that will definitely last a long time.

In a few campsites, we had the opportunity to go swimming in a river or creek. Personally, that was the best part about the hike. Most people don’t get the opportunity to go swimming in a native, traditional Colombian river in a winding jungle. I think that everybody took that to heart as we all jumped into the freezing waters eventually. It was an incredible experience to just look up and understand where we were. The beauty, the environment, the people – all pieces of the exhilarating puzzle that was this hike.

At night, along with playing several variations of cards, we would sit in small groups and reflect on different parts of the hike. We would mention the names of people who deserved credit on this hike. People would speak about those who were not feeling well during the hike, who were obviously struggling, but still moving. Others spoke about the people who motivated and supported. I believe everyone played a role in how we all finished the hike. If it wasn’t for the support of this person, or the humour of that person, it would have been difficult to find the courage and persistence to go on.

This hike, overall, was unbelievable. Sitting atop the Lost City and looking out changed the perspective for many. We all found something we never knew about ourselves and about each other. And that, in essence, paved the way for the rest of our lives. – Sahil Tyagi ’18

Duke of Edinburgh Gold Trip: The Meaning of the Journey

IMG_0568“Everyone can touch the top of a mountain, but not everyone can appreciate the journey.” – Flaco

When I signed up for the Duke of Ed gold trip to Colombia, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I knew that I would be completing a five-day hike, along with some service, all in order to reach my final goal of obtaining the Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award, but I honestly didn’t think that this trip would have much of an impact on my life. I now realize how wrong I was.

This journey began in Bogotá, Colombia, where we spent two days in a poor community building houses for two very special families. The families were renting two small homes but they were having a hard time paying the rent. Both families had recently moved to the area in hope of building a better life for their sons. They explained that by having their own house they would no longer have to worry about paying their rent and would have a stable environment in which they could raise their children. Immediately after meeting these families and hearing their stories, we came to the realization that although building houses might only take us two days, it would change these families’ lives forever.

With that in mind, we mustered up the strength and motivation to work as hard as we possibly could to get the houses finished on time. On the first day of service, we moved all of the extremely heavy materials needed off of a truck and down a dirt road to the construction site. Believe me when I say that this wasn’t easy. Some planks weighed over 100 pounds and there were significantly more than 100 planks to move. Through the pain and hard work, I kept telling myself that our work would change these families’ lives forever.

Throughout the two days, the most incredible thing happened. Family, friends, and people from different parts of the community came to help us in the construction of the houses. Whether they were helping to transport the materials or even just coming out of their houses to offer us water or a place to use the toilet, the entire community was willing to help. This was one of the most special and touching things that I have seen in a very long time. It is rare that you see such genuine kindness from an entire community at once, and it was even more incredible to see this from a community that didn’t have much.

In addition, the families cooked a meal for us both days that we were there in order to show their gratitude and appreciation for what we were doing for them. Once again, I was moved by how these people were willing to give everything that they possibly could to thank us. The strong sense of community was incredible and so beautiful to see and be a part of.

Although we were not able to fully communicate with the families, as they only spoke Spanish, words were not needed for them to express how much all of this meant to them and how important it really was.

It was in the moment where we handed these families the keys to their new houses that we knew for sure that all of our work really was worth it. As they unlocked their houses for the first time and thanked us for making their dreams of having somewhere to raise their children come true, tears of joy ran down their faces and they were overwhelmed with gratitude.  As I was hugging the families goodbye, one of the children ran up to me and jumped into my arms, giving me the biggest hug and a kiss on the cheek. I will never forget that moment because this helped me realize the impact that I was going to have on this child’s life and future.

These families’ lives have now been changed forever and it warms my heart knowing that they can now have a better quality of life and raise their children the way they’d like. This was an incredibly touching and memorable experience that has taught me that even the smallest actions make a big difference. It is so important to be aware of the impact that you can have and take advantage of every opportunity to help others out.


Trek to the Lost City

Being one of the most non-athletic people to ever attend LCC, I was extremely nervous about the hiking component of this trip. The hike began in El Mamey and from there, over the next five days, we made our way to the Lost City, better known as La Ciudad Perdida.

I wasn’t wrong to be nervous about the hike, as it was quite difficult, but it was much more amazing than I ever could have imagined it to be. I was expecting to hike up and hopefully be able to hike back down, but I got much more than just that. From this five-day journey, I was able to make special bonds with some of the most unique people in my grade, and I learned so many life lessons that I will carry with me forever.

When you are in the woods with a small group of people for five days, with nothing but your thoughts and a hiking bag, it is hard to have any boundaries at all. From day one, we had no choice but to let go of any inhibitions and be completely honest and open with the people around us. Personally, I was not able to hike without talking to someone and that was such a gift because it allowed me to form special relationships with all of the incredible people that were on the trip. I spent those five days sharing stories from my life and listening to everyone else’s stories as well. We spoke about our beliefs, our fears, our dreams, and everything in between. Having nothing but each other at the best times and worst times on the hike is what set the foundation for these bonds. I am sincerely hoping that we won’t lose these friendships when we get back home and back into the rhythm of our every day lives. Not having our phones for the five days is the main reason that we were able to create such pure and genuine connections with each other. In addition to this, not having my phone allowed me to appreciate the nature and beautiful world around me. It’s so easy to get consumed by your little rectangular screen without even realizing what is going on. It is so important to put down that screen and appreciate everything  going on around you. Whether it is around nature or simply just to the person sitting next to you, look up once in a while and pay attention to what’s going on. Have a conversation with a real person face to face and create a real connection with a human being or go outside and take a walk and enjoy the beautiful world that we all live in.

As cliché as it may sound, this journey really taught me to believe in myself. It was amazing to see what I could do when I believed in myself and really set my mind to it. At the moments when I was thinking that I couldn’t do it, my body really did start slowing down, and I found myself at my weakest point. It was only once I was able to escape that mindset and start to think that I could do it, that I was able to regain my strength and keep going full force. I found the things that I could do when I believed in myself surprising and amazing and that is something that we all must apply to our lives every day. You can do anything that you set your mind to, as long as you don’t give up, and I was able to learn and experience that first-hand on this trip.

Once the hike was completed we talked with our incredible guides, Natalia and Flaco, about the journey. Flaco said something that really stuck with me, and I don’t think that I will ever be able to let go of what he said. As he was talking about the hike, he said, “Anyone can touch the top of a mountain, but not everyone can appreciate the journey.”  It was not reaching the Lost City at the top of the mountain that made this trip so special, but it was the journey that has had such an impact on my life. The memorable conversations, the bonds formed, the way that I am now able to see the world, have all come from the journey and not from the destination. This does not only apply to the journey of actually hiking a mountain, but it applies to the journey that is our lives. We can’t only focus on whatever it is that we are trying to achieve or whatever goal we are trying to reach, we must focus on the path that takes us there. We must focus on the people that we meet on the way, and appreciate the experiences that we encounter. Our lives are a journey and in order to appreciate them, we all have to stop focusing solely on the destination and start appreciating what is bringing us there. – Isabelle Shtern ’17



Duke of Ed Gold Trip Colombia: Unforgettable!

DoE_Gold_Colombia_SummingUp_Mar2016There is just way too much to say about this trip to Colombia. I think that I speak for everyone when I say that we came back as better people. Colombia impacted us all from the moment we landed in Bogotá.

The difference in culture was apparent. Taking the bus from the airport made us all realize how differently people from Bogotá live in comparison to us. There were people living under bridges with tarps as roofs. For many of us, this was an unfamiliar site in our own country or any other places that we had visited before.

One of the most life-changing experiences was building a home for a family. We had to travel almost three hours through slums and mountains to reach the Colombian countryside. We spent two days building a house with the help of the family. There were points where some people couldn’t help, so they found other ways to contribute to the community. They played with the children and even helped translate. By far the most moving moment was handing the keys to the family and seeing them tear up with happiness.

The next big thing was hiking the páramo. The four-day hike was a challenge for all of us, but in the end, we all felt a sense of achievement. But by far the most amazing feeling was when a few of us took on the extra challenge and climbed the Eagles Peak, which was 4,150 metres above sea level. We actually saw an eagle!

All in all, this trip has been amazing. I’ve reunited with old friends and made new ones. As a soon-to-be graduate, this last big LCC trip will stay with me forever. – Zach Pfefferle ’16


Duke of Ed Gold Trip Colombia: Beach Day

DoE_GoldColombia_BeachDay_Mar2016The day started with an early wake up at 7 am at the Camino Real in Tota. The view to the lake from our window was beautiful. After breakfast we headed to the beach. The drive was about 45 minutes. When we arrived we put our belongings down and as a group collected garbage in the sand. Many of us found wrappers left by people who had visited the beach. Once we were done with our cleanup, we started a relay race. We all had a lot of fun and had to work together to win.

After the relay race we had free time. A few people swam but many people just lay in the sand and tanned. Even though many of us applied sunscreen we still burned. The Colombian sun is much stronger than what we are used to in Canada and we all experienced its effects.

We had lunch at the restaurant on the beach. Almost everyone ate rainbow trout, which was a regional specialty. After the beach we drove three hours to Villa de Levya. This was a very touristy town. It had the biggest town square in South America surrounded by many shops and restaurants. After visiting the town, we walked back to the hotel where we enjoyed a chicken dinner.

That night was very emotional for many people. We sat in a church illuminated by candles and spoke about our experience, what we would remember the most, and how this trip changed us. That night, many of us realized how grateful we were for our experience. We finished the meeting with letters that we wrote to ourselves. These letters were meant to act as a link between us and Colombia. Even though we were returning to Montreal and our daily routines, the letters would allow us to never forget Colombia and what we had experienced. –Kamy Roberge-Carrington ’16