As part of my Happy Nomad Tour I came to Colombia with an open mind, open heart, and some caution. Despite meeting countless amazing Colombians abroad, I couldn’t shake what I had heard about Colombia all my life.
Colombia was the 56th country I have visited so I didn’t expect to have many surprises. How wrong I was! I am out traveling as a result of my “Happiness Plunge” – essentially the decision to be happy and pursue my passions of traveling, writing, volunteering, learning, teaching, and telling stories. I left behind my six-figure corporate life to explore what it means to be happy and Colombia taught me more than I could have realized.
In Medellin I volunteered at Angeles de Medellin – an organization started by inspirational American Mark Kaseman. He fell in love with the children, his angels, in the mountains above Medellin in Regalo de Dios that house displaced families due to the drug violence.
While volunteering with Mark, we donated clothes, taught the kids computer and typing skills, taught English, and I even got to teach some kids how to play catch with a baseball and how to throw an American football. It was wonderful to connect with these children via teaching and having fun. These kids have gone through more in their short lifetimes than I will probably go through in mine, yet are so resilient and strong and happy.
From Medellin I checked out La Piedra in Guatape and then headed to Bogota where I met Yokoi Kenji, the inspirational Japanese-Colombian founder of Turismo con Proposito. He has set up an organization to bring Japanese suicide survivors as well as other foreigners to Ciudad Bolivar, Bogota’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhood, to help make a difference in the lives of its residents.
I have a theory that to improve the world you need only improve your local community. Kenji spent much of his childhood living in Ciudad Bolivar and now works tirelessly to improve his community. And it is still his community as he continues living there despite his success. Kenji is living this theory out and is proof that it works.
Despite my engineering degree and my MBA, I can’t measure what Kenji is doing. But on the inside, I know and I could feel that it’s right.
I spent a weekend in Cali and got to volunteer with Alejandra Salazar. She was volunteering up in the mountains, providing kids a healthy lunch on Saturdays and playing with them and helping them develop skills in life. But, unfortunately, the founder died. Faced with the possibility of the organization ceasing to exist and inaction by the other volunteers, she stepped up and took responsibility for the continuation of the organization and its success. Thus, Comedor Altos de Menga was reborn.
I am using the word organization, but in reality it’s an informal group. What it lacks in government paperwork and recognition, it makes up for in love and impact. Alejandra genuinely loves the kids there and has watched many grow from babies into children, children into adults. And I have no doubt that the work Alejandra and the other volunteers are doing has helped steer many of these kids toward a better direction in their difficult life.
The impact Mark, Kenji, and Alejandra have had on me is immense. Mark is called the father of the mountain in Regalo del Dios, Kenji is simultaneously a generous son of Ciudad Bolivar and a role-model uncle for the younger generation there, and Alejandra is a benevolent aunt in Altos de Menga, pouring her love and affection into her thankful children.
An interesting thread is that Mark is 100% foreign, Kenji is half-Colombian, and Alejandra is fully-Colombian. But in talking to all three, all call Colombia their home and all profess their love to this great country and its wonderful people. And it shows in the work that all three are doing.
I didn’t find happiness here in Colombia, but I wasn’t looking for it. I know that happiness is internal. But I did find three people doing amazing things who have found happiness in their hearts by giving as much as they possibly can while expecting nothing in return. And this, I know for sure, is the recipe to a happy life for me in the future.