Monday, February 11, 2013

reflections on adventures

 i just passed nine months in country.  pretty crazy to think about.  my life before Peace Corps seems like an eternity ago even with a trip home for Christmas.  it hasn't all been amazing, but life certainly has gotten more interesting since leaving on may 9th from Reagan International.

nine months ago i was making as much money in one or two nights waiting tables as i now do in a monthi was terrified of the decision i had just made to give up my comfortable life in the states and move to the second poorest country in Latin America.  i had this silly fear that my language skills wouldn't be up to par and that my time spent in grad school wouldn't help me at all.  basically any and every reason for why this was a crazy idea was racing through my mind.

28 new friends
every time someone asked me if i was nervous i would just tell them that all i needed to do was get on the plane. it would be easy from there (and once the cabin doors closed, i wouldn't have a choice).  i was excited to improve my spanish, meet new people, and see tons of new things.  the day had finally arrived after 21 months of waiting, and i could start my peace corps adventure- hopefully to apply some of the things i had learned about international development in the classroom all the while gaining lots of experience and improving my job prospects in the future.  i wanted to climb some mountains while i was at it, visit the beach, and, most of all, have an adventure.

these nine months have been quite the roller coaster.  big highs. big lows.  sometimes it seems like there isn't an in between.  part of that comes with being so out of what is considered "normal."  it has been a great time overall, however, and i thought i'd reflect on what have i learned so far in these nine months:
perfect spot for reflecting. 

-this thing is quite the adventure: every day is different.  one day i could be in the high school all day working with my teachers and trying to convince them to use a scheduling program to help with the class schedule.  the next i'm going to the canyon with the guides i work with and talking about customer service.  the next i'm out having coffee with little old ladies in the rural communities talking about their credit co-operative and what kind of things they would like to learn about in the coming year.  i wanted variety in my job and certainly got it.  i've also been able to have some great trips to the beach with friends and enjoy all that this beautiful country has to offer.  i think back to what i was doing before and it doesn't compare at all (i was waiting tables after all).  i think about the other options and they definitely don't seem as fun or exciting.  just the thought of an office job makes me restless.

- patience: i don't think if you were to ask any of my friends to describe me that "patient" would be an adjective on top of their list. patience has been a continual lesson here whether i want it to be or not.  from waiting for transport to meetings or classes that never start on time, there is always waiting involved. i usually bring a book, or something else to do, and just wait for things to eventually start. even washing clothes requires much more patience and time.  i'm getting really good at solitaire on my phone too from the times i forget a book.  while i still wouldn't describe myself as a patient person, i've learned to handle these situations with greater ease.

wait, you want me to eat that?
(i did. it was delicious)
- culture shock sucks: (and there's nothing you can do to avoid it) not that i didn't know this before, considering i culture shocked in ecuador and then reverse culture shocked going home, but i've learned it's unavoidable even if you've experienced it before.  it's an individual response and everyone experiences it differently, but the certainty is that we all experience it in some way or another.  from physical discomforts like not always having water or electricity to mental and emotional challenges of language barriers and homesickness, everyone gets it in one form or another. i think the biggest lesson is how i respond to culture shock. do i let it fester and just get worse and worse? or do i seek out ways to respond (like peanut butter and parmesan cheese or calling a friend to vent for a bit) and adapt?  eventually my perspective changes and things don't seem as bad anymore.  i'm not saying it's easy (like i said, it sucks), but i've seen it in me and in other volunteers.  like most things, how we respond to culture shock makes all the difference.  insert some corny comment about overcoming challenges and adversity here. but seriously, it's true.

- development is hard: canceled meetings, miscommunication, language barriers, loneliness, not getting the hero's welcome you expected (don't they realize i came here to help them??), etc., etc., etc.  the list goes on. sometimes i've felt like i'm banging my head against the wall and don't see any progress with the projects i'm working on.  the temptation is to think, "if they don't want my help, what's the point?"  then i see one kid get it, one business i'm working with start to see the point of whatever we're trying to implement, or women in the credit co-ops i work with start to consider bigger possibilities for their community fund. near the end of training when we found out our sites, they read us our "aspiration statements."  mine said, "I realize that I will not solve all of Nicaragua’s challenges single-handedly.  What I do hope is to make an impact on some of the people I interact with on a day-to-day basis and, hopefully, leave things better than how I found them."  i think we all had something similar. especially in the peace corps, we're not going to change the whole country because the model is community-based and very small scale (plus we don't have any money), but maybe we can impact a handful of people and make a small change. poco a poco.

- perceptions of wealth: nicaraguans like to make a hand gesture that is supposed to look like a wallet bulging with bills.  basically it's used to describe anyone you think is loaded.  the assumption is that we are because we're norteamericanos. most are very surprised when i tell them how much i make.  we are poor as volunteers. i'm making the equivalent of just over $8 a day (look at me now mom! that's why i went to grad school!).  back home at a low-skilled labor job like waiting tables i could easily clear $100 a night. it feels like i'm poor because sometimes i can't do everything i want in comparison.  then i go to the campo (rural areas) and realize i have no idea what poor even means. the people i visit live in houses with mud walls, dirt floors, and zinc sheet metal roofs.  some have electricity. some don't.  where do you even start to compare? i've experienced some of the greatest generosity from people who have the least to give away. it challenges my perspective and is a nice check to my pride on a fairly daily basis. sometimes that bulging wallet gesture might still apply, even if i don't want it to.

OK, so are you happy? a lot of times people ask me that. the answer is yes.  this is definitely what i want to be doing and should be doing at this moment. i learn something everyday, whether about myself, my community, or life in general.  this life is so different from back home. it's been hard. it's been challenging.  i see things that don't make sense or fit within my framework of normal and am challenged to think beyond what "normal" has always meant to me. this is definitely the adventure i wanted.  i have a year and a half left, and i have a feeling that the adventures are only just beginning. 
what's next?

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