Some of you may know that my decision to apply to the Peace Corps was impulsive. I believe it was the day after Halloween, I just had a terrible friend break-up (which is obviously WAY worse than a regular break-up), I went to a party with the same people from high school, which was fun, but I realized that just wasn’t who I was and I needed something more. I woke up on Sunday morning with a killer headache and the travel bug. I ordered a pizza, went down to the basement (the darkest place in the house, lights were the enemy that day) and I spent hours applying to the Peace Corps. Just like that, I had made the first step in changing my life. What none of you know is that after I sent in my application, I became OBSESSED with internet-stalking everything to do with the Peace Corps. I was so obsessed in fact; that I created a secret Peace Corps board on Pinterest. I pinned links to different PC blogs, recipes, remedies for bug bites but mostly I pinned inspirational quotes to keep me motivated on this long journey. Cliché, I know, but it helped. Anyways, one of these fabulous quotes is by this dude Gandhi, maybe you’ve heard of him? He says “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”. I didn’t really know what that exactly meant when he said “lose yourself” as I felt pretty confident in my identity and the knowledge of who I was. However, over the past couple weeks, I realized that my “identity” or at least my silly concept of the word had been ripped out from underneath me and I felt truly lost.
Colombians are quick to label and I am constantly reminded of my more visible identity components as I am called Gringa, Mona (blondie), Teacher, Blanca (white girl) or, once after a large portion of salchipapas, Gorda (fatty). Up until this point, I have accepted this. The labels are who I am, they will not change (well hopefully the fatty one does) and that is ok. I will always be a heterosexual, Irish-Polish-Czech-German-Catholic, middle class, white girl, but there is so much to me that isn’t as concrete. The other pieces of our identity that aren’t so visible are the ones that are constantly evolving. If we allow them to remain stagnant or if we trap ourselves in one box, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment, failure and a pretty dang boring life.
As volunteers, we come here knowing we are going to have to give up little pieces of ourselves in order to integrate into our new home and culture. I didn’t realize how big of a sacrifice it is to truly lose yourself in a new culture and succumb to all of the labels forced upon you, whether you like it or not. If you aren’t careful, you really do start to forget who you are and who you hope to be and you just accept what you are told and put yourself into that box. I started to see myself as only the blonde, American, sometimes fat, teacher and nothing more. Then, all of a sudden, the teachers went on strike, school was closed and I was no longer a teacher. I was just the fat, blonde American who was sitting around her house with nothing to do. I tried thinking of other things to do to occupy my time and contribute to my community and I came up with nothing. All of my ideas centered around the idea that I am a teacher, that is all I can do, if I can’t teach, I am worthless and I should just stay in my house until this strike business was sorted out and I could go back to being me. Obviously, this is not the greatest place to be, mentally and I started to be big grump.
I believe it was my Dad who told me that just by being here, I am making a difference so I should just give myself a break and know that change is happening, whether or not I see it. I realized that I could be much more than a teacher to my community. I can be a friend, learner, neighbor, explorer, mentor, “aunt”, “daughter” and just a plain ol’ fellow human. With the help of my super awesome site mate, Michael, I started participating in more activities. We visited a farm, picked fruit, went to a dance class, learned to play a drum and made friends with the local police. By allowing these people to share their culture with us, we empowered them to become the teachers which probably makes much more of a difference than directly teaching them English. I just had to realize that my identity is constantly developing and that I am much more than the labels others were placing on me. While I still accept the labels and the names they call me, I try to remind people that first and foremost, I am just Jessi. And that is pretty great.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe identity and truly “finding yourself” is something that every person struggles with throughout their entire life. A lot of people probably never discover themselves and just live their lives going through the motions. I think that Gandhi guy was on to something because even though I am still looking for something within myself, I feel much closer to finding it as each day passes.
Pueblo life is still going, more or less, smoothly. We haven’t had running water for about a week so I have been taking bucket showers with brown water. One day, I hope to feel clean again. Our power is out so this means extra sweat without the fan and a dark bathroom to use for a blind bucket shower. The teachers have been on strike for over two weeks but it looks as though the end is near. I, along with Michael, have begun teaching classes to the local police three nights a week. It is super fun to teach people who actually want to learn and aren’t just forced to be there. Plus, they feed us and let us hang out at the station and we kind of feel like we have friends. I’ve also been travelling about the department (state) and visiting my friends. My neighbor is extremely impressed with my knowledge of the inter-departmental bus system and says I know more than her!
It has been extra hot lately and I’ve been getting even more comments than usual about my excessive sweating. I even considered calling the doctor to see if something is wrong with me. Does anyone know if they have invented a face cream that stops your sweat glands from working? I would pay big money for that.
It’s way past my bedtime but I do believe this writing sesh has cured my insomnia. Thanks for reading, friends!