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Hitting a Wall

Lately, I’ve been having that squished-in feeling of being abroad. I miss home. I miss my people. I miss food that doesn’t make me sick (I have had all the dreaded traveler’s stomach maladies), or at least food that makes me feel better when I am sick. I miss the beach, bridges and BART. I get a little smile at the thought of San Francisco’s familiar breed of zany.

Culture shock can be a real drag. I’m finding myself frustrated with a lot of things these days. Of course, the language barrier often leaves me confounded. I get what’s going on around me, but I don’t really get it. The words I know, but it’s hard to understand all of the sentiment. I don’t know what’s expected and accepted conduct, and I have no idea how to joke around. It’s hard not being able to go with the flow.

Some things I’ll never really understand, like kids selling cotton candy in the middle of the freeway, or semi truck going 60 mph backwards on the wrong side of the freeway. The freeway definitely confuses me.

Learning to adapt to other styles of communication can be really difficult. I often feel like I’m re-explaining myself. It took me two months to figure out that these conversations weren’t actually a result of my complete lack of faculty in Spanish (I had a lot of days in the beginning when I asked myself, “did I really think I could speak Spanish?”), nor the invariably bad connection on my cell phone, but simply the method of verification. Plus, everything here is so people-centered, that I think conversations focus more on the details of the person than the details of the conversation. Conversations just last longer here, and I probably often come off as rude and abrupt. It’s a big adjustment from what I’m used to.

I’m also struggling with the fact that I feel like I still don’t know my way around Antigua. To be fair, everything in Antigua looks the same from the outside (but once you’re inside, everything is a magical surprise of beautiful rooms and gardens) and the street names often change from block to block, so it’s a hard place to learn. But I spend 11 hours a day in the project or in transit. By the time I get home it’s almost dark and it’s not very safe to be a woman alone at night. I’m used to being able to walk wherever, whenever, and would walk miles upon miles each day if I had my druthers. This part of the transition is particularly difficult because I feel a bit sequestered.

The struggles aren’t the important part; it’s what I’m learning from them. So, what am I learning from how I’m feeling?

The frustration I’m feeling is because I’m still suspended between two worlds. I’m no longer in the States, but didn’t quite leave my own cultural expectations at the door. It’s a perfectly natural response. That’s why immigrant groups are almost always clumped together no matter where you go. Liberians seek out Liberians in Minneapolis. Indians create community with other Indians in Berlin. Americans find Americans in Antigua. Having the listening ears that understand is really helpful and often very necessary to help process what you’re experiencing. But in Antigua (or what one friend and coworker calls “Gringotenango” meaning “place of the Gringos”), it can be very difficult to connect with anyone but other expats. Finding opportunities to connect meaningfully with Guatemalans is a challenge.

The frustration over the circular nature of my conversations is a reminder to slow down and connect with the people that I’m talking to. I think in the most developed countries, we often put our heads down and blaze our way through the day very much alone. We don’t take the time to reach out to people. We exist on sound bites. Being here is an important opportunity to learn how to re-connect in a meaningful way. I don’t want to just hear what people are saying, I want to really listen to their words, the underlying meaning and the underlying context. Our language and culture are inextricably linked – learning one leads to understanding the other. The language someone uses is a window into their life, heart and soul. Words carry so much more meaning than their simple definition, and I have always found this to be especially true in Latin America.

I’m also learning a lot of creative approaches to problem-solving. Guatemala is a place of few resources, and what is there isn’t always dependable. Sometimes you don’t have the materials you need for the task at hand, so you learn how to improvise. Luckily, I’m a pretty crafty person when it comes to figuring things out on the fly. A friend and I even fabricated a whisk with some skewers and a hair tie. No dessert topped with whipped cream ever tasted so sweet.

Finally, I’m being reminded to open myself up. It’s not necessarily that I have to forget the comforts of home. It’s about making room to find new ones here. So much of a culture and a people is expressed through “cultural artifacts” as we anthropologists call them – everything from food to furniture. It’s really hard to connect with a place if you don’t open your heart up to it in this way. Every day I stand in awe of Antigua’s beauty as the mist swirls on the mountainsides. I love sitting and listening to the sound of rain on laminate. I’m learning to appreciate pan dulce every morning and rice every evening. I’m even learning to appreciate instant coffee. There’s space for it and Peet’s in my heart.

I don’t always have everything I desire, but I always have everything I need. I’m learning that it doesn’t make me a bad person to have that occasional cupcake or karaoke craving, as long as I still appreciate and take in all that I have around me. As a British friend taught me, it’s okay to indulge in that peanut butter and marmite sandwich every so often, although I’ll probably still substitute the latter with honey. Some things you’ll always love best how you had it at home. But peanut butter and pan dulce is pretty divine, too.

This week I saw peace in frustration.


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