It sounds selfish, but one of the main reasons I sought out the Peace Corps was for myself. I felt I was at a point in my young life where I had some significant accomplishments, having just finished my Masters, and wanted to stray from the “straight and narrow” path I have always been on, full of education and a mentality for ladder climbing. I wanted to do something big and bold, something out of left field, something life altering and something that would cause me to grow and grow some more as a person. I sought perspective. I sought good days overflowing with gratitude and hard days that would make me take a good hard look at myself and see all the good, bad and ugly. I wanted to come to terms with myself and gain a level of independence and confidence I had not yet known. I wanted to break down some personal walls and thought processes previously constructed. Long story short, I wanted to do some serious self work and I wanted the Peace Corps experience full of beautiful people and authenticity to be the agent of change in my life.
I’m only 3 months in, and I’ve just started my service as a volunteer last week, but already so much has happened to facilitate this desire.
I spoke in my last post of highs and lows, and how meeting Peace Corps Global Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet was a turning point, something which re-kindled my drive for serving as a volunteer. That was incredibly accurate, but I had yet to experience what turned out to be two pivotal moments which, unbeknownst to me, solidified exactly why I’m here.
The first was my practicum.
My group of Environmental Education volunteers spent 4 days in a small rural community called Chiteje de la Cruz, about 90 minutes outside of Queretaro. The official goal of this venture was to conduct our practicum, much like a test, and put to use all the tools we’ve gained throughout our training. In small groups of 2-3 people, we were supposed to give a training of sorts on an environmental topic, such as composting and biointensive gardening, water decontamination, reforestation, waste management, etc, to two groups of parents (40 give or take) and monitor their perceived level of knowledge before and after our lesson. Later in the week, we did this again, but with 6 classes of children, ranging from kindergarden to 6th grade (roughtly 20 kids per class). It was a big week, probably our most important week during training thus far, and we were to be evaluated and critiqued by multiple staff members to better prepare us for doing similar activities in our individual sites. Needless to say, I was a bit of an undercover wreck. I had a great group with two friends and our topic was composting/gardening. The school was incredibly excited for our lesson and had asked us to build a very unique form of biointensive garden during our lessons. I was excited to put to use my new knowledge from training and more than a little bit nervous to see how building this garden would go, considering we had very, very limited time with each group.
Did I mention all of these lessons would be in Spanish? It’s no surprise, but this tiny little detail and all the insecure and self-criticizing thoughts in my head could have easily ruined this experience for me. There was a very low point somewhere during those four days where I just thought so badly of myself and my ability to speak Spanish off the cuff and comfortably in front of a group, compared to my two project partners who appeared to do so with ease.
But as I said before, you can expect a high after a low, and that’s exactly what I got. During these four days, each volunteer was assigned to live with a family in the community. I was fortunate enough to live with a young couple, who lived in a very rural environment (no running water and bucket baths) with 4 young children ranging from ages 3-6 (roughly). Honestly, I wasn’t over the moon about living with a family during this time because I thought it would feel awkward, full of semi-forced and uncomfortable conversations. But boy, was I wrong. These people, this family, and these kids especially, were my saving grace and my source of optimism. Every night I played with the kids for hours and hours, running and hiding, chasing, twirling, and carrying them around, playing soccer and baseball, and of course, pretending to be animals in our own version of charades. These kids, despite my very short time with them, were my source of light and joy. And their parents embraced me for it.
Family in Chiteje
What I did not expect was that these relationships built under the roof of their home would so easily translate to the practicum at the community school. I called them my brothers and sisters, and whenever I saw them at the school, I instantly felt relief and happiness…who knew our secret handshakes would mean so much?! Before I knew it, I was friends with their friends and surrounded by bright, smiling and inquisitive faces. I didn’t think it could get any better…but it did, as it commonly does in these unique Peace Corps experiences. My sessions with the kids, and with my brothers and sisters, were better that I could have imagined. So what I was nervous, made a few vocab mistakes and used my notes to speak? How could something so senseless as an insecurity matter when you have 20 kids running, smiling and screaming at you, hugging you so hard that they pull you to the ground and clobber you with happiness?
Group Hug Part 1 of 100
All the kids
When the time came to end our practicum, I had to give one of the thank you speeches to the community for their time, patience and energy. Yet again, I was nervous and mistake adverse, but the ending ceremony was so full of gratitude and raw joy (partially from it being over) that it was impossible not to be overcome with it. The school’s director gave an incredibly touching speech, bringing many of us to tears, the head of their PTA serenaded us with his guitar, the kids gave us flowers and tokens of appreciation and again, I was pulled to the ground by a stampede of hugging children…nearly an entire class full of them, led by my two adorable brothers and cousin.
I didn’t know my heart could feel so full. I don’t think it ever has. It was such a new sensation that I was brought to tears, very ugly tears I might add, completely vulnerable and unable to find balance and neutrality, which I so easily hide behind. It was an incredibly raw experience and a high I did not know I was capable of feeling. That moment sealed the deal…which was again sealed by the hundred or so hugs and the one innocent “te quiero” I received on my way out.
Closing ceremony with the kids
Several weeks later, as we were ending our training and nearing our swearing in ceremony, I was back to my old self again, worrying about Spanish tests and my ability to perform to my own ridiculous standards. I was getting anxious to leave, like a pendulum swinging back and fourth between being scared to leave Queretaro, my new PC friends and my host family, and dying to leave so that I could reclaim my sanity after having almost zero personal time for 3 months and being in an environment where I was prone to compare myself to others. I’m a Gemini and a Boyer so naturally I’m an over-thinker…that said, my head is perpetually swirling thoughts, thoughts and more thoughts. I tell you though, being in your head that much is exhausting and is sometimes more of a hinderance than helpful.
So again, finding myself in a bit of a rut, overcome with so many thoughts that I unconsciously switched into neutral, semi-numb mode, guess what happened? My so beautifully perfected and poised facade was shattered, yet again, as I was overcome by another one of these uniquely beautiful Peace Corps experiences.
Swearing in day had arrived. Unlike my sister, I did not necessarily receive goose bumps upon taking the pledge. I knew it was a big deal and I was happy, nervous, and relieved. But more than anything, I was grounded and going through the motions. It wasn’t until friends and newly minted volunteers started leaving that reality struck. But what ripped away my composure and any sense of the word was saying goodbye to my Mexican friends and family. I walked over to say goodbye to a close friend of mine and his host sister, who is the definition of innocence and generosity and someone who I’ve come to care about immensely. Hopefully, she won’t mind me calling her a bit of a cry baby, but as soon as I hugged her and saw her tearing and felt the authenticity of friendship between us, I, too, lost it. I’d only been there 3 months and already she felt like a younger sister to me, someone I’d do anything for because she is just such a good person. Saying goodbye to her and her brother, my friend, was what brought me into the present. Before I knew it, I was, again, overcome with such gratitude for these relationships that when I went to say goodbye to my host mom and her granddaughter I was unable to speak through all the tears.
I’d read blogs about volunteers becoming close to their host families but I never dreamt that I would feel both gratitude for having been taken in and cared for by complete strangers and also such loss for having to leave them. I said time and time again that I should write a blog post about my family here and it never came to fruition. But they are some of the kindest people I have ever met. They might not have been the social type who had parties or who took me out to explore nearby attractions, but our conversations from day one were some of the most authentic I’ve had in my life. We talked about things of depth, abstract topics about life, social issues and global injustices…very profound conversations that I never imagined I’d have with people I just met…and in Spanish! Our energies were very much in sync, as were our outlooks on life in many regards. I appreciated our differences and learned a tremendous amount about Mexico, Mexican pride, it’s culture and about many social issues and generational changes underway here. But most importantly, they created a safe and comfortable environment for me during this integration process.
Saying goodbye to them was so challenging. My host dad hugged me tightly and told me I have a home whenever I need it. My host mom, referencing my new PC pin with both an American and Mexican flag, told me the American flag represents who I am and where I’ve come from, while the Mexican flag represents my new life here in Mexico, including her family, which is now my own. And their granddaughter teared up, said I would always be an aunt to her and sneakily hid a goodbye note in my bag for later. I can’t count how many times we embraced before I left and how many tears fell between us, but it was surprisingly tender and had removed any barriers I had prepared to facilitate this departure. I was both vulnerable and humbled by the sheer amazingness of these Mexican friends and family of mine, and so grateful for these relationships and the experience which has made them possible.
Family, Part 2
After three months in Queretaro and four days in Chiteje de la Cruz, one thing became clear. This is exactly the experience I had hoped for. I am being pushed continuously, I feel awkward nearly always, I am overly self-critical and worry that I am not good enough or doing well enough. I am learning more and more about myself, recognizing habits and thought processes that I need to change, and all the while becoming a stronger and better person for overcoming the daily struggles that arise when adjusting to living abroad. More than anything, I am learning to welcome the vulnerability that it brings and loving every second of the joy and gratitude I am able to receive from doing so.