What Makes It Great

In the six or so months leading up to lately, I anticipated a lot about my field staff job. I knew it would be stressful, frustrating, complicated and exhausting, positively countered by satisfaction, accomplishment and pride. I knew it would be a lot of hard work, and thought I would feel discouraged or animated by my responses and handle on situations and responsibilities. I was right, and then some.

Things are harder here. Here being Barranquilla, la costa, Colombia, South America; however you’d like to narrow it down. Communicating for work or play is harder. Going to the ATM or to buy (a bag of) milk is harder. Social interactions that breach further than “Where-are-you-from-What-do-you-do-here-Insert-routine-question” are harder. It’s that extra mental push to remember the right words in a second language, the grit to ignore the third catcall in as many steps because it’s 90 degrees outside and you couldn’t bear to put on jeans like everyone else, patience when the internet fails mid-gchat and a sense of humor at the end of a long day when your friend blatantly reminds you how foreign you are.

Everything requires a little extra – and that’s why I do it, isn’t it? I sadistically crave the extra challenge and exhaustion that comes with everyday tasks in an unfamiliar environment. Otherwise I could commute to one of those offices in those cities in the U.S. and leave the country only to splurge on vacations.

The point I’m getting to isn’t that I have a right to whine because I live far away from home in another country. I don’t. I’m not whining. I’ve just been surprised lately.

This job in this place is hard. In simple terms, I’m the primary contact and sort-of supervisor in Colombia for 21 people. I’m not their mother, travel agent, boss, nanny or probate officer and no one expects me to be. I exist to help coordinate their living and teaching situations, counsel diverse tribulations and assure them that no, they aren’t crazy, that two-hour surprise assembly dedicated to showcasing choreographed dances as a means of convincing the student body to use recycling bins? That’s normal. Your lesson plan will still work next week, I promise. Mostly promise.

Now that what they call the “honeymoon period” has screeched to a halt unlike any car I’ve ever seen at a red light in Colombia, I’m realizing what I didn’t before. I had no idea how emotionally strenuous this job would be. As things arise no matter what their scale, I’m understanding that this isn’t a simple case of Customer Service (which I pretty much excel at, 7 years in the ice cream business later thank youuuuu) where I can fix problems and call it a day. I never anticipated it to be like that, but I also didn’t anticipate how tied I would feel to the volunteers’ experiences. They have a bad day at school, and I’m bummed because I remember those bad days at school. Something is frustratingly confusing about Spanish or Colombian culture and I get it – I’m right there with ya. Sick? There’s nothing worse than being sick when you’re far away from home and all the remedies you’ve ever counted on. I feel so involved in what’s happening in the sites that I directly coordinate because for one, I’m here submerged in it, and also, the volunteers are some of the most talented, interesting and awesome people I’ve ever met. (Those are pretty much the WT Colombia requirements, after all.)

From my position in Barranquilla, I have a broader view of the education system than from my extraordinary little school in Tabio. I see injustices, barriers and shortcomings. I see a system that doesn’t work for the students or teachers but keeps on trucking because it has to. I can’t change it in the ways I wish I could.

Then part of me gets a little bit sad for Colombia every time someone has a struggle, because I’m thinking – I LOVE Colombia! I want the volunteers to love Colombia just as much, and, Colombia, sometimes you don’t make it easy, even if it’s not your fault. Someone’s students are screaming and hitting each other and I wish I could direct them to the magic potion that makes them sit quietly and learn English with gusto – I can’t. I can’t make anyone learn Spanish faster or make their co-teacher’s any slower. I can’t telepathically send someone on the bus where their cell phone won’t get robbed or direct the most wonderful new Colombian friends in their direction.  Sometimes, it’s hard that I can’t do all that.

I’m not writing this to prove any sort of point about my job, my employer, my country of residence – I’m simply finding out that it’s exhausting to be happy, sad, frustrated, confused, enlightened and excited with anywhere from one  to 43 other people on a given day.

Surprise.

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