Andrew Koch is a Community Economic Development (CED) volunteer serving in a pueblo in Magdalena, Colombia.
“In the Peace Corps you will become a human being instead of a human doer”
The above was one piece of advice I received from an RPCV right after I accepted the invite to serve. In my past life as an investment banking analyst, I was the ultimate human doer – pulling all-nighters working on corporate mergers and acquisitions. This “human being vs. human doer” phrase sounded profound to me at the time, and I thought it personified my rejection of the cubicle monkey life: “I’m sticking it to the man and becoming a human being!” In hindsight, I didn’t have the slightest idea.
After arriving in Colombia, I heard the sage advice from the more tenured volunteers: “it’s the relationships that matter, not the formal work.” I learned about the importance of the 2nd and 3rd goals. Then there’s the famous JFK line about “world peace and friendship.” All of this sounded great, but I never internalized it.
When Angell asked me to write an article for Oíste on how to integrate in my community, my initial thought was, “I don’t know…drink beer with your host dad, play sports, and drop ‘no joda’/‘vaina’ from time to time?”
Afterwards, however, I reflected on my current situation over a year into this journey. I am somewhere between despondent and humbled in my formal work as a PCV. Two weeks ago I fully broke down in school when the local professor in charge of SENA students, yet again, showed complete and utter indifference to the kids’ lack of attendance and effort to continue with the practicum that we had all developed together. I was supposed to co-teach a class with a different teacher the next period, but instead I stormed out of the school. Reaching my boiling point, I realized that I had been far more invested than counterparts in not only this project, but in all of my work. I had the slimy, ugly guilt and regret of the gringo who thought he knew best and did not take the input of the locals seriously.
Later that afternoon, after my host mom had spent a long time consoling me and listening to my various challenges as a PCV, two close friends showed up at my house unannounced. These two, like my host family, consider me a son, and teachers from my school had called them sensing that something was wrong with me. Like my host mom, they gave me the ‘cógela suave’ rhetoric. They were not wrong, but I also refuse to accept that as the answer to mental sanity as a PCV in Colombia.
Last weekend I was talking with three different Colombians, one of which had lived in the US for several years. I was trying to explain why I valued my career more than my family – my parents are each on his/her third marriage, and well, that’s just the American way. Somewhere between listening to their disbelief that I had not talked to several of my aunts/uncles in years and their explanation of how much their family means to them, it hit me.
While the “world peace and friendship” tagline is fluff in my mind, I have always valued integration and solidarity with my town. I realized in that moment that if you really want to integrate in a coastal Colombian town, you need to value family over work. The dozen or so families in Fundacion and Polonuevo that call me hijo/hermano/sobrino are my source of pride, my reason to stay for two years, and my real success here. That’s what being costeño really means – caring more about your family than your professional life (i.e., being a human being not a human doer).
As for how I arrived at this point, the following are a few observations on integration (in no particular order) that they don’t tell you about in training:
- Show up at people’s houses/businesses unannounced. With even my best friends back home, I would confirm multiple times via text that it’s cool to come over. Forget about that in coastal Colombia. Just appear in the door with a smile and a ‘buenas.’ If they’re busy, they’ll tell you; but more than likely, they’ll be thrilled you’re there.
- The don’t-text-back-within-two-days rule doesn’t exist here (for both novio/a and amigo/a purposes). It’s not weird to WhatsApp message someone in the evening after having met them on the morning of that same day. It might even be weirder if you didn’t.
- Never turn down an invitation (or at least have an airtight excuse for doing so). The flipside of the immense costeño human warmth is a sensitivity and strong bitterness to having their invitation turned down. That may mean going to an evangelical church on a Sunday at 7 AM (unimaginable in most of our U.S. lives, I understand), going to the baptism or birthday party or funeral of a distant host-cousin you don’t know, eating ice cream in the park on a night when you’re exhausted and just want to stay in your room, going for a walk/jog at 5 AM, etc. Many times you’ll be out of your comfort zone, but that’s the point of Peace Corps, right?
- Dance (and know the difference between Vallenato, Cumbia, Champeta, and Salsa).
- Invest the 20 mil in a Junior jersey. The Colombian national team jersey is a nice touch, but if you really want respect when you walk down the street, then respect TU PAPÁ.
- Use costeñol responsibly. The occasional use of local slang is always a way to show you know how the vaina is, but too much could come off as strange or trying too hard.
- Call until they pick up/three times (as Megyn Rodriguez wisely coined it, ‘the costeño triple check’). This one still makes me uncomfortable, but I have had people tell me that they didn’t call me back because they only had one missed call from me. It could also be an issue of them not having minutes to call you back.
- Watch Desafio, novelas, etc., with your host family or friends.
- There’s no such thing as a dumb question. Being a PCV gives you an once-in-a-lifetime pass to ask seemingly dumb or simple questions, so take advantage. Plus, it’s the best way to show you’re interested. Side note: what you might consider an off-limits personal question back home is probably fair game here.
Whether you want to convert from a human doer to a human being, “promote world peace and friendship,” or just feel at home in your home-far-away-from-home, never forget that real integration is putting your adopted family(ies) and friends above work.