Thyme and Again

Belen Castillo is a Community Economic Development (CED) volunteer serving in a pueblo in Atlántico, Colombia.

When I first started looking at different Peace Corps posts, I definitely did some eliminating based on whether I thought I would like the traditional food in that country.

I am an adventurous person, but not when it comes to food. When I was placed in Colombia, I thought I would have no problems with food. My parents are Mexican and I figured how different can Colombian food be from Mexican food? I’ve tried food from other Latin American countries and it was tasty. Same area of the world, right?

Well, I was so. tragically. wrong.

Mexican food and Colombian food could not be more different. Colombians eat large amounts of fried food, white rice, lots of salt and lots of sugar. While I was never on a diet of any sort, I was always careful about what I ate. I tried to stick to lean meats, whole grains, complex carbs, and fruits and vegetables.

But like most college kids, I was no stranger to fast food and sometimes I just couldn’t say no to a Jack in the Box milkshake plus curly fries.

Despite the flexibility in my diet, I was not at all prepared for what Colombian food would do to my body. Instead of eating tacos every day, I was eating patacones, rice, and jugo. At first, I was stoked for the jugo. Who doesn’t love natural juice?! Then I found out how much sugar they put in the juice (it probably has the same amount of sugar as a Jack in the Box milkshake). And they served a large glass of jugo with every single meal. It would give me a sugar high and then send me crashing about half an hour later, and I almost always got a headache.

That’s just the juice.

Something about the way they fry food here, maybe it’s the oil, doesn’t sit right with me at all. I would eat it, only for it to come right back up about 20 minutes later. Then there were the empty carbs that came from my half plate of rice and some white bread for good measure. They’d fill me up, but wouldn’t give me very much energy.

Every meal was a constant battle for me. I’d tell myself “You can do it Belen. Just sit down, don’t look at it, don’t think about it, and in 20 minutes it’ll all be over and you can move on with your day.” By far the biggest problem was the fact that I just didn’t like it. At all. Absolutely nothing. There is nothing that I like about Colombian food. Zero.

I felt like I couldn’t give my host mom any alternatives. I didn’t have the option of saying “I like this, but I don’t like this.” I didn’t want her to have to make an entirely separate meal for me. I was worried. How do I stick up for my preferences while respecting the culture?

Sometimes I felt pressured, and thought that I needed to be flexible and accommodating to all things. But there came a point where that just isn’t going work. It could never work.

With some time, I gathered up enough courage to advocate for myself and learned some ways to work the food. My best advice is to be direct. Or put more strongly, to be blunt. (And yes, you can be blunt and still be respectful.) Colombian culture is brazen, loud; it doesn’t pick up on indirect hints. Be loud. Be blunt.

So, eventually, I told my host mom that for breakfast I only wanted eggs or oatmeal for breakfast. For lunch, I told her that I would be staying in the office because I had a lot of work to do. She took this personally for a while, but it was amazing to be able to sit in AC and eat carbonara pasta with some friends instead of sweating in my kitchen eating rice. And for dinner, I would ask her to give me whatever meat she had made and an “ensalada” on the side. No rice, no jugo. They were shocked when I said I didn’t want juice, but knowing I could drink water with my meals made my whole day significantly better. Overall, the changes made a huge difference. They were small changes, but I felt a lot better and eating became less of a struggle. Of course, I still couldn’t wait until training was over and I could make my own food. In site, I’ve continued to be direct with my host family. They offered to cook for me when I got to site, but I made it clear that I wanted to be in charge of my own food. They took it well, and in different situations, I try to be as clear as possible, but of course, respectful.

My dislike of Colombian food continues to be a challenge, particularly when it comes to integration. I don’t try the local juice stands, or empanada places. I also always feel guilty at parties or get togethers because I try my best to avoid having to eat. My go – to excuses are just ate”, or “I’ve been sick all day”. Colombians take great pride in their traditional meals, and it’s hard to know that I can’t appreciate that aspect of Colombian culture.

While food is a big part of Colombian culture, it is not the only aspect I can be part of. I’ve looked for other ways to participate, like music. My host sisters keep me up to date on the latest hits and we fangirl over Carlos Vives and Silvestre Dangond. Sticking to a diet similar to what I ate in the U.S. also gives me the opportunity to share more about the kind of food Americans eat. I’ve introduced my host family to fruit smoothies, quinoa, Kalamata olives, and protein powder. While I don’t think they’re particularly inclined to make those things a part of their diet, they at least understand me and American culture a little better.

Through this entire experience, I’ve learned a valuable lesson: that it’s possible to respect another culture while advocating for your own needs.

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