Alex Wagner is a Community Economic Development (CED) volunteer serving in a pueblo in La Guajira, Colombia.
I’ve enjoyed hiking for as long as I can remember, but on this particular morning I’m starting to wonder why. We’re in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, walking on a narrow dirt path that weaves through impossibly green hills—honestly one of the most captivating places I’ve ever been. But today I’m struggling. My sweat-wicking shirt is soaked through completely. The rubber outsole of my right hiking boot is slowly separating from the leather upper, flopping more with every step. After about twenty minutes going up and up, my lungs and legs are begging me to slow down.
The farmers I’m walking with, however, don’t seem to be receiving similar complaints from any of their body parts. They’re about twenty feet ahead of me, walking at a brisk pace but talking with ease. They don’t have any fancy outdoor gear, opting instead for t-shirts, jeans, and worn-down tennis shoes. They didn’t even bring water for the two hour trip! I can’t help but wonder how they stay hydrated when I need to take big gulps from my Nalgene every five minutes. When we finally arrive at the farmhouse, I collapse into the nearest chair, asking myself how I’m going to gather the strength to make the trek back down in just a few hours.
All of that struggle and self-doubt in the mountains is just one of the dozens of lessons in humility that I’ve endured since arriving in Colombia about a year ago. I’ll admit that I came in with a big head, but how could I not? I’m young, I’m American, and I have a bachelor’s degree in economics! All of my family and friends told me how great of a volunteer I would be. I even had a good understanding of the major trends in Latin American history after years of study. Unsurprisingly, little of those qualifications matter in the grand scheme of things.
What does matter is the local context. For example, even though I like hiking, my Colombian counterparts don’t see the journey up hills, around bends, and through streams as a fun form of exercise. For them, it’s just how you get home after visiting town. Years of travel mean that they know the paths like the back of their hands and can have casual conversations while my unaccustomed legs struggle behind them.
Lifting weights didn’t translate easily to Colombia either. At home, I went to the gym often and felt fairly strong for my size. So then why do I struggle so much when lifting a sack of cacao beans onto my back, while my slender counterparts lift them with significantly less discomfort? Maybe because they don’t see this as an exercise, like lifting a barbell in counts of repetitions and sets—it’s how they get crops from the field to the market. In other words, the importance lies in the act of getting work done and not in making muscles grow. It’s a subtle, yet significant, difference in perception.
Style is important too. Growing up I was always a good soccer player because I understood my role on the field and valued function over flair. I played defense because I loved taking the ball away from self-important strikers who loved their step-overs and feints. So how do these neighbor kids, who are half my size, keep dancing around me in our games on the street and leaving me behind on my sore, bare feet? I’m unfortunately still working on the answer to that question, but I have come to appreciate their creative free-flowing style of play more than I ever thought possible.
Communication is another key component of life on the coast that proves elusive for many outsiders. After many semesters of Spanish class and living in Spain, I thought I spoke the language at a pretty advanced level. So then why did it take me weeks to be able to feel like I was communicating effectively with locals? Part of the answer is, of course, in understanding the local dialect. Instead of using the Spanish 101 ‘Hola amigo. ¿Cómo estás?’ I learned to say ‘Habla manito. ¿Cómo está la vaina?’ But an even more important step for me was learning to swallow my pride and speak freely, even though my grammar might be wonky enough to make a five-year-old giggle. These mistakes are, of course, a step on the never-ending journey to improvement.
After all these helpings of humble pie, I can’t help but have a miniature confidence crisis. How could I have been so full of myself to think that I would have anything of worth to offer the people of Colombia? In over a year here, I’ve often felt like more of a burden than an asset. *Cue the classic existential dread of mid-service.* I’m now far enough along in the 27 months of Peace Corps service to feel like I should have something to show for my time, but I often struggle to list even a couple concrete accomplishments—that drives my detail-oriented, results-driven brain crazy.
A couple deep breaths…
All of these frustrations and worries are a normal part of the experience. Peace Corps service, and the new context it brings, forces volunteers to reshape their understanding of themselves and the world around them. The process can understandably cause some discomfort, but it’s a positive change. It’s a balance of knowing yourself and believing in the assets you can bring to your community, while also constantly adapting to the dynamics around you. And more than anything, it’s about staying humble.