Things They Don’t Tell You in Training
I’m at the halfway point, more or less. It seems like just yesterday I was rolling up to the Pantoja training center on a bus with a bunch of other gringos. We spent ten weeks sitting through training sessions—some fascinating, some dull, some missed due to diarrhea and vomiting. The whole point of training, I guess, is to teach you a bit about the country you’re living in now, beef up your Spanish, and ensure that you won’t die when you’re out on your own. And it does its job. But there are some things that you can’t learn behind the walls of the training center, and don’t come to understand until you’ve lived through the intense experience of adjustment that lasts at least a year (and possibly never ends).
You can read all you want about holidays and cultural events and ask your Spanish teachers all the questions you can dream up. Yes, people get together with their families and cook a huge feast for Christmas Eve. Your town’s patronales will be a wild nine-day party celebrating its patron saint. Independence Day is marked by parades and massive celebrations. During Lent, better known as Carnaval, people dress up in costumes and whip each other. On St. Patrick’s Day, nothing happens. All of these neat little descriptions are, indeed, true.
Then you get to experience them firsthand, and the reality is wildly different from what you expected. The variations are as numerous as the reasons behind them. Your host family bakes an arepa for Christmas Eve because they are too poor to afford the typical meal. But then your sister-in-law sends over covered plates of moro de guandules, spaghetti, roast chicken, salad, and bread, one for everyone. On day two of the patronales celebrations, you’re still considering going down to the park to check out the party when you hear that the police killed someone in his car earlier that day. His music was turned up and he didn’t hear the shouts to pull over, or the sirens, so the police took the next logical step and opened fire on the car. The celebrations stop after two days. On Independence Day, school is out, and you stay at home enjoying the fan powered by 24 hour luz, a gift from the government that day. Nothing else happens. You go to Carnaval in your town, where people from neighboring communities as well as from far away as San Pedro and Haiti represent their regions through costumes, floats, and dances. There are the typical devils with whips, but they are joined by kids painted black dragging carts of sugar cane while other kids dressed as Spaniards whip them, representing the slave history of the island. The “Delegation of Haiti” proudly waves the red and blue flag while dancing around a huge wall of speakers that blasts music in kreyòl. A group dressed as every character from the Batman comics walks behind their banner declaring “The Legion of Gotham.” Halfway through, someone tries to pickpocket you, but you grab him by the wrist, give him a “Really?” look, and watch him slink away through the crowds. On St. Patrick’s Day, nothing happens.
One of the ten core expectations of volunteers is to “serve where the Peace Corps asks you to go, under conditions of hardship, if necessary.” Will I have to live in a hut? Will I have electricity? Running water? What will I poop in—a hole or a toilet? Coming in, most of us worry about the physical hardships. Yes, it’s hard to ditch all your creature comforts from the first world and take up bucket bathing, latrine-pooping, and sleeping under a mosquito net. But slowly, those “hardships” become commonplace and new, arguably uglier hardships come to the fore. You see students come to school with bruises on their face from beatings at home, or they don’t go to school at all because they’re “needed around the house.” You see the look of defeat in people’s eyes when they tell you that you can’t make a difference, no matter how hard you try. You hear people—adults and children—put each other down constantly. “You don’t know anything!” “You’re stupid!” “You’ll never amount to anything!” The psychological hardships come as a shock, seemingly out of nowhere, and you have to figure out how to adjust. You also learn how to choose your battles. There are times when you need to confront someone about something that is stressing you out. And there are times when you pull back, let things happen, and try to occupy your mind with something else. “Conditions of hardship,” indeed.
Volunteers are required to live with a host family for their first three months at site. With the three months of training, that adds up to six months of being a guest in someone else’s house. Half a year. The Peace Corps, of course, anticipates the difficulties this arrangement could produce, so they train you in how to be a good guest. You learn phrases—“Where is the bucket to flush the toilet?”—to ensure you’ll survive. You learn about family structure, gender roles and expectations, and how to address people. You arrive at your site with all these skills packed up, ready to use, and by the end of the three months they are well-worn and almost second nature. Sometime during those three months, or a little bit after, you notice a change. You are not just staying with a family—you now have a family. People care about you and look after you, and you do the same for them. You introduce people on the street to your brother or your aunt. Sitting with your adoptive parents and shucking beans is no longer a “strategy to integrate and build confianza” but rather something you simply do. When you leave for a few days, you come back to find your house cleaned from floor to ceiling and all your things organized—the mark of a caring doña. You find yourself as part of a family in another country.
There’s a word in Spanish that tries to communicate the concept of living through an experience that teaches things that you couldn’t have learned anywhere else, and that you might have trouble teaching others. Vivencia. Training works in that it keeps you from dying or going crazy while adjusting to life in a foreign country. But there are some things that you won’t learn until you live them. I’m glad I’m having this vivencia. And here’s to being halfway through it!