Wednesday, January 20, 2016

That Fishbowl Feeling

...Gazing through the glass, I can see people moving about. There's a farmer on a donkey making his way to the finca. Children with backpacks make their way through the streets towards school. The neighbor  out sweeping the sidewalk. The pack of dogs running wild, barking and yelping at any one passing by. On this side of the glass, I am safe. No one is able to harm me. I am alone with my thoughts and my ideas. It is when I move beyond this safety net that lives are turned upside down and dreams are dashed...



The idea of a "fish bowl" is not a new one to me. Having grown up in a small, rural town in Iowa has acquainted me with the sometimes tumultuous living conditions that close-knit towns bring with them. Or so I thought.


There are days when I feel like my life here in Repelón is under a microscope. Every minute movement that I make is scrutinized, analyzed, and recorded by the town as a whole. It definitely doesn't help that I am the only gringo (white person) living here. There's a natural curiosity to know what the foreigner is up to. I mean, someone who looks different MUST live differently as well. Two separate experiences have demonstrated just how much of a fish bowl my pueblo really is...


Instance #1:


I am beyond lucky to have another Peace Corps volunteer less than 10 minutes away from me. Luckily, she is also one of my best and closest friends here in Colombia. This immediately proved to be both a blessing and curse. On one hand, it has been awesome having another English speaker close enough that I can escape when a break from surrounding world of Spanish and a loud host nephew is needed. However, it also immediately made me the target of some unwanted and undesired pueblo gossip...

I returned home one afternoon from a few drinks at a tienda in the plaza to what seemed like an endless litany of questions from my host mom regarding my new girlfriend. A look of complete befuddlement and confusion contorted my face as I attempted to process what she had just asked me. Girlfriend? The last time that I checked I was single and unaware of any new commitments I had made in the companionship department. My host mom proceeded to describe the girl that I was just with in the plaza: white, blonde hair, freckles, and very pretty. I quickly realized that she was talking about Jessi and dismissed the girlfriend talk with a tense laugh and the "she's just a friend" explanation. Problem solved, right? Not quite...

The next day, I was approached by my counterpart as soon as I got to school. The first question out of her mouth, even before the usual morning salutations, was "So I hear that you have a girlfriend!" Keep in mind that my counterpart lives in Barranquilla, a city that is 2 HOURS AWAY from my pueblo. 2. HOURS. It became apparent to me that word travels fast in Colombia, especially when juicy gossip is concerned. Once again, a flabbergasted glaze took hold of my face as I once again explained that this was not the case. I spent the rest of the morning fending off requests for more information regarding how we met, when we started dating, blah, blah, blah. Finally, after what felt like the 100th inquiry into my new, non-existent relationship, I made an announcement clearing the air that Jessi and I were just friends and that people would be seeing us together A LOT over the next two years.

Moral of the Experience: Expect to be bombarded by numerous, unrelenting questions when spotted with a member of the opposite sex in a pueblo.

Instance #2: 

Coming into this school year, I knew that I wanted to do something that enabled me to work with a vast majority of the teachers here in Repelón. The school system here is a bit different than in other pueblos of the same size. Most pueblos have one school with separate buildings for primary students (PK-5) and secondary students (6-11). Here, we have three separate schools - IE Jose David Montezuma Recuero, IE Maria Inmaculada, and IE John F. Kennedy. Last year, I solely worked with the teachers and students at IE John F. Kennedy. However, when I would walk around town, I was constantly bombarded with requests and questions from teachers at the other two school asking me why I wasn't working with them and when they were going to get a volunteer.

I decided that in order to try and rectify this issue, I would offer English classes for the teachers of Repelón. While the classes are going to be open to anyone who teaches in town, the focus is going to be on primary teachers. Many primary teachers are not trained and properly equipped to teach English to their students. The idea of the classes are to give these teachers ready made lessons that they can use in their classes with their students. When I ran this idea by my counterpart at the end of last year, she was thrilled with this idea. So, you may be asking, how is it that this idea can backfire on me?

Before pitching this idea to the other schools, I wanted to set up meetings with each of the principals to explain to them what I wanted to do and get them on board. Using my American logic, I figured that this would be a great first step. However, I only have ever had contact with the principal at my school, since I was there all of last year. Luckily, I knew one teacher at each of the other schools. I sent them a message seeing if they could help me set up a time to come and talk with the teachers at their schools. 

A couple days after sending these seemingly harmless messages, I was at school when my counterpart approached me. She mentioned that she had heard that I was offering English classes for all of the teachers in Repelón, which I didn't deny because it was true. While she was still fully behind the idea, she calmly pointed out that I hadn't said anything to any of the teachers at my school yet. Truth was, I was waiting to talk to the principal to set up a time to talk to the teachers. However, because I had been in contact with teachers from other schools, it appeared that I was putting more worth and time into things happening outside of the school and focusing on my work at the school. This was actually a pretty contentious point throughout the end of last year, and something that I did not want to repeat this year. 

I quickly corrected my line of thinking and announced the classes to the teachers at my school before approaching the other schools. There's a real sense of loyalty here and many at my school have a great source of pride that I'm working at Kennedy and not one of the other schools in town. Granted, I had no say in where I was placed, but it's something that I have to constantly keep in mind. Some days it feels like I'm checking every action that I do or word that I say just to make sure that I'm not doing something that could be offensive to the teachers at my school. It becomes quite tiring and a bit of a burden. Instead of taking this experience as a negative setback, I'm using it as a way to open up lines of communication that were shut off last year due to many misunderstandings.

Moral of the Experience #1: Colombians are very prideful and enjoy showcasing that pride whenever they get a chance. It has become apparent that my presence at the school is very important to the teachers as a whole, even those that I don't directly work with.

Moral of the Experience #2: Repelón itself is a fish bowl, but the teaching community here is a microcosm of that fish bowl. Teachers are in constant communication with each other and sometimes, even a great idea with pure intentions, can be contorted and misinterpreted. 

Both of these experiences have served as amazing learning experiences for myself. I wouldn't say that I'm constantly watching my back to make sure that I'm not becoming the next topic of pueblo gossip. Instead, I feel better equipped to deal with these instances when they do occur, because let's face it, it's going to happen again before my service is complete. It's all just part of the experience of living in a small, rural, Colombian pueblo...


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