Sunday, February 14, 2016

When the Odd Becomes the Norm...

Every culture and country comes complete with things that to the casual, outside observer would appear odd and strange. It's these "quirks" and differences that make living in new cultures outside of your innate comforts exciting and interesting. When I first moved to Repelón a little over a year ago, there were definitely things that caught my eye as odd and extreme. However, today, I rarely even bat an eye when these events occur. Here are some of the things that my pueblo has taught me to embrace as the "new norm":

1. Overly affectionate students

In the United States, teachers are drilled on the importance of maintaining space between themselves and their students. Physical contact of any kind is severely frowned upon. Primary teachers are taught the art of the side hug. Secondary teachers do their best to form bubbles around themselves so as to avoid possible lawsuits or sexual harassment cases. Here in Colombia, this just simply does not exist.


Every morning at school, I am greeted by hugs and a kiss on the cheek from the female students and various, elaborate handshakes from the male students. Colombians are very affectionate people.Why let the institution of "school" change that?? I still remember the first time that a female student approached me and tried to give me a kiss on the cheek. I started profusely sweating, as my eyes darted around the school to see if any other teacher or administrative staff member was watching me. I was expecting the police to show up at any moment and haul me away for making inappropriate contact with a minor. Needless to say, all of my anxieties and awkwardness surrounding this practice have disappeared during my time here.

2. Farm animals gone wild!

As I have mentioned many times before, I grew up on a farm in a small town in Iowa. We raised sheep when I was younger, and my grandparents, who live about a mile up the road from my house, still raise cows and pigs. I have been around farm animals my entire life and have no issue dealing with the unavoidable smells and noise associated with have live animals. Here in the pueblo, many of the same animals exist as well. The only difference is that they roam free and do pretty much whatever they want!

Pens and pastures are a thing of the imagination. Why keep animals locked up when they can just roam free through the city?? The sight of pigs and cows meandering up and down city streets has become such a daily occurrence that I don't even think twice about the oddity of it. Just last month, a friend of mine visited from the Atlanta. As we did a tour of the pueblo, she was in awe of the fact that pigs just wandered freely and did whatever they wanted. It made me realize that this isn't "normal" to an American. Heck, I've even been delayed on my walk to school by herds of cows lazily walking through town, having not a single care or worry in the world.

3. Pueblo bus culture

In my last post, I wrote about ways to get around the pueblo. One of those ways was by bus. Since a large majority of the people living in the pueblo don't have a personal vehicle, the bus becomes the only source of transportation for not only bodies, but other items as well. Over the last year, myself and fellow volunteers have seen the following being transported on a bus:

- Washing machine
- Rocking chairs (complete with occupants using them as seats)
- Queen-sized mattress (strapped to both the top of the bus and inside the bus)
- Bed frame and headboard
- Floor tiles
- Live animals, including, but not limited to:
         > Roosters
         > Chickens
         > Dogs
         > Birds
         > Piglets
- Lumber for construction
- Large sacks of rice, sugar, salt, etc...

Now, boarding a bus becomes some what of a game. What fun and inventive items are going to be transported back to the pueblo today????

4. Club standards

Going out on a Saturday night, one is bound to go through the same routine:

1. Meet up with friends (normally half an hour to an hour late)
2. Head to the caseta/estadero/club
3. Order a round of drinks
4. Consume said drinks while trying to not go deaf from the blaring music
5. Dance to every fifth song with a friend or through an invitation
6. Repeat steps three through five

While this may seem a lot like a night out in the states as well, there is one glaring difference: age requirements. It is super common to see parents with their small children (between the ages of 2 and 5) out well past midnight. Primary aged students weave their ways through the throngs of adults dancing and enjoying the night. Bachillerato students awkwardly congregate in the corner and try to act cool. Age limits do not exist here in Colombia. There are no bouncers at the door checking ID's to make sure that patrons are over 21. This type of night life is just such a part of the culture here that no one thinks twice about having everyone participate in it, no matter what their age.

5. Lack of punctuality

One of the biggest things that I have had to try and let go of here is my concept of time. Americans are notorious for their punctuality and desire to squeeze as much into a day as they possibly can. This spans the generations, as my mom remembers going to church every Sunday growing up a child. Even though mass didn't start until 9:00 am, her family always arrived by no later than 8:30 am. Gotta make sure to get that pew!

Showing up somewhere thirty minutes early is simply unheard of here along the coast. I have had to seriously adapt my views on what "on-time" really  means. This caused many frustrations and misunderstandings when I first moved here. Friends would say "Let's meet at 7 tonight in the plaza." Being the American that I am, I would show up at 10 'til 7, and then proceed to wait for 30-45 minutes for everyone else to show up. I quickly realized that meeting times were just arbitrary numbers used without any real meaning.

This in turn has caused me to become a bit lazier! I have stopped arriving to places early and deliberately show up late - I still normally end up being the first one! For example, last November, I organized an end of the year celebration for the students of my community English classes. We decided on starting the event at 4 pm, knowing well that this was never going to happen. I finally showed up around 6 pm, two hours after the stated "start" time, and WAS STILL THE FIRST PERSON! It just blew my mind!

Through the course of my Peace Corps service, I have adapted to so many new norms and ways of life. With a little over nine months remaining before I head back to the United States, I'm excited to see how many more of these new "norms" I can identify and enjoy before the hustle and bustle of American life re-consumes me.

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