What was it like for me to “prepare” to go on the greatest adventure I would experience in my life? As a 21-year-old, bright eyed and fresh out of college, I thought I had it all figured out. Clearly. Do all college graduates feel that way or was I particularly naive? I decided that international volunteering was what I wanted and needed to do after college. Partly to “see the world” and know what life was like in different parts of our same globe. Partly to challenge myself to be away from the people on whom I depended most–my family and my close group of friends. Partly to feel like I was embracing my life, really living it and taking it by the horns, rather than waiting around to catch the carousel when it slowed down. The carousel never stops turning, Dr. Grey will tell you.
So for today: this seeing the world concept. Can you believe that just over a year ago I thought this was a ground-breaking epiphany I was having? That I, the blonde-hair and blue-eyed, Catholic, college-educated, middle-class raised twenty-one year old would SEE THE WORLD beyond what I had seen in that mouthful of a demographic description up there? I thought, “holy cow, how awesome of me! I FINALLY have the burning desire to stretch beyond my comfort zone, to seriously push the limits, to experience the lives of those which seem to be so far away from me.” Now I can see that this desire to live amidst those who seem to be as different from me as they get has always been within me. I studied social work in college and knew as a high schooler that the profession which let me learn the stories of the marginalized and oppressed, the stories of people who are often silenced, was the one I needed. Even in that decision I was acting on this need to be with those who aren’t like me; who didn’t have the money, the privilege, the standards of comfort as me. I was pushing my own envelope, but I was too young, or maybe too blinded to recognize it.
Flash-forward to the beginning of my senior year of college, when all of the sudden students think they have to have a plan for what they’ll do once they finish school…in ten months. By October, I had twelve tabs open on my laptop of places I could work, schools I could apply to. And this was with graduation happening the following MAY… the American infatuation with time and planning, wowza. Anyway, eventually I realized I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t have a dream social work job, I was a little bit sick of school at that point, and I didn’t know where I wanted to be. Here comes the perk of being at a Jesuit college: the market for post-grad volunteering is deep. There were fairs upon fairs and emails and brochures and speakers and desks and question sessions, all at my disposal, for post-graduation volunteer programs. Perfect, I’d let someone else decide where I would go, what I would do and who I would live with. I didn’t quite recognize my privilege in this–that after an expensive four years of college and countless student loans, I would take a year and not be paid. I would just, take a year to put all finances on hold and tell the loan people I would BRB.
I began my search and battle for volunteer programs, focusing on placements inside the US. I thought the PNW would be great–when else would I go there?! Or NYC, or Austin, Texas. But what would I do there? I would continue to work with oppressed populations; I would hear and see their troubles daily, as I had in my social work field internship during the school year. But I would go home to the “simple” volunteer house where I would use my iPad to video chat with my family and I would shop online and not-so-subtly send links to my mom and then act surprised when she ordered the exact item I sent her. And listen, there is nothing wrong with this. In fact, its amazing. Giving a year to make no money, live with others who you don’t choose, be placed in an, often times, difficult work setting and battle your way from the ground up is hard. It is hard. But I hated the idea that this “hard” was the hardest. For me, it wasn’t.
Here comes the international search! Guyana came up as an opportunity offering a social work job placement, only a one-year commitment, and (woo-hoo) all of this in an English-speaking South American country. I would work and live WITH the people of Guyana. I would live “simply” by the standards of a poverty-stricken country, not by Americans. I would see people living a life that includes maybe one of the demographics in my demographic threshold. I was going to see humanity in a different context. Booyah, it was the one for me. By mid-March, I had committed myself to Guyana for August-July of the next year. And I was SO. STOKED.
I graduated college and thought “wow I’ll never see these people again, once I go to Guyana I’ll be so wrapped up in life there I won’t even REMEMBER them” and got sad. I moved into my parent’s home again and thought “wow when I come home in a year, I’ll be so simplistic and zen, I won’t even WANT this memory foam topper on my bed!” and got prematurely proud of my gonna-be-zen self. I went shopping with my mom and bought dresses and skirts to wear in Guyana “on Saturdays, like, for going to the market and stuff!”. I had this fantastical idea of a tropical, sunny paradise with a little bit of work during the week, and endless hugs and happiness from the boys at the orphanage I would spend time at. That is some serious, young-person, bright-eyed and ready FANTASY. I didn’t think the heat would bother me; I figured I would enjoy having a year-round tan; I expected to be so turned-off by technology that the kindle I was taking to read books on would sit untouched in my suitcase until I found total peace through the meditation and self-exploration that was SURELY to come with a trip like this. Please, Annie-of-Last-Year.
At a preparatory orientation two weeks before I left for Guyana, I wrote a journal entry about what I needed to remember in Guyana. And that was to “be my original, authentic self”. Amidst all of these expectations and dreamed up scenarios and new clothes, I thought “I’m going to be really smart here and remind myself to be ME”. In these few pages of writing, I reminded myself that this experience wouldn’t change me unless I was me while there. I wouldn’t experience it fully if I were trying to tone down my obnoxious humor or if I tried to pretend that I didn’t miss my family or if I did a complete change in my daily demeanor. I expected myself to need this reminder; I expected myself to be so infatuated with Guyana and my experience that I would begin to mold into someone else during it. I guess this is a reasonable concern; I wanted to go and be changed by what I saw, but not changed in my character.
At the time, I knew so little about being challenged, seriously challenged, that I had no idea that during the times when you think you actually might explode and have a mental breakdown in the street, or when you are so lost (physically, emotionally, physiologically) that you just have to give up–you don’t get to choose what kind of person you are during those times. You find out. In those miserable, exhausting, terrible times you don’t have the strength or energy to be who you want to be or who you think you should be. You just be what and who you are.
My intention to see the world remained my intention. I expected to see Guyana, to experience Guyana. I think my problem here was that I wanted to see and experience Guyana without all of the hard things. Seeing and experiencing an impoverished society is not like seeing and experiencing a fun water slide. But I wanted it to be. I wanted to see “the others” in the world and I wanted to live amongst them, getting an understanding of what their daily lives entailed. But I wanted to do this all without having to see and having to experience the REALLY hard things. I knew it would be hard, but I thought my privilege would extend to keep me sheltered from the experiences that no one wants to be a part of. I continued to have a fantastical idea of what living in Guyana would be like. I unknowingly expected my privilege to take me to the land of bright colored fruits in friendly markets and bike rides along dirt roads where I would pass a cute kid playing with a goat. I wanted to see the world and I didn’t even know what the world was!
There were no ways in which I could have actually prepared for the challenging year I had before me. No mental or physical preparation would have given me a leg-up on Guyana. The last time I went to sleep in America with my alarm set to catch the plane to Georgetown the next morning, I thought I was ready. When in reality, there is no “ready”. Nothing prepares you for the experiences that change you. But, that may be the point of experiencing them.