Ten months is a long stretch of time. In ten months, you can make and deliver a tiny human. In ten months, you can train for a half-marathon. In ten months, you can meet the love of your life and get engaged/married to them. In ten months, you can heal yourself from a devastating personal blow.
The past ten months of my life have been spent outside of the only place that I’ve ever lived before: the Tri-County Area/Maine/the United States/North America. They’ve been spent in a place where I am nowhere near fluent in the language. They’ve been spent doing a job I’ve never truly done before. They’ve been spent thousands of miles away from every single person that has ever been a part of my support system. They’ve been spent teaching children whose families have more money than I will ever have in my entire life, yet who live in a third-world country so saturated with poverty that it will break your heart in two if you let it. In honor of my two-month departure from Venezuela and the end of my first ten months of teaching, I want to take a minute to reflect on ten of the hundred things Venezuela has taught me over these past ten months.
Grab a drink, turn the TV off, make yourself comfortable. This is going to be a long one.
1. Things change – quickly.
When I signed up to come to Venezuela last year, I knew virtually nothing about it. It wasn’t being reported on in any of the U.S. papers; only a handful of my friends could find it on a map. Vaguely, I recall hearing buzzwords about this place: “socialism”, “Chavez”, “oil”. When I got here, there were shortages that seemed unfathomable to me. In the past ten months, an uncomfortable situation has reached almost unbearable proportions. There is every kind of shortage you could imagine: electricity, eggs, butter, milk, sugar, coffee, Harina Pan, water, even processed oil – the list goes on and on. The Venezuela that I met ten months ago and the Venezuela that I’ve just left are two completely different places. The military is assembling, more people are going without basic necessities, and the angst is palpable.
2. Being bilingual is something that I’m incredibly passionate about.
I’ve never needed to know a second language where I’m from. I can count on one hand the number of people that I knew who spoke English as their second language where I grew up. As someone who is learning Spanish as a second language, I am constantly envious that my parents didn’t force me to learn another language while I was young. Granted, they wouldn’t have chosen Spanish as my second language and if they made me take extra classes I would have hated them at the time, but being bilingual is something that I want so badly. I want to speak two languages; I want to raise bilingual children; I want to communicate with more than just the English-speaking world. I’ve had so many issues this year with taking Spanish lessons, but I’m proud of how much I’ve learned on my own. Next year, I want to take formal lessons and learn in a more structured environment.
3. “We touch other people’s lives simply by existing.” – J.K. Rowling
I first found this quote a few days after I had arrived in Venezuela. I was scared to be so far from home, in a place that was unfamiliar in every sense of the word. I was nervous about my first grown-up job. I needed a little inspiration. These words by J.K. Rowling resonated with me in that moment, and they resonate with me now. Although I like to think that I’ve taught my kids many things this year, the most important thing that they taught me was that we impact each other’s lives just by being there. A kind word, a thoughtful gesture, or just a laugh shared between two people can be the difference between a good day and a bad day. Also, the most important thing we can do for another person is tell them how much they mean to us. My students reminded me of that on almost a daily basis.
4. There’s no struggle like third-world struggle and it will break your heart.
Just last week, my close friend and co-worker went to the clinic. I believe she was having some sort of cosmetic procedure done. As she waited, she noticed a young woman who was seemingly in shock, holding a bundle close to her. As time wore on, my friend felt concerned for this woman. Being the incredibly thoughtful woman that she is, she asked her if she was okay. The woman responded that no, she was not fine. She had spoken with the doctor because she didn’t feel well. The doctor responded that she only needed to poop and she would be fine. She got in the taxi to go to the clinic anyway, and gave birth to a dead baby. She was sitting in the lobby of a clinic next to my friend for an hour, cradling her dead baby. There are no words to express how deeply sorry I am for that woman and the hole in her heart that will always be there.
5. It’s amazing what we, as humans, can adapt to.
Daily four-hour power outages don’t even phase me anymore. Did I mention that it’s routinely over 100 degrees Fahrenheit where I live?
6. The smallest acts of kindness can stay with you the longest.
Once upon a time I was coming back from Mérida, Venezuela and I needed to pee all of a sudden. Our driver took this to mean that I couldn’t wait, and he pulled over at the first little bodega he saw. I jumped out, inquired to the half-dozen shirtless men drinking beer at two in the afternoon (to be fair, it was Carnaval) whether or not there was a bathroom. They said no, laughing and motioning towards a tree. We crossed the street and stopped at this shack of a restaurant. There was a woman there who took pity on me, and told me that she would ask the woman who owned the house behind the restaurant if I could use her bathroom. It was decided that I could use the bathroom if I paid a fee.
I walked behind the restaurant to meet a woman who was seven months pregnant, barefoot, and dressed only in a towel. She took me into her home, offered me toilet paper (something that is extremely difficult to come by in Venezuela) and let me use her toilet. I had to country flush it – she had no indoor plumbing. I left the bathroom, thanked her profusely, and tried to pay her the equivalent of fifty cents. She refused to take my money.
7. I am not for everyone, and that’s okay.
Although I’ve always consciously known that not everyone likes me and that my personality can be abrasive, it’s not something that I’ve ever really thought about before. I’m from a small town, where if people don’t actually like you they at least pretend to. Chances are, they know your mom/dad/sister/grandparents/high school friends/ex-boyfriend and they’ll be nice either way. They’ll catch up with you and listen to your thoughts and feelings or whatever, and you do the same for them in return. It wasn’t until someone told me that they feel that I talk about myself too much that I realized consciously that some people are annoyed with me. This is something that it took me a while to process, partially because it hurt my feelings and partially because I had honestly never considered it before. I hadn’t really had someone come out and say that I annoyed them, and it was a weird experience. It also really hurt my feelings to have that claim validated by two of our other friends, but it was an opportunity to a) consider that I might talk about myself too much (although I don’t think I do, but I also have a blog where I get to talk about myself unlimitedly that no one reads, so what do I know?) and b) remember that not everyone has to like everything about me, or even like me in general.
8. People’s lives go on without you.
My niece is no longer a baby, she’s a small human that speaks in complete sentences and tells you when she wants her diaper changed now. My sister is quite literally on the verge of giving birth, whereas last time I saw her she was barely showing. Two of my very best friends got married without me here. One of my other best friends has met the love of her life and I’ve never met him. My grandpa was really sick, but is getting better. The man who’s like a second father to me was in critical condition and I couldn’t visit him. It’s not so much that I expected things to stop happening because I wasn’t there (I’m aware that I’m not actually the center of the universe, but thanks for checking on my level of self-absorption) but it’s a shock to the system to see all of the changes. It’s also amazing how fast I have dipped back into my life in Maine. After twelve hours of being home, everything felt pretty much back to normal.
9. A little appreciation goes a long way.
One of the things that I always bitch about doing in the U.S. is grocery shopping. I hate grocery shopping. Walmart is always crowded with people that I know, it’s expensive to buy food, spending my money there means that I’m feeding the corporate machine that is U.S. capitalism. Ugh. Now that I’ve been in a place with so many shortages on basic necessities, I would kill to have access to a Walmart. You can’t appreciate the one-stop-shopping provided by such a place until you’ve gone to literally seven different stores looking for butter/milk/eggs/soda/bread/whatever.
10. Even the most broken of places can heal you, if you let them.
Venezuela is a beautiful country, full of some of the kindest, most considerate people that I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. It’s also the country with the second highest murder rate in the world. The country with the highest rate of inflation. People are starving. There is a tangible feeling of unrest, and not just in Caracas. It is also a place that I love fiercely. I’m defensive about it, because despite all of the problems and all of the negative aspects of Venezuela, it has healed me. I came here broken. I came here scared. I came here after having my whole world turned upside down. Although I’m never going to be the same as I was before, I’m leaving this country in a much healthier emotional and mental state than when I got here. Venezuela has helped to mend my relationships with others and with myself. Venezuela has taught me that some things can never be fixed, they can only be carried. Venezuela has helped me make peace with that.