This was originally posted to In Our Words, and goes out to everyone doing or considering international service.
On September 5, I celebrated a full year of my service in Colombia. Just shy of a year ago, I left my family, my friends, my home, my native tongue, and many other aspects of my life in the U.S. to live and work in Bogota, Colombia. Initially, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but along the way, I’ve made some important discoveries and realizations about myself and international service.
- Always try the food. This principle, of course, isn’t absolute if you have some soft of food allergy. However, if you don’t let your premature gag reflex get the best of you, you’ll be able to experience some of the weirdest, most interesting, and most uniquely delicious tastes you’ve ever had. Leave caution to the wind and forget what the medical personnel advised. Your trusted locals will steer you away from anything that will cause you harm. Just remember one thing: try first, ask later.
The same principle applies for culture, as well. Living in Colombia, everyone dances. Many dance very well, so it was definitely necessary to set aside whatever shame I might have about my two-bit dance moves in comparison to my friends, Colombian dancing-machines that they are. No matter how out-of-place you may feel at first, you won’t regret having tried.
- Be gracious. Accept what people offer you with gratitude and love, because they are offering it in love. This most frequently happens in the form of a home-cooked meal, and you can’t go wrong there, right? It’s pretty easy to be gracious in this case. Always know the cultural norms of your location around accepting things. Here in Colombia in the case of a meal, you must eat everything or you appear ungrateful. In other cultures, you must first refuse the offer a certain number of times. In yet others, you must leave a little because if you eat everything it means they didn’t offer enough. Just be careful, and always be thankful for what people offer you.
- Explore! I lived in Chicago for four years. I really dislike tourists, and really hate being one myself. That said, it’s absolutely something you don’t want to miss out on where you are living. Honestly, since you’re in another country, it’s well worth looking even more like a tourist than usual (I very rarely blend in, and very few people have actually assumed me Colombian), because there are some really interesting and incredible things you’ll miss out on.
Likewise, never turn down an offer from your local friends to go do things, either, from spending the afternoon in a part of town which you don’t yet know to climbing a mountain to traveling to another part of the country. Enjoy yourself, it’s your time to have adventures!
- Speak the local language. At least make your best effort. People will appreciate your effort, even if you aren’t perfect at it. Likewise, there are so many experiences and relationships you will miss out on if you never make an attempt to speak the local language. I started out being really hesitant to speak Spanish for fear of making mistakes, but making mistakes is part of the journey! Besides, those times when you mixed up two words will not be something people will remember scornfully, but rather with a laugh. Join them in laughing at yourself, and enjoy the conversation!
- Know you will be transformed more than the community you’re serving. It’s a fact of volunteering. The community will be deeply grateful for your presence, participation, love, and the like, but realistically it’s hard to drastically change the situation of the community, especially if you’re there only in short- or medium-term. However, this doesn’t mean you should become fatalistic and give up hope for transformation. Just allow yourself to love and be loved, transform and be transformed in the process of it all.
- Know that people may not always accept certain aspects of your being, but don’t let that be a barrier to relationship and love. Being in Colombia, and particularly being actively involved in a church here, I have unfortunately heard a whole lot of anti-queer sentiments throughout my stay. However, I don’t let that affect my relationships with those individuals, because their love and support is a beautiful and important part of my life in other aspects.
Though it may be difficult to see beyond the differences, finding love and mutual respect in the midst of those differences is part of the experience of international service. Sometimes it’s best to accept where other people at but know that you can love them in spite of those differences.
- Enter with an open mind and open heart. Always be open to new experiences, new perspectives, new people, and the like. Things will be different from in the U.S., but that doesn’t inherently mean that it will be bad. In fact, you may find ways of life that resonate with you in unexpected ways and that you might want to bring back to your life in the U.S. with you. Similarly, you never know the love you’ll find in another country until you’re in the midst of it.
- Find joy in the simple things. You’ll inevitably be living on a very limited budget, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t find ways to enjoy life. Learn to find joy in the simple things, like going out for a cup of tinto (Colombian term for inexpensive strong coffee served in small portions with lots of sugar) and talking with your coworkers. Your life won’t and likely can’t be extravagant, but it’s the simple things in life that really impact you in the long term.
- Never say no to an offer of friendship. That is, never say no to a non-creepy offer of friendship. Just trust your intuition about people. Moving to a different country can be a really lonely experience and can leave you feeling isolated and without accompaniment if you aren’t intentional about forming relationships. Accept people’s invitations, make friends, find an adoptive family, and build community.
- Have new and exciting adventures. This is your time – your time to shine, your time for adventure, your time to make mistakes, your time to learn about the world, your time to learn about yourself, your time to live. That you’re in another country to do service doesn’t mean you must have the most serious and others-centered time of your life. You have the right to enjoy yourself, you have the right to make your friends jealous with your awesome stories, and most importantly, you have the right to live life. Always do that, without hesitation.
I came into my time here expecting to enjoy myself but also miss aspects of my life in the U.S., being ready to return at the end of my time here. However, with twelve months behind me and only five months left ahead of me, I’m finding myself prematurely missing Colombia, trying to find any excuse to stay or to return someday. I have surprised myself over the past year, finding life and love in new ways that I never would have understood a year ago.
I am constantly reminded of the principles of international service which the now-deceased Father Dean Brackley, a Jesuit priest from the U.S., always said, having lived and worked for many years among the poor and marginalized, those most affected by violence in El Salvador: “Don’t minimize the importance [of these experiences] – the point is to get your heart broken, to fall in love, and to go back ruined for life.” My hope is that everyone entering into such experiences of international service could have such an experience – have their hearts broken by injustices and oppression, fall in love with people and a place they might not have otherwise known, and return home ruined for life, changed permanently and fundamentally by the experience.