I left Colombia a week ago. Within five weeks my volunteer job had become an environment where I felt undervalued and alone, not because of language, because on daily treks to town my functional Spanish was understood by locals with whom I shared cold beers, and by the folks who fed me, and sold me goods. It was also enough to communicate with my students. I left because I was too old to fit in.
My idealistic and unrealistic notion that I’m ageless, that my skills and energy trump the numbers rose to the fore, and were trounced. I was unable to rise above the feeling of being treated like a child, or as Karen, a young woman in the park said, ‘like a mother or grandmother,’ by a young man who was uncomfortable with my presence.
I wasn’t entirely excluded, just not accepted. When invited to go for an ice cream with him and his staff, Daniella and Luisa, I trailed behind, the Hindi grandmother, keeping her respectful distance. When invited to go out dancing, although I sat beside him, his back turned from me the entire evening except for the offering of drinks. Dinners were affairs of exclusion.
Day by day, as my classes diminished, I had little to do. Finally, on my last trip to the Parque I was ‘taken’ to the boat by Luisa. This meant that she walked ahead of me, carrying one of my grocery bags, while I carried my backpack and the other grocery bag. It’s a good 20 minute walk into town and I had thought we would be catching a mototaxi, but when we continued to walk I asked, her in Spanish, “porque estamos caminado?” (why ae we walking?) She didn’t answer me, or if she did, I didn’t hear her. As I walked, I grew more frustrated. I asked again. Finally, when we were half way there, she hailed a moto taxi and said, “Here Ruby.” One moto taxi. What? She would follow with my other bag. I would wait for her? It was ridiculous. I realized she was with me because It was assumed that I didn’t know how to buy a ticket or find the boat when in fact, I’ve bought tickets in many languages, and found boats on several continents. I was angry because I felt humiliated, because they viewed me as inept, incapable.
Unfortunately I gave into my frustration. I refused the ride. I became uncommunicative, and allowed my anger to rule. Walking in silence I knew my time there was over. My relationship with the small NGO had been brief, I hadn’t been happy, I hadn’t been productive. I had been in exile. I needed to feel independent again, to laugh, to join my fellow travelers. On my return from the park the following week, I got my exit stamp from Colombia, a cab, money changed, a boat across the river to Santa Rosa, Peru, where I caught the slow boat to Iquitos and met a friend.
This afternoon I fly to Tarapoto. A small city on the edge of the Amazonian basin in Peru. I still have Deet. perhaps, before I head across the Andes to Chachapoyas, Cajamarca, Kuelap and Chiclayo on the west coast I will do a jungle trek.
Still, my behaviour in the face of hurt feelings shames me. I thought I had learned to communicate in the face of adversity, instead I reverted to being childish, and reacted as my mother taught me, with a cold silence. It didn’t work then; it doesn’t work now.