|(James Rielly watercolour - 2009)|
Settling into my volunteer placement in Honduras has probably been the biggest test I've had, what with being up against both language and culture barriers. My co-workers are really only now starting to relax with me, three months in. And who can blame them? I was the much-older mute gringa tucked away in the corner.
But there have been other challenging transitions. I definitely felt like the outsider when I first started training for Tour de Rock, the bike ride for cancer that I did in 2001 with Victoria area police officers. An uneasy relationship exists between police and media at the best of times, and it was pretty clear in the early days of the training that many of them were not particularly comfortable with the concept of a journalist in their midst.
One of the guys got a good laugh later when I told him I approached the problem by thinking of my teammates as cats. You don't try to make a cat come to you; you just wait until it chooses to come around. Being pleasant and friendly is all well and good, but sometimes it just takes time. (It also took a lot of hard training on the bike outside of the regular training regimen, to make sure nobody would end up thinking of me as the rider at the back of the pack that they all had to wait for.)
PEERS was another challenge, and probably the most comparable to Honduras because of the difference in culture I was up against. It's a grassroots organization run by and for sex workers, and I was a non-sex-worker who was now the new boss.
I wasn't a complete unknown, because at least a few of the participants knew of me through my media work. But that's a bit of a double-edged sword in itself, given that there's always someone in any crowd who sees you as The Enemy when you're a journalist due to a story that offended them or a friend or family member you unintentionally maligned.
In my first weeks at PEERS, I felt that the most important thing for me to do was to stay downstairs in the main area mixing and mingling as much as possible, taking my turn with whatever menial task was going on and working as hard as I could to memorize people's names very quickly. For a population so tragically accustomed to being at the bottom of the social hierarchy, having the executive director greet you by name when you walk in the door turned out to really, really matter.
I like to think I'm not the kind of person who judges others, but I still had to work conscientiously not to allow even a shadow of anything that might be perceived as disapproval or distaste flash across my features, no matter what scene was playing out in front of me. The last thing sex workers need is to feel any kind of judgment coming from anyone working or volunteering at the only real refuge they've got.
Here at the Comision de Accion Social Menonita, my tactic has been to make myself useful.
It's a strange thing to be trying to do communications work in a country, culture and language you barely understand, but I can type fast in any language and that skill won me some Brownie points early on. Everybody can use a good typist now and then. I can also lug big heavy things around (helping poor communities in Honduras involves a striking amount of lugging big heavy things around, whether it's tins of food or bricks for a new cooking stove). And I can take photos. Lots and lots of photos. My little camera has been an amazing ice-breaker both at work and in the streets, as people just don't get much opportunity to have their photo taken here.
I've put major effort into improving my Spanish, too. When we did our Cuso International training back in Ottawa last December, the Cuso reps rightly told us that just because you speak the language doesn't mean you understand a country's culture. True enough, but you can't possibly access the culture without the language. Without a shared language, you're always going to be standing outside the group wondering what the heck they're all talking about, and the last one anyone wants to try to strike up a conversation with.
But the real breakthrough came last week, when I complained to one of my young co-workers that my name didn't have the same musical flow that all of their names had, and that I needed a Spanish name. She decided I would be Yolanda Macarena Rosa de Fuentes from that point on.
Within what seemed like minutes, everyone in the office was joking around with me about my new name. Someone just has to call out "Yolanda!" and the whole group starts laughing - with me, not at me, I'm happy to say.
We went on a group outing to nearby hot springs last night and the same co-worker decided my spouse needed a Spanish name, too. So he's Mr. Pancho now.
We laughed and laughed. I think it means we've arrived.