By Conor Sanchez
If you’ve ever moved to a new city before, you know how hard those first few weeks can be. You’re new in town; you lack a core network of friends who can take you around and show you what’s up. You have times when you’re incredibly busy – indulging in new experiences, furnishing an apartment, starting a new job – and other times when you have absolutely nothing to do, which usually results in you reminiscing about the familiarity that you left behind.
When I first arrived at site here in Nicaragua, I understood the challenge that awaited me. Peace Corps expects us to spend the first 3-6 months at site integrating into the community. The fact that I had moved to a new city twice (once to L.A. and once to D.C.) gave me some comfort that perhaps I had acquired some skills to help with the process of integrating myself into a new community. I knew the ups and downs that come along with change. I knew how to make friends. I knew how to distract myself whenever I felt homesick.
The more I thought about it, however, the more realized how advantaged I was in all of my past experiences. I moved to Los Angeles to attend college, so that pretty much doesn’t count since living in a dormitory and going to school everyday automatically grants you a social life and purpose (at least initially). In D.C. I had college friends, family friends, even high school friends, and a community of fellow New Mexicans who had transplanted to the nation’s capital. When I look back at all the times I felt homesick in Washington, D.C., I actually laugh out loud now. I was living in a place where I could eat any type of food I could possibly imagine, enjoy hot showers everyday, and find a Starbucks on every street corner. I was surrounded by people who (generally) celebrated the same holidays as me, listened to the same music as me, and – most importantly – spoke the same language as me.
Here in Nueva Guinea, we had almost nobody. We had our two site mates, a married couple from Arizona who serve as health Volunteers, and our counterpart teachers who we had met once in Managua. Utilizing our schools as a foundation to build our network was obviously a great place to start. So for our first few days, I pretty much did whatever they invited us to do. Birthday party? Yes! Observe classes? Absolutely! Watch telenovelas at your house? Why not?
But since we moved here towards the end of the school year and many of our counterparts use this time of year to travel and visit family in other parts of the country, there was only so much we could do with this. We still had ample free time to sit around and be idle, which is a terrible idea if you’re spending your first holiday season away from home.
Pretty soon I realized we needed to expand our approach to integration. We decided to make it our job to meet as many people as possible every day (which officially makes this the coolest job I have ever had). And so far, it’s been working. We literally just started introducing ourselves to people all over town. The cashier at Pali, the lady selling bread on the corner, the woman resting on the front porch every afternoon, the guys hanging out in the park at dusk.
After a while, we started to see these folks around town. Then one of them tells us about a gym, which we found and soon realized that rather than exercise privately in our host-family’s living room, we could join the group that does Insanity every night at 6:30pm in the gym’s basement. Then, the guy who leads the group, Omar, invites me to join his soccer league, which plays every Sunday at 8 am down at the fields near the university. Then, I find out it’s called La Liga de Veteranos y Gordos (no joke), of which I am neither, so I am called into a meeting to request permission to join. It’s a drawn out process, to say the least, but I’ve met a ton of people along the way, which is the whole point.
We’ve also made a point of making more formal introductions, including meetings with the Alcadesa (the mayor), the Ministry of Education’s delegate for this region, and the chief of police. These aren’t nearly as serendipitous, but important nevertheless.
It might seem ridiculous to compare the experiences of moving to a new city within the United States to moving to a fairly rural community in the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Clearly, there are some big differences in social dynamics. I couldn’t have walked around Capitol Hill in D.C. introducing myself to strangers on the street without getting a few weird looks. But, then again, who knows? Maybe I was too timid in past situations and could have actually benefited from the skills I’m attaining now. At the end of the day, all we’re really doing is community outreach – with a Nica twist.
The biggest thing I’ve learned is that integration can be challenging anywhere in the world, whether it’s an hour from where you grew up or on the other side of the world. I wouldn’t even say one is more challenging than the other, just different. I was certainly advantaged in a U.S. context in terms of having creature comforts, a common language, and cultural familiarity. But I was also disadvantaged in that the cities I moved to were gigantic, overwhelming, busy, rushed, and sometimes cold to strangers. Nueva Guinea has been quite the reverse.
As daunting of a task as it seemed at first, with a few adaptations and adjustments in our own behavior, we’ve been able to make some real headway. We won’t always have this amount of free time, especially once school starts in February, but in doing what we’ve been doing, it’s been awesome to see how receptive people are here to foreigners like us. Just by putting ourselves out there and meeting someone at every opportunity, we’ve discovered a real desire to connect.
They want to hang out. They want to find things in common with you, be it over physical fitness, bilingualism, food, travel, or family. That’s something we’ve been equally surprised by and grateful for in our first few weeks at site.