I’m surrounded. People are swirling around the room speaking a different language. Libby is petting my head. Rachel is picking up my leg. Hands are tangled in my hair and wrapped around my waist. I’m suffocating. Is this the end?
BafaBafa is a cultural awareness game we played during TBB orientation to prepare us to travel the world, but I learned something else entirely. These students, my new peers, the people I would spend the next 6 months with, were not afraid to get close. “In Colombia, we hug!” claimed Francisco, after a surprise side hug from him sent me a foot in the air. “Alright. Nevermind,” he backed away.
A few days later, Rachel did my Tarot card reading. At first, I thought, “Psh, she thinks she can see into my soul from some Pokemon cards? good luCK!” Fifteen minutes later, she told me there was something I was avoiding and needed to deal with in order to get everything out of this experience. I left with my game face on, but I was rattled.
My aversion to all things touchy-feely has proved to be a challenge on this trip. During our “rivers of life,” we were asked to spill our life stories to a bunch of strangers. Everyone kept petting me and talking about love and compassion; I was nervous! First of all, this was nowhere on the program’s website. Second of all, if it had been, I probably wouldn’t have signed up.
Early on in the trip, we learned the 10 Principles of Teaching and Learning. Number six is that these are intellectual, social, spiritual, cultural, and emotional practices. My whole life, I have completely ignored the spiritual and emotional sides to my education. TBB hasn’t let me do that.
I was an angry kid. I threw violent tantrums. I kicked a hole in the drywall. My mom told me my “terrible twos” were actually “terrible 2s, 3s, 4s, and 5s.” I never lost that energy, but I did stop kicking things … for the most part. I competed really hard in school, on the volleyball court, and in the gym. Everything I did screamed “INDEPENDENT.” I hid behind my “leave me alone, I’m fine” attitude, keeping everyone at arm’s length and denying most human emotions.
Before TBB, it worked. Easy smiles and small talk have kept people from digging. I genuinely believed that everyone was dealing with their own issues and no one really cared about what was going on in my head. When I voiced that, people were offended. “How dare you! Of course I care!” I’ve always been willing to listen, just not to speak. I didn’t realize that this attitude would inhibit my learning, and TBB was determined to shatter it.
In our vulnerability seminar, we watched a Ted Talk by Brené Brown. In it, she talks about her own struggle to find vulnerability. Through research, she learned that while it is necessary, it is not always comfortable. The people that she found have the ability to make the most meaningful connections, to access the good stuff: joy, love, and belonging, have the courage to be imperfect. They are brave enough to let go of who they want to be in order to be who they are. Another student, Sasa, was my partner that day, and I told him I didn’t really see the point of vulnerability. Why ask for help with something I can do myself? He replied, “That’s stupid, it’s not about not being able to do it yourself, it’s about relationships.” He told me vulnerability is the opportunity to learn, grow, and change. If you push everyone away, you lose their potential impact on you.
I wasn’t sure I was willing to give up my self-sufficiency, but I wanted to connect with people. In high-school Journalism class, I fell in love with people’s stories- stories of hardship, loss, triumph, joy, and the human experience. I love meeting people from every country, in every language. However, I have always been content with interviewing. I want to be a student of the world and all its cultures, but I had to learn that its unrealistic to expect meaningful relationships if I am not contributing.
My homestay family in Guatemala touched my heart. Laughing and joking with them around the table, I let my guard down without even thinking about it. We had conversations about everything from Marvel superheroes to immigrant rights and environmental conservation. My homestay sister Naomi and I opened up our lives to them, for better or for worse, for criticism or for praise. We had slightly uncomfortable conversations about our privilege, bouncing between lighthearted, when our host mother compared our gap year to The Lizzie McGuire Movie, and thought-provoking, when she told us about the intellectual debt we would take back home to the states, our obligation to raise awareness of global issues. Beyond the dinner table, Naomi encouraged me to “turn my very real feelings into big fat jokes,” but that still means we talked about our feelings! Going into Thailand, I expected that same connection with my host family, but I didn’t get it. Emma and I were in a constant state of confusion as our family paraded us around their beautiful country solely to take photos of us. We endured family dinners out every single night that were really more like one-on-one dates because we were the only ones not sucked into our phones (we didn’t have phones). I thought I had my bubble airtight, but Emma always knew more about how I was feeling than I thought she did. We leaned on each other, sharing our discomforts. She’s still observant as hell, and will pretend to be surprised if I come up to her like “Emma, I need to tell you something.” Ghana was challenging for different reasons, and Adia pushed me every day to take more personal time and to be in touch with how I was feeling. Francisco threw chanclas at my walls until they cracked. He has taught me how to slow down, to go with the flow, to relax. He literally bought me a book called How to Relax. How’s that for a hint?
Gradually, after all these very different, very emotionally advanced teenage hippies broke me down, I realized that dragging my feet through vulnerability uses up a lot more energy than giving in. Kelly, my mentor, told me that now, she has noticed instead of groaning and running away from opportunities to be vulnerable, I groan and allow myself to be pulled in…that includes hugs.
It’s exhausting. Being vulnerable is like cliff jumping – that moment when you hit the water and you’re paralyzed for a second. Being vulnerable is hearing about the death of a friend back home and trying to grieve alone, silently, before you realize you can’t, and the group you’re with won’t let you. Being vulnerable is when Emma says “Close your eyes and open your mouth,” and you can see she is smiling slyly and holding something in her hand, but you do it anyway. It was a goldfish. I never know how people will react when I put myself out there. There are no guarantees, and sometimes it ends up hurting, but I have to remind myself that putting trust in people does not mean that that trust won’t be broken. It only means that I have to be okay with that possibility and know that I have the capacity to rebuild. It means I commit to the idea that it’s worth the risk, because that uncomfortable, sometimes painful space is where connections are made.
Letting my guard down, risking that fall, has always been my worst case scenario because it means the situation is out of my control. Every time we travel to a new place, I am up with the sun on the first morning to orient myself with my surroundings- where am I? Where is the food? Where is the gym? Not having my phone meant not having Google maps OR Google. I learned to love being lost, and to be content when a question comes up in conversation that no one has an answer to- content with best guesses, with not knowing for sure. I don’t like to be late. One morning in Ghana, my watchband broke. A message from the universe? Stop checking your watch! Let go! Go with the flow! BE LATE TO SOMETHING! I considered it, I reflected on it. I borrowed Francisco’s watch for 6 weeks. But, I checked it less! I am not saying I am cured, but Cisco, Moriah, and I were all late to the World Bank in D.C. because we stopped at Starbucks. You call that irresponsible, I call it healing.
Part of this aversion to letting go is because I’m a woman. For a long time, I have been unrealistic about my ability to protect myself. In Ghana, I FaceTimed my dad in a moment when I was very frustrated with the treatment of women in the area. We were being constantly catcalled, teased, even grabbed. It was obnoxious and frustrating. Without considering his reaction, I complained to him about cars slowing down and about the gym trainer asking me to be his wife. Of course, he was alarmed. However, he was mostly concerned that I would be the one to provoke a dangerous situation. Would I try to prove a point? React in a way that would put myself in danger? I had certainly considered stomping around and throwing up my middle fingers. I could not understand why all the women in Ghana and Guatemala and Morocco didn’t just do that. I learned that it’s because they are much wiser than me.
Two women that have been incredibly influential in my growth are Elba, my homestay mother in Guatemala, and Nunana, my sister in Ghana. They are my new definition of strong. They are genuine, kind, hard-working people. Elba is the principal of an elementary school in her area. She is tough as nails on those kids and her own, promoting education and discipline as a fast-track out of the strawberry fields. Nunana is technically the niece of my Ghanaian homestay mother, but she cooks and cleans for them in exchange for help financing her classes, trading an early marriage and lots of babies for an education and the foundation for a more independent future. Their bravery is in their ability to refrain from frustration when dealing with injustice. They battle sexism with grace, patience, and solidarity, by leaning on other women. They taught me to recognize my limitations, to stand somewhere safe, but to never stand down.
During TBB I learned a lot about what I am not. I am not a professional. I am not a farmer, a teacher, or a doctor or nurse. However, I think the hardest lesson to learn was how to let go of who I thought I should be and be who I am. I am not invincible.
I got my nose pierced. My hair is longer and blonder. I still exercise when I am overwhelmed or upset, but I journal now, too. I don’t always flinch when people hug me. I am a “chill gap year girl.” I put hot sauce on things voluntarily. I put my retainer in my mouth when it was covered in ants by accident …and then ate a scorpion on purpose.
I feel more spiritually connected to the world and the people in it than I ever have. Some African witchdoctors told me I have mermaids in my ancestry. I will never stop being excited about that. I have found and solidified passions for travel, the environment, women, animals, justice, writing, reading, and doodling in my notebook. If anyone can think of a profession that encompasses all of those things, let me know!
I have cried, and more than one person on this trip has seen me do it. Those people are my best friends. They know me inside and out- from banana pancakes to cautious side hugs, to a mermaid-themed birthday and the best present: a journal full of letters that I flipped through with my eyes squeezed shut because it almost made me cry (but it did make Emma cry). They have made lasting impacts on me because I let them see me. It was scary as hell, but it is so worth it. TBB has strengthened my learning in every aspect: cultural, social, intellectual, spiritual, but especially emotional. I survived vulnerability bootcamp, and because of it, I am a better student, a better friend, a better traveler, and a better person. I am not invincible, but I am curious, and I can stand wisely without standing down.