South America

Friends, Young and Old: Changing Your Perception of What Makes a Friend

During Carnaval, we got down at my friend's Mom's house. His mom (second from the right) brought the party!

Five months ago, I was sitting on the sofa at a friend’s house. I took a sip of my Bloody Mary and then frowned a little, looking around. There were about six of us scattered throughout the living room, sipping drinks and eating a homemade breakfast scramble and chatting. It was your run-of-the-mill friendly Sunday brunch get-together. So, what was missing? Shifting to take another look, I realized what seemed odd: everyone in the room was my age, mid-twenties. No parents were present. Or grandparents. Or babies. Or children of any age.

This day took place during a visit home for Christmas between my first and second years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Barranquilla, Colombia. I’m almost halfway through my second year, and as I make Colombia my home, it’s easy to overlook how much my concept of “normalcy” has changed. A recent conversation with other volunteers about finding friends within our communities spurred a look back.

In Barranquilla, I haven’t experienced the same sort of isolation that many volunteers have around the world. I live in a city of over two million people, a “site” I share with twelve other current Peace Corps Volunteers—many of whom are just a short walk or bus ride away. One distinct isolating experience I went through for a long while, however, was feeling like I had no “friends” within this culture.

I, like many volunteers, joined Peace Corps soon after graduating college. Throughout my life, my free time was filled with activities alongside people my own age. After college, I lived in my own apartment, alone. Many evenings found me curled on my officemate’s couch, along with my other 20-something friends who felt like hanging out after work. We did monthly “family dinners”—a collection of friends gathering to eat together. Parties meant drinks and fun with people my age, usually starting at someone’s apartment and heading downtown for the night.

It shouldn’t be hard to meet friends, I thought when I arrived at site. Especially in a city—there are always things going on, and people to meet who share the same interests I do…Right?!

Except, it didn’t happen. My first few months at site were marked by bewilderment. It seemed that no one left their houses–weekends or otherwise. How was I supposed to find friends?

Fast-forward, months into my Peace Corps service:

It’s Sunday, and my host family and I gather around a homemade lunch (lunch is the big meal of the day, here). We take hands, and bow our hands for prayer. Although family schedules are erratic during the week, Sunday is always family meal day.

The following Friday, women gather in the kitchen, pulling out industrial-sized pots and knives, chopping up cilantro and hacking apart cow hooves and stomachs to make Mondongo soup. A pungent aroma reminiscent of hot dogs (multiplied by a thousand) fills the house as cow intestines bob around marrow-filled bones while the Mondongo soup, a rich, coastal-specialty, bubbles to completion. There are relatives visiting and we’re having a party.

Hours later I’m sitting in a plastic beach chair, a part of a circle of about twelve other folks. Everyone from the grandmothers to cousins to the newborn babies are in the circle. After food is served, people take turns dancing salsa in the middle of the circle. Babies wearing diapers are prodded to take their turn. Then the grandmothers join in, dancing with their granddaughters’ husbands, and the mothers serve more food. Neighbors stop by to chat, clinging to the patio gate and sometimes accepting the invitation to come in and join the circle. There is loud music and talking and more sitting until the early morning hours. A highly successful party, everyone agrees. It might take a week or so to rest up, but we’ll have another one soon.

In this family-oriented culture, social clusters of similarly-aged, unrelated young people are the exception rather than the norm. For entertainment, families visit other family members for Sunday lunch, or stroll through the neighborhood to catch up on the gossip, or invite others over to do some joint front-porch sitting. Most people don’t have cars. People certainly don’t live alone. (Even now, I got a little shiver of shock just thinking about living all alone! Especially not at my age–25! And it’s high time to get married and start having babies, now that I think about it…I mean…)

During Carnaval, we got down at my friend's Mom's house. His mom  (second from the right) brought the party!

During Carnaval, we got down at my friend’s Mom’s house. His mom (second from the right) brought the party!

Certainly there are pros and cons to both cultural contexts of living alone and living with families—of having friends my own age versus having babies and grandmothers be the folks with whom I spend the most time. …But if I think about this too much, my head actually starts to hurt. My 13 year old students are pretty cool. So is my host mom, and my venerable neighbors, and also my fellow volunteers.

All I can say is, if the people we spend time with define who we are, I’m a very different person than I was when I left the United States. I knew that already, though. More importantly, I often don’t even know what’s strange and what’s “normal”, anymore.

At this point, I don’t feel as though much is missing on my social front. Rather than actually gaining  many additional friends, however, I realized that I simply changed my perception of what “friends” are. I don’t know exactly what my next step will be, come December at my service’s end, but I do know this: if I do end up needing to move back in with my parents for a while, my time in Peace Corps will have given me plenty of practice at it!

Emily Fiocco
Emily graduated college in 2010 with a creative writing degree, which naturally led to working at a healthcare software company in Madison, Wisconsin. After managing software projects for a year, she ended her spurt as an American professional to return to what she truly enjoys—traveling, living in new cultures, and non-profit work. Her life in the Peace Corps in the huge city of Barranquilla, Colombia has ironically turned her into an urban dweller. She is learning to make her home in a city that believes in fashion above all else, even during un-air-conditioned 100+ degree heat. Her job is teaching students and training teachers at a large, all-girls school, supporting the country’s goal to turn its schools bilingual by 2019. While here, her spare time activities include hunting down ovens in which to cook delicious, Colombianified food, embarrassing herself with highly gringa dance moves, reveling in the local geographical luxury of consistently labeled streets, and trying to improve her Spanish with the help of the local Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

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    1 Comment

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