In-service trainings are the highlights of the year for a lot of us, I think. We get to spend a full week with the people we have often come to love in-country. People we trained with, got sick with, worried with, learned Spanish with. Your class gets tight. Ours is especially well-knit, or at least the office has told us so.

It might have something to do with our ages. Previous groups in Mexico have been more focused on Technology Transfer and Natural Resources Management, two programs that in this country that in this country recruit volunteers who are more experienced and well-trained than what you might imagine to be the standard. The Mexico office is changing direction, though, and our class fit the archetype—young, eager, not far out of college.


Maybe we were more willing to goof around, or maybe it’s that are lives are short enough that they still have room for eighteen more close friends, or maybe we just happened to be compatible. When we get together after the isolation of the countryside, it’s a thing apart. To go from a second language back to your first is like learning how to speak again. I have a few good Mexican friends, and I wouldn’t trade them for gringo replacements, but there is so much lost communication even in my more-than-passable Spanish, so many small exchanges, so many inside jokes and asides that refuse to translate or grow up right in a foreign tongue. It is maybe not so obvious among friends, but I tried dating here for a few months and it drove the point home. It might even be that I have so little else to go on. I’m no sportsman, have no great hobbies outside of words. So much of my identity is wrapped up in English that I almost find myself without one in Spanish.

So coming home from those gatherings is hard. I’ve written before about the emotional hangover, and I won’t do that again here. I’d rather talk about the danger it presents than the feelings it evokes. Communication back home is easier. I was reading through old text messages this week (another something I wouldn’t do if we hadn’t just been through Mid-Service Training) and I was amazed at how constant my contact was with friends back home. Messages all day, checking in, joking around, arranging meals and meetups and plans.

Here, not so much. We’ve all got Mexican burner phones, and the objective is always to guard your saldo, your available funds. For the most part we went cheap, and the typing feels primitive and clumsy in either language after training for so long on all our smartphones and full keyboards. It’s not a question of being brought back to ‘real’ communication either—the sum effect of all our texting in the States seemed to be to make sure we were always with somebody, more often face to face than not.

So to come home and return to your isolated house, to lose the unending chatter of the week before and to try to put yourself back into the volunteer mindset of accepting discomfort, seeking out social awkwardness, it’s tough. Someone once pointed out that it’s not as if we’re in the trenches, and it’s true, our hardships are different and lesser. But discomfiture is our constant companion. I’m in a cosmopolitan place compared to many other volunteers, but I am still other. Always liable to trip up while chatting or ordering, always explaining why I’m here, always having to fend off invitations and solicitations from the too-curious and the too-drunk and all the while trying to keep in mind that my job tells me I have to throw myself into every social interaction, no matter how low my energy.

Those who know me from the States know that my energy for that is always low. My father used to have to berate me to get me to go and meet my new coaches and teams on the first day of little league, and I don’t know anyone who was better at exiting those checkout-line one-off conversations. I think I was so good at it as a waiter precisely because with me the whole thing had to be an act. It came off because at no point was I trying to be myself.

“How’re you folks doing this evening? My name’s Jonathan, and I want you to let me know just the second I can do something for you. A pop, sir? You wouldn’t happen to be in from the Midwest would you? Whereabouts? Michigan? Wouldn’t you know, I grew up in Michigan. Sure is a long way from home. I’ll be right on back with those orders, don’t you go off anywhere.”

I was good at it and I liked it, but there was no part of the real me in it.

You can work an eight hour shift like that, but you can’t live doing it. You can’t act every day for two years, not if you’re looking for any personal satisfaction from it. After a couple weeks back in site, you re-acclimate, the constant nervousness fades into the background, your Spanish picks back up, and you start to feel more at home, more at least. Those first two weeks, though, those are a bear.

It’s so simple, when you get back, to treat yourself to a late Saturday, to eat cereal and watch a movie on your laptop. But then the clock ticks onto noon or to one or two, and you being to convince yourself that you don’t need groceries, that you’ll see your friends next weekend, that you’ll have a beer and just eat the rest of your oatmeal for dinner.

Saturday rolls into Sunday and you’ve got to clean your house what with all the bugs that took up residence, you’ve got to do your laundry, and you’ve got to try to write at least a little after letting your blog sit silent for a week. Suddenly, without any intention, you’ve sealed yourself off, and getting out and back into it is all the harder for what you’ve done, and staying up here on the balcony typing away begins to look so much easier than breaking the pattern, easier than picking up your phone and using a couple of pesos and reaching out just to say Qué onda or ask anyone if they’d like to get dinner.

I’m at the end of one of those weekends now. I’ve sent my texts, but everyone must be busy and they can’t know how easy they’re making it for me to sit here unshowered at four o’clock on a Sunday, moreover in a December when the sun sets at five behind the hills around town.

I’m going out now.

We’ll see how I do.

(I wrote this forever ago, I did pretty well)

One thought on “Shut-In

  1. Well said, Jon. I eagerly read your expressions of life ‘in the trenches’ each time. You are a wordsmith! Enjoy time with James soon : )

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