5 lessons I learned in my first year in Colombia
As May comes to a close we wanted to highlight one of our team members Kat Guild. She's on the website but this was a unique opportunity... Kat just completed her 1st year working in Barranquilla! We thought it would be cool to give her some space to share with you all, what her experiences/feelings have been like after 1 year in this beautiful coastal town of Colombia working as a missionary!
Just last month I celebrated my first anniversary here in Barranquilla Colombia! It’s crazy to think that over the past 365 days, God has been shaping me by means of cultural adaptation, language learning, relationship building, and an innumerable amount of crazy experiences that would only happen here in Barranquilla. As I sat down to write a year-in-review, I realized that trying to compress one year’s worth of memories and learnings into a few quick paragraphs would be an injustice to all of the amazing moments that made this year such a time of growth. Instead, I will be sharing 5 lessons I learned in my first year in Colombia (along with a few honorable mentions towards the end.)
1) Sometimes the best plans are the ones you don’t plan for
One thing I learned very early on in Barranquilla was that things typically don’t turn out exactly as we plan them to. It’s not uncommon for a day’s worth of plans to change or be canceled in the course of a minute – even more so during the rainy season, where some sectors of the city are completely impassable due to flash flooding. While that may be discouraging at times, the reverse also tends to happen: Plans appear out of nowhere. If I had to tell you the amount of times that people just showed up at my door or friends just called me out of the blue to invite me somewhere, we’d be here all day. Some of my most cherished memories and moments where I’ve seen God’s hand at work the most are in the ones I never even had the chance to plan for.
One of my favorite examples of this is the time I threw a pool party without a pool. A few months into joining the young adult group at church, I offered to host a pool party at my apartment complex. I invited the whole group to show up, bought the snacks, and made my apartment ready to receive everyone after we had finished with the swim. Little did I know that even though friends of mine had come over to swim before, getting permission to host a large group was another feat entirely. Unfortunately, I found that out the day of the event as the group began to show up. Instead of getting to spend an afternoon at the pool, we all squeezed into my apartment and spent the afternoon eating snacks and catching up with one another. At some point in the conversation, things began to get more serious and we started talking about faith, worldview, and even some of the doubts we have about Christianity. I never would’ve expected that afternoon to turn into a space for vulnerability and transparency for our group, but God somehow allowed for that. I also never would have expected that because of those conversations, a friend that I invited, who is openly agnostic, would decide to start attending church with us and joining the young adult group.
Needless to say, some of the best plans are the ones that we don’t plan for because in them it’s so obvious that we are truly resting in the middle of God’s will.
2) Don’t put your hopes in your own expectations
When I look back on most of the disappointments I faced this past year, they can all boil down to unmet expectations. While this lesson isn’t unique to living in Barranquilla, it’s one that I have had to learn and relearn more times consecutively than I ever had in my life. As mentioned in the previous lesson, oftentimes things turn out differently than we expect (sometimes they don’t turn out at all) and if given too much hope, we can experience great disappointments. Through many canceled plans, wishy-washy friendships, and even encounters with exploitive people, I have found myself grieving the loss of my expectations. While this has led to some painful moments, I have been reminded of where my hope truly belongs. In the midst of unfaithfulness, I’m reminded of God’s faithfulness. In failed friendships, I’m reminded that there’s no greater love than that found in Jesus, who gave His life for us, His friends. In being taken advantage of, I’m reminded that God is a good father, who doesn’t give us a stone when we ask for bread or a snake when we ask for fish. Out of love, God has allowed me to feel the heartbreak of unmet expectations because it reminds me that He is truly the only source and safe place for my hope.
3) It’s ok to ask for help
One of the strangest moments of culture shock for me was the first time going shopping with friends. I remember we were at a large box store, kind of like the Colombian equivalent of Walmart, and I was looking for some specific home goods to stock my apartment. Upon sharing with them the names of one or two items I was looking for, they immediately went to a store worker to ask where to find them. Everything in my north-American, independent, young adult brain was HORRIFIED. I couldn’t fathom the idea of asking where something was before attempting to look for it myself. As it turned out, this practice wasn’t just true of those friends, it has proven to be true of most of the Colombians I know. While at first this behavior of “ask before trying” seemed unnecessary, even lazy to me, I’ve come to see how necessary it is and how beautiful it can be to ask for help. It’s necessary because we humans aren’t exactly all-powerful or all-knowing, and it’s beautiful because it gives the people around us the chance to show up and be helpers. Over and over through my deficiencies and cultural/linguistic confusion, God has been reminding me that not only am I made for Him but I’m also made for community.
As someone living in a completely new context in a completely different language than what I am used to speaking, I’ve watched this play out in even the smallest of contexts (i.e. the time that I asked my friends how to initiate a phone call when placing a delivery order from the corner store because I wasn’t sure what to say). In these moments of asking for help, I’ve been given the opportunity to see which people God has chosen to be “my helpers” and be “my people” in a way that I never would have when trying to “go it solo”.
4) When in doubt, ask “why” first
Joel Ballew is well-known for using the phrase, “when there’s a gap in communication, we fill that gap with something, good or bad.” This image of a gap is the perfect way to visualize the space of the unknown. Dating back to Adam and Eve in the garden, vying to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we humans have the tendency to try and make the unknown known. However, like Adam and Eve, we often miss the mark and sometimes settle for assumptions rather than true understanding. Though this practice of “assuming” typically happens between individuals, it can also show up when confronting cultural differences. I have found that when facing something I don’t understand, I tend to jump to conclusions and write a story in my head about why it is the way that it is. Through many experiences, I’ve learned that asking “why” first often frees me from the pressure of trying to figure it out and provides space for the real answers to emerge. In asking “why” I’ve come to learn much more about the culture here in Barranquilla than I would have if I settled for my own assumptions.
5) It’s ok to laugh when things are difficult
Here on the coast “Cogela Suave” or “take it easy” is a lifestyle. Seriously. And it’s something I’ve had the pleasure of learning through moments that put that way of life to the test. I don’t like to say that I’m a worrier, but the idea of taking it easy when things aren’t going my way isn’t usually the first to cross my mind. Proverbs 31 talks about this when it describes a woman of noble character as one who “laughs without fear of the future”. In full transparency, I have never quite identified with that statement. But oddly enough, this year God has been showing me that it really is ok to not worry — heck, I can even laugh about the things that bring me the most stress because He truly has it under control. As believers, we get to count it as joy when we face trials of many kinds (James 1:2-3) and even get to sit back and rest easy, trusting in the God who has everything under His dominion. God has blessed me with friends who love me well enough to both cry and laugh with me in the midst of difficulty, reminding me what it looks like to truly have faith in my Provider.
I’ve seen God’s goodness follow me throughout this first year and I can’t wait to share future learnings and stories as this second year unfolds.
- Always have your bus money in your pocket before you get on the bus (they start rolling the second you put one foot on the staircase)
- "No dar papaya." (don’t walk around flaunting items of value unless you want someone to rob you)
- Showering 3+ times a day is not only accepted, it’s expected (heat + humidity = sweat city)
- Always verify the price of something before committing to pay for a service/item