Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

Voyage of Discovery: New Eyes in Different Landscapes

The Unknown's picture

           I began as apart of someone else, an idea. My identities were handed to me in a selection. I only had a deceptively large range of choices. Where I am from was decided. Privilege was assumed, not questioned. With that came my color, my access to education, what I could buy, not worrying about money. These were labels that I quickly enveloped myself in, not wandering if I had taken them on. They were simply presented to me.

            I have struggled for many years with the idea of what successes are attributed to my work and fortitude and what has been handed to me. Is it my intrinsic nature to persevere and work hard or have I been given the resources, teachers, parents, and tutors to reach my goals? Was I accepted to boarding school because of my work ethic or the fact that I would pay in full?



             My avatar is a depiction of me on the top of Roraima. Roraima is the highest tabletop mountain in the world. The cliffs on each side ofthe mountain cross into Brazil, Venezuela, and Guyana. Though many people have influenced my idea of my role in society and how I define myself, so havethemountains Ihave climbed, the rainforests I have explored, the waters I have ventured into, and the animals I have seen. Though this picture is at the top, I have a clearer memory of the journey to get there.

            The struggle up the steep cliffs with the sun beamingdown often seemed impossible. Hills seemed to stretch for miles and my perception of time dwindled. There was one particular day that my pack felt heavier, my legs weaker, and my body less grounded. I started to wonder if I could continue.

            I sat down feeling defeated. Pain seemed to seep through me with every drop of sweat. To my surprise, Fernando, one of my guides came upon me and asked me how I was. He told me that we needed to continue. I didn’t think I could persevere. As he reached out a hand to me, I began to get up and slowly walk. He said, “lento, un paso, otro paso.”

            As I continued to follow his instructions, one step at a time, I started focusing my surroundings, where I was at, rather than where I was going. He showed me what my body was capable of when my mind was clear and directed.

            This last year, I took a gap year and got a small insight into the lives of some precious individuals who live differently or maybe not so differently than me. These experiences taught me to ask questions, seek common understanding, see people for how they want to be viewed, give second, third, fourth, fifth chances, and to never assume that I know much. This growth and exploration is extremely important to me, but I needed money to find it, search for it, money that was not mine.

            During my gap year, I travelled around Latin America for eight months. As I met new people, had new experiences, my identity began to shift. Never had I been so aware of my lack of color, the way I dress, and how different I look. I am not proud to be from the United States and I try to disassociate myself from the country, but “Gringa,” was a term I could not hide from. I rarely met someone who did not ask me about my parents’ income or the price of one of my belongings. I was an alien.

            It was one of the first times I escaped this giant bubble of extreme safety, protection from health hazards, and comfort. In fact I was rarely “comfortable.” There was no way I could not challenge the importance of wealth, education, and where I am from, seeing how differently people lived and their diversity of values. I began to see how distinct my life was. I searched for common ground, but I struggled to understand the experiences of people I met.

            My mindset changed in some regards; I began seeing myself as apart of something larger. That the stories people shared with me were no longer only theirs, but they became weaved into my own. I still wondered if I could let go of some of my own truths, parts of me that seemed so engrained, ideas that I thought persisted and were right, especially my notions of a stable and supportive family.

            I came to accept that I could not understand and struggled to relate to people’s histories, but I was impacted by them. Often connections were built based on listening and a deep concern for what another person had to share rather than similar past experiences. I began to question my own identity, especially my idea of happiness, that it was a choice, and that there was something that made everyone happy.

            One of the most intense stories I heard was passed on to me by my “mama,” the mother of a family I lived with in Bolivia during my gap years. Since she was extremely young, her father would beat her. She described shaking behind doors as he stomped drunkenly around her house. She unfolded memories of money that she had earned, disappearing after a long night. She chronicled the sound of crackling leather against her skin.

            I did not know how to respond to these gruesome events. I sat in silence. Never have I looked at anyone so directly, with so much concentration. I felt so lucky that she trusted me. Though I had not experienced anywhere near her level of abuse, I began thinking about the struggles I had overcome, or were still lying beneath the surface within my family. It was surprising the connections we made based on a similar feeling of not belonging; wondering why we were excluded, and challenging the ways we were raised.

I wondered why she had decided to reveal this part of herself. These truths came crashing through a family that seemed so tightly knit from the outside, or even part of the way in. Often I have found that any assumptions I have made have been inaccurate. Unfortunately, so many have experienced such deep, debilitating pain.

            It was baffling to realize that hearing her tales was because of privilege. That even though I had begun to live alongside this family, I would leave in only a few days. How much could I take in? What could I really understand? I have realized that privilege is not only about wealth, but also what one does not have to confront.

            This summer my mother wrote me a particularly intense email about my parent’s relationship. My parents have been married for over twenty years. My parents also have a large age gap; my father is twenty-one-years older. My mother told me that she was struggling with their relationship and she was unhappy.

            I found myself thinking of my mother in Bolivia as my family unit seemed to be crumbling. Family has always been so important to me and yet I had just spent an intense month in Bolivia with someone who had rarely, if ever desired to be at home. Patricia told me that she had never loved her husband. She married him in her late teens because she could not afford to live on her own. He provided for her and took care of her children, but there was no love, no passion, no desire. I did not know how to respond to someone who had spent the majority of her life with another person she did not “choose,” but circumstances had decided for her.  She was simply grateful he did not hurt her or her kids as her father had damaged her and her siblings.

            My identity was altered because of my interactions. Wealth became less important to me; my class was not as much apart of who I was. In the end I became so close to someone I shared little in common with. I think what bonded us together though and made me tear up as I left her was what we had shared. Our stories had intersected. I could not help her escape, but I could be there to listen, justify her feelings, and remind her that her words and stories are powerful and impacted me.