Monday, November 8, 2010

On the difference between being a tourist and a researcher in a foreign country

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what has been eating at me for the past week and with the help of friends, I think I’ve come to a pretty obvious answer: homesickness. Now, I have done a few trips lasting more than a month (although 2 months has previously been my limit) and I always figured that my eagerness to come home in the end had more to do with living out of a suitcase or constantly being a guest in someone else’s home. But now, at just over a month in Chile, I realize that it's starting to sink in how out of my element I really am.
Emotionally, I have been swinging back and forth between jubilation and near euphoria every time I successfully complete another interview (9/15 done, by the way), and utter defeat and desolation. I worry that I have no idea what I am doing and question daily my decision to conduct fieldwork in another country and in a foreign language, of which I only had a tenuous grasp in the first place. Today, I resorted to cracking a bottle of red at 5 pm, which I considered an acceptable time to start drinking alone in my apartment, and sending forlorn and desperate facebook messages to friends.
The role of researcher, rather than tourist, means that I have forsaken the tried and true ways to meet people while travelling. Being alone, I’m not all that keen on hitting up the bars or taking the metro after 10 pm to attend cultural or social events in far flung regions of the city. This has meant that I spend a lot of time alone: sending emails, travelling to and from interviews, walking uninvited into government and NGO offices and in transit to and from the grocery store. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty good at spending time alone, and when in Calgary I actually tend to be more of an introvert, at least when it comes to unwinding after a long day. But there is something different about this forced exile.
Oh, I meet people, here and there: waiting at the bus stop- they like to warn me about how dangerous Santiago is for a single woman travelling alone and try to scare me into not leaving my apartment; eating ice cream in the park- these are generally crazy people or people asking for money; at the Spanish school where I’m taking some private lessons- they are often travelling in groups and not really interesting in meeting other foreigners. Not to mention, the purpose of my visit here is not to go out drinking into all hours of the night with random backpackers.
Perhaps the most trying aspect is that I feel like I’m floating around, with no measure of what I should be accomplishing and when. How am I supposed to know if I’m doing ok if I have no point of comparison? After an afternoon of contemplation on this matter (when I was supposed to be writing an abstract for a conference), I have come to the conclusion that what this is, is an opportunity for personal growth; if I can only measure my satisfaction in my own work by measuring it against that of someone else, than I have failed at the ultimate objective.  I only need to be satisfied that I have approached this challenge with my best effort given the resources that I have, and with an open mind to be able to absorb what it is I need from my time in Chile.
Really, if I say I'm doing a good job, then I am. So there.
The museum calls this a sculpture of a 'cocalero' or someone chewing coca leaves, but I thought it looked a lot like someone taking a crap. I just thought I'd throw it in here for some comic relief since this blog was a bit heavier than the last few!

1 comment:

  1. Homesickness is definitely tough to deal with, but I am sure that you are doing a great job researching down there. I couldn't agree with you more, when you say that the biggest accomplishment will be personal growth. It takes a lot of guts to do what you are doing, so give yourself a break and a pat on the back! :)

    Laura Schmitt