Born in: Phoenixville, Pennsylvania USA
Countries, states, cities lived in: Pennsylvania (Collegeville & Landenberg): 1985-87 & 1996 – 2004; Ohio (Cincinnati): 1987-96; Massachusetts (Boston): 2004-06, 2008-09; Argentina (Buenos Aires): 2007-08; Dominican Republic (Cambita Garabitos, San Cristóbal province): 2009-11; New York (New York): June 2011 – present.
What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
I guess you can say I left my homeland in search of a home. I never felt very “at home” as a teenager in Pennsylvania, so when the opportunity came to travel to Spain on a class trip I went eagerly. On this short trip I found that I felt more comfortable with some parts of the Spanish culture than with my own. The seed of wanderlust was planted.
When I went to school in Boston at Northeastern University, I decided to study the Spanish language, partly because of my interest in the language and the culture of Ibero-America, and partly because of my wish to study abroad.
Under Northeastern’s “Dialogue of Civilizations” program, I worked in Puebla, Mexico in a women’s prison, as well as in a small indigenous village in the mountains of Cuetzalan, where the people spoke only Nahuati. Both were amazing experiences.
And under Northeastern’s study abroad program, I lived in Argentina for nearly a year — during which I decided I wanted to help impoverished people in developing countries so would try joining the Peace Corps. Two years and one Master’s degree later, I was finally accepted and sent off to the Dominican Republic.
So did I ever find that “home” I was looking for? To be honest, my travels have only nurtured that original seed of restlessness. The more I travel the more I discover about myself and others — and the more I realize how much I still have to learn. For now, at least, home is wherever I want it to be.
Is anyone else in your family a “displaced” person?
As far as my immediate family goes, no one is or has ever been “displaced” — although I do like to think that my travels have inspired family members to explore other countries. My father was always one of those people who felt it would never be necessary to leave the United States as he had everything he wanted or needed right here. But when I went to Argentina, my parents decided to visit, and my dad absolutely fell in love with the country. To this day, he tells people that Argentina has the best pastries in the world. Now when I tell my parents I’m going overseas, they no longer respond by saying: “Why do you want to go there?” Instead it’s “When can we visit?”
Describe the moment when you felt most displaced.
One night in Cambita my host sister’s husband brought me a guayaba (guava). He was really excited for me to try one for the first time, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him I had eaten this fruit before in Mexico. After I ate it I started to feel nauseous and dizzy. Soon my lips began to swell and my whole face was itchy. I was having an allergic reaction to a chemical (a fertilizer or pesticide) that had been used on the fruit. I called the Peace Corps doctor, who told me to take two Benadryl and then a shower to wash the chemicals off.
When I got to the shower — an outdoor zinc and cement block latrine with a drain in the middle — I hung my towel on the cement blocks and poured cold water from a bucket over my head. It was already dark and I couldn’t see anything.
As soon as I finished, I wrapped the towel around myself and as I was heading back to the house, I felt a small sting on my stomach, then another one on my back, and another one on my chest. Soon my whole body was burning with these sharp little stings. Inside my towel was a colony of fire ants! I ran to my room, only to find it occupied. My host parents, Doña Romita and Don Rafael, were busy adjusting a new table the latter had constructed from an old cabinet. All I wanted to do was rip off my towel, but I could not get naked in front of my 70-year-old hosts!
By that time, the ants were all over my body. I was jumping up and down, shaking my towel and yelling for them to get out of the room. In all the commotion the oil lamp was knocked over and shattered on the floor. Doña Romita refused to let me in the room with the glass on the floor. Still unsure of what was wrong with me, she rushed me to her room. I quickly closed the door and whipped the towel off, slapping the ants off my body.
Just when I thought the nightmare was over I looked up and realized the shades were wide open and everyone outside the house had seen me naked and jumping around. At that moment, Doña Romita knocked on the door to tell me that my project partner and his wife were there to see me.
Describe the moment when you felt least displaced.
After being in the Dominican Republic for more than a year, I came back to the States to visit my friends and family. One night, while out with some friends all the girls couldn’t stop talking about their weight. They were commenting about how beautiful one of our friends was because they had never seen her so skinny before. All I could think of was how sickly she looked and how much I wanted to feed her. I couldn’t understand why being skinny was considered better while in the Dominican Republic being called “fat” or (my favorite) “fatty” was a compliment. My view of what was healthy and beautiful had been altered from my time in the Peace Corps.
You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from each of your adopted countries into the Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
From Argentina: All the ingredients and utensils for brewing maté, a drink made from the leaves of the yerba maté plant, containing caffeine and related compounds. (This is sadly ironic since I accidentally left behind my maté in my apartment in Buenos Aires.) The yerba is packed into a hallowed-out gourd, which is then filled with boiling water. You drink the mixture directly from the gourd using a metallic straw with a filter at the bottom, called a bombilla. Some people walk around with a thermos of hot water and the gourd to drink maté whenever they have the urge. It has a very strong, bitter taste, but you can add liquid sugar.
From the Dominican Republic: Some large jugs of the tree bark, sticks and herbs that can be used for making the classic Dominican drink mamajuana. I assume the Displaced Nation has honey and rum we can add to it? After filling with rum and honey, you let the jug sit for a few days. You can also add cinnamon sticks soaked in red wine and honey, or raw squid and seafood soaked in rum. Men use the seafood mamajuana to boost their virility. Regular mamajuana supposedly cleans the blood, provides a tonic for liver and kidneys, relieves menstruation pains, and cures many other ailments (depending on who you talk to).
You’re invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other Displaced Nation members. What’s on the menu?
I would make the meal I ate the most of in the Dominican Republic: rice, beans, plantains, and overcooked spaghetti with carnation milk, canned tomatoes, and corn. It’s the perfect carb overload — are any of you marathon runners?
You may add one word or expression from the countries you’ve lived in to The Displaced Nation argot. What will you loan us?
From Argentina: Che, boludo. Che is similar to the American word “dude.” I love che because it means that whenever I’m talking to someone and can’t remember their name, I can just call them che. Boludo technically means “jerk” (or worse), but it can also be used in an endearing way. My Argentinian friends and I always used to greet each other with a “Che, boludo!”
From the Dominican Republic: Vaina — though it technically means the pod around pigeon peas (gandules), everyone uses it to mean a thing or object. If I ever got stuck and couldn’t think of the Spanish word for something, I would just call it vaina while pointing to the object with my lips. It’s a great word for anyone learning Spanish.
This month we are looking into “philanthropic displacement” — when people travel or become expats on behalf of helping others less fortunate than themselves. Do you have a role model you look up to when engaged in this kind of travel — whose words of advice you cherish?
Strangely, I have never had a role model for this kind of travel. I was always drawn to it — but for some reason never felt the need to seek out others who had done it before me. My family were against my joining the Peace Corps because of fears for my health and safety. A psychic I met at a Renaissance fair right before leaving for Argentina told me I was going to do the Peace Corps. I don’t really believe in psychics but everything she told me that day has come true. So perhaps it was simply a matter of fate?
Voluntourism is said to be the fastest growing segment of the travel industry (itself one of the world’s fastest growing industries). Do you think this kind of travel can help the uninitiated understand the problems our planet is facing?
Voluntourism is a tricky subject for me personally. On one hand I feel that it is ridiculous to pay someone’s plane ticket, lodging, food, and transportation at a more luxurious level than any host country national has ever experienced to have them “volunteer” and do a job that a local person would probably be more than willing and capable of doing had all that money been spent on their salary. On the other hand, I do realize the value of cross-cultural communications for both parties and that, on the occasions when it’s done correctly, the volunteer might actually be able to transfer a valuable skill to the host country nationals. In short, it all depends on how the voluntourism is being executed.
While in the Dominican Republic, I observed many volunteers who were asked to do jobs that could have been, and in some cases even were once done by Dominicans. It wasn’t that the local population didn’t have the knowledge or training to do some of these jobs; it was that they didn’t have the money to pay a salaried person and wanted a “free” volunteer instead.
Luckily, most Peace Corps volunteers were successfully trained to avoid taking jobs away from Dominicans, and instead focus on areas where they and their community felt the need was greatest.
Readers — yay or nay for letting Adria Schmidt into The Displaced Nation? Tell us your reasons. (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Adria — find amusing.)
img: Hair washing ritual in Constanza, a mountainous area of the Dominican Republic, in spring of this year. Adria Schmidt is the one getting her hair washed — the one doing the washing is Rebecca, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, and they are in the home of another Peace Corps volunteer, Malia (not pictured). Due to the primitive plumbing conditions, hair washing has to be done in the kitchen, by heating water up on the stove.
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s installment from our displaced fictional heroine, Libby, who finds herself celebrating her first Thanksgiving under less-than-ideal circumstances. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)
If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!
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