Bridging the Gap

Posted on August 29,2014 by latinomentalhealth

Driving to Baños, Ecuador involved driving through the Andes Mountains, a circuitous and often anxiety- and altitude sickness-provoking trip. I kept my anxiety levels at a manageable level by looking out of the window and taking in the beautiful and awe-inspiring landscape of Ecuador: the rolling hills, the babbling brooks, the small communities, and the impressive blue sky. Many things caught my extranjera attention, including—though certainly not limited to—the alcalde election advertisements painted on the sides of buildings, the seeming affinity for volleyball, the stray dogs, the livestock tethered to posts mere inches from the highways, and the scores of restaurants and bars attempting to offer respite to travel-weary drivers. Apparently, there is a lot of cultural information to be gained by staring out of a window while fighting the headaches and nausea that can come from being so high above sea level.

These quickly-passing images made the time go by more rapidly but often left little impact in my brain other than to note that it was different from what I am used to in the United States. However, one sign in particular jarred me out of my highway hypnosis and provoked a profound and enlightening metaphor that would become an important lens through which I examined not only my trip to Ecuador, but my entire education thus far in the Latino Mental Health Program and my role as a non-native bilingual therapist. One bridge, which did not seem any more or less precarious than the others we had crossed on this lengthy road trip, was called Puente Salsipuedes, a bridge of medium length that connected two mountains across a deep valley, punctuated by a mountain stream. At first, I figured it was named after a person, but when I broke down the word into smaller pieces, my heart skipped a beat realizing we were in the middle of “Bridge Leave If You Can.” This did not inspire much confidence in the heavy bus’s ability to traverse this apparently unstable bridge or to meet whatever foes might lurk on the other side. Gratefully, we crossed the bridge safely and did not meet any untoward creatures or dangers on the road that continued. Why, then, did this little sign—clearly meant as a joke—incite such an intense response in me?

Before leaving for Ecuador, my compañeras and I met with Dra. Paola Contreras to learn about what we might expect culturally in Ecuador. She noted at one point that we “are bridging the gap between cultures”—that is the United States and Ecuador—which can be both an emotional and an intellectual experience. That bridge, Salsipuedes, struck me as a perfect metaphor for what it is like to leave the comfort and familiarity with my own cultural background and experience to immerse myself in a completely foreign culture. Before leaving for both Costa Rica last year and Ecuador this year—before crossing the bridge—my amygdala went into hyperdrive—Are you sure you want to do this? Wouldn’t you rather stay at home and relax for four weeks? This isn’t THAT essential to your education!—effectively acting like that warning sign on the bridge: Leave if you can and stay where you are at ease. There are moments when I certainly wanted to take this advice and head back the way I came.

But then my logical, rational frontal lobe would take over and calmly tell my amygdala to relax, reminding that area of my brain that I have been preparing for these trips educationally for a long time. The LMHP classes have functioned as sidewalks and handrails along the bridge, allowing me to grip onto information and experiences that would most definitely keep me feeling safe while crossing this intercultural bridge. I sometimes get knocked off balance by the wind or feel overwhelmed by the cars rushing by, but I can acclimate to these stimuli and eventually even begin to enjoy them.

Having successfully crossed Salsipuedes, completing both programs in Costa Rica and Ecuador, it feels empowering to know I survived the journey, picking up some linguistic and therapeutic tools along the way. Future bridge-crossing can allow for more integration of my native culture with the Latino cultures about which I have learned so much, and can influence my future clinical work with both Latino and non-Latino clients. That being said, there is a feeling that I missed out on something. The stream that stretches below the bridge and cuts in between the mountains is beautiful, peppered with rocks and boulders, the water looking cool and refreshing, if not a little rough. The sides of the mountains leading to this stream are tangled with trees, bushes, flowers, and probably some animals that have gone sight unseen while I clung to the handrails of the concrete bridge above. As a person who loves to take pictures, I am sure there are some breathtaking views that I would love to capture.

If the bridge has a warning, then this path below (if one exists) to the stream and back up the other side of the mountain certainly carries a stronger caution. It would be more dangerous to scale down a mountain, cross a river, and climb back up the other side, facing unknown fauna and foliage, without the security and support offered by handrails and smooth paths. But to attempt to bridge the gap in that way must be more rewarding: to be actually “in it,” experiencing first-hand the local customs, wading through the waters of values and expectations that come from generations past and will continue for many generations to come, though always changing slightly based on the curve of the river and the rocks and other detritus that influence its path. To arrive back at the top on the other side must fill a person with great pride and confidence, even though he or she may be slightly more battered from the effort. It is wit and survival that get a person through that kind of experience, with less of an impact from education, although it would certainly help to know what a person might face.

Studying abroad through the LMHP for me has been akin to walking across the bridge: while I have been able to really experience living and working in different cultures, I feel that my experiences have been more professional and intellectual than personal and “in it.” I still feel like I am lacking the conversational, colloquial Spanish that will be more essential to my work with Latino clients than the professional language that I have learned over the years (the importance of which is not lost on me). Now, I must take the initiative, which the LMHP has given me the confidence to do, to go where the bridge protects travelers and venture into the thick of culture and language, the part that is not taught in the classroom so I can hopefully be more culturally-sensitive to my clients.

Laura Zakreski