Self introspect becomes a challenging concept when culture shock has its nasty grip on you. Everyone has habits, good and bad. During times of stress, there is always a tendency to lean on the bad and run from the good habits. For me the running is literal, or a lack thereof if I am stressed.
Working out is my indicator of how I am doing, mentally and by proxy, physically. I typically run, walk, and enjoy pilates or yoga here and there. When I am living my best life, I am daily doing one or two of the above, when I am emotionally compromised, I avoid physical exercise at all costs. The irony lies in the fact that physical exercise serves as a de-stressor, both physically and psychologically. When I am stressed or overwhelmed and manage to subconsciously avoid working out altogether, the stress only gets worse. It is a dangerous cycle.
Every time I move, I have to be quick to find a good gym, or means of exercise. I was not quick enough in Bucharest.
I pray that I will always have someone in my life who notices when I have stopped working out, and lovingly forces me to the gym. Being on the other side of the world from all the people I love, I was able to conceal my lazy little secret for a few weeks in Bucharest. With the resurgence of wifi in my life, Netflix became my side job and I successful pretended that nothing was wrong for a short time. This eventually resulted in some nasty stress induced crying episodes, until FaceTime was no longer good enough to hide the fact that there was something going on.
So, a week ago I bit the bullet and bought a gym membership. I justify the cost because I have 14 roommates in my house in Bucharest, so living is slightly cheaper. And although money is running out quickly, my mental health won the monetary day.
I, Ali Roberson, have returned to the gym, after three weeks of justifying the amount I walk in my new city as "exercise", I am actually working out again. And I know it is working, because for the first time in a month, I am also writing again (sorry about the delay). And for the first time in a month, I have a clear mind, and I am praying out of necessity, a deep necessity that flows from my heart.
If you live near my family or significant other, give them a hug for me, because they have been putting up with me from the other side of the world for the past month, and it has not been so stellar. The transition to Romania was a little more than I was expecting. Culture shock is strange when you go from one culture that is not your own, to another culture that is still not your own, there is not guidebook for the phenomenon.
To be honest though, I learned to love the experience of working out in new countries. I remember when I picked up working out after high school, at the end of senior year once I stopped dancing. At the time, going to a new gym was the most nerve wracking thing in the world. In undergrad, when I started pilates and yoga, I remember the nerves I would always have before trying a new studio or a new instructor. It was like the first day in a new dance class when I was a kid, I wouldn’t know a soul in the room and it always made me a ball of nerves, or the first day of practice on the varsity dance team, talk about anxiety. I look back on all of those experiences now, thinking of how well they prepared me for the truly unique cultural experience of working out at a gym in a foreign country.
In Romania, they highly stress cleanliness, you have to cover your shoes with shoe covers until you change into your sneakers in the locker room. I was not even phased by this, because in Uganda they provide you with pre-worn (and washed, but still…) flip flops that you must wear in the locker room. At the gym in Romania, they do not speak English, so it makes pilates very interesting, essentially I am always one step behind.
During my time in Uganda I was too afraid to jog outdoors, for good reason. I had a few gyms nearby that I would go to 2-3 times a week so I could jog on a treadmill. Some gyms were nicer than others, one had A/C, the others just had open windows. The treadmills measured in kilometers per hour and not accurately, in that regard. It cost me 15,000 Ugandan shillings per visit at the gyms without A/C, and 30,000 shillings at the fancy gym with A/C. That is about 4 USD and 9 USD respectively. When I would splurge, and go to the fancy A/C gym, I made sure to make an afternoon of it, going after work ended and staying for a couple hours. The fancy gym had a sauna and steam room and personal trainers. I had the best boxing workout of my life in that gym.
My fancy 9-dollar Ugandan gym with A/C was just about the nicest gym in the capital city I lived in. Many wealthy Ugandans had memberships and it was fascinating to observe a different class of Ugandans, compared to the typical clientele at work.
One week, while in the women’s locker room at the fancy gym, I remember overhearing two seemingly wealthy Ugandan businesswomen discussing a lavish vacation one of them had taken to South Africa. The main discussion was not on the resort, or the beach, but it focused particularly on the mere fact that the woman managed to get a visa out of Uganda. As I learned, the Ugandan passport is very weak. Not many countries offer visas, even for tourism, to a holder of a Ugandan passport. Romanians belong to the EU, so this is not as frustrating of a phenomenon, although because of the stigma associated with the Roma people (you may know them as Gypsies, which is actually, as I have recently learned, a derogatory term that is offensive to the oppressed people group.) Romanians can also often find it hard to travel to other countries outside of the EU.
I remember sitting in the locker room in Uganda, when the reality hit me of the privilege that my little blue passport provides me. I have always been aware of the privilege that we, as American citizens have, but I was not aware that the privilege to travel the world is one of them. This privilege is one that is not afforded to most nationalities.
I never batted an eye lash when I hopped two continents over to Uganda. I remember studying abroad, going on foreign mission trips, and traveling as a kid, and not once did I think, “Gee. I wonder if they will let me in to this country?” No, I have never dealt with applying for a Visa, prior to departure to another country.
For the first time in my life, I am currently dealing with Visa issues in Romania. I was planning on staying to finish my year with IJM here, but the process once my tourist visa expires in October is extremely costly and time consuming. Even if I am able to raise enough money to get an extended visa, I may still have to leave the country first for a short stint to avoid overstaying my tourist visa before the process is finished, which will also cost me a lot of money.
I distinctly remember sitting in the locker room at my fancy Ugandan gym that day, thinking about how thankful I am to be an American, how thankful I am to have the ability to travel and work in other countries and serve God through my work. And now, even still I am able to sit in this frustrating situation, understanding a very, very small glimpse of what the majority of the world feels. It is in no way equal to what an immigrant fleeing persecution and violence feels, or what a child seeking to be reunified across a border with their family feels, or what a woman who is trying to find employment in another country to provide for her children feels, but I vaguely understand the feeling of not being welcome. The feeling that being foreign is not a good thing.
This is a significant road bump, but I am also thankful that I know who brought me here. God put this crazy city on my path, with all of its Visa complexities, and I know that he will bring me through it. While I have a timeline in my head of how long I am supposed to work for IJM, and while I have confidence that that timeline will be met, and that funds will come through and that governments will function as they should, I also continue to put my trust in God, because he brought me here. It is His timeline I trust in, not my own.
And in full transparency, all of these above mentioned revelations have occurred in the past seven days, thanks to a gym membership and lots of time with a newly cleared mind in prayer. God is good friends, I pray that you know that, because it is true. No matter the continent, no matter the passport, no matter the amount of physical activity, God is good.
Thanks for all the prayers and sweet messages this past month. Romania is beautiful, the work is keeping me very busy and the food is keeping my belly full. If you want to help me with all of my visa costs, here is a link to a secure website to donate (www.continuetogive.com/livingintentionali). The current cost estimate is $1,000 for the visa, attorney fees and court costs, plus more if I have to leave the country unexpectedly. I will continue updating you all as the process moves forward. I am trusting that God will provide, and He does it through donations big and small from strangers, family members and sweet friends. Thank you for making this work possible!! Big progress is being made in Romania in the fight to end human trafficking in Eastern Europe.