You can call me Caterpillar

Let us take a break in our regularly-scheduled blogging. Those waiting for the post on Love in the Peace Corps, fear not. Just give it a week or two.

In the mean time, read on to discover why I wrote this post on an emergency flight to the USA, and why I have been “medically evacuated” from Mexico.

My story might not start in the most obvious way. We will begin with an identity crisis, some construction machinery, and a small village in West Africa.


Identity in foreign countries is a tricky thing. If you want to fit-in with your new surroundings, you have to adapt who you are a little bit.

This might mean that you wear different clothes. Perhaps you apologize all of the time to be polite. Or maybe you play a different gender role to maintain personal safety.

After two years of adapted living, your identity can be a bit unclear.

My first exposure to the “foreigner identity crisis” was in Thailand. My friends at the university grappled with what to call me because everyone has a nickname there. No one goes by their full name with friends!

But there was no obvious nick-name that fit. Kaew (means “glass” or “cup”) and Fon (means “rain”) struggled to find something that sounded right; my actual name was no good. Too foreign. To formal.

Fon and Kaew fight over what to nick-name me

Fon and Kaew fight over what to nick-name me

They eventually settled on Jep, pronounced with a rising tone. They were never really satisfied with it, and I remained, to some extent, an outsider with a poor nick-name.


I had forgotten about this for six years, but it all came back when I arrived in a tiny village in West Africa. Before I could even put my bags down, a woman in the market asked me for my name. Upon hearing it, she said, “that will not do. Not at all. I think your name will be…” then she listed three options.

I picked Zaleeza Sawadogo.

These women knew me as Zaleeza

These women only knew me as Zaleeza

From that day, I introduced myself as such to everyone in the village. The people loved it. Here I was, obviously a foreigner, but my name made me fit within the community. There were a few people who had different linguistic or religious preferences, and they started adding more names so that I could fit in with their sub-cultures as well.

After a month in the village, my name had swelled to Zaleeza Angel Wendwaoga Sawadogo. These were names that belonged to: Muslim, Christian, Tribe religion, and a common last name. It incorporated the Arabic, French, and Mooré languages.

It did not correlate with my name one iota.

A community that helped name me four different things and never asked what my family called me

A community that named me four different things and never asked what my family called me


When I found out that I would move to Mexico, I thought that I could avoid such name problems. After all, I have many tocayos in Mexico. Name twins.

Alas, the cross-cultural name problem would continue.

I arrived at my office on the same day as another volunteer. We do not look alike nor are our personalities similar. However, our co-workers could not keep us straight.

Ever since my first day at the office, I have been called Becky at least once a day. Typically, it is three or four times per day. After a year, I almost forgot my actual name!

That was when our new Sub-Director started working at the park. Early on, I invited him to see the proposed trail route for my project, to get his feedback. He happily accepted, even though he knew that off-trail hiking is not for the feint of heart.

Forest hiking without trails is a stability challenge for the whole staff

Forest hiking without trails is a stability challenge

He loved the route, and he was very impressed by my hiking skills.

My trail-blazing team deep in the forest

My trail-blazing team deep in the forest

Back in the office, he excitedly turned to me and said: “Hey Becky! You know what you are? You are a gat-uh-PEE-yar.”
Me, ignoring being called Becky for the millionth time: “A gat-uh-PEE…what?”
Sub-Director: “Gat-uh-PEE-yar. You know, the truck-thing that moves heavy stuff.”

A bulldozer? Is that what he could be saying?

Me: “Oh! Do you mean the brand Caterpillar? Like the big machine thing?”
Sub-Director: “Yes! How did you say that?”

We practiced pronouncing the word in English. He said that is a bit of a tongue twister; too many syllables. Then I really confused him by explaining that caterpillers are pre-butterfly gusanos as well as a brand of bulldozer.

Finally, his initial comment caught up with me. “Hey, so why do you say that I am a Caterpiller bulldozer?”
“Because you move in the forest like there is nothing there! The branches and fallen logs do not even slow you down.”

Since then, the name stuck. I am Caterpillar. I think that this is partly because he gets embarrassed calling me Becky everyday.


Last week, the Sub-Director heard that I injured my ankle while stepping out of a public bus. It was a bad sprain and I was in a cast and unable to walk. He was shocked.

“How could this happen to my gat-uh-PEE-yar?? She goes anywhere she wants to in the forest with no problems, but she gets injured in a city!”

Maybe it is because part of my identity was born in the forest. Maybe I am out of my element in cities.

I am not sure though. My identity is a little mixed up at the moment!


Relaxing with my giant knob ankle elevated and with too much American TV

Relaxing with my giant knob ankle elevated and with too much American TV

This story was a fun way of telling blog readers my bad news.

The aforementioned injury was bad enough that I needed to return to the United States for about 45 days to recover.

My next post will explain why my recovery needs to take place outside of Mexico.

Until then, know that I am doing well, that I am enjoying some quality family time, and enjoying good food.

All in all, I am taking the transition in stride. A stride that is supported with my crutches, of course!


Making me smile

Other names that I have answered to in foreign countries:

  • Pan de Dios means: a good person; literally: bread of God. Mexico
  • Güerita literally: little blondie; note: I have dark brown hair. Mexico
  • Nasaara means: white foreigner; literally: non-Islamic person or Christian. Burkina Faso
  • Phii literally: ghost; note: my fault, I got the tone wrong. I meant to say Older Sister. Thailand
  • Nong means: younger sister. Thailand
  • Oowan means: fatty; note: that one was not good for the self-esteem. Thailand
  • Honigkuchenpferd means: sweetheart literally: Honey-cake horse. Germany
  • Schatzimausi means: sweetheart; literally: treasure mouse. Germany

5 responses to “You can call me Caterpillar

  1. Hope you’re healing well! When I met you, you were also on crutches. May this be the last time crutches mark an important transition! Xoxo

  2. I’m no longer certain where you’re getting your information, but grest topic.
    I must spend a while learning more or understandimg more.
    Thanks for fantastic info I was on the lookout for this info
    for my mission.

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