The Lindo Factor

Ceramic figurines made in Aregua.

Ceramic figurines made in Aregua.

Lindo means pretty in Spanish. And while it means that in Paraguay too, especially when talking about people, it also carries a deeper meaning. I like to call it the “lindo factor.” Let me come clean from the outset, I love the lindo factor. Actually, it’s one of my favorite things about Paraguay.

In short, the lindo factor is the emphasis Paraguayans put on making things look nice. Lindo doesn’t just mean clean and it doesn’t mean hygienic (and in Paraguay clean and hygienic are not the same thing). The emphasis is on how things look overall.

Let me describe the lindo factor from within my American upbringing and then expand it to the Paraguayan setting. My mother has always been keen on keeping the house neat, which to her means no dirt and no dust; things are put away in their places in an organized manner; and curtains, flowers, art, and other objects are strategically placed to make things look pretty.  In this context, the emphasis is on making things perfect. All this together, gives my mom’s house a serious dose of the lindo factor.

Now, in the Paraguayan context, as much importance is put on making things pretty and neat as in my mom’s house, but there isn’t the pressure to make things perfect.  There’s a lot of sand here in Paraguay so there’s always sand on the floor. There’s dust and spiders on the ceiling beams and the walls show dirt and water marks. Things like seat covers might be stained or slightly torn and the walls or doors might have children’s writing left over from the tender years. But, you will never walk into a messy Paraguayan home. There is a table cloth on the table, the floors are swept everyday, the dirt in the lawn is swept everyday, and sometimes you’ll find a ceramic figurine outside or a painting inside.  The first 3 feet of the trees outside might be painted white for no other reason than it makes them more “lindo.” Things might be piled on a table (because there are no drawers or shelves available), but nothing is left on the floor. Everyone in the house helps keep it clean.

The lindo factor is one thing that has made living in Paraguay easier for me. I’ve always felt that the neatness of one’s living space is a reflection of the neatness of her mind.

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Cows in the Street

cows in the streetIf you can overlook the fact that everyone is not speaking English and you’re never entirely sure what is going on around you, Paraguay can seem a lot like the US, especially the rural US. However, contradictorily, you would never mistake your life in Paraguay for that in the US.

So what makes the two countries different? What makes Paraguay a developing country and the US a developed country? These are hard questions, but here are some observations about Paraguay I think illustrate some aspects of life here.

Infrastructure

  • Dirt bikes are the most common mode of personal transportation. Buses are a critical way of going farther distances or to areas where you don’t want to drive or park your dirt bike. Along with motor vehicles, you will see ox carts and horse carts on the road.
  • If it’s raining school and work may be cancelled. We are in the sub-tropics; a heavy rain will turn streets into rivers that are fast enough to carry a child away. Dirt bikes don’t have roofs to protect you from the rain.
  • On the walk from your house to the nearest supermarket, your eyes and nose may sting because people are burning trash. Most areas don’t have trash collection so some of the easiest ways to get rid of trash are to burn it or bury it.

Daily Life

  • Paraguay has it’s own soundtrack. A soundtrack that blasts from almost every house from morning to evening.  Have you every heard the Paraguayan polka?
  • Most people and houses are well kept. I don’t mean to say they are flashy, because they’re not. “Humble” and “neat” are some words that come to mind.
  • The tablecloth serves as a napkin for whipping your mouth and as a cover for the table and then a cover for food left on the table. It’s not uncommon for family members to share one or two glasses while drinking juice, soda, or beer.

Personal Interactions

  • In your community, everyone you pass acknowledges you with a greeting, nod, or smile. Most people in your community are related.
  • You don’t just do errands, but rather you have conversations with people while buying things. A lot of shopping can be done at house-front, mini general stores.
  • Children live with their parents until they marry. Siblings are likely to share beds and it’s not uncommon to have several beds in one room.

Animals

  • Dogs run free everywhere. They aren’t trained; they aren’t de-bugged; and they aren’t spayed or neutered.
  • Except in the city, there are a lot of free-range chickens.
  • You can sit at a bar in the middle of a medium-sized town and cows will wander down the street by you.

 

 

 

Two Myths About the US

Paraguayan SkyWhen I meet people in Paraguay, I expect to tell them that my state is close to New York and Canada because they’ve never heard of it. I’m excited to be the first one to talk to them about Vermont. Coming from a rural area of the United States, I think it’s fun to dispel the image movies and TV shows create of my country. Eagerness to teach aside, there are two myths many people in Paraguay have about the US that frustrate me.

Myth 1: Everyone in the US is blond and blue-eyed.

I think one of the challenges related to this is that Paraguayans don’t always realize how big the US is. They’ve heard of New York and some of our other major cities. But, it’s hard to describe to them that the US is about 24 times the size of Paraguay (Paraguay is about the size of California). We have cities that have more inhabitants than the entire population of Paraguay

Myth 2: Everyone in the US is rich. There are no poor people in the US.  

I had an interesting conversation with one woman who thought people didn’t have to work in the United States. I think she thought we get money from the government. If I wasn’t so interested in capitalizing on the teachable moment I might have laughed. When I left the US, people were still up in arms because some saw the new health care law as a government overstep.  In Paraguay, where government handouts were part of the system for the 30-odd years leading up to Paraguayan democracy, it’s hard to convey the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality that is the American dream. Many volunteers struggle against the perception that they are here to deliver money.  Even among development organizations the idea of development as a partnership of work is not as common as it should be.

It’s not for nothing that 2 of the 3 Peace Corps goals focus on cultural exchange.

The Journey to My Site: Top 10 Thoughts

Peace Corps training ended in a hot second. Well, it was actually raining and not too hot. IMG_0310

After taking the oath, the other new volunteers and I only had an evening and morning to say goodbye, not only to our first host families and training staff, but also to each other. The morning after swear-in, Peace Corps drove us to various bus pick-up points so we could travel to our sites. We aren’t supposed to leave our sites for the next 3 months. It’s a dramatic change, especially after having so much time in training to chat with each other about our daily challenges.

When I arrived at my site I was numb. I’d stayed up late the night before wishing other volunteers in my group good luck. I’d also gotten up early to say goodbye to my family before they left for school and work. My new host family kept asking questions—about how I was, about my trip—it was so sweet of them to care, but I wasn’t ready to think of answers. I said I was tired, that wasn’t really the case, I didn’t know what I was.

Recall how you felt the day you finished high school, the day you moved to college, the day after you got your college diploma, and the first day of your first job after college, combined all those feelings, that is what it felt like to finally move to my site.

Top 10 thoughts while traveling to my site:

  1. How on earth am I going to bring all my stuff to my site using a commuter bus? Considering that I’m living here 2 years I don’t have much stuff, but I can still hardly lift my large suitcase.
  2. When will I see the volunteers from my group again? How often will I see them? During training I saw them daily (and that was comforting).
  3. Am I ready for whatever is waiting for me at my site? I hear I’ll have down times, up times, slow times, busy times, fun times, sad times…that’s a lot of times.
  4. Am I going to accomplish anything? Will I learn the language and get to know the community? Will people work with me? Will I be creative and come up with good projects to help people improve their health?
  5. No really, what are the next 2 years going to look like? They say every volunteer’s experience is unique, so what’s mine going to look like?
  6. Am I going to get sick? I don’t want a parasite or dengue. Actually, I don’t even want to have a cold while in Paraguay.
  7. How are the rent and other money conversations going to go? Paraguayans tend to be comfortable talking money, however I feel trepidatious.
  8. What am I not anticipating that’s going to be a challenge? Sometimes the unknown is the most stressful.
  9. Am I going to make friends in my site? Two years is a long time, in-site friends would make life more enjoyable.
  10. Who will I be 3 months from now? A year from now? Two years from now? I already feel like I’m a different person than the one who left the US (and that was just 10-ish weeks ago).

Taking the Oath

taking the oathTen weeks and a billion new emotions later, I’m officially a sworn-in Peace Corps volunteer. Time flies when you are having fun, or maybe it’s when you are working hard.

The swear-in ceremony was simple and sweet. Peace Corps staff offered advice; representatives from my group gave pump-up speeches with inside jokes; our host government shared some touching words; and the US ambassador, well, had good things to say but his Spanish wasn’t very good.

We took a lot of pictures. It was overwhelming. As exciting as the oath was, many goodbyes and new things lurked and would inevitably follow. Peace Corps has changed my understanding of excitement. In the Peace Corps excitement and being petrified are inseparable. The two emotions together are a concise summary of my first months in Paraguay.

The oath is as follows:

“I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

 

The Great Reveal: My Site

Welcome from my site host family!

Welcome from my site host family!

Holy cow! I know where I’m going to live and work the next 2 years…in Paraguay.

One of my pig neighbors.

One of my pig neighbors.

Milking time.

Milking time.

I spent the last 5 days visiting my future site. I move there to start my work as a sworn-in Peace Corps volunteer on April 11.

View from the ruta.

View from the ruta.

School where I will work.

School where I will work.

My site is beautiful, the people are welcoming and guapo, I’m close to Asunción and a huge supermarket, and it looks like I will have a lot of work to do (if I play my cards right and have a little luck).  My host family is large and friendly. I have a room with a lock. I feel spoiled.

Health post where I will work.

Health post where I will work.

Views from around town.

Views from around town.

I was nervous to visit my site for the first time. What if my host family didn’t like me? What if I didn’t like them? What if the people in my site didn’t want me there? What if…?  Waiting to get my Peace Corps site was an introduction to a level of nervous-excitement I didn’t know existed.

Views from around town.

Views from around town.

Views from around town.

Views from around town.

Let me explain. Living with a host family is hard. Moving to a new community where people don’t speak your first language is hard. For those of you who haven’t studied abroad or lived with a host family (and a host community), it feels a lot like meeting, for the first time, the family of the significant other you hope to marry.

You want to make a good impression while still being honest about yourself. You want them to like you and you hope that you like them. You want everything to go smoothly and you want them to want to get to know you better.

My site visit went well. I chatted, drank terere, walked around, went running, attended a soccer game…I visited the high school and health post where I am going to work. I felt safe there. I even think that, with time, my site will feel like home.

My site reminds me of Vermont. It’s green—it’s full of rocks and trees and has cows that wander across the road.