Coming from Vermont we always joke that we are years behind New York City. I mean, my parents still don’t have cell service at their homes and only got rid of dial-up within the past 5 years…and pop culture doesn’t get to Vermont any faster. The difference between the rural US and the urban US is dramatic. Now, times the city-country contrast in the US by 10 and you’ll get closer to the disparity between big Paraguayan cities (mainly Asunción and Encarnación) and the rest of Paraguay. Most of Paraguay is rural, ranging from rural with running water and electricity to rural with nothing.
In the many rural parts of Paraguay there are roads that can’t be crossed when it rains. Cows roam free. There’s bad cell service, no Internet, electricity that goes out, and water pulled from wells with buckets. It can be hard to find groceries because there are just little house-front stores with the basics: sugar, salt, and flour.
In Asunción, as least when it’s not flooding because of a downpour and no drainage—there are high-end clothing stores and sit-in restaurants with waiters and WiFi. There are coffee shops, ice cream parlors, movie theaters, and international businesses. You’d be surprised how many people in Asunción speak English, but don’t know Guaraní.
In Paraguay, the city and the countryside are like to different worlds. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe they are part of the same country.
Have you even seen fat, raw and blobby? Maybe as part of Mayor Bloomberg’s obesity reduction campaign? Maybe on a TV show about liposuction? Maybe after bacon grease congeals?
I’ve seen it. I’ve worked it from a semi-solid to a mixable paste. Nothing makes you think about what you’re eating quite as dramatically as working fat globs into something more like soft butter.
In Paraguay, one of the common ingredients is raw animal fat, rather than butter or vegetable oil. In the end, it still gives baked goods a great consistency and tastes amazing, but it does make you think about your middle section. Is that whole cup going to end up right on my stomach?…is usually what I ask myself.
Baking with the señoras here has brought me back to the basics, in terms of what we actually use to give our food the taste and texture it has. In Paraguay, there is an abundance of the real thing—raw milk, raw animal fat, fresh eggs, and fresh meat (just killed minutes before cooking).
I still eat cookies, but since coming to Paraguay visions of fat globs dance in my head when I do. I know that butter and raw animal fat is the same thing in the end, but for some reason raw animal fat gives me an unpleasant visceral reaction while butter makes my mouth water. I’m used to fresh meat and raw milk, but the animal fat makes me pause every time.
It’s the smiles and waves of the children in my community that remind me what I’m doing here is worthwhile. I’m still learning these kids’ names and I’ve been to their class maybe once, but they are already happy to see me. They yell “hello” across the street, wave and smile vigorously, and ask me when I’m coming back to the school. They may be little terrors when I’m actually in their classroom trying to teach, but their smiles give my work meaning.
It’s easy to wonder why I’m here. My work doesn’t have a clear product, or a clear direction for that matter. It’s not like I have sales that I can track to measure my success. I’m dabbling in diplomacy and public health—terms that don’t even have a clear definition. And to tell you the truth, up until recently I haven’t even been doing those things…I’ve been setting up to do those things.
The first 3 months in site—yep, I’ve been in my site 3 months already—are supposed to be about building relationships. For me, building relationships included going on walks, hanging out at the health post, visiting houses in my community, baking at the bakery, and helping my site mate teach in the school. I watched a lot of soccer. I’ve helped some people study English. I helped a child with his math and Spanish homework.
I tell myself time and time again that sitting for hours, drinking terere or watching the soccer game, is actually part of my job. Peace Corps service is like building a house—you need a good foundation before you can build the walls and roof. But, I’m the one building and evaluating the foundation. I guess I’ll know how I did somewhere down the road when my projects start falling into place. I start teaching at the school regularly at the end of July. I can’t wait to have a “set” schedule.
I’m sure you’ve heard: Germany won the World Cup. Several people in my community pointed out Germany’s victory to me, which I found confusing. I mean, I watched the game, but Germany was never my team. The confusion evaporated as soon as one person asked me if Germany was a city in the US and another asked me if Germany was near the US.
A lack of geographic knowledge, which may have led to these confusions, isn’t what interested me in these interactions. Plenty of people in my home country don’t know where Paraguay is, so I call it even. What interested me was how people were making the connection. Mainly, Germany is foreign and so is the US. I’m from the US, so therefore I am foreign and must have a connection to Germany. (It’s also a race thing, but I’ll save assumptions about light-skinned people for another post).
Many people in the countryside of Paraguay never leave their communities, or only go as far as the nearest town or city. Vacations aren’t common, especially vacations abroad. Most people who emigrate for work go to Argentina (at least that’s what it seems from the stories I’ve heard). My site is comprised of two communities, and my house is about 1 kilometer (less than a mile) from one of the communities. Yet, people in the community I don’t live in often comment about how far away I live. It’s a fifteen-minute walk.
The idea of living all your life in a small fraction of the Earth isn’t uncommon. Even friends I have in the US who haven’t traveled much see the world as a giant, strange place beyond their country’s borders. But, for me the idea of “us and them” is even more exaggerated here because Paraguay is such a small country. And, many Paraguayans are only just discovering that they can explore the world.
It’s also a good reminder why I’m here: to clarify some basic facts about the US and try to dispel fears and assumptions about the US that come from not knowing. I guess as humans we are uneasy about the unknown and make things up to explain things we don’t understand. Living here has turned my life on end; it’s very interesting to be the proof that certain beliefs aren’t true. But, more than anything, it makes me wonder what things I assume or think are true but are really just fantasies I’ve invented to fill in the gaps of my knowledge.
One of the topics about which I will teach here is family planning. Before coming to site, I was concerned about the topic because of how polarizing it is in the US. I worried that there would be as much religious rhetoric against contraception and teaching sexual health in Paraguay as there is in the US. Paraguay is a Catholic country and I wondered if some of the same denial of basic health realities was present here as in the US. It is not.
Family planning and sexual health in Paraguay is not a subject cramped by religion. It is awkward and hard to talk about, just like in the US, but not because of religious beliefs. I find it awkward because of the power relationships between men and women here. And, well, because it’s just a hard subject to discuss eloquently.
In Paraguay, birth control pills and condom are free and offered at every public health clinic in the country. To get birth control pills a woman simply needs to go to the health clinic, request them, and present her ID. Sexual education is taught in many schools. I like to think Paraguay is transitioning to a family model that allows women to have the number of children they want when it makes sense for them. Paraguay isn’t there yet, but it’s on its way.
One thing I find particularly interesting about the relative ease of discussing family planning in Paraguay is that abortion is illegal. Period. Having one national set of laws in Paraguay that governs actions related to family planning makes it easier than in the US to know what can be said and can’t be said when teaching.
In site, my friends are ladies somewhere between 2 and 3 times my age. They are grandmothers. They are wonderfully welcoming and fun. If you asked me anytime before Paraguay, I would never have imagined my social life (at least when I’m in site) centering on grandmothers.
Until I came to Paraguay, I tended to seek out the friendship of people close to my age. But, in my site people my age are complicated. The complication comes from the fact that we are going in different directions. There is a big focus on being in a relationship, so between women my age and me there’s a feeling of competition and between men my age and me there’s sexual tension—neither of which are feelings I want in my daily life. Our dreams are different. Of course, young people here are fun, and I’m still hoping to find some Paraguayan best friends my age.
Everything that makes people my age difficult makes señoras (as one calls the older, married ladies) perfect friends. Señoras aren’t competitive, and the best ones don’t judge. Even if they think I’m strange, it doesn’t stop them. Most señoras are jokesters and enjoy hanging out. They’ve already raised kids and are the true rulers of the community. Many of them are homemakers, so they’re around more than the younger people who work outside of the home or are going to school.
Señoras have great stories and enjoy help cooking or reviewing their grandchildren’s homework. They are set in their ways, but they’ll listen to my ideas and observations even if they won’t act on them.
In Paraguay people aren’t single. They are either in a relationship, in a relationship with multiple relationships on the side, or about to be in a relationship. This relates partly to the importance and closeness of family and the role of women as mothers in Paraguayan culture.
In the US, most people hope to eventually end up with some kind of significant other, however there are things that come first, such as personal happiness and your career. That is not the case here. Having a boyfriend or girlfriend (husband or wife) seems to be the centerpiece of happiness. As for careers, at least in my community, most people are looking to pay the bills, not to develop a career.
When I tell people I’m single, I’m often asked, “why?” It’s almost as if my community members think I’ve specially calculated my singleness. I explain that I have things to do before I get married, and that I’m working on my career. But, the Paraguayans I explain this to continue to have a confused expression on their faces.
Often times, I want to throw my hands up and say, “I’m single because I’m here.” But I don’t because that’s rude and doesn’t teach anything.
This past weekend I attended my first Ahendu—a Peace Corps Paraguay volunteer talent show and dance party that happens about every 4 months, whenever one group of volunteers swears out. The majority of the some 250 volunteers in Paraguay attended. This year the theme was Great Gatsby.
On a basic level the party brings out the crazy side of volunteers, as you might imagine after each of us has been pent-up and on our best professional behavior in our work communities for months. In-site, as we call our work communities, we are on 24/7 and everyone notices everything. Ahendu also highlights the talented musicians amongst us. But, for me, the party was more than just a time to dance like crazy.
It was a time to meet and to get to know many of the other volunteers in Paraguay. We are all so different, but we have something in common because we all decided to join the Peace Corps and are surviving in Paraguay. We have similar struggles—such as navigating a world without things we took for granted before like hot water, heated houses, and Internet. And we have unique struggles—such as finding work or avoiding local sexual harassment.
We laughed a lot—at all the ridiculous situations we have found ourselves in since coming to Paraguay. The volunteers preparing to leave were sentimental but ready to go.
As a new volunteer I felt refreshed and inspired when Ahendu was over (and I’d finally caught up on sleep). Why? Despite the party atmosphere what struck me is the great projects on which all the volunteers are working. It was cool to see volunteers who can speak Guaraní and are as guapa as I will be.Yeah, sometimes we party hard, but in the end we’re all here because we hope to save the world in our own small way.
In my Paraguayan community I greet everyone. As I walk by people’s houses I wave and smile or call out a casual “adios.” As I pass people in the street I say “adios” and when I go to someone’s house I shake everyone’s hand or do a two-cheek air kiss. If you don’t greet everyone, you’re liable to appear standoffish, and that’s not helpful at all.
As someone who lived in a bigger US city before coming to Paraguay, adjusting to saying “hi” to everyone took some time. I’m used to it now, but there are times when it’s still awkward; like when I’m walking past a group of guys who are staring at me the entire time I walk. Staring here is culturally acceptable, common, and unavoidable when a woman walks past any man.
Greetings here are social cues. For example, my host sister will say a guy likes a girl if he walks by her without greeting her. Or, when someone stops greeting another person it can be a sign that she is angry with him. Paraguayans avoid confrontation and are very indirect, so they’ll rarely tell a person if something that person did bothered them.
I hated having to remember to greet everyone when I first got to my site. But, now that I’m used to it, I kind of like it. It’s nice to acknowledge people, and it’s nice to be acknowledged. It’s also easier to just put the greeting on autopilot—just always keep your eyes up, and say “hello” to everyone. Trying to decide who to greet and who not to greet is just too complicated.