Vergüenza: Sink or Swim

President's Palace, Asunción“Vergüenza” means “shame” in Spanish. In the everyday application of the word, “vergüenza” means shyness and someone without “vergüenza” isn’t ashamed to do whatever it is they want to do. This little word summarizes whether you will sink or swim as a volunteer. Why?

There is no room for being shy (having vergüenza) in the life of a PC volunteer. I and all other volunteers are weird and foreign to our communities, but our job is to get to know the people as best we can and make a life in Paraguay…as quickly as possible.

To get to know people we end up making a lot of “cold calls”—just walking up to houses to visit. We invite ourselves to any event we hear about:  Funerals, birthdays, soccer games, Bible study; the list goes on and on.

To make a life in Paraguay we (the volunteers) have to ask endless questions. In a country where there aren’t really even road signs, the only way to figure out where things are and who can help us is to ask. For example, there’s no directory of electricians that could help me when my power goes out. But, there are at least three electricians who live within a ten-minute walk from my house.  We can’t Yelp or Google maps stores and restaurants (except, maybe, in Asunción) because most of them are off the Internet grid and the only way to know they exist is to ask or stumble upon them.

But, it’s not just that we don’t know where anything is. It’s also that things are done differently here. This is the land of house-front stores and handy men and women. Because of this, we have to learn how to navigate a world of informal, personal business interactions. It’s a world that the organization, digitalization, and formalization of the US has pushed to a back burner, but in Paraguay it’s very much front and center.

Volunteering is an exercise in losing vergüenza. To stay afloat you simply must be bold.