1 Year in Paraguay!

Paraguayan ViewIt’s hard to believe that a year ago today I landed in Paraguay. On that day, I had no idea into what I was catapulting myself. I was trying desperately not to make any assumptions. That’s to say, I came to Paraguay in the dark.

While the time passed in a flash; I feel like I’ve been here a year. It’s 95 degrees Fahrenheit as I write this and I’m almost comfortable sitting in my house without a fan. Almost. There is nothing more wonderful and delicious than a cold glass of water. I’ve joined the locals in their understanding that ice cubes don’t cut it. Water is only cold enough when it has huge ice chunks. The Paraguayans I know don’t use ice trays, they fill bags (12 inches long, 3 inch in diameter) with water to freeze. Those ice bars are sold for 500 guaranis almost everywhere in Paraguay.

I miss terere when I don’t drink it. I can drink liters of terere, no problem. Terere really is the only thing that will get me through those hot afternoon when the humidity makes it impossible to be hungry. Hand washing my clothes is part of my routine (not to say I enjoy it). Cutting vegetables into crumb-sized cubes is second-nature. I expect things to start late and I’m surprised when I don’t have to wait for the bus. Whistles, hisses, and other catcalls do not particularly catch my attention. I no longer laugh to myself when I see people sweep their yards.

I know I’ve been in Paraguay a year because I’ve started claiming back some of the things I set aside when I first got here in an effort to “ingrate.” I’ve been drinking soda for almost a year, but I’m over it. I didn’t like soda when I lived in the States, I still don’t like it, and I’m not drinking it anymore. When I feel like I want to leave a social function, I leave rather than waiting until the end. My eyes are sensitive to light, so I wear sunglasses even if people think it’s off-putting. I tentatively share my opinions about cultural things when people ask.

It’s nice to be accustomed to Paraguay and start to feel like I can be more like me and less like a censored me. But, I’m still in the dark.

I’ve come to like the dark. When the power goes at night, I can actually see the stars that fill the ever-alluring Paraguayan sky. There are too many florescent lights on at night to see the stars clearly the rest of the time. I’ve come to terms with hours spent when I understand a fraction of what people are talking about—if only I actually spoke Guarani or Paraguayans only spoke Spanish. You never know how many thoughts go through your head until you’re in a situation where you don’t have the words to express many of them.

I’ve been happy and not focused too much on the differences between my culture and Paraguayan culture until the year mark started approaching. My recent heightened observance of the differences between me and my Paraguayan friends may be because it was easier to accept that I will never be able to live up to their standards when I realized I don’t actually want the life of a Paraguayan woman. It’s not that Paraguayan women aren’t wonderful, because I’ve never met so many awesome women in one place, but my understanding of the world makes their reality terrible to me.

I will never wash my brother’s clothes and fold his shirts while he sits on his ass watching. I will never accept when my brother, father, boyfriend, husband, or any man gets up from the table leaving his dishes for me to pick up and wash. Especially when I made the meal in the first place. I will never accept that because someone is a man it’s fine that he gets drunk every weekend and hits on any women he sees. Nor do I think he has special rights to stay out late with his friends. I do not think the house is the domain of women and the outdoors is the domain of men. I don’t think because I’m a woman I must be a mother or find a boyfriend.

I guess it took a year, but now it’s hard to ignore when mothers tell their sons to stop crying because they are men and their daughters that they can’t walk around alone because they are women. As my year mark in Paraguay approached, I was angry about these things and wondered how I’d kept them in the closet of my mind so long. But, the anger past and the dawn is coming. I can’t change Paraguayan culture. First, I can’t change it because I have no means to do it. Second, I can’t change it because it must be changed by Paraguayans so it’s done the right way for them. I’ve consoled myself because I know change is a thing that happens no matter what we do to stop it. And, being the weird foreigner I am part of that change whether I’m trying to be or not.

It’s still night. Culture is complicated and hours alone thinking really do highlight the shadows in the cave. The most useful thing I’ve learned from being in the dark is that there’s nothing wrong with shade.

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A Streak of Bad Luck

Stairs2015 started off with a streak of bad luck. I kept thinking that each inauspicious thing that happened was the last. I’m still hoping that, but I think it’s real this time.

It started with the general homesickness that comes with being away from home and everything that is remotely like home for a year. Then, there was a lot of reflection about my friendships in site. I cracked my new cell phone screen. My computer died resulting in the loss of a lot of my data. I lost all the tracking sheets of the work I’ve been doing, which I have to report anyway. I lost my grades to the class I’m teaching. I paid almost a month’s worth of Peace Corps salary to fix my computer. I lost the keys to my house.

Despite the bad luck, fate was kind enough to work things out on its own. And, I must stay that considering the stress I felt I handled everything well and didn’t cry. When I get into a contemplative state about home and friends there’s nothing to do but ride it out. A couple nights of bad sleep, some journal entries, and numerous very intense workouts will inevitably clean out my system. The crack on my cell phone isn’t so bad, and I think if I’m very kind to it from now on it will last me a couple of years. My computer works again, and a lion’s share of my data was backed up in various places. A Peace Corps salary really isn’t that much, and what is money for if not to spend? I did manage to get back into my house and it was easy to change the lock. I got to employ my carpenter skills and enforce my feeling of security at the same time.

I still don’t understand why good things and bad things come in bunches, but I’m looking forward to the series of nice things that have to be coming my way. Through it all, I couldn’t help thinking that 2015 is going to be a great year. Maybe the greatest year yet. I don’t know the source of my positivity, but think it is worth noting because it seems like a break from my past self. Is it possible that I’ve become a person that can let negative things slide off without much lasting impact? I like to think so, and that means that since coming to Paraguay I’ve completed at least one self-improvement project. It’s also possible that the positivity comes from the constant sun or the general positive outlook that Paraguayans have. As a friend said not too long ago, sometimes we don’t have to know why we feel a certain way. We just feel.

The Day My Life Ended And I Was Still Alive

Jesuit Ruins WindowsOkay, that title is a little dramatic, but I did draft this post using a paper and pencil because my computer bit the dust for a week. As a novelist, blogger, teaching, and lover of music the loss of my computer made me realize how much of my day I spend interacting with electronic content. But wait, don’t get the wrong impression. A good number of those hours that interaction is nothing more than listening to music while I do things like clean. I also average about 7 hours a day out of my house hanging out with people or working in my site.

Dependence on electronics is not a new topic of discussion. But, I am a Peace Corps volunteer and I have hours upon hours alone in my house no matter how hard I work. My computer is a trusty companion in my solitude and a connection to everything that isn’t Paraguay. Some people might think that calling a computer a companion is unhealthy. I invite them to join the Peace Corps and then decide.

Living without my computer for a week reminded me of my limits, humanity, and imperfections. It was a good reality check. As my sister said when I explained the situation, “Go back to the basics.” I felt connected to the people that lived generations ago. What did they do with themselves? I can tell you now from experience that it involved exercise, visiting people, the radio, and reading.

If I exercised as much as I did when I didn’t have my computer, I’d be ripped. If I visited people as much as I did when I didn’t have my computer, I’d be exhausted all the time. If I listened to the radio like I did when I didn’t have my computer, I’d only know fifty songs. If I read as much as I did when I didn’t have a computer, I’d be a genius.

Time Away

Chasing SunsetsI went on vacation to Uruguay over the New Year. What a pleasure it was to be reminded of the salty ocean breeze and relieved of the humid heat that is Paraguay’s habitual expression. I passed the days in several of Uruguay’s coastal cities. I slept in a neat little hostel in Montevideo, the capital. I felt like I was in Europe.

It’s hard to express how amazing a hot shower with real water pressure feels after months without. I’d nearly forgotten that there are places on Earth where buses only stop at bus stops and where people only speak a language I know well (Spanish).

There were many highlights. Walking along the beach. Viewing Montevideo from the top of maybe the tallest building in the city. Swimming in the ocean. Writing #PCPY in huge letters out of sand on the beach. Taking more selfies than anyone should ever take. Glimpsing the surface of Uruguay’s historic sites. Eating a dulce de leche ice cream Sunday to celebrate the New Year. Hanging out with friends and meeting the eclectic people who fill hostels. Bringing in the New Year with zillions of mini firework displays on the beach and in the street—yes, fireworks were set off in the middle of major city streets and feet from apartment buildings.

Boat on oceanThe trip fulfilled my almost constant desire to explore new places, but I also missed my little home in Paraguay as soon as I cross the boarder. I wasn’t surprised I missed Paraguay, but the strength of the feeling was unsettling.

I found myself watching the world through a series of lenses, not just the two I usually use in Paraguay. Every night in Paraguay I look up at the stars and wonder if my family in the States can see the same stars. All I know is that Orion’s Belt is called the “Tres Marias” in Paraguay. In Uruguay, I looked up at the stars and wondered if my States family could see them and if my Paraguayan friends were outside drinking terere and looking at the moon like they do when I’m there.

In Uruguay, I contemplated how location changes reality. Watching the sun plummet into the sea, I wondered what the point of my vacation in Uruguay was. It was fun and all, but the point of it was equivocal. The answer came on the day-long (yep, 24 hours) bus ride home.

The point was to shake things up. It’s easy to fall into the bore of routine and familiar, no matter where you live. The regular makes us feel secure, but the cost of too much security is the loss of perspective.

I returned from Uruguay more tired than when I embarked. The ocean made resting impossible. But, who goes on vacation to sleep? I did come back rejuvenated. The crash of the waves lifted the benightedness of the daily same old that plagued me before the trip.

Nails, Hair, and Make Up

Ruins and skyIn Paraguay women do their nails. I’m not just talking about painting their nails one color and letting the paint chip away to the point where they have a “worn” look. I’m talking about periodic paintings, every time the paint gets messed up. I’m talking about elaborate flowers, dot patterns, hearts, and nails with as many as four colors making up the design. I’m not talking about thick layers that are gummy and painted on dirty nails. I’m talking about soaking and scrubbing, trimming and filing, and then painting thin layers using toothpicks or homemade fine nailbrushes to make crisp designs. I’m talking about girls who have briefcases of nail polish—all colors and levels of sparkle. It doesn’t matter if you’re a homemaker or a businesswoman, if you pick herbs or flit around on TV all day, if you’re a women it is not unusual to have immaculate nails.

Many Paraguayans have a course hair texture that is very adaptable to elaborate hairdos including braids, twists, and curls. When a party comes around, you’d be amazed by the hairstyles the average girl whips up—multiple braids, curlicues, and bows.

We can’t forget the makeup. Of course, like everywhere, every lady has her own style, but makeup in Paraguay tends to be bold. Bold as in bright colored eye shadow (usually 70s pink or blue), vibrantly red lips, full-face foundation coverage that lightens the skin, a healthy dose of blush, and dark eyeliner. If you are young and single these beauty elements are more pronounced.

I think documentaries, articles, and books about “third world” countries often give us pictures of dirty-faced women in ragged clothing struggling to feed their starving children. And sure, that happens (in the States too), but we would all be better served remembering that almost everyone is prideful and most people do what they can to look their best. Paraguayan women have a clearly defined and elaborate idea of what it means to “look your best” and it starts with dressing well and it’s topped off with nails, hair, and makeup.

Doesn’t Take Much

Paraguay does it againMaybe you’ve read some leadership books or maybe you just know, but one of the best ways to get people to work is to make them feel like their work is appreciated and valuable. I became aware of the power of appreciation during my first job post-college. My boss there was a master at showing appreciation and because of that no matter how tedious the task she asked me to do was, I always did it enthusiastically.

In the States, some people naturally thank others for their work and are good at handing out compliments and some people aren’t. In Paraguay, providing positive feedback all the time it’s less of a personal trait and more of a cultural trait.

First of all, there’s the term “guapo” which you must dish in extravagant portions: You call people guapo if they are sweeping, washing clothes, cooking, walking, visiting you…seriously you can and do call people guapo as long as they aren’t sleeping.

Second, there’s a custom of giving visitors or anyone who helps you food and terere. It doesn’t matter if you are paying a team to build your house, you’ll still make them lunch and maybe pass around a couple of beers at the end of the day. On a smaller scale, when people are drinking terere, they’ll always invite you to join. And while this sharing culture is very indirect, it makes you feel included and liked, which is the first step to appreciating and valuing your work.

Third, Paraguayans offer commentary on anything—sometimes this is annoying because if involves telling you that you gained weight or asking how much something cost—often this manifests itself as a compliment, especially when it comes to food. There’s no such thing as food that isn’t yummy when you’re talking to the cook. It is also common and important to tell people their outfit, or their house, or something they possess is nice.

And finally, Paraguayans are intuitive about your needs. For example, I am teaching an English class during these summer months. For this class I give out a lot of homework and quizzes. A mother of several of my students noticed the worksheets her daughters brought home and thought that I probably was using a lot of paper. She knows paper has its cost and is a former teacher so she has a ton of paper she’s not using anymore. She went out of her way to stop by my house and give me the paper so I could use it. She explained that she’s very grateful that I’m teaching English and that she figured I’d need the paper.

Summary: Sometimes I’m not sure if I’m living in the real world or a bubble. If it weren’t for periodic, multi-hour battles with cockroaches I’d be convinced that life in my site is a dream. My community has a knack for motivating me and makes me feel justified in doing hours of prep-work for whatever I’m teaching that week. It doesn’t take much, but a little appreciation goes a long way.