Money View

The collective culture of Paraguay lends itself to a different approach to money from that in the individualistic United States. In the US, each person is expected to earn their own money and only spend their money. Many families encourage their children to start working in high school, not exactly to contribute to the family, but more to ensure that those youth can buy or do what they want using their own hard-earned dollars. In the States when one goes out to a bar, he or she should be prepared to buy all their own drinks. Things are different in Paraguay.

Job opportunities are more limited in Paraguay than they are in most places in the US. This is one small reason why fewer youth work in Paraguay. But, more importantly, in Paraguay money earned is not entirely viewed as belonging to the person who earned it. While the earner is free to use part of their wages to buy things they want, they will also be expected to kick-back a large chunk to the family. Youth who have jobs will buy bread and meat for their parents. They’ll buy treats and snacks for their baby cousins. Older siblings who work might buy clothes for their younger siblings who still can’t have a job. Similarly, it is culturally acceptable for youth in middle class families to be financially dependant on their family well into their 20s. Most Paraguayans live with their parents, regardless of their employment status, until they are married.

In Paraguay, if something is bought by one person it is shared…or everyone chips-in to buy the item and they then share it. Beer is a good example. If one were to go to a party with a group of friends in the States, each of those people, who drinks, would have their own beer. In Paraguay, that same group would open one beer. Each person would take a sip and pass it around to the next person. Only outsiders would have their own, personal beer.

Money in the States is often viewed as the property of the individual. Each individual is not obliged or expected to give money to others. Meanwhile, in Paraguay wealth is seen as the result of family cooperation and individual earners are expected to contribute to the family pot.

Blogging Abroad's Boot Camp Blog Challenge: Starting January 2015

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Guardian Angel

My life can be divided into periods marked by which woman took me under their wing during that time. No span is without the support of at least one helping hand, and my time in Peace Corps is not an exception. My Paraguayan guide is Herminia. She is 60-something-years-old and I think of her as the guardian of my spirit. Not my spirit in a religious sense, but more as Merriam-Webster defines it, “the force within a person that is believed to give the body life, energy, and power.”

Herminia was once beautiful. She tells stories of her long hair and running away to Brazil when she was young. The traces of beauty remain, but I know her better for ignoring the obsession of perfect appearances most Paraguayan women have. Herminia’s hair is always twisted up in a nice clip. Her legs are bowed in, highlighted by the faded tights she most often wears. Her threadbare shirts are filled with holes. As much as her daughter tries to get her to wear a bra she usually doesn’t, finding them to be nothing but torture. She is clean and her nails show the remnants of paint. Her most defining feature is the lines in her face, which are caught between telling the story of a life filled with laughter and a life of nervous outbreaks.

Herminia did not go to school after second grade. She is the mother of 3, and the main caretaker of one of her grandsons. These days, Herminia lives with her aging mother, so her mother will not be alone. Herminia is 1 of 9, but the only daughter. Herminia cooks the tastiest food over wood and charcoal fires. Sometimes she has all the ingredients for what she intends to make and sometimes not, but her food always turns out yummy. She has a cow whose milk she sells. She is a talker. She talks to all people. She was raised in Asuncion, so her Spanish is as ferocious as her Guarani. She knows the medicinal plants and she believes in God.

Paraguayans are the most welcoming people I have ever met. But, most of my Paraguayan friends and neighbors don’t seek me out. I am part of their lives when I show up at their houses, and I am on a different planet the rest of the time. Herminia is different. She comes looking for me. On those days when I hide in my house, having spent the pervious day there too, she charges across the street. I see her coming with her head high and a determined expression. “Where have you been, my daughter? I thought you were mad at me. Come over and we will make some rich food,” she says.

And I go to her house. We drink terere. We cook. We chat. We watch TV. And, the unexplainable gloom that comes to one unpredictably when she lives abroad is lifted. My energy is restored, and after I leave her house I am once again ready to face the Paraguay that hardly ever looks for me. I cross my threshold on my own, until the gloom returns. And the cycle repeats.

Herminia is the most open-minded Paraguayan I know in my community. I do not believe there is any conversation we can not have, or that there is any position on any topic to which she will not at least listen. I learned how to do the rosary in Spanish, I don’t know it in English, because she taught me. I learned it because it made her so proud that she could teach me. She shares her faith in her Catholic God, even though she does not expect me to believe. She tells me about the people of the community, if they are good or bad. She is a gossip, but I have yet to see her judge of character miss the mark. She tells anyone who asks about me, and most people do, that I am the daughter of the community. She says that all the mothers here are my mothers because I am far from home.

Herminia dances on chairs with liter beer bottles balanced on her head. She is my favorite dance partner. Once, we danced until 2 am, and she made me spend the night, sleeping with her and her grandson in one bed, so I wouldn’t have to walk home. At that time, she lived farther away than she does now. Herminia defends my sobriety as she sips beer she puts in metal cups so people on the street don’t know what she is drinking. She has a sweet tooth. She forgets where she put her glasses, her wallet…her grandson and I keep track of her belongings.

I can go to her house and talk a lot or say hardly a word. I can go read while they watch TV. I go to work, but sometimes Herminia does all the cooking. We move the table from shade patch to shade patch until lunch time. Then, we eat in the living room, plates on our laps, because Herminia’s mother can no longer lift her arms to eat at the table.

When I travel, Herminia watches my house from her yard across the street. She does not know my every move or try to tell me what to do, but she keeps track enough to know everything is going along without trouble. Paraguay knows when I am down. And usually, Paraguay sends in Herminia to bring me up again. I can not think of a better agent of change.

Blogging Abroad's Boot Camp Blog Challenge: Starting January 2015

Anything Goes

Señora: “I hate women’s work. It’s better that you don’t marry.”

Me: “That’s why whoever I do marry and I will split the chores evenly. We will both work and we will both keep house.”

Señora: She looks at me with a pitying expression. “Maybe there are men like that in your country, but not here.”

Me: “Yes, there are. That is why I haven’t married a Paraguayan. If I don’t find a man like that, I won’t marry.”

The señora nods, seemingly satisfied, and goes to check her pot of food, which she is cooking outside over charcoal. She always cooks with charcoal or wood. She has a gas stove, but I guess it is too expensive to use gas.

In Paraguay, the house is the women’s domain and everywhere else belongs to the men. When a woman leaves her home she dresses up, puts on her swagger, and forges into a land where men have all the cards–she has tricks but her male counterparts still have the upper hand.

For me the most surprising and challenging features of Paraguay are the rigidly defined and openly maintained gender roles. When you boil things down, Paraguayan culture and American culture are similar. But, while in much of the US the glass ceiling is the elephant in the room and women “accidently” end up working and doing the lion’s share of the housework and child raising, differences in gender roles are openly talked about and defended in Paraguay.

I’ve watched a brother sit on his ass while his sister washes his clothes by hand. Then, when the sister gives him the clothes, already ironed, to fold, the aunt makes the sister fold them. I’ve seen men sit at the table waiting to be served while their women cook and set the table. I’ve witnessed men sitting and drinking for hours while women clean and cook and deal with the kids.

I’ve seen a woman called a whore because her boyfriend, undenounced to her, filmed them having sex and published a video. (If I am not mistaken, she lost her job because of that). People said it was her fault for not anticipating what the man might do as a man. I’ve heard a 3-year-old boy scolded and teased for touching dolls, painting his nails, and riding a purple bike. His best friend is his 4-year-old girl cousin. The list goes on, but you get the point. That is the home.

Beyond the home, anything goes. In most places in Paraguay, catcalling women in the street is the norm. In my community catcalling is limited, score, but if I walk along the main road every couple vehicles honk at me…and I’m not even blond or ever dressed to impress. It’s normal for old men, married men, men with children, and youth to hit on women ages…well, age isn’t important if he thinks the lady or girl is pretty. Men will pester women in front of anyone and everyone except their girlfriend or wife. Women and men don’t usually mingle at social functions. The vast majority of Paraguayan men my age who show interest in me don’t do so as a friend. They have only one end goal in mind. Of course, these affronts are brushed off as joking. According to many Paraguayans, pointing out women, offering commentary on women, and trying to conquest (the literal translation for the word “woo” or “take to bed” in Spanish) are what men do. It’s not their fault, they are men. It is women’s job to protect themselves.

In Paraguay it is odd to be single, especially at my age. Women are supposed to settle down and have children. Paraguayans like to ask if I have a boyfriend. They like to ask why I don’t. Men often ask me if I have a boyfriend before they know my name. It is normal now. I expect it. I anticipate in before it happens. I have multiple funny responses.

Just because I have a gender role in Paraguay that I do not agree with, does not mean I accept it. However, I can’t crash the whole system. The Peace Corps isn’t about forcing host country culture to change. I’ve settled for small rebellions. I do exercise that isn’t dance. I wear t-shirts and loose athletic shorts. I climb trees and get sweaty. I watch movies with guns and fire and talk about fast cars. I discuss being a professional and working. I own things that are blue and green. These are small details. But, gender roles are mountains made of pebbles. Maybe I can’t move the mountain in my little Paraguayan town, but I can sure send some rocks flying.

Blogging Abroad's Boot Camp Blog Challenge: Starting January 2015

Humanity

I spend hours on the bus in a month, and, perhaps, as many waiting for buses. It’s normal now. I’m not allowed to drive any vehicle or ride a motorcycle (thanks Peace Corps rules). Cars are scarce. I walk a lot, but walking has limits. However, despite the hours of sitting and the crowded rides, I like the bus. The bus is a perfect window into humanity. All kinds of people ride the bus–rich and poor, old and young, educated and uninformed, friendly and grumpy…just about everyone.

On many bus rides in Paraguay I have been reminded that chivalry and kindness are not only part of nostalgia and history. They are alive and well. A good illustration of their perseverance occured on a recent bus ride to the grocery store. It is a half hour trip to relatively urban center.

I was sitting on the bus looking at nothing in particular and thinking about something that has since been forgotten. A passenger stood. Bus stops are not a thing in most of Paraguay; one can get on and off the bus just about anywhere. To get on one flags the bus driver down much like one might a taxi. To get off one pulls a string that sounds a bell up by the driver. The passenger who stood was a particularly petite, young woman. I noticed her because of her slightness and because she was holding a fine, fat baby. Buses in Paraguay jolt and rattle, such that it is almost always necessary to hold on to something at all times or risk toppling over. The unsteady footing is even more likely to fling a child down the bus isle than an adult. The woman carrying the baby in one arm and holding a handrail in the other charged quickly to the back of the bus to pull the string and to get off. As she moved away from her seat a toddler, perhaps three, started to follow her. Toddlers are goners on the bus if someone doesn’t hold their hand. They forget to steady themselves and they move like rag dolls.

My gaze, and those of all the passengers between the open seat and the back door of the bus, moved from the woman to the child about to embark on a rocky road. I worried for a moment, but hardly a moment. A man across from the boy reached out his hand, grabbed the boy’s arm, and steadied him as he teetered along. When the man’s reach was exhausted, a woman took hold of the boy. The boy continued walking, passing onto the guiding hand of a third person. The boy made it upright and not phased to the door and got off after his mother.

Three strangers stepped in to help a child without a word or pause. They were not asked and they were not thanked. If that is not humanity, I do not know what is.

Blogging Abroad's Boot Camp Blog Challenge: Starting January 2015

Building Blocks

There is no such thing as an average day in the Peace Corps. Each day is filled with the mundane of living (cleaning, cooking, waiting…) and spiced with unexpected adventures. My projects and routines change with the seasons. During the school year I taught classes and during the vacations I visited friends and explored new places. This current period stands out because it is comprised of my final months as a volunteer in Paraguay and summer vacation. Despite the disparity in my activities, it is not completely futile to attempt to explain what a day in my life is like. There are two fundamental occupations that fill my time: fostering relationships and growing personally.

Fostering relationships

Peace Corps volunteers have three goals–to help people in their country of service gain new knowledge and skills, to share about American culture, and to learn about the culture of their host country. Those goals are a long-winded way of saying we volunteers are here to share all we know with whoever wants to listen and absorb as much as we can.

Most of the time outside of my house I spend with people in their homes. We sit. We drink terere. We talk. We cook. We eat. We stare into space. During my almost 2 years in Paraguay, I have already spent more hours visiting my dearest Paraguayan friends than I have spent with most of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in the States during my life to date. Those hours of sharing with Paraguayans created the exciting events of my service: going to birthdays, being in a wedding, dancing all night, sharing Christmas dinner, going on road trips, and participating in religious activities like mass and patron saint’s day celebrations.

Even in the classroom, the relationships I developed with my students are what made me successful. By our second year together, my students were comfortable enough to ask questions about sex in my class–a feat in a country where the topic is usually only joked about in formal settings and invokes shame in most other contexts.

In summary, most of my energy in Paraguay is dedicated to visiting. You might ask, is visiting your job? Can visiting be a job? And my answer is a shrug. It’s not a 9-to-5 no matter how you look at it. But, this place is one where who, not what, one knows profiles and opens doors. I could not have taught English or youth development if my community members didn’t know me. They would not have trusted me with their children. I could not have thrived here without spending hours with my foreign friends. I would not have learned who I am. My friendships here gave me a professional and personal identity.

Growing Personally

When I am not sharing time with people, informally at events and in homes or formally as a teacher, my energy is mostly dedicated to either doing personal projects or cleaning my house. I will spare you the details of housekeeping except to say that you should take a moment to imagine a life where the power and water do not always work and there is no trash pick up or dump, vacuum, dishwasher, or laundry machine. I promise, speaking from experience, that such a life is quite different from one with those luxuries. Personal growth is inescapable in the Peace Corps, especially in Paraguay where some hours of most days are too hot to do anything other than think. Amusement falls soundly on my own shoulders. I live alone. I am the only American in my community. To visit the nearest volunteer, though not far away, requires a bus odyssey. I can not spend every waking hour with Paraguayans. I do not have a TV. I can not stream videos. My technology prevents me from watching many videos. I can only read so much. I write. I play the guitar. I think….there is so much time to think about hopes, dreams, and wishes.

Summary

I typical day for me in Paraguay is a spread of eating, cleaning, chatting, writing, thinking, navigating, and enjoying what and who is around me.

Blogging Abroad's Boot Camp Blog Challenge: Starting January 2015

Blurred Lines: Outside or Inside?

Everyone living in Paraguay struggles to stay cool in the almost constant heat. Sometimes there is a breeze. Sometimes it rains. But, with the regularity one should expect from a tropical region, Paraguay swelters in a humid heat. Because of this, the way people live here, in terms of housing, is very different from what I knew in the northeastern United States. Mainly, the lines between the indoors and the outdoors are blurred.

Most families with any wealth live in houses built of bricks and with tile roofs. The bricks are hollow terracotta and about half the size of a cinder block. Families with less money live in wooden houses with thatch or metal roofs. There is no insulation and most people do not have AC or a heating system in their home… fans are a staple.

Many families cook outside using either wood or charcoal fires. Some of these outdoor cooking spaces have a roof, but not always. Smaller houses, perhaps the norm in Paraguay, do not always have a living room or a dining room. Those rooms are not necessary because relaxation takes place outside. Paraguayans use their patios as the main living space. They sit out there to drink terere and to hang out. Some families even eat outside and will move their TV so they can sit in the shade of a tree to watch their favorite show or the soccer game.

The challenge of beating the heat does not only dictate where people spend most of their time but, also, influences how Paraguayans construct their homes. Paraguayan architects and home builders erect houses with doors and windows positioned carefully to create a cross breeze. Homes may have few windows, because the sun coming in is too hot, but the openings in a house maximize air flow. Further, Paraguayans leave all their doors and windows wide open until they go to bed.

I never thought about how much time I spent locked away from fresh air, but since coming to Paraguay it has been hard to ignore how much of my time in the States was passed in buildings. It is rejuvenating to see the sky, feel the wind, and sit among plants.

Blogging Abroad's Boot Camp Blog Challenge: Starting January 2015

Fewer Than 100 Days Left

The end of December marked 100 days left in my Peace Corps service. The mix of heart-break and joy I feel thinking about leaving Paraguay is beyond my power of words to describe. But, this moment is a good chance to think about why I came to Paraguay in the first place and where I could see myself in the future.

I came to Paraguay to grow. I came to help others, and myself, cultivate new skills and ideas by sharing—my dream is that Paraguayans have learned something from me over the past 2 years. Paraguayans have changed my way of being, from adding terere to my routine to warping how think about machismo. In the formal setting of my classes, I hope that some students grabbed something that they can use…whether it be how to put on a condom or a vague understanding that there are ways to see the world that are very different from their own. On a personal level, I look forward to life-long friendships with the amazing people I’ve met.

New Years 2014, I was getting ready to leave the USA for 2 years. I was excited and petrified. I wanted the adventure of living in another country for a chuck of time and I was eager to see what would come of my Peace Corps service. But, every single piece of service preparatory literature and every former and current volunteer I talked to said to try not to form expectations about Paraguay and what my service would be like because I could not know until I started. The fog about my future was chilling. I did my best to have a blank slate mind when I landed in Asuncion after an exhausting flight filled with raw nerves. I remember it was sunny and hot when I arrived in Paraguay. Everything here was new and exciting when I piled into the van that took me away from the airport and the world I’d known.

Since middles school, perhaps before but I don’t remember, the world beyond my itsy, bitsy town in rural Vermont held my interest. Places outside the borders—state, country, and continent—called to me. In 8th grade I began a love affair with Spanish, which continues to fester and prod me to evaluate every move as not only a personal or professional decision, but also a language choice. When I fell head-over-heals for Spanish, I knew that one way or another my path would meander beyond the land of the free and home of the brave to places whose values and virtues were unknown to me.

With fewer than 100 days left, I can say the hardest part is leaving. Leaving friends and loved ones. Leaving routines and places that are familiar. It is easy to float along doing what seems logical and secure. It is comforting to have a home-base, a set schedule, and a clear purpose. And, going abroad destroyed all those things for me. But, in their place equal, though different, pleasures germinated. I now know I can bend and sway and operate in foreign lands. I know that there are parts of myself that will always be true and strong; for example, I value honesty above all things and will never drink alcohol. And there are parts of me that will adapt to the environment, such as what I eat and how I spend time with people.

Volunteers like to ask each other, “If you knew what you know now about how your service would be, would you still have decided to do it?” My answer is a definitive “yes.” I would choose to come to Paraguay when I did in every alternate path of my life that could have been. This New Years, welcome 2016, I am not the lady I was 2 years ago. My biggest crop in the Paraguay season of my life has been me. I could not be who I am today without the laughs, frustrations, and pleasures Paraguay gave me. I am leaving Paraguay soon, I may only return for vacation (who knows), but Paraguay has a piece of my heart.

Am I achieving what I came here to do? Heck yeah, I just didn’t know in coming to Paraguay that my main accomplishment would be learning how to crack the hard shell of life and let happiness sprout wherever the wind takes me. We can not foretell the future, just as we can not guess the weather no matter what meteorologist try to make us believe, but Paraguay was the thunder before a storm. Bring it on 2016.

Blogging Abroad's Boot Camp Blog Challenge: Starting January 2015