Life’s Soundtrack

At first it was strange to throw toilet paper in the toilet rather than the wastebasket and be in a comfortable climate rather than melting of heat. Those contrasts caught my attention first and in a jarring way when I arrived back in the US several days ago, after living as a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay for 27 months. But, where one puts toilet paper and how the weather is have always been minor details of life to which one easily adjusts.

My Peace Corps service ended on April 8, 2016. And, I’m still journeying to where I’ll live next. I’m visiting family, not seen for over 2 years, before I settle into what I imagine will be a hectic lifestyle. And as the visiting continues, I’m taking my time to adjust to this new world called the U.S. of A. It was both out of urgency and strategic planning that my first stops in America were to visit my grandparents. I spent so many hours sitting, chatting, and talking about old times with Paraguayans, doing the same in English with family has been a treat.

But, even in the bubble of my grandparents’ homes and neighborhoods my time in Paraguay seems to fade like a dream. As one person commented on Facebook, “It happened and now it is over.” Or, as my grandmother said, “that place you visited.” I had to laugh at the choice of the word “visited.” Can anywhere one stays for over two years count as a visit? “Visit” seems like such a trival word to describe a place I consider home and from which I emerged a new person. Words. That brings me to the point of this ramble.

There are many details that are different about living in Paraguay and living in the US. For example, I can talk to a guy my age in the US without anyone jumping directly to the conclusion I have a fling with him, where as in Paraguay people would most likely think there was something going on between he and I. But, for now, the diverging details are not overwhelming. The harshest changes I currently feel are the different life sounds between the US and Paraguay and that I have lost the key words and phrases I’ve been using for two years to express my thoughts and feelings.

On one hand, it is nice to once again understand what everyone is saying around me. On the other hand, it is so distracting to know every blasted word the people in line in front and behind me are saying. Who should I listen to? How can I think of my own words when there are so many words flying around me that I effortlessly understand? It was a lot easier to tune out in Paraguay where I did not understand every thing people said.

I am joyful to hear so many people speak my native tongue, but my goodness how the sounds that make those words sound like gravel against a shovel or nails on a chalkboard. I never realized how ugly and harsh English can sound. The twang, whine, and nasal of English words is almost painful to my ears. I miss the round vowels of Spanish and the flow of Guarani–two languages that are melodic compared to the clanking nature of English.

It’s not just the sound of the language that is dissonant to my Paraguay-tuned ears. It’s the music, or more accurately lack of music. Where is my cumbia? My bachata? Paraguayan polka? Why are the houses and buses and streets silent? What is this new phenomena of silent nights? I used to have to wear earplugs to escape from Spanish-language love songs, and now I can sleep without earplugs because there is not even the roar of dirt bikes and heaving old trucks to disturb my slumber. Am I in the land of perfect sleep?

The soundtrack is different in my country from that of my Paraguay. But, that is not all. The words and phrases I can use to express myself are different too. It is obvious that speaking in different languages means using different words. However it is not the language, but the phrasing that is tripping me. Even when I translate, or try to translate, the words and phrases I used in Paraguay to English, it doesn’t work. Why? Well, a lot of the words don’t have an English equivalent. How the heck am I supposed to say “tranquilo” or “no más” or “opama” or “kaigue” or “hi’que” in this blasted native language of mine? I can’t.

“Tranquilo” could be translated to “tranquil,” “no problem,” and “life’s good,” but it means all those things and more. The same goes for the others. “No más” literally means “no more,” but it can actually mean “that’s all,” “no problem,” and “It’s not a big deal.” “Opama” literally means “It’s over already,” but that’s hardly a good suggestion of all the things “opama” can mean in context. Both “kaigue” and “hi’que” don’t even have English translations…so there’s that.

Sounds. Words. Music. Language. They dictate who we are and how we explain ourselves to others. When I first got to Paraguay, and for all my time there, one of the biggest challenges I had was feeling like I could not completely express myself in Spanish and Guarani. Ironically, I now feel the same way in my homeland. I’m at a loss for words and homesick for the familiar sounds of my community in Paraguay. The language. The music. The spitting of frying oil and roaring of dirt bike motors. I know the sounds of my American environment will soon become just background noise. But right now, my new life’s soundtrack is bombarding my conscious mind.

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See You Soon Dearest Paraguay

On April 7th, 2016 I rang the bell in the Peace Corps office, marking the closure of my Peace Corps Service in Paraguay. I lived and worked in Paraguay for 27 months. It has only been days since I left the humid land of the Guarani, and already my tenure there seems as thought it could have been a dream. I’ve locked the memories of the friendships I had in Paraguay securely in my heart as though I fear someone might rob them from me. Goodbyes are hard because they mark the end of an era. No matter what comes after a goodbye, feelings and relationships are never again be what they were.

I know I will see my friends again. I will visit Paraguay and volunteers from my group in years to come. And, we have Facebook and other means to stay in touch until we reunite. But still, it would be a lie to think the closeness I felt with my best friends in Paraguay will not evolve. Geography is important, but only because friendship is built on time shared, not time apart.

Perhaps it is forlornness for what I had and will never hold again that leaves my mind blank. But, when I force myself to really think, to feel with my heart, I know that I am not sad. I feel unexplainably content.

Paraguayans have a magical gift for making one know they love her. In the last moments, hours, and, in some cases, days I spent with my Paraguayan friends I felt loved like I never have before. What we did was not out-of-the-ordinary, we ate and laughed and talked, but the details of the moments we shared were special.

Paraguayans cooked menus that they carefully planned to include my favorite foods. I spoke to my training host mother for over an hour about the food she was making for a birthday party, and sat with her while she made it, to only discover she was actually cooking the feast for my going-away party. I woke from my last nap in a Paraguayan home because the smell of cake, made for me, was so strong.

My Paraguayan families and I exchanged gifts, kind words, and promises to forever stay in touch. We took pictures. Paraguayans joked one last time about how foolish I was to have not found myself a Paraguayan husband so I could stay. I told my Paraguayan mothers not to cry, and they told me not to be sad. I had to go, they reminded me. They explained to me that my American family was waiting for me on the other side and so were my studies.

When I had said goodbye to all the Paraguayans who made my service possible, my mind emptied and I found myself in Asuncion with the other volunteers from my group waiting to ring the bell.

Perhaps the hardest part was saying farewell to my closest volunteer friends. When I gave my last hugs and got into the car to leave for the airport the reality that my service was over hit me. The only people who truely understood my experience in Paraguay, who had shared every step with me, would evermore be miles and miles, states, and maybe countries away. I feel certain that my Paraguayan friends will be exactly where I left them, in their communities, no matter how many years from now I visit them. But, there is no such certainty about where I might find the other volunteers from my group. The world is our oyster, and that reality is stark.

No matter how soon I return to Paraguay, it will be different because I will not be the same. And, as I get better at accepting this reality it is easier to smile. Change is scary but unavoidable. In the end, life is exciting because it, like us, grows and shifts and mutates. I haven’t a clue what the next chapter of my existence will feel like. I don’t know which details of my life, now and moving forward, will make me happy. But, bundled with my memory of Paraguay is an understanding that no matter what comes, I can do it. Paraguay showed me how to appreciate and love people as I never have before. My service proved to me that I have more power than I thought. I know now that if I am willing to put in the effort the wildest of dreams can come true. And my new knowledge of my own strength is Paraguay’s greatest gift to me. It is a gift I will never be able to reciprocate.

Dearest Paraguay, I will hold our time together in my heart always. Hasta pronto!