This is a throwback story from my Peace Corps days. I’ve been thinking a lot about Paraguay lately and decided it was time to share some of the stories I didn’t share when I lived there. I always find myself thinking about Paraguay when the weather gets cold in New England (my current home), because I miss the sun and the mango trees Paraguay reliably had year-round.
The last quarter of my 27 months in Paraguay as a Peace Corps volunteer. Which is to say, I was very comfortable. At that point, Paraguay was my home.
Battle at the Kitchen Sink
It was grapefruit season. I remember this because we had gone foraging for grapefruits. In Paraguay there’s a citrus season (there’s also a season for every fruit you love… passion fruit, avocadoes, mangos, pineapples…). The Peace Corps volunteers who came before me had shown me how to hunt for grapefruits, so it was one of the first things I showed the new Peace Corps volunteer visiting me that weekend. It was her first time traveling beyond the training community in Paraguay where all Paraguay Peace Corps volunteers in my era spent their first three months learning language, culture, and other skills they might need once they arrived in their sites (where’d they work for 2 years). She was visiting me to learn about what it was like to transition from training to working in Paraguay.
After our lesson on foraging grapefruit, I showed the visiting volunteer (just as the Paraguayans had shown me) how to peel the grapefruit properly. This involved using a knife to carefully cut the peel off in a spiral, leaving a thick layer of that bitter white stuff that hides under the colorful part of the peel. I showed her how to cut a little cone-shaped hole in the top of the grapefruit. Then, how to squeeze the whole thing and suck the juice out until the grapefruit was dry. This is how Paraguayans most frequently eat grapefruit and oranges. It is my preferred method above all methods I’ve tried.
We then had lunch. I took the dishes out to my kitchen sink, which was located outside my apartment in the back under a mango tree. I had running water (which was nice) but my kitchen sink was outside – an unfortunate location on rainy days, but perfectly fine on this day. I set the dishes in the sink and then looked around for my soap and sponge. As with all full sinks, the sponge was hard to find. I went to dig under the dishes to see if it was there. Sitting among the dishes exactly where my hand had just been when I put the dishes in the sink, was a tarantula about the size of my palm.
I don’t know your position on spiders. But, living in Paraguay I developed a set of rules for all home invaders. Spiders were included in that list and my rules for them were as follows: they received the death penalty if they were too big and in my home territory (which included my sink), if they were too close to my bed, and if they were too close to the toilet. If they did not violate any of these rules, I was willing to live peacefully together. The tarantula in my sink resoundingly violated the size rule permissible within my territory.
My heart thumbed. I didn’t know much about tarantulas, but it was the largest spider I’d seen outside of a zoo exhibit. I yelped (sound effects are always part of my life) and then promptly went to find my bottle for fighting invaders (obviously I developed rules for invaders because there were many including ants and roaches). My invader-fighting bottle was a rather short (maybe 10 inches in length) plastic bottle that was square and originally contained my favorite yogurt in Paraguay.
I banged at the tarantula as hard as I could. Of course, having never fought one before, I was jittery.
The tarantula climbed out of the sink, plopped on the ground, and started marching toward me.
I didn’t miss the second, third, and fourth time I tried to hit it.
Luckily, the new volunteer was at the front of the house and did not witness this battle, though I told her about it promptly thereafter. All in good time. She would likely battle her own home invaders during her years in Paraguay.
These years since I’ve returned to the US have been challenging as I plodded through pre-med classes and several jobs and now, medical school. I’ve encountered many challenging situations with people who act tough and aren’t particularly nice. Most, if not all, of these tough-acting people have never battled a tarantula. Knowing that they lack tarantula experience has put my interactions with them into perspective. Afterall, toughness is relative, like all attributes.
There are many times in medical school where I’ve thought of my Peace Corps days as reminder that the current challenge is not harder than ones I’ve encountered before. Resilience comes from knowing where you’ve been even if others don’t. It comes from applying skills you learned in the past to new scenarios in the present. Most challenges can’t be overcome with a plastic bottle weapon. But, having a plan and being ready to implement it even when surprised can be applied to almost anything.
Life experiences no matter their nature do carry us as we advance in life. Learning from them makes it all worthwhile.