About five years ago I moved to Paraguay. I wasn’t sure what would come of a continental move, but I was ready for a challenge and I wanted a break from the American rat race for a few years. I had high hopes but no clue what to expect. I’d first learned of the Peace Corps when I was in 7th grade and known since then that I needed to do it.
I’m sure I’ve said this somewhere in a pervious post, but living
in Paraguay and among Paraguayans changed me. People are always changing, but
there are life experiences that expedite change—the Peace Corps (and living
abroad for a few years) is one of them.
Living in Paraguay changed my self identity, my daily priorities,
and the way I thought and saw the world. My experiences in Paraguay fine-tuned
my values. Being a foreigner, the only white girl, the only American, the
lunatic who liked to go for runs and hour-plus walks, the veggie addict, the
advocate for sex ed and separation from abusive partners, the outspoken supporter
of love regardless of gender mix, the not catholic, the woman with unpainted
nails, the single one, the over 25 and still childless woman, the one who
wouldn’t wear short shorts and small shirts, the female who refused to dance in
heels, the one who disliked pork and large amounts of meat…being the odd one in
the fish bowl forced me to think about the battles I wanted to pick and those I’d
leave for never.
Of all the things I learned, what stays with me is the
internal calm and confidence the women in Paraguay shared with me. Life is ridiculous
most of the time, but Paraguayan women have a natural grace and pride that is
humble and unwavering. I certainly didn’t luck out and get their grace, but
what I did learn is that we (humans) are better and happier when we make time
for quiet moments. I’ve been thinking about the secret to Paraguayans’ love of
life and happiness for these 5 years, and I’m pretty sure it comes down to making
time to be still. Everyone has their way of doing this, but mine has come to be
drinking mate. I learned to drink mate in Paraguay.
Mate is a tea-like drink made from yerba mate. It’s loose-leaf
tea that you put in a cup. In the cup is a metal straw with a filter at the end.
You pour hot water over the leaves and drink through the straw almost
immediately. With a little practice your lips get used to the hot straw and you
don’t burn your tongue on the hot water.
Yerba mate has some caffeine in it, but I mix the yerba mate
with so many other herbs (peppermint, hibiscus, lemon grass…) that it hardly
has any. I don’t drink it for the energy boost. For me, mate provides moments
to reflect. For me, it’s the symbol of my time in Paraguay, personal growth,
and the people I care about. Mate is usually a shared drink. Since returning to
the US I always drink mate alone (because people here don’t drink it), but I
still think of the Peace Corps volunteers and the Paraguayans who shared it
with me. I also think of the other people in my life, currently and in the
past, who are shaping my world even if they’ve never sipped mate.
Five years later I still drink mate because I learned
happiness is in the still moments. I learned that people are where joy comes
from and that I am the best human I can be when there is time for mate in my
As I write this my mind is quiet, but deep down the
excitement and nerves of starting medical school this August are bubbling. I’m
about to embark on another journey like none I’ve done before—the expedition of
learning and mastering the ways of the human body. The challenge of becoming a
medical doctor. But, as hard as medical school is, I know living in Paraguay
was harder and I already did that. And though there will be days in medical
school when I’ll skip mate, I know that it’ll be quiet moments drinking mate
that will propel me through the countless exams, the high stress of learning
more than seems possible, the life-or-death decisions, and the sadness of
seeing people suffering. Everyone, I think, has their grounding mechanism. It
turns out that mine is a dried herb I buy 6 kilograms at a time and often sip
before most other people’s morning alarms have started snoozing.