In Her Memory

I’ve been thinking about an old Paraguayan woman, La Abuela, who died this year before I was able to return and see her one last time. Her eyes were cloudy and her knees swollen when I last saw her. She hobbled short distances holding onto chairs and walls. She was from an era I have only glimpsed through stories shared while gazing out at the world passing by and over snacks. She wrapped her hair in a scarf each day and worn simple skirts and shirts. And always worn sandals. She was the mother of one of the señoras who took me as a daughter during my years in her community and with whom I still often speak.

La Abuela was alive during the Chaco War (1930s). It was a particularly deadly war for Paraguayans. My and her community in Paraguay has a jail. When she was younger, she used to cook for the jailguards. That was in the era of the Chaco War when the jail was full of Bolivian war prisoners. I guess during that era the prisoners could leave the jail and she used to cook for them too. When I lived there, the jail was still active, but she had long stopped serving the folks who lived and worked there.

She told me how it used to be. It used to be that the only way to get to Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, was by canoe down the river that ran around our community. It was hard to come and go during those times. When I lived there, it was a simple 2-hour bus ride into the capital—a journey I made frequently.

She told me that later, once the road was constructed, she used to run a bunkhouse for the bus drivers. She would cook for them. She had one rule, no women in the bunkhouse. And if she found out the bus drivers were sneaking in partners, she’d no longer offer them a bed. She was a woman with strict ideas about how things should be.

And there was a period when she worked in Asunción, cleaning homes. That’s how she and the señora who was a mother to me, learned Spanish. Paraguay is bilingual. But the people of rural areas speak more Guarani than Spanish. And the people of the city speak more Spanish than Guarani. And that’s despite the dictator they had for about 35 years during the middle to end of the 1900s who tried to erase Guarani.

La Abuela endured the dictator, her Guarani remained more robust than her Spanish. It was thanks to her time in Asunción that we could communicate reasonably well in Spanish. She’d reminisce of the order that used to exist under the dictator and the chaos of current times. We did not discuss the disappearances and deaths of the dictator’s time. She was a strong woman and she had seen more sadness than I could fathom. But she was more likely to discuss the wind and recent gossip than sadness long past. 

La Abuela and I shared many afternoons sitting on the porch watching the school children walk by and various neighbors run errands. And she had so many stories of getting up early and working hard. Of her garden. Of cooking. Of milking the cows. Of raising children. Of her neighbor’s parrot who spoke so well and was once stolen and then returned. And the hazy day and mango shade would fade to dusk. We’d sit in the evening, still hot but without the beating sun, and we’d have dinner. And the stories would continue interspersed with many long periods of quiet contemplation.

No one knew exactly how old La Abuela was. She was from an era when records were stored in the family’s memory. She had had too many of her own children to remember her exact birth year after her mother died. But the wrinkles of her face and the grayness of her hair and the curvature of her spine spoke of many years of hard work.

I knew La Abuela was fading before she died because her daughter told me. Her daughter told me when her mother became bedbound. In Paraguay families care for the sick. I knew her daughter was caring for La Abuela. La Abuela had 6 children, but only one daughter. It’s almost always daughters who bear the brunt of caring.

I got the tearful message that La Abuela had died from her daughter not long before I had a huge exam. At the time, I didn’t have much left in me to think about death. But these days I see lots of people La Abuela’s age in the hospital. Recently my team helped several families put loved ones on hospice (care for those likely to die in 6 months, usually less). And while medicine can cure many things, it cannot stop death. And I think about La Abuela’s daughter caring for her in her last days. And I know that the care La Abuela received at the end of her life was equal or better than any hospice care the US has to offer.

I think about the thatched roof and the dirt floor of her home, the wood fire on which she and her daughter cooked with smoke billowing around them, and the stories of the ants and mice that sometimes passed through the house. I find myself smiling. Because as complex and sophisticated as medicine becomes, hope isn’t found in the hospital. It’s found at home and in our hearts.

La Abuela built a home large enough for all her children, grandchildren, greatgrandchildren, and me to visit peacefully; a home where the mango pits she planted so many years ago were now towering trees offering shade to whoever might need protection from the sun. And as summer slips away I think about that shade waiting for me whenever I can once again visit our community. She won’t be there when I return, but I know her daughter and I will share stories of her life.

The COVID-19 Vaccine: Celebration and Differences

Repost of a post I wrote for the Global Health Diaries, the blog of the Global Health Program at the University of Vermont Robert Larner M.D. College of Medicine and the Western Connecticut Health Network. Find the original (split into 2 posts) here and here.

My partner and I both work in healthcare and had the opportunity to get our COVID-19 vaccines months ago. Never in the past would I have expected to await a vaccine with such anticipation and feel such gratitude upon receiving it. Among the many other social and scientific features COVID has brought to the forefront of our attention—one, at least for me, is a renewed appreciation for all the vaccines we have previously developed. To think that we can stop smallpox and polio is a relief. But, also, COVID is a reminder of all the diseases that have escaped vaccines to prevent them. HIV comes to mind.

My friends and family in the US are in various stages of COVID vaccine completion. The variance is largely because of their age, profession, and which state they live in. What is reassuring to me is that for my US community the debate is not whether to get the vaccine but, rather, when.

The conversation about the vaccine is very different for my Paraguayan friends. I have not experienced vaccine fear among the Paraguayans I’ve known—which is to say their access to the COVID vaccine is not limited by personal belief but rather distribution.

I connected with all my friends in Paraguay on Easter, an important holiday in a predominately catholic country. I was excited to hear about their celebrations. In Paraguay, the week leading up to Easter is called Semana Santa (Saints Week) and is especially important. It is a time of sharing chipa (a traditional food that’s like a hard cheese biscuit) and enjoying the company of family and friends. Visiting has been limited this year because of continued concern for COVID, but my friends still report making chipa and enjoying the company of family.

When the topic of COVID came up, one of my friends said, “Estamos acá en la lucha, en Paraguay no hay vacuna, a nosotros es imposible recibir la vacuna…primero tiene que ser por las personas saludes, por los militares… y después recién por nosotros, dicen que van a inmunizarnos, pero no sé…por nosotros acá nuestra lucha es esperar la vacuna y quedar en casa. (We are struggling here, in Paraguay there is no vaccine, it is impossible for us to get the vaccine…first it must be for healthcare workers, for military personal…and then, after, for us. They say they’re going to vaccinate us, but I don’t know. Here our struggle is to wait for the vaccine and stay home.)”

This friend has been studying online since the pandemic began. She hopes to someday work in healthcare, but she is not able to go to the hospital to continue her clinical training for fear of catching COVID. One of her uncles was hospitalized for 15 days for COVID (he is doing well and made in home for Easter). Many of her family members caught COVID this March, but only the one uncle ended up in the hospital.

One of the things that continues to strike me about my Paraguayan friends is an unwavering optimistic outlook even though COVID-19 vaccination in just beginning in their country. My friend’s comment, “Here our struggle is to wait for the vaccine and stay home” struck me. She said it in a matter-of-fact tone that did NOT hint at frustration but, rather, exuded unwavering patience.  In thinking about my friends in Paraguay, I began to wonder if the closeness of families (not just emotionally but geographically) is a protective factor against feelings of isolation I’ve heard from many of my US friends. My friends in Paraguay either live with their parents and extended family or on the same block as them; compare this to my friends in the US whose families are spread out across distant states. This comparison reminded me that even though this pandemic has touched lives across the globe our shared experience is also a highly personal experience shaped not only by our uniqueness as individuals but also by the culture of the society in which each of us live. 

COVID-19: Oddity of a Shared Experience While Living Continents Apart from My Paraguayan Friends

Reposting a post I wrote for the Global Health Diaries, the blog of the Global Health Program at the University of Vermont Robert Larner M.D. College of Medicine and the Western Connecticut Health Network. Find the original post here.

In early March, I had a Zoom call with the other community health Peace Corps volunteers I served with in Paraguay from 2014-2016. One of my colleagues still lives in Paraguay and he shared his impression of the Paraguayan response to COVID-19 compared to that of the US this spring: “Here [Paraguay] everything is locked down. Police will stop you if you’re on the street to ask why you’re out. People are getting restless because, as you know, here many people don’t eat if they don’t work. But Paraguay is taking this seriously. It’s mind-blowing to hear what’s happening in the United States. It’s hard to believe the news of people protesting masks and attending large gatherings during these times.”

At the time of that comment, the US was still widely debating the validity of masks and COVID-19 cases and deaths were still increasing. Vermont, where I live, was among the US states that chose a more aggressive public health approach with the hope of containing viral spread. For much of the spring and summer most business in Vermont were closed, including gyms and many restaurants. There was no curfew, however school was cancelled or switched to completely online and wearing masks in public places was mandated. The almost complete shutdown only lasted a few months. In late summer, many businesses in Vermont started to open again. Now, schools are back in session (many school districts have a hybrid of online and in-person classes). As a second-year medical student, I have in-person classes twice a week and online classes three days a week. I am required to get a weekly COVID-19 test and report any new symptoms and contacts daily.

The short shutdown and recent opening of Vermont is in stark contrast with the experiences of my Paraguayan friends during these past 6 months. I’ve remained in contact with friends in the Paraguayan community where I worked when I lived there during my Peace Corps service.

This fall, just as in the spring, my friends in Paraguay are mostly restricted to their homes. When my friends and I spoke in early summer, they said that only a few members of their extended family were still allowed to go to work. One friend shared her perspective on Paraguay’s infrastructure, “Our hospitals can’t take care of people if they get sick,” she said. “We are worried.”

In early September, I got a voice message from one of the Paraguayan women who is like a mother to me. She was on the verge of tears. She is the primary caretake of her 90-year-old mother. In my friend’s message she told me that she is scared that her mother will die of COVID-19. My friend does not have a car. The nearest hospital is 2 hours by bus. I don’t know if the buses are running right now.

I’ve returned to Paraguay twice since leaving, once for a friend’s wedding and once to meet a friend’s son before he turned one. I was planning to visit again this year because two of the children I taught when I worked there will turn 15. In Paraguay, 15 is considered an important birthday and some families have a large, wedding-like birthday party to celebrate. The two children turning 15 are like younger siblings to me and I wanted to see them during their special year.

In late September, realizing that I probably won’t travel anywhere outside of the US soon, I made a traditional Paraguayan drink called cocido. It is a warm beverage made from steeped yerba mate (similar to tea) and burnt sugar. It’s a perfect study beverage for fall and it reminds me of my Paraguayan friends and our times together. I shared a video of making cocido with my Paraguay friends. One of them mentioned that I should make chipa, a traditional Paraguayan biscuit that is often eaten with cocido. “I miss chipa!” I said over text. “I haven’t made it because it’s better in Paraguay. I’ve been waiting to visit again so I can have it there.”

My Paraguayan friend responded, “You should make chipa. Don’t wait to come to Paraguay. You’re not going to be able to come for a long time. Things are not well. Lots of people are getting sick here now. We don’t know what is going to happen with this virus.”

My friend’s comment was in stark contrast to any previous conversation we’d had about me visiting Paraguay. My Paraguayan friends remind me often that I am always welcome in their homes. Before COVID-19, every time we talked they asked when I was returning to Paraguay. Now my friends seem too far away to visit. Yet, despite the feeling that travel to Paraguay is morally forbidden during these times, there is something novel about sharing the same public health crisis in my home country as friends abroad. It is not often that the primary public health concern in the United States is the same as that in Paraguay. It is the first time since I’ve left Paraguay that I feel my life is still intertwined with the lives of my friends in Paraguay. It’s not reassuring, but it is interesting to consider how interconnected our global community is despite the borders, oceans, and mountains that separate us.

When They Told Me She Had Died

The years pass quickly. Already, Paraguay hasn’t been home for 4 years. But my mind often still wanders back to the 27 months I lived there. When I see the sun dancing in the summer I am always transported to the homes of several women who made my time in the land of the Guarani exceptional. I think of those women when I drink my mate each morning. Even when I’m excited about the amazing things I’m doing and discovering in the US, part of me longs for our quiet mornings, afternoons, and evenings together sitting under the mangos or by a wood cooking fire. Since living in Paraguay, I’m always pulled between my type-A, American self and the person I got to be in Paraguay.

A few years ago, I received a text from a Paraguayan friend telling me a tía (an aunt) had died. It took me until I visited Paraguay later that year to confirm who the friend was talking about because many people in Paraguay use many names. My friend had used a name for the tía that I did not know.

The woman who had died was a dear friend of mine. We were one of those odd pairings of a woman in her 20s and a woman in her 60s. The name I called her was Estelva. She is the quietest heroine of my Paraguayan story. She could easily be forgotten, but to leave her out of the story would be to leave a gaping pit in my journey. Today, the sun is shimmering on my living room floor and reminded me of her.

Estelva was a woman of work. She was a baker and I’d joined her many afternoons to help bake chipa, cake, and pastries. For most of my time in Paraguay, she cared for her bed-ridden husband. He was very sick. He had a lung disease from working in the quarries and perhaps other ailments. She also helped support one of her daughters and her daughter’s 3 sons. One of the 3 sons was a hard worker as was the daughter, but Estelva’s work ethic was unlike anyone I have ever seen. She’d rise early and she’d still be working when I walked home after 10pm at night. Her feet and body would ache and she would continue, hardly a word of complaint.

Estelva was a quiet woman. We’d spend many afternoons with few words. She struggled to understand my accent and I hers. We didn’t really need words. She was one of those people who could just feel what was going on. Early on in my time in Paraguay, I needed somewhere safe. Somewhere calm. Because, where I was living wasn’t any of those things. No, I wasn’t in danger…but, the first few months I lived in my Paraguayan community were hard.

Estelva had rescued a giant dog left behind by a previous Peace Corps volunteer. The dog was 4 times larger than any other dog in the town and had no business being in Paraguay, but she had rescued it anyway. She fed it well and spoke to it often. She loved that dog, just as she had loved the volunteer who left it. She would tell the dog often that her mother, the volunteer who left it, would visit them soon. That volunteer has not visited since I’ve known the community.

Often when I arrived we’d drink terere together on her patio. We’d work hours. We’d knead chipa dough, sweating from the heat that streamed in through the tin roof of the bakery. On rainy days, the tin roof was deafening as the raindrops pounded down. The walls of the bakery had recipes taped to them, written by the same volunteer who left the dog. Estelva never used nor needed those recipes. The bakery was part of a cooperative that included bakers and other crafts women like the women who wove hats, baskets, and fans from palm leaves.

Estelva ensured that I never left her home empty-handed. She’d send me with chipa or pastries we’d made. She’d send me with guava jelly she’d cooked in a huge pot over a roaring wood fire in her patio.

Many times I would sit and do the rosary with Estelva at the alter that was set up in the corner of the bakery. We were usually doing the rosary on behalf of her husband, praying for his health to improve. Sometimes when I arrived, she was dressed in her nicest shirt and we had to cancel because she was preparing to bring her husband to the hospital (a 2-plus hour bus ride) because he’d gotten worse during the night.

At the end of my time living in Paraguay, her husband died. It was both sad and a relief. Estelva’s life had centered on caring for him for many years. It’s hard to describe the toll caretaking takes on a person, especially in a place where there are no resources and in a family where all money is hard-earned and travel in the sweltering heat is by bus. I remember Estelva’s sadness during the days of prayer after her husband’s death. I also remember seeing her look rested for the first time in the weeks thereafter. She even slept in until 7am some days.

Sometimes, when we were sitting waiting for the next project, Estelva would tell a story.

On one occasion Estelva stared out across the room, glancing at me, but mostly lost in her thoughts. “The children always loved him,” she said of her husband. “He was so loving and boisterous. It was so easy for him to show love.” She paused. “I have never been that way.”

Her words settled like dust, floating on sunbeams to the floor of the bakery. Her love was a quiet, diligent one. The kind of love that makes you strong. The kind of love that if you don’t look, you’ll never notice just how big of a difference it has made in your life. She was right. Her children and community would always think of their fond memories of her husband.

But, how would I remember her? Would I remember her? I knew she was asking me those questions. And, I had known my answer long before she’d asked.

5 Years Later – Quiet Moments

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 life.

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.

Below the Surface

A pre-holiday Paraguay visit is to blame for the blogging hiatus this December. It had been 2 years since I last visited Paraguay, the country where I lived for 27 months while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer. My Paraguayan friends were amazingly generous. They fed and housed me. They brought me on adventures around their lovely country. We spent hours chatting and eating—recalling old times, catching up on times spent separately, and dreaming about the future. I was reminded of how easily Paraguayans show affection—through food and time given to others. I was reminded, as I’ve been hundreds of times, of how lucky I am to have stumbled upon my Paraguayan community and how spoiled I feel to enjoy the company of my Paraguayan friends.

During this visit as I walked back from church one evening, after attending the celebration that marked the closure of the Christmas in Families (which is where people go to family homes to share passages from the Bible and prayer for 9 days in the month leading up to Christmas), I was reminded of a story shared at my favorite Paraguayan mass years ago. I don’t remember the occasion for the mass or who gave the sermon, but I remember the story the priest shared. I think, regardless of religious beliefs, it reminds us that we must look carefully and patiently to see what’s hidden below other’s facades. It’s what was hidden below the surface that made me fall in love with Paraguay. It was the journey of looking deeper at the land of Guarani that taught me resilience and showed me how to find hope no matter the circumstances. Here’s the story from that mass:

A Ride in a Car

There once was a young man whose rich brother gave him a fancy new car. The young man was so proud of his car, he loved to drive it all around town. One day, the young man had to park his car in a poor neighborhood while he was running an errand.

As the young man walked back to his car after finishing his errand, he noticed a boy circling his car. The young man worried that the boy was trying to find a way to enter or damage the car. The young man hurried to his car and asked the boy what he was doing by the car.

“I’m just looking at your car! It’s so nice. I’ve never seen one like it. I hope one day I will have a car like this one!” the boy said.

The young man explained that his brother had given him the car. “Wow!” the boy said. The boy and the young man talked about the car at length. The young man scolded himself for thinking the boy had been up to no good.

“Since you don’t have a wealthy brother to give you a car, would you like to take a ride in my car with me?” the young man asked the boy after they had talked for some time.

The boy jumped with excitement and jumped into the car. They drove a little way, then the boy asked if the young man could pause in an alleyway because the boy had to deliver a message to someone. Once they stopped, the boy asked the young man to wait for him to return, promising to be right back. The young man agreed to wait for the boy, but again had doubts. He wondered if the boy was getting someone to help him steal the car. The young man waited nervously, thinking of all the bad things that could happen. He thought about leaving before the boy returned, but something made him wait.

After several long minutes, the boy appeared in the doorway of a building in the alley. The young man squinted, the boy had something in his arms. The boy approached the car. Once the boy was close to the car, the young man noticed that the boy had a sickly, disabled child in his arms. “Sir, this is my brother! Can he take a ride in the car too? I want to show him the car. I have just promised him that one day when I am rich, I will buy him a nice car just like yours.”

The young man agreed to take both boys for a ride. The young man scolded himself not only for distrusting the boy, but for thinking the boy was envious of his car.

Countdown to Visiting Paraguay

It’s been 2 years since I last stepped foot in Paraguay, that little country at the heart of South America where I lived for 27 months as a Peace Corps volunteer. But, I’m going there for 2 weeks this December. It’ll be the second time I’ve gone back to visit since returning to the US.

I find myself falling into a reflective mood as I think about the long journey south. My trip comes at the best time, when snow and cold have descended on Vermont. I need a break from winter even though it’s only just arrived. I’m reflective because I’m a very different person than the one who left Paraguay almost 3 years ago. I won’t bore you with the details of thrusting myself into pre-medicine and the whirlwind of building a new life in Vermont, both adventures that have consumed my time since I moved back to the States. What I will say, however, is that I’m excited to see the red dirt of Paraguay again. I look forward to their fatty foods. And most of all, I can’t wait to sit with the Paraguayans I call my family and friends and discuss the weather and life…and crack jokes. Often, the jokes are about my singleness or professional focus (aspects of my being that are particularly distinct from the Paraguayan way of life) but not always.

Many of the kids I taught in Paraguay have graduated or are soon to graduate high school. I see their Facebook photos of college study and adult life. Many of them have lost parents to illness. Some of those parents I knew and spoke to on my almost daily walks to the school. Many of my students have their own babies now. Few are married yet.

Some of the elderly women I used to spend the afternoons with have passed away since I last visited. Others, I’m not sure if they’re alive because they don’t have cell phones. What I know is that the señoras in my Paraguayan community will welcome me into their homes with just as many smiles and just as much generosity as they did when I was their neighbor. Those women took me in as their daughter. I think they were always torn about what kind of daughter was. On one hand, I didn’t know anything about the right way to navigate life in Paraguay, but, on the other hand, I knew how to travel from my country to theirs and I have so many dreams and goals.

In many ways life in Paraguay is the same as here. But, as I think about going back I’m also reminded by just how difference it is. The food and smells—meat and real animal fat mix with the smell of live chickens, pigs, and cows who idle close to the houses. The topics of conversation vary, but there is something unique about the gossip of families who have lived by one another for so many generations no one remembers any other place they called home. They speak in a mix of Spanish and Guarani (the indigenous language); the sounds of those languages together bring back many memories of the best two, but also the hardest two, years of my life so far. The soundtrack of Paraguay is different—the rhythms of bachata, polka, cumbia, and reggaeton fill the air on hazy, hot weekend days and weekday nights.

In many ways, Paraguay has the indomitable nature of never outwardly changing in any significant way, just like my home state of Vermont. But, just as Vermont, there are the subtle differences of life moving forward. One of my dearest friends has returned to law school (she’s already a lawyer) for a specialty degree and she is now a mother—both new accomplishments since I last saw her. Another friend finished his military training and now works for the Paraguayan Navy—he still visits his family’s home whenever he gets a stretch of days free from duty. Another friend started a local clothing store. All of us are older than we once were. The babies I knew when I lived in Paraguay are now children. The children are almost adults.

As I drink my daily mate alone in Vermont, I often think about my Paraguayan friends. I miss them every day. I miss them because no other people I’ve encountered is so good at sharing time with each other. So good at making you feel welcomed and loved. Their culture has built in values and rituals that allow friends and family to sit together and share a drink or a meal without any other obligation. I miss my Paraguayan families because they are so good at seeing the bright side of everything. So good at ignoring the bad things that happen, almost to a fault.

The nostalgia I feel for Paraguay is one where all the bad aspects of living there are forgotten and I remember only the good. Of course, both the light and dark sides of Paraguayan life will confront me when I land again in that country…but somehow that doesn’t bother me.

I remember the first time I flew to Paraguay, not knowing what awaited me there. It was exciting and petrifying. This time when I go back, I know the communities and families who will greet me again with open arms. I can’t wait to see them. I can’t wait to eat chipa and sip terere in the shade of tropical trees because it is absolutely too hot to do anything else. I can’t wait to walk around my old community and say “hi” to every human I pass because that’s the Paraguayan way. I can’t wait to be reminded there is more than one way to live life, none better or worse than the other, just different.

English Social Vocabulary Cramps My Style

While I can bore you with a VERY long laundry list of why I love speaking Spanish more than English—especially the Guaraní-Spanish mix (called “jopara”) spoken in Paraguay—I won’t. There’s one term, however, above all the other turns of phrase that I still (years after returning to the US) struggle without. The term is “guapa” (“guapo” for males).

In the Paraguayan context, “guapa” means hardworking. It’s a compliment that’s dished out like gravy at Thanksgiving—in copious amounts and without restraint. If you show up at a friend’s house, you’re “guapa.” If you do the dishes, clear the dishes, or help in any minor way, you’re guapa. If you study like crazy, you’re guapa. If you work long hours, you’re guapa. If you remember someone’s birthday, you’re guapa. If you take two seconds do to anything for anyone else, you’re guapa.

Despite its prevalence and low-barrier for use, I think “guapa” is the most wonderful term. Why? Because it promotes a spirit of teamwork. The word builds into social culture an easy way to constantly appreciate others for their contributions to the wellbeing of the whole. Anyone can be guapa and multiple people can be guapa at once because the more guapa-ness there is the better off everyone ends up.

In my workplace and social spaces, I’ve tried to substitute in English words for “guapa.” “Rocks star,” “champion,” and “genius” are among my favorites, but none of these words hold the shared meaning that “guapa” does in Paraguay. In Paraguay, when you call someone “guapa” it as if you’re saying, “Not only do I notice that thing you’re doing, but also I appreciate both the outcome of your action and you for making it happen.”

In the US, we are busy. In the US, we have high standards. Why the heck don’t we have a word whose sole purpose is to cheer on our colleagues, friends, and family as they undertake their daily adventures? Sometimes I wonder if it comes down to our emphasis on individualism. But, in my mind, even the strongest individual required a village to reach their full potential. I believe we (American English speakers) do more harm than good not having a term to thank folks for all their small acts that make our lives a tad bit brighter each day. “Guapa” makes appreciation a natural part of interaction, not something done out of obligation or because it improves outcomes. I miss being able to use “guapa.” I miss the community feeling words like “guapa” create.

Defining Friendship

On my EMT shift the day before my birthday, the dangerous topic of religion came up for some reason while we were reviewing the ambulance (something we do at the beginning of every shift) to make sure we had all the right supplies. Like most careful Americans, we ended the religion conversation before we needed to say much about our personal beliefs. It was amusing to contrast the politically correct nature of the conversation with my experience in Paraguay. In Paraguay, religion is not a topic that’s avoided and people have no problem asking you if you’re catholic (the dominate religion there). I went to Paraguay with almost no religious experiences (and most that I had had were very negative)…but Paraguay brought me up to speed on their version of being catholic. And they changed my view of religion forever (though they didn’t convert me).

As I wrote when I was in Paraguay, the Paraguay I know is Catholic. That means that to my Paraguay friends the entire world is seen through the lens of Mary, Jesus, and the saints. A lot of what Mary and Jesus and the saints talk about is how you’re supposed to treat other people. Paraguayans put people, especially family, first.

A little after 9pm on my birthday I got a video message from one of my families in Paraguay. When I say family, I mean I spent every weekend with them. I went to church, out shopping, and to soccer games with them (in Paraguay, soccer is the equivalent of all sports in the US combined). I went dancing all night with the daughters, studied English and history for hours with the son, ate many dinners and lunches with them a week. I showered at their house when my water was out. I was in both daughters’ weddings…

My whole family was there in the video message. First they sang “Happy Birthday” in Guarani…then it was “Happy birthday Jett. May you have a blessed birthday and many blessed years ahead. I hope you’re having a wonderful time. Send us a video, Jett, so we can see you…We miss you Jett. When are you coming back Jett?”

It’s so nice when you realize that the people you think about all the time also think about you. And as my family’s familiar voices and happy words sunk in I thought about friendship. Even friendship is defined using a religious metaphor in Paraguay. And, with the topics of religion and friendship on my mind, it seemed fitting to share (again) one of my favorite stories about both:

Overheard in Paraguay: Friendship
Repost from October 19, 2015

We sat in a half circle around the grill. The men were cooking large slabs of meat, ribs and some unidentifiable cut, for the mother of the family’s birthday dinner. The husband of one of the birthday mother’s daughters sat by the grill passing one can of beer among the men there. A nephew walked up to the daughter’s husband. The husband was around 30 and the nephew was about 11.

The husband hugged his nephew first with one arm and then the other, squeezing him. The nephew squirmed, and they both smiled. The husband held the nephew at arm’s length and put on an almost serious expression. “Will we always be friends?” the husband asked.

“Yes,” the nephew said.

“Even when I am old and you are my age?” the husband asked.

“Yes, even when you are old and I have kids,” the nephew said.

The husband smiled and pulled the nephew into another hug. The nephew pulled away again and they looked at each other, the husband still squeezed the nephew’s shoulder with one hand.

“Even when you are in Heaven and I am old we will still be friends,” the nephew said earnestly.

The husband laughed. “And I will look after you from Heaven.” They hugged again. “And, when you come to Heaven, we will be friends in Heaven. We will be friends forever.”

The boy nodded and ran off to find his playmates.

The Return

Ha! My Peace Corps service ended so long ago that I went back to visit. Eight months after journeying from Paraguay to the US, I traveled backward for a Paraguayan friend’s wedding.

I cried when I finished my service and left the land of the Guarani—mostly because I didn’t know when I would return. I told my Paraguay friends, many of whom are more family than friends, that I would come back. I wondered if I was lying.

Well, I was honest. I went back. Sooner than expected, but love has no timeline and I swore I’d go back for my friend’s wedding. I was a bridesmaid. The bride was a vision. If my friend’s married life is half as lovely as she was on her wedding day, she scored big time.

It takes more than a day to travel from Vermont to Paraguay. It’s a journey of planes and buses. But, it’s worth it. And, now that I’ve done it once, I know I can do it again.

I think one of the loveliest things about going back was how little things had changed. Sure, there’s some new paint here and there. Many of my students graduated high school this year. My friends continue their lives, making changes like tying the knot. But, the important things carry on the same—perhaps indefinitely. The heat engulfs you when you step out of the airport. The sun sparkles in the sky, making the colors of life dazzle. My friends laugh easily and every Paraguayan offers food or terere. The people. The people of Paraguay are so warm. That’s the best part. They are so generous. I hope they always will be.

I spent the days drinking terere and gossiping about town happenings. I took siestas when the sun was too strong. I visited. I prepared all the little things that make a party a party—the frame for taking selfies at the wedding. Packaging the guest wedding gifts.

My Paraguayan friends welcomed me like family. They made room for me. My Paraguayan sisters gave up their beds for the days I was there. I shared meals that my favorite señoras cooked.

I saw the sun shine through the mango trees. I realized that as long as my friends are there, Paraguay will be a second home. And while my soul continues to wander, it is reassuring to know that yet another place I love will always be home. They say home is where the heart is. The euphemism is a smoothing of the reality. The heart can be like an electron. More than one place at once. My heart is divided in two. I imagine that it will split more as I fall in love with other peoples and their lands. And, now that I’ve learned a bit more about the odd natures of electrons (thank you pre-med curriculum), I’m okay with the uncertainty of where my heart actually is—I, at least, know the path on which I’m most likely to find it.