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!

 

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Bus Serenity

My biggest fear when I arrived in Paraguay was taking the bus everywhere. Irrational? Perhaps, but that’s the truth. And, if one were to look at all components of taking buses in Paraguay, it might make a little sense.

The Paraguayan bus schedule is a suggestion and unpredictable; it often runs late and one must wait and wait…and wait. The only way to find out where a bus goes is to ask people; the bus routes aren’t posted ANYWHERE. There aren’t set bus stops. Therefore, when traveling to places one’s never been, one must ask the driver and passengers when to get off.  Taking the bus requires talking to many strangers and taking a leap of faith that it will all work out eventually. To compound the above, I often travel in crowded buses with a stuffed backpack. Most buses don’t have AC; they are saunas.

These days, as my mind whirs with my future life and my moving-soon emotions, I’m not nervous about the bus. I’m calm. I’m mostly traveling the roads I’ve taken many times during my wanderings in hazy Paraguay. When the bus isn’t crowded and I have a seat, ideally on the shady-side of the bus and right by an open window, the wind washes over me and familiar landmarks stand as they always have. And I pass them, wondering how many times I whizzed by without noticing their stoicism and how many more times our paths will cross.

The motion of the bus and the fact that it is no longer new is somehow soothing. I feel serene even when unexpected bus happenings occur, like the bus doesn’t go exactly where I expected it to go or the most intriguing person sits by me. When I’m on the bus, I don’t feel obligated to do anything because I’m going somewhere. I don’t even have to sleep or think. I do both with frequency. But more, I just enjoy the absence of emotion I feel as my eyes barely register the red dirt, spiky palms, and brick and mud houses.

May I Carry This Always

I’ve learned and seen enough cool things in Paraguay to fill volumes. But, I will not do that (at least not right now). So, in the simplest of terms: Paraguay is an awesome place. Paraguayans have taught me to be a more confident and caring person. And, there are some aspects of their culture I’m incorporating into my life for always, no matter where I am. My top five favorites of Paraguayan culture are:

1) Commitment to humor: Find a Paraguayan and in short time they will make a joke and be laughing. Find a Paraguayan and they will smile. Paraguayans have plenty to be negatively about, but most don’t let those realities rob them of happiness. Paraguayans are always looking for the next smile, the next bright speck in the haze of life.

2) Unwavering gratefulness: Paraguayans take time to be thankful for what they have and with who they share their lives. Of course, Paraguayans are human and want new, different things. However, they don’t let their desire for something else distract from their enjoyment of what they have.

3) Attention to detail: Paraguayans, especially and mostly the women, notice the smallest detail. They notice how one little bow can make a table at a baby shower look all the better. They notice and remember when one’s birthday is, how one’s family is doing, what one prefers to eat, what size of clothing one wears, what one likes to do…I appreciate Paraguayan women’s attention and think it is a form of being truely present. I want to be as present in my life as they are; I hope to be as understanding of the people who are important to me as they are of the people important to them.

4) Relationship building as a priority: Paraguayans work and study and do all the things that people do, but first and most important are the people in their lives. I was raised as a fierce individualistic American who believes my dream should not be bent for anyone or anything. I still believe that I must follow my dreams and not let anyone distract me, but I’ve also realized that people bring joy to life and that people in my life are important to me. I don’t ever want to get lost in a rat race that is so hectic I don’t have time to share with those I love.

5) Unrelenting curosity: Paraguayans never stop asking questions and I love them for it. They do not feel shame when asking the most outlandish, in my mind, things. I want to carry their unwavering confidence…it takes confidence to ask questions people might refuse to answer. I want to always be curious and willing to learn like I have found my closest Paraguayan friends to be.

The Art of Being Grateful

One thing that continues to impress me about Paraguayans is how happy they are. They almost always have a smile on their faces, and even in the darkest of times are quick to joke and laugh.

This ability to be joyful is not because the people of Paraguay have fewer problems than people of the US, for example. Believe me, they have many struggles from finding work and putting food on the table to maintaining their health and accomplishing the basic, like washing clothes, with access to only poor infrastructure. I often wonder how they stay positive when faced with so many obstacles.

Having thought often about how Paraguayans create happiness, I’ve come to the conclusion that Paraguayan contentment stems from a strong tendency toward gratefulness.

Paraguayans who have little and don’t know how they will put the next meal on the table are still able to enjoy the food they are currently eating, and even more profound they do not hesitate to share what they have with others. Their traditional foods always taste good to them and the soda is sweet no matter what pain they hold inside.

Paraguayans use what they have, considering it a gift to have for the time it lasts. Sometimes people in the States buy nice things and are then afraid to use them for fear of ruining them. Most Paraguayans start using a new thing right away and aren’t scared to let others use it too.

Paraguayans are experts at appreciating the company around them. They spend their free time talking to family and sharing meals. To many Paraguayans, visiting family is as important as excelling in work and school.

The Paraguay lifestyle naturally includes pauses to be grateful for one’s resources and relationships. This ability to take time and enjoy what one has, helps sustain contentment and overshadow the difficult aspects of life.

5 Confessions of a Paraguay Peace Corps Volunteer

When I was preparing to leave for Peace Corps, returned volunteers told me that the experience would change me. Of course they were right. Most of the changes I’ve experienced are internal, feelings more than anything else, and can’t be summarized easily in a few words. However, there a some things I now do that are amusing to me. These new habits aren’t particularly profound, but they offer a glimps into my life in Paraguay.

5 Confessions

1) I automatically prepare a 2-liter thermos of ice cold water in the morning regardless of whether or not I have imminent plans of drinking terere. I know I’ll finish the 2 liters by the end of the day one way or another. Before Paraguay, there was nothing I drank every day (other than water of course), not tea and not coffee.

2) If it’s raining in the morning I sleep in, make mate, and decide it’s a “me” day. Only “big” commitments have a chance of breaking that routine. I used to be an “A” type who could not sit without work for even two seconds.

3) I plan the amount of groceries I buy based on how many families I think I’m going to visit that week. No matter what I do, every Paraguayan family I visit will insist on feeding me and giving me food to take home. This country is a land of super-hosts. I’m not a moocher and I don’t like to accept any kind of gift without a clear way to repay it, but Paraguayans have shown me a generosity so profound they’ve eased my “repay” obsession and given me the chance to just enjoy their company.

4) I have so many humorous, invented reasons for why I don’t have a boyfriend and why I don’t want do date whoever is asking me about my relationship status, I don’t remember the real reason for my singleness. In Paraguay, it’s just as common for people to ask me if I have a boyfriend as it is for them to ask me my name (well, almost). I don’t enjoy the prodding so common here in Paraguay, but having to think about what is up with my romantic situation so often has given me the chance to be creative. I do hope I keep the humor when I return to the States, but I won’t miss the prevalence of questions about my love life.

5) I know all the tricks to get out of eating a second piece of meat. Everything from what I finish first on my plate to where I look while eating is calculated for best results. Paraguayans eat a lot of meat and they are aggressively generous with sharing their food. I appreciate my hosts’ invites to eat, but I just can’t consume as much beef and pork as they can. When left on my own, I hardly eat meat of any kind.

Through Another’s Eyes

[Scene]

On the TV news channel a story shows footage of two girls convulsing with only the whites of their eyes showing and moving on the ground like snakes.

Señora 1: “They [the girls] are possessed by demons…they say they where worshiping Satan.”

Señora 2: “They cover a table with a white tablecloth. Then, they put a glass on the table and start to summon the devil.”

Señora 1: “When you ask for things from Satan, for personal gain, you have to promise something in return. You have to make good on your promise.”

Ten-year-old boy: “Grandmother, I asked God for something. I asked him to send you money. Is something bad going to happen?”

The conversation about the devil continues among the señoras. It seems they did not hear the boy’s question. He asks again, becoming agitated.

Señora 2: “Did you ask God?”

Boy: “Yes.”

Señora 1: “God is different. When you ask God for something nothing bad will happen.”

[End Scene]

When the Days Are Numbered

On March 8th I’ll have 30 days left in Paraguay. At that point, I’ll no longer be able to deny the countdown I’ve struggled against by hiding behind weeks and months before departure. The days are numbered like pages. As with a good book, I’m excited to start a new chapter, but sad to move forward because the story is so interesting I could just stay in the middle of it…indefinitely.

March leading to April is a good time in Paraguay. School is up and running again, students pass my house in their uniform skirts, pants, and leather shoes. The weather starts to cool and the citrus are coming in–lemons and fat grapefruit, oranges and mandarins will come later. Catholics begin to prepare their souls for Easter. This year Easter week, called Saint’s Week here, falls in March. I arrived in my community for Saint’s Week two years ago and I will leave Paraguay just after it this year. Saint’s Week is the week of chipa, family, and disturbing TV series about the rise, fall, and rise of Jesus.

During March and April two years ago I was finishing my Peace Corps training and adjusting to my new home in my community–everything was a first. The same months last year, I was glowing with the accomplishments of a volunteer who rocked her first year in site and had stellar prospects for the coming year. This year, I’m saying goodbye and everything is turning into a “last.” It is hard to imagine things that have been fundamental in my life for two years as lasts… My last party in site dancing until dawn. My last soccer game. My last…Why does “last” have an innately depressing ring to it?

The days are numbered and it would be a lie to say that I’m not ready to take the leap to the next thing. When I leave my little house on a Paraguayan hill, I have three weeks of wandering until I land in my next home, which will be in northern Vermont. Vermont will be a launching pad; there I’ll be catapulted into the trajectory of becoming a doctor. I’ve had two thoughtful years in the hot, humid land of Paraguay to meditate on doctor-hood. It is the right road to take next, but the irony of leaving Paraguay to go to Vermont to germinate my new self is not lost. Anything can flourish in Paraguay, but only the hardiest of seeds sprout and produce in Vermont’s stingy sun.

I do not miss places. Place inherently have a mix of favorable and annoying characteristics. And, in most walks of earth, I can adapt and even prosper in the mix of features that makes the place.

I do not miss entire cultures. Cultures are like ecosystems; they have many parts that rely on each other to stay together. Like I find it difficult to appreciate mosquitoes and ants, I find it impossible to accept every aspect of a culture. There are beliefs I adore and there are those I hate. I navigate by focusing on what resonates with me and ignoring the rest to the best of my ability.

I miss people. I feel their absence from my heels to the top of my messy bun. There are lots of people in our world, but there are few individuals who are mostly good. In Spanish we could call those people who tip the balance dramatically to the side of kind, fun, and just “buena anda.” “Buena anda” translates to something like “good way” or “good walk”– maybe the English phrase is “good people.” I’ve struck a fortune and made friends with some buena anda people in Paraguay. And, the readiness I feel to leave the red earth of the Guarani is dulled by the thought of moving far away from the people I love here.

My young Paraguayan friends have Facebook. There is the mail system and the chance that I will return to Paraguay for a visit. Yes, it is undeniable that the tools to “stay in touch” are available. But, having played this game of geography before, I know it is not the tools that are the most important factor to staying connected.

My closest friends and I can pick up where we left off after any amount of time, and no matter how brief our reconnect. And, my Paraguayan friends will be like that, we will carry on when we talk or are together. But, I have learned that as life goes on the time between catch-up sessions with far away friends grows. It lengthens until the relationship is mostly founded on the memories of times when we lived close. I have vivid and profound memories with my friends from this overlooked, South American country. I know what we shared will live on in our metaphorical hearts. But, I still find myself pausing in the way I learned during my years sweating in the Paraguayan humidity and lounging in mango shade.

The days are numbered. I can count them. Soon the count will be zero and I will embark on the road less traveled. I must go. I want to go. But, I don’t want to forget. I don’t want the people I knew here to fade in my life like old photographs. I don’t want the indescribable understanding of life that Paraguay gave me to get lost in a cobweb corner of my mind. Now, as I look to the horizon, I don’t just ask what is to come. There is a more emotional question that plagues me: How will I remember?

The Women of Paraguay

Last week I attended a girls’ leadership camp, the Paraguayan version of the international initiative Girls Leading Our World (GLOW). It was my second year helping plan and attending GLOW. The camp is 3 nights long and brings together 50 girls from across Paraguay to talk about being leaders in their communities.

A fantastic group of young women attended this year’s GLOW and we, the volunteers who helped organize the event, were thrilled to have speakers and support from many Paraguayans. GLOW inspired me to reflect on how Paraguayan women have helped me make sense of Paraguay since I started my service.

My biggest struggle in Peace Corps is navigating Paraguayan gender roles, many of those for women are contrary to who I am and many of those assigned to men make me uncomfortable. I’ve had a plethora of eye-opening experiences with regard to how different people see men and women in Paraguay. But, one positive aspect of the female reality in this hot, little country towers above all else, and that is the strength and cohesiveness of Paraguayan women.

There is a bound among women in Paraguay that I never experienced in the States. When I came to Paraguay it was like returning to kindergarten. I was still an adult with adult thoughts, but I understood Paraguayan culture about as well as a five-year-old understands how to live independently, which is to say I felt lost. The Paraguayan style of teaching is to criticize and instruct through jokes. It is hard to deal with at first, I think most of us like to be taken seriously as humans. Between the jeers and the hiccups during my first months, Paraguayan woman after Paraguayan woman gave me advice.

As a result, I grew as a person. I’ve absorbed a little of the Paraguayan woman’s ability to defend herself. I know how Paraguayan women usually act, even though I don’t always follow the rules because I don’t like most of them. I’ve come to understand that while men in Paraguay are free and powerful, women are not as disempowered as I thought they were at first. And, in fact, I would go as far as to say that many Paraguayan women have a strength that many American women I know lack.

The Paraguayan woman is a nurturer. When she is young she looks after his siblings. She treats her father like a king and her brothers like princes. She cooks and cleans and works to make the men in her life happy, even at times when those men do nothing. But, while I as the outsider often find this sickening, there is a positive side to the Paraguayan female sacrifice. She is proud of her work. She is good at negotiating with the men around her, and leading them to compromises that benefit her too. She is close to the women in her family. By her teens she knows her mother, sisters, female cousins, aunts, and grandmother as well as life-long friends in the States know each in their 80s. She knows the needs of every member of her family. She knows how to barter and form strategies to meet those needs.

By the time a Paraguayan woman becomes a wife, a professional, and/or a mother she is the heart of her family. She is the life force and the glue holding people together. She remembers everyone’s birthdays. She does little things to make children feel loved. She can plan a party like a professional event planner. She never misses a detail. She can plot the path of her children so that one day they will be even greater than she is. She knows the powerful members in her community and she knows how to win their respect. She can not control her husband or her brothers, but she is a master of limiting damage. She looks to her core and her female friends to find the power she needs to get through the worst obstacles. She is beautiful. She laughs and she never forgets the women growing up around her.

Paraguayan women are proud. They may not be able to shut down the catcalls that follow them everywhere they go. They may not be free to do all that they desire. They may be afraid to break the norm. But, they don’t let these things stop them. They know how to deal with a rude, drunk man with eloquence and a smile. They know how to see the essence of a person. They know how to fight and to forgive. They know what it is to fall and to get up again, and they know how to win.

When I think about the girls who attended GLOW it makes me happy. They will one day lead their communities.They will improve the lot of the women who come after them. I believe that they have all they need to be and do whatever they want in their lives, and I am honored they shared a bit of their greatness with me.

Hardship

I had dengue, a mosquito-born virus that at best feels like the flu and at worst kills, earlier this month. I had a mild case and feel better now. While I was at the Peace Corps office, seeing the doctors, several volunteers commented that they wanted dengue because it is a badge of courage. This struck a nerve in me, mostly because it is a good illustration of what I believe is a counterproductive and mistaken belief some Peace Corps volunteers have about their service. Mainly, the idea that Peace Corps is about physical hardship and surviving.

Peace Corps is about a lot of things–among them are helping people, growing as an individual, and sharing culture–but it is not about hardship and people should not join the Peace Corps if that is all they seek. They should take up rock climbing, backing-packing, or some other grueling (though rewarding) activity that will take them to the desolate places where most people can’t or won’t go.

Some volunteers are quick to share stories of illness, days without running water and electricity, and weeks of isolation. Perhaps these aspects of their service stand out to them because of their shock factor. Perhaps those volunteers think these challenges are uncommon in the lives of humans. We, Paraguay volunteers, have a word that means “fancy,” which we use to describe volunteers who live in cities and have easy access to grocery stores or have AC in their homes. Sometimes volunteers joke that Paraguay is the “posh corps” because compared to some other countries where Peace Corps works we can get around with ease and could get to a hospital if we were to fall ill.

I reject this frame that Peace Corps makes those who serve stronger because of the physical obstacles they overcome. Illness and less-than-easy living conditions are not an oddity in the human experience, they are the norm. I’m from the States and I lived a time without running water and lived in places with limited, or no, cell service. It only takes a quick trip to the major cities of the US to find food deserts. For example, people who live in the two wards on the “wrong” side of the river in Washington, DC, have almost no access to grocery stores. Around the world, people make do with little.

Peace Corps is outstanding because of the cultural exchange between volunteers and host country nationals. The hardest part of Peace Corps is not fighting big spider that come into your house, it is diving into a world that does’t speak your language and that follows different societal rules than the ones you know. Peace Corps challenges you because it asks you to make friends and contribute all you can to improving your place of service while navigating a culture that you do not, and never will, completely understand like you do your own.

My point is this: In the Peace Corps, energy focused on finding and surviving hardship is energy wasted. Peace Corps, no matter where you are, is difficult. You will struggle at times. You will wonder if you will make it to the end. Some people don’t complete the whole 27 months, and usually their decision to leave has nothing to do with which amenities they had in their homes or which illnesses they caught. Most volunteers do finish. And those that do have more stories to tell than their dear family, friends, and acquaintances at home have patience to hear.

Volunteers I implore that you don’t make the 15 to 30 seconds most people will give you to talk about your service about dengue. To focus on something so trivial to your service is to do yourself and your host country a disservice. Tell your friends something fantastic you learned about your strange home. Tell them about something you did to help make life better. Tell them about the men, women, and children you met. Tell them something that matters. Tell them something that would make your host country proud, not something that perpetuates the misconception that those who live in the “third world” are downtrodden.

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.

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