The Do-Good High

Did I tell you I’m an EMT? I’ve been running for about 5 months. Long enough to have learned a thing, maybe two. Let me tell you about the do-good high.

There’s a certain kind of person who becomes an EMT and sticks with it. Hint: It has nothing to do with your age, background, or future.

It boils down to what I call the “do-good high.”

There are EMTs who want patient experience so they can then become nurses and doctors. There are others who like sirens and driving large vehicles with lights. Many EMTs want to give back to the community. Others like the satisfaction of saving lives. Whatever the reason, the thing that makes all EMTs the same is that they get a thrill from doing good.

Whether it’s helping a little old lady after she’s fallen or bringing a person back from the dead through CPR, the folks who stay in emergency medicine are there because they’ve caught the do-good bug. When the alarms go off at 3 a.m., waking you from a dead sleep, and the dispatcher comes over the speaker: “56-year-old male, vomiting and diarrhea…”† I think a normal person would choose to go back to sleep. Not an EMT.

The EMT answers the call. Why? Partly it’s our duty to put on our uniform and leave the station as fast as we can, but there’s also something beyond obligation that makes us go. Even in the grossest of circumstances, like when we pick up that vomiting and pooping man and sit with him during the 30-minute ride to the hospital, we helped turn a bad night for him into a slightly better night.

The feeling you have sitting in the back of an ambulance as the sirens holler and you hustle to your patient is something like that of standing on the start line of a giant race. Your heart goes just a tad bit faster and your mind zips through the possible scenarios that could unfold once you arrive at the scene. Then you reach your patient and a calm descends upon you. There’s a human in distress and what’s ailing them is your puzzle to solve. You might be the one who saves their life. But even if you aren’t called upon to be a hero, you can ease their distress by helping them breathe or reassuring them as you go to the hospital. Seeing your patient’s face relax or their color return after you help elicits an adrenaline rush that starts in your center and spreads out to every corner of your body. It’s a high like that from scoring the winning goal or beating a chess genius at their own game, but it’s better because it lingers. This rush and joy that rapidly overtake you after helping a patient is the “do-good high.” All EMTs get it. It’s what keeps us coming back.

 

†Fictional dispatch that captures the essence of a typical call. HIPAA and other privacy measure prohibit sharing patient information.

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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!

 

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.

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.

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.

Teaching Sex Ed

I never imagined myself teaching sex education before Paraguay. But since late August sex education, focusing on HIV prevention, has been the center of my work world. And, it is some of the most gratifying work I’ve done in my ever-elongating life. What I enjoy most is watching how my students giggle more knowingly rather than awkwardly and show greater confidence as we work through sexual health topics. During my first class, my students wouldn’t say words like “penis,” but now they can tell me exactly how and for what one uses a condom with only a slight smirk betraying underlying tension.

Just like in the States, many families and schools in Paraguay skim or entirely skip sex education because adults are embarrassed or don’t know how to discuss the topic with youth. As a result, “sex education” is learned through experiment. It’s not that experiment is entirely bad but when it comes to sex, experiment without some basic knowledge and protection can often lead to unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.

Because I’m using a program that focuses on HIV prevention, I talk about condoms a lot. As you know, they are the only form of birth control that prevents pregnancy and STDs. Just like in the States, condoms are under utilized in Paraguay even though they are widely available and often free. You might ask, “Why?”

Unlike in the US where there is a poisonous link between condoms and religion in some circles, the officially Catholic country of Paraguay, for the most part, does not view condoms as a negative thing. Myths and mistaken beliefs about condoms are one reason many Paraguayan men are reluctant to use condoms. Myths like one can not feel pleasure during sex when using a condom. Another, and perhaps more important reason, is that many people, both genders, are too embarrassed to talk about sex or get information about how to protect themselves that they just go for it. It takes confidence to get a condom and then ask your partner to use it. And, that’s where I think sex education enters the picture.

Sex education is partly explaining how things work, like how to use a condom, and telling what resources are available, like the different forms of birth control. But, I think almost more importantly sex education is a time to clear the air and help young people become more comfortable talking about their bodies. I like to think that my students don’t only learn how to protect themselves from HIV, but also become self-advocates so that if faced with a partner who asks them to take a sexual risk they don’t like they can stand up for themselves. One can know about all forms of protection and the ins-and-outs of sex, but if one is too nervous to say what he or she wants in the moment it does no good.

 

Crosses in the Sand

One day as I was walking up to one of my favorite señora’s house I saw her out in her yard chopping at the ground with a machete. Now, machetes are perhaps the most used tool in Paraguay, and it’s quite normal to see people just casually walking around with them. I was not particularly surprised she was using one. I thought she was weeding or mowing her patio…a common use of machetes. But as I got closer, I realized her motion she was not right for weed control. Finally, as I stood next to her I saw a zillion little crosses that she’d etched in the sand.

“What are you doing?” I asked, not hiding my confusion. Paraguayans are nice about explaining things, and by this point the people with whom I hang out most in my community are quite used to my questions, which I’m sure seem ridiculous to them.

“I’m drawing crosses,” she said.

“I see that, why?” I said.

“Ants. They were all over. You know they come out with the rain. I didn’t see them and they bit me when I walked to the sink!” she said. Her clothes washing sink is outside. The patio, like most in my community, is sand.

“Oh, I see them. Wow, there are a lot,” I said. The mean biting ants covered part of her patio, moving around like electrons. Between the rains the ants come out in droves. They can turn your whole floor or wall black or brown with a moving army of little six-legged devils waiting to bite you. Some Paraguayans call them a free cleaning service. After the rain they will pass through your house, or whatever path they choose, and eat all the dead bugs and delicious refuse in their path. “What do the crosses do?”

“They stop the ants,” she said.

“How?” I asked.

“The ants won’t cross the line of the crosses. Once you draw the crosses they leave quickly. Look, they are already leaving,” she said.

“Why?” I asked. I knew I sounded like a toddler in that questioning stage of life, but there is always a deeper answer to why my Paraguayan friends do things I don’t understand.

The señora straightened her back and looked at her handy work. She squinted at me. “Ants are creatures of Satan. The crosses send them away,” she said. The conversation about ants ended there as we prepared to drink terere.

The ants moved. Within twenty minutes of drawing the crosses not an ant wandered the area where they had once swarmed. I told myself that the x’s must disturb their communications signals—I read or heard somewhere that ants use their antennae to communicate to each other. I’m not sure if that’s the right explanation either, however.

The lore of señoras has given Paraguay a special place in my heart. I love stories. Often the ends that señoras predict come to pass even if their reasoning and science have different explanations. Of course, some beliefs create obstacles for health and equality to reign, especially when it relates to sexual health, but Paraguayans have a trick for everything. I’m surprised how often ideas I think are ridiculous at first work.

 

The Sly English Teacher

Now I’m happy to teach English in my community, but I was against it in the beginning. I am acutely aware that there are many more pressing things for youth in my community to learn than English, from reading Spanish well to using a condom correctly. And, even if I were the best teacher in the world (very doubtful) my students could not master English studying just 1 or 2 hours a week. Language just doesn’t work that way. But, English lessons are one of the things people in my community want; and I’m here to serve them.

So, then, the question arose: If I have to teach English and my students aren’t attacking it with the tenacity necessary to become fluent, how can I most effectively use our time together? Some volunteers turn to games. Games are a good solution, but I struggled with them.

My solution came when I realized that I was looking at teaching English all wrong. My English classes aren’t about English. (But, I like to think they will give those kids who choose to pursue more English study later an advantage.) My English classes are about mentoring and sharing my culture. Defense: We also discuss English grammar and vocabulary.

How do I start the cultural sharing? Music. In my English class, we usually listen to a song in English, talk about what it means, and pronounce the words. Listening to music is a good language-learning activity, but that’s not actually why I do it. I try to pick songs for a reason. Half the time I just pick a song because I know my students will like it, but the other songs I choose because they have an interesting cultural message. “Dear Future Husband” by Meghan Trainor was a successful choice—the youth even like the song. Most of my students are young women. It was neat to talk about how women don’t have to fall into the stereotypical role of “the perfect wife” when they marry.

“Hard to Love” by Lee Bruce was a silly chance to talk about how we should say “thank you” to people when they do things for us. Most women in Paraguay are expected to clean and deal with food while men (not all!) sit and watch. I’ve seen young men get up from the table, leave their plate as a disaster for some woman to pick up, and not even say “thanks” for the meal (rage almost not repressed). I also used “Hard to Love” to talk briefly about the differences between how Christianity is practiced in Paraguay and the US.

As I get to know my students better, they feel more comfortable asking questions about the States or about my life. Sometimes the questions make me laugh: Is it true that people in the States wear their clothes once and then throw them out? Bit-by-bit I think they are forming a more realistic notion of the States, and at least they are opening their eyes to the idea that not all people do things the same way.

In the end, English class isn’t just a time to talk verbs and articles. It’s also a chance for my students to talk about life. It’s an open space that encourages learning.

Perspective Warp

At the beginning of June, I had my mid-service training—the last training with my group of volunteers until the close of service training. (Ten months to go in Paraguay.) We had a session during mid-service training in which we talked about how our perspectives on life and our work have changed throughout our time in Paraguay.

The idea is that everyone’s perspectively is constantly evolving as we experience new things. This evolution is accelerated for Peace Corps volunteers because we face so many new ideas, people, and places. As volunteers, everything (just about) we ever believed in or thought to be true is questioned and undergoes a thoroughgoing examination. You don’t have to be a particularly meditative person for Peace Corps to change you—actually, no matter who you are it will change you. Change is inevitable.

Change is neutral, so when I talk about changing perspective I’m not saying that one perspective is better or worse. The truth is that ranking perspectives is useless, and comparing them is only useful in the sense of 1) following one’s own progression and 2) understanding others more deeply so that living with them is easier.

I won’t try to explain my perspective on life; it’s too complex for a blogpost and likely to change tomorrow. What I find more interesting and tangible is how my perspective on perspective has changed since I arrived in Paraguay. Honestly, before coming here I didn’t think much about perspective outside of the arena of politics. In US politics we talk about policies and what the Constitution means. We talk about freedom and justice. Some people think abortion is just and an inalienable right and some people think it is sin and murder. Some people see love as love and some people see it as something that should and can only happen between certain individuals. Some people think everyone should have access to healthcare and some people don’t. The list goes on and on. And, I’ve only listed the black and white perspectives, there are infinite gray perspective in between white and black.

Perspective is more than politics. Actually, perspective is everything. That’s the first lesson I’ve learned. Perspective is the lens through which we see the world. We only see things within the scope of our lens and as our lens allows us to see them. Think of it this way: If your lens is sepia, nothing is pink or green.

Second lesson: One can’t force a perspective on others. Why? Well, first it’s impossible. Second, there is no justification for demeaning someone’s perspective. There are no ranks, just differences. People will change their own perspective, and the more smooth you are about your interaction with them the greater your impression can be. No one likes to be attacked, beaten over the head, and threatened with new ideas. Everyone can be trapped into exploring their beliefs. And sometimes that exploring leads to reflection and evolution.

Lesson number three: Perspective is interesting. Remember opinions, beliefs, and thoughts are different than perspective. Perspective is the bigger picture—the whole—while everything else is a pixel in the image. It comes back to a classic question: Is the blue that I see the same as the blue you see? Answer: No. Of course not. But, it’s okay that you and I don’t see eye-to-eye on blue, or yellow, or the meaning of beautiful, or…on anything. It’s okay because it makes things more exciting. A good storybook quote: “If every flower looked just the same, “Flower” would have to be each flower’s name.” Do you know the book?

What I’ve learned about perspective from Paraguay is that life is perspective and because we all have different perspectives life is fun. We won’t follow the same arc of perspectives in our lives. We won’t always agree or understand each other. But, we can certainly amuse ourselves trying.

Rainy Season

Ever lived in the tropics? Even been there during the rainy season?

Well, it’s not the rain that gets me (I live on a mountain so flooding isn’t a problem). It’s the inescapable dampness that permeates everything.

There are parts of my cement floor that haven’t looked dry since the first rain. I had to put my opened pack of gum in a ziplock bag…because the air turns the sticks of gum into a sticky, mushing goo. Every leather item in my house—wallet, belt, bracelet—I regulated to a ziplock bag. Even though I stored those items well off the floor and in the driest places in my house, a nice blue-green film grew on them. My wooden cooking utensil are now spotted with mold from just waiting to be used.

Washing clothes is a bear because the clothes won’t dry on the line. And despite my diligence, a small crop of mold started to form in my wardrobe. I had to wash about three quarters of my clothes as salvation from the infectious growth and certain squalor.

It’s between 60 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit and it feels like the pits of winter (and technically is here). It’s partly the breeze that cuts through my uninsulated house without shame that makes mild temperatures seem frigid, but it’s mostly because in the shade the dankness is finger-numbing.

Of course, winter only lasts a couple months. I have grapefruits, oranges, and mandarines sitting on trees, ripe and ready for picking, whenever I need a vitamin C boost. The sweatpants, knitted socks, sleeping bag, and heavy comforter that seem outlandish in the thick of summer are my key to survival when bedtimes comes these days. Bedtime comes hours early and wake up time comes hours late. It’s just too dark or too cold to function at optimal rates.