What would you say?

Celebrating Teachers' Day

Celebrating Teachers’ Day

Community member: Do you have a boyfriend?

Me: No.

Community member: But you’re pretty.

Me: …

~

Community member: When are you going to have kids?

Me: I don’t want to have kids.

Community member: You’re bad.

Me: …

~

Community member: Give me your eyes.

Me: What?

Community member: I want your eyes.

Me: …

~

Community member: Have you gained weight?

Me: No, I’m the same as I was.

Community member: You’ve gained weight.

Me: …

~

Community member: Do you have a boyfriend?

Me: No.

Community member: In your country?

Me: No.

Community member: How about a Paraguayan?

Me: No.

Community member: Why not?

Me: …

~

Community member: What is your religion?

Me: I don’t practice religion.

Community member: But you’re Christian, right?

Me: I don’t have a religion.

Community member: God exists.

Me: …

One Year In Site

SunriseI’ve made it halfway. One year down, one year to go. But, don’t think of it as a countdown. When the day comes to leave Paraguay my feelings will be ambiguous at best.

April 11 was the midpoint of my Peace Corps service. I feel accomplished; like I did the hour I escaped high school, the minute I graduated college, and the instant I finished my first marathon.

We do a lot of things in life. Some of those things are pretty kick-ass and some are down right boring. But, we all have landmark moments. Those moments when we feel like we’re getting somewhere. That our lives might have meaning. That what we are doing is good. That we are moving in the right direction. That we are capable.

That’s how I feel, still in the glow of my one-year mark. I’m in a good spot. I’ve had successes and I still have work to do. I’ve taken the bull by the horns, so to speak, in tackling Paraguay, my Peace Corps work, and myself. I’d say, of all those projects, self-improvement has been the most extensive, difficult, and rewarding of all. I give myself a lot of pep talks. I think a lot about who I am—my strengths and weaknesses. The Peace Corps makes you confront yourself. Plopping down to work in another country shoves your shortcomings in your face. You lack language. Relationships take unexpected forms. Work is different. Getting around is hard. There are hours alone. It’s challenging to talk to friends and family still in the States. You have to build a completely new life—activities, friends, places…foods.

Not everyone is given the opportunity to take 2 years to cultivate the best person she can be. The rat race, the hyperactive, the go-getter, the conquer-all-be-“successful”-ASAP-don’t-think-just-do-it realities don’t leave much time for reflection. It’s hard to ponder when you’re always on the run. When there’s hardly time to sleep. I came from the rate race, and I’ll probably return to it when all is said and done. But, I like to think that after Paraguay I’ll never completely get lost in the scramble. I’ll always be type A, but I now know there’s many ways to be one.

One year in site. What a trip. I’ve learned so much. I’m happy to muddle through the low points and soar through the high ones. I know in a blink it will all be over. Like a dream. Paraguay. Shit, that’s a place I call home.

The Hi-Bye Period

Each year, one new group of volunteers comes to Paraguay for each sector—health, community development, agriculture, and environment. What this means, because of our 27 month deployment, is that once a year, for each sector, one group is finishing up, one group is celebrating a year in country, and one group is beginning training. For health, that time is now.

About a year ago, I was in training. I was the greenhorn, the lost new volunteer uncertain what Paraguay would mean for me. I looked up to the group of health volunteers before me, which are endearingly called my “sister G.”

It’s hard to believe that I’m now filling the mentor role for a new group of volunteers—and scarier to think that my mentors from my sister G are about to begin a new journey, the life of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs, in government jargon).

This period of important landmarks—finishing up, celebrating a year, and beginning training—I’m going to call the “hi-bye” period. “Hi” to the new group, and “bye” to the veterans. In a year, I’ll know what it’s like to be saying “bye,” but for now, I can only tell you what it’s like to have made it to the hyphen, the group caught between “hi” and “bye.”

I don’t know how I made it to the hyphen. Training and adjusting to Paraguay was a phantasmagoria. Living in a new culture and language confuses things, and made me wonder what was real and what was something I thought real but wasn’t. But, through it all I had my sister G. They answered my questions, sent reassurance (that what was happening and what I was feeling was not out-of-the-ball-park), and cheered me up when I was down. You can’t truly understand the Peace Corps experience unless you’ve done it yourself, and so I looked up to (and still do) each person in my sister G not only because they proved service was possible, but also because they understood my fight in a way few others can. Picture a five-year-old boy who dreams of becoming a baseball player getting to be coached by his favorite pro player—that’s how I felt about my sister G during my training. They knew everything.

Now, being where my sister G was during my training, I know that they didn’t have all the answers. That a lot of the advice they gave was theoretical. That they aren’t untouchable pros, but amazing people and friends. I’m going to miss them as they start to roll out.

It’s only right, being the in hyphen, that I help the “hi” group as much as my sister G helped me. I have a mentee from the new group, and I look forward to meeting her. We’ve already exchanged emails as she prepared to come to Paraguay. The new group arrived just days ago and I send them my warmest welcome.

The hyphen is the most stable stage to be in during the hi-bye period. I have the experience of a year in this hot and sunny country, but I don’t have to worry about what I’m going to do with myself after Peace Corps just yet. It’s a time to reflect. To think about my first year. Hear the stories of what the “bye” group did during their service. Listen to the anxieties of the “hi” group. It’s a time of conflicting motions—joy for my sister G’s success and sadness that they are leaving. They say Peace Corps is a roller coaster. They never mention, though, that it will be the most winding roller coaster known to humans.

Weight Watchers

In Paraguay it’s normal, acceptable, and common to talk about people’s weight. I’ve sort of come to accept this, except one morning a man I hadn’t seen in months made a point to stop and ask if I’d gained weight. That put me over the edge—no matter how hard I try I can’t completely suppress my US upbringing. It shouldn’t have bothered me, especially seeing as I’ve lost weight since we last spoke, but it did. And there was no escaping as that morning progressed.

Subsequent conversations that day with Paraguayan men included why I didn’t have a boyfriend and then how I am a cold person because I don’t respond well to Paraguayan men’s way of being. Examples: I don’t answer catcalls; I don’t hold suggestive text conversations joking or not; and I don’t dance with random people (even if someone I know asks me to) at parties where everyone is drinking…crazy, I know.

I think it was the timing. That morning occurred days after I returned from a girls leadership camp. To have some dude engage me in a conversation by calling me fat after almost a week of talking about self-esteem and girl power created a juxtaposition of reality that was impossible to ignore. We talk about self-esteem and how it leads to bad decisions; or, more aptly, inability to stand up for yourself or what you want.

Maybe it is culturally acceptable to ask or comment about someone’s weight in Paraguay, but not it the way it was done that morning. It was a classic case of undermining someone to cow them into doing something. I didn’t take the bate, and the conversation ended promptly. There is a reason why I hadn’t talked to that particular guy or his family in months, and regardless of my weight I won’t go back on my decision to keep them out of my life.

Weight is a blurry thing in Paraguay. Everyone talks about it. Babies (both sexes) and little girls are a called “fatty” in Spanish, it’s a pet name. Girls and women (to a lesser extent boys and men also) who are overweight or very skinny will also get called the nick name “fatty.” But, the regularity of talking about weight doesn’t negate the negative connotations. You might argue that the “ideal” woman in Paraguay is a little more curvy that the “ideal” in the States, but the ideal is still skinny. The same goes for men, the “ideal” man is muscular and trim, not jiggly.

There’s a lot of ways to interpret what a Paraguayan mother means when she calls her adult daughter fat: she thinks it’s endearing, she thinks her daughter should lose weight, or she just wants to start a conversation with you (about whatever). But when the Paraguayan male calls any woman fat, there are fewer interpretations: he wants to start a conversation or he is criticizing her.

Why is putting people down, especially women, an acceptable conversation starter? Cultural differences are peachy, but things that help maintain a status quo of inequality ought to be reconsidered no matter where you live.

Success: End of Summer English Class

I taught a summer English class. We met 3 days a week for 2 hours. I didn’t realize until the end that I should have been impressed with my students for just coming—6 hours of language class a week isn’t pocket change—but I didn’t need that realization to think they are hard-working and awesome…because they are.

My original syllabus was way too ambitious. But, when all was said and done we covered the basics: possessive, present, past, articles, and a few other things. Some of my students improved over the course of the class. Others still asked me on the last day what “I am” meant, I mean we only talked about “to be” in the present tense every day of class.

There are a lot of ways to measure success. I could talk about my students’ ability to complete homework, about their markedly better scores on exam two compared to exam one. Yes, I guess I could talk about language capacity, but in my eyes that all is icing on the cake.

The real success came when 12 out of 17 of my students, plus some parents, showed up for the end of class party in the pouring rain. They came and they brought food, a full banquet was added to the chocolate and banana cake I’d made with two of my students the previous day—empanadas, sopa paraguaya, sandwiches…and more.

The smashing part of the success was the enthusiastic attendance in the pouring cats and dogs rain. Just in case you’re not aware, basically nothing happens in Paraguay when it rains. Rain is a classic excuse for staying in your house and sleeping all day.

I handed out certificates and exams. I had a productive conversation with students and parents about how they want to continue English once school starts. I gave a little speech, nothing fancy. Then, we feasted and chatted. It was fabulous. I say that myself because I wasn’t the one who made it a joy, it was the students and parents who honored me with their slightly damp presence. What a nice close to one year of working in Paraguay.

The Day My Life Ended And I Was Still Alive

Jesuit Ruins WindowsOkay, that title is a little dramatic, but I did draft this post using a paper and pencil because my computer bit the dust for a week. As a novelist, blogger, teaching, and lover of music the loss of my computer made me realize how much of my day I spend interacting with electronic content. But wait, don’t get the wrong impression. A good number of those hours that interaction is nothing more than listening to music while I do things like clean. I also average about 7 hours a day out of my house hanging out with people or working in my site.

Dependence on electronics is not a new topic of discussion. But, I am a Peace Corps volunteer and I have hours upon hours alone in my house no matter how hard I work. My computer is a trusty companion in my solitude and a connection to everything that isn’t Paraguay. Some people might think that calling a computer a companion is unhealthy. I invite them to join the Peace Corps and then decide.

Living without my computer for a week reminded me of my limits, humanity, and imperfections. It was a good reality check. As my sister said when I explained the situation, “Go back to the basics.” I felt connected to the people that lived generations ago. What did they do with themselves? I can tell you now from experience that it involved exercise, visiting people, the radio, and reading.

If I exercised as much as I did when I didn’t have my computer, I’d be ripped. If I visited people as much as I did when I didn’t have my computer, I’d be exhausted all the time. If I listened to the radio like I did when I didn’t have my computer, I’d only know fifty songs. If I read as much as I did when I didn’t have a computer, I’d be a genius.

Mercy: Send Some AC, Please!

Jesus Jesuit RuinsTraveling to southern Paraguay

 

You people of the auto-land

Of the world where buildings have central air

Don’t understand the power of the sun

The wavering of heat waves hovering

 

A six-hour bus ride is no less than an eternity

Chest covered in salty droplets

Clothes sticking, stained

Air stale, heavy, traffic blocking the breeze

 

To sit is the greatest of toils

The thought of moving painful

You must drink water, but you’re on the bus

Bags piled around making it worse

 

Other passengers sitting too close

Someone else’s sweat

Don’t think about the history if your seat

No clothes are appropriate for such travel

 

Stay strong. You can do this.

You tell yourself such things

You try to sleep to forget the fact

That it’s summer in Paraguay and you’re traveling.

Changed

Campo RoadChange (to become different, transform) is such a simple word and such a complicated reality. It is said that each of us is constantly changing and that the world is in a continual state of transformation. Sometimes those processes of becoming different are quick and sometimes they are slow. Being in the Peace Corps makes your process of changing fall close to lightening speed on that scale.

When we have a set routine—an American style routine where every minute is assigned to a specific activity—we choke our opportunities for personal evolutions. It’s not so much the routine, but when we are too busy to break out of our normal daily activities to try new things and overcome unchartered challenges the metamorphosis of life is slowed.

People who excel in experiences like volunteering for the Peace Corps, are people who embrace change. By becoming volunteers, my peers and I threw everything we had and knew to the wind to try something that we had never done and could not understand until we landed in Paraguay. (And to be honest, we are still figuring out what it means to be a volunteer in Paraguay. For example, something that would NEVER happen in the States occurs every single day).

I’m 10 months in Paraguay and counting. Ten months is also known as: 2 college semesters, one high school year, and the time a baby is in the womb (remember babies should be in the oven for at least 39 weeks). In the grand scheme of things, 10 months is a snippet of time. But, I’ve changed as much in these 10 months as I did during college (maybe more depending on what aspect of my life at which you’re looking).

Peace Corps is fertile ground for self-growth. Some of the fertilizers are:

  • We have many hours by ourselves during which self-reflection and contemplation of the meaning of life is inescapable.
  • Every day we have an experience that is quite unlike any prior experience.
  • Living in a culture that isn’t ours blows our mind. Things we took for granted before are no longer granted.
  • We have to change our beliefs to encompass the new reality through which we are muddling.

Why am I telling you all this? Do you remember that first time you visited your hometown after being away for a while—like after your first year of college? Do you remember how your parents’ and childhood friends’ interactions with you operated on the assumption that you were the same person you were before you moved out? Do you remember how wrong they were?

Peace Corps volunteers change, and our rate of change is faster than most of our loved ones back home. This difference in rate is not good or bad; it’s just a fact. And it’s true because our lives, serving in another country, require us to be flexible. We must be willing to breakdown assumptions we held and rise to new challenges—if we can’t do that we can’t do our job. When you talk to us, don’t be surprised if our interests are different than they were before we departed; don’t be surprised if our opinions, stereotypes, worldviews, concepts of good and bad, passions, and general attitude were mutated by Paraguay. Don’t worry, we still love you, but we aren’t the person who accepted our Peace Corps invitation. The person who opened that Peace Corps invitation some months ago no longer exists.

Walks: Success Strategy

I never have trouble getting out the door to go on a walk. And when I walk, I’m usually out half an hour to an hour (though I’ve been known to disappear for several-hour walks if the occasion is right). I think best when I’m walking. Because of this passion, I was filled with delight when I learned that taking walks in site could help me integrate.

When I walk around my community people see me. That’s the key thing—they can’t see me when I’m sitting at home—which means they are notified of my existence or reminded that I live in their community.

When I’m walking, I have the opportunity to say “hi” to each person I pass. Greeting people is a chance to connect with them and show my community how friendly I am. During the school year, I would time my walks with the hour that school let out. That way, I would be able to chat briefly with the majority of my students outside of the classroom.

I try to walk daily. People sometimes joke that they want to join me on my walks, I always welcome them, but to-date I still walk alone. I like to think that seeing me walk most days might inspire others to start walking too, even if they don’t end up walking with me.

It’s true that my walks won’t make or break my service. But, the longer I’m a volunteer, the more I realize that all the little things matter. They add up and together each little thing I do to get to know my community better makes me a more effective and integrated volunteer.

The New Patriotism

[Peace Corps volunteers wanted]

 

Not unlike the dove that gave the olive fame

With diligent wings glides from land to land

The volunteer’s hope-seeped, motives stand

A mighty force with a core, whose flame

Is the imprisoned compassion, and in the name

Of service and understanding. Opens her hand

To send world-wide welcome; her mission

Unite cultures by seeing what’s different and the same.

“Keep power struggle, you greedy pomp!” cries she.

In many languages. “Give me your dreamers, your hopeful,

Your flexible adventurers yearning to breathe free,

The unsatisfied refuse of your corporate cubicle.

Send these, the determined, resilient to me,

I know the secret to the world’s pull!”

 

“Give me your unafraid, your mentally indomitable,

Your quivering intellectuals yearning to see,

The soul-seeking refuse of your successful label.

Send these, the patient, tempest-ready to me,

I send my call to all those who are able!”

 

“Give me your creative, your quick thinkers

Your unwavering looking to redefine prosperity

The motley refuse of your first-world tinkers

Send these, the sponges, life-long learners to me

I open my door to those who can be linkers!”