Friday, November 9, 2012

Dear Paraguayan Diary,

I received three beautiful, leather-bound journals as going away presents before leaving for the Peace Corps.  During training, I frequently recounted my days and put into words my fears, frustrations and little victories in the journal’s pages.  However, after moving to site, my journal entries have become sparser for a number of reasons.  Despite the staggering amount of “free time” I have here, I constantly feel like there is something else I should be doing and when not doing something I should be doing, I have so many other time-killing ways to procrastinate that I enjoy more than journal-ing.  Further, this experience is so unusual and extraordinary, to try to sort my feelings and emotions into logical sentences feels overwhelming at times.  I know journal-ing is a healthy release and so I’ll be more dedicated in the future, unless I have other things I should be doing or other more fun ways to procrastinate, of course.

I thought I would share with you a sampling of what my journal might look like if I kept one somewhat regularly excluding the long, twisted self-evaluations and heart pouring that even I don’t want to read.

Dear Paraguayan diary,
Today I went to a baptism and the 5”3, 30-something godfather with a rat’s tail hair-cut and jean patches on his sneakers asked me to marry him and take him back to the United States.  I then preceded to eat almost an entire chicken, minus a few choice cuts, for the sake of not insulting the host at the barbecue that followed.  When I was the first one to leave after spending eight hours in their neighborhood, I succeeded in insulting everyone.  Even the newborn twins looked miffed.  Cultural integration is hard.

Dear Paraguayan diary,
I had a great day today. I built a brick oven with another volunteer to help out a family in my community.  The family was grateful and the entire experience was rewarding.  Later on, I saw that the owner of the goats that live in my yard finally put a leash on the youngest goat that eats everything I own.  I celebrated so noisily upon the discovery that the neighborhood dogs started a mild canine riot.  The next time I left my yard I told the baby goat to “suck it”.  So to summarize, I helped a family to avoid cooking on the floor and its consequential respiratory problems and I told a baby goat to suck it.  The goat scenario was my favorite part of the day.

Dear Paraguayan diary,
Today I gave a geography charla at my school and asked the children to draw maps of the world after I showed them example world maps including the one we painted on the wall of their school.  The majority drew circles with some blobs in them labeled with places like, Paraguay, Chile, Mexico and Buenos Aires and Ciudad del Este. Not one country from another continent or other continent was drawn.  This is going to be a long charla series.

Dear Paraguayan diary,
Please remind me never to try to make hummus without a blender or roasted vegetables without an oven again.  Thank you.

Dear Paraguayan diary,
Today I climbed Yvytyrusu (Cerro Tres Kandu), the highest mountain in Paraguay with some other volunteers and Paraguayan friends.  No big deal.  As a side note, all the safety precautions and waivers that we must follow in the United States at our national parks are pretty beneficial.  I realized this as I was holding onto to a tree branch and a thin metal cable with my feet slipping out from under me and staring at the steepest descent of the mountain.

Dear Paraguayan diary,
Today my dog went into heat.  While asking my neighbor to keep her male dogs out of my yard, I accidentally told her that I don’t want to be pregnant instead of saying that I don’t want my dog to be pregnant.  Please Lord Jesus, help my dog to keep her doggie panties on while we wait for her to be spayed.  That, or at least help me to catch any wandering male dogs with their treacherous, seductive canine ways.  I don’t want Paraguayan puppies. One is enough.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Coming Back

I have been writing this particular blog post for three months.

In my first few weeks in Paraguay, we as trainees were asked to give self-presentations in front of the other trainees and training center staff, paying particular attention to our recognized strengths and weaknesses.  As a strength, I sited my resiliency in overcoming difficult times in my past and how with those experiences, I had come to recognize that I could get through anything because, “I had been through worse”.  At that time, I hadn’t had the wisdom to ask myself what if I was going to face worse while in Paraguay; what then? Could I get through worse? In July, I received word from home that my father had passed away.  The moment of that phone call and the next few months have been far worse than anything I have faced before but I have to believe that I can get through this.

I’ve spent months deciding whether or not to post a blog about the events and emotions following my father’s death and I have come to the conclusion that to use this blog for its intended purpose,  I should document my whole life in Paraguay, a life that has been irrevocably altered by the past few months.  I feel that I cannot continue writing about Peace Corps service without acknowledging how my life has changed.  Also, I use this blog to let people back home know how I am doing.  And with it I can tell everyone, I’m okay.  I’m not great but I’m getting there.  I am getting up every morning and living and breathing and DOING.   Finally, as I recognized through the support of fellow volunteers, talking about my father’s death helps me to deal with it and to not be handicapped with the feelings of isolation that are common to a Peace Corps volunteer and astronomically more so in my grief. 

The first few days following the call and my trip home, I was taken aback at how supportive the country staff and my fellow volunteers were.  I found myself crying silly tears of gratitude each time I got a text or facebook message from a fellow volunteer.  As soon as they had received the news, PCPY staff got in touch with my closest volunteer neighbor that first night and I can’t adequately put into words my appreciation and relief seeing her bike pull up in front of my house just as the sun set knowing that she had dropped everything to stay with me.  My host family was supportive without being overbearing, quickly making a bed for my fellow volunteer to stay with me and giving me hugs and words of encouragement but also the space that I needed.   The country staff sent a car to pick me up from site the next morning and take me to the office and then to the airport.  The trip home was long but bearable as at that point I had reached a numbness that comes after the angry tears have been spent.  Also, I took comfort in the knowledge that in a limited number of hours, I would see my mother, brother, step-father and best friends.

How surreal it was to be returning to the US after almost six months.  In the airport in Miami, I forgot I could flush toilet paper and spoke to the cashier at the coffee stand in Spanish when she only spoke English.  Ironically, after two US airports and driving past the buildings and traffic of Philadelphia, I didn’t feel any reverse culture shock until we pulled into a Starbucks parking lot in a strip mall in a Philadelphia suburb.  I had a mild freak-out at the sight of the fleet of SUVs and minivans and shopping bags but my cursing only bemused my mother and step-father.  When we returned to my mother and step-father’s house, it was the sight of one particular SUV that forced the reality of my situation to come crashing down upon me.  In the two days after my father died, my brother had cleaned out my father’s apartment and moved his SUV to my mother’s house.  Every Sunday since my mother, step-father and I had moved to that house when I was 16, my father had picked me up in that SUV and we had driven to Church together.  After seeing that car parked in the driveway and realizing that we would never go anywhere again, I had to stop the façade I had tried to keep up during the journey home- this was not a reunion with friends, a vacation to the US or a trip home where I could pick up all the fun “stuff” like non-stick skillets that makes other volunteers jealous.  I had gone home to bury my father. 

From the moment of receiving that first phone call to seeing my Dad’s SUV through the following days of funeral planning, warm-hearted embraces from friends and family whom I had missed dearly, painful hand-shaking with strangers offering condolences that only made me feel more hollow, eulogy giving and the legal ramifications following a parent’s death, I had aged more than I had thought possible in a week.  I am so grateful for my family but for my brother, in particular, for helping me through and for being so strong and handling the most difficult decisions and duties with fortitude and grace.  After the first week of fulfilling the majority of my new and unsolicited adult responsibilities, it was time to decide when I should go back to Paraguay.  I will not lie and pretend that I never entertained the question of “if” and not “when” I should go back.  The first night upon receipt of the news, I was grieved and shocked and I questioned whether going home would mean that my service ended after not even being in site for 3 months.  However, by the time my plane had touched down in Philadelphia, I had resolved to return to Caazapá, Paraguay. 

It was the hardest decision that I have ever made.  For me, life in the Peace Corps isn’t necessarily difficult due to bucket bathing, water shortages, missing Philadelphia Eagles games and constantly trying to keep the baby goat from eating my flowers and clothes.  These are inconveniences and, although they wear on me, the goat more so than anything else, they can’t break me.  What made getting back on that plane so gut-wrenching was returning to a place where people like me, but no one loves me.  At the time of my trip back home, I had only been living in Caazapá for three months.  I had made friends, formed relationships and started projects but I was and still consider myself to be an outsider in a place where most people live their whole lives, often only a house or two away from almost all of their extended family.  Every social interaction takes five times more effort for me here than it does in the US.  There are barriers of language, culture and my status as an outsider with which I contend during every new experience.  I like my community and they like me, too.  I have a wonderful relationship with my contact and I believe that I am on my way to creating a lasting impact on the lives of several youth here.  But that is not the same as the support that I receive from the people back home whom know me completely and love me because of it all/despite it all.

So why did I come back? The same reasons that I left the US in the first place. I want to use my skills and knowledge to help the people of my community lead better, healthier lives.  I want to learn a new culture and form relationships with the people teaching me that culture.  I want to become a stronger person.  I want to better understand the world, not just my tiny corner of it.  None of these things had changed with the death of my father.  If anything, I am now more driven to have a purposeful life.  I recognize how short life is and I want to make sure that I take the opportunities available to me.    Further, my family misses me but no one needed me to stay.  It is true that my life would have been immensely easier if I had stayed in the US but I do not believe that it would have been better.

So I’m back.  I’m working in the school and with some community groups and trying to become less of an outsider with every new and awkward interaction.   I sometimes get overwhelmed with grief at the thought that I will never see my father again but I remember how much he loved me and how much he wanted me to have a purposeful and happy life.  So that is what I am trying to do here in Paraguay.  I came back here to have a full life and I think that my father would have been proud of that.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Where Is the Nearest Home Depot?

Several years ago, my mother came up with a quotable phrase of which she was so proud that she wrote it out and attached it to the refrigerator somewhat like a gleaming student with her straight-A report card.  I don’t blame her for the small act of hubris because the saying was quite clever and applicable to life.  The quote is this, “I know what I don’t know and that’s a lot!”  Before moving to Paraguay, the quote resonated with me as I went through high school and college and afterwards learned new professional skills.  However, I can no longer relate to it as every day I am confronted with just how much I don’t know that I don’t know.  For example, while painting a giant world map for the school in my community, I am shocked by how little world geography I know.  I could have told you that Senegal is in Africa but could I have given you the name of its neighboring countries? Not a chance.

My ignorance is nowhere more pronounced than in everything that I do preparing my future house for myself to move.  When I first saw the house that one of my contacts owned and was offering for me to live in for the next two years, I was hopeful.  It was very small but as I am only one person with few possessions, it seemed just right.  The yard already had a fence and multiple varieties of fruit trees and was large enough for me to plant a vegetable garden.  I found the neighboring goats, yes goats, to be almost cute, from afar at least.   When I looked inside the tiny rooms, I saw their potential for my future kitchen and bedroom and paid little attention to the storage space they were at that time for animal feed, old pieces of wood, bits of rusted metal tools and an army of spiders and spider webs that would make an arachnophobiac turn to the bottle.   In return for the use of this house (the animal feed was not included) I had to make and pay for improvements to it in lieu of paying rent during my tenure there.  The contact/owner and I discussed building a modern bathroom.  The house did not have running water nor a latrine at that time and having lived with a latrine and suffering through too many close encounters, middle of the night pee runs, and a rat or small dog in a corner of the latrine one very dark night (I’m still not sure which), I opted to spend more money on a toilet and shower.    

I don’t regret this decision although the costs and frustration involved have been greater than I would have expected and they keep growing.  To begin this endeavor, I had to ask my contacts and nearest volunteer neighbor for advice on just what the heck I was doing and just how one goes about getting a modern bathroom built in Paraguay.  And in case you were wondering from the title of this blog, no, there are no Home Depot’s in this country with their orange-vested handymen and women leading you to the sheetrock aisle nor is there a listing in the phone book for reputable electricians.  What I lack in knowledge of construction, Paraguayan construction (an entirely different beast), and language skills, I make up for in my ability to pester my all too patient contacts and ask the same question in a multitude of ways until I am able to understand the answer, almost.  These skills came in particular assistance after two months had passed without the hired contractor starting to build my bathroom.  I was expecting a delay of a few weeks, not a few months.  However, with enough pestering, a date was set for this week and he began yesterday.  He was supposed to begin on Monday but was delayed as the lime I had purchased from a store in the local pueblo never arrived.  Apparently the owner of that hardware store thinks it’s a normal business practice to sell a building material that she did not have in stock and only inform my Guarani speaking contact of this snafu even after I had spoken to her twice about the missing lime. 

I’m relieved that the construction has begun but it means I will be taking more trips into the pueblo to buy whatever other materials are lacking and these trips tend to be pretty embarrassing for me.  I try to go prepared having written out my shopping list ahead of time but since the materials I need to buy tend to consist of things I wouldn’t be able to name in English, there is usually a lot of pointing and sign language as I try to describe what I need to buy to the store clerks.  Tomorrow, I will be purchasing a series of items to redo the electricity within my house.  I’m hoping for the best but since the last time I bought the supplies to install running water, I returned with twice as much piping as was needed and some plastic pipe fittings that I will never be able to use, my expectations are not too high.  At least I have a person with a good deal of experience installing the electricity so if I do buy the wrong things, he’ll let me know and I don’t need to worry about one of us electrocuting ourselves.  That is one of the positives that have come out of the process of improving my house: it is making me an expert in asking for advice and help, something with which I struggled before I moved here.  I am certain that this new skill will serve me well as I navigate the culture of this country and my community and try to make a POSITIVE impact with my projects.  Because I don’t know what I don’t know and accepting that is a lot.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Diary of a Smelly Kid

When did I become the smelly kid in class?  How did I let this happen?

Truth be told, I’m really not that smelly but after moving to a new host family where the daughters shower every day and the clothes are washed on a very frequent basis, I’m noticing that my personal condition and the clothes that I transported from my first host family are less than pristine.  With the cold weather approaching, showering with lukewarm water in a room without insulation and a window that can´t shut isn’t the most appealing prospect.  And I’ve finally increased the frequency, if not the duration, of my running so I am sweating more and using more clothes.  Needless to say, my personal hygiene is not up to my former American life’s standards.  Before any family or friends reading this shake their heads at my becoming a “hippie” like they had warned me might happen, I should add that I am bathing regularly and shaving, too.  I’m just not doing either very well.

So how and why did I move into a home where the dirtiest part of the house is me?  (This, of course, is an exaggeration-I am living in a rural part of a developing country, after all.) Peace Corps Paraguay has a rule/recommendation that its volunteers live with host families during their first three months in site.  Although not having control over what and when I eat is both a physical and psychological challenge for me, I feel that, at least in the very beginning, this is beneficial as I try to form relationships in the community and practice my language skills.  Additionally, I do not have the option of living on my own at this time because I have to build a modern bathroom in my future house.  And when I say I have to build, I really mean I have to hire people and buy the supplies for the bathroom.  With my language skills and the pace of life and work in Paraguay, this process is turning into a giant ball of frustration for me, but that is another blog for another day.  So at this time, I’m moving from house to house. 

I stayed with the first host family longer than I should have.  I think that I did this because I was worried that I would run out of places to live before my modern bathroom was built.  Also, I created a routine there and at a time when everything in my life was new and unfamiliar, having a routine was comforting.  I want to preface this next sentence by saying that my first host family consisted of good, hard-working people.  However, the living conditions were far from ideal and keeping myself healthy and my things clean and avoiding having everything smell like smoke and chicken grease was a battle that I lost.  And so, by the end of four weeks, it was past the time to say goodbye.

My second host family was amazing with a dynamo host mother whom taught me about the ins and outs of the community.  Also, she challenged me to think about HOW I could complete my service in my community, not just what maybe, someday, I might want to do.  Unfortunately, she already had a full house living with her and, not wanting to impose, I only asked to stay there for a week.  Having to move in with another host family, my contact came with me to arrange for me to stay with a well-respected family at the other end of town.  This family lives far away from the school and church but the house itself is worth the walk.  It’s built of stone and there’s a modern bathroom attached with a shower that sometimes has warm water.  Compared to bucket bathing outside, a sometimes warm shower in the winter is like heaven.  They have a kitchen with a table and a gas stove and the animals are kept gated outside or in the fields.  Of course, the occasional chicken finds its way in (Paraguayan chickens are unstoppable) but someone is always quick to shoo it away. 

At the end of two weeks with this third host family, I find myself remarkably more at ease at being at home than I was with the first host family.  This is not to say that my second month in site is easier than the first.  I actually find it to be harder since the novelty of moving in has worn off but I´m waiting until I am acclimated to start any large projects, another Peace Corps Paraguay rule/recommendation.   In general, I feel healthy and well-adjusted but slightly listless and homesick.  Despite these new challenges, I look forward to going home after visiting community members or spending time at the school or church, something that I did not do while living with the first host family.  After recognizing the difference in my mood and attitude toward the first host family and my current one, I had to ask myself why I was happier at home now than before.  Surely it couldn’t be the TV and the better food.  I’m a Peace Corps volunteer, I told myself, I’m not supposed to care about trivial things like soft bread.  But I am human so yes, maybe the material things like having a place to sit that’s not covered in chicken poo do matter to me.  But poo-less chairs pale in comparison to having a family come together at every lunch and dinner to fill those chairs.  After reflecting, I realized that the primary reason why I am at peace with my third host family is how strongly they encompass my idea of a family.  All members share responsibilities in the house and share in each other’s lives.  If there is fighting or disrespect, they do it out of my sight.  No family is perfect and it could be that this family is on their best behavior while they have a guest in their home but you can’t fake love and caring and there is an abundance of that here.  This experience has helped me to see how important family is to me.  Regardless of its form, belonging to a group of individuals whom love and RESPECT each other is something that I want now and for the rest of my life.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


I don’t like chickens. I like to eat chicken meat but I don’t like them alive.  Unfortunately, if I ever want to have another buffalo chicken wrap (oh how I miss those), the bird’s continued living existence is necessary.   These past statements may upset poultry activists but at this point in my journey in Paraguay, I don’t care.  I don’t like them (chickens, not poultry activists).

Perhaps my position will be more sympathetic with anecdotal support.  I moved to my home site on April 24th.  On the morning of April 25th, I awoke due to a strange sensation on my chest: a ten-week old chicken was walking across my body.  I feel fortunate that the chicken chose my chest and not my face as its runway.  Apparently, the wooden room where I am staying has several openings under the door and in the corners where small, yet determined chickens can wriggle themselves in order to force entry into my room.

My first two weeks in site have had two marked themes: awkwardness and chickens. I expected them both but not to the extent to which I have been confronted with them in almost all possible situations.  For the chickens, I have had my feet mistaken for food (not as painful as it sounds), watched a possibly demented chicken run sideways into a fence to escape imagined pursuers, seen a chicken get its head cut off but not run afterwards, fought a constant battle with a flock (is that the word?) of young chickens that runs into my room every time the door is open and then runs further into my room instead of out the door when I try to chase them out, had to avoid chicken feces every place I sit (inside and out), watched young chickens use my bags as trampolines as they bounced between the two while avoiding my waving arms andI have been scared to the point of screaming when a full grown chicken jumped into my room through the open window that is four feet off the ground.  It also doesn’t help my position that before I moved to Paraguay I had never found this particular type of foul to be endearing. Now, I really don’t like them.

As for the awkwardness, well that really is worse than my chicken predicament but at least I was prepared for it.  Before Peace Corps Paraguay, I spoke on the phone with a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer whom was a Rural Health and Sanitation Extensionist in Paraguay like I am now.  When trying to explain what it feels like to be a new volunteer, she gave me this analogy: ‘Imagine that a foreign exchange student knocked on your door to introduce herself out of the blue and tell you that she wanted to teach you about health and hygiene.  You’re going to be that foreign exchange student.’  During training, we were told that we could put “expert in awkwardness” on our résumés at the end of service. 

What is so awkward about the experience of moving to site and getting to know your community?  Of course there is the language barrier that has become a constant theme of both my blogs and my life.  Then there’s the whole fact that I’m new to town and I don’t look Paraguayan which results in children, adults and geriatrics alike staring at me no matter what I’m doing.  This is especially true for my two youngest host sisters whom for the first week when I was writing in my journal, would do nothing but sit and stare at me.  Staring at an adult write? When I was 7, I could think of ten thousand things more entertaining to do.  However, when I was 7, I had also had much more exposure to people from different cultures so I have to concede that one.  What has been most difficult for me has been the need to introduce myself and make conversations with complete strangers.  I come from a generation and area of the country (sorry, Philadelphia and its suburbs but it’s true) where introducing yourself to a stranger for no other reason than to meet the stranger isn’t just seen as weird but all too often as aninconvenience to the stranger.  Every time I go to a store, school or new house, I repeat the awkward cycle, telling them my name, that I’m new to town and trying my best to create small talk.  And there’s no avoiding it.  If I want to make these two years of service count, I need to become a member of the community.  My neighbors need to trust me and the help that I can offer them and that starts with the awkward first (and seventh) hello.

I have been blessed with two aides in the fight against awkward.  The first saving grace is my contacts.  One is a seventy-something man who has been the contact for Peace Corps volunteers that have been in this community off and on for the last few decades.  He is a sprightly and slightly irreverent man who knows every member of this community and is always willing to introduce me to someone if I ask.  The next is my teenage host sister who takes me to meet her relatives in the community.  As far as I can tell, large extended families living in close proximity to each other is a prominent part of rural Paraguayan culture and my host sister’s family is no exception.  The other thing that makes all the awkwardness a little more bearable is my community itself.  Almost everyone I have met seems to take my weirdness in stride, calmly accepting my poor communication capabilities and the strangeness of this foreigner’s conversations.

I don’t want to give the impression that these first two weeks have been totally uncomfortable.  For the  most part, I have enjoyed the start of my service.  I learned a new way to eat oranges that is more work but also more fun.  I have seen more stars above the field next to my house than I knew could fit in one sky.  I met some of the happiest children on Earth when visiting my site’s school.  I’ve enjoyed the tranquility that characterizes my community.  And I am looking forward to the next two chicken-filled years. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Chipa Loaves and Fishes

There is a miracle story in the Bible in which there is not enough food to feed the large crowd of people which has gathered to hear Jesus speak.  Jesus tells his disciples not to worry and to pass out the baskets of loaves of bread and fish that are available.  After everyone in the crowd has eaten there is an abundance of leftover loaves and fishes.  The food in the baskets miraculously multiplied.  Here in Paraguay, I am witnessing a similar phenomenon- the chipa basket.  I am writing this on Easter Sunday (Pascua) which concludes Semana Santa or the holy week.  For my host family, the holy week festivities began on Wednesday when the family came together to prepare Chipa.  Chipa is a bread-like food that people shape into loaves, circles (like bagels) and other forms.  It usually consists of flour, mandioca flour, cornmeal, butter, water, anise, queso paraguaya, eggs or some other combination of traditional ingredients.  The really savory chipa features pig lard.  When chipa is fresh out of the oven, it is warm, soft and, in my opinion, delicious.  Five days later, not so much.   Try to imagine rolls that don’t get stale, they just get harder and less flavorful.

The practice of preparing chipa during Semana Santa originated because Catholic Paraguayans (a.k.a. almost all Paraguayans) do not eat meat on Good Friday and the more traditional families do not cook, either.  Therefore, they need a meatless food that can be prepared ahead of time and eaten at room temperature.  What surprised me about this process was HOW MUCH chipa my family prepared.  By my calculations, the six of us could have had chipa for every meal for 3 days straight.  However, this calculation did not account for the gift of chipa- every time someone came to the house or we visited another family, we were gifted with more chipa.  My family is sharing too, but the import rate is far greater than the export rate.  Every time I think we are making progress on our chipa basket and the count is going down, a new bag arrives and the basket is replenished.  Earlier today, I sheepishly asked my host sister what happens to all the chipa after Pascua and she responded with, ‘we eat it’.

So other than the chipa by the plateful, how has my first Paraguayan Semana Santa/Easter been? Sort of like everything I’ve experienced in Paraguay so far: fulfilling, frustrating, tranquil and awkward and usually more than one of those at once. Preparing the chipa with my host sisters, mother and grandmother was enlightening because I learned the Paraguayan manner of kneading dough (apparently I was attacking the dough when I thought I was kneading it) and that a paloma (dove or pigeon) is slang for male genitalia which is pretty funny considering that it is a very popular animal for children to model their chipa dough.  Thursday was my favorite day by far.  Jueves Santa is the most popular day for most Paraguayans to come together as families as they celebrate the last supper.  All the men in the family were working this Holy Thursday but my two host aunts came into town from Asunción with their children and we had an asado (barbeque) at my host grandmother’s house.  We spent the day talking, eating and drinking terere and mate.  The next day, Good Friday, utterly confused me.  After baking kilos of chipa in preparation for the day and getting a lesson at the Peace Corps Training Center on how somber the day was traditionally, I expected to spend the day at home with my family, studying or watching religious movies on the television.  Instead, my host sisters had friends over and my host parents and I spent the day visiting my host father’s family, eating snacks and then a full dinner which did not even include chipa.  I heard from some of the other trainees that their families visited a religious site where some people went as a pilgrimage and many others went as a social event as evidenced by the number of food and toy vendors that were there.  Saturday passed by like any other with the exception of the extra cleaning that was needed after the few days of household neglect. 

As Easter is an important day for my family back in the States, I kept hoping that my host family in Paraguay would do something to recognize the day- lunch, dinner, prayer, church, chocolate bunnies-anything that would make me feel a little more at home and help me to see what it means to be Catholic in Paraguay because I couldn’t see the religious significance in the week’s preceding activities.  Yesterday, I baked banana bread for the family explaining that it is my costume to celebrate the day of Pascua and that I had made it for the family to share on Sunday.  I asked my host mother several times what we would be doing on Sunday and when I was finally too frustrated with her vague answers, I directly asked her what time I could go to Church.  This morning, I went to Church with my two teenage host sisters in the nearest city.  As we arrived late and it was so crowded, we had to stand far outside and I was not able to hear or see any of the Mass but at least I was given time to reflect.  The rest of the day passed without event, excluding teenage drama between my mother and sisters, argued in Guarani which I felt fortunate not to be able to understand.  I found myself missing home and my family and wishing for a moment that I could go home, only for the day, and spend time with the people I love and eat chocolate bunnies to my heart’s content.

I am hoping that when I move to my rural site, I will be given the opportunity to better understand faith in this country.  I feel that it is more likely that I will be able to do this later on because my Spanish will improve to the point where I can have poignant conversations about religion without offending people (or so I hope). Secondly, my site contact person has already discussed going to church with me so I will have the opportunity to attend church as many weeks as I would like. 

I went to Catholic school for the majority of my education but I have never had the experience of this religion being so pervasive and yet simultaneously unremarkable.  It seems that the symbols of Christianity are everywhere: crosses, prayer posters, capillas, rosaries, yet I almost never hear anyone talk freely about God or go to Church unless it is for a social gathering.  I want to discover whether it is only my host community where I will feel this disconnect or in my future site, as well.  I moved to Paraguay at a time in my life in which I still identify as Catholic and openly say that I believe in Jesus but I am looking to explore my faith and the faiths of other cultures. I believe that I will be able to do this In Paraguay but definitely not by the immersion that I had expected because right now, I cannot see the place where culture stops and faith begins.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Highs, the Lows and the Highlights

I have only lived in Paraguay for a month but it feels as if a year has passed.  It is not because I have stopped feeling like an awkward foreigner.  On the contrary, I do not feel comfortable enough to find my way around the nearest town or have a nearly coherent conversation with a Paraguayan other than my language instructor or my host mother. It seems to me that I have lived in Paraguay for a long time because so much has transpired.So much so that I am having difficulty remembering clearly the minute details of my former life.  ‘What time did I use to wake up?’ ‘ What was the name of that coffee shop I liked so much?’ ‘How much was a gallon of gasoline at the station near my house?’   My old life was normal and predictable and this constant state of abnormality is my new life.

The past few weeks have been challenging, exciting, disappointing, overwhelming, fulfilling and sobering but never boring.  I’ve heard from and read about RPCVs whom all agreed that Peace Corps service was an emotional roller coaster with some of the highest highs and the lowest lows that they had ever experienced.  I had prepared myself for the extremes of this once my service had begun and I was independent in a Paraguayan community.  While still in training, I had no idea that I could go through such intense changes in demeanor week to week, day to day and even, especially in the beginning of training, hour to hour.  Most of my days are spent with either the total group of trainees in a training center in the town of Guarambare or with my half of the group that lives in my host community for the ten weeks of training, Hugua Ñaro.  Much of training is highly structured language classes, technical classes (I can now build my very own trash pit but I can’t promise that it will be pretty.) and classes on the medical, safety and security and didactic techniques that we need to know to work in rural communities in Paraguay.  We also take trips to prepare us for service. 

The first major excursion was a day trip to the cities of San Lorenzo and Asunción in which we, with a partner, had to find our way around the cities and stop at specific sites that the training staff had chosen for us based on relevance to our future work in the health sector of Paraguay.  Thank God for my partner who is fluent in Spanish or I might have ended up in Brazil instead of at the Peace Corps headquarters in Asunción.  I got to practice a little conversational Spanish with my oh-so-patient partner while we were walking through Ciclovia, a park in San Lorenzo, and then again with the curator of the Museo Arqueológica y Etnográfico Guido Boggiani, a small but incredibly interesting museum that hosts artifacts and information about the indigenous Chaco culture.

The next week each trainee traveled to the site of a current Rural Health and Sanitation Volunteer to stay with him or her for three days and see an example of what our lives for the next two years could be like.  I visited a super guapa (Paraguayans use this word to describe attractive or hard-working people) volunteer in the department of Caazapá.  The experience was amazing and definitely reinvigorated my desire to work toward improving the lives of my future community while in Paraguay.  This volunteer is making a huge difference in the lives of the girls in her youth group and is determined and hard-working and I felt that I learned a lot about planning, working and keeping a healthy mindset while a PCV.  Plus, she made me iced coffee and whole wheat pasta with fresh veggies so I’m definitely a huge fan.  I enjoyed speaking to members of her community, particulary her contact and neighbors.  Everyone was so warm and spoke in Spanish very slowly to me, which I greatly appreciated.  We met with my volunteer’s VAC and two other trainees one day to talk and film their local television show about Peace Corps and issues important to the volunteers’ environmental/agricultural, economic development and health projects.  The two other trainees handled the situation with composure while I hid from the camera which is a very funny story which I might one day tell upon request, in person, if I ever get over my chagrin. 

This past week, each language group and teacher traveled to a volunteer’s site for “Long Field Practice.”  Although we visited possibly one of the coolest volunteers in Paraguay and my host family for those four days was genuinely interested in my well-being and the mother was a fantastic cook, I had a tough week.  To use a runner’s analogy, ‘I hit the wall’ or in Spanish: Choque entre la pared.  Training has been intense, which I usually wouldn’t mind, but my own intensity and perfectionist mindset has started to take a toll.  I know that I need to ease up on myself to really enjoy the whole training and service experience but this week when I struggled to communicate with my new host family or give presentations to the local public school students, I felt discouraged.  It was another example of the highs and the lows.  I had one evening when I had an almost coherent conversation about diet and exercise (…possibly themes of some of my future work) with my host mother and the next morning I read like a robot from my notes while giving a charla to a group of 5th graders.

Training is half-way done.  I have experienced so much that I’m scared to take the time to reflect on all of it and why the highs and lows have affected me the way that they have.  I suppose it’s a good thing that I have so little free time and the free time that I do have, I have a compulsive need to fill with productive activities like practicing Spanish with my host family or washing all of my clothes by hand or going to a birthday fiesta of another trainee (not really productive but necessary for my own sanity).  I have so much left to learn but there are moments when I am nearly itching to get out there and start my new life.  However, now is the time to take one day at a time, break through this emotional and psychological wall, preferably by finally being able to pronounce ‘psicologia’ with ease and try to understand the highs,  the lows and my reactions to them both because there will certainly be plenty more.