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.