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.