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.