Filed under: Paraguay
Welcome to this week’s Blog Theme, “Things That Have Horribly Gone Wrong.” This week I’ll be featuring the best stories from my Peace Corps services- cultural faux pas and ridiculous situations that I’ve stumbled into as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Some are gut-wrenchingly embarrassing, some pitiful, and even some downright sad– but you can be guaranteed that they are all hilarious.
Before we continue, I should probably state that this post is not safe for work. Don’t be reading this and giggling uproariously at my mishaps while your boss passes by. This is also not entirely appropriate for children, unless you’re keen on them learning some choice Guaraní swear words.
I figured what would be better to ring in this week by sharing a few small stories of completely inappropriate things that I’ve said during my service. These were all unintentional (thanks Guaraní, you bitch of a language), and are probably about one millionth of a fraction of culturally inappropriate things I’ve said without realizing it. Thankfully, Paraguayans have a wild sense of humor, so these have turned into stories I am repeatedly asked to share at parties.
During training, we had 4 hours of language learning every morning, 6 days a week. It was short of torture, especially since I was placed in the most advanced class. Initially I patted myself on the back about this accomplishment, but then realized that I was learning a brand new language, Guaraní, IN Spanish- a language that, at the time, I had a mediocre grasp at. Jaha Recesope (Time for Recess) quickly became my favorite phrase.
Anyway, within the first week of intensive Guaraní, I learned the word ‘tembi’u,’ which means food. I decided to try this out on my Paraguayan homestay family, and surprise them over dinner with my impressive use of Guaraní. Instead, what came out was a word that was so, SO not food.
What I meant to say: This food is delicious. (Qué rico este tembi’u).
What I actually said: This small penis is delicious. (Qué rico este tembo’i).
As you can see, the difference between ‘food’ and ‘small penis’ in Guaraní is literally two short syllables: i’u and o’i. My homestay family just about died of laughter. Dirty, dirty Guaraní!
Another classic Guaraní mistake I made with my homestay family during training was about six weeks later, when I had started to get a much better grasp of the language, and could start forming small sentences! I was so proud of myself. I was all like, look at how awesome I am! I’m going to show off. And it is literally always when I think that thought, that I end up saying something horribly wrong.
Winter in Paraguay can be frigid- even though the lowest it can get is in the 40′s, Paraguayan houses have no insulation or indoor heat- so you are just cold, all of the time. One evening, as I was wearing my usual three layers of clothing and waiting for some hot water to heat up to drink maté (which is the best beverage to keep you warm), my homestay sister asked me ‘Nde ro’y?‘ (Are you cold?)
Now, the sound ‘y’ in Guaraní is extremely hard to master for Americans. It’s a crazy nasaly, high-pitched noise that sounds like… well, there’s just no comparison. Think of how we say “Ooooooooo” in English, and then raise that about 12 octaves.
So I hadn’t mastered the ‘y’ sound yet (and 2 years later, still haven’t fully).
What I meant to say: Yes, I’m cold (Che ro’y).
What I actually said: I want sex (Che ro’u).
Only in Guaraní can the difference between ‘y’ and ‘u’ mean sex.
Flash forward six months later, I was on my way back from my first trip to the United States, where I had spent a glorious and much-needed Christmas with family. I had eaten all kinds of delicious food, seen tons of friends, and spoken dizzying amounts of English for two weeks. Spanish totally slipped out of my mind, and receded into a fuzzy memory.
On my trip back, I brought a suitcase full of canned goods (most of it was Indian food), many that were gifts from family members to last me for a few wonderful months. As I was getting my bags from the baggage claim at the Asunción Airport, I loaded them onto an X-ray machine. I had been the last one off the plane, and there was only me and three male Paraguayan officials checking my bags.
As my bag full of canned goods passed through the X-ray machine, one of the men asked me “What’s inside of this bag?”
Through my then-hazy Spanish, I struggled to remember what ‘preservatives’ meant. I decided to fall back on the usual ‘I’ll just put an ‘o’ on the end of this English word and it will be Spanish.’
What I meant to say: My bag is full of canned goods.
What I actually said: My bag is full of condoms.
I still didn’t realize my mistake, even after all three of the men burst out laughing, and one winked at me, telling me to save one for him.
“…And You Can Use This When You’re Caliente”
For Christmas, I bought my neighbor and ‘Paraguayan mother’ Mari oven mitts from the United States. Mari is the ultimate Paraguayan ‘Ama de la Casa’ (Stay-At-Home Mother), and is an awesome cook. It’s just about as good as her boasting skills, which she projects far and wide to all of Caazapá about the best Sopa Paraguaya in the city. So, naturally I thought that these oven mitts would be the best gift ever for those times she needed to take Sopa out of the oven, thereby establishing myself as the best hija in town.
We opened her gift around her entire family, and they oohed and aahed over the beautifully stitched oven mitts. I decided to explain to her how to use them.
What I meant to say: You can use these to protect your hands.
What I actually said: You can use these when you’re horny.
I went from being the best hija to the town pimp. My neighbors still call me out on this.
So there you have it: some of my most unintentionally inappropriate things I’ve said in Paraguay. While all hilarious, at the time they were all at least a little embarrassing. But, sometimes embarrassment surpasses language. Like the time I was teaching my first class at an Adult Teacher’s Institute. And someone loudly stood up and pointed out to me that my fly was down. And I wasn’t wearing any underwear.
There’s nothing you can do in these situations except laugh. At least publicly, and then cry later.
Hope you enjoyed some of my most offensive slip-ups in the ‘Guay! Tune in tomorrow for another post.
Filed under: Paraguay
Well, my time in Paraguay is drawing to a close sooner than I thought. Due to some extenuating circumstances, I will be coming home a month earlier than planned, and wrapping up my service by the end of June.
This is both exciting and sad for me in different ways. I’m really excited to come home and be with my family and friends- I will be able to celebrate my grandmother’s birthday with my entire family, which is so fantastic! I can’t wait to see everyone, to be home in my house, and pet my dog.
I’m also sad to leave Paraguay, a place that I’ve called home for 2 years. I told my English classes today, and I surprised myself at how sad I was to see their long faces. I was even more shocked when I told Denis later at his store, and he actually teared up.
“So you won’t be here when the new Volunteer comes to visit?” He asked me. Caazapá will be getting a follow-up Volunteer, and traditionally the new Volunteer visits for a week while the old Volunteer is still in site. Denis will be their main contact, so they’ll be staying at his house.
“No, I won’t be,” I said sadly.
“Who will be there to make fun of them with me then?”
Now that my early Close of Service is official, life feels totally different. Yesterday I started the process by taking down all of the pictures in my house. My kitchen looks barren and sterile- not at all the cheery place it used to be. But I think it’s good- every time I walk in there’s a reminder staring at me in the face: I am leaving soon.
Good news for the blog though! I have about 30 stories I’ve been meaning to post for months now. One of my projects is to get them all written out before I finish service. So, you’ll be hearing from me. A LOT. As in, every other day a lot.
We’ll be starting out with a bunch of posts I’ve stockpiled for over a year, which I think are some of the best of Paraguay: this week’s ‘Blog Theme’ is “Things That Have Gone Horribly Wrong.” These are some of the best stories from my service about complete cultural faux pas and ridiculous situations I’ve stumbled into. I hope you’re as excited as I am, because these are the stories I’ll be barking to my grandchildren from a wheelchair.
Here’s a juicy little teaser.
Joining the Peace Corps has always been a dream and life goal of mine, and an active one when I first applied in 2009. Exactly four years later, I’m suddenly so close to the finish line that I can taste it. As has become totally normal over the past two years, I’m feeling a lot of different emotions at the same time. I have less than 50 days left in Paraguay- 50 days before this chapter in my life comes to a close.
Let every second last a lifetime.
Filed under: Paraguay
Well, I finally made it to the beginning of the end of my Peace Corps Service: my COS Conference.
A COS Conference, or ‘Close of Service’ Conference, is a 3-day event, 3 months before the end of your service. The Peace Corps invites your entire training class (mine is G-36) to attend mandatory workshops on readjusting back to life in the United States, logistics in finishing your service, how to wrap up projects and say goodbye to your communities, financial planning, in-country and sector feedback, potential job opportunities in Peace Corps and the US government, resume building, and best of all: a mountain-load of paperwork.
The first day of our COS Conference.
For the Peace Corps, your COS Conference really is a mark of the end of your service. In other words, it’s Peace Corps telling you that it’s time to face the music: your time is almost up, and all of that tereré drinking and general tranquilo lifestyle you’ve lived over the past 2 years is not going to serve you too well if you don’t have a plan for the future.
Vicky drinking Guaraná soda out of a wine glass. Always classy.
So let’s just state right here that this COS Conference totally crept up on me. It feels that I just got to Caazapá last week, yet suddenly we’re in May and I’ve been living in Paraguay for 2 years. There’s still so much that I’m learning about Paraguay, that I still don’t know- so many more projects I could work on, and that I’m still working on. I still don’t speak Guaraní to the point where I can understand all of the grossly offensive jokes at parties. Where did the freaking time go?!
But as we all hung out at the super fancy hotel that the Peace Corps put us up in and gorged on incredible and limitless buffet food, I couldn’t help but realize that the true intention of this conference was absolutely coming to fruition: within 3 days, my mind totally shifted. My service in the Peace Corps is truly coming to an end, and before I’m even fully cognizant of it, I’ll be back in the United States. At the conference, we were encouraged to write out lists of what we needed to do to wrap up in our sites- professionally and personally. Before I knew it, I had a laundry list of objectives. ‘Visit Dora’s family, Visit Wilma’s family, Invite Carlos and his wife for dinner, have a luncheon at the Cooperative, wrap up Geography classes by end of June, set aside furniture for future Volunteer at Dennis’s house…’ and the scribble goes on. It was all right in front of me: a map to actually finishing my service, and saying real goodbyes to people I’ve lived with for the past 2 years.
We also had a series of ‘I’ve actually taught this as a Peace Corps Volunteer, are you seriously making us do this?’ activities, such as ‘setting expectations for the conference’ and situational cases that we discussed in groups and then discussed as a whole. One such activity was drawing how we saw ourselves during training, during our service, and then post-service. For training, I drew myself as a starry-eyed optimist, dreaming about the amazing Peace Corps Volunteer I would be. For my service, I just drew a giant bubble that said “A HOT MESS.”
Evelyn and Dion, showing off some of their drawings.
The biggest indication to me that our service really is coming to an end was our ‘COS Picture.’ Every COS Conference, Peace Corps Paraguay takes a big picture of the training group. It’s usually posted on Facebook and in Peace Corps Newsletters- another signal to other Volunteers that yes, that G is about to leave. I always used to stare at those photos of earlier training groups and wonder what could possibly be going through their minds now that they’re so close leaving Paraguay. It is definitely weird being one of those Volunteers now.
As usual, my G had to take a series of weird photos, because we’re awesome like that.
Ita Training Group
J.A. Saldivar Training Group
Our G36 ‘Prom Photo’ that is just about as awkward as us.
Trying to create a G36 pyramid…
The best part of the COS Conference was the photo shoot. And of course, hanging out with my wonderful G-36. I feel extremely lucky to be part of such a special group of people, and it was great to spend time together.
Since I’ve gotten back to Caazapá, things haven’t felt quite the same. But I suppose that’s how it’s supposed to be. I only have 50 days left in a place that I’ve called home for 2 years, after all.
Filed under: Paraguay
I never had cats growing up. My Dad and sister are both allergic (and supposedly I am as well, though that theory has since been tested false), and so we’ve only had dogs. Therefore, I never really got the ‘cat thing.’ I didn’t consider myself a cat person, and I never knew what to do around my friend’s cats.
So imagine my surprise when I unexpectedly got paired with a kitten as a sort of ‘end-of-service’ surprise!
One Friday night about a month ago, I was getting in my daily exercise by jogging down my favorite running trail (P.S. in Paraguay ‘running trail’ means ‘dirt road to someone’s house’). This running trail is my favorite place to jog; the road is small and winds through fields, passing a tranquil pond that looks spectacular when the sun sets, and eventually ends at a family-owned horse barn. It’s quiet, and there are barely any motorcycles or cars that drive by to kick up dust (never a fun time trying to run while choking on red dirt).
As I turned a bend, I came upon a tiny black kitten in the middle of the road. He was bone-thin, with matted fur, and small enough to cup around one hand. But he was very much alive- he immediately jumped on my shoelace, wanting to play.
Before his first bath
At this exact moment, a rare car passed by, with the owner of the farm inside. Disoriented, I picked up the kitten.
“Is this your kitten?” I asked him.
“No, sorry,” replied the man.
“Do you know who’s he is?” I looked around the path. There were no other houses in site, and I was totally confused as to how a kitten that small could have gotten out in the middle of nowhere.
“I’m sure that people threw him out here to die,” the man said nonchalantly. “When people don’t want dogs or cats, they usually leave them here.”
Angry, but unsurprised (I’ve heard plenty of similar stories), I resolved to bring the kitten back to my house so that he wouldn’t die once the night became cold.
Originally this was a short-term plan- I would take care of him for the weekend and then give him to my city’s vet on Monday, so that she could find him a home. But over the weekend, I completely and unexpectedly fell in love with him. Perhaps it was the constant climbing into my lap to snuggle, or the purring of contentment every time I petted him, but I soon became completely hooked. And after I gave him a good bath and some medicine and cat food, he completely transformed from a mangy little thing to an adorable kitten. I named him Harry.
Harry’s first weekend at casa Brittany.
There’s something about having a kitten that just makes life so much better. For the past month he’s been my wonderful companion and snuggler. He is a very sweet and gentle cat- he loves to cuddle, drink milk, and play with the variety of DIY ‘cat toys’ I made him (twisted pieces of tape and balls made from paper). He also loves hide and seek.
Harry likes to sleep by my lamp at night.
He also likes getting his belly rubbed.
My windowsill is one of his favorite places, since it’s sunny there all day.
Harry hiding in my covers
After living with him for a month now, I have officially become converted to ga-ga over the moon catdom, and I totally get it now. I get all of those LOLcats and ‘I can haz cheezburger,’ and those ‘crazy cat ladies’ stereotypes. I love having a cat. Or more importantly, I love having Harry. One man’s trash really is another man’s treasure. I still can’t believe someone would throw a little kitten out into a field to die- but their loss is my gain.
I promised myself I would never get a pet while in Paraguay because I become so attached to them. And this has proved true- I am absolutely attached to this little guy. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons I can’t bring him back to the United States (for starters, my parents have banned any other pet addition after I brought a puppy back from India- and rightly so, since I left her on their doorstep while I traveled around the world!) Fortunately, another Volunteer who loves cats and lives close-by is happy to take him when I leave.
So for the time being, I feel so grateful for Harry to have entered my life – even if it’s just for a little while. He’s a great friend, and he has made the end of my service in the Peace Corps wonderful.
I love you Harry!
Filed under: Paraguay
I’m posting at 3:30 AM, so I may not be completely coherent while writing this. But sometimes those feelings just grab you in the moment, and you would rather write them down then let them go.
I rode on a bus for 10 hours today. My first 5-hour trip was at 6:00 AM this morning, when I went to the capital of Paraguay for an interview for a job post-Peace Corps. Turns out I had mistaken the day of the interview, so there was nothing left to do but turn around and get right back on another 5-hour bus to Caazapá!
And truthfully, if I had made the same mistake 2 years ago and had to travel on a bus for 10 hours for no reason, I would probably be pretty miserable and frustrated about the whole deal. Today, all I did was laugh. Life is sometimes so ridiculous that there’s nothing else to do but laugh, and find humor in crazy situations.
So I was sitting on this 5-hour bus ride back to Caazapá on my dingy little bus line ‘La Yuteña,’ the kind where the seats are caked in I-don’t-even-want-to-know-what and when someone puts their seat back it falls onto your lap. And this bus was packed to the brim, as usual, with babies and children on every spare person’s lap, and adults lining the aisles. And yet, I felt totally relaxed and peaceful. I didn’t listen to music. I didn’t get bogged down by the 20-mile-an-hour bus ride, or the apparently drunk guy stumbling over my seat every few minutes. I just sat there in peaceful silence. I waved and smiled to a few of my fellow Caazapeños that happened to be on the bus with me, and offered them Ritz Bits cheese crackers I had gotten in the capital.
Okay, maybe this doesn’t sound like a big deal at all. Big whoop, I sat on a bus for five hours. But you know what? I spent a lot of time on the bus thinking about how much my experience in the Peace Corps has changed me. A bus ride like this that used to be so unfamiliar and uncomfortable, and at times frustrating, now felt totally normal. None of those little things didn’t get to me- at all. I just watched the stars out, and felt content on yet another bus ride back to my site. Back to my home.
And in that moment, I realized that Paraguay is now more of a home to me than the United States. Sometimes I feel that I can’t even identify with the United States anymore- everything I read in the news are about shootings or bombings, or congress blocking bills that over 90% of the American people want. I watch movies such as ‘This Is 40′ which is about an insanely wealthy and successful American couple who have beautiful children and a wonderful lifestyle, yet bicker and curse at each other every single second that they can. Is that supposed to entertaining? I’m disgusted. Or I read articles about the glorification of ‘busy’ and cringe about returning to such a narrow-minded definition of success.
Paraguay is not perfect by any means. But there are so many truly beautiful things that I love about this country- loving your neighbors, the meaning of community, spending quality time with people you love (and not hiding behind a technological device while doing it), living fully in the present, not defining success by what job you have or how much money you make, going with the flow.
Paraguay has made me more patient, more present, and kinder. It has helped me so much to see that the important things in life are not how much you make and own, or how you are defined by what you do. I never want to forget that. And in that moment on the bus ride, I felt so sad that in a few short months, this will no longer be my reality. Caazapá will no longer be my home. La Yuteña will no longer be my main form of transportation. I will no longer spend my days on lawn chairs, drinking tereré and chatting with my Paraguayan friends.
I guess the point of this post is two-fold. One, the Peace Corps is so hard, and it never, ever stops. You are first so overwhelmed with the raw experience and adjusting to such a foreign place, and it never lets up. And then when you finally start to get comfortable, finally start to make friends and family, finally start to understand, finally start to call this place your home– you must leave.
Two, though it was never easy, I will always love this experience that the Peace Corps gave me, and there is a part of me that will always always think of Paraguay as home. And even though I still have my days where I am really frustrated with the way things can be here– I never, ever want to forget how much I love Paraguay, and how much this country has taught me.
Yesterday, one of my closest friends in the Peace Corps and site-mate, Zoe, left Caazapá and finished her service. She has been with me in Caazapá since Day 1, so this is a big transition for me. It has made it more than ever apparent to me that I’m up next. 103 days left to go.
You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place… like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.
Filed under: Paraguay
Okay, let’s get this out of the way: I haven’t posted on this blog in a month. Shame on me, I am sin verguenza (as we like to say in Paraguay). I’ve gotten all carried away with posting on my shiny new blog and sort of let the pictures do the talking for awhile. Also, March and April was one hell of a roller coaster ride! Sometimes all you can do is enjoy the highs, and hold on tight when there’s a sudden dip.
Anyway, back to the subject at hand, and a seriously important and awesome one at that– at the end of March, my family came and visited me in Paraguay!!!!!
Truth be told, when I first got into the Peace Corps I started bugging my parents non-stop about coming to visit me. I tried every guilt-tripping tactic imaginable (I told you this post is all about being sin verguenza), but truth be told it was all out of love- I just really wanted my folks to see my experience and ultimate life dream that I had about being a Peace Corps Volunteer. I wanted them to understand what it was all about, and experience both the joys and challenges of service for themselves. For awhile, my Dad’s response to visiting was always a slightly sarcastic “Sure, see you there in 10 years!”
At some point, about a year into my service, I gave up on the idea. It just didn’t seem destined in the stars that my family was coming down to Paraguay. And then, something magical happened. I was randomly talking to my Dad on the phone one day in November, when he casually slipped in that he and Mom were “thinking” about coming to visit me. I nearly dropped the phone in shock. “Sure, we’ve always wanted to visit, we just didn’t know if we could!” My Dad told me over the phone. I’m still trying to ascertain whether that statement still applied to the 10-year rule, or if they just kept it a secret for a long time.
Anyway, the dream became a reality, except there was an added bonus- my 12-year-old sister Kate came along too! During her spring break, my Mom and Sister flew down to Paraguay, and we immediately crossed on over to Argentina to visit the amazing Iguazu Falls. We then got back to Paraguay and stopped by Asunción to pick up my Dad from the airport. After a quick visit to my homestay family from training, we headed over to Caazapá.
Mom and Kate in Argentina!
Spending time with my family, as always, was incredibly fun and rewarding. My family met all of my Paraguayan friends and my closest Peace Corps friends. We made homemade mozzarella cheese, roasted vegetable hummus, and rosemary focaccia bread. We played games and painted the ocean of the world map I’ve been working on for my World Cultures class. They learned some Spanish (“RICO!”) and Guaraní (a bad word that I lied and said meant “Happy Easter,” which made Paraguayans go into hysterics. When I told them what it really meant my parents were not amused). We visited the oldest church in Paraguay, petted carpinchos in VillaRica, and ate at the ever-famous ‘Bolsi Bar’ restaurant in Asunción.
Family painting the world map!
It was so great having my family here, and I’m so happy and grateful that they came and got to see and understand my life in Paraguay. It meant so much to me, and I’m so happy they were able to visit and really see what my life is like here. This really is what the Peace Corps is all about- cross-cultural exchange. As my DPT (Peace Corps boss) Dee told me, without me living in Paraguay my family would probably never have thought to come and visit here. Now they’ve been able to see and understand a completely different culture and country, and Paraguayans were able to meet them and learn more about America.
Thanks so much for coming, Mom, Dad, and Kate! Thank you for being so open, flexible, patient, curious, and willing to learn about Paraguay. Thanks for spoiling me (thanks to my parents I am now the owner of a brand-new space heater, which will save my life come winter!), for loving me, and fully supporting my dream.
Breaking bread with Liz and her family for Easter in Paraguay!
Filed under: Paraguay
Hope you like the new header and background to my blog. I usually change out the photos every new adventure to show a different ‘theme’ to my life, and it changes every few months. Well, it’s been 2 years since I’ve had this one, and I’m ready to see the theme change to something different. And changed it has.
For a good portion of my service, I felt half-in and half-out of my community, Caazapá. Since I was project manager of ‘Jóvenes Empresarios del Paraguay,’ (JEP) I had a hard time making steadfast commitments to a schedule since I would sometimes have to run to the capital of Paraguay at a moment’s notice for meetings with our partners or potential sponsors. It was a lot of travel. Every few weeks I would suddenly disappear for two or three days, and people in my community noticed. ‘You always go to Asunción,’ my neighbors, friends, or cooperative members would complain, exasperated when I couldn’t show up to birthday parties or community events. They seemed to think I would go to Asunción to sip mai-tais and lay by the pool. I think the hardest part was that they weren’t seeing the results of JEP in Caazapá. That, and that I was continuously broke at the end of each month.
I don’t regret for a second working on JEP for over a year, and the incredible results we achieved. We pulled off a national business case competition, a national apprentice competition to get youth excited about entrepreneurship, and a national business plan competition where the winner won over $1,000 to start her own business, an organic lettuce company. We motivated over 400 youth to take our business course and create business plans, and we saw 10 start-ups launched in Paraguay through our initiative. And, through a lot of pure hard work, we collectively raised over $20,000 in a year to make it all happen and continue to be successful for the next group of Volunteers who took on the project, and we got two incredible Paraguayan partnerships on board to support us. That last part- the funding and partnerships- were really pulled off by three people- me, my boss Elisa, and my co-project manager, Taylor Schrang.
THOSE are results. I feel wonderful about the work we’ve done, and it has been a highlight of my service. With that being said, I did have to make sacrifices in my community, and I felt guilty about that. I couldn’t be fully focused on Caazapá or achieving the greatest amount of success I could as a Volunteer there. So I promised myself that when we finished our last apprentice competition in February, I would stop focusing on national initiatives, and start focusing on my site.
Focused I have. With the start of the school year, I find myself teaching EIGHT classes. Three English classes at a lower school, two geography/cultural learning classes to another lower school, two business courses at two Universities (four times a week), and one photography class at my friend’s photography store. School has started in full-force now, so I’m 100% all-in and committed to teaching these classes every week until the end of my service. I’m also starting a youth entrepreneurship network with Paraguayans in my site, and we meet at least once a week about a local event we’re planning, to promote our initiative.
I never saw myself as a teacher, but I’m suddenly fully immersed in this role. I’m running around making photocopies and meeting with government institutions to get things off the ground. I’m poring over manuals and the ever-resourceful Internet for ideas, and spending hours creating Powerpoint decks. I’m implementing some of those crazy classroom management techniques, like ‘raise-your-hand-in-the-air-to-show-you’ve-stopped-talking.’ I’m buying foam board to make passports and paint to do a world map project with kids, and borrowing projectors to show movies.
In some ways it feels a little scary to be so involved. It’s a commitment, and it’s something I have to stick to. When things go wrong I can’t just run away to another friend’s site for the day. I have to sort of adapt back to the real-world and plan out specifically free time I have to do my laundry by hand, cook meals from scratch, study for the GMAT, go running, and actually relax. Basically, it feels like actually growing up and being an adult.
But in other ways it’s wonderfully liberating to spend nearly every waking moment of my life serving others. Where before I didn’t get to see the great results of JEP until we put on the event that took 6 months to create, I see great results every single day in Caazapá. Kids cheering when I enter a classroom because they can’t wait to learn English. The look of wonderment on a child’s face when I point out to them that there are seven- yes, seven- continents in the world. The excitement of my students at University, who get to come to class and discuss innovation and what it means to be an entrepreneur. The empowerment that 4 Paraguayans feel when it comes to creating a network with their own hands, and learning what it means to build an organization together.
The Peace Corps is spot on. This really is the toughest job I’ll ever love.
So with a new look on my little corner of the internet, comes a new chapter. I’m all in, Caazapá.
Meet my best friends in Paraguay.
This post has been a long time coming- literally, I’ve been meaning to post it for months. My wonderful friends Denis and Liz have popped up in photos throughout my blog, but I wanted to write a post dedicated to our awesome friendship (singular, we’re a three-headed beast).
At the exact mark of my 2nd year of service in the Peace Corps, I accidentally stumbled across Denis and Liz- and after realizing how incredible they both are (and literally right under my nose- Denis’s family owns a Video and Photography production store right next to a TV station I go to every week, which is 2 blocks from my house)- I still can’t believe that it took me a full year to find them.
I’ve discussed this before, but being in the Peace Corps and the only American in a completely foreign place can be a huge loss of identity. All of the things that I thought made me who I was before the Peace Corps- being an avid reader, a foreign movie buff, passionate about social enterprise and micro-finance, etc.- didn’t translate in Paraguay at all. My daily conversations with Paraguayans in my community included whether I liked to drink tereré (the staple Paraguayan drink) and eat mandioca (the staple root vegetable). I oftentimes felt lonely.
Then one day, as I was passing by the television station, Denis (who later told me he ‘finally plucked up the courage,’ since he said he always saw me passing by), asked if i was a Peace Corps Volunteer that lived here, and wanted to work with the local Boy and Girl Scouts group. Thinking this would be a great place where I could focus on leadership and self-esteem skills with youth, I said yes. At the first meeting, I met Liz, who is Denis’s closest friend, also works at his shop, and is the other leader in their Scout group. Then a few days later, I happened to be walking down the street and saw Liz at the store. I invited Liz to go to a party with some close-by Volunteers over the weekend, thinking she wouldn’t actually show up. But she did, and so did Denis. And it was definitely one of the most fun nights I ever had in Paraguay.
Since then, Denis, Liz, and I started hanging out every day. Denis loves photography and videography, so we had a huge common interest. We listened to the same music, and they both loved watching movies. But the biggest thing we have in common is that we are all total weirdos. We have bizarre inside jokes, poke fun at each other, and oftentimes quote my terribly phrased Spanish and Guaraní.
My life in Paraguay completely changed when I met Denis and Liz. I can’t imagine my life without them in Paraguay, and I feel so lucky to have met such wonderful friends. Sometimes I feel that some of my friends in Paraguay are by coincidence- because I live here and so do they, and so we may as well be friends. This is not how it is with Denis and Liz. They aren’t just my best Paraguayan friends- they really are some of my best friends in the world.
So Denis and Liz, thank you 1,000 times over for being my friends. Thank you for making me really love Caazapá and feel happy and comfortable here. And thank you for being weird, and embracing the weird American.
Check out some pictures of our exploits over the past 8 months below.
Filed under: Paraguay
This morning, I went to check the hotel my family will be staying at while visiting me, where there’s a near-by laundro-mat shop that I avoid like the plague. When I first got to Caazapá as a Volunteer, I brought my laundry there to be washed, and was told by the lady that it would cost 20 mil (5 dollars). When I came back to pick up my laundry the next day, it suddenly changed to 50 mil (13 dollars). If there’s anything I hate most from traveling, it’s being manipulated and offered the ‘foreigner’ price. I basically got into a fight with the laundry lady about the discrepancy of the price, and told her it wasn’t fair that because I was ‘the American’ I was subject to more than double the price change. But I paid my bill, and left. I never used the laundro-mat in Caazapá since then.
This morning, and nearly 2 years later, I went to the hotel with my best Paraguayan friend, Denis, to confirm the reservation. Since the landro-mat is the only place in town where you can wash your clothes, I stopped by the shop to find out prices in case my family needed it.
A summary of the conversation that followed (which included sneering, jeering, and name-calling) from the lady at the shop was this: “I know who you are, you’re the bruja (English translation: bitch) who fought last time about the bill. Get out of my shop, I want nothing to do with you.”
Now, I’ve been in the Peace Corps long enough now to know that my elatedness/happiness and frustration/sadness with living in Paraguay is cyclical, though it is independent of time. One day/week/month I’ll be on top of the world, and will feel that my time in Paraguay is the most incredible and formidable experience of my life. I can’t even think about how sad I’ll be the day that I will have to leave Paraguay, a place that’s become my home. The next day/week/month after a series of negative experiences and cultural interactions gone awry, I’ll be totally down in the dumps and shut up like a hermit in my house for a period of time, cursing Caazapá and counting down the days until I can get on a plane and leave this place.
I’m not exaggerating- the range of feelings are that vast, and there’s not much middle ground. While a lot of my first year as a Volunteer has been learning how to deal with this constant roller coaster of emotions, during my second year I’ve started to accept them as inevitable and part of the experience. A lot of the challenge has been learning to deal with those negative experiences completely alone.
So, I could tell this coming week with a few negative experiences (out-of-control English class, unkind indirect comment from the Head of a School about my performance as a Volunteer, controlling neighbors chaining their dog inside their house because he always follows me everywhere, etc.) was going to be one of the low times when I feel really frustrated with Paraguay. The laundro-mat lady treating me as if I was less than a human felt like the tipping point. Ashamed and embarrassed in front of Denis, I was ready to run back to my house and feel super sorry about myself.
While these kinds of experiences happen anywhere in the world, they feel a lot worse when you’re the only foreigner and American who lives alone and depends on other Paraguayans for human interaction. Hearing unkind comments or people who have mal-intent about me when I’m constantly alone and vulnerable can be really hard.
I tried to control how upset I was around Denis and shrug it off, and we went back to his shop to hang out. Denis was in an apparent ‘I’m-going-to-cheer-Brittany-up mode’ and put on happy music, trying to get my mind off of the incident. I half-heartedly laughed at his jokes and plastered on a smile, but I kept blinking back tears.
“You’re not really here, Brittany,” Denis finally told me, giving up. “Are you still upset?”
“Yes,” I said truthfully.
“Do you know metaphysics?”
“Yes,” I repeated glumly.
And Dennis stared out onto the street in a very philosophical way. And suddenly, he said with such clarity and grace, “Well, there are 2 main rules from this that I’ve learned, that I always follow in my life. The first rule is that you should always be in the present moment. So that lady was stupid and treated you badly? Forget about her- that’s already in the past. Focus on what’s happening right now. We’re sitting together and listening to good music, it’s a beautiful Saturday with wonderful weather. Don’t let her ruin your day- stay in the present and appreciate what’s in front of you.”
“Wow,” was all I could say. I was deeply moved by his little speech. Dennis was absolutely right. I was stuck in the past, embarrassed and hurt by what the lady had said to me. But really, continuing to be upset about it wasn’t hurting her- it was only hurting me. And it would be a shame for my day to be ruined because of it.
And moreover, all of the little things that had built up over the past week that made me feel frustrated didn’t ultimately serve me in any way, except to make me feel bad about myself and my place in Caazapá, and Paraguay. It was as if Denis had completely snapped me out of my downward slide into negativity and cynicism. It was amazing how such a simple speech could be so true.
“And what’s the second rule?” I asked, intrigued.
“And, the second rule is also the first rule.” Dennis improvised.
Dennis then asked me if I believed in elves, and proceeded to tell me with complete seriousness that he saw one running around his backyard last week. I tried to keep a straight face. Then we sang karaoke.
At the end, I felt so much better and happier. Dennis was right.
Enjoy the present moment.
And the apparent elves in Caazapá.
My Wonderful Friend Denis