It’s funny how often Paraguay can either slip in and out of my present moment or recede into the far-off past. Sometimes it feels like just this morning I was sitting on my porch drinking tereré and gossiping with my homestay sister about her ex-boyfriend. Other times it feels like the Peace Corps was years and years ago, in another lifetime that feels very hazy to me. And sometimes memories I’ve completely forgotten about, formative memories full of struggle and frustration about living in Paraguay, memories I’ve buried deep inside myself for want of forgetting, become crystal clear and sharp again. I suddenly see them in a completely different light that time inevitably shines on and heals, bringing forth incredible perspective, wisdom, and in some cases a lot of retrospective humor.
(Like the time I completely blocked out memories of waking up to 5,000 flies swarming throughout my house as if it was their personal pilgrimage to Mecca because I had forgotten to take out my trash after a trip and came back to find maggots in my kitchen. It was the most embarrassing, disgusting, and traumatic experience of my life, so shameful that I had to block it out of my mind for a full year before the memory came back to me one day like a sudden bolt of lightning. Back when I was breathing toxic fumes in Paraguay from all of the Mata Todo I sprayed to obliterate every last revolting black fly, it was the most unfunny thing that could have ever happened- now, I find it absolutely hilarious).
There have been recent experiences in India that have been extremely challenging for me, days filled with frustration and personal failures and sadness, maybe to the point where I will have to forget about it for awhile like I did with some of the hard and bitter truths of my life in the Peace Corps. Yet as I found myself reminiscing to a friend today about one of the most infuriating experiences as Project Manager of ‘Youth Entrepreneurs of Paraguay,’ a Peace Corps initiative that I poured my heart and soul into for over a year during it’s crucial start-up phase, a flood of memories came back to me that I had forgotten about. Memories that when unpacked, suddenly looked very different from when they had been unceremoniously stuffed into the trunk of my brain. Memories that brought back a surprising sense of nostalgia and longing, like suddenly finding one of those ratty stuffed animals you had as a kid that you never thought twice about when you were young.
Memories of hours spent on buses with sweat dripping down my back, stepping into Asunción as if it were a steaming swimming pool, only to rush to the office and mop up my face and change quickly into a non-wrinkled outfit before schlepping off to yet another sit-down with a slightly attentive but mostly bored official to plead for funding. Memories, one after the other, of dozens of potential sponsors watching disinterested as I poured my heart out onto the table, spitting figures out on youth unemployment and the power of entrepreneurship and the changes this initiative could bring to communities that only house rows of small grocery stores and pharmacies and tailors, towns with no creativity or innovation and youth with no opportunities or employment. And I shook their hands as they smiled and said the usual ‘we will see,’ or ‘sounds like a great initiative, let me speak to my colleagues and get back to you,’ or ‘I’m sorry, but we just don’t have the funds right now.’
Memories of watching months fly by with increasing panic as our team planned and worked SO hard and put together the programming and figures and logistics to pull off an event for 80 people, an event to inspire youth all over the country to become interested in business and innovation and change their communities and lives. Months that passed by in what felt like seconds as we sent out hundreds of emails, cold-called, went on national radio stations and TV shows and spoke to newspapers and still not one bite for funding came through. By mid-December as the holidays rolled around and the days were so hot you could barely move and Volunteers dipped out of the country on vacations for cooler pastures, I remember to seemingly always be in contact with our amazing bosses at the Peace Corps, shooting them countless emails or asking them to help arrange meetings with any cooperative or bank or company we could get our hands on. I was annoying, I was impatient, I was relentless. I was that person, flagging down yet another 5-hour bus to Asunción for a 15-minute meeting in which an official and on-and-off again partner from one of the country’s largest institutions, Cooperativa Universitaria, stopped by our office to pick up a quick materials package. Memories of being disheartened, frustrated, dispirited for how much blood, sweat, and tears it took to not even find one cent of money.
Flashbacks of our event drawing closer and closer until it was merely a few weeks away, to our team coming up with a loophole to fundraise through Indiegogo, as we raised the bare minimum $4,500 in a matter of days to at least cover the cost of the event. I felt I was able to breathe normally again; we may not have gotten the partnerships and sponsors we wanted or a steady stream of funding to continue the program into the future, but at least we had enough to keep the engine running for the next month.
Then days before the event, memories of my boss Elisa getting a mysterious phone call from the big shot at Cooperativa Universitaria, Carlos, requesting us to come in for a brief meeting. Recollections of coming in and sitting down to a round table full of the entire education committee, of Carlos looking up from the papers in front of him, his face completely blank.
“Okay, so we’re going to give you 12 millón guaranies for this event and more for future events, we want to be your main partner, and we want you to place Peace Corps Volunteers at our branches so they can teach your business course to our members.”
And the most pivotal memory of all: when we could barely stop our jaws from dropping to the ground. After we left the office, Elisa turned to me. “You just reminded me that this is why you never give up,” she said.
I am less than a perfect person. Even while leading Youth Entrepreneurs of Paraguay, I was far from perfect. I was too involved in the details, too passionate, too emotionally invested in the project. I have a lot of flaws, and probably the biggest one is that I am really hard on myself at times, much harder on myself for my failures than I am proud of myself for my successes. When I experience one failure after the other like a domino effect, it can be hard to recollect any success at all.
But remembering this story today helped me realize that no matter what failures I have in my life, at least I did this one amazing thing. Through hard work and sweat and tears, our team took this baby and held on to it and gave it wings to fly. And thanks to our huge push and to the Volunteers who took the reins after us, what was once a little start-up is now an enormously successful initiative with multiple national partnerships and events and dozens of business launched- including those of my own two students in Caazapá from my own business class, which is another story for another day that makes me tear up with pride every time I think about it.
All of the memories now of that experience were different from the ones that I locked away 15 months ago. Memories that were originally tainted with sharp disappointments and failures now bring back an overwhelming sense of victory and accomplishment. Perhaps it sounds like a small thing, but it was not; the significance of this has made it one of the biggest successes of my life. And it is a much-needed reminder that no matter what failures I have now or in the future, regardless if I end up being one big, terrible screw-up or betraying everything I stand for- at least I will always have that one good thing I did. At least I helped make that happen. At least I will always have Paraguay.
If I have Paraguay, maybe one day I will have India too.
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