Filed under: Paraguay
I have just about the most heart-warming, gut-wrenchingly incredible story with an extremely important personal life lesson, and I am so happy to share it on this blog.
The Peace Corps is extremely hard; there’s no doubt about it. No matter how old you are, what stage of life you’re in, what development experience you have, where you’re going, or what you’ll be doing- being placed alone in a completely foreign culture and expecting to assimilate as fast as possible, is one of the most uncomfortable and challenging things a person can experience. And when you throw in the ‘development’ angle of trying to help others in the country you’re living in, it’s doubly hard. During your service, there are times when you try and try, and try until you can try no more, and STILL you try to make the smallest difference- but it’s so hard to measure change and impact during your 2 years in the Peace Corps, so oftentimes as a Volunteer I have felt frustrated and in my worst moments, cynical.
During the last 6 months of my service, I pushed really hard to get a number of projects off the ground in my community. One project was teaching a 4-month entrepreneurship course at the top University in Paraguay, Nacional Universidad de Asuncion, which happens to have an agriculture branch in Caazapa. The 4-month business course, ‘Construye tus Suenos,’ is designed to teach youth how to create their own business plans, and ultimately start their own businesses. Business plans are extremely necessary to successfully launch a business- and the course teaches all the important concepts an entrepreneur needs to know before launching a venture, like doing a feasibility study, analyzing costs and prices, learning basic accounting, understanding supply and demand and how to market their product or service, etc. They are also important, especially in Paraguay, to be able to take out a loan from a financial institution to start said business. And with 70% youth unemployment in Paraguay and a serious lack of innovation to address needs in their communities, entrepreneurship is an incredible tool to empower kids to create their own employment and have a successful future.
Another important point of this course is that it funnels into my sector’s national initiative, Paraguay Emprende. With the completed business plans, each Peace Corps Volunteer picks the best plan in their community to attend a national business plan competition, with the objective that the winners get seed funding to actually start their own businesses. I launched the first national business plan competition as Project Manager last year (then Jovenes Empresarios del Paraguay), and so it’s a project I hold very close to my heart, and I really believe in it’s mission.
So this course- I don’t think I have ever worked harder in my life for this to be a success. I met with various heads of the school and with a local government institution to certify the course so that it’s value would be recognized internationally. I spent DAYS preparing for each class- literal days. Meticulous hours spent on memorizing Spanish business terms, creating interactive and dynamic Powerpoints, looking all over the internet for inspirational speeches from the world’s best entrepreneurs (and in Paraguay as well), calling friends and discussing with them certain terms I didn’t fully understand so that I knew it cold for the class. I even did pre run-throughs in my house before my 3-hour weekly class. The dedication I had for my students to be inspired and motivated was on the highest level of achievement I could make it.
Yet while the class started with 40 students, over the weeks it dwindled down to seven. SEVEN. And as it is in Paraguay, classes were cancelled- constantly. The Paraguayan professor who helped me with the course would tell me half an hour before a class that it was cancelled because of the rain, or because everyone was suddenly on vacation, or because the heads from Asuncion came to visit the school and give a presentation, or because it was hazing day for the incoming freshman, or because no one just showed up. And after living in Paraguay for 2 years, I know that this is just how things are here- that if someone doesn’t want to do something, and can think up of an excuse not to come, they won’t. And it’s very, very common for a class that starts with 100 students, or 70, or 40, or 10, to halve after the 3rd or 4th class.
I knew these things, and I tried not to take it personally, but it still hurt. It hurt to be knocking myself out to the point of stuffing unicorns and rainbows and inspirational-’you can follow your dreams’ speeches down their throats every class and performing as if I was on stage, to have over 75% of my class be completely apathetic to it. To plan fun activities and exercises to make tough concepts like supply and demand fun and engaging, yet have 4 students show up for a class I spent hours preparing for. To pepper them with questions and continuously ask to check their homework, which were all different sections of the business plan, which no one ever did. There were so many times that I asked myself over and over again- WHY am I doing this if no one cares?!
But after the first half of the course passed, I started to see that the same seven people were showing up to class every week. One student, Edgar, started showing up to my house and asking for outside help on creating his business plan. He grows organic tomatoes, and needed capital to purchase supplies to create a greenhouse, which would triple his production. While he was shy and nervous and spoke more Guarani than Spanish, I could hear the passion in his voice and the ambition to realize his dreams. Then there was Giovani, a 21 year old powerhouse that had written his thesis on tomato production, and felt strongly that he could bring the best tomato to the Caazapa market- especially since all tomatoes in Caazapa come from other areas in Paraguay. His five year vision was to expand all the way to Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay. Out of the mere five people that actually finished the course, these were the 2 guys that were selected to attend the national business plan competition. We practiced their presentations, and I critiqued their Powerpoints and business plans to make them as competitive as possible. They were nervous, but excited to attend the competition- and especially because they both needed money to launch their ventures in Caazapa.
My final five students at the culmination of the course.
About 400 people took the ‘Construye tus Suenos’ course in Paraguay this year. Out of 400 people, about 40 were selected to go to the national business plan competition, a rigorous 3-day event full of judges and industry professionals from all over the country.
The outcome of the event was unprecedented. Out of 400 kids, Edgar and Giovani, my two students, BOTH won first place. They each won 2.5 millon Guaranies to launch their businesses. Giovani won an award for Best Presentation. The level of prestige for them is unrivaled- from two shy campo kids coming from small rural towns outside of Caazapa, they now KNOW that they will be a success. They now have access to mentors and have recognition from national institutions like AJE Paraguay and Cooperativa Universitaria. They have 2.5 millon each to launch their businesses, and now are connected to outside resources for other potential sources of capital, including even larger business plan competitions. Incredible does even begin to describe it. Their lives will be impacted forever. But MOST IMPORTANTLY, they now know that their hard work, dedication, and motivation to realize their dreams is worth pursuing- and for kids that live in a culture where so many people don’t believe that true change can happen, and so don’t even try- that is completely priceless.
This has been an incredible life lesson for me in so many ways. It’s very easy to get jaded about development, or feel cynical about how much of a difference you are making. But the ultimate lesson for me is to keep being inspired, and to believe- believe that there are people out there like Edgar and Giovani who had the courage to follow their dreams, and against all odds did it. And to believe that all of those hours I spent preparing for classes and teaching it to them, hours that at times I thought were worthless- ended up actually being some of the most worthwhile, incredible, and important work I’ve done in Paraguay. I wish I could put my feelings into words, but it’s not possible. All I can say is that I am in complete awe of my two students, and I have never felt so proud in my life.
Congratulations, Edgar and Giovani. Go out there and shake up Caazapa, and then Paraguay, and then the world.
I leave you with a video I showed my students on our first class, because I think it embodies the message I’ve told them all along: Never give up. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.
Filed under: Paraguay
And before I even knew it, the time has arrived. I have less than one week left in Paraguay. Less than one week in the Peace Corps.
For pretty much two years of my service, I have been waiting for the Peace Corps to mean something utterly significant. I spent two years in Paraguay waiting for the day when I would transcend it all and be the best Volunteer ever (and by best Volunteer I mean never have grouchy days, feel frustrated, shut down, isolated, lonely, homesick, or feel like a crazy emotional monster). I spent two years in Paraguay waiting for this experience to mean something, when I would hit that moment when I would think with utter conviction,‘Wow, it was all worth it.’ I waited.
For 2 years, those feelings never came. And truthfully, I felt disappointed. I felt cheated of a certain expectation I had, that my service in the Peace Corps would be this life-altering, mind-blowing experience where I would make a huge impact (and impact in American terms) in my community, make the best friends in the world in the Peace Corps and in Caazapá, and be forever changed for the better by this experience. Yet when the days started winding down and I found myself still continuously frustrated with failing projects, cliquey Peace Corps Volunteers, and flailing relationships in Caazapá with people I had the deepest connections with, I resigned myself to the fact that these feelings would never come- at least while I was still in Paraguay.
But I have one week left in Caazapá, the place where I’ve called home for two years of my life. And quite suddenly and unexpectedly, I feel it. Oh god, I feel it. And I feel it with an intensity that I didn’t know I would. These past two years were the most challenging of my life, but suddenly, everything I am reflecting on are all of those great moments- the 10% of my service that I had that took my breath away, where I learned and grew in the best ways possible, where projects I worked so hard on succeeded, where I established strong relationships with my homestay family from training, my neighbors, my close friends in my community, my VAC-mates, my G– and suddenly, I cannot even put into words how incredibly devastated I am to leave this life, this little world that I know I can never truly come back to again.
The past week has been a string of farewell parties with people in my community, my homestay family from training, my neighbors, my G-mates, and VAC-mates. This week I wrap up my final World Cultures classes, have a good-bye party at my cooperative, and at Liz and Denis’s house. Today my neighbors invited me over to one last carne asado Sunday, where I told each of the family members what I am going to miss most about them. There’s been so much laughter, so many hugs, and plenty of shared tears.
And in those moments when you are surrounded by your entire wonderful homestay family from training, and you are all crying while you load a bus, not knowing when you’ll see them again- when your neighbor bursts into tears while talking about memories you’ve shared together over the past 2 years- when your best friends pop up unexpectedly to your house for dinner and stand in a circle hugging you- it was worth it. It was all worth it. Every second, every moment, was worth it, to feel how it feels right now.
Filed under: Paraguay
I’ve been avoiding writing on the blog for a couple of reasons.
For one reason, and the most obvious one, is that I don’t have consistent access to Internet without a computer. Two, I don’t have pictures I can upload from my camera to add to the whole ‘user experience’ of reading this little corner of the internet. But the third and actually most important one, is that with each passing day, I have been getting more and more anxious about leaving Paraguay and actually finishing my 2 years in the Peace Corps, and it feels beyond my scope to put into words how I am feeling right now.
But at some point I have to let it all out, so I will try to be as honest as I can.
As succintly as I can put it, I feel as if this is one of the strangest time periods of my life. It seems that this day would never come, but I am suddenly 13 days away from a congratulatory handshake, and a plane ticket back to the USA. This time, I don’t know when I’ll be coming back to Paraguay, to this home I have at times both loathed and loved for 2 years of my life. This huge life goal, something I wanted and dreamed about for years- being a Peace Corps Volunteer- is coming to a rapid and swift close. My classes have wrapped up. My house is slowly being deconstructed; furniture sold, things carefully packed, cheery posters and pictures taken down until there’s nothing but a lot of blank space. I have one more week with my kitten that I love dearly, before he goes to his new owner, a new Volunteer who lives half an hour from me.
When I first decided to finish service a month early, all I felt was immense happiness at the prospect of going home and being with friends and family. I imagined myself lounging at the beach in Florida with my sister, making coconut palm sugar chocolates with my mom, eating lots of fresh seafood, petting my dog, lying in my bed without fear of tarantulas or killer ants attacking me in my sleep. Every frustrating thing that happened in site that would usually bother me- classes cancelled because ‘it’s too cold outside,’ friends breaking promises, bullying neighbors, my backyard becoming an outdoor swamp due to nonstop rain- I just shrugged it all off with ‘only 30 days left.’
Yet I’m here at 13 days until I leave Paraguay, and with each passing day my excitement of going home has turned into anxiety- anxiety of leaving my Paraguay. Suddenly, all I am reflecting on are the good things, and all that I’ve learned here. And, how it actually feels very scary to go back to the United States, where no one understands Paraguay, my experience here, or how I’ve changed. Outwardly, I don’t feel that I’ve changed a lot, but inwardly I think that this experience has changed me monumentally. And coming back to the USA and not being able to chill on lawn chairs for hours on end, drinking terere and sharing comfortable silences makes me feel very strange. Not being able to pass by Denis’s shop any time I want to hang out with his family, or pop on over to my neighbor Mari’s house, is unfathomable. And even though teaching isn’t my biggest passion in life, not continuing the classes that I’ve poured my heart and soul into over the past 6 months actually makes me feel sad.
Leaving the Peace Corps also makes this a very strange and emotionally charged time period. Joining the Peace Corps was always something that I wanted for me, and it was a life goal I yearned to complete more than anything. Now, it is basically over with. I will never be at this time period again in my life, and there are no more new experiences to be had here. It feels like a very anti-climatic exit to a life goal I’ve desperately wanted to complete.
That’s it? isn’t the right phrase, but it’s the first that comes to mind. This was my Peace Corps experience, take it or leave it.
My feelings about leaving seem to change every few minutes, but for the most part I have been feeling sad about ending this time period in my life. I am very excited to go home to the United States and swing full-force into the next stage of my life, which is sure to be incredible (awesome update coming soon!) But, Paraguay has changed me. And though it has been the most challenging experience of my life, I love this place with all of my heart, and I will never, ever forget it or the people I have come to know and love here.
So there’s a lot of jumbled thoughts for you on going home, for good. And I know that when I come home, the past 2 years will all just seem like a strange dream.
13 days left in this dream.
It´s been awhile since we talked. It´s almost been two years since you´ve passed, but sometimes I like to pretend that you´re just off in another exotic country, without access to internet. The older you get, the rarer true friendships seem to be. I always considered you a true friend. And I miss you.
When you passed away, it came as a great shock to me. I´ve never had a friend die so young, so suddenly, and so tragically. I couldn´t believe that someone who was so full of life, who had so much left to do on this planet, could leave so quickly. For awhile, I just couldn´t understand it. Grief would hit me at different times, in the most random of places. Everything just felt so…unfinished.
While processing this grief over the first year of my service, I gradually came to a realization. You may be gone, but you will live forever through the people who´s lives you´ve touched. And so I decided to continue your legacy and your greatest love in life- teaching children- and bring all of your love, energy, and passion to 50 children in Paraguay.
Over the past year, I taught English to a 4th, 5th, and 6th grade class in my community, in your honor. I never considered myself passionate about teaching English, teaching to children, or just teaching in general- but this project ended up being one of the highlights of my service. Because I always brought all of the love and energy I knew that you would to each class, these kids returned just as much. They loved the classes. Every Tuesday became the highlight of my week- the day that I got to play fun games like Twister (to learn colors and body parts), English Jeapoardy, Hangman, and do great projects like creating family trees in English with these wonderful kids.
The looks on their faces every day I came to teach English
Receiving American Flags as a pen pal gift from 6th graders in the United States
With the end of my service in the Peace Corps drawing to a close, I´ve recently spent some sleepless nights wondering whether I´ve made any sort of difference here in my community, Caazapá. Today, as I went into my final English classes, all of our kids (yours and mine) surprised me with posters, handwritten notes, lots of cheering and hugs (and a few tears), and a cake. The director of the school presented me with a special Paraguayan lace tablecloth as a thank you. Those last few hours with my students made my entire two years of service worth it. I wish I could explain better how much it meant to me, but some things are just beyond words.
I had one final activity for all of the students for our last class. I told them about you, and what an amazing person you are. I told them that we traveled to India together before Paraguay, and that every place we went to you would always go find a local school to teach English to the children. I told them that the first day of my service, I found out that you had passed away. And that instead of being sad, I decided to do something in your honor- and so you inspired me to teach them English.
I asked them to help me create a banner thanking you. Each class decorated every word, and wrote messages on the banner like ´we love you Becky,´ and ´Rest in Peace, Becky.´ They finished by signing all of their names on it.
So I guess I am writing you this letter because I wanted to let you know that even though you´re gone, you are never forgotten. That because of you, 50 kids in Paraguay were able to fall in love with a language. And that one person in particular- me- will never, ever forget these kids. I find it very classic Becky that this project was something I did to honor you- yet a year later, I could never repay you for this gift that you gave me.
Thank you, Becky.
Filed under: Paraguay
Unfortunately, my computer has bitten the dust. I have no idea what happened- all I know is that I went to bed Tuesday night with my computer humming peacefully, and woke up to it the next morning completely dead. After calling Apple, they told me that I needed to bring my computer back to the United States for it to be fixed, since there are no service providers in Paraguay.
So essentially, this means that I am computer-less for the next, and final month of my service in the Peace Corps. Which is okay, and in some ways probably better for me to be fully present in my community. Unfortunately, it does mean that all of my planned blog posts for this month will be put on hold. I will hopefully be able to post a few here and there, though without pictures. I will be saving most of them for when I return back to the United States this July.
I am disappointed that I can’t share my final days of service, and all of the great photos I’ve taken during this experience. But, sometimes that’s just how life goes, and you have to roll with the punches.
So– in the meantime, feel free to read previous blog posts on Paraguay (or any other country I’ve traveled to previously) and hang tight until July! I’ll have many, many things to post about then.
Filed under: Paraguay
Welcome to the last story of this week’s blog theme, “Things That Have Gone Horribly Wrong,” where I feature ridiculous situations from my Peace Corps Service. Today, I’ll be sharing a recent incident: the day that my house flooded.
There comes a point of your service where you start to think that the worst is behind you. After you’ve been in-country for two years, you think you now know it all- the language, the customs, that carne asado restaurant to avoid explosive diarrhea– and you get lulled into a false sense of security. You start thinking insane things like “I”ll never feel as frustrated as I did during __________ time period!” “I’ll never be as lonely as I felt during the month of ________!” “I’ll never ride again in the backseat of a tiny car with 5 people sitting on top of me, while a stranger changes her baby’s diaper on my lap!”
I encourage you not to think those things, because you are just setting yourself up for failure.
I happened to be thinking along these lines the exact morning that my house flooded. I already had a bad start to my day- waking up to my bed soaked in cat pee. It was pouring outside, so I couldn’t wash any of my bedding, and it was cold, but I couldn’t stay in bed. Then my charger to my computer died, when I was at 3% battery. So, I was stuck in my house (which is like prison when it pours outside in Paraguay- you just can’t leave, and neither does anyone else), and I was couldn’t lay in my bed or watch movies on my computer- which are basically my two favorite things to do when it’s pouring outside. I was not a happy camper.
This bad day was on top of a string of frustrating things that had happened that week, so I was getting to the point where something small could just push me over the edge. (remember when I wrote a post on The 4 Stages to Having a Complete Meltdown? I was on Stage 3). This happened while I was sitting on my sofa chair with my kitten, reading a book. I happened to glance down to see my bedroom covered in half a foot of water.
My house happens to be on very low land in Caazapá, and it has a crazy mold problem because the rain leeches into the foundation of the house. I also can’t flush my toilet when it rains, since the water comes up through the shower drain. When it rains non-stop for a few days, my entire backyard starts to look like a lake. And since my backyard is on a higher plain than my front yard, it decided to become a river- a river coursing from one end of my house to the other.
As I jumped up from my chair, water gushed in from my back door, filling into all four rooms of my house, and flowing out through the front door. I had shoes, clothes, electrical plugs, and plenty of non-water proof items on my bedroom floor that were all now completely soaked. I cursed repeatedly while throwing these onto any surface spare surface I could find. I watched full-grown tarantulas swim by me into my house, and I tried valiantly to bail them back out with a bucket. Clumsily, I dropped my iPod nano into the water, and it submerged completely. Then something in me totally snapped: I had just hit Stage 4, and it was time for a Meltdown.
After a hysterical phone call to a fellow Volunteer while the water swirled around my house (I kept yelling “WHY WON’T IT STOP RAINING?!?!”), I sacrificed quite a few Peace Corps camp T-shirts to plug up the back door of my house, which effectively stopped the river. The worst was over. I surveyed my house, which now resembled something of a swamp. And suddenly, I started to giggle. And that giggle turned into a laugh. And that laugh turned into raucous, deranged laughter that lasted for a good 5 minutes. I couldn’t stop.
My house was underwater. I had officially gone crazy. And in that moment, life had never felt so strangely normal. It was just another ridiculous day in Paraguay.
My house, after I got most of the water out with a squigee and bucket.
Filed under: Paraguay
Welcome back to this week’s blog theme: “Things That Have Gone Horribly Wrong,” where I feature ridiculous and embarrassing stories from my Peace Corps Service. Today’s story is ABOUT: the Bus Ride from Hell.
Transportation in Paraguay is definitely on the ‘totally crappy’ spectrum. While buses are the main form of transportation (especially for Peace Corps Volunteers, who can’t ride on motorcycles or drive cars), they are some of the worst in South America. In fact, the majority of them (especially the local Asunción colectivos) are extremely old buses that have failed security checks in neighboring countries like Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. So, they’re all shipped on over to Paraguay, where we deal with completely bent-out-of-shape, dusty, gaping-holes-and-broken-windows, and continuously breaking-down buses.
(Note: not ALL buses in Paraguay are like this. There are a few super-fancy, double-decker buses with plush seats and air conditioning that travel along the main routes of Paraguay and then into neighboring countries. But the grand majority of these buses, to put it realistically, are totally shitty).
Moreover, oftentimes the worst part about these buses is the complete lack of regulation as to how many people are allowed on them. Bus peons try to pack as many passengers as possible onto a bus, until you are trapped like a sardine in a can. If you can’t find a seat, you stand. On the worst days to travel, such as holidays, or rush hour, you’ll find yourself hardly able to breathe.
My bus line to Caazapá, La Yuteña, leaves much to be desired. While there are worse bus lines in Paraguay, it’s definitely up there. Depending on the bus you get (which you will never know until the second it arrives), you can get on a complete hunk of junk with vomit-caked seats and windows that won’t open or close, and that break down 4-5 times before reaching it’s final destination. Sometimes you can get a relatively normal bus that actually has reclining seats and foot rests. There is ONE La Yuteña bus that is oh so fancy, with air conditioning and plush seats- but it is so, so rare (only a few times a year), and comes at the most random hours. Whenever one of us Caazapeño Volunteers actually gets to ride on it, it’s like a trip to heaven. We like to call it “The Great White.”
A La Yuteña bus. This is one of the nice ones.
This story however, has nothing to do with the ever-elusive ‘Great White.’ Nope, this is about being on one of those completely crappy buses with a whopping 102 degree fever, at 1 AM. I was coming back from one of our Volunteer camps, and I had a terrible virus. I was returning to Caazapá because one of my Paraguayan contacts had a big job interview over the phone the following day in English, and I promised him that I would be there for moral support. So even though the Peace Corps medical team offered to cover me for a night in the capital because I looked deathly ill, I decided to brave a mid-night 5 hour bus back to my site to be there for my friend.
My first big mistake? I only had 10 mil in my pocket (the equivalent of 2 dollars). I could have gone to the ATM in Asunción before getting on the bus, but I felt too sick and exhausted. What could go wrong? It’s just a 5 hour bus ride, I thought to myself, as I settled onto a crappy seat, shoved tissue up my nose, and prepared to pass out. This was a bad thing to think, because I totally jinxed myself.
The first half of the bus ride passed relatively normally. I burned up with fever, dealt with a splitting headache, and coughed and sneezed all over the place, which pretty much alerted every Paraguayan in the general vicinity to stay as far away from me as possible. For the first time ever, I had the seat next to me completely open. I should get sick more often, I thought to myself in a dreary, disoriented haze.
Suddenly, the worst of the worst happened when you’re traveling in the middle of the night; the bus broke down. I peered outside to get stock of our surroundings. If this was nowhere, we were in the middle of it. People started filing off the bus, and I seized in panic. It was 1 AM, I felt deathly ill, and I had no idea what was going on or where I was.
“What’s happening?” I asked the bus driver. “How long until the bus will be fixed?”
“The bus is broken,” the driver told me. “We have to wait for the next La Yuteña bus to come along, and then you all can board on that one.”
The next La Yuteña bus was scheduled to pass by 3 hours from now. And with a full bus of people getting onto another full bus of people, I knew this was not going to be pretty. What was worse was that I had no money to jump onto another bus, and all of the nearby Volunteer sites to this middle-of-nowhere-place weren’t home because of the Volunteer camp. And, my phone was about to die.
When faced with some tough situations in the Peace Corps, I have oftentimes surprised myself by handling them with humor, patience, and grace. This was not one of those situations. The most logical thing that I could do in my fever-ridden haze was to start crying. Tears and snot flowed down my face freely. ”Please, please just try to help me find a seat on the next bus. I’m really sick, and I don’t think I’ll be able to stand the whole way home,” I pleaded with the bus driver.
The unsympathetic (okay, less fluffy, asshole bus driver, as most on La Yuteña buses are) turned away and ignored me.
For the next three hours, I sat in a pile of dirt, alternating between crying alone and feeling very sorry for myself, trying to sleep sitting up, and talking on the phone to my friend Sam, who was mercifully still awake. Finally, after what had seemed like an eternity, another La Yuteña bus pulled up. Except there was one problem. We were all passengers off of a loaded bus. This La Yuteña bus was already PACKED. To the gills. There were already a whole slew of people standing in the aisle. How in the hell were we going to fit another bus load of people onto this bus? Wasn’t there some better solution?
Well, in Paraguay, there wasn’t. We all started filing on to the bus. Packed does not even begin to describe the misery of standing on this bus. I could have lifted my feet off of the ground, and been fully supported by the weight of the people standing next to me- THAT’S how packed it was. Claustrophobic people need not apply to the Peace Corps: every single possible body part I had was making friends with other discombobulated and foreign body parts.
The bus driver on this current bus seemed to believe that this many people on one bus was a bad idea. YA THINK?! “There’s too many people on this bus, this is dangerous,” he told our bus driver of the bus that had broken down. “The police will pull us over and fine us.”
“IT’S OKAY, SIR!” yelled a bus patron, a lady who’s voice was almost muffled from the over-capacity. “GOD WILL SAVE US! IF WE ARE MEANT TO DIE, THEN WE’LL DIE!”
It was at this point that I realized that if there was a Hell, this is what it would look like to me.
I did eventually make it back to Caazapá (I couldn’t handle the standing in my fever-haze and got off the bus two hours later, collapsing at a fellow Volunteer’s house), and I made it just in time to my friend’s interview the next day.The bus ride from hell continues to be a traumatic memory, but hey- at least I’ll know that short of rolling off of a cliff, I’ll never be on a worse bus ride again in my life. That, and to always carry extra money. Or, just in general, don’t travel on a bus when deathly ill.
Thanks to Jon and Nalena for saving my ass. And thanks to the Great White, for making all of those shitty La Yuteña bus rides worthwhile.
Filed under: Paraguay
To continue on this week’s blog theme, “Things that Have Gone Horribly Wrong“, where I feature ridiculous situations from my Peace Corps Service, I’m proud to PRESENT: The Story of the Coldest Night of My Life.
It was the Winter of 2012, and it was bitterly cold (picture me holding a flashlight up to my face and saying this in an urgent, whispered voice). My best friend Mira was visiting me from the United States, and so I decided to take her on a little tour of Paraguay to see some interesting sites. We first stopped by Encarnación, my favorite city in Paraguay (perhaps because it actually has a river, or because of the plethora of Asian cuisine- but that’s for another post!), and then decided to continue on to Trinidad, home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Jesuit Ruins. It’s beautiful, and definitely worth visiting.
Mira and I in Trinidad.
Fortunately, one of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers and G-mates Julia lives in Trinidad, and she graciously offered to let us stay in her house for the night.
Julia in Trinidad.
Now, this is the point where I should probably tell you that I had scabies. Scabies is a seriously annoying and temporary skin infection that at least half of the Peace Corps Volunteer population seems to get during their service. It’s annoying because 1) it itches like crazy, and 2) you have to basically burn all of your clothing to get rid of it. Okay, I’m exaggerating. Wash the hell out of all of your clothes, sheets, covers, and pillowcases until they resemble a mere shadow of their former selves. And while you’re at it, douse yourself in enough special Scabies soap and lotion that you also resemble a pink, liquidy monster.
Don’t ask me how I got the scabes, because I have no idea. My Peace Corps doctor thought it may have been the stray dog I let into my house a few times, and that the scabies got into my bed linens. Or it could have been from a hostel bed in Asunción that didn’t wash its sheets from the last Volunteer (I can think of a few places that don’t do that…) Or, it could have been from the house of another Volunteer that I was visiting recently. But wherever I got it from, I got it in the worst place of all time. On my butt. So naturally, Mira and I started calling my affliction ‘butt scabies.’
So, it was a merry day in Trinidad with Mira, Julia, me, and my butt scabies. We visited the Jesuit Ruins twice (once in the daylight, and once in the evening during their eerie but beautiful light show), cooked a marvelous dinner, and then prepared for bed. I had of course, notified Julie about the butt scabies, and we agreed that it would be best that rather than share her bed, I sleep on her cement floor. Julie graciously set me up with a Yoga mat and a blanket. I was not prepared however, to sleep on a cement floor on the coldest night in Winter 2012, where it was in the 30′s. Did I mention that Julia’s house is constructed of wooden planks, full of large holes to let the night air come wafting in? Also, did I mention that I was sleeping on a cement floor?
Julia managed to capture a picture of this timeless moment.
Thankfully, I had three companions that were initially lifesavers. One was my water bottle, that has been my ultimate savior in the Winter. The second were all of my clothes- yes, all of them. I wore about three layers of clothes, and my socks, and my shoes, to bed. Third was Julia’s small space heater, which was mercifully on the floor next to where I slept. The first half of the night was frigid, but I survived. I curled up next to her little space heater, feeding off of the heat. I affectionally dubbed it in my mind Lifeforce.
What Julia didn’t realize however, was that the space heater was acting up. It kept hissing and spitting sparks. At some point in the night, Julia got up to use the bathroom during one of it’s hissing fits.
“Brittany, I’m really sorry but we need to turn this off,” she said, unplugging Lifeforce. “This could get really dangerous and start a fire.”
I glared at Lifeforce. WHY DID YOU GIVE US AWAY?!?! I screamed at it silently. THIS COULD HAVE BEEN OUR LITTLE SECRET!! It was then that I realized, while talking to an inanimate object in the dead of the night, that I had gone crazy. Five minutes later, without the warmth of the space heater, I was reaffirmed of this fact when I wished to dear God that Lifeforce would have started an electrical fire. It may burn Julia’s house down, but at least I’ll be warm, I thought deliriously.
The next five hours of my life were something of a living hell. I drifted in and out of consciousness, occasionally creeping into Julia’s kitchen to boil hot water for my water bottle, which seemed to go completely cold every hour. I contemplated all of the ways I could turn on Lifeforce without Julia noticing. I tried to visualize fireplaces, hot springs, Bikram yoga- or at least when the sun would come up, and I would finally be warm again.
Finally, 6:00 AM rolled around and the first rays of the sun started peeking through Julia’s wooden planks. Exhausted, freezing, and completely disoriented, I jumped off of her yoga mat and ran to her front door, fumbling with her lock and key.
“Brittany?” came a groggy voice from Julia’s bed. “What are you doing?”
I don’t even think I answered. SUN. WARMTH. Were the only things I could mentally formulate.
That’s how Julia’s neighbors found a strange American, dressed in 3 layers of clothing and a blanket, drunkenly stumbling around her front lawn at 6 in the morning, desperately trying to find a patch of sun to stand in.
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Want to read more ridiculous stories? Check out Inappropriate Things I’ve Said In Paraguay.
Thanks to Julia for being such a gracious host and good sport! And thanks to my butt scabies– for being gone, hopefully forever.
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.