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.
Filed under: Paraguay
I received word this Summer that the Peace Corps wanted to feature my blog post I wrote on Never Giving Up: my two students both tying for first place at our national business plan competition. A few days ago my post went live on their Peace Corps Passport blog.
Writing has always been a huge goal throughout my experience, so thank you to the Peace Corps for featuring me and sharing with the world my amazing students who worked so hard to follow their dreams.
Filed under: Paraguay
Talking about leaving Paraguay and finishing my service in the Peace Corps has left me with the biggest writer’s block EVER. I can’t seem to encapsulate into words what it’s like to have had my biggest dream and life goal for years- I think even before I was fully conscious of it- suddenly and completely accomplished. This is it: I am no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay, and the dream (and truthfully, at some of my worst moments what felt like a nightmare) has been fulfilled. I am back in the United States of America without a visible dent in my visage (except for a bit of a poochy gut thanks to too much fried meat and mandioca- definitely a recuerdo I did not want to bring back from Paraguay, but here it is nonetheless. Sit-ups, anyone?). Yet, while on the outside I pass by total strangers who see me as just another person, I feel as if I’m walking along with some invisible branding: Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Paraguay. It was life-changing. Ask me about it.
For all of the parade and fanfare through every step of the Peace Corps application process: nomination, medical clearance, invitation, staging, training, and finally the Swear-In ceremony of becoming a REAL Peace Corps Volunteer, I must say that the act of ‘Swearing Out’ of the Peace Corps is pretty anti-climatic in comparison. Yet, it was a beautiful way to say goodbye. My training group, G-36, proudly assembled in the Peace Corps conference room at the office to be showered with accolades by our bosses and all of the staff. Our boss Elisa gave a long and lovely speech, praising each of us personally for specific projects we accomplished in our sites and on national projects. The Peace Corps Country Director, Emily, thanked us for our hard work and dedication as Volunteers for two years in Paraguay. We watched a slideshow of pictures of our two years in the Peace Corps as a G- trainings, camps, get-togethers, all with lots of good food and dancing. Our G-mate Sam stood up to say some words of thanks in fluent Spanish to the entire office, to Paraguay, and to our G. And finally, as is the custom in Paraguay, we received certificates of completion of service. When I got back from Paraguay, I of course had it framed. After the ceremony we were cheered on by our sister G and other Volunteers in the office, took lots of funny pictures, and ate some incredible good-bye cake.
G-36 Pre Swear-Out Ceremony
Our amazing boss Elisa praising each of us.
The entire Community Economic Development team.
Sam giving a thank-you speech on behalf of our G.
The best part of swear-out: Paraguayan cake.
Three generations of CED: G-36, our sister G, G-39, and our replacement G, G-42.
Stephanie and I
On Saturday morning, July 6th, I woke up with the heavy realization that it was my last full day in Paraguay. I wandered up and down the streets of Asunción, buying some last-minute memories of my soon-not-to-be home, eventually breaking down in a souvenirs shop and gasping through sobs to the store owner what a beautiful country she has and how terribly I will miss it. On the upside, it scored me an unintentional heavy discount on a gorgeous traditional ñanduti lace souvenir- just another homage to the kindness of strangers here. In the evening, I attended my last ‘Ahendu,’ a tri-annual concert put on by Peace Corps Volunteers and Paraguayans. Our band of G-36 members rocked out to a few songs, with me on drum-set. We had group shots and lots of dancing, hugs, and tears.
Repping with our G-36 shirts
Celebratory toast to our accomplishment.
G-36 band playing one last Ahendu.
And suddenly that was that: at 7 AM the next day, the Country Director graciously drove me to the airport, and before I knew it I had left Paraguay and the Peace Corps forever.
I am back in the United States, as I have been for two months now. Being home with family has been incredible- but it still doesn’t feel like the journey is over. It feels as if I am still in Peace Corps Paraguay and am merely on vacation. It’s strange not popping into the Peace Corps office. It’s strange not eating at Todo Rico or carrying the usual 30 pounds worth of groceries to the bus terminal. It’s strange not sitting on a cramped bus for 5 hours. It’s strange not seeing my friends or my Paraguayan family. Even though I’ve been back for two months, something feels so out of place. I think it’s that I’m still expecting to return to what I thought was home- except it is not my home anymore. And even though I lived my life for two years without hot water, air conditioning or heating, with washing my clothes in a bucket, living with tarantulas and mold and scabies and dirt roads and cramped public transportation and carrying everything everywhere and and and… with all of those hardships, there became a sort of comfort, tranquility, and slowness in that lifestyle that I miss terribly, and that life doesn’t seem right without.
It’s still too much to process for me that this incredible experience and adventure is over, but I know that I will come to understand and accept it at some point. All that I can and will do is be eternally grateful of the entire experience, for all that it was, even the bad. The Peace Corps may be over, but it is something that will live eternally within me forever. I may no longer be living in Paraguay, but it is a place I will carry in my heart no matter where I go. And wherever my life will take me in the future, I know that I will always have the lessons I learned from this experience to keep things in perspective and provide me with guidance.And for that, I am eternally grateful and so proud of myself for following and achieving my dream of being in the Peace Corps.
Thank you, Paraguay.
My Peace Corps Certificate of Completion
Filed under: Paraguay
Are you interested in reading about every project I’ve done as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay? Well, in an attempt to be as transparent as possible about my service, and additionally create a space where potential job opportunities/graduate schools/future networking possibilities can read about my projects in a formal and professional format, I’ve posted my official ‘Description of Service’ on my website! (Want formal and profesh? Check out this blog title, yo. This is my attempt to be lighthearted in this straight-laced post. You probably got that though. I don’t know why I’m still talking.)
‘What’s a Description of Service?’ you may ask. It is an account of all of the projects and activities I did as a Peace Corps Trainee and Volunteer in Paraguay from May 26th, 2011 to July 5th, 2013. This is an official document that is archived in the Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington D.C. for a period of 60 years after completion of service. It was reviewed by my primary boss, Associate Peace Corps Director Elisa Echague of the Community Economic Development Sector, and reviewed and signed by the Country Director of Peace Corps Paraguay, Emily Untermeyer.
The document spans three pages, so it’s quite long. But, it’s something I’m excited and proud to share. If you’re interested in reading about all of the projects I’ve done as a Volunteer, head on over to my newly created page, My Description of Service.
Or, if you’re feeling too lazy to click (I get that way
all the time sometimes), I’ve also just copy/pasted it below. Happy reading!
Description of Peace Corps Service
Brittany Ann Boroian
Republic of Paraguay 2011-2013
After a competitive application process stressing technical skills, motivation, adaptability, and cross-cultural understanding, Peace Corps invited Ms. Boroian to serve as a Community Economic Development Volunteer in the South American nation of Paraguay.
Ms. Boroian began an intensive 10-week Pre-Service Training on May 26th, 2011 in Guarambare, a small sugar-processing center located 45 minutes south of the capital, Asunción. The program consisted of language training, technical skills training on Community Economic Development, and Common Areas training. As part of the technical training, Ms. Boroian spent time preparing and delivering sessions where techniques were observed and critiqued by Paraguayan trainers and local guests.
Training program included:
- 120 hours of formal Language training of spoken and written Spanish and Guaraní.
- 90 hours of Common Areas training which encompasses cultural adaptation, introduction to development, safety and security, and health training
- 183 hours of technical skills training and field based activities to promote increased economic opportunities, leadership skills, and capacity building with individuals and groups in their communities
- In addition, as part of the language and cross-cultural component of the training program, Ms. Boroian lived with a Paraguayan family for 10 weeks.
On August 5th, 2011, Ms. Boroian completed training and was sworn-in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. She was assigned to Caazapá, a medium-sized city in the department of Caazapá, roughly 300 km Southeast of Asunción. Spanish is spoken there, although women and children frequently use Guarani, the national native language, for daily life.
During her first year Ms. Boroian worked on a range of projects within her community. In her placement with the cooperative Ycua Bolaños, she primarily worked with its Production Department in offering marketing and sales strategy seminars to women’s commission groups. Ms. Boroian also participated in a variety of micro-finance trainings with the cooperative’s micro-finance consultant, and offered resources and suggestions to better promote their loan product. During her second year, Ms. Boroian assisted the Production Department by undertaking a sales analysis for their honey products. Additionally, she improved the entrance display, which enabled them to make smarter purchases and increase their sales. Ms. Boroian also aided in investigating new markets outside of Caazapá by researching different market segments for their product and connecting them to two national distribution companies.
Outside of the cooperative, Ms. Boroian was invited by two local high schools and one university to teach four Construye tus Sueños courses, a youth micro-entrepreneurship curriculum developed by Peace Corps, to over 100 students. At the culmination of the university course, Ms. Boroian held a local business plan competition, enabling the top two students to attend Paraguay Emprende, a national youth business program designed and implemented by Peace Corps Paraguay. Ms. Boroian worked with Servicio Nacional de Promoción Profesional (SNPP) to certify the course, enabling her students to be accredited in any South American country under MERCOSUR. Ms. Boroian additionally consulted with a number of small businesses in Caazapá, including a local grocery store, confectionary shop, weight loss program, and a TV station.
While Ms. Boroian concentrated mainly on entrepreneurship and economic development in her service, she also worked on a number of leadership activities. Ms. Boroian helped form a local entrepreneurship network with four Paraguayan youth, with the intention of job creation and building leadership through entrepreneurial activities for the community. Ms. Boroian also was an active leader in the Boy and Girl Scouts Group in Caazapá, where she helped facilitate weekly leadership and self-esteem activities. Furthermore, Ms. Boroian attended and brought two youth to both Jóvenes por Paraguay leadership camps (a Community Economic Development national workshop promoting self-esteem and leadership that inspires, equips, and mobilizes youth to work on community projects).
Ms. Boroian was an active member of her sector’s national initiative, Jóvenes Empresarios del Paraguay, (now Paraguay Emprende), a youth business program designed and implemented by Peace Corps Paraguay’s Community Economic Development Volunteers. As Project Manager of the initiative, Ms. Boroian coordinated the efforts of over twenty-five Volunteers to put on the first national business plan competition as well as a national business case competition, both monetized at over $20,000. Through the yearlong initiative, over 400 Paraguayan youth attended the business course Construye tus Sueños, 30 viable business plans were created, and 10 start-ups were launched in Paraguay. She additionally brought 7 Paraguayans in total from Caazapá to the national events. Ms. Boroian’s main roles in the project were in team strategy, partner acquisition, and working with a team to fundraise over $10,000. Ms. Boroian helped to acquire partnerships with two prominent Paraguayan organizations that provide funding and contacts for current and future events, so as to sustain their operations long after her departure.
Although officially assigned as a Community Economic Development Volunteer, Ms. Boroian worked on a variety of secondary projects. In her first few months of service she organized a tree-planting project with a local agricultural school, enabling Paraguayan youth to plant over 100 trees in a community conservation center in Caazapá. Ms. Boroian additionally collaborated with neighboring Volunteers to create a half-hour weekly TV program on Caazapá’s local network,Causa Común, where they discussed topics related to farming, blood pressure, HIV/AIDS, biodigesters, family finance, nutrition, entrepreneurship, dental health, parasite prevention, self-esteem, and other affiliated subjects.
Ms. Boroian taught seven English as a Second Language classes during her service to various groups of adults and children. She taught these classes in a variety of institutions, including the local cooperative, a teacher’s institute, and a local primary and middle school. She used the classes to increase the student’s knowledge of the language and culture by utilizing interactive American games, prizes, and stories from the United States. Ms. Boroian organized activities to raise cultural awareness of the United States in the grade school as well through a pen pal exchange program with a 6th grade class in Florida, and a visit from her parents and sister. Ms. Boroian helped advance the job prospects of one student who applied to three positions that required English. She helped him study for the TEFL and proofread his resume, cover letters, and application materials for each job.
Ms. Boroian taught a variety of classes during her service to various groups of adults and children. Through the Peace Corps Paraguay program Ahecha, a participatory photography project, Ms. Boroian helped bring a new life perspective through the guided use of cameras to adults in her community. She gave drum set lessons to a group of students at a local music school, teaching them to both play and sight read. At a local primary school, Ms. Boroian held a school-wide recycling competition with fellow Peace Corps Volunteers in her regional nucleus to educate Paraguayan youth on the importance of recycling. She awarded the two classes that produced the best results a 4-month World Cultures class. Through this course, Ms. Boroian promoted the importance of service to her students by creating and painting a world map with them for the school. She additionally increased their knowledge of world geography and regions of the world such as India, Kenya, and the United States with cultural activities, movies depicting the countries, and cooking local food for them to try.
Ms. Boroian was as an active member of the Kuatia ñe’e, a tri-annual Peace Corps Paraguay magazine, where she contributed articles and worked as layout editor. She also published a number of articles about life in Paraguay in Vida de Latinos, a South American magazine, Pink Pangea, a women’s travel community, and her widely-read blog, brittanygoesglobal. These articles gave detailed accounts of Paraguayan culture and customs, achieving Peace Corp’s third goal of helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
Ms. Boroian has achieved an advanced high competency level in Spanish at the end of her service. She effectively used Spanish to communicate in her work at school, with her colleagues, community contacts, and in daily life. In addition, Ms. Boroian was also able to learned basic Guarani, which she used at the marketplace, with friends in her community who possessed limited or no Spanish skills.
Ms. Boroian completed her Peace Corps service in Paraguay on July 5th, 2013.
Pursuant to section 5(f) of the Peace Corps Act 22 U.S.C 2504 (f) as amended, any former volunteer employed by the United States Government following her Peace Corps Volunteer service is entitled to have any period of satisfactory Peace Corps Volunteer service credited for purposes of retirement, seniority, reduction in force, leave and other privileges based on length of federal government service. Peace Corps service shall not be credited toward completion of the probationary or trial period or completion of any service requirement for career appointment.
This is to certify in accordance with Executive Order No. 11103 of 10 April 1963, that Brittany Ann Boroian served satisfactorily as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Her service in Paraguay ended on July 5th, 2013. She is therefore eligible to be appointed as a career-conditional employee in the competitive civil service on a non-competitive basis. This benefit under the Executive Order entitlement extends for a period of one year after termination of the Volunteer’s service, except that the employing agency may extend that period for up to three years for a former Volunteer who enters military service, pursues studies at a recognized institution of higher learning, or engages in other activities that, in the view of the appointing authority, warrant extension of the period.
Signed by the Country Director of Peace Corps Paraguay, Emily Untermeyer, on July 5th, 2013.
The Peace Corps never tells you how hard it will be to leave the community you’ve called home for the past 2 years of your life. It’s so hard that I felt it was impossible to even write about it, and so I kept putting it off. But everything deserves a proper ending, no matter how difficult, so I’ll do my best to convey my final week in Caazapá.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt so emotionally drained as I did during the last week in my site, even though it was by far the most incredible week of my service, and probably one of the best and most memorable of my life. The littlest things would send me spiraling into a blubbering mess: packing, realizing I had ‘3 days left,’ walking down a street and wondering if this would be my ‘last time going down this street,’ etc. My Paraguayan friends started to make it into a game to count how many times I cried over a five-day period. We lost track after the second.
It’s interesting to reflect on how much leaving this time period in my life has affected me. First off, I’m not the biggest crier, yet I found myself welling up over the tiniest things. Every day as I got closer and closer to finishing my service in Caazapá, it came with such a sense of foreboding and anxiousness that I had never experienced. It was as if I didn’t believe life continued on after the Peace Corps- strangely enough, I remember feeling very much that way at the end of high school. Both were similar in that they were huge chapters in my life ending. Second, I can’t say that these past two years have been the happiest of my life- far from it, I would say that while it’s been an incredible and life-changing experience, it’s also been the most challenging, frustrating, and at times, isolating time period. Yet while I initially felt an immense sense of relief and happiness at coming back to the United States at the end of my service, as the days got closer and closer I felt more apprehensive and sad to leave. And while I had felt through most of my service that I had fistfuls of time, more time than I knew what to do with than ever before- the last two months of my service flew by so fast that I blinked, and it was gone. And saying goodbye had never been harder in my life.
Things went by in stages in my final week. I found myself wrapping up all of my classes.
Finishing my final World Cultures Class
My 6th Grade Students showing some love
Teaching my cooperative some sales strategy to promote their newest product, honey packets
My final ‘Build Your Dreams’ Entrepreneurship Class
My friends at the local University invited me to a goodbye party.
Bombtastic pizza made by Marlene
Then my local VAC-mates (Peace Corps Volunteers that live close-by to me) threw me a good-bye party in Caazapá.
All of us immediately passed out on our super comfy beds… before going out to rage it in Caazapá, that is! And by rage, I mean eat dinner and have a beer.
I made a quick trip to my homestay family’s house from training to visit them one last time. There were lots of tears.
My homestay family showing off my gift- some favorite pictures.
Then my training group, G-36, held a little going-away party for all of us at a retreat outside of the capital, which I popped by for the first night before heading back for my final weekend in site.
Gathering together to eat a ginormous and delicious meal prepared by chef Kevin.
Inhaling said food.
Oh yeah, and then this happened.
Love you, G-36.
My contact Carlos and his wife invited me over to their house for one last carne asado.
Mouthwatering carne de chancho- grilled pig. Possibly the best I have ever had.
Carlos and his wife Doris peeling a typical Paraguayan dessert- yummy oranges, which you suck like a juicebox.
And then my neighbors threw me a little goodbye party with- you guessed it- more carne de chancho.
My wonderful neighbors/homestay family for the past two years in Caazapá.
Meanwhile, I spent my days packing up my house as it slowly turned into a depressing shadow of its former self.
My boxes that I left for my follow-up Volunteer
Kitchen, sans table or any posters/pictures
My kitchen, without… a kitchen.
Taken on my last day in my house, my finished ‘Messages of Love’ project.
I had to say good-bye to my wonderful kitten, which was one of the hardest moments of saying good-bye.
Oh my Harry! I love you so.
Danielle, a Peace Corps Volunteer that lives by me, graciously offered to take care of him.
Then, the cooperative held a little good-bye party for me. There were a few speeches and I gave a brief summary of all of the work I did in Caazapá over the past two years. My contact Carlos presented me with a wonderful certificate thanking me for helping the Production department (certificates are big in Paraguay).
Good-bye fiesta at Cooperative Ycua Bolaños
I finished painting the World Map I had been working on for months, and then cried when it was finished (typical at this point).
Then, on my final day, I handed in the keys to my house. I didn’t take any pictures because it was too sad to see my house so barren and cheerless. When my landlord came to collect the keys, I really lost it. I wandered up and down my street like a loser visiting my neighbor’s houses and wailing that I no longer lived in Caazapá anymore while they all hugged and kissed my tear-stained face, whispering things like “Te quiero mucho, che muñeka” (I love you very much, my little doll). My neighbors and adopted Paraguayan family cheered me up by dancing to ‘Gangnam Style’ in their living room and feeding me glass after glass of wine mixed with Guaraná soda. After I was sufficiently calm (and drunk), we raced around Caazapá, up and down the center of the town, and they helped me bring my bags up to Denis’s house, where I was spending my final night.
I spent my final night in Caazapá the way I loved best: with Denis and Liz and our other friends Gracia and Joaquin, blasting Paraguayan music, eating carne asado, drinking wine and coke, watching movies, and running all around the city taking pictures in all of our favorite places.
Celebrating my final night with typical rico carne de chancho and spicy chorizo.
Lying in the middle of the road in Caazapá at 2 AM
Me and Denis
Me with my best friends.
We didn’t go to bed until 5 AM, which was pretty pointless since I had to get up at 7 AM to catch my final bus out of Caazapá. Denis, Liz, and Gracia all drove me to the terminal as we passed through the main avenue one last time (at this point I was mentally willing the tears to stop streaming down my face). The ticket salesman, a young Paraguayan who always flirted with me mercilessly every time I got on a bus, looked dumbfounded as I popped out of Denis’s car, laden down by three very heavy bags.
“Are you leaving? For good?” he asked incredulously. My throat was so tight that all I could do was nod.
At the last second, my neighbor and Paraguayan mother Mari showed up, and we sobbed and hugged, as I clung to these truly wonderful friends that had changed my life and made my experience in Paraguay so worthwhile.
Paraguayans have this saying: you come to Paraguay crying because you don’t want to go. You leave Paraguay crying because you don’t want to leave. Peace Corps doesn’t tell you that leaving will be one of the hardest things about this experience. But it’s also in those moments that you realize how incredible and special it all was, how worthwhile and enriching of an experience you had, and how every moment from then on will be a reward from those 2 years you lived and served in the Peace Corps.
Surprisingly, I didn’t cry on the bus ride out of Caazapá, and remained dry-eyed through the last 5 hour bus-ride to Asunción I would ever have to take. I felt incredible. In that moment, I felt like the most blessed person alive.
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.