1/3

Here I am, 1/3 of my way through service. 9 months in Paraguay, 6 months in my permanent site. Here’s where I’m at:

I haven’t posted in awhile, for a few reasons. One being that this is my normal life now. Things are pretty routine, and not many things seem like updates to me. Another reason being I’ve been in a pretty solid slump, for reasons I have shared with people in private (feel free to ask if you are so inclined!). Lastly, I’ve kind of felt like a bum – but I’ll get into that later.

It’s been 6 months since I moved to my permanent site. I’ve got my own house, I know 3/4 of the community, I have started to find my niche in my community. Everything is pretty comfortable, and for the most part I am very happy with where I am. As I mentioned in my previous post, my work may not seem or feel very tangible or impactful in this moment (and it still doesn’t sometimes), but with constant encouragement and ongoing conversation with fellow volunteers, I can rest a little easier each night feeling ok about what I did that day. I was working on two tangible projects – building chicken coops and brick ovens – but as the natives had warned me, the government is seriously corrupt here and all the money they set aside for projects like these generally goes into the pockets of the politicians. So we are waiting for responses from them regarding financial support, but will likely be looking elsewhere for funds soon. Politics here are very frustrating, and also a central part of the culture. We just had elections for mayor and local positions, but I have heard and witnessed firsthand that the candidate with the most money wins, and that’s about all there is to it. And what can I do about it? Nothing. But, asi es la vida. That’s life.

Which leads me to the “I’m a bum” feeling I’ve been having. It is now December, and the school year has ended, along with my English classes and sex ed classes. It is also hot as Hades and rains half of the week. My work options have been cut down significantly, and so have participation levels with it being so hot and also people taking vacations and what not. I spend a lot of time reading/watching movies/etc – more than I thought I would be. But whenever I feel lazy I hash it out with my volunteer pals and they tell me they spent the last three days in bed and then I don’t feel so bad…

12359829_10205421178797100_4147002745901936899_n

A sunny day in my backyard, mango tree on the left!

That being said, for the summer I have a Kids Club planned (like a mini summer camp, or ‘Tot Lot’ for my Wyomissing friends) and a Cooking Club. Just had my first meetings with them this past week. Kids Club went pretty well, about 15 kids the first day – played kickball and spud and the kids loved it (that being said – if anyone has any games or crafts ideas that would fit well with this, please let me know!). 3 people showed up for the Cooking Club… I guess it’s better than zero! We made a delicious chocolate cake and cupcakes – lots of my students were really excited to make cupcakes because they told me they all watch Cupcake Wars on TV but never have the molds to make them (shoutout to my sister Michelle for mailing me those from the states!) Hopefully those three will spread the word that I know how to bake! They often don’t believeI  or like my cooking because I am vegetarian and they are all carnivores, but a love of sugar is universal.

I’ve also got a new kitty and puppy to keep me busy! The cat I call “Michi” because it’s guarani for cat and that’s what all the natives call their cats. The puppy I named Sugar Magnolia, I call her Maggie. They are horrible and can’t figure out how to go to the bathroom outside. But I could not be more thrilled to pick up their shit because at least I’ve got some company! They have really helped turned my morale around. When you are living in a place where no one understands you or where you come from, sometimes you start to feel like you are actually the crazy one or in the wrong.. societal norms are a scary powerful thing! But coming home to unconditional love from these two really keeps me going.

12347986_10205401866954316_8144946924439623677_n

Michi hu (Black Cat in Guarani) and Maggie

My fruit trees are blooming nicely, got hundreds of mangoes on the way! And lots of my students are gifting me fruit because they know I love it so much – watermelon, blackberries, grapes, and manzanitas (little apples that are kind of tart and shaped like cherries). So the health morale is high! Eating lots of fruits and veggies, and also playing soccer with my district’s women’s soccer team. We play in the finals this Saturday! Also in the process of forming a women’s team in my town Santa Catalina, we have our first practice next week!

12039275_10205340716025581_3820096747743776493_n

Pre-game lunch with the women’s select team of Carayao

The other big event that has happened recently was the fiesta patronal for Santa Catalina, or Saint Catherine in English. She is the patron saint of my town and the day of celebration is November 25. Festivities begin nine days before, as every night they have a mass, called novenario (nove- being the root of the number nine..). I attended a few of these masses, and then the big mass on the 25th. Everyone takes off school and work to go for the service at about 9:00 AM, and some people wake up at 4:00 AM for a morning serenade with a band in the church. At the service they also have first communion and confirmation for the young ones. After the service, everyone parades around the town with the dolls that represent the saints – literally EVERYONE. It ends around noon with some food and candy for the kids.

12279035_10205348743546264_4724666021749868589_n

Snapshot of the Parade for Santa Catalina

 

The Saturday following festivities continue with the fiesta patronal – a huge party where they have a famous band and people from all surrounding towns come to enjoy. Unfortunately it was very rainy for our weekend and not a ton of people showed up, but we still had a great time. Sunday was the torin, or bull fighting – and it was awesome. A few professional men and women came with the red capes and all, taunting the terrifying bulls. I was scared shitless. The walls that contain the bulls are not very stable, and some people had told me that last year one of the bulls broke it and escaped and hit a bunch of people. Everyone laughed at me as I tried to take close up photos and would run away anytime a bull came near me.

12294899_10205374044898782_7648036021885731761_n

Bull Fighter!

In other news I spent Thanksgiving with a fellow volunteer Julie in her town about 30-40 minutes away by bus. We had dinner with Paraguayans, but instead of a turkey we ate parts of a cow head, brain included. Brain wasn’t so bad – they wrapped the head in tin foil and cooked it over a fire all day, so the meat had the consistency of pulled pork in a way – much more delicious than other meats I’ve eaten because it’s usually really tough. Brain kind of had the consistency of fish, fell apart in my mouth, but not much taste to it.

12250121_10205355471274453_4008850250332737510_n

Julie’s Paraguayan boyfriend samples the cow brains

Christmas I will probably spend with my host family here in Santa Catalina, and New Years to be determined! Booked a flight home for the end of this upcoming May, so looking forward to spending my birthday with all of you in the states! The experience in Paraguay is great, but sometimes you need a little America in your life. Whoever is picking me up from the airport – have some Yuenglings ready.

Advertisements

Stepping Stone

What am I doing here? Am I actually making tangible change? Is the amount of money that is being spent by the government equivalent to the amount of work I am doing?

I’ve had a lot of people ask me how they can contribute to what I am doing here, insinuating that there are tangible projects I am working on. I’ve planted some seeds, I’m getting a group together to build brick ovens for people that still cook on the floor (which, by the way, I will be needing help with in the form of donations – the website for this fundraiser will go live in a few months, more details on that later), and I’m going to start teaching English in a week or two. That’s great, sure.

I’ve played the role of a gardener, a builder, and a teacher, but the reality is I’m mostly a stepping stone – and I’m ok with that.

Although I may be creating some tangible change, the majority is going to be intangible – a fact that is often difficult to cope with. My greatest hope and aspiration for my service at this point (in addition to the few tangible projects) is to inspire some members of community to take a leap they might not have been able to take before knowing me. And although that may not sound very life-changing, I believe it is.

Think about any acceptance speech you have ever heard. They always thank the little people, the behind-the-scenes people, the stepping stones – because no one achieves anything alone. If one day one of the students in my high school decides to go to college, and I may have been a tiny inspiration for him or her to go that path – that’s a win. If my aunt decides she is going to change her eating habits after seeing how I eat, and maybe she avoids a pending heart attack – that’s a win. Maybe one day my female cousin who has an interest in politics will fight the male dominated political society and be future president of Paraguay. And maybe she will think of me when she gets there (and mention me in her victory speech!). That’s a win.

Let’s think about philanthropic outlets for a moment. Peace Corps is a two year commitment. In two years, you form friendships, have a chance to inspire others, and leave lasting impressions on people – and maybe help some families build latrines if the project falls into place successfully. Habitat for Humanity is a two week commitment. In two weeks, you can provide a house to a family who could otherwise be homeless, but you don’t make those bonds that you would in Peace Corps. Both great missions, but it is important to remember that I am part of the former.

There is a reason this commitment is two years, and there is a reason I committed to it. My personal strengths cater to this mission, in my opinion. My intangible skills will be more effective than my tangible skills (though I’ve got a few of those, too!). And the reality is, the tangible skills that I will be directly implementing in my work were learned in my first three months of training. And to be honest, Paraguay isn’t the ‘third world country’ most people might think of when I tell them I’m in the Peace Corps. Sure, they could use some help making latrines more sanitary, learning how to dispose of trash without burning it, and eating more nutritiously – but it’s not a disaster relief.

I was not selected to serve in the Peace Corps because I know how to build brick ovens and teach about parasite prevention, I was selected because I expressed a genuine interest in human connection, learning from others, and the value of human interaction in the grand scheme of life. This is the PEACE Corps, and these are the skills that contribute to that mission of a more peaceful and connected world.

Just some food for thought that we’ve been chewing on here during in service training, as I am back in my training community for two weeks to re-hash my first three months in site with my fellow volunteers. We just completed our first week of language training, and our second week will be working on more specific technical skills to better serve our communities.

As I think ahead on projects in site, this is what I’ve got lined up: English class, Zumba class, lots of brick ovens, some work in gardens, a women’s soccer team, lessons from ‘He for She’ (a UN initiative geared toward speaking to men about gender equality – INCREDIBLE PROGRAM, check it out if you’ve never heard of it), and hopefully a sort of “Leader’s Group” in the high school (there are a ton of kids with so much potential, they just need the confidence and some team building skills to bloom).

Will keep everyone posted on the progress of my brick oven project – this will be the main opportunity for people to contribute to my purpose here! Each oven costs about $150 (which is really tough for families here), so every little donation counts. More on that in a few months.

Jajotopata (See ya later)!

New Country, New Identity

How do you conduct yourself differently in your work space as opposed to at home? Maybe you refrain from cursing, use please and thank you a little more, wear appropriate clothing. You’re acting professional.

In my work space (in which I am living 24/7), altering my conduct means altering my identity. I am sure it does to some extent for all volunteers across the globe, just slightly different depending on cultural values.

In my experience in Paraguay, I have been asked the same questions hundreds of times, and my strategically formed responses mean everything in terms of my success here. Here are some of the most popular questions:

Question 1: Are you Catholic?

Question 2: Why aren’t you eating more of the delicious meat I’ve cooked?

Question 3: Do you have a boyfriend/Do you want me to find you a Paraguayan?

Question 4: What is the United States like/What was your life like before Paraguay?

Question 5: Do you want a beer?

Question 6: Do you really play soccer/rugby?

Having been in Paraguay a few months now, I know the correct response to these questions, and I know how to calculate my responses.

My main struggle these days is how I feel about giving my calculated response. Isn’t one of the missions of Peace Corps to share the U.S. culture with Paraguayans?  Shouldn’t I be open and willing to tell my new friends, family, and coworkers about who I really am? If I expect them to be open and honest with me, don’t I owe them that same respect? But it seems if I really wanted to be accepted by everyone and thus improve my success at work, I should give them the answers they want to hear, not the truth.

Simultaneously, I am dealing with other internal struggles. Physically, this is my first year without an athletic team or a gym to keep me healthy and sane. I am working on organizing my town’s first female soccer team to compete in our district’s league – fingers crossed this works out! And sure, I run and exercise when I can, but if it’s raining (which is all the time), the roads are mud and a run is out of the question. Or, if it’s in the 100’s in the summer, I choose my life over running and experiencing a heat stroke. I do yoga/weight bearing exercises in my room when the weather is not permitting, but after years lifting heavy in the weight room, it’s just not giving me the satisfaction and keeping me in shape like I want to be.

If I had control over my diet, this may not be the case – but since I am living in Paraguay where the food groups are meat, carbs, meat, and carbs, it’s not exactly sufficient. I have easily gained ten pounds, and Paraguayans are not afraid to tell you that they notice. It’s not that they are trying to be jerks and call you fat, it’s just the Paraguayan culture. They observe and call it like they see it – they will call you flaca if you’re skinnier than normal, gorda if you are heavier than normal, point out every pimple on your face – you name it.  And let me tell you – it takes a toll on your self-confidence, especially if you come from such an image driven culture like the United States.

I like to think of myself as a pretty confident woman (I usually don’t let these comments get to me), but being vulnerable as it is and hearing it every day, it made me realize how brainwashed I am by U.S. culture and how much it really affects me. It’s pretty scary. Luckily I am only weeks away from moving to my own place, and hopefully I can get back to feeling like my normal self.

Regardless of how I feel internally, I know I have to keep on the confident face. I know that everyone is watching me under a microscope, and I need to remain confident to hopefully have a positive impact on others – especially young women growing up in such a male driven society. Although this mantra is easy to lose sight of, I just have to remember it’s not about me, and look at the big picture.

Which brings me to the next struggle – being a woman in the male driven society. Coming into this culture, I knew that was the case, but I figured I would be alright since I am one of the most tolerant people I know. Turns out I am still super naïve in terms of travel and understanding other cultures (since Paraguay is the first country I have been to outside of the U.S./Canada), and it’s driving me fucking nuts. I get cat-called, proposed to, and courted at least 5 times a day. Sound glamorous? Not so much.

Men in South America are a whole new passionate breed of man that I have never known before. After experiencing the cold, feeling-less, disconnect that is dating in college, hearing a man call you ‘mi amor,’ ‘mi cielo,’ ‘mi reina,’ or ‘mi vida’ feels kind of awesome at first. Have you (American women) ever had an American man court you by telling you that you are ‘his love,’ ‘his sky,’ ‘his queen,’ or ‘his life?’ Personally, I have never been told that, so yeah, I bought into it for a minute.

Then I realized they all say that to all the women they want to be with, and it quickly lost its appeal. Then I remembered that I am American, and the chance that you are attracted to me based on that fact alone is very high. Also, funny cultural difference, men here can have seven different girlfriends at one time and it is totally normal.  So you could say I have some trust issues with men here. Then I realized a relationship here is nearly impossible. So it goes.

So here I am, like a newborn baby. Little to no control over anything in my life, just doing whatever my environment and the culture dictates that i should be doing. All that being said, I still love Paraguay. At the end of the day, all of this is just a recognition of a difference of culture and an opportunity to learn and adapt, but that’s much easier said than done!

The Good Life

Here I am, about a month in site, also known as my favorite place in the world. I live with an incredible family who will literally do anything for me, I ride horses every week with my cousin, poop in holes, eat lots of weird stuff, drink a beer or two now and then, and most importantly get to teach/learn alongside some amazing teachers and students of all ages. This is the good life – to me at least.

549425_10204413118476222_365007094433775849_n With my horse, Juventud

My day usually consists of waking up with the sun, and jumping in the ice cold shower, which has its pros and cons. In the heat of Paraguay – bring on the ice. It is quite possibly the most satisfying simple pleasure I’ve ever experienced. In the winter (now), it is the worst feeling I have ever experienced. Although I can tell you it wakes you up better than any amount of coffee!

Then I head to the escuela (grades K-6) or the colegio (grades 7-12) to hang out with the kids, maybe chirp in some english lessons, or play soccer during phys ed (I am technically not allowed to begin working the first three months in site, so I can’t officially teach english classes or do real, substantial work yet – the purpose of these months is mainly to get to know the people and earn their trust). On Tuesday and Thursday morning I go to the 4th grade class to learn Guarani, embarassing, because all the kids think I am stupid, but overall, extremely helpful for improving my language.

At about 11:30, AM school ends, and I head home to eat whatever my wonderful mother is cooking up and chat with the local workers who come by to enjoy a meal, too. Since my mom Raquel has to cater to her customers, this often means something involving pig or cow meat. Which also means my stomach will be upset the rest of the day, since I haven’t eaten red meat in years. That being said, I am currently in the city writing this post and plan to head to the super market after to stock up on foods my body actually wants me to eat.

Funny story about upset stomachs… I often find myself eating way more meat than I ever want to, mostly out of courtesy and because I am trying to earn brownie points. If a housewife invites you over for a meal, you eat whatever she serves and you tell her its the best damn meal you’ve ever had – even if it’s cow stomach. So, that’s just what I did. Later that night, I went home, went to sleep, and immediately my stomach said, “Nope. You go find somewhere to shit right now, or you’re fucked.” At this point it is 10:00 PM and the house where the bathroom is is locked and everyone is asleep. PANIC MODE. I find a bush in the most isolated corner of the yard and proceed to expel all the contents of my stomach. Still has not been found. Great success. Turns out there is in fact an outdoor bathroom attached to the little shack behind out house I could’ve used. Oh well.

Back to the daily routine – 1:00 PM begins the afternoon classes, of which they only have in the escuela. The colegio only meets in the morning for about 4 hours because the teachers come from far away to teach, so they cram it all into the morning. If I don’t head to the escuela, I read or work on my english lesson plan prep for when I can begin my classes – which reminds me, if any of you readers out there have input on teaching english, send some wisdom my way!! I would greatly appreciate it.

The night consists of watching movies in spanish with my fam (Usually american movies, but old, awful ones. A lot of Sylvester Stallone..), practicing Guarani, and getting some dinner in. Oh and combatting bugs, mostly mosquitos, the occasional tarantula, some cockroaches, some ants, and now what I think are bed bugs (my stomach is covered in itchy red spots.. but it could also be fleas from some street cats I decided to pet). To be determined. I am buying anything that looks like DDT in the supermarket today to bug bomb my room.

Overall, life rocks. Everyone here gets it, has it, understands life. Here life is about family and friends, and not much else. I have never heard anyone complain or worry about money, or work, or anything like that. It’s all positive thinking. Now I understand why Paraguay is deemed on of the happiest countries in the world.

I also got to celebrate my 23rd birthday here, and I got to spend it with two good Peace Corps pals and about 50 members of my new family here in Santa Catalina. They even almost spelled my name right on a cake they made for me! I really felt welcome and at home – a lot more than I thought I would. 11391206_10204413709611000_4160689372124586954_n

Here are some photos from Paraguay’s independence day parade in my town – I got to help out and take photos for the escuela, since they are lacking a camera at the moment.

DSCN1213 Leading the Parade

DSCN1236 Students from the colegio playing drums

DSCN1281

Traditional Paraguayan Dance, representing the women who sell chipa (Paraguayan bread)

DSCN1268

Band from Paraguari playing the National Anthem

DSCN1326

Traditional Paraguayan Dance and Outfit

DSCN1354

Paraguayan dance, depicting milkmaid

DSCN1301

Paraguayan dance by the elementary school students

Thanks for keeping up with me, and if you have any questions, or want me to report on anything specific, let me know! Until next time, I’ll be living life in the “winter” down here, hope the summer is nice back in the States!

Site Selection Process and My Site Visit to Santa Catalina

Another day of frustration learning Guarani, another day of learning information about nutrition that I already knew, another day with the same people, another day in Peace Corps Paraguay training. Don’t get me wrong, I am beyond honored and privileged to be a part of this program – but 8 AM to 5 PM training day after day is pretty rigorous and monotonous. And then came site placement day.

In an attempt to get our minds off of the decision, we are sent to various mountains and scenic sights of Paraguay in the morning – a great experience, absolutely. But let’s be real. Give me my sight placement now, not at 3 PM. Not only is this nerve racking because I want to know where I’m spending the next two years, but also because our site placement is literally based on the resume I submitted to the Peace Corps a year and a half ago containing god knows what, and two 10 minute
interviews with our site placement directors.

My first interview, toward the beginning of training when I had no clue what I wanted in a site, went something like: “I like gardening and I like to play sports.” I went into my second interview with the knowledge that our placement directors already know where we are going, more or less, according to all of the volunteers we have spoken with. Oh, great. Perfect. You’ve decided my next two years based on me liking gardens, sports, and that I was an Anatomy Lab assistant and worked for the
admissions office at Elon University.

That in mind, my second interview was more along the lines of my directors asking me leading questions – questions about things that exist in my site that I will be doing, and making sure I am not going to drop out based on these things. Being the generally low maintenance and people pleasing human that I am, my interview went something like this:

Director: What do you see yourself doing in terms of work during your time in Paraguay?
Me: I really like kids, I’d love to spend most of my time being active with them in schools.
Director: Well, what if there is a really active health post that really wants to work with you….
Me: … Yeah, of course. Whoever wants to work with me, that’s great. (Clearly my contact works in the Health Post.)

And after hearing me speak one sentence of Guarani the morning of my interview:

Director: Your Guarani is GREAT. So you think you’d be comfortable in a site where the majority speaks the native language?
Me: (OH MY GOD NO NO NO, I AM LITERALLY A FIRST GRADER IN THIS LANGUAGE, PLEASE NO) Yeah, I guess. I really like the language and I am going to try my best to keep
learning!!!

So there it is. Throw me into the shark infested waters, let’s see if I come out alive.

And here’s how site placement goes:

All fifty of us sit in the same room, and one by one get called up and told the name of a town you’ve never heard, and everyone claps and cheers (mostly just the teachers and directors, because we are all nervous wrecks), and we stick our faces to a big map of Paraguay, watching as all of our best friends from training get pinned 9 hours away from us, and we get handed a shiny new folder, and sit back down. You’re going to SANTA CATALINA ITS GONNA BE GREAT, YAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!

What does that mean? Where is that? How far is it? Who is my host family? Is it a city? Am I a first time volunteer in this site that will have to teach the town what Peace Corps even is, and why some white person decided to come and shack up in their town? etc, etc. etc.

And to soothe your nerves, here’s a folder of fast facts, the name of your contact in site, a couple low-def photos of your health post and the school in your town, some photos of volunteers that live close to you, and your bus schedule. GOOD LUCK. BYE. Word, dope. Let’s do the first day in Paraguay all over again, except this time, your first impression lasts for two years, not just a few months.

After an awkward first few hours in the car with my contact (luckily I got to share this experience with my friend Katie, who lives down the road a little ways from me), I found myself in awe at the magic powers our directors have in site placement, in my experience at least. Everything about my site visit was incredible. For real though, HOW DID THEY PLACE ME IN THIS DREAM SITE?

Santa Catalina – population of 1,000 people, the most tranquilo spot possible, lots of trees and open spaces, a 30 minute bus ride from the big city Oviedo where I can purchase ltos of groceries and fresh produce, and my family rocks.

My mom Raquel is who I aspire to be when I grow up – super wise and caring when she needs to be, gives zero fucks the other 99% of the time and just lives her life. My dad Carlos is the director of the colegio I will be work on (HUGE ADVANTAGE, I automatically get respect at the school if I get along with my dad) and is running for political office in a few months – super cool guy. I have an older host brother that lives in the city, a 21 year old host brother that is an awesome soccer player and is studying to be a vet, and an 18 year old sister who has an extensive collection of Red Hot Chili Peppers and is going to be exactly like her mom when she grows up – a boss. My uncle (who has been to Texas and speaks pretty good English) also has a horse farm and wants to teach me to ride!

11209650_10204190168582614_6652390572820897064_n

Front of my new home with the Medina family

Our house has a beautiful yard, complete with volleyball court, incredible porch, garden in the making, and a couple dogs and cats. The front of our house is a dispensa (little store in the small towns where people often buy odds and ends because they don’t feel like going into the city), and the most colorful cast of characters stop by and stay and chat for awhile. A few of them have asked me to teach them English, which turned into an informal lesson during dinner where they asked
me how to say things like “drunk” and “I am crazy, but happy.” Total success, if you ask me.

I’ve already met so many people, and I’m related to at least 1/3 of the town. A nightmare for some, a dream for me. Makes it a lot safer, too – no one can rob you or get away with anything because everyone knows about it the next day and will get on your case about it (could also backfire if I fuck up…).

The second day in site was the anniversary of our town’s soccer team which is cleverly named “1 de Mayo,” after the day it was founded. Got to watch a solid 20 year old men’s soccer game (that our team won), and go to a huge barbecue celebration afterward. The next day was my cousin’s 1st birthday party, and similar celebrations ensued, meeting lots more people that I can’t remember and eating some mandioca and other carbs, the usual.

Monday I met up with my work contact, Emma Smith. Her grandfather is English which is super interesting (and my whole family looks like they could be American, honestly), and she is a nurse who specializes in family planning/maternal care. I met the other two nurses who work at the health post, went to introduce myself to the colegio and the escuela, and chatted with the local police.

11071007_10204190189903147_1361383657198568318_n

The health post I will be working at

Everyone seemed super jazzed to work with me, especially all the women who want me to lead a Zumba class.. I guess I like dancing for exercise now! I also got to check out the house I will be able to rent and live in on my own after the first three months in site with my host family.

The icing on the cake was when a girl down the street named Emili showed up at my house right before my journey back to training. She brought me a drawing of her and I, with a list of all of names of her classmates, telling me she was so excited to be my friend. Needless to say, my heart melted, and it made it that much harder to get back to Guarambare for another two weeks of training.

11203172_10204190186663066_7364051373802105945_n

A drawing by a future student of mine (I have the blonde hair..)

To be in a town of eager and open-minded people who are willing to work with me is more than I could ever ask for. T-minus 13 days til the swearing in ceremony and I return to my new home for the next two years.

If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.

Long Field Practice

Spent the last 4-5 days in Emboscada (2.5-3 hours from my training center, about 1.5 hours from the capital) with a current health volunteer, Jett. The purpose of Long Field Practice is to get you another experience in a different part of Paraguay – another perspective on the PC Paraguay volunteer experience.

My first trip to visit another volunteer was to see my mentor Bonna in San Juan Nepomuceno – one of the most urban sites a health volunteer could be in. It was a great experience, but my heart was still pining for the campo/rural experience. Jett’s site, though still a town, was definitely more tranquilo and campo, and I loved it.

I traveled with three other volunteers, and we each stayed in the home of a different host family. My family (Juan, Raquel, and two of their kids Vero and Antonio) had hosted a volunteer for three months in a previous cycle, so they were great. They were super hospitable, understood language barrier struggles, etc. It was really cool to talk to Vero (15 years old) and Antonio (13 years old), because they are both super hard working and have a lot of personal goals. Raquel (the mother) just started working another job to be able to support Vero’s desire to got to school to become a doctor, and Antonio’s goal to become a veterinarian. This means that the parents are gone working in the capital from 7 AM to 7 PM most days, leaving Vero to do all of the cooking/cleaning duties a housewife would normally do, on top of Monday/Weds/Fri in school in the afternoons & full 7-5 days in school Tuesday/Thursday. An incredible family, to say the least.

We also talked a lot about politics and the general state of Paraguay, mostly because their oldest son (21 years old) is currently in military school and will soon be serving the country. Since Paraguay isn’t really in many conflicts with other countries, my mom was telling me that the major service the military serves is to fight the EPP, or the Paraguayan Peoples Army, a group against the current government.

During the days, we had Guarani language class for a few hours, and went to visit/teach at Jett’s school and health post. We gave a charla’i (little lesson) in the waiting room of the health post about parasites, hand washing, and general nutrition. This one was a little rough (rightfully so – if I were sick waiting for the doctor I wouldn’t give a shit about some foreigners talking about fruits and vegetables), but we had about 2-3 out of 8 people actually engage and participate.

We also helped Jett in the local colegio (school for kids ages 5-18, respectively), with a lesson about self esteem/personal abilities. It went really well – luckily all of the kids were really well behaved and willing to listen. Most kids really like when Jett comes to work with them, because she involves interactive games and activities. A normal school day is usually reading/lecture/copying information – leaving kids bored and really not learning much of anything. It was nice to have a positive experience at the school after a so-so experience at the health post, to get some different perspectives on how to things will succeed or fail pretty regularly.

We also learned about learning to cope with the rain. In Paraguay, if it rains, or even looks like it might rain, no one goes to school. NO ONE. So if you primarily spend time teaching, the rainy season pretty much destroys your productivity.

Although the overall interactions were incredible, I had a rough week in terms of health. I started the trip with a sore throat/cough/nose thing (probably because of the change in weather), got a whole new onslaught of mosquito bites (thanks, rainy season), broke out in some kind of hives (still have no idea what I reacted to, maybe musty/moldiness in house), and may very well have my first parasite (to be determined by doctors this week). Being sick here is interesting, because I never want to tell my host families about it. They tend to panic and push lots of natural remedies on you, which normally I don’t mind, except when they tell me I can’t take a shower while I’m sick because it will make me sicker. Another fun health tip like this one is that if I wear boots during the day, I have to wait ten minutes after I take them off before I shower.

Nevertheless, I’m back in home base, getting back to 100%, with some great experiences under my belt. Overall successful week. 4 total weeks of training left, only about 2 until my site assignment, I think. Getting restless and excited to be able to settle in and start making progress in site!

Reflections On “Home” and My Pursuit of Self-Actualization

Home. What does that mean? Your childhood house? The comfort of your own bed?
That moment when you find yourself laughing at your sister’s joke, only to
pause in your mind and acknowledge how happy and lucky you truly are to be
living right here, with these people, at this very second? Or, in other words,
channeling the advice that Kurt Vonengut once dished about noticing when you
are happy, and to “exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t
nice, I don’t know what is.'”

Taking this Vonnegut-ism as a personal philosophy, home is no longer confined
to being associated with a physical object. Home is merely a state of being.
Your conscious decision to relate a specific, unique moment to feelings of
comfort, happiness, belonging, and love, and to seek out those people and
places who evoke those feelings in you, who push you to be your most authentic
self.

If I look back upon my life, or what I can remember of it, my first real
feeling of home was the time spent with my first real, unconditional friends
(most notably Amanda Weaver and Niki Pellicano, among others). We mutually
laughed at things and made jokes that I truly still don’t understand. They
weren’t funny to anyone else – only to us in those moments. This was the first
time anyone actually understood me. The first time someone tapped into my soul.
The first time I found other people who I felt comfortable sharing everything
and anything with.

For the first 18 years of my life, I’d say that’s about it. Not to say that I
did not appreciate my family or others that were caring and instrumental in my
life, but I think it is important to remember that you don’t really have a
choice about where, when, or by whom you are born. Until I was able to really
begin to make choices about where I wanted to go and who I wanted to be
surrounded by, it wasn’t truly where I felt I belonged. Residing in Wyomissing,
PA my whole life was not conducive to my development as a person. It wasn’t
home.

My next more permanent relocation was to Elon University. Why? I don’t know,
maybe I was blinded by the beauty of the campus, as an abundance are. Maybe
because I was really just moving to another version of my high school, but in a
warmer climate. It was comfortable, it was an environment I knew (even if I
wasn’t really the same as most of the other people attending). Lots of wealthy
and privileged humans (of which I admit to being privileged, myself, for
certain), smaller class sizes, more personal relationships with professors,
yadda yadda yadda. I’m not quite sure why it stood out, but something in my
soul ignited when I spent a weekend on that campus, and I went with it.

I followed that instinct and it carried me right to where I hoped I would be –
home. Though it took a year or two to reach that feeling, I reached it alright.
I was able to be a part of a service group called Periclean Scholars (that
would be the reason I applied to Peace Corps) and take classes such as “Zen
Buddhism,” and a philosophy class entitled “What Can We Know,” among many other
thought provoking courses, that were catalysts of critical thinking, encouraged
me to learn more about myself by learning from others, and pushed my limits
further than I ever could have imagined. I spent two solid years with people
who I truly, deeply loved, and I certainly feel they loved me just the same. We
talked about anything and everything, and knew each other inside and out. We
jumped into various pools of experimentation, treaded the water together,
drowned together, and acted as lifeguards for each other in times of need. Thus
far, this has been the hardest home to leave behind. Not the physical location
of Elon, but those moments with those people, and those moments in learning
with such caring and life-changing professors. Those levels of elation. How
would I ever feel that sense of satisfaction again, knowing that I will never
be the same me, with the same people, at the same time, in the same place? Who
will be there for me and be able to understand me like these people do?After
all, Chris McCandless taught me that happiness is not real unless shared.

Alas, it happened. We graduated and moved on. Some put down roots in New York,
some in LA, some were not quite as eager to put down those roots and ventured
elsewhere for a year or two, trying to get a better grasp of themselves and
what makes them feel home. Although I am certain some of these friends find joy
and home in the roots they quickly delved into the earth, I’ll never truly know
if their stories are authentic or illusion. Not necessarily an illusion they
intended to perpetuate, but an illusion they themselves are unaware of. The
illusion that money makes the world go round, that you must climb a corporate
ladder, that you must do as your parents did before you, that you are bound to
this society and this life that you were born into without your consent. Maybe
this is what is truly authentically home to some, but I refuse to believe it is
home for the majority who continue along this path.

Just as millions of people are born into different circumstances in different
corners of the world, with different types of parents, and in different
environments – does that mean they should just accept the place they are?
Continue the family business even though they have no interest in it? Continue
to exist without being able to say and truly believe in one moment ‘If this
isn’t nice, I don’t know what is’? Unfortunately, an incredible amount of
people don’t have the ability and freedom to pursue and tap into their souls to
find that authentic self and place in the world, that I and most of the people
I know have the capability of experiencing.

Which brings me to my new home, as a part of the Peace Corps in Paraguay. The
decision to steer my life in this direction was partially to satisfy
wanderlust, partially to break out of the 9 to 5 lifestyle, partially to
surround myself with like-minded people, and partially to continue in the
pursuit of my overall search for self discovery and truest place in space and
time. However, I am quickly realizing that this decision to up and move to
Paraguay as a Peace Corps Volunteer was 100% to help others tap into their
ability to break out of the circumstances they were born into, to believe that
they are capable of more than they ever dreamed, and to have their own Vonnegut
moments that are true to themselves.

This realization sprung from a discussion during training about Maslow’s
Hierarchy of Needs, in which we compared our U.S. hierarchy to that of many
people in Paraguay.

fig05

At the top of my pyramid is Self-Actualization, because my
basic needs are generally always met: safety and security, hunger, love, etc.
Having met these needs, I am free to explore my innerworkings, better
understand myself, and thus lead a happier life, in theory. The Paraguayan
hierarchy more often peaks with the love/acceptance category, as a majority of
people place greatest importance on family and emphasize that your greatest
achievement be more related to starting a family and continuing this tradition
(This is why Paraguayans always try to set me up with a Paraguayan boyfriend
and are concerned when I say I don’t want one – they think I am throwing away
the greatest possible achievement of my life: to marry and have babies and stay
in Paraguay with this family forever, more or less).

After this discussion, I better understood my role here and why it is so
important to me. Coming from such a developed country – one that has taken
leaps and bounds in terms of equality, opportunity, etc – I am fortunate enough
to have a more open and free mindset, one that has allowed me to realize that I
am just as capable of doing anything I want as anyone else is (give or take).
In Paraguay, a country that has not yet reached the developments the United
States has, and is also a very male dominated culture, priorities are much
different – not necessarily because people don’t want to improve themselves or
excel in different areas than most do, but because it is simply not at the
forefront of their minds. They have lived the same traditional lifestyle their
entire family has, and that’s what feels home to them.

That minor detail – that home that people find in tradition – also reminded me
of my time with Periclean Scholars, working in central Appalachia with members
of a small community (much like I am doing in Peace Corps, but on a domestic
level). The people in West Virginia have lived a coal mining life for years and
years. That tradition, that comfort, is home for them. That aspect is what
threw a monkey wrench into trying to work in conjunction with these people (and
Paraguayans alike), because the idea of change – any change – is scary. The
unknown is scary. Why would I want to change what feels comfortable? It’s hard
to argue with that logic, when you really think about it. Who am I to come into
your house and propose you change your daily habits? The ultimate challenge.

It was through this experience that I first learned the best way to affect
change – just try to be a good friend. Live, listen, and learn from the people
in the community. Even if I never affect any tangible change in my service, my
presence and my friendship could be enough to change the course of someone’s
life. More specifically in Paraguay, just being here could be enough, as I am
living in a culture that cannot fathom why I would want to leave my family and
loved ones behind for two whole years. Why would you ever do that? Family is
everything (so they tell me)! So I explain my rationale, my dreams to explore,
and just by living this life and sharing our experiences, I might spark a
little flame in my ten year old cousin to believe in himself, and maybe
eventually follow his dreams to play professional soccer, without either of us
ever really understanding that. And this is perhaps the most difficult, yet the
most crucial lesson on my journey to push others to pursue self-actualization –
it is a lifelong process influenced by countless people, places, experiences,
and I may never see the “fruits of my labor,” for lack of a better phrase.

To be a part of the process of empowering, inspiring, and awakening Paraguayans
by tapping into their skillsets, minds, and souls, feels like home to me. When
I teach my host sister words in english and watch her confidently teach her
friends these words, I feel home. When I tell my mother about the importance of
lowering her salt intake (she has hypertension and always asks for advice about
the topic) and the next night she cooks a soup for us without salt, I feel
home. And in this moment, that day of lower salt intake seem to be nothing, but
maybe she will keep up those habits enough that she won’t have that heart
attack she was en route to. And that little inkling of possibility, that little
bit of hope my heart hangs onto in those moments – that is my home. That
feeling is enough – worth more than any 9 to 5 could pay me. To be able to do
what I love/what makes me feel true to myself while being a catalyst for this
inner development in others – that is the ultimate self-actualization.

Vonnegut also said, “Many people need desperately to receive this message: I
feel and think as much as you do, care about many of the things you care about,
although most people don’t care about them. You are not alone.” Life is too
short not to feel home. So, whoever is reading this, go find your people, and
take advantage of your ability to live the life you truly want – if not for
yourself, for those who do not have that freedom.