Doing what I do best: Drinking Tereré

It’s official! I am a Peace Corps volunteer and I have technically completed 2 weeks and 2 days of my service. This means that I have 26 months and 2 weeks to go, but who’s counting?

Our Swear-in ceremony was very nice. We started the ceremony off with both the national anthem of Paraguay and the United States. It was amazing how proud I felt singing our country’s national anthem amongst the volunteers and Paraguayans alike, knowing that amongst other reasons, we are all here to represent our country.  As mentioned in my previous blog post, the ambassador came and gave a speech, the mayor from our training community said a few words, one of our own trainees gave a speech about the ups and downs of training, and then we gave our oath together in both Spanish and English.

We were all given invitations to the ceremony for our families in hopes they would share the momentous occasion with us. The day of the Swear-in, there just happened to be a downpour and if I’ve learned anything thus far, it is that Paraguayans do not like rain. When it rains people do not leave their houses, kids do not go to school, and generally families sit on their porch and watch the rain until it stops. Therefore, when I saw the gray clouds on the day of our Swear-In, I assumed my family would not be attending the ceremony. However, after we said our final words and were declared Peace Corps volunteers, I turned around to see my mom and dad in the crowd of other families who were there. I was completely shocked that they had traveled the 45 minutes by bus in the raining, cold weather, to come to our Swear-In ceremony. More than shocked, I was very grateful to have them there, and I hope that my appreciation was clear to them.

Swearing in ceremony set up

After saying goodbye to our families we were all bused off to Asuncion for some official business. We got both our cell phones and our bankcards—talk about an overwhelming amount of responsibility! After not having a cell phone for 2 months, you start to forget what it is like to have to check your phone, call people, text people, etc. After we were briefed, we were able to head to our hotel. Spending 3 nights in Asuncion was a nice treat.

The city is unlike any part of the country I have seen so far; big malls, expensive cars, fancy restaurants and the like. Of course I made sure to splurge on food I’d been craving: Hamburgers, pasta, Korean food, Mexican food (if you could call it that), good coffee, and McDonalds ice cream Sundaes (unfortunately they do not have a dollar menu here!). I also went to see the Hunger Games, which was a huge treat. After 3 nights in Asuncion it was time to face reality and head to our sites. Saying goodbye to the other volunteers was really difficult. After spending so much time together during training, many of us became very close, and knowing we won’t be as close and will have to make a greater effort to see each other and communicate made the idea of us going off alone to our sites much more frightening.

At this point I have been in my site for 2 weeks. I have been living with my contact Eduvigis, her husband, and 2 daughters. She has an older daughter that visits almost every day and 4 sons who come home on the weekends. When everyone is together and joking around, I almost feel like I’m hanging out with my own family. As Eduvigis is very active in her community I have been accompanying her to as many events as possible. Whether it is a catechism class she is teaching, or a community election for the new water administrator, I find that going with her is the best way to meet people and show my face around the community. Any opportunity for exposure that I can get, I am trying to take advantage of. I take an occasional run through the community and wave and say hello to everyone I see, I pass through the school and say hi to the kids, I go to the soccer games on the weekends, I sit at the fried food stand and smile at the people that come to buy things, I’ll stop and talk to people who look interested and tell them what I am doing in the community. Although the Paraguayans might think I am weird, I figure eventually they will become familiar with my face and my weirdness alike. The best piece of advice I was given from the volunteer I am following up was, it is better to be a jackass than an asshole. In other words, it is better to have everyone think you’re weird and laugh at you, than to have people think you aren’t interested in the community or are disinterested in their culture.

I’ve realized it is fairly easy for me to blend in. Most of the time I’ll go with Eduvigis to a community meeting of sorts and people will stare at me wondering who I am. As soon as she lets them know I am the new volunteer they all comment that I do not look like other North Americans who are ALL blonde and have colored eyes. I shockingly look very similar to them! I explain that I too have Latin blood and that the majority of the people in the United States differ from the stereotype that most people have—a great conversation topic and a great point for cultural exchange.

Over the next two months I plan on going around and visiting and talking with families, spending a day or two each week at the school to get to know the students and teachers, continue living with families (next Tuesday I will move into my 2nd family’s home), practice Guarani, start cooking with my current contact (she has a lot of interest in cooking a larger variety of healthier food options), and working in the hospital in my pueblo of Quiindy to give me a better understanding of what kind of health problems are most prevalent and how the health system works here in Paraguay. This week I also started working on my future house. One of the highlights of my week has been putting in an order to the local ironworker to make bars for my windows (who would have thought this could be so exciting?). I will make sure to post pictures when they are complete. My next home projects will be replastering the walls in the house, having someone connect the water in the bathroom, and installing a shower (hopefully with hot water). I’ve got a real fixer-upper on my hands.

So far, I have only struggled with a lack of privacy and a lack of structure (as well as having to take freezing cold showers—but that’s another story). Having a 14 year old and 21 year old sister around is nice because I never feel lonely, but at the same time sometimes a girl just needs her breathing space. My contact Eduvigis makes jokes about her 21-year-old daughter being my secretary because she refuses to let me do anything on my own. If I get up to get my bottle of water, Gabi is determined to beat me to my bottle to hand it to me. If I mention that I want to eat a grapefruit, Gabi makes it her job to find the best grapefruit for me. If I drop something, fear not, I need only to turn around and find that Gabi has already picked it up for me. At first it was really frustrating being stared at and followed. As the Peace Corps phrases it, you start to feel the “fish bowl effect.” As if everyone is staring at you from the outside, and you are some foreign object. I realize that when I am starting to feel this way, I just have to be grateful that these two host sisters of mine are interested in my oddities and the cultural differences that separate us. They admire all that is different and this I have to appreciate and learn from during these 3 months that I’ll be living with different families.

As for the lack of structure, I find that it is difficult having such a free schedule after 3 months of constant activity during training.  We had each moment of each day planned out for us and now it is completely up to me to determine how I want to plan out each day and the Paraguayan way of life doesn’t make it any easier. My first week in site I hardly left the house. It rained for two days so everything was closed and everyone kept to themselves, then there was Día del trabajador (day of the worker) so nobody went to work for a day, and then there was Día del maestro (day of the teacher) so there was another holiday for the teachers.  It is difficult starting anew and slowly developing relationships with community members to eventually determining what the real needs of the community are. For example, I wanted to talk to the director of the hospital to see if I could start coming in one day a week. I went to the pueblo of Quiindy 2 times and tried to meet with the director of the hospital and both times he wasn’t there. I ended up running into the director of the hospital on the street and it turns out he had been on vacation for a week. These kinds of things happen and I have to accept them and have patience.

So far, I’ve learned that this is going to be a process. I’ve discovered patience and a positive attitude will take me far in my Paraguayan journey. I have days where I feel very comfortable and other days where I feel like a complete outsider, but I know this discomfort is natural—it has only been two weeks!

As always, thank you for reading and thank you for your comments. I can’t tell you how much the comments mean to me. I wish I could individually respond to each comment, but as I STILL do not have a constant internet connection, my internet time is limited.

My neighbors playing soccer

A little interruption to my morning jog

Sending lots of love from Paraguay,