I’ve been living in Paraguay for a little over a year now and every day I realize how comfortable I am despite living in a foreign culture – even though I don’t even understand 1 of the 2 primary languages.
Standing on a crowded bus next to a man with a stereo system singing a song in Guaraní is no longer bizarre; in fact, it’s exciting that I now can understand several of the words coming out of his mouth! When I am told on a regular basis that I look fatter, I no longer take it to heart – instead, I use it as motivation as I train for my 10k on October 30th. And when it rains, thereby halting all activities for the day, I don’t get upset that all my plans were ruined and I have no food to eat. On the contrary, I stay in bed the entire day (only getting up to make hard-boiled eggs and tend to Esnaider), relishing the fact that I don’t have to feel guilty for not visiting a family or doing 3 loads of laundry by hand.
And while I can’t say I am having the most amazing experience ever with billions of friends or that I am in love with Paraguay and am never leaving, overall I am content in Paraguay. I’ve finally gotten to a level of comfort: I’m good (enough) at Spanish and sometimes can even trick people into thinking I know Guaraní, people in my community know me (though on a daily basis I am still called the name of the first volunteer who lived here from 2006-08), and I like the work I’m doing. Am I saving the world? Absolutely not. But then again, did I sign up for PC thinking I would? Nahanarí! (That’s Guaraní for “No!”)
Basically, I’m happy that I’m still here and that I’ve made it these past 12 months despite all those days I couldn’t find the energy to go on. And I can say I am confident that the next 14 months will be even better now that I have a better understanding of the culture, Paraguayan education system, (TERRIBLE) weather, holidays, etc. Plus, saying has it that the 2nd year is a lot better, easier, and goes by a ton faster than the 1st year :)
Despite feeling relatively comfortable, I’ve realized the roller coaster of emotions that I’ve previously mentioned in my blog will be continuous throughout the entire 2 years of my service. And that, basically, every good thing that happens to me in this country is also weighed down by an equally bad situation.
Example, you ask? Okay, here we go:
For a number of reasons, I have enjoyed teaching English classes. But it has been especially helpful in building relationships with motivated youth who I hope to have an environmental youth group with. I’ve already identified several leaders from my high school English class of 35 students and last Sunday I invited 4 girls over to help me plan the youth group’s first official meeting. Only 2 of the 4 girls were able to attend the meeting on Sunday, and they were accompanied by a 16 year-old who isn’t in my English class but is a friend of mine. Although I was a bit disappointed the entire group of 4 girls I invited were unable to attend, I was still super excited that the others had enough interest in helping me plan the meeting.
I made them cocoa banana bars (which they devoured) and we used my lindo dry erase board to brainstorm invitation designs, possible names for the group, and the first meeting’s agenda.
When we finished the meeting and the 3 girls left my house, I was on such a high. I had been struggling to find work in my community since I have found it challenging to work in the schools, but finally, I thought think, this could be my main project in site. We can do some really neat environmental projects, I can help empower the youth (who all too often leave for jobs in Spain or Argentina after graduating from high school), and especially have a good influence on the young women who need to know the potential they possess so that they respect themselves and their bodies (especially important due to the high teenage pregnancy rate in Paraguay).
After the meeting, I received a text message from the 16 year-old asking me over for popcorn. Thus, I went over to her house, ate popcorn, caught up with her mom, and overall had a very successful afternoon.
It wasn’t until that evening that things took a turn for the worst. I went over to my best friend’s house, since it’s on my way home, for our nightly mate session (mate is the hot version of tereré). While waiting for her to cook dinner for her family, I decided to mess around with my phone to entertain myself. Since Peace Corps provides us with a cell phone plan, they take out 55 mil a month (equivalent to $11 USD) from our monthly salary and on the 1st of every month we automatically get that credit transferred to our phone. That night, the 3rd of October, I checked how much credit I had left, and realized that in 2 days there was no way I used 20 mil of my credit. I was so confused about what happened to my credit, but then remembered the 16 year-old kept messing with my phone at my house and then asked to use my phone at her house to play the game Snake.
Thus, it didn’t take too long to realize that she had stolen almost half of my cell phone plan for the month.
Unlike in the States, it’s extremely easy to transfer cell phone credit from phone to phone. Paraguayans rarely have cell phone credit to text or make phone calls and often ask if other people have credit they can transfer (which is incredibly simple to do). It’s also incredibly easy to snag someone’s phone, transfer their cell phone credit to your phone, and erase the evidence – all under 1 minute. Stealing cell phone credit was something I was warned about in training. However, now that I’ve been lived in Nueva Colombia for almost 10 months and have developed some good (and what I thought, trustworthy) relationships, I let my guard down.
I know that the 20 mil (or $4 USD) of cell phone credit isn’t much money and isn’t the end of the world, but this experience just reminded me that no matter how long I live in Nueva Colombia, no matter how comfortable I get, and no matter how good I think the relationships I have with my community members, there will always be people who see me as a walking dollar sign – someone they have ever right to take advantage of because I’m from the United States and therefore must have lots of money. No matter what, I’m still an outsider in my community and I always be a foreigner in Paraguay. However, I was especially upset with this situation because I’ve given this particular girl so much – I always help her with her English homework, I’ve given her clothes I’ve gotten from volunteers who have finished their services, I’ve baked for her family, etc.
It took all my strength not to confront her about stealing from me. If I’ve learned anything about Paraguayan culture, it’s that it’s extremely passive aggressive. So I talked to my host mom about the best way to approach the situation. We decided that the next time she asked for my phone I’d say “Sorry, I can’t lend out my phone anymore. 20 mil of my credit disappeared this month so Peace Corps is doing an investigation to see what time it happened and the number it was transferred to.”
The 16 year-old had been calling me all week but I was too upset and hurt to see her, so I waited over a week until finally saying she could come over to my house for English help. Not surprisingly, she requested to use my phone and I rattled off the few sentences I had been practicing, but dreading to say, for several days.
Despite this minor thorn, the situation still flowered into a beautiful rose (okay, cheesy metaphor, I know, but such a good song!). A few days after the initial meeting, I received a text message from one of the girls saying that the 4 original girls and 2 guys wanted to come over to my house to talk about the youth group. This time, they brought over the snack and juice, and we sat on my porch, brainstorming possible names for the youth group and what our first activity should be.
I have high hopes for the next 14 months.