Though I returned from Peace Corps over a year ago, I continue to discover on a regular, if not daily, basis ways the experience has thoroughly transformed every part of my being and soul. It is fascinating, surprising, intriguing, delightful…like an unexpected Christmas morning where gifts randomly show up unannounced. The challenges, learnings, and rewards are paying their dividends in ways I never could have anticipated and I am loving every reveal. It’s like meeting a new me every day and loving her a little more each time. New gifts I bring to the table, things I have let go of, the way I see and feel the world and the people around me…Words can’t express the gratitude and awe I feel for this unveiling process and my Peace Corps experience. I’ve always said it was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done but, turns out, it’s also one of the things with the biggest payoff, the gift that keeps on giving. The people of Paraguay will never know how deeply they have touched me and changed my life in the most beautiful ways.
Hello dear readers. I have a lot of catching up to do with stories from the end of my service. Life has been full since leaving Paraguay in November but I promise to fill you in soon!
Jajatopata! Until next time!
November 8, 2014
Say Yes to life and transform all your “I’d like to’s” into “I will.”
This is a different type of blog post and I’m really pulling back the curtain for you here. Hang on.😉
Ok. So that quote? Yeah, I tried that with my best friend (also a PCV) when she asked about my plans after service. I spun it from something like “I’d like to buy new tango shoes” to “I will buy new tango shoes”. (If you’re new to my blog, you must understand I have an addiction to dancing Argentine tango. But that’s another story.) This is the conversation that ensued…
Me: “I need to go to Buenos Aires (BA) one more time. I need shoes.”
PCV Friend: “You do NOT need shoes. How many pair do you have?”
Me: (Counting on fingers) “Um …. 20.”
Friend: “Wendy!!!…20???!!!!! WHAT?? HERE?! You’re a PCV not a fasionista!”
Me: “Well that counts a bunch of flip flops and shoes I no longer use, AND my tango shoes. But I’m only buying tango shoes in BA. I can’t go to BA and not buy tango shoes.”
Friend: “How many pair of tango shoes do you have here in Paraguay?”
Me: “Only four.”
Friend: “FOUR????!!!! How many tango shoes do you own in total?” (Clearly this woman doesn’t dance nor understand the tango life.)
Me: “Eight. Between here and the U.S. but that’s nothing. You should see….”
Friend: (Interrupts as she counts on fingers…) “Wendy, I have FOUR pair of shoes here.”
Me: “But when our service is done I need to dance one more time before going home and might as well get new shoes while I’m in BA where they are more affordable than the U.S. and the selection…is to die for! I’ll use them all.”
Friend: “You are still having your yard sale, right?”
Me: “Yes, this weekend.”
Friend: “How many shoes are going in the yard sale?”
Me: (Counting visible pairs on the floor, kept out of yard sale pile) “Well, it looks like I have 5 pair on the floor here now which means they aren’t being sold + my 4 pair of tango shoes so that’s 9 pair I’m keeping. That means more than half are going to the yard sale! You should be proud of me!”
Friend: “Well, I guess that’s something. And you ARE going to get rid of those orange flip flops, right??? You are NOT bringing them home.”
Me: (says jokingly) “But remember last Thanksgiving when I wore them with the turkey hat? Ah the memories.”
Friend: (rolls eyes) “Wendy, they are too big for you and they are NOT your color.”
Me: “I know. Don’t worry, they’ll go in the yard sale. My cousin gave them to me during her visit and I love them for traveling because they are light and don’t absorb water like my other flip flops. They’ve been good to me.”
Friend: “Wendy, this is why you have a shoe problem…”
Late edit: The orange flip flops were not a hot item at the yard sale either BUT the new volunteer following up in my community came to visit last week and SHE loved them and took them off my hands! I love happy endings.
PS- all yard sale proceeds were donated to the local elementary school. Local staff and parents were excited and grateful.
November 11, 2014
Today’s blog is written by a fellow PCV and dear friend here in Paraguay, The Wandering Farmer. He perfectly sums up many parts of the Paraguayan diet and eating habits, and the health experiment done with his host family is a wonderful example of his work and compassionate nature toward others. I hope you enjoy as much as I did!
“Be ready at all times to venture into the unknown.” – Ron Rubin and Stuart Avery Gold
And venture I have. In keeping an open mind to as many experiences as possible during my service, here’s a few things I never thought I’d do but do in Paraguay:
Language – Stateside, I’d always prided myself on my ability to communicate well and to understand others. Upon learning I was joining the Peace Corps, I heard lots of stories and warnings from people who, while traveling abroad, had inadvertently agreed to something they didn’t realize or mean to because they didn’t want to admit to the speaker that they didn’t understand. I always thought that was ridiculous and vowed I would never fall victim to that. Promise broken. More times than I can count. Here, I think I’ve agreed to a whole lot of which I have no idea. Sometimes I think I understand and, turns out, I don’t. Other times, I ask the person to repeat the question and, after the 3rd or 4th time and I still don’t understand, I just pretend I do to put us both out of our misery. Sometimes I fake it well, sometimes they see right through my wall of pride with a “Nontendei” (she doesn’t understand).
TMI (too much information) – What’s that? No such thing among volunteers. For someone who used to be very private, I’ve come a long way in the ‘sharing’ department. Whether by blog, phone, text or in person if you’re surprised to suddenly learn the status of my GI tract or the diaper rash I have from sitting in sweaty clothes on the bus for 6 hours in 104 degrees, you don’t know me very well. And don’t look so shocked when I ask about yours either.
Food – eating the same wonderful thing for breakfast nearly every day. Usually I like to mix it up and have a broad variety. Mandio chyryry rocks!
Iffy food – It’s less about ‘is it iffy?’ than ‘how iffy is it?’ I take more chances when it’s from my own kitchen than when I’m buying from others, especially those street vendors
New foods –
*Pommelos – Never could stomach a grapefruit in the states but here I can’t get enough of them during citrus season – so sweet!
*Head cheese – actually pretty good if you ignore all the fat and cartilage that’s included.
*Rolled, boiled pig skin – the flavor isn’t bad what with all the onions and garlic but you might break a tooth trying to eat it. I bent the knife. Try biting a football and you’ll know what I mean
*Cow feet – Excellent with beans
*Blood sausage – Tried it but actually won’t eat that one.
*Cow stomach – also known as mondongo. Nope. Nope.
*Handmade pork sausage – Yup, that was a trip but chorizo casero rules. I even helped make it.
Hygiene – Consolidating trips to the toilet and rewearing clothes for a week in winter because 1) it’s impossible to dry laundry in winter and 2) it’s too cold to expose skin, changing clothes three times a day in the summer, not bathing for days in winter or showering three times a day in summer, foregoing a mirror, making a pointed effort to wash feet everyday because they get DIRTY!, collecting my own urine as a nitrogen source for the garden, comparing bathing notes with friends and actually congratulating them on days they bathed, high-fiving friends for a successful bowel movement after days of constipation, talking among friends about said movements in the airport cafe as casually as if it was the weather. Bathing and BM convos could sometimes be the highlight of a friend’s day. A real accomplishment. I’m serious.
Loneliness – I don’t get lonely in the states but I get lonely here. And then I talk … a lot. And it might be to ask about your latest BM.
Sounds – I can differentiate between pig squeals meaning 1) being hungry, 2) fighting over food with a pen-mate, 3) fighting in general, 4) getting one’s nose pierced to prevent rooting, 5) being surprised/scared by an animal bigger than it (curious cow), 6) being killed for dinner.
Unannounced Visits – No need to call ahead. Here you just show up at the gate! Someone is always home and guaranteed to welcome you. They love visitors and I love this custom and local hospitality.
Handwashing clothes – I always hated this in the states but here, though it takes a little planning to coordinate weather patterns and laundry schedules, I find it very relaxing and meditative. And it tones the arms nicely.
Transportation – Not allowed to ride motorcycles (the main form of transportation here in the campo) or drive cars, we rely on the bus to get everywhere. While my bus line is less than ideal, I’ve learned to enjoy the time for reading or napping instead of having to drive! We do not have public buses in my hometown USA.
Snakes, spiders, and insects in general – No. Big. Deal anymore (says she who keeps her mosquito net tucked in tightly 24/7!) Wendy the Viper Slayer prevails. Smush bugs barehanded? Yup. Unknowingly step on spiders barefoot and find wiggly legs still moving later? Weekly, sometimes daily.
Manners and Custom Confusion– I didn’t mean to slip on this one but when in Rome…. Apologies in advance to family and friends if I bring home a few of the following without realizing it (please call me on it if you catch me!): Burping out loud. Wiping hands on the tablecloth or common towel in the center of the table. Borrowing your cup at the table, maybe silverware too. Offering you a bite of my food without getting that look of “But it has your germs on it!” Eating meat with fingers. Saying “You!” to get someone’s attention. Asking very personal questions like your age, weight, how much you paid for something. Staring at something I find interesting. Showing up at your house uninvited and unannounced (see above) and expecting you to stop what you’re doing and visit with me.
Texting friends at 1am because they can’t sleep either.
Reading novel after novel because I’ve had the time to rediscover my love for reading; winter nights are long, dark, and cold; and summer heat requires a siesta, perfect for reading in the hammock.
Burn trash – Don’t hate. I used to be a serial recycler/composter/let’s be light on the earth do-gooder. The lack of trash management here offers 2.5 options: burning, burying or disposal by wind (for plastic bags). I compost what I can, burn my paper and sneak the plastics to the pueblo for incineration. Composting is the only thing I can feel good about.
Swear – I’m not usually a fan of the Swear Words but after catching neighbors’ cows eat my freshly washed laundry right off my porch because they were thirsty, yeah, I let a few expletives fly. Or the day the piglets uprooted the garden because someone didn’t close the gate well. That too.
Lie – That’s right. This is so not me and I use it sparingly here, but it developed as a survival mechanism when Paraguayan men would ask if I’m single. For a long time, my answer was the honest ‘yes’ which always lead to follow up questions and the occasional marriage proposal. Eventually I smartened up and began making up fantastic stories of non-existent husbands with names, lives and careers of whatever popped into my head first. Sometimes these spouses were American, sometimes Paraguayan. I began to relish the thrill of creating a story on the fly and adding new details based solely on the way my counterparts were responding to my answers. This became exquisite fun and reduced the awkwardness and probability of those ‘singledom’ questions and curious probing.
Bee stings – Pre-Paraguay Wendy sought to avoid a bee sting at all costs. Now on beekeeping days, if I get stung only 5 times I consider it a good day. They don’t call these killer bees for nothing! My last honey harvest earned me 40 stings at a whack and I didn’t bat an eye. I couldn’t walk for two days and my neighbors were horrified but with my new perspective, 40 stings were well worth the best honey I’ve ever had.
Well, that’s all I can think of for now. I wonder if someday I’ll have a list titled “Things I Never Thought I’d Do (But Do in the USA)?”
“Ask yourself what is really important then have the wisdom and courage to build your life around that answer.”
Just as nothing can truly prepare you for the Peace Corps experience, nothing can prepare you for leaving either. Having lived in my community for two years, I am at the end of my service. The people here have become my second family. I have close friends, favorite señoras, kids I adore, scenery that makes you go “WOW”. I know which cattle and pigs belong to which families and who to go to when I’m feeling down or need help. I participate in community events and family birthdays as every other member of town. I’ve learned more about myself and created more memories and interesting skill sets than I ever dreamt possible.
The application process to join the Peace Corps and 10 weeks of training incountry are thorough and taxing – to force you to consider how you might react to different situations, to gauge and build your mental flexibility and resilience, to gain skills needed to be a successful Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). But there are some things that no one can prepare you for. Like attending your neighbor’s funeral and witnessing a family’s grief, crying alongside them as if you shared blood. Like the overwhelm of infinite generosity, hospitality and friendliness at every turn from friends and strangers alike. Like doing your last round of family visits, burning their faces, voices and homes into your memory, knowing your days here are quickly coming to a close and wondering if it will all feel like just a dream when you return to the U.S. Like saying goodbye to fellow PCVs… friends you’ve made along the way who, too, have changed you in unforgettable and innumerable ways. Like the indescribable transformation that happens within. Like the robust gratitude you come to know because of all of this and more. You cannot be a PCV and not be changed. Deeply.
And there’s more to leaving than these mental and personal growth pieces. There are the logistics with the office:
Three months before your service ends you have a Close of Service (COS) conference, held with staff to help you prepare for wrapping up your service and returning to life in the U.S. Ours was held in August over three days, an exercise in reflecting on our service, managing the final three months of work and relationships, and looking ahead to the next chapter. We thanked our fellow PCVs in the group with whom we’ve shared deeply over the past 27 months. We talked resumes, job searches, graduate school, travel, dreams. And it was here we learned that there is a long checklist of things to do before you are permitted to leave the country: you must decide on your after-service plans (will Peace Corps handle your flight home or are you traveling a bit and will organize this yourself?); there are final reports to write, outlining and measuring one’s experience and outcomes, evaluating the community and providing lots of information in the event there is another volunteer; you must have exit interview; you must empty your bank account; you must write your job description outlining your experience and skills gained to prove you did this epic thing called Peace Corps; you decide if you want to have a language interview to determine your proficiency in either or both languages we speak here – Spanish or Guarani; you must have your final medical and dental exams; you must decide if you are Swearing Out with your group or leaving early. And more.
And then there are the logistics with my home in site: the details like gauging my food supply for my final eight days without going hungry and without wasting anything. The same for toothpaste, TP, and laundry soap (as important as food!). Paying my final water bill. I’m hoping another volunteer will be assigned to my community when I leave but I don’t yet know. If I do have one, I can leave all of my belongings to him/her (dishes, stove, fridge, work tools, bicycle, books and manuals, laundry buckets, garden seeds, leftover shelf-stable food, etc). But if there is no other volunteer? I must find a home for all of those things in the next week.
And how about what to bring home with me? I have several favorite books, some toiletries and need just enough clothes/shoes for several days and nights of tango dancing in Buenos Aires before heading home. Then there are those things I don’t need for tango but can’t leave behind like my favorite clothes, hiking boots and my machete. I hope these fit in my luggage AND meet weight limits at the airport. We’ll see! Otherwise, I’ve learned that I “NEED” far less than I think I do (lesson 15,649: pack light) and there’s very little from here that I “need” in the U.S. so I decided to have a yard sale to share the extra. This will allow some local girls and ladies to have some super inexpensive, much-needed ‘new’ outfits and shoes and the proceeds will be donated to the school. Today is a rainy day so I’m going to do a pre-pack ‘test’ to see how I’m doing on luggage vs stuff… Stay tuned.
In the midst of those last three months of reports and ‘doing’, you are wrapping up projects, saying goodbye to families, maybe the community throws you a goodbye party (known as a despedida), you are packing up your belongings, preparing your site for a new volunteer (or dismantling your site if you are the last volunteer), maybe planning some after-service travel or setting up job interviews, a place to live, or graduate school applications back home. It’s a busy time with a lot of mixed emotions but after two years as a PCV we’ve learned to roll with this stuff. It’s an exciting, and slightly stressful, time and a part of the journey. I keep telling myself that the most important part is staying present. Soak it up. Everything will fall into place in its own time. And when you ring that bell at the office to Swear Out on your final day, it’ll all have been worth every single moment.
“Oh my God, what if you wake up someday, and you’re 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big, juicy creative life, of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid? It’s going to break your heart. Don’t let this happen.” – Anne Lamott
November 2, 2014
Today was the Day of the Dead, a popular holiday in Latin America.
Despite the name, the day is a festive day, rather than sad or morbid, where most of the town gathers at the local cemetery and families celebrate and remember those who have passed on.
In the days leading up to today, it is common to see people preparing for the festivities by weeding around the graves, dusting off layers of dirt, perhaps adding a coat of paint. Many of the above-ground tombs have openings in front where the family keeps photos, flowers, candles, and other memorabilia than is viewed through glass or metal bars.
This morning families left early for the cemetery, bringing candles and fresh ribbons to add to the tombs of loved ones. Extended families congregate at each family’s grave and have a rezo together, saying prayers. Afterward, the family hands out candy as a thank you for their attendance. The extended family then moves to the next group of graves and continues the ritual for all family members. For example, one rezo for the deceased Romeros, one for the Benitez, etc.
I love that Latinos choose to remember their dead in celebratory style rather than with years of grieving and sadness. This is definitely a tradition and way of thinking that I want to bring home with me.
“Live your passion and you will never fail.” – inallouryears
October 31, 2014
Halloween is known in Paraguay as The Day of the Witch or El Dia de la Bruja. Appropriately so, my women’s club – who prefer to be called the Witches Club (club de brujas)- met today for a little mischief-making. Rumor got around that yours truly, Bruja Wendia, was wearing true witch’s gear – a green face, black dress, heels, and giant hat – which brought all the kids and the school principal out of class to spy on us through the windows. haha! FUN TIMES!
Earlier in the day I’d been invited to make breakfast with a senora across the street. She was determined to teach me to make mbeju, a classic Paraguayan recipe, before I left. Never had making breakfast been so much fun.
We started by putting the carbs together: mandioca starch (called almidon de mandioca) plus some frozen cornmeal I brought from home. The cornmeal had chunks that required a hammer to break, which was pretty hilarious pounding away at the bag at the crack of dawn. Add butter, sunflower oil, warm milk, and a bit o’ salt and mix with the HANDS. When I reached for a spoon to stir it the senora acted as if I’d committed a felony of some sort. Didn’t I know that the dough is mixed ONLY with the HANDS? We laughed and she retreated to the backyard to prepare the fire. When she returned I was playfully chastised for being slow. I called it being ‘thorough’. Her sister appeared from next door at this time and I said “My teacher is angry. I’m not fast enough.” Not only did we all laugh, they seemed to think it was the best joke ever.
Once the dough, or masa, was ready we made our way to the fogon in the backyard. A fogon is like a brick cookstove, usually with a cook top and an oven. She produced 2 frying pans and we loaded the dough in each.
Essentially, the dough inside congeals to the consistency of a gumdrop and when it becomes golden brown underneath you flip it like a pancake. Here is the senora demonstrating for me (and repeating multiple times to ensure I got a good photo – haha!) then I took my turn. Because we were cooking over an open fire, the timing is sensitive. Here I am flipping mid-bite because when it’s time to flip and you have an ‘angry teacher’, you flip. Just for the record, my teacher was everything BUT angry but she loved when I called her that.
It wasn’t long before word got around the neighborhood that the Norte was learning to make mbeju and no less than seven neighbors showed up to watch. No pressure. And the senora loved retelling the story to each person of how we burned our first mbeju of the day: she put cardboard into the fire which grew the flame too quickly and she wasn’t paying close enough attention to warn me. Thus, a burnt but edible sample. During my few moments alone I took in the sights: a goat wandering in and out of the kitchen, a cocky rooster looking to steal some crumbs, a parade of ducklings, beautiful and fragrant jasmine blossoms, outhouse, biodigester… you know, the usual. haha
It took 2 hours to make 6 mbeju ‘pancakes’, start to finish, two of which she gave me to take home. Early in my service, a senora once said to me “It is good to work for your food.” I’ve always believed that to be satisfyingly true.
“A woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. A woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before.” – Albert Einstein
October 30, 2014
The best conversation today started early this morning:
Eli, my favorite senora in site, and her husband were returning from the chakra (crop field) in the horse-drawn cart full of sugar cane and mandioca as I was going TO work in the same field, where my demo plot is. The forecast called for 100% chance of rain and the clouds were ominous.
Eli (yelling from her cart): It’s going to rain. Go home.
Me: Yep. It’s going to rain. I’m just going to work for a little bit.
Eli: You’ll end up bathing in the chakra. There’s no time to work before the rain. Go home.
I continued walking and worked in the chakra about half an hour until the first sprinkles fell then beat feet for home. No joke, I pushed open the door, which was pushing back against me due to the strong wind coming in from the windows on the opposite side of the house, and got inside JUST as the skies opened and torrential downpour ensued. I was spared by seconds.
…and finished on the futbol field tonight:
Eli: Did you get a shower in the chakra this morning?
Me (smiling): No! But it was close, mere seconds!
Eli: I told you it was going to rain but you didn’t listen to me.
Me: Your forecasts are always accurate but I knew I had a little time to spare.
She laughs at my appreciation of her cloud-reading skills and goes back to tending goal for the kids’ futbol game.