Monday, August 24, 2009

First day

So officially today was my first Guarani slip. I was talking to a friend over Skype, didn´t hear right and said, "Mba´e?" (What?) That´s funny.

Another friend also enjoyed making fun of me. "Guarani, good, because that will be so useful when you come home." But I have faith, mark my words, that there will be one event that makes me say "Ha! Now it was all worth it!" He suggested Guarani might save a life. I was thinking more along the lines of just really telling someone off in Guarani who said something creepy they didn´t think I´d understand.

Proceeding in a language comes in growth spurts, and I´m having one of mine. I´d say I speak about 20 percent in Guarani now. At lunch, I was almost surprised, like I was in the twilight zone, that I understood what people were saying. Little things like "Go go more water" or "Where´d you put my cell phone?" I understand. Long conversations, I´m still lost.

Some things come to me easier in Guarani. The word "to laugh" is hard for me to conjugate in Spanish and easier in Guarani. Sometimes when I´m trying to write, I ask my brain for a synonym and it gives me a Guarani word.

I also have this fantasy. I hear there´s a pretty big Paraguayan neighborhood in New York City. So yeah, it´s the future, I´m just walking down the street, blond white chick. I walk into a little store with a Paraguayan owner and just start going off: "Mba´echapa. Che vare´a ha aheka hina chipa. " (Hello, I´m hungry and looking for some chipa.) And then his head explodes. Or he just laughs and we have a good conversation. Maybe if I move to New York I can move to this mystical neighborhood. Or I´ll just continue the current plan of convincing people I speak in tongues.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

My Every Day Life

Recently I was asked to write a description of my every day life to be included in the welcome packets for new volunteers. Here it is:

I am a Peace Corps Volunteer, I sometimes have to remind myself. This is Peace Corps.
You imagine it’d be like a movie, before, so here’s mine.

What’s different is that I don’t have a car. My life is serenaded by rooster crows and cow moos and the Paraguayan polka. I speak Spanish and am slowly started to speak Guaraní. I’m trilingual, which I never thought I would be. I also never thought I’d enjoy fried pig fat, but here I am.

What’s better than life in the states is so many things. I get to pick my hours at work. I get to sit around and drink terere with my friends and call it work. I get to write my own job description.

What’s the same is that I have friends who make fun of me, and I them when I can find the words fast enough to be witty. I have my own little house, but live next to a family that’s almost like my own. I eat lunch with them every day. I have a boyfriend, who’s great and funny and just happens to be Paraguayan.

What’s depressingly the same are some things. I still drink a lot of Coca-cola, a habit which I had dropped in the states. A lot of people are into computers now, the new thing, and I spent my morning working on Excel.

What’s worse is that it’s cold, when it’s cold. It’s hot, when it’s hot. There is no Google, just what the guy on the corner said, that the bus would come soon, against what the guy on the other corner said, that there are no more buses today.

You want a regular day, stay in the states, but I can describe about what might happen daily, without surprises.

I decided to set regular hours at the cooperative where I work, so I get up at 7:30, make my coffee on my gas stove. Or maybe my host mom is up and she calls between the banana trees to see if I want to drink cocido with her. I go to the coop, two stone-road blocks over and two blocks up. Maybe all I’ll do is sit around and make ao poí, the local craft. Or maybe I’ll work toward setting up our web site. Maybe I’ll get the secretary to sit for a computer lesson. Mostly I’ll wonder if the thing I’m doing right then is the best thing, if I’m a bad volunteer or a good volunteer, if I’m learning Guaraní fast enough. When I can, I remind myself to just relax and enjoy the experience, please.

I have a Guaraní class twice a week. At the beginning, I wanted to kill my tutor out of frustration, but lately we’ve been chatting in Guarani, and I’m feeling better. It’s a lot of work to learn Guarani, and my American brain says, “What’s in it for me?” but I think it will pay off in ways I can’t quantify. Or I hope.

I drink terere at 11 with my teacher or go home where my friends are gathered around the front of the house next door. My neighbor just got a computer and we’ll be sharing internet. Technology is coming fast here. All the girls are on Orkut, their version of Facebook.

I pretend I’m going to make my own lunch, then my host family invites me to stay, and I say, “Oh, I guess, if there’s enough food,” which there always is.

I’m able to rest after lunch, the way God intended. Then I can go back to the coop or do other things around the house. There are meetings once a week of the board of the coop, during which they speak mostly Guarani, and I mostly try to listen. On Tuesdays I do a radio show where we play music and take breaks to talk about an educational theme.

In my spare time I’m making a podcast to teach Guaraní, because I really would have loved lessons in English. Also, I like the idea of leaving a legacy of something to help other volunteers.

Then there are the surpises, where someone says, You want to come, and you have no idea where you’re going. Suddenly you’re at a protest or you’re at a party, watching men flip the pigs’ heads on a grill.

Life can feel insane, and, the more time passes, it can also feel just like life, like you truly understand that this is how the world is for your friend.

When it still just all seems crazy, the first year or so, is the hardest part as far as personal struggles are concerned. At first, losing my independence was really hard. Acting and speaking like a child, being treated like a child, being laughed at, it’s hard on the ego. The way the military beats you down to build you back up, that’s what Peace Corps does. Only instead of yelling and exercise, they do it with mistakes and helplessness.

And the work, you can’t do it on your own, so that’s hard. I have so many projects that I’ve started and nothing came of. Ideas that I thought were good, but died because no one wanted them, or there wasn’t time, or people just stopped showing up. You feel like you don’t know why you’re here or what you’re doing.

But then, you grow out of the dust of your ego. You learn Guaraní. You learn the bus routes. You learn how to drink terere. The people who laughed at you become your friends.

At this point, I don’t know how I’ll feel by the time my service is up. Did I do enough? Should I have done less and taught more? Should I have pushed more, or relaxed more? There’s no right answer in Peace Corps. But at the very least, I will have climbed the twin peaks of Mt. Español and Mt. Guaraní. I will have survived two years of an unknown that almost scared me into staying home. And, most importantly, I will have come to love people who were before to me just an idea inhabiting a blank area on a map.

And if I sometimes take for granted that I’m here, when it all becomes kind of normal, isn’t that a kind of victory in itself?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Computers are Annoying...When the World Becomes Real

July 27. Computers are annoying

It’s Sunday morning. My host family has a computer. I’m trying to drink terere.

I’m all alone outside, with the guampa and the termo.

“Pauli, veni un poco,” (Come here a sec) is the call from inside, to read some kind of error message or tell them what they’re doing wrong.

Vanne is outside with me. She’s 12, and has been bugging me for months to make her an Orkut page, which is kind of like Paraguayan Facebook. I keep saying no, though I don’t really know why. I think it’s because I want her playing in the street, rather than hunched over a computer, uploading photos of herself posing in that sexy head down and tilted to the side way that all the little girls already know how to do.

I’m about to send Oscar an annoyed text to get his butt out here and drink some G.D. terere when he’s suddenly outside, sits down fast as if he’ll need to get up again soon.

We don’t get one round in without getting up. A neighbor friend comes over and asks to use their internet for a second, to check her Orkut. “Pauli veni un poco.”

At all the parties, people whip out cameras and say, “For Orkut!” We were walking one day, in the morning, and my host sister said, “I haven’t checked my Orkut yet today!”


And yes, I had been on the computer all morning, typing my blog. But me, I’m ruined already.

It reminds me of something I didn’t like about this Peace Corps book I read. The girl was in Africa, and she loved the sound out the women working, a kind of bok! bok! sound. Then they got a machine to do the work, but then there was no more bok! bok! Then the machine broke, and no one could fix it, and she was happy, because she liked the bok! bok!, thought it was quaint.

And I thought, Isn’t she putting her own entertainment ahead of the good of the people? Her site isn’t some kind of Epcot village to visit. It’s not a spa. These are these people lives.

Am I doing the same? I don't know.

Sometimes we joke that Paraguay is just the 80s. Computers are new, cell phones are new, fanny packs and mullets are popular. If that’s true, then I am from the future. I see where their headed, just as we were, are, so excited with our shiny new little toys, which overall have just made us a little fatter and disconnected to each other. I can’t help but watch, a visitor from outside the walls of Eden, as they take big bites from the tree of knowledge and think, “Don’t.”

There’s a fear in me, that there will be no sunset left uncrossed by wires. No sky free of antennas. No conversation uninterrupted by the electronic jingle of cell phones.

But here I am, hypocrite, a huge, ugly air conditioning unit installed today, myself hunched over a computer, waiting for my friends to get off the internet, so that I can update the continual existence that I live online.

August 11: When the World Becomes Real (I actually wrote this a while ago, just found it)

I just got done watching the HBO Special “White Light, Black Rain” about the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the atom bombs.

Hearing the Japanese, I didn’t just tune it out as “foreign”. I listened to it. I think learning Guaraní has taught me that behind even the strangest sounding sounds, there are normal words, normal life. "Ahata almacenpe sapy'ite ajogua haĝua kamby" is just "I'm running to the store to buy some milk." Behind the funny words, the funny clothes, the weird food, it's all the same. When you break through a cultural barrier once to see what’s on the other side, you recognize that behind everything that used to just be “the others” and strangeness, there are humans who are just like everyone you love.

Maybe that’s why I just can’t stop crying, seeing the damage to these people. Everything’s a bit more real to me, now. If that blank spot in the middle of South America can become like home, if its strange people can become like family, then, hey, maybe all those skeletons on the tv from Africa are people too. And those Jews in the Holocaust, let’s take the label off and just call them six million people. And the fathers, mothers and sons and daughters dying right now in Iraq.

It’s all much more intense.

I just feel so helpless to stop it, the war and violence, and I’m worried it’s coming much closer to home. Like if it can happen to them, real people, why can't it happen to us. Sometimes when I want to talk about peace, I hear some jerk-face in my head, saying, “You damn hippies with your heads in the clouds. How else do you suggest we solve the problem?”

The word that comes to mind is education. The more educated I am, (a process I resisted for the first 25 years of my life), the more I find I’m less afraid, I’m understanding, the more I see myself in others.

But all I know is, we can only get so good at killing each other before we succeed once and for all. And I understand more now the "Peace" in Peace Corps. Once you know, for sure, that all people really are people, you'll never say "Nuke 'em" again.

“I do not know how the Third World War will be fought, but I can tell you what they will use in the Fourth... rocks.” -Albert Einstein

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Photos As of Late

(*Return in Peace!)
*R.I.P. Brennan

May 2007-July 2009

Brennan has left me to go back return after two years of grueling service living in a compound in a city. Who will I ask for bus schedules?

Betsy and me at Brennan's despedida. She's our new coordinator.

This is the asado for the birthday of my host dad's dad. 99 years!

Fork on a stick

Me and the meat. Or the meat and I?

Two kids from next door drooling over our chicken.

Can we get a close up on that punum?

Cochena washing dishes at the well.

Big meal

Little Nancy, my next door neighbor

Putting in my heat/ac (It's not my fault! I was pressured into buying! Arm twisting and everything, though very light before I caved.)
Starting to make the hole


Oscar workin'

The crazy mess in my room.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Instructions (That I Don´t Follow) for a Successful Project

Um, yeah. Just thought I´d send along these tips that our country director passed on to all of us.

It is a note from a currently serving Volunteer in Ecuador to a group in training that he just had a training session with - Enjoy.

Instructions to trainees from a crotchety PCV:

Nobody is going to like this part. Many people ask for the secret of our success, but nobody seems to pay much attention to the answers, yet they are simple and basic.

You must make yourself a part of your community in every way you can. You will always be an outsider and never be fully trusted, but you can go a long way towards being accepted. The key is to make your entire world your community. Live as your community lives and make your communitys concerns your concerns, your only concerns. Here are some specific suggestions:

§ Avoid as much as possible Peace Corps events and organizations. ...For the most part, these groups tend to be about us and our problems as volunteers, not about our communities problems. Stop worrying about yourself. When tempted to join, ask yourself what it has to do with your community and how it will affect your relationship with your community. Remember that your time here is not about you, but about your work in your community. It can be very rewarding to completely abandon your self-importance. Dont indulge yourself in your concerns and worries about your privacy, your future, your romances, your life in the States, and your comfort, but open yourself up completely to life in your community. This can be extremely rewarding.

§ Break or at least loosen as much as you can all your ties with family and friends in the States. Tell them you are entering two years of service in Ecuador and they shouldnt expect to hear much from you. This can actually be very liberating.

§ Don’t let family or friends visit you here if you can at all help it. Their visit will start you thinking about your life in the States and not about your life in your community. It can be a big distraction from your work and can turn you into just another rich gringo in the eyes of your community.

§ Dont let other volunteers visit you in your site. The exception to this is an ICT with both volunteer and counterpart visiting. Hosting other volunteers creates a life for you outside and separate from your life in the community. Not only that, but your community can see that you have other concerns foreign to them. The point is not to get a life, but to lose all lives that separate you from your community. Visits from other volunteers tend to augment Peace Corps Fiesta Móvil reputation and make you appear frivolous in the eyes of your community. You need to develop an intensity directed toward your work. Don’t dilute it by hanging out with other volunteers.

§ Dont take vacations or weekends away. The people of your community cant take weekends away from their lives and neither should you. You should try to keep in mind that you are here for two years of service (and sacrifice, if need be), not a working vacation. Staying in site will let you come to know your community deeply and this is a privilege. You dont need shallow glances of other parts of your country of service at the expense of your work. You can be a tourist after you COS. Lets try to dispel the Cuerpo de Paseo reputation we have acquired.

§ Dont check your e-mail except once a month or so. The longer the better. E-mail only involves you in the petty day-to-day concerns of your family and friends and, once again, removes you from the concerns of your community. Also, e-mail is a mysterious process to many people in many campo towns in Ecuador and, as such, is mistrusted. It is a good idea to do your banking chores, check your mail and your e-mail all at the same time. It is an even better idea to take a community member with you when you do all this. They can then see exactly what youre doing and this will dispel the mystery and mistrust.

§ Dont hide. Your community needs to see you every day, preferable working (the dirtier and sweatier, the better). They need to see what you are doing all the time to even start to trust you.

§ Always remember that you only come to know someone thru action, not talk, and action under pressure is even better. Do whatever you have to do to actually work with people. Dont just visit a family for lunch, but go help them plant corn or harvest rice. One minga is worth a hundred conversations.

There, I told you that you wouldnt like it. Yet these are the best instructions I can give for a successful project.