My 650th day in Paraguay seems as good a day as any to finally publish another blog post. (That’s 650 days since first getting to Paraguay; I’ve spent around 50 of those days traveling elsewhere.) It has been a while.
There are now fewer than five months until our official “close of service” (COS) date! Most volunteers take a few weeks or a few months after COS to travel before heading back to the U.S., but since I have a cat to transport, a boyfriend waiting for me, and – most importantly – no money, my plan is to be home by the end of November. Speaking of which, if anyone has a job opening for me, I am now accepting applications for potential employers!
Of course, despite my increasingly frequent daydreams of city life, hiking opportunities, an office job, and access to great food, five months is still a decent chunk of time. I have a lot left on my to-do list for Paraguay.
Before leaving my community, I want to finish a scientific method/science experiment project I’ve been doing with 7th, 8th, and 9th graders. Ideally, we will do a science fair with them and/or have science professionals come to the school to talk about college/career options. I want to continue organizing a reading buddies program with the 1st, 2nd, 5th, and 6th graders and to figure out the best way to leave the books with the school so that they’ll actually be used after I leave. I want to implement some better waste management practices in the school that could potentially be replicated in homes. I want to make an educational video with the kids to teach them and others about caring for the environment or better managing waste (while also inspiring creativity and story-telling). Finally, I want to paint a world map on a wall of the school and do some activities with the kids to learn about geography. This last project is one we’ve been trying to start for a while, but we are waiting on funds from the municipality to buy paints and other supplies.
Honestly, if all these things can be accomplished before I leave, these next 5 months will be more “productive” then the last 21.
I frequently worry about whether I’m doing enough here. I think we all do. Feeling unproductive is common in Peace Corps service. Most organizations and individuals are results-driven and achieve great things by setting a series of small goals and moving forward be accomplishing each in turn; Peace Corps service on the other hand takes volunteers who want to change the world or at least a couple lives, gives them very few ways to measure their progress toward these lofty goals, and then defines success as still being in-country and mostly sane after two years. I think it’s beautiful that we have a government organization devoted to sharing cultures, building international relationships on a local level, lending a hand here and there, and hoping everyone grows from the experience, but it’s a frustrating job.
For example, if I saw widespread household trash burning, I would want to change laws or devote resources to building state-of-the-art incineration and recycling facilities rather than just asking people to stuff all their trash into plastic soda bottles and use these to build crappy benches. (This is obviously just a random, hypothetical example and not something that keeps me up at night in my house filled with piles of my trash and clouds of smoke from neighbors’ trash fires.)
As I reflect on what it means to be successful as a Peace Corps Volunteer/world citizen/human, I often think about what our APCD (basically the leader of the environmental sector here at Peace Corps Paraguay and also a lovely and intelligent Paraguayan woman) says: that a successful service is one in which the volunteer is happy and the community is happy. I think about this philosophy mostly because I disagree with it, but I can’t seem to decide whether I disagree because it’s too low a bar or too high. This experience has made me feel grateful, challenged, and humbled, but it has rarely made me happy. Besides, I want something to show for my time beyond emotions.
This same APCD visited me a few days ago for a routine second-year visit. We went to the school and visited an important family so she could ask how things are going and gauge the community’s interest in getting another volunteer when I leave. I was a little nervous before the visit because I didn’t feel like I had anything concrete or impressive to show off from my recent work, but everyone told her how good a person I am and raved about how much they appreciated my talents and hard work. (Note: when they talked about my talent and hard work, they were not talking about my abilities as an environmental volunteer or literacy educator. Rather, they are talking almost exclusively of my ability to make decorations for their classrooms. They described in great detail my ability to cut animals out of colorful paper without using models.) The APCD said those positive reviews were important and a sign that my service is going well.
Of course, hearing that people are impressed by my artistic talents and want another volunteer who can also do all the artistic work in the school wasn’t really the validation I was looking for. Nevertheless, this visit did provide another reminder of the value Peace Corps is bringing to me and my community. During the car ride to my site from the Peace Corps office in Asuncion, I was telling the APCD about some of the books I’d been sharing with the kids at the school and with my neighbors. I’ll get to the part of this conversation that stuck with me after providing a bit of background information.
Literacy education is not part of my job description, but it’s an area where I have a little bit of experience and a lot of passion, and it’s an area where this country has a lot of need. Paraguay does not have a strong reading culture (or really any reading culture) due to a number of factors including an absolutely abysmal primary education system, the relatively high cost of books, an absence of libraries, and the fact that many people’s primarily language is Guarani, which was only converted into a written language a few decades ago. I don’t have high hopes of significantly changing this situation as a Peace Corps Volunteer, but thanks to some people in the U.S. (mostly Grandma Betty) I have approximately 30 Spanish-language children’s books to share with my community.
I’ve been using these books for a reading buddies program, and about once a week I read to the preschoolers and kindergartners. Neither of these activities has produced dramatic results, but I’m noticing small hints of progress that give me hope; for instance, every time I read with the littlest kids, more of them know to start a book from its front cover instead of back.
I’m also trying to share the books with kids who come to my house regularly. Recently, I gave my neighbor a copy of The Giving Tree for his fourth birthday. He asked his mom to read it to him every single night for weeks and he can pretty much recite it by memory. I also gave another neighbor the first Harry Potter book for his 11th birthday. Later that day, I saw his mom sitting outside reading it.
“Wow,” she said “this is great! It’s like a story!” Less than a week later she called over the fence between our yards “do you have any more of those Harry Potter books? I stayed up late last night and finished it. I never really wanted to watch the movies, but reading it is so much better!” I think that was probably the proudest moment of my Peace Corps service and maybe my life.
As I was telling our coordinator about these small moments, she turned to me and said “see, they might not have these experiences if you weren’t here.” (Except she said this in Spanish and also she didn’t actually turn to me because she was driving, and having a conversation in a car without looking at the road is only possible in movies)
Of course, I didn’t do all that much work to make these experiences possible – I didn’t build a library or teach anyone to read – but it’s true that if I weren’t here my neighbor probably wouldn’t be reading Harry Potter and almost certainly wouldn’t be having conversations about Harry Potter with a woman from New Hampshire… and I wouldn’t be sitting in my hammock, drinking tereré and listening to my neighbors discuss Harry Potter in an indigenous language that 3 years ago I didn’t even know existed. I believe this is part of why Peace Corps service isn’t a complete waste of time. My being here in Paraguay has provided me and at least a few Paraguayans with experiences we would not have had otherwise. Not many of those experiences are dramatically life-changing, but they all add to our lives in some way.