I’ve been in Paraguay for a full year now! *insert “wow” emoji*
I’m sure some of you will be exclaiming “A whole year already! My, how time flies!” But from my perspective, the past 12 months have defied the general rule of each year flying by faster than the one before it; I can’t believe it has been only 365 days.
With some exceptions, these have been 365 long days, and I’ve spent a lot of the past year missing home, second-guessing my decisions, and feeling unproductive or inadequate in comparison to what I feel I can or should accomplish. If I had known what the past year would involve, I may not have come to Paraguay.
At the same time, I don’t entirely regret not having that foresight. I am still mostly convinced this experience will be worth it in the end.
I now have almost 15 months left. On the one hand, that is an overwhelmingly long period of time to be away from the people, places, and foods I love, and to be doing a job that does not exactly contribute to my professional or financial goals. On the other hand, there is so much more I want to do here, and a year is a short period of time to accomplish it all.
Though I’m not yet half done, I have decided to share three general lessons (of many) that I learned or more thoroughly internalized since starting this thing we call Peace Corps “service.”
1. I have learned I am capable of many things… which doesn’t necessarily mean I want to do any of those things ever again. For instance, I’ve learned I can cook pretty well, even if I’d much rather have others cooking for me. I’ve learned I can live by myself in a house without being too afraid, bored, or uncomfortable alone with my thoughts. I’ve also learned I never want to live alone again – mostly because I hate always having to be the one who provides food and shuts off the lights before going to sleep, but also because I enjoy having someone (the right person) there with whom to share my space and life.
Other things I’ve learned I can do include: bury a rotting dog carcass, fight off a pack of dogs, resist the desire to adopt sad cats and dogs, live with the constant knowledge that water and electricity are fickle resources, collaborate with people who think and work very differently than I do, spend hours listening to conversations conducted primarily in a language I do not speak, and accept that my values, beliefs, and opinions are not the norm.
2. I’ve also learned a bit about development work, at least in so far as Peace a Corps can be considered development work.
You know the whole give a man a fish vs. teach him to fish saying? Well, empowering people with skills and knowledge rather than giving material goods is central to the Peace Corps mission, but I’d like to suggest a more comprehensive take on the old adage:
“Give a man a fish and he might eat for a day – if he has no cultural or dietary restrictions against fish; teach a man to fish – if you know how to fish, speak the man’s language, and understand the best time and location to conduct fishing lessons in his community – and he might be able to feed himself for months or years, at least until his fishing equipment breaks and he doesn’t have the resources to repair it… or he might never go fishing because he already had a job he knew how to do, or because fishing is a woman’s job in his country, or because you didn’t give him a boat, or because you forgot to take into account that there are no bodies of water nearby. Maybe at the end of the day you and your new friend will both forget about fish and plant a garden together because that’s what Mr. Potential-Fisherman wanted to do all along.”
The point is: when a project involves humans, there are always countless factors effecting the desire and ability of those people to participate and succeed. Without knowing about the individuals, communities, and cultures involved, you won’t accomplish even the best of ideas.
3. Now, a (perhaps not-so-shocking) confession: for twelve months, I have been struggling to love Paraguay.
It occurred to me fairly recently that my lack of love was not as much a problem as was the fact that I had been waiting until I fell in love with the country to fully make it my home and to enthusiastically throw myself into my work here. I had a sort of “oh, duh” moment when I remembered that people usually don’t have the luxury to make a place their home because they love it; instead, they love it because it is home.
It’s the same for relationships with other people. Paraguayans are generally humble individuals, but as a group they are quite proud, so I frequently find myself rolling my eyes (internally) when I’m told that Paraguayans are more open, more friendly, more generous, etc. than other people. It’s true that nearly all the Paraguayans I’ve encountered have been wonderfully generous, kind, and welcoming; I just don’t think those are unique characteristics. When I hear other volunteers rave about the amazing friendliness and generosity of their communities, I sometimes think maybe they have discovered something uniquely wonderful about Paraguay, and I wonder why I can’t do the same.
The thing is, people are no less important (both in the abstract and personal sense) when they are unextraordinary. I still don’t think Paraguayans are better than people anywhere else in the world, but now many of the people in my community have become special to me.
I guess that’s how it always is. While I generally think my friends and family are amazing people, I didn’t start loving them because I objectively believe they are better than everyone else or that I couldn’t have equally meaningful relationships with a few of the other billion humans on this planet if I had the chance. The people we love the most are usually just the people we have gotten to know the best. You can’t get to know places or people well without them always being a part of who you are, for better or worse.
Being a Peace Corps Volunteer (especially in a country that is not a tourist destination) is a good refresher course in taking the time to get to know people and places with which you don’t immediately fall in love. When people share your interests, language, and primary personality traits, or when places are full of vibrant art, majestic nature, and gourmet foods, it is easy to imagine them becoming important to you. But your life can become equally enriched by the unexpected connections, the relationships and the homes you built because you happened to end up with those people in that place for those 27 months.