All the Life Going On

One of the most beautiful and most difficult aspect of Peace Corps Service is that “real life” doesn’t pause during these two years – not for the people we left in the U.S., nor for the people in our host country. This is common sense of course, and the Peace Corps makes it abundantly clear that volunteers are signing up to participate fully in the life of a new community while missing important events back home, but this is also a reality that reasserts itself regularly and becomes more real with each passing day.

The most obvious reason it is difficult to see life go on as usual is that it means missing important events in the lives of loved ones back home. Just this past Friday, my cousin gave birth to a beautiful baby who will probably be walking and talking by the time I get a chance to meet him. Both my grandmothers will turn 90 while I’m away (and my cat will turn 18, which is nearly equivalent in cat years). My little sister and my boyfriend will graduate from college and grad school in the next two years. One of my best friends is planning to get married before my service ends. These are just the major events I’m aware of right now, and these are more than enough to feel like I’m missing out.

But it’s not as if I am living in a place without births, birthdays, graduations, and weddings. In fact, I’ve already experienced pretty much every one of these life events, and I’ve only been in my community for two weeks.

In my first few days here, I attended an end-of-year ceremony to honor the graduating 9th graders and the best students from each grade at the local primary school. They all dressed up in their nicest uniforms, held Paraguayan flags, and were handed certificates by family members. My host mom (the principal) introduced me, and I spoke to the crowd about being excited to live and work with everyone in the community. I even threw in a few Guarani words (exactly 4 words), much to everyone’s amusement.

I’ve also been to quite a few birthday parties here and in our training community. People go all out with Birthdays in Paraguay, though I have yet to attend the biggest of birthday bashes: a quinceñera (15th birthday). Especially for little kids, the decorations at parties can be extravagant, and everyone takes a picture with the birthday person in front of their decorations. Men drink beer and sometimes play music (I went to one birthday where the husband of the birthday woman was playing a giant harp). The party drink of choice for women is red wine, usually cold and mixed with soda. There’s a very specific menu for all Paraguayan parties: grilled meats and sausages, chipa guazu and/or sopa paraguaya (both corn-based, bread-like foods), mandio (yucca), potato salad, rice (with corn, peas, and mayonnaise), salad (lettuce and tomatoes and/or cabbage and carrots), and plenty of soda. This is followed by singing and a fancy-looking cake, which is generally served as everyone starts to leave; slices of cake are passed out and taken to-go.

Saturday, I attended another cake-serving event: the wedding of my host aunt and uncle.

We spent more time preparing to attend the wedding than actually attending it. My host mom asked me to try on multiple outfits from her wardrobe, since mine is obviously terribly inadequate. She had my host sister paint my nails. After I showered (a requirement before any important event here), she braided my hair. Then we sat around at home for a couple hours looking fancy. I thought we were waiting to leave for the church, but it turns out we weren’t attending the ceremony and were just waiting for the bride and groom to get back from the getting-married part of the evening.

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All dressed-up with my 10-year-old host sister, Isabel

A few minutes before the couple got home, everyone gathered in their yard. The house and fence surrounding it had been covered in white and blue fabrics and there were numerous long tables set up on the grass. There was also an elaborate sound and light system for dancing (which was mostly done by girls ages 10 and under, who were much better dancers than I could ever hope to be). When the newlyweds arrived (getting out of the car with all the makings of tereré of course), this same little gaggle of kids greeted them with some sort of confetti, and everyone lined up to take turns being in a photo with the bride and groom. (Fun fact: the words bride and groom in Spanish, novia and novio, are the same as the words for girlfriend and boyfriend, which seems a bit awkward from a U.S. perspective but makes sense here where it is still relatively common to expect that your first boyfriend or girlfriend will be the person you marry.)

After pictures, there was a meal (see the birthday party menu above). My host mom must have been feeling pretty festive because she opened a can of beer for the two of us to share!

Later, a woman came over and said they needed people “for the tape” (as in the stuff you stick things together with)… At times, I can understand every word someone is saying and still have no idea what is going on… It turns out the word for tape is the same as the word for ribbon. They were gathering unmarried women to pull ribbons out of a bowl of pudding. There was a ring at the end of one ribbon. When I returned to the table with my ring-less ribbon I was told “that means you won’t get married.” I assume they meant I won’t be the next one to get married, but either way I plan to adopt a cat soon. Later, I also failed to catch the bride’s bouquet; 0 for 2 in the imminent marriage category.

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My poor, ring-less ribbon. All the frosting was licked off of it by little kids.

Despite my lack of a secure marital future, I was touched that people who were complete strangers just a couple weeks ago had welcomed me to participate in this special day. Only one batch of banana bread into service and my community is including me in both their everyday routines and in their usually-once-in-a-lifetime celebrations. I’ll admit, I’m not as grateful every day as I should be for this hospitality.

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My first Paraguayan party keepsake. Some people’s houses are completely full of these.

A less obvious reason (perhaps) that life-going-on-as-usual makes Peace Corps service challenging is that these two years are not really as much of an “adventure” as one might imagine. When I think of adventures, I generally think of movement and exploration. For the most part, the space in which a PCV moves and explores is pretty limited (at least physically); I am currently staying in one place far longer than I have in years. After all, my job is to become part of a local community where people are going about their normal lives. In between parties, there will be days when I am rather bored and days when I am working really hard (though probably not as hard as the people around me). Already, my community has experienced serious illness and death while I have been here. Living somewhere for this long involves a lot more not-so-fun times than just traveling to a place as a tourist or even studying abroad for a semester.

Of course, no challenging time comes without some sort of lesson. It was only recently that I truly internalized what my parents and others have been trying to tell me for years: the people in your life are always going to be your most important source of fulfillment. Naturally, just as I started to fully grasp that lesson, I decided to move far away from everyone I love. But maybe doing that will be the best way to make the lesson stick.

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