Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Casa de Vuelta

It has now been a full month since I officially swore-out as a Peace Corps Volunteer. My life as a RPCV has already been exciting as I took on travel north through South America and along the Andes Mountains. Just last week, I finally returned after 2.5 years to the USA.

Since my return I have told many stories, had a lot of my favorite New Mexican foods, and met up with old friends, colleagues, and family. It has been a wild return home, with little time and much activity. With my new job starting soon in Northern Ireland, I have had a lot to prepare for and catch-up on. Friends have gotten married, babies have been born, my sisters have both graduated from high school/university respectively. Some people have moved altogether. I feel like I know everything and everybody just like it was yesterday that I last saw them, and yet somehow I hardly know them at all. It is an odd feeling. My life has of course moved on in the last two years, I have seen and experienced so much. My whole worldview has shifted in ways that I still have trouble fathoming now. The world has moved on too through- without me. Sometimes home can feel just as foreign as the other side of the globe; I even at times still struggle with the language. It is bittersweet, coming home. It is so nice to be here, but it is also nice to know that I too am just passing through.

Most people that I talk to have taken a genuine interest in my Peace Corps life; they've sat through my random stories about the crazy bus rides, roasting marshmallows with my youth group, and how the comedor came to be. Others are just as satisfied to say hello and pick up the usual conversations anew. It is amazing how you can just slip back into the routine. At times it feels like I never left, maybe I just slept for 2 years. At times I get to relive the adventure.

During my short stopover I decided to visit my hometown high school and talk with the International Club and the AP Spanish class. I knew many of the teachers back from when I was a student and found it easy to set up some short-notice presentations to focus on Peace Corps' Goal #3: sharing our host culture with Americans. Still a little lost after the long plane rides home, endless laundry, and packing I wasn't quite sure where to begin explaining Paraguay. So, I popped open my suitcase and pulled out the only thing I could think of clearly in that moment: terere. What better way to describe a culture than through the pastime I took part in so frequently throughout my service? Tranquilo, community, refreshing. Packing a few artisan goods, a flag, and a map of South America I was ready to go. As I wandered onto campus with my big termo, guampa, and yerba in hand I felt oddly giddy. Not only was I going to be sharing one of my favorite activities with these kids, but I was about to go back to where this whole thing got started in the first place. It was here, in this very school, that I first heard about Peace Corps. Ever since that day now over 12 years ago, I made it a life goal to join. It was my turn to be inspiring.

The kids were restless at the crack of dawn first period, and they inquired with a smirk as they came in the room if I was the substitute for the day. Haha- learned that lesson, and NO- I clarified. We were off to a rocky start already it seemed. I introduced myself as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer having lived in Paraguay the last 2 years and began a rudimentary introduction to the country's geography, flag, population, etc. We discussed Paraguay's use of both Spanish and Guarani and rather reluctantly the kids repeated some greetings, "Mba'echiapa- Ipora, ha nde?- Ipora, avei- Graciamante." I was excited, they were doing well...and, I think they were bored. But then I pulled out the terere and began to discuss the culture of Paraguay- tranquilo, community, refreshing. We passed around the guampa and learned the vocabulary for all things mate; suddenly the room came alive! Maybe it was just because I felt better with terere in hand, or maybe because this was something we could all feel good about- either way the room burst into questions and excitement. What started as a rather dull conversation about Paraguayan statistics turned into chisme and storytelling. My 20 minutes turned into nearly an hour. By the end a young man asked me, "I want to study mechanical engineering, can I do the Peace Corps too?" I thought of all the volunteers that I'd heard of from the 1980s that had set up entire water systems for countryside communities and our agricultural engineers working daily in the fields to help farmers improve production and conserve their soil, "You bet, there is a place for everyone in the Peace Corps." To my delight he responded, "I'm so in"!

Maybe in 10 years, one of those kids really will join the Peace Corps. Maybe not. I don't even remember the name of the guy that visited my high school class so long ago now and told me about the Peace Corps, but he inspired me. Maybe, just maybe, I too can inspire a new generation to take up the challenge, step outside the box, and join the international community in a way that touches hearts and minds forever.


Friday, August 17, 2012


Just as we swore-in to Peace Corps two years ago, today I returned to the Peace Corps office in Asuncion, Paraguay with my fellow G33 volunteers for a final "chau" to my office and the start of my life as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV). After several days of paperwork, signing forms, and evaluations it was finally time to go. We did it!

After some final meetings discussing the future of the CED sector, I rushed to the conference room for our swear-out ceremony at 3pm. Our second-in-command discussed all that we had been through as the G that wouldn't quit- the loss of a friend, the introduction of new life in the form of a Peace Corps baby, and our resilience through times of joy and sadness in the ups and downs of service. Then our sector-head listed off our various accomplishments as a group and individually painting a lovely picture of the bright future we all contributed to through our work. Finally, our G gave our speeches and presented our gifts to the office, "The Best G-33" of course. And then, it was over.

One last round of terere at the office, one last trip to the mall, and one last chat.  I guess that was Peace Corps. I am no longer a volunteer. Now a RPCV.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


It is the end- the end of my Peace Corps service. Honestly, I'm not really sure how to react. How does one sum up 2 years of one's life that have been so fundamental and life changing in the way she views the world? I'm not even sure where to begin on feelings, a mixture of sadness, excitement, and even relief.

My last day in site was lovely. I visited the comedor one last time. No big parties, we'd already had the farewell party, so just a pleasant and normal day of operations. Everything felt virtually the same as always until the end when I had to say goodbye to my volunteer serviadoras. My eyes watered up and I stumbled away from the big wooden shutter doors of the institution I helped to create and for so long had made a home for myself and over 400 kids in Yuty. The girls caught up with me before I could get very far and helped me hold back the tears. I'd already resolved that morning as I tore down my bed and packed the rest of my house to not even bother wiping the tears- more would come.

I walked to barrio Maria Goretti and had planned to spend a few hours with my boyfriend before my evening activities. The chat was short-lived as our time together was coming to a close. I bid farewell to his friends and family, "a pleasure to know you" was all I could manage. This would be the last time I would ever see his house, family, or friends... and all there was left to do was walk away. I greeted people in the streets the entire walk to my barren home almost in a trance. No text messages, no calls. in the plaza I sat down on a brick wall and cried. I called my site-mate to come and find me for some terere. No bother wiping the tears, still more to come.

We headed back to my site-mate's house for our terere date, then to my house for a nap. Hard to siesta with so much on the mind! By mid-afternoon a good friend showed up in another friend's car to take me on one last trip to San Antonio to the home of my best local friend. We watched the sunset in the west over the herds of cattle coming in from the fields afar, we joked around at the pool and snapped photos. My friends took videos of my final moments visiting the baby bunnies, pigs, and alligators at Estancia San Antonio, even my goofing around on the old organ at the chapel onsite. Soon enough it was dark and we headed back to my house for a final goodbye. I had to say goodbye to many things in that one moment. For one, I had to give up my cat Lloron who'd been my best friend and confidant in the animal world since my very first day in site. Two, I had to say goodbye to my close friends. We wrapped Llorn in a towel and his wriggled and cried at his "girlfriend" as my neighbors dog chased her around the house. My friends hopped in the car and rolled way down my dirt road. No bother wiping the tears, still more to come.

I packed up the rest of my house and as requested stopped at my landlord's house for a surprise goodbye party with neighbors. We drank mate and eventually got to pizza and soda. Another close friend with a truck pulled up in the middle of the party to join, signalling that it was time to leave my barrio and more specifically my house for the very last time. After tearful goodbyes with my neighbors, especially the kids, I went and picked the final swiss chard and squash in my garden and loaded the last of my bags in my friend's truck. One last run through, and it was time to close the door on my home and my life in San Luis. No bother wiping the tears, still more to come.

The ride away was tough but once we got to my friend's everything was so new and bright it was hard to be too sad. I had a dinner invite at my host family's house, so I headed over just as the new volunteers coming to replace me rolled in on the bus. The spread at my host family's was HUGE with chicken, beef, and chorizo, salad and mandio too! Yummy! My "nieces" ran around the table, we played with our food, and talked about future plans. Most of all, we laughed and joked about our years together. Sooner than later, it was all over and I was saying goodby to my host brothers, sisters, family and my first home in Yuty. No bother wiping the tears, still more to come.

I then had a final dinner at my friend's house with the new volunteers to tie up all lose ends and turn over my projects. I laughed- MORE meat and salad. Yikes! We laughed, my jaw was hurting already from all the chewing. My new travel adventures with a friend from the UK in mind, we told travel nightmares and hoped for the best. We wandered into bed rather dazed, all of us embarking on new lives. I slept very little that last night and woke up a zombie to the world, staggering to the shower and nearly falling asleep in the luke-warm water. I pushed on to breakfast with my last goodbyes to follow. It was a long morning until that 9am bus. First, bye to my follow-up volunteers with "good lucks" all around. I felt good leaving my projects in capable hands. Then bye to my friend as she dropped me off for a final goodbye to my site-mate. I ran to visit my host sister and roommate on the way to the bus terminal where my best friend, boyfriend, and coworkers from the comedor waited for last hugs goodbye. Final gifts exchanged, hugs and kisses to everyone, and there I was on the bus passing the plaza... the commercial center... the yerba factory... the fields... one last time. By now the full-fledged tears were running down my cheeks. I couldn't bear it any longer as I peered out the windows through my self-produced blur at my little spot on the map- My YUTY. I burst into sobs as we drove away on the red, dust-filled highway north. For the next hour or so I continued to reminisce and wish this wasn't a real goodbye. The bus driver, clearly concerned was sweet enough to give me a free ticket to the capital, "Don't worry," he said, "You just need to relax that's all." Tranquilo, indeed the only way forward. My mood was somber until after 3.5 long hours we hit the pavement and the modern world of Latin America. I finally dried my eyes.

The saddest bits over, time to move on.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Omnibus Adventura Gua'u

In preparation for my new job in Northern Ireland, I have been quite busy with visa paperwork and related errands. As there is no UK Embassy in Paraguay, I was required to go all the way to Buenos Aires (20 hrs via bus one-way) to do my biometric data and turn in paperwork... which would then be forwarded to Brazil for further processing and approval/denial. Odd that it takes the collaboration of 5 countries (UK, USA, Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil) to get one temporary work visa. Goodness!

Anyhow, while all that has been a somewhat anticipated and yet rather ridiculous investment of time and effort- I did not expect it to get near as absolutely crazy as it eventually did. Thank you Latin American buses for my wildest travel story ever:

I should have known that my travel experience was going to be riddled with awkward problems when even before we got out of Paraguay (only 45 minutes to the border), we hit a cow. Yes- a COW. Luckily, the damage was apparently minimal because we stayed mostly on schedule for our border crossing and document check. Once on the other side, however, we hit something else!!! It was too dark to know what it was, but all the accidents meant we spent two hours from 11pm-1am in a repair shop.  We managed to make it to Buenos Aires in under 24 hours, though, in the end. 

All went off without a hitch in BA. Paperwork submitted and mailed to Brazil. No problems finding the hostel. A great visit with my friend Nahuel walking the centro and eating out. Lovely really.

My spirits high, I hopped on my return bus just one day after I had arrived for the long trip home. Four hours into the trip, things took a very precarious turn. A young lady and her 4-month baby were traveling with us alone back to the lady's home in Asuncion, Paraguay. Along the road and possibly aggravated by the rather uncomfortable travel situation, the lady's appendix burst. Dealing with the sharp pains and misery, she was unable to care for her baby as she vomited in the bathroom and sat rocking back and forth on the double-decker's stairs. Thus the passengers of the bus started to take turns rocking the baby and collaborating bottles and formula to help him calm down. The passengers pressured the bus drivers to take the lady to the nearest hospital, but being in an unknown area they did not want to leave the main road. They said they preferred to call an ambulance to wait for us at the next toll booth. However, once we arrived at midnight, there were no services available and the drivers were not even sure of the local emergency number. The passengers began to get online on their phones and look up hospital and ER information. Finally, after numerous calls and pleading, the police were contacted and an ambulance sent... after 1.5 hours on the side of the road. Thankfully, the baby had gone to sleep and the mother was still with us albeit in waves of pain. 

The ambulance took the mother into the truck to do a preliminary checkout and within minutes realized they needed to get the lady to an operating room immediately. We bought out the baby, but the paramedics would "not take responsibility" for the child. The drivers asked a passenger to give up their seat and stay in who-knows-where Argentina to take the baby to the hospital and care for the baby and mother at least until the operation was over and a contact could be reached. Understandably, I feel, nobody offered. The ambulance, meanwhile, was anxious to go and finally without warning took off- without the baby!!

So, there we were a bus of 70 strangers with a 4-month old baby in the middle of the highway. Now what? We found some numbers in the lady's purse to call potential family members, but not even they were willing to come and pick up the baby. We suggested to the drivers that we go to the hospital said to be only 3kilometers back on the road, but they refused. We called the police, but when they arrived the accused the bus of kidnapping the baby complicating the matter even more. We were told that we could not actually hand the baby over to a family member unless a judge determined the family member could be verified. They also would "not take responsibility" for the baby and get him back to mom. The passengers and drivers were at wits end, what could we do then? Finally a break-through. The mom had to be transferred to a new hospital and would pass by the bus on her way in the ambulance. The hospital director in collaboration with the police agreed POR FIN to take the baby with the mom to the operating room. But, we still needed a judge to make it all legal. By this time it was 4am- we had been on the side of the road for over 4 hours. The police started calling around to judges and the passengers started pulling out their identity cards and giving witness accounts to the police describing the situation. They debated taking us to the local police station and requesting everyone's statements... luckily that idea was shut down. Another hour went by and finally, we sign baby over to unconscious mom on her way to the Rosario hospital at 5am. Needless to say, we didn't make it back to Paraguay in under 24 hours.

When I got on the bus, I had a lovely chat with another young lady passenger. We talked about my task in Argentina and discussed some of the things that we knew to be different between Paraguay and the UK/Ireland. In addition to food and weather, one of the things I mentioned was bureaucracy, risk assessments, etc. They just plain don't exist or seem to matter in Paraguay, but in the UK they definitely do. Most of the time, I like that the rules are rather lax in Paraguay. It is much easier to start things up and get things done. But, after incidents like this I remember that a lot of bureaucracy was born out of necessity. If only the bus drivers had proper emergency information, much less a first aid kit which was also lacking. If only there was a standard operating procedure for emergency cases. If only the ambulance was required to take the baby in the first place. If only... I can think of nearly 10 different ways in which a little prior thought and preparation for emergency cases could have solved this situation without 5+ hours of hassle and confusion. 

All I know is, thank the heavens that it was not my appendix that burst on that bus. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

El Siguiente Paso- Irlanda del Norte

As I near the end of my Peace Corps service, I have been deeply engaged in developing and confirming my plans for the future. Sometime during my first year of Peace Corps service whilst taking advantage of time for self reflection, I decided my new goal post-PC was to work next with Corrymeela post-conflict reconciliation center in Northern Ireland. After my first couple of interviews, I wasn't so sure that the dream would become a reality. I had turned in my application back in November 2011, looking to apply for the Long-term Volunteer position. I'm sure you are thinking I'm a bit crazy... another volunteer stint?? I guess the best way to explain is to say it's the experience that I'm after. Anyhow, the staff came back with a second position they wanted to consider me for as well. So, I interviewed for it all. In the end, though, I was both over and under-qualified for the positions available. My spirits a bit deflated I started to change gears and look elsewhere, but in late May was given another shot at a new type of work with Corrymeela. Three times a charm, it seems, as I was offered a position as Training and Facilitation Assistant starting in September 2012! 

Frequently prior to joining the Peace Corps, I was told by professors, friends, and family alike that the experience may not be all that relevant to my life goals and plans. Determined however to fulfill my childhood dream and see it through, I took up my volunteer service in Paraguay with gusto. After 2 years, I feel I must report back to the neigh-sayers: Peace Corps is an awesome step to boost one's career. During my interview(s), particularly the last, my answers to virtually every question from dealing with ambiguous situations to conflict resolution to constructive criticism techniques could be backed up with real life examples from my work in Peace Corps Paraguay. It wasn't only that I could speak in broad strokes about my service over the last 2 years- I was giving examples of work and life from that very same week. I know that my service with Peace Corps has opened more than one door to me that were previously closed. I have learned endless new skills both for my personal and professional life and development. Thank you Peace Corps!

Now for the Next Step: Northern Ireland.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Enfermedades... o sea?

So back in the States, when you hear that a kid at school has lice there is a temporary panic amongst parents with lots of finger pointing and even some major embarrassment on the part of the accused. We have to call in the parents for an information session about how to get rid of such pests in our kids' hair, send home notes with the kiddos to explain the mishap, and call in the school nurse to check all kids for similar health concerns. A school disaster if there ever was one.

Well, in Paraguay, there is a much less rigid view on the the tolerable health of kids and adults alike. Lice is perhaps the least of one's worries. Heck, that's an easy fix- we just have hair washing days at school with anti-lice shampoo. Ringworm? Oh yeah, I've already had that twice and a little tube of cream does the trick. Parasites? Giardia? No biggie- only a week's worth of anti-parasitic pills. Worms? Knock them right out with some dried papaya seeds. Disease is such a common-place reality of life here, it is hard to find a disease that really gets people going. Ok, now that I've said that dengue comes to mind- but even the Vice President was diagnosed so I guess it can't be too bad, right? 

I listened to a NPR broadcast the other day about the e. coli outbreak on pre-washed spinach a few years back, and they blamed it on animal access to the crops and lack of washing. By the way- we wash our spinach and lettuce in chlorine 3 times over before it makes it into a pre-wash bag where it is air-sealed and transported in refrigerated trucks to our grocery store. The spinach farmers felt obligated to apologize for the inability to stop crows flying overhead. Listening as I stared out to my backyard, I couldn't help but giggle a bit. My spinach comes right out of my garden where my neighbors chickens and my own cat are constantly running through and is washed in my well water in my questionably clean concrete sink. I don't feel obligated to say sorry even when I can't get all the dust out. 

I remember when I first arrived in Paraguay, I was concerned about all the sharing of drinks, lack of water/soap for hand-washing, and cleanliness in general from the kitchen to the bathroom. Maybe I've been here too long now, but I'm not all that phased any more. In fact, I have somewhat begun to like the ease of which I can talk about illness and deal with it. Given that sickness is so common to all, I don't worry too much when I am sick. Of course, I treat it- but isn't that just a part of life? Sometimes I wish we could all see illness this way- we are human and are thus not invincible- but hey, we get better!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

No recibĂ­ el Memo

I totally did not get the memo.

It is a freezing cold Sunday night in Paraguay, and I have been casually invited to a quinceanera- a big party in celebration of young lady's 15th birthday, the day she becomes a "woman." I put on my black pants, a nice green sweater, and even bought a new checkered scarf for the party. I wander my way over the church for the confirmation and walk past the 15 girls and 15 boys handing out bulletins for the event. The girls are in little hot-pink tube-top numbers and all the guys are wearing pink ties. I think nothing of it- clearly these are kinda like the bridesmaids for the evening. Lovely!

I take my seat at the side of a pew in the middle of the long sanctuary awaiting the start of service. As I look around, I start to feel a bit odd. Maybe I am just paranoid- but people seem to be looking at me strangely. Why would that be? I take another look around... since when were all the saints dressed in hot pink? As people arrive, naturally 30 minutes late as goes the hora-Paraguaya, I notice that everyone is in pink. Not just pink, they are all wearing full-out gala gowns! Oh geez... I am obviously underdressed. I send a text message of panic to my boyfriend asking what to do, "Just hold your head high, dear- nobody will say anything." I shoot off another text to my site-mate and fellow Peace Corps Volunteer for an American point of view, "Don't give in to the objectification of women- wear your pants proudly." I smile to myself and make sure to stand extra straight and tall throughout the service. Yeah- I am making a statement about a woman's right to wear warm clothes and my favorite color on this chilly eve.

The service is over, and I head to the reception. Never have I seen the municipality event hall look so lovely- pink and white hanging from ceiling to floor, every chair adorned with a pink bow, and floral chandeliers hanging like disco balls over the tables. There is a massive banner of the birthday girl posing in various ways as I walk in the entrance. I greet a family I know and pick my seat at a neighboring table, they shoot me a sideways glance... I see they are not in favor of my silent women's rights statement. The room starts to fill, and the only people brave enough to sit at my table are several 15-somethings that are too busy flirting to notice my poor choice of evening wear. Three hours later, we are still waiting on the birthday girl (I guess they decided to wait till midnight to start the party- technically her birthday starts at that hour). So far, I have seen a whole parade of people I know but hardly any have overcome the verguenza to come and say hello. I feel more and more out of place, this party is way more high class than I'd prepared for. The birthday girl's mom finally says hello and jokes, "Oh, sorry, I thought I told you we had a theme color. Don't you own a dress?" I can't take it any longer- my protest is over- it's time to escape. I gradually inch toward to back door and wait for someone to run in or out with some appetizers. Finally, I catch a break and make a literal run for it.

Around the corner and safely on the other side of the plaza, I run into a friend. I tell my embarrassing story and he laughs, "I can't believe you went to that quince dressed like that. I mean, they spent like 30 million on the party!" Really??? Gosh, some days I think I have totally integrated in the community... others not so much. One thing is for sure, as Americans we feel guilty when we act out of place or have done wrong, but a Paraguayan feels outright shame. Tonight, I may have pulled a faux pas reminding me that I am still US-American, but I sure feel the Paraguayan shame.

Next time, I would appreciate a copy of the memo. Thank you.