Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Ingenio y Creatividad

When one thinks of Peace Corps from the comfort of one's own sofa in the glory that is an American dream home, one's thought process frequently jumps to the challenges of basic living that comprises the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer. Whether that be lack of water and electricity, to growing one's own food, or to walking long distances in ankle-deep mud; the physical differences between life in the developed versus developing world are often what we consider to be one of the biggest challenges in Peace Corps. All that said, from an insider's point of view these physical differences are not actually that big of a deal. In large part, this is because in my service in Paraguay- ingenuity and creativity have resolved a lot of the struggle that one imagines.

Let me give you some neat examples:
Running water-
So, not all of us are as lucky as I am to have running water in our homes. That said, the utility of latrines is not all that terrible when you get into the details. For example, many latrines come with a nice little boxed in seat, they are much easier to care for than a modern bathroom, and if you are really guapa your latrine can actually be a great source of compost if treated with ash from your wood-burning ta'ta'cua. And while it may seem like a real pain to be left without a sink to wash your hands, PCVs often use recycled 2-liter soda bottles to make portable hand-washers with a little soap-holder and all. Good for the environment and you in so many ways: 1) recycled, 2) less water usage, and 3) your hands still get clean! Finally, just because the water isn't running to your kitchen sink and washing machine doesn't mean that you don't have some really tasty water to rehydrate with some terere after a long day in the sun. In my case, just dig a hole in your back yard, find a bucket and some rope, and there you have all the water you could need for a bucket bath, dish washing, and your garden.

Well, the majority of PCVs in my country do have electricity in their homes. But for those days when the lightning strikes or the wind is too strong and your power goes out, you still have plenty of candles to light up the house. It's always much more romantic to read and journal write in candlelight anyway, right?

Limited Access to Processed Foods-
In the good ole' USofA we are pretty used to the idea that food comes in cans and boxes. We have everything from soups to pancake mix to just-add-milk mac & cheese. While these meals are pretty tasty and convenient, it is really not that much more difficult to do all this and more in a humble Paraguayan kitchen. I mean... call me crazy or just way too American... but did you realize that pancake mix is pretty much just flour and baking soda/powder? I guess they may mix it up a bit from time to time, but we are actually paying something like 5USD for that?!? I find that making things from scratch in Paraguay serves many a purpose: A) Helps to calm the mind after a long day of practicing Guarani (and often failing at the most inopportune moments). B) My mom always used to say if you know how to cook then you'll never starve... and cooking from scratch should really be cooking 101. So don't worry mom- I'm good from here on out. C) All those preservatives in boxed and canned foods really do a number on your health. Now that my food is pretty much all fresh from the corner store or my own back yard, I can feel the difference in my vitamin in-take. And, the food tastes sooo much better too! I will never look at supermarket milk the same again... how can I drink that when I don't know the cow personally? D) There are a lot of movements in the developed world about getting back to locally-grown organic foods, but in the Peace Corps this is not a movement so much as a way of life. My eggs come from my neighbors' chickens, my chicken (conveniently) from those very same chickens, my pork/steak from yet another neighbor, my veggies from my garden, my fruit (avocados included) from my back yard, my yerba mate from the suburbs around my town, my rice/corn/beans from local farmers, etc. In fact, at this stage it is actually kinda' a hassle to buy imports... so I don't think that a fair-trade mark is going to go too far out here.

Rough Travel Conditions-
I was certainly one of the first, and for sure not the last to be astounded and outraged by travel conditions in Paraguay. 7+ hours in an old bus without air-conditioning (or heat- take your pick) on dirt roads with rickety old wooden bridges over Amazonian rivers is not exactly my idea of a relaxing travel experience. However, one really grows to appreciate all that time to get to know people from your departamento (you'll never be short of a conversationalist on that long of a ride), taking extra long naps, reading those books you never had time for back in the States, considering and then re-considering your life plan, calling friends you haven't seen in a while, or simply enjoying the scenery. If all that isn't good enough, even the former frustrations with travel limitations due to a combo of bad weather/road conditions have become more of an entertainment factor than anything else. If I happen to be stuck out of site, I can always visit a fellow PCV in another part of the country and learn all about a new town. If I get stuck in site, it's a great reason to throw caution to the wind and cancel all my important meetings in the capital or avoid that really terrible workshop I really didn't want to go to anyway. I mean, who really needed to travel anyhow?

No Malls or (God-forbid!) Super WalMarts-
A Peace Corps Volunteer budget topped with a major lack of shopping malls in the campo can really put a damper on your materialistic spending habits. Every so often a traveling sales-man comes through with new season offers, but it is just not the same as a one-stop-shop for everything. That said, there is a lot you can do with 30.000Guaranis and ingenious local resources. For example, if you happen to lose around 40 pounds (because of all the healthy food and great opportunities to walk long distances in 40 degree C weather), you do NOT have to go shopping. Actually, there is a really nice lady down the street that knows how to take in your jeans and even make you a matching tailored shirt for a tenth of the cost. Another example, if your boot ends up with a hole in it (probably due to the rough cobblestone roads day in and out), you can just head to the shoe tailor's house and he'll get you re-soled and on your way. Or, if you are really in a bind and running low on cash my neighborhood kids can show you have to fix a flip-flop with some fencing wire. Not super comfortable, but kinda fashionable... you'd be surprised. Finally, for all those housewares that we've come up with from the toilet paper holder to the picture frames, all that can be done pretty simply with some wire, nails, scrap wood, and recycled trash. For an extra flourish, buy some paint next time you're in the city and you've got at least a 10USD Walmart sales offer. :-)

At the end of the day, the Peace Corps life... well, life in general in the developing world... is really not all that bad. Once you get past some of the conveniences and get to chisme circles, terere, living from the land, and just plain being tranquilo, you see that what is really important in life never changes... and the rest can be solved with a little creativity.

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