I felt like I always wanted to write when I traveled before, and there was always time…but it was a completely different class of journey. Lately, I haven’t had a lot of self reflection time. I live here, I’m in one place, I’m allowed to buy more clothes or items and I don’t have to worry about lugging them around in a huge back pack! That’s something new…I threw out my previous ideas of only surviving with a few shirts because I don’t live in the campo (country). I live in a city and I would probably be shunned if I only had three shirts. These people are all about style. Have I mentioned the style before? It’s just like the 80’s…tight jeans, sparkly everything, and anything but simple. I’ve decided I’m going to introduce the paint splatter look to Paraguay and see if it takes off.
I miraculously found shoes that fit! My feet are bigger than the men’s feet which shouldn’t surprise me, I guess. I also found jeans and a coat! These were huge accomplishments. All the coats here are worn like belly shirts and if you happen to be tall and not built with an impossibly small frame, it’s quite an achievement to find a coat. I forced myself to go into the busy market in Asuncion and deal with the bombarding vendors…it was worth it. The market is crazy, but you can find everything there and it’s all super cheap. I’m fortunate enough to live in a town with a market, as well, but Asuncion has everything for a lower price. It’s a bit reminiscent of New York city’s china town, minus the creepy basements.
I’ve neglected to paint a picture for you all. I feel awful about this. Why haven’t I documented my thoughts and images as I’ve experienced or seen them? They were so overwhelming at first, but as I adjusted, I became more accustomed…and now what was so astounding at first is what I may see on the daily. I’m not saying these things are less charming, but some things I’ve almost forgotten how foreign or strange they would be if I had a visitor from the states. I don’t live in the campo, so I have a lot more luxuries. For example, I have a huge super market in my town and I can even buy mozzarella! I’ve made vegetarian pizza twice, and yes, I did take pictures. I’m one of those people…but the food looked so pretty. You must understand what a delicacy this was. The first time it was exciting and depressing at the same time because I wanted to share the meal with someone, but there was nobody. This has been the tough part. The culture. Ay. I have mostly guy friends, but if one came over for dinner? Right now, that‘s not a good idea…it’s going to happen at some point, but I feel like my host mom already thinks I’m horrible for having guy friends. She’s a bit older. My female friends all have families, so I’d have to make a huge dinner and bring it to their house. I will do that in the future, but I’m afraid everyone would freak out at the large quantity of vegetables I cook with. The four food groups here consist of: salt, red meat, lots of fat, and cheese. And more salt. And carbohydrates. That’s more than four, but you get what I’m saying…Grease broth is a specialty.
I made brownies and gave them all away so I wouldn’t eat the entire pan myself, and everyone was so impressed. “You know how to make cake?!” I explained it was from a box, but regardless, everyone still thought it was such a talent. I think people have some misconception that we all have servants in the states. The first time I swept my room in my training site, everyone almost died.
Right now I still don’t have “work” besides trying to build community contacts. I do feel a bit crazy, but I know everything will come together just like it did in Americorps. I have faith in that. Everyone (other volunteers who have been here for a while) tells me not to compare myself or my projects with others because everyone’s sites are completely different, along with their projects. This is true. It’s just hard when I already have people in my sector with busy schedules and I still don’t have anything…but it will come in time. Paso a paso…
There are a lot of good people here that take care of me. For example, the other day my friend (another volunteer) came and stayed the night with me and we were walking to the terminal. I decided to walk with her just because as rubias (blondes), it can be quite rough. As we were walking a car pulled over and shouted, “Natalia!” It was a friend of my sister’s boyfriend and he gave us a ride to the terminal. Que suerte! The night before we had gone to a huge festival my town celebrates annually, and I was waiting outside of the dance for my friend. There were so many people and the minute I’m left alone, a million creepsters approach me…I’ve learned how to be really rude to try to get my point across for men to leave me alone, but I saw a familiar face, a really nice boy I met at a few of the outdoor music shows I’d been to. I told him I was tired and wanted something to eat, and immediately he got me a chair and we waited by his friend’s bbq pit for some meat that was grilling. I could go on with stories like this.
My three year old Paraguayan niece didn’t utter a word to me for an entire month. It drove me crazy. Kids usually love me and this cute little girl ignored me until I decided one day to approach her again. I started counting out loud incorrectly, and then we became best friends. She wants to follow me every where and yesterday she buried me under a mountain of stuffed animals, and then she would point to everything and ask me how to say it in English. I had shown her flash cards with shapes on them a few days before, and I cannot tell you how proud I was when I heard her say, “Circle!!!” I was cooking in my house and she was on the floor with the stack of cards and proudly held up the right card to me. It reminded me of when I was in Spain and three year old Pablo would sit in his stubborn five year old brother’s class, and in the cutest voice he proclaimed, “BLUE!” Oh, those are the sweetest moments.
Yesterday, Heidy (my three year old Paraguay niece) was standing on her chair at the dinner table and singing about an elephant while doing wild hand motions and I thought, “How lucky! I hope she never changes…” Children are so beautiful and inhibition free, but I feel like it’s something that’s been robbed of kids here. I feel like the dictatorship really scarred a lot of people and have even stifled the youth to a degree…I don’t expect to change the world, but if I can reach any of the kids or show them that other opportunities exist, that they have the power to do what they dream, I’ll be happy. I don’t think that’s impossible.
I met a Canadian here who is from German descent and lives on a German colony and he told me, “I don’t want to offend you, but don’t expect to change anything…”
That really got me. He had no idea how much that irked me. If we all thought things were impossible, that dreams are only meant to be dreams, what kind of life is that? I don’t expect to change a culture or society, I’m not here to impose my beliefs on anyone, but I do have a dream that I can empower the people…even if it’s one person. I’m not going to let cynicism bring me down. I know I will get worn down and frustrated, but how long did it take for women to get rights in the US? What if they thought there was never a reason to fight or continue? What if we were all submissive and accepted all realities as something inevitable? To each his own. I think it all starts with a seed.
I will be brave and I will try my best. That’s what I can do. I won’t bury my dreams.
I explained to table full of people that I wasn’t here to teach English, that it wasn’t my goal, but it is a part of my culture and I will share that skill, but I was primarily here to serve the people. Dinners can be rough. It was my sister’s boyfriend’s birthday, but everyone was focused on me. He gave me the better chair and everyone wanted to talk to me about the Peace Corps. I understand the curiosity, but I always feel bad when all the attention is on me, and the pressure is pretty rough at times. I just want to eat without everyone being obsessed with if I have eaten that type of food before…it feels like everyone’s personal goal is to get me to eat more red meat but I’m determined to not sacrifice my entire health to appease others. In a culture where everyone is obsessed with talking about one’s weight, how do they expect me to conform in every way? My perspective is that I value diversity, and if a foreigner ate differently, I would respect that. However, nobody was raised amongst diversity here, so it’s not quite viewed in the same way.
Everyone seems to be astounded by my Spanish. I still don’t understand that because I obviously lack a lot, but I explained that I started learning when I was fourteen. I told the story of falling in love with a Selena CD of my dad’s and how I poured over the lyrics. I became obsessed with Spanish when I finally had the opportunity to take a class. I told a group of girls this at my friend’s wedding party, and later my friend shouted to me, “Natalia, this song is for you!” I thought I would really have to focus on the lyrics and then the song started…Como la flor by Selena!!! I was so happy and I danced with all the other ladies and sang along with all the words. Everyone laughed and said, “Natalia, you really know how to have fun!” That was a good night.
The people always describe me here as open and fun, and they endlessly tease me because of this. We’ve got a good rapport. I would say they mostly love when I try to speak Guarani, eat meat, drink and dance. I’ve often been mistaken for Brazilian or German, and when I explain that I’m from the states, everyone acts as though I’m royalty. This is sometimes very frustrating. I once shouted, “ My nationality and my appearance are not worth anything!” I know it’s seen as a novelty, and it’s odd to be on the other side, but I just want people to see me for me sometimes.
My Spanish is always improving, I’m thankful for that, but still, I feel so stifled at times! I want to shout, I want to say exactly what I mean, I want to be understood and be able to dance on the streets without a huge negative connotation. I think I just have to deal with the judgment.