The End is Here

Summarizing two years of your life isn’t easy. Doing so is even more difficult when those two years consisted of a non-stop series of new experiences in a different culture where everyday brought new lessons, adventures, challenges and triumphs. Every Peace Corps volunteer in the world comes home to curious friends who ask, “How was it?” The problem is, this isn’t some week-long trip which yielded an easily relatable slideshow that can tell the whole story. This was, for me, the single most rewarding, challenging, and defining experience of my life. It’s something that I will probably be looking back on and analyzing for a very long time. There are a few points that I think I am ready to cover with this final post as a Peace Corps volunteer, but I think in the end, this will really only scratch the surface of what is ultimately an ocean of stories, lessons, and insights.

Beginnings

For anyone who never had a strong personal connection with a professor during college, it may sound cheesy, or even far-fetched, to hear someone talk about how a professor could have changed his or her life. But I had one of those life-changing professors my freshman year. That professor’s class centered around the relationship that we have with society. What do we take from it and what do we offer it? For many people, jury duty and taxes are the extent of the “give” side of that “give and take,” (and neither of those public duties are completed with much enthusiasm).

I kept in touch with that professor, and I chose him as my academic advisor. I revealed to him that I wanted my first job out of college to be one that gave me the opportunity to serve some part of society that has been inured to it’s lack of aid and resources, and he steered me towards a position with AmeriCorps.

I signed up to be a case manager for youth on probation in low-income areas of San Diego. That position opened my eyes to the frustrating limits of the juvenile justice system, but I got to see first hand how one person can have a profound impact on a situation that society ignores. Juvenile justice is, in many regards, just a broken, self-perpetuating system full of kids that no one wants to take the time to deal with. That year-long contract flew by and ultimately led me to the Peace Corps. Everyone has their own reasons for joining the Peace Corps, but for me, it was a desire to keep that rewarding AmeriCorps experience going, only in a new and different setting. More than two years after arriving in Paraguay, I can say that desire was fulfilled, and then some.

Training

Despite only lasting three months (out of a total of 27 spent in-country), training feels like it makes up a large part of my experience here. Part of that has to do with the great family I stayed with who I’m sure will be lifelong-friends of mine. What really makes it stand out in my memory is the fact that, at the time, everything was so new. That meant learning a new language, (or two languages, if you count filling in those giant gaps in Spanish), understanding the culture, getting my nose used to the onslaught of equal parts terrible and aromatic smells. Most of the things that happen day to day at this point in my service don’t seem strange, but it’s all the same stuff that, during training, was more culturally-confusing than a cricket match broadcast in Russian.

Every trainee arrives in-country with different backgrounds, but everyone shares the first chapter of their Peace Corps lives together. You inevitably form some strong connections during the time, which makes the abrupt end to training somewhat challenging. Just as you get comfortable, it’s time to move again.

Concepcion

Many volunteers talk about when it really sinks in that you’re in the Peace Corps. For some, it happens immediately after getting off the plane. For others, it’s at some point in training. For me, it didn’t happen until I drove through half of Paraguay to get to my site for the first time at the end of training. The reality of my life for the next two years slowly sank in over the eight hour trip through empty plains, past garbage-bag-tented huts, over a dirt road that looked like it had been involved in some sort of terrible mortar-battle. Every kilometer we traveled on that old bus, every anteater and stray goat we dodged, it sank in deeper that I was getting what I wanted; I was in the Peace Corps.

The road to Concepcion crosses through a largely uninhabited region of the country. There are stretches of road where the vegetation grows so high that you can’t see anything beyond the road. Then, suddenly, it opens up and you find yourself in the city. The word “city” is used in the Paraguayan sense of the word; there are only a few buildings that are over two stories, and only two main roads are paved.

My very first day in the new site was my birthday, the first of three which I would celebrate in Paraguay. My community contact knew that, and somehow managed to tell all the people in my neighborhood that I met that afternoon as I wandered around shaking hands and rattling off the same string of basic Guarani phrases that explain what I was doing there. One old woman who lived in a shack near the river who came out to meet me ran back into her house and emerged with a suitcase-sized bag full of grapefruits which she gave me as a birthday gift. Just a day before, I had worried how I would be received in this new setting; I can’t really express how welcome I felt at that very moment.

Most volunteers talk about the process of “settling in” to a new site; a period of introducing yourself and getting comfortable. I was not a follow-up, meaning that there was no volunteer there before me. That meant that most people in my part of the city did not know what Peace Corps was, or why I had chosen to leave the US. The United States is, in many ways, glorified to a ridiculous sense thanks to the crappy television that we manage to export. Many people assumed that I had been exiled as a form a punishment. Consequently, explaining my motivations and goals for the next two years was somewhat difficult. So for me, settling in was a period spent gaining trust.

The teachers at a local school were openly suspicious about my reasons for being there. Was I there to spy on them and pick some to fire? Was I there to simply replace them? It was a slow process, but every lesson I gave and activity I did showed the teachers, students and parents that I was not someone to be feared. After a few months in site, suspicion turned into respect. The no-frills education-style here is characterized by lectures with no student participation. Kids simply sit at a desk and copy notes from a board. When my very first lesson with the kids got them out of their chairs and outside for a group activity, I won a lot of fans. Few of my educational activities would have been considered groundbreaking in the United States, but they were received well by my young audiences who were eager to try something new. I can close my eyes and conjure up countless images in my mind of my smiling students running up to the gate when I arrived at the schoolyard in the morning, always hoping to play a new game that day.

Highlights

The last few years have had their rough patches just like any other period in one’s life, but those were all overshadowed by the better parts.

Before moving to Paraguay, the most welcoming people I had ever interacted with were the Irish, though I imagine it’s that ubiquitous social-lubricant known as alcohol that they’re so fond of that makes them that way. What it is that makes Paraguayans so neighborly remains a mystery to me. The families that I had during training and in my two sites were incredible ambassadors to this country. The personal connections, both with those families and with all the locals I worked with, represent some of the best highlights from my time. My neighbors and hosts looked out for me like I was a member of their own family, (and sometimes even better). Everyone that I lived with respected the sacrifice that volunteers give, and were openly appreciative.

My work was deeply rewarding, and full of highlights in its own right. My largest project in Concepcion was a parenting workshop and forum that I set up with a local school. We met to discuss strategies for improving communication with their children, helping with their homework, etc. I began the workshops with a great deal of trepidation, as I was unsure how my audience would receive me and my message. After presenting my outline for the first few sessions one day after a large mass in the local church, I was unsure how many people would even show up. I will never forget opening the door the first day to find a room full of parents, all eager to listen and participate. That project grew during my time in Concepcion, and remains a self-sustaining group where parents meet to discuss parenting.

Paraguay is located in an ideal spot in continent for traveling. It’s nickname, “The Heart of South America” offers clues to anyone who can’t picture where it is in their head, (hint: it’s centrally-located). While trips I took to bordering countries were all great, the best trip I took was one that took place within the borders. Rather than summarize that boat trip adventure in all its idiosyncratic glory, I’ll just point you to the original post.

Of course, there was one particularly disappointing lowlight.

I was watching a World Cup game on a small TV that appeared to have been manufactured at some point during the Carter administration, when a Peace Corps official called. A cold voice informed me in a matter-of-fact tone that due to security concerns, I was to be evacuated immediately from my site. That was a Saturday afternoon, and I was forced to leave the next day. I never saw the city again. It was extremely difficult to have never had the opportunity to say goodbye to any of my students. I had to send out messages to all the contacts in the city with whom I’d been working.

Lessons

There have been small fortunes made by countless motivational speakers who manage to fill hours in the conference halls of airport hotels with a simple message. In my endless altruism, (and my deep-seated aversion to the avaricious charlatans of the self-help industry), I offer you this advice for free:

Say yes.

As I suffered through the process of essentially teaching myself Guarani, (as well as polishing what was a shaky foundation of Spanish), I realized that the best way to learn a word was to have some unique experience tied to it. Making a flash card of a new word wasn’t nearly as effective as going out and making a fool of myself while trying to use it. So when someone would invite me to go -fill in new word I’ve never heard before-, I didn’t ask what it was or grab a dictionary. That once led me to a field where students had made some sort of obstacle course that involved a pit of black oil. Saying yes once led me to a game in town where a greased up piglet was chased by little kids, and the kid that caught it got to keep it. Saying yes once led me to a street at two in the morning where an old lady with a strange doll predicted my future. I could go on, but my point is that weird, interesting stories generally start when you just roll with it, even when you don’t know what the heck that person is inviting you to.

I think the most important lesson I’m taking away from this whole chapter in my life is this: The more I learn about the world, the less I can say I know for sure. Paraguay has challenged what I thought I knew about myself and about humans in general, and it has changed my definition of the word “need” in ways that only living in a poor country can. I look at my future after Peace Corps, and my priorities for my life are much different than they were two years ago. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that extremism, either political or religious (or in any other form), is concentrated in populations where interaction amongst groups of different cultures or perspectives is limited. A religious extremist has probably never been exposed to any other set of beliefs. A citizen who lauds his country’s supposed infallibility has probably never traveled beyond its borders. Yet those who hold extremist beliefs all share one thing in common: They know for sure that they are correct, and that you are wrong. In certain cases, I’ve discovered, uncertainty is better.

In the end, I took more away from Paraguay than I expected I would

PC great for people who seek a simple existence. Before you go all Kerouac or pull an Into the Wild on your family by moving to the Alaskan wilderness, consider the Peace Corps. Sure, you’ll have to actually interact with people in a way that Christopher McCandless never wanted to, but you can get that taste of adventure and asceticism without all the bears and poisonous wild-berries.

I remember when I was packing my bags before leaving the US, I pictured my life in Paraguay being akin to Kevin Costner’s life in Dances with Wolves. I imagined extreme isolation, apprehensive and confused natives, strained communication that led to charades, wild animals, etc. Ultimately, my conditions here were never that bad. Most rural volunteers live in homes that are far more devoid of modern luxuries than my homes here have been, but even they have electricity much of the time. However, I, like most volunteers, have had my share of isolation, charade-style communication, run-ins with strange and dangerous animals, and the occasional run-in with a criminal or two.

What I see when I think about my last two years is an amazing series of snapshots. Burned into my memory is a neighbor dancing at his wedding, my host uncle standing over an oil-drum-turned-barbecue cooking, taking a nasty fall in a shoddily-constructed inflatable castle, making an entire family practically spit out their food from laughing after I accidentally confused a filthy curse word with the food I was eating, playing volleyball in 110 weather, my encounter with a snake, countless hours spent drinking Terere and the ineffable sense of calm while sitting under a tree in light rain. I’ve tried my best to share this experience with anyone who has been interested in following along, but looking back, I now realize that this was just a glimpse; Pictures, stories, videos – they don’t do it justice.

I found so much that I never realized I was looking for. Between the friends I made, the families that welcomed me into their homes and made me a member, and the lessons I learned about myself and the world, I found a level of happiness that I would wish on anyone. I hope that my words these past two years have managed to convey how much I enjoyed all of this, and that they gave you some degree of vicarious pleasure.

I know that this is not the longest post I’ve ever written, but I’ve come to realize that all the best stuff that I take back with me is the stuff I want to keep to myself. Thank you for reading, and for all of your kind comments. I’ll continue to blog in the future, over at http://www.modestpress.com. Gone South will be retired but remain accessible at www.gonesouth.org.

  • Karen Siegel

    Jonathan! I just read this! When are you going to write your book? I need more details, more anecdotes, more of you!
    XXX, k