This session is all about housing, food, and why I don’t need to change my American perspective just this once…
Let me begin by saying that my sister and brother-in-law (along with every other member of my family) has done an excellent job spoiling—I mean, loving—me. For this reason, I have come to have rather high expectations in life. I came into the Peace Corps expecting physical and emotional hardship, all the while knowing in the back of my mind that the good times would certainly outweigh the bad and that I would have an exceptionally wonderful service simply because I’m me.
This is not entirely untrue. During training, I was one of the few trainees who encountered no problems with my host family. I had privacy, good food, encouragement, and a sense of inclusion in the family. Now as a volunteer, while not in the ideal situation, I still have come across a loving family that has offered me a full access to their home, their hearts, and their time.
I expected this wonderfulness to continue without hindrance. As I searched for more permanent housing, my host sister mentioned this beautiful 2 story house up the street. It is fabulous by rural Paraguayan standards and pleased my American sense of material elegance: it had a large kitchen with a gas stove (yay!), an unnecessarily large bathroom with the best water heating system available in the country, three bedrooms, and an attic that could be converted to make the perfect dance and arts studio. Of course, I wanted this house.
The owner, currently in Argentina, wanted me to pay $400USD. I laughed out loud because A.) I’m not paying USD for anything here B.) “volunteer” means I have no money, US or otherwise. Trying not to insult her, I explained that I “can’t” pay in USD. Then she asked for $450g, which is more reasonable (and well under $400USD) and I said I’d consider her offer. After conferring with other volunteers I concluded that I would only afford that house if I ate instant noodles for two years and never left my site. The other volunteer in my area is only paying $200g for her house, which is smaller but is still very nice. My counter offer was $300g. She didn’t budge. My max was $350g and she still didn’t budge. She politely thanked me for my interest and hung up the phone.
Are you kidding?
Aside from being upset that she was throwing off my success-groove, I was saddened by this woman’s apparent lack of business savvy. Our town is VERY small. I am the only new person to arrive in three years. She simply isn’t going to have any other offers on that house! She would rather have no income and have the house overrun by spiders than to have an additional $300g in her account each month (only $150g less than she expected). What nonsense!
So I’m still with my great host family, but sleeping in an old corner store. This is less than fabulous, but I have to remember that I am in the Peace Corps. Not the chuchi-super-fancy-house Corps, not the Desperate-House-Wives-of-Atlanta-Corps, but the I’m-dedicating-two-years-of-my-life-to-help-others-and-better-myself Corps. That might mean not having a two story house, which is fine.
Did I mention that a lot of my fellow volunteers and living in wooden shacks, sharing a room with three or more children, fetching questionable well water, and using wood burning stoves? Yeah. I won’t complain about my situation. But that’s just it. I have lived so well it is difficult for me not to expect more. It’s not a matter of deserving more, or needing more, or even being dissatisfied with less. It is simply that I am accustomed to more, and part of my Peace Corps journey seems to be lowering my expectations in life…right?
That is counter intuitive to me. No part of my upbringing supports that expectations should be lowered. If anything, expectations should be raised and precedents exceeded.
The standard of living should be raised. Why not? Why not have a community with clean running water, and secure and comfortable housing that uses sustainable resources? Isn’t that why we have Rural Economic Development and Rural Health and Sanitation departments in the Peace Corps? We aren’t preaching the gospel of superficiality and capitalism so much as trying to make people’s lives easier. There is nothing easy about hand washing clothes in filthy river water or chopping down every damn tree in town just to cook dinner.
So basically, I’m not changing my standards. I’m content with what I have but will continue to aim for more/
Let’s take Paraguayan food for example. Grab an animal, cook it in grease, and add some mandioca (like potatoes with nothing on them). Dinner is done! Everyday. I won’t settle for that. So what did I do? I made tofu fried rice for my family, using the healthiest veggie oil I could find, a crap-load of veggies, and tofu instead of animals. Before that I made whole wheat pasta with eggplant and tomatoes, and before that I made veggie omelets. They loved it all! Three days this week my family ate healthier because I didn’t settle for, “Well, at least they have food.” If you’re going to eat, why not eat food that actually benefits your body?
If you’re going to live, live well.