I’ve received quite a few emails regarding my living conditions in Paraguay. People are baffled by the idiosyncrasies, the clashes of modernity and—how shall I say?—the rustic charm of a developing nation. Hopefully, I can clear the confusion.
WHY IS THE PEACE CORPS IN PARAGUAY?
Let’s start with the basics. Why am I here? In theory, my job description includes aiding rural teachers by introducing interactive teaching methods using didactic materials, songs and games. Many rural schools lack these basic activities. The root of the problem (perhaps) was the dictatorship, in which teachers were appointed jobs based on social politics. Teaching had nothing to do with liking children, education, or a sense of social responsibility. It was just a source of income. Fast-forward 20 years after the fall of the dictatorship and that mindset lingers in some teachers and principals—they simply don’t want to teach. On the other hand, you have those that do want to teach but received poor training in how to make education fun. They were trained to believe that teaching meant writing notes on the chalkboard and having all the kids copy. That’s it. Time for tea! I’m here to introduce new ideas to willing recipients. I also work as a tutor for kids that the system has failed. And, I also help w/ community projects.
My secondary job is to improve the general livelihood of youth. This part is quite flexible. It includes job skills training, health and fitness, arts and crafts, social skills, and anything else a child might need to become a productive member of society. I enjoy this part the most because I believe that children can only learn when they aren’t sick, stressed-out, or otherwise unhealthy. I’ve started teaching dance (read: fitness) and health classes. In dance class, I throw in the basics of health, as well as geography and social studies. For example, I choreographed a dance to Shakira’s “Waka Waka” after the World Cup. Before teaching the dance, I did a mini presentation on South African history, geography, and social politics. In my health class, we cover hydration, exercise, and a balanced diet. To make class more interesting, we prepare healthy snacks together and play games dealing with health and food choices. For American kids, my ideas aren’t extraordinary. For kids in my site, my ideas are new and interesting because, for the most part, they have been copying off of the board for years.
HOW DOES PARAGUAY’S UNIQUE POSITION AFFECT MY JOB?
How do I do what I do? My site makes my job interesting. My town, and much of Paraguay, is a brain shattering clash between developing nation and 21 century. I have access to a decent amount of resources but still face economic, social, and logistical hardships. Let’s explore that before I continue:
Weirdness is ubiquitous. For example, a Mercedes Benz must share the road with an ox cart in the capital city of Asuncion. My town just received running water 8 years ago. Many people have cell phones and wireless internet but use outhouses and wash clothes by hand. I believe that the strangeness in the leaps of advancement is caused by political corruption and poor infrastructure. (Mind you, they go hand in hand.) For example, a new politician has no issues pocketing every penny that he receives. As a result, he’s driving a Benz while is neighbor strives to survive selling beans out of the back of an ox cart. Because money doesn’t go where it should, infrastructure is lacking. Water and power shortages are a daily occurrence, assuming that your town has been equipped with those amenities at all. Cell phones and wireless internet are popular because they require minimal government involvement. I’m sure that I said that wrong…for example, there aren’t power lines running to everyone’s houses to supply them with landlines, but some rich dude paid to have a Personal tower erected one town over, so everyone who can afford the one-time-purchase of a cell phone and/or modem has access to wireless communication.
How does this relate to my job? I brought my computer from the States and a wireless modem here, so I can chat with my sister while researching South African history. But to print my notes I’d need to wait at least an hour for a shoddy, Cold War era public bus to take me to the next town, and then wait another hour or more for it to bring me back. It’s only a 15 minute trip but it isn’t pedestrian friendly. Anything revolving paper (printing, books) costs an arm and your first born child because they’re luxuries. I have easy access to electronics stores where I can buy speakers for my iPod; then I can play my iPod during dance class where children are dancing barefoot and battling intestinal worms. I can do my job rather easily but the “rustic charms” of a developing nation are always present.
So when people see that I’ve changed my Facebook status they assume that I’m living somewhere comparable to the US and that I’m on a 2 year vacation. I’m not. Even with my fancy modern bathroom I might end up taking bucket baths when the water goes out. I have to go outside to use the “kitchen” sink. Everything shuts down when it rains because the dirt roads flood. I can IM my family but it takes 4 hours or more to load a YouTube video. I have Ramon noodles and instant coffee but neither does me any good when I can’t heat water during a power outage. (I nipped that in the bud by buying a gas stove, but you get my drift.) Disclaimer: I am not complaining. I am by no means the most disadvantaged PC volunteer.
Socially, there are many blurred lines as well. I can’t tell where I stand. Women in my town do not live alone. They do not travel alone. Most of the time, they do not sleep alone because they should be scared to do so. I’ve met more than one woman in her 20s who still chooses to share a bed with a sibling (when hubby isn’t around) because she’s scared to be alone. Women are usually married by age 20 at the latest, and working on their second or third kid by 25. In my town, women rarely drink in public. (Less than 10 years ago, women did not drink at all.) Girls as old as 18 still need permission to be out after dusk. They rarely get that permission. Public male and female interaction is limited. If you have a male friend over—even if you’re just sitting outside playing cards—he is instantly your boyfriend. And you’re likely screwing him since he visits you.
With all that said, there are a few single mothers in my site, a few women that are in college or university, one girl with a tattoo and labret piercing, a few that drink in public, and a few that have good male friends. Amazingly, these girls don’t have miserable reputations. I’m not sure what any of that means for me, though. I am a 24-year-old unmarried woman who has traveled alone, is living alone, drinks alcohol on occasion and is accustomed to having male friends that I don’t sleep with. Where do I fit into the groove of things?
There are upsides to the oddness of Paraguay. During one of my interactive model lessons in pre-K, we talked about colors and then took a field trip to a student’s grandparent’s house. To explore the colors we learned about, we picked orange oranges straight off of brown and green trees. We petted black and white cows, and chased red, white, and brown chickens. Then we went back to class and made pictures of what we encountered that day using printing paper and Faber Castell markers. Most American kids can’t explore colors in such diverse ways.
And in the midst of it all, I have the EPP kidnapping and killing people in the north, drug trafficking on the Bolivian and Brazilian borders, crazies who take public transit only to cut off girl’s ponytails and sell the hair…and families who keep their doors and windows unlocked all day long.
So if you’re still confused by my job functions and living conditions, you should be. God knows I am.