Throughout time in the Peace Corps, during the slow unraveling of one’s cultural biases, as normal standards are gradually chiseled away, volunteers are at times confronted with the stark contrasts between the borders of comfort in which they once existed and the limitless frontiers that have come to take their place. I, for one, experience this on an almost daily basis. Oh, the things I now accept as normal (even expected), and oh, the types of food I will unquestioningly eat without skipping a beat. Oh, the stuff that I do (alone or along with my Paraguayan neighbors) that is just part of my life anymore. Most would petrify any of my suburban dwelling neighbors from back in the states. I would be willing to bet that if most of those said neighbors bore witness to even 20% of what I do on a daily basis, they would have me committed. And to be honest, when I get enough perspective and am able to step outside of my little Paraguayan world for a moment, I can’t say that I would blame them.
A minor example would be as follows: the other day, my neighbor’s bull got loose and ran into the woods like some harmlessly rebellious teenager who just read Walden for the first time (like me at age 16, for example). He summoned me with what I could only describe as the local dialect of “campo calls” (basically, Guarani-infused whoops and hollers to attract attention or express any one of a number of emotions) to explain the situation. I immediately understood through a series of grunts and hand gestures that he was employing my help in retrieving his upstart of a young bull. Without question, I broke off the nearest sizable ‘cow stick’ from a tree and charged headlong into the forest. I ended up spending the next hour shoe-lessly crashing through thickets, chasing this bull back toward my neighbor who waited patiently on horseback smoking a cigar and occasionally offering yelps of encouragement.
Little by little (poco a poco, as they say) I have watched myself become not just more comfortable, but totally at home in this new culture, in this strange place. Where over a year ago I felt like a fish out of water (and granted, at times, I still do), I now settle easily into any number of tasks and a myriad of otherwise ridiculous situations. If I have a bad day, I no longer seek refuge and time alone--I head to a neighbors house to visit, to bullshit with some friends, make some jokes, drink tereré, play with the kids and unwind a bit. Its feels wonderful to be in this place, physically and mentally. It has been a long, hard process to get here, but I am glad I have arrived. Still, in other ways, my transformation into a Paraguayan campesino continues to nag at the old edifices of respectability and the limited understanding of my pre-Paraguayan self. Yesterday was a perfect example.
I returned from visiting a neighbor to find Don Zaccarias curiously absent from the house. His grandson informed me that, “Ohoma kava hapé, omba’apohina upepe”, ‘Don Zaccarias went to work with the bees, he’s over there in the woods’. I grabbed a hunk of mandioca off of the table to stifle my quickly growing appetite (I don’t know why, but I am always hungry in this country) and walked along the worn path through the trees. Soon, I found the Don, shirtless and shoeless, pumping calmly away at his humador (a smoker for working with bees), gently opening a full hive of incessantly buzzing bees. Realizing that he would need help with this and not wanting to go home to change into anything more suitable (bee gear wasn’t an option, but long sleeve shirt and pants would have been a definite improvement), I jumped right in. We proceeded to spend the better part of an hour, elbow-deep in an enormous hive of Africanized honey bees, working slowly to extract the honey and check the colony.
|Don Zaccarias, at 80 years old as of today, just back from the apiary and harvesting some honey 'no shirt, no shoes, no problem' style.|
|Working bees in rural Paraguay 'asi no mas'. Bee equipment is overrated. Or maybe I really am loosing my mind after all. Note: the awesome cut-offs that were, not too long ago, a rapidly disintegrating pair of pants.|
Then, of course, I get stung. It was inevitable, or at least should have been expected. But what wasn’t expected were the first words that came out of my mouth in this sudden moment of pain, my gut-reaction to these instantaneous emotions, the most honest expression of my subconscious bursting forth, “Nderachore, a la puta chera’a!”. That was it. This was me. Distilled, condensed and now freely flowing into the world, the Guarani inside of me rearing its ugly, guttural head to a chorus of excited hoots from my neighbors and from Don Zaccarias. And then I realized, the transformation was complete. I rubbed some honey on the sting to ease the pain (yet another herbal remedy, only indicating further the extent of my acculturation) and returned to the smoky apiary to finish the day’s work. Unfazed, ready for anything, totally at home.
Its amazing how subtly such immense changes can come about. Sometimes I worry that people from home might not recognize me, or at least be very afraid of some of the new habits I have picked up (and rightfully so, they still scare me sometimes). But in the end, I realize that I haven’t fundamentally changed as a person, I have simply expanded my horizons indefinitely and expanded my comfort zone to include just about anything (with some notable exceptions, such as: voting Republican, S+M, crystal meth, and sitting through “Mean Girls”). That’s one of the greatest aspects of the Peace Corps experience, but more importantly, that’s one of the greatest aspects of life. For people who spend most of their time occupying their respective bubbles of comfort, I wish you the best. But there are a million ways that you can shake and challenge and ultimately reconstruct your foundations every day. Look for them. The experience will be terrifying, but so worthwhile in the end. I promise.