Right before joining Peace Corps, I spent three months living in South Africa for a study abroad program. I remember waiting to leave at the Cape Town airport after weeks spent romping through the wild bush of the Eastern Cape: there had been so many adventures and so much excitement that I was as high on adrenaline as I was on the new-found girlfriend I was bringing home with me. It was an incredible experience and all I could feel was pure joy.
Right now, I am preparing to say goodbye to Paraguay—a country far less thrilling than the untamed wilds of South Africa, but whose absence I will feel so much greater. This is my last week as a Peace Corps volunteer. These are the last few days I will spend in this little slice of heaven and hell that I have made into a home. These are the last sips of tereré that I will share with a community of people that supported me and loved me and shared their lives with me for two years. These are the last nights I will sit on a porch with my little army of adopted Paraguayan campo dogs—Lobo, Tony, and Tyson—drinking cheap Argentinian wine and smoking hand-rolled black tobacco cigars that taste as sweet as the South American sun. It is in these quiet moments of reflection and appreciation that I can hear and feel my heart slowly breaking.
Leaving this place is going to kill me, but at least that's how I know that this was far more than just some fling, some adventure-seeking high-octane power-trip through a third world country where I got my kicks but missed everything else of value. No. For me at least, living in Paraguay has been a process of slowly getting this country, its culture and its people deeper and deeper under my skin. My life here has often been quiet and slow, sometimes maddening and almost impossible, and everything in between. But one way or another, of all the unlikely places in the world, Paraguay has become such an important part of my life and my development as a human being. It has seen me grow, it has challenged me at every corner to do so, and it has cradled me though some of the darkest and brightest times I have ever seen.
So much of what has gone on here during my Peace Corps service has been a private affair. Living alone in an isolated community means that, while my days were spent working with Paraguayans, most of my nights consisted of long hours alone in my home. In that sense, what has functioned as two years of service to this community, to Paraguay and to my own country has also functioned as a sort of personal, intellectual-spiritual retreat for myself. I am coming home soon but I am not the same person. I don't even know who I am sometimes, but then again, I have never known better. I have tried very hard to share as much of this experience with other people—friends from the states, fellow Peace Corps volunteers, even some close Paraguayan friends—but the reality is that so much of this is incommunicable and so deeply personal that sharing it is impossible.
Every travel and intercultural experience is valuable, no matter how long or how brief. All such opportunities serve the desperately important purpose of breaking down the cultural, social and racial barriers that hinder and harm our world so terribly. But few places or programs in the world offer what Peace Corps offers; there is no other experience in the world like a two year Peace Corps stint. None. I don't mean to come off as pretentious or self-important, and I am sorry if it reads that way. Allow me to make my case: Peace Corps is not tourism, it is not just a volunteer program and it is really not a traveling experience. It is a living experience where in order to even begin to accomplish any volunteer goals we must first integrate into communities and with people that have often never seen Americans before and rarely venture far from home.
“Traveling” and “tourism” are things that Peace Corps volunteers do as a break from this intense living experience; sure we go on trips to other places from time to time, but when we are in our communities, we are not traveling, we are home; we are not tourists, we are just another neighbor. In my community, for example, no foreign tourist could just wander in one day and set up a home and start living. Firstly, they would likely never even find the place and secondly, there are so many social and economic barriers to forcing oneself in the middle of such tight-nit, inter-related, and closed-off communities. The pretext of being a Peace Corps volunteers gives us the in and the experience we have as a result of that foot-in-the-door is like nothing else in the world.
I have mourned with families over dead loved ones. I have been there when babies were born and then watched them grow and eventually learn my name. I have harvested crops and shared in the seasonal bounty of these blood-red soils. I have hunted and foraged in these woods, grown my own food, killed my own meat, and, by necessity, become more in-tune with the weather and natural world than ever before in my life. I have sat at local political meetings and watched my friends speaking in defense of their future and the lives of their children. I felt me heart break with these people when some were thrown homeless onto the streets and I was unable to do anything. I felt the joy of sharing in successful development projects and great personal achievements with so many others. This place is the first community I have ever really felt a part of and I know that when I am here, whether today or in 20 years, I am home.
Have no fear friends and family, I am coming back to the states (at least for a bit), although I am sure you've all enjoyed the respite from my chaos in your own way. But it will be with a heavy, heavy heart; a heart so full of love for this country and its people, for all the incredible friends I have made through Peace Corps, and for two of the most personal and yet community-oriented years of my life.
Re-adjustment will be hard, I know that, it doesn't worry me. What worries me the most at this point? What are the thoughts that have been keeping me up through these hot nights with just the sounds of the cicadas and night-jars for company? Whether Don Zaccarias will get better and have enough company. Whether someone will keep caring and loving my dogs. Whether there is a future for the youth of Guido Almada. Whether this next year and all its fickle weather will diminish the harvest. Whether Don Antonio's wife will ever recuperate and whether his daughter will be able to walk normally again. Whether the Brazilian soy producers will begin to displace these people as they push further west. Whether there will be enough land in the future or anybody left to work it. Whether the community water pump will make it through another brutal summer and who will pay to replace it if it doesn't. Whether Caesar will get a good education and have a decent life despite his disability. Whether the government comes through on their promise of milk cows and chickens for the community. Whether, when I come back, this place is as beautiful as it is now.
I do not mean to idealize it all too much. There are certainly things that I won't miss. But I love this place and these people despite all their flaws, in fact, I love them all the more because of these shortcomings. I know that I will never be Paraguayan and that I will never totally be a part of this community; at the end of the day everyday, I am an outsider. Still, I have come so far in my understanding and my genuine concern for these people that I think it kind of puts me in a different category altogether. I am not a member of this community even though I played a part in it for two years, but the community and all its members are a part of me. That's gotta count for something.
So it seems almost too fitting that this should be my last blog about my Peace Corps service as a volunteer. I will be writing and blogging extensively in the coming months, but as of next Monday, I will no longer be a PCV. This marks my 100th entry since I began this personal blog just before my trip to South Africa almost 3 years ago now. It also marks my final blog from the Paraguayan countryside and my final blog as a Peace Corps volunteer. For the next few months, I will be backpacking and traveling through Patagonia in Argentina and Chile then moving onto Peru and Ecuador. Thank you to all who have followed me thus far on my journey and supported and loved me the whole way. I love you more than you can possibly understand.
Maybe its not that I left my family in the states for 2 years or that I am leaving my family here in Paraguay. Maybe its just that my family has grown and expanded—across countries and continents and languages and socio-economic classes—and now there is just that much more love in the world. Que suerte.
from home, from Paraguay,