Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Latte Factor

Months ago, while at chuchi (super fancy) coffee stand in an even more chuchi mall in Asunción, I decided to splurge on a 12,000 Guarani cup of coffee. This decision did not come easy. After almost five full minutes staring at the menu, weighing the pros and cons of consuming such an extravagant treat, I went for it. Oh the sweet relief when the price tag matched my dreams for this drink. It had vanilla and chocolate and a little cream and I think I may have briefly left my body while consuming it. Whatever I gave up in exchange for blowing my budget for a hot beverage on a 90 degree day did not matter. This concoction hit the spot.

I heart coffee.
Did I mention that at today’s exchange rate 12,000 Guaranis converts to two dollars and seventy-one cents in US currency?

I knew getting into this that we would live differently, radically differently. Although I never had lavish tastes, pre-Peace Corps I usually did not think twice about buying anything under twenty dollars. Now, I give pause to every item priced over ten mil- $2.26. Yet, despite this dramatic shift in tax brackets, I don’t particularly feel a loss. The things we can’t afford, we don’t need.

I’ve always tried to live simply. When we packed our home into storage before leaving for Paraguay, I realized that I may have been fooling myself. In lieu of knickknacks and brand name clothing, we indulged in music, books, and kitchen gadgets. In site, we had two bowls, four plates, three spoons, and used an empty wine bottle for a rolling pin. This is living simply. The Viking food processor waiting for me in my parent’s basement is not.

Of course, sometimes I forget we have a budget. Some days, for example while drinking wine in a restaurant in the capital, I may order a second glass without checking how much cash I have left in my wallet. The thought, though, never strays far.

People adapt to situations and surroundings. Our fundamental design pushes us adjust to our immediate circumstance. We got used to Paraguay and, in just a matter of weeks, we’ll have to re-acclimate to life in the United States. The farther we get from earlier incarnations of ourselves, the more likely we forget the ways we used to live. While I have no intention of giving up the aforementioned food processor upon our return to the States, I hope we don’t lose everything we’ve learned from these frugal days. Because really, who needs more than one whisk?

Worth every Guarani, down to the last drop.

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Newbies Have Landed or A Beautiful Blur

Last Friday morning, 25 brand-spanking-new Community Economic Development Volunteers touched down on the tarmac at Asunción’s Silvio Pettirossi International Airport. The night before, following some minor confusion navigating American Airlines online flight status report, a small group of us resolved to gather just after the crack of dawn to meet their plane.

We're so excited, we're so excited, we're so... exhausted.
Balancing mate and homemade signs, it took everything I had not to hop up and down as our newbies sailed past customs and into the arrivals lobby. For the rest of the day, unable to get that scene from Saved By the Bell where Jesse gets caught taking the caffeine pills out of my head, I repeatedly and compulsively announced my excitement to anyone who would listen. Even a week later, I’M SO EXCITED that G45 has made it to Paraguay.

When preparing for arrival day, most of us in the office joked that trainees forget most of what happens their first day in. Something about leaving all your friends and family to hitch a ride on a red-eye flight headed half-way around the world only to then get dropped off in the middle of nowhere where you may or may not speak one of the languages and probably never even heard of the other doesn’t set someone up for success on the memory retainment front. I, on the other hand, have been reflecting at how the day unfolded all week.

G36 in the first of many group pictures.
After brief introductions in front of the infamous red wall where every new group of Volunteers in recent memory has their picture taken upon arriving in country, we loaded up three trucks and a small bus, and made our way to the training center. 45 minutes later and we hit the ground running. Trainees needed local currency, cell phones, ID photos--the basics to get settled in. This also included a quick informational session called, “10 Things You Don’t Know About Paraguay, but Should.”

Seasoned PCVs always comment on how attractive trainees look. Their shirts and pants are still coordinated and free of holes or stains. Their haircuts are fresh and hand-washing clothing hasn’t chipped all their nails yet. G45 proved no exception: they looked beautiful--and not nearly as terrified as I remember feeling.

Seasoned PCVs also tend to forget how far we’ve come since arriving in country. It’s a cliche we all enter into duty knowing, but never ceases to surprise us when it becomes clear. Many of us join Peace Corps because we want to effect change. In the end, usually we are the ones who leave different.
The training center staff sings their welcome to G45.

Some of these changes impact our core, others resonate in more benign ways. The things we now take for granted, once seemed strange. The situations that currently make us laugh the hardest, once scared us stupid. Most of us don’t even notice this change coming. By way of illustration, on Friday I very casually I told 25 people to relax because getting shocked in the shower is no big deal. Don’t worry about mixing electricity and water, in Paraguay we do it all the time. 

After three years and three days in South America, I don’t know where to begin assessing the changes Kevin and I have grown through, individually and as a couple. With barely three months left, I imagine a little more transformation may still force its way in. Hopefully, though, these last days won’t pass as quickly as that first one.

G45 loading up for the journey to the training center.
After our red-eye flight. It's been a beautiful blur ever since.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Grass is Always Greener in Someone Else's... Season?

As far as days go, April 15th is no stranger to complaining. In fact, if statistical data exists on the subject, I’d bet cash money that the first half of the fourth month of the year is one of the most grouchy periods in the United States of America. This year, however, encouraged an exceptional volume of bellyaching--and not solely in regards to state or federal tax codes. On April 15, 2014, Chicagoans woke up to snow accumulating where spring should have bloomed. 1.4 inches of snow--to be exact--may not usually cause outrage, but this snow appeared on a date where the average high lingers just under 60°. (Not to be outdone, the following afternoon 10.5 inches piled on Duluth, MN.)

Scenes from the winter wonderland that I fantasized about while battling a heat rash on my face that required steroids to clear up.
By the weekend, grass reappeared as temperatures more appropriate for the vernal equinox moved in. Still, though, the residual sting from the coldest winter in Chicago’s history remained. Polar vortexes, four months averaging 22°, cabin fever rage--my city seemed poised on the edge of a Shining-level breakdown.

Meanwhile, in Paraguay, we nearly melted.

At the risk of speaking too soon, traces of fall have snuck up around Asunción. After weeks of on-and-off intense storms, the temperatures have finally dropped into the 80s. It feels positively chilly. [Editor’s Note: I started this post over a month ago, days after the official start of autumn. During this period, temperatures have spiked multiple times into the high 90s with humidity so thick you could scoop up the air and hold it in a coffee mug.]

Months ago, as Kevin and I packed our bags for our December home-leave, many Paraguayans asked me what I was most excited about for our trip. Of course, I was trilled to see my family and friends, but mostly I could not wait to feel cold. Usually, this response elicited a thoughtful smile and agreement. Cold. Hmmmmm.

Terere: The most reliable heat management in Paraguay. In site, the our home’s wiring could not handle the power requirement of an air conditioner. In Asuncion, however, we could not survive without artificial climate control.

Despite the warm fuzzy feeling that overtook my body every time I saw a magical snowy scene in a movie or on Facebook, as I wiped nostalgic tears from cheeks I refrained from sharing this glee with those actually battling winter.

Admitting defeat with terere in the hammock after the 
sticky part of our self-adhesive hooks melted and all 
our stuff fell into a pile on the ground.
Why? Because it makes me crazy when people dismiss my stress (heat exhaustion is real) and tell me that they’re jealous of our endless summer.

For reasons beyond my comprehensive people keep telling me that I have nothing to complain about; they would switch places with me in a snap. They have no idea what we deal with. Yet, even as I explain that the heat here does not compare to any of their vacation spots, some individuals insist on telling me that we have it better. (I suppose the grass is always greener, but it’s like we’re somehow closer to the sun.)

Although I wouldn’t put this lack of sensitivity in the same category as the sleep deprived new mother who tells her friend struggling with infertility that she’s lucky to get to sleep through the night, it still feels pretty rude.

I still not sure how any of us survived our first summer in Paraguay. The nastiest drought to befall the region in a decade provided a mere 10% of the average rainfall typical of the season. Despite heavy humidity, rain never came. The sun brought day after day of triple digit temperatures and nightfall offered little relief.  Crops failed, animals died, and wildfires took everything else. 

During our third Paraguayan summer, Asuncion gained international recognition as the hottest capital in the world. To drive the point home, WWF did a cooking demonstration to illustrate the impact of deforestation. (Paraguay is one of the most deforested places on the planet. Most Paraguayan adults will tell you that the summers of their youth were not nearly this hot.) In cartoons, folks will fry eggs on pavement to prove the heat on a sweltering afternoon. In Asuncion, in we cooked up steak and polenta.

In other words, this year Mother Nature doled out beatings on both sides of the equator. Can’t we all be happy accepting our collective misery without making it a competition? Who knows the impact we could make if we redirected that energy toward, say, addressing global warming. If anything, we should at least make sure to leave ourselves room to complain when the next season rolls in.

Many Volunteers employ similar tactics to beat the heat, but Capy looks a lot cuter. The sun is so strong here that I have one friend who once got sunburned while using the latrine. There are multiple issues to address within this anecdote, but for now let’s focus on the sun part.