Thursday, September 15, 2011

Any press is good press...

Peace Corps spends a lot of time talking about expectations.  From the first inquiry, applicants, then nominees, then invitees, then trainees receive the same advice: lose your expectations.  We gathered loads of other advice too, but this particular piece Kevin and I chose to internalize.  While our potential placement moved through every continent where Peace Corps serves, we both felt relief that we conscientiously elected to keep an open mind and refuse to create fantasies surrounding our future service.  As we begin to settle into the town that we’ll make our home for the next two years, I realize that we could have never dreamed up a situation like the one we now live in.  I haven’t had to worry about our assignment meeting my expectations, but I never had any.  I never felt let down, because I didn’t know what to expect.  So far, we have met a series of wonderful (and sometimes wonderfully strange) surprises.

However helpful I have found this piece of advice, I should have meditated on the following addendum a little longer as well: lose your expectations for privacy.  Coming into this I knew that the privacy I have come to love, cherish, and savor in Chicago would disappear as soon as we arrived.  More precisely, I knew this intellectually, but I didn’t even come close to understanding.  Personal space: gone.  Personal time: extremely limited.  Personal information: everywhere.

Before arriving in site, Peace Corps volunteers receive instruction to spend their first three months getting to know their community.  In place of projects and traditional work activities, volunteers take the time to get to know their neighbors and assess the needs and wants of the populace.  I admit that, as someone who finds meeting new people utterly exhausting, I approached this task with some dread.  After stressing myself out with pep talks and running through introductory scenarios in my head, we threw ourselves into the deep end.  And, of course, all my fears faded as we made our way through the town.  I had built up the process of meeting our new neighbors into an unachievable feat, when really we just needed to put ourselves out there.  Our success, however, had little to do with our sparkling personalities and natural ease.  Really, we have our lack of privacy to thank.  Meet one person and the whole town knows you.

When I hobble through town on my big man’s crutches, I stand out.  I mean really stand out.  In an oddly positive turn of events, people will come out to the street to say hello and ask to hear the story from the source.  And I can’t get away with a simple, “I fell.”  This turns into Where did you fall?  In the shower.  I don’t understand how you hurt your heel in shower.  Didn’t you hurt your butt, too?  No, I when I slipped my one leg turned under me.  How does that happen?  I was washing my feet at the time.  And now I get to mime the whole messy thing out.  At least- as long as I use the crutches- no one expects me to get back into the splits.  This happens every time.  Every time. 

In Paraguay, lack of privacy extends beyond gossip, too.  This past week I started physical therapy in the next town over.  During my second appointment, I shared the room with another patient.  While she stripped down to her skivvies, she approached my table and asked me all about how I ended up needing treatment.  Notice I did not mention a screen or partition.*  She actually made eye contact a few times as she undressed in front of me.  As she started her treatment, she explained to me that she has a problem in her abdomen.  She went on the chronicle the ages, occupations, and current locations of each of her five children, the health of her mother, and how she was married but her husband ran off with a younger woman and now they have two kids but she and he never got a divorce so she’s still his wife but she’s done with him anyway.  At this moment, a conflict arises.  On the one hand, I would not have interest in hearing this story even if the storyteller had her pants on.  On the other hand, I felt pretty pleased with myself for understanding her entire sorted tale.  After about fifteen minutes, I welcomed a break from the banter and we both drifted off as sounds of the neighbor’s barking dogs and heavy cumbia beats wafted in through an open window.  Don’t worry- we both have eight more appointments.  Surely we’ll have the opportunity to chat some more.

So, here’s to two years without secrets, but at least understanding the gossip we create.

***My physical therapist’s office, though under construction, looks very similar to set-ups I have seen in the States.  Since this visit, a partition between the beds has gone up.  I have, however, the utmost confidence that this story would have played out exactly the same way with or without a six foot long three-quarter wall dividing us.

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