Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The New Guy

When it comes to work, I don’t like being the new guy and detest learning the ropes.  I very much prefer being the friendly and wise sage-like senior staff member who makes the new guy feel right at home.  I like when co-workers bounce ideas off me and come to me for advice.  I like knowing how to work the finicky and ancient coffee machine.  I like knowing everyone’s name.  As such, changing careers and accepting a job closer to Antarctica than to my mother’s house and agreeing to function in a language that I don’t speak has presented a handful of personal challenges.  These personal discomforts, separate from the weird bug bite/missing the flavor of cheddar cheese sort of discomfort, I doubt will ever fully disappear.  They have, though, started to feel a bit more comfortable.

Recently, someone suggested to me that in Paraguay, the days crawl, but the months fly by.  Seeing how swiftly October snuck up on us, I couldn’t agree more.  It’s odd to think that we’ve been residents of our town for over two months.  We’ve gone from strangers to strange neighbors and those projects which felt so far away at the beginning of August have started to emerge. 

Some newly christened volunteers receive assignments where they have a clear objective from the day they step foot in site.  Occasionally communities, especially those where a new volunteer takes a site over from a previous PCV, have active projects where they slip into pre-ordained roles upon arrival.  Other communities have never heard of the Peace Corps or met anyone from the United States.  In these cases, the volunteer constantly has to explain themselves and the PC. 

We all face different challenges.  The volunteer who walks in the front door with a clear idea of his or her future work, may spend the next two years in constant comparison to the previous volunteer- an especially harrowing (or at least annoying) situation when that previous volunteer married someone from the area.  (PC Paraguay has one of the highest rates of volunteers marrying other volunteers or host country nationals of any PC post in the world.)  Volunteers who struggle with work may integrate well into their communities personally.  However frustrated over failed projects, they leave having formed deeper bonds and relationships than they initially expected possible.

Our area, though not unfamiliar with the Peace Corps, has not seen a volunteer in almost a decade.  Some of our neighbors remember these volunteers fondly and kindly associate us with them.  Other people think we’re spies.  Community leaders request volunteers through a lengthy application process.  Usually, these folks have a firm grasp on the PC experience.  The rest of the community, generally, does not. 

Although we did not walk into any active projects, our community already had a number of long term goals which (supposedly) our training should enable us to assist with.  Still though, walking into a new place charged with the task of supporting something intangible- building civic participation in youth, for example- feels overwhelming.  In many ways we interview for the job with every conversation we have- except that we don’t bring our resumes door to door to talk about the weather.  We both fully accept that we will get nowhere before our community places a certain amount of trust in us, our abilities, and our mission.  (And yes, a childless married couple does arouse suspicion.)

Our site presentation helped.  Representatives from the central office came to our town and shared the goals and mission of PC with over sixty of our neighbors.  Our bosses also used this opportunity to explain how they match volunteers with communities.  No, the US government didn’t just send two random Yankees and assumed they would do well simply by virtue of birthright.  We were asked to join this community because Kevin and I have specific skills that compliment the long term goals of the populace.  I know we have something to share and I feel exceptionally fortunate that many leaders within our community listened to the presentation and have since approached us to collaborate on plans.

However, I knew before we even arrived in Paraguay that I would take with me far more than I could ever leave.  I guess, though, I didn’t expect to feel quite so lost.  Please don’t confuse this with sadness or distress.  I love it here and feel happy most of the time.  There are just some days where I have no idea what’s going on or where things will lead.  It’s like right before a blind date.  Your friend promises so and so is great and you two will hit it off smashingly.  The couple days leading up to the big night, butterflies flutter through your stomach and daydreams fill with “what ifs”.  Except that mix of nervous excitement is every day of my life.  Like blind dates, some days go well.  Some even turn into something wonderful.  Other days go horribly, terribly wrong.  And despite the direction the evening goes, a story forms and we remember something for next time.

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