Friday, January 18, 2013

Real Life

Today was frustrating, but the last two weeks have been fine. I've got two summer classes going at the library, one for 3rd and 4th graders who are having trouble keeping up, and an English class. The English class three lessons in is now quite large, after several false starts in which not one person showed up. I'm really not very interested in teaching English, I don't see the point of it, as it just helps out folks that are already doing okay. It really is just a sneaky way for me to get people into the library, so that they start to feel comfortable and to get to know the place. In this it has already been a success. I've also been participating in the samba drum group called Batukada which will perform during carnaval. This has been a lot of fun; it's been great to learn something new and to get to know these enthusiastic and organized youths. And there's been neighborhood volleyball and there's a bumper crop of mangoes and lots of time reading in the hammock, and all that. It's been pretty okay, I tell you.

There is a funny thing, as we start getting ready to leave, about what we are leaving and what we are going back to. In a lot of ways, in the way we deal with it bureaucratically and socially it's like we're going back to our real lives after a 27 month intermission. And that makes sense when we are in our American minds and we think about ourselves and future careers, cities we want to live in, ethnic cuisine, bicycles, cars, houses with carpeting and heating and 24-hour running water, pets and houseplants and complex artistic expressions and postmodern social norms. But it is also very true that these two years have been real life, most especially because we are living with people who are really living their real lives. Talking to people in Itapua, many of whom are solidly middle-class, with cars and tvs and water tanks (so they have water all day) and maybe AC and such, who don't feel like their lives are lacking in anything, it is hard for me to go back to that American mind and say why it is exactly that I am leaving, that I'm definitely leaving, and I'm not even really tempted to stay.

It is hard to bridge this gap, between the Paraguayans we care about that are living their real lives, and our distant real lives which are waiting for us in April or in May. It must be incomprehensible to Paraguayans that we would choose to leave our homes and families, show up in Paraguay, work and get to know and love people for two years, and then up and leave again all of a sudden. But then, Paraguayans do tend to have a great tolerance for the incomprehensible.

The only volunteers that really bridge this gap are the ones that marry a Paraguayan (or "host country national" in whichever country they serve). They make a commitment to bind their old real life to their new Paraguayan real life, to try to tie these two cords together in what can only be a messy knot. Short of marriage, there are only promises of future visits, which always end up being few and fleeting, and phone calls and facebooks and possibly letters to try and keep a few strands of affection intact.

How can we really engage with someone if we consider their whole world to be at worst a nightmare or at best a farce? If we would find their every expectation of quality unacceptably low or too unsafe, too ugly, too cheaply made?
Relativity and disparity and sincerity will make your head spin.

I have yet to spend a night outside this country since I arrived just under two years ago. This is mostly a planning oversight of mine, combined with accidents of timing, and was not what I intended to do. Today though, as I rode the bus out to the river port, and the ferry across the river I was filled with excitement and quite a bit of anxiety. I am comfortable in Paraguay, things that happen can be odd or annoying but they do not surprise me much. I know what to expect and I know how I like to do things in Paraguay. (Eat chipa during long bus rides, drink beer during long bus waits, eat bananas and coffee for breakfast, be friendly with everyone, ask for favors, ask at least 5 different people to confirm directions or timetables, don't touch anything clean after touching anything, don't go out or expect anything to happen in the early afternoon, think about which side of the bus will be in the sun once you leave town, bring a blanket for long rides on air-conditioned buses, pay with the largest bill you think can get away with, keep very low expectations for punctuality, make sure you've got enough groceries to last the weekend before noon on Saturday, don't buy "hot" food between 3pm and 7pm, don't tell anyone when you've been combining terere and mango or watermelon and wine, wear a hat, put lemon leaves in terere, put anis and cinnamon or cloves in your máte, use orange thorns to pick teeth or extract chiggers.) Modern, industrialized Argentina, about which I've been fantasizing for so long, would be unpredictable and strange and foreign.

However, I was denied access to Argentina because of a very new "reciprocity fee" which must be paid online or at the consulate. This fee was previously only charged at airports for Americans flying in.
So I'm still in Paraguay. It does seem inevitable. But I will leave in four months with a backpack on my back to go wandering in Argentina and Chile, and then back to the world that was everything I'd known and everyone I'd known almost two and a half years before.

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