Tuesday, September 30, 2008

What I Do

I officially no longer live in the world of fast-food, electric appliances, 24/7 power, and flushing toilets. In my world, the power routinely goes out for stretches of anywhere from 20 minutes to 20 hours. In my world, food is often cooked over wood piled on the floor. In my world, heating consists of a charcoal stove. While my brother is sitting a world away trying to get Internet installed in his apartment in Pune, India, I am bargaining with my future landlord to construct for me a brick shower outside where I can pour water over my head with a bucket. My brain is kept occupied with ways to improve my latrine. I’m thinking of digging a two-meter hole into the ground as to avoid burning my trash. I hung a soda bottle filled with water from the fence of a chicken coop, using some wire and a stick which I whittled with my pocket knife, as a way to wash my hands (and to promote Paraguayans washing their hands). I’ve chopped firewood with an axe, which may look easy (which it is if you’ve been doing it since you were 10), but I lack the practice to hit logs in the same spot repeatedly. When I want to eat mandarin oranges or guavas or lemons, I pluck them off trees. If the season is over, like it is for mandarins, I no longer have access to them (I spent the better part of this afternoon squeezing lemons into bottles so that I can conserve the lemon juice in my neighbor’s fridge for the next months). Sometimes I hack ancient weeds with a machete because it beats ripping them out with my bare hands. Rough life, eh? Sounds like I’m permanently camping. And yet, these are fun little diversions that keep me amused in between or distract me from the hard part of my job.
So what is my job? In the future, it will be working with the community radio and a banana production cooperative. Right now, it’s trying to learn the language and get to know people in the community. This is much harder than it sounds. Imagine going to Mars, neither speaking Martian nor understanding how Martians think, and having to solve Martians’ relationship problems. Obviously this is an overstatement, but the premise is the same: without having adequate knowledge of the language or the culture, being expected to remedy everyday problems. I have to get to know the people, their names, their families, their work; know the community, its leaders, its rich, its poor, its intricate system of relationships; know the needs; know what projects are feasible in two years, what I can facilitate, what I can start, what will be sustainable; and do all this “knowing’ in Guaraní, a language that I had no exposure to until 3 months ago. So I spend my days visiting people, drinking tereré with them, explaining to them why I can’t the meat they want to offer me for lunch but still having to stay and either eat what they scrambled up at the last minute or cook my own food in their kitchen, and chatting about the weather or one of the few topics I can converse about in Guaraní (including introducing myself). I attend every meeting of the radio and the cooperative, even though I have no idea what the members are saying, because it gives me credibility.
A lot of the time, I’d rather stay at home than walk for 30 minutes or ride my bike in the hot Paraguayan sun. My head hurts after a full day of intense concentration trying to decipher conversations in Guaraní, and it is intense because I have to be cautious of tuning out every time they lapse from Spanish to Guaraní (which is 90% of the time, they usually only speak Spanish for brief periods of time for my benefit). I hate having inane conversations with people about the weather because I can’t express myself better in Guaraní, and most people don’t feel comfortable in Spanish.
At the same time, am I learning? Yes. Am I making relationships that will last for the next two years but shape the rest of my life? Yes. I had a happy insight last week when after leaving a Señora’s house I had visited for the first time I realized that her family and I were going to be very good friends.


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