I was sitting next to a beautiful pool, in a wealthy suburb of Asunción, discussing the tourist sites in Europe with a Paraguayan who’d returned from a whirlwind sightseeing tour. The next day, I watched the latest gossip about American celebrities on the E! Channel – straight from the U.S., in English –, while listening to my Argentine friend talk about the problems with her previous cable-provider. Yesterday I returned to my site, where the thrilling thought of having an inflatable pool in my backyard is tempered by the reality of the excruciatingly-slow process it would be to filling it bucket by bucket, with water from my well; where only one channel comes in clearly on television, two, if we’re lucky. Usually I spend my days in Asunción lazing around, enjoying the air-conditioning of a decadent three-story house, located within a gated-compound resided in by multi-millionaire bankers and U.S. Embassy staff, while my friends’ children attend classes at the American School. After these visits I return to my wooden campo house, crawling with insects and teeming with vermin, the tin roof that traps heat making the inside even more unbearable than the 40° outside would suggest. In Asunción, I’m served tea throughout the day, biscuits and snacks, by empleadas (maids) who live in the same towns where my fellow Peace Corps volunteers work. Sometimes I feel more comfortable hanging around the kitchen, chatting with them in Guaraní, talking about life in the campo, than discussing the challenges wealthy Indian housewives face living in Paraguay. On some level, I feel like they are more “my people” that the Paraguayan elite who I probably have much more in common with. In no way am I criticizing any of these groups of people: the Paraguayan businessman with origins in the interior of the country, made rich by working for global MNCs; the Argentine living in Paraguay who only knows the challenges of life in a cosmopolitan city; the Indians who have never experienced poverty – moving from Bombay to Asunción –, coping with raising their children in a different country and the lack of a cultural social-support system; the empleadas who leave the poverty of the campo behind 5 days a week for the prestige and pay afforded by working for a wealthy family in a wealthy city. Each group inhabits its own universe, a separate orbit intersecting intermittently with other orbits, but still its own self-contained universe, largely ignorant of how the people in other universes live. Somehow, I’ve been given the opportunity to inhabit all of these universes, if only for a brief time.
Travel, unlimited access to media and entertainment, the comforts of a three-story house, these are luxuries that I’m grown up accustomed to, mere slices of the universe that I’ve inhabited thus far. In spite of this upbringing, my universe is now expanding to include the faceless mass of the underrepresented, the ignored, and the powerless poor: their worries, their problems, their needs. In choosing to live poor, I am making those very people my own, or rather; I am becoming a part of them. I am becoming a part of their community: their hopes, their aspirations, their births, their deaths, their birthdays and weddings. Their illnesses, the cycles of debt and depletion, the quincianeras, the official unions under God, the not-so-secret affairs and broken marriages, the joys of new life, the life-threatening accidents, the lifting of hope and the grinding despair, these all touch me in a way that I didn’t think the lives of strangers could. Maybe this is a reason I feel more at home here talking to Paraguayans about life in the campo than the problems of the city I only know from monthly visits to the Peace Corps office.
How am I able to transcend the immense socio-economic gaps among groups and, in fact, inhabit several different orbits at the same time? The key for me is the ability to accept a new culture, with all the connotations that word suggests: to consent to a new culture; to agree to a new way of life; sometimes to tolerate, even endure, alien beliefs and inedible foods; but above all, welcome new perspectives with as little judgment as possible. The willingness to strike up a conversation in Guaraní, to compliment my hosts on the richness of the Paraguayan food they’ve prepared, bland by the ordinary American sense of taste, excruciatingly boring to the refined Indian tongue; to relate to them on their level, within their realm of experience; and above all, an adaptable sense of humor mostly aimed at myself. And so I’m able to relate to the rich Paraguayans who, although they have left lives of poverty behind, have not left their culture behind, who although they may not share the lives or fates of common Paraguayans, embrace their language; the Indians who know all too well what it is like to leave their country and their culture behind; the Argentine who searches for someone to share her love of world music with, and the empleadas who long for someone to converse with in their native language. My determination, and sometimes stubborn insistence, to speak in Guaraní, even though I’m much more comfortable with Spanish, secured me an open invitation to my friends’ cousins’ house, after only meeting them once. It’s also prompted my friends’ empleadas to extend invitations to stop by their houses in the campo anytime.
Still, even living amidst poverty, I will always be different, marked by my years of living in one of the wealthiest countries of the world. As much as I try to deny my former life of privilege, there will always be a gap, in knowledge, in access, in the ability I have to return at a moment’s notice to the land of opportunity and riches. Consider my salary, although I make minimum Paraguayan wage I am relatively lucky: I do not have 8 children to feed, I do not have to work and sweat all day in a chacra (though I am planning on it) to make enough money to feed my family, I am not at the mercy of wildly fluctuating world prices. Though I may live in the isolation of the campo, I can always escape to the (at-times) glorious chuchi-ness of Asunción with a variety of foods, cable TV, and out-of-season vegetables and fruits. I am very, very lucky.
Nevertheless, Paraguayans continue to invite me into their homes and lives as in I am the one who needs help and taking care of, not them. And for this, above all I have to thank Paraguayan hospitality. How is it that one family after meeting me only once, felt the need the second time I visited to treat me to an expensive dinner and gift me with several new ao po’i shirts? Or that the Indian family, since the day I have met them, has looked after me like one of their own, taking me to nice restaurants and movies? Or that my neighbors in the campo, lacking enough money to properly feed their families, but concerned about the money I would have to spend to buy expensive vegetables, have on more than one occasion sent me home with bags of fresh fruits and vegetables? I’ve had offers as considerate as sending a son 2 km to my house with a bottle of fresh cow’s milk to offers as extravagant as constructing an additional room to a house, so I wouldn’t have to pay the expensive monthly rent on a house of my own. Even during day-visits to friends’ houses, I am offered a place to eat, to shower, to take a nap if I so desire. And so, as my very own country has become a stranger to me, so have strangers become my own.