How Peace Corps Volunteers Readjust to U.S.A.

In honor of our original Peace Corps training group (G-39!) having our Swearing Out ceremony this afternoon to officially end our run as Peace Corps volunteers in Paraguay, I wanted to reflect a bit on the transition we face in heading back to the States.

We hear this transition home can be tricky; even as difficult as the adjustment to a new culture in the first place. Therefore I was relieved when we came across the World’s Most Amazing Video the other day. It’s full of awesome tips of how to re-adjust to life in the U.S. The actors seem to truly understand all the strange habits we’ve picked up here in Paraguay and how those might not be seen as “okay” when we’re back Stateside.

Since this short video has helped us so much, I wanted to share it here for any Peace Corps volunteers completing their service now or soon, or any others who find yourselves in the U.S. of A after a time away.

I hope this wonderful video will help your readjustment too.

The Gift Of The Present

Sunday marked two months until Isaiah and I ring the final bell and officially close our time of service here in Paraguay. We are keeping ourselves busy (at least through this month) with projects and that has really helped me stay in the present instead of getting too planny about the future.

One of my projects was to record myself reading some books in English for our friend the English teacher to use for herself and with her classes. It’s helpful to follow along in the books while listening to a native English speaker since pronunciation in English is anything but intuitive. For those of you who know me, you won’t be surprised that I loved the sound of that project and got to it right away.

Flower

I recorded about 10 kids books which were simple and short. Then I recorded two longer books that Elizabeth, the English teacher, was gifted by a former volunteer. They were both written by Dr. Spencer Johnson. One was called “Who Moved My Cheese?” and focused on how we adapt to change. The point was, change is inevitable and we just have to be flexible and adaptable if we want to be happy.

Iguazu Falls

The second book was called “The Present” and the point of this one was, you guessed it, living in the here and now. Although I didn’t find the information in the book anything too amazing or different, and in fact found my mind drifting to other things as I read (and recorded) words about the importance of focusing only on the task at hand, it was still a good reminder of how crucial it is to avoid living in (dwelling, regretting, missing, longing for) the past or living in (dreaming, planning, wishing, hoping for) the future.

Being married to Isaiah and living Paraguay have both helped me tremendously in staying in the moment. However, it’s still a struggle for me because I get so excited for the next thing and can hardly remember to soak up the great stuff that is happening (or could be happening if I stopped thinking about the future) right now.

Iglesia de Yuty, Paraguay

One part I especially liked about that second book was their tripod approach. In addition to committing to living fully in the present, we also must learn from the past, and plan for the future. That made me feel so much better to have the book validate a place for both our pasts and our future plans. The tricky part is striking that precious balance in learning from the past and then jumping back to the present, so that your present can be better.

Sunset in Paraguay

And planning for the future, but then getting back to the now and noticing all the great things already at our fingertips.

With only two months of our service left, I’m concentrating on that triple threat approach: past, present, and future. (Is someone buying me a past/present/future ring? That could surely serve as a gorgeous reminder, eh?)

Bird at Iguazu Falls

I’m learning from the past. Boy has Paraguay whittled some good lessons over on me. I’m staying in the present by enjoying Paraguay and teaching classes and hugging the kids at the comedor and planning stuff with Paraguayan and volunteer friends. And we’re planning for the future. We’re setting up insurance for ourselves for after we’re out of the wonderful umbrella of Peace Corps’ full insurance. We’re dreaming of the places we might want to visit come August as we slowly and freely travel our way north from here. And we’re giving thought to what part of the States could make a great next home for us and what we might like to do for work once we get there.

Yuty, Paraguay

Sometimes the tripod teeters to one side or the other, and such is life. But there does seem to be something to that whole idea of cherishing the day, the hour, the minute I’m currently in without distractions or worries. I guess finding that balance isn’t just the goal for our remaining two months, but a goal for a happy, calm, and content life.

Any words of wisdom out there? How do you find balance? Or others for whom living in the moment isn’t a natural thing? What are your stories about making a big decision or preparing for a big move?  We’d love to hear ’em.

Reflections: 23 Months

We really have lived in Paraguay for over 23 months and are, in many ways, rounding third base and running toward home. For the most part, our arms are lifted in the air and we glance over our shoulder at how far we’ve come. We were stuck on second base for a while and thought we might get tagged out at one point, but alas we are here. We’ve nearly done it. We’ve nearly completed these fast/slow, strange/ordinary, remarkable/trying, incredible two years of service.

Back patio in Yuty, Paraguay

1. Filling my time these days is…

Allison:  summer is over and we’re back to work. We’re teaching entrepreneurship, training teachers in technology use for their classrooms, creating better account management with a new cooperative, tutoring in English, doing projects with the soup kitchen kids and continuously trying to raise money for their operations. The girl power Camp GLOW is in July and I’m in charge of its communications. Our youth group, Jovy, is working on projects (that reminds me, we still need to finish that world map) and we’d like to get them more involved in the soup kitchen. And mate in the morning with Isaiah is still my favorite.

Jovy with painted world map

Isaiah: we’ve used up our remaining vacation days with an incredible trip to Patagonia, a visit home to see family, growing families and friends, and a short jaunt with my mom to show her the awesome Iguazu waterfalls. Now we’re back in it full force for the few months that remain with entrepreneurship courses, computer classes, and, of course, the children’s soup kitchen.

2.  The strangest thing lately is…

A: we completed our Close of Service conference, are scheduling our final medical clearance appointments, and thinking about next steps. Therefore red dirt, mate and terere thermoses, clapping at doors, and the sound of Guarani bring tears to my eyes on a nearly daily basis.

Peace Corps Paraguay COS Closing of Service Conference

I: the end is near. Now that we’re feeling pretty comfortable in our community, people know us and we know them, it’s time to think about the next adventure. Travel, family, and (hopefully) a flexible and paying job, here we come!

3. My favorite yuyos at the moment are…

Yuyos are herbs that you can add to the water or the yerba (tea-like leaves) of mate (hot tea-like drink) or tereré (cold tea-like drink) to both give it a nice flavor and help with different ailments (digestion, cholesterol, etc.).

A: Burrito can’t be beat. Isaiah and I play a guessing game of Name What’s In This Mate for the one who didn’t prepare it that morning. It’s like he has a free pass when I prepare it because sí o sí, surely I’m going to make my concoction with some burrito, which falls somewhere in the mint spectrum.

Allison offering mate

I: Shredded coconut. While not precisely a yuyo, it is a great add to my morning mate that adds a smooth undertone to the mix. Throw in a little ka’a he’e (stevia in the States) to bring out the sweetness of the coconut. Throw out the yerba mate entirely and replace it with coconut and use hot milk (or, even better, hot chocolate!) to transform things into the legendary mate dulce (sweet mate).

4. What I’d miss most if I hopped on a moto* today is…

(*The Peace Corps has a few rules that are very rigid. One is no riding on motorcycles because they are practically the leading cause of death here. If you choose to ride one, you have one choice: aisle or window on the next plane outta here.)

A: The feeling of truly completing this journey. We’re so close to the end, with so much yet to do and enjoy and soak up. I wouldn’t want to cut this wrap-up time short.

Isaiah Allison Sanny Igor

I: Ditto what my lovely and smart wife said.

5. My current comida tipica (traditional Paraguayan food) obsession is…

A: chipa. It’s like a cheesy, cornbread bagel that I immediately crave when our bus passes by Coronel Bogado, a town said to have some of the best chipa. Buy it hot from Don Pipo across from the bus terminal and use their bathrooms too. They are nice, new, free, have toilet paper, soap and a full length mirror.

Allison eating chipa

I: Is grapefruit considered comida típica? Whether it is or not, we are up to our eyeballs in them and I’m loving all of the fresh-squeezed juice.

6. My favorite Guarani phrase of the week is…

A: Hake! (ha-kay) which means something like “Watch out!” or “Careful!” and can be used when your friend is about to get run over by a moto or when the conversation gets a little spicy.

I: Che rembireko porã (shay rem-be-ray-ko por-ah) meaning “my beautiful wife.” An interesting side note about the word “wife” in Guarani is that, when deconstructed, it translates to “the thing that I have.” And I like the beautiful thing that I have a lot!

7. Paraguayans say the darndest things…

A: like “Boy your yard is so dirty!” when we don’t rake up every last leaf. I’m all for a tidy looking yard, but it’s ironic to me that many people in our town don’t seem to mind all the trash scattered about the streets in front of houses, or don’t think twice about tossing a candy wrapper into the grass of their yard. But those leaves, man, those have gots to go.

Allison raking the yard

I: “Allison! Allison!” a kid will call at the soup kitchen. Oh, you’re talking to me? Apparently our names aren’t so very common nor clearly masculine or feminine in these children’s world and so it’s not always obvious which name goes with which one of us. Even after nearly two years this still happens.

8. The MVP (Most Valuable Paraguayan) Award goes to…

A: Elisa. She’s our boss, and the head of our sector of Community Economic Development in Peace Corps. She is incredibly overwhelmed with work and red tape from Washington and all the needs and complaints and requests of over 50 volunteers. She’s traveling around the country to check out and interview people in potential new communities for future volunteers yet always, always takes the time to be friendly, chat, encourage and make you feel like the most important person in the world. She is amazing, personable, and super guapa!

Elisa with G39 at COS conference

I: Don Cantalicio. He’s a cobbler who just finished making an awesome pair of boots for me. He’s also super involved with the children’s soup kitchen and, without him, it’d likely cease to exist. And somehow he also finds the time to be involved in other church and community-related projects.

El zapatero Don Cantalicio

9. What I wouldn’t give for a…

A: way to better convey this whole ride that is Peace Corps service to you. We try to write and post pictures here on this blog, and it surely helps to paint at least a partial picture. Those who had the chance to visit us saw a little deeper peek into our lives. But the experience is so strange and new and beautiful and difficult and stretching and amazing and lonely and wonderful and overwhelming and life-enhancing that it’s often too hard to put into words.

I: obvious path for what’s next in our lives. As best as we could we’ve tried living in the moment and putting off thinking about “the next thing.” But now it’s time to figure out where we go from here, and the world is wide open with possibilities. It’s exciting, but the uncertainty of an infinite number of paths can also feel uncomfortable or overwhelming.

10. Most likely to be published in a Peace Corps brochure is when…

A: the kids at the soup kitchen gather around for reading time and say many of the words to the books with me because they are just that familiar. Dr. Seuss is universally wonderful.

Allison reading to kids

I: we reunited as a training group for our “close of service.” It’s incredible to think about all that’s happened during the past couple of years and no one else will be able to understand this part of our lives quite as well as our fellow volunteers from our group with whom we’ve journeyed together, apart. It was fun being together again, laughing, reflecting, and awarding each other “paper plate” awards.

CoS Paper Plate Award

11. Coming up next…

A: We’ll continue the projects we have going. Soon we’ll start a photography course with two camera kits we checked out from a Peace Corps initiative called Ahecha Paraguay which means “I see Paraguay” in Guarani. We’ll write our last reports, say our goodbyes, and ring the final bell to officially end our service on August 8. Then, it’s travel time!

Isaiah and Allison at Iguazu Falls

I: That’s the question. Immediately coming up are things Allison mentioned. But the question in the back of my mind is what happens post Peace Corps—where will we live, what will we do, etc.

So that’s where we find ourselves today. Know of a great job opportunity? (Isaiah is a web guy and Allison likes planning/managing things.) We’re all ears!

Looking for a journey through time? Read our reflections after 4 months, 9 months, 12 months, and 16 months in Paraguay.

Closing Time

Last week we had our Close of Service conference. As strange as it seems, the conference marked the beginning of the last three months of our service here in Paraguay. The two days of sessions were filled with both looking back and “we did it”‘s as well as preparations for the future: readjusting to life in the States, job hunting, and sharing our experience with those back home.

Peace Corps Paraguay COS Closing of Service Conference

Our training group has journeyed a long ways, both together and individually. We’ve learned, taught, stretched, changed, and grown. Though each one’s experience is uniquely theirs, my fellow G-mates (as they’re affectionately called) are bound to understand the best.

Peace Corps Paraguay COS Closing of Service Conference

Life is a balance though, isn’t it? While I joined in with gusto on the “we did it” cheers, I’m acutely aware that three months remain. These three little months at the end of this adventure will surely pass quickly.

Peace Corps Paraguay COS Closing of Service Conference

I’m reminded that time is relative, as our complete study abroad semester in college was three (seemingly to me at the time) loooong months in all.

Peace Corps Paraguay COS Closing of Service Conference

So here we are practicing our balancing act. We excitedly ponder what the next stage may bring: travel, friends, family, jobs. Nostalgia also plays its role and I find my chest swelling and eyes filling more often than usual as I notice scenes of a Paraguay I’ve grown to truly love.

Peace Corps Paraguay COS Closing of Service Conference

We’ve filled our schedule with projects and have dove in, longing to make the most of our time. Though the scale may tip from present to future from time to time, Isaiah and I have learned to rebalance each other.

Peace Corps Paraguay COS Closing of Service Conference

And just like so many other things I doubted were possible, Peace Corps has shown me an appropriate balance between here and there is not only achievable but the exact right spot to be.

Hospitality

I may miss things from my old life from time to time. Ready-made tortilla chips. A hot bubble bath. Old friends. But what I’m missing right now is church. Going to church had been a weekly habit pretty much my entire life. I realize that neither the building nor the act of showing up defines my faith and that some people are perfectly content in their spirituality without it. I’m not one of those people.

I miss it deeply. I have even felt a longing that only days later I pinpointed as church. I miss the routine and familiarity. I miss the warm community of people, brought together and connected. And oh how I miss the singing. Our Easter sing-a-long helped a little.

Easter Sunday 2014

To quench this thirst, from time and time Isaiah and I listen to the services from my childhood church. You can too, if you’re interested (lower left sidebar). The other day I listened to Uncommon Expressions of Gratitude, which was based on Romans 12 and focused on hospitality.

The idea is that by extending pure hospitality to all those around us, we are playing our part in bringing peace to the world.

It got me thinking about the hospitality Isaiah and I have been offered here in Paraguay. Our host family took us in as children during our 10 weeks of training. I think back on that time and how much I struggled and struggled with getting my thoughts out of my head and into my slowly developing Spanish. Yet, the family was patient and loving and quite a lot of fun as one way I can bring a little more peace to the world.

They were hospitable to us and our fellow volunteers, offering up their house, their wi-fi and their time.

Upon arrival in our town, people were genuinely excited to get to know us. We were welcomed to join the soup kitchen steering committee and participate in the activities there.

Playing At Comedor

IMG_0553

People invited us over for meals or terere or just asked how we were doing when we passed on the street or saw them downtown. Their patience with my language skills or foreign accent, especially when most friendly conversations take place in Guaraní, not Spanish, is impressive and their desire to explain and invite us to share in their traditions and special events is sweet, generous, and fun.

San Antonio - making blood sausauge

Asado at San Antonio Festival

Words about God holding out opportunities in our daily lives for us to offer hospitality to whoever is right in front of us jumped out of the recorded sermon and stuck with me. She says that the “moving spirit of Jesus calls us from our complacent routines” to genuinely offer love and uncommon expressions of gratitude through acts of hospitality.

Sanny's birthday meal - Igor, Lluvia, Sanny

Graduation - Isaiah, Elva Isaiah's 30th Birthday Bash

The Paraguayan community we’ve been a part of for nearly two years has demonstrated this genuine hospitality to us. For that I am very grateful. It’s filled our time here richly. As we head into our last months among this community, I hope I can continue soaking that up. Not just so I feel loved, but so I can carry their spirit of hospitality with me and offer it to others throughout my life.

(Virtual) High Five, Technology!

It can be hard to be away from our families and friends for the normal, everyday stuff like a family dinner or a cook-out with friends. When special occasions roll around like birthdays or Christmas it feels especially appropriate to be with those with whom we’ve always celebrated, and the distance is noted.

Thank goodness for technology.

For one, we have this blog which keeps our parents (and others) in-the-know and included in our adventures here. We can email whoever we want and it shows up in your inbox just the same as it would if we were sending it from next door. We can receive adorable photos of our niece and nephew decked out in the Paraguayan ware brought back from my parents’ visit. (You can see why I sometimes want to jump through my computer screen for these cuties, eh?)

Troy and Marie in Paraguayan clothes

There’s also video chatting, which is the closest to actually being present. We’ve video chatted in to family gatherings and to receive the happy news that two of our best friends are pregnant.

Isaiah video chatted with his mom the other day, receiving one last tour of their beautiful house in the woods – now empty as she moves on to her next adventure. Looking through the computer out the huge windows of the Goertz house at the brilliant orange and yellow fall leaves put me right in the middle of a midwest fall day, and I soaked it up.

Isaiah Skyping with his mom before her move

How grateful we are to have this technology to bridge the great distance that separates us from these milestones or the everyday. Though it is such a balancing act. To send my mind flying to a sunny fall day in the midwest (my favorite season), can make the sudden journey back to spring in Paraguay a little jarring.

To all but reach out and touch the beautiful bellies of my friends that are growing along with the precious gift tucked inside, and then feel the thousands of miles that separates us crash down on me upon disconnecting can take its toll.

I am happy in Paraguay and I’m not quite ready to leave. At the same time, I’d love to be a part of all the things going on without us in the States. Of course it’s not possible. Even if we were in the States we’d be distanced from some friends or some family as, even there, they are spread out across the miles.

The art seems to be in the balancing. To give up the idea that I can have it all, be a part of everything, have my hand in every delicious cookie jar. There’s something powerful about admitting that “defeat”. I cannot be everywhere and try everything. I cannot live eight simultaneous lives as to not miss out on anything, and get to see all of life’s choices play out in full like a Sliding Doors movie (which I still remember from high school since the idea appealed to me so).

I’m still working on releasing that idea fully. I am, however, already celebrating the fact that I can usually juggle diving into work at our Paraguayan soup kitchen, and then returning home to shoot off an email to my mom to say hello. The balance is nice. When I need more “home,” I can request a video chat or send out more emails. When I need more focus on the here and now, I can immerse myself in local projects. And when I lose my sense of balance (or intentionally throw it out the window) Isaiah is there to gently add some weight to the side that’s lacking and get my scales and my mind in good balance once again.

Thank you, technology and those who develop it, for making this possible. Now excuse me, I’ve got some bellies friends to smile at in my video chat date tonight.

Enough

What a word. Even the dictionary definition confuses me: “as much as required.” How much is that? I must admit that in college my fellow secondary education majors and I would tease our friends majoring in elementary education since in classes we shared they seemed to raise their hands nervously to ask for clarification on assignments. “And how long exactly is the paper supposed to be?” “Is this right? Exactly what you had in mind and expected, dear teacher?” they would say.

We laughed and thought of ourselves as superior and less concerned about following rules just to follow rules and more into demonstrating our knowledge of the subject. Wasn’t that what any good teacher should be after anyway?, we thought smugly.

Purple flower

Here I am now, mulling over that same question: how much is enough? How many hours should I devote to Peace Corps projects each day? How many to exercise? How many boxes do I need to check on my VRF (a quarterly report we volunteers send to headquarters) to feel that I am doing enough?

How many lives have I touched in Paraguay – is it enough? Is my Spanish ability good – enough?

Of course the question of enough is not saved for volunteers; it affects us all. There is always more that could be done. There are more committees to join or books to read or activities to sign the kids up for. There is certainly more good that could be done in the world. There’s more I could learn about every subject that interests me (and every one that doesn’t).

On one hand, this can all be great, exciting motivation. Rise and shine, there’s good work to be done! On the other, it can be exhausting to race after a carrot that moves further away just as you’re about to finally reach your sweet reward, whispering that there’s more to do.

Red, yellow, orange flower

So are we doomed to feeling like we never measure up? That at the end of each day, we still fall short of the nebulous line of enough? People say if you “give it your all” you have nothing to regret, but what truly is my all? I’m suspicious if I’ve ever really gone there.

How can we all accept that while there will always be more, we are already enough?

An image spinning through my head is one of me stopping chasing after that carrot (the same darn carrot I’ve been trailing for years). I stop, catch my breath and slowly look around and realize I’m in the most amazing orchard surrounded by trees: orange, apple, peach, avocado. There are flowers too and it’s beautiful and romantically hazy, like a cheesy dream sequence in a movie. I glance up and through rays of sun I see my old carrot friend disappear over the horizon.

I grab an apple and eat it straight from the tree and forget why I wanted that carrot so badly anyway. Without the chase, the world doesn’t end. My life goes on. I still work hard and do good work. I stay involved in efforts that interest me. But I’m not putting my effort into the chase. I’m not hanging my head in defeat based on not reaching some make-believe point of enough that was in my mind. Because that’s the only place it was this whole time anyway.

Allison jumping in plaza in Yuty, Paraguay

Now it’s your turn. What’s your definition of enough? How do you keep it in check in your life? Anyone else hungry for carrots and hummus? (Just have to catch ’em first.)

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