“The World is a Book and Those Who Do Not Travel Read Only a Page” – St. Augustine
This summer I experienced something most people my age have not; I went to Paraguay for six weeks as a volunteer. For most teenagers, giving up the summer before your senior year is a lot to ask, but for me it was the best decision I ever made.
As long as I can remember, I have wanted to do something that would make a difference in someone else’s life. I wanted to go to a place I had never been before, and challenge myself, while at the same time bettering someone else’s life.
When I heard about Amigos de las Américas, I was extremely excited since I was interested in Latin American culture, and their mission statement seemed to fit exactly what I wanted to do. I signed up for a six-week program in Paraguay, a small country in the heart of South America. I spent much of my junior year practicing my Spanish, researching Paraguay and learning about the project.
At the end of June, I said goodbye to my friends and family and flew to Miami to undergo four days of intense training. There I met other volunteers and learned more about our host country. Since Amigos has projects in many countries, it was critical we understood the importance of being respectful and prepare for “culture shock.”
Finally, we boarded a plane to Asuncion, Paraguay via Sao Paulo, Brazil. For most volunteers, it was their first time in South America, and we were soon in awe of the beauty of the continent. Next, we took a bus to Santani, where we had our in-country briefing and learned how to build fogones, our primary volunteer project in San Pedro state. In South America, one of the leading causes of death is respiratory disease, which is mainly caused by open cooking fires in the home. Fogones are fuel-efficient brick stoves that have chimneys to direct the smoke outside.
Many families are desperate for fogones but cannot afford them. Thankfully, with the help of PLAN Paraguay and other donors we had all the materials donated.
All of the volunteers were eager to leave for their communities but we spent our last day together and the cooks made us an “American dinner” for the Fourth of July. It turned out to be Coca Cola and hamburgers (burgers in Paraguay are a little different, made with a poached egg and a slice of pork). The next day we were assigned our partners and our community. My partner Elizabeth and I were heading to a town of 800 people called Almeida. I was not nervous or scared, only excited.
We arrived in Almeida and immediately felt at home. It was the first time Almeida had hosted foreigners so people looked at us as if we were from another planet. Elizabeth with her bright blue eyes, and me with my blonde hair, were definitely a sight for the people of Almeida. We moved in with our host family, the Olmedos.
My host father, Jose Olmedo, was the principal of the local secondary school and my host mother, Lidia, was the town butcher, quite a surprise to me, a vegetarian. I quickly learned to smile and say “muy rico,” even when Lidia put a plate full of cow intestine in front of me. If you are wondering what it tasted like, it’s exactly what you would think. I will leave it at that.
I had two little “brothers,” Fernando and Luis, who were wonderful and never gave me a second to myself. They were always asking to play ball or go fish and I loved every minute of it.
On our second day, Elizabeth, our youth counterpart Claudio and I decided to visit every single house in Almeida to introduce ourselves. What we thought would take a few hours ended up taking nearly 14 hours. When you enter someone’s yard, you clap to announce yourself. When they come out, they say “Mba’eichapa,” which is “hello and welcome” in Guarani, the native dialect. The women would offer us a chair and we’d sit around and drink terere, a cold tea made from the yerba plant.
Every few minutes our host would ask us a question that we would answer, and then we would sit in silence for another few minutes. At first, I was frustrated with how slow everything was going, and how long it took just to say a few words, accustomed as I was to the busy hustle and bustle lifestyle of Americans. To take a few moments and enjoy the company of others is what Paraguayans enjoy most. I soon recognized the beauty of such an approach to life.
One of my favorite moments occurred that same day, while we were walking along the road. We had not eaten lunch, and we’d worked up an appetite walking all day. Claudio jumped up into a tree and grabbed us a few guavas. Sitting in front of a small, quaint Catholic church, I ate my first guava. At that moment, sitting there with my new Paraguayan friends, and biting into the tough skin of the guava, I realized how content and delighted I was to be in Paraguay.
We spent the next six weeks working incredibly hard. I would be up every morning at 5:30 a.m to milk the cow, and then at 8 a.m we would hold daily “charlas” at the school. There, we would teach about dental hygiene, healthy foods, garbage disposal, and play games with the kids. My favorite part of my volunteering experience was being with the children who, even though they had only met me, would not let go of my hand and would tell me how much they loved me. I remember one day I brought a jump rope for them. I handed it to Camila, a five-year-old girl, whose eyes lit up when she saw it. But she would not accept the gift.
I was confused and asked her older sister Mariela why. After a few brief whispers, she told me her sister had never been given anything new, and she was worried that she wouldn’t take proper care of it. A jump rope, which meant little to me, was the world to Camila.
We began working on the fogones the second week. Each fogone took two to three days to build, and completing one gave us a great deal of satisfaction. Each family was so grateful we were there and had built them a fogone. No longer would they have to cook over an open fire on a dirt floor. We only had enough materials to build six of them and the lucky families had been chosen through a village lottery.
After a long day of work, we would help our host mother prepare dinner, and would spend our evenings learning to dance the Paraguayan Polka, or sit around talking and sipping “mate dulce,” a delicious hot drink made with coconut and milk. By 8 p.m., we were dead tired and would drop into bed.
The culture in Paraguay is so rich and the people so loving and generous that I felt as if I belonged there. Without knowing you very well, people treat you as family. Most families could barely afford to eat, but they would invite us into their home and prepare a wonderful meal, just because they were so thankful we had come to their home. The quality I recognized most about the people is how little they have, yet how big their hearts are and how generous they are. I would walk around the town and visit with people and they would tell me their story. Most people live in one-room houses with no electricity or running water, and many families had as many as 10 people living in one house. People truly have nothing, yet they are so content. I think Americans could learn a from the Paraguayans.
I experienced many things in Paraguay that I would have never imagined beforehand. I ate an armadillo (surprisingly delicious), watched a cow be slaughtered and skinned (a weekly occurrence in our backyard), rode in a “camioneta” filled with 34 Paraguayans and one excited American girl. There are many things I miss; the fresh oranges we would pick from the tree, the beautiful rivers, the kindness of the people, the music, the food and much, much more.
Living in a third-world country taught me many things. Most importantly, I have learned to be grateful for all that I have. Before Paraguay, I took things for granted – my family, my home, my possessions. Now, I see every day as a gift and know now that I truly can make a difference. While I will never know exactly how much impact my partner and I had on the people of Almeida, I know that the people of Almeida have changed my life forever.