A few weeks before Natasha Reed started her adventure as a Peace Corps volunteer in early 2010, she and I snapped a pic with a banner that read “PARAGUAY OR BUST.” There was no bust; Natasha made it to South America and spent the next two years as an Education Consultant in San Miguel, Paraguay. On the heels of returning stateside, Natasha shares the following reflections on the importance of family, Paraguayan education, and explosion-inducing watermelon.
Natasha celebrates her birthday during Peace Corps training in the town of Naranjaisy. She lived with a family–including two host sisters–for three months before going to her official site in San Miguel.
Can you explain a bit about your work teaching English in Paraguay with the Peace Corps*? What was your preparation like?
Joining Peace Corps was a long process. After about a year of interviews, background checks and medical exams, I was invited to serve as an Elementary Education Volunteer in Paraguay. After arriving in Paraguay I had three months of intensive language and cultural training, along with classes focused on carrying out my project. My assignment was to work primarily with Pre-K through third grade teachers, implementing new teaching techniques that were hands-on and promoted active learning. Training went from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. This part of Peace Corps was actually fairly easy, although we often felt like we had returned to high school. Our schedule was very strict and did not reflect the reality of volunteer life.
My first house (I had to move after a couple of break-in attempts)
What were your first impressions of the Paraguayan education system?
I showed up expecting to find a very strict education system where teachers held complete authority and students sat silently in their seats while taking copious notes. The pamphlet I received detailing the Paraguayan education system had described a rote-memory based system with little comprehension taking place. After doing several small projects with local teachers, I found that many teachers did not have any control over their classes or used completely ineffective techniques to try and manage their students. I occasionally heard teachers belittle students, but in the post-dictator era that currently exists in Paraguay, many teachers responded to bad behavior by simply ignoring the student completely or leaving the classroom. Actual learning seemed to take place at an extremely slow pace.
These shirts are sold in my friend’s shop. She has a great eye for fashion and lots of tourists stop by to buy her products.
How do the Paraguayans view education? Does this differ between the sexes?
Views on education vary greatly within Paraguay, as in every country in the world. I worked with parents who were illiterate and did not express much interest in their child’s education, but also with parents who were very passionate about the educational hopes for their child. One father brought his son to a reading school I did for struggling children despite the fact that he was a very advanced student and lived miles away.
Women in Paraguay seem to place more value in higher education, but this is likely because of a system that encourages females to behave in school and allows males more liberty to goof off. Female students are naturally more likely to excel in a system that rewards them for being obedient pupils, while male students sometimes lag behind academically since their behavior is not as censored.
One of the two schools where I worked
What´s a typical class or school day like? Can you describe the school setting?
A typical class day in Paraguay varies greatly. City schools are often overcrowded with as many as sixty students in a class. Meanwhile, in small country schools where some teachers do not have high school degrees, classes might be made up of only a handful of students who range in age. In my own town, I had a somewhat unique experience compared to other Peace Corps volunteers. My town has about 1,300 people in it and two elementary schools. One is a normal school, with students going in turns. The first turn is from 7-11 a.m. and the second is from 1-5 p.m.. The average Paraguayan child has only four hours of school a day and an hour or more of recess is not unusual. The schools themselves are almost always made of brick or concrete and have no air conditioning or heating. Fans are common though not always present. Temperatures vary between 32° degrees during the winter and 90 plus during the spring and fall, so learning in school can be very difficult.
Students in San Miguel
My other school was an exceptionally lucky school that went all day. Children arrived at 7 and went home at 11, then returned from 1-3:30. Only sixty schools in Paraguay are on this program, and my school lucked into it thanks to connections one of the school administrators had with a former Paraguayan president. The school had good teachers and more materials than most.
In other areas school life is much bleaker. Students often live miles from the nearest school and have to walk in the dark to or from school, depending upon which session they attend.
Celebrating Paraguayan theater and the 200th anniversary of the country
You did luck out, then. I’m still stuck on the fact that the average Paraguayan student has roughly four hours of school a day! Now let´s chat a bit about your experience outside the project—what was your town like?
My town was unique. It was a community based around wool products, and although many people are poor the community did a good job of taking care of everyone. There were many small stores in my town that spaned out along the international highway I lived on, and travelers often stopped to buy products.
I was in a small town but compared to other volunteers I am in no way rural. Many of my friends lived several miles off of main roads and had to walk, bike, and even canoe to get to their communities. My only downside was the constant strangers who drove through my town. Not letting a girl know she is attractive is considered almost offensive by many in Paraguay, so I got lots of attention from strangers driving by, thanks to my light skin and hair.
The view from my first house
In terms of access, there was a new store in town with such luxuries as Doritos and Lay’s potato chips, although frozen pizza had yet to make it here. The new store stopped my weekly trips into the nearby town of San Juan Bautista, since I could then get chicken breast and whole chicken there. Everything I made there was made from scratch, with the exception of tomato paste and a few powdered soup mixes. I am now an expert in such areas as homemade spaghetti sauces, salad dressings, and sour cream. Also, it took me about an hour to cook most meals. I washed my dishes indoors (a huge step up), and had running water unlike many other volunteers and did not have to bucket-bathe. (Well, normally; last summer we had water and electrical outages about 20-30 percent of the time). I had also recently employed a woman to wash my clothes by hand twice a month, although for my first year I washed them by hand myself in a large polangana (basin).
Washing clothes by hand…
How integrated did you feel in your community? How comfortable were you with the language?
I was very integrated within my community, to the point that I no longer worried about offending people. I think realizing that it was okay to not get along with everyone was when I reached real cultural integration. At first I tried to visit everyone and put up with a lot of stuff that I shouldn’t have, but later I had firmly established friendships and no longer felt the need to be the best friend of every family in my town. It made my experience much more rewarding and made many Paraguayans more likely to approach me in real friendship, rather than casual curiosity. I was no longer the main source of chisme, or gossip, in my town.
In terms of language, I arrived speaking English and decent Spanish, and left with a crazy mix of Spanish/English/Guaraní. Truthfully, I speak very little Guaraní but found myself responding to questions in Guaraní without realizing that they had not been voiced in Spanish. I took the easy way out and spoke more Spanish than Guaraní, but since Guaraní is often full of double innuendos, not being able to understand what was being said in front of me was sometimes the better option.
The despensa is one of three tiny “grocery” stores in town, although during the first year of my service it was one of only two. (Until the third store came around I could only get rice, flour, pasta, limited canned goods, and seasonal fruits and veggies from my town).
In letters home you’ve often mentioned local superstitions—what are some of the most bizarre?
To name a few (there are a lot) you cannot drink something hot and then drink something cold, (the same applies in the reverse), and you cannot drink until after you have finished eating (imagine me eating three hot dogs with no drinking allowed). There are around seven legendary creatures in Paraguay that may sexually violate you, kidnap you, and/or drink your whiskey. Flu is carried by raindrops, drinking wine and eating watermelon will make you very sick and, in some areas of the country, lead to death by explosion. Finally, when castrating bulls a man should not have slept with his wife the night before or the bull will die.
This photo from my training community (Naranjaisy) showcases the water tank that the villagers use
Intriguing! I’m tempted to test that wine and watermelon combo. Okay, what things do you missed from home? On the other hand, what are the things you loved most about Paraguay?
I missed my family! Honestly, this has been the main thing. Living in Paraguay taught me the importance of family. Every volunteer, even those with awful childhood stories, ended up talking about how important their family had become to them. Paraguayans often only associate with family members, thanks to suspicions left over from the dictatorship, and so during my time I ended up hanging out most of the time with two main families and all of their extended relatives. Although I appreciate the more open system we have in the States, I miss how Paraguayans easily accepted all of my flaws and did not judge me for them. A common saying there is translated something like, “That’s how that person is. No more, no less.”
I also miss the relaxed lifestyle. I can now daydream for hours on end and do not get bored. My town was really quiet and I now appreciate waking up to sounds of cows mooing and roosters crowing. (That last part may be an overstatement as I occasionally considered killing my neighbor’s rooster at 3 a.m.). Most of all, I miss all of the wonderful people I came into contact with. I was often frustrated by the corruption, lack of movement, and inherent complacency exhibited by some members of my community, but this experience taught me what really matters in life. Life is about enjoying a cup of mate or terere (cold green tea) with friends and neighbors, not earning as much as possible while wasting away emotionally.
Mil gracias to Natasha for sharing her experiences. As in the previous interviews, these thoughtful observations are going to stick with me long after I hit the “Publish” button.
*The views expressed here to not necessarily reflect those of the Peace Corps