Sunday, February 23, 2014

Saying Goodbye

In less than a week I will leave Guido Almada—my home for these past 2 years—but today feels like any other day. I woke up to the birds calling—kiskadees and caciques and thrushes—and a calm eastern breeze that I soaked in over a cup of Brazilian coffee. My mangy campo
mutt Lobo is sitting at my side, waiting patiently for breakfast, and I am as content as one could ever hope to be. The realities of transition from a Peace Corps life deep in the Paraguayan countryside to a life in the states are the farthest thing from my mind. Tranquillopa, as Paraguayans always say; that quiet mantra and the lifestyle it signifies are among the things I will miss most about this place. That, and all these beautiful people who have taken me under their wings and made me family. Mario carves the main dish at his despedida, or farewell party. The traditional Paraguayan dish akague yvygu'u is a cow’s head slowly roasted for half a day over buried coals.
The end of Peace Corps service is always a difficult time. Volunteers are confronted with the pragmatic difficulties of upending their lives and, in many ways, starting over from scratch. At the same time, there is the existential challenge of evaluating one’s service, the successes and the failures, and coming to terms with what has been a trying and significant experience. What has it all meant? Have I made enough of a difference? What will the work I have done here look like in 10 years? 20 years? More? How will this community remember me? Have I given enough of myself to this cause? How can I take the things I have learned and use them to make great social change in the future?
This introspection is not easy, but it’s necessary. I have found that it really helps to make lists of all the projects, big and little, that I have done while I was here. As always, visiting with my neighbors and friends is a great way to feel good about my service. Regardless of the development work I have done, I have made a lot of great, genuine friendships and built some very meaningful relationships in my time here. To a certain extent, that might just be the greatest thing a volunteer could hope for. Still, the profound self-critique and doubt continues. There is still so much need, so many issues that need to be addressed, so much more work to be done.
One of Mario’s projects during his Peace Corps service was to provide technical assistance in the construction of anaerobic biodigesters as a sustainable energy source. Here, Mario poses with a Paraguayan family that benefitted from that project.
Emotionally, I feel all right. Really, none of this leaving nonsense seems real at all. Occasionally and unexpectedly, however, I will feel the heavy welling-up of an ocean in my chest and know that I am about to break down into tears. So far, I have done well enough to suppress that and keep my cool, but I know that sooner or later, my levees will not be able to hold back the tide and I will go from proud Peace Corps volunteer to blubbering little child in an instant. I just hope nobody is around for that. Saying goodbye to neighbors and friends has been heartbreaking, but I think that living alone and becoming almost entirely self-sufficient for these 2 years has made me a greater master of my fickle emotions. Peace Corps service can be unforgiving at times; by necessity, one is forced to persevere, and for me that has meant the careful management of otherwise intense and unproductive emotional crises.
If everything that returned Peace Corps volunteers have told me is correct, the next few months will be the hardest of them all, harder still than the past 27 months in Paraguay. My hope is to capture as much of my thoughts and reflections in writing so that I can better understand and appreciate all that has happened and all I have learned from Paraguay and its beautiful people. Hopefully this transition, difficult as it will undoubtedly be, will represent not the end of my service in Peace Corps but instead an important step in a lifetime of service to communities and people around the world, in Paraguay and beyond.  —Mario Machado

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