While the airplane hummed, I fidgeted in my seat. Though I anticipated getting to know Paraguay, a shadow of insecurity hovered over my optimisim. The intimidating combination of a new setting, unfamiliar tasks and a foreign language, peppered my thoughts with dashes of anxiety and led me to second-guess my decision to volunteer in South America for five weeks.
I first heard about Amigos de las Americas, an organization that sends volunteers to rural Latin American to conduct communtiy based initiative, from representatives who visited Stuyvesant during my sophomore year. Reading about women whose eyes were bloodshot because smoke from the pyramid of logs they cooked over stung their eyes stirred my compassion. Therefore, part of my project was to build fogones or stoves that would be healthier for women, safer for toddlers and more energy efficent. Though I still had doubts during the training sessions in NY, my excitement surpassed my apprehension.
During our second week in San Rafael, Paraguay, my partners and I were working on our first of six stoves. I tried to ask Narda, a woman for whom we are building the stove, if she had all the tools for construction. Unfortunately, I have never even touched a trowel, let alone know its word in Spanish. In a moment of frustration, I pulled out my notepad and drew one. I was pleasantly surprised that Pictionary not only translated well, but also closed in the distance between Narda and I. Sadly, Spanish was not the only roadblock. Peering at the side of the structure we had built, I was startled to see a leaning tower. I dashed to find the local stove expert, Ramon, who chuckled and patiently demonstrated how to tap the bricks in line with the handle of the trowel.
Afterwards, while chatting with Ramon, Narda and her husband, Hector, in broken Spanish, I realized that similar conversations had become a significant part of my days. Gradually, the nightly chats with my host family fostered relationships and eased the loneliness I feared in a foreign environment. My host parents’ patient smiles relaxed my insecurities over my often incoherent Spanish. While we did not gather around a flat screen TV, but by the glow of a solitary light bulb, our voices and laughter brought the star studded night to life. The lack of texting allowed us to focus on personal contact. As the days passed, Ramon also became like family. He not only taught us technical skills but also invited us to lunch with his daughters. While the members of the community did not have elaborate material things to offer, I found their affectiosn for each other sincere and invaluable.
Language deficiencies exacerbated by the existence of a local dialect often caused me to question my decision to volunteer in an unfamiliar setting. Difficulties with building stoves took their toll on my self-confidence. However, through cooking with my host mother and playing soccer with kids in the local elementary school, I became part of the community. People such as the neighbor who became like a sister to me and my host grandma who I loved like my own all helped me to let my worries fade. I learned to not concentrate so hard on the obstacles that I miss the simple yet precious personal relationships in life.
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