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A Taste of Success

Paraguay

Tranquilo. All 32 of you will fit on this 15-passenger bus. Tranquilo. You’ll learn Spanish and Guaraní in 90 days.

Tranquilo. This isn’t even close to as hot as it gets here.

Be tranquilo. Be patient. Relax. Take it easy.

I had come to Paraguay with big plans. I had goals. I had an agenda. I had specifically defined how I would measure my success. I had trouble being tranquilo.

Perhaps it’s part of growing up in America, perhaps it’s just me, but patience was a virtue I’d always had trouble understanding. And now, as I prepared for my Peace Corps service in Paraguay, I was becoming more confused than ever. I thought we were here to help. I thought we were here to make a difference. I didn’t think we were here to relax.

And yet, every time I turned around: You’ll learn Spanish and Guaraní in the next fourteen days.

Tranquilo. It gets much hotter than this.

Tranquilo. Tranquilo. Tranquilo.

I can’t tell you how many times I heard that word during the three months of training. From trainers, from bus drivers, from my host family. In cafes, in the market, in the health center. And always, it was delivered with a calmness and a smile.

At the end of the three months of training I couldn’t wait to get to my site. At last, I could get started. I could begin doing all the things that I had told myself I would accomplish.

My assignment was rural health education. The job involved a variety of basic but important work. I visited schools to teach children about the importance of brushing their teeth and eating healthy foods. I worked with women to educate them about the dangers of cervical cancer. I worked with a Paraguayan nurse to organize and run Pap campaigns. I also started a community garden with some teachers and their students. I joined other Peace Corps Volunteers and local Paraguayans to build sanitary latrines. I worked with the community to help establish a health clinic.

I was doing stuff. I was accomplishing things, but I couldn’t help but feel I could be doing more. If it wasn’t for tranquilo.

Tranquilo. The supplies will get here. Tranquilo. The pigs don’t know that they are supposed to stay out of the garden. Tranquilo. It’s not that hot.

The work I was most proud of, and the best times I spent in Paraguay, involved the Mothers’ Club, which I helped form soon after I reached my village. Once a week, we would meet at a different mother’s house or sometimes at the river to do laundry and bathe while we talked and learned from one another. Those women soon became my family. They warmly welcomed me into their homes, where they treated me as a daughter, a sister, a granddaughter, and a friend.

Naturally, I always had an agenda for our club meetings. A topic for discussion. A list of things I wanted to accomplish. We would talk about ways to improve nutrition and their diets, breast-feeding, pregnancy, vaccinations, child survival, first aid, and just about anything else that was related to keeping moms and their kids healthy.

And, of course, my goal was to do more than simply talk with the women. I wanted to see results.

Tranquilo. Things cannot change overnight. Tranquilo. More people will show up for your next workshop. Tranquilo. We can talk about that later. Let’s have some tea first.

I wanted to see that my community had the lowest rate of cervical cancer in all of Paraguay. I wanted the Ministry of Health to single out my village as the only community in Paraguay with absolutely no intestinal parasites. I wanted every family to change their diets completely to include vegetables like broccoli, which grew like crazy in the community, but none of the mothers knew how to prepare. And I wanted all of this now.

Tranquilo. You are trying too hard. Tranquilo. You will learn Spanish and Guaraní yet. Tranquilo. It gets much hotter.

Every week I would remind my friends in the Mothers’ Club about, among other things, the many wonderful qualities of broccoli, including its nutritional value and its ease of preparation. Yet, for all my efforts, I felt like I was getting nowhere.

One day, about a year into my service, I was waiting for a bus to Asunción in front of my neighbor’s house. It had rained a few days earlier and the roads were still muddy, so it looked as though the bus might never arrive. I paced back and forth and mumbled to myself.

Tranquilo. The bus will be here soon.

I paced back and forth some more. Tranquilo, I told myself, the bus will be here soon. Finally, frustrated, I sat down heavily on the ground. A short while later I looked up to see little Maria Brizuela, the daughter of one of the women in my Mothers’ Club. Tranquilo. The bus will be here soon, she said.

I managed a slight smile and noticed that she was holding a plate of tortillas that her mother had sent. She sat down next to me and handed me one.

I took one bite and all my delusions of grandeur slipped away. I let go of my timeline and my rigid agenda. Suddenly the heat and the disappointments and the pigs in my garden and the times when nobody showed up for a workshop and the crowded buses and the total frustration with the slower pace were all worth it.

Maria Brizuela’s mother had put broccoli in her tortillas.

Maria explained that her mother was cooking broccoli in lots of different foods. She said that her father was even learning to like it.

After a while, Maria returned down the dirt road, and I returned to waiting for the bus. Tranquilo, I said to myself, it doesn’t matter if the bus ever comes.

For la familia de Juan de Dios eats broccoli.

Rachel Pena (Paraguay)

Rachel began her career with children and families as a health education Volunteer in Paraguay. Today, she is a child welfare worker in Oakland, California. She holds a B.S. in child development from Humboldt State University, and she is working toward a master's degree in social work at the University of California, Berkeley.

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