Opa: to be finished. -ta: future. -ma: already, or soon. -ta and -ma together make a strange pairing that mean “almost” or “about to”.
It’s almost over.
Oga Ita, Alto Verá, Itapua
I have four bags sitting at the foot of my bed. All four are slowly being filled with ratty clothing, books, sun-bleached bandanas, a gathered assortment of medications and remedies, letters sent from a world away, memories, pieces of this life. I’m taken back to over two years ago, when I sat between four bags on the carpet of our living room in Alaska. Those bags were filled with different things: expectations, an appetite for adventure, more intact clothing that’s now two sizes too big for me. That me, surrounded by those four bags, was much different than this me, looking at these four bags.
I’ve always said that this entire experience, Peace Corps, was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Learning Guaraní, learning how to live slow, learning how to love people of a completely different background, learning how to love myself, learning how to get my hands dirty; it’s been rewarding, amazing, awe-inspiring, yet so much more difficult than anything I ever imagined. Until now. Learning to walk away. Learning to leave it all behind. I’m moving to Asunción for a third year extension, but it still feels tragic. These are my people. This is my community. I’m not leaving Paraguay, but I’m leaving Oga Ita, a place that has filled me with such a sense of life and sharing and humility and beauty and love. I haven’t loved every minute, but I’ve loved. And been loved. And fallen in love. I’ve fallen in love with little moments, little instances in which my heart swells and I take in a breath and realize where I’m at and what I’m doing and who I’m surrounded by. Moments in which I think, “how can I leave this all behind?” In honor of this love and this life and this experience coming to a strange end in two weeks, I give you my favorite moments. Not necessarily stand-out moments of my service, but those little day-to-day things with which I’m struggling to come to terms that they’re going to be taken away from me.
- My mother, coming to my door at 7 AM, worried that I’m sick or dead because I’m not up yet. In her hands is usually a mug of fresh cow milk, a recently baked loaf of bread, fresh eggs, some home grown remedial herbs, or a loaf of radishes that she has no idea what to do with. She laughs when I open the door, my eyes groggy, hair every which way.
- I ask Ña Angela what’s for lunch. “We ate all of the dogs” she jokes, “so I boiled the cat.”
- Sitting by the stove after the sun has set at Teodoro’s house. Ña Lucia stokes the fire to heat maté and asks me about my day. Teodoro starts to tell jokes, first attempting in Spanish, but quickly shifting into his toothless, mumbly Guaraní that I’ve come to love, his huge belly shaking with every resonating laugh.
- Hearing a screech as I walk home and seeing parakeets soar to the nearest coco palm.
- My hammock, strung up on my patio for mid-morning terere sessions, afternoon readings, and evening glasses of wine to watch the sunset over the trees.
- Chile, his wet nose always poking into whatever I’m doing, his tail wagging ceaselessly. But the moment my fingers find a good scratch behind his ear, all movement stops, his eyelids droop, and he falls into bliss.
- Sebastian, standing in my doorway, too timid to come in, while Elvin sits at my table coloring on huge sheets of paper. Sebastian jabbers away to himself, or probably to me but I don’t understand the Guaraní of a four year old, and Elvin proudly displays every scribble, which I praise every time.
- Eating lunch with Ramón and Ña Cele, sitting at a low table under a mango tree, shoveling food into my mouth because Ña Cele is the best cook in Paraguay, leaving me in a food coma after lunch to lie back and listen to Ramón regale me with stories from his childhood.
- Rooster crows. Bird chirps. The terrible squawk of a guinea fowl. Crickets, frogs, cicadas.
- Hearing my name called in twelve small voices as I pass by the school. Twelve grubby faces pressed to the window and peering around the door.
- My weekly trips to Suni’s despensa. As I lean on the counter because the window is too low for me to stand up straight, she laughs at me for timidly asking for a bag of cookies, we trade baking tips, she laughs even harder when I timidly ask for wine, and she tells me stories about growing up with Kathy, a health volunteer who lived nearby in the 90s. She gives me Rosemary and carrots from her garden and burrito from her patio. I run around with the dogs and laugh with her daughter and tell her husband Silvio what the forecast says about the week to come.
- Walks to Chara’s. Through a mandioca field, over a muddy trail under a forest canopy, across a stream, through a field of orange trees, and down a red dirt road all the way to Jovere, cerros on all sides and music in my headphones or thoughts lost in my head.
- Hot days. Days when there’s nothing to do but drink terere in front of a fan. Days when a cold shower is a dream come true. Days when I meander back into the woods and lay in the arroyo, looking up at the leaves and feeling relief in the cool current as it surrounds my body.
- Fruit, available anytime, anywhere. As mango season blends into watermelon into pineapple into pear into grapefruit into mandarin into orange into peach into grape, with bananas and limes and avocado and guava all thrown in all the time, the basket in my house always stays full.
- Asuhaga, greeting me, always looking me in the eye and firmly grasping my hand with both of his, pulling me into the shade and giving me a chair. Always happy to see me. Always.
- Evening runs on dirt roads. Watching the sun set over cow pastures as I sweat, from the heat, from activity. Getting smiles and shouts of encouragement from every community member. It’s easy to be present. You can hole up in your house all day, but to run past and smile and wave makes up for it. They know you’re there. They know you’re present. You’re a part of the community.
There are more moments. In the last month, little things have caused tears to well up. Sunrises. The wave of a field of grass on a breeze. A gale of laughter in a terere circle. The look on someone’s face when I tell them how much time I have left here.
This is hard. It’s drawn out. It’s a countdown that sometimes feels like it’s for something better, but at times feels like it’s for the apocalypse. I could walk away from this stoically, putting it behind me and moving on to the next adventure of working in Asuncion. But what’s more likely to happen is that I’ll walk away from Oga Ita, bawling like a baby and unable to even say the word, “goodbye” in any of my three languages.
Tomorrow I find out exactly which Peace Corps trainee will be moving here to do their two years of service and continue my work. I love that they get to have this experience, that they get this beautiful place as their own, but it’s harder knowing that someone else gets to live this life. And I don’t get to anymore. I’m trusting this newbie with my life, a life I’ve grown so used to. I’m trusting him to love these people and to love my little shack and to take care of my garden and to tell my mom that her food is good even though it’s not and to love and care for Moritz and to continue planting Yerba and growing vegetables and be a good volunteer. I can walk away from this knowing that someone else is willing to take it on and that Oga Ita is willing to take in another gringo to love.
It’s still hard, but I take deep breaths and remind myself that I knew this was coming. I have another year of terere and mangos and polka and Guaraní to soften the blow. I’m packing those four bags again, with different things. Different expectations, ready for a different adventure.