Well, I’ve been meaning to update my blog for a while, but I’m being pulled in many directions lately. I’m learning a lot, as always, and trying to give constructive criticism so that future people in my position will not have to be so stressed out! Enough said.
Happily, my community is still (or, at long last?) inviting me to work. This past month, my host mom has been harvesting a lot of cucumbers, which we had planted together. She doesn’t need my help with that, but this is part of our ongoing conversation/effort about how she ought to consider her vegetable garden and poultry-raising as her “job.” That is, she has shifted (mentally) from these being on-the-side activities to what she does daily with as much commitment as people who leave their houses for a job. A lot of the seeds I’ve given her haven’t panned out, but we were very pleased to be able to grow enough greenbeans (the short, sweet variety that are considered “quality” here) to collect the seeds. I actually imparted some seed-saving knowledge, that she should let the beans dry on the plant instead of harvesting them green, in order to save the seed. I can’t control what happens after I leave, but maybe the shift is more permanent this time than in previous years. I have to remember that she hasn’t lived in this town as long as the others, so she is, comparatively speaking, only starting out, and so the stopping and starting that has characterized my work with her is probably symptomatic of her being new at this more than anything else. She also seems to be getting more saavy about grocery shopping to include healthier choices than when I first arrived. Hard to say whether this is a direct effect from my nutrition talks with her, but I like to say I have something to do with it.
My friend and neighbor, Mari, with whom I’ve worked a lot (who also tends to frustrate me with her desultory garden-tending habits) invited me to work to chop down the grass in what should be her garden beds. I was not too animated about going, since it seems all we have done in the past half a year is chop down the grass but never work the soil or plant anything. However, of course I went! I have been saying “yes” to everything lately so I won’t have regrets about what I might have missed. I asked Mari, as a way of pushing her to plan and to have a goal, what she wanted to plant. I told her I wanted to know so that when I’m in the USA I would be able to have a picture of her garden in my head. At first she answered, “no se Raquel,” which is standard. Rather than give an opinion, usually the first thing I hear is that someone doesn’t know. I gave a few ideas, and quickly it became clear that she was concerned about how to get seeds. Now, in the past I’ve given her seeds for free and not much has come of it. A combination of her character and her mother’s recent illness got in the way. But I think she’s turning a corner now. Her daughter is starting school this week (tomorrow, as I’m writing this), and maybe this landmark in her life is causing her to reflect on her goals and vision. Mari now has a paying job, and can definitely afford the basic seeds that are easy to find in Santiago, where she goes fairly often. Besides that, a lot of the vegetables that she has started to buy also have seeds one can cull from the actual fruit (tomato, pumpkin, beans). I told her this, and she agreed. So we’ll see what she ends up doing. Anyways, after we chopped (with machetes!) for a while, we sat to talk. Since I’ve been busy and she is often at work when I stop by her mother’s house, it’s been a while. I consider her one of my best friends, and we speak very openly to each other. I’ll never forget or discredit her easy friendship, which has made my service so much better.
We talked about her sadness at not losing weight or being in shape (which is harder for her now that she works in an office and isn’t on her feet all day: a major trade-off between country and city life, as we all know). I encouraged her, as I always do, to try some new things, to ask my host mom to be her exercise partner (seriously, both women are trying to get in shape and are a bit embarrassed to exercise alone in public, and I’ve been trying to get them to partner up FOREVER), etc. Though this conversation is one we often have, I’m including it because in the context of what happened next, I’m hopeful that what I am saying is getting through and sticking.
Somehow the conversation shifted, and she gave me the ultimate gift: confirmation that I have had an effect on someone in my community (her). When I was interviewing for Peace Corps, I said that I’d be satisfied if I changed only one person’s life for the better. Maybe I was exaggerating or just naïve at the time, since lately I’ve felt like I haven’t done anything or enough with my time in Peace Corps, etc. Yet what I realized I’d been missing was the simple confirmation that I’d reached this goal. Mari was talking about how someone else in town (whom I’ve never worked with though I’ve invited her to some things) had been bad-mouthing me to Mari and another woman, saying she had no idea what “that gringa” was here for and everything else bad that still really hurts to hear said. But Mari had defended me, told the third woman (an outsider in the community) that it’s not Raquel’s fault that she’d never worked with woman 1, because Raquel doesn’t force anyone to do anything but is a really good worker, a professional, who knows many things, who will always help IF YOU ASK. Mari had me tearing up at this point. She used all the descriptors I would want used about me, and believe me, I was not prompting her to say any of this. I couldn’t open my mouth because I would have started crying for real. Furthermore, Mari said that she didn’t understand why she and the rest of the community hadn’t supported my efforts more. She saw how hard I tried with the women’s health class (she made it clear that SHE understood it wasn’t a weight-loss class but a health and nutrition class), with the tree planting, with everything. She said the community should have been more involved, because I was trying to make things better for them and without me, things would just always be the same (for example the area where we planted trees would remain treeless forever). Finally, she told me that she really has learned a lot from me (she named everything we’d done together), and plans to make use of the techniques we’ve practiced together. She asked that I send her seeds from home (obviously I will, since what they get here are awful hybrids that they can’t save the seeds from). She told me that her older brother (who I always thought considered me as sort of nuts) and mother (who is indeed a major supporter) were always telling Mari to use what she’d learned with Raquel, because “Raquel, sí sabe” (Raquel, yes knows). I feel I can end my service with that one nagging question finally answered. Yes, I changed something for the better. I’m excited to check in, to visit in coming years, and to see how this change may have had domino effects. But that’s getting ahead of myself. For now, I’m simply and completely elated!