1.Where are you from originally, and where in Latin America did you live?
I’m from a little suburb outside of Atlanta, GA. I lived in both Paraguay and Nicaragua, spending 4 months in the former, and a little over 3 months in the latter.
2. What were you doing in those countries?
I was interning with two separate health development non-profits. The first one in Paraguay focused on medicine donation. I spent most of my time coordinating receipt, inventory, and distribution of large donation projects to medical institutes. I also interviewed patients already taking the donated medicines to see how they were improving, and interviewed healthcare professionals to assess need and better place the medicines. In addition, I had some really great opportunities to meet public health officials and observed the development of relations between the government and the non-profit.
In Nicaragua, I spent a good bit of my time gathering health data and statistics and turning them into meaningful, supporting details in medicine-related articles. I also wrote 2 approved grants for water and sanitation projects, and another approved grant for the construction of a health clinic. Both jobs in both countries had me travel to sites of extreme poverty and medical need.
3. In what ways did you feel integrated into life in Latin America, and in what ways did you feel like you stuck out as a gringo?
In Paraguay, I felt pretty integrated if not solely for the fact that I had a family to claim me, but perhaps also because physically, I looked like a lot of the locals, with light skin and lighter hair. As you may know, Paraguay has a much stronger Western European influence than Nicaragua. My blue eyes raised some questions though.
In Nicaragua, I felt like I stuck out a lot more. Locals there have a much more indigenous appearance, with mostly darker features. So how I looked garnered a lot of attention. After awhile though, people got used to seeing me, and as I began using local vocabulary and slang, I fit in a bit more.
Finally, in all the impoverished locations that I visited, I was always so aware of how much more I had. For example, some of the guys that I worked side by side with only ate when they had the money. That was a humbling experience, and the reason I chose to live simply like the rest of the people.
4. How was your Spanish? How did you learn?
My Spanish was pretty good. I took 3 years of it in high school, but then no Spanish at all in college. So Paraguay really served as a refresher for all the grammar and whatnot I had already learned, and a crash course in the intricacies of the local vocabulary. Nicaragua was a whole different story. Even though I already spoken a good deal of Spanish, the different vocabulary and intonation of the words gave me a really hard time understanding the locals for quite awhile before I got the hang of it.
5. Are you keeping up your Spanish as you live back in the States?
Unfortunately, I don’t speak it all that often. I do listen to it a good bit thanks to the large Latino population in Atlanta though. So at least that keeps my ear trained. I’ll watch Univision sometimes and catch a telenovela, laugh at myself for watching it, and then get over it and pay attention to the dialog. It’s not pretty, but it works.
6. What was the hardest part about moving abroad? What has been the most rewarding?
I suppose the hardest part was realizing the separation between myself and my family and friends. I mean, even though I was in the same Hemisphere (and only a 4 hour flight away from Atlanta when I was in Nicaragua), my world was completely different from theirs. I might as well have been living on Mars. Especially in Paraguay, with the inversion of the seasons in the Southern Hemisphere. While my friends were all wearing jackets and complaining about the cold in their Facebook statuses, I was finding it hard to keep cool in an office with a spotty air-conditioning unit, and reporting daily highs around 101*F.
The most rewarding part, by far, was the gratitude expressed by the impoverished people and the little exchanges of kindness. For example, an experience I will never forget is being invited to participate in a cultural, ceremonial dance with the chief of a Guaraní tribe in the Chaco in Paraguay. With the sunsetting and incense burning in the background as tribe members sang and chanted — it was just so surreal. Very few outsiders ever receive that kind of honor. It just showed that they were thankful for our gesture of goodwill to them, and they were willing to match it in their own way.
7. How did you support yourself living abroad?
When I was in Paraguay, I lived with a host family in which the father worked for my organization. I didn’t pay any rent, nor for any food, so I suppose you can say that was an exchange for a salary. But that was no problem. Fresh out of college with little experience in the world outside the United States, I was gracious to be integrated so well into an average Paraguayan family. I saw a lot more of the local culture that way too. The only things I paid for out of pocket were lunch and the daily fare on the local bus, which was about $0.40 each way.
In Nicaragua, the story went a little differently. Since I had already had some experience living in a foreign country, I just rented a room at a bed and breakfast with the salary I was being paid by the NGO. Also with that salary, I took cabs, ate lunch, etc. I was a lot more independent than I was in Paraguayan, but I was ready for it.
8. What did your parents think of your move?
Ah, this is a question I get a lot. I guess they just trusted me, because they were very supportive and showed very little doubt in my decision, knowing the kind of poor places I’d be living in. If they worried for my safety, they didn’t let me know that often. They mostly thought it would be a wonderful experience, and a character builder.
9. If you could offer advice to someone still thinking about moving to Latin America, what would you tell them?
Well, my answer probably isn’t anything different than what most folks have said in the past: Have patience. Research the culture and customs of where you’ll be living. Read a good website and get yourself ready to accept a change in some of your most deep seated cultural values, like the sense of time, politeness, relationships, etc. If someone is thinking about moving to Latin America and is reading this blog right now, they already have access to so much good advice that I wasn’t lucky enough to stumble across before I took the plunge. I think just knowing that other Americans are feeling exasperated like you are in your first few months does a lot to calm and center you.
10. How did living in Latin America fit in with your career goals?
It was my springboard towards a career in global health. I can remember landing in Paraguay thinking, alright, let’s see how much good I can do. That was a relatively naive view since things are so much more complicated than “doing good”, but I guess what I took away from the experience was that regardless of how many complications step in your way, it is worth it to engage these vibrant peoples and lend a helping hand to your human brothers and sisters. It was also great experience that focused my goals into a niche of where I could help the most.
I have decided on pursuing an MPH in Global Health Epidemiology so that I can use a combination of technology and good old-fashioned investigation to identify outbreaks of disease and help assuage the burden on the peoples that are left so vulnerable to sickness by the structural violence prevalent in many Latin American countries. In addition to the MPH, I am seriously considering pursuing a PhD in Medical Anthropology to augment my career in Epidemiology so that I can better understand the social factors that play into the incidence of disease. I have already begun educating myself by reading books by Paul Farmer, Arthur Kleinman, Steven Johnson, and Carl Zimmer.
11. Do you see yourself moving back to either Paraguay or Nicaragua?
I can’t see myself living in either of those countries full time, but I certainly can see myself spending a good deal of my career in Latin America in general. As it goes in the job world, you never get exactly what you want, but if I could, I’d love to spend 4 months out of every year there living among the people in various Latin American countries like Ecuador, The Dominican Republic, Peru, Argentina, Venezuela, Mexico, Guatemala, etc., doing research and helping the poor gain better access to medicines.
My blog is The Developing Medical Anthropologist, and can be found at http://mjparaguay.wordpress.com/
My twitter account for that blog is DevAnthro, and can be found at http://twitter.com/
Cathy Brown is a mother, writer, artist, teacher, traveler and explorer originally from Michigan. She has a serious case of wanderlust and currently lives in Argentina with her three amazing children, ages nine, eight, and six. She writes for and maintains Expat Daily News – South America and Expat Daily News – Central America where you can find more expat interviews like this one among other great articles and insight in to life and living in Latin America.
If you are an expat with an interesting story to tell Cathy would like to interview you… email her on firstname.lastname@example.org