I thought it would be a good idea to preface this post with an answer to a question I got from a friend when she found out I would be in Paraguay for almost the entire year: How do you prepare for a trip like that? My answer was:
(1) Personal experience. I’ve done a lot of backpacking, and I know what I minimally need to travel comfortably. It also helps that I’ve been to the Chaco before.
(2) Protocols. I poured over all the research protocols I’m taking into the field and made a list of the things I need.
(3) My imagination. I spent a lot of time over the summer imagining how things are going to go down in the field and that helped me think of other things that would probably come in handy. For example, when I was imagining how my interviews would proceed I remembered that the last time we were doing surveys in the Chaco people would politely offer their chairs to researchers, even though it would mean they would have to stand. We could decline the chairs last time because the surveys were less than 15 minutes in duration, but this time I’m bringing portable camping stools with me so we can all sit comfortably and have a good chat.
and (4) Advice from folks who’ve been there. My advisor has almost 30 years of experience doing fieldwork with indigenous peoples in Paraguay and other Latin American countries. She gave me a great list of all the infectious diseases I am probably going to catch in the field and what I can do to stay healthy. My fellow global health grad student and friend Meredith is doing research on food insecurity in one of the barrios of Asunción (you can read more about her research here), and I got some good tips from her. And then I have colleagues in Paraguay who give me a lot of advice on the logistical side of things (locations, transportation, safety).
My grant money was slow in coming (in fact, although my start date was August 1st, I am still spending off of a pre-award account – the university is fronting me money – and I live in fear that the money will not actually be coming and I’m about to go into some serious debt) but I ordered everything I didn’t have on hand as early as possible so it would arrive before my departure. I did a lot of bargain shopping and spent a lot of time reading product reviews so I could stretch my dollars. And then you try to fit everything into your luggage and discover there is not enough room. So you sacrifice some stuff (I’ll miss you, ukulele).
Then when you arrive at your destination, you find that things have changed and your brilliant planning will no longer work. Such is fieldwork.
My greatest problem right now is transportation. My study communities are way off in the middle of nowhere, there’s a lot of distance between the houses, I need to transport research equipment between houses, and I will need to find accommodation near but outside of the communities. It’s really hard to buy a field vehicle on a graduate student budget. Especially when the university will not let me buy off of an individual; I have to buy the vehicle from a company which can provide a receipt, and a 10% tax will eat into the precious little money I have.
Some of my colleagues are concerned that a vehicle purchased so cheaply will need expensive, monthly maintenance because of all the dust in the Chaco. Others think I’ll be okay will my original maintenance plan. I’ve decided I’m just going to buy the vehicle anyways, and then figure out what to do if and when it does break down. That’s why I have a satellite phone.
In other news, I’m attempting to meet with a government official who works in the Ministry of Health to resolve another study issue (I regret that I sacrificed my one set of ‘nice clothes’ in my packing now…). I’m looking into changing one of my study communities (no biggie, I was expecting this). And I will probably be able to stay at a nunnery near my very remote community. All in all, I think my plans have held together fairly well. It’s not that my grand plans won’t work, I just have to make some adjustments and compromises.
My friends in Paraguay have been taking really good care of me and feeding me well. On Saturday night I met up with Meredith and we enjoyed some mandioca frita.
I’ll probably be in Asunción for a while yet before all of my field preparations get sorted out, but that’s not so bad!