Thursday, December 29, 2011

Should We Talk About the Weather?

A few weeks back, while Kevin and I sat in the shade of our host family’s yard chatting about the day, a low hum started from the upper branches of the mango tree at our backs.  Our mom explained- the cicadas announce Christmas.

It turns out they brought the heat with them, too.  Summer has come to Paraguay. 

So far we’ve had a handful of days over one hundred degrees and many more in the mid-nineties.  Thick oppressive humidity weighs the air down and makes any activity difficult.  The sun feels closer here.  Between noon and 4:00pm our community turns into a ghost town.  No one braves the muggy streets, when terere (more on this soon) and shade waits at home.

I think, though, that we may have our family under the impression that we might die from the heat.  See, we talk about it a lot and when topics start to dominate conversations certain assumptions arise.  This, however, may actually indicate a bit a cultural integration. 

In Paraguay, we dance around things.  We do not ask for things directly and folks receive requests for explanations of a project or idea as outright criticism.  (Possible exceptions include inquiries to volunteers regarding level of belief in virgin birth, volume of meat consumed, and the choice to wear those pants when they clearly need ironing.)

For example, last week we held a small Christmas party for our youth group at a soccer field next to our town’s central plaza.  In preparation we needed to submit a request to use the area.  As an American, my instinct suggested I walk into the mayor’s office and ask.  The whole process should have taken five minutes maximum.

Instead, we spent over an hour discussing the heat over terere.  Of course the conversation turned in different directions through its natural course, but every time a new person entered the room we returned to the weather.  Eventually, we got around to the impending party and not only scored the space, but a neighbor lent us a volleyball set as well.  The business portion of our visit to the municipality lasted about three minutes.  The trip, however, took all morning.

Every interaction here starts with the weather.  As we assimilate to Paraguayan culture the percentage of our conversations involving the climate increase.  Understandably, this confuses those back home.  Generally, people in the United States (at least in urban settings) do not spend significant time discussing meteorological conditions.  It may come up, but conversations do not center around the topic.  In Paraguay, we discuss the temperature at length and meander our way into more pressing issues.  Only the very rude jump right into business talk. 

As a result, I think our family now worries that we might actually melt. 

(Full disclosure: Not too long ago I also shared this concern- especially early on in spring when I soaked through my shirt while surrounded by dry locals wearing cardigans on an eighty-nine degree day.  Of course, some of this sweat could have been fear sweat, as upon seeing longing sleeves I panicked about future thermometer readings if nearing ninety still meant sweater weather.  Thankfully, my body’s tolerance to resist sweating, although still not on par with my neighbors, has improved since that afternoon.)

Their concern makes sense.  In the United States we prioritize.  If someone spends most of an international phone call talking about how hot they feel, this heat must really bother them.  In Paraguay, we talk about the temperature to warm up to the real exchange.

I’ve heard that when one's second language skills get stronger, they have an easier time switching between their native and new tongues.  During the process, though, often words from one source slip into conversations held in the other.  Regularly, Kevin and I unconsciously pepper our english with spanish verbs.
Perhaps the same concept holds true for cultural integration.  Even as Paraguay starts to feel like home, my sense of self as an American grows.  Sometimes South America makes me feel more like a North American than I ever did back home.  Contrast highlights the difference.  I know that this experience will change me, but for now my two worlds have mixed together.  I don't yet know how to move back and forth between the two.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Fourth Goal

In an effort to support one of our favorite Peace Corps Paraguay extra-circulars, this past weekend Kevin and I once again traveled the length of Ruta 1 back to Asuncion.

Ahendu Paraguay (Guarani for "I hear Paraguay”) takes place three times a year and features solo and group performances from Peace Corps Paraguay volunteers, KOICA volunteers (Korea International Cooperation Agency, aka the Korean Peace Corps), and Paraguayans.  Musicians and music appreciators alike gather for an evening to connect through song and a few drinks.

KOICA volunteers warm up.

The dancing starts when the sun goes down.
Not every participant in Ahendu played an instrument before arriving in Paraguay.  Transitioning from our overbooked and overstimulated lives in the States to a country where during the summer months no one leaves their home between 11am and 4pm and in the winter small towns roll up their metaphorical sidewalks before 5:30pm, leaves many volunteers, well, bored.

To clarify, signing up for Peace Corps means agreeing to work seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day.  This does not mean that we do round-the-clock traditional “work”, constantly running charlas or youth groups.  Rather, we spend our days on display.  Integrating into a new culture drains you.  Even those who already speak the language still need to adjust to different foods, climate, lifestyle, living away from friends and family, and near complete loss of privacy.  (Our neighbor has even gone so far as to report what we prepare for dinner back to our host family.)  We try to fill our days supporting our communities in meeting their training needs (Peace Corps goal one) and exhausting opportunities for cross-cultural exchange- educating Paraguayans about the US and vice versa (Peace Corps goals two and three), but we always have time left over.  Many volunteers crave projects to fill this time and decompress from the pressures of the day.  As such, fourth goals start to emerge.  Long stressful days without typical American distractions encourage- nay, require- hobbies. 

Some volunteers get pets during their service, others become exercise fanatics.  Almost everyone reads.  Even Kevin, who hasn’t picked up a book in years, has already finished eleven novels- including a Steinbeck.  I spend the hotter-than-the-surface-of-the-sun afternoons perfecting my Paraguayan finger wag.  (More on this later.)  I also spend some time working in CS4.  (Who would think that moving to a third world developing nation would actually improve my technology skills- even if everyone else has moved on to CS5.)  Kevin spends much of his unscheduled time working chords and scales on his classical guitar- of course manufactured in Luque, the center of Paraguayan guitar making.

Perhaps more than other Peace Corps posts, Paraguay creates musicians.  A lucky side effect of isolationism, this country has a strong and unique craft heritage.  Paraguayan folk music sounds as distinctive as ao’poi looks.  Some of the greats make Lindsey Buckingham seem like a hack.  Although many people associate this tradition with the harp, Paraguayan parties do not start without a guitar.  Whether polka or reggaeton, every party I’ve attended thus far starts when the music does.

On one of our first nights in country, our host mother invited a decent portion of the extended family over to meet us.  We could barely speak the language and felt so tired from training that we could hardly keep our eyes open, but we stayed up with the family for hours.  Upon hearing that Kevin played, our brother-in-law near instantaneously produced a guitar.  Kevin fooled around for a few moments until our sister suggested she preform a little something.  Next thing we knew, the room divided into two part harmony and the most beautiful music filled the air.  Guarani has a melodious quality when spoken that naturally translates into song.  That night Kevin set his sights on learning a ballad in the indigenous language of this land.  I’ve set my sights on understanding it- michimi.

Country Director Don Clark takes the stage for early arrivals.

Monday, December 5, 2011

How to Host an American style Thanksgiving Dinner in Paraguay on a PC Volunteer’s Budget

Appetizers for lunch... so many dips.
With the holiday season in full swing, some of us have started to feel the sting that comes from living in a different hemisphere than our friends and family.  4th of July and Labor Day BBQs- even our own birthdays- have passed without too much notice.  But Thanksgiving, something about Thanksgiving snuck up and made some of us realize just how far away we now live.  In an effort to combat the distance, Kevin and I met up with a handful of other volunteers to share Thanksgiving dinner.

Meal planning for an American dinner gets complicated in a country without American products- or an American palate.  Intent on making our meal as homey as possible, we hunted for some ingredients and substituted others.  Artichoke dip featured hearts of palm.  We switched out molasses for dark honey.  The iconic turkey dinner turned into a stuffed chicken.  In a pinch for a traditional dessert, another volunteer’s parents generously shipped down Karo syrup, pecans, and pumpkin puree.  We only had one rule: in the true Paraguayan style, we wanted a relaxed Thanksgiving.  Side dish gets burnt?  No big deal.  Pie doesn’t set?  We’ll eat it anyway.  Intense tranquiloness or nothing.

Although we brought most of our our ingredients up with us from Asuncion, a few items we needed to procure in town- including our chicken.  A few glasses of wine and coke (in Paraguay we treat wine a little differently) helped us determine that rather than buy a bird ready to go, we would kill one ourselves.  Somehow, this made our Peace Corps Thanksgiving feel more legitimate.  The following morning, certain flaws in our plan emerged as the alcohol wore off.  None of us had ever killed or cleaned any animal for consumption.  Ultimately we decided to leave these steps to the professionals and ordered our prepared chickens for delivery.  During siesta, the chicken man arrived with the birds- wings flapping and hearts beating.  Evidently, the fates liked our drunken plan better than our sober one.  In over our heads, we reached out to a neighbor to guide us through this endeavor.

Knowing when to say when...
While some prefer the faster (and potentially more humane) machete method, our teacher opted to use her bare hands- and expected us to do so as well.  Believe me, this is way more challenging than it sounds.  A spirited chicken does not become dinner without a fight.  In the end, our coach took care of two of the three birds.  She did the dirty work and left us to clean the carcasses (also dirty work).

What do you mean you've never done this before?
A community effort... who's a good sport?
After a bit of hullabaloo (including the intendente’s entire family popping in as we set the table, sending us scrambling for more plates and forks), the roasted stuffed chickens eventually wound up center stage on our citronella candle light spread, in between the mashed potatoes and the mayor’s wife’s Sopa Paraguaya.

Peace Corps service requires patience, flexibility, and often a little ingenuity.  Whether finding funding for a project, walking teenagers through a SWOT analysis, or furnishing our homes, a small dose of creativity goes a long way.  The same holds true for celebrating American holidays.  Miles from home and emerged in another culture, certain traditions mean even more when we can’t celebrate them with those most dear to us.

We may have celebrated Día Acción de Gracias instead of Thanksgiving, but concocting something similar to my father’s stuffing helped bridge the gap.  I suppose we call it comfort food for a reason.  Thanks, friends, for a lovely weekend.

Tools of the trade... Gerber does not currently advertise the versatility of their popular multi-tool in pie making, but maybe they should consider it.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

She Flies With Her Own Wings

This week, Peace Corps Paraguay said goodbye to community economic development volunteer, Emily Balog.  Sunday morning, while traveling along Ruta 2, we lost her in a crash that took the life of one other and left her love in a coma.  The news of her passing has left our community in pieces.

In a celebration of her life, staff and volunteers from all over the country gathered to share the evening with a presentation from those of knew her best.  I did not have the honor of knowing Emily well.  Many of those in attendance only met her briefly, yet we mourn together.  Thousands of miles from home, we form a different sort of family.

When the time came to conclude the service, Emily’s best friend summoned her closing remarks and lifted a white dove from a cardboard box.  Intending to release it, she held up her hands and unfurled her fingers as to allow for flight.  The dove, however, had different plans.  The bird left her palms and promptly flew directly into a large glass window, tumbling to the ground.  In an exceptionally long, silent, and stunned moment, the bird stood dazed and subsequently shook out his feathers. 

Then, like a storm, came the laughter.  A contagious giggle that grew into roar and stayed to comfort us for the rest of the evening.  We feasted on biscuits and gravy, fried chicken, and sopa Paraguaya- the favorite foods of a North Carolina girl living in the heart of South America.  Some told stories, some listened.  The tears came back, but the giggles were never far behind.  And when he was ready, the dove stretched his wings and flew into the night.

It feels horribly wrong and unfair to get to know Emily under these circumstances.  And yet here we are.  Over and over, those closest to Emily say that she touched every person she met.  Her passing has not diminished this gift.  Through her example, we will become better volunteers.  We will honor her with our work.  We will remember her every day.

Our thoughts are with families Balog, Fernández Bogado, and Moreno.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Help Us Eat Our Veggies!

Kevin and I hit the Peace Corps foodie jackpot with our tiny commuter town.

Almost more than any other challenge, I hear my fellow volunteers complain about the availability of fresh vegetables in their sites.  Fruit grows in excess (and often goes to waste), but variety all but always only comes with personal gardens and lucky finds on veggie runs to bigger towns.  It comes down to demand.  Paraguay has some of the most fertile land on Earth, but why grow a crop that no one wants to eat?

As a country, Paraguay tends to favor beige meals.  Mandioca, breaded meat, pasta, cornmeal, and rice all contribute to a dinner table lacking color; color otherwise known as vegetables.  When the green (or orange or red or purple) stuff actually makes it to the table, it usually arrives beyond well done and with all the nutrients cooked out.  Although families will serve a little cabbage or shredded leaf lettuce along side lunch, most kids and adults do not eat three to five servings of vegetables in a week- let alone daily.

Upon arriving in our community, Kevin and I could not believe our good fortune to find the area agricultural high school just a few blocks away from our new home.  Kids come from a few towns over to focus their studies on farming, both raising crops and animal husbandry.  Students learn the tricky business of growing food on an experimental field adjacent to their classrooms.  Flush with leafy greens and hearty gourds, we quickly learned that much of this crop ends up eaten by animals.

Since traditionally Paraguayans do not eat a lot of vegetables, many have no idea how to prepare them.  In an effort to turn this around, the director of the school invited Kevin and I to teach a class regarding healthy eating and incorporating vegetables into daily diets.  Classes resume in February, so we will spend the next couple months experimenting with different main dishes, sides plates, sauces, breads, soups, and casseroles.

And we need your help.  Please send in your favorite veggie recipes and we’ll try and work them into our syllabus.  The following ingredients are readily available at the school:  

Milanesa de carne, mashed potatoes with mayonnaise, and sopa Paraguaya, with tomatoes and onions.
black beans

chili pepper
green leaf lettuce
green onion
green peas
green pepper
mandioca (a denser cousin to potato)
orange lime (less tangy than green limes)
red beans
red leaf lettuce
soy bean
white onion

As always, thank you for your support.  Please send suggestions via email or in the comment section under this post.  As we try out ideas with local ingredients and taste tasters, we will feature recipes and results on this blog.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Living the American Dream

The Río Paraná, from the front of our house.
Although a common mission runs throughout the Peace Corps, most posts operate a little differently from each other. In some countries, Peace Corps volunteers move into their own home the day they step foot in site. In other countries, volunteers live with host families for the entirety of their service. 

In Paraguay, volunteers live with a host family for training and then during their first three months in site. This gives the volunteer an automatic support network while they get acclimated to the community.  Some volunteers hop from one family to another in an effort to meet more people by staying with each for a few weeks. Other volunteers stay with the same family for six months, a year, and beyond.

In special circumstances, occasionally volunteers move into their own places sooner then others. For example, the other married couple in our G moved into their own place after only about a week in town. Among other issues, their host family’s pig kept getting into their luggage and leaving snout marks on their belongings.

After a mere five and a half years of marriage, Kevin and I have reached the American dream: a house in the suburbs. Granted, our suburb lies in southern Paraguay, but with four walls and a lawn it still counts.

From the moment we first starting talking about the Peace Corps, I knew that service would test me. I anticipated cold showers, bugs, and weird food. I expected the 5,000 miles separating me from my family and friends to make me ache. I assumed roosters would bother me while I tried to sleep. Peace Corps includes hardship in the deal. Never, though, in my many Peace Corps daydreams (or alternatively worst case scenario nightmares) did I expect to run into trouble finding a place to live.

In Paraguay, most children do not rush to leave the nest. Host families often do not understand why volunteers (single and married alike) desire independent accommodations. Here, multiple generations of the same family often live together under a shared roof. Getting married does not automatically mean a child will move out. More commonly, a spouse will move in. Most parents do not see their children as adults (and thus having the responsibilities of adults) until they reach their 30s- even if they have their own children. A lack of children (especially upon reaching 30) implies a lack of knowledge in all things domestic. Accordingly, if someone does not know how to take care of a house, they certainly do not need their own.

The delicate dance of finding our own home began with getting our host family on board. In this case, a little white lie did the trick. (The ubiquitous “Peace Corps makes us” also helps volunteers put up mosquito nets without offense and stay off of motorcycles.) Begrudgingly, our host mom accepted and we started the hunt. Naturally, she suggested the overpriced place directly across the street. Our contact, had leads on a few other places in different parts of town. Each one fell through at the last minute. (And the one that didn’t had no windows.)
Home, sweet home.
With every false lead, our contact would say “don’t worry, we’ve got plenty of time” and push my blood pressure up a few points. Finally, in true Paraguayan style, a nearly perfect option surfaced in the eleventh hour. Even our host mom, who announced throughout town that “Peace Corps is stupid and crazy” for forcing us to move out, approved.

We have shared living room and bedroom space, a modern bathroom, an over-sized covered patio, and an additional bedroom. Behind the house oranges, mangoes, grapefruits, orange limes, and grapes grow in the sprawling lawn. We even have two cats in the yard- although one struts around like a real jerk and the other apparently is in heat. (Developments on this to follow.)

We live about two kilometers from the main route, two blocks from the beach, and, not surprisingly, two houses down from our host family. To keep us from starving, our host mom visits daily and never empty handed. Slowly, she has started to believe that I know how to cook and clean after all. At about the same pace of acceptance, I have started looking forward to her visits.

Back in the saddle again.
Our backyard, cats unavailable for photo.
Who needs a medicine cabinet when you have a bidet?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Thank you for supporting the blog!

This week, not only do we have a new post below, but the lovely and talented (and with a travel CV to make Anthony Bourdain to a double take) Brittany Boroian invited me to write a guest post in her neck of the woods. To read all about our trip to drink magic water click here or visit Cheers!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Growing Pains

In many ways, Paraguay is the baby in a world of nations.  Yes, many of our towns have celebrated 400 year anniversaries (and usually that just marks when the Europeans started paying attention).  Yes, people often call our capital the mother city of South America, as the founders of many of great cities stopped in Asunción before establishing, for example, Buenos Aires.  And yes, Paraguay officially turned 200 this past May.  Nevertheless, merely 22 years back, Paraguay experienced a rebirth. 

The dictator Stroessner ranks in as the 14th longest serving non-royal state leader in history.  Coming from a country where presidents stick around for eight measly years, I find it difficult to wrap my brain around the idea that one person could act as the face of a nation for 35 years.  (Of course, Strom Thurmond and Ted Kennedy don’t even top the list of longest serving US senators, at 47 and 46 years respectively.  However, I hardly believe that most Americans considered these guys for even a moment when making daily decisions.)

In 1989 Paraguay initiated a move from closed society where very little from the rest of the world penetrated these borders, to a place where international trends could potentially take hold.  With time, cable television and the world wide web steeped in to take the country that sustained itself- intellectually and agriculturally- for decades, and introduce it to the rest of the world.

The transition from absolute power into democracy hardly ever goes smoothly.  When all a generation has ever known focuses on pleasing a tyrant, change does not come easy.  Beyond updating laws and recognizing human rights on a state level, personally people need learn how to live freely.  Dealing with choice does not always come naturally.  And through these awkward, finding oneself years, Paraguay struggles through comprises and contradictions arise.

Parents post photos to Facebook of their children performing traditional dances from smart phones.  Some areas surge forward with the speed of neighboring industrialized countries, others lag behind.  We live in a town with 3G internet coverage, but no standardized running water system.  A woman’s gaze or the way she crosses her legs may may invite something entirely unintentional.  Yet, since no one bothered to investigate the lyrics, second graders can whip up a dance routine to Lady Gaga singing about someone’s “disco stick” without any concern.

Halloween has become a point of contention.  Our town, which prides itself as one of the most Catholic places in an already very Catholic country, does not celebrate.  November 1st and 2nd mark special days in the local religious calendar and dressing up for October 31st indicates a partnership with the devil.  Despite this, elsewhere in Paraguay, stores stock up on fake spiderwebs and the second annual zombie walk recently marched through the capital.

On the other hand, you can dress up as Batman for the first day of spring.  Also known as “Youth Day,” our town hosts a week of celebrations including a children’s parade, some sort of princess contest, and countless asados.  Paraguay makes a big deal out of this particular change in season and an even bigger deal out of extolling the country’s youth.  Nearly every person in our medium sized town took part in the party.  Neither one of us had any idea the significance of the day before hand.  Other volunteers reported a wide variety in levels of observance in their own sites.

Accordingly, we navigate Paraguay in tandem with the rest of the population.  Our confusion takes a backseat as this nation finds itself.  I doubt we’ll figure it all out in just two short years.  Neither will Paraguay.  All the same, next year I will have my Godzilla costume ready a month early.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

An Exchange in Self-Esteem

Charla: Literally translates to “talk” or “chatter”.  In reality, refers to a sort of guest-led training event.  The speaker may substitute for a teacher in a school or host an independent training (single or multiple sessions) on any number of topics.  PC Paraguay loves charlas.

I have a confession to make.  Throughout junior high and high school, I never took a standard version of a class when an honors track existed.  (Full disclosure, when I transferred to public school in the sixth grade I did not enroll in the gifted language arts program because I had spent the previous standardized test season in the hospital and my new school did not know what to do with me.  At least my math teacher gave a pre-test on the first day of class and promoted me on the second.)  Backdoor bragging notwithstanding, the fact remains: I did not realize until many years later what true classroom management meant for most teachers.  Of course I know that not every class that doesn’t earn an honors point gets crazy and truthfully, arrogant honors kids can get completely out of hand.  However, generally speaking, when you share all your classes with a group of nerds more interested in applying to Harvard than Homecoming, most days pass uneventfully.  If anything, I was probably the most obnoxious female in the A.P. clique.  (Super sorry, by the way.)  Even so, it never occurred to me to carry on a conversation with my neighbor talking over my teacher in my full speaking voice or to blatantly disregard clear instructions.  To this day, I still feel guilty for giggling as the boys in my 8th Spanish class tortured a substitute teacher by tricking her into using made up slang to tell the whole room that she did indeed masturbate.  (She thought she told us about an entirely different hobby.)

Well, today, those thirteen year old giggles exacted a little karmic retribution.  After months of careful observation and planning, Kevin and I dove in head first and lead our first set of self-esteem charlas for seventh through eleventh graders. 

If my high school experience represents one end of the classroom behavior spectrum and season four of The Wire represents the other, typical Paraguayan classrooms lie somewhere in the middle- leaning closer towards The Wire.  Some kids take a great interest in school, others prefer to drink terere during class and throw garbage on the floor.  Teachers, tend to concentrate their attention on the focused students and disregard the behavior of the others.  I have yet to see discipline enforced (or even threatened) for disrespectful conduct.

This problem stems from multiple directions.  One, after speaking with several teachers, I’ve learned that most people who work in schools do not do so because they feel passionate about learning.  In Paraguay, if you want the fastest track into white collar work, you become a teacher.  Additionally, although recently the federal government completely re-hauled grade level expectations, few teachers follow the new guidelines or use suggested methodologies and lesson plans.  Kids move from grade to grade, regardless of their competency, with their peers.  Most teachers teaching today, teach in the same manner that they learned. 

A dictator doesn’t stay in charge by encouraging critical and free thinking.  Incidentally, five decades of Paraguayan public schools concentrated on rote memorization.  Teachers would read from a text book and students copied what they heard into personal notebooks.  In art class, a teacher would draw a picture on the board and expected students to mimic the drawing as closely as possible.  Twenty-two years into democracy, not much has changed.  Students still do not have their own textbooks and struggle with imaginative lessons and creative problem solving.  Kids memorize correct answers and leave the process of getting there to the textbook publishers.  In other words, no one in Paraguay has seen Dead Poets Society. 

Finally, students barely attend class four hours a day and schools regularly cancel for strikes, institutes, and inclement weather.  When school is in session, classrooms lack climate control and proper furniture.  While observing a one hour long class from a broken chair on a hot day, I could hardly pay attention either- and I’ve had tons of experience feigning interest in boring situations.  How can we expect kids to do any better?  Luckily, the teachers in our local school seem dedicated to bringing about major reforms in education and have specifically requested we work with them on the same.

PCVs learn to combat these issues, by hosting interactive charlas where the kids get out of their seats, work in groups, and have to come up with their own answers.  Although the later part requires pulling teeth, after a while the kids catch on and let their guard down.  For our introduction on self-esteem, the students seemed to enjoy themselves and the charlas went basically well.  (I’d average our seven sessions to date at about a “B”.)  Perhaps they went well because we included outdoor activities that work best (at least for discussion purposes) when everything goes wrong.  Eh, igual.  (It’s all the same.)  For the record, I feel no guilt from bribing answers with candy.  Nothing solves a participation problem better than sugar. 

My post-charla self-esteem, though... that’s another issue entirely.  Make no mistake, these classroom hours drained the life out of me.  However, not all hope has fled.  As we exited the school this afternoon- after a particularly difficult group of ninth graders put us through the ringer- some eighth graders stuck their heads out the window of their classroom and yelled, “when’s our turn?”  Our reply of “tomorrow” met cheers.  Of course this exchange interrupted their teacher mid-lesson, but I take my wins where I find them.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

How to Fight with Your Mother in Paraguay or A Guide to Indirect Communication

As a nation, Paraguay engages in a lot of indirect communication.  Of course, when speaking in generalizations regarding an entire country, exceptions occur (er, certain radical terrorist organizations, for example).  However, if the Emily Post Institute ever decides to publish an edition of her rules regarding proper etiquette and social behavior for Paraguayan audiences, page one will read: never confront anyone about anything or offer a clear opinion any topic (except soccer).

As the type of person who has, on at least one occasion, “told it like it is,” this particular social adjustment required a delicate hand.  I work best when all the cards are on the table.  When I have the opportunity to obsess about a situation, I will take it.  If I receive unclear feedback, believe me, I will concoct the worst case scenario in my head and assume that I have offended everyone.  How will I ever adjust to a place where straight answers have gone the way of the dinosaurs?

As it turns out, this lifestyle has a few perks.  Awkward situations rarely arise.  In fact, the word doesn’t even directly translate.  One night, while sitting around with a handful of former Spanish majors and a few native speakers, we realized that the term awkward does not exist within the Spanish language.  Strange, difficult, uncomfortable, embarrassment (extraño, difícil, incómodo, verguenza)- these all make the list.  Yet nothing quite captures awkward.

Think of the possibilities.  You never have to say no to an invitation again.  Don’t feel like going to yet another birthday party on a Tuesday night?  No need to worry about hurting someone’s feeling with a firm “no”, when “sure” or “maybe” will do the trick just fine.  This may seem troublesome to the one throwing the party, but Paraguay has this figured out too.  Always assume, regardless of response, that one third of those invited to an event, will attend the event.  Simple.

Organizational non-confrontation works great during actual arguments as well.  For example, earlier this week I decided to start a fight with my home-stay mother.  She enjoys bossing me around and, upon crossing an invisible line over the weekend, I decided my foot needed to come down.  She knew she crossed the line as soon as her pinky toe creeped over it, but I made the issue known.  For our battlefield, I chose the always risky dinner table.

Paraguayan mothers feed their guests with the force of ten Italian grandmothers.  Making it away from any meal before hitting 1500 calories demands carefully timed eating and precision guilt navigation.  Rarely will you have the option to walk away from seconds without deep interrogation.  For a while, I said yes to extra helpings in the interest of avoiding an argument.  With time, I learned how to eat just slow enough as to not attract attention, but to still finish after everyone else.  Thus, confusing the option for seconds as others have already left the table.  This time, however, I had no intention of carefully navigating anything.

During lunch, as I finished my last few bites and placed my fork on the edge of my plate, my “mom” offered me seconds.  I looked her straight in the eye and said “no, thank you.”  She, upon realizing the dogfight in front of her, she accepted the challenge by giving me “the look” and sitting down.  (All Paraguayan women of a particular age know and regularly employ “the look”.  Imagine the most disappointed look you’ve ever received from your own mother.  Now double it.  Now add a flash of rage.  Now hold it for at least seven seconds.  That’s “the look”.) 

We’ve gone on like this for three whole days.  Neither one of us has any intention of discussing the issue and every other exchange we share seems perfectly normal.  Despite all this passive aggression, somehow our differences have started to work themselves out in silence.  I think the argument has begun to break.  Tonight, as I declined a second helping of dinner, she looked me straight in the eye and asked, “But wasn’t it delicious?”  This must mean I won.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The New Guy

When it comes to work, I don’t like being the new guy and detest learning the ropes.  I very much prefer being the friendly and wise sage-like senior staff member who makes the new guy feel right at home.  I like when co-workers bounce ideas off me and come to me for advice.  I like knowing how to work the finicky and ancient coffee machine.  I like knowing everyone’s name.  As such, changing careers and accepting a job closer to Antarctica than to my mother’s house and agreeing to function in a language that I don’t speak has presented a handful of personal challenges.  These personal discomforts, separate from the weird bug bite/missing the flavor of cheddar cheese sort of discomfort, I doubt will ever fully disappear.  They have, though, started to feel a bit more comfortable.

Recently, someone suggested to me that in Paraguay, the days crawl, but the months fly by.  Seeing how swiftly October snuck up on us, I couldn’t agree more.  It’s odd to think that we’ve been residents of our town for over two months.  We’ve gone from strangers to strange neighbors and those projects which felt so far away at the beginning of August have started to emerge. 

Some newly christened volunteers receive assignments where they have a clear objective from the day they step foot in site.  Occasionally communities, especially those where a new volunteer takes a site over from a previous PCV, have active projects where they slip into pre-ordained roles upon arrival.  Other communities have never heard of the Peace Corps or met anyone from the United States.  In these cases, the volunteer constantly has to explain themselves and the PC. 

We all face different challenges.  The volunteer who walks in the front door with a clear idea of his or her future work, may spend the next two years in constant comparison to the previous volunteer- an especially harrowing (or at least annoying) situation when that previous volunteer married someone from the area.  (PC Paraguay has one of the highest rates of volunteers marrying other volunteers or host country nationals of any PC post in the world.)  Volunteers who struggle with work may integrate well into their communities personally.  However frustrated over failed projects, they leave having formed deeper bonds and relationships than they initially expected possible.

Our area, though not unfamiliar with the Peace Corps, has not seen a volunteer in almost a decade.  Some of our neighbors remember these volunteers fondly and kindly associate us with them.  Other people think we’re spies.  Community leaders request volunteers through a lengthy application process.  Usually, these folks have a firm grasp on the PC experience.  The rest of the community, generally, does not. 

Although we did not walk into any active projects, our community already had a number of long term goals which (supposedly) our training should enable us to assist with.  Still though, walking into a new place charged with the task of supporting something intangible- building civic participation in youth, for example- feels overwhelming.  In many ways we interview for the job with every conversation we have- except that we don’t bring our resumes door to door to talk about the weather.  We both fully accept that we will get nowhere before our community places a certain amount of trust in us, our abilities, and our mission.  (And yes, a childless married couple does arouse suspicion.)

Our site presentation helped.  Representatives from the central office came to our town and shared the goals and mission of PC with over sixty of our neighbors.  Our bosses also used this opportunity to explain how they match volunteers with communities.  No, the US government didn’t just send two random Yankees and assumed they would do well simply by virtue of birthright.  We were asked to join this community because Kevin and I have specific skills that compliment the long term goals of the populace.  I know we have something to share and I feel exceptionally fortunate that many leaders within our community listened to the presentation and have since approached us to collaborate on plans.

However, I knew before we even arrived in Paraguay that I would take with me far more than I could ever leave.  I guess, though, I didn’t expect to feel quite so lost.  Please don’t confuse this with sadness or distress.  I love it here and feel happy most of the time.  There are just some days where I have no idea what’s going on or where things will lead.  It’s like right before a blind date.  Your friend promises so and so is great and you two will hit it off smashingly.  The couple days leading up to the big night, butterflies flutter through your stomach and daydreams fill with “what ifs”.  Except that mix of nervous excitement is every day of my life.  Like blind dates, some days go well.  Some even turn into something wonderful.  Other days go horribly, terribly wrong.  And despite the direction the evening goes, a story forms and we remember something for next time.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Any press is good press...

Peace Corps spends a lot of time talking about expectations.  From the first inquiry, applicants, then nominees, then invitees, then trainees receive the same advice: lose your expectations.  We gathered loads of other advice too, but this particular piece Kevin and I chose to internalize.  While our potential placement moved through every continent where Peace Corps serves, we both felt relief that we conscientiously elected to keep an open mind and refuse to create fantasies surrounding our future service.  As we begin to settle into the town that we’ll make our home for the next two years, I realize that we could have never dreamed up a situation like the one we now live in.  I haven’t had to worry about our assignment meeting my expectations, but I never had any.  I never felt let down, because I didn’t know what to expect.  So far, we have met a series of wonderful (and sometimes wonderfully strange) surprises.

However helpful I have found this piece of advice, I should have meditated on the following addendum a little longer as well: lose your expectations for privacy.  Coming into this I knew that the privacy I have come to love, cherish, and savor in Chicago would disappear as soon as we arrived.  More precisely, I knew this intellectually, but I didn’t even come close to understanding.  Personal space: gone.  Personal time: extremely limited.  Personal information: everywhere.

Before arriving in site, Peace Corps volunteers receive instruction to spend their first three months getting to know their community.  In place of projects and traditional work activities, volunteers take the time to get to know their neighbors and assess the needs and wants of the populace.  I admit that, as someone who finds meeting new people utterly exhausting, I approached this task with some dread.  After stressing myself out with pep talks and running through introductory scenarios in my head, we threw ourselves into the deep end.  And, of course, all my fears faded as we made our way through the town.  I had built up the process of meeting our new neighbors into an unachievable feat, when really we just needed to put ourselves out there.  Our success, however, had little to do with our sparkling personalities and natural ease.  Really, we have our lack of privacy to thank.  Meet one person and the whole town knows you.

When I hobble through town on my big man’s crutches, I stand out.  I mean really stand out.  In an oddly positive turn of events, people will come out to the street to say hello and ask to hear the story from the source.  And I can’t get away with a simple, “I fell.”  This turns into Where did you fall?  In the shower.  I don’t understand how you hurt your heel in shower.  Didn’t you hurt your butt, too?  No, I when I slipped my one leg turned under me.  How does that happen?  I was washing my feet at the time.  And now I get to mime the whole messy thing out.  At least- as long as I use the crutches- no one expects me to get back into the splits.  This happens every time.  Every time. 

In Paraguay, lack of privacy extends beyond gossip, too.  This past week I started physical therapy in the next town over.  During my second appointment, I shared the room with another patient.  While she stripped down to her skivvies, she approached my table and asked me all about how I ended up needing treatment.  Notice I did not mention a screen or partition.*  She actually made eye contact a few times as she undressed in front of me.  As she started her treatment, she explained to me that she has a problem in her abdomen.  She went on the chronicle the ages, occupations, and current locations of each of her five children, the health of her mother, and how she was married but her husband ran off with a younger woman and now they have two kids but she and he never got a divorce so she’s still his wife but she’s done with him anyway.  At this moment, a conflict arises.  On the one hand, I would not have interest in hearing this story even if the storyteller had her pants on.  On the other hand, I felt pretty pleased with myself for understanding her entire sorted tale.  After about fifteen minutes, I welcomed a break from the banter and we both drifted off as sounds of the neighbor’s barking dogs and heavy cumbia beats wafted in through an open window.  Don’t worry- we both have eight more appointments.  Surely we’ll have the opportunity to chat some more.

So, here’s to two years without secrets, but at least understanding the gossip we create.

***My physical therapist’s office, though under construction, looks very similar to set-ups I have seen in the States.  Since this visit, a partition between the beds has gone up.  I have, however, the utmost confidence that this story would have played out exactly the same way with or without a six foot long three-quarter wall dividing us.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The same, but oh so very different

Some people say that a magic age exists when- as part of the process ushering us into fully fledged adulthood- we learn to accept our quirks as parts of our whole.  Somehow, we start to identify ourselves by the very same characteristics that tortured our teenage years.  Little by little, this happens to us all.  Now, I may have yet to celebrate my chin, but I know for certain that the next time I trip and fall, I will not feel embarrassed.  Why?  I fall down a lot.  Always have, always will.  I don’t remember my age when I first started to embrace my clumsiness, but I certainly own it now.  I’ve tried paying closer attention, I’ve tried focusing, I limit physical multi-tasking.  Nothing makes a difference.

The other morning, my true self emerged once again when I slipped in the shower.  Upon realizing that I managed something a little more serious than bruise, the PC Medical Officer sent me to see a doctor in a nearby large city.  Although relieved to avoid the six hour bus ride to Asuncion to meet directly with PC medical team, venturing into Encarnacion seeking medical treatment would truly test my wobbly Spanish.  Luckily, PC takes medical very seriously and one of the PC doctors held my hand via cell phone basically the entire time.

Medical standards in Paraguay are right on par with those in the US.  Doctors receive nearly identical training and follow similar treatment methods.  However, some things just work differently.  For example, before I could see a doctor in the emergency room, I had to prove I could afford medical care- and no one accepts American Express.  (Special thanks to the PCMO for handling that bear!)  After convincing the woman at the desk that the hospital would indeed get paid if I saw a doctor, someone finally brought me over to wait for the orthopedic guy. 

Here’s another difference, I didn’t see much in the way of patient codling during my time in the hospital.  For example, I entered the facility barely able to stand and the receptionist walked me over to the doctor’s office.  As in I walked too.  After a short wait, the doctor examined my foot and sent me- again to walk- over for x-rays.  After radiology, I walked back over to the doctor’s office to wait for his evaluation.  As it turns out rather than break my foot, I managed to tear a ligament in my heel.  This requires a cast and fifteen days rest.  He explains this to me, confers (via cell) with the PCMO, and then she repeats his diagnosis back to me- using the strictest of tones, she stresses that I may not put any weight on my foot for the next two weeks.  The PCMO and I hang up, and the doctor WALKS me to room where I’ll get my cast.  Classic.

Fresh out of crutches at the hospital, Kevin goes over to the pharmacy around the corner while I wait for my cast.  Of course, they don’t have any.  So he tries another pharmacy, then another.  The 3rd largest city in Paraguay has evidently run out of crutches.  Someone suggests that he check Posadas.  No, Posadas is not the Paraguayan Walmart.  It’s a large city just over the Argentine border.  Now, crossing international borders without prior approval from our Country Director is a big no-no to begin with, but chances are that if Kevin right now crossed into Argentina he wouldn’t be able to re-enter Paraguay.  Paraguay makes visas tricky for Americans and currently our passports are in the capital waiting for visa extensions.  With no other reasonable options, Kevin and the orthopedic specialty pharmacy (they were out of crutches too) decide to order a set from Asuncion.  They will arrive the following day.  Annoying, but done.

Meanwhile, back at the hospital, things start emptying out and I find myself alone in triage.  In Paraguay, businesses in the interior often close for siesta.  But a hospital in a major city?  Yes, evidently they shut down too.  With the now abandoned hospital starting to look like an opening scene of a zombie movie, my doctor, clearly ready for his nap, and an orderly then proceed to slap this half hard, half mesh sloppy cast on my leg.  Part of it is held together with plaster, half is held together by tape.  And did I mention no effort was made to clean my leg or stinky foot first.  Nary a single alcohol swab in sight.  Once the cast set, my doctor reminds me to stay off the foot and sends me on my way.  Once again, walking.  Oh, and as I hobbled out of the hospital, someone finally offered me a wheelchair.

The following day, Kevin returned to the pharmacy where the woman at the counter informs him that the crutches would arrive “enseguida”.  One of the most hateful phrases in the Spanish language, enseguida could actually mean “in a second” or in Kevin’s case (and more commonly), 90 minutes.  When the crutches do arrive, the clerk tells him the great news- they obtained a higher quality set.  What does higher quality mean this time?  Bigger- the crutches are designed for someone minimum 5”10’.  Even with the metric system, my 5”5’ falls a wee bit short of this mark.  Accepting defeat, and realizing that this is the best Paraguay has to offer in this situation, Kevin returns home with the tall man’s crutches.  While on the way, the wind picks up and thunder starts to rumble.  As he steps off the bus, rain begins to fall progressively harder as he walks the 2 kilometers back.  As soon as he arrives at our door, the rain stops.

I suppose the good thing about the questionable cast and bad crutches, is that they actually force me to keep doctor’s orders.  Since I can only last about 100 feet on them before requiring a long break, I spend most of my time confined to bed- the one covered in cast dandruff, with my leg gently raised.

Go ahead, call me a klutz.  It’s who I am.  At least in Paraguay it’s funny.

Note to self: If already laying on the shower floor, go ahead and shave legs.

The Square G

With Mama Tuti at Swear-In
Along the banks of the Rio Parana
Settling in at our new site
G: Refers to training class.  Training groups are identified by the first letter in the name of the training facility followed by their successive number.  (Training facilities move every handful of years.)  Kevin and I belong to G-36.
Moving-in Allowance: New volunteers receive a small stipend to assist with the associated costs of moving to site and settling in.  Although some move into furnished houses, more often volunteers need to purchase basic home necessities, e.g. mattress, refrigerator. 
Swear-In: During PC service, one does not become an official volunteer until completing three months of training and taking an oath.  The formal ceremony includes PC staff, local government officials, and wonderful cake. 
Swear-In Weekend: Post swear-in, volunteers have a few free days before they move to their new sites.  Most volunteers use this time to relax, spend time with G-mates, and purchase last minute basics while in the capital.

Well, at this point we can not deny it any longer.  Really, though, we never stood a chance.  If swear-in weekend defines us, we truly are the square G.  Some Gs drink away their entire moving-in allowances during swear-in weekend.  Other Gs get banned from certain hotels.  Some even spend the weekend fighting.  We, on the other hand, spent the weekend in bed.  And no, not in any infamous sort of way.  Our entire G has picked up a nasty cold.

Not that any of us expected the type of antics that turn into legend.  Generally, we keep things pretty tranquilo.  No one drinks too much (PVCs are at extremely high risk for alcohol abuse during service) and somehow everyone gets along.  Still, though, I doubt anyone expected an incident free weekend.  At least we have the next two years to gather stories of mythic stock. 

For now, we have all scattered throughout Paraguay to carve out homes and adopted families in new locales.  I will miss you, G-36.  You are all in my heart as we start this new adventure together.  And if we need to get any closer, we’re just a text away.  I’ll see you in three months.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A nation watches with baited breath...

This week, a wave of sadness washed over Ita.  Hometown hero and all around super nice chick, Claudia, lost in the final round.  Although she rocked the obstacles and ate raw cow liver while 20 or so mice crawled over her head like a pro, nasty Fabisol cleaned the floor with her during the talent round.  In the end, it did not matter that Fabisol had so many penalties during the physical contest that she disqualified before completing the course.  She just sings better than Claudia dances.

Confused?  Welcome to Yingo- Paraguay’s favorite prime time reality game show.

This show somehow combines American Gladiator, Fear Factor, American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, Jersey Shore, and then adds in the interpersonal drama between contestants that comes from extended elimination shows.  The difference?  No one here can really sing or dance and levels of physical fitness vary greatly.  Oh, and because this hit show aires in Paraguay, all the obstacle courses involve fire.  To make things even weirder, between actual commercial breaks, contestants awkwardly dance while holding candy, cellphones, or maxi pads.

In the episode leading up to the finale, the women (men and women compete separately) started with a fairly long obstacle course (the top finisher clocked in at around five minutes, last place quit before completing between nine and ten minutes).  Yingo broadcasts the entire, painful challenge, plus banter.  Next, came the talent portion (also sometimes painful), followed by the psyche out.  Each contestant had her head locked in a clear box filled with mice.  In order to break out, she had to test keys laid out to her left.  Each time she chose an incorrect key, the host fed her a large spoonful of raw cow liver.  Previous episodes involved women shaving their heads and someone having to tell their parents about a secret marriage and subsequent divorce.  (Full disclosure, I did not see this episode and found the retelling especially confusing.  I do not know whether to attribute this to my language skills or the strangeness of this show.)

The Jersey Shore comes into play when considering the fashion choices made for contestants.  Picture the douchiest possible dude you can imagine.  Next, make all his dance moves thrusts.  Women do not fare much better.  For example, for the obstacle course, the ladies donned long sleeve turtle necks and thongs.  Some of the thongs started as shorts, only to become thongs upon leaping through the rings of fire.  Totally practical.

Now, Yingo’s incredible popularity in this town probably has something to do with raising one of the final contestants.  Still, as far as ratings go, Yingo tops the charts.  Contestants do crazy stunts and air all their personal business.  My host sister tells me that I shouldn’t feel too bad for Claudia (did I mention she supports her four younger siblings because her mother neither hears nor speaks and her father disappeared years ago?) because more likely than not she’ll get lots of money making opportunities, even as the runner up.  What these opportunities include, however, I didn’t dare ask.

Either way, when this show starts again next season, surely the writers will find even more bizarre challenges to keep the nation on the edge of its seat.  Cheers.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

San Juan dice que sí...

As soon as I saw the canisters of gasoline, I knew a great night lie before us.

Last Saturday night, Kevin and I headed out to what I guess counts as a suburb, for a San Juan party.  Already twice delayed, we had high expectations for this event.  Around 5:30 (super early for parties in these parts) our middle sister drove Kevin, our mom, and me over to a large piece of fenced-in land owned by a friend of the family.  Since our mom owns a dispensia (a small convenience store run out of the house, sort of like having a 7 Eleven in your garage) she managed beverages (coke, beer, wine).  We came early to set up, along with other members of the family who presided over food, music, and games.

Someone prepared and labeled the games and traditional activities before we arrived.  A small cast iron skillet, labeled “mBeju”, hung from a tree branch.  (MBeju, my current favorite Paraguayan dish and San Juan stronghold, resembles a meaty, crumbly, cheesy tortilla.)  From the opposite branch hung two ceramic pots titled “kambuchí jejoká” and waiting for blindfolded children to smash open, releasing candy.  A bag of sacks, labeled “carrera vosá” and our favorite pin/tail/pig game (kure ñembohu guái) could have fit in at any BBQ across the US of A.  And then my eyes fell on a sign hidden by shadows, “pelotas tatá.”  Aka balls of fire.  And what about this sign lifted my spirits to a dizzying effect?  It hung from two plastic jugs of gasoline and nothing else.

With the next few hours, about fifty friends and family trickled in.  Food started almost immediately and games shortly thereafter.  Our family pushed us out onto a field with about fifteen kids as someone lit a rag, soaked in gasoline and tied into a ball, with a match.  Our first pelota tatá soared across the property as kids ran to the fire, fighting over who got the next turn.  Fire left streaks in its wake as it danced across the yard.  I couldn’t say how long it lasted, time disappeared as Kevin and I both managed to get in a few good kicks.  After a while, the “ball” started to die and splinter into several smaller fire bursts.  Eventually, an adult came and tossed the carnage over the fence.  (I’d add something sarcastic here about responsible choices, but this story already focuses on children and fire.)  Then, the whole thing started again.  Just like heaven.

Later in the night, after a short theatrical performance (this country loves skits) came time for a moment of pure horror: the toro kandil.  Two grown men manned the body of this thing whose head was a real bull skull lit on fire.  I have no clear pictures of the toro kandil, because evidently San Juan does not care about the documentary spirit.  The toro kandil chases down everyone in sight.  As if this wasn’t enough, as we sprinted breathless from this creature that rivals the terror of any slasher film, someone started launching more pelotas tatá (no longer one at a time) into the crowd.  This time the object changed from friendly pass back and forth to see who you can nail in the face with the ball of fire.  As the head of the bull started to die out, someone placed it under the Judas kái (that night an effigy of a Brazilian fútbol player stuffed with fireworks and doused in gasoline) to introduce more fire and noise into an already totally surreal situation.

Paraguay,... I think I love you.

***For those who may have noticed the lack of hot coals....  Although folks celebrate San Juan for weeks, the man of the hour only protects your feet from burning on the actual feast day.  Therefore, people only walk across hot coals on June 24th.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Week Six: To sleep, perchance to dream...

This past week I reached an important milestone in immersion language learning- I dreamt in Spanish.  Oddly enough, this dream (of which I remember no content) occurred during a period where my attitude received no points for positivity.  Exhausted and praying for one conversation that didn’t require my full attention just to get the gist of, I had to remind myself my options did not include spending the day hiding in bed.

Allow me to set the scene...  This past week trainees left for “Long Field Practice.”  Essentially, under the guidance of a current volunteer and a language professor and in the comfort of a small group, we pretended to live the volunteer life.  We led three classes at the local junior high, one talk (aka charla) at an adult learning center (no one showed up so we practiced with the other teachers), visited a cooperative (for a tour and meeting) and a small time sweets producer, and had daily language classes.  In other words, we booked every second of those four days.

During this time, each aspirante ate meals and stayed the night with different families in town.  An experience in itself, home stay makes an already long day even longer.  Now before I sound like too much of an ungrateful monster, the generosity of these folks who have opened up their homes and hearts to us wide-eyed Nortes’ overwhelms me.  Our host mother treats Kevin and me as her own children and I would be lost without her guidance.  However, living with someone always requires adjustment and these particular adjustments tend to require more energy than I have in the reserves these days.

The night in question, my temporary house mother gave me a long-winded speech about how if I expect to support a pregnancy, I need to eat more.  So far, the most common topics of conversation I have encountered since entering the country involve a) my reproductive future (and why it’s not my reproductive present) and b) eating.  Often Paraguay is referred to as a poor country where no one starves.  Although troubles here are many, food production does not make the list.  This country love to make big meals and force feed newcomers.  We’ve all met- I don’t need much encouragement in this department.  However, in Paraguay, evidently only polishing off two grilled cheese sandwiches and a piece of cake calls for an anorexia alert.

Once my temporary mother determined she had sufficiently scolded me about diet and babies, we moved on to my language skills.  She pointed out that I really need to speak more if I expect to learn the language.  Never mind that she had spoken so much and so quickly during the past twenty minutes that I don’t recall noticing her breathe.  Shortly thereafter, she sent me to bed with a wink (remember topic number one) and I feel asleep very quickly.  Around 2am I shot up out of my sleep with the confidence I needed to turn the week around- a dream entirely in Spanish.  Although I remembered and understood it fully at the time, it’s gone now.  The effect, though, lingers.

We had an exhausting, awesome long field.  As it often happens in intense experiences, in the matter of just a few days, we came to adore our temporary host family and can’t wait to visit them again.  Before, as we planned our week, I couldn’t help but feel dread about our upcoming experience.  I was sick of speaking Castellano, sick of talking to strangers, and sick of waking up every morning at 3:30am to the sound of the dog arguing futbol with a gang of roosters.  (Seriously, what other topic could get so loud?)  Now, though, so much has come into focus.  My vision for our future life as volunteers has gone from an abstract possibility to something real, tangible.  Also, I not only scored peanut butter, but won a bet with my host mom.  Chocolate and peanut butter do belong together.  What a relief!

Independence Day Mini-break

Fourth of July weekend fell right smack in the middle of training and we found ourselves with a three day weekend.  On Saturday, also our 5th wedding anniversary, we headed into the capital with the rest of the aspirantes for an old fashioned Independence Day BBQ at the US embassy.  The party had typical American summer food (no watermelon, but Kraft-style American cheese singles), games (tug-o-war, three-legged races, etc), and beer served by Marines. 

In total, this was a super weird party.  The American stuff was way over the top, but most of us were in the mood for some hokey sweet land of liberty action.  Please don’t judge- we’ve eaten a lot of mandioca and most of us would probably agree to awful things for a Jimmy John’s BLT or a soft chocolate chip cookie.  (What?  Never heard of mandioca?  Don’t feel bad, none of us did either.  It reminds me of a uber-fibrous potato and Paraguayans serve it with every meal.  Seriously, every meal.)

The soundtrack for the day consisted exclusively of songs containing the words “America” or “USA”.  I sighed relief when someone had the sense to keep the day from getting too ironic and turn off “Born in the USA” during the introduction, but I heard Miley Cyrus “Party in the USA” probably 7 times.  Not many songs included the required vocabulary so the playlist was short.  Props for including Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner, ” though poor form for five times.

Just when you would start to forget what continent hosted the party, a peacock would walk by and someone would start a story about how their dog responds to mba’éichapa.  (Guarani for “how are you?”)  Oh, and did I mention a handful of deer walk around the embassy grounds?  As wacky as culture shock gets, this party may have made certain differences even more pronounced.  Good times, friend, good times.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Week Five: Back to Basics

Laundry day...
After months of trying to play it cool but secretly biting our fingernails to the quick, Kevin and I are happy to report that we have been living together all throughout training.  Although Peace Corps guarantees that married couples will live together during service, our recruiters were crystal clear from the get-go we may have trained in separate locations.  Luckily, this is not the case.

PC Py maintains a training facility about an hour outside the capital city.  Trainees (aka aspirantes) live with host families nearby.  In the interest of full disclosure, this is kind of weird- especially as a married woman in my 30s.  Machismo comes in many forms, and certainly shows up in the expectations for married women.  Without getting to far off track on a tangent that will most definitely make a series of appearances on this blog, in this case these “expectations” are more a matter of pride than oppression.  Either way, my home stay experience has differed greatly from than that of some other aspirantes- not in any sort of positive or negative way.  Just different.

In spite of whatever dread I may have felt about living in a stranger’s house before we moved in, Kevin and I have both grown to feel real love for our host family.  We live with a middle aged divorced woman and her 19 year old daughter, who commutes daily to Asunción to attend university classes.  Two older, married daughters round out our little Paraguayan family with three grandchildren and another on the way.  As our language skills grow we chat more and more.  We’ve laughed from day one.  A wicked sense of humor courses through this country.

Our town- formally founded over 500 years back by Franciscans (and probably inhabited far earlier than that)- is not quite a suburb of the capital in the same way that Elgin is not quite a suburb of Chicago.  It is small, but considered “modern” because of the traffic light.  The community is set up on a grid so it’s very easy to navigate.  There is a large catholic church, a labyrinth type market, and a quaint pond complete with crocodillos, or jakare to use their more common name in Guanani.  (The members of our group from Florida are not nearly as impressed by these creatures as we are.  They are about the size of medium dogs and technically part of the alligator family.  I think the english word is caiman.)

Since we arrived, Kevin and I have both redefined our concept of hot- at least concerning showers.  Mostly we are just grateful for running water.  We do our laundry by hand- a process that surely Cold Water Creek did not have in mind when they specified Hand Wash Only.  Without making too big a deal of it, this chore sucks.  (More on this later.)

Training itself is difficult, but satisfying.  We have language training five or six mornings a week and technical training the following afternoons.  Technical training addresses everything from PC development practices to medical seminars.  (Do you know how to say “I have diarrhea” in Guarani?  I do!)  We are exhausted all the time.  The progress we’ve made in language, though, makes up for this.

Tomorrow our training group will head into the capital for an actual free day.  My personal goals for a day off in the big city?  Find peanut butter and one more long sleeved shirt.  Peanut butter is super difficult to come by in Py and when I tried to explain to my house mother the magical moment that is peanut and chocolate, she wouldn’t hear it.  Now, these days I may be wrong a lot- especially in the lost in translation department- but as god is my witness, I will win this argument.  This time I will be right.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Week Four: Kure ñembohu guái

What has got these Peace Corps trainees so worked up?  

If you guessed poner la cola al chancho, or as it’s know in english, pin the tail on the pig, go get yourself a cookie.  It’s San Juan, we’ve been without American television for an entire month, and evidently we’ve all lost our minds.  If we’re having this much fun trying to tape a paper tail to a cartoon pig while blindfolded, what will happen when the fire games start?

This year, San Juan has had kind of a slow start.  Originally, all the aspirantes were planning on heading into Asunción for the bicentennial San Juan festival.  Then, the forecast called for rain so the festivities were suspended.  That’s right- I now live in a country where, under the mere threat of rain, the federal government shuts down one of the capital city’s highlight events during the bicentennial year.  In case you were wondering, the weather was perfect.

Generally speaking, Paraguayans take real issue with the rain.  I’m fairly confident that L. Frank Baum got the idea that a character could truly despise precipitation from a Paraguayan national.  When the clouds gather and dark skies move in, folks lose access to larger cities and most activity outside of them ceases.  To be fair, in most parts of Paraguay, this is a solid logistical solution.  Very few roads are paved and when the sky opens up, most streets flood.  Sidewalks are not exactly uniform either, so there is real potential to end up stranded.  Plus, lightning is a major problem here as well.  In the countryside (or campo as it will henceforth be known) people die from lightning strikes on a monthly basis.  In other words, rainy days are bad news.

Back to our story, the rain came the following day and our host mother told us that the local festival wouldn’t have any of the cool fire games because of the nasty weather.  When we suggested checking it out anyway, she in no uncertain terms told us we were crazy people.  Well surprise, surprise- the festival (sans us) was awesome.  One of the other trainees actually got to BE the bull.  (You know the one, the toro candil?  That’s the person wearing a real bull skull with the horns set on fire chasing all the kids.)  My heart audibly broke during the retelling.

Luckily, this weekend we have plans to attend a San Juan festival in a nearby town.  Our older host sister is responsible for creating the Judas effigy, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a fabulous evening.  And yes, Judas will be stuffed with fireworks and soaked in kerosene before he is set on fire.  Cheers.