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.