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.