Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Turning the Page on a New Year

January has always felt like a natural time to reflect.  With a new year passing, something about the cold and ice and snow always inspires a little nostalgia in me.  Although January in Paraguay hardly includes snow and the only ice I see rapidly melts in our terere pitcher, I’ve still spent sometime looking back over the past few weeks.

I have a lot to give thanks for.  Plain and simple, this year my dream came true.  As many of your know--and some can relate to--this dream took a long time to realize.  Frankly, it took longer to realize that I ever expected it could

I started regularly thinking about joining the Peace Corps in the early 1990s.  Yes, my Peace Corps fantasy began when some of my current co-workers spent their days in diapers.  By the time I hit the age where most people start the application process, I already thought my chance had passed me by.  It took years to reengage that dream, further more to make it a reality.

This shouldn’t surprise me, though.  I’ve always come to things a little off schedule.  Whether early (at 11 I swear I heard about my “maturity” on a daily basis) or late (we do not need to discuss the space between my first and final day of college), I rarely make it places right on time.  Lucky for me (and unfortunate for my mother), this never bothered me too much.  I’d like to think I’ve figured out how to go where the wind takes me--but still keep one foot rooted in responsibility.

But how did I get here?  Right now, in this place, as the person I have grown into.

In a word: books.  So much of the person I am today I owe to books.

From a very early age books taught me that the entire world--a world far beyond on the one we see with our eyes and touch with our fingers--lies at our feet.  We hold our destinies in our own hands and we may choose the paths we follow.  We need not travel in anyone else’s footsteps--though we may find inspiration there. 

My earliest memories include my mother and a book.  She always found the time (while working full-time) to read me stories.  I feel grateful that I grew up with books of my own.  In fact, I had an entire bookshelf full of precious, wonderful books that I could look at and hold whenever I wanted.  I even grew up with a library in my town and at my school.  Not only did I get to explore rows upon rows of books, but I had a card with my name on it that allowed me to take my favorites home for a couple weeks at a time.  Through those pages I learned to care for the books themselves, valuing them as objects and for the stories the held.

During my ugliest teenage years my father, who does not usually express his feelings to me directly, would search through Borders to buy me books he thought I would like.  His choices told me how well he actually paid attention during a time when I didn’t think he noticed me at all.  He may not have always agreed with me, but he always gave me the option to arrive at decisions on my own.  Neither he nor my mother censored my literary exploration.  They encouraged me to find my own way and never expected me to mirror their opinions.  As an adult my parents and I hold many differing views and some of the same.  I know that the beliefs I hold are my own and formed through thorough personal investigation.

Even far away, I love that my nephews let me read to them, giving us time--silly and quiet--to share.  I ache for the day when we can sit together again and hope a certain eight month old likes to hear stories as well.

Not only have books given me special time with the people I care about, but they opened my eyes to a whole world of possibilities.  Through books, I learned that my life could turn into whatever I imagined, rather than the resonable and obvious possibilities that laid out before me.  Books gave me imagination and showed me a world so much grander than the one in my immediate reach.  I believe in impossible things because I read about them.

Most Paraguayan children do not grow up with this same gift.  Often, publishers and distributors price books far beyond the reach of average people and institutions.  Libraries and schools that can afford to build a collection, rarely lend them out.  When another volunteer suggested that her library move the children’s section from the top shelf (at eye level for an adult) to the bottom shelf, her supervisor replied, “No.  Then the children will be able to reach them.” 

Paraguay reports a 94% literacy rate.  However, I’ve heard that 47% of Paraguayans do not read above a fifth grade level.  Meanwhile, according to the 2010 GDP, the average Paraguayan makes $433 USD/month.  (Given the way authorities calculate this figure, most Paraguayans probably make much less.)  Budgets leave little wiggle room and usually books do not make the cut.  Children whose parents do not read, often do not read well themselves.  We see the same thing in the States.  Reading begets more reading.

Accordingly, many Peace Corps volunteers embark on literacy and library projects.  Volunteers not only read stories and teach the fundamentals of reading, they explain the basics of books.  By not growing up with books, often children do not understand how to treat them well.  At a recent workshop, volunteers learned how to teach kids to turn pages.  Missing this steps often leads to wrecked materials.

Although our story hour will not formally begin until March, we practice on the neighbors.  One afternoon we read the same story about a dragon with a cold three times--in a row.  If we meet half the enthusiasm of our practice run in the classroom, I’ll still call it a win.
Special thanks to the marms for starting our library.  Wendy, Kathy D, Martha, Nancy, Ev, Carol, Mary, Peggy, and Kathy S.: Your kindness and generosity have opened up a new world of possibilities for the children in our town.  Thank you.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

And there won't be snow in Paraguay this Christmas time

Or in the rest of the Southern Hemisphere.  Expect for Antarctica.  Or on top of mountains.  Or maybe near glaciers.

Do they know it’s Christmas Time at all?

Unlike the area of the world that inspired the 1984 hit, 90% of Paraguayans identity themselves as Catholic and another 7% as Protestant or other Christian.  That only leaves a very small percentage of people who might not know it’s Christmas time, but I doubt they missed the memo.  Around the second week of December lights and nativity sets started popping up in yards, living rooms, and town plazas.

Nativity Scene in Coronel Bogodo's central plaza.  Note the stork, upper left.
Typical in-home nativity scene.  Some families have artificial trees, more gather branches and build a set.
Oh, I shouldn’t pick on Bob Geldof too much.  His crew did manage to raise a whole pile of money for famine relief.  Plus, triple digit heat didn’t sound too much like Christmas time to me either.

In a way, I felt grateful for the high temperatures.  Of course I understand full well that most of the world rings in the New Year without snow.  However, with the exception of a few freak warm days, the December I remember requires boots, heavy coats, and may include a lit fireplace.  Thanks to the soaring temperatures, I kept forgetting the month. 

In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, I started to feel the distance.  Serving as a married couple, Kevin and I came to Paraguay as a family.  For as many people as we left behind, we have each other.  Of course constant companionship presents is own issues, loneliness hardly makes the list.

I hadn’t truly felt “away” until I started thinking about Christmas.  2011 marked the first year I didn’t make it home for the holidays.  I don’t know if it was actual sadness or more the stress of anticipating sadness that made things tough.  Some days I felt like everyone expected me to break down.  (Host mom: “You must miss your mother so much.”  Me: “Yes, I do.”  What does that have to do with you passing me the rice?)

Either way, we decided to embrace the difference and host a Mexican Christmas dinner in our tiny southern town.  Using Paraguayan ingredients and shipped-in spices we shared enchiladas, tacos, and margaritas (made with lime flavored tang) with four other volunteers.

Chorizo anyone?
In Paraguay, Christmas Day matters far less than the night before.  Our host family agreed to “let us” have Christmas Day at our home, but did not give us a choice for Christmas Eve.  Since our host mom started pressuring us about this back in October, I recognized the futileness in fighting her on this particular issue.  We worked out our plan: Christmas Eve we would bring our friends to family dinner, Christmas Day we’d stay home and cook for ourselves, and New Year’s Eve we’d return for asado.

Most of our pals arrived on Christmas Eve eve, barely beating the rain.  In the middle of a drought, no one complains about a good storm.  At the same time, rain complicates everything.  Our mostly dirt road town becomes practically impossible to navigate after a downpour.  Add water to streets already torn up from the ongoing process of installing running water and you have mud canals.

Rain might cancel school and work, but we wouldn’t see December 24th for another year and so we trudged through the destroyed streets to our host brother’s home for a traditional Paraguayan celebration.  We hosed off in the yard before entering the house.

The party started late, folks didn’t start arriving until after 9pm.  We watched Brazilian Christmas cartoons and listened to our friend get worked over about finding a Paraguayan husband.  At one point my deeply religious sister-in-law (one of my favorite people in Paraguay) asked this group of mostly atheists point blank if they believed in the virgin birth.  In the spirit of Christmas miracles, everyone awkwardly answered “yes”.

By 10pm, we started passing around chorizo (think smoked sausage rather than the spicy, crumbly stuff) and Sopa Paraguaya.  Around 11pm dinner started with asado and salad and finished with mixed fruit.  We brought a lasagna, but our sister-in-law’s father explained that since it lacked meat, he wouldn’t try any.  At midnight the bombas (firecrackers) began and we all exchanged hugs and kisses.

Around 1am a dance party started in our town center, lasting most of the night.  Also, around 1am nearly about half of our little group got sick.  Within the next twenty-four hours each of us spent some time feeling like garbage.

Tortillas and terere.

Frying tortillas and preparing enchiladas.
The following day, another friend arrived in town and our Mexican Christmas feast began.  We took turns napping and cooking and skyping the States and petting the cat.  It didn’t feel like Christmas, but it felt right.  Even with one nasty summer cold, two cases of heat exhaustion, and assorted hangovers I wouldn’t have wanted our first Christmas in South America any other way.  It didn’t hurt that my favorite two year old brought me handpicked flowers in the morning, either.

Refried beans with pineapple salsa.
Isn't all that "frutricion" supposed to prevent hangovers?

 Upon reaching our host family’s house on New Year’s Eve, I immediately received “the look” from my host mom.  By now, I have developed a sort of immunity to these looks, but I could not help but wonder where the problem lie this time.  We presented ourselves on time and I even put lipstick on.  

Within the hour, though, I found myself unfortunately underdressed.  For a BBQ in the backyard, my sister-in-laws both wore cocktail dresses and all the boys dressed in pressed ao poi.  These days, my finest duds amount to ironed jeans and a button down blouse.  Luckily, my outfit didn’t cause too much sensation.

Our dinner menu looked like every other asado we’ve attended: beef ribs and pork done on the grill, Sopa Paraguaya (an unsweetened cousin to cornbread), sliced tomatoes and cucumbers with vinegar, and rice salad (white rice mixed with carrots, peas, red onions, and mayonnaise).  

For the occassion, some families make a sangria-style drink called clarico.  However, in our family, the men drank beer and the ladies and children shared Fanta and Coke.  Before and after dinner, the kids lit off firecrackers in the front yard.

Well dressed boys showing off their firecrackers.

Just before midnight, we gathered in the living room to countdown.  Just like everywhere else in the world, when the clock struck twelve we exchanged hugs and kisses.  Unlike everywhere else in the world, we then changed Baby Jesus’ cape and retired to the back yard to eat twelve grapes for a lucky 2012.  Our host brother lit off a true firework, filling the sky above the house with a momentary glowing ring.

New clothes for a new year.

Less than a week later, the final event of the Paraguayan Christmas season came to pass--January 6th, Three Kings Day aka The Epiphany or the day the Three Wise Men brought frankincense, myrrh, and gold to the Baby Jesus.  

Parts of Latin America make a bigger production out of this feast than others.  Throughout the region, some have parades and kids dress up as kings.  The night before many children leave out a little snack for the camels next to their shoes.  In the morning, youngsters awake to find gifts in their footwear.

In Paraguay, although we don’t host parades, many families place more importance on Three Kings than on Christmas Day.  In recent years, Santa has increased in popularity, but the 6th of January remains king.

The close of our holiday season will come on this Friday.  A Grinch called Paraguayan Customs decided to hold our holiday care-packages in what volunteers not-so-fondly refer to as "package prison".  Luckily, our wonderful coordinator has offered to liberate the boxes and send them south.  Although I’m sure our family would have preferred us to receive the gifts last month, I really don’t mind dragging the celebration out a little longer.

Our youth group Christmas party: soccer, volleyball, and snickerdoodles.
Helping our friend and fellow volunteer transport a mountain of gifts sent from the States for kids living at a local orphanage.