Sunday, February 19, 2012

"You are not the father..."

Meet Mima
Last week the cat next door had four kittens, each spotted black and white with fat little tummies.  A few days after the birth, Kevin and I had our very own Maury Povich moment right here in Paraguay.

Neighbor: Your cat fathered the litter.
Me: Um, I’m pretty sure our cat’s female.
Her: Really?  Tell me about the cat’s nipples.
Me: Well, she has them.
Her: Okay.

Evidently in my neighborhood, cat nipples can break paternity cases.  And to think I spent all that time googling feline genitalia to determine our cat’s gender.

During service, many Peace Corps volunteers get pets.  A handful of these cats and dogs make their way back to the States.  Others get passed on to new Gs.  Some move into the care of Paraguayan friends.  Early on, people asked us if we planned to get pets during our time here--especially when they learned our history of fostering animals back at home.  In fact, for every Paraguayan that asked about when we would get started on making babies, an American asked us about furry children.  Officially, we did not plan on getting a pet during our service.  Animals complicate things and we’d rather not have to worry about caring for a cat or a dog.

We never stood a chance.

On our third night sleeping in our brand new suburban house, still relishing in our rediscovered freedom, we shot up out of a 2am sound slumber to a racket outside our front door.  Once we determined the low statistical probability of a bobcat and a hog wrestling in our patio, we realized one of the neighborhood cats chose our yard to entertain visitors while in heat.

In the weeks that followed, one of the cats drawn to our home that evening gradually moved closer and closer to our kitchen door.  She ran whenever we got too close, but she always came back.  Everything changed the night our host family mother brought us a basket of ham biscuits.  While holding a piece in my right hand, a meowing blur ran up and ate it directly from my fingers.  The following morning Kevin came home from the market with cat food, “just in case.”

Like I said, we never stood a chance. 

As she got progressively more comfortable with us, we watched her belly grow and debated if that fateful night would make her a mommy or if gorging on third helpings at breakfast led to a swollen stomach.  We made her a cozy outdoor bed and started calling her Mima--because we spoil her.
Kevin and Mima
As I’ve mentioned before, life in Paraguay changes and becomes more “western” daily.  This rapid transformation includes people’s attitudes towards pets.  Like many agrarian societies, for years animals stayed outside.  You might train a dog to guard your property, but not to sleep at the foot of your bed.

Recently, though, many Paraguayans have started to adopt animals for companionship.  Often a family will have one or two dogs for protection and another--usually of the fluffy variety--that gets to come inside.  Dog collars and toys have become increasingly available and our neighbor’s cat has her very own ball.  (I still have yet to see official cat toys for sale anywhere in this country.)   Back in our training community, every day we walked by a Weimaraner who wore a red shirt in the morning and changed into a black and white Olympia fútbol jersey after siesta.  However, just as with any culture-wide behavioral modification, a period of transition--and confusion--persists.

A few months back, while sharing dinner on the patio of a restaurant in Caazapá with a group of other volunteers, we heard the unmistakable sound of a dog and a car meeting in the street.  A teensy thing, this dog howled for at least two full minutes.  As he made his way toward us, I braced for the worst.  Would he have bones sticking out?  Would he have a broken jaw?  I almost couldn’t look.  When I finally peaked through my covered eyes, I realized that this lucky and scared pup erred on the side of the dramatic.  He and the car never made contact.

Once the little fur-ball stopped crying, he started scanning the sidewalk for an area of refuge.  As soon as he met our collective gaze, he ran over and hid himself under our table--shivering and batting his pitiful eyes.  Moments later, the driver of the car spotted his tail and rushed over to check on him.  The dog, recognizing his newly acquired nemesis, adamantly refused to come out and let the woman look him over. 

After some back and forth, the driver’s companion suggested something about the dog needing water.  I so clearly remember smiling to myself and thinking, “How sweet.”  Mistake number one.  The driver slipped into the restaurant’s kitchen and returned with a tall pitcher of water.  At this point, I recall two simultaneous thoughts: One, how might the dog manage to drink from that?  Two, did the other lady use this same pitcher to fill our water glasses?  Second mistake. 

Next thing we know, the woman starts throwing water at the dog.  Mind you, the dog, still refusing to change positions, has hunkered down around our ankles.  Every time this woman attempted to splash the dog, she soaked us.  Unfazed, the dog (heretofore referred to as the most stubborn dog in existence or TMSDIE) continued his stand-fast under our table.  Clearly having missed the day at school that covered creative problem solving, the woman persisted, undeterred by her lack of success, to heave the now semi-full pitcher of water in our general direction.  After drenching all of our shoes (and one friend's pant leg), she eventually grew tired of this strategy (more likely ran out of water) and grabbed a broom to shoo TMSDIE across the street.  With her mission accomplished, she turned and smiled at us proudly.  We stared back baffled and slightly horror struck.

Our group laughed about this woman and TMSDIE for the rest of the weekend.  On the one hand, the experience felt surreal.  Yet on the other, it felt like just another Thursday night in Paraguay.  Every day I find myself caught in a moment or conversation that feels completely familiar--so much so that I forget what continent we now live on.  These split seconds, though, usually get interrupted by something completely off the rails.

With increased industrialization, the farther and fewer these instances will occur.  Similar to the dogs who don’t quite understand their role anymore, I too feel caught in the middle and conflicted by changes that accompany development.  I like Paraguay like this--and not for the novelty of odd stories.  I could come up with a litany of little aggravations, but most of the time I find myself charmed.  Time will reveal if Paraguay maintains its sense of self as it emerges in the global market; the consideration of pets sits just on the tip of the iceberg.

I only hope that terere doesn’t get lost in the shuffle--even if it means buying pre-fabricated yuyo (herb) packs and pre-flavored yerba.  (Both available at our local market.)  For now, though, I’ll stick to worrying about the demands of keeping a certain someone’s food dish full.

Standard summertime pose

Friday, February 3, 2012

Thinking Smaller

Volleyball at dusk

I’ve spent a lot of my time as a Peace Corps volunteer struggling.  I struggle with language.  I struggle with finding my place in my community.  I struggle with maintaining relationships back home.  I struggle with finding projects and people to work with.  Then I struggle with sustainability.  I struggle with what comes next.  Inherent to the Peace Corps experience, every volunteer I meet struggles with something--more often, many things.
Ready for another icebreaker?

A recent RPCV reflected in her blog that as an organization Peace Corps finds success in teaching us how to fail.  When you grow up playing on soccer teams that don’t keep score, you don’t always learn how to deal with rejection gracefully.  And Peace Corps volunteers face constant rejection and failure.  We interview our neighbors about their needs and when we set up trainings to meet those needs nobody comes--even when the whole town promises that they’ll attend.  We facilitate the foundation of a much anticipated community group and meeting attendance nose drives after the third gathering.  The sit-down your community contact agreed to during your first few days in town gets pushed back weekly.

Over and over again we tell ourselves, “you only need to reach one.”

During training, our country director shared the story of a pair of volunteers serving together in the early 1960s who reached one: Alejandro Toledo.  As in former Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo.  Born into extreme poverty, he ended up with a PHD from Stanford.  A potential reached, he frequently explains, through the support and guidance of Peace Corps volunteers.

When you reach one, they reach others.  Alejandro Toledo reached millions.

I have no intention of holding myself to the standards set by Nancy Deeds and Joel Meister, arguably some of the most effective Peace Corps volunteers in the history of the program.  I do, though, try to place my focus on reaching just one and celebrating small wins.

"Who will change the world?"
This past week, many members of our sector (Community Economic Development) got to reach just one as a group.  Ñande Ha’e Tenonderã (We Are the Future) Leadership Camp gathered almost thirty volunteers with seventy Paraguayans between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four to share four days of leadership, development, and self-esteem training.  Youth participated in seminars presented by various Paraguayan NGOs, engaged in many team-building exercises, and partook in countless icebreakers.

Opening night charlas

Teatro'i and creative problem solving
In our final activity, the youth formed two circles, one inside of the other.  While the inner circle stood with their eyes closed, the outer circle walked around them and responded to a series of questions by touching members of the inner circle on the shoulder.  “Who made you laugh this week?... Who changed your mind about something this week?... Who will change the world?” 

By the end of the exercise, many of the youth could not contain their tears.  Many of the volunteers could not contain their satisfied smiles.  The camp meant something--something maybe even life changing--to these kids.  They met, they exchanged ideas, and they realized that they really could change their worlds.  The volunteers didn’t create any of it, we just supplied the tools these youth needed to get there on their own.

Early morning Taekwando
Only in Paraguay... do harps make the summer camp packing list
I had personal goals for each of our kids.  I hoped our fourteen year old would gain a new perspective while seeing more of Paraguay, our fifteen year old would start to realize his own leadership potential and gain some organizational skills, and our sixteen year old would connect with like minded individuals and learn that others share his dream for his country.  All of them grew more in four days than I knew possible.

Introducing s'mores to Paraguay

A train of excited jovenes pulls into the Caaguazú bus terminal
As we left camp, the kids sang and danced in the Caaguazú terminal and promised to keep in touch.  They made plans for our re-connect camp in July and confirmed everyone’s name on Facebook.  I started to question if we’d ever manage to herd them all on to buses.  Eventually, the southern contingency made our way onto a packed double decker headed back towards the capital.  Little did I know, on the way home from camp I would reach one of my personal goals too. 

Standing in the aisle and pressed against strangers, our fourteen year old surrendered to motion sickness all over herself, me, and another man.  Surprisingly, no one got up to offer her a seat.  In fact, no one seemed all that put off by the incident.  About twenty minutes later the seat next to where we stood opened up.  As I ushered my youth toward it, a young man tried to sneak in. 

Now, we’ve all heard the story about the mother, who upon seeing her toddler stuck under the wheel of a car, summons the strength to lift the vehicle and pull her kid to safety.  My “(substitute) mom” adrenaline came in a different form: without thinking, I grabbed this teen by the waist, pulled him from the seat, and plainly explained to him why he’d have to stand for just a little longer.  Evidently I have picked up a little Spanish along the way after all.  (Of course my body language could have had a lot to do with my clarity, but this still counts as a victory.)

Later that night, around 9:30pm while our youngest slept off her nausea, I got to do some eavesdropping.  Nearly nine hours into our journey and still an hour and a half from home, in a pitch dark bus surrounded by dozing strangers, our fifteen and sixteen year old started planning a project that would ultimately benefit our entire community.  They even considered logistical issues regarding reaching our most isolated rural areas.  To call myself proud wouldn’t even begin to cover it.

When we finally reached the entrance to our town, the boys excitedly bounced ideas off each other as we walked the two kilometers back from the main route.  Our fourteen year old, still not quite yet awake held back, half listening.  Worried that a rough bus ride sullied her camp experience, as we approached her house I asked her, “Did you miss our town?”  “A little,” she replied.  “But I miss camp more.”
Over the next few months, I can’t wait to see where this new-found enthusiasm takes them--even if it means struggling to get our camp’s theme song out of my head.  Aaaaaaaauuuuuuuuttttoooo-estima....

"Auto-estima, no se puede comprar. Auto-estima, viene de adentro...."
"Self-esteem, you can't buy it.  Self esteem, it comes from within...."
The Southern Contingency: On Wednesday, we left before sunrise.  At 4:45am we collected the kids from each of their houses and exchanged goodbye kisses with their mothers.  In the dark of early morning, we could barely make out their expressions.  Excitement?  Fear?  Two thirds of our youth had never before traveled without parent and yet they headed halfway across the country with two Nortes who possess only limited Spanish.  Around 11pm the following Saturday we returned everyone safe, sound, and ready to work.

Kevin, Vero, Damian, Joanna, and Luis