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

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