Saturday, April 28, 2012

Someday, I’ll Hug a Tiger or Another Friday the 13th Passes Without Incident

Joanna and Sultan.

Some weeks, nothing happens. Days pass by and we go about our business without anything of note transpiring. Upon developing a comfortable routine of leadership activities and youth group meetings, sometimes things get a little boring. This week, although very busy, I felt like climbing the walls. Not every week falls into this category, however. Two Thursdays ago I met a tiger.

Those who know me, know that I have a bit of a things for cats. Big cats, small cats, I like them all the same. Few things melt my heart like an expressive meow, make me giggle like a silly, sleepy pose, or inspire me to gush compliments like a good feline full-body stretch. As such, I could hardly believe my luck when I learned that an actual tiger had taken residence in my town.

The big sell...
... and the real deal wearing a dog collar.

That afternoon Kevin and I altered our walk home from the local high school so I could take a peak at the traveling circus setting up shop in our town’s center. Already an odd morning, our charla on values and self-esteem resulted in one girl punching another in the face. Still trying to determine where asking the kids to rank things like “getting good grades” and “getting married” went so far off the rails, Kevin generously humored me with a detour to the soccer field across the street from the elementary school.

While taking in the extravagant signage, a friend stepped out from behind a rapidly emptying semi-truck trailer. Motioning towards an advertisement, I asked her if she thought they would really have a tiger. Much to my delight, she replied, “Yes. She’s over there.” And by over there, she meant unsupervised just beyond an open gate. A six month old beauty sat all by herself in a patch of freshly cut grass, enjoying the light breeze in her fur. Someone hooked her collar into a thick chain-link lead attached to a stake pounded into the red dirt--a rusty tiger version of something you’d put a dog on--probably more for human comfort than actual security.

Important tiger alone-time.

My dream to hold a big cat in my arms before me, I stepped forward. Only common sense, already in short supply, kept me from scratching behind her giant ears. So badly I wanted to reach over, throw my arm around her giant neck, and walk her down to the beach. Tigers love water! Surely this field trip would cement our future friendship. My plan hinged on determining this cat’s tranquilo-ness.

Famous for its laid-back attitude, a relaxed way extends beyond the people of Paraguay to its animals as well. Dogs often bark without bothering to get up and enjoy napping in the middle of the street. I’ve never see a horse in my town run. But do Paraguayan tigers take the same philosophy?

Becoming fast friends.
In the end, I decided to hedge my bets on the tranquilo-ness of the tiger’s trainer (who when he finally joined the three of us, mostly just yanked on Sultan’s tail), and decided not to push my luck. I couldn’t stay away, though. Over the course of her three days in town, I visited her at least eight times. Every time I approached her, I played out the conversation with the Peace Corps Medical Office first... “Mary, does my rabies vaccination cover tiger bites?” “Mary, I briefly lost consciousness while trying to hug a tiger. Do they have the equipment to assess a concussion in Encarn or do I need to come up to Asuncion?” “Mary, I cut my leg open tripping over a tiger’s leash. My tetanus shot is up to date, right?”

I'm not sure if Sultan was more annoyed by this kid blowing in her face or introducing her as "Tigresa".

For all my devotion, though, when the time came to see my girl in the spotlight, I missed the show. In a year of record drought, the rain finally came the night we planned to take in the big top extravaganza after English class. Somehow, attending a Paraguayan circus featuring a tiger who’d spent the day having her tail pulled during a thunder and lightening storm on Friday the Thirteenth seemed like one strike too many.

Hopefully next year she’ll remember me and maybe then she’ll have a little free time for the beach.

Artist's depiction.

Thank You for Your Support

Special thanks to the nice people over at Wanderlust and Lipstick for including an extended version of my holiday season rundown in the "Tales" section.  For all the details on hosting an American-style Thanksgiving in Paraguay, please click here.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

I’ll Never Take Score Again or The Trouble With Democracy

I now completely understand elementary school sporting leagues who do not keep score.  Please strike any of my previously snarky comments from the record with my deepest apologies.

I’ve heard parents liken having children to allowing your heart to walk around outside your body.  Although I have no children of my own, I understand this sentiment increasingly-every day with our kids from youth group.  When they have a good day, I feel great.  When I see them struggle, I wish I could feel the frustration for them.  And most of all, when I see them try something new--push themselves and embrace something outside their comfort zone--I feel overwhelmingly proud.

I would not describe Paraguay as a nation of risk takers.  Culturally folks tend to stick to what they know.  Whether dinner, professional paths, or gender roles, although exceptions spring up regularly, for the most part people here stick to what traditionally works and don’t venture into the unknown.  (You might remember me having to bully my host mother in Ita into trying peanut butter with chocolate.)

Although this could spark a chicken or the egg debate, I attribute a lot of this attitude to the Paraguayan school system.  When teachers follow a curriculum designed towards a test and center study on the answer key, a nation runs the risk of raising a generation focused on getting the right response--as opposed to the process of learning, critical thinking.  Accordingly, most of the kids we work with have such deep fear about getting things wrong that if they can’t do something perfectly, they won’t try it.  I’ve stopped counting how many times a kid has called me over during a lesson on self-esteem to approve their reply to a question about their feelings.  I never expected the concept of “no wrong answers” to cause such trouble.

Eager to validate their presence in the community, last week our youth group held elections--and it nearly ripped my heart in two.  Six of our kids stood up announced their intentions to run for the offices of President, Secretary, and Treasurer.  The runner-up to the presidency would serve as vice-president, the others would form an executive committee.  While I felt no surprise certain individuals declared their candidacy, when one of the quietest kids threw her hat in the ring I felt a lightness in my chest.   

Among our most dedicated participants, she has an almost painful shyness about her.  Her thirteen year old fingers shook she gave a speech to her peers highlighting her qualifications.  She made herself vulnerable in a way most of her classmates wouldn’t dare. 

In an effort to promote transparency in a country often labeled the most corrupt in South America, we counted the votes out loud in front of everyone immediately after voting.   As we sorted the ballots, her opponent (also a great kid but less prepared for the position) started to pass her and a pit formed in my gut.  In the end, he received the same number of yeses as he had cousins the in group.  

She appeared visibly crushed.  After, she asked me to sit with her and her best friend to talk it out.  Even though she giggled as we said goodbye, I couldn’t quite tell her true feelings. 

Americans take risks to an almost pathological level.  On one end of the spectrum, we create jobs if we don’t like the ones available.  On the other, we reward the most controversial behavior with a fifteen episode run on TLC.  But how often do we do the terrifying things build our character?

Our youth took the loss hard, but she came back the following week and pledged to support her former political adversary.  The ache I took on as the election results rolled in grew into admiration.  She tried and failed and returned with her head held high.  A risky move and an example for us all.
Executive Committee