Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Se fue...

A few months back, two Peace Corps technical trainers stopped by our little house in the South while surveying locations for future training activities. As Americans who have lived in Paraguay for ten and thirty years, respectively, they both offer unique perspective into the cultural differences between our two countries. Over dinner, Kevin and I enjoyed their insight.

For example, in Paraguay greeting people involves a sort of ritual. Women meeting other women press cheeks on each side and make a kissing sound. Women greeting men guide the introduction and choose either the same kiss shared with the ladies or a handshake. Men greeting men shake hands, sometimes gripping the opposite shoulder with the free hand. Men rarely kiss each other. At this point in the conversation, Kevin mentioned that our host father always kisses him. Jon smiled and replied, “That means he actually considers you his son.”

We didn’t need another person to point this out to us.

In Peace Corps Paraguay volunteers live with host families during their first six months in country. Especially during training, our host families often regard us as confused baby birds, a little lost and incapable of fending for ourselves. Although in many departments this assessment hit spot on, in other ways it got tiresome. I knew this constant scrutiny came from a loving--and initially helpful--place. (Even the most common daily tasks, when placed in a Paraguayan context, required re-learning.) I, though, couldn’t wait to cook for myself, walk a block alone, or self-supervise my ironing.

I started thinking about moving into our own place as soon as we stepped foot in site. As much as I deeply appreciated these folks opening their home to us, I still found myself in desperate need for some alone time. Many volunteers form deep bonds with their Paraguayan families, others keep them at arms’ length. As I had little desire to relive the critique of my teenage years for the now third time, I expected to fall into the later category. I already had a mother and she stopped nagging me about a decade ago. Lucky for me, I didn’t have an option in this particular situation.

Nelly (aka Mitad) and Felipe, their adult children, and extended family took us in and never gave us the chance to say no. They included us in everything and introduced us as family members from day one. When it came time for us to move into our our house, Mitad stopped by every day--and never empty handed. Felipe helped us hang our mosquito net and made sure we had a safe, hot shower--rewiring the whole operation before we could even ask. They made us feel like one of their own.

August 7th, we lost Felipe. He never regained consciousness after the stroke that befell him two weeks previous. Before that, he hadn’t had so much as a cold in six years.

While Mitad took control of making sure I ate enough, spoke minimal English, and scolded me for letting my husband do any housework, Felipe maintained a more quiet, reassuring presence. Whenever I prepared American food, he always took seconds. He never pushed me or criticized my Spanish. He had the best giggle.

We giggled over the reappearance of lettuce on the dinner table after months of summer drought. (Felipe maintained a beautiful--and impressive--vegetable garden behind the house.) We giggled when we overheard the kids curse or make smart aleck comments. We giggled the hardest the day after Carnaval when he asked me--with a straight face--if I saw lots of “colas afuera” (tails out).

The last time I saw Felipe, I kissed him on the cheek and told him I’d see him tomorrow. I have no idea if he knew how much Kevin and I cared for him. His love, though, was never in doubt.

Felipe loved his children and grandchildren deeply. For last year’s first day of spring parade, he outfitted a big wheel with a refrigerator box creating “The Candy Train.”

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