Friday, May 30, 2014

The Newbies Have Landed or A Beautiful Blur

Last Friday morning, 25 brand-spanking-new Community Economic Development Volunteers touched down on the tarmac at AsunciĆ³n’s Silvio Pettirossi International Airport. The night before, following some minor confusion navigating American Airlines online flight status report, a small group of us resolved to gather just after the crack of dawn to meet their plane.

We're so excited, we're so excited, we're so... exhausted.
Balancing mate and homemade signs, it took everything I had not to hop up and down as our newbies sailed past customs and into the arrivals lobby. For the rest of the day, unable to get that scene from Saved By the Bell where Jesse gets caught taking the caffeine pills out of my head, I repeatedly and compulsively announced my excitement to anyone who would listen. Even a week later, I’M SO EXCITED that G45 has made it to Paraguay.

When preparing for arrival day, most of us in the office joked that trainees forget most of what happens their first day in. Something about leaving all your friends and family to hitch a ride on a red-eye flight headed half-way around the world only to then get dropped off in the middle of nowhere where you may or may not speak one of the languages and probably never even heard of the other doesn’t set someone up for success on the memory retainment front. I, on the other hand, have been reflecting at how the day unfolded all week.

G36 in the first of many group pictures.
After brief introductions in front of the infamous red wall where every new group of Volunteers in recent memory has their picture taken upon arriving in country, we loaded up three trucks and a small bus, and made our way to the training center. 45 minutes later and we hit the ground running. Trainees needed local currency, cell phones, ID photos--the basics to get settled in. This also included a quick informational session called, “10 Things You Don’t Know About Paraguay, but Should.”

Seasoned PCVs always comment on how attractive trainees look. Their shirts and pants are still coordinated and free of holes or stains. Their haircuts are fresh and hand-washing clothing hasn’t chipped all their nails yet. G45 proved no exception: they looked beautiful--and not nearly as terrified as I remember feeling.

Seasoned PCVs also tend to forget how far we’ve come since arriving in country. It’s a cliche we all enter into duty knowing, but never ceases to surprise us when it becomes clear. Many of us join Peace Corps because we want to effect change. In the end, usually we are the ones who leave different.
The training center staff sings their welcome to G45.

Some of these changes impact our core, others resonate in more benign ways. The things we now take for granted, once seemed strange. The situations that currently make us laugh the hardest, once scared us stupid. Most of us don’t even notice this change coming. By way of illustration, on Friday I very casually I told 25 people to relax because getting shocked in the shower is no big deal. Don’t worry about mixing electricity and water, in Paraguay we do it all the time. 

After three years and three days in South America, I don’t know where to begin assessing the changes Kevin and I have grown through, individually and as a couple. With barely three months left, I imagine a little more transformation may still force its way in. Hopefully, though, these last days won’t pass as quickly as that first one.

G45 loading up for the journey to the training center.
After our red-eye flight. It's been a beautiful blur ever since.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Grass is Always Greener in Someone Else's... Season?

As far as days go, April 15th is no stranger to complaining. In fact, if statistical data exists on the subject, I’d bet cash money that the first half of the fourth month of the year is one of the most grouchy periods in the United States of America. This year, however, encouraged an exceptional volume of bellyaching--and not solely in regards to state or federal tax codes. On April 15, 2014, Chicagoans woke up to snow accumulating where spring should have bloomed. 1.4 inches of snow--to be exact--may not usually cause outrage, but this snow appeared on a date where the average high lingers just under 60°. (Not to be outdone, the following afternoon 10.5 inches piled on Duluth, MN.)

Scenes from the winter wonderland that I fantasized about while battling a heat rash on my face that required steroids to clear up.
By the weekend, grass reappeared as temperatures more appropriate for the vernal equinox moved in. Still, though, the residual sting from the coldest winter in Chicago’s history remained. Polar vortexes, four months averaging 22°, cabin fever rage--my city seemed poised on the edge of a Shining-level breakdown.

Meanwhile, in Paraguay, we nearly melted.

At the risk of speaking too soon, traces of fall have snuck up around AsunciĆ³n. After weeks of on-and-off intense storms, the temperatures have finally dropped into the 80s. It feels positively chilly. [Editor’s Note: I started this post over a month ago, days after the official start of autumn. During this period, temperatures have spiked multiple times into the high 90s with humidity so thick you could scoop up the air and hold it in a coffee mug.]

Months ago, as Kevin and I packed our bags for our December home-leave, many Paraguayans asked me what I was most excited about for our trip. Of course, I was trilled to see my family and friends, but mostly I could not wait to feel cold. Usually, this response elicited a thoughtful smile and agreement. Cold. Hmmmmm.

Terere: The most reliable heat management in Paraguay. In site, the our home’s wiring could not handle the power requirement of an air conditioner. In Asuncion, however, we could not survive without artificial climate control.

Despite the warm fuzzy feeling that overtook my body every time I saw a magical snowy scene in a movie or on Facebook, as I wiped nostalgic tears from cheeks I refrained from sharing this glee with those actually battling winter.

Admitting defeat with terere in the hammock after the 
sticky part of our self-adhesive hooks melted and all 
our stuff fell into a pile on the ground.
Why? Because it makes me crazy when people dismiss my stress (heat exhaustion is real) and tell me that they’re jealous of our endless summer.

For reasons beyond my comprehensive people keep telling me that I have nothing to complain about; they would switch places with me in a snap. They have no idea what we deal with. Yet, even as I explain that the heat here does not compare to any of their vacation spots, some individuals insist on telling me that we have it better. (I suppose the grass is always greener, but it’s like we’re somehow closer to the sun.)

Although I wouldn’t put this lack of sensitivity in the same category as the sleep deprived new mother who tells her friend struggling with infertility that she’s lucky to get to sleep through the night, it still feels pretty rude.

I still not sure how any of us survived our first summer in Paraguay. The nastiest drought to befall the region in a decade provided a mere 10% of the average rainfall typical of the season. Despite heavy humidity, rain never came. The sun brought day after day of triple digit temperatures and nightfall offered little relief.  Crops failed, animals died, and wildfires took everything else. 

During our third Paraguayan summer, Asuncion gained international recognition as the hottest capital in the world. To drive the point home, WWF did a cooking demonstration to illustrate the impact of deforestation. (Paraguay is one of the most deforested places on the planet. Most Paraguayan adults will tell you that the summers of their youth were not nearly this hot.) In cartoons, folks will fry eggs on pavement to prove the heat on a sweltering afternoon. In Asuncion, in we cooked up steak and polenta.

In other words, this year Mother Nature doled out beatings on both sides of the equator. Can’t we all be happy accepting our collective misery without making it a competition? Who knows the impact we could make if we redirected that energy toward, say, addressing global warming. If anything, we should at least make sure to leave ourselves room to complain when the next season rolls in.

Many Volunteers employ similar tactics to beat the heat, but Capy looks a lot cuter. The sun is so strong here that I have one friend who once got sunburned while using the latrine. There are multiple issues to address within this anecdote, but for now let’s focus on the sun part.

Friday, May 2, 2014

28 Days Later

May 2011: 23 strangers on the bus to Miami International Airport.
It’s recently come to my attention that our younger sister G will complete their two years of Peace Corps service in Paraguay in 99 days. As in, less than 100. Mere double digits. To make matters more dramatic, Kevin and I COS (close of service) just 28 days after they do.

This year passed impossibly fast. Fast in the way where if you’re not careful when you start thinking about it you risk slipping down the rabbit hole known as contemplating your own mortality. Panic ensues and then all of a sudden another week has gone by. A blink of an eye and I’m staring 80 years old in the face. I can’t hardly believe that that our time as Peace Corps Volunteers is coming to an end.

Enter, the blog. As we prepare to close this chapter, Kevin and I have taken pause to consider what we still want to accomplish and what we regret. When we arrived in 2011, I had high blogging expectations for myself. It helped that I truly enjoyed writing posts and assembling photos. I deeply regret letting this activity fall by the wayside. 

I don’t know entirely how it happened, but I have a few theories. Even while still in training, I took my writing very seriously. I know some people who can go into a cyber cafe and knock out an entry, typing directly into Blogger’s interface. Not me. I craft my posts. I hem and haw and obsess. I take notes in random places and piece them together in Pages. I start essays and them I let them simmer. Unfortunately, I don’t always remember to return.

The deeper we entrenched ourselves into our life in site, the more careful I became about this process. I think it comes down to control. As Peace Corps Volunteers we give up a lot--if not most--of our power. We’re in a new place, we don’t always understand what’s going on, and our host families often treat us like pre-adolescent children. Our entire world gets turned upside. When we find ourselves in a situation where we can actually exert control, some of us take it a little too far. Case in point, I discovered over 30 almost finished blogs on my computer waiting for review and publishing. You may feel a little whiplash, but I intend to let go and finish with a bang. Cheers.

July 2013: Two years later and now unable to remember a time in our lives before The Square G.
Three generations of CED (Community Economic Development): G36--The Square G, G39--The Independent G, and
G42--The Real World G. When people stop being polite and start getting weird.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Semana Santa 3 Ways | Part 1

Paraguay’s National Snack, Chipa: Fat, Eggs, Cheese, Anise Seed, Salt, Milk, Mandioca Starch, and Corn Meal.

Kevin and I started hearing about Semana Santa the week we arrived in our community. An event bigger than Christmas, our host mom made it clear from day one that she expected us to participate in her celebration and did not want to hear any nonsense about us visiting friends in other sites. Next year, she explained, we could do what we wanted. This first year we belonged to her. In an afternoon in August, she cemented our plans for the following April.

Semana Santa refers to the week between Palm Sunday and Easter. Growing up, I remember solemnly observing Holy Thursday and Good Friday, but didn’t pay much mind to the rest of the week. In Paraguay, most preparations start on Wednesday--the principle day for preparing food (primarily chipa) for the rest of the week.

A side note about Queso Paraguaya: Somewhere between mozzarella and feta, this cheese plays a role in most Paraguayan dishes. Consumed both fresh or when it’s mature, some cooks speed the aging process up by leaving young cheese in the sun for a few hours. Volunteers either love or hate Queso Paraguaya. There is no in between.

By siesta on Thursday afternoon, no one engages in anything high energy. The local parish priest serving in our highly conservative, proudly Catholic town recommends that on Friday people avoid even speaking. As all the women in our host family work outside the home and did not have Wednesday off, we planned to cook all morning on Thursday.

On Wednesday evening, our host mom informed us that she intended to start preparing chipa around 7am. After nine months with this woman, we understood this figure as an early estimate. Although we arrived in her kitchen technically an hour late, we still beat our sister-in-law by forty minutes. Greeted by a mountain of flour and an oversized bag of pork fat, we quickly learned a hitch in the plan. Our host father, who maintained an informal business selling eggs to the neighbors, sold off nearly his entire stock the night previous.

During the brief period where we had power, the television program switched between infomercials for the George Foreman grill and a cartoon where Jackie Chan (the actor, not the Paraguayan dog) battled Siegfried and Roy’s white tigers.
Evidently he assumed the chickens would line up their “A” game for the big holiday, however these birds missed the memo. Our meal required only eight ingredients; and we were missing a big one. Already off to a late start--and with every store in town closed for the holiday weekend--we had no choice but to wait for the hens.

Bad Journalism Alert: This photo is fraudulent. My 
host mom only allowed me to touch the chipa batter 
long enough to take one picture. Luckily, that was 
plenty of time to leave my hands stinking of 
pork fat and old cheese for the rest of the day.
Luckily, we had enough raw material to make a tiny batch of “special” chipa for our lactose intolerant nephew. Our host mom had me watch as she kneaded anise seeds, salt, mandioca starch, and corn flour with non-dairy fats and a splash of water. Once the mixture hit just the right consistency, she rolled out the dough into tube shapes and sliced the bread into bite size pieces. Carefully she laid each piece across a large banana leaf before setting it aside to wait for its turn in the oven.

As my family refuses to believe that I have any culinary experience, I was not allowed to help prepare the chipa in any sort of meaningful way. Instead, my host mother insisted on taking one photograph where she had me pretend to roll out dough and then relegated me chicken chopping duty. Unfortunately, years of vegetarianism have hindered my development in the meat department and my mediocre deboning only served to perpetuate my reputation as a poor cook.

By a quarter to ten the hens finally got on board and offered up enough bounty for sopa, but not yet chipa. About the same time, wild weather moved into town. Grey clouds made their presence known from dawn, but when the wind picked up it brought with a dust storm of biblical proportions. Eventually the near microbursts transitioned into a downpour for the remainder of the afternoon.

Kevin runs to close up our house in the dust storm.
Then the lights went out. As we sat in the dark, I watched my host mom and sister-in-law fill empanada shells by candle light. (Some of you may recall the one incident when they allowed me to help with this task. During my first try, a couple of my pouches opened up while cooking, thus forever banning me from this job.) The indoor electric oven rendered useless by the power failure and the outdoor setup unavailable due to heavy rain, we arrived at an impasse. Eventually, the candles burnt out. For what felt like an eternity, we sat in the dark in silence waiting for chickens to lay eggs.

By late in the afternoon, the power restored and the hens cooperating, we made up for the morning’s hiccups and gathered for a big family lunch--a la the Last Supper. After the meal, we all retired to our homes for rest and reflection. Other neighbors brought us more chipa and the town went into hibernation throughout the weekend.

On Sunday morning, signs of life crept back in view, and we met again for Easter asado. Although that famous bunny never came up, my host sisters-in-law hide some candy around the house for the kids. After dinner we asked our host mom about how other parts of Paraguay celebrated this holiest of weeks. She furrowed her brow, grumbled something about fire in San Ignacio, assured us that it wasn’t worth the trouble, and suggested we confirm our plans to spend next Semana Santa with her as well.

My host mother supervises as Kevin adds woods to the oven. Many families bake their chipa (and other items) in a large, brick outdoor oven called a tatakua (very similar to the outdoor pizza ovens that you see featured on HGTV high-end remodeling jobs.) My host family prefers to use this smaller, wood-burning metal oven.

My host parents carefully load a batch of chipa into the oven. During Semana Santa, many people have fun with their chipa and sculpt their bread into different shapes. Since one of the grandkids has allergy issues, we kept things simple and baked pieces in two shapes: one safe for him to eat and the other hands off.

Chipa Central: pieces ready for baking, banana leaves, mate dulce, and coquitos (think plain croutons) for snacking.

¡Chipa Caliente! The banana leaves act like parchment paper. 

Fresh chipa is airy and soft. After a few hours, however, this snack turns into a weapon, harder than most rocks.

Stayed tuned to learn if the trip to San Ignacio was worth the trouble in Semana Santa 3 Ways | Part 2!

Mima, aka Chipa Cat, loves chipa like Garfield loves lasagna.