Monday, December 7, 2009

Changing Lives Forever OR Naked and Stapling Pancakes to a Wall

"You know, I think the relationships we develop are really going to be the most important part of our Peace Corps service" Brad told me as we were walking in the dark to our training host families` houses. "It`s the individual people and friendships that are really going to make the difference." This from the kid who during the first weeks of training was asking all the trainers, "What`s the biggest project anyone has ever done in Peace Corps? Cuz I`m going to beat it."

Of course he`s right. 2 of the 3 goals of Peace Corps are about intercultural exchange, and only 1 is the projects themselves. So how does this play out exactly? It is all the difference between your happiness and unhappiness as a volunteer. "Things have been much better since I actually started leaving my house and talking to people," Ronnell told me. "Yeah, I can see why that would be," I said.

I`ve said it before and I`ll say it again. I love these crazy Paraguayans. I love that the first thing they always ask when they meet me is, "Are you happy in Paraguay?" and that every third line in a conversation is "How are you doing?". I love that they are so exceedingly thrilled at every part of their culture that I like and adopt.

For example, I was working on the computer in the coop when Carlos, the Loss-recovery guy bursts into the library because he`d seen me through the window. He makes a bee-line for my tererè equipo.
"Is this yours?" he asks excitedly.
"Of course. It has my name right there."
"You know how to drink tererè?"
"Yeah, I love it. I drink it everyday."
"Did you tell your mom you drink it?"
(a little confused over that one- what does my mom have to do with this?) "Yeah...she knows I drink it."
"And what does she say? She couldn`t believe it, right!?" He is clearly thrilled and gives the termo an affectionate slap before setting it down.
"Uh, well, she figured if I lived in Paraguay I`d drink it..."
"Spectacular, Angelica. I didn`t even know you knew how to drink tererè." He`s walking out the door with a new spring in his step and I`ve clearly climbed a few rungs in his esteem.

This is the general reaction all Paraguayans have when foreigners like anything Paraguayan. They literally cheer EVERY TIME (without fail) I slip a Guarani word into a sentence. They practically fall all over themselves to talk about Erin, who actually speaks Guarani, and will probably be talking about her for decades. If I eat Sopa Paraguaya (basically fancy cornbread), or dance the polka (maybe the simplest dance ever, 1 step forward and 1 step back), they nudge each other grinning, "You know how to do that?!" It`s not that these things are complicated, but wanting to learn them speaks volumes about your attitude. It`s enough for them to let you into their circle, and once you`re in, they will bend over backwards to take care of their own.

My neighbor, Jorge, comes to check on me after not hearing from me one Friday night. We were supposed to go to Karaoke because he wanted me to show his friends how to have fun and be silly with it, like I am when I sing and dance around his office with my guampa microphone during tererè. He is horrified to hear I have a fever and diarrhea (still with the quick smile though cuz I used the Guarani word for diarrhea, chivivi). He runs the block to his house and comes back, arms loaded with medicines, teas, and water jugs. He nurses me and lectures me on bad Paraguayan water (the water is fine) until I tell him I`ll be ok and can sleep. All this is at 1:30 in the morning.

My other friend, Hernàn, has gotten me a deal on an apt in his building, a deal on a new mattress (there are no chiropractors in Paraguay and the foam was just not working), calls me his cousin, brought me into his very generous family, helps me with Spanish and Guaranì, and invited me and my friends to parties at his family`s quinta (this little paradise where they built a pool over a natural spring), and is just a great friend in general. He scolds me harshly when he sees I`ve bought hangers. "Ask me before you buy stuff. I have plenty of those, just use mine."

Paulette, Oscar, Hernàn, me, and Melissa

Carlos, Daniela, Davìd, Marciel, and Ivana, are the family to whom I teach English on Tuesdays. They have never once let me leave unladen with bags of fruit. I`ve tried protesting, but to no avail.
"Why can`t you just accept a gift?" Carlos asks me.
"Well, I just don`t want to use you."
He shrugs, "We want to do it, and we`re using you to learn English."
They are an absolute pleasure to be around and a joy to teach, and they`ve already planned to give me a FREE apartment as of May. I certainly don`t feel used.

Walking through the market with Melissa and Erin with my bike, and the bungee cord gets caught around the axel so the bike locks up. Instantly there are 5 guys around to help. Wrenches appear out of nowhere and in 10 minutes they`ve fixed it. "Thank you so much," I tell them. "Thank you!" they answer. Thank you for your bike breaking down in front of our store so that we have to come out in the hot sun and get all greasy fixing it? But asi es Paraguay. (Paraguay`s like that).

The Peace Corps is definitely not for everyone. Bambi, whom I`ve mentioned before, announced 3 weeks into site that she was leaving.
The night before our big Thanksgiving trip, Miguel (Mike) from my training group, finally exploded from everything he`d apparently been bottling up inside for months. Out of the blue, he punched his best friend, Carlos, in the face and, after they fought it out and broke a lamp, he gives up, crying, and saying, "I just don`t belong here, I just don`t belong here." The next day, Carlos came on the trip with his face swollen and Miguel told the PC office he wanted to go home. None of us saw that coming.

Mike and Carlos (slightly swollen but friends again)

Brad, me and Carlos

Then of course there are the people that go crazy away from home. Like the guy whom the Peace Corps, after months of no contact, found naked in his house in the campo, stapling pancakes to the wall (true story).

But for those of us who are cut out for this, we hopefully end up like Erin, who is leaving in a few days. Like her, we will cry when it`s time for us to leave, having built incredible friendships with the people here. Maybe, like Erin, we will even get a tribute show on TV where they replay her story of when she accidentally peed in her neighbor`s shed, thinking it was the outhouse, and slow-motion her crying, just in case there was any doubt she liked it here.

Erin`s Last Show

Maybe, we will decide before we leave that we will come back to visit, and we will have a Paraguay Day each year where we cook Paraguayan food and look at old pictures, and our future kids will think it`s weird because they can`t yet understand how this experience shaped us and how important it was to who we now are. Maybe we will never know the ripple effects we have had on our towns, but future volunteers here will hear stories of us for the next 20 years, and the people that we`ve known will be better off, not because of the projects we did, but because of how they laugh when they retell the story of when we peed in their shed.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The News from Paraguay OR The Emperor Has No Clothes

It´s about time for a short break from deep philosophical life theories, so in this episode, we´ll talk about the down and dirty, the nitty-gritty - what I´ve actually been DOING with myself lately. After all, they don´t pay me $300 a month for nothing.

With a bit of negotiation, coupled with a strongly poverty-driven cheapness, I managed to get a really nice apt for the same price as my dirty little rented room, and I moved a month ago. There are 5 roommates and we share the common areas- it´s like the Paraguayan version of my beloved Howard House in Atlanta, and it feels like home.

Thursday Morning Barbeque Party

Right after that was my in-service-training, the point of which I think is just to let us see American again. In the middle of it I got a call from my coop contact, Nimia, and the conversation went something like this.
-Hola Angelica! I was just calling to let you know I´m moving to Switzerland.
-Uh, Switzerland? For how long?
-I´m not sure. I´m going for a surgery.
-Are you coming back? When are you leaving?
-Hmm, yeah, I don´t know about coming back. I´m leaving tomorrow morning.
-Huh. Well good luck. Thanks for telling me.
This sort of thing has been par for the course with the coop. The virtual library has been completely ready for 2 months on my end,the computers are approved, and yet...
You may be wondering, how could this be? Well, thanks to a Community Study the PC requires and the interviews I had to do for it, I have a much deeper understanding of what´s actually going on, and I can tell you exactly how this could be. This is the unofficial part of the PC report I wrote:

After hours and hours of wading through the business double-talk that hangs like a plague on the lips of everyone involved in the coop, I was able to get some definite answers as to what exactly is going on. For the 3 months I`ve been here, I assumed that although many of the activities didn`t make much sense to me, it was only my own lack of insight that made it so. Once I could talk candidly with people, it became clear that everyone is assuming that other people are seeing the big picture, so he or she doesn`t have to. Each person works on their small piece of the puzzle and just hopes (or perhaps it never occurs to hope) that there is a point to it all. In truth, the emperor has no clothes, and rather than working cooperatively, the right hand has no idea what the left hand is doing. And because no one is empowered to make decisions for themselves, the head (la presidenta) is so overworked with daily tasks that she can`t worry about the bigger picture. The socios are frustrated, don`t feel like they can communicate with anyone in the coop, have no system for addressing issues, and only continue to pay for fear that if they need a loan someday (which will be at a rate of 16-26%), and they wouldn`t get it otherwise. The idea behind cooperativism is completely lost, and everyone in the coop talks about nothing except getting more and more socios, and therefore more and more money, and THEN and only THEN, could they start to help people. “Once we buy the property next door, we can expand the building, once when we have a bigger building, well, we`ll really help people. If only we had more money to do it...” There are 2 main problems according to the consejo and management of the coop. The first is morosidad (people not paying their loans), but when lower rates are suggested, they gasp in horror, because that would mean less money, and the idea that it might mean more money when people are able to pay their loans is ridiculous. Higher rates is more money for the cooperative and that is the goal (cooperativism having fallen by the wayside long ago). The other problem is the attitude of the socios – they think of the coop as nothing more than a source of loans and don`t know or don`t appreciate all of the other benefits. What are those other benefits? They work with agricultural production, right? It`s supposed to be the PA in Coopafiol. Well, they help by giving loans to people that want to do production work. That counts, right? What else? Well, they`re doing a lot of environmental work. They had a battery collecting project because thrown away batteries can poison drinking water. But that was last year, and now the containers full of batteries are in the yard where the rain is fastidiously undoing all the good of collecting the batteries in the first place. And they`re doing reforestation and forestation projects...well, not right now. If only someone came up with a plan, they could do it in the future...With a strategic plan they could do so much...if only someone was managing things...But in the meantime, it`s in those pamphlets they hand out every year about the coop`s activities as a current project (they THINK about helping a lot of people). And what do they think about their socios not feeling connected? “We manage enough”. And how do you communicate? “They can come to my house and ask me any time they want. We communicate a lot by phone and with notes, and just word of mouth about what is going on in the coop.”...with 4000 socios. The employees are frustrated with the lack of communication, the beauracracy, and the confusion of roles (read: that`s not my job, someone else will do it). The president is frustrated because she is overworked and if they only had more money they could do so much...and so it goes. But if you asked ANYONE in this system how things function here, “perfectly, very well, or excellent” are all the answers you`ll get. Had I not strapped on my chest-high, rubber waders to crawl through the muck and the bullshit, that might have been all I ever knew, and I might have thought that my frustration with getting things done (or not) was only my own fault. But then again, I might just be passing the buck, like everyone else.

So I´ve mentally released any expectations of accomplishment with the coop and am once again perfectly content, chillin with my tereré.

Right after the training was the big Thanksgiving trip where all the volunteers who can afford it (or who spend their move-in-allowance and decide that not only are ovens over-rated and unnecessary, but it is also possible to live on nothing but apples and peanut butter for 2 weeks) go to a resort and drink for 3 days straight. How do Paraguayan PC volunteers party, you ask? They put mint leaves in the guampa and liquor in their termo and serve mojitos tereré style on the party bus that left at 7:30am. Pics to come.

After that, I was invited to give charlas at a leadership camp by Chris Diaz, another volunteer working with a job training program for supermarket bagboys. He warned me that giving charlas to 100 15-17 yr old Paraguayan inner-city boys might be tough, but truthfully the whole experience was awesome. They were awesome kids, really positive and participatory, although it probably didn´t hurt that they thought I was "muy hermosa" (beautiful). After I was demonstrating to the first group how not to lean on the counter and got an enthusiastic "Haikue!" (holy cow!) when I bent over, I was a little more careful with that sort of thing. The other educators weren´t that amused when the women´s room got a serenade on the last night of camp ("tradition" the boys said, although it was their first time being there), but I thought it was great. Who cares that it was at 3am?

I got back to site just in time for the crippling sinus infection I´d picked up at Thanksgiving to hit me (thanks Brad), so after 3 days in bed, it was off to my first pilgrimage.

I´d been arranging this trip for a couple of months, my campaign slogan something to the effect of "When else are you going to get to go on a religious pilgrimage?" and it was everything I dreamed and more. About the whole pilgrimage thing - every town in Paraguay has a patron saint, a hefty percentage of which are different versions of the Virgin Mary. Caacupé has a gigantic pilgrimage for their virgin on Dec. 8 and thousands upon thousands of people from all over Paraguay travel there to go to mass at the giant Basilica and buy their genuine Virgin of Caacupé souvenir T-shirts. 10 of us (8 volunteers and 2 Paraguayans) left from Ypacaraí (I figured 20k was a good first pilgrimage - no sense going all crazy with it) at 6:30pm. Thousands of people walking up and down the steepest hills in Paraguay along the ruta (some people were actually passing us, which is the fastest I´ve ever seen Paraguayans walk, but most were moving along at a decent shuffle). We got there in time to buy t-shirts before the midnight mass started, which was just a normal mass but with people standing in the plaza with candles, crammed like sardines around the other people sleeping on the ground on mats - Paraguayans can seriously sleep anywhere). That virgin really does work miracles though because we managed to get seats on the bus going back (Praise be.) and I got home about 5am.

The next day was Erin´s despedida (farewell party) in the campo. She rented sound equipment and her pig, which her mormom friend had killed the day before, was served for lunch. This is tradition for campo volunteers, but it was no less funny when someone would compliment the pork and Erin would answer, "Thanks. Her name was Shakira". I discovered I love dancing to reggaeton (never before have I had so many opportunities to do that booty-jiggle move) and we left exhausted and smelling like Shakira had a few days earlier.

Melissa and I used the goodbye ceremony the mayor gave Erin the next day to talk about our projects with him. Melissa´s going to extend a year (hooray!) and the mayor hooked me up with Kavichuí (little bee) which is one of my NGO Betel´s community centers. It´s a women´s group (with 1 guy) trying to start a bakery and the municipality is funding it. The ladies are super guapas (hard-working) and awesome. This is what I was trained for,and just so happens to be exactly the type of project I wanted to do in my service, and I´m super stoked. I´m helping them develop a business plan now and building connections with my NGO and the local government.

That weekend we used our newly developed relationship with the mayor to finagle a minibus. SOme of the people in Erin{s community wanted to surprise her one last time at the bus terminal before she left for good. She had just told Melissa that she really needed a hug when all of her people popped over the balcony above her with a big sign, so that was great. The minibus was equipped with a gigantic soundsystem about an inch in front of my knees and we car-danced to reggaeton for 2 hours, and, amazingly, tlaked. Paraguayans listen to music at eardrum-annihilating decibels, yet still have freakishly good hearing, I don{t know how they do it...and the kids were even sleeping through it.

The following weekend was Ronnell´s birthday and the plan was to go dancing all night and party Paraguayan style (intensely). We started out strong, ready to party, but after pre-gaming in the hotel and then a very late Peruvian food dinner, (which I threw up), we were lame and went back to the hotel at like 2am. The next day, swimming in the embassy pool and a real movie, called Dos Mil Doce (2012) in a real movie theater. Very exciting.

Jenna, Elmer, and Ronnell


At the risk of deep-life-theorizing, I´ve come to the conclusion over the last month that my habit of feeling out a situation before I loosen up and be myself is pointless. I can´t hide my light under a bushel, after all, and I only have 2 years here, and I can´t make friends if I sit quietly off to the side. Can I speak Guarani? No! But does that stop me from butchering it every chance I get? No! Can I digest meat? Not really, but Paraguayans love it, so I eat it anyway. Can I dance to reggaeton? Well, yes, actually, that booty-shake move is a huge hit. The point is that I´m here for the experience, (it´s always all about the experience) so I´ve been living it up and diving into to everything whole hog (that last pun in tribute to Shakira), and thank the holy virgin Mary for that blessed miracle.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Puns Falling Flat

My cousin Delaney in the US is doing a project for school with Flat Stanley. For those of you who don`t know, Flat Stanley is a character in a children`s book, and the premise is that he was ironed flat so he could be mailed places and have adventures. The idea is that you take pictures of Flat Stanley doing different things and send them back to the kids. This is the letter I`m sending about what Flat Stanley and I did together.

Dear Delaney and Class,

Flat Stanley was very excited to come to Paraguay, but he didn´t know very much about it. I explained that it was a small country in South America in between Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia. We were in Asunciòn, which is the capital city, in the Peace Corps Office. Flat Stanley told me he thought people in the Peace Corps were super cool. I immediately liked that kid. Then he wondered why it was so very hot in October, and I explained that since we were south of the Equator, the seasons were opposite, and it was Spring right now. Also, the climate in Paraguay is kind of like Florida, and being in an envelope in a mailbox can be pretty hot anyway. Flat Stanley agreed.

Then we went on a bus to my city, which is 3 hours East of Asunciòn, in the middle of Paraguay, and is called Coronel Oviedo. I explained that in the US, Coronel Oviedo would be a town, but it is a very big city for Paraguay and you can find almost anything you need here. Flat Stanley said that Paraguay was a beautiful country and he really likes how it`s very green and there are a lot of animals everywhere. I agreed.

The next day, Flat Stanley thought it was about time to help the world, so we went to an event that I`d helped organize for the 350 Project. This was when groups of 350 people got together all over the world on the same day to have a walk and show that we should take good care of the Earth. Flat Stanley thought it was very funny when the "Pigeon of Peace" was released at the end of the Walk. It instantly fell to the ground at the same moment that a huge storm started and sent everyone running for shelter. The four of us (My Peace Corps friends Melissa and Erin, Flat Stanley and I) all ran to Melissa`s house where we dried off and watched a movie on her computer. Flat Stanley hogged all the popcorn ("pororo").

The weather had cleared by the next day, which is good because Sunday is Asado Day ("Grilled Meat Day"). Flat Stanley and I visited my host family and we all ate a big meal together. Flat Stanley thought it was rude when everyone wiped their mouths with the tablecloth, but I explained that was normal here. Nobody got mad when Flat Stanley hogged all the asado because Paraguayans are very generous and love to share. They also like to fatten up really skinny people.

Flat Stanley asked me why he couldn`t understand what anyone was saying in this crazy country, so I explained that Paraguayans actually speak two languages - their original language called Guarani, and Spanish. I told him how cool it was that everyone here is bilingual, and then suggested that being flat is no excuse to be narrow-minded. After that, we studied Guarani together with my flashcards and now Flat Stanley knows a few new words. He can say "Op!" which means "Hi", and "Mba`eichapa" which means "How are you?", and "Cheñengua`hy" which means "I`m hungry".

We were very busy that week. Flat Stanley helped me with all of my projects. We went to my Cooperative and he learned all about how the goal of co-ops is that everyone is better off working together than they would be separately, and how they all make decisions together and help each other. Flat Stanley thinks this is a great idea. My project is to help them start a library. Flat Stanley was supposed to be helping, but he loves to read and was literally lost in the pages of a book for hours. Then he met some people that worked there and helped out the security guard for a while.

We went to my other job, called CCAB, which is a group that helps out kids by starting community centers in poor neighborhoods. Being a kid himself, Flat Stanley thinks this is awesome. We helped cook and serve food for a Field Day the kids had. There were games and activities and Flat Stanley had lots of fun. He liked watching soccer the best but he didn`t play because he didn`t know how, and his team would`ve gotten flattened.

On Thursday, he came to the radio show that I do every week with Melissa and Erin called Rojapo Radio (Guarani for "We do Radio"). It`s very popular in Coronel Oviedo. We talk about different helpful topics and play a little American music. Flat Stanley wanted to sing along but his voice was a little flat.

On Friday we went to a formal dinner ("Cena") for my Co-op`s 19th anniversary. Flat Stanley was shocked when stray dogs kept wandering in and out, and when everyone rushed to the buffet in their high heels like a pack of hyenas on a dead zebra. I told him that those were just some of the charms of Paraguay and it`s a great place once you get used to it. Then everyone danced to reggaeton. Flat Stanley really knows how to drop it like it´s hot.

The next night was Halloween and we had a party with other Peace Corps volunteers (Paraguayans don`t really celebrate Halloween because it`s sacreligious). We were all zombie versions of Paraguayans (I was an apple seller ("Manzana vendadora")) except Flat Stanley, who was a wallflower.

Throughout the week, Flat Stanley:
-Met lots of new Paraguayan friends,
-Had a dance party with some neighbor kids (they had more fun than he did, and his enthusiasm was a little flat),
-Went to my yoga classes (he`s a natural yogi and can really fold himself into all sorts of crazy positions),
-Helped me teach my English class ("Soy Llano" means "I`m Flat", he taught),
-Went to several meetings (I was worried he`d be bored but it turns out he likes things a little flat)
-And helped me study in my apartment (predictably, he called this my Flat).

Most importantly though, we spent a lot of time together with Paraguayans drinking tererè. Like everyone else in Paraguay, Flat Stanley LOVES tererè. It´s kind of like iced tea, but it`s yummy crushed herbs ("yerba") in a special cup ("guampa"). You pour ice cold water over it from a thermos ("termo") and drink it through a metal straw/spoon ("bombilla"). The most important thing about Paraguay is that it`s very "tranquilo" (tranquil) and it´s a huge part of the culture to sit around, talk, relax and drink tererè together. Flat Stanley loves to be tranquilo.

By the end of the week, Flat Stanley was starting to wilt in the 110º heat (the
98º nights didn`t help much) and he wanted to get back to the northern hemisphere (although he said he would really miss the tererè). He said that maybe when he grows up (and out) he`d join the Peace Corps, too, since it seems so awesome. He`s quite the flatterer.

I wanted to tell Flat Stanley that he was a great guest and it meant a lot to me having him around, but I just couldn`t. Words fell flat.

Thanks Delaney! I love you!
Your Cousin and Friend,

Being crazy kids with a camera, we also took some pictures I will not be sending to the 2nd graders:

Monday, October 26, 2009

...That´s Me in the Spotlight, Losing My Religion

The first time my host family met Paulette, we sat around making stilted and awkward conversation for a while, and Miguelangel asked her what she liked to do. "Oh, you read and write a lot?" his eyebrows shot up. "So does Angelica." "Oh, you like to make things...just like...Angelica" The look he was giving me was saying, "Are all Americans exactly like you?" As they´d gotten to know me, they´d been clearly thrilled with everything I did. You read and write for fun? What a unique American treasure they had. Then I bring along this other Norte and now they´re thinking that their little treasure isn´t so special at all. Actually, I´d been thinking the same thing.

I´m not going to lie, like most people, I´ve always thought I was a little special, a little different than other people. As a teenager it had manifested as frustration that no one understood me, but since then it´s been more this feeling of anticipation and excitement to see exactly how I´d turn out to be special. When I temporarily lost my religion a few weeks ago, I got my explanation.

I was reading this book called The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are. It´s about evolutionary psychology, and the fact that not just our physical traits, but our behaviors and mentalities, can completely be explained by evolution. The "goal" (although there´s no actual thought process attached to it) is very simple - to perpetuate our genes. From that point, evolution can explain all facets of human behavior - why we love, why we fight, why we are at times generous and at times selfish, at times manipulative, at times sacrificing, why we gossip, why we think we are here for a higher purpose, why we always think we are right in an argument, why we are attracted to certain behaviors or people, just EVERYTHING. Every single thing we do can be logically and completely justified by evolution. As I was reading this, I was slowly coming to the same conclusion that the book eventually did - God was to explain why things are the way they are, and thus with this explanation it is very possible that there is no God. Darwin was an atheist. And the Golden Rule, Treat Others As You Want To Be Treated, like all other "universal truths" that span religions and cultures, is actually an evolutionary treatise that will help get your genes carried into future generations.

THIS ROCKED MY WORLD. The problem was that I agreed with it, fully and completely. It is extremely clear that evolution is true, but I just couldn´t get it alligned with the other "truth" I know, and have felt to my very core for as long as I can remember; that there is an energy all around us, a general sense of balance in the world, and a PURPOSE for all of this. Even if the results were the same, that we were "good people" and the same behaviors that might have carried our soul to the next life or heaven or wherever were the ones carrying our genes to future generations, the WHY still mattered to me...A LOT.

I wrestled with this idea, mentally and emotionally for about a week, and honestly got a little depressed. I wasn´t here in the Peace Corps because I wanted to DO good things as much as I wanted to LOOK like I was doing good things (another evolutionary idea I had to admit was true). Every decision I made that week, when I followed my most natural urges, was completely justified because it´s only human. How silly and egotistical of me to have thought that the powers that be were conspiring to teach me lessons; that I needed to learn those lessons to better myself as a person, since a person is just a moral animal. But at the same time, I´d seen evidence of those "powers that be" in my own life and in the life of others for YEARS. I´d acted under that assumption of "purpose" and it had always been to my advantage, every single time. Was it all really my own delusion?

Eventually, I visited Paulette, in desperation of needing to talk to someone (in English) about what was going through my head. I threw the book on her couch and pointed at it, accusingly. "This book...this book..." I gasped out before collapsing defeated in a heap on her sofa.
"I rocked your world, didn`t I?" (She`d loaned me the book). She understood. Calmly, she went to her room and brought out another book for me to read - this one, The Power of NOW, by Ekhart Tolle. We worked on Ao po`i and talked about other things. When got back home, I was barely into the first chapter when I could see that this book was true (I felt it inherently, like it spoke to my soul, which had been protesting hard for the last week within me, rallying to proclaim its existence, despite certain evidence to the contrary), but that evolutionary psychology was also true, and they were not mutually exclusive. Here`s the gist, the salve that has since left me with a budding zen-like demeanor. Evolution formed the brain and part of the brain is the ego. The ego is the voice in our heads, our insecurities , our sense of separation, our constant thoughts. This can and does get in the way of our other level, our Being or God or spirituality, which is our connecting force; it is love unconditional. To quote "I Heart Huckabees", it is the Blanket.

I`d been running into that same idea everywhere over the last few years, in different forms; in The Secret, in Yoga, in books on writing, books on development, in meditating, in Life Success. It seemed to be everywhere I turned, like a universal truth...and why wouldn't the two levels of ourselves be connected, at times working together and at times going head to head? It certainly explains a lot. It`s like the Walt Whitman quote, "Do I contradict myself? Ok, I contradict myself. I am vast. I contain multitudes."

It happened that after all this I found an essay I wrote BEFORE all this, called "Igual, No Màs"("equal, no more". Paraguayans use this constantly and I love it.), which I´ll include here since we`re on the subject:

What do I believe? I believe I`m already there and have always been there, even before I realized it. I believe we are all very clearly part of the same thing, the same force, the same existence, the same God. Entonces, somos igual, no màs (Then, we`re equal, no more). I believe we are here to help each other, always, along our paths, for we are all in different stages of realization that we are already there. For me, it`s easy to want the physical comfort and to choose the easy path, even when I want to seem like I`ve taken the hard path and I`m tough. I believe that all the world`s religions are the same, and they`re all just fables to explain what we all want to know, which is "Why are we here?" Entonces, religiònes son igual, no màs. They are not inherently bad, but people can and do make them so. I think that I don`t need to go to a certain place and read a certain book to commune with God, but the truth is I do, it just might be a different place or different book. Sometimes I find my life wandering and need to consciously do things to reset my priorities, just like everyone else. So again, somos igaul, no màs. We`re all just doing the best we can all the time. There is no devil, there is only ourselves and our minds and our egos getting in the way of our inherent connection. The physical us, our needs, our desires and evolved personalities and problems, can get in the way of our us, our spiritual us. Our souls, individually and collectively, are always there, constant, unending love, and this is God.

So now I`ve come full circle and reached exactly the same conclusion I had before this whole religious crisis started, but feeling like I`ve walked across hot coals to get here. Maybe I`m not unique, or just not more unique than anyone else. But I am special...exactly as special as everyone else. Maybe the fact that we all feel different from other people is a uniting factor for us. We are the products of evolution, yes, but we can also work toward our own spiritual evolution and more clearly connect the two truths.

I debated whether or not to include all this in my blog, preachy as it might sound, but this really is what`s going on with me, so es lo que es (It is what it is). Or maybe, to bring us back to the REM theme, "Oh, no, I`ve said too much...I haven`t said enough".

In case you doubt divinity:

Monday, October 12, 2009

Character (&) Development

(left to right)La Presidenta, my awesome contact Nimia, my not-so-awesome former contact Mercedes

Interesting name for a neighborhood

Me and Abuelita

Scenes from Parade of the 251st anniversary of the town

Abuelita and Natalia


So who are these crazy characters with whom I´m spending my days? It´s time you knew more about some of my Paraguayans.

"He Not My Baby Daddy"

Cinthia is a successful, state-employed defense attorney who fights for the accused that can´t afford a lawyer. Two years ago, her lawyer friend had a case of child neglect. A withered and weathered campo "midwife" would volunteer to take whatever unwanted babies she had helped deliver...and then try to sell them. Her shack was crawling with dirty, neglected, snot-crusted kids. A neighbor called the authorities after seeing a baby who,in the care of this midwife, was covered in angry red bites from an ant attack. Cinthia, single and in her late 20´s, adopted that baby and now has a beautiful and charming 2 yr old, Fiorella.

Among her dynamic group of friends was a Catholic priest. One of her other friends had a crush on the priest, had made a pass at him, and been rejected outright. About that same time, Cinthia got pregnant. Her friend, seething from rejection started spreading rumors that the priest was the babydaddy. The outrage hit the town like a tidal wave. It was a huge scandal and all anyone talked about over tereré.

My sweet 80 yr old Abuelita, having heard this rumor directly from the jealous friend, made an off-hand remark to Flaquito that Cinthia was a "Ojaka Kumanda", which translates directly as "Woman that sits with her legs open", but when said in Guarani is one of the single most offensive things that can be said about a person...and Cinthia is his sister. Purple with rage, Flaquito was willing to never speak to Abuelita again over it. There was a huge fight and he only stayed because she threatened that if he left, her death would be on his conscience because she would surely have a heart attack that night from all the worry he caused her. He took Valium and slept off the rage before they managed to precariously patch things up.

It was a very difficult time for the family. Cinthia always refused to say who the father was, but 2 months later she got a job in Ciudad del Este and moved, escaping the gossip. The priest went to Rome for "personal reasons". With both of them gone, the tongues have slowed their wagging and things have settled.

Then Cinthia, watermelon round, came back a couple weeks ago to have her mom´s support for the birth. The baby was just born, a little girl names Soffia...and she looks exactly like the priest.

"Why My Host Brother is a Big Fat Idiot"

My brother,Miguelangel, is fat. I have no problem telling you that because my family talks about it without hesitation. It´s pretty obvious. Ì`m only telling you this because I really like him a lot. We are definitely friends, and it is because of that that I am frustrated with this. There are different types of fat, not all unhealthy, but his is the type accompanied by high blood pressure and heart problems, and this is why I´m mad at him.

Two years ago, at 24, he collapsed outside his back door. It turned out to be a heart problem, and the doctor told him he´d have to exercise and lose weight, or take medication. He doesn´t want to take medication for the rest of his life, and now, at 26, has low energy, terrible headaches for days on end, and general heart and bloodpressure issues. The only other option is exercise, but the reason he says he can´t is because he is too busy with the church. Remember, he spends 7 nights a week at church or meetings for the church. He can´t walk to those meetings because then he´ll be sweaty, and he can´t walk home because he has his moto with him. I don´t know how he eats that much when he´s so full of excuses.

I don´t have a problem with him going to church, but you can´t tell me that God wants him to die, and this is the effect. Paraguayans are extremists, in general, and he is no exception. He has no balance in his life- work and church. He is choosing God over his health. His big dream is to be a missionary, but I don´t see how he´s ever going to make it at the rate he´s going, and it completely defeats the purpose if the would-be-missionary is dead before he ever gets to save a soul. He doesn´t see it like that. He figures God will carry him through.

But I read this book about a guy in the Peace Corps in the 60´s in Ecuador, and this is what he said about missionaries and development work:

I had helped change the lives of some, had helped bring them so far along the road out of poverty that their position in the town was becoming insupportable. I felt like the guy from AID who had come to visit me. He had formerly been a missionary in Ecuador, an Evangelista. I took him across the street and introduced him to Wilfredo, the only Protestant in town, and later, perhaps out of some necessity to be unpleasant...I jabbed him a little. "This is what you´ve done, "I said. "You´ve taken the best man in town, the hardest working man, the most honest man, and you´ve separated him from his culture. He lives completely isolated in this lousy little town, the only Non-Catholic on the beach, the only True Believer, and he´s a joke to the town. Everyone thinks he´s crazy." "Yes," my friend said, "That´s why I left missionary work. I came to realize that I couldn´t be responsible for wrecking the lives of people with promises of paradise, making their whole lives miserable in the certainty of saving their souls. I came to realize that people had to find happiness with their own culture." -Living Poor

So that´s Migue´s goal. Let´s hope he lives long enough to accomplish it.

"La Presidenta"

So I can´t tell if my boss hates me, or if she just hates everyone. She has this way, just before and while addressing someone, of closing her eyes for a second as though she´s in great pain and/or this idiot in front of her has just thrown her into a silent rage and she needs a moment to compose herself before addressing the situation. Her jaw seems rusted shut and she speaks very quietly through nearly clenched teeth, the result being that everyone around her has to lean in to hear, and that I, with my still green and growing Spanish, can´t understand a single word.

Despite this, or maybe because of it, people seem to always be scrambling to please her, bending over backwards to kiss her ass. It´s natural for people to want friends in high places, of course, but come on. At every meeting, she´s served her glass of coke with a napkin around it in case it sweats (God forbid), and a special little plate of the hors de´ouvres in tiny, pastel, paper, muffin cups. She is always served the first piece of cake at the many parties. I can´t bring myself to serve her food, but I do find myself beaming when she throws a stiff nod of approval my way, just like everyone else she deigns to compliment.

It´s like when a bride has a bunch of desperate single friends. When she throws the bouquet they all scramble around on the floor in their fancy dresses, pushing, pulling and squealing over a bunch of now wilted and torn flowers. Once the half-smile moment has passed and she´s again behind her fortress of robotic professionalism, I´m left empty-handed, limping on my broken high-heel, holding up my torn dress, and feeling stupid for trying so hard for what I logically know is an empty token, and being reminded all over again that we will never be friends.

I´m secretly thrilled each time she has lipstick on her teeth, or sweat-stains in her armpits, or takes a 3rd cookie in a way where you can tell she´s been eying it for a while and trying to restrain herself.

At times I question why my Peace Corps assignment was to help people like this, but I´m definitely learning form the experience, so maybe that´s why. And at least they have an achievable goal and I´ll get my project done. They´re already extremely together and don´t need much help. It could be worse, like how after FOUR years in his town, The same guy that wrote "Living Poor" realized that:

There was an insane quality to the poverty in the town, some black secret that lay just outside the mind´s acceptance...(he goes on to explain how a great percentage of the babies and kids in the town die, and about how a man had come in drunk and looking for trouble until he received it in the form of having his head slashed open with a machete)...I began to be aware that there was scarcely a moment when a baby´s crying didn´t fill the air, and there was a resemblance between the violence of the babies´ furious raging cries and the violence of machetes slashing through flesh. Like a revelation, I suddenly realized that these screams were the screams of human beings learning about poverty. They were learning about sickness and about hunger; They were learning in a hard school what they could expect from life, learning to accept their destiny and the futility of revolting against it. They were being twisted and maimed. They were being turned from normal human beings into The Poor. After the age of 6 they were ready for life, and as far as being poor, they know all about it; there isn´t a thing they don´t know. There are no more tears. They play quietly, gravely in the dirt before their houses, and there is something terrible in their eyes, a kind of blindness. For years they will go without weeping, and then a strange thing happens. At about the age of 19, the boys discover the healing magical release of alcohol, and until they are about 24 or 25, whenever they have money, they drink cane alcohol almost as a rite, seeking out the purging relief in those few minutes just before unconsciousness when everything concentrates in a flashing, searing point - all the hopelessness, the misery, the stupid deprived past and the stupid endless future..."Oh, puta," they yell in the street. "Oh, la gran puta." Oh, great whore, they yell in the street. They are screaming at life in a paroxism of rage, accusing life of cheating them. The tears gush out of their eyes,they roll on the ground, beating the ground with their fists, hewing the earth. "Oh, puta. Oh PUTA. Oh Gran Puta, LA GRAN PUTA!" After about 26 all the revolt is burned out of them, by that time they are beginning to get old. They finally accept their estiny. Or if they can´t, I guess they take up their machetes and go looking for it. And this thing about the town that I had been afraid to think, the town´s black, unspeakable secret? They mentioned it on a news broadcast one night, sandwiched between the stories of wars and riots, announcing that 60% of the world´s children were suffering from protein starvation, and that this deprivation in the first 5 years of life permanently and irrevocably destroyed up to 25% of a man´s intelligence. 25%. If 75 is the IQ in the town, what is the medical word that describes this poor, doomed people, this wasted resource living out it´s unproductive destiny in the impregnable prison of a destroyed mind, in a twilight, idiot world where nothing relaly makes much sense? -Living Poor

Of course, some of that is true here, just like some of it is true everywhere, but here there is much more hope. Still, it´s an awful lot to be up against, and it´s the same reason why there´s a new kid in our house. Abuelita has "adopted" a 7 yr old, Natalia, who is from a campo family that couldn´t take care of her. I think she weighs like 20 pounds because I can easily lift her over my head; overrun with parasites, Abuelita explained. She also explained that the reason she has her is because with her, Natalia could end up a teacher or professional, while in the campo, nothing would become of her.

I can´t help but see the similarity between all these situations, Cinthia and Abuelita with their adoptions, Migue with his missionary work, me and the Peace Corps in general. Everyone´s intentions start from a good place. How can we not help these poor people? With a little help from me, they can be saved. But how can we know that helping is really helping? Can development come from anywhere other than a perspective of superiority? We clearly bring with us all of our problems and issues, judgments and ideals - who´s to say we´re better? Who´s to say what´s good? Would you want to be "developed"? Would you resent it if you were? The efforts of parents trying to develop their kids are often resented. What about if you´re the presidenta of a successful cooperativa?

Just some thoughts...All I can do is what I can do, and of course I love it here. It´s just that with all the vacations, I´ve had a lot of time to think


Chuchi - this is probably my new most popular word. It means snobby or fancy, but is used in the Peace Corps as anything nicer than dirt roads and shacks, or for a person, anyone who showers with hot water. Living in the city, I am super chuchi for here.

Fuerte - literally means strong, but because the culture is based on talking around everything, it´s when a person says anything they want in a direct way - it means asshole

Puede ser and otro dia - literally means "could be" or "another day", but because noone will directly blow someone off, both of them mean "never" and are the answer to a question of when something will happen

Deseas, en tus sueños, Que Arriba Perra/o and Es lo qué es - these are the terrible translations of American sayings that are not used here and don´t really translate, but we say them anyway. Literally they mean "you wish", "in your dreams", "What´s up bitch/dog?" and "it is what it is"

Qué guapa - this means "what a hard worker" and is used by Paraguayans every time I do ANYTHING manual, including carrying a dish to the sink or sweeping out my room. I don´t think they have high expectations for Americans and work.

Saludos - sending saludos by way of a mutual friend is how people tell each other they have a crush on them. The most serious kinds are given with a pinch on the arm and they mean business.

Thumbs up - this is done everywhere here and is a simple answer to pretty much any question. I will probably have carpal tunel in my thumbs when I leave here because I do this so much.

No se como comer esta - this is how one refuses food in Paraguay. Literally, it´s "I don´t know how to eat this" which creates an internal struggle for me each time it´s said because I want to be a smartass and explain that, just like any other food, you put in in your mouth and chew, but I don´t think that´s acceptable here.

No Más and Un poco - this is said after almost every phrase for no real reason other than to make everything sound like it´s not a big deal, even when it really is. Literally, it´s "No More" and "A Little", so the translations are something like "Sit down no more", "Come here a little", and "Do you want dinner no more?"

Cocido - this is a hot drink mixed by carmellizing sugar with a little yerba, adding just enough water to wet it, and then adding more sugar. It´s served by the thermos-full just before bed.

Mosto - this is to sugar what crack is to cocaine. It´s a "tradional" drink capable of putting even the sweetest tooth into a diabetic coma, and is served continuously at fun gatherings like funerals.

Ch-ch-ch-ch - this is the sound Paraguayans make to get each others´attention - like "Psst" . It´s especially used for catcalling, and they have nothing to follow it with - they just want you to look.