Sunday, July 19, 2009

It´s All About Attitude OR Babies in Jars and Cooking with Pig Poo

Arthur, Me, Elmer, and Lyn

After Party Dance Party

Mary and New Paraguayan Friends

Carlos flipping Mbeju

Modeling the fine coop gear

Modeling the fine Coop gear

Making detergent

Our Sears Photo

Bambi, Ronnell, Mary, Ramona, and Me

This is how they trap the methane from the pig poo to cook

The culture shock hit me like a piano out of a 4 story window. One minute, I´m having my site interview, telling them that my biggest asset is my positive attitude (and believing it), and the next thing I know, I burst into uncontrollable tears in the middle of language class (my profesora is still baffled as to why the subjunctive tense would upset me so). I tried to pull it together, I really did, especially since I didn´t even really know why I was so upset, but I ended up going home from class and crying in my room for the next 17 hours. The rest of the week, I felt brittle and raw, but managed to hold it together. I was sick most of the weekend and slept it away, and then, just as suddenly as it had come on, the crash was over and I was all better, just in time for our longfield visit.
So the thing about my life is that everything seems to work out in just such a way that it´s one lesson after another at exactly the time I would need it most. I feel like I´m in my own version of the Truman Show (The Angelíc Show? All About Angelica?) and it´s all on cue. On this week´s episode, my lesson is: Attitude is Everything.

In Longfield, we go in small groups to visit a volunteer for 5 days. My group of 5 went with Sasha in the clean and pretty little town of Valenzuela. Sasha has a fantastic attitude and is adored by her women´s groups. She´s fluent in Guaraní and, as my Valenzuelan host mother Doris explained, she can eat meat and cheese and bread, which is a huge selling point for her. This was clearly one of the Paraguayan round-about insults to me - she thought I was just being a chuchi bitch with my food limitations. After Sasha and I explained it another twelve times each that it wasn´t a choice, and exactly what foods she could feed me, her initially cold demeanor really warmed up. We ended up getting along swimmingly, although, as with my other host family, they introduce me along with my food issues. "This is Angelica, our American Volunteer with the Peace Corps. She can´t eat milk or wheat or cheese or bread. Nothing. It´s a disease." This is followed by a series of questions. If it´s during dinner, the guest is staring suspiciously at my plate of rice and veggies the whole time, as though it´s something contagious from anything not deep fried. "Can she eat mandioca? Carne? Pollo? Doesn´t she get hungry?" "No, she eats a lot, but´s it´s all healthy. She´s really skinny." I cannot tell you how many times this conversation has happened here. They say that a lot of times there´s only one thing a town uses to distinguish volunteers years after they´ve gone, "Then there was Anne, she didn´t like kids. Then Joe, he was black..." and I´m pretty sure they will describe me like "Then we had Angelica. She was very tall but very strange because she only ate fruits and vegetables, no bread, no cheese, nothing else. Very strange."

But I digress. It is now crystal clear just how big of a difference fluency in Guaraní will make to Peace Corps service. Yes, everyone can speak Spanish, but speaking Guaraní is the difference between being a well-liked PC volunteer in the area and being everyone´s adopted daughter.

I´m guessing longfield was designed to just drive us into the ground, where by the end I might have happily stayed buried just to get a little rest. Between long days of projects with the group and evenings with host families, where we still had to be on, being friendly and charming in Spanish, throwing in some Guaraní words now and then, which they love, I was definitely exhausted. 4 out of the 5 of us, though, DID IT ANYWAY. Our lesson of what not to do was Bambi. Bambi is in her 50´s and worked nights doing computer repair for 20 years. She has told us from the beginning, in a million different ways, CONSTANTLY, that she does not like to work in groups, can only take other people in very small doses, likes to be alone, and hates training because we are always together. Even during the heart of my crying day, I was not as negative as Bambi is on a normal day. She has a negative comment for EVERY SINGLE activity, and then laughs afterwards to pretend like she is joking, but very clearly is not. Were she not like that all the time, I´d be much more forgiving about this week because she was sick - she had bronchitis and a fever. When she was with us, she was like a black cloud of negativity over everything. She kept telling us her symptoms and coughing on everyone. She ended up missing most of the week while she recovered in bed at her host family´s, which was exactly what she (and we) wanted.

Contrast that with Ronnell, who was sick with what turned out to be a flu, and although he was feeling worse and worse as the week progressed, he never once complained and would only mention it when asked directly how he was feeling. Thursday, we had a misguided adventure when we tried to walk 2k into the campo to go to a socia´s house for some Paraguayan food and conversation. We ended up getting lost and walking about 5k before we found them, and the whole time Ronnell is trying desperately to hold things in from both ends, and keeping up like a champ. When we got there, he threw up massively in their yard, but was still very polite and waited patiently until it was time to walk the 2k back, still without complaint.

It sounds cliché, of course, but especially in the PC, where you are put in places and situations that you would never otherwise be in, attitude REALLY is everything. It will completely make or break you. It´s the difference between Liz, whose group went into the deep campo for their visit, and who "showered" with a bucket of water, standing in a tire in the middle of the kitchen, with no curtain or privacy (with a family who was very sweet but who literally kept their recently miscarried fetus in a jar of formaldahyde in a shrine in their bedroom), and could still laugh about it and say she could live in the campo as long as she had a bathroom, and Bambi, who after a week of more relaxation than any of the rest of us have had in the last 7 weeks, during the conversation where we were summing up the week, learning from the experiences, and getting great advice from Sasha about being volunteers, interrupts TWICE to ask when we are leaving (but laughs afterwards t pretend it´s a joke).

No one is pretending there aren´t bad days and that´s it´s not sometimes hard to be positive (from what the volunteers have said, it´s about half and half good and bad days), but those of us that suck it up and work through it are the ones that really grow from this. I´ll be one of those.

On a more technical note, here are some of the things we´ve done in the last couple weeks. Ronnell and I did our first charla at the children´s home. It was about washing hands - an important topic right now since hospitals are overflowing and flus are sweeping through communities faster than you can say "¿Quieres tomar Maté?" We had a handwashing song and fingerpaint - it went went over really well. Since then, Belén and Camila and I have had a couple of fingerpainting parties. At first, Camila didn´t want to use her fingers and only wanted to copy my pictures, but after a while of me talking about "creatividad" while we painted, she really got into it. She´s slightly obsessed with me now and apparently paced around the house the whole week I was gone, pausing periodically to glance at my door.

Also, we took a field trip to a farm where they recycle the manure of all the animals in order to be more self-sustainable. The rabbit poo went to the worm beds to make good soil and the pig poo was anaerobically decomposed in plastic tubes for the methane, which was then brought on a line to the house for cooking. The food was a big hit.

I now know how to perfectly flip mbeju in a pan, how to make my own detergent, and how to wash my clothes by hand in tubs (although I´m pretty sure that at my site I will be supporting the local economy by paying someone to do it). Mary and I gave a charla about leadership to some kids who didn´t want to be leaders at all, except for one motivated girl who, thank God, actively participated.
I´m in the process of having a bad filling fixed in my tooth. The first step was chipping off the old filling with a drill and no novicaine (this is no A Million Little Pieces - it wasn´t as bad as it sounds).

I´m in the market for some Paraguayan jeans (probably without the rhinestones) since all my clothes are stretched out from the lack of dryers around here. I don´t know how the Paraguayan girls keep their clothes tight enough to give them cameltoe, but the definitely manage it.

Having now traveled with our language teacher, Ramona, we´ve learned that she is super chuchi and refuses to walk in mud, or sometimes just at all. She also won´t put her head in the water when she takes a shower (because she can´t swim, she explained), so had to go to the beauty shop twice during our trip to have her hair washed.

Miguel from the training group had a birthday during longfield - his host family made him a special batch of meat-filled pig leg (with the hair still on it), which he gracefully avoided since he´d learned how the hairs get stuck in your teeth from the last time it was served to him. We threw him a suprise party when we got back. It was great. He was really surprised, it was lots of fun, and then we went over to another house for a dance party until 2 something, which is the latest I´ve stayed up since I´ve been here and it´s good to feel like a grownup sometimes.
That brings us to right now, and things are going well. 8 days and counting until I find out my site, so I´ll let you know.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Vida y Historia


Another glorious week in Paraguay for me. I´m only just now starting to hear rumbles of complaints among the group, but the only issues I´ve had, I managed to work out with some humor. I was starting to resent being treated like a little kid by my family, but I made a big joke about how they confuse me for a 3 yr old since my Spanish sounds like a 3yr old. We laughed and the next night (very begrudgingly and with bemused smiles the whole time like they were watching a little kid pretending to be a grown-up) let me cook for myself. And my response when my mom literally tried to stir my food for me ("Soy una audulta") is a little joke with us now. Also, I started Guraní classes this week, I reached the necessary level for Spanish, and finally learned how to pronounce that stupid Guaraní Y - make the U sound while smiling). So everything is all good.

On Friday we took a fieldtrip to Asunción and got a tortuously long and boring tour of INCOOP, which is a co-op of co-ops. I was a little shocked at the level of professionalism here, or I should say lack thereof. We were forbidden to wear jeans there because we were told it was extremely professional, one of the chuchiest places in Paraguay. Then while our tourguide was taking us to every single room on all seven floors, a fat guy offered me a volunteer position with him since I´m "muy linda" - in front of his bosses and a tourgroup! (Try that in the US without a lawsuit - I dare you). Luckily I´d tuned out three floors before so I didn´t respond and our trainer backed us all out diplomatically. Also, Ronnell told me that all the female workers were giving me dirty looks when I turned my back. Great. Let´s hope I never have to actually get anything done at INCOOP.
After that, it was off to the embassy for the 4th of July party. We got to meet lots of other volunteers and just hang out in America for a few hours. At one point this guy and girl came up to me all excitedly and said, "We heard you couldn´t have gluten. We can´t either!" We took a picture together. We may start a club.
Actually, the most interesting part of the week was the saturday morning history lesson, which really gave some good insight into the current Paraguayan attitudes and views. I´ll sum it up here a little for you.

Their first president, when Spain granted them independence in 1811, was Dr. Francia (El Supremo), who hated the Spanish and the entire elite class. He killed off a lot of elite, nationalized all the land, controlled all resources, and closed the borders (this is when apio´i started). He was also the Great Señor of the poor because he gave them land, donated his own salary to the national treasury, eliminated private wealth, and created a Paraguay with no hunger, theft, or begging (in Guaraní it´s called mboriau riñguata, which means "poor full"). He also completely eliminated higher education so he could be the smartest person in the country, and some people called him a wizard. (He tried to resign from the original cabinet because they wouldn´t give him enough power but they invited him back because no one else knew how to do anything. He came back and took over as dictator.) So basically he created a system where, on the hierarchy of needs, all physical needs were met and absolutely no mental or spiritual needs - keep everyone dumb and content. He ruled for 29 yrs when they were really just forming their own post-colonial identity.

After that, Paraguay was actually doing really well. By 1864 they had a railroad, ironworks, a Navy, a telegraph, factories, export industries, a big budget and no outside debt. Every Paraguayan I´ve met also said they had tons of gold and ate from golden plates on golden tables, but there´s no proof of that whatsoever. Then Brazil and Uruguay were having a little tiff over a river, Paraguay got involved to protect Uruguay, but then Uruguay´s government was usurped and the new government sided with Brazil. This made General Solano Lopez lead Paraguay in the War of the Triple Alliance against Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. He was since rewritten in the history books by Stroessner as a hero (Paraguayans will tell you he died clutching the flag, yelling "I die for my country", but the truth is that he led them in an unwinnable war, was certifiably crazy, killed off a lot of his own, already small, army, including his own brothers, on suspicion of treachery, and was shot in the back as he was running away). When the war ended in 1870, Paraguay had lost 300,000 of its population, and had a 1 to 5 man to woman ratio (this was possibly the start of the machismo and why cheating in relationships is so accepted and prevalent here). They also became dependent on foreign capital for the first time in order to pay their war debt. So just as they were getting on their feet as a country, they lost a lot of territory and were pretty crushed as a populace.

A few generations later in 1932, when they were again starting to really get going, along comes Bolivia. Bolivia had just lost its coastline to Chile, so it decided it was going to take the Chaco from Paraguay (oil had recently been discovered there). Paraguay defended itself and would have easily won the war except that it signed a treaty that gave Bolivia rights to part of the Chaco (the oil turned out to be nothing, but since then, natural gas has been discovered there...on the Bolivian side). The Liberals, who were in power at the time, lost a lot of respect (which later set the stage for the 54 yr long Colorado takeover). The 47,000 people that died were another big blow for the country, AGAIN.

This was followed by political chaos for 19 years, including a civil war between the 2 parties, and then along comes Stroessner. See if the description of this reign reminds you of the book 1984 and/or the Bush administration as much as it does me. He promised Peace, Well-Being, and Work. He had rigged elections every 5 years, so really he was President for Life. He declared Martial Law citing a communist threat (and was a US ally until Carter). Over 35% of the budget went to the military. He was Head of State, of the Colorado Party, and of the Military. He controlled all resources and info. His entire presidency was in a declared State of Emergency, so fear controlled everyone. All state jobs were for party members only and everything was done through favors and favoritism. Everything was a personal gift from him, their generous leader. There could be no meeting between 3 or more people without a monitor. There were spies everywhere and citizens were rewarded for turning in others on suspicion of government betrayal. People, including children, would DISAPPEAR AT RANDOM. Sometimes they were tortured and would return home but never speak of it. Sometimes they never returned. Because of this, the crime rate was extremely low. I´ve heard from many people that they felt safer under Stroessner than now. He ruled until 1989, when his son-in-law usurped him and he fled to Brazil.

Since then, the Colorado Party was still in charge, all with direct or indirect ties to Stroessner, and Paraguay was ranked 2nd in the world for corruption. Then the Colorados had some internal disagreements and split up, just as the Liberals were getting together to form an "Allianza Politica" and managed to gain power with the current President, Lugo in 2008. His was the first campaign with an actual political platform (there´s technically no ideological difference at all between the 2 parties). He promised transparency in the government, helping the poor, and fixing the Itaipu situation (Paraguay is getting screwed with royalties from the dam under the deal Stroessner arranged). So far, all I´ve heard about Lugo is about the illegitimate kids he sired while he was an archbishop, but we´ll see if he follows through on his promises.

SO, all this has led to the views that a lot of current Paraguayans seem to have, at least where we live, including that excelling makes one a target, so mediocrity is promoted and creativity is nonexistent. School is just copying stuff directly and regurgitating it so no one learns to think critically or question. People shut their eyes and ignore problems or wait patiently for something outside themselves to fix it. There is a general distrust of everyone outside the family and hesitation to be part of a group.

It´s an exciting time right now because these things are changing. There are farmers protesting land situations and Co-operatives forming all over the place. Anyway, none of those traits are necessarily bad. They´re self-preserving, and anyone else raised in this situation would be the same way. It´s something for us to work through in our work here, and I feel like I definitely have a better understanding of it now. Of course I´m learning more and more all the time...


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.