Monday, August 31, 2009

Jopara OR Who Names a DOG?

Mateo and Me



The Fam

Kitchen Karaoke

I really love living here, and my first 2 weeks in site have been really eventful. I arrived into the open arms of my new Mamá, Nelly (pronounced Nay-yi). She is so great - all short and round and cheery, calls everyone Mi hija or Mi hijo (my son/daughter), and almost immediately puts a plate of food in front of any new guests. I keep wanting to use the word "dumpling" to describe her- she just seems huggable and warm. My sister, Ninfa, is a year older than me and works 2 nights a week as an obstetrician and spends the rest of her time decorating flip-flops to sell. She´s married but her husband is in Texas, working, and they have a 7yr old, Mateo, mi sobrino. Mateo is a really good kid - I taught him how to do high 5´s and he´s completely fascinated with everything I own. Ninfa is a good mom and it turns out she´s also a big fan of Air Supply- she has this burnt CD with "Total Eclipse of the Heart" and lots of other 80´s hits I never knew I knew. The first couple nights we did a little kitchen karaoke with spoon microphones. I taught my Mamá all about how to have rockstar stage presence, and Ninfa laughed so hard she spit out her mate. Poor Mateo had to beg me to stop so he could eat his hotdog - 7yr olds hate being serrenaded. They make me show the pictures to everyone that comes over.

I really like my brother, Miguelangel, too, even though he thinks I´m going to burn in hell. He´s a mechanic by day, but really his dream is to be a missionary, and every night he goes to either a church meeting, Bible Study, or church - yes, 7 nights a week. He also manages to turn every conversation into a theological discussion and I think he considers me a savage, but we still get along really well. He´s married but his wife left him after only a few months. He´s cheerful, although it´s clear that it´s absolutely crushing him and he´s desperately trying to comfort himself with the Bible as he awaits it to be God´s will for his wife to return to him. He still wears his ring.

I have another brother who is married with a family (he lives around the corner), and there´s lots of other family, and family of family, who live close by and are always dropping in. There´s also a street dog that always hangs around, so I named him Julio, and Paraguayans think the concept of a dog having a name is hilarious, but now he´s Julio to everyone and he knows his name.

We sit around and drink tereré a lot. I love tereré. Not only the taste, but just the ritual of it. It´s part of every time of day, and people carry around their equipos like security blankets, so it´s always on hand. Although people here are super guapo (hard-working), I love that they know there´s no sense killing themselves, and there are plenty of tranquilo breaks to pour and pass. There´s no language equivalent for the term or concept of "hanging out" because they just ask if you want to tereré. This is also why chisme (gossip) is so prevalent in Paraguay - they´ve gotta talk about SOMETHING. The best part is that it´s a very important part of my job because I´m integrating.

We have a woman, Ña Carmen, who lives next door and comes over to work every morning. She´s super sweet, only speaks Guarani, and his this tiny little girl laugh which seems out of place but is really endearing. All of her front teeth are broken out and she looks around 70 but she´s only 58. It´s clear why, too, because she spends the whole day in the yard scrubbing clothes, cooking a big meal over little carbón burners and wood fires, scrubbing all the black off the pots and pans with buckets of water, and then sweeping the yard and patio (this seems especially futile since it´s a dirt floor). She´s thin and wirey, her face is weathered and her hands are spotted and as strong as vice grips, but she wouldn´t have it any other way.

This is one of the things I love the most about Paraguay and I´m constantly fascinated by it. In this country the size of California with a population just slightly above that of metro Atlanta, there are 2 different climate zones, 2 opposite lifestyles, and 2 separate languages. There is extreme duality here, but instead of colliding, the two worlds just mix together to form a Jopara (mix), which makes Paraguay different than everywhere else in the world. Quality of life rankings (when it comes to health, income, and education), rate rural Paraguay on par with Kenya (somewhere around 140th in the world) and urban Paraguay is similar to Israel (about 22nd). A lot of the indoor kitchens and bathrooms were just installed within the last 20 yrs, so there are many cases, like Ña Carmen, where people have both indoor plumbing and stoves, and outdoor latrines and fires, but prefer to cook or poop outside. There are giant modern superstores and streetside vegetable stands, dirt roads and cobblestones streets and paved rutas, oxcarts and motos, trucks and horsedrawn wagons, the old and the new, the rich and the poor, all mixed together. They can simultaneously be convinced that everyone on the street is a thief, distrusting everyonethey don´t know, and welcome complete strangers into their homes like new family members. I´m constantly amazed by this country.
My co-op is great, too. I have been going everyday to follow a different employee around for a few hours, just to learn exactly how things work around here. I have a counterpart for the virtual library but she´s already flaked on meetings a couple times, so we´ll see how that goes. Everyone is really nice, they always seem happy to see me, and I think I´ll be able to do some good around here.

I´ve been spending a lot of time with the other volunteers as well. I´ve met the rest of my VAC, which are all the volunteers in my area, and they all seem cool. Melissa, my sitemate, and Erin, who is 5k away, and I have also hung out a few times. Last Saturday, Melissa, Truman (another volunteer), and I all went out to Erin´s site in the campo to watch the foot races which have become all the rage in her area. They´ve developed what is, honestly, a pretty bullshit system, where they can psyche each other out with lots of false starts and win by putting their hand out to cross the finish line first. Truman has decided to hang up his racing shoes after losing 4 times in a row. We also played volleyball (Melissa was pretty disappointed in me, but I never said I was good), and Bingo (marking the papers by poking holes with little sticks). We watched this adorable scene where 2 little toddlers were serving and drinking tereré (soon after that there was a not-so-adorable, narrowly averted disaster where the same sweet toddler that served tereré was about to smash a brick over the other one´s head. Eh - it´s always give and take).

I also went to visit Paulette, who works at an ao´poi co-op, and is also super fun because she´s a big smartass. She taught me a little about how to make ao´poi (which is just very complicated and intricate embroidery). I was supposed to watch her do her radio show, but the other volunteer was too broke to take the bus to her site, and then the guy that runs the controls at the radio station decided to disappear that day (Asi es Paraguay). Paulette was almost worried about the 5 very disappointed listeners who might think that "Mbae´laporte, Nortes" (What´s Up, Nortes) was cancelled.

My Spanish is getting better all the time. I still talk like a cavewoman, but, to quote David Sedaris, Me talk pretty one day, and I understand more and more every day. I´m cooking for myself, which I LOVE and really missed. I´ve started running again (I sound like I´m having a severe asthma attack, but since Paraguayans don´t run at all - and try to walk as little as possible, literally taking their moto around the corner- they´re super impressed. I have a comfortable bed and warm showers, so pretty much all I could ever want for true happiness. And I thought this Peace Corps thing would be tough...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Killer Watermelons OR Swearing-In Spanish

The Balmacedas- Maria Eva's Family (note the kid in the snorkle)

Paulette, Sasha, and Me

The Group

The Group

My Site

Saying Goodbye at the Children's Home

My Last Saturday as a trainee, we all gave charlas about different Paraguayan traditional things. I chose Beliefs and Superstitions, and they´re pretty entertaining. Some are clearly old wives tales and everyone I interviewed was sure to tell me that THEY didn´t believe them, but other, less educated people probably did. Others, we come up against constantly in our day-to day lives here. For example, an excuse when you don´t want to drink mate is to say you´ve just eaten a mandarine or drank milk, and they will instantly drop it because they would NEVER mix those. Also, if you mix watermelons with mango, wine, water, or milk, it can kill you. If you swim or bathe after watermelon, it will give you a heart attack. Watermelons are extremely dangerous in Paraguay (I´m not sure why they even grow them, but they do). Any fruit with milk or wine will give you diarrhea, as will drinking while you eat (they drink just after the meal, which somehow is ok).
They have a long list of heavy or hot foods (meats, fats, fried foods (those 3 alone are 90% of the Paraguayan diet), beans, soy, peanuts, melons, bananas, chocolate, and alcohol) that are NEVER to be mixed with light and/or cold foods (vegetables, other fruits, cereals, tereré, and water). That just goes to show you strength of character of my Mamá that she made me fruit salads with both bananas and oranges in them - qué suerte. Vegetables in general are seen as being superfluous, only for animals or for when you´re sick. And that hot/cold mix thing is not just for foods either. If you wash your hands after ironing or cooking, when your hands are hot, you´ll get arthritis. If you take a cold shower after exercising, you just might die.

My favorites are the wives tales for pregnant women including: if a pregnant woman eats eggs, bananas, or peanuts, she´ll have a dry birth. If she eats kidneys, her baby will have a hairlip. If she eats intestines, the umbilical cord will get wrapped around the baby´s neck. If she drinks beer, she´ll have a blonde baby and wine will give her a dark-skinned baby (nobody mentioned fetal alcohol syndrome).
Speaking of beliefs, I have suddenly become a palm-reader. It was at Elmer´s birthday party, which was mostly inside because it was cold and rainy. Through the course of conversation, Elmer brought up the freakish lines on his palm, and I told him one of the only 2 things I know about palms. His host mom saw us looking at our hands and somehow it got around that I know how to read palms, even though I was ADAMANTLY insisting that I didn´t. Before I knew it, 6 of his family members were lined up, waiting to have their palms read. What else could I do? I gave them each a reading. I just guessed at a lot of it and watched their reactions, but they agreed with everything I said, and it really did sound good. I should set up a booth or something. The Americans were laughing at the time, but then when we were out for beers they all wanted their palms read, too, and I was dead-on for a LOT of things. I guess I have my fall-back plan now if this whole Overseas Development thing falls through.

Ronnell and I also visited the Children´s home for the last time to say goodbye. Have you ever been loved so hard you think your skin is going to rip off? If not, visit a children´s home with 200 kids. It´s funny because each time we leave and we´re walking back to the road, we always have the same conversation, that goes something like this:

"Whew, that was awesome. I had so much fun today."
"Yeah, me too. It was great. I really liked it when...(fill in the blank - that kid tried to jump over the latrine hole and didn´t make it, I had a kid on each leg and one in each arm and they wanted me to play volleyball, they took turns jumping off the wall so we could catch them, etc etc)"
"yeah, that was great. Well, I´ve gotta go home and take a shower now"
"yep, me too. God knows what I´m covered with at this point.".

We had to say goodbye to the families that had loved and supported us for the last 11 weeks. It seemed to me that, while i got a lot out of living there, I just made a lot of extra work and cost a lot of extra money for my Mamá, but there were lots of tears when I left (she´d always been a crier). I am constantly amazed by how Paraguayans just give and give and give of themselves or whatever they have. I made each of the people in my house glasses out of wine bottles (we learned how in training) and customized them with nail polish. They loved them (except maybe Alé who didn´t seem too thrilled with the picture of a TV on hers, but everyone else thought it was funny).

I´ve written a top ten list of my favorite moments so far, and in no particular order, they are:
1. Finger painting with Camila and Belén
2. Doing yoga poses and stretches on the living room floor with Belén while everyone else sat around and divided their attention between us and the TV
3. The Wheelbarrow bet with Brad and Carlos
4. Kite flying and learning to play Baté with my sobrinas
5. Playing Spanish Scrabble (with Guaraní words allowed) with my family by candlelight when the electricity was out for the 20th time
6. My birthday party
7. The first and last visits to the Children´s home
8. Singing Boom-chicka Boom in chorus with my training group as we huddled around a little carbón-burner to stay warm
9. Opening the car door on that poor moto
10. Being a palm-reader

So it was time to say goodbye to all that, and enough salt in my daily diet to kill a garden-full of slugs, and to waking up each morning to awesome fruit salads, and to everyone in my training group, and to Don Antonio, who waves every day and calls my Barbie, and to speaking English every day...

We headed out Friday morning, all dressed up, to go to the Embassy for our swearing in Ceremony. There were rumors that Presidente Lugo would come, but that weekend was Children´s Day, where they honor all the kids that fought and died during the War of the Triple Alliance (there was a battle with thousands of kids all dressed like grown-ups and with fake mustaches who basically got anihilated), and they just honor kids in general. I think Lugo was too busy visiting all his illegitimate kids. But the Ambassador was there and news crews. We´d voted Ronnell to give a speech, and boy did he ever. Our Director actually forwarded it to DC and every other country and siad it was one of the best PC speeches he´d ever heard. It was all about how our packing list was terrible but that we had everything we really needed inside of us anyway, in our hearts and minds and souls. I was reflecting on that a few days later as I dragged my 100lbs of stuff in 5 bags through Asunción (the big suitcase with wheels that I´d bought on the street kept getting jammed up with leaves and debris and tipping over, pulling me with it), and I thought about just leaving it, but of course I didn´t. We all raised our right hands and swore to uphold the principals of the PC and the US and suddenly we were full-fledged volunteers!

It happened that another group was swearing out simultaneously and there were some other PC events that weekend, so Asunción was crawling with volunteers. We partied long andhard on Friday night and then some of us were walking back to the hotel at 4:30amwhen the police pulled us over, trying to get a bribe. My first night as a volunteer and we had to call the PC security because we didn´t have our original passports and they were threatening jail. This apparently happens all the time, but I´m pretty sure the PC threatened the Embassy because the immediately dropped it.

The next day, Ronnell and I went shopping and to a park with a hippy market all around it that sells artisan crafts (from which all christmas presents will be coming). There was also a little festival going on, the highlight of which was a guy that playedthe guitar with his face, his feet, and his guampa. Saturday night was Ahendu (means "I listen" in Guarani), which was where everyone in the PC who has any sort of musical talent performed.

For me, though, Sunday was the best day because after months of not having enough time to arrange it, I fianlly got to meet Maria Eva´s family. For those who don´t know, Maria Eva is one of my best friends in the US and is from Asunción. We´ve spent the last few years trading placing between Atlanta, Cincinnati, and Paraguay, with occassional overlaps when we actually get to hang out. After seeing a 3 minute video (not understanding a word) of her brothers joking around, taken with her cell phone in the back of a pickup truck, and long before the PC, I knew I wanted to visit Paraguay at some point. It was because of Maria Eva, and her assurance that Paraguay was a whole country full fo people just like her,that it was my first choice for my PC service. Funny how things work out.

So I figured it´d be great to meet her family, but let me just be clear about this: I. Love. This. Family. They are seriously the most incredible, amazing, generous, open, loving group of people I´ve ever met. There are 8 kids total and I met all but 1, who is in the US visiting Maria Eva right now. Her dad, Lalo, completely dotes on his wife ("Maria Carmen is an incredibly talented artist. Never had a class but she can make anything out of anything! And isn´t she beautiful? Just as pretty as the day I met her..."). We went to see some other cousins for lunch and Lalo and Maria Carmen had everyone cracking up with this whole teasing, banter thing they had going on. The whole afternoon was a lot of laughing (they really thought it was funny when I hit my head on the doorway). Everyone in this family really clearly adores each other. All the teasing is good natured and the kids are all voluntarily cuddly with each other, but not in a sappy way. I´m invited to stay every time I´m in Asunción, to soak up some more of that.

Then Monday morning it was off to my site for good...

Monday, August 3, 2009

Look Who´s Chuchi Now OR This Soul´s Taken

After weeks of waiting with baited breath (is that really a phrase? That makes no sense...Ah, bated breath. Much better.), the big day finally arrived. This was the day when [trumpet sound] we finally got our site assignments. Knowing that the name will mean absolutely nothing to everyone exept Maria Eva (this one´s for you, babe), I´ll just cut the drama and tell you. My site is Coronel Oviedo. It´s a city with over 85,000 people at the crossroads of 2 major Paraguayan Routes. It has 2 hospitals, 28 elementary schools, ten high schools, and 7 universities. Everyone has reliable running water and electricity. There are internet cafés, gyms with classes in everything from yoga to taekwondo (this inspired my very first Spanish pun when I said that with yoga this would be my Cuerpo de´s a pun on the translation of Peace Corps being Body of Peace...well, it´s funny in Spanish) , a huge outdoor market, and several chain supermarkets. My co-op is an 18yr old, extremely high-functioning, multi-activa co-op with 4000 socios that wants me to help them start a virtual library. I have unlimited free internet access, my own office, and on my first visit I got a engraved leather tereré equipo set with "Angelica - Cuerpo de Paz" on it. They have enough money for any project they want to do and the socios are involved and motivated. I have a really cool sitemate working in urban youth development, so I can work on projects with her to help kids. There are lots of other volunteers in the surrounding areas and lots that travel through, so I can get a little taste of America whenever I want.

You may be thinking, "But, Ang, I thought you were a Rural Economic Development volunteer," and if so, you are right- just ask my friends in training that are doing the whole horse and buggy thing. But Asi es mi vida Paraguaya (So is my Paraguayan life) and don´t think I´m not mentally and emotionally struggling with this, because I am. I kept looking for a reason to hate it, but everyone was just so damn nice. It doesn´t exactly fit with my idea of what the Peace Corps would be like, but as they tell us, I´m not here to suffer, and I´m sure the challenges will soon become apparent...I might just be able to take a yoga class and get re-centered, is all.
So, about the trip: The day after we got our site assignments, a representative from our communities came to meet us and stay with our host families for a night before taking us to the sites the next day. My counterpart, Laura, came with her boyfriend Manu (and still can´t believe I can travel alone) and I just loved them both immediately. They are truly just warm and genuine and great people. Laura at first said I could live with her for the full 2 years if I wanted, but that changed once I actually got to her house. Like I said, she´s great as a person, but she has this adorable little 3 yr old, Mikha, who is a spoiled rotten brat and runs the house. She is forceful and stubborn and they bend over backwards to cater to her when she throws a fit, and she does so often. She was simultaneously obsessed with me and jealous of me, so the first few days were really tense, with a lot of temper tantrums and emergency trips to buy her things. I had to switch bedrooms because she wanted to one I had, and that, coupled with the fact that they live like absolute pigs was a bit much for me. Also, Laura´s mom is incredibly sweet, but I could not even look at her while she ate, she was so disgusting. There´s a scene in one of the Austin Powers sequels where Heather Graham is in bed with Fat Bastard as he´s eating a giant turkey leg and he´s all covered in grease. It was like that. She also thanks God every day, she told me, that she can afford her high blood pressure and diabetes medications, and thus continue her eating habits. These include stuffing her face so full of cookies and/or the nastiest, greasiest meat that I´d hesitate to give a dog, her whole face and her arms up to her elbows shiny with grease, all the while talking so that little flecks of half-chewed meat are showering all the other food on the table. It was after one such lunch, when I´d just decided to try to find another family to live with, that I met the lady across the street. And, oh, she´s absolutely adorable - all short and dimply and happy, and they have an extra room and they eat in a civilized way (in Paraguay this means cutting your food on the table beside your plate and wiping your mouth with the tablecloth, but I´m fine with all that. I´m not a SNOB for christsakes.) So I´ll be working with Laura just at the co-op and living across the street with them to start off, and I´m thrilled.

Another highlight of my visit was what might be my new second favorite holiday (after my birthday) and that is El Dia de Amistad (the day of friendship). I went with Laura to her college that morning and, after listening to a presentation on Universal Human Rights (I know, I know, look who´s chuchi now) there were parties, first for their class and then with the whole school (which is only 40 people). The tradition for Dia de Amistad is like Secret Santa, but it´s a secret friend, and you have a gift for someone and then get up in front of the group and say something along the lines of "My friend is very nice and sweet and pretty, and is really fun and it´s _______!" I love that there´s a holiday just to say something nice about someone. The gifts are just cheap little trinkets but everyone is all happy and excited and it´s great. At the school party there were games, and groups of girls did dances (they are REALLY into choreographed dancing in Paraguay) and it was fun, too.

THEN we went to the co-op for the party there, and it was my first time really meeting everyone. Same type of Secret friend exchange and then the Karaoke contest for cash prizes. Everyone that wanted to signed up and then really tried to do a good job singing, and when the list was finished, some bastard yelled that Angelica should sing, and then everyone joined in, "Yeah, Angelica, Angelica!" Those of you who know me well know that I have only done Karaoke in my drunkest of drunken moments, and that even then, I have to practically be dragged onstage, kicking and screaming. BUT... this. was. clearly. a test. So what else could I do? After a few moments to find a song in English that I knew, I got up there and brought the house down with Total Eclipse of the Heart, complete with rockstar moves for the camera that was brought out for the occasion. They loved it! People had been a little hesitant with me before that, but after my little hazing ceremony, they became super friendly.

Then, the battle for my ever-loving soul started with a misunderstanding. My new family invited me to what I thought was a Catholic mass that evening. Having years of childhood experience tuning out the drone of a Catholic priest, and seeing it as an opportunity to meet people I could later live with, I agreed. It turned out to be a prayer meeting in their house with a "brother" from their church who kept talking about how God has a purpose for everything and there was a reason I was there that night. I had a quick flash of Laura´s mom laughing as bits of food flew everywhere, and agreed that there was indeed a reason I was there. Then they told me that their actual service was on Sunday and that I could come meet this lady who could help me with the virtual library (By the way, I don´t know exactly what a virtual library is, let alone how to make one), and I went to, what turned out to be an Evangelist church. Oh, what a night. It started out well because at first there was a band, not exactly ROCKING OUT in shirts and ties, but there were 6 girls in front doing choreographed dances in matching, wine-colored, silk smocks and tasselled tambourines, so it was at least entertaining. Then after 5 songs in a row, just as things were settling down, the tallest Paraguayan I´ve seen (a 6 footer) appeared on the other sideo f my host mom, giving me The Eye. He was pretty attractive, actually, and i thought for a moment that there might be a possibilty here until he goes and ruins everything. First, I look over and he gives me that horrible, smarmy little Latino airkiss, which is quickly climbing to the top of my list of biggest turnoffs. Then a song starts and he does that Christian, singing, hand up to God thing, and I remember, oh yeah, he´s a F$%&king Evangelist! (I know, I know, I should´ve put that one together sooner). So I spent the rest of the evening carefully avoiding eye contact, not easy since he was staring me down, and this led to the best part of the whole night. As we were getting into the car outside, he passed by on his moto, and because I was looking down to avoid eye contact, I opened my door directly into the path of another moto, which hit the door and went careening sideways, almost hitting a truck that was backing up. No one was hurt, and it totally made my night, but if they think they´re getting my soul (and they do), they have another think coming.

So now I´m back with my Familia Favorita and I have another 2 weeks of training before I swear in and move to Coronel Oviedo for the next two years. I hope that all of you who didn´t want to visit because you pictured bucket baths and no electricity will reconsider now that I´ll be all chuched out, but until then, from Paraguay...


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.