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.


  1. Wonderful story! Keep having fun ... and keep those posts coming! Cheers!

  2. Angie, this is just so lovely. SO LOVELY. What's not lovely is the fact that I have three half-written emails to you in my "drafts" folder. Grad school is killing me, but in a week, I get a break, and you'll get two-month's worth of emails. Love you!

  3. You are magic! I miss you! I love your posts, they really are wonderful to read. Jim and I went to see how much it would cost to send you a package, and less than 4 lbs cost $150. Seriously. I'll have to give you a full report very soon. I will see Christian tomorrow for a few days while he drifts thru, I'll give him a hug for ya. Love you soooo much!

  4. Glad to hear things are going so well! Sounds wonderful! So proud of you and can't wait to see you, Love-



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.