Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tacky-Chic and Ironic Near-Deaths

So there´s lots of stories from over the last month that I have yet to tell you about. I know, I know, I´m such a slacker, but all of Paraguay is on vacation for the whole month of January, and even if they don´t leave, they don´t work, and with my new Ameriguayan status (that´s my new favorite word -American with a heavy Paraguayan influence), I can´t do anything either. I´m integrating - that´s my job.


So on Christmas, I went to stay with my host family in Guarambare, since they´d secured my visit way back in July. Although the tradition of decorating a 3ft tall plastic pine tree is slowly making it´s way into this corner of south America, with nary a real pine tree in sight and complete with empty gift boxes underneath, what´s more common are nativity scenes - a tradition that has now been bastardized in the name of all things Christmas. The 2.5ft sqare manger with authentic dry grass roof, which sits in the corner of the patio 51 weeks out of the year, the plywood floor warping in the rain, is dragged front and center. The ceramic figures are lovingly dusted off and then set up, not like in the US where Maria and Jose lovingly look on amongst the animals who are oblivious to the new demi-god in the midst and the three kings humbly offer their gifts or are still traveling there. No, no. Here, everyone is in a tight circle, in a ceramic shoving match where each figurine is vying for space within a centimeter of the sweet baby Jesus. It´s impossible to fit them all in the circle and this year it was the camels relegated to the second row, breathing down Jose´s neck and practically stomping on the that poor donkey.

Then, shiny ornaments, their red and gold paint flaking to reveal the white plastic underneath are hung from the grass ceiling in no pattern whatsoever, garlands of every type and color are draped over the roof and wrapped around the poles, the singing net of multicolored lights is draped over the whole thing with a huge orange extension cord crossing the whole yard to accommodate it, and every corner and joist gets an aluminum wreath or tiny fake giftbox.

I watched my niece Belén throughout the whole decorating process, originally with the intention of helping but quickly seeing I was out of my decorating element. When it had gotten as tacky and overdone as I thought was possible, I tried to help by putting the remaining ornaments back in the bag. She gently scolded me, "No, no Aunjelie, I´m going to use all of those."

When it was completed, the whole family gathered around in front of it, in the waning evening light, to admire her handiwork and listen to the lights play muzak versions of songs about snow, in a language they didn´t speak and in a place where they´d never seen it.

I looked at this nativity scene dripping with dazzle, looking not so very unlike what my cats used to throw up after they ate tinsel off the tree, and then at the gorgeous mango tree above it, the ripening mangoes hanging heavy from the branches like so many green and purple ornaments, and thought what I think evey day I´m here- I love Paraguay.


Later that night, we ate a midnight dinner and then went over to Abuelo´s house to see the rest of the family, sitting around outside and talking while the kids played, until finally being chased in by a thunderstorm at 4am. In the middle of all this merriment, there came a scream that I cannot possible describe with words, except that it encompassed all the horrible things that had ever happened or would ever happen in all the world, from another house in the complex. The only other time I´d ever heard a scream like that was in 4th grade when my neighbor Julie Speed had fallen onto the handle of her scooter and pushed her eyeball back into her skull. I would´ve sworn a kid had just fallen and knocked out all his teeth. Some of the aunts came out of the kitchen, not knowing what had happened but already crying because whatever it was was bad. Everyone went running and it turned out that one of the nieces, a 23yr old with a young husband and 3 yr old son, who had just found out that her husband had left to go spend Christmas with his girlfriend.


"There´s a guy, down by the cruce..." this stranger was earnestly telling me in the radio station lobby. Then he runs both hands back through his hair, blowing out his breath and looking off to the side, like he was both frustrated and unsure how to word what he had to say next. Were we in a different setting, say, a hospital, he would´ve been telling me I had six months to live. As it was, he looked back at me and said, "He...doesn´t speak Spanish. Very little. He says his name is Christian." That was how Christian arrived to surpise me.

It was fortunate that the people at the gas station had been listening to our radio show at the time. He´d taken a bus 16 hours from Florianopolis, Brazil, where he´d arrived 5 days earlier to study Portuguese for three months. We´d planned for him to come the last week of January, but this was better.

Over the next 10 days, I showed him my Paraguay. We went swimming in the Snot River, which we were told is only slightly less beautiful than the Ass juice River (clearly, Paraguayans have a lots of fun naming things in Guarani). We´d been invited by my English Class family, and we drove an hour into the campo to their friend´s house, an awesome family with 8 kids, and took an oxcart to the river, where I taught the little gils how to float on their backs and we rubbed clay mud all over ourselves like war paint. Another day, we walked the 5k with Melissa to Pindoty to visit Erin´s people there. After lunch, Melissa and I got pedicures in the shade and Christian fed some sheep. We visited my host family, my women´s group, and my various jobs where he charmed everyone with his confusion and the 3 guarani words I taught him. We watched a hippy food conspiracy movie with Paulette, had Caipiriñas with Melissa and her boyfriend Victor, saw Avatar in Asuncion, hung out with Maria Eva and her family and friends just before she had to go back to the US, played Scrabble and read from the duffle bag full of books he brought me.

There was one day...
"What was that lady´s deal?" he asked as we passed by my noseless and sore-covered old-lady neighbor on our way to the market.
"Leprosy." He started to freak a little. "Relax. Only 3% of the population is susceptable."
Christian, in his uniquely Christian way, explains that he has always figured he die in some ironic and funny way. Something so that people would say "Really? That´s what got him?". He said that when he´s in situations that would typically be considered dangerous, like hitch-hiking or driving on icy roads, he´s not scared because there´s not enough irony to kill him, but that contracting leprosy in Paraguay would be exactly the type of thing that would do it.

A short time later, we were cooking the food we´d just bought, and he starts messing with the gas hose that runs from the tank to the burners.
"Don´t mess with it," I scold him.
"It´s stretching with the heat and it could come off...forget it," he answers, deciding it´s not worth the argument and going back to his book.

I go to take a shower while he finishes with dinner and when I walk out of the bathroom, wrapped in a towel, I find Christian sitting on the patio stoop calmly reading his book, while the remains of a chair are burning on the patio bricks. The air is filled with the uniquely acrid smell of burnt polyester and and all that´s left of the chair is the charred metal frame.

"WHAT THE FU-" I start.
"If I had finished my thought before," he interrupts, "I could´ve said I told you so." He goes on to explain that after I got in the shower, the hose popped off the nozzle to the burners, creating a waving flame-thrower, which lit the chair on fire. He reached under the table to turn off the gas, pausing for an instant to reflect that the flame coming down the hose and blowing up the gastank would be exactly the sort of ironic death he´s always felt imminent.

But it didn´t blow up, and the chair was still burning. He´d tried to beat it out with his book, which happened to be David Sedaris´ "When You Are Engulfed In Flames", but it didn´t work. He tried water, but polyester is not known for it´s flame retardant properties and he ended up throwing it out on the patio and smugly awaiting me.

This was, needless to say, hilarious, and it got us started on ironic near deaths: Like the guy who´d broke into a factory a night to rob it´s computers and on his way out decided to huff from a giant barrel of industrial strength glue. He passes out, knocks it over, and the workers find him the next morning glued to the floor. Or, just a few weeks ago, a bolt of lightning split and simultaneously hit another volunteer here and his neighbor. Had it not split, it would´ve killed either of them. The medical office told him to take Tylenol. I´d seen him at the bus terminal recently and asked if there were any residual effects.
"No, no, I mean, I´ll probably get cancer in 10 years, but other than that..."
"OR you´ll live forever because you´re invincible now," I said, "OR you have super powers. Have you tried using any super powers?"
After a pause, he answered, "I like the way you think."


This past weekend, we did a leadership camp which went incredibly well. I did a communication charla which went really well (that stuttering bible salesman joke kills them every time) The teenagers are all really excited and as part of the camp, they have to do a service project within the next six months, with the volunteers helping when needed. Unfortunately, Michel, from my group, has decided the Peace Corps isn`t for her (that`s 3 from our group), so I`m taking over her jovenes for this project. They`re super-motivated, so it should be fun.

Monday, January 4, 2010

You´re . . . different.

"My one friend back home is different. She just has a different perspective on everything. She´s like you." Jenna casually dropped this as we were sitting on my patio with rum and cokes awaiting the New Year. Paraguayans celebrate midnight at home on New Year´s, and then go out and party from about 1am to 8am. She, Elmer, and I were making a midnight dinner and setting off screaming bottle rockets, pre-gaming before the party. So she´d just hit me with 2 bits of info: 1) That I was different than anyone else, and 2) That I was different just like at least one other person.

"Wait, wait," I said, "What exactly do you mean by different?" "Oh, please," Elmer piped up, "Like you didn´t know." So not only had everyone else reached a silent concensus, but it should also be obvious to me? I´ll admit, this wasn´t the first time I´d heard this. My ex-roommate Chandra had once told me, "You´re just different. It´s like, there´s EVERYONE else. . . and then there´s you." But then, as now, there was no further explanation into HOW exactly I was different, and it bugged me. ´ It´s not as though I haven´t felt a bit different. I spent my entire adolescence thinking exactly that, but it was more a yearning to fit in and not exactly understanding why I never seemed to be able to do or say the right things. It was always being just outside the circle of people who´d figured out the correct way to be and were real friends, while I was just sort of around. Then at some point around college I realized that everyone felt like they didn´t fit in, and everyone felt different from other people. Alienation is practically a right of passage. If everyone has this feeling of being different, though, it makes us even more alike than we might already appear. It was with this epiphany that I dropped the self-alienating walls I´d put up (read: I don´t want to be part of their stupid group anyway.), and happily moved on. But here I was being told that in fact I WAS different, different in a way that was more odd than everyone else´s different and also painfully obvious. "But how, specifically?" I asked, trying to get a handle on the whole thing. "I don´t know," Jenna answered. "You just see things differently. Everything has a twist. It´s like that thing with the ants. . ." When she and Elmer had arrived earlier that day, I´d shown them to my room to put down their stuff. Jenna noticed the ant super-highway, always in rush hour, running floor to ceiling in the corner by my bed, and the busy ruta being constructed around the edge of the floor on all four walls. "Looks like you´ve got quite an ant problem," she´d said, after complimenting the general decor. "I wouldn´t really call it a problem," I answered, nonchalantly, "We live harmoniously." "If I had ants like that in my room, it would never occur to me not to kill them," she explained that night, "And you live harmoniously with them. Just. . .different. Like that." I could kind of see what she meant. What actually happens is that I lay in my bed and watch them. Earlier that day I´d noticed that when ants pass each other, they both stop for a second and do this antennae-waving greeting thing before continuing on their way. At first it looks like their very hurried, but then I realized that it could be a casual stroll when you have six legs. That got me thinking about the movie Waking Life, and how there´s this one scene where the main guy is walking down to the subway station and starts to pass this girl, but she stops him and asks to do that again because she doesn´t want to miss an opportunity to really see someone as a person instead of just a meaningless body passed on the street. She says she wants to be fully present and not just rotely living her life, finishing with, "I don´t want to be an ant, you know?" So I´m watching these ants and seeing that they are nothing if not fully present in the moment, never missing an opportunity to bond with another ant on that super-highway. And I wondered if they talk in ant language about how humans are the examples of how not to be; antennae waving signifying "I want to know you to the fullest extent possible" and saying, "I don´t want to be a human, you know?" But these sorts of thoughts I considered pretty normal, especially in the Peace Corps, where people have more free time than they´ve had since being toddlers. We do things like learn how to make wine or ginger beer in our kitchens (use a condom to seal the bottle and when it stops filling with air, it´s ready), or perhaps you´ve seen, "Why I joined the Peace Corps" on Youtube (if not, here´s the link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CZIVZ1463c ; Worth a watch). This is how we roll. I let it drop, but a couple days later, as we were painting her house together, Melissa, unprovoked, said the same thing. "You´re. . .different." (always with that dot dot dot). She agreed with Jenna´s different perspective explanation and added that I managed to find the silver lining in everything. "Well that´s good," I said. So then it got me thinking. If 3 of my close friends in as many days have told me that I´m...different, maybe there´s something to this. So I called Paulette. "Would you consider me different?" I asked. "Different? No. Why? You think you´re special?" (and that, in a nutshell, is why I love Paulette). Then she followed it with, "Well, maybe you´re different in that you don´t suck like most people..." (ok, so another reason to like her) "...but I think you´re different in the same way I am, like there´s less bullshit ego stuff with you." So then I was thinking that if I was so very different, it was in the same way as Jenna´s friend and Paulette, and that reminded me of another story Jenna had told us about her cousins that categorize everyone they know. For example, there is a type they call an Mmm,yehhss-er, which means an outdated hippy who wears long denim skirts and has a long braid down her back and answers questions with a very nasally "mmm, yehhss". The prototype for this category is their neighbor, and she and her friends are the group. This type of person exists in the world, they insist, and there´s more than one of them, so that justifies a category. Jenna´s dad is an "Oh,yeah-er", which is a dad who is always taking his kids to do fun stuff, like ski trips, and apparently says "Oh, Yeah" a lot. So maybe my type of person should be a category, I think, and it should be based on some tagline I say all the time. It took me all of 5 seconds to name my new category, as it is a phrase always on the tip of my tongue. I am an "Itiswhatitis-er". Paulette´s going to be very upset when she finds out this is the category name - she had a bournout ex-boyfriend who said it all the time, too, and it drives her crazy - but oh, well, it is what it is. Since coming to Paraguay, I´ve changed quite a bit, so it´s possible that now I am an "esloquées-ita" ("Es lo qué es" means it is what it is in Spanish), because I technically use that version more often now, but iguál, no más. There was definitely a time in my life when I was a "righton-er", and while that is of course still a factor, I feel I´ve moved on. If we´re naming a whole category of human being her, it´s gotta be "itiswhatitis-er". I´m not sure what to do now with my new categorization. Do we all trade emails and talk about things that are what they are? Form a club? Should we have a secret handshake? Do we have to invite Paulette´s burnout ex-boyfriend? When it´s all said and done, nothing has actually changed, and I´m not so sure it should be a goal to categorize one´s uniqueness, reducing an especially twisted world view to one line, making myself of caricature of...myself. I mentally fumbled with this for a moment, watching my ants, until I remembered that (now, officially) I don´t have to try to figure it out. There is no solution. It is what it is.


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.