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.

1 comment:

  1. From my Aunt Erika: Several years ago I too had an ironic near death experience.
    I was making homemade fettuccini sauce-but that's not what almost killed me-and I needed to open the nutmeg. So I got a butter knife and tried to pop off the little plastic piece so I could pull off the paper cover (I swear if I ever find the guy who tampered with the Tylenol and made everyone start putting safety seals on everything, I will kill him with the power of my evil thoughts). Well, I accidently cut myself instead. Just a tiny little cut on my index finger, but one of those that even though it doesn't;t hurt it won't stop bleeding. But I was making homemade fettuccini sauce and it is very easy to ruin if you don't stir it constantly. So I finished while I bled all over the kitchen (mmm, very appetizing). I served Al and Mandy (no Delaney around yet) and then went into the bathroom to try to stop the damn bleeding. Well, seems as if this little nothing cut was sending me into shock and I began to babble incoherently from the bathroom to Al and Mandy in the dining room (they were alarmed because my babbling is usually so coherent). Then I started to pass out and Al walked in just in time to keep my head from slamming into the bathtub. Then my equilibrium returned and I was fine. And that, dear niece, is how I almost had a death certificate that listed "butter knife/fettuccini accident" as my cause of death.

    Al says the one good thing for me is that I'll never see it coming when I go-I tend toward the clumsy.



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.