Monday, May 31, 2010

525,600 Minutes

I’ve been in Paraguay a year now. It has passed REALLY quickly, and for the last few weeks, as that anniversary was approaching, I’ve been thinking about how different I am now than when I arrived, and how much I’ve learned in the last year. But inevitably, just when I think I’ve got this Paraguayan thing down, something happens that forces me to admit I know next to nothing. Here are a few areas where I’ve noticed the change (or lack thereof).

In the last year, I’ve learned to speak Spanish - both literally, and with Paraguayan syntax. When they say, “No quieres banarte”, that is not saying “You don’t want to shower” (when in fact I did but after that thought there was some reason I shouldn’t), but instead “Don’t you want to shower?” (as in, hint hint) (actual occurrence my first night). They say Yes or Maybe when they really mean No. They say 1:00 when they really mean 2:00. Everything is dependent on Si Dios Quiere (if God wants it) or Si no hay lluvia (If there’s no rain).
I thought I’d gotten it pretty much down, but the other day (after a YEAR), I had a conversation with Juan that showed me I’ve still got a ways to go. We were working on a project plan, and he typed something I didn’t understand, so I asked, “Why did you put that word there?”, and he immediately erased the sentence. He always does this when I ask why something is, so I told him, “You know, when I ask why something is, it doesn’t mean I don’t like it. It means I really just want to know why it is because I don’t understand.” “Yeah,” he said, “That’s kind of offensive here.” My jaw drops because this means that I’ve been offending people at least 10 times a day for the last year, and I’m surprised they haven’t run me out of town with pitchforks and torches at this point. He goes on to explain that “Why” is Paraguayan code for “That thing is bad” because saying it outright would be fuerte (strong=asshole), which is why he erases whatever I ask about. So I asked about little kids and what people do when they are trying to understand their world and ask Why about everything. “A lot of people are really bothered by little kids because of that,” he tells me. En serio?! That was my whole nanny life for 3 years – I couldn’t imagine not being able to explain why something is to a kid. But that’s how Paraguay is – everything is unspoken, subtle, with innuendos and meaningful looks and code words. It takes about 4 times as many words to ask for anything because you have to soften it with a lot of “if you wouldn’t minds” and “if it would be possible” and the like.
Luckily, I’d taken Juan to a workshop a few weeks ago and he got to talk to one of the PC trainers (a Paraguayan who has worked with American volunteers for 20 years) who explained that the thing about Americans is that when they ask Why, they really just want to know why. So he wasn’t personally offended by my very existence, but since we were on an explaining kick, he explained how that, like seemingly every part of Paraguayan culture, this had its roots in the dictatorship. Anyone who ever publicly questioned anything the government did disappeared, which is strong motivation to keep your mouth shut. This also explains why so often, when I question situations, although they know why something is, they’ve never put words to it and don’t know how to explain it beyond, “We’ve always done it that way.” If there is no reason for something anymore, it continues because no one ever questions. Then I come stomping in asking Why all over the place and they actually start to think about it, and realize they can change it now. This is what I was talking about a few blogs back with the little outside perspective I bring to the table, and how they have everything they need to change something except the spark to start it, and that’s me and my Why (not even knowing I was doing it). So now I know that when I’m not trying to offend people, I should say, “I really like this sentence here, and I like your hair and what you’ve done with the place, and if you wouldn’t mind could you please explain to me what this word means because I’m just a simple American that is only trying to understand your culture because I love Paraguay,” or something along those lines. It takes a while, but it works.

The first time it rains and you realize that whatever you had planned is now cancelled, you are annoyed, and you wonder why these supposedly hard-core Paraguayans are such sissies about a little rain. You might insist on going out and doing stuff anyway since you’re American and a little rain never hurt anyone, only to come home covered in mud splatters from your cheap Peace Corps issued bike without fenders and realize that it’s a whole different ballgame when you have to hand-wash all your clothes. The second time, you stay in, but you’re still slightly peeved. By the third time, you see how Paraguayans have had it down all along, and when you wake up to the rain drumming on the corrugated metal of your roof, you snuggle down deeper under your covers and sleep a little extra, or maybe read in bed. Within a few months, you’ve decided you never ever want to live in a country where stuff gets done in the rain, and you wonder what is wrong with Americans that they don’t use more excuses to relax.

The humor development process in a foreign country is much more arduous a fraught with disaster than you might think. My dry sense of humor does not translate. I can say completely ridiculous things, but because I’m deadpan, they conclude that I’m telling the truth and that Americans are just really weird. And their jokes are completely lost on me because most of them are wordplay and it is hard enough to remember the direct meanings of verbs, let alone the double entendres. As a result, for the majority of my time here, I’ve been the Peace Corps equivalent of Amelia Bedelia – taking everything completely at face value. If I’m in a group and everyone is laughing, I smile too, but have no idea what is so funny. If I’m with just one other person, they usually crack a joke and wait with that open mouth, expectant smile for the laugh. Then they say the punch line again with more emphasis, and get a wan smile in response (I do know it’s supposed to be funny but can’t quite work up to faking it). Then they throw up their hands, roll their eyes at my foreign ignorance, and change the subject. But over the last few months, this has been changing. Perhaps the transition wasn’t noticeable at first. Leoncio, the “funny guy” at the coop, is not funny when I do understand him, and I don’t like to encourage such low level humor by laughing at it (that just lowers the bar for next time, and I came here to help, after all), so I still just looked at him with no reaction at all to his jokes. But I’ve been evolving, and recently, have gotten jokes and even joked back. You have no idea how huge this is for bonding with Paraguayans. They describe themselves as a funny people. So I’m connecting with people better than ever, and even the few that may have had their doubts about me before are coming around. Then the other day, I was drinking terere with my family and my Papa Felipe says casually, looking at the sky, “What do you think, Angelica, is it going to rain again?” I look up. “Yep, I think so,” I say. “You know, women know better than men when it’s going to rain.” Not seeing what’s coming, I ask, “Really? Why?” He pauses, then, “Porque ellas tienen humedad.” Humid is a double entendre for when a woman is wet. Um…ew. How I long for the Amelia Bedelia days.

“So I was frying bananas today…” I said to Paulette. “Oh, God, what happened?” she jumps in, because Paulette thinks that the sign for when you’ve nearly hit rock bottom is when you feel like frying bananas (Full-on rock bottom is frying Twinkies…in your trailer). I disagree, however, because I love fried bananas, and I’ve been known to fry a banana on my best of days. But the banana frying process got me thinking about when I’d first gotten to site and had fried bananas and offered one to Flaquito. He made this face like he’d just vomited a little in his mouth and had to swallow it. “Why would you fry bananas? In what? Is it healthier?” he fired questions at me, trying to understand why anyone would even imagine doing that sort of thing. “They are fried in oil,” I answered, “Of course it’s not healthier. Just try it. It’s delicious.” Of course he didn’t, as Paraguayans are not fond of trying new foods, and especially disgusted by cooked fruit (which explains their reaction to the black bean mango salsa I’d been all excited about because I’d almost managed to follow a recipe). And I was thinking today about how, with a few exceptions including sopa and chipa guazu and mbeju, I would prefer fried bananas over almost every single Paraguayan food. I thought about how they deep fry flour batter and then put it on stale rolls, with a side of 2 more stale rolls and call that lunch, and about how no part of the animal goes uneaten and they will chow down on feet and tails, intestines and faces, and how a salad is really just rice and mayonnaise, with the only green on the whole table being the tiny slivers of green onion in it. I sprinkled cinnamon over my bananas and realized I’m not so very integrated, maybe, but that’s ok.

The biggest change though, is the one I’m most thrilled about - I am SO much more tranquila now than when I arrived. I wouldn’t have considered myself an angry person before, but I wouldn’t hesitate to use the word feisty. I’d flare up for a few minutes, and then be over it, but still. Here, I find myself saying things like, “If I ever got angry anymore, I would’ve been, but it is what it is.” That meeting is cancelled? Cool, see you next week, si no hay lluvia. Kitten diarrhea all over the floor? Poor babies; good thing it’s tile. The presidenta at the coop is being difficult? I’m a volunteer – I leave whenever I want. When those Canadians came, I really noticed how much more high strung they were than every Paraguayan, and than me, and I was quietly ecstatic. I’m pretty sure I used to be that intense, but it’s all so hazy to me now. There’s no need to fight life on any front. It all pans out, si Dios quiere, so there’s no need to get riled up about it. Es lo que es.

I can't wait to see what the next year will bring.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Oh, Canada!

I only agreed to do it as a favor to Juan. His wife volunteers with the Canadian version of Operation Christmas Child (the nonprofit that has people pack shoeboxes of kids’ gifts and then sends them en masse to underdeveloped countries, in order to give gifts to kids that might otherwise never receive them). A group of 29 Canadian volunteers were coming to Paraguay to give out thousands of shoeboxes to schools and groups around Coronel Oviedo. They needed translators, and Melissa and I (somewhat reluctantly) agreed. We piled onto the obscenely large tour bus along with the very friendly and enthusiastic Canadians, with their fancy fanny packs and designer water bottles.
Those crazy Paraguayans, always jokesters
The whole family goes to welcome the Canadians at the airport - Evelyn (the nanny), Janina's Dad and the Paraguayan Coordinator for Operation Christmas Child, Janina, Juan with Baby Nehemias, and me
Juan and Nehemias
Janina and Nehemias
They Arrive

The bus

On the ride back from Asuncion, I talked constantly. There was so much to tell about Paraguay, and they were so eager to learn. “How poor is poor?” they asked. “61% of families where we will be live on much less than $300 a month,” I explained. “Is there organized crime here?” they asked. “Just the government,” I answered. “Are you happy here?” they asked, just like all the Paraguayans do, too. “I love it here. Paraguayans are open and giving and loving, and they will share whatever they have when they hardly have anything, and they have been screwed over for their whole history, but you will never meet better people.” They nodded, pleased. They snapped photos right and left. Aw, I thought, I remember when I used to take pictures of cows.

I took this 2 days into Paraguay

That week was a busy one, with 2 distribution sessions a day. Most of the boxes were anonymous, however many of the Canadians had packed their own special shoeboxes that they would personally give to a lucky, chosen child. It was mostly for this 15 minutes of bonding and photo ops that they wanted translators, although it is not easy to organize and give boxes to hundreds of kids at once, so Meli and I were all over the place.

After one distribution session, when we were back on the bus, one lady was tearfully telling the story of the little girl who’d received her gift box. “She said she comes from a very poor family,” she sobbed, “and that’s when I started crying.” This apparently hit her harder than expected because the crying didn’t stop for the next 2 hours. She wasn’t the only one, either. Meli and I rolled our eyes at each other. They ALL come from poor families, we thought. They wouldn’t BE here if they didn’t, as the whole goal of the organization is to give gifts to poor kids.

I kicked this idea around for the next couple days because something about it inherently bothered me. If I were Paraguayan, I thought, and some chuchi Canadian came to visit and then burst into tears at what to me was my completely normal life, would that be considered offensive? For an instant, I felt defensive. Who were they to momentarily fly in to these kids’ lives, with their khaki pants and their racking sobs? I tiptoed around the idea with Yanina, Juan’s wife, to see what she thought. “I think the Canadians are having a good trip,” I said, “But they sure do cry a lot.” “They’ve never seen poverty like this before,” she said, “It can be a shock the first time.”

Then I remembered this conversation I’d had with Paulette months ago, where she’d told me about how her biggest epiphany, the thing that really changed her the most since she’s been here, was realizing that Paraguayans are real people. “I know, I know,” she was quick to add, “I know exactly how bad that sounds, and it seems so obvious, but our whole lives we hear about people in other countries, and we don’t REALLY get it. And I remember when I realized, oh my God, they really are JUST like us. They joke and love and dream and are the same as us, and from there it’s not that big of a leap to see that we are the same all over the world. And we hear on the news about 10,000 people dying somewhere far away, and don’t necessarily think that these people had real lives, with families and friends and goals…but now I do.”

They were already very kind and sweet people when they got here, and they’d put in dozens and hundreds of hours of volunteer work, packing and shipping gift boxes all over the world. However, it is one thing to live a normal first-world life, think about the poor children in other countries, and want to help alleviate the idea of poverty, but it is another thing to see that poverty first-hand. It is another thing to talk to this tiny girl with big brown eyes and long lashes, whose hair is thin and patchy because of a skin fungus, and hear how her mom had abandoned her, but that the nice lady explaining things to your translator is taking care of her. It is another thing to pick a little girl out, at random, from among thousands, and learn that her name is Cinthia, which happens to be your own daughter’s name. What we saw was their epiphany moment of seeing how alike we are, and knowing that they will never look at the news the same way again. I am so grateful to have seen and been a part of that.

“I see why you love it here,” one lady told me after a few days. “Paraguay is wonderful. I’d come back tomorrow if I could.” “Yeah,” I grinned. They got it.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


My abuela broke her hip. She fell down the two tall steps leading down to the living room and landed on the concrete floor. Not having vehicles other than motos, they called a cab to carry her over the bumpy stone streets to the hospital. She said the pain was excruciating. The doctor said she’d need surgery, and that, as they didn’t have anesthesiologists there, she’d have to go to Asuncion. For 2 weeks, she stayed on a twin-sized bed in the living room. Word got around. Neighbors came. Friends came. Family came. Everyone gave what they could. 10 mil here, 50 mil there, but it wasn’t going to be enough.

I heard about it from a girl at work, a friend of the family, on a Thursday. That Sunday, I went to visit, cooing and tssking in sympathy. Poor Abuela, I said, as I sat with her, and watched as distant neighbors uncrumpled the bills in their hands. Why did this happen, abuela asked no one in particular, as she started to cry. I love everyone. God knows I don’t have a single enemy. I take care of everyone that I know.

The first time I met my host family, on my future site visit, I was sitting with them in their living room at a bible study session I hadn’t realized I was being invited to. Abuela, who was just another random old lady at the time, kept staring at my appreciatively. At every pause in the conversation, she’d chime in with, !Linda es! !Que Linda sos! (You’re so pretty!), and I liked her immediately. A couple weeks after I’d moved there, she enthusiastically told me, I love you Angelica! I love you all the more because you’re so far from your family. That must be so hard, but I love you so much! That’s so nice, I thought, but it’s not that hard to leave my family. I hadn’t heard from my real mom, mi mama por sangre, as I called her here to keep things straight, in months, despite my attempts. Abuela had been nothing but loving and open with me from the start. How could I not help her now?

First I thought I could swing 50 mil, but kept adjusting that. I hadn’t been to Asuncion that month (I’d been working a lot and hadn’t had time), so I had a little extra in the bank. But I didn’t want them to make a big deal about it. I try to cultivate an image of poverty, and the Peace Corps warns us that we will be taken advantage of if they know we have money. Not only would it be flaunting wealth to donate so much, I also didn’t want it to seem like I was doing it for the recognition.

So, I decided, I’d just slip the 500 mil to them and say nothing. Riding my bike to the bank, I thought about how much I had changed since I’d been here. A year ago, would I have given my money? Yes, I decided, but not as much, and I would have basked in the thank you’s, feeling generous. The point is not the recognition, I realized. It’s giving the money because it’s the right thing to do, not so people think you’re a giving and charitable person. Later that afternoon, when I kissed Abuela on both cheeks, I dropped the money, rolled with a paperclip, next to the change purse on the bed where they were compiling donations.

Part of me knew they would find it and know it was me. When they asked me about it, I’d say, Money? Did it have a metal clip on it? Yes, they’d say. No, it wasn’t me, I’d answer. Que humilde es ella, (how humble she is) they’d say to themselves. I didn’t mention it to anyone.

After that, I was working out of town for a week, and then working in town with my normal busy schedule. I kept meaning to drop in, but never found the extra moment to do so. By the time I went back, two weeks later, it was Mother’s Day. I’d received a one-line email from my real mom in the intervening months that said she was very busy, and I’d decided to give up on that and focus on my family here.

A lot had changed in the 2 weeks. My Papa, who lives an hour away because there are no jobs in town, had sold his car to pay for the surgery and Abuela was recovering well. She was chattering on about the different people that had come to visit every day, and how her dog would come up and rest her head sympathetically on the side of the bed. She didn’t know about the car being sold, and never once mentioned money, but she went on and on about how wonderful her daughter was in taking care of her, and how her mom, who is 96, came by every day just to sit with her, and how people had been very supportive, emotionally.

I listened carefully and bit the inside of my cheeks to keep from crying. I hadn’t gotten it. Even when I really thought I’d come so far and learned so much, I hadn’t understood at all. The money was never the point. It would’ve been so much better to donate 10 mil and visit every chance I had. It would’ve been so much more meaningful to make it a priority to spend time with her instead of working constantly. How had I not seen that when I knew how it felt to have my mom do the same thing to me? How had I not seen how I was also prioritizing work over relationships and how like her I was, while simultaneously being so hurt by her? How had it taken me 9 months of being around this family, whose priorities were so correct, to see what being in a family really meant? I have been so wrong. I held it together all afternoon, sitting with my family, sometimes talking and sometimes comfortably silent, and then I went home and wrote this, crying the whole 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.