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.


  1. Wow ... it's been a year already?!?! Time does go by when you're having fun!! Thanks for providing all of these updates via your blog. I enjoy reading them!

  2. What an amazing journey you’ve been on. I’ve enjoyed your blog and learned a lot. My daughter also serving in Cornelle Oviedo, I believe you’ve met Michelle. Several of my friends look forward to reading your blog and following the travels of Peace Corps volunteers. Thanks for making this world a little smaller.

  3. yo ang, i haven't heard from you. What's up!! btw, I'm Invited to Mexico (total surprise)!!



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.