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.


  1. you share your lessons well. I hope to learn from them.


  2. You are wonderful and I'm glad you are learning so much about yourself and others. It is helping you grow as a person and I think it's fantastic. I hope your abuela is doing well and recovering nicely. Maybe you should come back here and try to teach people to be more caring, giving and empathetic. I keep hearing "why should my tax dollars pay for the health care of the guy down the street?" It's so selfish and one-minded. Everyone could use of dose of 'doing the right thing' and being a little more selfless. I'm glad you are able to see what other parts of the world are like as opposed to someone in Ohio that doesn't realize there is a world beyond their yard. I respect you so much for what you are doing and am really glad you decide to stay longer. I miss you and can't wait to see you when you come back.

  3. Angelic ... what a heart touching story! Yes you will continue to change for the better as you see life and the world with a different perspective in your role with the Peace Corps. I'm so proud of you!! Keep up the great work!!



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.