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.

1 comment:


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.