Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Best 3 Days

I think it was when they all gathered around me in a parking lot with hundreds of tourists watching, picked me up, and started throwing me 8 feet into the air over and over again, all the while chanting, "Angélica! Angélica! Angélica!" that I decided this might be the best camp ever.

So...back in August, we had a meeting as a sector about planning the 2nd annual leadership and civic education camp for youth 15-25 (from here on out, referred to as jóvenes), and I was voted to head the planning committee. Since then, it has been 5 months of countless hours on the phone, so many emails that my hands may be permanently deformed into claws, and enough antacid and ibuprofen to kill a horse. The Peace Corps people are great, don´t get me wrong - everyone worked their butts off, volunteering for whatever needed done, everyone taking a part, THAT was no problem. Working with PYan organizations can be...a bit tougher. When, in the week before the camp, there were jóvenes dropping out and adding on last minute, facilitators cancelling their talks, grant money not coming in, donations being withheld, plans changing then changing again then changing again, I was feeling a little stressed. And then it was here...

Shavonda, who was in charge of logistics, went a day early with Giancarlo, our program assistant from PC, to Ciudad del Este, where the camp was held in a Biological Reserve called Tati Yupi, to buy all the food and get together all the last minute details. When we got there on the tour buses, the rooms weren´t ready, there were workers cleaning, pounding away on construction on half of the building where we were staying, and buzzing around with weed wackers (the thing about Paraguay, one of the many, is that nothing is ever done until the last possible second), and Shavonda and Giancarlo had already sweated through their t-shirts. But the volunteers all rallied - "Ok, we have to fill the next 45 minutes with games. What do we know?" No problem. All during the camp, behind the scenes, we are running around, writing certificates, cooking meals, planning charlas (talks with activities), planning then changing those plans and starting in with Plan G because A-F hadn´t gone down for one reason or another, participating in the activities, and just doing whatever needed done.

And what this did was make an environment for the jóvenes where they felt totally comfortable,
where they could be themselves,
where participating was the cool thing to do and everyone got more out of each activity because of it,
where they formed their own little culture and subcultures,
where drawn-on tattoos became all the rage,
where there was always a good excuse to jump up and down and yell a chant,
where there was a giant poster with envelopes with everyone´s names on them that were stuffed with positive comments from each other,
where the natural group leaders were 2 gay guys (which would not have happened anywhere else in Paraguay),
where we showed them a video of a flash mob in Brazil as an example of another way to have a voice in society and they decided to start one in the parking lot of Itaipú, the giant dam where we went to see the Ilumination Friday night, and danced to Lady Gaga with all the tourists watching,
where couples and deep friendships were being formed,
where they cheered their heads off after every charla and made the facilitator feel awesome,
where they took everything we taught them and instantly made it their own, from games to disparity of justice in the world,
where realizations about how the world can work, their role in it, and what that means for them personally came to fruition,
where they stayed up half the night huddled around picnic tables or on mattresses, talking and joking and laughing together because nobody wanted to sleep and miss a moment of this amazing thing that was happening,
where my jóven Fiorela kept crying because it was all so crazy and amazing,
where Casey´s jóven told me, "These have been the best 3 days of my life. In all my 19 years, the best 3 days, seriously," and
where we changed lives.
That´s why I do this. This might be the best thing I´ve done in Peace Corps.

Here´s the link with a bunch of pics:

Sunday, January 16, 2011

What a Whore You Are

I push my bike ahead of me through the 3 foot tall door that´s the entrance to the Baranda´s house when their auto-parts store is closed, and Carlos grabs it from the other side to help. I duck through and their little black poodle Suzi is barking her head off, which is what she does when she´s excited to see people (she also attacks people´s feet if they try to leave), and Daniela yells, "Suzi! I know she smells bad, but it doesn´t matter!" I duck my head to hide my grin, and tell her, "How I´ve missed you!"

Daniela is the mom in my English class family, the Barandas, and quite possibly one of my favorite people. Actually, the whole family is great, and I love all of them, Carlos, Daniela, and their three kids Mauricio, Davíd, and Ivana, all of whom are fairly quiet and serious, except Daniela, who is a smartass to the nth degree and just says whatever comes into her head at any moment. When she says one of her catch-phrases in English ("My butt is perfect" or "What a whore you are"), I get a little teary and bite my fist. "I taught her that," I whisper proudly. It´s just nice to see how my work makes a difference.

Carlos, the dad, asked me a while back if I´d thought he was crazy the first time we met. He´d run up to me on the street after I´d passed in front of their auto-parts store and breathlessly announced, "You´re Angélica, right? We´ve been wanting to meet you." So I had been running errands, but then Carlos said, "Come meet my family," and I agreed.

Over the past year, I´ve taught them English every Tuesday night, gone to hang out at the store with them every time I have a free moment, introduced them to all the volunteers in the area, and basically adopted them as another Paraguayan family. When I mentioned that I´d like to make a bookcase, they offered for me to use the scrap wood in their backyard. When I went over there to start working on it, I found Carlos and Davíd just putting the finishing touches on a perfect bookcase. When I needed my curtains hung, they trooped in with tools and a stepladder and Carlos hung them.
When we built wormboxes together

Whenever I write something professional in Spanish, Daniela corrects the mistakes. Whenever I don´t have food, or even when I do, they invite me over for lunch. We host English lunches once a month and invite everyone we can think of that speaks English to come and have asado (the best was the goat). They are usually 4 hour long events, where we talk and eat and joke around, supposedly all in English (really more spanglish), and play games. Daniela dives head first into English, whether she knows how to say something or not, and Carlos is more reserved (and knows more than he admits), so he corrects Daniela. It goes something like this:
D: She say
C: says
D: She says..."What a whore you are"

English Lunch

We go on day trips and to social events together and they make what would otherwise be torturously boring events really fun. When I got gluten-free flour in a care package, we went there to make cookies.
Natalie and Daniela
She swears that she and her kitchen are mortal enemies, so this was a huge event

Daniela and I are constantly trading smart-ass comments back and forth, and she keeps me sharp in what would otherwise be 3 straight years of talking about the weather. I´ve introduced them to all the volunteers in the area and now they are always invited to what would otherwise be only Volunteer events.
Meli, Daniela, Kristin, Jenna, and Carlos
Mauri, Daniela, Carlos and me at my birthday party
Me and Daniela
Me and Daniela (this picture is the first thing you see when you walk into their house)

All this giving was hard for me at first (I felt guilty accepting so much for doing nothing). Then, once when I mentioned that I was on my way to buy soap and toothpaste, and instead Daniela insisted on giving me soap and toothpaste, and I was protesting, saying I could just go buy it and I had the money, Carlos just looked at me, dead serious, and said, "Why can´t you just accept a gift?" I did and have ever since.

When their oldest son left to give live in Maine as an exchange student, Daniela asked me, "You're coming with us when we drop off Mauri, right? You and Melissa?"
I hesitated. "Isn't that something just for the family?"
"Exactly." she answered without hesitation, "And you are part of the family, which is why you have to come."
Grandma Sara, Mauri, Davíd, Ivana, Daniela and Carlos at airport
Meli, Mauri, Ivana, Daniela (trying to be tall), me, and Davíd
Saying goodbye to Mauri
The whole family watching as Mauri flies off
Daniela, always the supermodel, and Carlos when the truck broke down

After spending the weekend here for her volunteer visit, Ashley, one of the newbies said, "You know, I had my doubts about being able to be real friends with Paraguayans- if I was going to be able to be myself in front of them and with the language barrier and all, but after seeing you with Daniela, I´m not worried anymore. It´s definitely possible. I want friends like that."

Yeah, I´m very lucky to have them. They make everything about being in Paraguay better.


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.