Thursday, December 22, 2011

Out of Site: Virgencita de Caacupe, and the Swearing Out of G-31.

I spent several days out of site a few weeks ago (but only now have an internet connection strong enough to post this update). But thanks to some wonderful friends, I got the opportunity to do one of the most quintessential Paraguayan traditions. I participated in the pilgrimage to Caacupe. Its hard to describe the role the Virgencita de Caacupe plays in the Paraguayan culture. In the space of about a week, around 300,000 people go to Caacupe, cumulating on the 8th of December. The majority of pilgrims walk at least part of the way there. For the rest of the year, Caacupe has a population of only 42,000, and Paraguay itself only has a population of around 6,460,000. So having 300,000 people converge on one spot is phenomenal.

For me, the most fascinating part of the experience was the sensation of walking together with thousands of other people. It’s a fun, celebratory atmosphere. We walked from 9pm to 1am on the night of the 7th. Walking at night has the benefit of avoiding the intense summer heat, and considering we are walking up one of the largest hills in the country, that is important.

Many people come to pray for a miracle, or to give thanks for prayers answered in the past year. But many people (not just Yankees like me), come merely for the experience of participating in a longstanding, uniquely Paraguayan, cultural tradition.

This photo is from a visit to the church last year. During festival de Caacupe, it was much to crowded to get past the courtyard.

I definitely want to do it again next year, and walk maybe two or three times the distance. I’m much to lazy/out of shape to do a marathon (or any sort of running honestly), but I can walk of ages! I’m also thinking about trying to bike it. Anyone want to join me?

The day after walking to Caacupe, I went to the G-31 despideda (goodbye party). I’m G-34, so G-31 was my sister G. They means they were the agriculture and environmental education group that swore in a year before us. When we swore in they had already been here a year. Now that they have sworn out, that means…. I have been in my site for a whole year, and a new Ag and EE group (G-37) has sworn in. We are now the older, more experience G! I didn’t really feel much last year when the old group swore out just as we were swearing in. After all, I hardly knew them. But this year it has been hard saying goodbye to people I have come to respect and gotten to know well. I no longer have wise seasoned Ag volunteers to turn to when I have a question (actually I still have the talented Ag coordinator). It’s the first time that a G has sworn out, and I have really felt the loss. I miss you G-31.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Love is Sopa Paraguaya

Today was on its way to being a bad day. I stopped by a neighbors house and told him that the English class (that had been canceled last Wednesday due to a freak windstorm) was rescheduled for today at 4. I had been telling people in the community the rescheduled time sense Wednesday evening after the windstorm. Finally, this neighbor told me “you can’t have class today. Esquella San Jose is having their graduation this afternoon. No one will come to your class.”

Despite the fact that I had told several families about the class, no one had mentioned that it conflicted with this important community wide event. No one even told me the event was going to happen. I had several people say “yes. Ill be there” when clearly they wouldn’t be able to.

This happens frequently. People don’t want to disappoint or be rude by saying they can’t come (or they don’t understand a word I’m saying)… but that doesn’t mean there are going to show up. Honestly they same thing happened when I did turn-out for events in the States. However in the States I was able to culturally and linguistically interpret the responses better and fairly accurately gauge how likely someone was to turn up. In Paraguay, not only is it more difficult to interpret the responses people give me, but I’m also ignorant of important community events that could influence attendance.

Anyway, I thanked this neighbor for telling me and told him that the class was NOW rescheduled to Monday. I walked home incredibly frustrated and angry. Sometimes things just build up, and today was one of those days. No one in the community respects me. No one even bothered to invite me to the graduation. No one wants to be involved in the things I do. Why oh why is life so hard? I was emotionally over reacting to the whole thing.

Shortly thereafter, I decided go ahead and go to the graduation that was causing all the trouble.

It was great. The families were proud and the kids were excited. The children preformed traditional Paraguayan dances. Afterwards as the families split up into groups at various tables, a señora brought be a paper plate of food. Moments latter, another señora another plate…. By the end I had five or six separate plates of empanadas, sopa Paraguaya, and mellinasa.

It made me feel better about everything. My community cares about me. I’m awkward, I’m ignorant of things everyone knows about (and so no one thinks to tell me), I’m constantly doing strange things. But people are happy I’m here, and they want me to know that by giving me more sopa Paraguay than I can possibly eat.

I left the graduation with my heart (and my bag of food) overflowing.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A sad day in Peace Corps Paraguay

There is not much I can say about the sad news of volunteer Emily Balog’s death. Aside from being a reminder of how delicate and fleeting human life is, it is a reminder of how far from home PC volunteers are.

Car crashes can and do happen all over the world. Hers was not a death unique to Paraguay. But to die so far away from family, after being away for so long, seems especially sad.

Aside from a brief conversation or two, I hardly knew Emily, but my thoughts are with her friends and family.

Friday, November 11, 2011

How to Prepare for a Holiday

Sunday is the patron saint day for Santani (San Estanislao), the town closest to my site. That basically means there is going to be a big, city wide, party. That’s fine, except I was planning on going to Santani this Saturday to buy materials for building cook-stoves (fagones). Apparently, most businesses will be closed to prepare for the dia patronal.
This illustrates an interesting cultural difference between holidays in the US and in Paraguay. In the US, usually the day before or after a holiday is a huge shopping day. Stores and advertisers encourage us to get out there and shop! Examples include “black Friday” after Thanksgiving, “last-minuet shopping” before Christmas, and Labor Day sales. The thought of being closed the day before a holiday is very foreign to US companies and consumers.
The stores in Santani are closed in preparation for the holiday… Preparing for a holiday dose not have to be about buying things. Embarrassingly, that blows my mind a bit.
Guess I’ll head into down Monday… unless stores will be closed to recover from the holiday. Vamos a ver.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

First Host Families

After over a year in Paraguay, I am visiting the host family I had during training. I lived with them for 2 ½ months. They are special because they are the first Paraguayans to really interact with volunteers before we have gotten a handle on social norms, language, or even local food. We get off the plane in Asuncion, and (depending on what time the flight came in) we are bussed to our host communities and dropped on our host family’s doorstep. Volunteers are instructed to side step the possibly rocky conversations about religion, sexuality, politics or race that might come up, but other than that, we are very much our American selves. We haven’t yet learned that long, seemingly awkward, pauses in conversation while sipping tereré are perfectly normal. We haven’t yet become accustomed to people wiping their mouth on the tablecloth or picking their nose publicly without shame. We still might feel offended or uncomfortable if someone makes an observation about our weight or skin color. During training, our host families see us make many a fauz pas. They see us react uncomfortably to situations or comments that are perfectly normal and acceptable in Paraguayan society. They have to deal with us accidentally doing and saying things that are perfectly normal in the USA, but inappropriate here. They might see us battle our first bout of homesickness… or physical sickness like continuous vomiting and diarrhea (which must be almost as bad to overhear as it is to experience). Essentially they see us at a very vulnerable stage in our time in-country. We are still learning the basics. We make mistakes with them that after a month or two in country we would never dream of making, and by the time we get placed in our permanent site, we forgot we ever had to learn.

It is hard to be a trainee, but being a host family is challenging too.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

One person's trash, is another person's ground cover...

One cultural difference:

I am facing increasing pressure from my landlady/neighbor to “clean up” my yard. Everyone who sees my yard from the taxi driver to the refrigerator deliveryman, mentions how dirty my yard is. Now I going to set aside the fact that it is socially acceptable here for someone who hardly knows you to tell you that your looks like a disaster, and am going to talk about what is viewed as “trash.”

I am told that my house (usually meaning yard-the overlap between ‘house’ and ‘yard’ is enough for a whole other entry) is full of trash. When I look around, I see wonderful shady yard with some grass and lots of weeds. I do not see old tin roofing, glass bottles or broken toys (like I see in most other peoples yards). That’s because, culturally, I view inorganic litter as trash, and organic litter as… well, weeds no mas. However, in Paraguay trash (basura) can be both organic and inorganic. If you tell a group of Paraguayan children to go collect a bunch of basura, you are likely going to end up with a pile of leaves, sticks and weeds. When I clean up my yard, I pick up the candy wrappers and caña bottles that people have tossed. I don’t pick the groundcover (weeds). Trash is relative; its what you have learned to view as ugly.

For nearly a year now I have “cleaned” my yard as little as possible. When I look around, I just don’t see the trash like other people. To me personally, a yard covered by ground cover/weeds, is more lindo that an area picked clean and dusty with the red dirt of Paraguay. However, several people have informed me that I will “clean” my yard before my parents come to visit, and because I try to be culturally appropriate when possible, I am going to try to do just that.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Standfast, Buenos Aires, and other news.

Now that I have regular and reliable internet access, I am going to try updating this blog similarly to a journal. Before I was just posting copies of my massive emails home to friends and loved ones. This will be a trial run. If, by treating this more like a journal and less like CC on an email, I end up writing in my paper journal less, I will have to reevaluate. But it should mean that my updates will be much more frequent.

Now, for the hot topics I’m thinking about and dealing with currently:

  • I just got back from a Buenos Aires vacation with other volunteers. I’m exhausted with good food, good wine, and amazing tango. I’m also vaguely trying to plot a future that has me living in BA for a while.
  • Departmento San Pedro volunteers (like myself) are on an extended Standfast (meaning PC says we cant leave site or travel) due to the State of Exception President Lugo ratified last week. A State of Exception “provides civil and military authorities broad powers to detain any individual that they suspect of wrong doing. The military and National Police have been mobilized and are currently patrolling San Pedro and Concepcion Departments.” This sounds way more serious and scary than it actually is. Not much has happened, and the Standfast will probably be called off next week. For me, the biggest downside of this is that I don’t get a volunteer visit from the new group of PC Agriculture trainees. I think a trainee would have gotten a lot out of a visit here seeing as how I am:

  1. happy
  2. in a supper authentic campo house
  3. have a great garden
  4. have golden nuggets of wisdom to bestow upon them
  5. have a chuchi new bed and mattress

  • My garden has exploded with more vegetables than I can possibly eat. It has also exploded with more weeds than I can possibly pull.
  • I have successfully made banana bread several times now. It is delicious.
  • My house doesn’t have mice, just finches that flit in and out. I think its rather nice.
  • My land lady finally moved into a house they have been building for months. Unfortunately its located about 8 meters from my house. I planted a small fence of trees to create a sense of separation. Alas they are only about 4 inches tall right now. Maybe I have nothing to worry about. Vamos a ver.