Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Cultural Stuff, Routine, Good times.

Ha. A dog just walked by my computer at the internet cafe. Oh Paraguay.

Here´s a mixin´ of some stuff I wrote this week. Please don´t worry anyone if you don´t read it all. My mom told me to just keep it comin`, so I know I write a lot. Also, I just like to write. So enjoy what you wish.

June 19 Cultural Oops!

There are a million mistakes I could be making right now. I could be insulting someone, telling someone I love them, or inviting someone to bed without having any idea I’m doing so. This is the conundrum of cultural adaptation.

It’s amazing when you consider my humiliating history of foot-in-mouth action, making an idiot of myself on regular occasions in my own culture, using my own language, being one of the group. Here I’m bound to make endless bungles.

Example: One volunteer needed some work done on her electricity. So she had her friend tell the electrician to come to her house. He did, and she invited him in, where, as she began showing him her outlets and wires that needed work, he promptly wrapped his arms around her and gave her a kiss. She felt assaulted. He felt embarrassed.

Now children, what went wrong here?

1. In Paraguay, two people of the opposite sex are never alone together, unless some business is about to go down.

2. Nobody lives alone, so when Mr. Electrician came in and the woman was alone, he took that as a sign of her intent. (Bow-chicka-bow-bow)

So, before you all get worried that every serviceman is going to try to accost me, tranquilo. We had a class yesterday on relationships in Paraguay. To avoid this kind of situation, this volunteer should have simply invited a child to come over to accompany.

At the class, many of us found out we had already given mixed signals. For instance, there’s a culture here of having “jakares”, or man friends who climb through the window at night, nobody-has-to-know style. So, to my friend Matt’s host dad, it must have looked pretty bad that time he caught me tapping on Matt’s window. (I was trying to give him my laptop without waking the family).

Matt also realized he had led on a poor 17-year-old who has been hard-core fancying him. When you send your “saludos” to someone, that’s a sign you want to date. A few days before our class, when his little brother asked if he wanted to go to said jailbait’s house, he said no, but send his saludos, to be polite. His little brother came back with a grin and said she also sends her saludos.

Also, if you ask for a meeting on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday or Sunday, those are date days. Fridays are for your girl on the side, so it might insult a respectable lady if you ask her out that day.

And don’t make the hand sign for the motorcycle rev here, because that means something pretty vulgar as well.

So much to remember! Here I am worried about getting my words right (half of which have double slang meanings) in two languages, and there are so many other ways I could be sending the wrong message.

It’s a hard balance as well with family life. I’m used to being a free lady all about town, and momma loves that. But there are all these cultural rules here about women and what’s respectable. I shouldn’t walk alone, shouldn’t drink, shouldn’t smile too much at men or dance too much or dance that way or wear this or say that.

Last night, we decided to stay in Guarambare, the main training community, with the other group of volunteers, to watch the futbol game and drink a little brewsky. Oh, it felt so good to just chill out. However, the whole time I was wondering, was it getting too late? Was my family going to be upset that I was missing dinner? Every time I do something else, it’s more like I’m not hanging out with them. I didn’t get home until 8:30, Que tarde! It’s very hard to balance everyone you’re trying to please, along with keeping yourself sane.

There’s a big culture of “chisme” or gossip here, so one faux paus and you’re the laughing stock of the town. It’s been humbling, for sure. I’m sure more mistakes will be made, miscommunications will happen. It’s all about learning to laugh at it, and remember not to be alone with any men!

June 22 What is gross?

I was thinking about this today as the woman at the despensa, the little cement building with shelves lining the walls inside, whipped out the meat grinder. She latched on the attachment, and I saw that the screen where the meat dispensed was chock full of red circles. I presumed these were stuck little discs of old meat. Were they discs or tubes? How deep did they go? And when were they from?

I waited as she chopped off a half kilo of beef for our empanadas. Maybe she would let the red leftovers drop into a separate bag to be discarded, then switch to a perfectly clean bag for ours.

But no, she dropped in chunks and out they came in Playdough sqiggles, and I stared wondering where the old meat ended and the new meat began. But you couldn’t tell.

In the U.S., no doubt there are gross things going on in the beginnings of our manufacturing cycles, things we try not to think about while spraying down our kitchens with bleach. Here you`re just much closer to it.

June 23 I’m an idiot.

This happened just a few days after I got here, as I was trying to chat with my 22-year-old sister. We’re sitting there, across the table. I’ve already said the weather’s nice, and I’m looking around for something else to comment on.

I notice her looking at my shirt. Yes, that. It’s beige with a miniature picture of Milton from Office Space, you know the movie about how much working in a cubicle sucks. Needing to buy new clothes for the Peace Corps, I purchased it as a celebration of getting out of cubicle life. Ha ha, I’m free, I’m out of here.

The shirt has across it Milton’s line: Excuse me, I believe you have my stapler. (Ha! There aren’t any staplers in the Paraguyan countryside! Get it?)

So, then I start explaining the shirt to my sister, chuckling.

“See, this movie, it’s about, when you work in the U.S., we have to sit in these boxes, and, see this little thing on the guy’s shirt? We have to wear name tags --” This is where I realize that I’m explaining to a third-world country woman how much it sucks to work in an air-conditioned room while sitting on my butt in a cushioned rolling chair, drinking coffee that costs more than people make in a day here, if they can get work. I hate myself.

“um, and see, men wear, uh, ties.”

I’m not sure how to back out of the conversation as I remember that teachers here will work years without pay at new schools, before their salaries are approved, just to hold their spot. Many children go to Argentina at the age of 12 to work making shoes. Some Paraguayan towns lose half their populations as people have to go abroad, leave their children for years on end, to earn money. Here people dream of working in factories.

It’s funny that I view Paraguay as my salvation, my getting out. Getting out of what? We get to choose these things. We get to choose to not sell out. To be not only a writer, but this kind of writer, not that. I realize now how free we really are, and I can’t remember exactly why we feel trapped. Here I see how silly our stories are that we tell ourselves (or that others tell us and we believe), that our lives are so terrible and we need to escape, that we need a better car, that we need to get that better house. It`s amazing to me that I can be happy here on $3 a day. And I hope that I can always remember when I return that I have everything I need to be happy, even if I have to sit in a cubicle.

June 24 - Typical Day in the life

It’s been almost a month, and my new routine has sunk in.

Last night I went to bed at 8. Since it gets dark now at about 5:30, that feels late. As usual I woke at about 6 to the roosters. I laid in bed relaxing in my sleeping bag-comforter roll-up until 6:30, until I got the knock on my door and the voice of my Paraguayan madre, “Paulita.”

I got up in the clothes I had planned to wear today (forgot to pack pjs), put on my leather shoes I wear everywhere. My madre asked me something that included the phrase “toma cocido,” so I said “si” and went out on the patio, where she was still stirring the steaming milky concoction, my mug on a plate with coquitas, like little crispy rolls, and bread. I drank and watched the roosters walking around, with their heads like the hands of people walking like an Egyptian.

By 6:40 I’d grabbed my bag and my bottle of water and headed next door. I clapped outside the door of my buddy Matteo. Clapping is what people do instead of ringing doorbells. He and I walked the red dirt road, avoiding lava flows of cow poop, to meet the others.

Usually we have school here, in a rented house, but some days we go to Guarambare to meet up with the Muny (or municipal) volunteers. My group is the RED group, six of us who’ll be working with co-ops.

We walked three cobblestoned kilometers to the bus stop at the routa, passing others with an “Adios,” which is what people in the campo say instead of hola. We passed ox carts and cows grazing, some so thin that their skin looks like black velvet vacuum-packed over sticks.

We got on the bus for 2300 Guaranis. The bus drivers make change while they drive. They all have huge stickers of fringe going across the window, but this morning’s had impressive pom'poms.

We have to stop off at an intersection called Tres Bocas to catch the next bus. Then it’s to the school.

Today at school the group was crowded around Julie’s injured hand. It’s the San Juan festival, celebrating the saint of fire. As part of the celebration, some people walk on fire, they burn a stuffed guy hanging from a tree, and the kids kick around a flaming ball. What could go wrong? Well, poor Julie was at the wrong place during the wrong flame-ball kicking, and she caught one right to the shoulder. She knocked it off with her hand, which is now slightly 3rd-degree burned.

They ring a bell when we have to go inside. Our schooling is handled by a company called CHP. Many of our teachers are Paraguyans or former volunteers who married Pyns. Our classes are increasingly in Spanish only.

They’re teaching us to be teachers, really. As they teach us, they’re having us pay attention to the manner in which they do so, so we can copy their skills to build the capacity of the people we serve, help them help themselves. Teach a man to fish and all that.

We get to get out a lot. Yesterday we went to a plant nursery. Today we traveled in partners, and this other girl and I went to the house of a local to learn how to cook with soy. Working in Spanish, we make soy empanadas and soy tortillas. And, after learning how soy is a healthier alternative to meat, we fried those suckers up. Other trainees came over to join us, and we ate the fried goodness along with salad, mandioca and soy-pineapple juice.

Afterward, we drew up our directions on big “charla” paper and presented our instructions to the class in Spanish.

In the afternoon we learned more about methods of talking with people. You could do a survey and map out (very informally) the town to meet all the neighbors. You could do a needs assessment or you could do a feasibility study on an idea.

This is all very developmenty talk that makes me wonder what I’m doing here at times. However, when you talk to the actual volunteers, they do so many cool creative projects that it gives me hope that I will find my place once I get to site. People have started internet cafes, libraries, photography projects, craft co-ops, all kinds of stuff.

During the break we usually throw the frisbee or sneak off the the despensa to buy cookies or cheese puffs and coke.

Afterward we take the bus back. At Tres Bocas there’s a stand to buy meat on a stick. My buddy Tim is an avid meat-lover, and having had to eat soy all day, he was dying for some asadito action today. We all stood waiting and gnawing on the sticks.

Today we started reminiscing about cereal. “Who ate Raisin Nut Bran?” “Oh hell Yeah!” “No, Honey Bunches of Oats is where it’s at.” “Oh yeah, with bananas.”

High fives were exchanged over the love of Lucky Charms.

Then it was on to ice cream, and my buddy Pooja was cruel enough to describe in detail her favorite mix at Cold Stone. Oh coffee ice cream, wait for me my love.

We crammed onto to a bus already packed. I was the last one to get one, and the driver started taking off before I had two feet in. The guy behind me just grabbed on and pulled himself in, and kind of pushed me in as well. We rode in the stairwell.

One time on the bus I was the last one packed in the back door, and I rode with the door open, standing on the bottom step, just hanging on with the road whizzing right by my feet.

The walk back from the bus stop is long, but it gives us all a chance to talk. Tonight we were planning our first night out in Asuncion. It’s 40000 Gs for the hotel room! Then I think, oh, that’s only $10. Then, oh, I make $3 a day.

The walk home is extra long because, it being dark, we walk Pooja to her house, then back to our place. I sat down to some more cocido and my Spanish books. At some point I’ll have to shower, or maybe tomorrow.


Janice said...

Hi Paulette,
When you return from this adventure, you will have gained so much that we can only imagine.....I know I could not do what you are doing and am very proud of you. A box of Lucky Charms will be consumed in your honor at the beach... love you very much Aunt Janice

Dwayne said...

Once you learn Guarani, if you hear of any US military humanitarian missions happening in Paraguay, please go help them. I was lucky enough to go on a mission as a member of the Air National Guard and my Spanish was not all that useful. Fortunately, about a dozen or so PCVs swooped in to help with translations.
Good luck and keep up the interesting writing style.

Ileana said...

funny :)