Wednesday, December 10, 2008



Here are some pictures from our Thanksgiving Vacation. My friend up there looked upon us at every meal in the dining room. We argued whether it was a dog or not. It looks like a dog.

Our private pool

The two lower pools, thank you very much.

The view

The terere circle.

Nov. 25. Journalist, Romance Novelist

So I wrote this thing. It’s evolved from a joke into a short story entitled, Hold Me Like a Guampa. (guampa: cup for terere) I’ll be reading it at the talent show at Thanksgiving.

Since I was in 7th grade yearbook I’ve been writing for credits or money, and now it has nothing officially to do with my role here. Suddenly no one except my mother is expecting me to write something. So suddenly I can write anything.

This is how you go from being a reporter to writing fake Peace Corps romance novels.

So my mom says, why don’t you just put some of it on your blog?

Because the wider your audience the more juicy stuff you have to cut out, in general, and because we’ve been asked not to embarrass the Peace Corps on our blogs (too late?), I’ll give you just a taste.

So it begins when a fellow volunteer sneaks through her window and she puts on Jack Johnson music and then...

She heard only the soft scrunching of her mattress as he sat beside her and fondled at the elastic ties at the hem of her pants. She peered over the top of her notebook to see him grinning up at her as he reached under and scrunched down her bug-repellant tube socks. She started to smirk as he ran his hand up her shin, bending hair back like tall grass in the summer breeze.

“You shaved this month,” he said.

Full copies available upon request, but the point is that, along with this blog, I get to write just because I like to. Once the label came off of what kind of writer I am, it just became so much more fun.

I can’t explain why art is important. But it is, and I love that. I love being in this town where all these people are feeding and clothing their families, doing very real-life things, all thanks to their craft. Sometimes I feel afraid that people are going to stop appreciating art, and all of us will have to leave what we love doing. (Not that the women never complain about how much work Ao Poi is.)

I recently read something that in my eyes will forever make it ok for me to be a writer. If I have to do other work to make money and eat, I will. But I’ll still be a writer.

It’s from Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” In the middle of talking about starvation and death, he writes about how, while working in the trenches, the prisoners would nudge each other to point out a beautiful sunset, or admire the mountains through the small window of the rail cars taking them to camps.

He then mentions art.

“Is there such a thing in a concentration camp?

...A kind of cabaret was formed from time to time. A hut was cleared out temporarily, a few wooden benches were pushed or nailed together...In the evening those who had fairly good positions in camp -- the Capos and the workers who did not have to leave camp on distant marches -- assembled there. They came to have a few laughs or perhaps to cry a little; anyway, to forget. There were songs, poems, jokes, some with underlying satire regarding the camp.

All were meant to help us forget, and they did help. The gatherings were so effective that a few ordinary prisoners went to see the cabaret in spite of their fatigue and even though they missed their daily portion of food by going.”

Nov. 25 - Modeling career continues

This morning I woke up, pulled my back doing yoga, showered, then took the scissors to a long skirt and headed out. I was hanging out at the coop when they got a call that the reporter from the newspaper ABC Color was coming out to take photos as a promotion for the upcoming Ao Poi fair.

It was so funny to see this scenario from the other end. The girls were running around cleaning up the place, folding shirts, putting on makeup. They told me to put on an Ao Poi shirt.

I couldn’t find one that fit me and that I liked (one of our projects is to change the designs to appeal to younger people).

My friend Leitdy showed up, the Ao Poi queen from last year. She’s did her hair up and her makeup, and I think, maybe I should go get an Ao Poi shirt that I know looks good on me.

I go to walk home and am intercepted by the coordinator of the show, who’s with the reporter. I tell her I’m going to get a shirt, and she grabs my hand and pulls me toward the coop and says we’ll find one there.

By this time another of the girls that will modeling shows up, in all her beautiful glory. They put her in an adorable little tank top and skirt. They put me in a shirt the same color of the one I had to wear when I worked at Astro Skate.

At this point the hilarity of how crappy I’m going to look next to these girls overrides my fear of seeing myself look like a hot pink mess in a national newspaper.

We take some posed shots, and then, against everything I stand for as a journalist, they made me pose like I was shopping for clothes.

Maybe that will be the picture that makes it. I hope so. It’s from farther away.

(Epilogue: The photo in the paper came out of me shopping, the caption calling me a client. I’ll never work in journalism again. My pulled back muscle was healed by my friend’s aunt, who took me in, closed all the doors, and rubbed a bombilla made of silver on it. )

Nov. 27: Thanksgiving

We had our annual Thanksgiving vacation in a beautiful hotel in Encarnation. We all met up in the capital, Asuncion, to catch the 6-hour bus. We rode south past fields of sunflowers, which look lime green as you zoom by.

My mock Peace Corps romance novel went over well. Other highlights of the talent show included the fake band Bad Chipa, singing their ode to Thanksgiving entitled Stuffing in my Pockets.

After the talent show there was a dance party. At three a.m. I got hot and organized a swim, high dive included, then we went back to the dance floor. At 5:30 a.m. the sun was up, and I said, OK, it’s a new day. I give. I went to bed, but I hear the others made it to breakfast at 7.

There were games and events, which I mostly ignored. Not to be a party pooper, but I just wanted to lay by the pool, so I did.

Much of the details will have to be left out of this one, but let’s just say it was a bunch of consenting adults who had been in the campo for a little too long, having some good, clean fun.

Dec. 2: Last Day in the Capital

The last day in Asuncion, you’re exhausted. You’ve been there days longer than you had planned, because the doctor couldn’t see you about your rash until tomorrow, or because it rained and the buses won’t run on the dirt road to your town, or just because someone said “C’mon, we’re going to the Brit Pub tonight.”

You have on your last pair of worn-once underwear, inside-out. Your jeans are soggy. Your armpit peels open every time you reach out a hand to hail a bus. That last day in Asuncion, that smell is you.

By the last day in Asuncion, the straps of your backpack feel like hands on your shoulders, pulling you down. Every time you heft the bag to the ground and open it up, to look for a shirt that doesn’t stink or for that other stash of cash you thought you had, the zipper unleashes the stench of anything you’ve sat in or spilled on yourself since you left site. Your toiletry bag is slimy.

You’ve already made the mistake of buying something large, like you forgot you no longer drive a car with a trunk. And so everywhere you go, you’re holding this bag without handles, that slips through your sweaty palms and slaps and spins against your legs as you walk.

Anywhere you stop, to wait for the rest of the group to catch up or to figure out on which side of the street you need to catch the bus, the pain resumes in your feet right where it left off. When you scratch the mosquito bites on your leg, your nails come up with scrape samplings the same color of the dirt that settles into the sidewalk cracks.

Your money is more gone than it should be. The remnants are thrown all over your bag, with old bus tickets and receipts, in whatever pocket it was easiest to toss, so that you could get out of the way of the next traveler trying to get on before the bus started rolling away.

That last day, the battery gauge on your iPod is but a red sliver, threatening to give out before the bus ride back to site. You’re wondering where you house key is these days.

On the last day, you’re so sick of feeling like a traveler that the last thing you want to do is travel more. And you already missed the afternoon bus, and the terminal is so far. So maybe this last day won’t be the last one after all.

Dec. 6: 1 a.m. Can’t sleep. So I’ll write about

Cockroaches. They’re big. When I see one on the wall, I have to kick off my shoes, jump on it’s back on wrestle it down with a chokehold until it stops struggling.

Mothers. I have about 50 mothers in town. Everywhere I go, someone is telling me my skin going to get burnt, and I should wear long sleeves. And obviously there’s the fat talk. But on the good side, when I was sick, they gave me lunches and left their cellphones when I didn’t have mine.

Feelings. When I was in college I walked by a Peace Corps information table, picked up a flier, read the first line and said, “Two years?!” Then made a sound like “Psha.” But I thought I had a feeling as I walked away. I just never told you that.

Food. If anyone has any great vegetarian recipes that can be made without tahini or whole green cardamom pods or whatever exotic spices that are stopping me from making all the recipes I have on hand, I’d love to hear them. My current menu consists of fried rice, rice and soy sauce, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, peanut butter and honey sandwich, or yogurt. I have all those dishes pretty much down, and I think I’m ready to expand my repertoire.

Being solo. Overall, I’m so happy here. I ride my bike through town, yelling Adios to all the people I know, stopping by shops and chatting and laughing, loving it.

But sometimes I remember how alone I am. I usually eat alone. I’m alone at night. I’m developing a habit of talking to myself that I have to check if the windows are open. I say “Mm-hmm” to when I agree with the person talking on my podcasts. The long space next to me in bed is filled with books laid open, my ipod and its cords, my computer.

And that can get hard. But other people, with children and dogs and jobs, would say they’d love to have a little cabin in the middle of South America to just be in alone, to read and cook and eat and enjoy music and do whatever the hell they want.

So when I feel down, I never let it last long. And when I am that person with the kids and the dogs and the errands, I’ll try to see the best in that too.

Dec. 10: But today...
In the cyber cafe and it´s pouring rain outside, so guess I´ll write a little bit. I have other blogs at home to up load, so I´ll add them to this post later.

I´ll just say what I did today:
So the Festival of Ao Poí, the local craft, starts this weekend. I have about six people coming to stay in my two-room house, so I´m slightly stressed. Oh yeah, and I´m out of money, my credit card is expired, and I tried to remember the pin to my ATM card so many times that I locked the card up. So life´s a little tricky.

This morning I went to Villarica to pick up a hair curler, some makeup and other things. Then I realized how broke I was and just got some food.

I was also charged a 20 mil naiveté tax: A while ago when they delivered my furniture, I didn´t have exact change and gave the guy 20 mil extra. I told him to tell his boss that I would be back to buy more furniture and he could just take 20 off then. So I went into today to buy a new plastic chair (clumsy tax: 40 mil for standing on a chair and breaking it). And, surprise, the boss knew nothing of the 20 mil.

I had lunch with Brennan and Mary, the volunteers from Villarica. Then I went to the air-conditioned café attached to the grocery store to use internet there. I saw two girls sitting by the windows with huge packs, practically screaming out Peace Corps. I started talking to them and, yes, they were girls from the new group, meaning we´re not the newbies anymore. They´ve finished training and were on their way to their new sites.

I rode back in the little vans that run between Villarica and Yataity. My next door neighbors, who I consider to be my new host family, were on the bus. They had loaned me the chair that I broke, and they yelled at me for buying a new one, but I felt I should.

I had to bring some more fabric to the girl making my clothes for the Ao Poí fashion show, in her studio littered with fabric scraps. She made me a great black dress that I had to keep trying on. She´d mark it and then go to the machine and fix it and come back and I´d try it on again.

I had modeling practice at 3:30 for the Ao Poí fashion show. I did not know this stuff would be so serious when I agreed to do it. Ok, so I would have done it anyway, if only for my friend Kati as some kind of full circle conclusion to our addiction to the reality tv series America´s Next Top Model. I am one step closer to being Paraguay´s next top model.

At the beginning of the practice, the woman in charge asked that we all pray to God that the show goes well. We will do our part, and Jesus will do his part, she said.

We practiced for two and a half hours, for the love. Then she said that for the show, which starts at 9:45 p.m., we have to get our hair done at 10:30 a.m., then sit around all day together. Hey, it´s the prom. I don´t think my friends coming into town would like it if I ditched them all day Saturday, so I´m going to see if I can get out of it.

I had just a second to be home, then I had to come here to the internet cafe and see if my new pin number to my ATM card had arrived, but no. Now it´s off to the seamstress again for my other clothes.

Tomorrow another practice, I have to clean my house, try to get someone to put a door on my bathroom and fix my shower head. I have a computer class and have to make a poster for the cooperative´s stand.

Girls dancing with their embroidery rings

First Lady arrives

My friend Leidyd entertaining the First Lady

People taking photos with Leidyd

Dec. 13: Festival begins.

Friday morning I woke up and rolled out of bed for the Inauguration of the Ao Poi Festival. I got on my bike, and, passing my neighbor she pointed up, I noticed the sound of a helicopter. I continued riding and realized I was joining the flow of kids on bikes trying to arrive at the landing. So I went with.

Right in front of our little cemetery landed a huge military helicopter, and out came an entourage with the First Lady, who’s actually the sister of the president, wearing pink.

I rode to the coop, and Leitdy was there in all her Ao Poi Queen glory, looking gorgeous. Old ladies were posing for pictures with her.

I had thrown on a t-shirt, then I arrived to see that everyone else was in their Ao Poi best. At the ceremony they sat Leidyd next to the First Lady to chat. The show consisted of some dancing with embroidery rings as props and fake stitching dance moves. The older girls danced with bottles on their heads.

While running around preparing, I stopped for some terere and had my first 20-minute chat almost entirely in Guarani. Go me.

Guarani lesson from Sasha

Dec. 14: I don’t get out of bed for less than 10,000 Guaranis a day.

So all was crazy Saturday. Workmen were setting up the T-shaped catwalk in the plaza, the woman who was organizing the show was running around flailing a list of the models and yelling directions in Spanish over the Shania Twain music that we were walking to.

I had a bunch of friends coming into town to stock up on Ao Poi Christmas gifts, so there was house cleaning to be done on top of decorating the Coop, the endless modeling practices and my regular computer classes and such.

But in the middle of the craziness, I did my best to remain calm.

I asked my friend Courtney to do my makeup, but I was commandeered by the lady in charge. As she started using black eyeshadow, I could hear Courtney make a little noise like, “Oh, no.”

But it came out well.

The show was in the plaza with the raised stage, lights on scaffolding, huge speakers and a tarped dressing room backstage. There were three hairdressers in the dressing room teasing and spraying.

I had all my clothes made for me. “Bien sexy” said the seamstress when I’d tried them on that day.

Except the first round. They had us in “tunics”, which I think was a throw to the past. Mine was like a white sack with Ao Poi sleeves, but other girls just threw on cloth pinned around them. This stuff was really transparent and holey, so a lot of them looked like they were in their bra and thong covered in a screen.

As one girl went out, I saw a kid who looked about 13 sitting to the left of the stage, with a camera. Right as she did a turn, he put it out at arm’s length. After the flash he brought it in to see how the shot came out, and gave the Spanish equivalent of a “Yesssss!!!” I’m guessing it was a perfect butt shot.

In between each walk, people were tugging at me to help me undress. Girls were sliding sideways past each other and the racks of clothes, looking for lip gloss or a shirt.

The hairdressers would tell you to sit, then change your hair in some way, pinning it here and there. I didn’t even have time to check how I looked before I was out again.

It was just like on tv and I had to chuckle about fulfilling that girlhood fantasy of being a runway model ... in the Peace Corps.

I roped my friend Brennan into modeling with me, so he was back there trying to hide behind a rack of clothes. We walked out together once, and did hilarious over-the-top poses that had the crowd cheering.

The show ended up going until 1:30 in the morning. I came off the stage to my friends, who had been drinking since I left them at dinner to go get ready.

The red dress.

Syncronated turns with my friend Tamara. Love this black dress, and I paid for it all so I get to keep it.

Tamara, who ended up being crowned the new Ao Poí queen.

You can do a lot with Ao Poí.

The grand finale!

There are more photos at my friend´s site. If I get my hands on some other ones I´ll upload them later.

After the show is the afterparty.

We got back to my house and realized we had no options for buying beer. Hmm. I messaged my next door neighbor buddy and asked him what we should do. He told me to go to a store a few blocks from my house and just clap, that the guy didn’t mind being woken up.

By this time it was 2:30 a.m. Me, and my friends Rebecca and Shola are just standing on a dark street in front of a dark house in a silent residential neighborhood. And we just started clapping. Nothing. We clap again. I’m thinking, “I don’t know about this.”

Can you imagine going to the manager of Publix’s house at 2:30 in the morning and waking him up because you want more beer? You’d be arrested.

But after about five minutes, the light inside came on and the door opened. We were greeted with a smile from a sleepy, shirtless man who chatted with us as we roamed around and bought beers and little cakes and cigarettes, spending about 100,000 Gs, a good sale for him. By the time we were done other late-nighters had seen that they were open and were coming in the door. As a side-note, there are about 5 little stores within a block of my house. I now where my loyalty lies.

We stayed up until about 4, then 10 people slept in my two rooms. My next door neighbor Oscar said he came by on his way home from partying, at about 7 a.m., and said he wish he’d had a camera when he saw us through the window, all lined up and filling up nearly all the floor space in the house.

Dec. 15: Hello Gov’na

We went to the Governor’s office to meet him. We toured through the building and they told us that it was built durning the Strossner era and was meant to be very closed off and intimidating. The police were there to torture people. There’s still a police office there, but no torture.

They told us they were looking at reparations for people who had been tortured and killed. Right now they’re focusing on investigating in a few towns, including Yataity. I was like, wow, people in my little crafty town were tortured and killed under their government not too long ago. And here I’m like “I work for the government! I’m here to help!”

The memory of this era still keeps people from going to meetings, as that’s where many of the spies were. Creepy.

We met with the governor who was very nice and told us he could help us with projects and even share some of the costs. We’ll see how true that turns out to be.

Dec. 16: On the work front

It’s not all fun and games, if that’s the way I’m making it sound. My projects are forming and I think I’ll be really busy once the new year starts.

I’m starting a radio program with my buddy Brennan, who lives in Villarrica. We’re going to play some American music that they like here (Guns N’ Roses and Queen) and explain the lyrics. We’re going to play these pre-recorded educational bits. We’re going to talk about resources around town, such as centers for victims of domestic abuse. Hopefully once my language is up I’ll do some stories, too, recorded on the Edirol R-09 MP3 recorder I brought down. Gettin’ a little experience on the way to my dream of writing for This American Life (just thought I’d throw that out there in case someone is second cousins with Ira Glass.)

I’m trying to work with this committee that wants to start a library, but in the four months since I’ve arrived, they have yet to have a meeting. However I just heard that there’s some new money to apply for coming in January, so that got the head guy a little more excited. I just love the feeling of browsing around a library, and I that’s one of the best things I think I could leave behind here.

I’m going to start an English class out of my house for people who have studied English for a long time buy need to practice. I will teach them things like “What’s up happenin’ hot stuff?” and “Who ganked my last pizza slice?”

And finally, yet most important, there’s my work with the Coop. My computer classes are going well. There have been a lot of opportunities to use the class to actually do something, like make a poster for the stand at the festival.

Computer class today, I decided we’d write a letter to the governor about trying to establish a Web site and delicately asking for some funds. It took us two hours, but we used a very nice form letter and even printed an envelope. I’ll be delivering it by hand this week.

It’s been tough trying to figure out exacting how we’re going to set up this site, who’s going to manage it, how much exporting costs and all that, but its going poco a poco, little by little.

Obama: Someone asked me if Obama meant "He changed" in Guarani. Well, "ba" is the verb to move. "O" is the third person indicator. "ma" is what you tag on to verbs to mean "already." So it means "he moved already." Leading to this joke:

A Paraguayan went to the White House and wanted to talk to George Bush. He found a Paraguayan security guard and demanded to speak to Bush. "He's not here," said the guard. "Obama."

Get it? Ok, well, if you ever go to Paraguay, just know it kills here.

This is just a great pic of Don Portillo in front of the tatakua, where you cook chipa

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