Friday, March 27, 2009

Paraguayan Polka

Hey guys,
So I brought this recorder down here to play with, and I've been trying to figure out how to get mp3s on the blog. To do that, I learned, I have to turn them into movies with just a picture in the background.

So here's the first attempt, with a picture of the house across the way in the rain and a recording I took in the afternoon one day recently. If I sound cranky, it's only because I had wanted to take a siesta, and then...

Radio Show...Gross...Presentation Time

March 14: Radio Show
The radio show has been the one constant something in this work of so many half-things and quasi-successes. Every week, Brennan comes in one the 2:30 van from Villarrica. One of us prepares the music, with info on the band, the other prepares the educational topic for the week. Kanye West and dental health, things like that.

A 15-year-old named Carlito runs the equipment, mixing music with his headphones on while we play our songs, switching off the music and on our microphones when we signal him.
Lately we’ve been doing better with the witty banter.

Sometimes I wonder if we’ve made any help at all. Did that dental show save but one tooth? But you just have to keep marching on like a drum major, without knowing if even one person is following behind you.

Last week he showed up while I was t-raying in my hammock with Oscar. We sat for a bit, then Oscar kept telling me it was time for me to go, with his eyes on my hammock. So during the show I sent saludos to the neighbor in my hammock.

After the show, which was about diabetes and health and hip hop, Brennan and I walked back and passed Oscar on his bike. I wondered where his moto was.

I talked to him later, after he’d gotten back from the gym (I don’t remember him ever mentioning going to the gym before.)

He told me that he was lying in my hammock, listening with the radio on the stool next to him. He died laughing at my saludo, he said, and I laughed that they use that phrase too: morir de reirse.

Then, as we were talking about health, he said he looked at himself in the hammock and thought “¿Que es mi vida?” (What is my life?) And he got up, and he got on his bike, and he went and exercised.

Bam! Changing lives, people. Changing lives. Next week: Nutrition and Sublime.

March 16: Where There Is No Doctor (Today’s post is: gross)
Looking for information on this last show about diabetes prevention, I went to the book Where There Is No Doctor. This book is given to all volunteers. It’s literally a guidebook for everyone in the world, translated to everything from Quechua to Tswana to Thai with do-it-yourself healthcare. It has graphic drawings and I try not to look at it right before going to bed.

There’s page 5. WITCHCRAFT--BLACK MAGIC--AND THE EVIL EYE. “Do not waste your money at ‘magic centers’ that claim to cure witchcraft. And do not seek revenge against a witch, because it will not solve anything.

It talks about home remedies, and how some might not work. Take these examples from Mexico for how to cure goiter.

No. 2 is just really disgusting and inappropriate, even compared to No. 4. My mother will call and tisk at me if I put it up and say, “Paulette, dis-gust-ing!” So I will spare you all.

On page 127 I found info on diabetes: “In order to find out whether a person has diabetes, test her urine to see if there is sugar in it. One way to test the urine is to taste it. If it tastes sweet to you, have 2 other persons taste it. Have them also taste the urine of 3 other people. If everyone agrees that the same person’s urine is sweeter, she is probably diabetic.”

Let’s hope this patient has good friends.

The book tries to speak in the most common language, for example, when talking on age 131 (see illustration to right) about prevention of sickness and sanitation:

“Germs and worms (or their eggs) are passed by the thousands in the stools or feces (shit) of infected persons. .... For example: A child who has worms and who forgot to wash his hands after his last bowel movement, offers his friend a cracker. His fingers, still dirty with his own stool, are covered with hundreds of tiny worm eggs (so small they can not be seen). Some of these worm eggs stick to the cracker. When his friend eats the cracker, he swallows the worm eggs, too. Soon the friend will also have worms. His mother may say this is because he ate sweets. But no, it is because he ate shit!”

The book is hilarious, but also scary. There are illustrated instruction on inserting your own catheter. It’s a reminder of all those places out there where there really is no doctor. For bringing medical knowledge to the world I truly respect its author. But also, you’ve just got to laugh at the Butt-cracker.

March 25th: Marshmallow cookout
Oscar has been bugging me to get him whatever it is those people in the movies are holding over the campfire. That white thing.

The bag arrived this morning in a box of miscellaneous goods from my mother. He smelled it. I smelled it.

Later that day I found out we might have to postpone our planned marshmallow eating due to a schedule conflict. But Oscar said, “No! Ever since I was a little boy I’ve been waiting to eat those things that I saw in the movies.”

That night in the dark we went to my side of the yard, next to the latrine my host mom sometimes still uses, though they have a modern bathroom. That’s where we burn the trash, and where the kindling twigs are stacked. Vanessa held my headlamp and Oscar had his cell phone flashlight. They asked me for a description of the kind of stick they should find. Short? Long? Thick? Are we going to wash them? asked Oscar. How closed should we hold them to the fire? Like this? they asked, as we held them over the charcoal fire.

Then they put them in their mouths and I loved their faces, and those Paraguayan sounds. Ay! as in, “Ay! Que rico!” Vanessa says like a 50’s girl swooning. Even I had forgotten how delicious a fire-melted marshmallow was. Oscar got a huge smile on his face, as if it were everything he dreamed it would be.

Hanging out and toads
We cooked meat, which was put on the table in chunks and just kind of hacked away at and eaten. I brought out my ipod speaker dock and we sat in a chair circle. Eventually most of the family had gone to bed, but we stayed out with some friends, just drinking beer and talking and laughing. It felt just like home.

We told romance horror stories. Turns out heartbreak’s the same here too.

I ran to my house for something and saw a huge toad right next to my door, as I do some nights. I decided (it was about 1 a.m. now) that it would be funny to pick it up and place it on Oscar’s lap, which I politely did after walking to the circle from behind him, one hand behind my back.

You know when you say something or do something and you immediately have this feeling you’ve crossed the line? That’s exactly how I felt when I saw his face. He pulled his whole upper body as far away from the toad as he could. He man-screamed. Words were coming out of his mouth, the same words over and over, which I guessed was something like “Get it off me! Get it off me!” Everyone was staring and kind of shocked, I felt hot in the face. I reached back to get it and put it on the ground.

There was this pause where everyone just breathed, like the seconds right after a car accident or something. I laughed an embarrassed laugh.

It took some weird conversation, but eventually I realized they were telling me that they think toads are like the biggest, grossest thing out there. And if they pee in your eye, you go blind. Se dice, no más (Which translates to: That’s what they say, anyway).

I tried to understand by imagining someone putting a cockroach on me. Which is, consequently, exactly how Oscar is planning to exact his revenge.

March 26: Look out, she’s got a laptop!
Though it was against every fiber of my being and it pained me greatly, I scheduled a presentation on the same day I was going to go to Villa Florida for the infamous Semana Santa party.

I’ve been wanting to do this presentation, we call them charlas, on how we can better the Ao Poi shop. I took some photos and sent them with a request for advice to my friend Erica who works at Saks and my sister-in-law Stephanie, who works at Nordstrom’s.

They both replied with lots of great advice, and I couldn’t wait to share it with the ladies. But then the trouble: how do you get people who work at a place 7 days a week to stay two hours late one day. Maybe even Saturday or Sunday. Goo.

They wanted to spruce up the shop for the holiday week, when we have more customers, and they couldn’t wait until after I was to come back. So I did the adult thing, my every fiber screaming.

My first big-girl charla. Where all my friends and co-workers will humor me and attend, or no one will attend at all. Where this foreigner will stand in front of them and say in crappy Spanish: “Hey, you guys should do this extra work!”

I was wondering if I should do a PowerPoint on my shiny Mac or use the old “charla paper” method, where we make our point with markers and the huge paper elementary teachers write cursive on. I decided to go for the Mac, though we’ll all kind of have to gather around it. And I’m going to wow those people. Because if this charla doesn’t suck so bad, maybe they’ll attend more.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Paraguayans...Huerta...Staying In

Good morning. I'm in Asuncion on a mission to find us a web page designer. Thought I'd upload some random shots of life in Paraguay.

So I think a good theme for these photos is people. I really want you guys to get to see more of the people of Paraguay.

Lady on a mule, getting from point A to point B

Woman selling brooms outside the co-op.

Militar in Villarrica, gun in one hand and terere juyos in the other.

Mariela and Leidyd with their mom, Ña. Celia, on the day Leidyd won Queen of the Futbol Clubs. She's the queen of everything.

Little boy who lives next door to Stu.
Apparently he wears these goggles all the time.

Free lawn service. My host dad ties two sticks of bamboo
to the handles of his clippers to reach those high spots.
He's quite guampo. And Oscar holds the t-ray pitcher and watches.

March 11: Huerta
I felt unsure about digging up the grass in my back yard for a
huerta, the word for garden that now seems like the right word to use all the time. I have so many things going on, and I didn’t want to add more responsibility, more things to my To Do list. I’ve been feeling a little, well, stressed.

But then Sasha yelled at me, and said of course I’m going to have a huerta, this is Peace Corps dammit. And she was right.

I remember that first time I took home from school a lima bean in a clear plastic cup, pushed against the clear plastic with a damp paper towel and placed on my window sill. And then it opened up and a plant came out.

I recently held a leaf and thought, what is this made of? A seed, water, dirt, and what? What’s that fourth thing, that mysterious engine that makes life go? Whatever it is, we could all use a reminder of that, an alter to that, in our back yards.

So I cut off the sides of milk boxes and filled them with dirt. Little kids came by and I let them help, even if it meant my transplanted green onions from the huerta across the street fell to every direction. I check every morning as new plants of basil, hot peppers and tiny trees wake up and stretch toward the sun.

I think: If I go back far enough, me and this plant share an ancestor.

While I’m out there I wave to my neighbors. Ña Maria on the left tells me to watch out for Ati on the right, as she’ll steal my onions. Ati tells me to look out for Maria. They both laugh afterward and I guess this is a Paraguayan joke.

Oscar breaking ground

Oscar and I made seed beds one late afternoon as the temperature dropped just a bit. I tried to be guapa with the shovel, but he worked ahead of me, faster and stronger, of course. And we disagreed on nearly every point. When he said the little stone path I had created and showed him proudly would only made the ground hotter, I taught him the American saying “kiss my ass.” Now he keeps walking around saying “kees may ass.”

But better that it’s
ñande huerta (our huerta) than che huerta (my huerta), so that I can text him when I’m out of town and tell him it’s his turn to water the garden.

The back of my house with my freshly made huerta.

March 13: Staying In
Today I flaked on a trip to a waterfall swimming hole. It didn’t feel good, but my life was out of balance: dishes piled up, flash cards dusty, my knees still scabbed from the wrestling Shola on the beach on our last get-together.

It was a good day in-site day. I watered my garden, studied a little Guarani, a little Spanish subjunctive. I sat with the ladies at the post office and stiched a little Ao Poi when I went to pick up a package from my mom. One woman mentioned that her daughter loves to read and I noted that for later, when I’ll need help with a library project.

I shared the Jelly Belly’s with my friends at the co-op, giving them the Buttered Popcorn flavor. They guessed: What is this black, this purple?

I lunched next door, and Ña. Maria explained to me how to make beans and Paraguayan cheese.
After lunch I had time to put up my hammock and read a bit. Oscar brought me a glass of sweetened grapefruit juice and I was officially living the dream.

I went to the cyber cafe and booked a flight home, spurred by my friend Mateo leaving yesterday for his visit. I chatted with a friend on Skype.

Then I taught my friend Excel, just a half hour because it was her first time and she smiled with her teeth closed and looked afraid.

Then more Ao Poi with my ladies across the street. I had them cracking up with stories of how bad my Spanish was while I was living in Aveiro, of how I was so broke in college that I sold plasma for beer money. I love telling stories in Spanish/Guarani. Things that happened in English so far from here that never thought they’d be translated and relayed in South America.

For a snack I had my first taste of avocado Paraguay style: pureed with sugar and milk, which I must say is delicioso.

We went to grandma’s birthday at night. She’s turning 81 and has one tooth hanging on with her.
Something happened with this woman a few months ago that I didn't think much of it at the time, but it persists as one of my favorite memories: While I was cutting up some watermelon, I saw her sitting alone in the back yard, out where there's always steam in the mornings from mandioca boiling over a little charcoal stove. We had only spoken once before. I asked her if she wanted any, and she said she did, so I brought out a plate. Then this 80-year-old Paraguayan woman and I just sat in the quiet shade eating watermelon and smiling and nodding a little bit when we caught each other's eye. When the plate was done, I asked her if she wanted more and she nodded. We ate nearly a whole watermelon together.

When we arrived at the party on this night, grandma was dancing. We sat on couches on the patio. There was a chicken and a kitten and a little boy in overalls running around. We danced to Reggaeton and Brazilian music.

So nothing much happened, right? But the one thing that struck me yesterday is how normal this is all starting to seem. How much it’s just like, my life. Those little nothings are what life is built on. Friendship and community don’t happen in one grand gesture, but build with every terere, every laugh, every little stitch of Ao Poi made in the shade.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Viva la Vida

There weren’t a lot of us, just 15 about. But we had a slab of concrete near a beach on a river. We had music and bathing suits.

Friday we swam to the bank where the trees hung sideways from the jagged wall carved out by the running water. The minnows nipped at us while we tried to climb our way out of the river and into the low branches. We squealed and slipped and fell and pulled each other up. We climbed cracking limbs, unsure on our adult feet that had forgotten the bare feel of bark. We jumped out, just about 6 feet high but scarier than I remember.

Saturday night a stack of speakers turned the patio into our dance club. A grate over a fire was our restaurant, flaming at chunks of beef and pork. The cooked slabs were brought over and deposited on the table and hacked at. Some put pieces on their plates and others just cut away and ate and fed to friends danced over to with a fork held out.

The Paraguayan dj played the reggaeton hits with the regularity of radio. Sasha shook her way to center stage, as usual. When she put one foot up on a tree that grew out of the space in the floor and used it as a prop in her show I almost fell over laughing.

We went to the water at times and swam in the cool darkness. Lighting sparked in the clouds beyond where we had climbed the tree. We were all just there. Two individuals to remain unnamed were kissing and giggling on a towel in a crowd just chilling on the beach. There was this feeling: I was 15. It was summer.

In the morning I was told that the only bus to my site left at 10:30 a.m. from Carepegua. This was 10 a.m. and I was another hour ride from the bus stop. So I went with Sasha to Asuncion.

We rode with some new Paraguayan friends in a car, a luxury I enjoy when I can get it. The sky grayed over but I admired the landscape from my open window. When it drizzled, I closed it. We sang songs from a cassette.

Up ahead there was a cerro, or hill, but which pop out like mountains. The Paraguayans asked if we wanted to climb it.

We pulled up to it through a town, and it was green all over, except at the top where the dirt couldn’t cling to the pitch of the brown/black rock. Up top there was a cross and a tiny one-room church.

I tightened my Birkenstocks a notch and we started to walk in the red dirt and rocks. Paths crossed our trail, surely, I thought, carved out by little creeks when it rains. It must be a nice scene.

We were rising into mist. Our friends kept apologizing, saying it was so pretty when you can see. But I liked it the way it was, just kind of knowing we were up above it all.

A dirt footpath crisscrossed by tall grass lead us through a field of wildflowers, palms, mandioca and cows.

Then there was the church and beyond it the rocks we had seen from the road. It all dropped off into white. I sat on the wet rocks and looked out.

Then it cleared, as if we had said please and nature thought that since we’d asked so nicely, she would scoot aside the mist for a peek. I looked down and like I always do thought: That’s you. A speck.

To my left I saw other cerros rising through the white.

Then rain. Droplets big and so I grabbed my shoes and we climbed underneath a tiny cave that was more like a mouth. I had to lay down to get all the way out of the rain and they told me to look out for snakes. Sasha was sitting up, her head perfectly fitting in a crack in the rock, and from behind her it was a nice photo, with the sky coming in on both sides and silhouetting her head. So I leaned back on my elbow and held up her camera, my hands nearly touching the top of the low cave.

Then as fast as my brain could shoot messages: pain/hand/pain/spider?/snake/Ow/scream/run.

I ran from the cave and saw something come out. I thought it was a spider (Eric just said there was a tarantula on his floor) and I thought we should catch it so that when my hand was swollen and falling off as they carried me down the mountain we’d have something to describe to the 911 operator.

But it was just a wasp. Got me in the back of one hand and the tip of another finger. And everyone laughed at me. It swelled, but not enough.

Since we were out in the rain anyway, we decided to just walk down. The water came down with pressure I wish my shower had. I tried to find some place to put my phone, but I was soaked down to my skivvies.

Our trail was now a creek, and we were up it. I sloshed down the rocks in my Birks, water rushing over my feet. All of us just laughing.

Volunteers always say they fall in love with their country, their people. This lead me to wonder if Paraguay was my place, Paraguayans my people. But I don’t know if that’s the truth of it. What we fall in love with is what’s left when there’s nothing much. Tiny dance parties and just hanging with your friends and detours if you want because there’s time.

I think more and more about how I can continue this life, the parts that matter, after this structure called Peace Corps falls away. I love it here, but it’s more than Paraguay, Paraguayans. It’s the life, what was always there, but obscured or forgotten about, somewhere between nine to five and prime time. I remember now.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Hello from Chuchiville

So some people think I have it chuchi (chuchi: adj. Fancy or rich). Well, I'm sitting in the kitchen of Jesus, not the real one, but my friend and fellow volunteer from Puerto Rico. If more people saw how he's living in PC, more people would sign up.

This is Jesus

He lives in Villa Florida, which is the tourist capital of Paraguay. We went to a restaurant last night and I got fried fish served from a waiter wearing a bowtie. So this is his house. He could have had an even bigger one, but that would have been too much. Oh, and he doesn't pay rent. We're not bitter, even those of use who are paying for wood boxes with squat holes outside. Shola tellsm me it came fully furnished for free, but I refuse to be bitter. He has a washer and dryer.

His view
And there's a beach.

And, in the summer, models come every weekend for a fashion show. As I type this, Jesus says, pointing to the photo: "That's Paula, that's Mirna. They're so nice."

Note all the cell phone cam butt shots going on behind the girl walking down the catwalk below.

We're here for some birthdays this weekend, and I'm guessing a lot of the guys will be visiting more.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Mansion...Crazy bird

Feb 26: Back to the Mansion
We went back to the mansion today, to install 99 curtains of Ao Poi. It was a typical Paraguayan quasi-disaster, or what seems like disorder in my perfectionist American mind. The guy was 30 minutes late to pick us up. They we get there and realize we’re going to need a drill, so our contact leaves for 45 minutes to go find a contractor. When we gets back, we’re given three screwdrivers to unscrew the screws, 8 to each Ñanduti curtain, so that the contractor can put them back in a different place more suitable for our new Ao Poi curtains. I’m dreaming of electric drills, or even better, workmen to whom I can just bring a cold glass of water and write a check. And I think, I really am chuchi.

In between working I admired a black simple painting of a bullfight. I marveled at how two black strokes looked so much like a man’s legs. Later, one of the men at the house asked me if I noticed who had made the painting. I looked: Picasso.

This man is quite rich and used to buy perfection. I’m worried about how the curtains look. Auxi handed out the work, telling the women to do it the most lindo possible, and they did a wonderful job. But they are not robots, and handmade fabric arts are not a science. There were four curtains to a window, held with bars on the top and bottom, and El Señor wanted them all to hang with the same amount of tautness.

It took us two hours to complete the first room, just four windows of four curtains. But afterward we got in a groove and the work went along well. Us women would take off the curtains, the maids would clean the windows, the carpenter would reattach the top brackets, then we’d screw the curtains back on.

I brought my ipod speaker dock, so we listened to music as we worked.

At lunch, the 14-seater table was set with dishes and bottles of soda. We were asked to sit, and we all scrambled, not knowing where to sit. We sat upright and waited while some other workers, then El Señor came and sat down. Under the table, I was cracking my knuckles one at a time. We had to be told about five times to serve ourselves.

By the end of the day, our fingertips were raw and we were about half done with the house. The curatins looked beautiful, and El Señor was talking about asking for three huge tableclothes and possibly shirts for everyone on the ranch.

Feb 27: Crazy Bird
So I decided that I wasn’t going to have a bathroom mirror, after I realized I spent about 15 minutes a day examining the slow decay of my skin and making things worse on my face by trying to fix whatever I saw.

I just have this one mirror, inside the door of my armoir. Sometimes I leave it open, because I never learned to close things like cabinets or drawers.

Sometimes the mirror reflects right at my bed, so it’s like a tv screen where I can watch my own life: Blond main character, propped up on two pillows on her bed, typing on a laptop, talking on a cellphone, reading and mumbling agreement and highlighting something.

As I’ve said I also talk to myself more here, maybe even just to speak a little English, to hear a little English. But sometimes I’ll be muttering to myself, and I’ll look up and there I am in the mirror, but I’ll keep talking, and I’m talking to myself in the mirror while seeing myself, and I wonder if I’m going a little crazy, like a parakeet in a cage that keeps pecking its own reflection in a little hanging mirror, thinking it’s another bird.