Sunday, May 31, 2009

My Order...Metaphor...One-year

(Headed to the states soon, hence...)
May 22nd: My order
I'd like the start with the french toast with bacon and home a bowl of Lucky Charms, a strawberry creamcheese croissant, two powdered donuts with that white filling, the bacon, egg & cheese croissant and an everything bagel with chive and onion.

I’d like the sweet potato burrito, the chicken fingers sub with wing sauce, the cuban, a gyro, a chopped Greek salad, mall Chinese, the beef supreme with guac, the six-piece chicken nuggets with Polynesian sauce and the waffle fries, and three slices of Hawaiian pizza with ranch dressing.

I'd like the spicy tuna roll, the Tampa roll and the Mexican roll. The miso soup too. And the mussels. And crab wontons. And wasabi-seared tuna steak. A big bowl of pad thai, then the crab legs.

To drink I'll have a Grimbergen. Iced tea. A venti mocha frappachino, extra whip. A Coors Light. A mojito. A margarita.

I think there's still a little room for a slice of Carvel ice cream cake, bananas foster, apple crisp with ice cream, brownies, seven-layer bars, a black and white cookie and a Haagandaz chocolate shake.

I only have three weeks, but I think I can do it. I’ll bring the stretchy pants.

May 27: My metaphor about what my service is like
Take a mother of three. Ask her if she’d like some help organizing her house. Of course she would. Send someone to live in her house, someone foreign who kind of talks like an idiot, though this mother feels bad for even thinking this.

While the mother is feeding babies, changing diapers, chasing naked children toward the bath and breaking up fights, foreign person follows her around, saying, “Well, how could we organize your house?”

The mother, kind of over her shoulder while she’s stirring a boiling pot and keeping an eye on the baby rocker, says, “Um, I don’t know, the garage is a disaster.” And the foreign helper says, “We will organize the garage.” But the mother thinks for a moment and says, “Eh.” “Well, what else?” “My closets are overflowing,” she offers. And the foreigner says, “Great! I’ll go for some pen and paper, and we will list all the ways you and your husband might be able to organize the closets and keep for them clean. Then --Are you having time this weekend?-- I will show you some charts about why it’s better to keep your closets clean. I will teach you alphabetizing.” (only the way the foreigner says alphabetizing, it’s more like alpibitizing.) But then there’s a child’s scream from somewhere down the hall, and the mother stops to give a pained look toward the foreigner and say, “I have dishes to wash,” before rushing off down the hall. And this foreigner is starting to wonder if this woman wants her closets organized or not.

A few days later, as the mother backs in with groceries, pulling a stroller and yelling for her son to close the van door and get in the house already, she turns to see that the foreigner is waiting for her just inside the door, the pen in one hand, the paper in the other. The foreigner raises his eyebrows and says, “Have you today time?”

“Look,” says the mother, putting the groceries down on the table and unstrapping her now-sniffling baby from her cart, “Why can’t you just organize the closets? It would be a big help.”

“Then how would the closets stay organized, after I’m go?” asked the foreigner. To which the mother just lets out a heavy breath, and wonders why she ever let the foreigner, who was supposed to help organize the house but as of yet seems to have done nothing, into her home.

May 29th: One year in country
Yes, a year has passed since I boarded a plane as a responsible adult and was born again in Paraguay, unable to speak, requiring constant supervision, shooed away from electronics. I forget how far I’ve come, and get sucked into the need to quantify everything, as if this had been just another year of working.

You want to add it all up, put it in a spreadsheet (and it doesn’t help that Peace Corps actually makes you do this). The numbers seem embarrassingly small, of how many people you’ve helped, how many charlas you’ve done. I caught a glimpse of my work plan from a few months ago and would have laughed if I hadn’t found it so depressing, to read all my hopes that were never realized. A year is when you grasp how fast a year can go, and you only have one more, so you wonder, Will I get anything done?

Our “sister group” arrived today, the people we will be mentoring, going to their training to give advice. I remember when the G-24 people, our “big sisters” came to face us, bright-eyed world savers in brand-new North Face jackets. I could sense their exhaustion, their annoyance at our enthusiasm, their skepticism, and I swore it’d never happen to me.

After a year, you have to admit that you are more human than hero. Just like they said, it did take you a year just to figure out what the hell you’re doing here. And yes, just like they said, the shiny gloss of the experience wears off, and your just left with a cold shower and a job that can feel just like a 9 to 5, if you don’t keep your eyes open.

You admit that no, you will not be building a library. No, you will not _. And no, you will never get that photo with you, looking happy in a baseball cap, surrounded on both sides by children smiling smiles that you put there with your hard work and dedication.

But as I was complaining about this today to my friend Mariela, I said, but look, I’m complaining in Spanish, to a friend that is from South America. That wouldn’t have happened a year ago. And sometimes I say stuff in Guarani. And, ya know, I can cook now, kind of. And this shirt? Oh, I made it, out of Ao Po’i. And I sambaed, in a gold sequins bra in public, and I modeled, and I peeped my head outside of the United States and found this whole other world that I now walk around in freely.

And one might wonder, who are you yelling at?

I’m yelling at myself. That person who joined the mythical Peace Corps a year ago, and even after all this time in the real Peace Corps, won’t just let herself enjoy what comes, without grabbing it and trying to shove as a puzzle piece into the life picture she thinks she should be living.

So all I can do is make a sentimental video, go to bed tonight, and wake up tomorrow, trying not to count.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Highway Charity...reminders to smile...Peace Corpsiffic

May 13: Highway Charity
My host mom is what someone with a questionable upbringing might call a pisser. Here’s a story about her.

This was about 10 years ago, Oscar was 13. They were on a bus to Ciudad del Este, carrying a lot of cash, a few millon Guaranies, about $1,000, which Ña. Conchena had tucked safely inside her bra. It was the madrugada, or early morning, when four men with guns got onboard, threw the driver to the floor and yelled “¡Manos arriba!” (Hands up!) This did not wake Ña. Conchena, but it did wake her son.

Oscar woke, saw the men with guns, and elbowed his mom. She then also woke in the daze of the bus snooze. While the men were yelling for everyone to not look them in the face, she pretended like she was bowing her head, and sneaked the money from her bra to the pocket of the seatback.

The men came by and grabbed her purse, finding just 30 mil Guaranis (about 6 dollars). They patted down the pockets of a shaking Oscar.

Then, to make sure they really believed that’s all she had, Ña. Conchena said, “Excuse me, sir” to the armed gunman standing next to her in the aisle, while her son was elbowing her more, this time to get her to shut up. She said, “May I please have some money for the passage to my town?”

The man took out the wad of cash stolen from the rest of the passengers, peeled off a few mil and gave it to her. She said thanks.

May 17: Reminders to Smile
Life has been nice and random and Paraguayan these last few days, reminding me not to take things so seriously or for granted.

On Mother’s Day I was peer pressured into drinking caña and coke (“No, more! You barely drank it!”) by an 81-year-old woman. After eating, they said “Jaha” (Let’s go.) and I followed them to the back fence, where we spread the barbed wire to duck through. Suddenly I didn’t recognize at all where we were.

We were greeted by neighbors who took us past their ostrich pen. And I say “ostrich” so easily, but, looking at one, especially after the caña, you forget the word. You’re just looking at these eerily human legs, emaciated and grey, a feathered pillow that left all the upward evolving to the neck, which runs up like an elephant’s trunk that grew a head and a long open beak. Ostrich's stare at you eye-to-eye.

We walked past two parrots on a wooden wheel hanging from a tree, to where the party was at: about a dozen people surrounding a metal frame over a fire on which laid three sizzling pigs’ heads. Their crisped ears still flopped every time someone reached down with a fork to pierce the fat and turn it the head on its other cheek. Partygoers cut off pieces and ate them standing around, staring down at the heads. I said I’d have the cornbread.

Some woman I had seen around stood next to me, looking at me sideways with a little smile on her face. She had her hand in a flat front pocket of her coat, and she pulled it out, showing me her palm. In it was cupped the shiny wrapper and circle outline of a condom. I looked at it. I looked at her. Her eyes said something like, “Ever seen one of these before?”

With its silvery packaging against the brown jacket, dirt, wood animal pens, it did look a bit like something alien. I judged the look I would give back to her, realizing anything that could be mistaken for, “Oh, big deal, I see those all the time,” might send the wrong message. So I went more for, “Oh, look whatcha got there.” I guess I raised my own eyebrows, because she responded with the same before sliding it back in her pocket like a hidden ace. Later I saw her showing it around to others in a similar fashion.

Another social fun time was the other night at my timid but sweet friend’s birthday party, at the dinner table with her sisters and mom, she said, “There’s been something I’ve been wanting to ask you for a long time.”


“What does this word mean?”

[Sorry but it just wouldn’t be appropriate to write out, but feel free to say it out loud in the privacy of your own home]

And so she said: “F*$#.”

Then her 16-year-old sister popped out from behind her and said in her sing-song voice: “F*$#ing!”

I looked back at my friend, and she said: “F*$# me!”

They were just parroting sounds they had heard, in movies and music, but it still made my face red with all the meaning, especially as I looked at their mother across the table.

Finally I wrote it in my cell phone in Spanish and showed it just to my friend, and she said “Ooh!” and turned red too.

May 19: A Peace Corpiffic Day
I recently had a success. Then I had another, and a few more, which is odd.

We were going to have a party at the co-op for Mother’s Day. Usually during these things, we just sit around and stare and eat empanadas from paper trays on our laps. They raffle off some giftbaskets of yerba and groceries. Then everyone shuffles home.

I thought we needed to liven it up a bit, so I wanted to do an ao poi relay race, where each woman on two teams does one line of embroidery then passes it to the next woman for the next line. So there was lots of doubt and trying to explain this beforehand and fearing that people would just stare at me and not volunteer to participate.

But, after much planning to make sure it wasn’t going to be another huge embarrassing failure, the ladies were actually laughing and having a good time, with me going between the lines yelling “Dalé! Dalé!” (Go! Go!) to win those bags of American candy I had made from my care packages (thanks Aunt Janice!). I stood there in the middle and just took it in, the sound of people having fun they would not have had if I had not been there. Ah.

I also started a podcast to teach Guarani, which has turned into another project to sink my teeth into, staying up late-night to tweak. I finished my first episode the other night and sent it off, happy with the results. And at my Guarani classes, I no longer want to kill my tutor after fifteen minutes. We’re chatting in Guarani!

This morning I was in the co-op, which has been buzzing, preparing for a little charla on the computer. I’m rarely in the front store anymore, just making ao poi and drinking terere and watching the Spanish soaps. I’m in the conference room, on the computer.

I organized a little mini-charla, inviting my friend Brennan from Villarrica to come explain how organizing his co-op in Excel had helped. I could have told them myself, but for some reason the socias like looking at Brennan more. I also made a little mini-sheet example of how we could organize our socias. I wrote formulas, which for me carries the same satisfaction of solving a crossword puzzle, because I’m a big huge computer geek.

We got a Paraguayan late start and one person didn’t show, but the president was all about it. I was talking, and they were interested! Listening! Not walking away or beginning to speak to another person or staring at me with a wrinkled brow. Leaning forward, absorbing, getting it.

Now they are all about putting the business into the computer, starting classes to teach the socias. It’s like, suddenly, I figured out what I’m here to do. That sounds like another year’s worth of work.

Then Brennan and I went and did our radio show, on estres (stress) and played hits of the 80’s. My friends texted me to say they were listening and it was very interesting and thanks for playing Guns ‘N’ Roses.

Teaching computers and marketing to a cooperative, keeping a podcast, having a weekly radio show to educate people, learning two languages. Right at the point of despair that it would never happen, feeling like an actual Peace Corps volunteer just kind of snuck up on me.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Look...At the futbol game

9 May: Look
If you can’t feel inspired while you’re in the Peace Corps, well then what the hell is your deal? This is what I might ask myself. Sometimes I just feel dead.

So I say, look, you idiot. Playing Frisbee today with my host siblings, I didn´t look twice at the horses strolling by. Wait, no, look: Horses walking by, the glorious palm tree with all the parrots flying in and out, the cows that look like their made of cookies and cream. Now I’m sitting outside because my lights won’t come on. I discovered there is a bat living in my front tree, flying and out of its hole.

These are known as the one-year bleh blehs, or something like that. That shiny new gloss has worn off the experience, your work feels like work, you have your friends and don’t feel like meeting any more new people. There’s a depression in your bed where you sleep, and you just want to stay there.

It’s when you know it’s time to flip the mattress.

I’m going home for three weeks, in June, and when I think about it I get as excited as I was a year ago, thinking about going to Paraguay. I need to juxtapose. It’s like when you lose weight, and you don’t realize it until you have a before and after picture. When I go back home, I’ll realize how much I’ve changed. I’ll remember what an awesome thing I’m doing, what an opportunity it is. And I’ll garner energy, I think, and come back, continuing to say, “Look. look. look.”

10 May: At the futbol game
I went to the futbol game, trying to integrate, even though I want to put up my hammock and have a Sunday alone with my books, under a tree. Through the chain-link fence, over the field where the men were running with their legs like chopsticks trying to get hold of a hard-boiled egg, I saw the hill I used to walk by every day, when I lived on that side of town. The sheep were still there, dotting the hill like scattered cotton balls, and I thought of how the sun turned them pink in the morning.

Through the metal I looked at all the different shades of green, as the fields met some woods, where a palm tree pops out of the bunch every few dozen yards, leaves like the hair of the tallest guy in the room.

Ants walked up and down the ramps of the fence links, and down on the ground discovered my discarded ice cream cup. They gathered and then got milk drunk and drowned, and I looked at this until my host sister screamed Goooooal! with the same shrill with which one would scream Help! and my eyes jolted to her and then I looked up at the goal and clapped. The horses, which usually graze on the field when there aren’t people running back and forth on it, didn’t even raise their heads. They went on eating, as if the home team weren’t winning.

In the trees where those two parrots have a nest, behind the bleachers where men line up to pee, I heard a bird and looked up in time to see its body, silhouetted with the leaves, flutter as it sang, like it´s whole body was a little instrument with legs. The sun set behind it, backlighting the clouds into puffs of neon that hung still. The light cast over the store where we bought electric orange Fanta soda. From my seat I looked at the pastel sky, past the faces of everyone else looking the other way, to see if the men from our town would get the ball in the net more times than the men of the other town.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Peace Corps Paraguay Video

Here's a video that the Peace Corps peeps made to show invitees.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Good morning ego...Pecks...The Photo That Never Was...

Good morning. Let´s warm up with some light stretching and photos.

You don´t have to refrigerate eggs until
after you wash them. Of course, there are pros
and cons to this method.

Roof renovations

Flare arrives in Paraguay, via TGIFridays.

While waiting for the bus this week, Brennan noted that the
animal in the middle of the police
on the side of their trucks is a chicken,
in order to strike
fear (or slight annoyance?)
in the heart of local criminals.

April 21: Good morning Ego

I’m all hopped up on yerba, the caffeine of Paraguay, which adds an extra giddiness to the high of victory I’m on, after a morning of winning life´s little games.

Usually, in Paraguay, we’re playing Let’s Speak Guarani! and I’m lost. We’re playing Who Wants to Cook a Meal? and I’m the worst. Or I’m dead last in the Clothes Washing 500.

But this morning, I went into the co-op early to help the new guapa president organize, and we were playing all my games.

We played Organization, where the $1,000,000 question was: Do you know how to make labels in the computer? Why, Yes I do. Do you know how to glue tags? Yes I do! While organizing the cabinets, there were even some rounds of Who Can Reach Up High?, of wh

Then, I received more ego food in my inbox. More points, in another game us Peace Corps volunteers can, by definition, usually win with a trump. A new identity: Experience.

My Great Story, that tertiary goal we can chase when we realize we’ll never win the Beauty Contest or World’s Richest. And, thank you Facebook, we can flaunt our victory as much as a model flaunts her cleavage. What I received was more evidence: photos I’d been waiting for of me on a cerro (hill) that said yes, look at me, I’m in the Peace Corps.

And look at me, how straight I can cut these lines on this label. Watch me alphabetize.

But the thing is, when you play these games, how you can feel yourself clenching when you lose your grip. Someone once told me about a billionaire who was on the Forbes top richest list, and how it irked him so that there were people richer than him, ahead of him, winning first place. I feel that same twinge when I look on Peace Corps web sites, and see people in Thailand, Africa, Indonesia. My chest tightens -- is there experience cooler, more exotic, than mine?

It hit me when Eckhart Tolle said the ego wants to want more than it wants to have. No matter what you get, you always want more, as long as you let whatever your getting become the gauge for how you measure who you are. So I have to remember, whether I’m winning or losing, these are all just games.

May 1: To whom it may concern

To: The table that bounces on its short leg, every time I lift my elbow. The lights that flicker until I give up and go by candlelight. The sink that pees out a puddle on the floor, every time I brush my teeth. The faucet that responds with nothing but a cough when I turn the handle. The cabinet door that swings closed if I don’t hold it with my hand. The web page that doesn’t open. The contact that’s not available. The printer that won’t print. The computer program that won’t open. The internet that won’t connect. The phone number that won’t go through. The e-mails that go unanswered. The cell phone that won’t send messages. The store that’s closed. The bus that never comes. The bike tire that deflates. The worm that lives in my eggplant. The cricket that drowned in my clothes wash. The ants that hide in my straw, sucked into my throat.

To all those little pecks at my patience.

I say: I will be home in five weeks, in America, land of the convenient, the functioning, the clean, where you can’t get me.

May 3: Perfect Picture

The thing about the best photos is that they never get taken. Here I am, right now, in this scene that says everything about my life: What I consider a perfect Sunday. I’m kind of sitting up/laying in my pink hammock with the bamboo sticks holding it open on either end, a pillow behind me, one leg straight out, with a bare foot hanging off the edge, the other leg folded in to support my notebook. I pulled up a chair with chipped green paint, where I put my books in a perfect helter-skelter pile, topped by my cell phone, should I feel the fancy to call a friend. A glass pitcher that looks like it’s posing for the cover of Southern Living drips a water ring next to my terere guampa. My sunglasses, which I don’t need here in the shade of the mango tree, rest on the corner.

And here is this perfect Sunday, doomed to be forgotten, like most of life’s truer moments.