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.

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