Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Dangers of the U.S., Soldier of Joy, Your Hypothetical Relationship

June 26: Survived the dangers of the U.S.

So I survived. Survived being beamed from the Ross Dress for Less, Tarpon Springs shoe aisle to the Ross, St. Augustine knick knacks section. Forgot where I was in Target, Leesburg, Va. but came out alive in Target Palm Harbor, Fl. Ordered a latte in Starbucks, Sebring and came out from a pee in the bathroom of Starbucks, St. Pete. Good thing I had my GPS.

The thrill of driving was somewhat dampened by the view through the glass encasement. Wires, gray, gray, gray, signs, flashes, numbers, letters, faces, tips of young trees fighting for a spot on the horizon, all of it as ugly and indescribable as a mountain in a landfill.

I participated. I bought till I had two of each thing I before hadn’t needed, being careful not to convert the dollars to Guaranis, not to compare life here with life there, while I purchased the equivalent of the shopping spree in Pretty Woman. There was this mania about it I couldn’t control and didn’t like. It felt just like when I was leaving the first time, buying way too many quick-dry pants with innumerable pockets.

I ate until I was full, waited until the pain went away and ate more.

I paid brief visits to reality. Week Wachi springs, where the beautiful trees were stapled with orange signs asking that we please not murder the manatees.

I learned about strangers. Did you know that there are two people who have eight children who will soon be divorced? If you need more information, their pictures, including those of the toddlers, are available on several magazine covers.

I discovered I have no patience for being physically restrained, via lines of people or cars or forms that need filling out.

What was real was the time with old friends, those with whom you have that micro-culture that you all evolved together. Time when my nephew told me I wasn’t allowed to use the internet anymore, and I got down and played legos with him. Time with my family.

Ah, the United States of America. What am I going to do with you? I love you so much, but you’re just not good for me, like a Bacon, Egg and Cheese McGriddle. Can I bring my new life home? Will it translate? Where will I hide?

(Later note= My trip, overall, was awesome. I was surrounded by a bubble of love, coming in from all directions. I love everyone and this post is more about the opporunity of America that sometimes gets trapped in plastic culture. But you, family, friends, you´re a dream. Thanks for a great trip.)

June 29: Soldier of Joy

A while ago there was this girl on the bus in Asuncion. I keep telling everyone about her, so I think I should tell you too.

She got on, young and cute, in jeans like a girl who watches MTV, and just stood in the front. This is the sign of someone selling something. At times it’s like a live infomercial, for medicine, clothing, books, whatever. She seemed like a rookie to me, standing there silent a bit too long, holding a folder to her chest, looking around, high eyebrows and a self-conscious smile.

“How is everyone?” she asked. We stayed facing forward, strictly adhering to the roles of apathetic bus passengers.

“Too cold to smile, eh?” she said. Even the creaky bus seemed too quiet after the question, and people looked out the window.

“Ok, well, I’m going to give you something, and if you don’t like it, I’ll take it back, ok?”

She kind of waited for an answer, bounced on her toes, then just walked down the aisle, passing out a beige page of something to those who would take it.

It was a poem. This was a little Paraguayan poet.

I support the arts, on Paraguayan buses, so I gave her a mil and said “suerte” (good luck).

She walked to the front of the bus, collecting some money and some returned poems. She was about to get off when she paused and turned around abruptly. Now wearing a red clown nose, she waved wildly before ducking out.

Others on the bus held on to that role, that miserable bus passenger who just wants to get on, not talk to anyone or admit any humanness, who wishes only to avert all eye contact so we can just get through this and get off as soon as possible. But she got me. I had turned human, and I smiled, laughed, despite the cold.

June 29: Your Hypothetical Relationship

Let’s say, hypothetically, you got yourself a Paraguayan boyfriend.

You may decide it best not to tell anyone in site just yet, especially if you are committing some kind of host-family incest.

You’d be communicating by text message, because it’s too expensive to call, so you’d learn all the Paraguayan text speak, the xq for “por que“ and the necessary TQM or “Te quiero mucho.”

Te quiero” literally means “I want you,” which may make you uncomfortable at first. But to Spanish speakers it’s “I love you.” There are other ways to say I like or love you, but they have a funny way of turning it around, so that when someone says they like you, they put it on you, as if you’re doing something. For example, “I like you” is “Me gustas,” which literally would be translated to something like “You please me,” which to me is a lot more complimentary. Another way to say “I love you” is “Me encantas,” which comes from the same root as “to enchant”, and it’s pretty romantic when it comes to your American ears as “You enchant me.”

You might hear any of these way sooner than you would in an American relationship, prompting you to freak out and explain to your novio about all the planning and stress that goes into the first “I love you” where you come from. This might prompt him only to chuckle and shake his head and hug you. There’s no one better than a Paraguayan to quell a freak out.

If communication was an issue for you in English male-female relations, then a Paraguayan-American, English-Spanish-Guarani threesome is bound to be a special treat. You may find yourself having to explain entire ideas for which there is no word in Spanish, like “to cuddle.” It may lead to arguments over exactly what time the afternoon starts, or the merits of the common Paraguayan pet name “Mi gorda” (my fatty).

But then, yes, something might happen, some joke or some little moment, when the humanity of this person who was to you just an idea before, the member of some nationality, comes through, and you see yourself in them, you forget that you were born in these lines, and they were born in those lines, where the wearing of fanny packs is just fine. At any rate, the world disappears. And yes, that happens in every good relationship, but this time the world is much bigger.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Notes from home

June 4: Arriving home
I was waiting for this big Wow moment, waiting for a realization, an appreciation of the enormous difference in quality of life, hitting me like an air blast at the border.

But that didn't happen. Little things were strange.

People movers, those large conveyor belts that cost God-knows-how-much money to run, just so we can walk a little faster. That's funny.

And then, at the tiny airport in Montevideo, Uruguay, there was an upstairs cafe and waiting area, and while I walked around it, looking for a plug that didn't look like a pig's nose, I stopped in front of this sliding glass door. It was frosted, all for but a clear strip at eye level, for looking in, and for looking out, perhaps, at those looking in. There was an etching, something like "VIP Club."

Through the clear glass strip I saw a man in a leather chair reading a newspaper (he must have been very important), another watching CNN on a flatscreen. I saw two young woman behind a beautiful wood welcome desk. I saw sculptures set on cut-in shelves. Behind the glass it was calm as an aquarium.

I had this impulse to set down my bag, walk over to the glass, and shove my face against it until it mushed up and gave all the important people a good look up my nose. Then maybe I could blah blah blah my tongue on it, the way I saw this little Paraguayan baby doing to a bus window, that made me laugh. Then, right when I had everyone's attention, I could make a big raspberry fart sound on the glass.

It would at least give everyone in there something to talk about, and a bond, beyond just being important, of having survived this brush with the outside world. But I didn't set my bag down, or leave saliva on their very important glass. I just went to the non-important person cafe, and sat in a plastic chair.

It's not that I'm better than them, or that I wouldn't have sat in there if I was a person with the cash to do so. It's a protest against those status symbols we all accept as normal. For instance, if the etching had said "The people with an extra 500 bucks club," I bet it would have been empty. These things are not real, and you will never be safe from maniacs with funny faces and farts noises, I want to say. The glass isn´t even made of glass, it´s made of a make-believe wall that separates the rich and the poor and keeps them from realizing they are exactly the same. Well, what will happen if we stop believing in it?

So I'll just be one person who doesn't play along anymore, in the Status-for-Sale game, who doesn't believe that people with more money should be glass-encased and labeled as more important than others.

June 5: Where's my medal?
I keep feeling this urge, how embarrassing it is really, to reap that promised benefit of Peace Corps service: recognition. When I got my first Starbucks frappachino, I almost said, "Oh, I'm so excited, I haven't had a frappachino in a year." And then the woman at the counter would surely play along, saying, "Oh really? Why not?" And I'd play it down maybe, just saying I've been living abroad or something, and she'd ask why or where and drag it out of me, that I would say, "Oh, I've just been in the Peace Corps."

And then maybe she'd call her co-worker over, to meet this real-life Peace Corps Volunteer, and they'd put their elbows on the counter, their chins in their hands, and ask me to tell them tales of my adventures, while a line of non-awesome people formed behind me.

"Will there be anything else?" they ask, after I've resisted. "No," I say, "thanks."

June 11: My Indie Home
I had this moment at a Paraguayan party a little while ago, where I just longed to be in my own scene. I wanted my own dancing, my own music, my own culture.

I danced around my Asuncion hotel room when I got tickets to Bon Iver, my favorite new band whose music has been filling my little house all year while I cook. And the show was everything I dreamed it would be.

Indie kids! There they were, lined up outside, just like back in Gainesville,when I'd go see my musical buddies play. Indie kids, with their ironic mustaches and tight jeans and thick-rimmed glasses and tendency to make me feel like maybe I, too, should have a sleeve tattoo. Indie kids. How I've missed you.

At the show, I drank Coors Light (not as ironic as PBR, but close). There were two women, one with a bull ring nose piercing, canoodling next to me the whole time. The musicians were not pretty boys with dance moves and light shows, they just played beautiful music and made jokes. The place was familiar, and it's good to be home.