When I was a kid, I once asked why there was a Mother’s Day and Father’s Day but no Kids’ Day. My mom told me that every day is kids’ day for parents. I guess this made me feel loved, though I still wanted to have a day where the world revolved around me even more than usual.
Well, it turns out other countries do have children’s days! But in Paraguay the reason for the Día del Niño is even more depressing than the thought of devoting every hour of the year to caring for another human and then having the ungrateful brat want to have a special day to be celebrated extra just for being a kid.
The Paraguayan Día del Niño tradition originates in the Triple Alliance War against Brasil, Argentina, and Uruguay (see the blog post about my cat for more background). During this war, Paraguay lost between 60 and 80% of its men. Even so, the general/President Francisco Solano López believed Paraguay had a fighting chance, making the phrase “victory of death!” the motto of the Paraguayan military (and this guy is considered a hero… *insert eye role emoji*).
In 1869, without enough professional soldiers, the Paraguayan army sent approximately 3,500 minors into battle at Acosta Ñu or Campo Grande. According to stories, some were kids as young as 6 to 8 years old. They were fighting against 20,000 professional soldiers. Naturally, almost all of the kids died (over 3,200). The Triple Alliance lost only 50 soldiers.
So, to celebrate the heroism and sacrifice these young fighters made (or to say “sorry for sending all those children to die”), Paraguay now celebrates the Día del Niño, day of the child. The main tradition of the day is giving out free hot dogs to kids. At my community’s school, there was also celebration with student performances, free junk food, and a clown. All my Paraguayan Facebook friends posted pictures of their kids to wish them a “feliz día.”
It was a festive, light-hearted day, but there were many reminders of its origins, and the teachers made posters that list the rights of children (to love, medical care, education, etc.). In all seriousness, I think a children’s day is a great idea – not to celebrate individual kids necessarily but rather our obligations to protect, love, and empower (and not send into battle) the young humans of the world – and to protect the world itself in case there are future young humans who want to breath, eat, etc.
P.S. Many Paraguayans boil their hot dogs with onions, tomatoes, and herbs. I recommend this. It is tasty.
P.P.S. I’ve eaten hot dogs for 3 meals this week, but none of them were given to me as consultation for the masacre of thousands of children.
P.P.P.S. Despite being neither a child nor a mother, I was given free food both at the child’s day festival yesterday and at the Mother’s Day one back in May. I guess it sometimes pays off to be in an ambiguous life stage.
P.P.P.P.S. here’s a joke the clown shared for any Spanish-English bilingual readers (best read out loud): “Puedo hablar English! Oh yes. Oh yes… Hoy es miércoles.” He also said “soy de Asia… Así allá” *insert eye role emoji again*
Greetings, friends! It is now autumn in Paraguay, which means somewhat cool weather and lots (and lots and lots and lots) of rain. I haven’t seen the sun in two weeks and haven’t been able to do laundry in almost as long since it is currently impossible to dry clothes or anything else. Everything I own is moldy, including my refrigerator (the outside of it), my pillowcase, and potentially my wrist… That rash I thought was some sort of bug was diagnosed as a fungus by a doctor in the U.S.
Speaking of which, I was in the good ol’ U.S. of A. for a week in May. You may have noticed from the excessive number of selfies on my Instagram account. This was the first time in my life that I used a round-trip ticket to the United States.
It was so good to be back.
First of all, the air! The fresh, fragrant air! I spent all week sniffing and breathing deeply, and I am now even more determined to help my Paraguayan community find an alternative to household trash burning.
More importantly, the food! You doubt the greatness of America? In 8 days I ate, among other things: double chocolate cookies in the car on the way home from the airport, fancy homemade pizza, Afghan/Pakistani kabobs and sides, a turkey sub and 4 types of chips for a picnic in front of the Lincoln Memorial, a Thanksgiving-style turkey sandwich for another picnic in a park, homemade stir-fry, a mango-mint-pineapple pastry, a big bowl of pho, 15 types of cheeses, unlimited small dishes of gourmet Balkan food, ban mi and bubble tea at a Vietnamese shopping center, 2 shared pints of Ben and Jerry’s, many types of fruit, homemade sourdough bread and pancakes, sashimi, fried octopus and other Japanese dishes, a hamburger at the Watergate, salmon at a fancy French restaurant, Peruvian chicken, homemade seared tuna burritos with spicy pineapple salsa, and a chocolate Turkish coffee birthday cake baked by me (the other stuff was made by Shawn)
Almost as exciting as the food was the fact that I got to see some of the most important people in my life during that week!
I attended two graduation ceremonies. My boyfriend, Shawn, completed his Master’s at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). We had the big Meeting of the Parents dinner afterwards, which was surprisingly painless. I am pretty proud of Shawn… and eager to get started on my own advanced degree because I’m not sure how long I can be happy in a relationship with someone who has more academic credentials than I do… Just kidding. Maybe.
I also got to celebrate my best college friend/roommate’s graduation with her family. You should keep an eye out for Kelsey in the world of government, law, or any other field she may set her sights on. (That sentence contained some really insensitive puns I hope she will appreciate). She graduated from Georgetown with a good GPA, a double major (Economics and Government), a minor (Math), and no vision (literally, not figuratively) – as if we needed another reason to be impressed by her studiousness, wit, and appreciation for the finer things in life (i.e. chocolate cake, dance parties, and the West Wing)!
It was strange being back at Georgetown. It felt like my time there was just a distant dream, even though it had only been a year since I graduated. I guess my life now is just so far away from the Hilltop in every sense – and not just because I’m living on flat farm land.
I of course also got to see my parents and my sister during the trip. Claire and Shawn and I went to the Renwick Gallery (my favorite art museum – partially because it always has awesome content, partially because it is small enough to see all of in an hour).
I stopped by the White House with a few different groups of loved ones. Fortunately the chief resident was away touching glowing orbs in the Gulf, so I could maintain my sense of distance from the current disaster that is #45.
In terms of other fun activities somewhat related to “the resistance,” Shawn and I saw a play by Vaclav Havel (playwright, dissident, last president of Czechoslovakia, first president of the Czech Republic, and one of my favorite recently-historical figures since elementary school). The play is called Protest, and it was the first play performed in the Dupont Underground, a new art space made from an old electric trolley turn-around tunnel.
I was also there for two important birthdays. My boyfriend’s 25th and my mother’s 25th 31st. Unfortunately her birthday festivities took a backseat to Shawn’s graduation on the same day, but I am very happy my mother was born and will make sure to throw a gigantic party in 4 years when she turns 15×4. Also, when I got back here, everyone asked me how my mom’s birthday was, so obviously the importance of the occasion was acknowledged internationally.
As for Shawn’s birthday, I made him an ugly but delicious cake and we went hiking, which I appreciated very much since hiking is my favorite activity and he is relatively new to it. Also, last year when we hiked on his birthday he ended up being eaten alive by mosquitoes.
Far too soon, it was time to head back to the southern hemisphere. When I checked my bags for my flight back to Paraguay, the man at the ticket counter looked at his screen with a confused expression, whispered to his coworkers, and then asked me “when are you coming back?”
“I don’t know exactly. I have a two year visa.”
I mentally prepared for a difficult return, so the first week back wasn’t too bad. Now I am experiencing regular feelings of panic about needing to be here for a year and a half more, but I am also starting to reevaluate the work I want to do in my community and will hopefully get to a point relatively soon where I feel I am contributing in a meaningful way. It is also nice to hear my name called out (mostly by little kids) as I ride my bike down the street. And of course there’s my cat to snuggle and take selfies with.
First, an interesting linguistically/cultural observation: “everything is a bug” might be an exaggeration, but some people here in Paraguay use the word bug (bicho) to describe any type of animal. If someone says something about “those bugs over there” they could very well be referring to a herd of cows. Of course, bicho could also mean pest or vermin, so I think it works pretty well for certain birds and mammals. My closest neighbors don’t even have chickens and I’ve still had a chicken poop inside my house. Chickens are the primary reason I constructed a sturdy garden fence, though cows can also be a nuisance. Every week or so I hear rustling outside my back door and go outside to find a large hoofed manual licking my dirty dishes, or I sit up in my hammock to find a cow standing a few feet away from me, which is rather startling.
People also blame “bichos” for things that are definitely not the fault of any six-plus legged friends. For instance, many people insist my acne is bug bites. Since I don’t work with teenagers, I’m still trying to figure out whether this misunderstanding has anything to do with a miraculous lack of pimples in Paraguay.
In terms of my environmental work here, I am trying to figure out ways to convince people not to kill all the bichos unnecessarily. It’s probably true for most of the world that people too often use excessive chemical pesticides as a preventative measure in farming and gardening or on lawns and in houses. In small-scale gardening at least, there are a lot of easy ways to reduce the necessity for putting poison on veggies, especially before the bugs even arrive.
In my own garden, I had a major ant problem. Luckily these weren’t the big leaf-cutter ants who can carry away an entire garden worth of plants in a few days, but the little ants are destructive in their own way – and it stings like crazy when they bite! I took care of the problem mostly by applying soapy water, mixed with a bit of cinnamon, to my garden beds so the dirt and plants were less appealing to the pests. It wasn’t a controlled experiment by any means, but so far the ant population has dramatically decreased. A mix of garlic and ash is also supposed to keep off both bugs and fungi. Plus, I think it helps to use soil high in organic matter (in this case cow poop while I wait for my compost to compost). Ants seem to prefer sandy ground. Bonus: just like with humans, the best defense against all sorts of plant ailments is to have healthy plants, and good dirt is a key component of that!
As far as other pests go, it helps to stagger or intermingle plants (as opposed to monoculture) so a bug can’t as easily eat its way through a patch of one type of veggie all at once. Companion planting can also pair type of plants that are more or less appetizing to different types of bugs. Marigolds are natural repellants for multiple types of insects. And again, companion planting helps provide good plant health from the beginning since different plants use different ratios of nutrients. My garden might not meet Paraguayan beauty standards, but I love the wild, jungle feel of having my plants all mixed up.
With a small, personal garden I also have time to look over all the plants on a regular basis so I can spot a problem before it becomes too serious. In the case of my sunflowers, I remove caterpillars individually every few days. Perhaps this would be a bit impractical if I had an industrial sunflower plantation, but I’m not about to add poisons to the environment just to protect my 10 decorative sunflowers from the ocasional caterpillar. By keeping a close eye on things, I could use pesticides in smaller amounts if it came to that, before something became a full-blown infestation. There are also a variety of homemade pesticide options made from naturally available ingredients like the leaves of certain trees.
Also in ant news, the other night I was getting ready to sleep (at around 8 or 9 pm, naturally) when I heard a strange sound. It ended up being at least a few hundred giant ants covering the entire floor and one wall of my house. I was just starting to sprinkle a protective line of cinnamon around my bed in the hopes that I could at least save myself when my friends called to see if I wanted to hang out. I explained that I had been headed to bed but was currently in danger of being eaten by a swarm of killer ants (actual danger level unknown). A few minutes later they showed up at my house with a bottle of pesticides. I was feeling murderous enough to abandon my morals, so we sprayed the poison around and shared some beers outside while waiting for the fumes to subside. I tried not to watch the obviously tortured deaths of what I actually find to be very interesting creatures when I am not battling them for food and territory.
In the category of things that may or may not be bugs, for more than ten weeks my right arm has been home to a pretty gross and very itchy rash. (I won’t share pictures here, but PM me if you like that sort of thing.) I first considered making this the subject of an entire blog post titled “it mite be scabies” (scabies is a mite, so this is a pretty clever title if I do say so myself). My googling lead me to the conclusion that it was probably scabies, perhaps contracted from one of dozens of children who haven’t learned the concept of personal space, but after two months the Peace Corps doctors were still telling me it was an allergy. I even traveled to Asunción and back in one day just to hear that diagnosis repeated. (The trip involved riding my bike to and from the bus stop in the dark on a dirt road full of deep holes). For weeks, I used various allergy creams and medicines and changed all my soaps and carefully observed what I came into contact with on a daily basis – all to no avail. Then I got to experience a Paraguayan (or rather, German/Canadian Mennonite) hospital when I went to see a local dermatologist, who told me that I don’t have scabies but do have another type of bug that can be picked up from the dirt or animals. I am blaming my neighbor’s puppy who has some itchy, hairless patches and won’t stay out of my house no matter what I do. I am currently waiting to see if an anti-bug treatment (with the same medicine used for scabies) has worked. I may see another doctor in the U.S. when I am back there for a visit very soon!
Stay tuned for a blog post about my very first visit to the United States of America! I hear things have gotten pretty scary there, but I’m pretty sure it’s still home to delicious foods and wonderful people.
This week, I’m excited to experience my first Semana Santa (holy week) in Paraguay! While I don’t believe in the religious miracle of Easter, it is one of my favorite holidays (from my own culturally Catholic background at least) because it involves chocolate, the start of spring time (in the northern hemisphere), and egg decorating. I’ve also realized that it’s pretty cool to think back to what I was doing on each of the past 7 Easters since it has happened to coincide with some pretty important life events that happened across 3 continents, 4 countries, and 5 cities/states…
In 2011, I was in Valls, Spain for Easter, celebrating at a Romanian Baptist church with my first ever host family during my first international trip without either of my parents, and first using the Spanish I started learning in high school. This was when I decided I definitely wanted to study abroad during college.
In 2012, I headed to Washington, DC on Easter Day for a high school trip which convinced me I wanted to go to college in the capital (mostly because I wanted a library card for the Library of Congress).
In 2013, around Easter time I decided I wanted to stay in DC but wasn’t happy at GW.
In 2014, I had transferred to Georgetown and went home to NH for Easter because Jesuit universities give you a few days off around that weekend.
In 2015, I was in Valparaíso, Chile for Easter, staying with another host family and having the time of my life during study abroad. This experience may have fully convinced me to work abroad after graduation.
In 2016, I went home to NH for Easter and realized the amount I missed the guy I was starting to call my boyfriend, Shawn, might indicate some sort of feelings about him. I had already accepted an offer to serve as a PCV in Paraguay but decided to stay in DC for the summer before leaving.
In 2017, I’m approximately 7 months into my 27 months (or approx. 205 of 805 days) in Paraguay and still feeling a whole range of emotions about being here.
This past weekend, I moved into my very first (rental) house! I have never even rented an apartment, and now I’m living alone in a HOUSE. I’m feeling pretty growed-up. I think I will begin describing myself as an “independent woman in her mid-twenties.”
My house has one big main room, a bedroom, and a bathroom. It is huge by many standards, especially for one person. It is also relatively chuchi (fancy) with a tile floor (much easier to clean than cement), modern bathroom (with an electric shower head to heat the water), glass windows, strong electricity, and a ceiling in the bedroom (a big plus for temperature regulation and dampening the sound of rain on a tin roof). It is definitely not the shack without water or electricity that I pictured when first thinking of joining the Peace Corps 10-15 years ago. Of course, the last few decades have seen a dramatic fall in extreme poverty around the world (yay!) so the profile of an average home probably has changed a bit in that time!
Having my own space has been relaxing and energizing and basically all-around awesome so far. I’ve baked bread and made a curry stir-fry and planted flowers and decorated the walls and listened to my own music (at a reasonable volume!) and slept when I wanted and walked around naked (though not in the main part of the house, since I don’t have curtains yet).
I have also had A LOT of visitors. Some volunteers talk about getting lonely living by themselves, or having a lot of time alone with their thoughts. I might get there some day, but for now living “alone” has not afforded me much alone time.
Within ten minutes of arriving in my new home, my next door neighbor and my host mom (each with a daughter) arrived to help me set up my appliances. Then the parade of neighborhood kids began. One morning, a total of 8 kids and 3 adults visited me, most of them before 9 am. The kids don’t bother announcing themselves before walking in the door. Some of them “helped” me clean and organize my stuff (in a way that made me need to do the same thing again after they left).
I mentioned setting my own sleep schedule. I should probably clarify that this does not mean other people are unaware of when I am asleep or awake. In Paraguay, if the weather isn’t bad and you are home, it is customary to open your windows and doors. You can be sure people will have – and share – their theories about what you are doing behind closed doors. Opening your house is also a sign that you will accept guests (probably offering them tereré), and it allows you to hear anyone who might clap at your front gate to announce their presence and ask for permission to enter.
The other day, I went outside to wash my dishes around 7:00 in the morning and my neighbor told me her 4-year-old daughter had been asking to go over to my house to play since I opened my window a half hour earlier.
“I told her you would want some alone time after waking up, but she told me you would cry if you were alone.”
Note: My kitchen sink is on the outside of my house (well, my kitchen tap/faucet… the sink part that catches the water is missing… also I don’t actually have a kitchen). From the tap, I am conversational distance from my next door neighbor’s own dish/clothes washing stations.
To somewhat curb the frequency of visitors, I have been trying to make myself as boring as possible from a kid’s perspective, but I’ve also used a few of their visits as teaching moments. Sunday morning, there was a partial solar eclipse while my 9 year old neighbor was at my house, so I poked a hole in a piece of cardboard and tried to show her how the the circle of light passing through this changed shape. On Monday, I planted a a bed of flowers in front of my house with three little assistants. These same kids helped me prepare my materials for a lesson on seeds that I was going to do in the school.
My neighbors are also sure to teach me a thing or two. My next door neighbor is an excellent source of information and has offered me the use of her laundry washing sink (I haven’t told her it will be the first load of laundry I do entirely by hand). I’ve also talked about some recipe exchanges with a 20-year-old girl across the street and with the 25-year-old mother of my most frequent 9-year-old visitor. This woman arrived in Paraguay from Brazil fairly recently and speaks very little Spanish, so it looks like I might need to learn a bit of Portuguese. Our conversations are somewhat of a guessing game, but we bonded over a mutual disappointment in the taste of Paraguayan birthday cake.
I’ve had quite a multi-cultural guest list this week. In addition to Paraguayans and Brazilians, two of my “North American” friends came to see my new digs the other night. One is a volunteer in a nearby community. His house is now only about a kilometer from mine and right next to my primary grocery source, so I’m sure to visit him and his girlfriend frequently (and am looking forward to meeting their new baby in a month or so!). The other friend is temporarily farming his father’s land in an Amish colony nearby. (I was told to include in my blog a mention of a fancy meat buffet he generously treated us to the other day. So ya, we went to a fancy meat buffet restaurant that is beyond our Peace Corps budget. I then got locked out of my host family’s house because we got back around midnight, which made me feel a bit too much like the rebellious teenager I never was.) Also, shout-out to these two guys for fixing my toilet the other night. It might have ruined my do-it-myself reputation, but what is an independent woman in her mid-twenties supposed to do when faced with an absurdly high toilet tank and no step ladder?
In addition to human visitors, my house and yard are hosts to many non-human occupants. My favorite are the fireflies that fill the yard at night and the single giant purple dragonfly that hovered near my door once. When I first moved in, I had to clean up after some birds, lizards, and countless bug species who were living inside the house (really, an entomologist would have a field day here!). My kitten is a big fan of the new environment since he has plenty of critters to chase. The giant toads outside are also lots of fun. Not as fun are the 6+ dogs who use my yard as their playground/bathroom/nap place. One of them picked up poor Rutherford by the neck the other day and I had trouble getting el Presidente to go outside for at least a day afterwards. I now scare that dog away any time I see him. The other ones I let sleep on my porch when it rains.
My little sister, Claire, used to dread the first day of school so much we had to call it the “s word” in our house… I on the other hand was ready for school to start again about a week after the previous year had ended and considered school supply shopping the highlight of my summer.
Today was the first day of school here in my community – and I think all of Paraguay. I spent part of the day leading some environmentally-themed games (well, if you can call “sharks and minnows” a lesson about habitats and food chains…), which turned into all the kids asking me what their names would be in English. I spent the other half of the day chatting with the teachers (mostly about all the boyfriends I do/don’t/should have).
In case you are curious about how a first day of school in Paraguay is different from in the U.S., here are a few of the most obvious differences:
– Attendance was LOW. Maybe a third of the students attended, but that is a high estimate. Parents have to turn in documents and pay a fee before their kids start classes, and many families also haven’t bought notebooks yet (which are expensive even by U.S. standards).
– Public Schools have uniforms, so no need to spend weeks picking out an outfit for the first day. But in case you are worried about how kids spend all that time they save by already knowing what they were going to wear, rest assured that the decisions about which backpacks and notebooks to buy are not made quickly. There are a lot of cartoon characters to chose from.
– Half the kids attend school in the morning and half in the afternoon. (This applies to every day, not just the first.)
– When it looked like it was going to rain, all the kids were sent home on foot, bicycle, or motorcycle. (Yes, elementary school kids drive motorcycles).
At 143 days, my time in Paraguay has now exceeded my time in any other country outside the U.S.
In 2015, I studied abroad in Chile for 142 days. The extent to which my current experience differs from the one I had during that semester in Chile is astonishing sometimes. I was recently talking to a friend I met in Chile about how unique our time there was (in large part because we had no responsibilities, to be honest).
Besides two armed robberies and a few school assignments, my time in Chile was mostly a carefree adventure. We wandered art-filled streets, listened to live music, ate lots of ice cream, watched soccer games in rowdy bars, climbed things in high heels, ate live sea urchins we were given by some random men on a cliff, sat on sand dunes to watch the sun set over the ocean, danced in a geodesic dome after eating nothing but honey for dinner, and shared french fries at 3 in the morning on a street that still smelled like pepper spray. I lived in Casa de Colores – a house that was colorful because of both the funky murals on its walls and the diversity of its occupants. These 5 months in Chile also included a backpacking trip that is probably the highlight of my life so far: 10 days during which we plunged into glacial lakes, laughed hysterically in the middle of long hikes, jammed with a ukelele and harmonica, brushed our teeth while looking up at the Milky Way, and got really close to new friends (like 3-people-to-a-2-person-tent and 6-people-to-a-bathroom close).
Besides eating a lot of empanadas in both countries, I haven’t done much in Paraguay that compares to the adventures of Chile. The first 10 weeks here were spent in training with a full-time schedule Monday through Saturday. Then I got to my site, where I have relatively little structure to my weeks but a lot of boundaries set by cultural and professional expectations. I live on a long dirt road surrounded by farmland. There is little in the way of accessible art or nature. I help around the house, walk to town to do errands, and visit neighbors to drink tereré. I constantly assure my host mother that not finishing the mountain of food on my plate does not indicate a profound unhappiness.
Don’t get me wrong, this is how it is supposed to be. I’m not here for an adventure; I’m here primarily to form relationships, and it is a great place to do so. The people in my community are wonderful and that long dirt road is relatively scenic. I enjoyed organizing a summer camp recently. I am looking forward to working in the school to increase environmental awareness. I might also teach English, encourage people to compost, or plant trees. In a few weeks I will move into my own house and start a garden. I think I can have an impact here, and I know the people here will have an impact on me. I am happy enough of the time, and I get more happy here every week.
I’ve made a list of what gives me emotional energy (here and in general), and since one of the things that makes me happy is oversharing, I have included the list below. It’s pretty obvious stuff, but sometimes it’s nice to have the reminder for when something frustrating or unpleasant happens. Maybe making a list like this can also help those of you at home who are going through a difficult period. (I’m talking about our country being led by a fascist with the temperament of a two year old, a white supremacist who profits from lies, and a Congress full of corrupt cowards.)
Here’s my list:
– spending time with people who could become great friends or professional contacts
– feeling productive (stay tuned for a blog post about visiting 115 families in 5 days)
– reading often and a lot (I’m hoping to share my love of reading with people in my community. Paraguay has a high literacy rate but almost no reading culture.)
– getting mail (unfortunately it’s too expensive to regularly send mail from here)
– eating chocolate (usually from the packages I receive)
– staying active (bonus: when I work up enough of an appetite to finish my whole lunch, my host mom takes this as a sign it will rain the next day, and rain is a nice break from the heat and smell of burning trash.)
– telling myself that I am happy or am a happy person (This is probably dependent on a certain level of mental health as well as fortunate circumstances, but I really think happiness and unhappiness can be decisions.)