Living  “Alone” in Paraguay 

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.” 

“Come in in (through the back door, because it is a prettier color than the front)” – 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!

“Yes, I’d like to rent this house.” – an independent woman in her mid-twenties

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). 

“What’s that? An unaccompanied baby is crawling toward my playful cat and hot oven… better take a picture” – an independent woman in her mid-twenties (who quickly steered the baby in another directions after taking this picture)

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. 

“Here is where I keep my tools for distracting children so I can do my own thing” – an independent woman in her mid-twenties

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? 

“If I could reach it, I would do it myself.” – an independent woman in her mid-twenties

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. 

“Woah so much going on here!” – a not-very-independent 3-month-old cat

143 Days

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). 

Photo by Annika Heilman (or at least from her camera/Facebook) …Patagonia, Chile

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. 

Some of my (non-human) neighbors

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. 

My street

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)

One of the postcards Shawn has sent me

– eating chocolate (usually from the packages I receive)

 – sleeping at least 8 hours a night

– drinking plenty of water

-snuggling with my kitten 

El Presidente Rutherford B. Hayes II

– 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.) 

Summer Camp in the Campo

In the past two weeks, my site-mate (one of the closest volunteers to me) and I organized two summer camps – one in her community, one in mine. Each camp was for two mornings. The theme was “vamos viajeros!” or “let’s go, travelers!”

 In case you find yourself in the Paraguayan campo (countryside/rural area) and decide to host a summer camp, here are some “really useful” tips: 

1. Spend the majority of your prep time drawing a world map. 


2. When creating “charla papers” (posters to use during a lesson) for each country, make sure to employ some young helpers for the coloring. Empowering youths is probably more important that maintaining a supply of markers that haven’t been used too forcefully and then left with their caps off… I suppose… Also, make sure you have an answer for when your coloring assistants ask if you are REALLY going to be traveling to Japan, Holland, Brasil, Egypt, Kenya, Germany, the U.S., and Australia during the two day camp. 


3. Only sign up kids between grades 3 and 9, since kids younger than this are too difficult to supervise. But be flexible, because littler kids will sneak in whether you like it or not. 


4. Charge Gs. 5,000 per family (equivalent of about 85 cents) to buy snacks and art supplies.


5. Sign up about twice the amount of kids you actually want, in anticipation of a low participation rate. Or not. You might end up with 40+ kids and two “adults.” Luckily, there will probably be a few teenagers (or 12-year-olds) who can help translate your commands into Guaraní. 

6. If you have the kids sit under trees, make sure you know what to do in the case of caterpillar bites. (General rule for Paraguay: do not touch caterpillars. Symptoms range from itching to paralyzation to involuntary twitching). One kid at our camp was bit by the itchy-rash-causing variety of caterpillar, and we responded with “uhhh so what do you want to do?” When some other kids brought me over a leaf with a more dangerous variety of caterpillar on it, I calmly ask that they put this critter somewhere where it won’t bother the other children. 

7. Do a water ballon fight. This will be everyone’s favorite part, even if it causes some tears. When the boys throw the water ballons in the girls’ faces, you will understand why multiple girls asked you if you were going to do two separate water balllon fights – one for girls and one for boys. But you will not regret your decision to make the whole camp gender neutral. You believe boys can learn not to throw things in people’s faces. You will even give boys pink name tags.


8. Mummy-making contests and mummy races are a wonderful opportunity to take photos of smiling children and their undead friends. 





9. Make sure to have the kids help pick up the used toilet paper from the ground. Then find a nice place to bury all of this since there’s no such thing as a trash pick up service and you are trying to avoid burning things. 

10. Bake chocolate chip cookies. Pass these out at the end of camp so that when you ask how the camp was the kids tell you it was delicious. 

El Presidente Rutherford B. Hayes: My Cat

As anyone who follows me on Facebook and Instagram already knows, I got a kitten a couple weeks ago. He’s pretty adorable, if I do say so myself. 

“Awwwwww” – you, when you saw this picture

I’ve been trying to think of the perfect kitten name. I wanted something that had some significance here in Paraguay but could be easily pronounced be people back in the U.S.

Adding to these naming guidelines, I have recently determined that my kitten is male, a fact I hadn’t been aware of due to the smallness of the area with, well, you know… I’m pretty sure gender is a social construct not present in cat society, but I will refer to this kitten by the pronouns he/him/his. 

Luckily, during a phone conversation about cats, history, and Paraguayan soccer, Shawn (my significant other) and I came up with the perfect name to satisfy all my requirements…

El Presidente Rutherford Birchard Hayes II.

“You named me what?!”

That’s right, my kitten will be named after the 19th president of the United States. Probably not the first name that comes to your head when you think of Paraguay or of U.S. Presidents. Well… 

¡TIME FOR A HISTORY LESSON!

There are some fun facts I’d like to share that might make you say “maybe if we learned that in school I would have remembered that the name Rutherford B. Hayes even existed.” 

This Rutherford Hayes is a playful kitten. Who was President Rutherford Hayes?

In 1876, Rutherford though he had lost the election and went to sleep. But there were some disputed electoral college votes, and the result ended up being decided in January of 1877 through an electoral commission established by congress for this purpose. Good ol’ Rutherford was sworn in to office in a private ceremony that March – and nicknamed Rutherfraud. 

This kitten is not a fraud… unless he is trying to pass off that leopard printed blanket as a real leopard

Kinda makes you go “huh. I guess our democracy has survived some pretty sketchy stuff in the past. Maybe we’ll make it through the term of a fascist egomaniac who won the election with some help from Russia and without the popular vote.” 

Well, Rutherfraud Hayes was no Donald Grump. (That was a typo I purposely didn’t correct.) El Presidente RBH actually appears to have been a somewhat decent fellow. 

This is a decent kitten, though he often tries to attack me through my mosquito net

(Note: I am calling him a decent fellow – at least in relation to our current president-elect – despite the undemocratic process which put him in the White House and despite the fact that he made the final call in withdrawing federal troops from the Southern States after the Civil War, ending an aspect of Reconstruction that possibly could have protected black Americans from some of the extreme violence and discrimination they faced after the end of slavery. This is obviously a pretty big and bloody stain on his record, though some historians argue he didn’t have much of a choice in the matter and that Reconstruction was in its final days anyway. Hayes apparently called on southern leaders to protect the rights of black people living in their states and may have genuinely believed they would do so…) 

Has a guilty look on his face, but not responsible for ending Reconstruction

If a person can be judged by their choice of spouse, Hayes should get some credit for marrying Lucy Ware Webb. She was the first First Lady to have graduated from college, which is pretty awesome. Apparently she was instrumental in banning alcohol from the White House (temporarily), instituting the famed Easter Egg Roll, and putting in the White House’s first telephone. More importantly, she was an ardent abolitionist who reportedly moved her husband in the right direction on this important topic long before he reached the Oval Office.  

This Rutherford is single. But sorry, lady cats, his balls will be snipped very soon.

Hayes was said to have fought for the Union because he saw it as a way to end slavery. He appears to have been rather naive about his fellow white people’s treatment toward both enslaved and free people of color, but he at least came down roughly on the right side of history. While campaigning for governor of Ohio, he pushed for an amendment to the State Constitution which would have allowed people of color to vote in state elections (this progress came a bit later than he hoped). 

In addition to being not an entirely terrible person where race is concerned, RBH appears to have also not hated professional women. As president, he signed a bill that allowed women attorneys to appear before the Supreme Court.
He also advocated for federally protected voting rights and for education and job training for immigrants, minorities and the poor. He retired after one term and spent the rest of his life helping veterans get their pensions, improving conditions in prisons, and promoting universal education. 
(Sources for all this info: Whitehouse.gov and rbhayes.org.)

So I think I feel ok with having my cat named after this guy. 
(If any historians out there would like to disagree with my relatively positive profile of President Hayes, please do. I got most of my info from the website of his presidential library, which might be a bit biased.) 

El Presidente… snuggling, or hiding from the sins of his namesake?

But why, you might ask, is Rutherford B. Hayes relevant to Paraguay? 
If you look at a map of Paraguay, you may be surprised to find that one of the departamentos (like U.S. states) is named Presidente Hayes. There’s also a Villa Hayes and a professional soccer team here named Presidente Hayes. I’m sure not many people would have more than a hazy (pun most definitely intended) idea of why our 19th President is such a big deal in this small South American country.  

If Presidente Hayes is so Paraguayan, why is he sleeping in a Red Sox cap?

Well, Hayes came to power just after the Triple Alliance War, in which Brazil and Argentina tried to claim large parts of Paraguay (Paraguay arguably instigated the conflict, but that’s not what we are here to discuss). The two sides of this conflict asked the U.S. to settle their dispute, and Hayes sided with Paraguay in 1878. Basically, with a handwritten letter signed on the recommendation of his State Department, Hayes secured 60% of Paraguay’s territory and its future as a nation. The people of Paraguay appear to have appreciated this. 
There’s a fun NPR piece on this that basically says what I just wrote. 

…I don’t really have more to say on this matter so I’ll just leave you with another adorable picture of El Presidente. 

The Holiday Season in Paraguay

In case you didn’t notice, it is now 2017, which means a few things in the context of my Peace Corps service:

  1. I’ve been in Paraguay more than three months, and in site for over one month! …As these things usually do, it feels like forever ago and also only yesterday that I left the U.S.
  2. I’ve now entered what will be my only full calendar year as a volunteer.
  3. I already celebrated my first (and probably last) Christmas and New Years in Paraguay.
  4. I can post this blog entry! (I used all my Wi-Fi data for December trying to watch the new Gilmore Girls… Please PM me to discuss all the happenings in the lives of Lorelei and Rory.)

…I’ll use some of my 6 GB of January data to tell you about winter (well, summer) holidays in the Heart of South America.

The first of these was a month ago: the December 8th holiday for the Virgin of Ca’acupe. On this special day, many people in Paraguay make a pilgrimage to Ca’acupe, walking or biking great distances, often with the hopes of being cured of some ailment. Pilgrimages like this aren’t confined to Ca’acupe; other locations with reports of Virgin Mary sightings or other miracles also draw crowds around this time of year.

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The church/cathedral in Ca’acupe… In November, I visited with my training host family.

My host family went to Ca’acupe last year but stayed in the community this time. We went to the grandparents’ house for lunch and then did some resas, a series of prayers (often the whole rosary) done on a number of important occasions here. On this day, there’s a sort of Catholic version of Trick-or-Treating where instead of shouting “trick-or-treat!” when you arrive at someone’s house, you stand for a bunch of Hail Marys. After two houses and the church, I had baggies full of sweets and other goodies.

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Next was Christmas. Seeing how people here celebrate was interesting and also very tiring. I heard multiple women exclaim that “this Christmas has brought nothing but work!” …For me, it also brought some sort of virus, but I’ll skip the details in that department.

On Christmas Eve, I spent the day at another house peeling things (yucca, onions, and fruit) in preparation for Christmas Day.

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The skin we peeled off a bazillion mandioca (yucca) roots

Later, my host family ate a late dinner outside under the Christmas lights. (If you’re wondering what is eaten for this special Christmas Eve dinner, see my previous blog post for a description of the food served at all parties and special event in Paraguay.)

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Christmas and New Years were no exception to the rule that all the holidays – and most of the non-holiday days – in Paraguay involve pyrotechnics (mostly the ones that create a lot of noise and smoke without much of a light show). On Christmas Eve, I saw some “bombas” that came in a box with a picture of the Virgin Mary.

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my host sister, setting off a bomba: “Look, I’m the Statue of Liberty!”

At midnight on Christmas Eve, everyone kissed, hugged, or shook hands, said felicidades or feliz navidad, and set off more fireworks. Since Christmas is a holiday about children, most of the family then went to pray next to the tomb/grave of a deceased baby – infants are buried in their parents’ yards here. Right after midnight, my family went to bed. Often, people here celebrate and dance until morning, but I was glad we didn’t do so since I was exhausted from a day of peeling, feeling under the weather, and preparing to get up early the next morning to help set up for the Christmas festivities.

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Nativity scenes can be quite elaborate here… and always involve watermelons

In Paraguay, Christmas Eve is the generally the bigger celebration, but my community was preparing for a massive Christmas Day event. Why? Well, in Paraguay (and in many other Catholic countries, I’m sure), each community has a church or chapel, and each church or chapel has a patron saint. Every year on the day associated with that saint, the community celebrates with a procession, mass, and other festivities. The patron saint for the biggest of the chapels in my community is none other than niño Jesus – baby Jesus. His special day is of course December 25th. So, as you can imagine, Christmas around here is sort of a two-for-one special in the celebrating department. The municipality even sent a truck to smooth out the dirt road, which everyone agreed needed smoothing.

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The pavilion being prepared for a Mass with more than a thousand attendees

By the time I got to the futbol field/park at around 7 am on Christmas day, people had been there for almost two hours cooking and decorating. I had been told the morning would be a great time to take pictures to send back to my family and friends in the U.S. (or Germany – the two get confused because of the large German/Mennonite population here). I also tried to be moderately helpful and set up some plastic chairs.

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The hardworking chefs… currently in the chopping things stage

Thousands of people (or over a thousand at least) participated in the festivities. A baby Jesus doll (I don’t think “doll” is the official terminology) was carried to a truck and paraded from one end of the community to the other with a line of cars following behind. Then there was a mass under the big pavilion. (Note: in Catholicism, something is only a mass if there is a priest and the “host” (bread and wine) is served.  Chapels only have visiting priests on special occasions, so not every Sunday gathering is a mass here.)

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A truck with the Baby Jesus doll, a priest, and some kids

Afterwards, enormous quantities of food were consumed (I heard there were 300 kg – over 600 lbs. – of grilled meat alone).

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A man behind me: “pose so she can take a picture to send to her family in Germany”

Next, it was time for the distribution of gifts. People don’t generally exchange gifts for Christmas here, but part of this event involves giving a gift to each child in the community. Since the event’s announcer spoke Guarani, I was a bit confused at first when everyone with a baby stood in a long line and all the older kids stampeded onto the soccer field. The babies got plastic shovel/bucket sets, the boys got soccer balls, and the girls got sparkly pink purses with a lipstick design on them (UGHH).

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Some of the yucca we peeled

Later, there were performances. It started as something like an elementary school talent show and ended with a professional band playing Paraguayan music. A few people danced, and most people sat around talking about whether they would dance (a common party ritual).

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Some kids watching some other kids do a traditional dance

New Year’s Eve also involved some almost-dancing. My host mom’s siblings came from the Asuncion area with their families. In the afternoon, there was a soccer game at the grandparents’ house. The women painted their nails and braided their hair. The volunteer in the community next to mine passed by on her way to a house across the street, and my host mom quickly roped her into getting her nails and hair done as well. Everyone showered and dressed up nicely (white is the color for ushering in a New Year) and then waited around for midnight. The transition to 2017 meant sharing felicidades much like on Christmas Eve, and it meant we could eat (my host sister shouted “finally it’s the dinner hour!”). Afterward, someone brought out some disco lights and a karaoke machine, but we went home before I saw more than one little kid attempt to rap.

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A New Year’s Eve soccer game… if you look closely, you might spot some cows watching from the other side of the street

 

It is difficult to be far from loved ones at this time of year, but I am looking forward to what this New Year will bring. I’ll start working in a school, move into my own house, start gardens, travel, maybe plant trees, and hopefully do a lot of composting.

Back home, this year is going to involve a lot of scary things being said and done by people in positions of power. I can’t do much to fight the battles that need fighting there, but here I’ll try to represent the best of the United States to the best of my abilities, and I’ll make sure to teach about important things such as environmental protection, gender equality, and respecting people’s differences.

All the Life Going On

One of the most beautiful and most difficult aspect of Peace Corps Service is that “real life” doesn’t pause during these two years – not for the people we left in the U.S., nor for the people in our host country. This is common sense of course, and the Peace Corps makes it abundantly clear that volunteers are signing up to participate fully in the life of a new community while missing important events back home, but this is also a reality that reasserts itself regularly and becomes more real with each passing day.

The most obvious reason it is difficult to see life go on as usual is that it means missing important events in the lives of loved ones back home. Just this past Friday, my cousin gave birth to a beautiful baby who will probably be walking and talking by the time I get a chance to meet him. Both my grandmothers will turn 90 while I’m away (and my cat will turn 18, which is nearly equivalent in cat years). My little sister and my boyfriend will graduate from college and grad school in the next two years. One of my best friends is planning to get married before my service ends. These are just the major events I’m aware of right now, and these are more than enough to feel like I’m missing out.

But it’s not as if I am living in a place without births, birthdays, graduations, and weddings. In fact, I’ve already experienced pretty much every one of these life events, and I’ve only been in my community for two weeks.

In my first few days here, I attended an end-of-year ceremony to honor the graduating 9th graders and the best students from each grade at the local primary school. They all dressed up in their nicest uniforms, held Paraguayan flags, and were handed certificates by family members. My host mom (the principal) introduced me, and I spoke to the crowd about being excited to live and work with everyone in the community. I even threw in a few Guarani words (exactly 4 words), much to everyone’s amusement.

I’ve also been to quite a few birthday parties here and in our training community. People go all out with Birthdays in Paraguay, though I have yet to attend the biggest of birthday bashes: a quinceñera (15th birthday). Especially for little kids, the decorations at parties can be extravagant, and everyone takes a picture with the birthday person in front of their decorations. Men drink beer and sometimes play music (I went to one birthday where the husband of the birthday woman was playing a giant harp). The party drink of choice for women is red wine, usually cold and mixed with soda. There’s a very specific menu for all Paraguayan parties: grilled meats and sausages, chipa guazu and/or sopa paraguaya (both corn-based, bread-like foods), mandio (yucca), potato salad, rice (with corn, peas, and mayonnaise), salad (lettuce and tomatoes and/or cabbage and carrots), and plenty of soda. This is followed by singing and a fancy-looking cake, which is generally served as everyone starts to leave; slices of cake are passed out and taken to-go.

Saturday, I attended another cake-serving event: the wedding of my host aunt and uncle.

We spent more time preparing to attend the wedding than actually attending it. My host mom asked me to try on multiple outfits from her wardrobe, since mine is obviously terribly inadequate. She had my host sister paint my nails. After I showered (a requirement before any important event here), she braided my hair. Then we sat around at home for a couple hours looking fancy. I thought we were waiting to leave for the church, but it turns out we weren’t attending the ceremony and were just waiting for the bride and groom to get back from the getting-married part of the evening.

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All dressed-up with my 10-year-old host sister, Isabel

A few minutes before the couple got home, everyone gathered in their yard. The house and fence surrounding it had been covered in white and blue fabrics and there were numerous long tables set up on the grass. There was also an elaborate sound and light system for dancing (which was mostly done by girls ages 10 and under, who were much better dancers than I could ever hope to be). When the newlyweds arrived (getting out of the car with all the makings of tereré of course), this same little gaggle of kids greeted them with some sort of confetti, and everyone lined up to take turns being in a photo with the bride and groom. (Fun fact: the words bride and groom in Spanish, novia and novio, are the same as the words for girlfriend and boyfriend, which seems a bit awkward from a U.S. perspective but makes sense here where it is still relatively common to expect that your first boyfriend or girlfriend will be the person you marry.)

After pictures, there was a meal (see the birthday party menu above). My host mom must have been feeling pretty festive because she opened a can of beer for the two of us to share!

Later, a woman came over and said they needed people “for the tape” (as in the stuff you stick things together with)… At times, I can understand every word someone is saying and still have no idea what is going on… It turns out the word for tape is the same as the word for ribbon. They were gathering unmarried women to pull ribbons out of a bowl of pudding. There was a ring at the end of one ribbon. When I returned to the table with my ring-less ribbon I was told “that means you won’t get married.” I assume they meant I won’t be the next one to get married, but either way I plan to adopt a cat soon. Later, I also failed to catch the bride’s bouquet; 0 for 2 in the imminent marriage category.

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My poor, ring-less ribbon. All the frosting was licked off of it by little kids.

Despite my lack of a secure marital future, I was touched that people who were complete strangers just a couple weeks ago had welcomed me to participate in this special day. Only one batch of banana bread into service and my community is including me in both their everyday routines and in their usually-once-in-a-lifetime celebrations. I’ll admit, I’m not as grateful every day as I should be for this hospitality.

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My first Paraguayan party keepsake. Some people’s houses are completely full of these.

A less obvious reason (perhaps) that life-going-on-as-usual makes Peace Corps service challenging is that these two years are not really as much of an “adventure” as one might imagine. When I think of adventures, I generally think of movement and exploration. For the most part, the space in which a PCV moves and explores is pretty limited (at least physically); I am currently staying in one place far longer than I have in years. After all, my job is to become part of a local community where people are going about their normal lives. In between parties, there will be days when I am rather bored and days when I am working really hard (though probably not as hard as the people around me). Already, my community has experienced serious illness and death while I have been here. Living somewhere for this long involves a lot more not-so-fun times than just traveling to a place as a tourist or even studying abroad for a semester.

Of course, no challenging time comes without some sort of lesson. It was only recently that I truly internalized what my parents and others have been trying to tell me for years: the people in your life are always going to be your most important source of fulfillment. Naturally, just as I started to fully grasp that lesson, I decided to move far away from everyone I love. But maybe doing that will be the best way to make the lesson stick.

Tereré

Probably every blog post I write while in Paraguay will include the word tereré, so I figured I should introduce you to this fundamental aspect of Paraguayan culture.

Let’s start with the basics. Tereré is a drink: basically, the cold form of maté. It is also a verb in Guaraní.

To terere, you need your equipo (team). First, there’s the guampa. This is the cup. I received my first (and probably not last) guampa at the end of training. The tall, thin, lopsided shape signifies that the guampa is for tereré. For maté, people use a shorter, rounded guampa like those more commonly used in other South American countries.

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My very own, personalized guampa

Into the guampa, you put your yerba maté. Think loose-leaf tea – though of course it is not technically tea. (As a drinker of herbal “tea,” I am not entirely clear on what constitutes a tea leaf, but I know yerba maté is a different type of plant.) Most people have their favorite brand and variety of yerba. It can be pure or have herbs like mint mixed in to make it less strong/bitter. Some Peace Corps Volunteers have helped (or are helping) their communities grow and sell yerba. It can flourish in shady areas, like under trees, which makes it a potential tool in the fight against deforestation.

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An example of Yerba, held by my 10-year-old host cousin. There were numerous fights about whose hands got to be in these pictures.

Next, you have a bombilla. This is no ordinary straw. Just as with maté, the bombilla is metal and has a little filter at the end. It is used to sip the terere without getting (much) yerba in your mouth. (The first few sips always come with a bit of yerba, and some people spit it out.) We also received bombillas before swearing in as volunteers, because – according to our punny master trainer – training sucks. (Ha. Ha. Ha.)

Of course, you can’t suck up dry yerba. This is where a termo (thermos) comes in. A good termo will keep your water nice and cold. With tereré, the more ice the better; it’s one of the only ways to survive the sweltering summers here. Termos can have some pretty fancy designs, often with a sort of leather casing that has the logo of the owner’s favorite fútbol club (Olimpia vs. Cerro Porteño is the biggest rivalry) or a cheesy quote about friendship/being a mother. At home, many people instead use a metal or plastic pitcher for their water (agua in Spanish, y in Guaraní).

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Foreground: a termo. Background: more termos. Some use these all the time, some use them only while on-the-go, and some (especially poor volunteers) don’t own one.
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The pitcher my host family uses while at home

Agua isn’t the only thing that goes into the termo or pitcher. You shouldn’t forget the yuyos (herbs or weeds). These are leaves, roots, or flowers that add flavors (and/or health benefits) to your tereré. You grind them up a bit, often with a mortar and pestle, and add them to the water. Some I had never heard of; others are more familiar: mint, ginger, lemongrass. If something hurts physically or emotionally, you can bet someone will have a yuyo suggestion. Also, as if yerba weren’t enough of a diuretic, many of the yuyos make me have to pee every five minutes for a couple hours.

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My host sister’s hand holding azafrán or saffron, a yuyo that I would never be able to afford in the U.S… Photo not very clear because I was being pushed around by little cousins who also wanted to be in the picture.

Now that you have your equipo, it’s time to share some tereré with friends, family, and strangers alike, generally while sitting in a circle. Pour a bit of water from your termo into your guampa and pass it to someone who drinks until there is no more water and then passes it back. Repeat. There is an order to who drinks, and each person gets their turn (torno in Spanish, ha in Guarani). Often the person serving is the youngest in the group, though generally a host or hostess will serve their guests.

You may wonder when the best time to drink tereré is. The answer is almost any time, especially if you’re looking to have a tranquilo conversation with someone (suggestions for conversational topics: the weather, neighborhood gossip, or the strange habits of the Peace Corps Volunteer in your community). Bring your equipo out to your front porch, to work, to a fútbol game, or on a road trip. Are you driving a car or bus? No problem, go ahead and terere. Tereré can be drunk while doing nearly any job. I didn’t fully understand how ubiquitous it was until I saw a fire truck driving the road with the fire fighters sitting on top, passing around a guampa.

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The production team behind these photos insisted I take a picture of the ice in the freezer.

There are however some times when you cannot terere. If it is cold or early morning/late evening, you drink maté (which is scalding hot here). People might turn down the guampa if they are sick or have on lipstick or have been smoking. You also can’t drink if you haven’t eaten at all, or if you are currently eating. And don’t even think about drinking something cold near to a time when you have drunk or will be drinking something hot (the same goes for taking a cold shower after drinking/eating a hot thing, or a hot shower after ingesting something cold). Some say you’re not supposed to terere when you have your period. And people tend to believe that eating watermelon and then drinking something water-based will cause you to explode.

Potential explosions (or more realistically, the transfer of germs) aside, the tereré lifestyle is one Peace Corps Volunteers quickly pick up. It is a way Paraguayans demonstrate hospitality, companionship, commonality, and tranquilidad – and it is practically a necessity when temperatures reach 45º C. Supposedly you can identify a returned volunteer who served in Paraguay by the equipo on their office desk, so if you don’t get a chance to visit the “heart of South America,” I’ll make sure to pass you the guampa when I get back to the U.S.