Celebrations are a big part of life in Paraguay, and this extends to the school year. School lets out at the end of November, but the celebrations marking its end begin months before and sometimes end weeks after.
First there is the intergrado. This involves competitions between the grades (or in the case of universities, between the majors/programs of study). The main event is a series of fútbol games. For the elementary school, preschool plays against kindergarten, first grade against second, and so on.
But before the grades face off on the field, they compete in a desfile. Each class coordinates outfits (even buying personalized jerseys and shorts), elects a queen, makes a poster, and writes a short speach to be read by an announcer at the event. (Honestly, it is actually the teachers who do all this.) The classes walk around a field and are judged on their presentation. There is also a sort of beauty pageant-style competition between the queens of each grade. I was somewhat confused as to how people judge 5 year olds against 15 year olds, but I guess it isn’t much more perplexing than the average beauty pageant. At the end of this year’s desfile, multiple groups of kids performed coreographed dances – all to the song La Bicicleta.
In addition to attending the elementary school integrado, I was recruited to participate in a college level one with my neighbor who is studying ingeniera comercial (business). Their group decided to represent the 3 primary cultures of the area in their presentation. Ironically, I was the Paraguaya. There were also Brazilians and Germans.
After the intergrado, I attended a féria to celebrate the completion of the first year of Tikichuela, a new science curriculum for preschoolers which brings hands-on lessons into the classroom with audio tapes and other materials for the teachers. I had helped make a lot of decorations and recuerdos (souvineers to give the attendees) for the event.
It was great to see a celebration of an interactive program in a school system which is notoriously non-interactive (based almost exclusively around copying off the blackboard), though most of the “experiments” presented by the students were actually just them repeating memorized information about a topic. Groups from 5 to 10 local schools attended and one will end up going to present in Asunción.
After this féria was another for the school in my community. Each grade presented a project and there were some dance performances and lots of food provided.
Then there was the clausura (closing) to celebrate the end of the year with the preschoolers and kindergarteners. It was basically a graduation with certificates given to each student. The families came with food, cake, additional relatives, and gifts for the graduates. Again, I helped a lot with decorations and keepsakes.
The week after school ended there was also a ceremony to pass back exam grades and honor the students with the highest grades in each class, but as often happens I didn’t have my radio so’o (“meat radio,” a term for the way local gossip spreads… not sure of its origin) tuned to the right frequency so I didn’t find out this event was happening until the last minute.
Thanksgiving day, I went to another volunteer’s house about 2 hours from mine. Ten other PCVs brought food or cooked food there, and we had a delicious and more-than-satisfying feast.
When I set out that morning to walk to the main route, I was already feeling a general sense of gratitude for life. Sure, I dropped a pan on my toe as I left my house, and my hastily applied bandage fell off about a half kilometer down the road (I passed it on my way home the next day), but as I walked along with my toe free-bleeding in my dusty Chaco sandals, I felt content. I sent a series of WhatsApp voice messages and was grateful for my ability to easily switch back and forth between English and Spanish. I was also grateful, as I always am on this walk, for the experience of living in a community where every house I pass offers a nod, wave, one word greeting, question about where I’m going, or offer of something to drink.
Later, I had to take a bus I’d never taken before, and my only confirmation that I was headed the right way came from a kid who looked about 8 years old. I was nervous, checking my phone for directions as the battery quickly drained. Then I stopped worrying long enough to remind myself that I was on a bus in rural Paraguay, thousands of miles from home, passing through land I had never seen before… while I looked down at my phone. Instead, I looked out the window and watched as we passed soy and corn fields, eucalyptus plantations, small clusters of native trees, and scattered houses. Admittedly, it looked pretty much the same as most places I’ve been in Paraguay, but I took a moment to appreciate how normal it now feels to look at this landscape as the other people on the bus passed around tereré and chatted in Jopará (the Guaraní-Spanish blend most Paraguayans speak). I though about how grateful I am that something I dreamed of doing for 15 years is now my everyday life. This experience isn’t always enjoyable, but it is certainly making my life more full and interesting. I felt gratitude for the opportunity to spend enough time in a foreign country for it to become so familiar, and also for me to truly appreciate my own.
My nerves returned when I noticed I was the last passenger on the bus, but just as I started to imagine worse case scenarios the driver asked “where did you want to get off? You’re another North American, right?” He dropped me off two blocks from my destination and pointed me in the right direction.
Of course, when I arrived (around 1pm) there was no electricity and the anticipated meal time of 4 pm had been put on hold since the ovens were electric. But the time passed quickly as we chatted, and just when we got desperate enough to reach for bread and other pre-cooked items, the lights came on and we got back to cooking.
We didn’t sit down to eat until almost 9 pm, but we were grateful for the delicious food, everything that went into making it, and all the experiences that brought us to that moment. We gave thanks for this past year of self discovery and growth; for the education and opportunities that allowed us and inspired us to do something like Peace Corps; for everyone who is there for us on the hard days: our fellow volunteers, Paraguayan neighbors, and friends and family back home; for the luxuries of life in Paraguay that we never expected to have as PCVs. Although much of what we were expressing included a “despite…” or “even though…”, the gratitude came easily.
Friday, it wasn’t quite as easy. I got an 11 am bus from the other volunteer’s house, which meant I got to my community around 12:45 – the worst time of day to be walking the 2km back to my house along the dirt road with no shade. Every time a vehicle passed me, it kicked up a cloud of dust. One such vehicle was a tractor plowing the road. I groaned, knowing that these tractors hit a water pipe every single time they come. Of course, the driver still had the nerve to honk at me as he passed!
But when I got home, there was still water, so I put the tractor out of my mind and got to work preparing my second thanksgiving feast for the next day. I planned to share the tradition with my neighbors and friends in my community.
I rode my bike to buy two gigantic frozen chickens. Luckily all the local dogs were enjoying siesta hour, so I didn’t have anyone following me as I rode back with one chicken in my backpack and the other hanging off my handlebars.
As I got to my house, I noticed a beak poking out of the plastic bag. Not a promising sight 18 hours before I needed to put the birds in the oven! I was afraid they would still be frozen the next day and with some de-assembling work left to be done. This two, I decided to forget about.
As luck (or lack of luck) would have it, the timeline on the meal was pushed back a day. An hour or two after I got back and put the chickens in a bucket of water to de-frost, the water went out.
It stayed out until the following evening. I had enough water saved to take a bucket bath (very much needed) but not enough for my dish-washing and food-cooking needs. I sat around fuming (as in, I was irritated, but also emitting hot, smelly fumes) and snapped a few times at the kids who came over to play.
But when the water came back around 6 pm Saturday night, I got cooking and by noon on Sunday I was able to prepare 4 pies, 3 trays of stuffing, a big bowl of mashed potatoes, gravy, sautéed ginger carrots, bread rolls, and one of two chickens.
I didn’t have time to cook the other chicken because when I opened up the first one I discovered it did in fact still posses a full neck and head. I tried sawing at the neck but when it didn’t come off easily I chickened out (pun so intended that I added this sentence just to include it). I thought maybe there was some special technique or specific place where I should be cutting and decided to call for backup from someone more knowledgeable. Unfortunately, all my neighbors had decided to attend church that week, and I couldn’t find anyone to help with my post-mortem decapitation for an hour or more. When I finally did ask for help, my neighbor graciously only laughed at me for a little while, I don’t think word of my ineptitude has spread far since then. It turned out that I had been on the right track with my earlier sawing, and the job was more a matter of persistence than skill (at least when you don’t own any knives designed to cut meat and bone). She also reminded me to stab the bird repeatedly like it was someone I hate, which I did despite the fact that I don’t feel stabbing level hatred toward anyone.
Not surprisingly, the chicken prep wasn’t the first time this neighbor saved my meal by sharing crucial information. Earlier, I had bought a packet of what I thought was an herb that would go nicely in the stuffing and on the chickens. I didn’t recognize the name and google translate didn’t help, so I asked my neighbor to see if she knew another name for it.
“What are you going to use it for?”
“I was thinking of using it on my food…”
“It’s to make teas that help you poop!”
After a call to another friend and some more googling, I confirmed that I had almost included a fairly strong laxative in my thanksgiving feast. Given the persistence of Paraguayan food myths, I am quite sure that mistake would have led everyone in my community and maybe the country to believe that eating apple pie causes a gruesome explosive death for anyone outside the U.S.
Luckily my thanksgiving lunch left many survivors. It wasn’t heavily attended, but the guests politely tried the strange new foods and offered numerous compliments of the salad (unbeknownst to them, this was the one thing I didn’t make, but I will admit my friend did a great job with it).
After eating, we even got into a lively discussion of politics, gender roles, and family planning, which made it feel just like a true Thanksgiving gathering!
Again, I was grateful – for running water when I have it; for the friends I’ve made here; for the dialogue across cultures, political parties, and fútbol clubs; and for the ability to semi-successfully cook an entire thanksgiving meal (without recipes) that didn’t kill anyone…
…At least that I know of… I haven’t seen one of the guests since.
The following was written in early September, 2016 but not published until now:
[PSA related to this post’s title: If you are a Harry Potter fan and have yet to listen to the Harry and the Potters wizard rock song about the last two weeks of Harry’s summer before his third year at Hogwarts, please do so before reading on.]
Two weeks from now, I will be in Paraguay.
There are many reasons I don’t want to go. First of all, I have a boyfriend whom I love and get along with quite well. We’ve been dating for a little over 7 months, which is not very long in scheme of things but is significantly longer than my previous record of approximately 3 dates. Besides not wanting to leave him, there are a number of major life events I will miss in the next 27 months (2 and 1/4 years). For instance, I will be away for my sister’s college graduation, both of my grandmothers’ 90th birthdays, and my cat’s 18th birthday (roughly 90 in cat years). I am also very disappointed that I won’t be able to vote for our first female president in-person or attend her inauguration on the National Mall. (I’m not superstitious, but I knocked on wood after writing that just in case, because the universe seems to have developed a twisted sense of humor for this election.) Last but not least, I don’t know whether the new Gilmore Girls episodes will be on Netflix in Paraguay, and that seems an awfully big risk to take.
Despite all this, I can’t wait to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. It is something I have wanted to do for at least ten years, and my intended roll (Environmental Education Promotor) seems pretty much perfect as far as I’m concerned. The fact that I know very little about Paraguay or what I will actually be doing there makes me even more excited, though I’ll admit I am a bit nervous about living in a hot, flat, and landlocked country and learning a third language (Guaraní). Other than actually packing, I am ready for the “toughest job you’ll ever love” everyone talks about.
Of course, as anyone who has experienced the medieval (?) execution/torture method where they tie you to two different horses can probably attest, being pulled in two different directions is a bit uncomfortable. Right now, half of me is tied to where I am while the other half is on a plane to South America.But I feel so lucky because I know how wonderfully fortunate I am that there is virtually nothing in my life I want to give up, and practically nothing in my future I want to avoid. Before I got my invitation to serve in the Peace Corps, I was in the exact opposite place. When people asked me if I was ready to graduate, my answer was “well, I’m definitely ready to be done with college, but I’m also not excited for the ‘real world.'”
I would much rather be pulled in two directions than pushed from one thing to the next, because it’s just love and joy at the end of those ropes right now.
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.
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).