A New Kind of Crowd

Perhaps you’ve heard of the term “machismo,” the dictionary definition is “strong or aggressive masculine pride.” It’s often used in Spanish class to describe Latin American culture. It’s usually mentioned along with a comment about how women’s rights in Latin America leave something to be desired.

Nine months in Paraguay and I’ve had the opportunity to experience both these popular Latin American studies topics first hand. But this post isn’t about the catcalls and hanks I get when I walk down the street—after talking to other female volunteers, especially blonds, it seems I’ve been mostly spared on that front.

This post is about the female, teenage students who performed a spectacular skit about decision-making and social pressure in my class and were greeted by an appalling response from their male classmates. And, this is about how those female students thought that response was normal and almost a compliment.

The plot of the skit was this: Boyfriend asks girlfriend to have sex. Girlfriend asks friends for advice and they say, “go for it” because there are no repercussions and he might leave you if you don’t. Little sister overhears the conversation and tells mom. Mom confronts girlfriend, and we learn that girlfriend hasn’t even told her mother she’s dating. Girlfriend sneaks out and has sex. She gets pregnant and when her mom finds out she gets kicked out of the house.

A team of students wrote the skit. When it was time for them to perform the skit they went and changed into their “soccer game best“: Nice sundresses, wedges, tights, tight jeans, and moderately revealing tops. In the school where I teach the students wear uniforms.

As soon as the girls changed and came back into the classroom their male classmates greeted them with catcalls and a litany of comments about how they looked. The girls smiled and posed. Throughout the skit this male commentary didn’t stop. It was as though the two actors playing the girlfriend and boyfriend were actually having sex in the classroom.

Often machismo is a little subtler and I have to think to notice it, but sometimes it is acute. Culture can’t be changed in one-fell-swoop, but I wish those young women didn’t have to live their lives that way.

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Kids, everywhere!!!

In my community, and all the communities I’ve visited in Paraguay (except Asunción), there are tons of children everywhere I go. It’s a huge change from all the places I’ve previously lived.

I’m not sure why there seem to be so many babies, toddlers, and kids. True, the average family is larger here than in the States, but the average number of children a Paraguayan woman has is less than it once was. Perhaps it has more to do with the number of women who have children at all. From observing my community and others in Paraguay, most women have children; and they have their first child well before they are 30.

It could have something to do with the climate and way of living itself. The line between indoors and outdoors is blurred in Paraguay. People spend a large portion of their days outside of their houses. Many families cook most of their meals outside and use their patios as the living rooms they don’t have. It’s hot here, and few families have AC. Outside, in the shade, is cooler than inside.

Houses tend to be clustered. Most families don’t have large plots, or at least don’t live on large plots. And, houses are often built without a living room or other common room. This encourages people to go outside and makes it feel like the neighborhood is filled with people. A walk down the street requires greeting people sitting in front of almost every house.

Children tend to have more freedom to wonder around in my community than children of the same age might in the States. It’s not that they go far from home without an adult, but rather they run between the houses of their relatives (because families of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins live in the same couple of blocks) which gives the impression that kids are running wild and free.

As soon as children aren’t toddlers anymore they learn how to look after babies and toddlers. There’s no one here who doesn’t know how to hold a baby, and everyone seems comfortable playing with babies. As girls get older, they are given more responsibility and take care of their younger siblings and cousins while their mothers work.

Patience and love for children appears universal, though I’m sure there are exceptions. The idea of “I’m good (or not) with kids” is irrelevant here because children are simply part of daily life.

25 for 25

As I mentioned, I had a birthday recently. I turned 25, which seems old because I work so much with youth between the ages of 11 and 18.

I never made New Year’s goals for 2014, but here are my goals for my 25th year. They are in no particular order.

  1. Ask for it.
  2. Initiate: Don’t expect someone else to do it.
  3. Look for opportunities to be helpful.
  4. Focus on living in the moment. Note the positive things.
  5. Take time to be thankful.
  6. Get my novel ready for review.
  7. Rock the GRE.
  8. Be diligent about journaling.
  9. Read more.
  10. Focus on health: Eat less sugar. Control portions.
  11. Exercise everyday.
  12. Publish consistently on Connecting the Dots.
  13. Learn Guaraní.
  14. Become fluent in castellano.
  15. Stay in touch with my US network.
  16. Reach out to friends in Paraguay; don’t always go it alone.
  17. Hone patience.
  18. Smile more.
  19. Learn biology, chemistry, and math.
  20. Make listening to podcasts part of my routine.
  21. Solidify a positive self-image.
  22. Listen to understand, not to respond.
  23. Share more.
  24. Let the little things go.
  25. Ask more questions.

Fans Are Not

Fans are not just machines that move air

They are a breath of fresh air in the heaviest of heat

If you cower in their wake

You might, MIGHT, not sweat so much you have to change your shirt

But, you probably will

 

Fans are not just machines that move air

They are sound machines

When those neighbors insist on sleeping with bachata piru playing

Or like to blast cumbia and polka at odd hours of the pre-dawn morning

Neutralizers, battles avoided

 

Fans are not just machines that move air

They are clothes dryers

It’s deadly sunny, except when you need clothes real quick

Then it’s damp and moldy giving everything a musty smell

Fans don’t get rid of the smell but they do evaporate water

 

Fans are not just machines that move air

They are mosquito protectors

All the mosquitos in my house are assholes, they insist on biting

Luckily their wings are weak, WEAK

Blow fan blow

 

Fans are not just machines that move air

They are refreshers

Set them up at one side of your house

And they’ll push all the air out the other side

Savior, my little hovel gets stale every time a leave for a couple of hours

 

Fans are not just machines that move air

They are greater than sliced bread

Make clams seem depressed

Ingenious is what they are

Brilliant. Hope. Essential.

Music Is Culture

Before leaving for Paraguay a friend who’s had some experience working abroad told me that I’d miss things I didn’t even like when I was in the States.

I was doubtful.

She was right.

For me, the thing is music. During my first few months I missed rap music. I had fewer than 20 rap songs in my music library before Paraguay. That’s changed, but I still wouldn’t call rap my jam. My longing for rap foreshadowed my realization that music is a huge part of my identity, which I wasn’t aware of before the music I’m used to wasn’t the norm anymore. I didn’t think much about music in the States. Ask my sister. She was not impressed to discover that after 4 years of college and then some I added maybe 30 songs to my iTunes from when I set it up at the end of high school until I hurried to get more music to bring to Paraguay.

In Paraguay, the most common music listened to is: bachata piru, polka, and cumbia. Also, some younger people and people who think they’re hip listen to raggeaton and a random selection of US pop songs. If you dig deeper, you’ll find that my generation and younger also listen to a lot of romantic music, Latin pop might be the genre, and some US rock. There’s also a Bob Marley following.

To put it another way, the diversity of music listened to in the US is not reflected in Paraguay. I’m sure you can find people listening to just about any group somewhere in Paraguay, but the simple fact is that what’s blasting at 4 o’clock in the morning or 7 p.m. on Sundays is bachata piru, polka, or cumbia.

For me, music is something you listen to while doing something else—unless you are playing an instrument or singing. I have playlists for cooking and cleaning, for writing, for lesson planning, and for exercising. Each activity requires a different mix of music and depending on how I feel that day I might need a new list. I can’t listen to the same song on repeat and there are very few songs that I’d like to hear more than once a day. Also, I like to have times of silence.

In Paraguay, listening to music is an activity. So much so, that people will say, “let’s listen to music.” They will then turn their stereos up way louder than I would, sit down, and proceed to listen to music. They might drink terere while listening to the music. There is one variation on this. For some Paraguayans, music is something you listen to from the moment you get up until the moment you go to bed. What this means is that you have loud music from the crack of dawn, Paraguayans get amazingly early every day, until bedtime.

I never thought music would be where I feel the most conflict integrating in Paraguay, but it is. I didn’t realize how music influenced my mood. Nor would I have thought that listening to bachata piru, polka, and cumbia would make me feel more out of place than the stares I get when I walk down the street sticking out like a sore thumb because of my clothes, the way I walk, my skin color, and the fact that I’m walking alone.

Is there a solution? I swap music with Paraguay youth who like American music. Maybe I’ll bring them and their friends further to the “dark side”…also known as US rock, pop, rap, R&B, and alternative. I put on a smile when I have to listen to cumbia all day and then go home and put on some Martin Sexton, Paul Simon, or Bruce Springsteen—not just because I like them, but because they are classics from my childhood. After I listen to a few of my songs I’m ready to go out again, I might even turn off my music and listen to my neighbors’ music for a while.

Real Fear: Heat

The other day it was over a 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and it’s only spring. On that day the water worked intermittently during the hottest hours of the day, but I still managed 3 showers. The power went out several times during the night. I dread the day when the water doesn’t work all day and it’s hot (I refuse to imagine a long power outage)—so far I’ve only survived those variables independently, but the inevitability that I will encounter both together one day is nerve-wracking.

My little house, as I like to affectionately call it, does not have AC. All I’ve got is a floor fan, which I move around the room with me like it’s my shadow.

My community gets a 5 o’clock shadow—as in, anywhere I want to walk before 5 p.m. has no shade, just beating sunrays. The school doesn’t have AC. They have ceiling fans, but not all the fans work and even when they do work it’s still bloody hot for an old New Englander like me.

The health post is an oasis. There is one room in the health post that has AC. I foresee spending many summer hours in that one somewhat dark room where the walls are lined with baby alimentation posters, medical record folders (paper ones), and whatever medications we have.

Don’t worry! There is a comical side to this whole heat debacle. While I’m dripping sweat like a glass of ice water on a summer’s day, my Paraguay comrades are sitting drinking terere. There’s not a drop of sweat on their faces and their clothes are still perfectly pristine. “Haku” they say when they see me, which means “hot” in Guaraní. I always respond “haku” enthusiastically and comment how I miss the snow. Reflecting, I’m starting to think they say it not because they think it’s particularly hot but because I look like I’m boiling. It’s a good indirect way to say, “You look terrible, are you okay?”

Send Me Good Mojo

The only concrete project I have due to my boss is a community study, which is jargon for saying a report on what health and sanitation challenges there are in my site as well as what services are already in place to help resolve those challenges. (Hint: Leading challenges in my site are high blood pressure, diabetes, and being overweight. We have a health post and some community commissions as well as a school.)

I find the study interesting, except there’s just one part that I really don’t want to do: a census. I have to go to the homes of 50 families and ask them 6-pages of questions about their family’s health.

If you could send me some good mojo from now until November 17, when it’s due, to get me through the census that would be great, because here’s how I see it:

“The time has come,” the Peace Corps said,

“To talk of many things

Of censuses—of cold-call visits—and interviews

Of conversations where you must pull strings

And why the community needs a volunteer

And whether your project ideas have wings

 

“But wait a bit,” the Volunteer cried,

“Before we have our chat;

For some of us have a great fear,

And much verguenza to do all that!”

“No hurry!” said the Peace Corps

The Volunteer thanked them where they sat.

 

“A community study,” the Peace Corps said,

“Is what we chiefly need;

Projects and flexibility besides

Are very good indeed—

Now if you’re ready, Volunteer dear,

We can proceed.”

 

“But not all at once!” the Volunteer cried,

Turning a little blue.

“After such determination, that would be

A dismal thing to do!”

“The study is due,” the Peace Corps said.

“November seventeenth for review.

 

“Or you won’t get vacation approved

And that wouldn’t be very nice!”

The health sector said nothing but

“You can do it, but don’t roll the dice

I wish you wouldn’t procrastinate–

Or I’ll have to read it twice!”

 

“It seems a shame,” the Peace Corps said,

“To play the volunteers such a trick,

After we’ve brought them out so far,

And made them trot so quick!”

The health sector said nothing but

“Don’t let too much time tick!”

 

“I weep for you,” the Peace Corps said:

“I deeply sympathize.”

Followed by quotes about service and development

Of the cliché size,

Holding their performance review

As though it were a prize.

 

“O Volunteer,” said the health sector,

“You’ve had a pleasant run!

Shall you be turning in your census now?”

But answer came there none—

And this was scarcely odd, because

The Volunteer preferred any project to the assigned one.

Birthday Shout Out

I had a birthday recently. Some people have life-crises at New Year’s when they think about what they’ve accomplished, what they haven’t done, what they want to change…well, I have birthday crises. I couldn’t care less about January 1, but when my October birthday comes around I have “so many feelings.”

I wasn’t sure how my birthday contemplativeness was going to manifest itself in Paraguay. The answer: I felt completely loved and supported and empowered.

I got supportive, funny, and loving messages via email, Facebook, and Twitter from family and friends back home. My sister created a digital birthday card that she emailed, tweeted, and made her Facebook cover photo. My family sent me care packages with copious amounts of chocolate and green tea (and other wonderful things that have made my life markedly better)—I did NOT use restraint during my consumption of said chocolate.

Other volunteers and Paraguayan friends sent me thoughtful birthday messages. Two of my closest friends is site ambushed me with an unexpected birthday present the day after my birthday—I’m still smiling.

The women at my health post hosted a birthday lunch. I made chocolate cake with dulce de leche as frosting. They made two kinds, yes two, of salad and a savory pie made of leafy greens, onions, and eggs. We also had sausage and Coke Cola—staples in Paraguay.

The Saturday after my birthday, I had my morning English class sing happy birthday to me—English practice, right? I didn’t tell the students I worked with on the day of my birthday that it was my birthday, but got happy birthday wishes for almost a week afterward when they did find out.

It was the birthday I always dreamed of—tranquilopa.

Don’t Suffer, Fix It

You don’t need to come all the way to Paraguay to find little inconveniences in life. Maybe the sink drips. Maybe the door squeaks. Maybe the table rocks. Whatever it is, it works but it could be better. It wouldn’t be hard to mend but instead you let yourself deal with these little things for months, for years… What exactly keeps you from fixing them? What keeps you from making them better or eliminating them all together? Why would you deal with small annoyances rather than resolve them?

You don’t know how to fix them?

You’re lazy?

You’re too shy to ask for help?

You tell yourself that it’s only going to be for a little while?

I’ve come to ask myself these questions. I’m not lazy and I know how do fix most basic things in my house. But, still I don’t. Paraguay adds a level of complexity because I don’t always know where to get the materials I need to fix something, but that’s not an excuse.

I had an epiphany recently—why let myself suffer if I can fix the problem? Thinking about my current situation, I’m going to live in my house two years. That’s not a petty amount of time.

I find the scenario of inaction interesting. I can come all the way to Paraguay to try to help people improve their lives. But, somehow, I overlook the necessities in my own home—I should be able to fix my wardrobe knob, refresh the concrete in my bathroom, and build/get enough shelving.

My new motto: “Don’t suffer, fix it.”

Check back in a couple months to see if I’m living my motto or just blowing smoke.

The Classroom

When I say I’m teaching in the school here’s what it means. The class is filled with 20-30 students. There aren’t desks for everyone, and if it’s the first class of the day some students inevitably have to wonder off in search of a chair. The chairs have seen better days—they’re covered in graffiti, their desk arm is broken, they’re a little crooked.

The classroom door won’t stay closed, so if I want to reduce distractions I have to prop a chair against it. All classrooms have chalkboards—they don’t always have erasers, so sometimes I use a broom. My school has a projector, but I haven’t worked up the courage to try it yet, mostly because I worry its setup will take half the class period. Between transitions in the school and holidays and any number of activities that get in the way of learning time I don’t want to lose time—it’s a useless obsession of mine to attempt to have no wasted time in my class, but it’s one of those unachievable goals I strive for anyway.

There’s always a group of students in the back who hardly (or won’t) participate. In the younger grades those students do their homework for the next class, and in the older grades those students listen to music, send texts, and crack jokes. There’s usually one student who wants to help, one students who simply disappears, one student who looks utterly confused, one student who looks on the verge of sleeping, and one student who looks vaguely interested. The rest of the class falls into those categories too.

Before Paraguay, I’ve heard it argued that teaching is a gift or that teaching is something you learn. From my time in the classroom I’ve come to a hybrid conclusion. The mechanics of teaching well is something you learn—through a somewhat painful process—and the ability to find the nugget that makes any subject interesting is a gift.

Each class I teach I think is better than the last. I haven’t got the teaching thing down flawlessly, but I have plenty of time to get there. I’m getting better because I’m seeing first hand what my students like and dislike. I’m also uncovering my own limitations. Language is a problem, so I’m learning what kinds of things I can explain and which ones are just beyond me right now. Not a class passes without me wondering if and how much better the class would be if I was fluent in the language.

I don’t see any value in fighting my students. My desire is to find a way where my interest in the topic of the class is contagious. I’m getting closer. The students are starting to get used to me—I wouldn’t say that familiarity is translating to greater respect but it is crumbling some of the barriers they put up between us when I first entered their classes. I keep telling myself that I have next year. I focus on listening to them. I want to know what makes them tick. I want to know what drives them. I reflect on every class and think about what worked and what didn’t work. I’m reading about classroom management. I ask other volunteers about their teaching experiences.

Looking back, I’m mystified how my high school teachers were motivated to enter their classrooms day-in and day-out for years. There is a wonderful energy that emanates from the youth in my school, but it doesn’t always make up for the hours of preparation and grading. I keep telling myself that I never know how I’m impacting my students. I like to think that something I talk about will stick, will make a lasting impression, will have a positive impact. But, I’ll never know.