When $%#@ Goes Down, God Has Spoken

Not so long ago, a woman in my community died. I don’t know all the details of the story. I only heard a witnesses account, and I only understood what I gleaned from the conversation. But, it’s too good of an example of health access and religion in Paraguay to let it pass untold.

The woman had diabetes and that’s what killed her. Diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity are common health problems in Paraguay. There may be genetic component (I’m not sure) but it has a lot to do with the diet and life style. Food is saturated in oil and fat and most meals are nothing more than a medley of carbohydrates with a chuck of fatty meat at the center. For many, life is centered around sitting, and dirt bikes have made is so many people don’t even need to walk to go to the corner store or their neighbor’s house.

I don’t entirely understand what happened. The doomed lady at first felt very ill and had to lie down. She sent her younger child out of the room so the child didn’t have to see her that way. The person telling me the story, started calling around to ask if anyone with a car could help take the sick woman to the hospital.

In Paraguay, ambulances aren’t the norm. There are ambulances, especially connected to private hospitals. Public hospitals also have them, but those ambulances don’t cover the hospital’s whole territory—I’m still murky on how that works. The closest public hospital to my site is a half hour bus ride away, but they can’t help with everything. The closest major public emergency center is about two hours away by bus. Basically, in an emergency, you need a ride. Cars aren’t super common. More people have dirt bikes, but a two-hour ride on a dirt bike is not really the best idea understanding the dangerous traffic conditions of the route. Not to mention, holding on to a dirt bike when you’re sick must be hard.

So, the lady trying to find a ride for the ill woman called several people—the old go-to’s, people with cars known to give rides, the taxis. No one could help. When she returned to the ill lady, the woman was dead and her skin colored with blood leached out underneath.

The woman telling this story, was actually telling the woman I was visiting that afternoon. And the woman I was visiting responded to the story by saying something like, “When you need help and there is no one, it’s your time.” The three of us nodded in agreement to that comment; it made perfect sense.

Each person has his or her own system of beliefs. But, in Paraguay belief in the Christian God helps explains a lot of things. Life isn’t always fair. There is suffering. There is joy. God helps relieve feelings of injustice and despair by providing one reason for why things are the way they are.

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Soda

Soda is a bubbly drink that comes in many flavors and contains a pile of sugar. Sugar-free sodas replace the mountain of sugar with synthetic sweetener (even if you can stand the flavor of fake sugar, I suggest looking up the latest research on the effects of that before switching to zero-calorie drinks). Some sodas taste pretty darn good. Many people like carbonated drinks.

In Paraguay, soda with sugar is common (sugar-free sodas are less common here, so I’m not going to talk about them). Bus venders sell soda by the bottle and by the glass. A neat thing about soda here is you can by 2-liter glass bottles, which you then return to the place where you bought them. Actually, soda in glass bottles is very common in Paraguay…the only part of soda culture that I adore.

I’d be lying if I said that soda is drunk in moderation in my community. People guzzle down glass after glass of Coke, Niko, Piri, Fanta, Pepsi…I didn’t know there were so many brands of soda. It’s common for a family to down a 2-liter bottle after lunch (the biggest meal of the day). Like in the US, soda is served at parties and is a common “refresher” to go along with a snack or to drink while sitting with friends and family. The only thing that slows people down is that soda is usually drank with a common glass—so either one glass (or several glasses) is passed around to everyone or people take turns drinking a full glass, but only use one or two glasses for everyone.

The complaints about the health effects of soda are the same no matter where you are. Summary: Soda has too much sugar. The sugar rots your teeth, is generally bad for your body, and can make you gain weight in an unhealthy way. But, I find the knowledge of that to be lagging in Paraguay. I hear frequently from mothers and other caretakers of children that kids should not eat candy because it’s bad for their teeth. I hear people note often that sweets and carbohydrates make you gain weight. Very few people say anything about soda. Kids are infrequently denied a second, or third, glass of soda while they might be denied another cookie.

How did soda escape scrutiny?

The Ability to Do Nothing

Think for a moment, how often do you do absolutely nothing? Now, I’m not talking about watching the TV, reading a book, sleeping…those would all be considered something regardless of your value judgement. Think hard: Nothing, sitting and staring into space, maybe watching people pass on the street and kids play in the patio. Concession, it’s hot in Paraguay so that nothingness activity might also include terere.

I don’t know your answer, but mine before coming to Paraguay was almost never. It’s so culturally ingrained in me that I must always be doing something it’s practically biological. At best, doing nothing for extended periods of time makes me show physical signs of stress. At worst, long stretches of nothingness makes me saturnine and frozen with boredom.

Paraguayans possess an innate ability to do nothing, or maybe it’s culturally taught, because the kids here have more energy then a hydro-dam running full throttle. The point is this, to my community members, a great afternoon is one spent sitting outside in the shade drinking terere. For hours. Sometimes that sitting involves conversations about the normal—who’s dating who, who’s not parents right, who’s gotten into trouble, or who did this, that, and the other thing. You know, small-town gossip. If you come from where I come from in the States you know the drill.

It’s hard for me to comprehend that an afternoon spent in such a way isn’t a waste. I know the Paraguayans in my community see an afternoon sitting as a gift, as a win. I’m always trying hard to not use my culture to judge them, but it’s difficult. Something about idleness gets to me. There are studies that people in the States should do less, that the brain needs time to just putter along. I have my doubts.

My tolerance for nothingness has grown. I can sit a couple of hours a couple times a week before my legs get completely stiff and my brain feels like mush. It’s an improvement, but I don’t possess the ability of nothingness. I never will.

The ability to do nothing is the ability to only think about this moment in time. To enjoy everything there is, as it is, and not question how it could be improved or changed. I can never only live in the moment. I replay the past; I ponder the future. If I’m not thinking about my life I slip into planning out the novel I’m writing, or going to write someday, I think about philosophical questions.

Having passed my year mark in Paraguay, I’ve returned to the conclusion that it is neither good or bad to be able to do nothing, but it is bad to force myself to try too often. Paraguayans judge self-worth in a different way than I do. They define self-worth by the group they are part of—their family, friends, or team. I define self-worth by what I’v done. To ask me to do nothing too often, is to ask me to be worthless. My way of seeing things is not better or worse than the Paraguayan way, it’s just different. And when in Paraguay, do as the Paraguayans do…with a grain of salt. I now always carry a book or flashcards when I go visiting…just in case the terere conversation stops and I find myself falling into the black abyss of nothing. There’s a difference between integrating and losing yourself.

No…No…No…I Don’t Have a Boyfriend

No, I haven’t found that special Paraguayan

No, I don’t have someone waiting for me in the States either

My answer shouldn’t come as a surprise

Because it’s the same as yesterday’s response

Does this topic really require daily discussion?

This is my excuse:

Clearly an excuse is necessary…who knew?

As if living in a foreign country for two years isn’t enough.

I’m not looking for one…

I don’t have time, I’m busy

I have things to do and I’m in Paraguay to work

I can’t bring a Paraguayan back to the States (unless he can support himself)

No, there’s no rule against it (that would be stupid)

Oh, I’m hopeful, but I’m not waiting

Well, since we’ve had this convo so many times

Your responses are of little surprise:

The man’s the one whose supposed to look and you’re pretty

But come on, you could just bring him home a few hours

Love is powerful

No rule against it? Well then…(insert critical look)

Are you really saying these things to me?

The inevitable conclusion:

It’s not that I’m against them, back off a bit would you?

You make it seem like without one I’ll drop dead

Which, is beyond annoying.

Yes, of course, if the perfect man crosses my path

Things would be different

Dear Paraguay, what I didn’t tell you:

Sure, I’d be happy to have a boyfriend

But, I’m not pining away

Feeling worthless or pointless because I don’t have one

I have nothing against Paraguayans

They are actually a pretty attractive people

But the thing is this…

I’m leaving in 2 years, tops 3

And I’m looking at 8-9 years of studying when I get back

Having kids is not on my agenda right now

No way in hell am I doing all the cooking and cleaning

Aggressiveness, catcalls, and any comments about my body

Are rude and a huge turn off

I don’t understand enough Guaraní and my first language is English

More important than anything is a good conversation

So, if you’re insistent on pairing me with a Paraguayan

Find someone who can work with all those things

Who isn’t dating or married, doesn’t have kids and has his teeth

And is genuinely a “good” person and someone I enjoy

Find someone who fits that bill

Then we can start a real discussion about dating.

Girl Power

Last week we held a girls’ leadership camp called GLOW—Girls Leading Our World. The neatest thing about it was the noticeable transformation the girls went through over the 4-day camp; fertilizer for self-esteem.

Forty-seven girls from all over Paraguay participated in activities and presentations related to leadership, self-esteem, domestic violence awareness, sexual education, safe online communication practices, and much more. The last night we had a period party, yep you guessed it, to celebrate menstruation.

Youth camps are not common in Paraguay. For many of the girls who attended, somewhere between the ages of 13 and 18, it was their first time leaving home for more than a night and definitely their first time traveling alone (well, they weren’t alone because they had the volunteers from their communities with them). The girls who participated in the camp were articulate and thoughtful.

I slept in the girls’ dormitory—where they found so much energy to giggle, scream, and chat until the wee hours of the morning I will never know. The camp schedule was packed, 7 am to 10:30 pm the two full days of the camp.

The camp emphasized that girls, young women, and women are powerful resources in Paraguay. For me, this wasn’t a surprise. The positive experiences I’ve had in Paraguay mostly center around the strength and compassion women in this country have. But, seeing my girls (I brought 2 from my community) and the other Paraguayan girls at the camp smile so broadly and participate so actively, I was glad they too knew how great they and their mothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, and grandmothers are.

Yes, I Can Cook

I think my community lives in fear that I will starve. Part of it is cultural, it’s part of Paraguayan culture to give your guest food and share everything you eat with the people sitting around you. But, the food I’m given goes above and beyond. People ask me what I eat regularly and are often surprised to hear I cooked my own lunch.

I don’t know why they’re surprised. If I was a good Paraguayan woman I’d already know how to cook. I guess it goes to show where I fall on the scale of Paraguayan women. Sometimes I think it’s because I live alone—one can’t simply cook for one can they?

I’m not complaining about Paraguayan generosity. It’s one of the things I love about living in here. Besides, recently I’ve been almost short on money—something about a Peace Corps salary and a run of bad luck. If I’m hard-working and visit people, I almost don’t need to cook or eat at home. I don’t go hungry, that’s for sure.

But, the free food comes with a small cost: I eat the food that my Paraguayan friends and contacts are eating. Which is to say, a lot of meat and bread and yucca and rice. Don’t get me wrong I like barque and yucca as much as the next girl, but even I have limits.

In Paraguay, food isn’t a meal unless it involves chunks of meat. This might be another reason why people don’t think I can cook. I don’t cook meat in my house. When I describe what I eat, they kind of give me this blank expression as though they are waiting to hear what I ate after my rice and vegetable stir fry. Nothing?

I was never a picky eater, and my time in Paraguay has made me less so. I’m an expert at eating things I don’t like, and not showing it. My community members bubble with enthusiasm every time we eat hot dogs or sausages. I just enjoy their happiness and I’m thankful for being invited to share a meal with them. But, I can’t help but think about the diet and what it’s doing to my body. My hair is thinner and duller. I’m sure could do enough exercise to burn all the calories. Is my face breaking out because I’m stressed or because of what I’m eating? No way to know.

I know what I cook is healthier than the standard Paraguayan menu, but I also don’t want to be cut off from something as important as eating with families. It’s a balance between eating what makes me feel good and tastes good and spending time with my Paraguayan friends. My Paraguayan friends always win.

Success: End of Summer English Class

I taught a summer English class. We met 3 days a week for 2 hours. I didn’t realize until the end that I should have been impressed with my students for just coming—6 hours of language class a week isn’t pocket change—but I didn’t need that realization to think they are hard-working and awesome…because they are.

My original syllabus was way too ambitious. But, when all was said and done we covered the basics: possessive, present, past, articles, and a few other things. Some of my students improved over the course of the class. Others still asked me on the last day what “I am” meant, I mean we only talked about “to be” in the present tense every day of class.

There are a lot of ways to measure success. I could talk about my students’ ability to complete homework, about their markedly better scores on exam two compared to exam one. Yes, I guess I could talk about language capacity, but in my eyes that all is icing on the cake.

The real success came when 12 out of 17 of my students, plus some parents, showed up for the end of class party in the pouring rain. They came and they brought food, a full banquet was added to the chocolate and banana cake I’d made with two of my students the previous day—empanadas, sopa paraguaya, sandwiches…and more.

The smashing part of the success was the enthusiastic attendance in the pouring cats and dogs rain. Just in case you’re not aware, basically nothing happens in Paraguay when it rains. Rain is a classic excuse for staying in your house and sleeping all day.

I handed out certificates and exams. I had a productive conversation with students and parents about how they want to continue English once school starts. I gave a little speech, nothing fancy. Then, we feasted and chatted. It was fabulous. I say that myself because I wasn’t the one who made it a joy, it was the students and parents who honored me with their slightly damp presence. What a nice close to one year of working in Paraguay.