Road Kill

I live on a road with more traffic than perhaps the average road in Paraguay. So, I imagine I encounter more road kill than I might elsewhere. Road kill is a fact of roads. In the States I’m from the countryside, so deer, raccoons, possums, and frogs are the common victims. In Paraguay, it’s a little different. We still have the squashed frogs, toads actually—Paraguay has an interesting toad that is very large and numerous that comes out at night. We call them “sapos.”

In Paraguay, the main road kill victims are…dogs. Yes, domesticated dogs. Now, before your heart breaks remember that dogs in Paraguay are usually kept as guard animals and NOT as pets. So, no child is weeping over the carcasses. Actually, it seems people don’t notice because no one removes the carcasses.

The leaving of dog carcasses on the side of the road is what inspired this post. Perhaps you’ve been unfortunate enough to get a whiff of rotting flesh driving around the States, or perhaps you’ve had a mouse die in your wall. Well, in Paraguay it’s hot so flesh begins to break down right away. The beating sun on the roadside is a special inferno.

Have you ever wondered how long it takes a carcass to disappear? Have you ever wondered if the rate of decomposition is different in different places and climates? Well, I hadn’t until a recent run with two dog carcasses en route.

The answer, at least about the rate of decomposition in my community, is two weeks, more or less. In Paraguay, the sun is cruel. So, it takes care of things. What’s more, in addition to the animal scavengers and bugs you might know about that help with breaking down dead bodies, Paraguay has armies of ants. So many ants. Within two weeks, an average-sized dog carcass will be reduced to a dark patch, maybe with some bones, on the pavement.

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The Route aka the Ruta

I live on a “ruta,” which is to say I live on one of the biggest roads in Paraguay—don’t let your imagination get away from you…it’s two lanes. What makes it a big deal is that it’s paved. Most roads are dirt or cobblestone.

My ruta has a steady stream of traffic. Where I live, a distance for any major urban area, the traffic never backs up. Vehicles are always on the horizon, but crossing isn’t difficult. You might be interested to learn that Paraguay has a robust trucking industry. The most commonly moved things (according to my observation) are cattle, yucca, whatever fruit is in season, and construction materials like bricks.

A note about cattle. I’m not talking about moving a couple of cattle and nor am I talking about already dead cattle already cut into nice little stakes. I’m talking about diesel-billowing trucks with two carts behind them each with maybe ten or twenty cattle. The cattle aren’t tied in or in individual stalls, they’re jammed into the carts side-by-side. The only reason they don’t fall over is because they’re packed in there only a little less cozy than sardines. They are not your dainty Jerseys or your stubby Angus. They’re a breed that ranges from white to light brown with large ears and skin dangling from their necks. They’re large, taller than many breeds, more like Holsteins than Herefords. Here cattle always have their horns, and they can sometimes be over a foot long, though usually they’re closer to six inches.

The ruta makes my community more prosperous than many communities that is hidden on some dirt road out in the boonies of Paraguay. Why? Because we have buses that allow us to leave more than once or twice a day. I have a bus out every 20 minutes from 4 o’clock in the morning to 7-ish in the evening. Buses come back to my community as late as 10 pm. That means people can work in other towns and cities if they want to commute.

But, like most things in life, the ruta brings a little bit of bad with the good. It is noisy. That’s one. It brings “extranjeros,” which is a term for anyone not born in the community and in Paraguay is the catch-all scapegoat. Extranjeros are the perpetrators of all bad things. But, more subtlety and interestingly, the ruta divides the community in half. The people who live on one side talk to the other side infrequently. This communication divide is good when trying to avoid gossip, but not ideal for fostering cooperation among all members of the community.

The ruta plays an important role in my community, and it’s a new role. It was only about five or so years ago that the government built it. Before that, my community was secluded and hardly known. The ruta opened up a world of economic opportunity and reduced the time it takes to get to Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, by something like 50, 60 percent.

Maybe it’s the newness of the ruta, but the people view it with wariness. Even young women, not just children and parents, often hold hands when crossing the ruta. Rightfully, mothers worry about their children when they cross the road. You might too. We have the trucks and cars speeding along, passing whenever they want. On top of that, we have dirk bikes flying along the curb, sometimes in the right direction and sometimes in the wrong direction. Sometimes dirk bikes use lights at night, sometimes they don’t. At least they’re deafening so I know when they’re coming.

The chickens, which run free, don’t cross the road…probably wise.

The Life of a Bus Vendor

In Paraguay, the bus system is extensive and the main form of transportation. Many people don’t own cars, so unless something is walking distance or within your town’s limits (close enough to ride to on a dirt bike) you take the bus. Even if you’re used to riding buses in the States, you would be surprised by the bus vendor culture in Paraguay.

As you pass through almost any town, a chipa vendor will hop on the bus, calling “chipa, chipa, chipa” in a voice similar to that used at baseball games by the vendors who walk up and down the stands. Those chipa ladies will work their way down the entire length of the bus, no matter how packed it is. During rush hour, the bus aisle is so full there’s no room to turn and nothing left onto you can hold. How the chipa vendors get through that crowd is a mystery.

In more urban areas, or where there are a lot of people getting on and off buses, vendors sell things like gum, soda, cell phone chargers, fruit, dish towels, lottery tickets…really anything. These vendors sweat to earn their keep. They hop on and off the bus while it’s still moving, how? I don’t know. They jump the bus turnstiles and can spot interested buyers before those buyers seem to know they want to buy. They carry heavy baskets. They work during the hottest time of the day. They start early. They end late.

They make their money twenty, thirty, fifty cents at a time. Everyday, whenever the buses are running, is a workday for them.

The Hi-Bye Period

Each year, one new group of volunteers comes to Paraguay for each sector—health, community development, agriculture, and environment. What this means, because of our 27 month deployment, is that once a year, for each sector, one group is finishing up, one group is celebrating a year in country, and one group is beginning training. For health, that time is now.

About a year ago, I was in training. I was the greenhorn, the lost new volunteer uncertain what Paraguay would mean for me. I looked up to the group of health volunteers before me, which are endearingly called my “sister G.”

It’s hard to believe that I’m now filling the mentor role for a new group of volunteers—and scarier to think that my mentors from my sister G are about to begin a new journey, the life of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs, in government jargon).

This period of important landmarks—finishing up, celebrating a year, and beginning training—I’m going to call the “hi-bye” period. “Hi” to the new group, and “bye” to the veterans. In a year, I’ll know what it’s like to be saying “bye,” but for now, I can only tell you what it’s like to have made it to the hyphen, the group caught between “hi” and “bye.”

I don’t know how I made it to the hyphen. Training and adjusting to Paraguay was a phantasmagoria. Living in a new culture and language confuses things, and made me wonder what was real and what was something I thought real but wasn’t. But, through it all I had my sister G. They answered my questions, sent reassurance (that what was happening and what I was feeling was not out-of-the-ball-park), and cheered me up when I was down. You can’t truly understand the Peace Corps experience unless you’ve done it yourself, and so I looked up to (and still do) each person in my sister G not only because they proved service was possible, but also because they understood my fight in a way few others can. Picture a five-year-old boy who dreams of becoming a baseball player getting to be coached by his favorite pro player—that’s how I felt about my sister G during my training. They knew everything.

Now, being where my sister G was during my training, I know that they didn’t have all the answers. That a lot of the advice they gave was theoretical. That they aren’t untouchable pros, but amazing people and friends. I’m going to miss them as they start to roll out.

It’s only right, being the in hyphen, that I help the “hi” group as much as my sister G helped me. I have a mentee from the new group, and I look forward to meeting her. We’ve already exchanged emails as she prepared to come to Paraguay. The new group arrived just days ago and I send them my warmest welcome.

The hyphen is the most stable stage to be in during the hi-bye period. I have the experience of a year in this hot and sunny country, but I don’t have to worry about what I’m going to do with myself after Peace Corps just yet. It’s a time to reflect. To think about my first year. Hear the stories of what the “bye” group did during their service. Listen to the anxieties of the “hi” group. It’s a time of conflicting motions—joy for my sister G’s success and sadness that they are leaving. They say Peace Corps is a roller coaster. They never mention, though, that it will be the most winding roller coaster known to humans.

Weight Watchers

In Paraguay it’s normal, acceptable, and common to talk about people’s weight. I’ve sort of come to accept this, except one morning a man I hadn’t seen in months made a point to stop and ask if I’d gained weight. That put me over the edge—no matter how hard I try I can’t completely suppress my US upbringing. It shouldn’t have bothered me, especially seeing as I’ve lost weight since we last spoke, but it did. And there was no escaping as that morning progressed.

Subsequent conversations that day with Paraguayan men included why I didn’t have a boyfriend and then how I am a cold person because I don’t respond well to Paraguayan men’s way of being. Examples: I don’t answer catcalls; I don’t hold suggestive text conversations joking or not; and I don’t dance with random people (even if someone I know asks me to) at parties where everyone is drinking…crazy, I know.

I think it was the timing. That morning occurred days after I returned from a girls leadership camp. To have some dude engage me in a conversation by calling me fat after almost a week of talking about self-esteem and girl power created a juxtaposition of reality that was impossible to ignore. We talk about self-esteem and how it leads to bad decisions; or, more aptly, inability to stand up for yourself or what you want.

Maybe it is culturally acceptable to ask or comment about someone’s weight in Paraguay, but not it the way it was done that morning. It was a classic case of undermining someone to cow them into doing something. I didn’t take the bate, and the conversation ended promptly. There is a reason why I hadn’t talked to that particular guy or his family in months, and regardless of my weight I won’t go back on my decision to keep them out of my life.

Weight is a blurry thing in Paraguay. Everyone talks about it. Babies (both sexes) and little girls are a called “fatty” in Spanish, it’s a pet name. Girls and women (to a lesser extent boys and men also) who are overweight or very skinny will also get called the nick name “fatty.” But, the regularity of talking about weight doesn’t negate the negative connotations. You might argue that the “ideal” woman in Paraguay is a little more curvy that the “ideal” in the States, but the ideal is still skinny. The same goes for men, the “ideal” man is muscular and trim, not jiggly.

There’s a lot of ways to interpret what a Paraguayan mother means when she calls her adult daughter fat: she thinks it’s endearing, she thinks her daughter should lose weight, or she just wants to start a conversation with you (about whatever). But when the Paraguayan male calls any woman fat, there are fewer interpretations: he wants to start a conversation or he is criticizing her.

Why is putting people down, especially women, an acceptable conversation starter? Cultural differences are peachy, but things that help maintain a status quo of inequality ought to be reconsidered no matter where you live.