“Mbaé’chepa means How are you? ” I said. They repeated after me.
“Ipora is the response, it means good,” I said. They practiced. I smiled at their pronunciation; it was great by my ears, but they probably had my accent in Guaraní which would make every Paraguayan laugh.
A few of the dengue field researchers I was working with in Puerto Rico had asked me to teach them some Guaraní words when I told them I learned Spanish in Paraguay. Spanish speakers always want to know where I learned my Spanish because it surprises them. Whenever I say I learned Spanish in Paraguay I also explain that it’s a bilingual country because it’s important. I was happy because even though I was from New England and the gringa of all gringas (the whitest Anglo) and currently in Puerto Rico, I was teaching Guaraní while speaking Spanish. (The above conversation was in Spanish.) It was fitting, and the timing couldn’t have been better.
Recently one of my Paraguayan mothers, best friends, and soul sisters turned 70. I ached because I couldn’t be there. We would have danced until the wee hours of the morning, so late I’d have spent the night at her house because leaving would have seemed silly. She’d have danced with a one-liter glass bottle on her head, perfectly balanced, as I cheered her on. We would have feasted. There would have been a cake. Luckily, she sent me pictures which proved that she had all those things and more without me. It was the quinceañera she never had, she told me. She deserved it. She looked radiant in her yellow shirt. Her hair was short for the first time ever; it was always well past her butt when I lived in Paraguay. She sent me a video of herself dancing on a chair. 70 looked good on her.
My soul sister was on my mind before her birthday. I’m in a sunny place with palm trees – it’s the kind of situation that always reminds me of Paraguay and makes me long to go there again. As I drink my mate alone in the morning and tereré alone in the afternoon I know that if I were in Paraguay, I’d be drinking them with her.
When I lived in Paraguay and I told her I was single (Paraguayans always asked my relationship status, sometimes before my name), she was among the few to say “good for you” even though she had had one or two kids by the age I was at that time. She’d raised one daughter so independent that her daughter adopted a couple of children which is unusual in my Paraguayan community; her daughter went to college; and her daughter left the men she didn’t like, something my soul sister’s generation didn’t always do.
My soul sister only finished the sixth grade, but she spoke perfect Spanish because she’d worked in Paraguay’s capital city, Asunción. Usually, folks from her generation and the countryside (as she was) spoke mostly Guaraní. When she was young, she took a bus to Brazil without her mother’s permission. She came back eventually. On one hot afternoon she told me about her trip while we drank tereré and she cooked.
My soul sister is the only person in Paraguay who came looking for me when I needed finding. Culture shock is real, especially when you’re trying to build a life in a new country. The Peace Corps is the wildest emotional rollercoaster I’ve ridden. Which is to say that some days in Paraguay I needed real finding. She’s the one who knocked on my door and told me to come out and have lunch. She’s the one who welcomed me into her home whether I felt like talking or not. She can fill the silence as much or as little as needed. It’s her cooking I think of when I miss Paraguayan food.
She sometimes walked me part of the way home after our days that ran into evenings together. Always she blessed me and said a prayer for my safety when I left her home, even though for about half my time in Paraguay our houses were 50 meters apart and kitty-corner across a street.
I dreamed of seeing her mother one last time. But COVID and medical school delayed my return too long. We lost my soul sister’s mother before I could visit again. My soul sister was her primary caretaker. She was devastated when her mother died, but she’s also freer now. The grandson she’s raised is a teenager now (he was a kid when I lived there). I like to think it’s easier being a grandma raising a teenage grandson than a child grandson; but I don’t know if it is. Perhaps I’ll find out when I visit. I’m also overdue to see that same grandson who was like a baby brother to me. I was supposed to go back for his 15th birthday, but COVID squashed that plan. I’ve always had a sweet spot in my heart for that kid; it’s funny because my husband, who I met years after Paraguay, has the same name as my soul sister’s grandson. I wonder if I’ll recognize her grandson now that he’s almost a young man.
And just as she did when I lived across the street, my soul sister checks in now and again even though I’m seemingly lightyears away. She always asks when I’m returning to Paraguay. I’ve been back twice since I moved to the US, but that’s not nearly as much as I would have liked. Life doesn’t follow the course you expect. But when she sent me birthday pictures recently, I had a real answer: I’m visiting the first half of this year. Si Díos quiere (to use the Spanish phrase so popular in Paraguay, “If God wants”). I’ll bring my husband so that my soul sister and my other Paraguay friends can meet him. I also want him to see the country that stole my heart. I’ll visit my soul sister during her 70th year even if it’s not on her exact birthday. Luckily, Paraguayans are more flexible about time than Americans.