When They Told Me She Had Died

The years pass quickly. Already, Paraguay hasn’t been home for 4 years. But my mind often still wanders back to the 27 months I lived there. When I see the sun dancing in the summer I am always transported to the homes of several women who made my time in the land of the Guarani exceptional. I think of those women when I drink my mate each morning. Even when I’m excited about the amazing things I’m doing and discovering in the US, part of me longs for our quiet mornings, afternoons, and evenings together sitting under the mangos or by a wood cooking fire. Since living in Paraguay, I’m always pulled between my type-A, American self and the person I got to be in Paraguay.

A few years ago, I received a text from a Paraguayan friend telling me a tía (an aunt) had died. It took me until I visited Paraguay later that year to confirm who the friend was talking about because many people in Paraguay use many names. My friend had used a name for the tía that I did not know.

The woman who had died was a dear friend of mine. We were one of those odd pairings of a woman in her 20s and a woman in her 60s. The name I called her was Estelva. She is the quietest heroine of my Paraguayan story. She could easily be forgotten, but to leave her out of the story would be to leave a gaping pit in my journey. Today, the sun is shimmering on my living room floor and reminded me of her.

Estelva was a woman of work. She was a baker and I’d joined her many afternoons to help bake chipa, cake, and pastries. For most of my time in Paraguay, she cared for her bed-ridden husband. He was very sick. He had a lung disease from working in the quarries and perhaps other ailments. She also helped support one of her daughters and her daughter’s 3 sons. One of the 3 sons was a hard worker as was the daughter, but Estelva’s work ethic was unlike anyone I have ever seen. She’d rise early and she’d still be working when I walked home after 10pm at night. Her feet and body would ache and she would continue, hardly a word of complaint.

Estelva was a quiet woman. We’d spend many afternoons with few words. She struggled to understand my accent and I hers. We didn’t really need words. She was one of those people who could just feel what was going on. Early on in my time in Paraguay, I needed somewhere safe. Somewhere calm. Because, where I was living wasn’t any of those things. No, I wasn’t in danger…but, the first few months I lived in my Paraguayan community were hard.

Estelva had rescued a giant dog left behind by a previous Peace Corps volunteer. The dog was 4 times larger than any other dog in the town and had no business being in Paraguay, but she had rescued it anyway. She fed it well and spoke to it often. She loved that dog, just as she had loved the volunteer who left it. She would tell the dog often that her mother, the volunteer who left it, would visit them soon. That volunteer has not visited since I’ve known the community.

Often when I arrived we’d drink terere together on her patio. We’d work hours. We’d knead chipa dough, sweating from the heat that streamed in through the tin roof of the bakery. On rainy days, the tin roof was deafening as the raindrops pounded down. The walls of the bakery had recipes taped to them, written by the same volunteer who left the dog. Estelva never used nor needed those recipes. The bakery was part of a cooperative that included bakers and other crafts women like the women who wove hats, baskets, and fans from palm leaves.

Estelva ensured that I never left her home empty-handed. She’d send me with chipa or pastries we’d made. She’d send me with guava jelly she’d cooked in a huge pot over a roaring wood fire in her patio.

Many times I would sit and do the rosary with Estelva at the alter that was set up in the corner of the bakery. We were usually doing the rosary on behalf of her husband, praying for his health to improve. Sometimes when I arrived, she was dressed in her nicest shirt and we had to cancel because she was preparing to bring her husband to the hospital (a 2-plus hour bus ride) because he’d gotten worse during the night.

At the end of my time living in Paraguay, her husband died. It was both sad and a relief. Estelva’s life had centered on caring for him for many years. It’s hard to describe the toll caretaking takes on a person, especially in a place where there are no resources and in a family where all money is hard-earned and travel in the sweltering heat is by bus. I remember Estelva’s sadness during the days of prayer after her husband’s death. I also remember seeing her look rested for the first time in the weeks thereafter. She even slept in until 7am some days.

Sometimes, when we were sitting waiting for the next project, Estelva would tell a story.

On one occasion Estelva stared out across the room, glancing at me, but mostly lost in her thoughts. “The children always loved him,” she said of her husband. “He was so loving and boisterous. It was so easy for him to show love.” She paused. “I have never been that way.”

Her words settled like dust, floating on sunbeams to the floor of the bakery. Her love was a quiet, diligent one. The kind of love that makes you strong. The kind of love that if you don’t look, you’ll never notice just how big of a difference it has made in your life. She was right. Her children and community would always think of their fond memories of her husband.

But, how would I remember her? Would I remember her? I knew she was asking me those questions. And, I had known my answer long before she’d asked.

Mansplaining Women’s Empowerment

I went to a training on managing aggressive patient behavior, mostly via verbal de-escalation. The class included a section on basic physical defense—such as getting out of a chokehold and escaping when someone grabs your arm. The skills were useful, but I found myself more frustrated than fulfilled by the class. What ruined the class was that one of the instructors preached for 20 minutes about how the young women in the class should feel empowered by the self-defense skills he just taught us. He told us some stories about women who were raped and killed because “they didn’t put up a fight.” He explained how we should be careful, avoid bad situations, and if attacked fight back.

Mansplaining: definition from the wiki article, “(of a man) to comment on or explain something to a woman in a condescending, overconfident, and often inaccurate or oversimplified manner.”

I was insulted by the lecture because as a woman I’ve been told countless times to be careful. When I told my family I was joining a night crew on an ambulance squad, almost before I was congratulated on finally starting as an EMT, I was asked if it would be safe for me to sleep at the station with my male crew members. Throughout my Peace Corps training, we had sessions on gender relations and how to avoid getting raped in our host country. In college, our advisers used to give us party-going strategies to avoid getting drugged. The list goes on.

It is NOT empowering to be told that you’re a victim and will always be a target. It is NOT empowering when people create boundaries (perceived or real) for you. It is empowering when others complement you on your success, offer intelligent advice as you work through challenges, and lend their support as you strive to reach lofty goals. Let me offer an example of what disempowering and empowering look like:

Disempowering: In a recent conversation with a male nurse, both the fact that I’m applying to medical school and my age (I’m almost 30) came up. The nurse didn’t comment on my age until I mentioned I’d applied to medical school. Upon hearing about my professional ambition, he “jokingly” asked why I wasn’t married and pregnant at my age. That is such a classic example of sexism it could be in a textbook. He never would have asked any man that question, even in jest, about applying to medical school.

Empowering: Upon telling one of my mentors about a test score I wished was higher, he said that he was sure I’d be just fine and turned to the other person with us to explain that “good” by my standards was quite different than “good” by most standards because I have high expectations.

Being an adventurous, single woman does clash with society’s view of women. How can I travel to foreign countries alone? It’s so dangerous. How can I go hiking or camping alone? It’s so dangerous. I’m not going to argue that those activities are safe. What I wish to suggest is that I have the intelligence to decide for myself what is safe and not safe, worth the risk and not worth it, and how to avoid unnecessary danger. I don’t need people to remind me how awful the world is. I need people to help me figure out how to overcome the challenges between me and reaching my goals.

What I wish that the instructor of the class about managing aggressive behavior knew is how many creepy men I’ve avoided in my life already, long before his class. I wish he understood that I don’t need him to tell me I should be careful and fight back. It is not empowering to be viewed as a potential victim of aggression, especially sexual aggression, even if you know how to fight back. It is empowering to be seen as a peer and fellow human with dreams, strengths, and weaknesses that transcend sex and gender. That is what women’s empowerment is all about; being viewed as an intelligent being and not an object or target or static lump.

Pulling Up the Bootstraps

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around the anxiety, anger, and sadness I’ve felt since the 45th president of the US took office. It blows my mind how quick he began attacking:

  • Women: protection against discrimination, protection against violence, access to health care, freedom of choice
  • Everyone who needs health care and isn’t floating in money (aka most people): affordable health insurance, access to health care, security for those most in need of care
  • Immigrants: melting pot
  • Native Americans: protection of their land, respect of their culture
  • Americans living abroad: ambassadors, protection of foreign service officers abroad and American expatriates
  • The media: transparency, truth
  • Science: climate change (um, like come on…must we really repeat the “Earth is round” history?)…

…the list grows with each passing hour.

I went to the Women’s March in Montpelier on January 21. It was inspiring to see so many people energized to fight for human rights. But, I wondered, “Are we too late? Where were we between August and November 2016?”

The answer came in a common phrase:

When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.

America has never been perfect. We were founded by people who were fleeing oppression, who in turn stole land from the people already here. We won independence proclaiming high ideals, but enslaved millions of people, conquered others, and fought dirty wars with our southern neighbors and across the globe. We ended up a world power, but we still fell short of our ideals—all people in this country do not have equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Imperfect America has always strived to be better. We eliminated slavery, we changed legislation to give all citizens the right to vote, we’ve made net improvements in the rights of all minorities and women in this country, we’ve made progress protecting the rights of the LGBTQIA community; we’ve achieved many other wonderful things. But what we’ve done is not enough.

After much contemplation, I am certain that we are not too late. Perhaps Trump’s election was a necessary evil. It made me fall to dark places. And in the dark, I saw so clearly what had been easy to ignore in the gloom of modern America. In recent times, I and many people like me have been lethargic. We plodded along accepting what is even though it is not good enough.

The 2017 inauguration woke me. I saw the stars. And I’ve joined the struggle to improve this Nation. Regretfully, like a large mass starting from rest, I’m off to a slow start. I’m still not entirely sure what my role is and will be, but I know I have one.

On one hand, I’m already doing good work. I’m forging along on the Doctorhood Quest because my vision of delivering primary care services to underserved populations only becomes more vivid as the days pass. I will not let a man with disregard for the life and wellbeing of others allow millions of people to be cut off from the health care services they need and deserve. Also, in my current professional life, I help ensure that homeless young adults and at risk youth have the resources they need to build their own success. On the other hand, I know that I must do more than just study and work.

I have some ideas for action. Small stepping stones. I do not know where exactly I’ll end up or how my rejuvenated commitment to improving my country will unfold. All I know is that America has never chosen the easy path, but we are brave. I’m brave. It’s time to pull up those bootstraps, not just to elevate myself, but also as many as will come with me.

I’m proud that the momentum of the Women’s March has, thus far, translated into sustained action to fight for human rights. Let us stay together and be strong. Let us not leave anyone behind or push anyone who is part of us down. Let us continue to not only talk, but also do. As Margret Mead put it:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

So my question, what are you going to do?

The Women of Paraguay

Last week I attended a girls’ leadership camp, the Paraguayan version of the international initiative Girls Leading Our World (GLOW). It was my second year helping plan and attending GLOW. The camp is 3 nights long and brings together 50 girls from across Paraguay to talk about being leaders in their communities.

A fantastic group of young women attended this year’s GLOW and we, the volunteers who helped organize the event, were thrilled to have speakers and support from many Paraguayans. GLOW inspired me to reflect on how Paraguayan women have helped me make sense of Paraguay since I started my service.

My biggest struggle in Peace Corps is navigating Paraguayan gender roles, many of those for women are contrary to who I am and many of those assigned to men make me uncomfortable. I’ve had a plethora of eye-opening experiences with regard to how different people see men and women in Paraguay. But, one positive aspect of the female reality in this hot, little country towers above all else, and that is the strength and cohesiveness of Paraguayan women.

There is a bound among women in Paraguay that I never experienced in the States. When I came to Paraguay it was like returning to kindergarten. I was still an adult with adult thoughts, but I understood Paraguayan culture about as well as a five-year-old understands how to live independently, which is to say I felt lost. The Paraguayan style of teaching is to criticize and instruct through jokes. It is hard to deal with at first, I think most of us like to be taken seriously as humans. Between the jeers and the hiccups during my first months, Paraguayan woman after Paraguayan woman gave me advice.

As a result, I grew as a person. I’ve absorbed a little of the Paraguayan woman’s ability to defend herself. I know how Paraguayan women usually act, even though I don’t always follow the rules because I don’t like most of them. I’ve come to understand that while men in Paraguay are free and powerful, women are not as disempowered as I thought they were at first. And, in fact, I would go as far as to say that many Paraguayan women have a strength that many American women I know lack.

The Paraguayan woman is a nurturer. When she is young she looks after his siblings. She treats her father like a king and her brothers like princes. She cooks and cleans and works to make the men in her life happy, even at times when those men do nothing. But, while I as the outsider often find this sickening, there is a positive side to the Paraguayan female sacrifice. She is proud of her work. She is good at negotiating with the men around her, and leading them to compromises that benefit her too. She is close to the women in her family. By her teens she knows her mother, sisters, female cousins, aunts, and grandmother as well as life-long friends in the States know each in their 80s. She knows the needs of every member of her family. She knows how to barter and form strategies to meet those needs.

By the time a Paraguayan woman becomes a wife, a professional, and/or a mother she is the heart of her family. She is the life force and the glue holding people together. She remembers everyone’s birthdays. She does little things to make children feel loved. She can plan a party like a professional event planner. She never misses a detail. She can plot the path of her children so that one day they will be even greater than she is. She knows the powerful members in her community and she knows how to win their respect. She can not control her husband or her brothers, but she is a master of limiting damage. She looks to her core and her female friends to find the power she needs to get through the worst obstacles. She is beautiful. She laughs and she never forgets the women growing up around her.

Paraguayan women are proud. They may not be able to shut down the catcalls that follow them everywhere they go. They may not be free to do all that they desire. They may be afraid to break the norm. But, they don’t let these things stop them. They know how to deal with a rude, drunk man with eloquence and a smile. They know how to see the essence of a person. They know how to fight and to forgive. They know what it is to fall and to get up again, and they know how to win.

When I think about the girls who attended GLOW it makes me happy. They will one day lead their communities.They will improve the lot of the women who come after them. I believe that they have all they need to be and do whatever they want in their lives, and I am honored they shared a bit of their greatness with me.

Guardian Angel

My life can be divided into periods marked by which woman took me under their wing during that time. No span is without the support of at least one helping hand, and my time in Peace Corps is not an exception. My Paraguayan guide is Herminia. She is 60-something-years-old and I think of her as the guardian of my spirit. Not my spirit in a religious sense, but more as Merriam-Webster defines it, “the force within a person that is believed to give the body life, energy, and power.”

Herminia was once beautiful. She tells stories of her long hair and running away to Brazil when she was young. The traces of beauty remain, but I know her better for ignoring the obsession of perfect appearances most Paraguayan women have. Herminia’s hair is always twisted up in a nice clip. Her legs are bowed in, highlighted by the faded tights she most often wears. Her threadbare shirts are filled with holes. As much as her daughter tries to get her to wear a bra she usually doesn’t, finding them to be nothing but torture. She is clean and her nails show the remnants of paint. Her most defining feature is the lines in her face, which are caught between telling the story of a life filled with laughter and a life of nervous outbreaks.

Herminia did not go to school after second grade. She is the mother of 3, and the main caretaker of one of her grandsons. These days, Herminia lives with her aging mother, so her mother will not be alone. Herminia is 1 of 9, but the only daughter. Herminia cooks the tastiest food over wood and charcoal fires. Sometimes she has all the ingredients for what she intends to make and sometimes not, but her food always turns out yummy. She has a cow whose milk she sells. She is a talker. She talks to all people. She was raised in Asuncion, so her Spanish is as ferocious as her Guarani. She knows the medicinal plants and she believes in God.

Paraguayans are the most welcoming people I have ever met. But, most of my Paraguayan friends and neighbors don’t seek me out. I am part of their lives when I show up at their houses, and I am on a different planet the rest of the time. Herminia is different. She comes looking for me. On those days when I hide in my house, having spent the pervious day there too, she charges across the street. I see her coming with her head high and a determined expression. “Where have you been, my daughter? I thought you were mad at me. Come over and we will make some rich food,” she says.

And I go to her house. We drink terere. We cook. We chat. We watch TV. And, the unexplainable gloom that comes to one unpredictably when she lives abroad is lifted. My energy is restored, and after I leave her house I am once again ready to face the Paraguay that hardly ever looks for me. I cross my threshold on my own, until the gloom returns. And the cycle repeats.

Herminia is the most open-minded Paraguayan I know in my community. I do not believe there is any conversation we can not have, or that there is any position on any topic to which she will not at least listen. I learned how to do the rosary in Spanish, I don’t know it in English, because she taught me. I learned it because it made her so proud that she could teach me. She shares her faith in her Catholic God, even though she does not expect me to believe. She tells me about the people of the community, if they are good or bad. She is a gossip, but I have yet to see her judge of character miss the mark. She tells anyone who asks about me, and most people do, that I am the daughter of the community. She says that all the mothers here are my mothers because I am far from home.

Herminia dances on chairs with liter beer bottles balanced on her head. She is my favorite dance partner. Once, we danced until 2 am, and she made me spend the night, sleeping with her and her grandson in one bed, so I wouldn’t have to walk home. At that time, she lived farther away than she does now. Herminia defends my sobriety as she sips beer she puts in metal cups so people on the street don’t know what she is drinking. She has a sweet tooth. She forgets where she put her glasses, her wallet…her grandson and I keep track of her belongings.

I can go to her house and talk a lot or say hardly a word. I can go read while they watch TV. I go to work, but sometimes Herminia does all the cooking. We move the table from shade patch to shade patch until lunch time. Then, we eat in the living room, plates on our laps, because Herminia’s mother can no longer lift her arms to eat at the table.

When I travel, Herminia watches my house from her yard across the street. She does not know my every move or try to tell me what to do, but she keeps track enough to know everything is going along without trouble. Paraguay knows when I am down. And usually, Paraguay sends in Herminia to bring me up again. I can not think of a better agent of change.

Blogging Abroad's Boot Camp Blog Challenge: Starting January 2015

Anything Goes

Señora: “I hate women’s work. It’s better that you don’t marry.”

Me: “That’s why whoever I do marry and I will split the chores evenly. We will both work and we will both keep house.”

Señora: She looks at me with a pitying expression. “Maybe there are men like that in your country, but not here.”

Me: “Yes, there are. That is why I haven’t married a Paraguayan. If I don’t find a man like that, I won’t marry.”

The señora nods, seemingly satisfied, and goes to check her pot of food, which she is cooking outside over charcoal. She always cooks with charcoal or wood. She has a gas stove, but I guess it is too expensive to use gas.

In Paraguay, the house is the women’s domain and everywhere else belongs to the men. When a woman leaves her home she dresses up, puts on her swagger, and forges into a land where men have all the cards–she has tricks but her male counterparts still have the upper hand.

For me the most surprising and challenging features of Paraguay are the rigidly defined and openly maintained gender roles. When you boil things down, Paraguayan culture and American culture are similar. But, while in much of the US the glass ceiling is the elephant in the room and women “accidently” end up working and doing the lion’s share of the housework and child raising, differences in gender roles are openly talked about and defended in Paraguay.

I’ve watched a brother sit on his ass while his sister washes his clothes by hand. Then, when the sister gives him the clothes, already ironed, to fold, the aunt makes the sister fold them. I’ve seen men sit at the table waiting to be served while their women cook and set the table. I’ve witnessed men sitting and drinking for hours while women clean and cook and deal with the kids.

I’ve seen a woman called a whore because her boyfriend, undenounced to her, filmed them having sex and published a video. (If I am not mistaken, she lost her job because of that). People said it was her fault for not anticipating what the man might do as a man. I’ve heard a 3-year-old boy scolded and teased for touching dolls, painting his nails, and riding a purple bike. His best friend is his 4-year-old girl cousin. The list goes on, but you get the point. That is the home.

Beyond the home, anything goes. In most places in Paraguay, catcalling women in the street is the norm. In my community catcalling is limited, score, but if I walk along the main road every couple vehicles honk at me…and I’m not even blond or ever dressed to impress. It’s normal for old men, married men, men with children, and youth to hit on women ages…well, age isn’t important if he thinks the lady or girl is pretty. Men will pester women in front of anyone and everyone except their girlfriend or wife. Women and men don’t usually mingle at social functions. The vast majority of Paraguayan men my age who show interest in me don’t do so as a friend. They have only one end goal in mind. Of course, these affronts are brushed off as joking. According to many Paraguayans, pointing out women, offering commentary on women, and trying to conquest (the literal translation for the word “woo” or “take to bed” in Spanish) are what men do. It’s not their fault, they are men. It is women’s job to protect themselves.

In Paraguay it is odd to be single, especially at my age. Women are supposed to settle down and have children. Paraguayans like to ask if I have a boyfriend. They like to ask why I don’t. Men often ask me if I have a boyfriend before they know my name. It is normal now. I expect it. I anticipate in before it happens. I have multiple funny responses.

Just because I have a gender role in Paraguay that I do not agree with, does not mean I accept it. However, I can’t crash the whole system. The Peace Corps isn’t about forcing host country culture to change. I’ve settled for small rebellions. I do exercise that isn’t dance. I wear t-shirts and loose athletic shorts. I climb trees and get sweaty. I watch movies with guns and fire and talk about fast cars. I discuss being a professional and working. I own things that are blue and green. These are small details. But, gender roles are mountains made of pebbles. Maybe I can’t move the mountain in my little Paraguayan town, but I can sure send some rocks flying.

Blogging Abroad's Boot Camp Blog Challenge: Starting January 2015

Discovering Children

There are kids EVERYWHERE in Paraguay. It might be comical, but that is strange to me. I come from a part of the world were people tend to have few kids, later in life. Further, where I grew up it was rural so families were spread out. The distance between houses limited child congregation. When I moved out of my parents house, I lived on a college campus and then in a “young professionals” neighborhood—so basically no kids.

You might already be aware, but kids are hilarious. They’re always laughing and screaming and running. They get excited over the strangest things and distracted at the drop of a leaf. Did you know that 2-year-olds say the silliest things? Did you know 4-year-olds pronounce words wrong…and it’s hysterical?

Kids are so easy to please. One candy and they’re on top of the world. Kids are grumpy when they’re tired. Paraguayan children look at me and laugh—I’m not sure if that’s because I’m foreign, weird-looking, or just funny.

I think I’m going to miss all the kids around when I move back the States (though my position on having some of my own hasn’t change…um, no…maybe later, but probably not). I still haven’t figured out how to explain to Paraguayans that where I come from kids aren’t as profuse. I don’t know how to explain that I wasn’t raised having to take care of other people’s kids like all (maybe not all, but it seems that way) girls in Paraguay. In Paraguay, “woman” basically means “child bearer and nurturer.” I haven’t exactly figured out how to explain that I see myself as a woman, but I don’t think my main duty is life is to have children.

Culture: It’s the little things that get me…every…single…time.

Tea bags: Preening

I think all tea bags should have quotes. Why? Because quotes are awesome and tea is awesome—so they’re obviously a perfect pair. Okay, seriously, I like pondering a quote as I start my cup of tea. Tea puts the mind in a contemplative state.

Today’s topic is based on the tea bag quote, “Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner” brought to me by Lao Tzu. And the topic? Beauty and how that shapes the female experience. Sounds like a sociology thesis, but it’s just some observations.

Warning, I will be talking in generalizations. As with all generalizations, they are an average. They are a way of summarizing data and are not true for all individuals in the data set. Okay, we are going to talk about free time pastimes by gender in Paraguay. But, first I’d just like to say that family, terere, parties, and mate are cross-gender pastimes.

Paraguayan men have a common set of free time pastimes: soccer, volleyball, drinking alcohol, barbecuing, playing cards, and wooing ladies. Of course not all Paraguayan men do all these things and some do other things, but this list is the baseline.

Paraguayan women have a different set of pastimes: praying, watching TV, and looking pretty. There are others, but they are not as common (according to my observation). I want to talk about the umbrella category “looking pretty.” This category includes: selecting clothes and shoes, doing hair, painting nails, putting on makeup, and being in places where one can be seen.

As a general rule, Paraguayan women look impeccable. I’ve often wondered how they do it. I don’t know how they beat the humidity, but I’ve gained a better understanding of how they do it in general. Paraguayan women dedicate a great deal of time and energy to their look. The hours men use playing or watching sports (and cards), women spend on preening. That is a lot of time—maybe 30 and up to 70 percent of all waking free time. Women chat over manicures and pedicures, men chat over cards or on a playing field. Women gossip while straightening each others’ hair, if men gossip (I don’t know) they do it over beer.

I used to wonder why I sometimes felt disconnected from my young, female, Paraguayan friends. But, I finally figured it out, as best as I can at least. I am not a preener. I know how to dress well, contrary to my mother and sister’s beliefs. I know what hairstyles look good on me, how to do makeup, and match my accessories even though my Paraguayan friends might not believe it if you told them. But, I don’t do those things everyday. If fact, I only do those things when I have to—like when I’m going to a wedding, an interview, or that time I had a job where it really mattered.

I feel pressure to step up my game when I’m hanging around my Paraguayan friends. I feel like I’m constantly going to an interview. Well, I felt that way until I stopped caring and started wondering what it implies that a large portion of women’s free time is spent on preening. It was harsh when I realized to keep up with Paraguayan women how much time I’d need to primp. Not happening. I’d rather do…well, almost anything else.

The thing about time is that it passes and once it’s gone there’s no getting it back. We can choose to do whatever we want each moment, but we can’t earn back what we’ve already spent. Many women enjoy pedicures and manicures. Great, awesome for them. But, I’ve come to wonder what it says about us, women, if a lot of our free time is spent doing stuff to impress others.

Some say that women dress to impress other women. Perhaps. But, the point is still that time spent on preening is mostly to influence the thoughts of others, and only partly done out of self-interest or for personal amusement. It starts to become clear why gender lines are so clear in Paraguay, when so much effort is burned (by women) on maintaining the image of beauty generally accepted by society. Girls wear earrings. Girls do their hair. Girls wear pink. Girls wear uncomfortable shoes. Girls do not climb trees…

Free time is free time and individuals should spend it how they wish. But, what about when maintaining an image of beauty starts to get in the way of other aspects of women’s lives? I am specifically thinking about my female, eighth grade students. Should they spend much of their class time applying makeup, peering into mirrors, taking selfies, and doing each others’ hair? I don’t know, but math, language, and history seem a little more pressing.

My claim is straightforward. As long as women spend much of their free time doing activities related to their look, they will remain disempowered. To rise up women must find a way to value themselves by their actions and using their own rubric—not by hoping to fulfil someone else’s definition of beauty.

Chipa Time: Semana Santa

Semana Santa is what Paraguayans call the week leading up to Easter. School stops on Tuesday, and most people get off work before mid-day on Wednesday. Families share a last supper on Thursday and every night there is a religious celebration of some kind—not everyone goes. The TV is filled with depictions of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The gory details are not spared.

After the last super, you aren’t supposed to eat anything but chipa until Easter Sunday, or at the least, you aren’t supposed to eat meat. Chipa is a kind of cheesy biscuit, that promptly gets stale.

The chipa tradition is neat because it is unique to Paraguay. The idea is that every family makes their own chipa, and as families visit each other on Friday and Saturday they exchange chipa. As I got ready for Semana Santa, my friends explained that people take chipa less seriously than they once did. Many people buy chipa these days, and most people eat other things (though they do avoid meat).

I made around 500 hundred chipa on the Tuesday and Wednesday of Semana Santa. Several of the señoras I visit most are part of a baking cooperative. I helped them make chipa for their clients, and also helped various community members who used the cooperative oven make their chipa.

Making chipa is a strenuous process. First, you whip raw animal fat, vegetable fat, or maybe butter with your hands until it is smooth, then you mix in all the other ingredients. You mix everything with your hands, and by the end the dough is crumbly. From that point, you knead the dough until it is the consistency of putty. From there, you shape each individual chipa.

I like chipa making, especially for Semana Santa, because it brings the women of the community together.

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.