“Everything is a reflection of the condition of your own heart.” – How Yoga Works, Geshe Michael Roach & Christie McNally
On a very personal level, some of the lessons I’m meant to learn while here have become clear to me. This awakening has already stirred some deep and profound awareness. Some things are part of an ‘old, lost’ me from years ago being reignited, others are matching a ‘knowing’ from an unknown me that I always wanted to experience but haven’t, and others are simply pushing me outside my comfort zone. My resourcefulness is tested on a daily basis. I feel like a new part of my brain is waking up and it’s all so exciting.
Some of this awareness rose the day I realized I’d reached what I’ll call “Phase I” of Tranquilo. I don’t know exactly when this transition occurred but I noticed the other day while eating a mango. Mango season is in full swing, fruit is literally falling to the ground all day, and I am a happy camper with mangoes (or passionfruit) for a snack every day. Mangoes in PY are extremely fibrous and therefore can’t really be sliced so I peeled it and realized it was the gooiest, juiciest mango I’ve ever had. Thick juicy goo covered my hands and dripped down my wrists, it was on my face, my clothes, everywhere, but somehow I was enchanted and delighted and spent a full half hour in complete bliss working every last drop of mango pulp off that fruit. It was then I realized that I don’t usually have the time or patience to experience my food like that. Yes, it was an experience. I highly recommend it. Similar experiences are becoming more numerous. Even walking down the road, I’ve begun thoroughly enjoying the feel of the uneven surface massaging the soles of my feet, noticing the various prints in the sand (mostly cattle but also pigs, horses, goats, futbol cleats, and once…. a snake trail!) One of my favorite new tasks is shelling dry beans and flipping dry corn off the cob to make sopa. I spent two hours with the girls shelling beans one day. It’s mindless but meditative, we can sit there in comfortable silence or we can chat. It feels good to work for my meal. Many of the tasks that are not quick or efficient – and there are many to be had here in PY- provide similar tranquility.
I’ve always been amazed how books come to me when I’m ready for the messages they contain. This has happened innumerable times to be mere coincidence. I’ve bought books that sat on my shelf for years and out of the blue one calls me to read it. It’s uncanny how its lesson is so obvious when I begin reading. My most recent ‘Aha’ came while reading “How Yoga Works” by Geshe Michael Roach & Christie McNally. I believe this book was required reading for a teacher training class at one of my favorite yoga studios in Maine, Greener Postures Yoga in South Portland, so I bought it because someday I want to be a yoga teacher. Once again, just in time, and part of the insights from Paragraph 1 of this blog post.
Let’s talk about local attire. Women of all sizes and ages: tight clothes, skinny jeans, leggings, occasionally long shorts (short-shorts on teens and single twenty-somethings), scooped necklines with breasts ready to burst forth, very high heeled sandals or dressy or plain flip flops depending on the setting, LONG hair. Men: sporty shirts as if everyone is always ready for an impromptu futbol game, jeans or long basketball shorts, flip flops or plain sneakers. People don’t have fancy sneakers here. The vast majority of men are clean-shaven. In fact, male trainees were not allowed to have facial hair for the first month out of respect for the host national locals. Also, I’ve seen very little smoking and few tattoos or earrings on men.
As we neared New Year’s Eve, I’m realizing this Fin de Año is a much bigger deal than Navidad. On Christmas Eve, the countdown to midnight rivaled a US New Year’s excitement culminating in at-home pop-rockets, sparklers or fireworks and later I learned….firing guns into the air. The sounds all seemed the same in my village. In Asuncion on Christmas night a horrific outcome was a falling bullet that drilled through a 5-year old’s shoulder and heart, killing her. It was in the news for days and absolutely heartbreaking to watch the video of her Mom. So unnecessary but I also learned it’s quite common. A friend of a friend was shot in the back years ago after a bullet ricocheted off the sidewalk. NYE this year also brought bullets into the sky but without incident. There were two full days of preparations for the big night in addition to two weeks of spring cleaning around the house and yard. Mattresses aired, sheets in the doorways washed, furniture rearranged, yard cleaned. Isabel had told me there would be a major fiesta and many people here for NYE. There are three homes in our corner of town; one is ours, the others are two of Isabel’s sisters, one of whom has nine grown kids, more than half of whom still live at home. I thought all the food being prepared would be for visitors across the three homes. No, it was just for our house: Sopa, chipa guazu, beef and pork asado (BBQ), rice salad, champagne and cake, which we consumed just after 11pm. All seven of Isabel and Professor’s kids came for the holiday. People were sharing beds, sleeping on the floor, or on a sofa on the patio. It was crazy funny. All three homes had similar guest situations. The prior day, a sister killed a large pig and a cow for the holiday and shared with all of us, hence the asado. She presented my family a cow hoof and foreleg to cook with my beans (from the look on her face you’d think she was giving me the tenderloin!). “Que rico!” (delicious), they tell me. Oh joy…another first, along with the blood sausage. At least I can say I tried it. My experience with this delicacy will end there. While awaiting dinner, I walked to the futbol field out front to stargaze. The sky here looks so much bigger than back home, day or night. Perhaps the prairie makes it seem vast. This night it was black and clear with fantastic heat lightning in the distance and the stars were brilliant and closer than I ever remembered seeing them, like they were only a cloud’s distance away. After the stroke of midnight the families across town set off firecrackers and guns and visited each others’ homes to bid a “feliz año nuevo”. At 1am our family migrated two doors down where music and dancing ensued. Frankly, it was the last thing I felt like doing at that hour. I was anxious about my language and carrying a conversation and hoped the cultural experience would keep me awake. It certainly did.
Henceforth came yet another reminder of a popular recurring lesson for me: the best experiences often arrive when you least expect them and seldom in the form you might have anticipated.
We arrived to loud music in the front yard and about 40 people sitting in a large circle, socializing. Based on what I’ve seen so far, Paraguayans nearly always socialize while sitting. One of the first things said to you upon your arrival anywhere is an offer to sit (“Sentate”). I struck up a conversation in Guarani/Spanish with a friendly woman visiting from Ciudad del Este, on the Brazilian border, and bobbed in my seat to the beat of the music. She called over a friend to dance with me. I never sat down again. The crowd whooped and cheered that I was among the first to dance, throwing down some freestyle with lots of tango steps in the mix. This was very different from typical Paraguayan dance but they loved it. I don’t remember the last time I laughed so hard. Traditional Paraguayan music is cheery, bouncy and upbeat and eventually most of the teens and twenty-somethings joined in. Among bystanders, it was interesting to watch the divide between genders: men stood on the sidelines and the women sat collectively in chairs, too bashful to kick up their heels. More fun for me! The next day, the entire town determined that the Norte can DANCE.
I’m not a fan of New Year’s Resolutions but instead I took some advice from Portland’s Chris Brogan and began in recent years to list three or four words that will guide me for the upcoming year. I post them on my bedroom wall, where they’re the first thing I see in the morning. This year’s words will be: Stretch, learn, serve. It has worked well for providing ongoing reminders that keep me on track with current goals. What words might you choose for your year?
People in PY spend a lot of time, money and effort to remember their dead. As is common in PY, Isabel visits her families’ graves at the local cemetery every Monday. Recently, I attended a rezo for the father of a villager who died a year ago. It’s common to have such a service at significant anniversaries- 6 months, 1 year, 18 months, etc. Take 1/3 of the village, many of whom I have yet to meet, add a language barrier, and it was surely intimidating and a bit awkward. But I was so glad I went. I got to introduce myself one-on-one to each of those unknown residents and chat with those I’ve already met, learn some new names and have a few laughs. The villagers are always so impressed when you make the effort to know them and especially if you remember their names. Rezos can be costly, in part because of the food and drink provided after the ceremony. To offset these costs, families will often raise a hog and sell the meat when the times comes. Raising hogs is akin to a rainy-day fund. It’s great income for emergencies. Isabel’s aunt died last night so I’ll be going to other services in the near future. It’s an interesting experience to be a foreigner in the home of a grieving family. What to do? How to help? How to stay out of the way and let the family do their thing together without giving the appearance of disinterest or distance? How fast can I look up in my dictionary the words I need to express my condolences? I read their reactions with a U.S. culture filter but am I correct?
Speaking of getting to know the community, it’s very sweet to walk by a house and have people wave to me and say “Mba’echapa, Wendia!” Sometimes the kids will run to the road to say hi, as opposed to a couple weeks ago when I’d wave first and they’d wave back politely but wonder who the heck I was. This is happening more as I’ve taken to walking and running with more frequency.
Timing is everything if you don’t want the cows drinking your laundry water. Note to self: have the laundry done and water dumped by 5pm. When the cows come in from the prairie they are thirsty and will drink your laundry water if you leave it unattended, whether or not your laundry is finished. Did I tell you cow noses are slimy? Cute but slimy. That makes your clothes slimy too. Yeah.
It is summer here and too hot to easily grow veggies in the garden unless they have shade (just the opposite from back home where we fight to get enough sun and daylight). Local veggies currently available in the market: green peppers and carrots (on a lucky day), onions and tomatoes (anyday), corn (though not for eating straight up), hard squash, and mandioca (though this might fall in the ‘starch’ category). There are also lots of peanuts grown here, pretty much the only nut available unless you go to Asuncion. Most peanuts here are fresh, not roasted, and taste like raw peas. I’ve discovered that I can eat these peanuts and now almonds again too, after not being able to eat nuts for two years — I am slowly healing — sooo happy!! Fruits available in our backyard right now include pineapple, bananas, peaches, pears, manzanitas (flavor cross between cherry, apple and?), mangoes, passionfruit, limes, and oranges. Apples are always imported (usually from Argentina) and there are also papayas and guavas though I’m not sure if guava season has already ended. “Jugo” (juice) is either a powdered artificial drink or made fresh frequently from one of the above fruits, especially manzanitas.
In my village, pink pineapples grow wild along the road! How cool! Unfortunately, the cattle get to them before they can be harvested for people.
If it rains during the day when the cattle are free-ranging, they RUN for the trees. If it rains hard or long enough, my road is impassible by vehicle.
It is common for students to attend school for only 5 or 6 years. Others sometimes up to 9 years. Less than 15% of students attend university as most don’t feel it necessary or sometimes family obligations take priority. Both Spanish and Guarani are taught in the primary school here as well as dance, nutrition, gardening sessions, health and more. It’s pretty progressive for PY. The high school is in the next pueblo and is grades 9-12. Girls who finish high school and leave the campo looking for work frequently work as maids for families in Asuncion.
There are lots of palm trees in PY but virtually all produce tiny coconuts the size of a gumball. Locals shell them and eat as snacks.
What do I eat in PY? Oatmeal, yogurt and fruit, or eggs for breakfast. Lunch is always a stew with meat, rice, and tiny diced veggies, if available, served with a side of sliced cucumber drizzled with lime juice. Sometimes I get beans. Mandioca is always served with every meal. Dinner varies. My family eats very late so sometimes I prefer to eat early and alone and just have yogurt again. Several evenings a week I get popcorn. Once a week we make sopa or chipa guazu (cornbread).
“Peligroso” is Spanish for ‘dangerous.’ My first week here, one of the girls passed gas as we played dice and, jokingly, I pointed to the front door and said “Peligroso! Afuera!” (Dangerous! Outside!) The girls nearly fell off their chairs laughing and now the term is used daily by the jokesters in the house. Someone trips, another burns my popcorn, another tosses the fireworks onto the patio instead of the lawn (blowing a small hole in the cement wall). The list goes on. Today, I was labeled Peligroso when they invited me to play futbol and saw how terrible I am. My skill-less efforts (supplemented by lots of sound effects and crazy hand waving to distract my opponent as well as non-traditional moves that probably should have been fouls) had us laughing so hard we could barely breathe.
I mentioned earlier that mango season is in full swing. They are literally dripping from the trees. Lesson 342: don’t sit under a ripe mango tree on a windy day. (wink) The pigs and chickens fight over the drops. I discovered that instead of slicing a fibrous mango one can scrape the pulp with a knife, making a thick, ready-made juice to drink or add to homemade yogurt. Deeelish! Speaking of fruit: a popular holiday punch-like drink is clerico, which is essentially a tropical fruit salad (tiny pieces) with orange or Sprite soda and red wine added. Quite yummy. Soda is called ‘gaseosa’ here.
You know those white plastic patio chairs you have back home? Well, they are popular here too. At my house, most of the backs were split down the center. In true, frugal Paraguayan style, my contact actually sewed the split back together and they are good as new! A little tip to consider before throwing yours away next time… (wink)
Our little post office in Caazapa is tiny and totally informal. It has a lobby and one room with a single desk and 12 ‘boxes’ for sorted mail. Usually, my letters simply sit on the desk until I pick them up. She will call or text me when a package arrives for me. I was recently awaiting some mail and stopped by in the morning before they’d had a chance to sort the 2 bags of mail. The post mistress brought me to the single room in the back and let me pour through the mail looking for mine. On the one hand, it was nice to just be free to do that and not have so many rules getting in the way of my pursuit (I really like that about PY on so many fronts), yet I also appreciate a little more discretion as to who is handling my mail!
I saw my first Paraguayan snake this week- in the trees in the family huerta (garden). Called Mbo’i Huvy’u, it has a green back and white belly. Nearly all snakes here are poisonous so the family was eager to see it leave. But to where? Perhaps looking for the pile of guinea hen eggs in the cute little hidden nest they built under the squash vines? We found 14 eggs there this week.
Another first: Have you ever seen fire ants come pouring out of their nest when disturbed? It’s quite a sight to behold, especially when it’s in your garden. One tiny disturbance of the nest and literally thousands of the critters flood out of the opening and toward anything that lives or moves. Fortunately, my contact was with me and had warned me before he made them angry. Note to self: check status of hole in ground near sorghum before commencing hoeing.
One of my strategies for continued language improvement is visiting the school library and practicing with the kids’ books. “Curious George” (or “Jorge El Curioso”) is a little advanced for me but I brought it home anyway. I also snagged some sweet simple reads with text in both English and Spanish. This has been a great way to learn new words….and the kids like helping too!
Jajatopata! (until next time)