Friday, February 19, 2010

Just Killing It


The following blog entry is hardly updated. It is derived from the last 9 or so months.

Dig my music do you?

I had just got into my new house and I was unpacking all my stuff. My day thus far had been full of curious neighbors stopping by to see the American’s stuff, although they’d tell you there just being friendly neighbors. I finally got a minute to myself and unloaded my six string for a minute of personal rock stardom. Little did I know that my dream would unfold right there before my eyes.

I started to launch into one of my smash hits “sneezing on the truth” and a group of cows came dashing toward my house as if Will Farrell himself was calling them over with a cow bell. Delighted to have such tranquil company, I sang my little heart out with an almost cocky smile garnishing my face. “Right on, the cows dig my music” I thought to myself.

The truth is, not only was I excited to have a few listeners but it got me pondering about cow’s interest in music. I thought “Who knew cows can get down to some sweet tunes just like we can? This is just one more testament to the power of music”. I put my guitar down and decided I had to take advantage of such an attentive crowd by setting up my newly bought speakers and cranking my jam at the time. “Because” by The Beatles.

Moving over to my bed I laid there proudly. Still wearing that crooked yet pensive smile, I probably looked as though I’d just been kissed by a Kelly Kapowski in a beach episode of Saved by the Bell. And it stayed like that for quite some time, weeks even, “Cows dig music, it’s as simple as that”.

The next part of the story picks up with me at the Peace Corps office a few weeks later. While I was there taking advantage of the only air conditioning I’ve yet to come across in Paraguay, I stopped into the Agricultural Coordinator’s office to ask him for his advice on starting my vegetable garden. He gave me a bunch of tips, one of which included staying by my house all day to take note of where the sun hits my garden and for how long. He went on with his explanation and taught me how to plant my vegetables according to the angle of the sun.

So I went back to my house and got right on it, laying around all day in my hammock reading a book that just so happened to talk about how vegetable gardens negatively impact GDP figures. Go figure Paraguay is so ¨poor¨ and the US so “rich”.

I got to the point of my book where it was too depressing to go on and tried to take a nap. As I started to fade into a daydream about playing a sold out show for 20,000 mooing cows, the several vacas from a few weeks before come trotting on over to the fence and took a seat in the same spot as the last time. Maybe this is their way of asking me to rock out. Or was it?

An unnerving realization dawned on me like the avalanche of sun that was beating down at the time. Painstaking to admit, it seemed the cows had not come up to me the last time because Woodstock ’09 was happening right on their very own patch of grass; they had an ulterior motive.

That motive being, shade! “Shade, of course shade you idiot” I though. During a Paraguayan summer all living beings follow the shade with the kind of conviction I’d only previously seen in Paraguayan dogs.
It turns out that what I hadn’t realized before is that in the afternoon the sun gets behind the trees in my front yard to create the only shaded spot that exists in the grassy knoll in front of my house. Therefore, the cows snuggle up close every single afternoon, not just when I break into an unplugged version of “Guilty Man”.

Now, having lived here for many moons since the occurrence of this story, I must use this as a chance to emphasize something remarkable—the incredible awareness Paraguayans have for the shade and the need to always be in it. If I so much as put my book bag down in the sun I get such a puzzled look that I may as well have been unabashedly scratching my ass.

Sometimes I entertain myself by picturing how a Paraguayan would react if you asked them why they are constantly in the shade and I get this mental image of the stoner from Fast Times at Ridgemont High tilting his head and saying “Why be in the shade? The shade is your friend man”. It is simply so disgustingly hot here, and people are always outside. Therefore, shade awareness is so important to a Paraguayan that it reminds me of “opposite sex awareness” when it’s your first day at a new job; it is instinctive and tracked throughout the day.

This is truly one of the biggest differences between life here and in the states. Being a farming community, people here are so in tune with their environment and weather patterns. It is truly fascinating to witness. I’m actually writing a song about it called “Why the cows come a runnin”

I will survive

With one year of Paraguay under my belt, I finally got my first visit from my big bro Andy. We started his three week trip down here with a good 10 days in Paraguay. Nothing too special went down. He got to meet my friends, hung out with neighbors, and he followed me around as I continued with my projects like normal. The highlight for me was when he got a little boozy one Sunday afternoon. Three memorable events transpired. First he sang an outrageous acapella version of “Maria” from West Side Story to my neighbors, then proceeded to go on a cow hugging campaign, and ended the afternoon by picking endless mandarin oranges and hand feeding them to the cows.

I guess you could say the tone of the trip did a 180 the night before we were to leave Paraguay and make a move to Iguazu Falls, the massive waterfalls where Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet. What lay ahead of us was 7 days in Argentina; two at Iguazu and five in Buenos Aires.

Considering the amount of good looking chicas we were about to find, we popped in our favorite inspirational movie, Swingers. For a couple of nice boys like ourselves the most crucial scene is when the two main characters are game planning for an upcoming rendezvous. Vince Vaughn tells his buddy “Don’t be the guy in the PG-13 movie everyone is reeeeaaly hoping makes it happen. Be the guy in the R-rated movie, the guy you’re not quite sure about.”

Later on in the flick the less confident Mikey, the character with whom I relate, says “But I have this thing where I want to be a gentleman and show respect…” And Vince’s response “Respect my ass Mike, what women respect is honesty. You see how they dress; they want you to notice them. You’re just letting them know that they’re money and you’re looking to party.”

If that isn’t genius I simply don’t know what is.

Anyway, by the time we got to Iguazu it was time to be R-rated and put all that fake confidence into play. So we walk up to this restaurant on a lovely day and take a seat next to two even lovelier girls. Being aware of the worldly draw that Iguazu has, we go in assuming these girls could be from anywhere. It just happens we sit down and hear a tongue that is definitely not Spanish. “I think its is Hebrew” my brother says. “I think you’re right.” I tell him. “But it may French, I’m not sure yet” We sat there pretending not to ease drop on this conversation we can’t understand and finally I heard it. “Shalom”. “You heard that right?”
“Yeah I heard that” he responded.
“So what do we say?, I mean we have been to Eretz Israel. We’re part of the tribe.”
“I don’t know, just play it cool”
I looked at him as I rolled my eyes “What do you mean play it cool? Are we the guys in the R-rated movie or not?
“Just chill out a second” he practically whispered
“We could always bum a cigarette, that’s at least kind of R-Rated and doesn’t make us look like idiots.”
He gave me another one of his famous “just chill out for a second” ‘s and I knew that if we had brought the spirit of Vince Vaughn with us, he’d have left us long before we sat down at this table.

The “chilling of for a second” quickly turned into an hour and before we knew it we walked onto a Buenos Aires bound bus with PG-13 tattoos practically stamped to our foreheads.

“Listen”, I said “This whole R-rated mentality is good an all but if we meet more Israelis in BA and don’t have some sort of a plan, I don’t know if I’ll ever let myself watch Swingers again. It should be simple. We pretend we don’t know and ask where they’re from, they tell us “the land of milk and honey”, and then we let them know we speak your language, only not really, and the rest should be history.”
“Alright man”

We arrived in B.A. with our heads high and ready to conquer to world. Unfortunately, our trip would then came to a screeching halt. We were two days into our trip in BA, hadn’t met a single Israeli and were lying in our 6 person hostel room on a Sunday morning, sick as a pair of dogs. After miraculously finding the energy to get up and make it to a clinic, we spent the next few days being sick bums. I hopped a flight back to Paraguay a day early and my brother made his way back to The States.

Still feeling sick the day I left, I had emailed the Peace Corps doctor my flight information so he could pick me up at the airport and have a look at what was going on.

He picked me up and immediately told me to put a tapaboca over my mouth to prevent the spreading of whatever sickness I may have had. We went to his office, I had a blood and snot swab taken and then was dropped off at a hotel room where I was quarantined for the next five days. Two days in I got the all exciting call from the doctor saying that I have the flu and a sample was sent to the U.S. to see if is indeed (drum roll please) The Swine Flu.

After being healthy for a few weeks I just so happened to be in the Peace Corps office and ran into the doctor. “Hola Doctor, como te va?
“Very well Matthew. How are you feeling?”
“I’m good. You know I had a question, did you ever get those results back about whether or not I had swine flu?”
“O yeah, you did indeed have it” he said as calmly as a comment on the weather.
“Are you kidding me?! This is fantastic! I’m a survivor, I survived H1N1 Swine Flu!”

I walked out of his office and miraculously Eye of the Tiger seemed to rain down from all directions. I put a little hop in my step, ripped away my button up gym pants and ran up a 400 foot flight of stairs. A sick thought then came to my head “what a great conversation piece—I had and survived the swine flu.” If that doesn’t make me R-Rated then I don’t know what does.

Stress…What’s That?

I was with Gloria, my old host mom, and two of her friends in the pueblo drinking some t-ray and I entered the most surreal conversation of my life. Before I begin, I must give a bit of background on the characters.

The first character is Gloria; a 38 year old woman of 4, high school language teacher of Guarani and Spanish, owns a TV and motorcycle, reads the newspaper regularly.

The other two characters are middle aged men. One is an electrician whose wife has been working in Spain for 4 years and the other a single man who owns a little clothing store in town.

I only give those descriptions to establish the fact that these are part of a more globally conscious/cultured group of people when compared to some of the other families of the area.

Now we can move back to me sitting down to have t-ray. I proceed to ask Gloria how one of our mutual friends is doing in her attempt to finish college classes in Pharmacy. Gloria responded “She’s actually not doing too well right now, the college told her that she has to redo her thesis, one of her kids has the flu, and because of her new job in a town 45 minutes away she doesn’t have time to time for anything. It seems that she has a sickness called estrés, stress. Have you heard of that before?”

I couldn’t help but laugh. I mean she called stress a sickness. “Um, I’m actually pretty sure that my country invented that word.”

The electrician put the guampa down and with the curiosity of a 5 year old child asked “Stress, what’s that?”

Gloria chimed in with an answer of “cansancia de la mente, tiredness or fatigue of the mind” Then the electrician turned to his buddy the shop owner and said “Do you know about this estrés?” His buddy responds “No, but it sounds terrible. So it’s like when your mind can’t chill out or something?”

By this time I’m pinching myself to make sure that I’m actually living through this conversation. Could this really be happening in the year 2009? People talking about what stress is. The absurd plainness of their language made me feel like I was in a 6th grade sex education movie.

“Dad, I woke up this morning and my bed is all wet. I don’t think its urine. What happened?”

“Don’t worry Johnny, that’s called a “wet dream”, it’s a completely normal thing to happen to a boy of your age. In fact, it’s one of many strange things that will occur in this new phase of your life called, puberty”

Anyway, as you can imagine, I was floored to have heard what just occurred. And believe me, I would love to tell you that I’m exaggerating this story but it’s every bit as real as those sex-ed videos.

Despite my effort to make this a happy story about people who don’t even know what stress is, I can’t help but mention the slippery slope that is the developing world. Surely as investments are made and education improved upon, pressures will enter the lives of more and more people and places like rural Paraguay will become more familiar with our stress overload culture.

Linguistics of Guarani 101

OK so 21 months! Holy Paraguayan Cow I’ve been down here for a while now no? In case you missed the boat on the whole language situation here, I’ll remind you that Paraguay is a bilingual country of Spanish and an indigenous language of Guarani; the latter being the dominant language of my community. Over the course of this time I’ve really been gettin after it to learn Guaraní and it’s probably been my greatest source of satisfaction.

Why you might ask? Primarily, because I noticed that by not understanding Guarani people will shamelessly talk about you in front of your face. During my first months I would be sitting with several people and a Paraguayan would ask another Paraguayan “So what is this guy doing down here?” His buddy would then respond in Guaraní about how I’m here to either teach English or observe their culture and take information back to the US government. Two years of dealing with such falsehoods was simply out of the question. If I was going to stay I had to learn this language. Secondly, I’ve come to realize that I actually love learning languages. I love studying them. I love analyzing them. I love speaking them. Suffice it to say that I’m a full blown language dork.

Therefore, I’m going to touch on language down here in Paraguay and why I find it so fascinating.

This fascination of mine comes from an important realization— language is so much more than communication! Once fully understood, language becomes a mysterious crystal ball necessary for understanding a foreign culture. Indeed, language is so much more than just a means of relaying thoughts. This is because those very thoughts are very much based on the language and the corresponding culture.

As a result, I find myself thinking in Spanish or Guaraní on a daily basis now. This happens not because the words I think to myself don’t have English translations, it’s because there is this other aspect to language, and it can only be felt or experienced thinking in that particular language. And when you feel it, it’s a powerful thing. I think that’s why I’ve taken such an interest in it.

Consequently, I find myself constantly struggling to properly explain my life to my parents when we speak in English. They call and I get all flustered because I want to throw in a Spanish or Guarani word that properly completes my thought. (Something we PC volunteers do in all our conversations) Clearly, it’s not because English doesn’t have a broad enough vocabulary. It’s just that oftentimes a translation can’t do any justice to the picture I’m trying to paint.

I’ll give a few examples.

During the winter here it does get a bit chilly and therefore very normal to sit by the fire. Thus, when I walk by a neighbor’s house in winter they yell to me “Ejuke Mateo, jajepe’e! (ja=we) I would then proceed to take a seat with them around the fire and do some jepe’eing. Unlike many other cases, I didn’t have to look this word up in the dictionary. It was obvious they were sitting around the fire to beat the cold and that was the meaning of the word.

Since learning the word and going through two winters, I’ve done my fair share of jepe’eing and was then quite surprised when I recently saw the translation in the dictionary. It says “to warm oneself up”. When I read it I felt like I’d been cheated. “What a ludicrous definition!” The last time I’d jepe’eed I was under a straw roof with no walls, sitting on a tree stump and loading firewood into an old rusted car wheel rim to support the burning logs. We were speaking in Guarani about how it got so unusually cold this year that many neighbors lost tons of papaya plants. That’s my idea of jepe’eing. Which is something completely different than when I think in English about “warming myself up”?

For the next example I’ll switch up to a US setting. To paint the picture, let’s go to a high rise building in a big city like New York. The rural folk I live with have probably never seen, let alone, been in such a building. That means that they probably don’t have much of an idea of what it would be like to get into a metal box, press a button, and in the matter of a minute be 50 flights up. How could they possibly describe that experience to a family member using an indigenous language which was developed completely outside of the industrialized world? They could try, but one of two things would most likely happen. Either a switch of languages to Spanish, where there exists the word ascensor for elevator, or they’d simply give a description. But let’s be honest, could that ever take the place of feeling what it is to get in an elevator? To feel yourself going up, having you stomach drop when you reach your floor and then walk out to see a bird’s eye view of the entire city. Clearly not something you use words to understand, it’s something you feel.

Moving forward in this discussion of language, in this previous example I make reference to a language change of Guarani to the Spanish word of ascensor. This combination of the two languages is highly utilized and goes by the name Jopara or mix/mezcla.

It is this dual utilization of the two languages that I find so intriguing. I say this because the Jopara is so much more than combining two languages; it’s really the combination of two worlds. One is a world of Spanish sophistication and the other of simple Indian life.

There is a plethora of ways in which the Jopara functions.

The first occurs when two people are talking and the conversation literally interchanges full Spanish and Guarani phrases. This most frequently occurs when people are telling stories or relaying information. For example, two people may be speaking Guarani and say the following. “ A kokuehe ahenoi kuri upe kuña karai. Dice que hay que entregar los recibos antes de que se venzca nuestro convenio

The part of ahenoi, I called, until kuña karai, woman, is all in Guarani. Then it can be deduced that the kuña karai spoke to her in Spanish and said “we have to turn in the receipts before our contract expires. As in the case of the women’s groups I work with, they deal with accountants on occasion who prefer speaking Spanish, especially about professional matters. So instead of the Guaraní speaker trying to translate what the accountant said, she just says it in Spanish. This is done because it not only seems easier on the brain when relaying spoken information but also because this formal sentence contains many words that don’t exist in Guarani.

Maybe my most memorable example of the two languages going back and forth was when I was at a neighbor’s during a big family gathering. One guest was a middle aged woman who had raised her two kids in downtown Asuncion, an almost all Spanish speaking area, but was originally from my community. As always, we passed our day speaking in Guaraní, except for these two kids ages 10 and 15. They understand every word of Guarani but don’t comfortably speak it. Therefore every time they spoke, which was often, it was in Spanish but the only language they heard in response was Guaraní. And the whole conversation went by like this without anybody acknowledging the fact that a fluid conversation was occurring, but in two different languages. This is just a normal part of life in Paraguay.

Our next example of the the jopara is by speaking either mostly Guarani or Spanish but randomly adding in words of the other language. This is already happening more and more in the US with Spanish. We say things like “I’m going to the store to get some cerveza.” If a friend of yours said that sentence you’d likely not even bat an eye thinking about what cerveza means. It’s just automatic, beer and cerveza are synonyms. This is precisely how the Jopara can work sometimes; only the frequency of adding words from the other language can be astoundingly high. This happens because some words just don’t exist in Guarani because it’s an indigenous language. Take for example the above sentence of “We have to turn in the receipts before our contract expires.” There simply is no word for receipts, contract, or expire. Even if there were, they could never do justice to the precision of those words when speaking with an accountant.

The Jopara’s third and most interesting form is used when a Spanish word takes on the Guarani conjugation and pronunciation. For example: Guarani works like English in the sense that the person doing the action is established before the root of the verb. An “a” before a verb means “I”. Vender(Spanish)= to sell. Because they don’t use a Guarani word for “to sell” they just convert “vender” to (a)vende. Consequently, the r must be taken off of vender because Guarani verbs must end in vowels. This is done with many different verbs and can sometimes make following a conversation a whole lot easier.

For us volunteers, the classic example of this is the use of “no entiende= he doesn’t understand”. The ironic part about this is that Paraguayans struggle to discretely say “he doesn’t understand” while in our presence. It’s “nontendei”. (the “no” at the beginning in this case is just a coincidence…Guarani doesn’t use “no”) No entiende vs. nontendei. The two are ridiculously similar no? This used to happen to me almost every day when with a group of Paraguayans speaking Guarani and someone thought I didn’t understand, which may or may not have been true. After determining that I didn’t understand this someone would usually say with no shame at all “noentendei”. Clearly this person was trying to be secretive about telling his friends that I don’t understand but really it’s just as obvious as if he approached me like a drill sergeant and screamed in my face “You don’t understand, you American idiot!”.

Before moving on to how Spanish further plays into this language equation, I must highlight some of my other favorite Jopara examples. The first involves throwing question words of Guarani onto a question word of Spanish; for example, Dondepiko (donde=where). You see, in Guaraní there are suffixes like piko to make things questions. Like rehota vs rehotapiko. The rehota means “You will go” but rehotapiko asks “Will you go?”. In English we sometimes would put an “Are or Do etc. to ask a question but many times it is simply picked up by the intonation, something also done in Guaraní. Now back to my example of Dondepiko. Donde means “where” in Spanish and is inherently a question but all the same Paraguayans sometimes throw a piko on there out of habit or to emphasize.

Another favorite of mine is when Paraguayans use the Guarani prefix of “mo/mbo” before a Spanish word. The “mo/mbo” means “to make, to have or to give” depending on the context. The example that always makes me laugh is when I hear Ombo’ok. The O is “he” and the ok is literally OK. Therefore, it translates to “he gives the OK, or he approves” with the mbo meaning “to give”. This is such an in interesting example to me because it seems to me that OK is of English origin and something that Spanish speakers have adapted due to media. Thus, we actually have a mixture of three languages being utilized here in a matter of six little letters.

So you may be asking yourself; to what extent do people speak Spanish? As you may expect, there are so many different answers to that very basic question. To begin, one must recognize that an understanding of Spanish is almost unavoidable by a Paraguayan. Media and education’s far reaching influences provide an abundance of this all important tongue.

The news on both the radio and television is usually in Spanish. All written materials like newspapers and books are written in Spanish. High school classes are primarily taught in Spanish. (Primary school is much more Guarani) All road signs, technological devices, laws, and really anything written is conducted in Spanish. Its influence is just so broad that people naturally pick it up.

That explains why many of my neighbors have a perfect understanding of Spanish and almost no ability to utter a correct sentence. In my first few months here my Spanish was far superior to my Guarani and when addressing me many would whip out their Spanish. It would become immediately obvious those people who probably hadn’t ever had to speak a lick of Spanish. At the very least all my neighbors manage the present tense and basic speech without a problem but other tenses become difficult quite quickly. I imagine that the only reason that this basic dominance of Spanish even exists into adulthood is due to the way people speak to babies, which is surprisingly in Spanish.

Since people in my community only speak Guarani, they make a concerted effort to speak in Spanish when speaking directly to their little ones. As mentioned previously, there is this huge use of Spanish for media and education and therefore most parents realize the benefits of giving their toddlers this necessary educational building block.

Additionally, if upon growing up that child decided to move just 45 miles down the road from this world of Guarani, they’d find themselves in the capital, Asuncion, where only in specific pockets are people speaking Guarani. It’s primarily Spanish! I find this difference nothing short of astonishing considering the proximity of my community to the capital. And to reiterate, these aren’t just two languages. Each one has its own underlying feeling behind the words.

As one of my friends once said “If you’re a lawyer walking into the hood, you don’t go in with a suit, a briefcase, and you’re country club lingo, you had better tone it down if you lookin to kick it old school with some brothers.” The same thing applies here.

But it’s not just language that makes Asuncion life so contrary; it’s really all aspects of life. Asuncion is a world full of shopping malls, huge grocery stores, wide-spread internet, cable television, universities, and multinational banks. Any of that sound familiar?

It is the same idea of why I needed to use Guarani when sitting around that fire. When you walk into the City Bank in Asuncion, you don’t speak Spanish because you are in Asuncion, you speak Spanish because you’re in a big fancy bank which happens to be in Asuncion. And the feeling you get in this type of environment is practically screaming Spanish.

The last thing I want to suggest here is that someone who only speaks Guarani can’t be highly intelligent, that would be nonsensical. Only that languages have their time and place, just like not using Guarani when talking to accountant about expiring contracts.

In synthesis, the two languages of Guarani and Spanish make up a fascinating dynamic and have made my time in Paraguay a truly unique and special experience. Both languages have their appropriate settings and fit directly into the culture described in my other blog entries. Opa! Jajotopata

Thursday, April 23, 2009

I make story

Bull Eggs

It’s a normal day at around 4:30 and its t-ray, or terere time. I’ve just been working on the farm of my neighbor all morning harvesting beans and I’m super jolly to be quenching my thirst on top of a hill full of grazing cows and a view that overlooks a sea of green and yellow sugar cane. We’re sitting next to a newly sprouting grape vine and under a giant mango tree that has been sending mangos on suicidal face dives for months on end now. I find the mangos to be nothing short of the 8th wonder of the world but to my neighbors their abundance is so overwhelming that they’ve become apathetic toward them. But in general, nothing out the usual, just sitting there having a standard conversation about nothing; the lack of rain, the fact it was recently discovered the President of Paraguay had 2 love children while he was priest, the upcoming quinceanera birthday party on Saturday and a whole mixed bag of other goodies. From that mixed bag I with old time classic “what did you have for lunch?” The very common response of empanadas was given and I should have sufficed, but it didn’t. I followed up. “What kind of empanadas?” I asked. He finished sucking the ‘remaining drops out of the guampa and pointed to a brown bull out in the distance. “You see that bull out there? We stuffed the empanadas with his eggs.” Haha very funny I said, I know that bulls don’t lay eggs. No no he assured me—we ate his eggs. I quickly tried to picture the flashcard I’d made for egg in guarani. There’s no way bulls lay eggs is there? Could that really be what he said? I kept on asking him the question, each time a little slower and louder —as if talking into a cell phone that’s getting really bad reception “you ate the eggs of a bull?” He not only assured me that I had spoken correctly but also did this whole Italian thing whereby he brought his hand to his mouth and made a kissing sound in order to signify the deliciousness of the eggs. In the midst of my confusion I asked “So where do these eggs come from, out of its ass?” No no no he told me. Not those eggs but HIS EGGS. As he said this he made a motion with his hands in front of him as if he was weighing one object in each hand to see which was heavier—left hand or right hand. And it dawned on me, like a child who finally understands the dilemma of the birds and bees, he ate bull testicle empanadas for lunch. My stomach threw itself into a pretzel. It was like that time I was drunkenly walking around a party looking for a sobering cup up water. Shining like the sorcerer’s stone on the table, there it was, a freezing cup of water. I picked it up and as I took a gulp I realize I’d mistaken the water for H2O’s longtime archrival, cheap vodka. I’d smelt before I’d tasted it but it had already been too late. I coughed the vodka back up and threw up in my mouth a little bit. Little did I know it in those days, but accidently drinking vodka is a lot like finding out your neighbor has just eaten the balls of a bull, and loved every bite of them. When our t-ray session was over I scurried on home with a hop in my stop-- I’d never been so excited to go home and make myself a bowl of vegetarian fried rice— for the 3rd night in a row.

Talk to the hand cuz yo breath aint fresh?

The other day I was in the pueblo teaching at the “Centro Abierto”. I mentioned it earlier as a home where a nun runs a morning school for what she calls “street kids”. Most of them have horrific family lives and are very poor so La Hermana Araceli runs a center where they come eat breakfast, go to classes, and finish with lunch. All classes are taught by volunteers in the community and the meals given for free to the kids.

I have been teaching there one day a week since I arrived in site. I take my guitar and sing songs and teach them about geography. Were currently writing a ditty about the 5, not 7, continents they teach here. I’m also starting yet another world map with them next week.

About a month ago a new girl started at the Centro Abierto, a cute 5 year old named Silvia. Silvia is tiny, like most five year olds but carries herself like a Fortune 500 executive. She arrived that first day and immediately took a liking to me. We spent that whole day together. I was holding her tiny hand, spinning her like a ballerina, and throwing her up in the air. Like the beginning of most great relationships, it was right out of a movie. As the day came to a close she pulled my ear to hear mouth to tell me a secret. “My parents split up and my dad already got married to another woman. Therefore, I don’t have a dad anymore but at least I have a mom.”

Every morning after breakfast and giving thanks to god for the food that they’ve just eaten, Silvia does a b-line for me and I give her a big hug. Ever since confiding in me she’s stayed glued to my side. Sometimes I feel bad about not sharing me attention enough but I just can’t get enough of this precious little girl. .

So while were outside at recess I snuck over to see what three girls, about age 8, were doing so privately in corner with notebooks in hand. Silvia latched onto me, like always, and we approached the girls. As luck would have it they were practicing their reading skills and asked for my help. As I joined them on a log next to a hop-scotch whose lines had been drawn into the dirt I was instantly transformed into Adam Sandler in Big Daddy when he’s at the playground telling little kids about “YooHoo with a little rum”. I thought to myself “Just chillin with some 5 and 8 year olds at recess—all I’m missing now is a cold chocolate milk. As we sounded out words together, which is ten times easier to teach in Spanish than in English, I had an absolutely heart melting moment.

One of the 8 year olds said something to me. I thought I understood what she said but it made no sense so I repeated the sentence looking for confirmation. The 8 year olds laughed at me because I’d obviously misheard a word and the catty one of the group proceeded to say “You don’t even understand Spanish OR Guarani!” Before I could even laugh at the absurdity of saying such a thing after I had only confused one little word, Silvia put her hands on her hips and threw the laughing girls a look that only the female species is capable of giving. With conviction she said “Pero EL procura, But HE tries!”. It was so incredibly cute that my heart started spilling over like an ice cream cone in the Paraguayan sun. I was one step away from throwing Silvia in my backpack, grabbing a bus to the airport and buying a one way ticket back to The States. It was the only time anyone has ever defended me since I got here-- and it came from a 5 year old named Silvia.

Me and my cougar

I came zooming down the hill on my bike, like I do every time I’m coming home from the pueblo, and I heard an unexpected yell from my girlfriend. As I had already passed the house where she was drinking terere with her daughter, I did a quick Uie and clapped outside their gate. Enguahe Mateo. I entered saying the standard permiso and walked up to my girlfriend and gave her the customary two kisses, one on each cheek. Eguapy, And I was sitting down in the t-ray circle. I gave a firm smile to my girlfriend and told her that I would have passed them by had I not heard her voice.

Backtracking for a second here— this hot and heavy relationship between us started about six months ago, as soon as I moved into my current house in the compania. On that lovely day, my neighbor, in his 40’s, had so kindly invited me to eat lunch with them and said that a special little lady who was really excited to meet me, HIS MOTHER. We met and immediately hit it off. She was exactly the kind of old women that couldn’t get enough of my Guarani and laughed at just about everything that everyone said. Just a happy go lucky women in her mid 70’s.

Since meeting her I’ve been frequently invited for lunch when my neighbors know she is going to be there. We always have a good time joking around. She has one of those infectious laughs and the way she scrunches together the web of wrinkles on her face while giggling just kills me. In the midst of a joke one day I must have asked her if she wanted to be my girlfriend. She thankfully accepted and the joke has been running like the wind ever since.

Back to this particular day when she hollered at me as I passed by—After un buen terere I was invited inside to eat lunch with the family. Lunch was normal, the standard meat and pasta I’ve grow so accustomed to, but it was during the clean up that thing got a little awkward. My girlfriend was behind and had asked me a question. I did a quick180 so I could answer her and in the process swung my hand around over the back of the chair. It all happened so fast are the only words I can use to describe what had just occured. You see, when I had swung my arm around while turning to face her— I had smacked the absolute crap out of her boob— and we’re talking about an absolutely enormous boob, one not being supported by a bra, and with the kind of gravity compliance technology that only women in their 70’s are equipped with. I was shell-shocked. Do I say something—and acknowledge that I’ve just smacked the ever living shit out of this women’s pecho, or just act like nothing happened. I chose option two and quickly asked if I could help with any of the dishes.

Neither of us has ever acknowledged what happened. It’s like an unspoken silence that says “We both know I’ve been to second base with you, but let’s just leave it at that”

Is god living in my vegetable garden?

I must have been 17, because I remember there was 9/11 coverage on the TV. I was sitting in my living room with my dad. We turned off the TV and started in on a conversation about god. A pretty normal phase I’d say—I wanted proof that a god existed and I wasn’t going to believe in a higher power until I had it. I remember thinking “Just flip on the TV and see for yourself if you’re looking for a reason to denounce religion. People killing in the name of god and this is the kind of madness I’m supposed to take shelter in?” I remember expressing my frustration with my dad and him being sympathetic. He said something to the tune of “I understand your confusion. It’s quite a common doubt, but I think one day when you have kids of your own you’ll understand.”

¨Having kids” I though. “What does that have to do with god?”
He responded calmly with a you’ll see and my mind started wondering.

“Wait, so you’re not going to start in on some verse about how Moses parted the red sea and we escaped from slavery, and that should be my proof?” His response had surprised me. I guess I had already prepared myself to dismiss anything my dad said, but this whole kids of your own schpeal really took me off guard. It made me think, you know childbirth is a pretty unbelievable process—almost literally unbelievable.

Up until recently I had no way of even remotely comparing the incredibleness of bringing new life into this world, until I started my vegetable garden. Of course, I realize that vegetable gardens may seem like peas in comparison to child birth, but have you ever had a vegetable garden?

I have become quite fond of my garden. I wake every morning and the first thing I do is water it. It’s probably the best part of my day. It’s super quiet, there’s a chill in the air, my neighbor is milking her cow, and all the plants look gorgeous from the morning dew. After a million failed attempts at a whole range of veggies, I’ve finally started to actually eat a little bit out of my garden—peppers, lettuce, onions, corn, beans. I know it may seem like nothing, but to me it has been amazing source of fulfillment.

Yes, I have worked on a lot of farms since I got here. I’ve planted, hoed, and harvested an assortment of fruits and vegetables—but nothing is quite like doing it all yourself. To take a tiny little seed, no bigger than a thumb tack, put it into the earth, tend to the soil, and then eat its fruit just a few months later is simply euphoric.

Te pongo un ejemplo: How amazing is it that a tiny lettuce seed, about the size of a poppy seed, could be put into the ground and two months later give you a full head of lettuce. The only thing it asks in return is that you supply it with nutrient filled soil and clean up any weeds that grow around it. Imagine that, just for a minute— A POPPY SEED. It’s absolutely tiny. Imagine stripping it off your next Panera bagel, ripping a chunk of grass out of your yard and planting that little seed in its place. Then, to think that very head of lettuce you just bought at the grocery store was produced just like that. And to top it all off, if you want to wait a little while longer before ripping out that lettuce, it will make pods on top and give you plenty of seeds to go ahead and replant that delicious vegetable.

I don’t know if you’re thinking, “Wow Matt has really started smoking a lot of pot since joining the Peace Corps” or if this is actually interesting, but to me this incredible process is beyond explanation. Obviously there is a scientific explanation—but are kidding me, the size of poppy seed? Or in my dad’s example— the size of a tiny sperm?

Trust me, I know these are anything but new realizations, but in a world where something like 9/11 can attempt to crush the spirit inside of us, sometimes all it takes is a father’s perspective, or a simple vegetable garden, to remind us of that we’re just pieces of a puzzle, a really big incredible puzzle.

(Side note: I realize the above portion may seem preachy or elementary but I spent 23 years of my life and the only fruits and vegetables I’d seen were corn growing on the side of the highway and apples when we went picking for them as a little kid. I’ve gone to the grocery store a million times and it never occurred to me the mind blowing process that fills the produce section. I will surely never be able to see it the same.)

Opa for now but it shouldn’t be too long until my next post. Cuidense!