13 July 2012

Twice and Counting

I’m fairly confident that in the whole of my adult life I’ve had but two completely successful conversations with total strangers.  I’m 26 years old.  I’ve met a lot of people.  My batting average would indicate that I’m not making any conversational highlight reels.

Except for two occasions.

The first was on a beach in Pensacola, Florida.  It was early morning and I was killing time by wandering along the tracts of sand that stretch between the shore and the hotels.  The entire area was noticeably deserted save for one man in the distance carrying a couple of golf clubs over his shoulder.  The man -- presumably returning from sinking a few dozen dimpled balls into nature’s big blue driving range -- and I were headed in opposite directions and quickly approaching one another.

“How are the fairways this morning?” I asked when I was close enough to catch his eye.

“Better than the office,” he answered in stride without awaiting a reply.

Crack!  A clean line drive up the middle.  A nice piece of hitting, as they might say.  It’s one that stands out in my memory. 

Of course it’s smug and trite and the exact sort of unoriginal exchange that, if placed in a crappy movie, would have me audibly groaning.  But it’s important to understand that, for me, real-life moments like this just don’t happen.  I never know what to say or when to say it and I’m incredibly jealous of my friends who can create jovial, seamless conversation out of thin air with people they barely know.  It’s a truly enviable characteristic.  Meanwhile, I’ve always been the introvert who avoids eye contact at the last second when passing someone on the sidewalk.  When a pretty girl takes the seat next to me on the bus, it’s hard for me not to breathe a heavy sigh of relief when she breaks out her iPod and I can peacefully reflect on all of the painfully awkward conversation that we’ve escaped.

After two months in site, it’s become apparent that talking to strangers is something I better get comfortable with real fast.  Because, let’s be honest, that’s who I’m surrounded by right now.  With some legitimate exceptions, the overwhelming majority of my 300-person community and I still don’t really know each other.  And if I want that to change, the burden is on me.  Everyone else in this community already has established lives and relationships to keep themselves preoccupied.  I’m the one trying to construct an existence from the ground up.  Succumbing to my normal level of verguenza out here in the campo probably isn’t going to get me anywhere – socially, professionally, mentally.

My second successful conversation occurred a couple years back while idling on a tarmac in Cheyenne, Wyoming.  After spending the first leg of the evening’s cross-country flight restlessly positioned in a middle seat, I was not only relieved that we’d successfully landed amid thunderstorms but that we’d managed to do so with enough time left for me to make my connection.  I shut my book and hurriedly stuffed it in my backpack alongside my iPod and coiled headphones, those precious items that act as a universal conversational buffer in forced social situations.  It was only then that the captain welcomed his passengers to their current destination – not Denver International as scheduled but rather Cheyenne, where we’d have the pleasure of waiting out the weather for an indefinite period of time, sorry for the inconvenience, thank you for your patience, more updates to follow.

And then, amidst the requisite chorus of moaning such situations elicit, the gentleman seated to my immediate right made some innocuous comment in my direction.  I can’t recall exactly what he said – assuredly something in the realm of meteorology or FAA regulations or crying infants or peanuts or what have you – but it was enough to draw an equally harmless response from myself.  And from there it snowballed.

Before long this stranger and I, after sitting elbow-to-elbow in silence for the previous three hours, were deep in legitimate, easy conversation.  We talked about the hospital in Sacramento where he worked as a doctor and the research he was involved in.  We talked about the medical convention he was returning from in New Orleans and compared our thoughts on the city, its people and its cuisine.  We discussed my job with AmeriCorps and his past international volunteer work.  We talked about being in your early twenties, relatively fresh out of college and how it compares to being in your late fifties with children in their early twenties, relatively fresh out of college.  We shared our respective experiences living in the forgotten capitals of big states.  We talked about the NBA and MLB, about small-market basketball and big-market baseball.

And then, three hours later, we finally landed in Denver.

Right now, based mostly on my lingering language inefficiencies, it’s a tall order to have that level of conversation with a fellow Paraguayan community member whom I’ve yet to meet.  But I definitely don’t think it’s impossible and I think that it’s crucial to try.  And I’m a firm believer that there is always room to try harder.  For as long as I’m in Paraguay, I’m going to have to take off my headphones, make eye contact and force my way through the uncomfortable small-talk on the way to building real relationships.  There’s really no other way to both make this experience worthwhile and, in exchange, invest myself and my energy back into the community.

Years from now, I will be deep in conversation with the person next to me on a cross-country flight.  It doesn’t really matter who started talking first, but I’d like to think that I finally did.  Maybe the conversation will somehow come around to Peace Corps.  “So,” my curious new friend will ask, “how was the Paraguayan campo?”

As I close my book and tuck it beneath the seat in front of me, I hope I’m able to sincerely respond, “Better than the office.”

Hey June

Yep, it’s been awhile.  Apologies.  Hope this finds you well.  Let’s take some time to discuss a handful of anecdotes and observations since last we left:

MY host family cooks everything on a woodstove over an open flame.  There’s a really romantic quality to that, especially during these cold winter months.  Unfortunately, it can be difficult at times to see the romanticism of it through all the smoke building up in the kitchen.

NOW that the temperature has cooled down, the men in my community play soccer every evening.  Before playing, everybody throws in two or three mil (2-3.000 Gs) as a friendly wager.  Of course, I have no problem with this… in principle.  My issue lies in the fact that we need to spend a good half hour before the game collecting the money, counting the loose change, squaring it up, hounding the handful of guys who inevitably didn’t put in enough, counting it up again, and then settling on somebody neutral to keep track of it.

It’s an excruciating process to witness because in the time it takes to do all this you could have easily held a second game.  It’s true – I swear I’m not exaggerating.  It takes that long.  For as much soccer as these guys play, you would think that they’d have this down pretty efficiently. And to suggest playing a game (or even a round of penalty kicks, for that matter) without putting money on it?  Well, you may as well be speaking another language.

SINCE I can’t keep up with the big boys when it comes to soccer, I’ve found a small group of kids ages 7-11ish who are more my speed.  In my community, gender roles are strongly reinforced and gender separation is the societal norm.  So, on the first day I played with these kids, I was super pleased when one of them – a nine year-old girl – informed me, “I’m a girl but I can play with the boys.  I go to soccer school on Saturdays.”

I was even more pleased, however, when she single-handedly (footedly?) carried our all-girls-plus-one-norteamericano club to a 10-3 victory.

IN Paraguay, the term “shortcut” really just means “a different way to get somewhere regardless of how much shorter or longer it will actually take you.”

Along the same lines, if you survey five or six people hoping to gauge how far of a walk a certain place is, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to get answers as varied as 3-10 km, for example.  In such instances your best bet is to take the highest bidder and then go ahead and add 20% for good measure.  At the very least, you’re probably gonna want to pack an overnight bag and throw on a decent pair of shoes.

I’M not allowed to discuss Paraguayan politics, neither within my community nor here online.  But it’s been an interesting month in that regard.  Take a minute and Google it.

THE line between my community’s definition of “clearing the road” and my personal definition of “deforestation” is a little blurred.  But machetes are fun.

THERE’S a political talk show on the radio here that my host family enjoys on weekday afternoons.  The intro music that this show uses happens to be ESPN’s Baseball Tonight theme.  I think a little piece of me dies every time I hear the song and it’s followed by a Spanish rant on the local gobierno rather than Karl Ravech updating me on the AL wild card standings or the NL Cy Young race.

THE most common evening pastime here once the sun goes does down is to watch telenovelas, your daily Spanish-language soap operas.  With campo television reception, you wind up with essentially one channel.  Your choices are limited.

These shows are painfully tacky in every regard – plot, production, acting, you name it.  For several weeks I tried to avoid novelas at all costs knowing full well that it was anti-social and a prohibitive strategy for speedier integration.  I just couldn’t make myself do it.  Really, they’re that trashy.

Then I discovered Los Herederos del Monte.  About a month ago I forced myself to spend a week watching the 6pm novela as an earnest way of improving my Spanish listening comprehension.  Then that first week turned into a second and then a third and before long I had stopped asking my host sister for clarification about verb tenses and had begun requesting clarification about specific plot points.  For example, do any of the brothers know that Sr. del Monte is still alive?  How much longer did the doctor tell Julieta she has left to live?  Why is Jose such a jackass?  If not at the fancy dinner table, when will Juan finally take off his cowboy hat?

(*Spoiler Alert – Answers to above questions: No; A matter of months; Unclear; His brother’s wedding)

Yep, I’m hooked.

THERE’S a myth out there that I’m going to go ahead and unsubscribe to.  I think our culture perpetuates it to an illegitimate degree that clashes with my experience.  Hear me out.

Beforehand I believed, like I think a lot of people do, that strong relationships can be built that transcend language barriers.  But wait, that’s not the myth.  That one’s a fact.  The myth is that it’s easy.  I feel like there is a misconception out there spurred on by movies, idealism, American egotism and certain classic Disney theme park attractions that, at the drop of a hat, you have the capacity to become really close with anybody you choose to surround yourself with.  But do you actually realize how we are conditioned to become close with others?  Words.  Language.  Verbal communication.

Yes, humans will instinctively find other means of bonding when verbal communication fails – I’ve participated in nonverbal bonding through cooking, dancing, farming, playing games and even housing renovations – but it’s a long, arduous process to cultivate anything deep or meaningful this way.  Particularly when you’re so accustomed to forming all of your relationships through conversation.

Like I said, it can certainly be accomplished.  I wouldn’t still be here if I didn’t believe that.  I’ve enjoyed two-and-a-half-month homestay stints with two separate, incredible Paraguayan families with whom I believe I now have strong friendships.  But it can be tiresome, difficult and oftentimes frustrating work.

I think this sort of friendship comes with a big advantage, however.  Another side of the coin.  By building a relationship this way in such a long and deliberate manner, it’s much easier to recognize what you both have invested in it.  The effort you’ve put in is so much more tangible and apparent that you’re more inclined to continue to nurture and sustain it rather than take it for granted.

Yes, in fact it is a small world after all but it’s not necessarily an easy one.

ALL told, I’m nearly 20% of the way through this thing.  It’s going quicker than I anticipated.

17 May 2012

Shark Bait

In sifting through the advice, thoughts, opinions, and general ramblings of dozens of current (and therefore experienced) PCVs over the past ten weeks, there was one particular nugget that continuously presented itself: in Peace Corps Paraguay, the two-plus months of in-country training varies significantly from the two years of actual service that follows.  Without exception, everyone was sure to mention just how much life changes after officially swearing-in.  In fact, I had begun to get the impression that training is akin to wading in the shallow end of your average-sized puddle, lifeguards on hand, whereas the actual service is more reminiscent of capsizing hundreds of knots off the Atlantic coast as a fleet of Guaraní-speaking sharks thrash around you in the frigid, yerba-steeped waters.

How accurate that analogy is probably varies from person to person, from site to site.  For me, just three weeks in, I’ve noticed the stark contrast between the two lifestyles but it hasn’t felt quite so perilous.  I’m no longer accompanied by Americans who can help me navigate through the trickier language barriers or shoulder some of the awkwardness that seems to burden us during every conceivable social situation.  I no longer have classes meticulously scheduled and organized for me six days a week, which means now I have to teach myself to create and fill my own schedule from scratch everyday.  During training, I was often wondering how to slow down the heavy, persistent momentum of the daily grind.  Over the past three weeks, by contrast, there have been plenty of days where it’s been tough to keep any momentum going at all.  The positive feeling I have after accomplishing something productive from 9-10am quickly disappears by 11 when I think to myself, “Well, dammit, what am I supposed to do for the remaining seven hours of daylight?”

The answer, so far, has been to try and meet people.  To introduce myself to the community and make things happen as organically as possible.  As I mentioned, nothing about the last three weeks has felt as terrifying as the thought of being surrounded by bloodthirsty sharks.  Granted, there’s been plenty of moments when I’ve felt lost out at sea, but instead of shark-infested waters I feel like I’m surrounded by schools of friendly, curious fish who just want to get a look at the bizarre americano flailing about the surface.  “Slow down for a second, tranquilo,” they’re probably saying, “Maybe you’ll float along fine if you just stopped kicking so haphazardly and paddling so awkwardly.  Watch us swim and try it the way we do.”

I imagine this is what they’re saying, at least, but who the hell really knows.  They might be harmless fish, but they’re still Guaraní-speaking fish. 

09 May 2012

School´s Out

Originally written 26 April 2012

Training is over. Last Friday (4/20) I officially swore-in as a Peace Corps Volunteer and on Tuesday (4/24) I moved to the Paraguayan community where I will be living and working for the next two years.

“So, Chris,” you might wonder, “surely you must have learned a ton over the past ten weeks of training.  Please, enlighten us.  Tell us all about these new and wonderful things you know.”

Well, then, where should I begin?

I have learned that if you are informed something is happening “en seguida,” it can mean any time between “right this very moment” and “never.”  I have also learned that this ambiguous phrase is incredibly frustrating when told to you,but incredibly convenient when you’re telling it to somebody else.

I have learned how to say “there are little black kittens” in Guaraní.  However, I cannot successfully construct any other complete sentence that is neither a personal statement nor a direct question.

I have learned that even if the bathroom door is unlocked, the lights are off, and nobody is responding to your knocks, there is still a solid chance that it’s occupied.

I have learned to value broccoli over beef.

I have learned to stop translating every transaction into “how many dollars does this cost?” and to start thinking in terms of “how many bus fares does this equal?”

I have learned that the concept of “adult learning techniques” entails a shocking amount of drawing and coloring.  I have yet to learn why.

I have learned that the single most reliable way to successfully break prolonged awkward silence in Paraguay is the following equation: “Rico es” +“X” (Where X stands for any possible food you can think of regardless of how delicious it actually is).  Not only will everyone around you speak up to agree, but they’re bound to begin mentioning a lot of other rico foods that you can consequently agree with as well.

I have learned that, in the 21st century, it is actually possible to survive two and a half months without a cell phone and I hope I never, ever have to try to again.

I have learned how to drink boiling tea through a scalding metal straw.

I have learned that for as naturally pretty as the mandioca plant is, its edible root is doing it absolutely no justice.

I have learned that for as naturally pretty as the mango tree is, its edible fruit is doing a serviceable job.

I have learned that I absolutely cannot distinguish the pronunciations of the letters y and ŷ in Guaraní, no matter how many hours a native speaker spends trying to teach me.

I have learned that the strangely addictive result of baking corn flour, cheese and lard is called chipa and that it alone can sustain you during the five days leading up to Easter.  I’m under the impression that Jesus would be proud of me for this, but I never learned exactly why.

I have learned that while being guapo/hard-working is one of the personal characteristics most highly valued by Paraguayans and Americans alike, the two have very distinct and different ways of defining it.  However, I think I’ve learned that taking initiative is at the core of both culture’s definitions.

Despite ten weeks of densely packed training, I have learned that I still have no real idea what anything over the next two years will actually be like, with two obvious exceptions:

1)  I have learned that there is an awesome collection of Americans scattered throughout Paraguay that I get to refer to as mis compañeros.

2)   I have learned that there is at least one incredibly generous, super linda Paraguayan family that has my back no matter what.

23 April 2012

How to Barter for Cab Fare in Paraguay (translated & paraphrased)

As demonstrated by an actual Paraguayan!

Setting: 6:00 pm on an ordinary, early autumn Thursday

[Slowly but purposefully approach the driver of the only cab in town.  Politely accept a sip of his terere and casually exchange pleasantries in Guarani.  Discuss the weather for a minute or two.  It’s unseasonably cold today, no?]

Cabbie – So, where are you headed?

You – Santa Elena. (i.e.; village 10+ km away inaccessible at this hour by any other means save for walking)

Cabbie – 60.000 Gs.

You – 60?? (For extra effect, add lengthy, high-pitched whistle implying how unreasonably pricey that seems)

Cabbie – Yes, 60.

You –
[A good half-minute of uncomfortable silence in which the cabbie stares at you intently while you pretend to think of other transportation options - of which absolutely none exist)

Cabbie – Santa Elena, you said?

You – Yes.

Cabbie – 50 then.

You –
[More prolonged silence during which you shamelessly search your surroundings to ensure that there are, in fact, no other taxis in town right now.  Of course this is the case and you’re both well aware of it.]
[Strain your face to show optimal distress and helplessness.  Be sure not to say anything.  It seems at this point that awkward silence is your strongest – and evidently only – bartering tool.]

Cabbie – How about 40?

You – [casually wait a few beats to conceal just how unbelievably successful that entire exchange was] Yeah, 40 works.

And there you have it, folks.  With just two words, one whistle and a couple minutes of uncomfortable silence, you can reduce your cab fare by up to 33% despite having absolutely no leverage whatsoever.  Tell your friends!  Guaranteed to work in any socially passive and indirect culture!