This past weekend I attended my first Carnival celebration in the city of Encarnación, which is at the southern end of Paraguay right on the boarder with Argentina. It is arguably the most famous and largest Carnival in Paraguay and arguable the largest outside of Brazil, so needless to say it was a lot of fun. Carnival and Mardi Gras both signify the beginning of lent in areas with high Catholic populations the difference being one has French influence and the other Spanish/Portuguese. To the average person the most obvious things they have in common is a huge party accompanied with lots of lights, scantily clad women in brightly colored costumes, and plenty of corporate sponsorships. Getting to Encarnación was a bit of a trek that took around 6 hours altogether on a bus that looked straight out of the 1950s. Thankfully we only needed to stop once to repair the aging wonder that I am pretty sure was sold second hand from Brazil given all the Portuguese written inside. It was honestly a miracle that the trip only took 6 hours given the technical difficulties and the inferior technology, but when you average what seems like 100mph on the down hill portion I guess it is not that strange.
Encarnación itself has to date been my favorite Paraguayan city. While it is only the 10th largest in Paraguay with roughly 93,000 people it has a big city feel and amenities, like huge super markets and plenty of place to eat, without the hustle and bustle of Asuncion or Cuidad del Este. It is also known for its sandy beach that sits right across from the Argentine city of Posadas Of course the white sand beach does not occur naturally on the banks of the Paraná River, but is shipped un from neighboring countries that are lucky enough to have sand. The water was bathtub warm, but only went up to my knees at the deepest part of the enclosed swimming area. Paraguayans as a whole rarely know how to swim and as a result most of the beaches would be better described as wading pools. If someone tried to cross the barrier they were quickly yelled at and told that they weren’t allowed to go over. As a person who knows how to swim I was very tempted to try my luck and see if the lifeguard would come after me if I swam over the buoys, but I was afraid that had the potential to cause the lifeguard to reveal that he himself couldn’t swim or get caught and promptly escorted to the nearest police station, so I decided not to press my luck and enjoy the wading instead.
I remember as kid being super eager to learn how to swim and play in the deep end of the pool. In Paraguay it is a shock to see someone actually in the water let alone swimming where their feet cannot touch the bottom. I recently spent some time at the local lake and have noticed on several occasions’ large cars full of people packed to capacity drive all the way to a lake or a place to swim, spend 15 minutes there, and load up their car to go home after briefly slashing themselves with water. A day at the lake or the beach in America to me means loading up the car full of towels, food, sunscreen, water, drinks, and swimming toys with the intention of spending the whole day there. I am always amazed when I see huge groups of people come all the way to the beach for less then a half an hour and leave. A lot of it might have to do with the general lack of swimming ability, but a lot of it also could be a cultural norm regarding people’s relationship with the water itself. Yesterday I went swimming with the youth group I have been working with and a lot of them mentioned the potential to get bitten or attacked by an animal as the reason Paraguayans don’t like to swim far from shore or the deep parts. I would normally chalk that sentiment up to kids being scared if I hadn’t previously heard the same things from adults. Whatever the reason I always have enjoy swimming even if I cannot go deeper than my knees.
After the beach it was time to get ready for Carnival itself. If I could take away 2 things from my experience it is first, getting blasted in the ear with spray can foam is unpleasant, and second no matter how cool the parade is at first by the time the same float rolls past for the 3rd time it starts to get old. The way the Carnival festivities were set up was 2 long sets of bleachers on either side of a small road with the parade rolling through the middle. I can honestly say I have never quite seen anything like it and I would definitely encourage people to put going to a Carnival on their life bucket list especially if you don’t mind loud music and beautiful women. My trip back to O’Leary was done on a mini bus that looked like it had been stolen from an airport. I was unlucky enough to be in a cramped seat with a very heavyset woman sitting next to me. By the time I made the walk back home I had finally regained feeling in my legs and was beyond tired as a result of the weekend festivities. As I write this I am still feeling the after effects of my trip, but it was well worth it and I don’t regret a minute.
My week to this point and the upcoming weeks are going to be hectic. For starters, Monday and Tuesday I spent the entire mourning cleaning the plaza in the center of town with Mike and his youth group called Jóven Emprendedores (Youth Entreprenuers). This was a particular challenge because not only are there no people paid to manage or clean the plaza, it is also missing several key features of parks including garbage cans and signs that don’t have graffiti. One of the most irritating parts of the cleanup aside from the sweltering heat and the blisters obtained from raking was the manner in which the waste was disposed of. The municipality was supposed to come and pick up the yard waste and garbage we collected from the park at the end of each day. After the first day the group had filled easily over 15 bags of waste. Those bags are still sitting in the middle of the park with the additional of garbage put there from people who live in the surrounding neighborhoods. Dogs have gotten into this garbage as well leading to a free for all for the eatable refuse. The most frustrating part of this is that the garbage collectors ignored the bags that were in the center of the plaza and instead choose to only collect the garbage bags that were placed on the peripheries not because they didn’t see the bags in the middle but because of pure laziness. This is extremely frustrating to see not just because the people who were suppose to be doing their jobs failed to do so but more so because a group of 15 kids had more motivation to improve their own community then the adults did.
Hopefully the problem will get resolved soon, but I am not going to get my hopes up. We also took the time to paint a couple of murals on the wall to give the park the finishing touches and cover up graffiti with a few inspirational messages promoting protecting our environment and the youth group itself. Hopefully those messages will persuade people not to trash the park again, but rather take care of it. I had the arduous task of penciling the letters for one of the murals and I have to say it looks pretty good despite it taking 4 hours to complete in the scorching sun while sitting on my ass. The plan is to finish painting the whole thing in the next couple of days, so we will have to wait and see how it turns out, but no matter how dirty the park might get over the next few weeks it was still really inspiring to see all these kids step up and demonstrate how much they care about their community and how it looks even if that sentiment isn’t shared by their peers or other adults.
This past Valentines Day also set my personal record for most hugs and kisses in 1 day. In order to promote the youth group Mike came up with the idea to do a project called abrazos gratis (free hugs) day where we walk around the community and offer free hugs. If the person accepted the hug they were given a small sack of candy and the satisfaction of receiving hugs from a bunch of kids and 2 Peace Corps Volunteers. I think we must have given out over 1000 hugs total amongst the 15 of us and close to 200 pieces of candy. The facial reactions of some of the people when they saw a group of kids holding up a sign that said abrazos gratis with a basket full of candy were pretty priceless. Most people were good sports, however there were a few whose reactions were very apprehensive particularly when a grown man (Mike and I) asked if they would like a free hug. Some of the best answers to our inquires were I don’t have any money” “Only a hug?” and several offers of cash despite the vibrant sign that led the entourage around the community. For sure a first time experience for everyone involved, but the kids and the hug recipients all seemed to enjoy it and it was great publicity for the youth group.
Upcoming for me is the start of the school year next Thursday and an environmental leadership camp next Monday-Wednesday. I am a little unsure about how I am going to be integrated into the school seeing as they lack a sufficient number of teachers, and have yet to give me details about when they would like me to start working there. I am sure if history is any indication it will be one of those all of a sudden type deals that catches me off guard and gives me no time to prepare, so I am making sure I have some ideas lined up about specific things/projects I can do with the kids to prevent being blind sided. The biggest challenge in that is language. I feel fine giving a lesson or presentation in Spanish, and to be honest I could probably do it sufficiently in Guarani as well, but which language to teach in is what I am not confident about. When I ask teachers what language they teach in they normally say Spanish, but Guarani is also used depending on certain topics. For example, there are a lot of words in Guarani related to farming and cultivation of food. Therefore it is important for me to teach those topics in both languages because of their applicability in the Paraguayan agricultural system. The other challenge is reading and writing. While helping Kristin with her biweekly library days I have had the opportunity to help some kids with their reading. A few of these kids attend the school in my barrio, and more often then not they are unable to read simple sentences. I have noticed improvement, but not enough to convince me that lessons involving writing or lots of reading will work. I am going to rely heavily on visuals and the hands on aspect of planting and maintaining a garden and hope for the best.
Long busy days have been the norm for a while here, but hedging expectations is important, so I am still mainly focused on learning language, taking daily siestas, and fighting off dogs with sticks. I will also make a plea for letters, phone calls through Skype, packages, or emails. So thanks Mom, Dad, and Geoff for your considerations. With that being said jajotopata ‘til next time.