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Friday, April 6, 2012

The Culture of Chipa, Damian, and a Gran Pollada


The week leading up to Good Friday and Easter known as Semana Santa in Spanish (Saints Week) is a pretty big deal in Paraguay. The country is over 90% Catholic meaning that schools are closed starting Wednesday and remain that way until the following Monday. Fasting occurs beginning on Friday and lasts until Sunday. However, when I say they fast I mean they make and eat copious amounts of chipa as they only source of sustenance. Now I am sure you’re asking yourself what in the world is chipa? To be honest, I have no idea what a strong comparison would be, but if I had to guess I’d say it’s essentially a really dense biscuit with the aftertaste of old cheese. Paraguayans eat it in the same fashion American’s would eat a bagel in the sense that it is a quick snack that is often times eaten for breakfast. The way it is made is a very important cultural tradition. One mixes a bunch of eggs in a plastic tub with queso Paraguaya (arguably the worst smelling cheese ever made, and somehow doesn’t always need to be refrigerated), mandioca flour (yucca), corn meal, lard and anis for flavoring. Kneading the dough requires huge amounts of forearm strength because of the denseness, and once it has reached the appropriate form it is molded into either a small football shape or a circle that looks like a doughnut. The uncooked chipas are then placed on individual banana leaves and cooked in a tatakua, which is a traditional ceramic oven made from bricks and mud. The oven is heated using wood and in less than 15 minutes the chipa is done. I am not the biggest fan of chipa, but as you can probably imagine when that is the only thing to eat around the house one learns to live with it. When it is taken straight out of the oven is the only time you could call it soft. It hardens to almost a rock like state of being after no more than an hour. Currently the family has several plastic bags full of chipa, which has slowly been consumed over the course of the last coupe of days with your truly partaking in his fair share.
            As an industry, chipa, is bustling in Paraguay. Even McDonald’s has gotten on the bandwagon by recently introducing it’s own style of chipa. Every time I get on a bus a woman carrying a huge wicker basket gets on board to sell chipas for 2, 000 ($0.50) Guaranis apiece. It is quite the talent being able to stand in the aisles with a huge basket while the bus is clocking 120 km per hour, but seeing the kind of business it gets shows why so many people do it. Often times the type of chipa being sold on the bus depends on the bus company you are riding on. Different companies have different relationships with different chiparias. It is always funny to hear that some people only ride certain buses because of the chipa that is sold on them. Since I have arrived in O’Leary, I have left to go somewhere that was over 2 hours away only twice, but both times I was instructed by my family to bring back chipa. I am always amazed that they can tell what bus I took based on the chipa and how excited they are to have it. When I eat it I get the sensation that I am chewing on flaky, greasy, rubbery rock, but I guess I haven’t been here long enough to have developed the refined taste as my Paraguayan counterparts have. Maybe with time I can develop a better appreciation for the institution that is chipa, but as of this moment I couldn’t stand another bite.
Painting the Streets
On a completely different note this Monday is an important day for the town of O'Leary because the annual educational congress is convening from Asuncion to discuss pressing school issues. What this means for the town of O’Leary and the municipality is a lot of last minute beautification work to impress the representatives from the national government are ongoing. This past Monday I spent the entire morning painting walls, curbs, and the bases of trees white to cover up the dirt and grime that has accumulated in the year since the last congress. What amazes me about the preparation for the event is how everyone seems to be busting their asses trying to get things ready, but no one seems to know what exactly will happen during the meetings. Everyone I ask just tells me it is about education, and will have important people coming from Asuncion. There is no mention as to what topics are going to be talked about, why the schools need to be closed, or who exactly is coming. Now I could go on for hours about how the education system here and it’s very basic management problems that prevent many students from receiving an adequate education, but I will abstain for the sake of everyone who is reading this. All I’ll say is that I don’t understand why school would be closed if important meeting were going to take place about how the schools are run. Wouldn’t it be better to have the schools operating to get a better sense of what issues should be prioritized? I guess it makes sense to close they schools to talk to the teachers, but I am not even sure if the teachers in the area are required to do anything. I get the impression that the opinions of many teachers, not to mention students will not be included in the conversations, but then again I don’t know because no one will tell me. I’ll plan to follow this up in my next update.
Damian's Artwork
            Something else that I have been meaning talk about for a while is my 3-year-old host brother Damian. The name aptly describes his personality in the sense that he is a little devil at times. I can always rely on Damian to be the one screaming when he doesn’t get what he wants. One of the things he hates the most is washing his hair, a revelation that came to fruition this week when Iris, my host mom, mentioned that he needed to wash his hair. You would think that he was being skinned alive by the shrieks that were emanating from the bathroom. At the top of his lungs he was crying “socorro! socorro!” (help!, help!). Naturally when it was all over and they gave him some soda to drink it was as if it had never happened. The other day in my attempt to bond with the little rascal I decided that I would let him use the magic markers I brought from America to draw me a picture. Mathias and Nazareth also added their contributions, but Damian stole the show with his masterpiece that extended to canvases other then the paper I had provided for him, namely my feet. I had to take a shower to get all the marker off my feat because not only did he draw on them constantly while I was trying to clean up, but he also thought it would be a good idea to remove all the lids from the markers and leave them all over the room. Every time I tried to clean up he would cry so I was forced to let him has his way until he was reluctantly pulled away from my feet by his sister. The pictures are some of the masterpieces composed during that night, and I have to say that they will most definitely be hung on the walls of my new house whenever I move in.
            I also had the chance to experience my first school fundraising event, which took the form of a gran pollada (grilled chicken sale). For 7,000 ($1.75) Guaranis I bought a half chicken, some rice salad and a bunch of mandioca. I got to admit the food was pretty good, but I am not sure if they turned much of a profit. The event had been planned for 2 weeks, so it was nice to see that there was time to sell tickets around the community. The problem was that most people seemed to wait until the last minute to sell their tickets. In my experience to thus far I have noticed an extreme lack of scheduling on the part of the people I most closely work with. More oft than not people don’t plan their schedule’s more than a day or so in advance. A good example of that has been my house. Everything that has been done to it has happened all of a sudden. The bathroom, the sink, the electrical have all had been accomplished one day completely randomly. There was no time frame, no planning, and not dates. Things got done when I prompted them. Once they got started it got finished, for the most part, but I still find it amazing how people don’t work with other people’s timeframes. Things get done on your own time not when it is on someone else’s clock. People seem to think very much about the present, and less so about the past and future. It makes for an interesting work relationship, and to date I am still trying to figure out that balance.

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