On June 13th I completed 25% of my service. For me, that feels like a huge milestone when I think about everything that has happened in that time. Since I last wrote a ton of things have happened, but for whoever reads this entry I would like you to keep in mind that almost everything I am about to write about has in someway, shape, or form convinced me that 2 years is hardly enough time to enact noticeable changes within my community and beyond.
On June 12th Paraguay celebrates Paz del Chaco commemorating the signing of the peace treaty that ended the Chaco War fought between Bolivia and Paraguay from 1932-1935 over the arid, sparsely populated region called the Chaco. The Chaco makes up roughly 67% of Paraguay’s area, but only contains about 3% of its population. Despite being outnumbered Paraguay managed to win the war that was primarily motivated because of oil speculation in the region. As it turns out, the Chaco contains no oil at all and the war, at least from a contemporary perspective, seems to have been fought for nothing other than pride. Despite the history of the war and the reasons that it started, it is still a national holiday that people celebrate, at least in O’Leary, by closing all government offices and holding a giant parade that students, teachers, government employees, and any other body that wants to participate can march in. I was pretty excited to see what the fuss about. Having marched in my share of parades campaigning for local politicians in Cincinnati I was eager to compare my experiences.
Now parades in America, particularly Memorial Day and the 4th of July, tend to have big floats, cars, and tons of candy. It comes off as something that is supposed to be fun for both the marchers and the people watching. I was trying to explain what parades are like in the states to a couple of high school kids, Denis and Roberto, over dinner one night. I asked them what they did in the parade? Roberto was much more eager than Denis in explaining that each practices the proper marching steps during the weeks proceeding, and lines up according to their title in the school or institution carrying wither a flag or a sign indicating the name of the group that follows. His explanation of how things were going to happen the next day, to me, seemed very rigid, highly organized, and definitely missing candy. I then asked if it was fun? A simple question that I felt warranted a honest response. Roberto held up his had twisting it back and forward and said “Sí más o menos” (Yes, more or less). Denis on the other hand had a look of mild displeasure after he heard Roberto’s response and simply replied “no.” That had me laughing pretty hard, so I was really excited to see what it was all about the next morning when I went to the parade. When I arrived, I ran into Julio who had a look that can only be described as anguish on his face. I asked him if he liked the parades, and the look I got from him seemed to say “would you like to do this if you had to do it twice a year every year for your entire professional career?” When I thought it like that I saw his point rather clearly. The parade lasted for about an hour, and unsurprisingly started an hour late. Precision was key and the marchers were sharply dressed wearing their finest outfits, as the pictures will hopefully indicate. The thing that made me think that the parade was more hoopla than anything else was when the majority of people would leave after their son or daughter passed by. That indicated to me not too many people cared about the meaning of the parade and just wanted to get it over and done with. I had a great time, and as luck would have it wasn’t the only unique tradition that I would see in the month of June.
On the 22nd, at my school, the school put on the annual San Juan Festival. It took me most of the day and a good portion of the evening to understand the significance of the festival, so I think the most effective way to tell this story will be to write what I saw then describe the meanings of it all afterwards. I walked over to the school around 8:30. Again, I had no idea what to expect. I noticed that the teachers and some parents were cooking food, a giant 10 meter tall log covered in pig fat, a scarecrow filled with fireworks, a suspended hoop wrapped in oil soaked cloths, and a cow skull attached to a rickety wooden frame with oil soaked cloth horns. Confusion was setting in pretty quickly. As the morning progressed I noticed that a large portion of the 5th-6th graders were dressed in frayed clothing with horrifying masks and empty bottles of caña. I learned that they were the Kambás, whose jobs, from what I could deduce, were to run around scaring the all the smaller kids. Around 10, the festivities, or should I say pyrotechnics, started. The first activity was the ring of fire, where the aforementioned oil soaked suspended ring was lit on fire, with a little added help from gasoline, and the Kambás took turns diving through the ring. There was a sack race right before the bull candle where 2 of the Kambás grabbed hold of the wooden frame as its horns were lit on fire and chased everyone around the school. Then someone lit a cloth ball on fire that the kids kicked around until it was extinguished. They broke a ceramic vase that was filled with candy and mandioca flower, which is supposed to celebrate a peasant wedding. Following that they burned the effigy by dousing it in gasoline. It went up in seconds, and thankfully didn’t too much damage to the electrical connection given that it was hanging right next to the electrical cables that provide power to the school.
The icing on the cake was the poll climb where the kids try to shimmy up a 10-meter poll that is insufficiently stuck in the ground to try to claim the prizes of candy, chips, and soda. Sadly, the kids were unable to climb the poll despite climbing on top of one another for the better part of an hour. Instead, the shook the poll down and swarmed after the candy. While all this was going on the parents were making food too sell and watching the festivities. I have to say that I have never seen anything quite like it, and kept thinking to myself the whole time what a crazy tradition this is. To make things crazier, nobody seemed to know exactly where the traditions started or the exact reason for the celebration. I was able to deduce a few things about the celebration by going online and asking a few of the teachers at the school, but I am still quite in the dark as to how it evolved into what I witnessed the other day. Through those inquires I figured out that the celebration has something to do with St. John’s Day and the summer solstice, but because Paraguay is in the southern hemisphere that doesn’t quite make sense. I did figure out that the burning of the effigy is supposed to be Judas, but that was the only thing I could get consensus on from Paraguayans. In the evening I went to another San Juan Festival at the big elementary school in town. It was essentially the same thing except with a lot more people and a lot of booze. Instead of having candy on top of the poll they had caña and money. People were pretty drunk, especially the Kambás, so it had a very different feel than the one at my school. If your interested in reading more there is a good Wikipedia article in Spanish, but can be translated into English if you use Google Chrome as your web browser, that explains how the Guarani customs and culture here has made the San Juan festival in Paraguay: http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fiesta_de_San_Juan#Paraguay.
Changing subjects completely, I recently had the chance to go out and visit the site of my friend Jimmy Henderson. Jimmy sector is crop extension and he lives in a very small rural community, campo in Spanish, called Zapallo (Squash). Unlike Jimmy, I live in sort of a semi-campo site. It’s not a city, but I have easy access to supermarkets and most enmities. Jimmy lives about 3 KM of the main highway that forces anyone visiting him to cross a land bridge, which depending on the amount of rain, is submerged for about a 150 meter distance. I have visited Jimmy twice since I moved to O’Leary. The first time I had to walk about 5 meters across a submerged log with all my stuff on my back to get to the end of the dock. That was during a huge drought, so the bridge was mostly above the surface. However, with the winter came the rains, and despite the local municipality’s best efforts to make a more stable bridge, Mother Nature had different plains. Always an exciting trip while I was walking there I had a couple of kids ask me how to say Mickey Mouse in English. That question got me thinking about the differences between Zapallo and my barrio in O’Leary. Both sites speak a lot of Guaraní, and both are close to the highway, but despite how close they are to each other geographically, only about a 10-minute bus ride and an hour walk, the level of development and the town identity are utterly different.
The further off the highway one goes the more Guaraní you are likely to hear. Where I live people speak a good mix of both, so I can get by on either, but in Jimmy’s site it is Guaraní or bust. People really struggle with Spanish, and it was quite challenging to talk to people there during my visit. The reason I went in the first place was to help him with an art camp at a very small school that sits on the banks of a gorgeous lake. I was in charge of balloon art and mask making. It was shockingly difficult for me to explain in words what I wanted the kids to do, so I just showed them. Other activities included macaroni art, bench panting, and leaf tracing. It turned out to be a great day, but it is very evident that the location of the school and the community limits its accessibility to resources. They get supplies and learning materials months after they are supposed to and sometimes not at all. People grow their food, build whatever they need to build, and are pretty self-reliant. The richest guy in town seems to be the police officer because he has the nicest house and is the only one who drives a car instead of an oxcart. Despite it’s poverty, Zapallo is easily the prettiest place I have been in Paraguay. There are rolling hills that flow into a stunningly expansive lake. There are fruit trees all along the main paths of the town, and fields that seemingly go on forever. I could sit here and knit pick about the problems of the town, but I think it is important to recognize that while there are many places like Zapallo throughout Paraguay that have many challenges with isolation, lack of resources, and general poverty, it is those places that most effectively illustrate the identity of the Paraguayan landscape. It amazes me how dissimilar it is from my home in O’Leary despite the proximity. Then I think that just 20 years ago where I live now was probably a lot like Zapallo and that the only difference was the influx of commerce associated with the international highway that flows through O’Leary. If that road had somehow gone through Zapallo, wouldn’t I have been writing the same thing just with the towns reversed? I think this is the first time in my life that I have been able to see how economic development impacts communities in the developing world first hand, and the rate in which it happens is quite amazing.
To change subjects completely again, on June 19th I celebrated my 24th birthday, the first one I have celebrated in Paraguay. I had the pleasure of having the celebration during my 6th month training secession that Peace Corps calls Project Design Management (PDM). I have to be honest when I say that I was not looking forward to celebrating my actual birthday during PDM. I really struggled trying to find someone who wanted to go, and when I finally did I was already mentally worn out before we even left. Essentially, PDM is a way for volunteers to demonstrate to a community contact the steps in making an idea into a reality. I was able to take my good friend Claudio, who is a 17-year-old high school student who is going to graduate in November. Aside from being one of the few kids his age in my barrio, he is highly motivated and very hard working. Together the 2 of us went to a Peace Corps sponsored library workshop, and in the month since have been planning to put a small community library at the school that I work at. Although we had already done our own project design for the library, it was really nice to have the chance to show Claudio the step by step process of recognizing an opportunity, identifying the needs, ways to involve the community, the implementation, and the evaluation that goes into many of the projects that volunteers do. That in and of itself was a rewarding enough present for a birthday, but it is a bit boring and if you know me at all you’ll know that I wasn’t about to be content with a good feeling for my birthday.
Over the previous few weeks to make things a bit more fun for my birthday I had encouraged all my friends who wanted to buy me something to make sure that every gift given was bought on a bus. That may seem like a ridiculous request except for the fact that Paraguayan busses are regular convenience stores with everything from fresh fruit to DVD’s on sale. While riding busses I have seen cooking oil, socks, fingernail clippers, CD’s, toys, books, cookies, glass bottle soda, sandwiches, porno, and scolding hot cocido all sold. There are many theories as to why so many items are sold on busses, but the answer that I seem to find the most believable is that people selling things on buses can buy goods wholesale avoiding taxation to then resell on the busses for double the wholesale price, but cheaper than a supermarket that has to pay tax on all goods. It makes the busses a regular black-market for daily household needs. True to my request all the gifts I got were purchased on a bus and included: a child’s toy helicopter that has wheels and a handle attached to a plastic stick that you push along the ground its tongue to stick out, a plastic dog whose head bobs up and down when you move it or touch it’s head, a half eaten pastry, a small bottle of caña, and a pack of cookies. All the gifts were wonderful in their own special way and I couldn’t have been happier when everyone at the workshop sang Happy Birthday first in Guaraní, I didn’t understand a word, and then in English. It was a great birthday and has been a crazy couple of weeks. Upcoming I have a presentation about the library to give in front of the parents commission at my school, a potential biodigester project that would create sustainable fuel for a local farmer, and a 4th of July celebration in June, so look for another update soon.