Tuesday, September 30, 2008

What I Do

I officially no longer live in the world of fast-food, electric appliances, 24/7 power, and flushing toilets. In my world, the power routinely goes out for stretches of anywhere from 20 minutes to 20 hours. In my world, food is often cooked over wood piled on the floor. In my world, heating consists of a charcoal stove. While my brother is sitting a world away trying to get Internet installed in his apartment in Pune, India, I am bargaining with my future landlord to construct for me a brick shower outside where I can pour water over my head with a bucket. My brain is kept occupied with ways to improve my latrine. I’m thinking of digging a two-meter hole into the ground as to avoid burning my trash. I hung a soda bottle filled with water from the fence of a chicken coop, using some wire and a stick which I whittled with my pocket knife, as a way to wash my hands (and to promote Paraguayans washing their hands). I’ve chopped firewood with an axe, which may look easy (which it is if you’ve been doing it since you were 10), but I lack the practice to hit logs in the same spot repeatedly. When I want to eat mandarin oranges or guavas or lemons, I pluck them off trees. If the season is over, like it is for mandarins, I no longer have access to them (I spent the better part of this afternoon squeezing lemons into bottles so that I can conserve the lemon juice in my neighbor’s fridge for the next months). Sometimes I hack ancient weeds with a machete because it beats ripping them out with my bare hands. Rough life, eh? Sounds like I’m permanently camping. And yet, these are fun little diversions that keep me amused in between or distract me from the hard part of my job.
So what is my job? In the future, it will be working with the community radio and a banana production cooperative. Right now, it’s trying to learn the language and get to know people in the community. This is much harder than it sounds. Imagine going to Mars, neither speaking Martian nor understanding how Martians think, and having to solve Martians’ relationship problems. Obviously this is an overstatement, but the premise is the same: without having adequate knowledge of the language or the culture, being expected to remedy everyday problems. I have to get to know the people, their names, their families, their work; know the community, its leaders, its rich, its poor, its intricate system of relationships; know the needs; know what projects are feasible in two years, what I can facilitate, what I can start, what will be sustainable; and do all this “knowing’ in Guaraní, a language that I had no exposure to until 3 months ago. So I spend my days visiting people, drinking tereré with them, explaining to them why I can’t the meat they want to offer me for lunch but still having to stay and either eat what they scrambled up at the last minute or cook my own food in their kitchen, and chatting about the weather or one of the few topics I can converse about in Guaraní (including introducing myself). I attend every meeting of the radio and the cooperative, even though I have no idea what the members are saying, because it gives me credibility.
A lot of the time, I’d rather stay at home than walk for 30 minutes or ride my bike in the hot Paraguayan sun. My head hurts after a full day of intense concentration trying to decipher conversations in Guaraní, and it is intense because I have to be cautious of tuning out every time they lapse from Spanish to Guaraní (which is 90% of the time, they usually only speak Spanish for brief periods of time for my benefit). I hate having inane conversations with people about the weather because I can’t express myself better in Guaraní, and most people don’t feel comfortable in Spanish.
At the same time, am I learning? Yes. Am I making relationships that will last for the next two years but shape the rest of my life? Yes. I had a happy insight last week when after leaving a Señora’s house I had visited for the first time I realized that her family and I were going to be very good friends.


Sunday, September 28, 2008

Paraguay´s Feminist Mystique?

My back hurts. It’s not hard to see why: bending over a stone basin scrubbing clothes for an hour will do that to you. So will chopping wood with an axe. Living in the campo where you do everything from scratch, whether it’s washing and hanging clothes, rolling dough for empanadas, or waiting 20 minutes for water to boil over a fogón (wood-burning stove), has made me grateful for electrical appliances. On one hand, I enjoy the simpler life. I was surprised to find that the face looking back at me in the mirror a few weeks ago was healthy and looked happy. Despite the latrines and lack of amenities, I didn’t look worse for the wear. In fact, I’ve come to relish my bucket baths (not only because they waste so much less water than showers). I take pride in my work; every sparkling white sock represents my struggle with the red dirt that pervades everything and is attracted to clean clothes like pimples to thirteen year-old boys’ faces. Then again, everything takes so darn long! It’s fine for me; I have all the time in the world. But imagine what this implies for families with responsibilities. There are no shortcuts, even if a family has a “washing machine” (they refer to it as a washing machine but it’s really an agitator) they still have to spend time scrubbing out stains and rinsing out the soap. There is constant work doing chores that Americans easily complete in a few hours in the evening or over the weekend with the help of modern machines (we would consider it a waste of time if it took any longer than that). Most of the women here are housewives, though many of these so-called “housewives” own dispensas or almacenes (small general stores). They are responsible for caring for their many children (Paraguayan families are big, eight children seems to be the average among the families I’ve met), while their husbands work in the fields. They cook, clean, wash clothes, tend to the garden, feed the pigs, chickens, cows, etc. Most men have time to relax during the day, often taking multiple terere breaks, while sometimes it’s hard for the women to find time to even take one break. Because there’s so much work, much of it gets passed on to the daughters. This is one of the challenges I’ve encountered trying to start an informal girls’ volleyball club. While the boys have all the time in the world to play sports or hang out, the girls are responsible for the household chores throughout the day, from as early as 5:00 AM before school. Imagine if you never had the chance to play sports or attend art or dance classes or participate in after-school clubs or go to camp or read as a kid (and you complained about how your soccer-mom mothers rushes you from one activity to another!). From this perspective, American children and youth have much richer lives than those in Paraguay. Yet, as adults, I’m not sure whether our lives are better. For all our “modern technology,” we don’t have less work. Instead of spending all our time doing chores, we spend it at the office. Paraguayans spend time throughout the day with their families. We suffer from stress, while they relax and enjoy their days. So what’s the solution? Modern appliances or a tranquilo attitude? Maybe a combination of both?

P.S. Returning to this blog entry after a few more weeks in site, I’ve come to some new conclusions. The division between American and Paraguayan lifestyles isn’t as much a factor of age as it is of gender: Paraguayan men have time to relax and be tranquilo; the women, not as much. I think I approached this topic too much from a Betty Freidan Feminist Mystique point of view, essentially chalking up women’s inferior status in Paraguay to their inability to seek employment outside of the house (women in fact are very isolated because they are rarely able to leave their houses, but that’s a completely different issue). And with this approach came the condescending attitude toward housewives that has become so ingrained into our culture. Women in the U.S. were able to ponder the question of whether they were finding fulfillment in their roles as housewives because the U.S. is a developed country with such time-saving devices as dishwashers, laundry machines and dryers. We have the luxury of fighting for equal rights within the workplace (not that these rights are any less important or it’s any less wrong that they are denied to us). The battle Paraguayan women have to face first is gaining equal status within the home. They need to gain recognition by the men that their work in the home is significant to the production of the home as an economic unit. In other words, that their work is just as important as men’s; that they, in fact, work harder and longer than men.

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