Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Paraguayan Christmas

Merry Christmas! It doesn’t feel like it though. Somehow the 40 degree weather and the lack of constant, in-your-face Christmas commercialism (which I’m sure exists in Asunción, but is limited out in the campo) did little to foster my Christmas spirit. Not to mention, k-chak-a Christmas songs didn’t enthuse me in the same way that Christmas carols usually do. It’s way too hot to be Christmas! Let alone no snow, there are no winter coats or gloves or ice-skating or bare trees or biting winds that make me want to run inside for a hot cup of cocoa or sit in front of a warm fireplace. It’s quite the reverse here, and I’ve actually spent the past few weeks trying to escape from the heat: turning the fan on full blast, lying outside in my hammock, sprawling on my bed below my hot tin roof and cursing the gods above for the miserable heat, running to the río every chance I get.

With all these weather distractions, Christmas snuck up on me this year. All of a sudden, it was Christmas Eve. I wanted to celebrate Christmas the traditional Paraguayan way, with a family, so I went to the house of mamá’s (my host mom from training) mother who lives a little outside of the capital to celebrate Christmas the traditional Paraguayan way. Christmas and New Year’s are opportunities for big family gatherings here. Usually families will spend one holiday with one set of parents, and the other holiday with the other set. The house was full of all 7 of mamá’s sisters, their husbands, and their kids. The custom is to stay up until midnight. So we spent the time chatting, chowing down on sopa paraguaya, and preparing clerico, the traditional drink of Christmas and New Year’s in Paraguay. Clerico is very similar to sangria, it’s a fruit salad with wine. The Paraguayans remove the skin and dice all sorts of fruits, squeezing the juice out and putting them into a bowl. They then add wine and soda and leave the concoction to marinate for a few hours. Our clerico consisted of the current seasonal fruits, pineapple, green and purple grapes, plums, peaches, mangos, apples, pears. The only thing we were missing was melon (not watermelon…Paraguayans believe that if you mix anything with watermelon, you’ll die. I’ve been attempted on more than one occasion to invite them over to my house for tereré and watermelon).

At 11:30, we finally commenced our feast with all the traditional Paraguayan foods: sopa paraguaya, chipa, chipaguazu, asado, ensalada de arroz, and tarta de verduras. The radio was playing in the background so that we would know when it was midnight. At midnight, we toasted with cider and soda. Everyone kissed me on the cheeks and wished me “Felicidades” like I was part of the family. I felt lucky to be a part of this family-oriented Christmas celebration. Then the really fun part began and the kids and I set off fireworks. We lit rockets and then ran, screaming, in the opposite direction. There were cries of “Nde rasore!” (darn/damn it!) as we threw mini sticks of dynamite and they jumped about, exploding near our feet. It was just like July 4th in the States.

Christmas morning, we had a breakfast of clerico (mamá had made me special clerico with just soda…even the kids will drink it with wine). Papá even added cider to his (there’s nothing like alcohol first thing in the morning!). We spent the day chilling in hammocks outside and drinking tereré. We napped, ate leftovers from the night before, napped some more, ate some more, and drank more cleric. There might not have been snow, and it have been hot as all hell, but it was a day with spent with family, eating, drinking, and sleeping, and for me, that’s what Christmas is all about!

Thursday, December 18, 2008


I was trapped. I was standing in a chakra (farm field) of some crop or another. Behind me was a banana chakra, dense with rows of banana plants, and in front of me was the río. To my left was a tiny little camino, leading God-knows-where. And there was a man grabbing me.
Let me explain from the beginning. I had gone out running that morning, an activity viewed alternatively as inexplicably weird and as super-guápo by my community. I ran down 2a línea, one of our main street (in so far as you can call dirt roads “streets”) and a road populated by houses on either side, many of them belonging to my friends. I ran until the end of the road and then journeyed down a camino to the right, thinking that it would lead me to 1a línea (the two líneas are connected on the other side). This being the Paraguayan campo, it led me into the world of banana chakras. One camino led to another and, somehow or another, I lost my way. I was lost in a maze of banana chakras. Now if you’ve never seen a banana chakra, let me tell you something: they all look the same. It’s very hard to identify one from the other. I once visited my friends’ field with their younger brother as my guide. The next day I returned the next morning on my bike and it took me an hour or two to find the same field because I couldn’t remember which camino to turn onto and all the trails looked exactly the same. Banana chakras are also very dense, meaning that it’s very easy to get lost within them. This is the reason that I usually don’t visit banana chakras by myself.
Anyways, I made the mistake of turning down the wrong trail and was lost by this point. A man riding by on a motorcycle stopped and asked me where I was from. This might unnerve some of you back home, but this is an everyday occurrence for me. While walking down the street, I often have men on motos stop and offer me a lift. Most of the time, it’s a well-intentioned gesture, as they don’t want me to walk 10 kilometers in the heat. Other times, it’s just because they want to stop and stare at the norteamericana walking down the street. I always kindly refuse, telling them that Peace Corps doesn’t allow me to accept rides on motos, and continue on my way. So this man stopping was not at all out of the ordinary. Neither was the fact that he was leering at me and telling me over and over again, “Sos una mujer muy linda. Muy linda” (“you’re very beautiful”). I asked him where 2a línea was, but he refused to tell me. He told me that it was far away and ‘why didn’t I just come with him?’ I refused, thanking him for the offer and telling him that I was going to get back to jogging, and sprinted off in the opposite direction. I didn’t stop to breathe until I was several hundred meters away. My heart was racing from running and because something in his demeanor had seemed threatening. Unfortunately (remember that I was lost), I landed up running in a big circle. I hoped he had gone on his way, especially as he was on a moto. He hadn’t. I saw him at the end of the trail and dove into the banana chakra. Unfortunately, he spotted me at the same time as I spotted him. I ran and hid behind a banana tree, making way too much noise stepping on the layer of dry banana leaves covering the ground. He drove his moto up to the point, got down, and started walking towards me. I knew the jig was up. We both exited the chakra and he asked me where I was going. I said, “the río, no más,” trying to play it off like I had found my way. He said, “Come with me to my house” and called me his “muñeca,” his doll. At this point, I was having a heart attack. I thought I was going to be raped. I was trapped and I didn’t know where to go. He grabbed me, hard. I knew his intentions weren’t good, I knew he meant to hurt me. All I could about was what I had learned in my RAD (Rape Aggression Defense) class and how and where I could hit him to stop him from hurting me. Somehow I freed my arms, and ran down the camino to my right, not stopping until I reached a house. He followed me, but turned around when he saw that there was a group of men and boys were sitting around drinking tereré. Deciding that a group was safer than this guy, I asked them for help. I tried to play it cool, telling them that I was lost and asking them how to get back to 2a línea. They could tell I wasn’t okay. They said, “You’re breathing hard and you look really tired. Are you ok?” They sat me down and had me tell them what happened. Luckily for me, the boys knew who I was from the high school and escorted me back home, up to my doorstep.
Why am I telling you all this? This is not a story that’s meant to scare anyone or have you worrying about my safety. Normally, I’m very careful about where I go. I rarely go out after dark, and if I do, I make sure that I’m accompanied. The one day that I accidentally wandered down the wrong road and got lost, this happened, in broad daylight too. The point is that this can happen to ANYONE, anywhere, no matter how careful you are. Thank God, I’m safe, I got out of the situation unharmed, but many of my friends in the U.S. have not been that lucky. LADIES, SIGN UP FOR A RAD CLASS. They’re FREE. TAKE A SELF-DEFENSE CLASS, IMMEDIATELY. I don’t care how safe you think you are; take one now, because you might never know when you’ll need those skills. They can save your life.