travelogue

Paraguay Blog #11: Nuestra Ciudad


From one of our day trips: The Basilica of Caacupé

In the early part of my trip to Paraguay, my hosts- the Hagerman family– and I spent quite a bit of time traveling. First we headed east for about a week and a half, hitting up Obligado, Encarnacion, Ciudad del Este, and Foz just over the border into Brazil. Since then we’ve also taken day trips to Villeta, Alberdi, Asunción, Areguá, Caacupé, and around our own town of Itauguá. But most days? Most days are gloriously low key and normal, which is truly ideal for this kind of trip.

Well, you know, “normal” plus all this heat and the goats and the lizards and everything.

The average “normal, but with goats and lizards” day for us begins with Ken brewing a pot of coffee in a 90° kitchen in a country suffering from Junior High Awkwardness at the very idea of coffee. To wit: Ken was gifted a bag of Starbucks beans a few weeks ago and responded with what can only be described as giggles, and a face that looked like he’d just been told he’d won Hawaii.

Seriously, man: It’s time to get Paraguay some sister cities in Honduras.

The lack of proficiency- and interest- with coffee in Paraguay is completely understandable, however, given that the better part of the year here includes temperatures in the low 100s every day by 11 AM. There’s not really much call for hot drinks amongst those dripping with sweat. No, what’s needed here is something cool. And if you want to keep cool, and sufficiently hydrated, in this kind of heat, your best bet is to skip the coffee altogether and drink water All The Time. And what better way to drink water than socially and when it’s full of yard weeds, amiright?

Enter: Tereré.

A typical tereré kit: termo, attached cup holder, guampa. Click the pic to view the source post and to leave Betty lots of nice comments! (We love that sort of thing. ;) She has a great blog about Paraguay, and life in general. Worth a read. :)

Tereré (pronounced teh-deh-DAY) is the Guarani name for a drink almost everyone in these parts consumes daily in enormous quantities. It’s prepared by scooping yerba (dried herbs from a certain kind of holly plant) into a guampa (a cup traditionally made from wood or a hollowed out cow’s horn), pouring ice water over it, and drinking it through a bombilla (a long metal straw with a spoon-shaped sieve at the end to keep the herbs from going up the straw). If you’re with friends you’re expected to share your tereré with all present, refilling it with water after each drinker finishes their turn. It’s all very “puff puff pass,” and you’d do well to just dive right on into drinking it as soon as you arrive.

Most streets here are peppered with vendors selling ice and water so folks can replenish their termos (thermoses) of cold water throughout the day. You’ll find you’re also never far from a place where you can buy remedios (remedies) to add to the water for extra flavor, extra pep, or to cure any number of ailments. These remedios come in the form of herbs, roots, bits of tree bark, etc. which get crushed and mixed into the tereré water. If, by some sort of contrary miracle, you should find yourself with nary a remedio shop in sight, there are always plenty of free alternatives growing in your own back yard, or up between the cracks in the sidewalk. Cure away, friends.

Lomito Arabe and a bottle of guaraná make for one happy gringa!

Meal time is also pretty laid back here at the house where I’m staying. Breakfast can be anything from toast, to cereal, to a piece of pan Felipe (large, white rolls) with butter and a cup of coffee. My favorite breakfast so far has been a roll with veggies and a piece of white cheese. See? Laaaaid baaaack.

Lunch and dinner will usually be something whipped up by one of the Hagerman girls, Camille (15) and Caroline (13). Egg salad, rich casseroles, mandioca (cassava), baked chicken and the like are staples at the Hagermans’ house, and with good reason: Those two girls know their way around a kitchen. And lucky for all of us that includes knowing their way around serving up some pretty tasty desserts, too. This week’s treat was a batch of K Bars, courtesy of Caroline. And a week or so before that we were treated to Camille’s Avocado Mousse.

We’ve had dinner out a few times as well, favorite spots being Tia Pachi’s, home of $0.75 empanadas, and Allo Beirut, home of the Lomito Arabe. We stopped there the other night after church and ooooh was that some good eatin’.

The hottest part of the day is usually spent inside the house fixing things (if you’re Ken), reading, blogging, working on chores, or doing school work. The weirdest part about that to me is that the girls are actually working on chores or doing school work. I know. Crazy, right? But day in and day out they get it all done. Cool kids, huh?

Milciades’ trophy is too big for the shelf. Life’s tough, eh? ;)

During the cooler parts of the day- that is: when it’s down into the low to mid-90s in the morning or the early evening- there’s almost always company here at the house. Kids from Hogar Ganar will stop by to play with the girls or with Saúl, or maybe church friends will come over to chat in the hammock or practice their English. Last week we got to enjoy the company of some missionary friends of theirs from the US for a few days while they were passing through town on their way home after a conference in Chile. Never a dull moment around here!

One of our most frequent visitors is Milciades, the all-purpose maintenance guy and grounds’ keeper here at Hogar Ganar. Yesterday he came by to show us the trophy he won for a 7k race he ran in San Bernardino Saturday night. He took 2nd place out of 1,500 runners!

He entered several Hogar Ganar kids into the race as well; boys he’s been training with for a long time now. Sometimes we’ll see him working with them in the yard outside his house doing drills, running sprints, and learning what it means to develop the skills necessary to pursue something they care about. All the kids are young- I think the oldest boy is maybe 12- but they’re doing so well with him and have come such a long way. They run because they enjoy it, and because they look up to Milciades and he enjoys it. He’s just this young guy, but he’s so attentive and dedicated to these kids. It’s really a neat thing to see. Go Team!

We generally wind down the day reading and chatting on the front porch, taking turns in the hammock while the dog runs his fool self ragged through the fields and woods around the grounds. He comes back exhausted but happy, and absolutely covered in small, green burrs. Gotta love a dog!

And then finally? A nice, normal, everyday sunset…

…with palm trees.

Happy trails!

Paraguay Blog #10: What do you do with a drunken sailor?


I’ve never really known. Not that it matters right now, of course. Drunken sailors have nothing to do with this post. Goats, however, make an appearance at one point, and they’re about equally as likely to butt heads with each other.

But first: A trip to the salon grocery store.

Camille being a great sport by letting me snap pics while she looked *slightly* ridiculous.

Camille wanted to put purple streaks in her hair for her upcoming birthday party, which is awesome. Her parents were totally on board with the idea, which is also awesome. Maybe even awesomer.

But before heading to the salon to undergo the actual coloring process, she had to head over to the grocery store to buy the hair color for the stylist.

Now maybe that’s not unusual where you come from, and I don’t mean to diss it because it’s just a different way of playing the same game, but where I come from the hospital doesn’t make you bring your own bedding, bandages, and medicine, and the salon doesn’t make you bring your own hair dye.

But there we were at Stock (the local grocery store) combing the shelves for just the right shade of purple hair dye to take with us to the shop.

And then we got to the shop…

…and it was not like shops I have known.

Good Sport Camille going through the final rinse

And you know what? That is A-OK. And Camille’s hair turned out super cute. And I got to watch the whole thing from my perch on the living room couch, right at the heart of all the action.

Another thing you don’t  often run into back home in good ol’ Waukesha, WI are Porch Goats. You know, like– the kind that wander around the yard? And then find their way onto your porch? And then lick bugs and bird poop off the bricks on your house while you’re busy fixing your car?

*lick lick lick*

Like I said: Porch Goats.

They like to hang out around Porch Ken while he fixes Porch Car. Though sometimes he gets it wrong and ends up trying to take Porch Bidet out for a drive.

*vroom vroom vroom*

But most of the time he gets it right so the car drives just fine. (The bidet not so much.)

Somewhat akin to Porch Goats are Yard Horses. They’ve only wandered across the grounds once since I’ve been here, and they didn’t stick around long once the dog poked his head outside to let them know whose house this is, but they did stay around long enough for me to snap a few picks.

A caballo is a caballo, of course. Of course! And no one can talk to a caballo, of course...

All along the water tower
Caroline kept the view
While all the horses came and went.
Barefoot gringas, too…

Caroline, resident cowgirl

In conclusion: ALL THE CHEESE AT THEIR GROCERY STORE IS WHITE!!

...white cheese, white cheese, white cheese, olives...

Or ecru, linen, mother-of-pearl…

...white cheese, white cheese, white cheese in a yellowish wrapper, white cheese...

Sure is good, though. ;)

Paraguay Blog #9: Cosas ‘n’ Such


Welcome to a post about, you know, just some stuff that’s popped up the past week or so.

1) Blemish: (tr. v) to mar or impair by a flaw; (n) an imperfection that mars or impairs; a flaw or defect.

I... Ah... So this floor cleaner does what exactly then?

2) And then there are the napkins. Lawd ha’mercy we can’t forget about the napkins:

I wonder if the 'tude is balanced out since they were free with purchase?

3) Caroline has been picking these off one of the trees in the front yard and sharing them with me. They call them “manzanitas” (little apples) in these parts, though you may’ve heard of them referred to as “acerola” or somesuch.

They're about as big around as a quarter, and easily four times as delicious.

4) One of the dessert treats I couldn’t wait to get my hands on when I got here was a Paraguayan style alfajor. It’s basically a cookie sandwich with dulce de leche in the center and all around the sides, rolled in coconut flakes. I got this one at Tia Pachi’s in Itauguá. (They also serve up some mad delicious empanadas. This place merits a stop if you ever find yourself in Itauguá!)

Tia Pachi's Alfajores: Worth the travel costs.

For a much brighter picture of a Paraguayan alfajor, read someone else’s blog.

5) If you’re going to drink tereré here- and you’re going to drink tereré here- make sure to hit up your local remedio shop, remedio roadside stand, or patch of weeds in the back yard first to collect just the right mixture of herbs to add to your water.

One of many such shelves in a Caacupé remedio shop.

No matter what’s wrong with you- hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, eczema, fondness for telenovelas- there’s a remedio that will cure it.

6) And wouldn’t you know there’s a hammock out front that’s almost always calling my name?

Alternately maxin', and relaxin' all cool.

Sitting in a hammock drinking ice water by the bucketful and reading one book after another while birds sing, lizards flick through fallen leaves, and breezes rustle your pages is no way to live an entire life. But let me tell ya’: It’s not a bad way to live part of one. ;)

Paraguay Blog #7: Blancaflor


¿Que… chúlina?

It was a sunny, 100° afternoon, and the rest of the chores had already been doled out. So why not offer to rake the yard, amiright?

I finished off pre- and post-rake Nalgene bottles of water and my face was still dry as a bone by the time I finished. That’s– that’s not right, is it? Naw, naw that can’t be right.

And thus ended my gardening career in Paraguay.

On the plus side: I raked through a bunch of ant hills and came away with nary a bite. Am I awesome? I’m awesome. I did accidentally poke a giant toad with my plastic rake, but he seemed to take it in stride. Prolly ’cause he realized it was simply an effect of my guapa-ness.

I had to double check with Christie on the definition of “guapa” because it’s used differently in Paraguay than anywhere else. Elsewhere guapo/guapa means “good looking,” (and as I recall, that’s how it was used when I first learned it here back in the early 90s), but here- now- it means “hard working.”

I will accept either usage.

Absurdly enormous wedding party? Close. Quinceañera.

We hit up the grocery store earlier today to pick up some stuff for when some friends of the family stop over this weekend on their way home from Chile, plus a few decorations for Camille’s birthday party on Sunday. It’s her 15th, but she’s decided not to do the whole SUPER MEGA HAPPY PSEUDO-WEDDING FUN TIME QUINCEAÑERA thing. I have to say I’d probably have made the same call.

People here save for their daughters’ “quinces” from the time the girls are born, invite everyone they’ve ever met, decorate with more balloons than any one person will ever have enough air to blow up on their own, dress the girl up like a bride, and announce to the world that she’s now an adult- – so come ‘n’ get ‘er.

Christie mentioned a girl she once knew whose mother was upset because her 15 year old daughter didn’t have a boyfriend by the time of her quince. In contrast, I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend until I was 16. It’s just such different cultural timing that it really doesn’t seem like it would translate well for the average North American teen. Especially since our culture is all about prolonging childhood as long as possible. I’ve known some mature 15 year olds in my time, but ain’t none of ’em been “adults”!

Camille’s “quince” will include people dressed in comfortable clothing and enjoying pizza, cake, and volleyball. And to think the poor dear could’ve had all this instead:

Ergh. Watching that gave me the icky-chills. Ooh! There they were again!

Before I head out to the porch to enjoy a frozen cup of coconut yogurt (*waves to the folks back home in Wisconsin where it is currently below 0°*), I shall leave you with the following picture. May it be a reminder to us all that you are NEVER too busy baking to be awkwardly offensive:

Because nothing says “self-rising flour” quite like blackface.

Paraguay Blog #6: Ribbit


Things Which Have Gotten Awesomer For Me Since Arriving In Paraguay

6. Alfred has more time to do stuff outside.
  1. My skin cleared up.
  2. I’m drinking a lot more water.
  3. I’ve lost a couple of (admittedly unnoticeable) pounds.
  4. For the first time in over a year and a half my hair doesn’t feel like I didn’t rinse out all the shampoo.
  5. I get to hang out with Nico, the Hagermans’ friendly, obedient boxer. First order of business upon returning to the States? Convincing my parents to add one of these awesome dogs to their household zoo (which currently consists of: One of these, named Patches) (well, and the ferrets too, I suppose, but that’s only temporary).

Things Which Have Gotten Less Awesome For Me Since Arriving In Paraguay

  1. I’m covered in itchy red bites. I think they’re from mosquitoes.
  2. Now that I’ve finally had guarana after a 19 year dry spell, I get the shakes just thinking about going without it again in a couple weeks.

A Really Neat Moth That Landed On The Table Last Night While I Was Blogging

Cool, huh?

Things Which I Already Knew In Theory, But Have Been Reminded Of In Practice, Since Arriving In Paraguay

  1. Leave spiders alone. If you see a spider in your house, it’s because there is something else living there upon which said spider would like to dine, and it is quite likely that you would rather deal with an unobtrusive Charlotte or two (or thirty) than the hordes of insects on which they are feeding.
  2. While you’re at it, leave the lizards, frogs, toads, and all the other bug-eaters alone too.
  3. If you want to check your cup for bugs before taking a drink, that’s fine, but don’t let that glance linger. If it’s small enough to miss visual detection, it’s (probably) small enough to miss oral detection. You’ll survive. Bottoms up.
  4. It’s tacky when people with things like summer houses, weekend cars, and quarterly vacation plans bemoan their fellows’ unwillingness to donate to humanitarian causes when they themselves are similarly unmoved. (You’re darn right I’ve been guilty of this myself more than once!) Either give, or stop complaining about how others aren’t.
  5. I really need to learn how to drive stick.

Paraguay Blog #5: Fish Soup


January 16, Monday

Moringa Oleifera: Ooooh... Aaaah... (Click the pic to read about its uses.)

Yesterday was “Tour Itauguá” day, so that’s what we did. Neat little town. We hit up a place I’m sure is pretty popular with all us tourist-types since it had such a wide variety of Paraguayan art and souvenirs, but we were a bit put off by some of the prices so we didn’t buy anything. The guy wanted 300 mil Gs ($65) for an item I wanted to buy for my mom, but that seemed a little high. Christie took us to another place a little farther down the road so we could shop  from a friend of hers, a charming 71 year old woman you’d swear was 10 years younger, who was selling the exact same item for $28. Score!

And because she could clearly be trusted more than Señor Gringo-Tax at the first place, I decided to also buy a bag of miracle tea- she swears by it- from her for a measly $2.60. Because really: What price miracles? I’ll let you know how all of our various ailments are faring after we’ve had a chance to take it for a whirl.

We pressed on in our Itauguá jaunt, stopping for ice cream at a place I’d eat all my meals if I lived near there, before landing in a plaza outside a beautiful white cathedral. It was so nice to be able to sit and people-watch for a bit. Some of the people available to watch actually put on quite the show!

Cool. And also Ouch.

There was a group of about 10 or so young people out practicing flips and handstands and the like on a lawn across from us. You’ve never seen so many double jointed, upside down, spinning sideways in mid-air young people in your life outside of a circus. At which you were hallucinating. Perhaps on Moringa Oleifera. I’m sorry we’ll miss whatever they were practicing for; no doubt it will be awesome.

We got home, did… some stuff… probably… Man I was so tired most of the day I really don’t remember how the rest of the evening played out. Was last night the night I joined Camille by the cancha for a little while to watch the kids play volleyball, or was that the night before? All I know is I ended last night early with a Benadryl for my bites and my itchy eyes, and then a luxurious crawl into bed- –

– -interrupted by an update that the groundskeeper here, a 23 year old charmer who likes to “practice his English” with the interns here, had just brought me a bowl of homemade fish soup.

Fish soup.

It’s cream based, and the fish in it are described locally as being like vegetarian piranhas because they look just like piranhas but they feed on plants.

Fish. Soup.

I just about died laughing. I was so glad I’m sharing a room with Camille (15) and Caroline (13) on this trip because it was such a pleasure being able to share the laughter and ridiculousness of Fish. Soup. with two people I knew would find it as giggle-inducing as I did.

I haven’t tried the soup yet (I was already in bed when he brought it by just after 10 pm, and I had other leftovers to work through today), but I’m told this boy is quite the cook and that his soup is delicious. I guess when you have to make a pot every time there’s a new intern you get plenty of practice…

January 17, Tuesday

We hit the road for Asuncion this morning, with a pre-city stop off in Areguá. It didn’t result in any purchases- that had been the plan; it’s the home of a particular shop I’m trying to find- but it was a nice drive regardless with some great views of the lake and lots of colorful roadside stands to get me thinking on what I might want to take home to the fam.

Somehow I got video of Camille's birthday dance, but no photos. So instead, please enjoy this picture of my fried mandioca.

Back on track we stopped at a cambio house at Shopping del Sol, then went to TGIFridays for their lunch special. $6.50 got me a fried mandioca appetizer, a fettucine alfredo entree, one of their “dessert shooter” things, and a guarana. Bring it on, man. I’m ready! Christie told our server it’s Camille’s 15th birthday, so her lunch concluded with an ice cream and brownie dessert.

And a chicken dance. Of which I have video.

Christie apologized for suggesting American food since somehow we keep ending up chowing down on some pretty US-style dishes. My meals have been more conventionally American over the past week than they probably have been over the past 6 months! But prices like that can’t be beat when you’re trying to find a place to feed five people with different tastes, and it’s not the norm for them, so I hopped right on board! You know me: Always ready to make the big sacrifices. Heh. ;)

Next order of business: The Tour…

A Tour Of Ruth’s Childhood As Dictated By A Google Map Of Uncertain Accuracy

Doesn't that face just scream "Native American"? And "Bookclubasaurus"?

Back in the day my family attended a church in Asunción called Centro Familiar de Adoración, so I added that church to my map of must-sees for this here Paraguayan Adventure. There was a “Parade of Nations” event there one night back then, and all the kids were asked to wear a costume for it representing the native population of their home country, or of another country if there were too many of us showing up in traditional Paraguayan garb. That is how I came to be a representative of the native peoples of the US, in my blonde braids and my fringed dress, accented by an enormous American flag and a Guarani necklace we probably bought from a street vendor at the Expo in Loma Pyta.

We drove past CFA‘s new location first, but not intentionally. It just sorta popped up. We passed by it pretty quickly on our way to see the old location- the one my family went to- but the address I got online for that didn’t turn up anything that meant anything to anybody in the car, so we continued on our way.

The next stop on the TORCADBAGMOUA was the house my family lived in when we first moved to Asuncion in July 1990. It was a little tricky finding the right street- the area has gotten so built up- but we did eventually come to it. And sure enough, there was the house. I wouldn’t have recognized it if I hadn’t remembered the house number and seen it written there out front.

360 Aca Caraya, Asunción, PY

I hopped out and snapped a pic from across the street, then walked up to the front gate to see if I could get a pic of the front of the house through the bars. I clapped to see if the current residents were home; maybe I could step inside the gate, too? But there was no answer. I thought about ringing the bell when I heard a noise coming from the patio area outside the kitchen, followed by total silence. Maybe no one was home and something had simply fallen? No matter. I’ll get a pic from between the bars and be on my way. Caroline joined me outside at that point and rang the bell for me anyhow. Doesn’t hurt to try, right? Yeah… right…

The empleada poked her head out of her living quarters to the right of the car port, and put on her “shocked and appalled” face for the duration of her dealings with me.

“Is the lady of the house home?”
“No.”
“My family lived in this house when I was a little girl. Can I take a picture of the front of the house from here outside the gate?”
“No.”
“Not even just from right here? I don’t need to come in. I just want a picture of the front of the house. Just by the door.”
“No.”

Why didn’t I take it right away? I should’ve. I was about to! Before Super Commando Mega-Maid came out. Doggonit.

“Thanks anyway…”

Sometimes memories are clearer than reality. Are they better?

And then I snapped a kind of crooked, blurry one anyhow as I stepped away, because I’m a fat, greedy, war-mongering American and we do shockingly and appallingly evil things like take pictures of houses while standing on public property.

The whole thing made me feel all kinds of sad. For 18 years I’ve wanted to see that house again, to test my memory as much as for anything else. And there I was so close to a place I once felt so at home, so full of life, so wrapped up in adventure, and now it’s serviced by a woman who is afraid to let me take a picture of the outside of it from out on the street. I understand. It’s not her house, she has to answer to the lady of the house about the decisions she makes, and I’m just some stranger with a questionable accent.

It was still sad.

Next up we hit the road for our third house on a tiny street off Sacramento between España and my old school, Asunción Christian Academy. There are only two streets that fit that bill, but I didn’t remember which one. It turned out the first one we tried wasn’t it, and the second one has been incorporated into a gated community with a guard house. Oops. So much for seeing house number three!

212 Mandeyupecua, Loma Pyta, PY

Our final planned stop was my family’s second house, in Loma Pyta, and wouldn’t you know it was right where I thought it’d be and nobody came out and yelled at me when I took a picture of it? I didn’t even get an earful when Camille offered to take a picture of me standing in front of it! But all these near-misses on finding places I couldn’t quite map out, and the cool reception at the first house, kept my eagerness at bay, so I refrained from attempting to ask for anything more of the house’s current residents.

Oh but that street! It was just how I remembered it! Right down to the neighbors’ houses alongside and across the street! There was the “overgrown lot” next door, now pared back some, and the house across the way where the man who lived there watered his flowers every evening after dinner, and the despensa where my friend Liliana lived. It was even still the same shade of pre-Tigo blue.

My “known” map points reached, we set off for Shopping Mariano, a relatively new mall there in Loma Pyta a few kilometers past the Expo center. We wandered around in the air conditioning a bit, looked for sneakers for Camille, and picked up a knee brace for Christie.

The food court. *food court... food court...* Echo! *echo... echo...*

It was a lovely mall- albeit a bit deserted- but somehow it felt… awkward? Maybe I’m just used to pushy shop keepers, but the entire time not one store employee said anything more to me than “Gracias,” and that was only after I said it first– as I was leaving. And I lost count of the number I sent a quick “Hola” to on my way in, only to be met by a quickly averted gaze, followed up by looks of either annoyance, distaste, or distracting apathy. Clearly their paychecks are not commission based…

I couldn’t figure out if their responses were the norm or not since only twice were we in stores with other patrons, (Like I said: Deserted.) and those were department stores so I couldn’t make any direct comparisons. And if their responses to me were not the norm, if they really do talk to shoppers, why the cold shoulder no matter how warm or small my own smile? Is it simply a cultural difference and shop keepers at the malls here simply don’t talk to patrons as a general rule?

Whatever the reason, it was unnerving.

But then why do I remember more conversations between my family and strangers? More greetings? More smiles? Surely the fact that I remember so many so clearly means they really happened, right? So where did they go?

Or maybe it’s me. Maybe a big, blonde, North American adult really is that much less welcome a presence than a round-cheeked, blonde, North American child of ten. I mean heck: I’d rather hang out with 10 year old me…

On our drive back home to Itauguá I decided to grab some video footage of Ruta 9 when we stopped at a traffic light and I realized CFA II, my family’s second church in Paraguay, was right there in my view finder!

Centro Familiar de Adoración II, Loma Pyta, PY

I snapped as many pics as I could before the light changed. What a sight to see! My dad helped build that church, joined at one point by a group of his construction buddies from our old church in Chicago. Even my sibs and I got to lend a hand once or twice in splitting tiles, tamping down rocks and dirt– you know: kid stuff.

When we left Paraguay to move back to the States I think the church still had a dirt floor throughout most of the building, the walls were all exposed brick, and there were no lights in the “bathrooms.” But now? Wow how it has grown! And hopefully not just in the areas of flooring, paint, and stucco. ;)

He is just a poor boy, though his story's seldom told...

So here I sit, blogging at the kitchen table of this amazing family, their amazing dog alternately pacing and resting his head in my lap, fans whirring all around me, children laughing in the dimly lit yard outside, a bowl of fish soup waiting for me in the fridge…

…and I don’t know what to think. I’ve forgotten how. I’ve forgotten what it feels like to think ahead, to plan for tomorrow. I’ve lived so long by myself, for myself, with no changes in sight, that even though I have this vague notion that I could really “rise up,” so to speak, with all this at my back, I find I haven’t the faintest idea how to do so.

Or what that would look like.

Or if I even want to.

Writing on the wall and flashing neon arrows welcome.

Paraguay Blog #1: Whys and Wherefores


Even Brodie’s feet are punky.

“THAT IS UNWELCOME BEHAVIOR!” I yelled, extricating myself from my blanket nest on the couch.

This was my eighth such leap from comfort to stop my punkier ferret, Brodie, from trying to burrow through my zipped luggage. I scooped him up and flipped him onto his back on the carpet, looking him square in the eye. “You’ll rip the bag and my stuff will fall out and all the other passengers will laugh at me,” I explained. He responded by sticking his tongue up my nostril.

Ah motherhood.

The luggage in question is a wheeled orange and gray duffel bag, and it is about to travel 10,000 miles. As am I.

That’s right, folks; I am finally making a trip back to Paraguay, where I will spend four weeks staying with this gal, her husband, and their two awesome daughters.

I’ve been asked more times than I can count on 14 fingers why I’m taking this trip. Shrugging has yet to pass as an adequate response, which is too bad since it’s so much easier than fumbling around with words (inadequate) to explain (impossible) why I want (need) to go. I will still attempt the shrug response, but for those for whom that will not suffice, words:

The Simple Reason: It’s time for a refresher course

The family’s “missionary picture.”

It’s been 19 years since my family moved back to the States after living in Paraguay for two and a half years while my parents were missionaries there, and I’ve wanted to go back ever since. I just need to see it again, you know? I need to see the city and our old homes, to walk the streets we used to walk, to eat the food, to hear the accent, to smell the trees, to see the poverty, to see the wealth, to see the litter, to see the art, to hear the music, the buses, the kids, the street vendors. I want to see it again, but this time through adult eyes.

I’m also looking forward to hearing Paraguayan Spanish again. The majority of the Spanish speaking population in my area is Mexican and their accents are so different from what I grew up with that I’m often unsure if I’m hearing a new word, or just an old word in which all the letters are actually being pronounced. My Spanish has gotten pretty lousy from twenty years of only occasional use; I’m hoping being around it for four weeks will kick my brain-o back into el gear-o.

Plus: Have you ever been to Wisconsin in January? It’s bloody cold here! Time to get me the heck outta Dodge.

(… she said, as the temperature dropped to (an unseasonably balmy) 20° F while the wind howled through the iced branches of the barren trees outside her window, skeletal reminders that death by hypothermia is kept at bay only by a few inches of uncaring drywall and saggy insulation.)

The Complicated Reason: I– Yes.

Things are about to get a little stream-of-consciousness here. Bear with me.

I’m treading water. I’m uncertain. I’m faltering. I’m fading. I’m creating expectations for myself, assigning their creation to other people, and then chastising myself for failing to meet those expectations. I’m digging a pit, filling it with icy hose water, and treading, treading, treading…

I need to see something else. I want to see something else, but I also need to see something else. Someplace else. To immerse myself in places and things I once knew well and loved deeply, those places and things that once brought comfort but which were taken away before I was ready, before any of us expected them to go. Is it like that theory that kids who suck their thumbs do so because they were weened too soon? I look for substitutes and create false goals to make up for having lost prematurely those things I might have set as goals anyway.

I also need to see Christianity against the backdrop of another culture. I need to see what it looks like when big “A” America is stripped away and replaced by little “a” american-culture-in-the-form-of-Facebook-and-hipster-hair-as-owned-by-developing-nations. I need to see what we consider “church” here that also shows up in vastly-different-elsewheres. Is there something to be salvaged in whatever it is we’re all concluding is worth keeping? Are there conclusions we’re all drawing, all of us all over the world, about God, regardless of the cultural templates we lay over our daily lives?

Whatever that is, whatever that is that sticks across cultures, I need to spend some time with that, and in a place where I am forced to pay better attention, a place where I can dig into a little intentional listening. I am seeking a balm. More than a balm- a poultice, in the hope it will encourage my heart that it is possible to draw out the infection of fear and self-centeredness I have nurtured in myself the past several years.

How It Came About

A couple years ago I worked in claims reimbursement for a phase 1 durable medical equipment provider that specialized in continuous passive motion devices.

Yep.

The products were good ones, my coworkers were great, and I loved being able to clock out at the same time every day, a luxury I’d rarely been afforded up ’til then as I’d been working for small businesses for years. But the benefits of the job ended there as the work itself was almost unendurable. Not the actual bill calculation or information gathering, but dealing with the reactionary aggression of the people expected to pay those bills.

The ultimate black hat in claims processing: Continuous Passive Aggressive Motion (© Revolution Studios)

Here’s the thing:

The dark side of humanity isn’t reserved solely for bad guys in black hats.

It’s also found in 50-somethings SCREAMING into the phone that you- yes you, the cubicle monkey on the other end of the line– are the reason the health care industry is going down in flames. That you- yes you– are personally trying to rob them, are abusing the system, are stealing food from the mouths of their children, are depleting their kids’ college funds, are emptying their retirement accounts by allowing them months on end to pay the $20 in coinsurance they owe for a $16,000 equipment rental for which my employer will receive $200 total payment when all is said and done. They wrote down your name at the start of this phone call, smart-ass. They’re going to call your manager, know-it-all. They’re going to alert the Better Business Bureau, you lying ageist. They’re going to see to it that you’re fired, and that your employer is shut down, and that none of you people ever work again because you are thieves and evil and everything that is wrong with this country.

It was a nightmare. But it was a nightmare with a paycheck in an uncertain economy, so I willed myself to stay asleep.

My only escape during the work day was on my lunch break. I’d scarf down my Diet Mt. Dew and pb&j on my fifteen minute break in the morning, then spend my half hour lunch at my desk reading blogs from people who lived in Paraguay. I took such pleasure in seeing their pictures and reading their stories, especially missionaries’ blogs because their tales felt particularly familiar.

During one such lunch break I came across a blog from a woman living as a missionary in Paraguay with her husband and their two daughters. Over the next several months I plumbed her archives and read every single post, following this family’s adventure as it took them from the US to Peru to Paraguay. I left them comments, I shared their blog links, I even dropped a penny or two in the pot, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that what I really wanted to do, needed to do, was to meet these characters. (And boy are they characters!) I didn’t know how that could ever happen since there I was, nailed to a headset with screaming humanity shouting at me from the other end, but just in case: I started saving my money.

Me (far right) with a few of my co-workers after the “pack your desks and leave” announcement.

Fast forward to a sunny morning in April of 2010. A Thursday. My coworkers and I were called together and read a letter explaining that most of us were being let go, effective immediately. And so, after a year and a half, I was out of work once again.

Out of work, laden with free time, and coddling a growing desire to book a flight southward.

Since then I’ve picked up the odd job here and there being in commercials, helping my dad with roofing projects, and working for several months as a temp in an office with a fridge full of Diet Dr. Pepper. (Win!) A few bucks at a time I’ve added to what I squirreled away during my claim processing days, until I finally reached the point where I had both the time and the money to take this trip. One round-trip ticket purchase later and I’m on my way to meet a family of quasi-strangers 5,000 miles from home, eat an unhealthy number of empanadas, and sweat like it’s my job.

I’m probably causing permanent nerve damage to my smiley face-parts with how excited I am about this trip. I can’t wait to share the adventure with you here!

******************

P.S. Yes I have made arrangements for the ferrets, and yes I will have folks stopping by my apartment to check the mail and make sure no crazy people have tried to break in and steal any of my… laundry? second-hand hardcover 1970s fiction? poop scoopers?