Saturday, July 9, 2011

Apparently Saint John the Baptist was a pyro.

As you look at the picture above you might ask yourself, “Why Taylor, is that a flaming bull skull you’re carrying?” Well yes faithful blog reader, it is indeed.

Welcome to the Festival of San Juan.

I am not sure how the course of events in my life lead me to having the opportunity to chase children with a flaming bull skull, but I can only thank the fates for allowing it.

San Juan is a festival that is held through out late June and early July. Various schools and organizations throw San Juan parties. It’s a time to celebrate traditional Paraguayan culture. There are games, traditional dance, and lots of food. While this goes on for about a month the actual San Juan day is the 24th of June. On this day, San Juan protects those who have faith, and to prove it, they use fire. Lots of fire.

The whole party surrounds a giant bon fire in the middle of a field. Things begin innocently enough by setting some soccer balls on fire for kids to play with. From there, they burn an effigy of Judas, who strangely enough often resembles one political leader or another. We then take a break to climb a 20 plus foot greased pole to retrieve candy and about 25 dollars located at the top. First one to successfully hump their way up to the top gets the prizes. If you are asking yourself if that safe, stop. San Juan protects us, so we do not need safety precautions. So while free climbing a slippery tree trunk is all well and fun, it’s time to get back to fire.

Enter flaming bull skull.

I wasn’t paying much attention, seeing as I was trying to fight off 30 kids to be able to kick a flaming soccer ball, when all of a sudden my friend pushes me. I look up and a foot away from my face is the heifer from hell. I have never ran so fast in my life. When I finally shake him, I return to find all my friends and their host families dying of laughter. Apparently, I was set up.

Now San Juan is a family holiday, so clearly the flaming bull skull is handed over to the kids at this point. The little ones take turns chasing each other. And by “take turns” I mean one kid gets to chase until another kid pulls him to the ground to take over. Seeing as I was clearly bigger than the creatures, I decided I needed in on this action. I commandeered the demon beauvine from an 8 year old, and began my mission. I am telling you: You have not lived until you have chased your friends and small children with a flaming bull skull. But as with all good things it had to come to an end. I too was taken over by kids who grabbed on to the frame and flung me to the ground.

While it would be easy to assume that chasing people with fiery carcasses is the climax of San Juan, you are underestimating the faith of the Paraguayan people.

At this point in the night the bonfire is dying down. A small fire on a heap of red hot coals is all that’s left. You might be able to guess where I’m going with this. We all surround the fire, and a man older than time spreads out the coals with a wooden stoke to create a nice even layer. The priest enters the circle to given a benediction over the coals, and asks San Juan to protect us. Then Grandfather Time takes off his shoes, and rolls up his pants. After a quick prayer and a deep breath, he proceeds stroll across the coals like it’s sunday afternoon. He doesn’t appear to have felt anything. To prove it, he turns around and does it again.

To the cynics, feel free to hypothesize all you want about how he did it. All I know is what I saw, and I saw a man walk across fire. It was truly incredible.

The rest of the night, music is played and children run wild until the coals are no longer warm enough to stand next to. I don’t know if I’ve ever had so much fun. And no, I will never attempt to walk across the coals.

In Paraguay, the Electric Boogaloo isn't how you get down, it's how you get clean.

I apologize for the lack of posts, and that they have been boring, with terrible writing. My access to internet is more limited than I had expected. Mostly, my free time is less than expected. I spend all day in training, and by the time I get home it’s dark. We don’t go out much when it’s dark here in Paraguay. I’m not sure as to why, but I’ve theorized there are vampires here. It’s the only logical explanation to such an aversion to sunset.

I love Paraguay but I would like to introduce a recurring blog segment entitled “WTF Paraguay?” First on the list is the genius innovation known as the Electric Showerhead.
Think about those words next to each other. ELECTRIC, and SHOWER.  To use the electric shower head, you flip on the power, and then turn on the water. The water completes the electrical current of the filament located inside the shower head. The filament then heats the water that falls onto your naked body. But don’t worry, we take precautions. You must make sure to turn off the electricity and be out of the shower before turning off the water as to prevent electrocution, and the device only explodes or lights on fire every once in a while. Also: NEVER TOUCH THE SHOWER HEAD. After all that, the worst part isn’t even the complete disregard for user safety. The thing doesn’t even work that well! Sometimes the water never gets hot. If it does, it is sure to turn off randomly leaving you freezing with a head full of shampoo. Peace Corps talks about how there will be things you never get used to. This will be one.

Creative plumbing solutions aside, it has been going well.  The terrain is beautiful here. I almost think that’s what Oakland would look like if it went untouched:  A lush green land scape dotted with Palms, in a non tropical climate. Unfortunately, not quite the same climbing options as Oakland, and no Cato’s.  However, crime and poverty might be on a similar scale, and both have thriving gold resale markets.

I am currently with a group of 23 other trainees, that range from a guy who graduated college less than two weeks before arrival, to a woman who just turned 58. I feel very fortunate to be surrounded by such an incredible group of people. My peers are intelligent and motivated. We all get along very well, even after a month of seeing way too much of each other under intense conditions. Please feel free to be cynical and wait to ask me how much I still like these people in another month.

Donna Carmen in her natural habitat.
During training, I am living with a woman named Carmen and her 16 year old son. Carmen is a butcher and only a little bit crazy. For example: Carmen has come to the assumption that I must know karate, seeing as I will leave the house by myself at 7:00pm.  I’m letting her continue to think that, for no other reason than it will be the closest I get to actually knowing Karate. Her and I have really come to be friends, over Maté sessions most evenings. (Maté is a hot tea shared among friends here. It’s difficult to explain, but it’s a big deal. Just google it.) During maté we talk about everything. Topics have included: the advantages of the Stroessner dictatorship; what snow is and how we function with it in the US: and finally my view of Barack Obama and if I’m nervous that his election may be an indication of the apocalypse as described in the Book of Revelations. Honestly, she’s awesome. We laugh often. She’s convinced I’m going to find a Paraguayan boyfriend, and is plotting as to how I can stay and live with her rather than move on to a new site to start my work. This is all after admitting to being afraid I was a spy for the first week. Like I said, only a little bit crazy.

I have more to come, but I don’t like gargantuan posts. But stay tuned for San Juan.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Warning: Kind of a boring post but it explains what I'm actually do here.

So I've been in Paraguay a whole month. It doesn't feel that long, yet it also feels longer. For those of you not familiar with Peace Corps (AKA anyone not involved in PC, and even some of us who are.), I'll give you a general over view of what's going on here.

I currently am only a Trainee. I am not an official volunteer, and such have limited privileges. I don't get to travel on weekends with out permission, and certainly can't spend the night anywhere other than my host site. I don't have a cell phone, nor am I provided internet. So communication with the US is difficult to put it mildly. For the past month, and continuing on for another month, I'm training. Essentially learning how to be an effective volunteer. Also, language classes. Two language at that. Now that I have reached the required level for Spanish I have to start learning Guarani. Words in guarani: Jajotopata, jaha, y, moo gua, mbaejy. I promise I didn't just hit ramdom letters on the key board.

So in a month, I'll move to my actual site, where I'll be living and working the next two years with an absurd amount of freedom. But for now, I'm in school, and treated as such.

PC Has several sectors operating in Paraguay, including health, Ecudation, agriculture, youth development, and Education. My sector is called, Community and economic development. We have 4 focuses: Civic education, Information Technology, Familiy Finance, and Entrepreneurship. When I am assinged my site, I will also be assinge a primary project that Focuses on one of these pillars. I am hoping for entrepreneurship. I think helping people create jobs might be one of the most beneficial things I can do with my time here. I want to help the people of Paraguay but I'd rather teach them to help themselves.

In regards to where I'll be living, I still have no idea. I'm pulling for semi-rual with reasonable bus access. Semi rual allows me to do cool stuff, like milk my neighbors cow and cook with a wood burning stove, but also let me get the hell out of town if needed. Furthermore, In this setting there is enough work to stay busy, but also small enough to get to know your town really well. Even if you still don't get it, just go with me on it.

GOOD NEWS!! There is rock climbing in Paraguay and I have made friends who like to climb. Who knows how good it is, but I'll take what I can get.

This is a boring post, so I'll end it here and make a new more fun one.