Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Holiest of Holy (Weeks)

Hello again, dutiful blog followers! Mateo here, deciding that your diligence in checking in on our sometimes-when-we-feel-like-it blog should be rewarded with a lengthy dispatch from the campo. This week we note that our Peace Corps service is 15/27th completed. By the complex arithmetic of everyday life, that leads me to believe that only one year remains. 12 months left in our beautiful site is a fact that is both tangible and ethereal. However, I leave that strange dichotomy for another blog post. I would like to focus today on the holiday extravaganza we just celebrated, Holy Week. In an attempt to immerse you in the experience, I give you the Holy Week Diary; dates and time of all our activities during this chipa-saturated half week of festivities. To hammer the point home even further, there are pictures on my Facebook page to accompany this post.


4:34 pm Countrywide, Wednesday afternoon is when Semana Santa (Holy Week) gets kicked into high gear. All schools and stores close until Monday morning. Family members matriculate back to the campo from their rushed lives in Asuncion, Buenos Aires, or other urban areas. The wine is broken out.

Specifically for the Carter Langes, Semana Santa starts when we go to our friend Mrs S's house to make chipa. For those of you who don't know, chipa is the traditional bread made in brick ovens (the famous tatakua) for special occasions. If chipa was sold in the USA, the FDA-mandated ingredient list would look something like this:

Ingredients: Manioc flour, corn flour, eggs, milk whey, cheese, pig fat, and anise seed (may contain trace amounts of ash).

Basically, chipa leaves the oven as a warm, palatable brick of carbs and fat. It should be mentioned that today families will make enough chipa to last all of Semana Santa and will continue to eat it through Easter Sunday. After a few hours, chipa chills and becomes a slightly-less-than-palatable brick. After a day or two, it becomes yet another creature: a rock-hard (yet surprisingly squeaky) fixture to every single meal that soon begins to haunt your nightmares.

Culinary qualms aside, getting together with the neighbors to make chipa is a great communal endeavor; getting the family together, stoking the fire in the oven for hours ahead of time, laughing, drinking terere, and rolling out this strange celebratory snack just makes the day feel special.

7:08pm Today we make 25 or so chipa. Mrs S gives us 5 to take home. It is 5 more than we will eat.


9:07 am Holy Thursday in Paraguay mirrors a famous Thursday in the USA; Thanksgiving. That is to say, more food will be made today than could possibly be consumed, you will talk, laugh, and relax with family, and it is guaranteed that somebody is getting too drunk and embarrassing everybody.

The Carter-Langes spend Holy Thursday with another neighbor, Mrs C, and her brother, daughter, son-in-law, and grandkids. We arrive early to help cook, clean, and take care of whatever preparations are necessary.

First order of business, Mrs. C says "Peguapy, perambosa." “Sit down, have some breakfast.” It is not important that we have already eaten. She sets in front of us cocido, a delightful drink of milk, sugar, and yerba mate, and...drumroll please...chipa! Ironically, it is the chipa we made last night with Mrs S, who then gifted it to her neighbor and friend, Mrs C. We choke down some of the now-hardened bread product with large mouthfuls of cocido. We get to work on the first order of business: making more chipa. Of course.

10:13am A hurricane-force wind strikes the campo! The food is covered up and we take cover. Sand from the road starts blowing sideways. The wind picks up the contents of the yard and deposits it in the neighbor's yard. Then picks it up again and deposits it in Argentina. This is a serious wind. Mrs C's family huddles together under the roof. The adults say prayers, the children cry, the weird nortes are standing in the middle of the storm taking pictures.

11:06am The wind settles down to just an occasional gust as the skies open up and dump a much-needed rain on the parched Paraguayan countryside. The rain will fall unceasingly until 9:00pm tonight. We move the food-making stations from Carmen's yard (where rain can soak you from three angles) to her kitchen (where rain can only soak you from one angle). We prepare Sopa Paraguaya (a savory cornbread with onions and cheese), a rack of lamb, a quarter of a pig, a huge fish, and coleslaw.

12:07pm We sit down to eat. No one will leave the table or talk without a mouthful of meat for over a half hour.

12:40pm A child is sent to fetch the wine and soda. Yes, believe it or not, the most common way Paraguayans take their wine is mixed 50-50 with whatever carbonated sugary drink they can get their hands on. This is not as sacrilegious as it sounds, as the wine is usually not great and the soda usually bad. Somehow, when they are mixed together it makes them better than the sum of their parts. I, for one, prefer wine with a fruit soda, but I won't turn down one mixed with cola.

1:38pm I stop drinking. I am the only male over the age of 8 to do so.

2:19pm We get back to making chipa, as the wind/rain storm threw off the original cooking schedule. I endure 2+ hours of heckling from the men in the room, who are now walking the thin line between tipsy and drunk. The heckling comes in two languages, but the main thread seems to be that only women make chipa. After nearly a year of bringing baked goods to neighbors and cooking most meals for lunch and dinner guests, this kind of gender-based heckling is not new to me. I have a few good-natured bilingual retorts I throw back at them and go about my business.

Tegan has become famous for her ability to craft lopi, which is chipa dough molded into (usually animal) figures and given to children. This week she made remarkably lifelike butterflies, birds, crocodiles, cats, capybara, ducks, toads, snails, even a likeness of her own face. She says the secret is to “just squish it with your fingers until something come out”. Thanks for the insight, Picasso. We make 30 more chipa.

4:12pm The rain has not let up, but Mrs C's son-in-law has decided that it is time to go. He tells me that the rainy whether puts him in a certain mood. He then gives me a mischievous look while arching his eyebrows suggestively and I feel sorry for his wife. Tegan innocently asks if he has had too much to drink to drive safely. He responds with “The more I drink, the safer I drive.” Needless to say, that kind of confidence is really all that you need (We found out later he did manage, through dumb luck and nothing else, to get his family home in one piece). We also walk home in the rain, but not before Mrs C can send us with three more chipa. This time, the spirit of Semana Santa must have been with me, as I eat half of one before feeding it to the dogs.

6:01pm A young woman neighbor of ours braves the rain to deliver us chipa she made with her mother that morning. As is the custom, we give her some of our chipa in return. Now, why we go around swapping chipa is beyond me. It reminds us of Fraggle Rock Fraggle Pebbles, where the community constantly regifts the same present in an egalitarian spirit of giving (to extend the comparison, I remind you that chipa also has approximately the same density as a rock).


9:09am We are invited back to Mrs C's house for breakfast. Chipa and cocido. Notice a theme here? As we prepare for breakfast, our neighbor and good friend Toad comes over. The precocious 8 year old is a little bored this week as her two sisters have gone to the neighboring town to visit relatives. We invite her to eat breakfast with us and she proceeds to tickle all of us, including Mrs C, her 64 year old, gruff neighbor lady.

Here in Misiones, it is tradition that on Good Friday families hike up the nearest hill and have a picnic at the peak. Due to yesterday's weather, we know of no families that are going. Toad mentions that she has never been and wants to go with us. She gets permission from her grandmother and we are off!

10:54am For Toad's first voyage on this annual tradition, she spends the first half hour of our hour-long trek asking if we can run up the hill, in order to arrive sooner. After we reply in the negative, she points to a closer hill, one which has sheer rock faces on all sides, and asks if we can climb that one instead. One could argue that she is very excited.

12:02pm We arrive at the summit of the hill. Toad, who talked non-stop while we hiked, is now silent. In her world, the one in which she travels only from home to school and occasionally to a family member's house, she hardly, if ever, encounters a stranger. In fact, besides Tegan and myself, most people she encounters on a daily basis she has known her entire life. Now, at the top of the hill, which is visited by people from all the surrounding areas, she is surrounded by strangers; a surreal feeling, no doubt.

We find a quiet place to eat our lunch, away from the crowds (there are actually not many people here, 100 to 200 perhaps. Last year there was about 1,000 people, as the weather was more hospitable). Toad regains some of her inherent silliness, although she is ashamed to be seen eating a raw carrot in public, as this is something people simply don't do.

1:20pm We take her to a secluded viewpoint (also crowded with strangers, at whom she will spend a quarter-hour gawking), buy some popsicles from a vendor, and head home. As soon as we are away from the masses again, she reanimates, complaining about how tired she is while running circles around us and yelling happily (she will also execute an incredibly beautiful face-plant into a dry riverbed that will nearly cause Tegan to wet herself).


11:23am Saturday is the Bermuda Triangle of Paraguay's Semana Santa. Tradition says Wednesday you make chipa, Thursday you eat your weight in meat, Friday you climb a hill, and Sunday you go to church. With no outstanding invitations (what, no one wants to feed us chipa today?!), we were feeling a bit lost Saturday. However, you can never be bored in the campo as something unexpected always happens. For example, today two girls from the other side of town walked a half hour or so to come see us. This pair of fourth graders, for some reason, have always attached themselves to us like velcro whenever we visit the school. We spend the next four hours playing soccer and volleyball, eating, playing Memory, throwing a Frisbee around, playing Go Fish, and even a little badminton (that's right, badminton). A wonderful visit, and a surprising amount of physical activity, given how hot it is (for those of you keeping track at home, this year's Semana Santa weather went like this: hot, windy/sandstormy, 10 hours of non-stop rain, cloudy, hot, cloudy and hot, and then rainy once again).

6:02pm Because we didn't run around with kids enough today (caution: previous sentence may contain sarcasm), we go to play soccer with Toad and a neighbor boy. Then we play Hide & Seek until the sun goes down. It should be mentioned that little Paraguayan kids are remarkably good at both Hiding and Seeking. Also, a 6'2” white guy with astigmatism is not nearly as good at either of those things.


6:16am We get up extra early today, not because it is Easter, but because Paraguay turned it's clock back an hour last night. The sky is dark and cloudy and thunder echoes around the hill. Here in the campo, even the threat of rain is enough to extinguish all plans for the day. Everyday that we live here, this reality seems less and less strange. When your only means of conveyance is a moped or a horse and your house has no heat, you really don't want to get drenched in a thunderstorm. Also, the roads turn to a few inches of mud in each rain, which even makes walking unpleasant. Especially when you have to spend the next day scrubbing mud out of your jeans cuffs.

9:58am We are in our own little world when we hear a bunch of little feet tromping up to our house. Our two friends from yesterday and Toad have come to tell us church is on. Oh. We frantically throw on respectable clothing and are a little late to the 10am service. Upon our arrival, the service stops so each person there can greet us with a hug and wish us Feliz Pascua (Happy Easter). It is exactly the kind of moment you can never imagine happening in the US.

Luckily there is no priest to interrupt, and the informal service consists of 20 or so women and children (adult men hardly ever attend church) singing hymns and then having a little snack to celebrate Easter. We bring a pumpkin pie to share that I made yesterday (swearing in three languages while peeling skin off of a boiling hot squash). I am unsure of how this strange dessert will be received by my community. When the women and children alike line up for seconds (Mrs S had thirds), I figure that I did alright.


And with that, another Semana Santa in Paraguay is concluded. Despite my chipa-related protestations, I really enjoyed this week in our community. After a year of watching our neighbors and friends work hard day in and day out, it is always fun when they get the rare chance to kick back and celebrate for an extended period. My personal highlights would be taking Toad on her first Good Friday hill summit and the unique feeling you get when little kids walk 30 minutes just to visit you or when a church service stops so everyone can give you a hug and wish you well.

Alright, enough of that sappy stuff. The morale of the story is that Semana Santa is a nice break in (what could be viewed as) the monotony of campo life. Thanks to processes I do not understand, Easter is March 31st next year, and so I am grateful that we get to spend one more Semana Santa before we say jajohechata (see you later) to Paraguay.