Tag Archives: Paraguay

Friends Get Married

I’ve hit that age when everyone you know starts getting married. Some even start having (gasp!) babies! In the last year alone I’ve been to weddings in Serbia, the U.S., Germany, and Paraguay (oh, and there was that time I met my BFF’s baby in the Bahamas.) It’s expensive to keep up with so many friends and their love lives, but it’s also so much fun!

Every country has their traditions – some of them seem weird (actually, no, they ARE weird, but let’s not debate semantics here) but they are all equally as crucial for the couple getting married and for the guests in attendance. Here is a list of some of the things I found to be the strangest, or most unique, in the “foreign weddings” I attended this year:

SERBIA

Vladi and Ive

Vladi and Iva

  • The first wedding is in a church (pretty standard) and not all wedding guests are invited to attend – this is usually a small, intimate ceremony that lasts about half an hour – the couple must accept congratulations and smile and pose with every guest who came to the church for the photographer
  • When you walk outside the church, there are local gypsy brass bands that come up to the wedding party and play music – their music becomes more insistent the longer they play, often putting the horn of the instrument directly in your ear and playing at full volume until you give them some cash (at this particular wedding the best man also brought the gypsy band to the party, much to the delight of all the guests) – keep in mind, these guys can pull in thousands of dollars a night for a big wedding
  • When you arrive to the reception, the couple once again stands outside and poses with every. single. guest. (in this case about 350 people) Only after every guest had their photo op does the party begin.
  • Lots and lots of different cakes.
  • Oh, and the photographers have printers on hand and walk around the party distributing photos that guests can buy on the spot (this is not so much weird as awesome!)
Brass Band

Gypsy Brass Band

GERMANY

(This was a mixed wedding: half East German half Northern England, i.e. Geordie)

1069928_10152077900059278_1670812392_n

Ali and Neil

  • Straight from leaving the church the friends of the bride and groom hold up an old bedsheet which has a giant heart drawn in the middle, and the name of the bride and groom inside of that. The bride and groom are each given a pair of tiny scissors and they must work together to cut the heart shape out. Once complete, the groom then carries the bride through the opening they’ve created in the sheet.374396_10152077898159278_1848781778_n
  • German tradition is that as the first true test of marriage, the newly wedded couple must work together as a team to saw apart a foot in diameter log using an old school, massive saw. The first marital row, if you will, ensues.995734_10152077899664278_1485770867_n
  • This might just be East German, not totally sure, but the bride and groom are each given two giant loaves of bread – they must create a pair of shoes from this bread. The first one to walk across the stage (or room) in their new shoes wins!
  • Each guest is given a balloon filled with helium and a postcard pre-addressed to the bride and groom. Each guest writes a message to the couple and ties the postcard to the balloon. Everyone releases the balloons at the same time (great photo op!) Once the balloon finally lands (wherever that may be) it’s up to any random stranger passing by who finds it to mail it back to the couple. (Strangely, our postcard made it back to Ali and Neil from the Czech Republic!)

PARAGUAY

(This was a mixed wedding half Paraguayan half Colombian – so the traditions may be a bit mixed up – at least in my mind)

Nati and Luis

Nati and Luis

  • There is a traditional Paraguayan dance at the beginning of the reception and every guest must dance for a few minutes with the bride and groom (men with the bride, women with the groom) and smile for a photo op!
  • Ligas – this took me a while to understand! The bride has about 20 garters under her dress (one garter for each single woman at the wedding). One garter is special (i.e. a different color) and the rest are traditional white. The bride sits opposite the single women (one at a time) and they each lift their right leg and touch the souls of the shoes. The groom then takes one garter from the bride’s leg and must slide it across their legs and feet and up the thigh of the single lady. His “last chance to touch another woman” if you will! The woman who gets the colorful garter is the next to marry. Ligas in Paraguay
  • Masks/hats/whistles/glow sticks/silly string, etc – Boxes of costume-like hats and whistles, (see list above) are distributed to guests to liven things up. I have to admit, this makes the party a hell of a lot more fun!
  • Whiskey – easy as that, the drink of choice for the night is whiskey, the nicer the better
  • For the Colombian tradition that stood out most, aside from sharing a bottle of whatever they were passing around, is some dance where a woman lies on the floor (or I suppose it could also be a man?) and all the party guests dance feverishly over her. (See example of Mapale here.)

1396934_10100309793069029_418846677_o

As I continue to grow my international network of friends, I will continue to observe the oddities of culture, which are never more openly displayed than in time-honored traditions such as weddings!

Paraguay Calling: Part II

Since that first trip back last October, I’ve had the chance to return to my 2nd (3rd? 4th?) home in Asuncion twice. Once in May this year, and just recently again in June. We’ve begun another project, (not the big kahuna we’ve been working on for almost 2 years now, but a smaller scale project with big implications,) and I’ve had the chance to return to the other side of the equator for plenty of workshops and meetings.

Going back in May was rushed. I only had 8 days (including the 22 hours of travel on each end) and had a lot to accomplish in that time. It wasn’t enough. I barely had a chance to catch up on jet lag before I had to board the plane again.

This last trip in June was a slightly more breathable experience. I had a week and a half of time in Paraguay, with only 3 or 4 days filled with meetings. The rest was for slightly more relaxed work and seeing friends, and it also gave me the opportunity to go with my colleagues and friends on a field trip!

When living in Paraguay I had a chance to go to the Atlantic Forest for a week while we hosted workshops and talks at various schools, community centers, and indigenous communities teaching about the importance of protecting forest and sweet water (fresh, clean, drinkable water.) This time we would take a trip to another forest reserve where I had never been on the boarder of Brazil, Mbaracayu. Mbaracayu Reserve is one of the largest remaining intact portions of sub-tropical forest in Paraguay, protecting 66,284 hectares within the Atlantic Forest. They even have a school on the property to educate poor, local girls in agro-forestry and how to live in harmony with the environment.

For starters, Paraguay is going through an interesting political time at the moment, (I can go into that later in detail, however Paraguay recently voted out their President, Fernando Lugo,) and people in Asuncion were worried for our safety as we started on our journey from Asuncion to Mbaracayu as there were claimed to be campesino (peasant) uprisings directly on our path. Secondly, once you exit the city, the roads are no longer paved so you are completely reliant on changing weather to determine if you can make a trip successfully or not. It had been raining for a few days successfully, and many bridges were overtaken by flooding waters.

Despite these warnings and calls from loved ones to urge us otherwise, we set out on the road for higher waters, (haha, get it?) We made it all the way to Curupaty (the alleged set for the uprisings and upheaval) without so much as a glitch in our travels. All we saw were random police vehicles patrolling the area for misbehavior, none of which was found. We continued on our way without incident until the muddy roads looked a bit less convincing than they had earlier in our journey. Still, we forged ahead until the car refused to carry our weight uphill.

So then we all piled out of the car to allow it more freedom (and less weight) to climb the hill. And we thought we were safe enough standing to the side so the car could have no chance of slipping out or hitting us, and then we realized the mud couldn’t hold our weight up and one of us sank in and had to be rescued!

We continued on our journey a few kilometers more, and came to a point, just about 5 km from the reserve where we were headed, where we realized we would be in trouble, but decided to go for it anyway. Our 4×4 Mahindra could handle anything, no? No. It couldn’t. So we got caught in a massive amount of mud and had to call it quits for a while.

And then we had to walk to the nearest community, we were in an Ache Indigenous community that surrounds the forest reserve, and ask if they could help us get free from the mud. They showed up with shovels, panels of wood, and man power to try and help dig/push/set the car free.

Unsure of what the outcome would be (i.e. if they would actually be successful,) one colleague and I headed to another nearby community to ask if anyone had a tow truck, or at least a hitch that could help us out. We were pointed in the direction of the Brasileiro who was owned a lot of the land for production in the area. From all the stereotypes you hear about all these Brazilians (or Brasiguayos as they are referred to as locally,) moving into Paraguay to farm the land and make money, you expect to find a wealthy man with a giant beer gut. But really all we found was a glorified sleep trailer, which might have been worlds above the wood shacks some of the others were living in, but still put a few things into perspective for me on the topic. Even though he was a deforester and we could clearly see the recent cutting and burning of the land, he was friendly and helpful enough that we couldn’t, in that moment, hold it against him.

He hopped in his truck and invited us in, (us being my colleague, a young, shoeless, indigenous girl who had accompanied us to find the tractor, and me,) and we headed off in the direction of our trapped vehicle. Upon arrival we were relieved, and surprised, to find that the truck had been freed from the mud and was waiting patiently for us on the other side of the muddy abyss. It turns out we were eventually able to make contact with the reserve, despite terrible mobile signals in the campo, and they sent someone over with a truck to help us out. Turns out shovels and panels of wood aren’t what they used to be!

We thanked our Brazilian friend and then took the time to thank, and pose for photos with the indigenous children who had been excitedly watching the goings-on of our entrapment. And we gave them all our cookies.

So after a long 8 hours on the road, navigating small towns and broken streets and unnamed paths leading us in the right direction, we pulled up to the reserve in the pitch black night of winter…at 5:30 PM. We gratefully took off our mud-caked shoes and hopped in the shower for what would be a delicious home cooked meal in the main cabin where we were spending the night. We opened a couple bottles of wine and took a deep breath, we had made it to Mbaracayu at last!

Paraguay Calling: Part I

Paraguay has called, once again. For those who don’t know my back story intimately, (as I won’t be so presumptuous to assume you do!) I spent 6 months volunteering for the WWF in Paraguay in 2010. It was a challenging time for me, filled with both the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows. I struggled to adjust to a new way of life in a third world country, particularly to the extreme poverty I wasn’t used to seeing and the children, cats, and dogs roaming the streets aimlessly in search of food or a kind soul. But I also made incredible friendships that will last a lifetime, greatly improved my Spanish, and learned that I could in fact survive in a new city on my own, (with a little help to guide the way, of course!)

My first trip back to Asuncion was about 10 months after I moved away, last October, 2011. I had been working on a proposal with my colleagues in our Paraguay office and we had just received approval to write the long proposal, (think 20  or so pages versus 5,) so I flew down for two weeks to work more closely with the team to develop our project plan.

I was nervous to go back at first. I wasn’t sure how I would feel now that I had been home for a few months and then moved to Germany. Would I still get along with my friends well? Would my Spanish be at least as good as when I left? Would I still understand the intricacies of our work as well as when I had lived there? Would my heart sink every time I saw a homeless dog crossing the street?

I arrived after 22 hours of travel a bit exhausted and somewhat flustered at my inability to move my tongue as fluidly as I would have liked, (I blame the months of German lessons for that one!) but after resting up for the day (and soaking in some sun at my hotel) I was prepared to take on the language, and my former home (albeit a temporary one.)

As for all of my other fears, they were nothing to worry about. What I learned more than anything was that you can always go home again. I fit right back in with my friends (with a strange Gringa/German accent, but still), the office welcomed me with open arms, and my memory of our project work and goals had nowhere near disappeared in my time away. I felt peaceful being there, without the same conflicts that had plagued me during my volunteership. I was in a new place, both physically and mentally, and could handle what was thrown at me.

Paraguay was a place I belonged, it had become a part of me.

…to be continued…

Another Runner’s First – Rainy Days

So I recently celebrated an anniversary…well a couple really. My birthday just passed last week, 27 years (crazy!) And It has been two years since I first left New York for Paraguay. It’s also been about two years since I started this blog and, of course, since I started running!

Actually its quite crazy to think of all the firsts I’ve experienced in the last couple of years, in particular. Moving out of my NYC apartment, quitting my long-time job at an Advertising Agency, moving to South America to become a volunteer, following my passion to save animals, being offered full time employment by the WWF, moving to Germany, learning German, etc.

Nonetheless, life continues to be filled with first experiences. I guess that’s what keeps me going everyday, knowing I have yet to discover the undiscovered!

My most recent first was just the other day. I’ve been super motivated lately to keep get in shape and stay fit, and have been trying to stay as active as possible, whether it be biking to work everyday, running when I get home, high intensity weight and cardio exercises in my living room, (which I’m sure my neighbor downstairs must love!) or attending weight or spinning classes at the gym. So despite feeling utterly exhausted from all the traveling and socializing lately, I finally motivated myself to get out for a run around 9 pm the other night, to catch the last rays of sunshine, (did you know that in the Berlin summer the day stays light until about 10:30 PM?!) I reminded myself how good I would feel after a nice run, since I haven’t been able to fit much in the last week or two while I was traveling in Paraguay, and put on my Vibrams and workout gear and headed downstairs.

I exited my building only to discover that the (very uneven) cobblestones were wet. It had begun to rain. I literally stood on the edge of the doorway for a solid 3 minutes debating if I should just call it quits and head back inside and then remembered what someone had told me recently, “We aren’t made of sugar,” and said what the hell, I’m gonna get sweaty running anyway, might as well let some natural water mix in!

Fernando Mastrangelo’s Sculpture made of Sugar (a.k.a. my impression of what would happen to me if I ran in the rain)

So for the first time in my relatively short running career I opted to run in the rain. It may not sound like such a big accomplishment, but actually it felt very liberating! It was the first time I was able to see through the raindrops to the workout that lay beyond. Rather than assuming a summer must be filled with gorgeous outdoor runs, otherwise I’m doomed to the treadmill at my gym, I realized I can actually make due with inclement weather. It actually even made me reconsider my gym membership, (well for the summer at least!)

So in light of this personal achievement, here’s to another two years of firsts!

Coming Home, or Something Like It

After returning from Paraguay last December, spending a couple of months in NY and then moving to Germany in March – I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to “come home again”. You know the feeling you get; goosebumps thinking about seeing your family and friends, the town you grew up in, your family pets. You anticipate what it will be like to be in the same place as the people you love, to eat mom’s homemade spaghetti and meatballs (or noodle pudding!)

Unfortunately, I still had one month to go before I could really go home again, to NY that is, but I was lucky enough to travel down to Paraguay for work in October, 2011 – for the first time in ten months. So in a way, it felt like going home again.

I remember leaving the country last December and being unsure if I wanted to go back. I knew I was leaving behind great people and lasting friendships, but the hardship of my daily life living in a home I didn’t feel welcome, in the poverty of the downtown made it difficult to get by each day. I remember suffering immensely at the homeless animals all over the streets and the indigenous children walking barefoot along Asuncion’s main Avenues, doing tricks or begging for change.

I can say happily that on this return trip I had none of the same emotions as last year. The overt poverty was still there, but I was staying with a great friend, in a town bordering Asuncion, in a lovely home where home cooked meals were prepared daily, if not twice daily – so I wasn’t as exposed as I had been previously. My great friends would drive out to pick me up and take me anywhere I wanted to go, and I was spared the agony of the Paraguayan public transport system (i.e. buses from 1965). I didn’t even feel like the animals were in as bad a condition as I had remembered. I went to work each day with a plan and a goal, and felt confident in my Spanish in a way I never had before.

Mi Beautiful Paraguayan Amigas

That’s not to say I was ignorant to the hardships of life in Asuncion, but I didn’t feel like I was suffering along with them, as I once had. Not that I was ever on the streets begging for food or pennies, but I tend to feel the pain and hurt of others in an overpowering way that sometimes I can’t turn away from. So when I am exposed to an environment where that is the norm, I find it difficult to function. This trip back to Paraguay made it feel like a nice place I’d happily come visit again, rather than being clouded by the dark memories I created there, (alongside some very nice ones.)

Needles to say, it wasn’t exactly “home”, but it definitely felt like a comfortable friend’s home where I was welcomed back with open arms, which was a welcome respite from learning the ropes in my new city.

Welcome to NY

So I have been putting off writing this post for a couple of weeks now. I didn’t know how to start or even how to sum up my feelings of the last half a year. I am back in New York. My volunteer experience with the World Wildlife Fund in Paraguay has come to an end, and I haven’t quite wanted to accept that reality. The last 6 months have helped me grow and learn in so many ways that I am fearful that a return to “normalcy” will stunt that growth process.

Coming home was strange. It was amazing to see family and friends and pets, oh how I missed those cats!! But at the same time, I dove head first into the lives of the friends I had left behind many months ago, but found that my heart was still floating offshore. I could sit and listen and talk with friends, but my head still drifted to thoughts of thick summer heat and the sounds of my friends voices thousands of miles away. How difficult to not be able to be in two places at once!

I now sit at the beginning of a new year, as do we all, and wonder what it has in store for me. How will I maintain close connections with those so far away? How will I continue on this path of conservation and broadening the horizons of those around me?

For now, I am giving myself a few weeks to rest and collect my thoughts, reflect on my experience, and decide what my next path will be. I know 2011 has a lot in store for me, so better to get my rest in early because things might speed up pretty quickly!

The Paraguayan Airport Experience

Going to the airport in Paraguay is likes something I’ve never experienced before. Well, really, it starts before the actual trip to the airport. I have never said goodbye to so many people, so many time before. The last two weeks have been filled with “Despedidas” (Going Away Parties) from dinners, to BBQs, to dancing, to trips to the movies. Every time we would go out, it was in honor of my departure from Paraguay. Then came the “real” goodbyes yesterday and today. When I saw good friends and we hugged and even shed a few tears, but it was never good-bye – it was always, well I’ll see you again tomorrow! I’ll see you here or there, I’ll come to your house, to the airport, to this restaurant, etc. Never a real good-bye.

Two weeks ago I said good-bye to everyone at least 2 or 3 times, between a last visit to the office to say good-bye to my colleagues, to a lunch with friends, to passing the afternoon and preparing suitcases with another. The day was dragging, my flight wasn’t until 6 PM and I had the entire day to worry about finishing my suitcases, cleaning the bathroom, vacuuming the room, making it to the office or to the restaurant on time. As someone who is a well-seasoned traveler, but who still has unreasonable amounts of stress relating to travel and arriving on time and having overweight suitcases, an evening flight in a country with endless good byes is an entirely new experience!

At first I was almost annoyed that everyone would “see me at the airport”. I didn’t understand why they felt the need to drag things out any further. We had already said our goodbyes, my head was already drained, my mind was already swirling. I wanted to just board the plane and close my eyes for a long restful sleep. But 3 o’clock rolled around and my coworker came to pick me up from my house, where I was waiting with my friend Nati and the Señora of the house, Sadie. It was then I realized I was grateful for the company.

Had I been in a taxi, the tears would have been rolling, and the sadness impenetrable. But as it were, I could check in my bags and have something to look forward to – seeing my closest friends arrive each in their own time with big smiles and big hugs and words of love to spare. Each new person to arrive (there were 5 in total) brought a new smile to my face and a new feeling of happiness. I now understand this Paraguayan tradition, which I learned today – what it means to feel truly loved by those close to you.

We sat around the airport café for about an hour until it was time for me to board, and even then there were more gifts given, hugs and kisses, and photos taken. I was too anxious to cry but my eyes began to water as I let them each know how much they meant to me. It wasn’t until I finally walked away to approach security that an overwhelming feeling of sadness and loss swept over me and the tears began to flow. I looked back to my friends, to my family in Paraguay, and put on a brave smile between tears and waved goodbye. That is when the realization sunk in. That I was truly leaving. That these amazing people who have entered my life would forever remain a part of this incredible episode of my life and while I will carry them with me to the future, our time together – the nights spent dancing or gossiping or comforting each other – are temporarily out of reach. It only further enforces the need to stay in contact with these amazing people that I now call family.

And as with all of my friendships these last few years, I realize that you never lose friends – that dynamics of relationships may change, but that the feelings of closeness and love don’t go away simply from the distance between you. For this I am grateful. I am lucky to have friends in so many places in the world that I still feel so connected to.

Bye Bye for Now!