Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Bubble, The 4th of July, Disney, The Embassy and Pigpen (from Peanuts)....

Today was the 4th of July and the Embassy is always nice enough to invite the Peace Corps to the Embassy to participate in the festivities. Really, the festivities consist of grilling hamburgers and hot dogs with all the fixins. Of course, we played volleyball and basketball, threw the frisbee and enjoyed the scenery of the embassy and listen to music. In other words, a normal 4th of July that many do back in the states. I think the reason I (as well as others in the group) enjoyed the event so much was because the embassy is a bubble of the United States. Don’t get me wrong, I knew it would be, but it’s a different experience when you actually do it. What am I talking about? Okay, for the last 5 weeks we have been learning many different ways to integrate into the culture here in Paraguay. This includes learning the language and practicing the saying “when in Rome, do as the Romans do…” This means that we have been eating a lot of the Paraguayan food and drinking the Paraguayan tea etc. This also means feeling like you are in a doll house. No matter where you go, people stare like at you like you are inside of some department store window or some doll house. Kids will walk within 5 feet of you and just stare at you right in the face. This has never been a problem before, when I travelled other places, but here in Paraguay, given its geographic position (or isolataion), the people rarely see individuals that look different than they do and the staring is so pervasive, so I just smile and wave. On numerous occasions I have been told that I was Brazilian. While I don’t mind this too much, being “on display” does get old after a while. So many times little kids hear you speaking English and walk up to you and say the only English word they know, to see how you react and if you understand. This happens all the time. What’s worse is when the adults do it. The adults don’t walk up to you; instead they constantly scream broken English at you, just to see if you understand. So what do they say? This of the worst curse-words you can think of, and then combine them into some sentence that doesn’t make sense. Something like “eFuck-a-shit-you!!!) There not being mean, but want to practice their American move experience. Anyway, this “being on display” is sometimes scary (especially when on a bus) because you know the people recognize that you appear to have more than they do. So we have to be really careful because some may decide they want to forcefully “borrow” for good, what I have.
Switching back to the atmosphere here in Paraguay, part of the Paraguayan experience also includes dealing with the litter covered streets, the poorly maintained and mistreated trees and foliage. On top of this, the streets are full of motorcycles spewing stomach churning exhaust. This is only topped by the numerous diesel engine trucks and cars that fill the air with such a thick exhaust that you might believe the area you are standing in is on fire. This is the city of Asuncion (don’t get me wrong, it has its nice parts too) and among all of this is where the United States Embassy is located.
As we figured, the embassy would be rather difficult to get inside. High security, many police officers with guns and an expectation of obedience on behalf of those entering the embassy, sets the atmosphere at the entrance. Upon entering the embassy (the bubble) the whole world seemed to change. “Where was the smog, the loud traffic, the ugly trees”, I thought to myself. It was as if the Embassy had hired Disney to create and imaginary bubble. Where were the staring kids? No one looked at us because we spoke English loudly. In fact everyone else also spoke the same infamous language. I wasn’t concerned about anyone cutting me, or having to watch my back. The trees were HUGE and impeccably trimmed. The grasses seemed to be greener than I remember grass back home. I don’t think I’ve ever seen palm trees so tall. Innumerable types of flowers and plants decorated the grounds of the embassy. At this point I had been walking for about 10 minutes in one direction and could not see the end of the embassy grounds. As I continued walking I noticed that water dispensers were set up throughout the grounds also, these are the kind you would see in the offices, with the big blue jug on top (these might have been there because of the 4th of July event, but I’m not sure). Every tree and plant was labeled with a name indicating the kind of plant it was. Also each tree was numbered with a dog-tag-style tag. Although, the temperature didn’t really change, however I couldn’t argue against one who would say that the temperature even seemed to get cooler. I guess I could just sum up the experience by saying that I was very impressed with the size of the embassy and the attention to detail, to make the embassy look impressive. It might help to mention that although we are in the season of winter here, it still gets very warm on some days and then changes to freezing a week later. Today it must have been 80 degrees out. I think by the end of next week it will be in the mid 30’s.
Okay, so why was the embassy so big? The American Embassy in Paraguay is the second largest embassy in the world, after the one in Iraq’s green zone. Why? You history buffs can probably figure it out. Let’s take a trip down history lane (a quick one, I promise). After World War II the cold war begin. You history buffs will remember that Argentina had many dictators in the 1950’s. Chile in the 1960’s and the U.S. over threw Salvador Allende in Chile in the 70’s. In reality, this was the Cold War experience of S. America at the time. Paraguay is at the heart of S. America and has always accepted war criminals. Paraguay was one of countries to allow the most World War II war criminals to seek asylum here. The fallen dictator of Nicaragua (Anastasia Somoza) also lived here in Asuncion. In other words Paraguay is a place where lots of trouble foments, given its geographic isolation. Paraguay had its own dictator (Alfredo Stroessner) from 1954 to 1989 who ruled with a brutal iron fist. So, during the cold war, the U.S. heavily supported Stroessner. The idea behind the control was to allow Stroessner to rule, but the U.S. to a large degree controlled Stroessner by supplying him with whatever he needed to fight communists, and hated communists Stroessner did. So as far as the U.S. was concerned the U.S. had a great thing going. So, basically, the embassy is so large because of the critical role it played in managing the interior and all of South America during the cold war and protecting the world from communists.
Okay, back to the embassy. Well, by now it’s time to leave. As I left the embassy I stopped to pick-up my huge Leatherman pocket knife (the one that almost caused some problems on the way inside). When the security placed the knife in my hand, he gently guided my through the door and outside with his other hand. This was as if he used the knife to “pop” my Embassy-Disney created bubble and reality again hit me in the face. If you remember Charlie Brown’s friend Pigpen for the comic strip Peanut’s, this is how I imagined myself. I said goodbye to the Bubble and walked to down to the street with the smog, the noise, the children and the stares from all the passersby closing in around me once again. Back to reality.


Julie said...

Your life seems difficult, yet worth it. What adventure you are storing up for the future! Hope you stay safe and have fun if you can. Good to have a computer to stay in contact with friends and family. I enjoyed reading about your 4th. The pictures are beautiful too.

Anonymous said...

Mark - Tell them people down there to wake up and get to work! Opps, that's the redneck coming out in me. I enjoy your posts, good luck down there. Bryce

Michelle said...

Hope you enjoyed the food! I like the "bubble" analogy. We always said going to the Embassy in AZ was like the scene in the Wizard of Oz when everything turns to color! Happy 4th!