A Bug’s Life

November 27, 2011

Thanksgiving 2011 treasures.

I walked into the room seeking refuge from the 110 degree heat and instead was accosted by a vicious odor of moth balls, insect repellant, and oozing sewage. The air was warm, thick, and putrid. I noticed multitudes of bug carcasses strewn across the sheets of all three mattresses, and when I plopped my duffel bag on one of the beds, discovered that many were not carcasses at all. When a cloud of gnats rose up, I heard skittering behind the door. Hesitatingly, I eased the door from the wall and found several giant beetles holding court on the tile floor. I gulped (mentally because I was trying really hard to hold my breath to prevent intake of the stench) in fear, and further realized there were actually beetles scuttling all over the room.

Oh god.

We marched right back to the front desk and demanded a cleaning lady or a change of rooms. The attendant dryly informed us that the room was indeed clean and the bugs were just a part of the natural state of the hotel environment (we are no longer in the States, Toto). That really should have been the thousandth warning sign to run straight back to the city, despite having just arrived in the desert via six-hour roadtrip with four young children in the backseat asking “Are we there yet?” over and over and over.

We decided to take a look at the pool and return to address the room issue afterwards. The rectangular hole in the ground that was supposed to be a swimming facility was filled with murky green water and sixteen tons of debris, which included numerous cockroaches of enormous proportions. Naturally, the attendant claimed that the pool was also clean.

Yeah, about as clean as my butt would be if I didn’t wipe for a month.

We called another hotel to inquire about last minute openings of which they had none, so as missionaries on a budget, we had no choice but to stay put in the luxurious Hotel Touring Club. We demanded that personnel come do a sweep of the room, and a chatty maid was sent to amass a sizable pile of dirt and big, black beetles. I asked her if this was normal, and she scoffed, “This? Psh. This is nothing. Just wait until it gets dark. That is when they appear in hoards. I’m not even sure where they come from. It’s like they just come up from the ground.” (This woman does not have a future in PR.)

Could this get any worse?

Why, yes, it could. And it did. After we returned from dinner, more scurrying beetles were awaiting me despite the fact that I had left on every single light fixture in the room. I sprang into action and crunched those suckers with my poor Rainbows like nobody’s business. Just call me a modern-day, female Terminator…minus the massive arms. I requested a broom from the front desk (after we took a gander at a room offered for exchange–it smelled like 100-day-old crap of a diarrheic elephant), and swept another disturbing pile of beetles out the door. I borrowed a can of Raid from the Sc’s and sprayed the perimeter of the room.

Then it happened. The calm before the storm. The skittering ceased and just as I dared release a sigh of relief, a literal wave of beetles started flooding in from all the cracks and crevices in the floor corners. It was straight out a horror film. Y and I ran around panicking and exterminating. Stomp, spray, scream, repeat. And they wouldn’t stop. They poured in from the closet, crawled out from under the beds, and wrangled their way up from the sink drain. I felt like at the very least the Indiana Jones theme song could have been playing. Gosh.

Eventually the droves lessened (but never completely) and we were forced to reconcile how we were going to go about the whole sleep thing. Bugs in the beds and bugs in the bathroom and bugs on the floor presented quite the dilemma. I put on nearly every article of clothing I packed–jeans, a long-t-shirt, a zip-up jacket with a hood, and despite the heat, even socks. I wanted as little skin exposed as possible in case I were to awake in the middle of the night to find my body infested with beetles. Shudder. Additionally, my flat sheet (and the only available “blanket”) was harboring a bundle of other fun critters, so I pulled out my bright blue bath towel I had brought from home and in a fetal position huddled under it for dear life. Monoxide suffocation be damned.

We left all the lights on and the ceiling fan spinning at max wind speed. Not exactly ideal sleeping conditions, but then again the crawlies weren’t the greatest bedfellows either. Y and I joked about taking turns standing watch, and setting our alarms to go off every hour. We took pictures of each other hiding pitifully in our beds and pretended like it was all a funny joke. It wasn’t.

I. was. so. tired. I wanted to sleep so badly, but…BUGS. Just as I finally convinced myself to succumb to slumber, I heard *pak!*…*pak! pak!*…*pak!* Y and I jerked awake and stared at each other wide-eyed, unwilling to process what we knew the source of the noise to be. In a dreadful moment, I looked up and confirmed our fears. Beetles were now dropping from the ceiling too.

Needless to say that was the worst night of sleep I never got. A shower of rancid water the next morning was only appropriate to cap off a Thanksgiving I will never, try as I might, forget.

This year, I’m just thankful that it wasn’t rodents.

Sometimes I think living abroad is a bit like being pregnant. Not that I know very much about pregnancy, if anything at all. But gleaning from high school health class and Hollywood movies, out-of-the-norm food cravings are often a characteristic “symptom” and taking drastic measures to satiate those desires also common. Pickles dipped in peanut butter seem to be the cliche example.

Similarly, I have found that residing in a foreign country brings unusual gastronomic urges to the forefront for me. What I suddenly crave is not necessarily strange in and of itself, but when I am stationed at home, never does it cross my mind to go out of my way to procure the particular edible items.

Or, now that I think of it, this might just be a case study on simply wanting what you can’t have.

In any case, studying in Spain brought out some funk master cravings that I am ashamed to recall even now. Ground beef flavored with cheap packets of taco seasoning, Kraft mac n’ cheese with hot dogs (no thanks to S and our late-nights writing MMW papers), and chocolate mint cookie clusters from Trader Joe’s (I barely liked chocolate pre-Barcelona).

Now that I am in Paraguay, I find myself dreaming of all things pumpkin, dying for Chile-Limon Hot Cheetos, and getting weepy over–hold onto your seats–CHINESE FOOD. These aren’t your standard weekly cravings. Of course, I also crave burritos and pollo asado fries and melty cheeseburgers, but I always crave those things. (I know, I’m the picture of health.)

The reality is, I have never taken to pumpkin items, sweet or savory, until now as I drool over endless pumpkin dessert variations on the food blogs I follow. I am a junk food junkie, but Cheetos aren’t my favorite snack by any stretch (chipsss, please). And if you know me at all, you are probably well aware of my strong aversions to animals and Chinese cuisine. You can then imagine the conflicted emotions that arose when I couldn’t wait to go home to eat my leftover Singapore curry noodles (yes, I even cooked Chinese food from scratch), and when I daily lament the lack of dumplings and niu ro mien around these parts.

It gets weirder. Tonight I caught myself smearing plain cream cheese (expensive as heck, but I had a bit leftover from a recent batch of frosting) on a freaking saltine cracker. Palate-pleasingly flavored potato chips are scarce (no thank you, tomato and mayo), so I have resorted to dry, gluey crackers when I’ve got the munchies. And when the tangy, smooth cream cheese hit my taste buds, I’m pretty sure I could have punched a baby for a bagel (also not available).

I can only hope that one day when I am incubating my own little bagel (that I will not punch) in the oven that is my ever-greedy stomach, I will not be living abroad or anywhere near a geographic location that produces poop-tasting bacon puffs, charges 5 USD per gram of cheddar (the NERVE), and lacks frozen dumplings.

Grocery stores and future husband beware.

Fun Facts: Two-Month Edition

November 17, 2011

Happy two months in Paraguay to me!

In honor of this landmark (or not) anniversary, here are some fun facts I have noted in the country so far.

+ Paraguay has the ninth most airports in the world with 798, though only 12 of those are paved and only two can receive four-engine commercial aircraft.

+ There are no freeways, highways, or expressways anywhere in the country. So next week when we missionaries drive to the Chaco region in northern Paraguay (a five-hour trip one-way), we will essentially be taking side streets and hitting stop lights all the way there. So many fun times to be had.

+ There are no right-of-way laws here at four-way intersections. Technically paved roads take precedence over cobblestone streets when that occurs, but you learn just to drive defensively at all times.

+ You cannot make left turns at most major stoplight intersections. This makes getting home from anywhere a pain in the bum bum (as the little Schell’s say amidst giggles).

+ Horse-drawn carts are still allowed on the roads alongside cars. They are generally driven by vegetable vendors who advertise their wares via megaphone.

+ Paraguayans do not like chopping down trees, so often you will see trees right in the middle of the road with asphalt paved around it.

+ Buses can be hailed anywhere, at any point as there is almost no such thing as a bus stop. Alighting is the same thing–just be on guard as bus drivers usually only slow down enough for you to jump off.

+ Conversely, taxis can only be sought at certain taxi stands.

+ You have to get all your produce and fresh bread weighed at the scale station before checking out at grocery stores.

+ You do not take your shopping cart through the checkout line. You unload your goods onto the moving belt and simply leave your cart blocking the way of the world until an employee takes it away. Boys, whose only compensation are tips, then bag your groceries and transport your goods in a separate cart to your car in the underground parking lot.

+ See this entry for Watermelon Rules.

+ When you go to someone’s house, you do not knock on the door or gate. Instead you clap to have them come let you in.

+ Women go to the salon to get their hair and make-up done just to go to the gym. This obviously also implies that shorts and t-shirts are absolutely not acceptable work-out clothes.

+ Paraguay is the continent’s largest producer of marijuana.

+ McDonald’s offers Oreo cones (I have never seen these in my life!) complete with vanilla and dulce de leche swirl ice cream.

+ They make ice by freezing filled plastic bags shaped like condoms. The day I discovered this explained so much about the scary amount of used birth control I saw littered in the streets…

La Familia Baez: Jessica

November 16, 2011

I asked her how her week was. The kids here act like they hate it when I do that, because it is so foreign to them. People generally don’t care about how their week was, what they did that day, what their plans are for the weekend…

In any case, she answered with a thumbs-ehh indicating an okay week but then quickly motioned downwards and raspberried. “What happened? Why was it bad?” I ventured. She swallowed hard and stared stone-faced at the floor for a few seconds.

“Can we talk outside?”

We sat down on an uncomfortable metal pole and it was silent for a while. A breeze swiped at my bangs, puffy clouds scooted out of sight, and the blue in the sky gave way to darker shades as the sun prepared to set.

“I’ve been having these dreams…” She bit her lip to stop the onset quivering, and shook with effort trying to hold back her tears. “I don’t want to cry,” she whispered.

“It’s okay. Sometimes we need to.” I feebly tried to reassure her.

“I’ve been having these dreams, where I’m at the airport and everyone around me keeps leaving. I wake up crying, because it’s not just a dream. It feels like this has been the one constant in my life. That people I get close to, that I come to see as family always pick up and go just when I start to feel really comfortable with them. It is hard for me to get close to people now. I tell myself to stay cold, to stay wary, because every time things turn out the same. Everyone always leaves. And now it’s happening again.”

[Author sidenote: her mentor J is going to the States for six month in December, the Br’s are going on home-assignment also for six months in December, and the Ma’s, a USAID couple that has also invested in Jessica, are leaving the country permanently next June.]

“I mean, I am in awe that there have been so many people who have shown love to me, and I am thankful for how they have cared for my life. I always think about what my life would be like if I had never met the Sa’s [one of the CMA missionary families] and never found this church. The other day, R [Mi Esperanza’s Paraguayan pastor] came to my school to ask my teacher how I’m doing. I almost started crying in class because I thought, ‘Wow. I can’t believe someone would care enough for me to care about how I’m doing in school when my own mother has never done that.’

You know, I almost couldn’t go to school this year, because my mom wouldn’t even go sign my enrollment papers. She couldn’t muster up enough effort to sign a few papers. A lady at the comedor I take Valentina to saw me crying on the deadline day, and when she found out why, went to my school, and signed the papers. STRANGERS care more about me than my own mother.”

My eyes welled up with liquid to match what was pouring out of hers. Though I will never fully understand exactly what she has gone through, in that particular moment, I could feel her pain acutely in my stomach. I was angry, so angry that any child should have to live this reality and ever process these thoughts.

She is one of the Baez children that is reaching the age where the implications of her “childhood”–that mothers are not always like Cristina and that what she has done to her children is not right–are proving their real world effects. Jessica is reaping a harvest of neglect, coming to grips with feelings of abandonment, and dealing with the toll of these realities on her emotional and physical being. And it is not good.

“I am so tired. In the mornings, I walk the kids to their comedor. Then walk to my school and drag through class exhausted. I get yelled at all the time for yawning. In the afternoons, I walk to go help Joana with her work so she can get out earlier to pick up the baby. In the evenings, I have to make sure Vanessa, Juan Carlos, and Valentina eat. And those are days when we don’t have church stuff. I didn’t even want to come tonight, because I am so tired. My legs ache every night.

I’m usually so tired, I don’t eat dinner. I even skip lunch sometimes. I’ve lost a lot of weight and people keep telling me how thin I’ve gotten. I just say it’s their imagination, but inside, I know it’s true. I’m just so tired. I’m tired of trying, of putting on a good face, of keeping people at a distance, of wondering what I did wrong to earn this life. For the longest time, I thought our present life was hell and that when you die, the suffering finally ends.

I’m so tired, [Lo]. I just want someone to take care of me, and never have to fear that person will leave.”

I went home that night and prayed with sad, angry tears that God would make His presence tangible and clear to her. Lord, we cry out for your justice to triumph over the Baez family…