Banado Sur, Asuncion, Paraguay
Food has been a big theme of my life for the past year. As many of y’all know, I have been on a weight loss journey for about fourteen months now. That being said, the following has an underlying theme of gluttony that does not actually represent my normal Paraguayan experience. With that disclaimer out of the way, I can actually tell the story.
So, a couple of weekend ago, Cat, Rachel, and I went to the region of Paraguay known as Misiones. It is named that because it was the area where the Jesuit missionaries setup short a few hundred years ago – similar to the network of missions that are still standing in California. It’s a little strange because very little of the actual buildings are still standing, but they have been able to preserve a good amount of the art that would have adorned the churches. What makes the art particularly interesting is that is was all cared in Paraguay first by a Jesuit artist and then by local artisans trained by the Jesuit. You can see the difference in the faces from Saints that look distinctly Spanish to Saints that have more of the faces that you see on Paraguayans today. The Paraguayan artists gave their Saints, Christs, and Marys faces that they could identify with.
Beyond the art, we ate a lot. We had a wonderful hostess, Gladys, who is one of our connections from the National Institute of Health. We stopped at a famous roadside fruit stand along the side of the Paraguayan version of Route 66, and she made sure that our plates were heaped in traditional foods. She invited us into her family’s home for two lunches and wouldn’t take “no” for answer around the issue of dessert. She took us out to dinner, and no one went hungry. She was incredibly gracious and made it incredibly difficult to say “no” to anything that she offered. We may have done some eye-rolling when it was time to eat again, but through her sheer hospitality, she made the experience enjoyable.
The weekend was also not without its own adventure either. We started driving back fairly late in the afternoon, and Misiones is not all that close to Asuncion. It was dark and raining, and we all could tell that these were not Gladys’s favorite driving conditions. I grew up driving across Texas through its often-fascinating weather and have developed a true love of driving. About two-thirds the way through the journey, I offered to take over. Gladys gladly accepted, and my Paraguayan driving adventure began. The visibility was low. The lights and wipers didn’t work really well, and I still don’t quite understand Paraguayan driving norms. However, I drove us through the winding roads of Route 1. We dodged crazy trucks and crazier pedestrians, tried not to get blown off the road, and played telephone directions with Gladys saying them in Spanish and Cat translating them into English for me. My Spanish has come a long way, but not at 60 mph in the deep of night. To add to the fun, there was a dearth of street lighting, and who ever paints lines on the road needs to be fired for not actually painting the lines. It made for a bit of a white-knuckled ride.
On top of all that, it was another time when I reminded about why a seminary education is an important part of theological formation. While I was driving, Gladys and I had a deep theological conversation. She would ask me a question in Spanish. Cat would translate it to me in English. I would answer in English, and Cat would do her best to contain my ramblings back to Gladys in Spanish. It was a wonderful conversation, but in the circumstance, I was again reminded that as a Pastor, you have to know your stuff because you will be called upon to theologize at the drop of a hat and under direst.
The weekend didn’t stop there either. We had an Asado, essentially a barbeque, with David and Alexis’s host family that Sunday. They have become an adopted family for all of us, and a meal with them is a real treat. Also, as can happen, I have gained a reputation for the total amount of meat I can consume in one sitting because of a strong performance at a previous Asado. It has become a running that I can eat 2kgs of meat. While I don’t think that it actually true, I rose to the occasion and did my part to fend off the successive waves of meat.
After all of that, I dragged myself back home to spend an uncomfortable evening in a meat coma. However, that wasn’t to be. I lay on my bunk tossing and turning for around an hour, and then Ulpi, the father of my host family, came in and asked me to go to a birthday party for one of their family members. So, off, I went.
The party was pretty low key. Two dozen assorted family members sitting outside on the sidewalk, dancing, drinking beer, listening to music, and enjoying each other’s company. There was an adult soccer team off to one side with a large trophy. I was dragged on to the dance floor twice, one time by a guy, ate more asado despite feeling like I was fit to burst, and spoke broken English/Spanish with Jorge, who was really into the idea of speaking English with someone. On the whole, it was a nice party.
However, it had a heart breaking side. The honoree of this birthday wore a baseball cap over visibly thinning hair. I couldn’t place his age, but based on how frail he looked, I figured that he must be quite old. He had a sadness about him that I couldn’t place and seemed out of place at such a nice party. The truth was that he was dying. Jorge explained it to me as best he could. The man was HIV positive and was suffering from an opportunistic cancer taking advantage of his weakened immune system. He had had such a negative reaction to ARVs that he stopped taking them. Thus, his disease had progressed to full blow AIDS with all the associated consequences. From the way Jorge told it, this would be the man’s last birthday. Yet, Jorge and other family members made the point to me over and over again that they do not cry. They throw a party instead of being sad. They celebrate the man’s life as if the birthday party was some kind of living wake. The captain of his soccer team gave a speech. Everyone drank, laughed, and celebrated life.
As a seminary student, I spend a lot of time using buzzwords like “radical hospitality.” The examples from Gladys and my host family tell a much more tangible story than any buzzword can contain. It was a crazy a weekend but not one that I will soon forget.
Hopefully, y’all can expect two more posts out of me before I return to the States on Aug. 7. There are a slew of photos up on the Flikr page (link on the right hand side). It is getting towards the end of the journey. Thanks as ever for your thoughts, prayers, and comments.