The air was steaming. Vapor rose from the floor as if some unseen heat source was trying to cook us from below. Or was it from above? It was hard to tell where it was coming from because I was fading.
We walked into the church overflowing with people. Locals crowded the pews to maximum capacity and a large crowd stood in the back. We were late. Paraguayan time.
The sound of the organ, the priest’s chanting, and the choral hum of the congregation were familiar. I grew up Catholic and mechanically walked towards the holy water to bless myself, excited to be able to relieve some of the heat. But the fountain was empty, sin agua bendita.
Confused, I turned from the fountain and walked towards Nick and our paraguaya host mom standing among the crowd.
We had been in Paraguay exactly one week, but it felt longer. It was hot, we were jet-lagged, and the training was immediate and, at times, uncomfortable. This was just the beginning of the “longest days of the shortest two years of our lives.”
It was más o menos 7:30 pm at the Ash Wednesday mass and the first day of Lent. Many give up something they cherish as a form of penance. Es como una señal de penitencia.
During the sermon, the priest described meat as jugoso y muy rico. We had thought juicy, delicious meat was a metaphor for something else. But no, he was literally explaining how hard it is to resist that temptation of turning down juicy, perfectly grilled carne (red meat).
After mass, the three of us walked around the plaza eating corn and cheese empanadas. Nick asked our host mom, “Why did the priest say we should give up meat?” She simply answered, “Es una prueba.” It’s a test.
For Paraguayans, a meal is not a real meal without a meat. Meat is tempting and valuable; therefore, giving it up is hard.
Lent as a metaphor for training
It’s apt that our Peace Corps training falls during the Lenten season: a time to test ourselves. Whether you are religious or not, it feels àpropos.
So far Peace Corps has put us outside our comfort zones. They put us in a Spanish/Guaraní speaking household where we can’t use our native language; Peace Corps teachers interviewed us in Spanish to test our proficiency; and they started teaching us an indigenous language (using Spanish). We must meet a standard level of Guaraní within ten weeks.
I’m sure there will be countless more tests. This is just the beginning. But it’s what we came here for: to learn and integrate so we can do some good.