Today is exactly one week since I arrived in Asuncion, Paraguay.
This South American Capital’s name is prettier than the city itself, but it has its unique charm.
The name of the city means assumption and refers to Mary’s assumption into heaven. I’ve made many assumptions here in Asuncion (um…obviously not into heaven) but particularly with regard to how the Spanish language should be pronounced or how red wine should be served, my dumb Australian sensibilities don’t usually prove accurate.
The other parts of Paraguay are similarly named: Encarnacion (for the Incarnation), Concepcion (the Immaculate Conception), and then the many pueblos of ‘Misiones’ which are named San Ignacio, Santa Maria de Fe, San Juan etc etc.
Asuncion is a cheap place to live if you have resources, but the inequality and corruption is extreme.
Whenever I arrive here (even for the fifth time) I find myself surprised that I need to go through a process of “acostumbramiento” (re-learning and getting used to the place.)
My full name as many of you know is Elisabeth Marie Assunta, and the third name comes quite specifically from the word assumption, to the point where my mum had me baptised on the feast of the Assumption on 15 August, 1982. (Hey, it’s a holy day of obligation, she had to go to mass anyway!)
As Aussie Jesuit Fr. Richard Leonard describes his family “chronically or terminally Catholic”, so too was my mum who continued in the tradition by naming my brothers with similarly unmistakeable Catholic names Bernard Gerard Francis and Joseph Emmaus Anthony.
Even when Bernard became Greek Orthodox he chose the name Patrikos, a small concession to his Irish Catholic background.
But, as usual, I digress.
The process of getting used to this place, even though sometimes I feel like it’s exactly the place God has prepared for me, is difficult.
Even with the world’s most spectacular Jesuit missions and towns named after me, I find myself hating Paraguay for at least a few days.
I have to relearn the streets, find my unique rhythm, get used to a new routine, cope with a dodgy stomach for at least a week, and get used to the smell….which really, can’t be described.
It’s not the world’s prettiest city, or the easiest place to travel in. I feel a little less foreign this time, but I still have a slightly different “look” to the locals.
The portions of meat can be a little hard to take, and when the insides of a cow, or perhaps black pudding are served up next to a strange corn concoction that once was soup, sometimes it’s all I can do not to vomit right there.
In a place where life is lived between 6am and dinner is served at 9pm, it’s not a place for introverts.
So I find myself collapsing in tears at times. That’s happened about four times this week. Tears of frustration and of exhaustion. Tears of desperation that even when I get close to mastering Spanish, the kids in the barrio speak to me in Guarani.
As a teenager, my school friends would happily tell you that I couldn’t manage sleepovers or school camps. Any excuse to avoid camps was found, even to the point of faking illness; and sleepovers usually left me in attacks of panic where my parents had to pick me up early in the morning or late at night.
So, my missionary vocation is a good sign that God has a sense of humour. It’s not the creature comforts that I miss, it’s the sense of being at peace, being able to live creatively and with passionate expression, to a level that doesn’t take away too much from my introversion…it’s a hard balance to find, especially in Latin America, but, poco a poco I’m getting there.
I also like to get shit done, so, the slow culture of Paraguay, the mañana (tomorrow) mentality is a hard one for me, I still want to change the world now. And yet I know that I need to focus my energy on something and do it well and think it through. Projects here by well-meaning expats have a short life expectancy, and I have to keep reminding myself of that.
For me, it’s the faces of the children and their openness that reminds me why I’m here. I need to get better at just “being”. I have to be more attentive to listening and learning. Watching, but more than just through the lens of a camera, actually seeing.
I’m constantly worried about what next? What the future holds, what can be done better? How can I do more? Is it possible to do enough? What if I can’t achieve anything? As they say, life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.
I’ll be working for a few months here in Asuncion in the barrios of Banado Norte running workshops of music, English, art and hopefully a choir and music group with the sisters.
Then I will move to Santa Maria de Fe, a little pueblo in ‘Misiones’ where the sisters have a community, and where English theologian and journalist Margaret Hebblethwaite has set up an English institute, hotel, scholarship program and women’s cooperative (while writing two books and monthly columns for the Tablet in her 13 years here).
I’ll leave you with the words of Pope Francis who speaks here about Paraguayan women:
“I’m thinking of an example that has nothing to do with the Church, but it’s an historical example: in Latin America, in Paraguay. For me, the Paraguayan woman is the most glorious of Latin America. Are you Paraguayan? After the war, there were eight women for every man, and these women made a rather difficult choice: the choice of having children to save the homeland, the culture, the faith and the language. (http://www.jkmi.com/pope-francis-said-mary-was-more-important-than-the-apostles-than-bishops-deacons-and-priests)