Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Chipa Loaves and Fishes

There is a miracle story in the Bible in which there is not enough food to feed the large crowd of people which has gathered to hear Jesus speak.  Jesus tells his disciples not to worry and to pass out the baskets of loaves of bread and fish that are available.  After everyone in the crowd has eaten there is an abundance of leftover loaves and fishes.  The food in the baskets miraculously multiplied.  Here in Paraguay, I am witnessing a similar phenomenon- the chipa basket.  I am writing this on Easter Sunday (Pascua) which concludes Semana Santa or the holy week.  For my host family, the holy week festivities began on Wednesday when the family came together to prepare Chipa.  Chipa is a bread-like food that people shape into loaves, circles (like bagels) and other forms.  It usually consists of flour, mandioca flour, cornmeal, butter, water, anise, queso paraguaya, eggs or some other combination of traditional ingredients.  The really savory chipa features pig lard.  When chipa is fresh out of the oven, it is warm, soft and, in my opinion, delicious.  Five days later, not so much.   Try to imagine rolls that don’t get stale, they just get harder and less flavorful.

The practice of preparing chipa during Semana Santa originated because Catholic Paraguayans (a.k.a. almost all Paraguayans) do not eat meat on Good Friday and the more traditional families do not cook, either.  Therefore, they need a meatless food that can be prepared ahead of time and eaten at room temperature.  What surprised me about this process was HOW MUCH chipa my family prepared.  By my calculations, the six of us could have had chipa for every meal for 3 days straight.  However, this calculation did not account for the gift of chipa- every time someone came to the house or we visited another family, we were gifted with more chipa.  My family is sharing too, but the import rate is far greater than the export rate.  Every time I think we are making progress on our chipa basket and the count is going down, a new bag arrives and the basket is replenished.  Earlier today, I sheepishly asked my host sister what happens to all the chipa after Pascua and she responded with, ‘we eat it’.

So other than the chipa by the plateful, how has my first Paraguayan Semana Santa/Easter been? Sort of like everything I’ve experienced in Paraguay so far: fulfilling, frustrating, tranquil and awkward and usually more than one of those at once. Preparing the chipa with my host sisters, mother and grandmother was enlightening because I learned the Paraguayan manner of kneading dough (apparently I was attacking the dough when I thought I was kneading it) and that a paloma (dove or pigeon) is slang for male genitalia which is pretty funny considering that it is a very popular animal for children to model their chipa dough.  Thursday was my favorite day by far.  Jueves Santa is the most popular day for most Paraguayans to come together as families as they celebrate the last supper.  All the men in the family were working this Holy Thursday but my two host aunts came into town from AsunciĆ³n with their children and we had an asado (barbeque) at my host grandmother’s house.  We spent the day talking, eating and drinking terere and mate.  The next day, Good Friday, utterly confused me.  After baking kilos of chipa in preparation for the day and getting a lesson at the Peace Corps Training Center on how somber the day was traditionally, I expected to spend the day at home with my family, studying or watching religious movies on the television.  Instead, my host sisters had friends over and my host parents and I spent the day visiting my host father’s family, eating snacks and then a full dinner which did not even include chipa.  I heard from some of the other trainees that their families visited a religious site where some people went as a pilgrimage and many others went as a social event as evidenced by the number of food and toy vendors that were there.  Saturday passed by like any other with the exception of the extra cleaning that was needed after the few days of household neglect. 

As Easter is an important day for my family back in the States, I kept hoping that my host family in Paraguay would do something to recognize the day- lunch, dinner, prayer, church, chocolate bunnies-anything that would make me feel a little more at home and help me to see what it means to be Catholic in Paraguay because I couldn’t see the religious significance in the week’s preceding activities.  Yesterday, I baked banana bread for the family explaining that it is my costume to celebrate the day of Pascua and that I had made it for the family to share on Sunday.  I asked my host mother several times what we would be doing on Sunday and when I was finally too frustrated with her vague answers, I directly asked her what time I could go to Church.  This morning, I went to Church with my two teenage host sisters in the nearest city.  As we arrived late and it was so crowded, we had to stand far outside and I was not able to hear or see any of the Mass but at least I was given time to reflect.  The rest of the day passed without event, excluding teenage drama between my mother and sisters, argued in Guarani which I felt fortunate not to be able to understand.  I found myself missing home and my family and wishing for a moment that I could go home, only for the day, and spend time with the people I love and eat chocolate bunnies to my heart’s content.

I am hoping that when I move to my rural site, I will be given the opportunity to better understand faith in this country.  I feel that it is more likely that I will be able to do this later on because my Spanish will improve to the point where I can have poignant conversations about religion without offending people (or so I hope). Secondly, my site contact person has already discussed going to church with me so I will have the opportunity to attend church as many weeks as I would like. 

I went to Catholic school for the majority of my education but I have never had the experience of this religion being so pervasive and yet simultaneously unremarkable.  It seems that the symbols of Christianity are everywhere: crosses, prayer posters, capillas, rosaries, yet I almost never hear anyone talk freely about God or go to Church unless it is for a social gathering.  I want to discover whether it is only my host community where I will feel this disconnect or in my future site, as well.  I moved to Paraguay at a time in my life in which I still identify as Catholic and openly say that I believe in Jesus but I am looking to explore my faith and the faiths of other cultures. I believe that I will be able to do this In Paraguay but definitely not by the immersion that I had expected because right now, I cannot see the place where culture stops and faith begins.