Posted in Paraguay: Adventures Below the 20th Parallel
by Eloise Hanner (Afghanistan 1971–73, Paraguay 1999–2000)
A Peace Corps Writers Book
$14.95 (paperback); $4.99 (Kindle)
Review by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993-96)
“Nobody goes to Paraguay,” asserts Hanner in her opening sentence of Posted in Paraguay: Adventures Below the 20th Parallel. But, of course, Peace Corps does. And so did Eloise and Chuck Hanner, They are among the rare people who become bored with making money and playing golf, and seek broader horizons outside their comfort zones. They are the kind of people who become Peace Corps Volunteers. Eloise and Chuck had already served in Afghanistan from 1971-73, shortly after their marriage, and Eloise published that story in Letters from Afghanistan. They then spend decades building their own little empire as stock brokers in San Diego, before they felt the need to move on. They did a long coast-to-coast bicycle ride for the American Lung Association, though neither had ever seriously biked before. Eloise wrote a book about that harrowing adventure in The First Big Bike Ride. The Hanners’ self-deprecating sense of humor comes through in each book. After the bike ride, when Chuck mentioned rejoining Peace Corps, Eloise replied “. . . with a weak, ‘Now?’” Her spirits sank when she thought of leaving her mother and close-knit sisters. Well, maybe they’d just have to come visit her in Paraguay.
Eloise takes the reader through the all too familiar orientation process, where she and Chuck were considered “old” ones in the group. Upon arrival in Asuncion they were taken to a “retreat,” which “. . . conjured up, to Eloise, something modestly swanky . . .”
As we drove into the inner city, however, this possibility grew increasingly dim. Litter swirled along the curbs, where there were sidewalks at all, and stray dogs slunk around sniffing piles of garbage. I stared out the window, weary and slightly depressed, but decided not to voice my opinion on the first impressions of the city, which were decidedly negative. My mood didn’t improve much as we finally turned down a side street into a compound and stopped. Obviously the location for the retreat. There was a big tree in the middle of a circular dirt drive, with sparse grass and bushes at the edges and some plain barracks scattered about.
“Volunteers always love coming here,” a female Volunteer gushed. “It’s such a treat.”
I wondered what life was going to be like if this place was considered a treat.
During their medical briefing they learned about a type of caterpillar that carries a virus that “makes all your organs harden up and cease to function,” and about a viper that the Indians called “the-thirteen-seconds-and-you’re-dead-snake.” Eloise sketched these critters with skull and cross bones in the margins but, when told about the well-inventoried medical kit they’d be given, she drew a suitcase with a smiley face. That evening they discovered the “colorados,” a vicious army of red ants, marching across their bed.
(Speaking of beds, I must add that many of the Eloise’s stories are so funny that I often woke my husband at night, shaking the bed with laughter. “No, wait, you have to hear this . . . . ” Groan from the other side of the bed.)
Eloise and Chuck dreaded the prospect of living with a local family during training, after thirty years of living by themselves, but Digna Dominguez, their hostess, welcomed them warmly, showed them to their comfortable room, and took good care of them. They steered clear of Lupo, a mangy dog, however, who bit once in a while — like the previous week.
Being corporate people, Eloise and Chuck had hoped to become business Volunteers in a city, but soon learned that their jobs would be to help “the poorest of the poor” through small business programs that included farming, animals and bees. “The more I heard, the more I felt like a college student who had wandered into the wrong classroom,” Eloise writes. They thought Spanish would be a cinch, since they already spoke fluently, only to find out they had to learn Guaranie instead. Distressed, Eloise signed and realized that she “. . . was not in the right frame of mind.”
Eloise and Chuck got to train with the local cooperativa. Training also brought farming lessons: Eloise visited a chicken farm where she was almost asphyxiated by the smells in the large coop, but Chuck had an even more obnoxious story after he visited a pig farm.
At their site in the village of General Artigas, they found a “relatively” spacious house, which they furnished with a big bed, table and chairs built by their neighbor, Rudy, and decorated with curtains that Eloise tediously sewed by hand. It was July — winter in the southern hemisphere — and so cold that they spent quite a lot of time in bed, always checking for colorados before Eloise “. . . snuggled up to Chuck for warmth and ignored his yelps as [her] cold feet touched his legs.”
The roof leaked like a sieve, so, in time, they had a new tin one installed. The first rain sounded like “. . . a chorus of hammers. . . ”
“Nothing’s leaking,” I yelled at Chuck.
“What? I can’t hear you.”
“The tin roof isn’t leaking,” I shouted again.
Chuck held up his hands in surrender and we both started laughing.
This story reminded me of my own experience in Senegal, when every pot, pan and cup littered the floor when it rained, until I had the roof thatched, an incredible feat by the local thatcher who toted bales of straw up a rickety ladder and layered them carefully across the roof. No more leaks, but the bugs infesting the straw showered down upon me. So I resorted to the tin roof which, like the Hanners,’ created a deafening din in the rain.
Eventually they set up computer classes, though without Internet access, just to teach people how to use them . . . in principle. When Chuck started teaching the boys basketball, they were saddened to see that two brothers came one at a time, because they had only one pair of sneakers to share. He taught a few boys to play guitar, and some girls how to make drinking glasses out of bottles. Of course, he was the most popular gringo in town — actually the only one.
Eloise and Chuck discovered that nothing was as they’d expected in Paraguay, certainly no resemblance to their experience in Afghanistan 25 years earlier. Except, perhaps, their leaking roof. From friendships formed in their village to a harrowing vacation in Bolivia, Eloise gathers stories about a Peace Corps adventure, which she tells them with humor, insight, and a masterful writing style. When you’re in the mood for “a nice book,” sans sex and violence, you’ll be captivated by Posted in Paraguay.
Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002, and wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, and of Haiti, In the Valley of Atibon.