I didn’t realize it was happening until we were half way into it. I don’t know if anyone else did, either. My last lunch with my host family. A daily act that I have participated in with this family for two whole years. First as a nervous observer, then as an eager eater, and finally as a part of the process of preparing and enjoying good meals together.
The day before had been Thanksgiving. For the first time in my life I spent a holiday completely alone. It didn’t have to be this way, there were lots of volunteers getting together to prepare and enjoy big holidays meals together, much like I did last year with my closest volunteer friends. But this year I chose to stay home and pack. I only have a few more days in Calle 20 and several going away parties planned for the weekend, and I felt like the best use of my time on that particular Thursday, which happened to be Thanksgiving, would be starting the intimidating process of packing up my house. I ate beans for lunch, sweat through several t-shirts, and compressed my whole life into a few bags for the second time in two years. I got to talk with my family on Skype, and most of the day I was frantic with organizing, sweeping, cleaning, and packing, and didn’t think much about the holiday, but I couldn’t help but feel it was not the greatest Thanksgiving I’d ever had.
The following day my host sister invited me over for chipa guasu, the traditional Paraguayan fresh corn bread that is a staple of the summer diet, when corn is plentiful. After a long, chilly winter I was giddy with the prospect of diving into the sweet hot bliss of homemade chipa guasu. As I walked over to my host family’s house I felt the familiar rush of adrenaline combined with fear as the sky turned black and the clouds twisted into funky dark shapes. A storm was coming. When I arrived the preparations were already in full swing. The tender new corn had been husked and chopped off the cob, and my host brother was working hard to grind it up. Soon the preparations shifted to mixing the ground corn in with fresh cheese, lard, a handful of salt, a ladle of fresh milk, and into the oven it went. And then we waited for it to emerge, ready for us to indulge in.
As I said before, I didn’t realize at this point that this would probably be my last lunch with my host family. As the chipa guasu emerged from the oven and we stood around the piping hot pan, each with a spoon in hand, shoveling heaps of steaming fresh corn bread into our hungry mouths, it dawned of me. I thought, I am thankful for this family that has taken me in as one of their own. I thought, I am thankful for this delicious corn, which comes to us marking the beginning of the harvest, and summer. And of course, my mind turned to Thanksgiving.
One day late, it turns out I got my Thanksgiving. Unlike ours in the United States, which marks the end of a bountiful harvest year, and the unofficial beginning of winter (at least to me,) my Paraguayan Thanksgiving marked new harvests, summer, and the beginning of what we all hope will be a bountiful year. In the United States, we eat root vegetables, turkey, and pumpkin, staples of the fall harvest, foods we eat in a sort of final celebration of a good year. In my Paraguayan Thanksgiving we gorged on foods we hadn’t eaten for months, in a celebration of spring and the beginning, again. While in the United States version it feels like a final act to stuff yourself before the long winter, here it was a ravenous indulgence, one that we’d waited for all winter long, one that induces gluttony for the pure joy of eating delicious fresh foods again. And of course, like Thanksgiving in the states prompts many of us to count our blessings, I was reminded again, of mine.
We finished enjoying our delicious meal and my host sister looked at me with a tiny smile spreading across her face. Mba’epiko? What?, I asked her. She hurried into the house and came out with one of the biggest watermelon’s I have ever seen. Everyone let out a small cheer and we sliced it open. Pink juice ran down our arms as we stood together around the two giant halves of melon, spitting seeds into our hands, grinning. We indulged again. At the end of this feast, I felt very much like I have often felt after Thanksgiving in the states; stuffed. I looked at my host mom and thanked her, for the food and the company, but I realized I was also sharing with her in the thankfulness for the beginning of the plentiful Paraguayan summer which would lift everyone up again, bring food and money back into the community, bring summer vacation for the kids and teachers, bring humidity and heat that begs you to sit under a mango tree, drink ice cold terere, and do nothing. And of course, I was thanking her for taking me in as one of her own, for loving me as her own child, and for taking care of me for the past two years.
We sat afterwards looking at the rain, which had burst from the sky in the midst of our summer meal. The rain fell hard and fast, and hail even slammed down for a few minutes, but then it slowed to a steady pour, soaking the dry earth and our sweaty heads. After sitting for a while, I decided to go home. I desperately wanted my Thanksgiving nap! I said my goodbyes and sprinted out into the cool, drenching rain. I took off my shoes and ran barefoot in the mud down my favorite street in Paraguay, Calle 20, and felt more thankful than I have on any Thanksgiving in a while.