My 21st birthday was spent differently.
Due to an impulsive decision (separate story), I spent the summer of my 21st birthday in Paraguay. Now, if I asked the Average American, "Where is Paraguay?" I believe most people would respond with, "What's Paraguay? Isn't that, like, near Mexico or something?" As for me, I at least knew which continent it was on (South America, btw...), but other than that, I was pretty clueless as well. Furthermore, my placement was in rural Paraguay. If there's one thing that's universal around the world, rural and urban areas are always very different. So coming from living in LA for 3 years, I was in for a surprise.
I arrived in Paraguay on July 1st. I spent the first couple days at a rudimentary training session, and then I found myself in the middle of rural Paraguay. It was different to say the least--I was expecting it to be a bit of a shock. My hope was that with my extremely limited Spanish (as in, "Me llamo Justin. Soy de America...), I could get by. I was sadly mistaken.
In Paraguay, outside of the capital city of Asuncion, most people speak Jopará, or a mix of Guaraní and Spanish. But what exactly is Guaraní? It's f***ing ridiculous; that's what it is. It sounds like French with more nasal sounds, but is structured like Japanese with gender agreements. I arrived in my community expecting to understand very little. Instead, I understood nothing.
That first week was rough--the other volunteer (Axel) in my community and I floundered about for those first few days. We did our best to talk to as many people in our community as possible. In reality, we didn't do much. And before I knew it, it was the second week and the week of my birthday.
Growing up, my birthday normally wasn't celebrated much. In grade school, I was lucky if my class celebrated my 'half-birthday.' Most of the time, though, during summer break, it would just sort of... pass by. So that summer especially, I was not expecting to celebrate my birthday.
I figured I would buy some cookies or whatever to share with my host family. I mean, I just met them and on top of that, I could barley hold a conversation in their second language (Spanish), much less their first language. I didn't want to impose or make them feel obligated to do something.
My community thought otherwise.
Yes, this picture is exactly what it looks like. A pig eating a pig.
So they killed a pig.
I guess I should explain. Living in a rural area meant most farms had some livestock. So, in an extreme gesture of generosity, I had a pig dinner for my birthday. (In Paraguay, a pig the size of a large dog probably costs around $80-100. For a family with an income that comes from selling chipas [Paraguayan bread] for about .$20 each, it's a mini-fortune.)
After killing the pig, they started a fire to roast it over. By the end, it would take all day to cook, while its tantalizing smell continuously permeated throughout the entire house. Instead of eating lunch, we sat around waiting for it to finish.
I remember Axel's host mom asking us if we were hungry. It was still early, maybe around 3pm or so, but we figured she was suggesting we sneak a bite of it early. Naturally, we said yes.
Instead, Axel's host sister brought out a large pot and pulled something out--it was the pig's head, boiled but mostly intact. Fork and knife in hand, I shrugged my shoulders and dug in. I was hungry. I've eaten weird stuff before, and so I figured certain parts were good to eat (I've had cow tongue and fish cheek, so those parts of the pig's head seemed normal-ish). It was an little unnerving going at the head still fully intact, but I didn't want to seem ungrateful.
We picked away at the pig's head right down to the skull. Some parts of it weren't particularly appetizing, but at least it was over. Right?
Wrong. Axel's host sister picked up a spoon and with two hard whacks, she cracked a hole in the top of the skull. She then stuck the same spoon inside, swirled around the brains, and scooped out a mouthful. And then handed it to me.
What would you do? Ignoring the fact that it resembled pinkish cottage cheese with veins, or its distinct smell of, well, boiled brain, would you accept?
Without hesitation. It is your birthday.
"Mmmm.... muy rico..."
After I licked the spoon clean, I handed it back. As for my chaser--another spoonful.