(This essay first appeared in (and won first prize in) the Palisadian-Post’s 2007 “Travel Stories” contest.)
Being 6’4 and having played sports in southern California most of my life, one would think I could play volleyball better than 5’4 Paraguayans, but such is not the case. I jump, swing, and blast the ball so far out of bounds it rolls into the neighbor’s yard across the street, startling a pig. My teammates, the opposing team, and those watching from the sidelines all laugh hysterically.
I have been in Paraguay 13 months as a Peace Corps volunteer and know well enough by now that Paraguayans love to laugh, be it at their own expense or others. They laugh when I mess up my serve; they laugh when I finally spike the ball effectively; they laugh at the sheer novelty of me—white, tall, bearded, barefoot—on their packed red sand court. When something is especially funny they let out a “grito” a long, drawn-out crowing that can be heard from the other side of the village.
There is a fair amount of crowing coming from the audience right now, and one of my teammates is giggling, but I can tell the other is growing frustrated. It’s looking like we might have to buy the opposing team beer, and it will be my fault. But it is more than the beer. I have learned, in my time here, that there are things, such as death and drought, that Paraguayans do not laugh at, and one of these things is losing at sports.
Paraguayans love sports. It is a hard life in rural Paraguay; the soil is poor, the electricity spotty, and sports, along with family and church, stand out as bright spots in the hard life. “Voli” (volleyball) is wildly popular, but “futbol” (soccer, often just called “El Partido” or “The Game”, as if no other game is worth mentioning) is king. In international soccer tournaments, including the World Cup, Paraguay, a nation of six million people, and one of the poorest in Latin America, routinely competes at the level of the European superpowers. Actually, it was during the World Cup qualifier tournament, the Paraguay vs. Peru game in particular, that I realized how important sports and laughter, though not necessarily at the same time, are to Paraguayans.
Practically the entire male population of my village was gathered at the only house with a television capable of receiving the game. Those who couldn’t fit into the small room sat outside in chairs lined at a perfect angle to see the television or stood peering through the barred window. I sat outside on a crate. At halftime the owner of the house graciously moved the television onto a table outside and everybody good-naturedly shifted their chairs. As the humid evening grew dark the mosquitoes began to swarm, and from the clustered men came a steady beat of slapping hands and stomping feet.
With three minutes left in the game and the score tied at 1-1, a Paraguayan player was fouled in Peru’s penalty box. The crowd around me broke out in shouts and crows. Grown men were gleefully rubbing their hands together like kids at Christmas. Even the señora of the house, smiling at the excitement, made her way through the all-male crowd to sit on the arm of her husband’s chair and watch the penalty kick. But when the kick was in motion there was nothing but silence, a pregnant silence, and when the shot was blocked by the Peruvian goalkeeper, there was no moan of disbelief, no cursing, but a sigh, a quiet sigh that said more than curses.
It was a sigh that said life is full of such disappointments, that opportunities are few and often missed, and hope a fickle thing. It made me realize that their laughs and ‘gritos’ are a way to overcome the fact that their life is all too full of such sighs, that life is hard, but laughter is ever a welcome release. The sigh was loosed and the game was over and the men began to walk back through the puddles on the dark road, back to wife and children and small houses, back to an early morning of work in the sugarcane fields.
There was not much laughing that night. But there is laughter and “gritos” galore right now, and my “voli” partner is growing frustrated. I am growing frustrated. Times like this, not entirely understanding the comments, looking sideways to see if their eyes slide to me as they laugh, I hate the laughing. My gloomy teammate bumps the ball to me, I jump and spike the ball right into the net: game over. I walk to the mercado, buy three Brahma beers, and by the time I return the crowd is howling in laughter at something or somebody else. I am happy to join in.