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In a Rush? Try Spending Christmas in Paraguay


IRVINE — Cris Cano laughed when she heard about the frenzied, last-minute Christmas shoppers who storm the malls of Orange County every year.

If they think they're rushed and frazzled, Cano said, they ought to try holiday shopping in Paraguay.

"It's madness--absolute madness," said Cano, an exchange student and swimmer at University High School.

Certainly, Paraguayans deal with a rather intense dose of shopping stress. But first, a bit of background:

Instead of giving gifts on Christmas Day, Paraguayans wait until Jan. 6, or Epiphany, the Catholic holiday that commemorates the three kings' arrival in Bethlehem to view the newborn Christ child.

On the eve of Epiphany, children make a list of all the presents they would like the three kings to bring them. (Santa Claus isn't much of a celebrity in Paraguay, Cano says.) The children tuck their lists inside one of their shoes, leave out food and water for the kings' camels and go to sleep.

Then the rush begins.

Parents scramble around town, searching for gifts. Stores stay open all night. The presents have to be wrapped and ready before the children wake up the next morning.

It's a fun but frantic evening, Cano says, one she'll miss for the first time this year. That's OK, though. Christmas, American-style, has helped keep her homesickness at bay.

Cano, 18, is living in Irvine with the Lukasiewicz family. She is from the capital city of Asuncion, close to the border with Argentina. Her father, Victor, is an accountant; her mother, Rosa, runs a pastry shop.

Cano started swimming at 7 and was a member of the Paraguayan national team until two years ago, when she decided to quit the sport so she could spend more time studying English. She'll compete for University in the spring.

"I'm in the worse shape of my life now," Cano said. "So it'll be interesting to see how I do."

Cano, a senior, has career bests of 1 minute 9 seconds in the 100-meter backstroke and 1:06 in the 100 freestyle. Her times are above average by Orange County standards.

This swim season, which begins in March, will the end of her competitive career. Cano said when she returns to Paraguay this summer, her energy will be devoted toward getting into the University of Asuncion to pursue a law degree. At this point, diplomacy is her career of choice.

For Cano, it's a natural. She loves traveling, meeting people and learning about other cultures. Living in the United States, she said, allows her to learn about all sorts of things, such as high school football, brownies ("My favorite thing of all!") and the public school system.

Cano, who attended a small Catholic school in Paraguay, was overwhelmed by the number of students and the variety of ethnic groups at University. In Paraguay, children attend the same school from elementary through secondary levels. Between classes, teachers move to different classrooms while students stay at the same desk.

And in Paraguay, students attend classes from 7:15 a.m. until noon, Cano said. Then it's time to go home, join the family for the main meal of the day and nap for two to three hours afterward.

"Yes, after lunch we have our famous siesta," Cano said. "It's like a religion. When I tell my American friends about it they say, 'Hey, we want to go to Paraguay!' "

This month, Cano will see snow for the first time when she and her host family take a four-day vacation in Yosemite, and Thursday, she'll help decorate one of the floats for the Rose Parade.

That, Cano said, will be a great thrill. During English class in Paraguay, she watched videotapes of the parade and was dazzled.

"I am so excited," Cano said. "When I used to watch the films of it, I never realized it was in California. When I found out I was going I said, 'Oh my gosh!' I never thought I'd be doing this !"

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