Tuesday, March 22, 2011

I know it has been awhile since I wrote my last blog and I know this is overdue. I have been surprisingly busy the past few months. First I went on a trip back to the states in the beginning of February to visit my boyfriend in Tennessee. This was my third trip back to the states. If you asked me when I got here if I would fly back to the States three times during my service I wouldn’t have believed it. I had a really wonderful vacation. I flew into Atlanta and Adam and I spent a few days there with his friends. Then we drove to his hometown in Tennessee , we also visited his sister in Nashville and his brother in Asheville. We moved around a lot but I loved meeting all of Adam’s family members and being in the South for the first time. It was really really cold but it was a nice break for me from the stifling heat in Paraguay. Mostly, I was happy to be with Adam again after two months apart. The whole trip was wonderful and it made getting back on the plane to come back to the middle of nowhere without Adam really difficult. Besides an unexpected 12 hour layover in Bolivia everything went smoothly.
Adam left for South Korea a few days later and has been there for over a month now. He has a year contract to teach English at an private English institute on Jeju island. He started with an intense week of training in Seoul and then relocated to Jeju in the south. He loves it so far and I think he feels rich now that he is earning a real salary after two years of making 300 dollars a month. He lives in his own apartment, has made a lot of friends on the island so far, and is working a lot. The institute sounds pretty strict and keeps him on a tight schedule. He is teaching several different classes from elementary to middle school ages. He loves teaching and loves all the kids. He already has a lot of funny stories to tell about cute things the kids say.
The hardest part about Adam and I being apart is not being able to communicate as much as we want. With all the modern technology in the world to connect people it would seem possible but not without its cost. One problem is that there is no cheap way to call between South Korea and Paraguay, from the US to Paraguay or the US to Korea there are a lot of options, but how many people call Paraguay from South Korea? So, we can only afford to talk on the phone a few times a week. Our second big problem is my internet connection. Because Fassardi is a remote little town we have a really slow internet connection and skype does not work here. So, Adam and I have resorted to chatting online at night. So I guess if Fassardi was a little bigger or more centrally located I could have a fast internet connection and all our problems would be solved. So, its all Fassardi’s fault. But Adam and I have realized that we don’t have to communicate every day because we know there is an end in sight to the distance between us and then we wont have to be apart this long again.
I am thinking a lot about the end. My dad says I have short timers disease. And I guess I do because I am constantly counting the months in my head. I mostly want to leave because I am so excited about what is coming next. I get to go live in Korea with Adam and start the next part of our lives together. Also, I am looking forward to leaving Paraguay. I realized this right when I got back from my trip to the states. I am tired of living alone and tired of the Peace Corps lifestyle. I wont miss the long bus rides and the travel. I wont miss the intense heat and the bug bites. I wont miss the other volunteers who party and drink themselves silly when they are out of site. Now that I am here without Adam I have been trying to meet other volunteers and make friends, which has helped me to realize that I was not missing out on anything by spending all my time with Adam.
Of course there are things I am going to miss about my life in Paraguay. I will miss the freedom most of all. I will miss being able to sleep in whenever I want. I will miss the kids that I have formed relationships with. I will miss my dog, Maddie. But really, I am so ready to move on.
I have been busy the past few months because of the library project. Things are really coming together and the library is looking great. Thank you so much to everyone who made a donation. It really means a lot to me. I was amazed at people’s generosity and willingness to help out. There are a few people who went about and beyond. My Uncle Roger donated two laptop computers. One I brought with me back from Tennessee and the other is currently in route to Asuncion, I really hope it makes it here. Also, my dad’s friend Bob Laks made a large and generous donation to my online fund with the condition that we name the library after him. So the library is now the Biblioteca Comunitaria Robert Laks. He picked out a quote for a plaque, which my friend Randi translated for me . Peope are very curious about this Robert Laks so I am going to have a picture of him framed with some facts about him for the library wall. So Bob will always be famous in Fassardi. My contact is convinced he is going to fly here for the inauguration event. Also I want to thank Suzie and her third grade class for their book donations. Suzie had all her students bring in a book in Spanish to donate to my library as a special Valentine’s Day project. What a wonderful way for the kids to get involved! Thank you Suzie.
So my contact and I are well on our way to spending all the cash we had donated. The first thing we did was hire a local man to install bars on the windows and doors to the library building. Theft is a big problem here and computers and other expensive things notoriously get stolen from school buildings in the middle of the night so bars are a necessity. Then we hired a carpenter to build all our furniture. Everything came out beautifully. We have 5 bookshelves, a large table with 11 chairs, a desk and a locking cabinet. We also had curtains made. Next we bought two desktop computers. We have made two large purchases of books from two different companies and are making arrangements to buy more from a third.
So we have spent most of our money and the rest of it will go towards books. We are also considering buying a projector. I have been spending the last few weeks cataloguing all our books into a digital card catalogue and we currently have 730 books, including the text books the high school already owned. This sounds like a lot of books but we are realizing that it is not. Our shelves are still looking embarrassingly bare. Books are surprisingly expensive in Paraguay and the money did not reach as far as I was expecting. I think this is because almost no books are actually published in the country and everything is imported from Argentina or Spain. This is just another reason it is so hard to find books and when you do they are always shockingly expensive. The only place to buy books in Villarrica, my closest city, is from a shelf at the supermarket. I always check the shelf when I am there to see if anything is on sale but most books are 20 dollars or more, which is a whole lot of money for a Paraguayan to spend on a book. No wonder no one reads, even if they have the desire to do so they cant find them or afford them. Just another reason why community libraries are so important. I am still soliciting embassies and other organization in Paraguay for book donations.
I had the best 25 pictures from my kid’s photography class framed and they are currently on display in the library. Also, my mom sent some really great posters to decorate the library. We want to paint before we hang anything so all the posters and photos are sitting propped up against the bookshelves for now. Its not so easy to hang stuff on the cement walls. We have to buy special screws and once something is hung its pretty permanent. I am going to paint a map of Paraguay on the back wall, similar to the world map I painted last year. I want to start teaching free typing lessons with the new computers and maybe host kids reading camps on the weekends.
Tomorrow I have a meeting with the new members of the Youth library committee. Some of them were coerced into joining but hopefully once they come they will realize it’s worth while. We are going to spend the day organizing the books, labeling them, writing library cards , setting up a lending policy and general library rules. We are going to make posters to post around town to advertise the library. There is a lot to do to say the least and this is just the beginning.
I think one of the best things about the library is all the wonderful resources we have for teachers. Supplies and text books are so limited for teachers and now we have a plethora of text books and other educational materials at their disposal in a very central location.
The hardest part is convincing people to come to the library and to make use of it, to teach them that reading isn’t just for studying that it can be enjoyable. I cant tell you how many times a Paraguayan has seen me reading on my porch or while waiting for the bus and made a comment about how studious I am or “wow, what a hard worker”. This is because they don’t associate reading with leisure or pleasure. The only place they are likely to encounter a book is at school where reading is an assignment. I want to laugh every time someone makes this kind of comment but it also makes me aware of how little books are incorporated into their daily lives.
I really hope to leave the library in good hands once I leave. I hope I can teach a few people about how to catalog books in to the computer, how to print out new library cards and to be consistent and enforce the lending policy, to name a few things. I have requested a follow up volunteer to come to Fassardi after me who wants to continue my work with the library. This would be the best case scenario because we still don’t have a librarian or an internet connection or thousands of books. These are all things that are long term goals that I don’t have time to complete but a follow up volunteer would be able to jump right in because I have provided the foundation.
That is the news for now!!

Sunday, January 2, 2011


Pictures,Pictures, Pictures!

Fassardi kids posing with their cameras during a special Peace Corps kids' photography course I taught

Fassardian taking advantage of the paved road to sell in season watermelons, just one example of tradition and modernity mixing

Myriam, my contact, giving instructions to the 10th grade class at the technical high school

Kids showing off their animal drawings after English class. Can you say bear?

The building where the future library will go at the high school. The room is currently used for computation class. Only one computer works. It will be moved to the new classroom being built this summer to free up space for the library.

The current "library" at the high school in its entirety.

The high school and future library building

At the geography camp in July. Kids so eager to learn!

Smiling faces!

Teaching kids about oceans, continents, and countries!

The Community Library Project Beginnings

Donate to the Jose Fassardi Community Library Project at


Post this link on your facebooks, twitters, send it to your friends, families, coworkers!!

2010 is over and it was officially the most challenging and eventful year of my life. Finding my way in a small Paraguayan community was no easy feat. Even after a year and a half, I still learn new things every day and still have days when I yearn for home. (Last week I learned that in Paraguay your cousin’s kids are called your nieces and nephews, no wonder everyone is related!) Although difficult at times, my experiences in Paraguay have also been very rewarding and I wouldn’t want to come home a minute too soon.

Since I moved to Jose Fassardi 16 months ago I immediately became aware of the overall poor quality of education in the elementary schools and high schools. Students have no access to books or educational materials besides the old and basic textbooks in the classroom. Therefore, the four hour Paraguayan school day is mostly spent by students copying notes from the blackboard which the teachers copy from a textbook. Students memorize these notes and then regurgitate it back for exams. The lack of classroom materials has led to the lack in development of critical thinking skills. Further encouraged by the dictatorships’ leftover legacy that discourages individuality and encourages one’s ability to blend in and be one of the crowd, students do not learn nor are they encouraged to think for themselves.

When I have observed classes or given guest lectures my general experiences have been frustrating because classrooms are run so differently than how I am used to. Students are disrespectful to their teachers (especially the boys, it is uncool to learn!) which causes the teachers to yell back insulting remarks back, not a very positive learning environment to say the least. Students from other classes are disruptive too. They come in and out as they please and peer in the windows and shout distracting comments. Students get up and leave whenever they want, hand in their homework or complete an in-class assignment only if they feel like it. The boys choose to sit in a cluster in the back of the class and ignore everyone else and on some occasions the girls will work on the assignment and all copy off one another or clump together and gossip.

Also, when students are asked a question they are generally terrified into silence. Students never want to answer a question or participate in class. They look at each other’s papers to make sure they all did the assignment the same way. This isn’t considered cheating. I have so often received 17 identical papers handed in. But can you really blame them? They were never taught to think for themselves. Creativity and individuality is not valued as it is in our culture.

I am not sure how anything gets accomplished in this kind of environment during a four hour school day, which often ends early or doesn’t happen at all when it rains or even looks like it might rain. Paraguayan children must miss more school than any other kids on the planet due to weather and holidays. Kids who live far from school and must walk several miles to and from school along dirt roads are trapped in their homes when it rains, the dirt roads turn into impassable river. In the winter kids find it too cold to leave the house to attend school and in the summer it is too hot. It’s a crying shame!

But don’t get discouraged yet, a beacon of hope shines in the educational system in Fassardi, her name is Myriam Ramierz. She is my community contact. She is the principal of the technical high school, one of two high schools in the center of town. She runs her small school with a little bit of discipline and lot of encouragement, two unique qualities found in a Paraguayan educator. Her students are proud to be students at her school and come from neighboring towns every day to attend. These students actually care about their education because Myriam gives them a reason to care. Fridays are all day classes. She does not accept tardiness, absences, and misbehavior. She has a strict discipline policy and classes usually run smoothly. My neighbors, both students at the technical high school, often discuss with me topics they have learned in class. They ask me for help on assignments, ask me to look up things on the internet for them when I go to town, buy them books , help with their English homework etc…They could definitely benefit from a community library.

The youth in Fassardi are under stimulated, to say the least, and are forced to look for it elsewhere. They spend their volumes of free time mostly doing nothing, watching TV (soap operas and dubbed Disney Channel shows. Hannah Montana is a huge hit), sitting and people watching, and cruising the new paved road on their motorcycles. Up and down, up and down. There are no organized sports, activities or events for youth, besides the one I organize.

During the winter break in July I hosted a geography camp for kids. It was two days of educational games and fun about the whole wide world! I learned after painting the world map that Paraguayan kids and adults alike are terribly uneducated about the world outside the small town of Fassardi. I decided on a geography camp to make use of the map and offer some knowledge. By the end of the camp, the kids could identify all of the oceans and the continents; they could find Paraguay, the United States and many other FIFA World Cup countries on the world map. Kids were no longer asking me if I took the bus or my bike to get to Paraguay from the United States. They started to appreciate the distance and space of the big, wide world. Kids were no longer asking me what was below Antarctica on the map. However, the second day of camp my boyfriend brought two friends visiting from Australia which ended up terribly confusing the children and to this day, six months later, children still ask me if I am from Australia. But we made some progress…

Can you imagine not growing up with books in your home? As American children we loved books! How different would bed time have been without Good Night Moon, The Hungary Caterpillar, The Giving Tree, or Where The Wild Things Are? Classic books and a classic American childhood. Paraguayans rarely have books in their homes, maybe a rare dictionary or some religious literature. I have heard stories from other volunteers who had to teach kids how to turn pages in a book because they had never held a book before.

Last year I wrote a blog about Fassardi as a town of contradictions, a town stuck between the past and the future. (I believe I wrote this when the main road was paved last December). Fassardi, like many rural Paraguayan towns, is struggling with the classic battle of tradition vs. modernity. With last year’s paved road came easy access for Fassardi citizens to one of Paraguay’s most modern cities, Villarrica, only an hour away. Villarrica is full of internet cafes, public and private universities, electronic stores, and shops galore. The modern world is slowly coming to Fassardi along its paved road and Fassardians are drinking it in. Fassardians are becoming more and more aware of the value of an education. Families, if they have the means, are starting to send their kids to university more often than to find work once they finish high school. Older generations are beginning to see that an education can lead to a prosperous career. This is a VERY new concept to come to rural Paraguay.

So, we have the first most important and most challenging concept covered. Most Fassardians already understand the importance of education, but they lack the resources or the know how to improve it. A community library is the best and most efficient way to easily serve the educational needs of the whole community. It will be a place where students, from kindergarten to high school seniors, students commuting to the universities, and adults can come to research school assignments, use the computers, print out documents, research professional and personal interests, or learn to read for fun. The library will serve as a public meeting place for students to gather, parent meetings etc… It will be a full service multi-media center for the public of Jose Fassardi, something they have never had before!
The library will be located at the technical high school in the center of town. Once up and running the library will have six large book shelves filled with Spanish language books, two computers, two printers, two computer desks, tables and chairs sets for adults and children, office supplies, curtains, and educational materials decorating the walls We are starting small but have high hopes the library will continue to grow for years after my departure. I have requested a follow-up volunteer to take my place in Fassardi in August to continue working with the library and the community.

Some of our future goals include accessing the internet, securing funds from the municipality for a full-time librarian, and continuing to solicit donations from local and international organizations to pay for more books, computers ,and other multi-media technology.

I have been working actively on this project for the past several months with the principal of the technical high school, Myriam, and a youth commission. Myriam and I have formed a very close working relationship and friendship. I spend holidays with her family and teach her two young children English. She is very active in the community and passionate about improving education in Fassardi. She and I have written countless letters to local NGOs soliciting book donations. So far we have received boxes of donations from El Centro Cultural de Espana in Asuncion, ABC Color and Ultima Hora (both newspapers), we are still waiting to hear from the American Embassy. We continute to write more letters. We have also received several donations from a few US based organizations that have shipped books to me in Asuncion.

Myriam and I submitted two grants to help support the library project effort. One is the Peace Corps Partnership grant that I have been advertising on this blog and by email to all my friends and family. This grant is funded completely by online donations. Peace Corps has established the “Partnership” grants in an effort to get Americans involved in Peace Corps projects. It doesn’t just take one volunteer, me, to build a library, it take a whole community and all my friends and family to get involved. This grant totals almost $2,500 and more than half the money will pay for books. This grant will specifically pay for a set of table and chairs designed for children ($76), A librarian’s Desk ($54), Security Bars for 6 windows and 1 door ($260), A variety of office supplies including folders, a door lock, paper for printers, curtains and curtain rods, fabric to protect the computers, ink cartridges, trash can and broom, etc.. ($200).

We also submitted and were approved for a Small Project Assistance grant with Peace Corps for $3,000. We will receive the funds in a few weeks, once the check is signed and sent from Washington. This was very exciting news! This grant will pay for most of the furniture, the two computers and printers, and more books.

Part of the requirement for these grants to be accepted is a contribution from the community. The youth commission has been raising funds for books themselves by organizing activities for children in the community. So far we have had two movie days hosted at the municipality. I borrowed a projector from a doctor in Villarrica and bought a few bootleg DVDs, we bought a lot of snacks and sodas to sell along with the entrance fee and had a very good turnout at the first event. Like I said before, there is nothing for kids to do here, so watching a movie on a big screen in the air conditioned municipality was a treat.

Also, the community is paying for the electricity and water bills, the parents commission is going to spruce up the place this summer by repainting and fixing the cracks in the floors where it always floods during the big storms. The building already has ceiling fans installed (a must!) and light fixtures. The school will also be donating a dry erase board and one book shelf that currently holds the schools entire library.

Luckily, many of the donations I have already received are children’s books. Therefore, while we await our financial donations I plan to host a kids reading camp to promote literature and teach kids that reading can be fun. I know many volunteers have tried this kind of event in the past and they have been very successful. Kids are drawn to books like moths to a flame if you just give them the opportunity.

Once the library is functional I also plan to give lectures at all the schools about the library and its benefits. I will also offer free computer classes for anyone who is interested. Fassardi has a computer center but classes are expensive and therefore only available to the well-off. (Computers are still an inaccessible luxury for most in rural Paraguay). I will also host my English classes in the library and offer after hours tutoring sessions and will encourage other teachers to do so as well.
We are well on our way to getting this library project off the ground. I am super excited and just hope we can raise all the necessary funds. Getting the money raised is just the beginning , the real work will start once we have everything purchased, installed and up and running.

I plan to keep you updated on this blog about the progress of the library, so check for updates!

Here is the link again to donate:

The kids of Fassardi appreciate every dollar you can donate to our library project!

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog and my project. It truly means so much to me.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Pilgrimage Season

pilgrimage n. A journey to a sacred place or shrine. A long journey or search, especially one of exalted purpose or moral significance.

December is the month of pilgrimages in Paraguay. Second only to Good Friday, December 8th is the holiest day of the year in Paraguay, the Day of the Virgin of Caacupe. Caacupe is a city located about 2 hours by bus from Asuncion and is home to an old and beautiful cathedral that houses that most famous virgin statue in the country. On December 8th, religious devotees come from all over the country to praise her at the morning mass. They come on foot, by bus, by motorcycle, by car, by bicycle etc... But mostly they walk, that is what makes it a true pilgrimage right? The very definition of a pilgrimage is to suffer for a long duration of time for an “exalted purpose or moral significance”. Many people, in fact, begin their journey a week in advance from the north and walk every day to make sure they arrive on time. Some crawl, some carry crosses, I hear...

Caacupe is about a 4 hour bus ride from Fassardi. I have no idea how long it would take to walk there, maybe two days? So to compensate for our distance from the beloved virgin the citizens of Fassardi and the surrounding towns have established a shrine to the virgin which they have deemed the “virgincita” or “little virgin”. So, instead of walking all the way to Caacupe, Fassardenians walk 5km to the virgincita next to the river. A lot less suffering with the same religious benefits!

When anything really important happens in Paraguay, it must happen at the crack of dawn. So of course we had to start our pilgrimage to visit the virgincita at 4 am. I set my alarm clock for 3:40 am and was all set for my very first pilgrimage, expecting to “suffer” the 5km with my all fellow Fassardenians in the dark. I hoped to see someone doing the pilgrimage on their hands and knees and maybe another carrying a cross on their backs like Jesus, just like the stories I have heard volunteers tell about the walk to Caacupe.

I set off at 4:15 with my next door neighbors, the family that has told me all about the pilgrimage to the virgincita. They say they make a promise every year to her to make this sacrifice. We start walking, all alone. Its dark and very quite. Only the few customary fire works are set off in the distance, but still I am surprised to see we are the only ones undertaking the pilgrimage. I was expecting the street to be filled with quite religious walkers. With no cars on the highway we walk right down the middle. My dog, Maddie, trots along side us. Maddie had been walking on three legs the past five days from a cut on her foot, however, this morning she is walking along normally and happily. Liz, the 17 year old, jokes that Maddie is making the pilgrimage to thank the virgincita for curing her foot and to pray for good health next year. Everyone laughs. Its just like this family to joke during a religious pilgrimage.

I am not Catholic, but I always thought a pilgrimage would be a somewhat severe and internally thoughtful experience. I thought people who embark on a religious pilgrimage would be very pensive and stern. Well, that is not how Paraguayans do pilgrimages. In fact, nothing about this walk in the dark down the highway feels very religious to me. Gustavo, the 16 year old, is playing the latest reggetone and top 40 hits on his cell phone. They ask me to translate the songs in English, one of which just repeates the lyrics, “Party all the time”. Its pretty much the music genre selection for any Paraguayan event, whether it be a 7 year old’s birthday party, a new year’s eve party, a Sunday, or a fundraiser for a mayoral candidate, so why not for a pilgrimage?

We make it the all the way to the river without seeing another human being, in the dark, down the middle of the highway. Once at the river we go to the little structure that houses the statue of the virgincita. Her altar has been freshly painted bright blue and decorated. The decorations remind me of a little kid’s birthday party, with brightly colored streamers and balloons.
About 10 people stand in front of the altar and are singing religious hymns in Guarani. We join the group. Every once in a while someone lights a candle and places it in front of the statue or offers flowers.
After about 10 minutes everyone is tired of signing and they sit down on the benches next to the altar and begin to chat. People also complain that my dog smells, which she really does. I don’t know what happened between my house and the virgincita but the pilgrimage made her very stinky.
Elisa, the mom, hands out candy from her purse to everyone on the benches. The teenagers wander off and sit on the bridge over the river. An oxcart shows up and starts setting up a food stand for the events that will take place later in the day. That afternoon will be a big party when everyone will come on their motorcycles, play in the river, drink lots of alcohol and sit around in the shade (Adam and I attended last year).
Elisa and Venancio, my neighbors, decide praying time is over after 15 minutes of visiting the virgencita, they gather their brood of teenagers and we set off again back to Fassardi.
By now it is almost 6 am and the sun is bright in the sky and hot. Now we pass many groups of people walking on their way to the virgincita. I guess they didn’t feel it was necessary to get up so early, only my neighbors. Although I will say now it is getting hot and we are sweating, at least the pilgrimage on the way for us was pleasant and cool.

The second most important pilgrimage in Paraguay takes place on December 18th in Itape, Adam’s site. Adam and I attended last year although we did not partake in the customary walk from Villarrica to Itape, about 20 km. We cheated. We arrived the day before by bus and walked from his house once we knew the festivities had begun. Some people say the pilgrimage in Itape is the rural version of the pilgrimage to Caacupe. Caacupe is a big city located on a main highway and Itape is a very small town only accessible by a dirt road and one really old bus. So if Itape is the scaled down version of Caacupe, I cant imagine what it must be like because Itape on December 18th was a full on circus.

Adam and I started walking with the crowd towards all the noise, we had no idea what to expect from the second most important pilgrimage in the country. If no one told us it was the epicenter of a pilgrimage, we never would have known. It looked more like a county fair on crack. The ‘midway’ was packed with every joe schmoe who came trying to sell you anything he could carry. And just like a county fair everything they were selling was all crap, tons of ceramic Winnie-the-poohs, jesus statues, nike tshirts etc..... The vendors seemed endless. And just like the county fair there were games! There were so many strange games Adam and I had to stop to watch and figure out how they were playing. One very popular game, and almost every other stand, had a cage filled with balloons and fan placed underneath which mixed up the balloons. As the player you simply reached in, grabbed a balloon, popped it, and won whatever prize was written on the paper inside it. Adam won me a tiny plastic crocodile.
Also along the way were a discoteque and a bullfighting ring. I had seen a bullfight before in Spain but Adam had not and wanted to experience one. I asked the man at the gate if they kill the bull and he said yes. So we paid our entrance fee and waited for the show to start. However, what we experienced was not a Spanish bullfight, although it had the same name ‘corrida de torros’. This was a bull fight Paraguayan style, it was more like a rodeo. The matadors came out dressed in the traditional garb but both stayed in the ring and proceeded to jump on the bulls back, run and flip and jump on the bull’s back, do double handstands on the bull’s back, and a plethora of other acrobatic moves all involving the bull. Then they would wrestle it to the ground, stand up, hold out their arms and the crowd would cheer them on as masters of the universe. Considering Adam and I were expecting swords, blood, and 6 dead cows, and instead we got 2 men dressed in pink and sequence doing acrobats we laughed hysterically through the whole show. It was very entertaining.

After the rodeo, the games, the vendors, and the sea of people, we had enough and went to bed. When I woke up in the morning I realized I never saw the virgin of Itape, people praying etc… It was a completely non-religious experience for me and was more people taking advantage of a situation to make a buck. It’s a poor country and when people see an opportunity they will take advantage.

I don’t mean to harp on Paraguay’s pilgrimages as “less religious” than what I expect them to be, or maybe what they were in the past, or make them out to be something silly. That is what I thought at first after experiencing them but after thinking about it I have come to a different conclusion, because I know for many people these pilgrimages are still very religious experiences, like my neighbors. After looking up the definition, nowhere does it say a pilgrimage has to be a painful experience, it is just a means to an end. The end being an “exalted purpose or moral significance”. So maybe all the vendors, performers, loud music etc… are just small distractions/obstacles on the path to the higher exalted purpose. I know it is also the result of a poor country that has slowly opened its borders to the globalized economy over the last two decades and now has cheap plastic goods infiltrating the economy like never before, needing someplace to go. This is the pilgrimage of the 21st century.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Email to the Family

this blog originally started as an email to my family but ended up being so long I decided to make it my next blog post, something I havent done in awhile.....

Hey fam,

Dad, Im sorry we got cut off earlier and didnt get to get talk more. Not including today, I have been pretty busy. I have been sleeping a lot better the past few weeks except the last three nights and especially last night I slept terribly. I think its because I was thinking about Jessi. So today I am utterly exhausted after three days of almost no sleep. I have stayed home and rested all day so now I am a little bored but still not feeling great.

The latest animals to invade my house are baby possums. They are the worst yet. Far worse then rats. They come into the kitchen via the roof and the rain gutter every night. Its been going on for a week now. I have tried rat poison, leaving the kitchen lights on, even Hobbes hasnt been successful. He almost had one, and was chasing it around the house for awhile and then it ran under my cabinet where Hobbes couldnt reach it. I stuck the mop handle under there to try and get it out and the possum ended up hiding in a cereal box that had been left under there, so I took the box and threw it out into the yard. Hobbes was left very bewildered and upset to have lost his prey but I was just happy to get it out of my house. But, they still keep coming back .
Baby possums are way worse than rats, they are better climbers, way sneakier and so disgusting. eww
My neighbors say possums have been a problem always in this house.

The optometrists came back on Monday. Their third time this year! They are a Paraguayan foundation called Fundacion Vision that offers cheap eye care services and surgery to the poor. I had orginially contracted them to come out to Fassardi for the day to do free eye exams back in March and the foundation was so thrilled with the response they keep asking me to come back. They come in a van from their clinic two hours away, with four staff members, one doctor, equipment, glasses and medicine for sale. Its a whole travelling eye clinic.
However, this time we had them operate out of the muni, that was not my choice. The only cost for them to come out to a community and offer their services is their gas and their lunch, which the muni must pays for. The last two times we did it at the health center, an obvious location I think. After two visits, the nurses at the health center know what to do when they come and are well aware to handle the situation so I have less of a role, which is the very idea of a sustainable project in Peace Corps.
So after I had made all my posters and my announcement on the radio to advertise the optometrists arrival, the secretary calls and says they want to have it at the muni because they think one of the nurses controls everything too much and nobody likes her blah blah blah... Its such bullshit. The truth is the mayoral elections are in less than a month and the mayor wants to take credit for bringing this service to the community. Everything is political in Paraguay. Even though he has nothing to do with the Optometrists, if they hold it at the muni, every one will assume the current mayor was responsible. It would have made much more sense to keep the consult at the health center where things were running like well oiled machine by now. But, the mayor is paying for the costs, so I couldnt say anything.
But, all in all the day went well. It was kind of nice, on my part, to have it at the muni because the workers took care of a lot of things I normally would have had to do and the nurses at the health center never had time to help me with. So I didnt do much but sit around and watch all day. My job was to make sure they got reimbursed for their gas money, that someone was going to cook them lunch, and answer any questions. They saw 60 patients and ended at 3 in the afternoon. Besides having to spend the day around the bitchy Brazilian lady that works there, it was all good.
The best news is that because Thursday is World Vision Day, the Foundation said anyone they found during their consultations with a cataracts they would pick up from Fassardi on Wednesday and drive to their clinic in oviedo, two hours away, operate for free, and drive them back home the next day. All for free! Nobody would have to spend a cent. This is an amazing offer to people who live in my town and cant even afford the bus fare to go to the clinic for consults, let alone the surgery. 6 or 7 people from Fassardi were given the offer. And I just got the call from the driver that he picked them all up and they are on the way to the clinic now! Very exciting news!

I have also started some work on the library project. The idea is to turn the office of the highschool, which is hardly used, into the a library which will be accessible to all students in Fassardi. There are two elementary schools and another high school all in walking distance. The library will be a full functioning multi-media center, with computer access, books, and educational materials for students. I hope it could be used a community meeting place and learning center.
I formed a commission at the high school with 5 students (all girls) who were elected by their classmates to participate. I am not sure if any of them really want to be on the committee, or if they just accepted the nominations in lieu of saying no. Anyway, we have meetings on Thursday afternoons before class and have decided to try and have a fundraising event once a month. I am going to apply for a Peace Corps grant for most of the money but the community must contribute 25% either in cash or in-kind/labor donations. We originally planned to do a movie day for kids before I came home but we couldnt find a projector to borrow so it was postponed. However, i eventually found someone who was willing to lend me a projector, the Rotary Club president in Villarrica. Adam has done a lot of work with him the last year for his own library project. Adam introduced me to him last week and he said I could borrow the projector whenever I needed it. So, we are planning now to do the movie day next weekend on Saturday. We are charging 1 mil, about 25 cents, for tickets, and we have donations for a cantina from stores around town. I bought Toy Story and High School Musical to show. We also might extend it into the evening and show films for adults to try and raise more money.
In the mean time we thought we could make jewelry to sell. I bought some materials in Villarrica and Sunday Nati, the president of the commission Raquel (who has actually been really wonderful and helpful), and Adam came over to make bracelets. The girls took them to school on Monday to sell but only sold a few, apparently nobody liked them! Oh well.
My landlords and crew were visiting next door so they were in and out of my house all afternoon, so I served the easter candy mom sent me. One girl described the marshmelllow peeps as "sweet cotton".

Hopefully if the movie day is successful it could be a monthly occurrence. I am also thinking about doing a ' fun with reading' summer camp as a fundraiser in December. The kids loved my last camp so I know they will come to the next one. Also, it will be a good thing to keep me occupied when Adam leaves.

My new English classes are going well. I am teaching on Thursday nights from 5 to 8 at the high school. I now have 11 students in my basic class and 4 in my advanced class. Fassardi's doctor is in my advanced class, he is the only adult but I really enjoy having him. He brings a level of maturity to the class that it was lacking before. He also knows a lot of English and asks intelligent questions which makes teaching English much more enjoyable for me. The teenage girls however are not happy with the class. They think the doctor is a know-it-all and want me to kick him out. But, I know they dont like being in class with thier friend's father and dont feel free to goof around like the last class. I told them I wasnt happy with the last class when we learned nothing and they would leave in the middle of class to hang out with their boyfriends and got so distracted in lessons because of their cell phones. So, I am very happy with how these classes are shaping up.

I am also continuing to teach my contact's kids on Tuesday afternoons. The last few weeks we have had a few other kids join in, which has made the lessons a lot more fun. My lessons are very simple and Im not sure how much English the kids are retaining but I really enjoy being around them and I know they enjoy the experience too, i also know they love drawing with my fancy American markers that I always bring. The last two weeks class has ended in a dance party. Little Jose gets out his dad's cell phone and plays reggaeton music and all the kids bust a move. Its adorable. This week we didnt have the cell phone so all the kids sang the words to Shakira's 'Waka Waka" (The world cup song) while Amanda did the dance.

This weekend Adam and I are going on a little get away. We have been talking about going on a mini-vacation somewhere in Paraguay forever and this weekend we are finally doing it. We are going to this hotel/resort near Caacupe that is offering a special for couples for two nights. It looks like pure luxury to me! They have a pool, a sauna, nice rooms, and hopefully good food. I am very excited! As of Friday I will have been in site for 3 weeks in a row, I only spent 4 hours last Friday out of site in Villarrica, that is a record for me.

The last week of October is Nati's quincinera, which will be a big event I think, held on the lawn between our houses, weather permitting. Then Halloween weekend Adam and I are going to La Colmena where he plans to run in a 10K. We have been there once before in January, it is known for the Japanese colony and the beautiful, hidden waterfall called Salto Cristal.

Adam and I are going to spend the last two weeks of November together, its our time just the two of us before he leaves Paraguay. Then, he is going on a three week motorcycle trip with his friend leaving from Buenos Aires and driving around Argentina. He is going to fly back to states a few days before Christmas.
We think we might go on another mini trip during those last two weeks. As of now, we have no idea where, I guess it all depends on my work schedule.
Plans for Korea are still up in the air. He has interviewed with two different English teaching companies and he is confident he will be hired by at least one of them. He could leave for Korea anytime between mid February to April. We arent happy about doing long distance and we know its going to be hard but we are up for the challenge, and what is 8 short months compared to a lifetime?

So that has been my life the past 3 weeks in Fassardi since I came back from the states. I have been thinking a lot about my family in California and Mexico, especially about my grandpa and my sister. Its hard to be so far away right now.

I love you all.


Optometrists give free eye exams in Fassardi

The kids show off their drawings after English class

Hobbes isnt so worried about the possums right now

Showing off my HIV/AIDS lecture poster

The current high school library

craft making at my house

First taste of a peep

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Back to Reality

I just got back from a vacation to the states for 2 1/2 weeks and it was an amazing time. It went by at lighting speed and I cant believe I am already back in my house in Fassardi writing another blog. This trip was extremely necessary and worthwhile. I was in desperate in need of time to relax and recuperate and feel a sense of normalcy. I got a fare share of all of these things while I was home.

Before I left on vacation I was having trouble sleeping for months which was affecting my motivation to work and my mood in general, I loathed the bitter winter cold nights, and was in need of a nice long reality check I thought the States could give me.

What I most needed from my trip home was sleep. I was finally able to sleep in a quite house,
in a big comfortable bed and feel totally unscathed. I cashed in on all the sleep I had
been missing out on for months and it was glorious.

Second, I needed food. I stuffed my face at every meal and enjoyed it all immensely. I am back
in Paraguay a few pounds heavier and a little bit healthier. I loved everything I ate, the first
meal I had to eat back in Paraguay was such a let down after 2 1/2 weeks of a feeding frenzy.

Next I indulged in all things I have missed from living in a poor, developing country for the past 14 1/2 months. I took hot, long showers twice a day, I drove with the music blasting, I went to the beach, I drank good beer, used high speed internet, and I watched a lot of TV in English.

I was over enjoyed to indulge myself in all of these things the first week I was back. Everything
was like a sensation overload. I didnt so much feel a sense of culture shock as I did a tremendous
wonder and enjoyment at being back home and feeling pampered for awhile. I loved being in a
clean home, having a pantry stocked full of healthy, good food. I marveled at how easy it was
to do my laundry with the washer and dryer! I loved being able to get in the car when I wanted and get an amazing amount of things done in such a short amount of time.
These were the things I loved. However, by the second week it was all seeming too normal again.
I was getting frustrated sitting in traffic and I was already taking for granted that our maid would wash my clothes for me on Friday. It was amazing how easily I could adapt back and not think twice about it.

But as the second week came to an end and I had visited the few friends I had left in San Diego and done everything I had set out to do on my vacation I realized I was feeling ready to come
back to Paraguay. I thought I wouldnt want to go back at all, that the US luxuries would be too enticing. But I realized that I have a life established for myself back in Paraguay, which is exactly
what I dont have anymore in San Diego. Once upon a time I had a wonderful life in San Diego.
I had a lot friends, a full social calendar, a challenging academic career, an apartment, a
roommate etc... Now most of those things are gone. There isn’t much remnants of my former
life in the States, and my trip reminded me that I am not in such hurry to get back.
My life is in Paraguay now. I have a boyfriend, a job, a house, a pet, and friends that are
all reside somewhere in Paraguay.

I am feeling rejuvenated now. I have a sense again of how I felt when I first got here 15 months
ago. I know I have the rest of my life to live the States and I shouldn’t be in any hurry to get back.
Also, it seemed almost a unanimous consensus from many of my friends and family who are working or struggling to find work in the down spiraling economy that life in the States is not all that awesome right now. Even from those who loved their jobs, they seemed to convey a sense that they all still had to experience that daily grind.
This really put a lot into perspective for me and it was what I got the most out of my trip home. I realized although I tend to complain about the inadequacies of life in Paraguay, that I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. The States doesn't seem anymore appealing. When I weigh the pros and cons, I think I am living large in Paraguay. I may only make about 300 dollars a month, but I am rich in my daily life. I can get out of bed when I want, I can travel when I want, work when I want. Life isnt so bad here.
The day I left the States marked my one year anniversary in Fassardi, August 18th. Now that I have one year left and I can see the end of this journey I have finally stopped counting the number months I have been in country and started counting the number of months I have left. So now I have realized I better make these last 12 months count.

With this all said, the best part of being home was seeing all the people I have missed so much. Although, the time I got to spend with them was always way too short. I was really busy while I was home and didnt even have the chance to talk on the phone with some friends. But I am so grateful to all the friends and family I did get to see. I feel lucky to still have such good friends in my life. I loved to hear from everyone who are fans of my blog. It is encouraging to know that other people are actually reading besides my parents. So I am going to keep doing my best to update. I especially loved to hear from my friend Margie who validated my point when I told her Paraguay had made me dummer and she said she could tell because my blog had slowly become less verbose and a little less articulate, but that probably meant my Spanish was improving. I took it as a very honest compliment!

As my bus turned off the highway today into Fassardi, the first thought that crossed my mind, was 'Back to Reality'.
Then I thought, how strange that this place is now my reality, how awesome.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Death and Motorcycles

Two weeks ago I attended my first funeral and saw a dead body for the first time.

I think I am lucky that at 25 years old I have not had to experience a lot of death in my life. Only since I came to Paraguay have I experienced death more up close. Peace Corps told us in training that two people die everyday in Paraguay from motorcycle accidents. In a country of only 6 million people, this is a lot. Motorcycles are everywhere in Paraguay, in the cities and in the countryside they are the most common mode of transportation. Recently Paraguay has opened five new motorcycle manufacturing plants which has driven the cost of motorcycles way down and made them extremely affordable even to the poor. Plus, companies make their product easy to pay for in a series of small installments. So, now everyone drives a motorcycle from 14 year-old girls to grandmas. They are cheap and useful. But they are extremely dangerous.

Motorcycles and their drivers have an entire image all to themselves in our country. They are badasses. But that whole image is lost in a country when everyone and their mother rides one. Motorcycles are no longer just for the daring and risk-taking, they are for everyone. So, without that image of the risk taker that comes along with the motorcycle culture in our country comes a false sense of normality and security in this country. Some people here understand that motorcycles are dangerous but still a different set of rules are applied than we as Americans would expect. Helmet laws are not enforced and so I rarely see drivers wearing them, except on the highway. I often see a whole family (3,4 or 5 people) piled onto one motorcycle. The respect we give to these death machines is lost on Paraguayans and caution is thrown to the wind. I am sure it is for some of these reasons Peace Corps volunteers are banned from riding motorcycles. The worst part of all is when teenage boys get on a motorcycle.

By far the most common drivers of the motorcycle in Paraguay are the most reckless. I often see young boys in my town speeding down the newly paved road, popping wheelys, swerving carelessly, not watching where they are going to check out a girl on the side of the road, steering with their feet, never wearing helmets, with 3-4 of their friends on the back, standing up while speeding, standing on the seat while speeding, drag racing,drinking alcohol, and the list goes on and on for what stupid things young boys think of to do with their motorcycles.

Since I have been in Paraguay I have heard so many stories about motorcycle wrecks and the resulting deaths of young boys. Although lots of women drive motorcycle I have never personally heard of a woman dying in any of these accidents. I have seen the wounds, scars, burns, and scabs first hand, even on little kids.

Two weeks ago two young boys from Fassardi died in a car accident one morning driving back from a party in a neighboring town. Their were 7 boys in the car. The driver, Elias, 17, dropped his phone and was searching for it when he came to a curve and didnt turn in time, he tried to correct it too late and flipped the car, the car went off the side of the road and flipped over 14 more times. The newspaper article I read said Elias died immediately. The other boy who died, 16, I had seen him two days before and he had participated in my lecture at the school. One boy went to the hospital in critical condition and two others were uninjured. Although the article did not mention it, everyone says the boys were drinking.

I was in Asuncion that morning but I got a cal from my contact to tell me about it. I arrived back to Fassardi that afternoon and the whole town was very somber. I had to cancel my English classes because all my students were at the town cemetery. Later that night my neighbors invited me to go to along with them to what I thought was going to be a prayer memorial for one of the boys in the next barrio. I still do not have a handle on the Catholic mourning process. All I know is many days of praying follows a death so I figured that is what I was in for. But it was the actual funeral, and I was not prepared. I didnt know the boy or his family and I felt like I didnt belong. The body was displayed in an open casket in a small front room with a large crucifix displayed over it. The room was crowded with Elias's loved ones. When I walked in I stood in the corner and didnt move, there was no where to sit and people werent moving around a lot. A lot of people were just standing and staring at the body, so that is what I did. Elias's face was bruised and cut up. He was a very handsome young boy. Two men stood on either side of him and caressed his face, kissed him, and cryed. This was the first time I had ever seen Paraguayan men cry and it struck me as incredibly odd. They are normally so manly and stoic.
Elias's mother was in the next room on the couch surrounded by her family and wailing the most desperately sad cry I have heard in my life. It could only have been the sound of a mother who had lost her only child. I was told she was living in Spain to save money and had to fly back when she heard her only child had died.
A woman came in the room and announced anyone who would like to pray should come in. The patio outside was full of mourners. All people from town, I recognized half the faces. The woman led the group in prayer with a stone cold face and without interruption for 20 minutes. When she was finally done she fell to her knees and screamed.
I finally found an open seat outside on the patio next to a friend of mine. We made some small talk but mostly didnt say anything. One of the boys who was in the accident but was not injured showed us pictures of Elias on his cell phone. A few people came up to me and asked me about the eye glasses I had ordered for them and when they would be arriving. Otherwise I sat in silence and listened to Elias's mother sob inside and yell out his name. Finally it was time to go. I was very happy to leave.

Elias' body was taken to the cemetery the next morning. Then we settled in to watch Paraguay beat Japan in the World Cup. It was a bittersweet day in Fassardi. The mayor called for two days of mourning and all schools and activities were shut down. Fassardi is a small town, a place where everyone is family or friends. When someone dies the whole town mourns and comes together.

It was a tragedy and one I hope I wont have to experience again during my time in Fassardi. But sadly, no one seems to have learned a lesson from the boys who died. The day after Elias funeral I saw people speeding down the main street on their motorcycles with no helmets and without a care. Young boys, no matter what country you are in, have a false sense of invincibility which hurts them in the end and makes their loved ones suffer.

Even though Elias died in a car accident and not a motorcycle accident, I felt it was necessary to talk about motorcycles because they are so omnipresent in Paraguay. My dad put the fear in me about motorcycles since I was a little girl. He has repeated countless awful stories about motorcycle accidents and always warned me about the danger. Despite Peace Corps rule, I personally hate motorcycles and have avoided them my whole life. In this way I am lucky that i dont have to rely on motorcycles as my means of transportation. I come from a country where I have choices. This is just one more example of the unlucky costs on life people have just being born in a poor country.