Sunday, December 6, 2009

My House!

I am on my own! Six months, more or less, of living with families and I have finally moved out on my own. I have my own house in barrio San Antonio located 2 km from the centre of town. I was determined to move out and find a house so I made house hunting a number one priority. I told everyone I ran into that I was looking for a house and talked about it constantly. I could not go about house hunting any “normal” way I knew about. There are no classified ads, bulletin boards, or craigslist with empty houses for rent in Fassardi. Almost every evening for three weeks I walked around town and talked to people about the housing “market” in Fassardi and followed any leads I was given. I would hear about a vacant house over yonder and I would go track it down and then track down the owner only to find the owner lived in Buenos Aires and would come back to stay in the house for Semana Santa, or wanted to sell the house and not rent, or the house was already rented to someone else, or they didn’t want to rent to me, or they used the house for storage, or they just weren’t used to the idea of renting to a foreigner like me, or their sister came and stayed in the house from time to time, or the most common problem was the house had no bathroom. I had come to the conclusion that I was going to have to build a bathroom onto any house I rented. The entire house searching process was getting very frustrating when one afternoon I got a phone call from Toti, a kid in the youth group who lives out in barrio San Antonio. He told me the owners of a vacant house near him were visiting and wanted to rent their house to me. The house is huge, has running water, electricity, and a bathroom. And the owners wanted to rent to me. That was all I needed to know. We set a rent price, 250,000 guaranies a month, about $50 a month, and made a date to sign a contract and move in the next week. After all that hard work I found a house in 15 minutes.
I have lived in this house for awhile now and I love it. I love living on my own, having alone time, having my own schedule, eating when I want and what I want (not my host dad’s salted fried eggs for dinner every night) and being as messy as I want. However, living in and taking care of a Paraguayan-constructed home has its unique quirks. My house is huge and I have a big yard and it’s a lot of work for one person. Luckily, I have a lot of free time to take care of it. My house has two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, bathroom, and a giant dinning room/garage/party area, I still haven’t figured it out yet. Half the house has tiled floors and half cement floors. All the walls are made of wood and some are poorly constructed with lots of large visible holes and cracks, which makes it easy for the wind, leaves, dust, and bugs to enter through. And there are lots of bugs! I am an assassin in my own home. I kill bugs all day all night. When I asked the PC medical officer how to control bug infestations in my house, her medical advice was to not kill the spiders…they will help you kill the bugs. In other words, there is nothing you can do.
Not only do I get lots of unidentifiable bugs, lot of other critters of the animal kingdom invade my home such as fuzzy caterpillars, frogs, toads, butterflies, wasps, and ants. I leave the frogs alone because they also are apart of my anti-bug defense team. Yep, its just me, the frogs, and the spiders together against the rest of the Paraguayan militia of insects.
This house was occupied by a family for many years until the father died of a sudden heart attack (apparently in the bathroom) and the family moved to a neighboring town. It has been abandoned for the last two years and has been sitting and decomposing in the process, although many aspects of the families past life have been left in tact and I feel like I am living in a Paraguayan home with a Paraguayan family. You can take the Paraguayans out of the house but you cant take the Paraguayaness out of the house. The inside of my house is painted bright aqua, the color of every fourth house in the country. Also, the walls are covered with decorations typical of many Paraguayan homes. When Paraguayans get their hands on a picture or a poster of a baby, flowers, a landscape, Jesus etc… it will go up on the wall in any haphazard manner and never come down. If the picture/poster comes covered in plastic it will stay on the cherished treasure to protect it forever. In my house I have several identical plastic covered pictures of elephants, plastic covered landscapes and flowered paintings, lots of Jesus pictures, religious posters and inspirational quotes and the Last Super, three identical pictures of silverware and a plate placed side by side, a plastic Santa draped in fake roses (he is my favorite), a very large picture of a praying baby, and many outdated calendars. I think every Paraguayan home has several outdated calendars hanging around the house. It’s a mystery to me. During training I was in one woman’s kitchen and she had so many calendars on every wall of her kitchen. We asked her why she had so many calendars and she said so wherever you look you will always know the date.
Another fantastic feature of my house is my yard. I have a huge yard and some great fruit trees. I have two peach trees, orange trees, a mandarin tree, guava, and… the king of my front yard who stands the tallest and grandest above all the other fruit trees is the most gorgeous mango tree you have ever laid your eyes on! The mangos are almost ready and should be ripe in just a few days. Behind my house is a whole orchard of mango trees that the patriarch of this house used to sell during mango season. I will never be lacking a mango in Paraguay. I also have red grapes growing in my back yard. There are so many grapes I wont know what to do with them when they are ripe. The grapes shade my entire back patio and it is so pleasant to sit out back on a hot day. The grape arbor is one of the best places in the house. I also have an outside sink under the grapes where I do my laundry. On a hot day, I can do my laundry in the shade, listen to music and scrub my clothes while my neighbors’ chickens run around my yard and their cows stare at me from the pasture just a few feet away. Its can be very relaxing on a hot day and often I look forward to it. It gives me something to do when everyone else is hiding from the heat.
I can’t forget to mention my neighbors. Absolutely the best thing about my new house is my next door neighbors. I share a yard, garden, water, and my new life with my neighbors. They are my new Paraguayan family. Although I have only been here a short while this family has taken me in as one of their own and I already feel closer to them then either of my previous host families. I was just looking for a house to live in and I found the best family in Paraguay as a result. I think they worry a lot about me being a young girl living by myself in this big house and so they are constantly coming over to my house to see what I am up to. But I am equally over at their house sitting on their porch drinking terere and hanging out with them. I eat meals with them, go to family events and parties. I feel very much apart of the family. They have three teenagers, Liz, Gustavo and Nati. Nati is 14 and has quickly become my best friend. I spend the most time with her than anyone else in Fassardi. We garden together, go on walks, cook, and are planning a community project to clean up the barrio’s soccer field. I share my life with this family. They come and go as they please in my house and I walk in and out of their house as freely as I wish. Neighbors in Paraguay are family, and they are more family than my neighbors.
Last night was Nati’s ninth grade graduation ceremony. Graduation invitations are very exclusive because each graduate must rent the exact number of chairs they need for their family at the ceremony. The cost to rent a chair of course is cheap but it is expensive for Paraguayans to ever spend more than is needed. Nati had been talking about the graduation for weeks. She is the best student in her class and was excited about making her speech. She invited me to come to the graduation and sit with her family. Last night was the first time I truly felt apart of a family here in Paraguay. I didn’t feel like I was just the American tagging along. I felt like I was just one of the family. I was even given chores to help prepare like everyone else. Normally I am always treated like the special guest and they want me to sit like a princess, be served, gawked at, and nothing more. It was a great feeling to be included.

So not only did I gain a house and my freedom but a whole new family. This house is my own personal Paraguayan sanctuary. It can be dirty and hot at times and it’s a lot of work too but it can also feel perfect and feel just like home. And the best part is its all mine.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Tropical Climates Aren't So Romantic After All

I was inspired to write this blog after reading my friend Lyn’s blog and her perspective on the heat in Paraguay. She is from Texas. Therefore, we have a major difference of opinion on this subject.

The temperature last week made a drastic leap from a comfortable, spring warmth to a tropical, suffocating heat. Last week was the hottest week of my life. A few storms have now come and gone and cooled off this burning country, but I had never experienced such inescapable heat. I know places get much hotter in my own country but most places in the United States with intense weather can escape it with the miracle of heating and air conditioning. How lucky we are with our fancy modern technology we can live comfortably in any climate we want any time of the year! Mostly, we are lucky that we can afford such luxuries. Of course, these technologies have made their way to Paraguay but only for the well-off and the lucky, the majority must live in their environment; they must sweat through the heat in the summer and shiver through the frosts in the winter.

The last few weeks have begun the transition into summer and it is hot and humid, even during the storms. I sweat all day and sometimes all night. Often multiple showers are necessary. On those really hot, chart topping days I fall asleep at night sweating and wake up sweating before I have even opened my eyes. It is a sweaty world and I am living in it. But, everyone else around me is just as sweaty and we bond over our mutual sweatiness. We complain about the heat, drink terere, and complain some more.

Long, crowded bus rides can be very uncomfortable experiences. The bus drivers pack the busses to maximum capacity so people are stacked on top of each other in the aisle and their limbs, butts, baggage etc… take up location on the laps and shoulders of the seated passengers. We are packed in like sardines and the only air conditioning comes from the wind passing through the open windows when the bus is on the move. To say the least, a bus ride to the capital on a hot day might be comparable to riding in a packed elevator full of strangers snuggled up close, but for 5 hours instead of just 30 seconds.

Now, I have not only come to accept my constant dirty, sweaty state of being but fully embraced it. It is impossible to be clean and fresh for too long in Paraguay, no matter what corner of the country you are in or how hard you try. The dirt seems permanently stuck under my nails, my clothes never get completely clean because I have yet to personally master hand washing them in a bucket in the back yard, and sometimes I’m just too tired or lazy to shower after a long day of interpreting Paraguayans. It’s a hot, sweaty, dirty world south of the equator….but…I have the best job in the world, I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer…I can’t complain too much in the end.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


5 ½ months living over seas sounds like a long time to me. It sounds like a significant amount of time to learn and appreciate a different culture. 5 ½ months is the longest I have ever been out of the country or away from home so I thought by now I would feel like I really knew Paraguay, but 5 ½ months is really no time at all. I can’t believe I have been here almost half a year, that is unbelievable to me. The time has gone by dramatically fast. I feel like I am only just beginning to understand Paraguay, Paraguayans and how to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. I know my friends and family feel I have been gone along time but in my world I am still a Peace Corps baby learning the ropes.
As the Paraguayan pueblo becomes my every day life I am slowly forgetting what reality was like in my other world. North America seems oh so far away sometimes. I realized that I have found the lifestyle I truly was searching for in joining the Peace Corps. I am free of schedules and time constraints and the daily grind. I am faced with new mental and physical challenges almost daily and learn more about myself through these experiences. I am constantly meeting new, interesting people from all walks of life. I am loving the Paraguayan tranquilo pace of life and currently have no desire to go back to the US. I am surprised at how content I am to be living in Paraguay with not an inkling or yearning for my country. I did experiences some waves of homesickness around the three month mark during my transition into my site, but that has passed. I expected that much because 3 to 4 months was the longest extended period of time I had ever been out of the country. I don’t miss the United States but I do miss my family constantly. I constantly talk about my family to Paraguayans and PC volunteers alike, in Spanish, English and really bad Guarani. I have to admit I miss home excessively when I am sick. Paraguay is a tough place to be sick and I have been sick a lot since I have been here. I just want my mom. The only time I ever think, “what the hell am I doing here?” “why on earth did I come to Paraguay of all places” is when I am sick. But then I get better and thank god I get to live in the country for a little while.

A Paraguayan Picnic Pageant Party

I was invited to a picnic to raise funds for the ninth grade class by my next door neighbor. Nati,14, told me about the event a week and a half in advance and really wanted to make sure I would come to the party. As I got more and more information about the party leading up to the day I was more confused about what kind of event it actually was. Nati referred to it as a picnic and a party but it was going to be held on a Sunday night, starting about 9 o’clock and I didn’t have to bring any food or drinks with me. Then she told me they were going to crown “Miss Spring 2009” and have a little pageant. You just never know what you are going to get with a Paraguayan party.
The night of the party my PC friend was visiting and so he came along as well. The party was outdoors in a dirt patio. The all important stereo blasting with reggatone music had been set up and many many young men stood around the yard drinking and staring at each other. Paraguayan parties always have an improporinate amount of men to women. I found myself at another dull, male intensive Paraguayan party. I get really tired of these events and now just like to make an appearance. The pageant soon started and the crowd was in a tizzy as the girls came out one by one in less and less clothing. The three contestants took turns parading around the dirt yard in different outfits to the hoots and hollers of the male audience. Over the loud speaker the girls were introduced as they paraded around in their little dresses, their age was announced along with their interests. Usually their interests included singing, dancing, and reggatone and romantic music. It would go something like this, “Here comes Carmen in her night time dress, she is 16 and she likes to dance and enjoys reggatone music”. And the crowd of googly eyed boys and old men alike would whistle and hoot until she disappeared back into the house and the next young, supple teenager appeared.
“Ok” I thought, “So, this is what a simple, campo pageant is like out in the middle-of-nowhere Paraguay. It’s a little perverted and backwards but I can accept it for what it is as simple entertainment.” Then the next round started. This was the bathing suit/beach wear round. However, the first contestant was not wearing a bathing suit but very sexy lingerie. The crowd was wild with excitement at seeing this young, beautiful girl prance around in sexy, lacy, barefooted, nothingness right before their eyes. My friend and I couldn’t believe our eyes either. “This is a lie, that is not a bathing suit, that is lingerie and this is supposed to be a conservative country!”
And it still got more interesting. Round three a new contestant decided she was left out and wanted to join the pageant. This being Paraguay and not wanting to offend her, there was no one to tell her no. Also, not having come prepared with any outfits and being belligerently drunk the young contestant decided to take off all her clothes and parade around the yard in front of her equally drunk audience in her thong and bra. She was announced also to be sporting her bathing suit. I could no longer hide the shock on my face. I couldn’t believe this was happening in my sleeping Paraguayan pueblo right before my eyes, even the drunken Sheriff was over in the corner yukking it up with my friend and the rest of his drunken comrades. I was looking around, with my jaw on the floor, trying to see if anyone else was as shocked and horrified as I was but everyone else was either expertly hiding their horror or was enjoying the show immensely. My friend announced that I had brought him to a strip show. He was equally astonished and said he had never seen anything like it in his 1 ½ years in Paraguay.
The moment had come nobody had been waiting for…the end of the pageant and the announcement of the winners. It was the most depressing awards ceremony I had ever witnessed. Either all the men just didn’t care who won or where so depressed they didn’t get to watch half naked adolescent girls prance around anymore but they showed no enthusiasm for the announcements of the winners. As each place was announced and each girl came out to receive her bouquet of flowers, the crowd gave a pathetic attempt at an applause. Considering the racket that just went on when the girls came out before, I felt embarrassed that no one was applauding them now. Obviously this meant something to these girls and it took some guts to get up there in front of those pigs. So I applauded and cheered as loud as I could as each girl came to accept her flowers. I was by far the loudest and longest clapper in the crowd.
Drunken-underwear girl took 1st runner up despite only have one outfit and even came out to accept her flowers in her underwear, the crowd approved of this decision. The winner was sexy, lacy, lingerie girl. She had a crown unceremoniously placed on her head, the men soon lost interest when they realized she was no longer in lingerie and immediately pumped up the reggatone on the stereo and stood around, stared at each other and got more unnecessarily drunk. The pageant had ended. It was a Paraguayan night to remember.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Democracy is Love

I went into the high school to meet the principal. I thought it would be a good idea to sit and chat with her to kill some time. I had done the same with the principal at the technical high school and she loved having me there for the afternoon, so I figured I would have a similar experience at the other high school. I was wrong. I was hoping my first impressions of this woman would ware off after awhile but every time I am in her office I grow to dislike her more and more. She is rude and condescending towards me. She thinks my lack of language skills in Spanish and Guarani makes me an inadequate human being. This is odd because Paraguayans don’t treat me this way. They understand that I am a foreigner and trying to learn their language, even though they don’t meet many they seem to really understand. They are very accommodating for my lack of of language skills. However, this woman seems to think I am a total idiot because of my funny pronunciation. Her students get it, you think the principal would.
Anyways, the day I met the principal she demanded I give a lecture (charla) for her school in honor of youth month. She said usually throughout the month of September she usually brings in people to give educational lectures to the students and she needed to fill more spots and wanted to know right then and there what I could do. I was a little taken aback, she was very abrupt, but I had an idea in the back of my head that I want to start student governments at the schools eventually so I said I could do a charla about democracy and participation. She said that would be fine and we set the dates for the next week.
I had a few examples of democracy charlas and activities to do with youth in my PC handbooks but I also did some additional research in the Peace Corps office in Asuncion. I spent a lot of time preparing this charla since it was my first one I wanted it to be good. I had done a few charlas during training but always with a partner and with my teachers and other volunteers observing in case I needed help. This would be my first actual lesson as a Peace Volunteer in my village all alone. These experiences combined with my past year teaching and my years speaking in front of crowds settled my nerves somewhat. I definitely felt prepared. But I have never taught large groups of high school kids in a foreign country in a foreign language before. That would all be a new experience.
In true Paraguayan fashion, no one knew I was going to be at the school when I showed up that morning. The principal was out of town and the teachers weren’t prepared. So they decided to group three of their classes all in one large class all to listen to my charla. They all brought their desks outside so we could have enough space. It was my first real charla in Paraguay and I had 50 unruly teenagers to deal with. I just had to go with the flow and do my best.
I have no done this charla now 6 times and this is how it usually went:
I would start by introducing myself, asking if someone could guess where I was from and they anyone knew what Peace Corps was. I would then try to explain Peace Corps, why I am living in Fassardi, the fact that I am going to live here for two years, that I am not a teacher so don’t call me “profe” (I learned to say that only after the first charla), I am here to work and live with them, please feel free to come visit me in my house if you want help with English homework or want to talk about the United States or just want to be my friend. I ask if they have English class. They all say yes. I ask if its hard or easy. They all say its very hard. I respond, “Then you all know how hard it is to try and learn another language so just imagine how hard it is for me to try and give this lesson in another language. I know I speak funny but Im still trying to learn your language and that is why I need to you to help me. When I make a mistake I am not offended if you correct me, I want to improve my Spanish. So Please you have to help me.” They all nod and say yes they will help me. Paraguayans are notorious for their ass-kissing diplomacy. They would rather slit their own wrists then risk offending anyone else and will lie through their teeth to keep you happy. So you never know if you are getting a real yes or a Paraguayan yes. I am still learning the subtlies. So then I usually finish my intro by saying I don’t conduct my charlas like a regular teacher. My charlas are more like a conversation, its not about me talking and them listening because I am here to learn from them too. Therefore, everyone is required to participate.
I started with an icebreaker activity I was really excited to see how it would actually work with Paraguayan kids. I selected 20 kids to stand in front of the group in a circle. I had a big ball of yarn and one kid would start with the ball of yarn, say their name and their personal definition of democracy and then hold on to the end of the yarn and throw the ball to another person in the circle. The next person would announce their definition of democracy and hold on to their end of the yarn and then throw the ball to the next person until everyone in the group had a turn. This would be an easy activity for American high school students who are used to being asked to participate in activities and have to think for themselves, but Paraguagan high school students are a different animal. I was asking them to do something completely abnormal. Paraguayan kids are shy and timid for the most part and this activity was completely frightening for them. I totally put them on the spot. After explaining the instructions to the group they would all gasp in horror about what I was asking them to do. I just ignored them and tried to exude confidence hoping it might rub off on some of them. I would pass the ball of yarn to a kid next to me and ask them to begin. I know not to ask for volunteers because no one will ever volunteer themselves, I just have to select. The first person I select visibly wants to wither away and die on the spot. One girl even asked me to pick someone else. But I don’t give in and no matter how long they take I just wait for an answer. I think its good for them. This is something they have never had to do before. They have to think for themselves. A few times the kids were taking so long to come up with an answer so I asked them if they thought Democracy was a good thing or a bad thing. And they said it was good, and that was good enough for me, so I let them pass the yarn. And then the next four responses would be “My name is ____ and I think Democracy is good”. Paraguayans were never taught to think for themselves. Teachers write passages on the board, students copy it down in their notebooks and students regurgitate it back for them on the exams. Its memorization. They never really learn the material and the never really learn how to think because they are always given the answer. This is why when I ask adults questions about Paraguayan history they all say, “Oh, I used to know that, ask a someone in school”. They never retain any material. Its not seen as copying or cheating to give the same answer as the one your classmate just gave. If American students were doing this same activity they would try to come up with the most original answer, while Paraguayans want to give the most common answer. In a class I would get a lot of “Democracy is liberty” or “Democracy is right” or “Democracy is justice”. In one group I even got a few, “Democracy is love”. I don’t know if the kid who started it was just fooling around, was actually being serious or was just very poetic. But I emplore him for his creativy. However, every once in awhile I would get a bright shining star who might say, “Democracy means all people, no matter who you are, have freedom and human rights, and the right to elect who you want to represent you. Democracy is the freedom to participate in a government system.” Bingo!

The end result of the big ball of yarn is a big spider web in the middle of the circle. I read about the activity in my Muni handbook. It is called nanduti, which means spider web in Guarani. The web is meant to symbolize democracy. First, everyone participates because everyone holds apart of the web and had a hand in making the web. Second, the web is transparent. We can see every part of it. I would have liked to make a third point if I had multicolored yarn that not everyone is the same, different religions, colored skin, gender, but they are all united but I could not find multicolored yarn in Fassardi. Next came my favorite part (and which I forgot to do the first time because I was so frazzeled with all the disruptive kids). I had two or three people drop their yarn and would ask the kids if our democracy still worked without two participants. Some would say no some yes. I would tell them it does still work because we can still see all parts of the web. Therefore, we don’t need everybody to participate in the democracy to make it work. Then I have half the group drop their yarn and the web has now almost disappeared. I ask them if our democracy still works. They almost always agree that no it doesn’t. I say this means its because we need the majority of our community to participate for our democracy to work. Therefore, case in point, democracy doesn’t work without participation! It was always a pretty cool activity and went over pretty well, especially when I had smaller groups. Some groups were much more participatory and less timid than others, but that first group with 50 kids was ridiculous because we were outside, no one could what was going on if they were paying attention and the kids talk so softly that I would yell their answers out for everyone to hear.
Next I put up a visual I had drawn of the outline of Paraguay with a definition of Democracy written inside. I would ask a student to read it outloud in a nice big voice and then explain it in their own words. Then I would say this is only one definition of Democracy, after the demonstration, we know democracy means many things to many people, so we need to improve this definition. I had eight cards with different words them. I told them that in pairs or groups depending on the size of the class they would each get a card and have to decide how their word was apart of the definition of democracy. I would give them a few minutes, sometimes I would walk around and help them, then we would talk about it with the whole class. Usually they would be able to get the right answers. After we discussed the word I would have them go up to the board and tape their card to the map. I asked every class if they knew when their constitution was written. No one knew. It was written in 1992. This was shocking to me considering the year our constitution was written is branded in the brains of all American children.
Then I would ask the class now that they understand democracy, what is their responsibility in democracy. I was looking for them to say participation. Some got it, some didn’t. I then but up another visual that talked about the definition of participation and how democracy is founded on participation. I then asked how they could participate in democracy, right here in Fassardi. With this question everyone was stumped. No one ever came up with an answer of their own during this section, that was frustrating. I told them they could better inform themselves about current events in their country to be more knowledgable by reading newspapers and watching the news (even though you cant buy newspapers in Fassardi), I said you can form youth groups, help the environment, start a student government, petition the mayor, have a fundraiser. Some kids got excited about these ideas but lots gave me blank stares and looked bored.
We are always supposed to finish our charlas with a “check for learning” so I ended with another little activity. This always seemed to be everyone’s favorite part and ended up having a bit of a competitive edge to it that I didn’t anticipate. I indicated one side of the class room represented “democracy” and the other side represented “not a democracy”. I had written on a bunch of slips of paper characteristics that were present in democracies, dictatorships, autocracies, etc… Anything that was represented in “not a democracy” I tried to pick elements from Stroessner’s dictatorship. ‘Only one political party’ and ‘Can’t form groups’ and ‘no transparency’. For democracy I had things like, ‘open debate’ and ‘multiple political parties’ and ‘balance of power’. So I would hand out the strips of paper and the kids would have to move to the side of the room they thought was appropriate. Then the kids would read their papers out loud to see if they were correct. If someone was wrong their was always a lot of shouting and laughing as the kid had to do the ‘walk of shame’ to the other side of the class room, it was pretty hilarious. I thought of this activity all on my own so I am pretty proud that everyone liked it. I think it was a good activity because everyone had to participate but didn’t put anyone in the spotlight too much (except for the few unfortunate souls who got the wrong answers, although they were all very good sports and laughed at themselves too), everyone had to think for themselves but it wasn’t too challenging, it was educational, it was competitive, and it only took a few minutes. (Although, the pressure to decide what side of the classroom was obviously too much for one kid and during the shuffle he came up to me and asked to go to the bathroom. I said yes, but in 5 minutes, he put his slip of paper on the table and ran out of the room. Poor kid.)
Often my charlas would end and I would be bombarded by teenage girls. They would surround me and attack me with questions. What is my moms name, my dads name, what is their name in English, do I have a boyfriend, what is my last name, what is my favorite color, do I speak Guarani, can I teach them English. The questions never stop and sometimes the questions are really funny and sometimes they just cant imagine that we don’t have mandioca in the United States or only use our fathers’ last names. The fact that my name is only Jenna Houts never ceases to amaze them. There just has to more to it.
Overall, I think my charlas went very well. Although I don’t think my one hour lecture is going to change anyone’s life I think I made an important step into becoming apart of the community. Now I have interacted with half the teenagers in Fassardi (a good chunk of the population in the center) which means they have all gone home and told their families about me. Now I am not just the foreign girl walking around town to them. They know my name and know why I am here. I can tell after a few weeks they feel like the know me now, they aren’t so scared of me anymore. They wave at me like they have made a personal connection with me, sometimes they even call out my name. One kid came to my house one night for help with his English homework. I was so thrilled someone actually took me up on my offer! He also borrowed my extra dictionary…he has yet to return it.
So that is the news for now!!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Fassardi is a 4 ½ hour bus ride from the capital of Asuncion. Asuncion is a big, semi-cosmopolitan city with classy shopping malls and a wealthy, elite population. I was given a statistic during training that the HDI (Human Development Indez) of Asuncion is equal to Israel while the HDI of the rest of Paraguay is equal to Kenya. Asuncion doesn’t feel like the Paraguay I lived in my first months in country. In Asuncion I can find all the comforts of home…movie theaters, supermarkets, taxi cabs, outlet stores, you name it. But Asuncion is a world within itself, the country surrounding it doesn’t seem to fit. So boarding the bus at the Asuncion terminal and riding the 4 ½ hours to my site is like slowly floating into a different universe.
I love the bus rides. Its a time when I can truly relax and be just with me. No one tries to talk to me, no one bothers me. On the bus everyone seems to want to be left alone, to get the ride over with. Its fine with me. I spend everyday talking to strangers, trying to understand their language, sometimes painstakingly, and the bus ride is a welcome break. I love sitting and staring out the window watching the Paraguayan countryside go by and listening to my ipod. Its like I have a front row seat to Paraguay with my own soundtrack. Often I’m sad when the ride is over. I know I have to get off the bus and put my neck out their again. I know my “break” is over. Even though I just sat on a crowded bus for 4 ½ hours, I was entertained the whole time. The bus drives on a two lane highway carved through green forests, small towns and large crop fields and I have a magnificent view the whole trip. The bus drives through 4 different states to get to Fassardi. Women in short skirts board the bus to sell “chipa”, a traditional Paraguayan bread for $25 a piece. The bus makes two stops along the way in the two large cities. At the bus terminals I can buy chipa, sandwiches, ice cream, candy, bananas etc.. simply by opening my window and I will have a pod of vendors quickly gather below me. I claim what I want and the selected vendor will step forward and hand me my snack. I hand them their money, close my window, and go back to my daydreaming. I see the real Paraguay on this bus trip. I see how Paraguayans live.
The Paraguayan countryside is subtly beautiful. It doesn’t have the striking volcanoes of Ecuador that take your breath away or the bold blue and white beaches of Brazil (so I wait to find out). But the Paraguayan landscape stretches to infinity in subtle beauty. Paraguay is blue, green and red. Blue for the deep blue sky. Green for the dense, endless, forest. And red for the red dirt that covers the Paraguayan landscape, that stains your shoes, finds itself in your clothes, your fingernails, your ears, your hair, toes, and every other crevice of your body.
I know I have arrived home when the bus turns off the asphalted highway and onto the cobblestoned streets of Fassardi. (All the main roads in the center of Fassardi were just recently cobblestoned. Before, they were all dirt roads and now the buses are willing to pass through the town. It is extremely expensive to asphalt a road in Paraguay, therefore, many municipalities choose the highly inferior cobblestone which is much cheaper but protects the road when it rains.) The bus drives down the long bumpy road for 2 kilometers to the center of town.
How do I describe how it feels to be in Fassardi? Does it feel like a poor town? That is really hard for me to say. I’m really not sure. Maybe it would feel poor to someone coming here straight from a rich country. Maybe it would feel poor to someone who hasn’t experienced other parts of Paraguay. Fassardi does not feel poor to me. But that isn’t to say someone else wouldn’t think it is. For the most part, the people who live in the center of Fassardi live well and comfortably. They eat well and they enjoy small luxuries. Everyone has a cell phone, many have motorcycles, few have cars, very few have computers. Obviously, some families are better off than others. Fassardi does well because they have the wood factory, which means they have an additional source of income and they don’t only depend on their fields. Although the majority of Fassardians do depend on their sugar cane fields for income but sugar cane is a highly productive cash crop throughout my state, Guaira.
Most homes in Fassardi are modest, typical Paraguayan homes made from wood. Some are very shabby and appear to almost be in disrepair or abandoned but then people still appear to be living in them. A lot of homes do not have modern bathrooms, they have latrines. The elementary school just had a brand new bathroom built and it took four years of the principal’s blood, sweat, tears, and begging the state to get it built. Her efforts were well worth it because the latrines the children had to use were incredibly unsanitary. The bathroom cost $10,000. I took photos of the new and old bathrooms to make a before and after display for the school’s office…the difference is appalling. The high schools and the elementary schools in the rural areas still have latrines.
I spent one Saturday with the nurses from the health center driving/off-roading around the almost impassable dirt “roads” in the rural zones of Fassardi giving vaccinations. These areas are very poor and extremely far from the urban center. We were lucky we could get in and out in a day because we borrowed the mayor’s powerful 4 wheel drive vehicle, otherwise people’s modes of transportation are oxcart, walking, or motorcycle..
Fassardi is a town conflicted with the old and the new. Cowboys on horseback herd their cattle through the streets to the slaughterhouse and huge 18 wheeler semis loaded with the freshest sugar cane harvest share the same roads on their way to the factory. The semis are owned by the lucky, successful farmers. More common than the semis are the ox drawn carts loaded with sugar cane and the clippity-clop of the oxen hoofs on the cobblestone. Modernity is slowly reaching Fassardi and Fassardians are drinking it in. People are trading in their horses for motorcycles, the neighborly house call for cell phones., the speedy water heater for tea kettles. I see easy technology seeping into all parts of life in Paragauay, maybe some is for the better and maybe not. But Fassardi perpetually lives in a state of limbo between tradition and modernity and in the mean time the cobblestoned streets will be shared by hoof and wheel alike.

Two stories that mix a little bit of the old and the new:
Although the technology makes my life easier I especially love the tradition, I love walking by cowboys on horseback, oxcarts and horsecarts and women on their horses coming into town from the campo for supplies. The day before my birthday I was passing the time drinking terere with my friend Stefi when there was some commotion down the street. Her street is the thoroughfare to the slaughterhouse and all the cowboys walk their cattle right past her house on their way. Down the road two cowboys were having a hell of a time getting their cow to cooperate, she sat down right in the middle of the road and refused to get up. A crowd gathered to watch them struggle. Its like she knew she was being sent to her death. The cowboys were whipping her, trying everything they could, but she refused. They caused quite a scene and blocked the road. Cars had to squeeze around them to get by.
A week later, Mirian, my coworker at the muni, was flipping through pictures on my camera and came across the pictures of the stubborn cow in the road. She said that was the cow we ate for my birthday barbeque. I didn’t know what to say. But she sure was yummy.

Yesterday I went to the Fassardi Sport Club away game in Itape, about 1 ½ hours away. I drove with the mayor and a bunch of his cronies in what I like to call the mayor pimp mobile. It’s a shiny, purplish, super-slicked up pick-up truck and by far the fanciest car in town. If anyone is lucky enough to even own a car it is most likely a piece of crap from the 80s. Eduardi, the 27-year-old mayor, picked me up along with 7 of his friends and his 7-year-old son, that I never knew existed. We crammed into the pimp mobile and we zoomed off to Itape. First we stopped in Villarrica, the capital of Guaira. We all got out, sat on the curb and drank terere while the mayor drove off and left us there for 30 minutes. Super sketchy? He eventually came back, we crammed back into the truck and went to the game. The game was uneventful. We lost 2-0. Our team sucked. But on the way back as the sun was falling and Eduardi was dodging cows, dogs, and other animals in the road, one dog darted out in front of us. He put his foot on the break for a brief second and then realized he was either going to hit the dog or have to swerve. So, he pushed the accelerator to the floor and ran right over the dog. It felt like we only went over a speed bump in that monster vehicle. Eduardi laughed and said, “All I’m missing now is a cow!” Then everyone in the car had to recount their own proud stories of how many animals they have personally killed with a vehicle. Chiki, my contact, killed three cats in one night. To be honest, after living in Paraguay for 4 months I felt no emotion toward that dead dog in the road. There are too many damn dogs in Paraguay and they are pests, I think. They bark for all hours of the night, breed like rabbits, aren’t trained, shit everywhere, and have rabies. No one is going to miss one less dog in Paraguay, especially me. Also, I was especially proud of my mayor for his snap judgment skills. I think many Americans would have swerved that car and gone off the road to save the dog. However, with seven people in the car, two riding in the bed of the truck, and only one wearing a seatbelt (ehhhm, me), my mayor’s instinct to run over the dog and keep all the people in his car safe was by far the best decision. So, I felt I was riding with a driver with good instincts and I suddenly felt safer, and maybe (or oddly) had a little more confidence in him as mayor (Ill take confidence in politicians wherever I can find it!).

I have officially been in my site for one month, a milestone marker I think. So what is my next step? I still have no clue what kind of project I want to start. I really feel like I am still getting my feet wet. I still have a lot to learn, a lot to figure out. Sometimes I feel completely in over my head, like I am taking on way too much responsibility and I have no idea what I am supposed to do or how I am supposed to help these people. A month feels like no time at all. It feels more like a week has passed than a month. I really understand why Peace Corps needs us to be here for two years. Things take a really long time to happen. The days just pass me by. At times I feel this new, “tranquilo” lifestyle is addicting. I feel I can fit in by being lazy just like my neighbor Paraguayan and spend the day not doing any work too and feel like I am doing my job because I am “adapting” to the culture. But, I was pretty good at being lazy at home in the US too.
Its really nice to be my own boss. I really can do whatever the heck I want to with my days. I’m not going to lie, its really nice. The hard part is fitting in other ways. People are often interested in meeting me and I can communicate with people easily at first. But, connecting with people beyond that first encounter and making friendships, in another language, is proving a lot harder than I thought. I am supposed to establish a whole life for myself in this town and that means making meaningful friendships, but two languages and a cultural barrier stand in the way.
I am one month in my site but four months total in Paraguay which equals four months living with a Paraguayan family. Living with a family has been a great experience, mostly, but this past week I have really started to grow tired of it. For four months I have lived in someone else’s house, ate someone else’s food, lived by someone else’s schedule and used someone else’s stuff. And I have been completely content with this arrangement until just recently. I even thought when I first moved in with my family in Fassardi that my set up was so great that I might never want to leave but I have started to itch to live on my own again. Now that I am out of training, living in my own site and dictating what I do everyday I am itching to live on my own again. I would like not to have to eat lunch at noon on the dot everyday and not eat mandioca twice a day everyday. I have started to look for my house to rent and to fix up so it will be ready when I can move out. My mission the next few weeks will be to start making these arrangements. I think I will feel a lot more settled and at home once I have my own house.

Some Paraguayan Ridiculousness:

Spy Me

Today my host sister and I were on a walk when all of a sudden she changed to a very serious tone and said she was about to tell me something but “I didn’t here it from her”. She said people are very suspicious of me and there is a rumor going around that I am a spy. I have heard about this happening before and I can see maybe why people would be suspicious since I have come to live in their village all by myself and haven’t done anything yet that I claim I am here to do. So far I just go to the muni and sit around. But, come on, why on earth would the US government care what people in this silly little town are doing? NOTHING happens here. Its so ridiculous. But, I guess it goes to show no matter where you live or who you are you think what you do matters. My friend told me the next time someone tries to tell me I am a spy I should tell them I’m way too pretty to be a spy or pretend to take notes on what everyone is eating for lunch. Maybe I could even step it up a notch and walk around like Ace Ventura, sneak up on people from behind bushes, and pretend to tape record conversations with my cell phone.

Water Thief

I often get asked if water is expensive in the United States. At first I was really confused why Paraguayans always wondered about the cost of water. I tell them “no water is really cheap” and ask if water is expensive in Paraguay. They say “no water is very cheap here”. It turns out I am asked this question so often because Paraguayans are convinced Americans come to their country to steal their water. Paraguay has the largest aquifer in the world, one of their only declarable resources and something they are very proud of, so why wouldn’t Americans be here conspiring to steal their valuable water? It makes sense. We invade other countries to steal other valuable and expensive resources, like oil, so obviously water must be expensive in our country too. Logical right? But I live alone in this tiny little town in the middle of nowhere, so how am I going to steal the water? Am I going to steal away with it in my backpack? I don’t really get that part.

Here Kitty Kitty

All the cats in Paraguay have the same name. Michi. All dogs are given names but cats are all called “Michi”. At first I thought it was derived from the Guarani word for little ‘Michimi’ but everyone says it has nothing to do with this word, even though it sounds exactly the same. But everyone I ask still can’t explain what Michi means and why dogs have names and cats don’t. I have decided ‘Michi’ would be like calling every cat ‘Kitty’. Obviously Paraguayan culture values dogs more and that’s why they give them names. Cats serve a purpose; cats kill pests that invade the house they are not for companionship. They kick them when they meow, throw them scraps from the table, and mostly ignore them. Some Paraguayans still claim they are cat people over dog people but I never seem them pick them up, hug them, pet them etc… I believe Paraguayans would be appalled if they ever saw how my family and I treat my cat in the United States: we buy him special food, open doors for him when he demands it, let him sleep in our beds, clean his toilet for him, carry him from room to room because we want to be with him, pay for multiple surgeries when he gets in fights with neighborhood cats, ask about his whereabouts several times a day, the list could go on and on. My cat has a better life than many Paraguayans themselves. Its pretty pathetic.
My cat has a clown Halloween costume my mom’s friend bought for him a long time ago. Last year I fished it out of the junk drawer and dressed him up. I have a picture of my clown cat in the photo album I brought to Paraguay. When I showed my first host family this photo album and my host grandpa came across this picture he asked me if it was a photo of my stuffed animal. He couldn’t fathom anyone would dress up their cat as a clown or that a clown costume would ever exist for a cat. He had never looked through an American’s photo album before, maybe all Americans carried pictures with them of their favorite stuffed animals? Maybe all American girls have stuffed cat clowns….why not? It would be just as freaking insane as dressing up Michi as a clown.
My host family in Fassardi has a cat. They treat their cat like all Paraguayans treat cats and of course call it Michi. Being a cat lover, I cannot stand that they don’t even name him. So, I decided to name him myself and will call him by this name even if no one else will. My USA’s family tradition for cat naming requires all cats be named after someone famous. The reigning feline is Benjamin Franklin. So, I wanted to continue the tradition and give this cat a name just as profound. He is black and white. Or, half black. So I christened him Obama. Everyone knows about Obama and it is pronounced just like the Guarani word ‘Opama’. So maybe it will start to catch on soon.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Sugar Cane Field in Fassardi

Two friends in Fassardi at the local soccer game

The Post Office

Out in the campo visiting another volunteer, sitting on the porch, watching the sunrise, drinking mate

Parading around the soccer field after Fassardi Sport Club won the Championship...They were excited!

The Paraguayan Countryside

Fassardi main street and view of the hills

I call this...Paraguayan Cowboy at Sunrise

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Guarani and Terere

Here are some topics that consume my day to day life in Paraguay that are starting to seem so normal to me I am starting to forget what my blog-reading American audience will find interesting and starting to run out of blog ideas (I am afraid Dale is going to find this blog somewhat or terribly boring)….maybe that’s what happens when you really LIVE in a country for awhile. If anyone is ever interested in a certain topic about Paraguay or Peace Corps from my perspective feel free to suggest a topic for my next blog!

Thinking about Language Learning

I have never considered myself a language person, I never just “picked up” the language with ease and I was never a top performer in my Spanish classes, I was always somewhere comfortably in the middle. I really enjoyed my Spanish classes mostly because I was fortunate enough to have really fabulous Spanish teachers in high school (which I really did not come to realize until the last year or two) and I worked hard in those classes because I was a good student. Also, I firmly believe that an excellent teacher can make any student enjoy any subject material, no matter what it is. For example, I even enjoyed physics class in high school because I had the most charismatic, out-of-this-world teacher. So, I don’t think I was predisposed to become a Spanish speaker (I wanted to take American Sign Language and my dad forbid it and forced me to take Spanish, he said I would thank him later…so Thank You Dad, I think you changed my life!). So I think my ability now to speak Spanish was created from a combination of my great teachers, my endless brown-nosing desire to please them, and a general growing enthusiasm for the language after I realized I had a minor aptitude for it…nowhere compared to my terrible math skills. Part nature part nurture. I know not all my classmates from San Dieguito felt the same way about our Spanish classes and maybe some just hate language or just don’t have the capacity to learn another language. But I know I was extremely lucky to have Spanish class at that institution. Who knows, I may not be in Paraguay today if it weren’t for them (So thank you Mrs. McClusky and Co!) I always said language class was the most beneficial thing anyone could ever get out of high school…look where it took me.
I have been thinking a lot lately about my Spanish education career as I try to undertake the daunting task of cramming another language into my brain. I have realized learning a language is all about learning style. I have always known I am not a “language person”, I could never listen to people speaking a foreign language and eventually learn to speak it myself. I know these people exist, they are some of my fellow trainees and Peace Corps Volunteers, some who came to Paraguay without a lick of Spanish or Guarani and now speak both without a hitch. Although I did not really learn to speak Spanish in my ten years of sitting in a classroom, those countless hours of drills, repetition activities, videos, homework, and textbook reading were the way I learned the foundation of the language I needed to be able to speak it. Of course, there is no other way to become fluent in a language than being completely immersed in it, this is obvious, but those ten years of classroom lessons are also invaluable to my understanding of the Spanish language. Now, I am trying to learn a new language in a totally different style. I had three months of formal language class but three months worth of lessons covers a pathetic amount of material when it comes to an entire language. So, I am almost starting from scratch and sitting and listening to foreign conversations everyday and wondering how people just “pick up” a language this way. I am a formal language learner, there is no other way around it. I need the classes everyday: the drills, the homework, the worksheets, the stupid dramas, and textbook passages. I never thought I would have a craving for a fill-in-the-blank worksheet in my life, but now I certainly do. Or maybe I am just a big nerd. These things do not exist outside of PC training. There are no textbooks or classes for Jopara, the mix of Spanish and Guarani Paraguayans speak. Paraguayan children learn pure Guarani in schools and so many of these textbooks exist. But considering a very small portion of the population actually speaks pure Guarani, these texts are really useless to me. I have also have never been very good at self induced study. So making myself study this language all on my own is not so appetizing when I don’t have to turn in an assignment for a grade or show a teacher what a shining student I am. I would rather take a nap.
People are constantly trying to teach me words in Guarani, but Guarani is different from Spanish in that the words don’t stick with me. Spanish is similar enough in its sound structure and lexicon to English that I can hear a word, ask its meaning, and easily hold on to it and use it in conversation the next day. This is not the case for Guarani. Guarani’s sound structure is so completely different than English and Spanish that words just sound like mumbo jumbo and they go in one ear and out the other. Sometimes I want to reply, “How can that possibly be a word? You are just spitting out a bunch of vowels and grunting like a caveman, that can’t possibly be a word!” Sometimes I think Guarani words are beautiful and sometimes they are nothing but maddening. I usually try to repeat the word out loud several times to try and hang on to it, but alas, I will have forgotten 5 minutes later. I have to hear and possibly see, and be retold the meaning of a Guarani word 10-15 times before I am really going to get it.
But people do learn this language. I have heard many of my fellow countrymen speak it with ease and I am nothing but green with envy when they do. Of course, I don’t have to learn Guarani. My brother Reuben, the secretary of the city council, says I speak better Spanish than some of the city council members (I like him!). I could get by just fine and live a content life here in Paraguay without speaking Guarani, and a lot of volunteers do just that. But, Guarani is the language of the people, it’s the language in their hearts and sometimes I think it pains them to have to only speak Spanish to me. Guarani is a very malleable language, its traditionally a spoken language and therefore doesn’t have a lot of structure or rules and Paraguayans twist and turn it to fit their moods. It’s the language they joke in, the language they cry in, the language they celebrate in. Guarani is their language of expression. Spanish is their language of textbooks, official documents, and politicians. Guarani is the people, Guarani is the culture. So if I really want to start to understand Paraguay and Paraguayans….its Guarani or go home
Terere: “It’s like Crack to These People”
-Fellow PCV

How have I written 10 blogs and not written about terere? If a Paraguayan ever read this they might think it was a crime. If you have ever traveled to the Southern Cone than no doubt you are familiar with the infamous yerba mate South Americans are additcted to. It is ubiquitous in Paraguay, Argentina, Urugauay and apparently some parts of Brazil. But just like they speak their Spanish, every country drinks their yerba mate just a little differently. And just like their Spanish, it is an intimately important part of the culture, and you never leave home without it.
I am sure you can google terere or mate and get a perfectly good definition on wikipedia, which you should do if my explanation doesn’t satisfy you. I have tried to explain it to my dad over the phone several times and I still think he doesn’t get it. I don’t know if its because he is getting old or because my descriptive skills fail me but each time the conversation ends with, “you’ll just see when you get here.”
Yerba mate is a plant similar to plants grown for tea. In fact, I think of terere as a very different spin on tea. You can buy yerba mate tea from organic supermarkets in the states and drink it how we Americans/Europeans like to drink tea, with a tea bag immersed in a cup of hot water. Paraguayans do it differently. First, there are no cups and there are no tea bags. Terere is drunk from a gourd. The gourd can be made of wood or metal and they come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes the gourd looks like half a ram’s horn. You fill the gourd almost to the top with the leafy yerba mate plant. Then you pour water into the yerba until it reaches the top and drink the water through a filtered straw. This is your basic mate all around the Southern Cone, but of course every country has its own spin. Mate means you pour steamy hot water into your gourd and Terere means you pour ice cold water into your gourd. That is the only difference. Argentineans only drink mate and Paraguayans drink both because of the drastic climate change. Since I arrived in the winter I didn’t understand what all this terere talk was about, I fully enjoyed the hot mate everyone was drinking. But now that the temperature has taken a sudden swing into the scalding summer with no warning all I want is that ice cold terere.
Paraguayans drink their terere and mate all day everyday everywhere they go. Ask anyone who has been to Paraguay, I am not exaggerating in the least. A girl from my training group said, “Its like crack to these people”. I think she summed up their addiction perfectly. Instead of purses, women walk around with their thermoses and guampas (gourd). They have specially designed purses, fashionable ones at that, to fit their thermos, guampa and cell phone. Thermoses and guampas come in all kinds of feminine colors and sizes and can be bought absolutely anywhere in Paraguay. Thermoses are a more common sale item at any bus stop/newsstand/roadside fruit stand etc… than the actual item being sold. Thermoses are ubiquitous throughout Paraguay. I strongly believe that if the thermos was never invented Paraguay probably would not be a country, just an empty wasteland. Men are equally addicted to their terere/mate and walk around with their specialized thermoses and guampas with their favorite soccer team logo blazed into the side of the macho leather carrying case. Sometimes I think Paraguayans are willing to spend more money on their thermoses then their houses or children’s education. Even city bus drivers have a secure location for their thermoses, with an easy press spout, so they can drink their terere and constantly refill with one hand on the wheel and one hand on their guampa….and one hand to open the door and one hand to collect the bus fare and count change???
Drinking terere is the national pastime of Paraguay. If nothing is going on you can always go over to your neighbor’s house and bet the family will want to drink terere with you morning, noon or night. My friend will say, “Come over tomorrow and we will drink terere” like there was an option to do anything else. But you don’t have to ever be invited to drink terere. You can just sit down with a group of Paraguayans and you can guarantee a gourd will eventually end up in your hands. Terere is a social experience and there are several unwritten rules, norms and taboos if you will, every visitor to Paraguay must know about terere drinking. In a group of terere drinkers, there is one gourd, one thermos and one server. The server will fill the guampa and hand it to the person next to them. When they have sucked all the water out of it they will hand it back to the server who refills it and hands it to the next person, and around and around it goes, for hours upon hours it can last. After an hour of drinking terere I get very full and feel I have had enough. I can take a brake and then start up again with another group later, who will be sure to offer it to me, but Paraguayans never seem to need a break. If you want to stop drinking just tell your server, “Gracias” and they know you are done and will skip you the next time the gourd comes your way. The fact that “Gracias” in Paraguay actually means “No Gracias” is a Paraguayan cultural quirk that we Americans have a hard time grappling with because there is no other clear way to say thank you, because Paraguayans don’t expressly say thank you for everything how we do. I have now become overly aware of how often in one day I feel the need to say thank you, I never realized this was a cultural attribute, I just thought I was being polite. I now have to stop myself from saying thank you all the time, it makes me look weird and makes them feel awkward because they don’t really have a way to say your welcome…..but that was a tanget….back to terere.
So everyone in the group shares the same gourd and the same straw. No care in the world for germs, it’s a germ free for all! Yeah, pretty much. And if the idea of sucking on a straw with a group of strangers freaks you out then you don’t have to drink the terere. Paraguayans have come up with a bunch of fabulous passive phrases to get out of terere drinking in order not to offend anyone such as, “I just drank some milk” or “I just had a mandarin” because combining any of these items in your stomach would certainly lead to death. But I have never considered myself a germ-aphobe and I thoroughly enjoy the terere/mate and the whole terere drinking cultural/social experience and so I think it is a risk worth taking. Some volunteers totally opt out of drinking terere the whole time they are here because of the germ sharing phobia but I would equate this on the same level as not trying to learn Guarani. Just a bunch of leaves in a gourd may not seem like a lot but Paraguay is a poor country and they don’t have a lot to offer, but they can offer you their terere and they are sure damn proud of it. Guarani and Terere ARE Paraguay. So….what is today’s lesson? Drink your terere and speak your Guarani (as pitiful as it may be) and love your fellow Paraguayan.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Meet Jose Fassardi- My New Big Happy Paraguayan Family, La Radio So’o, Boyfriend Shmoyfriend, Mail it to the American, Peace Corps is a 24 Hour a Day

My House on the right and family store on the left

My site has all the small town charm a Paraguayan village should have and I have experienced a heaping handful of this charm in my short time here. Peace Corps training the last three months prepared me to deal with the “Paraguayness” of a small town and I have heard dozens upon dozens of stories from other volunteers who live in small towns like mine, if not smaller, and small town life is rather charming, but some of it is going to get some getting used to.
I have found a wonderful new host family to live with. I set myself up with the most perfect living situation I think I could find. I have two rooms in the front of the house to myself with a door to the outside patio so I can come and go as I please. I have a lot of space and plenty of privacy. My family is made up of my host dad Don Silvio, my host mom Na Kale (Short for Doña) and my host sister Clara. Don Silvio is in his early 60s although looks much older and has the sweetest old man demeanor about him. He doesn’t talk a lot, probably because he can’t get a word in with Clara and Na Kale around, but he sure is sweet. My first night here Na Kale and Clara were not here so just me and Don Silvio sat around together. He was really shy at first, he seemed embarrassed when I would talk to him directly, but now he is coming around. Although, that first night he really got the idea that I was there to be apart of their family and already was calling me “mi hija”. That made me feel very welcomed.
Na Kale has only been here for a day. She was visiting two of her daughters in Ciudad del Este on the Brazilian border. They have 7 kids in total, 4 live in Fassardi. This is a very normal family size, it seems everyone around here has 7 or 8 kids. So Na Kale is also a very sweet woman. She loves to crochet. She will sit in font of the TV and watch novella after novella and crochet all night. I think that sounds kind of like me. And, sadly I am starting to like the telenovelas, which is basically all there is to watch on the two stations we get in Fassardi. She is going to teach me to crochet. I am excited about that.
Clara is really cool. She is 28 and has two jobs as an obstetrician. She is very independent for a young Paraguayan woman from a small town. She sacrificed a lot to become an obstetrician because school is very expensive and finding a job is very hard. Now she works most of the week a few towns away where she has another apartment and the rest of the week at the health center here in Fassardi where she lives with her parents. Clara is old to still be single. I am sure people talk about her and wonder why she isn’t married. Although she has a boyfriend so that probably puts their minds at rest a little. Paraguayans are made very uncomfortable by single woman, they always want to marry them off or set them up. I would make a good case example.
My house is very quite and calm with only 4 people living here, a very nice change from the chaos I lived in the past 3 months. And although there are only 4 of us in this house, I am now related to half of Fassardi. Unknowingly I had already met my brother and sister during my future site visit. My sister, Nancy, is the principal of the elementary school and I was at my brother’s, Oscar, house for the friendship day barbeque. Also turns out my other brother is the secretary of the city council, the junta. Nancy and her husband run the little store next to my house and their little daughter is over here all the time. She loooves me and yells “Hola Jenna” “Chao Jenna” whenever she seems. That is a nice change from my other little host sister who was scared to death of me.
If Fassardi had a local newspaper my arrival would have made front page news. However, a town newspaper would be totally useless because the gossip circles cycle through town faster than a printing press ever could. If we ever hear a little bit of gossip and ask how that individual came about that specific piece of information we might be told, “A little birdy told me.” Well if Paraguayans do anything great its gossip, and their gossip is much too heavy for just a little birdy. Paraguayan gossip travels through the radio so’o – which means “the meat radio” in Guarani, or “cow radio”. And La Radio So’o is a town institution in Fassardi. Half the people I meet already know who I am, most know where and who I live with and they know I am a Peace Corps volunteer. Its amazing that this town hasn’t had a PCV for 15 years and they still remember Peace Corps. I am the new gossip in town. I was told I would get a lot of unwanted attention, unwanted text messages and phone calls, cat calls…this is all apart of being a female volunteer. And it is all true. I received an anonymous text message my second day here from someone saying he wanted to meet me because I must be beautiful because all Americans are beautiful. So ridiculous. “The brazilian” Deleusa, my second contact, then texted me that she had given him my number. I told her they were wrong, there are lots of ugly Americans.
Everyone wants to know if its ok for me to have a boyfriend, if I can marry a Paraguayan, and they “joke” that I should find myself a good Fassardeno. This is usually one of the first things people will mention to me when I meet them. It really makes them uncomfortable that I came to Paraguay all alone, it would make them feel better if I was attached to someone. For this reason I tell everyone that I have boyfriend. I think this lie soothes their souls and meanwhile helps detract some unwanted attention for me. It somewhat prevents people from constantly trying to fix me up with their sons, brothers, uncles, etc… Sometimes I tell them I have lots of boyfriends and they are all waiting for me in the United States, the women think that is hilarious. However, this lie doesn’t always help and I am still going to get harassed on a daily basis. Its just apart of Paraguayan culture I have come to expect.
Nothing says small town Paraguay like the Fassardi Post Office. I don’t know why I was expecting to walk in their and find an entire mail room, I guess that has always been my image of a Post Office, but that was very naïve. The Post Office is one, small, dark room with a table and a dirt floor. It is pretty depressing. Two women run the Post Office, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Turns out the woman in the morning is my contact’s mom. When I was asking about the Post Office the day before my contact, Chiqui, failed to mention this small detail and even told me it was closed that day. His mom told me it was open every day. I get contrasting information like this all the time. I came to the Post Office to find out the address so I could receive mail. Not so simple. There isn’t really an actual address like you and I would think because addresses in small Paraguayan towns don’t really exist. I had a hard time explaining this to my dad on the phone the other day. He wanted my new address so he could look me up on google earth. Not so simple. Often streets don’t have names and if they do nobody knows what they are. Houses do not have numbers. Addresses are based on landmarks. My address in Fassardi is the house across from the soccer field next to the store. This works if you didn’t know Fassardi but everybody in Fassardi knows each other or is related to each other therefore everyone knows where I live when I say I live with Don Silvio. When I asked the Post Office lady what should be written on the envelope she said I could put a variety of things, it didn’t really matter because she knows me and knows where I live and would come deliver the letter to me at my house or at the muni. She showed me a few examples of some letters she had in a drawer. Most letter where folded and stapled pieces of paper. One address looked like this:
The house next to the school on the corner
Jose Fassardi
Department of Guaira, Paraguay

So, considering I am famous in Fassardi and you wanted to send me a letter you could send it to:
Jenna Houts “La Americana”
Barrio San Cayetano, Casa de Don Silvio
Jose Fassardi
Departamento de Guaira, Paraguay

Or simply

Jenna la Americana
Jose Fassardi

And it would get into my hands eventually. The volunteer coordinator told me this actually works and volunteers do actually get their mail.

I feel incredibly welcomed into this new community. If I can make any kind of general statement about Paraguayans its that they are very open and friendly. I can say I already have one real friend here. Here name is Stefi, she is 18 and invites me over to her house every afternoon to drink mate. Her mother doesn’t like her to leave the house, she thinks she is going to get pregnant. A very common story here in Paraguay. So she is stuck inside all day everyday helping out with the store. So, I think our new friendship is exciting for her. She calls and texts me and invites me over. She is really spunky. It might seem weird that my closest friend here is 18 but age here is all relative. People here don’t necessarily associate with their peers, they associate with their family members and their “in” group, the people they know and trust. Its totally normal to befriend someone 10 years older or younger than yourself. Plus, I think she is very mature for her age and I think I can be a very good influence on her and her mom. Maybe I will have the chance to show them how an independent woman can live safely and happily without getting pregnant. I also think her mom is okay with our friendship, it seems everyone is okay with me. She lets Stefi leave the house with me. Yesterday we went “shopping” together. Fassardi has a few stores where you can get all the basics and a few non basics. I was in one store talking with the clerk and before she knew my name she invited me over to her house on Sunday. Can you see yourself doing that with a foreigner you just met?
You might be asking yourself what about my job? Well, this is all apart of my job. It sounds kind of funny but I just went through three intense months of training, learning everything there ever was to know about municipal services, Paraguayan culture and being a Peace Corps volunteer while following a rigorous “very American” schedule only to come to my site and start living the Paraguayan schedule. The pace of life here is very slow, or tranquilo, to use a favorite Paraguayan word. So now I gotta be tranquilo too. I have been specifically told by Peace Corps not to work my first few months in site, or work how we think of work. My work the first few months is to get to know the town, try to introduce myself to as many people as possible, visit all the institutions, hang out at the muni, really learn about the town and what the problems are, what the people want and possibly what the people are willing to do. I couldn’t come into this town not knowing a soul and expect to get a successful project off the ground. Peace Corps projects are about getting the community involved and sustainability. Sure I could work on a project by myself everyday and when I finish I could say, “Look Fassardi, look what a guapa Americana I am. Look what I have done for you!” Sure they will appreciate it but no one will have helped me and no one will have learned how to help themselves once I am gone. That is not the principal behind Peace Corps, that is not why we come and live in a village for two years, why we learn the language, earn the same amount of money, eat the same food, wash our clothes the same way etc… Community participation is especially important for my job as a muni volunteer but Paraguayans have a history of a dictatorship working against them in this regard. This means the community has to get to know me and learn to trust me if they are ever going to allow me to work with them or expect them to participate in any kind of community activity. Therefore, I might not actually be producing anything tangible but this is all part of my work. It might sound nice and relaxing but it isn’t easy. I really have to put my neck out there and for a shy person that isn’t easy. Fassardi is small but I have a lot to learn and it feels overwhelming at the beginning. It is exhausting to speak in Spanish all day, exhausting not to understand the Guarani, exhausting to be experiencing everything new all day, exhausting to constantly be cold, exhausting to constantly explain why I live here, exhausting to feel lonely at times, frustrating, extremely exciting too…this week has been so many things. Maybe this can all makes sense in one experience I had last night.
I went to my first Fassardi city council meeting last night. I showed up at 5 o’clock and met all the consejales hanging out outside the muni waiting for everyone to show. We sat in the junta room in a circle, with the president and the secretary (my brother Reuben) at the head table. This meeting was different from the junta meeting I went to in JA Saldivar, it was a discussion about their town amongst friends, it did not feel political, formal or cold, and the junta meeting in JA Saldivar was all those things. They offered me a chair in the circle like I was one of them, a local Fassardena. I liked this set up already, it was very cozy and friendly. I thought this is how the junta of a small town should be. I told them I had come just to observe the meeting but that is not what they had in mind, they were extremely curious about me, the new comer, and asked me to present myself. So I told them about me and Peace Corps and why I was living in Fassardi. They asked me a lot of questions about my purpose here and what was my specific obligation. It turned into an intense interviewing session with lots of rapid-fire questions. It started to feel very very warm in that room all of a sudden. Their questions were nothing I had not experienced before, luckily Peace Corps training had put me in some similar situations and I felt I handled the situation great. They even praised my Spanish. However, all of their questions were very friendly and supportive. In the end they came to the consensus that I was an excellent addition to the community and they were very excited to work with me and to see what I could do. I felt really fabulous about the whole situation and then they switched over to regular business and I was lost in a sea of Guarani and something about the mayor and a lawyer….I really have no idea what happened the rest of the meeting. I sat their feeling extremely frustrated that I didn’t understand the Guarani and saw my future in front of me, an uphill struggle to still learn this language. I felt frustrated because I knew understanding these meetings is really important to my work, to understanding the town and its problems. This is the place where the town’s leaders gather to discuss its important issues, it doesn’t happen anywhere else. So in one hour I went from an extreme high to an extreme low. And that is exemplary of a typical day for me. It’s a rollercoaster ride.
I never expected this to be easy. I expect it to be hard everyday. I don’t think I would like it if it were easy. Even in the “low” times I know I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything else. I have no desire to be back in the United States. I can tell Fassardi is a really special place and now it is my special place. And to anyone that ever wants to come visit me in Fassardi I extend an open invitation to you. If you are ever lucky enough to step foot on Fassardi soil I guarantee you will make front page news too!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Introducing Jose Fassardi

Note to Dale: I’m sorry my blog is “as long as the fucking bible” but you are just going to have to deal with it.

I now officially know where I will live for the next two years of my life. My town is called Jose Fassardi in the department of Guaira. The day of our site assignments my training group sat with our chairs facing the giant map of Paraguay that hangs on the wall in the training center in Guarambare. Our coordinator and assistant director, who have been preparing our sites for the last few months, stood in front of us with a stack of folders with our towns and names on them. They called out our names and placed a piece of tape next to our towns on the big map one by one. It was kind of a nerve racking moment to say the least, we were about to find out where we were going to live for the next two years of our lives. After the chaos of folders exchanging hands, I had time to go through my own folder and read about my town.
From my folder I know Fassardi is 4 hours by bus from Asuncion. It is a smaaaaaal town. 1500 people live in the center and 5500 live in the outside rural areas. I know it has electricity and running water. I know it hasn’t had a Peace Corps volunteer for 15 years. I know its economy is almost entirely agricultural and most people have sugar cane farms. I know the municipality, where I will be working, has only 5 workers including the mayor. I know I will have two counterparts, one is a man and one is a woman. And I know my friend Carrie will be in a town about 30 minutes away, which makes me happy. My friend Lyn is much further which is a big bummer. The folder also tells me more about the potential projects I could be involved in and what problems the mayor thinks the town has. That is pretty much all I know. As far as I can tell my APCD and coordinator really listened to everything I had to say about the kind of site I wanted and I had no reason not to be pleased.
The next day all of our contacts showed up in Saldivar. This was the day we had to meet the person we were supposed to work with for the next two years. Can you say awkward? They all walked through the door and had name tags on with our pictures on it, that is how they knew who belonged with who. That was fun. I will admit my first impression of my contact was not good. He is a tiny guy, very young, with a bad beard and a rat tale. He was screaming “which way to the disco?.” I couldn’t believe this guy was the general secretary of my muni, let alone my contact. I was less than impressed. His name is Luis, although everyone in Fassardi calls him Chici because he is so little. He is 25. We had activities planned for the whole day for the trainees and the contacts to get to know each other and learn about Peace Corps and how to help volunteers adapt to living in their towns etc… It was all still very awkward. Also, Chici spent the night at my house because Peace Corps budget is so low right now they can no longer afford to put up the contacts for the night. I wished they had sent my female contact instead. But he fit right in with all the young guys in my family. He went and hung out most of the night with the guys in the back in the “guy room” and I was left with my mom and little sister as always. So it was ok after all.
The next day we went to the training center in the morning for more Peace Corps training yatta yatta and then we were off to our sites. Carrie and I were planning to travel together since our sites were so close but we were having some issues considering both our contacts considered themselves young Paraguayan “studs” and were planning to take us back in their friends’ cars. Knowing how Paraguayans tend to drive, how young guys tend to drive, and how extremely sketchy it is to get into a car alone with two Paraguayan guys you don’t know…..we had some problems with this to say the least. But we were able to arrange to take the bus together from Asuncion using Peace Corps “rules” as an excuse as always. Those rules can always come in handy.
I stayed for 5 nights in Fassardi. I stayed with the mayor…..and his parents. Yes, the mayor still lives with his parents. He is 27….and girl crazy, therefore he was almost never home. So, I spent a lot of time with his parents, his dad is the ex mayor, and they are very sweet, but old and make a lot of unpleasant noises. It is not normal for the mayor in Paraguay to be so young. I have met a lot of mayors so far in Paraguay, and this is weird. He is a young guy that is always going out and doing god knows what. He comes home late and sleeps till 11 or later. Sounds normal for us but Paraguayans do not sleep late, they get up at the crack of dawn and milk the cow, take the bus two hours to their job, work on the farm, or at least drink mate with the family. On Monday morning when I left he was outside fiddling with his car when he definitely should have been at the muni taking care of business. I only saw him go to the muni once and I never saw him go in his office. Chici is his best friend from childhood and obviously got this job because Paraguay is still so nepotistic. Chici and Eduardi (the mayor) are quite a pair palling around Fassardi looking for chicks, I still can’t believe these guys are running the town, unbelievable.
Eduardi always greets me with a fist bump and asks me questions about the US and how to say things in English. He is smart and curious, two things I have a hard time saying about a lot of Paraguayans. He got out an Encycolpedia (He had one in his house!!!!) to have me point out where on the map of the US I lived. Thursday was Friendship Day in Paraguay. Kind of like Valentines Day but just for friends. To celebrate, Chici and Eduardi took me to their friendship barbeque that night. While we stood around and watched all the meat cook on the ground over the coals for several hours, Eduardi asked me how to say many many things in English. He asked me how to say ‘carne’. Which translates as ‘meat’ but here they refer to carne as just cow meat. So I told him we would call this kind of meat “red meat”. He practiced saying “red meat” a few times to himself. A few hours before the whole crowd sat down to a dinner of meat, mandioca and salty lettuce, Eduardi made a little speech, as all good politicians do, in honor of Friendship day. He said he felt blessed to be in the presence of such good friends on Friendship Day etc… Then he gave a special welcome to me and said he was very happy to have me here and welcomed me to Fassardi, he said it with such grace and it brought tears to my eyes. It was such a wonderful thing for him to do. Then we all sat down to eat. As he began to eat he looked at me and said very slowly and in English, “I likey red meat”. I try not to laugh when people try to speak in English but this was just too funny and I laughed my head off. I knew no one else knew why it was funny and I just wished another English speaker was there at that moment.
When we first got to the party we were sitting around the coal fire, inside, to warm ourselves while listening to the radio and chatting. I wasn’t saying much because they were speaking mostly in Jopara (a mix between Spanish and Guarani). Then I heard my name on the radio. Fassardi has a local radio station that the whole town listens to religiously that one guy runs out of his house, anyone can stop by and say a few words. So Hector, a secretary at the muni, was telling the whole town that Jenna, the new Internataional in town with the Peace Corps, is over at Rita and Oscar’s house for a Friendship Day barbeque. Then he listed off everyone else who was at the house. It took forever because Hector had to make a joke or comment about each of his friends. Then he came back to me and said a few more welcomes to Jenna the International. Only in a small town….
My first day in Fassardi Chici my contact took my around town to all the institutions to introduce me to the people. Fassardi has a muni, a church, a wood factory, an elementary school, two high schools, a health center, a police station, a social pharmacy, a library, a few stores selling the basics, two soccer fields, and that is about it in the centro. It also has 19 rural districts, called companias, each with its own elementary school. The muni is a very interesting place because it seems almost nothing happens there, and this is where I am supposed to work for the next two years. I have visited a handful of munis in Paraguay so far, most of them small, but none of them are like this. It seems its just a bunch of kids playing government. There is only one worker over the age of 30, but she acts like a kid just like the rest of them. The munis in Paraguay are only open in the mornings. They all close at the siesta and are closed until the next day. So if people aren’t doing much in the morning you can’t rationalize that they will get something done later. No, they go home and take a nap later. The first morning we went to the muni and nobody was working, just sitting around and drinking terere. Chici showed me pictures of his friends on his computer. Then the treasurer came in, she is 21, and it looked like she was actually doing some work. Eduardi showed up some time later, gave me a fist bump and then left again. I have no idea what he goes all day. Doesn’t seem very mayorly to me. He doesn’t even wear a suit.
The next day Chici and I showed up at the Muni around lunch time. Everyone was sitting out back drinking terere and cooking a chicken. We sat out behind the muni for 3 hours waiting for the damn chicken to finish cooking over the coal fire and then we ate lunch in the room where the city council members have their meetings. What a muni.
The health center is also a very interesting institution in town. It would be a scary place to go if you ever needed some real health care. The nurses were thrilled to meet me and excited that I might be able to work with them. One nurse, Chici’s aunt (everyone in this town in related, half are related to Chici) showed me around and I was shocked. The urgent care room had two plastic chairs and almost nothing else in it. The vaccine room seemed to be the most important room and the most valuable service they offer. Preventive health care is almost not thought of but so important and the nurses recognize that. The delivery room was very sad, cold and plain. It had one metal table in the middle of the room. All the paint is chipping, the walls are corroding, and the services are basic. On the plus side all services are free and they did have a room for family planning and all contraceptives are free, that is very cool, but not enough people take advantage of it. There are 6 nurses and 2 doctors. But the nurses do all the work, the doctors are only there for consultations and send patients to the district hospital in the capital.
I showed up at the health center again early on Sunday morning because the nurses had invited me to go around town and give vaccines to the people who still were missing their shots but they had canceled it because it had rained the night before. Everything here gets canceled because of bad weather because the dirt roads get washed out. I was really bummed about it but I sat and chatted with two of the nurses and after five minutes they had asked me if I would help them whenever there was a birth. They said usually only one nurse would handle an entire labor and delivery if it was at night (only one nurse on duty at night) or during the day if there were other patients and if they could call me to help they would be really grateful. I said why not. They asked me if I had seen a birth before. I said only a cow birth.
My main mission for this short visit to Fassardi was to find a family to live with when I returned. As of Sunday I still had not found a family. I was explaining this to Clara, one young nurse, and she invited me to live with her. She said she lived with her parents and had a spare room for me. Later that day I stopped by her house and met her mom, an extremely sweet woman who is very excited to have me. I have to say I am going to have a very sweet deal at this house, its definitely a step up from where I am now and quite a bit bigger, which isn’t very hard to do. I am renting two rooms in the front of the house. The two rooms are connected and the front room is sort of an office area. Its not really necessary but the two doors that lead to the outside and the rest of the house are in this room and allow me my privacy. So, I am going to have a lot of space which will be a nice change from what I have now. I haven’t met my new host dad yet. My host mom is going to cook for me too. When I left she said she is very excited to have a new daughter. So I have a new family waiting for me in Fassardi in two weeks.
My week in Fassardi was interesting, entertaining, unbelievable, and somewhat boring. There was a lot of down time and a lot of sitting around time. Paraguayans are masters of sitting and chatting or sitting and not chatting. And in a small town they are kings of the sitting and the chatting and the terere drinking. But, being in a small town means I am going to get to know everyone and they surely will all know how I am. I am the norte, the white girl, the blonde girl, I am one of a kind in this town. They all want to know me and ask me millions upon millions of questions. They want to invite me into their homes and give me terere or cocido (Paraguayan tea) and talk about food. They love to talk about Paraguayan food. I have had the same conversation about food over and over again in many different houses the last two and a half months. I am sure if you came to Fassardi and hopped off the bus in the middle of town and asked the first person, “where is the white girl?” you could find me within 10 minutes. Yep, I think I’m going to like it here.