Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Peace Corps-no problems

As I am settling into my new life as a Peace Corps trainee and realizing how the next two years might look like, I am content and enthusiastic about my new country and occupation. Everything is still very new and exciting. Everyday I learn new fabulous idiosyncrasies about Paraguayan culture that are baffling and thrilling at the same time. Everyday I get a glimpse into my future career as a Peace Corps volunteer by meeting current volunteers, from hearing about volunteer experiences, from tech classes and learning about projects I might implement at my future site. Everyday is new and different and that is exactly what I came to Paraguay looking for. I am finding it pretty easy to get out of bed every morning at 6:30 am (well, to be honest the really cold mornings are painful to crawl out of my sleeping bag) to make it to training class at 7:45 because even when I think I know what the day will bring I will be surprised. For example, this afternoon’s technical session appeared as if it would be a simple lesson on how to teach environmental education. Besides a somewhat run-of-the-mil power point presentation the lesson turned into a session on how to make recycled paper from old paper and drinking glasses from old wine bottles. Therefore, we spent the rest of the afternoon “mastering” these crafts in the hopes of teaching them to Paraguayan inquiring minds.
Although training sessions can be interesting and hopefully useful for my future two year service, the training lifestyle is somewhat frustrating. I was well prepared by Peace Corps literature before coming to Paraguay that I might feel this way about training. The reason: Here I am an adult who has been living as an independent woman for the last 6 years and in the spirit of my independence I sold everything I owned, joined the Peace Corps and moved to another hemisphere not knowing a soul. I feel very confident to take care of myself. However, Peace Corps training mother gooses us to the point where I feel I am back in high school and simultaneously under the watchful eyes of Big Brother. The mother goose/Big Brother character is a combination of my host mother, Peace Corps training team, Peace Corps guidelines, and the small town of JA Saldivar. As a PCT (Peace Corps Trainee) I am required to let someone know where I am at all times. The idea is if there is some kind of emergency or Peace Corps needs to contact me for some reason and they cannot get a hold of me then the world would end. Also, it seems all our host mothers are programmed to Jewish mother mode and are constantly worried about their new and vulnerable goslings in this big scary country. So, if we don’t come home on time we are programmed to feel guilty by making our mothers worry. Oh the shame. (Luckily, my host mom is a little better then the rest it seems. I think she is too busy with her store to worry too much about what time I get home). So, either we must always tell our mothers the truth of our whereabouts (if we ever have free time and if there is actually somewhere worthwhile to go) or stay in. Class lets out at 5 pm everyday and the suns starts to go down soon after. It is dangerous to walk around by yourself at night so anytime to do anything after class is extremely limited. There is pretty much only enough daylight to walk home. You can see why I feel trapped sometimes. But sometimes I am so exhausted from an extremely full day of activity I am glad to head straight home, finish up my little homework assignment and head for bed early. Who ever thought I would willingly go to bed at 9 pm?
Last night I was hanging out with my family in the living room watching some really great television, as always. Usually Hannah Montana or some other dubbed Disney Channel show is the family’s program of choice. I was looking over my notes for my Guarani oral exam the next day. My family is always very interested in my homework and asks me every night what I have and if they can help. So, last night they were asking me questions in Guarani and I was answering them back. Although, it wasn’t exactly that simple. My host dad, Antonio, loves to help with my Guarani but he speaks so fast that I never understand him and our “lessons” are pretty useless. Even my little host sister, Diahana, was telling him he can’t talk so fast because I am a beginner. It was actually very cute and very sweet of her. But somehow my family Guarani review session abruptly turned into a discussion about my yoga ball. I brought a bright, neon blue yoga ball which I have determined is a necessity for me in Paraguay. I had shown my host mom, my best friend and confidant in this house, the yoga ball and even showed her how to use it and she was very impressed. But once the discussion started about the yoga ball I realized I mistakenly never showed the rest of the family and that they would probably have no idea what is was. Antonio first asked me if I knew how to play volleyball. Volleyball is very popular in Paraguay and courts are almost as omnipresent in neighborhoods as soccer fields. I responded “no” knowing that Paraguayans play volleyball differently than my American version. Then he asked, “Well isn’t that big blue ball in your room for volleyball?” I laughed for several minutes and so did everyone else.
But Antonio was still determined to find out the purpose of my monstrous unidentified ball. His next guess was a piñata. This had me laughing hysterically for a few more minutes. The whole family was laughing along with me. But, I have to give him credit that my yoga ball does look exactly like a Paraguayan piñata. Luckily, I had gone to my first Paraguayan birthday party the night before and got to see a piñata otherwise I probably just would have thought Antonio was just a little crazy. Paraguayan piñatas are oversized, perfectly round and colorful balloons filled with confetti and prizes, and it does strikingly look exactly like a big yoga ball. The kids sit under the balloon and an adult pops it with a knife and the kids get littered with confetti and candy. The whole piñata process is over in 30 seconds. I think it’s a much more efficient and safer way of getting candy to the kids than our Mexican-give-the-kid-a-blindfold-and-baseball bat-and-see-what-happens method.
Finally, I decided I had to bring out my ball and show it off for the family. I set it in the middle of the living room and we all sat around it and stared at it like a new puppy. Everyone was in awe. Everyone asked me questions about this new object that had entered their lives. They wanted to know how it worked and how many guaranis it cost. First, I tried to get Dehlia, my host mom, to show the family what I taught her but coming from this traditionally timid culture she refused. So in my pjs I showed the fam a few classic stretches, nothing fancy. I did a back bend and some crunches. They were either fascinated or were thinking why is there a crazy norteamericana rolling around on a big blue ball in the middle of my living room. Afterwards I tried to get the rest of the family to take a turn but nobody would try. They all wanted to touch it but wouldn’t even sit on it. Its like they wouldn’t believe it actually worked. Raul, my host uncle (although he is 4 years younger than me) was really testing its strength with his elbows and his knees like he was testing out a new mattress. But he wouldn’t sit on it. The whole scene was pretty hilarious. I told Dehlia she could use it whenever she wanted and I think she is interested. If she likes it maybe I will have my parents send her one all the way from norteamerica!
Over the weekend my muni training group drove about 1 ½ hours to visit another Peace Corps volunteer’s site for a night. She lives in the center of town but works a few times a month in a school out in the countryside, called a compania. She walks 1 ½ hours to get to the school on the dirt road. The dirt is too soft to ride her bike and PC volunteers are forbidden from riding motorcycles and no bus goes out that way so she must walk, that is how much she loves this school. In total the school has about 40 kids. And about half go in the morning and the other half in the afternoon. We got out there by mid afternoon with the PC volunteer and another environmental education volunteer. They had prepared a tree planting lesson for the kids and we were going to watch and possibly participate. I had heard about this environmental ed. volunteer before because he speaks excellent Guarani but his reputation did not prepare me for what I saw. I was blown away. He came to Paraguay not speaking Spanish or Guarani and started Guarani lessons rights away. He only had three months of official Guarani lessons so he picked up both languages on his own and now speaks both fluently after 2 years. To actually see another volunteer speak this native language comfortably in front of a group of native speaking kids was thrilling and inspiring. To hear these crazy sounds flow so comfortably from his mouth with such speed, I was in shock. I had no idea. It really gave me hope that I could really speak this language someday. I would love if I could stand in front of a group of Guarani speakers and impress them with my Guarani. Because every time he spoke Guarani to Paraguayans they would be so damn impressed that this white guy spoke their secret language.
Furthermore, this volunteer knew his stuff. He talked about planting trees and protecting the environment with a passion in his voice. Even if I didn’t always understand it, I could tell that teaching kids about the environment was really what he loved to do. He was fluid, in his language and in his actions. The kids were drawn and intrigued with the new information he provided them. He taught them how to make seed boxes, what kinds on seeds you can plant, how to prepare the seeds and how to plant them. He helped each kid plant their seeds in their own personal boxes. He talked about why it was important to plant trees and asked them interactive questions. He had them with every word. Best of all is he made it fun. Throughout the lesson he sang songs. He started the lesson with a Guarani version of “Going on A Bear Hunt” that we trainees had learned in a tech session so we could sing and dance along, somewhat. Its called “Jaha Jaguata” which means “lets go walking”. At the end he reviewed the material the kids had learned and made them all raise their hands and repeat a pledge to take care of their trees. The whole lesson was very impressive and inspiring. It makes me proud to be apart of an organization that produced a volunteer like him. It makes me excited for my future in this organization. It only reinforces the fact that I am in the right place at the right time. This is where I am supposed to be.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Shopping, Mistress days of the Week, Opama

I tried to have these pictures dispursed throughout my blog with subtitles but I am technologically incapable. Therefore, the first picture is a page of my Guarani homework and the second two are of me and my host mom in the store in my house.

Having a store in my house has been a very interesting introduction to the idiosyncrasies of Paraguayan culture. Dehlia has run the store for six years and knows her business backwards and forwards. Nothing has a price tag because she knows how much everything costs by heart. She greets every customer by first name and knows all their life stories. She loves to talk and caries on conversations with all her customers when they enter the store. It’s not just a business, it’s a social experience. Her office supplies include a scale which she uses to measure amounts of corn, bread, cuts of meat etc, a small record book where she records credit, and a calculator.

Little kids often come into the store by themselves sent by their parents on an errand. One little boy came in the other night, he must have been about 5, and gave Dehlia a list of things he was supposed to buy for his parents. The list included milk, diapers, bread, and cigarettes. Dehlia put it all in a bag for him and then he waddled out the door. The bag was bigger than he was. An 11-year-old boy came in and bought one big bottle of beer. Another little boy bought 2 cigarettes. I told Dehila that in my country you have to be 21 to buy alcohol and 18 to buy cigarettes and watching her sell big bottles of beer to little boys was pretty shocking to me. She said they were just buying it for their parents and didn’t see the harm in it. No big deal.
Also, Dehlia keeps several big bags of opened diapers behind the counter which she sells individually. People come in and buy 1, 2 or 3 diapers at a time. At first I was really confused by this. I mean who only needs 2 diapers? But I thought about it some more and I figure that many families probably do not have the money to buy diapers in bulk. Actually, many families in this neighborhood don’t have money to buy anything in great quantity. Dehlia sells tons of bags of charcoal which she explains wont save anyone money over cooking from a stove but most people don’t have the money to fill up a whole tank of gas for their stove at 70,000 guaranis which is about 14 dollars.
My family owns three cows. I had no idea we owned cows until one day I walked out into the backyard and there they were. During the day they graze on the volleyball court and eat the grass in front of the house. At night and in the morning they stay in the backyard to be milked. Dehlia sells the fresh cow milk in her store and customers bring in empty liter soda bottles to serve as milk containers. Im just glad we own cows instead of roosters.
Dehlia’s little record book is a credit book. The book has a bunch of little colored tabs with first names written on them and each section represents an individual client’s credit. Clients that have credit with Dehlia each have a little piece of cardboard to also keep track of their credit. Every time a customer buys something on credit Dehlia writes the amount under their tab in the book and on the piece of cardboard. Some clients will pay off their accounts once a week, once a month and some have to be harassed to pay. Sometimes Dehlia has to go to a neighbor’s house and ask them to pay up.
Having a store in my house has its advantages. Last Friday was a national holiday to celebrate the signing of the treaty that ended the Chaco war between Paraguay and Bolivia in 1935. For my homework assignment over the weekend I am supposed to find a history teacher, an ex-combatant or a descendant of a veteran of the war and ask them questions about the war’s history. This is a pretty impossible assignment since 1/3 of the population died in the war and any veterans still alive are in their late 80’s. Dehila told me I should just look it up in a book, “my teacher will never know”, which is exactly what I am not supposed to do. I am supposed to mingle with the people and practice my Spanish. So this morning Dehlia decided to ask every customer who she thought was smart what they knew about the Chaco war. I then started asking my own questions and everyone seemed to have their own versions of what happened during the war. It turned into quite a discussion as new customers came into the store and added their two cents to the story. I already know a few things about the war from books I read on Paraguay before I came and I have a general idea of Paraguayan history. I also know that it is very Paraguayan for Paraguayans to all have their own versions of history. However, everyone seemed to agree that Paraguay was a much wealthier country before the Chaco war and now they are very poor as a result. However, they all agree that Paraguay won the war. I do know that Paraguay and Bolivia went to war over the region of the country called the Chaco, a barren and inhospitable wasteland where only 3% of the population lives, although it does have some valuable oilfields. Bolivia claimed the region with the oilfields and Paraguay got the rest. But according to most Paraguayans, Paraguay still won the war. According to Dehlia, before the Chaco war the country’s currency was all gold coins, therefore Paraguay was very wealthy, and during the war everyone was so concerned they would be robbed that they buried their money in the ground. When the war was over they were never able to find where they buried their gold, hence the government had to start minting a currency and the country is now. One customer chimed in and confirmed that before the Chaco war Paraguay was one the wealthiest countries in the world. If it weren’t for that damned Chaco war they would still be on top. Maybe this explains why gold is considered so valuable here. You cannot wear a gold necklace in a public place without it most likely getting ripped off your neck. Silver necklaces will be left alone. So, Dehlia’s customers had a lot to say about the war but some things they couldn’t answer at all. When I asked what they thought were the lasting affects of the war they couldn’t answer. I also asked what the agreements of the treaty were and how they came to sign the treaty and I only got blank stares in return. So, the mystery of the Chaco war continues. Luckily, I still have a few more days to complete my assignment.

The traditional dating culture in Paraguay is kind of unique and if you weren’t directly informed about it you may never pick up on it. Peace Corps decided it was necessary to spend an hour of training on the subject. First off it is acceptable in this culture for men to date several women at a time. Therefore, the seven day week in Paraguay is divided up into dating days and mistress days. Dating days are Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Mistress days are Monday, Wednesday and Friday. If a man wants to officially court a woman he will visit her at her house on the official dating days. It would be an insult/send the wrong message to visit her on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday. Apparently, foreigners accidentally and unknowingly get caught up in this cultural eccentricity that everyone knows about but doesn’t necessarily talk about. Volunteers in the past have made some really big faux-paus and have risked their reputations in their communities which has inhibited their professional relationships as well. After this lesson my fellow trainee realized he had stopped by my house the other morning to see if I was home yet from our 4 day long volunteer visits around Paraguay. It was a Tuesday. Hopefully my host mom doesn’t think I’m his mistress. Oops. Oh well, we had a good laugh.

Guarani is a crazy language. The pronunciation is just insane. My vocal chords are required to make sounds I have never made before. Often my Guarani teacher assigns homework assignments where I am required to interview a family member or neighbor in Guarani. However, when I try to speak to people in Guarani they cannot understand me because my pronunciation is so awful so I am forced to translate for myself into Spanish. Then, my pupil will respond to the question in Guarani and I will have no idea what they said and they will be forced to translate their answer back into Spanish. Its an arduous process to say the least. One reason the pronunciation is so hard is because of the “y” sound. The “y” sound requires the speaker to make a guttural, manly grunt in the back of the throat. Now throw in a few ys and vs with some nasaly vowels in the same word and you have a typical Guarani word. My fellow trainees and I have been making a lot of analogies to what this language sounds like, all of which are not politically correct and totally insulting, so I won’t mention it. But hands down the best Guarani word I have learned to date is ‘Opáma’. It means “it’s over”. As in, this blog = opáma.

Monday, June 8, 2009

you were so fat!

I am writing this first blog sitting in my room in the home of my Paraguayan host family, the Salinas Ibanez family. They live in JA Saldivar, a town about an hour outside of the capital of Asuncion. However, no one seems to know who Senor Saldivar was or why the town was named after him. Dehlia, my host mom, is so sweet and genuinely happy to have me in her home. She has converted the front room of her house into a little convenient store and spends everyday from 6:30 am to 9 pm at night attending to her steady run of customers. Antonio, my host dad, works at a lumber yard and doesn’t have much to say to me (or anyone else for the matter) but finds my unique norteamericana habits amusing. Dahiana, my 9-year-old host sister, is extremely shy and almost never talks to me, as well. She watches a lot of tv. Jorge, my 18-year-old host brother is pretty excited to have me around and introduces me to everyone who comes over. He is quite the jokester but also extremely immature and totally obnoxious. He likes to make gay jokes, especially towards his uncle Raul, the quietest human being alive, because he cooks. Sometimes I like him because he makes the effort to talk to me and asks funny questions but sometimes he is just an immature teenage jerk who can’t handle having an American woman in his house. And then there is the endless stream of other family members that come in and out of the house, all guys, and most of whom I am confused how they are related to one another. So, my family is my family. Sometimes I really like them and sometimes I don’t, but who doesn’t feel that way about their families ever?

My house is tiny. The store is the biggest room in the house. There is a living room with a couch, two chairs, a tv, a dinning room table pushed up against the wall (if we all want to sit around it we have to pull it out into the middle of the room), and Diahana’s bed. Diahana had to give up her bedroom for me. It is a requirement by Peace Corps that host families provide volunteers with their own rooms and so for me to live here the little girl has to sleep in the living room. Therefore, her toys and stuffed animals are strategically placed all around the living room… a diorama of barbies under the tv and stuffed animals lining the couch. My host mom and dad have a bedroom but with no door, just a curtain on a string where the door should be. Diahana somewhat shares this room with them. The kitchen is crammed into the back hallway, an interesting set up. And then there is the bathroom. A modern bathroom, with a sink, toilet and electric shower. If I can turn the knob just right I can actually have a hot shower but the absence of a shower curtain means the water goes everywhere, apparently this is just how bathrooms are here. After showering I squeegee the bathroom. Jorge has a room separate from the house in the backyard. And apparently they are building a separate house in the backyard to rent out, which I only found out about today. A man was in the back hammering endlessly and making a huge amount of noise at a brick wall and he told me it was going to be a bathroom, that is how I found out about the new house.
The house is located on a dirt road, connected by a network of more dirt and cobblestone roads that lead to the city center, about a 15 minute walk. When it rains these dirt roads turn into streams and rivers and traversing them on the way to and from school everyday is an adventure, to say the least. My little neighborhood has several volleyball courts and soccer fields and everyone knows each other. Dehlia greets every customer by first name, and the customers never stop coming. Its amazing how small this neighborhood feels but how much business Dehlia has.
One family member I really like is Dehila’s step dad, the grandpa. He has lived in the country his whole life and it shows. He has been staying with us, along with his two sons, Raul and Oscar, for the past few weeks because Oscar was in a bad motorcycle accident and broke his right jaw and cheek bones and is waiting for his surgery. They have been waiting to see if the government will help them pay for the expensive surgery, a total of about $800, and it seems they keep getting the run around. Meanwhile, Oscar just hangs around all day not talking and not eating solid foods, poor guy. The upside, the grandpa is awesome. He has PC volunteers in his village and so he knows what we are all about. He lovesssss to talk and is full of fun facts and stories. He lived in Argentina for awhile when he was 13 when Peron was in power and he had never seen people eat with silverware before, the first time he tried to use them he kept slipping and cutting the table with his knife. He has never heard of Barak Obama, the United States’ first black president. He had me in stitches when I showed him my photo album and he couldn’t recognize me in family pictures from a few years ago because I weighed about 10 pounds heavier. He would point to me and say, “who is that?” and he couldn’t believe it was me. “My god, you used to be so much fatter!” he said. It was so honest and so hilarious, I couldn’t stop laughing. I mean, I don’t think I was so fat that I was unrecognizable but it is true that I did weigh a few more pounds. Paraguayans say it like it is. If you are skinny they will tell you and if you are fat they will tell you the same. For example, Jorge, my host brother, is fat and living in this country he will never forget it because everyone and everybody is always saying, “Hey, look at Jorge, what a fatty.” At lunch if I eat a lot its not uncommon for Dehlia to tell me off-handedly that I shouldn’t eat so much because I will get fat. That’s just how it goes.

I have to say that I have had a lot of moments in only this past week and a half as a Peace Corps trainee when I have thought being in the Peace Corps is fucking awesome. (And I don’t use that word a lot). Although the trainee schedule is rigorous and I have hardly had a second to sit and think, I have had several moments where I have thought, this is so fucking cool! The second I stepped off the plane in Asuncion I was greeted by several Peace Corps authorities in swine flu “preventative” masks, and they immediately swept us past immigration and customs and out into our new lives as PC trainees. I have never arrived in a foreign country quite like that! Our basic trainee schedule is composed of language training in the morning and technical training in the afternoon with some variety thrown in. My language training is in Gauarani, the ubiquitous indigenous language of Paraguay. Although it has somewhat adapted to some Spanish words, like graciamante and hasta luegomante, it is pretty different and unlike any romance language you and I know. The grammar is very simple but the pronunciation is killer. The language is filled with glottal stops, accents, and nasal vowels and consonants, like you always have a cold when you speak Guarani. Needless to say, it is hard to wrap your tongue around. But it is pretty cool to get 4 hours a day to do nothing but learn this ancient language, where else and when else in the world would I get to do that? That is pretty damn awesome.
On Friday we had an entire afternoon of gardening lessons. We learned how to build and plant gardens, how to compost, how to build a fence out of bamboo, and how to use a machete. We actually had an orientation on using and sharpening a machete. That was awesome! I couldn’t stop giggling and thinking, this is my job? In three months am I really going to go out and cut down bamboo with a machete to make a fence for my garden and then am I going to plant that garden and then is that garden going to actually grow? I don’t really picture myself doing those things but I sure hope it happens.
My walk to and from school everyday is also really awesome. I walk with another PC trainee who lives a few houses down and we walk along the dirt roads, cross a soccer field, then through a neighbors yard with lots of dogs and chickens, through a field, duck under a barbed-wire fence, turn right at the lemon tree, turn left at the little store, walk through another woman’s yard with pigs, cows, chickens, dogs, cats and god knows what else. She has a glass eye and always greets us with a “buen dia”. Then we cross a playground and walk up the street to our school. It takes about 10-15 minutes and it totally feels how the Peace Corps in Paraguay should feel.
So, to sum up my first blog, Paraguay and the Peace Corps after a week and a half are going great. There is so much more to tell but it is such a whirlwind. There will be more to come later. Just know that I am safe and sound and happy in my new country!