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.


  1. Hi Jenna! Love reading about your journey! Thanks for sharing it. And you will have to teach me "how to make recycled paper from old paper and drinking glasses from old wine bottles." I love that!! Good luck and take care! -- Amy

  2. Jenna, sounds like a great experience! Does Guarani have any clicking noises involved in its pronounciation? If so, I really want to hear you click away someday soon...

  3. no clicking but there is some grunting, im sure you will enjoy that

  4. Jenna, it's great to read your posts, it's bring back tons of memories about what I was thinking and feeling when I started in the DR - things I had totally forgotten! Keep writing and sharing! Y me encantaria ver unas fotos del centro de entrenamiento del cuerpo de paz, y tu comunidad, y bueno...fotos de todo lo que pasa!