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!


  1. Jenna,
    What an exciting life you're living. I am so happy for you, my eyes just watered a little. i love you.

  2. Uncle Mike and I have had a busy August. I enjoyed being able to just sit, have a cup of coffee and read your blog. You tell the story so well I can just picture what you are doing.
    (The sign of a very good writer!)
    I disagree with Dale . . . I enjoy every word.
    Be safe, my sweet niece.
    We love you lots
    Aunt Pammyy