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.

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