Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Pilgrimage Season

pilgrimage n. A journey to a sacred place or shrine. A long journey or search, especially one of exalted purpose or moral significance.

December is the month of pilgrimages in Paraguay. Second only to Good Friday, December 8th is the holiest day of the year in Paraguay, the Day of the Virgin of Caacupe. Caacupe is a city located about 2 hours by bus from Asuncion and is home to an old and beautiful cathedral that houses that most famous virgin statue in the country. On December 8th, religious devotees come from all over the country to praise her at the morning mass. They come on foot, by bus, by motorcycle, by car, by bicycle etc... But mostly they walk, that is what makes it a true pilgrimage right? The very definition of a pilgrimage is to suffer for a long duration of time for an “exalted purpose or moral significance”. Many people, in fact, begin their journey a week in advance from the north and walk every day to make sure they arrive on time. Some crawl, some carry crosses, I hear...

Caacupe is about a 4 hour bus ride from Fassardi. I have no idea how long it would take to walk there, maybe two days? So to compensate for our distance from the beloved virgin the citizens of Fassardi and the surrounding towns have established a shrine to the virgin which they have deemed the “virgincita” or “little virgin”. So, instead of walking all the way to Caacupe, Fassardenians walk 5km to the virgincita next to the river. A lot less suffering with the same religious benefits!

When anything really important happens in Paraguay, it must happen at the crack of dawn. So of course we had to start our pilgrimage to visit the virgincita at 4 am. I set my alarm clock for 3:40 am and was all set for my very first pilgrimage, expecting to “suffer” the 5km with my all fellow Fassardenians in the dark. I hoped to see someone doing the pilgrimage on their hands and knees and maybe another carrying a cross on their backs like Jesus, just like the stories I have heard volunteers tell about the walk to Caacupe.

I set off at 4:15 with my next door neighbors, the family that has told me all about the pilgrimage to the virgincita. They say they make a promise every year to her to make this sacrifice. We start walking, all alone. Its dark and very quite. Only the few customary fire works are set off in the distance, but still I am surprised to see we are the only ones undertaking the pilgrimage. I was expecting the street to be filled with quite religious walkers. With no cars on the highway we walk right down the middle. My dog, Maddie, trots along side us. Maddie had been walking on three legs the past five days from a cut on her foot, however, this morning she is walking along normally and happily. Liz, the 17 year old, jokes that Maddie is making the pilgrimage to thank the virgincita for curing her foot and to pray for good health next year. Everyone laughs. Its just like this family to joke during a religious pilgrimage.

I am not Catholic, but I always thought a pilgrimage would be a somewhat severe and internally thoughtful experience. I thought people who embark on a religious pilgrimage would be very pensive and stern. Well, that is not how Paraguayans do pilgrimages. In fact, nothing about this walk in the dark down the highway feels very religious to me. Gustavo, the 16 year old, is playing the latest reggetone and top 40 hits on his cell phone. They ask me to translate the songs in English, one of which just repeates the lyrics, “Party all the time”. Its pretty much the music genre selection for any Paraguayan event, whether it be a 7 year old’s birthday party, a new year’s eve party, a Sunday, or a fundraiser for a mayoral candidate, so why not for a pilgrimage?

We make it the all the way to the river without seeing another human being, in the dark, down the middle of the highway. Once at the river we go to the little structure that houses the statue of the virgincita. Her altar has been freshly painted bright blue and decorated. The decorations remind me of a little kid’s birthday party, with brightly colored streamers and balloons.
About 10 people stand in front of the altar and are singing religious hymns in Guarani. We join the group. Every once in a while someone lights a candle and places it in front of the statue or offers flowers.
After about 10 minutes everyone is tired of signing and they sit down on the benches next to the altar and begin to chat. People also complain that my dog smells, which she really does. I don’t know what happened between my house and the virgincita but the pilgrimage made her very stinky.
Elisa, the mom, hands out candy from her purse to everyone on the benches. The teenagers wander off and sit on the bridge over the river. An oxcart shows up and starts setting up a food stand for the events that will take place later in the day. That afternoon will be a big party when everyone will come on their motorcycles, play in the river, drink lots of alcohol and sit around in the shade (Adam and I attended last year).
Elisa and Venancio, my neighbors, decide praying time is over after 15 minutes of visiting the virgencita, they gather their brood of teenagers and we set off again back to Fassardi.
By now it is almost 6 am and the sun is bright in the sky and hot. Now we pass many groups of people walking on their way to the virgincita. I guess they didn’t feel it was necessary to get up so early, only my neighbors. Although I will say now it is getting hot and we are sweating, at least the pilgrimage on the way for us was pleasant and cool.

The second most important pilgrimage in Paraguay takes place on December 18th in Itape, Adam’s site. Adam and I attended last year although we did not partake in the customary walk from Villarrica to Itape, about 20 km. We cheated. We arrived the day before by bus and walked from his house once we knew the festivities had begun. Some people say the pilgrimage in Itape is the rural version of the pilgrimage to Caacupe. Caacupe is a big city located on a main highway and Itape is a very small town only accessible by a dirt road and one really old bus. So if Itape is the scaled down version of Caacupe, I cant imagine what it must be like because Itape on December 18th was a full on circus.

Adam and I started walking with the crowd towards all the noise, we had no idea what to expect from the second most important pilgrimage in the country. If no one told us it was the epicenter of a pilgrimage, we never would have known. It looked more like a county fair on crack. The ‘midway’ was packed with every joe schmoe who came trying to sell you anything he could carry. And just like a county fair everything they were selling was all crap, tons of ceramic Winnie-the-poohs, jesus statues, nike tshirts etc..... The vendors seemed endless. And just like the county fair there were games! There were so many strange games Adam and I had to stop to watch and figure out how they were playing. One very popular game, and almost every other stand, had a cage filled with balloons and fan placed underneath which mixed up the balloons. As the player you simply reached in, grabbed a balloon, popped it, and won whatever prize was written on the paper inside it. Adam won me a tiny plastic crocodile.
Also along the way were a discoteque and a bullfighting ring. I had seen a bullfight before in Spain but Adam had not and wanted to experience one. I asked the man at the gate if they kill the bull and he said yes. So we paid our entrance fee and waited for the show to start. However, what we experienced was not a Spanish bullfight, although it had the same name ‘corrida de torros’. This was a bull fight Paraguayan style, it was more like a rodeo. The matadors came out dressed in the traditional garb but both stayed in the ring and proceeded to jump on the bulls back, run and flip and jump on the bull’s back, do double handstands on the bull’s back, and a plethora of other acrobatic moves all involving the bull. Then they would wrestle it to the ground, stand up, hold out their arms and the crowd would cheer them on as masters of the universe. Considering Adam and I were expecting swords, blood, and 6 dead cows, and instead we got 2 men dressed in pink and sequence doing acrobats we laughed hysterically through the whole show. It was very entertaining.

After the rodeo, the games, the vendors, and the sea of people, we had enough and went to bed. When I woke up in the morning I realized I never saw the virgin of Itape, people praying etc… It was a completely non-religious experience for me and was more people taking advantage of a situation to make a buck. It’s a poor country and when people see an opportunity they will take advantage.

I don’t mean to harp on Paraguay’s pilgrimages as “less religious” than what I expect them to be, or maybe what they were in the past, or make them out to be something silly. That is what I thought at first after experiencing them but after thinking about it I have come to a different conclusion, because I know for many people these pilgrimages are still very religious experiences, like my neighbors. After looking up the definition, nowhere does it say a pilgrimage has to be a painful experience, it is just a means to an end. The end being an “exalted purpose or moral significance”. So maybe all the vendors, performers, loud music etc… are just small distractions/obstacles on the path to the higher exalted purpose. I know it is also the result of a poor country that has slowly opened its borders to the globalized economy over the last two decades and now has cheap plastic goods infiltrating the economy like never before, needing someplace to go. This is the pilgrimage of the 21st century.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Email to the Family

this blog originally started as an email to my family but ended up being so long I decided to make it my next blog post, something I havent done in awhile.....

Hey fam,

Dad, Im sorry we got cut off earlier and didnt get to get talk more. Not including today, I have been pretty busy. I have been sleeping a lot better the past few weeks except the last three nights and especially last night I slept terribly. I think its because I was thinking about Jessi. So today I am utterly exhausted after three days of almost no sleep. I have stayed home and rested all day so now I am a little bored but still not feeling great.

The latest animals to invade my house are baby possums. They are the worst yet. Far worse then rats. They come into the kitchen via the roof and the rain gutter every night. Its been going on for a week now. I have tried rat poison, leaving the kitchen lights on, even Hobbes hasnt been successful. He almost had one, and was chasing it around the house for awhile and then it ran under my cabinet where Hobbes couldnt reach it. I stuck the mop handle under there to try and get it out and the possum ended up hiding in a cereal box that had been left under there, so I took the box and threw it out into the yard. Hobbes was left very bewildered and upset to have lost his prey but I was just happy to get it out of my house. But, they still keep coming back .
Baby possums are way worse than rats, they are better climbers, way sneakier and so disgusting. eww
My neighbors say possums have been a problem always in this house.

The optometrists came back on Monday. Their third time this year! They are a Paraguayan foundation called Fundacion Vision that offers cheap eye care services and surgery to the poor. I had orginially contracted them to come out to Fassardi for the day to do free eye exams back in March and the foundation was so thrilled with the response they keep asking me to come back. They come in a van from their clinic two hours away, with four staff members, one doctor, equipment, glasses and medicine for sale. Its a whole travelling eye clinic.
However, this time we had them operate out of the muni, that was not my choice. The only cost for them to come out to a community and offer their services is their gas and their lunch, which the muni must pays for. The last two times we did it at the health center, an obvious location I think. After two visits, the nurses at the health center know what to do when they come and are well aware to handle the situation so I have less of a role, which is the very idea of a sustainable project in Peace Corps.
So after I had made all my posters and my announcement on the radio to advertise the optometrists arrival, the secretary calls and says they want to have it at the muni because they think one of the nurses controls everything too much and nobody likes her blah blah blah... Its such bullshit. The truth is the mayoral elections are in less than a month and the mayor wants to take credit for bringing this service to the community. Everything is political in Paraguay. Even though he has nothing to do with the Optometrists, if they hold it at the muni, every one will assume the current mayor was responsible. It would have made much more sense to keep the consult at the health center where things were running like well oiled machine by now. But, the mayor is paying for the costs, so I couldnt say anything.
But, all in all the day went well. It was kind of nice, on my part, to have it at the muni because the workers took care of a lot of things I normally would have had to do and the nurses at the health center never had time to help me with. So I didnt do much but sit around and watch all day. My job was to make sure they got reimbursed for their gas money, that someone was going to cook them lunch, and answer any questions. They saw 60 patients and ended at 3 in the afternoon. Besides having to spend the day around the bitchy Brazilian lady that works there, it was all good.
The best news is that because Thursday is World Vision Day, the Foundation said anyone they found during their consultations with a cataracts they would pick up from Fassardi on Wednesday and drive to their clinic in oviedo, two hours away, operate for free, and drive them back home the next day. All for free! Nobody would have to spend a cent. This is an amazing offer to people who live in my town and cant even afford the bus fare to go to the clinic for consults, let alone the surgery. 6 or 7 people from Fassardi were given the offer. And I just got the call from the driver that he picked them all up and they are on the way to the clinic now! Very exciting news!

I have also started some work on the library project. The idea is to turn the office of the highschool, which is hardly used, into the a library which will be accessible to all students in Fassardi. There are two elementary schools and another high school all in walking distance. The library will be a full functioning multi-media center, with computer access, books, and educational materials for students. I hope it could be used a community meeting place and learning center.
I formed a commission at the high school with 5 students (all girls) who were elected by their classmates to participate. I am not sure if any of them really want to be on the committee, or if they just accepted the nominations in lieu of saying no. Anyway, we have meetings on Thursday afternoons before class and have decided to try and have a fundraising event once a month. I am going to apply for a Peace Corps grant for most of the money but the community must contribute 25% either in cash or in-kind/labor donations. We originally planned to do a movie day for kids before I came home but we couldnt find a projector to borrow so it was postponed. However, i eventually found someone who was willing to lend me a projector, the Rotary Club president in Villarrica. Adam has done a lot of work with him the last year for his own library project. Adam introduced me to him last week and he said I could borrow the projector whenever I needed it. So, we are planning now to do the movie day next weekend on Saturday. We are charging 1 mil, about 25 cents, for tickets, and we have donations for a cantina from stores around town. I bought Toy Story and High School Musical to show. We also might extend it into the evening and show films for adults to try and raise more money.
In the mean time we thought we could make jewelry to sell. I bought some materials in Villarrica and Sunday Nati, the president of the commission Raquel (who has actually been really wonderful and helpful), and Adam came over to make bracelets. The girls took them to school on Monday to sell but only sold a few, apparently nobody liked them! Oh well.
My landlords and crew were visiting next door so they were in and out of my house all afternoon, so I served the easter candy mom sent me. One girl described the marshmelllow peeps as "sweet cotton".

Hopefully if the movie day is successful it could be a monthly occurrence. I am also thinking about doing a ' fun with reading' summer camp as a fundraiser in December. The kids loved my last camp so I know they will come to the next one. Also, it will be a good thing to keep me occupied when Adam leaves.

My new English classes are going well. I am teaching on Thursday nights from 5 to 8 at the high school. I now have 11 students in my basic class and 4 in my advanced class. Fassardi's doctor is in my advanced class, he is the only adult but I really enjoy having him. He brings a level of maturity to the class that it was lacking before. He also knows a lot of English and asks intelligent questions which makes teaching English much more enjoyable for me. The teenage girls however are not happy with the class. They think the doctor is a know-it-all and want me to kick him out. But, I know they dont like being in class with thier friend's father and dont feel free to goof around like the last class. I told them I wasnt happy with the last class when we learned nothing and they would leave in the middle of class to hang out with their boyfriends and got so distracted in lessons because of their cell phones. So, I am very happy with how these classes are shaping up.

I am also continuing to teach my contact's kids on Tuesday afternoons. The last few weeks we have had a few other kids join in, which has made the lessons a lot more fun. My lessons are very simple and Im not sure how much English the kids are retaining but I really enjoy being around them and I know they enjoy the experience too, i also know they love drawing with my fancy American markers that I always bring. The last two weeks class has ended in a dance party. Little Jose gets out his dad's cell phone and plays reggaeton music and all the kids bust a move. Its adorable. This week we didnt have the cell phone so all the kids sang the words to Shakira's 'Waka Waka" (The world cup song) while Amanda did the dance.

This weekend Adam and I are going on a little get away. We have been talking about going on a mini-vacation somewhere in Paraguay forever and this weekend we are finally doing it. We are going to this hotel/resort near Caacupe that is offering a special for couples for two nights. It looks like pure luxury to me! They have a pool, a sauna, nice rooms, and hopefully good food. I am very excited! As of Friday I will have been in site for 3 weeks in a row, I only spent 4 hours last Friday out of site in Villarrica, that is a record for me.

The last week of October is Nati's quincinera, which will be a big event I think, held on the lawn between our houses, weather permitting. Then Halloween weekend Adam and I are going to La Colmena where he plans to run in a 10K. We have been there once before in January, it is known for the Japanese colony and the beautiful, hidden waterfall called Salto Cristal.

Adam and I are going to spend the last two weeks of November together, its our time just the two of us before he leaves Paraguay. Then, he is going on a three week motorcycle trip with his friend leaving from Buenos Aires and driving around Argentina. He is going to fly back to states a few days before Christmas.
We think we might go on another mini trip during those last two weeks. As of now, we have no idea where, I guess it all depends on my work schedule.
Plans for Korea are still up in the air. He has interviewed with two different English teaching companies and he is confident he will be hired by at least one of them. He could leave for Korea anytime between mid February to April. We arent happy about doing long distance and we know its going to be hard but we are up for the challenge, and what is 8 short months compared to a lifetime?

So that has been my life the past 3 weeks in Fassardi since I came back from the states. I have been thinking a lot about my family in California and Mexico, especially about my grandpa and my sister. Its hard to be so far away right now.

I love you all.


Optometrists give free eye exams in Fassardi

The kids show off their drawings after English class

Hobbes isnt so worried about the possums right now

Showing off my HIV/AIDS lecture poster

The current high school library

craft making at my house

First taste of a peep

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Back to Reality

I just got back from a vacation to the states for 2 1/2 weeks and it was an amazing time. It went by at lighting speed and I cant believe I am already back in my house in Fassardi writing another blog. This trip was extremely necessary and worthwhile. I was in desperate in need of time to relax and recuperate and feel a sense of normalcy. I got a fare share of all of these things while I was home.

Before I left on vacation I was having trouble sleeping for months which was affecting my motivation to work and my mood in general, I loathed the bitter winter cold nights, and was in need of a nice long reality check I thought the States could give me.

What I most needed from my trip home was sleep. I was finally able to sleep in a quite house,
in a big comfortable bed and feel totally unscathed. I cashed in on all the sleep I had
been missing out on for months and it was glorious.

Second, I needed food. I stuffed my face at every meal and enjoyed it all immensely. I am back
in Paraguay a few pounds heavier and a little bit healthier. I loved everything I ate, the first
meal I had to eat back in Paraguay was such a let down after 2 1/2 weeks of a feeding frenzy.

Next I indulged in all things I have missed from living in a poor, developing country for the past 14 1/2 months. I took hot, long showers twice a day, I drove with the music blasting, I went to the beach, I drank good beer, used high speed internet, and I watched a lot of TV in English.

I was over enjoyed to indulge myself in all of these things the first week I was back. Everything
was like a sensation overload. I didnt so much feel a sense of culture shock as I did a tremendous
wonder and enjoyment at being back home and feeling pampered for awhile. I loved being in a
clean home, having a pantry stocked full of healthy, good food. I marveled at how easy it was
to do my laundry with the washer and dryer! I loved being able to get in the car when I wanted and get an amazing amount of things done in such a short amount of time.
These were the things I loved. However, by the second week it was all seeming too normal again.
I was getting frustrated sitting in traffic and I was already taking for granted that our maid would wash my clothes for me on Friday. It was amazing how easily I could adapt back and not think twice about it.

But as the second week came to an end and I had visited the few friends I had left in San Diego and done everything I had set out to do on my vacation I realized I was feeling ready to come
back to Paraguay. I thought I wouldnt want to go back at all, that the US luxuries would be too enticing. But I realized that I have a life established for myself back in Paraguay, which is exactly
what I dont have anymore in San Diego. Once upon a time I had a wonderful life in San Diego.
I had a lot friends, a full social calendar, a challenging academic career, an apartment, a
roommate etc... Now most of those things are gone. There isn’t much remnants of my former
life in the States, and my trip reminded me that I am not in such hurry to get back.
My life is in Paraguay now. I have a boyfriend, a job, a house, a pet, and friends that are
all reside somewhere in Paraguay.

I am feeling rejuvenated now. I have a sense again of how I felt when I first got here 15 months
ago. I know I have the rest of my life to live the States and I shouldn’t be in any hurry to get back.
Also, it seemed almost a unanimous consensus from many of my friends and family who are working or struggling to find work in the down spiraling economy that life in the States is not all that awesome right now. Even from those who loved their jobs, they seemed to convey a sense that they all still had to experience that daily grind.
This really put a lot into perspective for me and it was what I got the most out of my trip home. I realized although I tend to complain about the inadequacies of life in Paraguay, that I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. The States doesn't seem anymore appealing. When I weigh the pros and cons, I think I am living large in Paraguay. I may only make about 300 dollars a month, but I am rich in my daily life. I can get out of bed when I want, I can travel when I want, work when I want. Life isnt so bad here.
The day I left the States marked my one year anniversary in Fassardi, August 18th. Now that I have one year left and I can see the end of this journey I have finally stopped counting the number months I have been in country and started counting the number of months I have left. So now I have realized I better make these last 12 months count.

With this all said, the best part of being home was seeing all the people I have missed so much. Although, the time I got to spend with them was always way too short. I was really busy while I was home and didnt even have the chance to talk on the phone with some friends. But I am so grateful to all the friends and family I did get to see. I feel lucky to still have such good friends in my life. I loved to hear from everyone who are fans of my blog. It is encouraging to know that other people are actually reading besides my parents. So I am going to keep doing my best to update. I especially loved to hear from my friend Margie who validated my point when I told her Paraguay had made me dummer and she said she could tell because my blog had slowly become less verbose and a little less articulate, but that probably meant my Spanish was improving. I took it as a very honest compliment!

As my bus turned off the highway today into Fassardi, the first thought that crossed my mind, was 'Back to Reality'.
Then I thought, how strange that this place is now my reality, how awesome.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Death and Motorcycles

Two weeks ago I attended my first funeral and saw a dead body for the first time.

I think I am lucky that at 25 years old I have not had to experience a lot of death in my life. Only since I came to Paraguay have I experienced death more up close. Peace Corps told us in training that two people die everyday in Paraguay from motorcycle accidents. In a country of only 6 million people, this is a lot. Motorcycles are everywhere in Paraguay, in the cities and in the countryside they are the most common mode of transportation. Recently Paraguay has opened five new motorcycle manufacturing plants which has driven the cost of motorcycles way down and made them extremely affordable even to the poor. Plus, companies make their product easy to pay for in a series of small installments. So, now everyone drives a motorcycle from 14 year-old girls to grandmas. They are cheap and useful. But they are extremely dangerous.

Motorcycles and their drivers have an entire image all to themselves in our country. They are badasses. But that whole image is lost in a country when everyone and their mother rides one. Motorcycles are no longer just for the daring and risk-taking, they are for everyone. So, without that image of the risk taker that comes along with the motorcycle culture in our country comes a false sense of normality and security in this country. Some people here understand that motorcycles are dangerous but still a different set of rules are applied than we as Americans would expect. Helmet laws are not enforced and so I rarely see drivers wearing them, except on the highway. I often see a whole family (3,4 or 5 people) piled onto one motorcycle. The respect we give to these death machines is lost on Paraguayans and caution is thrown to the wind. I am sure it is for some of these reasons Peace Corps volunteers are banned from riding motorcycles. The worst part of all is when teenage boys get on a motorcycle.

By far the most common drivers of the motorcycle in Paraguay are the most reckless. I often see young boys in my town speeding down the newly paved road, popping wheelys, swerving carelessly, not watching where they are going to check out a girl on the side of the road, steering with their feet, never wearing helmets, with 3-4 of their friends on the back, standing up while speeding, standing on the seat while speeding, drag racing,drinking alcohol, and the list goes on and on for what stupid things young boys think of to do with their motorcycles.

Since I have been in Paraguay I have heard so many stories about motorcycle wrecks and the resulting deaths of young boys. Although lots of women drive motorcycle I have never personally heard of a woman dying in any of these accidents. I have seen the wounds, scars, burns, and scabs first hand, even on little kids.

Two weeks ago two young boys from Fassardi died in a car accident one morning driving back from a party in a neighboring town. Their were 7 boys in the car. The driver, Elias, 17, dropped his phone and was searching for it when he came to a curve and didnt turn in time, he tried to correct it too late and flipped the car, the car went off the side of the road and flipped over 14 more times. The newspaper article I read said Elias died immediately. The other boy who died, 16, I had seen him two days before and he had participated in my lecture at the school. One boy went to the hospital in critical condition and two others were uninjured. Although the article did not mention it, everyone says the boys were drinking.

I was in Asuncion that morning but I got a cal from my contact to tell me about it. I arrived back to Fassardi that afternoon and the whole town was very somber. I had to cancel my English classes because all my students were at the town cemetery. Later that night my neighbors invited me to go to along with them to what I thought was going to be a prayer memorial for one of the boys in the next barrio. I still do not have a handle on the Catholic mourning process. All I know is many days of praying follows a death so I figured that is what I was in for. But it was the actual funeral, and I was not prepared. I didnt know the boy or his family and I felt like I didnt belong. The body was displayed in an open casket in a small front room with a large crucifix displayed over it. The room was crowded with Elias's loved ones. When I walked in I stood in the corner and didnt move, there was no where to sit and people werent moving around a lot. A lot of people were just standing and staring at the body, so that is what I did. Elias's face was bruised and cut up. He was a very handsome young boy. Two men stood on either side of him and caressed his face, kissed him, and cryed. This was the first time I had ever seen Paraguayan men cry and it struck me as incredibly odd. They are normally so manly and stoic.
Elias's mother was in the next room on the couch surrounded by her family and wailing the most desperately sad cry I have heard in my life. It could only have been the sound of a mother who had lost her only child. I was told she was living in Spain to save money and had to fly back when she heard her only child had died.
A woman came in the room and announced anyone who would like to pray should come in. The patio outside was full of mourners. All people from town, I recognized half the faces. The woman led the group in prayer with a stone cold face and without interruption for 20 minutes. When she was finally done she fell to her knees and screamed.
I finally found an open seat outside on the patio next to a friend of mine. We made some small talk but mostly didnt say anything. One of the boys who was in the accident but was not injured showed us pictures of Elias on his cell phone. A few people came up to me and asked me about the eye glasses I had ordered for them and when they would be arriving. Otherwise I sat in silence and listened to Elias's mother sob inside and yell out his name. Finally it was time to go. I was very happy to leave.

Elias' body was taken to the cemetery the next morning. Then we settled in to watch Paraguay beat Japan in the World Cup. It was a bittersweet day in Fassardi. The mayor called for two days of mourning and all schools and activities were shut down. Fassardi is a small town, a place where everyone is family or friends. When someone dies the whole town mourns and comes together.

It was a tragedy and one I hope I wont have to experience again during my time in Fassardi. But sadly, no one seems to have learned a lesson from the boys who died. The day after Elias funeral I saw people speeding down the main street on their motorcycles with no helmets and without a care. Young boys, no matter what country you are in, have a false sense of invincibility which hurts them in the end and makes their loved ones suffer.

Even though Elias died in a car accident and not a motorcycle accident, I felt it was necessary to talk about motorcycles because they are so omnipresent in Paraguay. My dad put the fear in me about motorcycles since I was a little girl. He has repeated countless awful stories about motorcycle accidents and always warned me about the danger. Despite Peace Corps rule, I personally hate motorcycles and have avoided them my whole life. In this way I am lucky that i dont have to rely on motorcycles as my means of transportation. I come from a country where I have choices. This is just one more example of the unlucky costs on life people have just being born in a poor country.

Monday, June 21, 2010

One Year in Paraguay!

One year has come and gone in Paraguay and everyone asks me if I feel like it has gone by quickly. The answer is yes and no. It has gone by fast because I now realize a year is a very short time to learn everything there is to know about a culture and to integrate yourself into that culture, in fact its impossible. Even after a year I am still learning new things about all things Paraguay and Paraguayan. Also, I still feel like I am settling in here, in a way. I am still forming relationships and forming ideas for projects. I think people are still getting used to the idea that I am living here.

On the other hand, this year has gone by slowly when I think about my life back home and how far away it feels, it makes me feel I have been living in Paraguay a long time. I feel time has gone by slowly when I realize how accustomed I am to life here; how I am so used to riding the buses, riding my bike into town everyday, Speaking in Spanish all day etc... At the same time, time seems to wear on me when I start to get fed up with certain "inconveniences" like the inadequate showers, inadequate housing, inadequate technology, inadequate transportation, remoteness and inefficiencies.

Reflecting on my life in Paraguay after a year here is a synopsis of where I am currently at:

Projects and Work: I am working in a lot of different areas, although none are directly related to the sector I was trained in, Municipal Services. Actually, my sector no longer exists as a project in Peace Corps Paraguay. The new group that just arrived two weeks ago is being trained under a new project title "Community Economic Development". That is my project's new sector name. The muni project was scrapped in PC Paraguay because it proved too difficult to improve the muni from the top down by infiltrating the muni and working directly with its employees. The system, we figured out after only 15 years, is too corrupt and too nepotistic for Peace Corps volunteers to be successful. Peace Corps finally realized that after so long when most muni volunteers completed their service never actually having worked in their assigned munis.
This is exactly my case. My muni is very closed off and uncommunicative and has proven almost impossible to work with. So I have had to find work in other parts of the community.

Some current projects I am working on:

HIV/AIDS workshop lectures
Barrio Santo Domingo water commission
Optometrists in Fassardi
Girls Group
English Classes
Library project?

Living: I have been renting a house in a barrio 2km from the center of Fassardi for about 8 months. I rent the home from a family who lives in a neighboring town but they visit about once a month to clean up the yard and collect fruit from the many fruit trees which they sell at the super market. I pay about 45 dollars a month, plus water and elecrticity. I think it is a pretty good deal. I have a lot of space in this house for just one person. Most volunteers live in small, one room houses. So I feel lucky to have a nice, big place. I also have a great family living next door that treats me like their daughter. The bus passes right in front of my house so traveling to and from my site is very convenient.

Pets: Hobbs the cat! Hobbs is 4 months old and was the brother of my other kitten Jeeves. Jeeves was obviously the runt of the litter and was very tiny. He got sick one day and very quickly declined, he never recovered and died a few days later. The vet seems to think he had a respiratory disease that cats get from not having vaccines, and she said it is always fatal. Such is the life of animals in a developing country. The day Jeeves died was my worst day in Paraguay. But, now I am happy to have Hobbs who is very active and healthy. He spends lots of time in my neighbor's yard chasing chickens and loves to sleep in your lap! He is my little buddy.

Language: My Spanish is significantly better than when I arrived a year ago. That is one thing I can proudly say I have accomplished this year. However, Spanish is still something I struggle with. I still constantly make mistakes, I still ask people to repeat themselves all the time and I still find I have difficulty expressing certain concepts. So, who knows if I will ever be fluent in this language I have spent more than a decade studying.
As for Guarani? I had a tutor in site my first few months but it just wasnt happening. I never practiced and I never made myself practice or study. I didnt have the heart. Everyone in my town speaks Spanish and knows it is my best language and so that is what they speak to me. It would be nice to speak Guarani, because I do run across people sometimes who I cannot communicate with, but in the end it has not been crucial to my service. I can communicate just fine without it. But after being here a year I can understand a little... so when people think I dont know what they are saying about me, sometimes I do.

Love: By far the best experience I have had this year has been meeting and falling in love with my boyfriend and love of my life, Adam. We met at a volunteer meeting in Villarrica in October and started dating in November. We celebrated our 6 month anniversary just last week. We are lucky that we live close by each other, about 2 hours by bus, and get to see each other almost every week. I met his family on a trip to Buenos Aires in May and he got to meet my dad at the beginning of this month. Adam is my best friend and its because of him that I make it through the really tough days here.

Visitors: My Dad came to Paraguay in the beginning of June for a small tour of Paraguay and my site. We spent a few days in Asuncion, Fassardi, Villarrica and Adam's site.... I'm still hoping for more visitors!

Other activities: I have a lot of down time in the Peace Corps. At first I thought i might become a cook or a gardner (I did garden for a few months) but I think I was just kidding myself, that just isnt me. Simple chores and errands take up a lot more time here than they do back home and I find myself giving up hours to tasks like cleaning and washing all my clothes by hand. Otherwise I spend my free time reading, doing crossword puzzles, watching movies, napping, playing with Hobbs, talking to Adam, listening to podcasts.

So that is my life briefly after 13 months in Paraguay. I have 14 more to go!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Travelogue from Paraguay…featuring Don Houts

I want to apologize for the hiatus from my blog. I blame it on the fact that my laptop mysteriously died in the middle of April and I had to wait until my Dad brought me a new one down on his trip to Paraguay.

This blog is nice and long to make up for the two month lapse, also featuring guest writer Don Houts.

Part I is a compilation of my Dad’s emails home and final thoughts about his trip to Paraguay.

Part II features some of my comments.

Part I
The air travel went on schedule. It felt weird to spend eight hours in San Salvador and to just be stuck in the airport. It was an hour to town with good traffic, and I did not want to risk missing my flight, so rather than hiring a taxi for a tour, I just hung out. It was not so bad flying coach. I slept a little, and since most people were speaking Spanish, I could not carry on any long conversations with random people, a bummer, but oh well. I’ve been talking about this trip so often that I think only half of the western world does not know I am traveling to see my daughter in the Peace Corps in Paraguay. In Asuncion, Jenna met me at the airport at 2:30 a.m. on June 3rd. My luggage was there by the time I got through immigration and they just waved me through customs. Jenna was waiting -- I gave her lots of hugs. It was a short ride to the hotel, the one where she usually stays, which is a converted house, very nice. Jenna’s activities at the high school for the next day were canceled, so we spent an extra day in Asuncion, traveling by foot and bus. We had not formulated any specific plans for the week. Just so wonderful to spend time with her.

The first full day in Jose Fassardi, Jenna’s site, which was a 5-hour bus trip from Asuncion, was a day of meals. We had lunch at one house in town with a woman whose daughter is in Jenna's English class. She served some traditional meat ball soup that was very good, which means not too fatty, not too salty. The woman was very happy to have me over because she loves Jenna so much. The girl, Maria Jose, is also in Jenna's girls' group. By the time we were done, Jenna was exhausted with the translating effort. It's about a 30-minute walk from her house into the center of the city. The weather was warm and beautiful. We got back to the house, and in the course of the walk, heard a pig being slaughtered. That sound really carries. We had a couple hours back at the house before we went next door for a meal. They really love Jenna, and Nati (the 14 yo girl) is a sweetheart. I also met her older sister Liz and the middle kid, Gustavo. They cooked outside and the chicken was good, but the beef was nearly inedible. My teeth were sore for a day after trying to eat that. I had mandioca at two meals in one day, which is enough.

Back at Jenna’s house, I finished The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest -- fabulous book. Make sure you read the trilogy, and do it in order.

Okay, it is time to wind down for the day. I think we're going to do more of a walking tour of Fassardi tomorrow. On Monday, I'll go with the neighbor, Venancio, whose nickname is Nene, to his fields (sugar cane) and maybe get an ox cart ride, which will be a first. There was a classic scene this morning when I saw an ox cart go by Jenna's house with a man driving the oxen, with his family in the cart, while he sipped on his mate. This afternoon, one of Nene's cows was grazing in Jenna's front yard. I listened to it munching on the grass while I finished a book. I watched some soccer games both in town and then across the street from Jenna's house.

The beautiful weather continued to hold, and the next day was nice and warm today. Jenna said it was the single best weather week she had seen for the entire year that she has been in the country. It got pretty cold last night and it was good to have a decent sleeping bag. In the morning, we took a 3-hour walk through Fassardi, mostly to see places that we had not seen the day before. As we walked by various houses, people would shout out at Jenna or come out to talk with us. She said the young men were giving her much less attention because I was walking with her, and she appreciated not having to deal with the usual adolescent banter. We went by the medical facility, the library where she painted the map (very cool), and to the new computer center. She showed me the only stand in the town where she can by fruit. Although it was not a highlight, I walked by the car wash where the sheriff was having his truck done and a couple boys were washing their motorcycles. I met her Guarani tutor and her husband, and we sat on their porch and talked for a little while. This was one of those times when I wished I could speak Spanish. Meanwhile, Jenna was really trolling for a meal, for lunch or dinner, but we didn’t get any offers, so we bought a frozen chicken and brought it home. It did not thaw out by dinner time, so we had peanut butter on pita bread, which was the extent of Jenna’s supplies. On the walk back, we were joined by a 19 yo guy, one of Jenna's friends, and we talked local politics all the way home. He obviously has a crush on Jenna, something about which she is quite aware.

Adam comes tomorrow, on Monday, and we are tentatively scheduled to leave Fassardi on Tuesday morning, to head for Villarica and meetings with some other Peace Corps Volunteers. The word “tranquilo” keeps coming up when the locals ask me what I think about Fassardi. Fassardi is "tranquilo." Cool, tranquil, yes it is. This has been awesome.
Go Lakers.

Adam got here yesterday, and he really does seem like a good guy, thoughtful, gentle, bright, easy to talk to, asks good questions, and he knows sports. We're going with him today back to Villarica where well spend at least a day. I am hoping to go to his site, which is an hour bus ride from Villarica, and then an hour walk. We might end up at Angelic's site which is in another town, a large one, for a day.

One of the things I've not written about is the sounds. I hear roosters crowing almost all night long. They are apparently time-challenged since the break of dawn has no meaning for them. In the morning, the cows start mooing at each other, one on one side of Jenna's house, another on the opposite side. There is an occasional motorcycle that I hear go by, an occasional bus, and the occasional horse cart or ox cart, so you can hear their hoofs strike the pavement. I sat outside reading yesterday and a bull that was tied up was munching on the grass about 10 feet away. Then, there is the silence, just lots of that.
Just like the walk Jeani and I had with our guide Amy in China around her farm, we got Nene or Venancio to take us to his fields. It was maybe 1/2 mile from the house, and he had a lot of land, maybe 20 acres. He was growing mostly sugar cane and mandioca, but he had lots of other crops including yerba mate and beans that they served us for lunch yesterday. Jenna taught English yesterday from 3 to 6, but the girls were too shy to let Adam and I be in the room, so we sat outside, watched life go by and talked. On the walk back, we had to stop at another neighbor's house for a little evening meal -- it is all so friendly and hospitable. They obviously love our daughter and want me to know they are looking out for her. During dinner, I learned from our host that Christopher Columbus discovered Paraguay, and I learned that Adam and Jenna hear that kind of thing all the time and find no reason to challenge that belief.

Pris was right. This has been one of my greatest trips, ever. Also, hardly the easiest.

On Tuesday, the day ended in Villarica. I took Jenna, Adam, and two other Peace Corps Volunteers out to dinner. The conversation was great as they talked about language, individuals at their sites, other PCVs, the world, etc. Meanwhile, the third Laker game against Boston was on in the background. We got back to our room at a nice and very clean German-owned 3-room inn in time for the second half of the game. That was great. Go Lakers, up 2-1, game 4 tonight.

On Wednesday, after an early walk around town by myself, we traveled to Adam's site which is near Itape, in Potrero. After breakfast, we took the bus from the second bus terminal in Villarica, not the nice one (a relative term). Jenna referred to the second terminal as "the terminal of shame," meaning that the place and the buses that go there are on their last legs. True. It was an hour ride over bumpy dirt roads, and we were a constant source of curiosity for the locals, some of whom Adam knew. Itape is about the size of Fassardi. From there, it was an hour walk to Adam's site. This was remarkable in itself. The path was narrow, often single file, through fields, through fences, by cattle - beautiful, and remote. I thought Adam lived in a lean-to, but it is a house, just one that has no running water, and his electricity usually works. There is a well in his yard, so he does not have to go far. We walked through his orchard and ate mandarins before going into his barrio. About 100 people live there, but the houses are 1/2 mile apart - so lots more walking. It was probably another mile into the center of the barrio, but if he had not told me we had arrived, I would have missed it. At a turn in the road is another house, a church that did not look like a church, and a school. That's the centro. We hung out at the school, met one of the teachers, looked at the kids, and then worked on his world map project. From there, we walked to the opposite end of the barrio to see another neighbor and take a look at a computer that was donated for the site. I thought it was a scene of unique contrast when we arrived at a very basic structure, they brought the computer outdoors, ran an extension cord out of a window, and tried to turn it on. Meanwhile, the dogs, pigs, one sheep, oxen, cows, and chickens all grazed and made noises immediately next to us. Alas, the computer did not work, so we had to bring it back to Villarica for attention. We then walked back to Adam's house, which probably took close to an hour and then waited for a taxi at 5:00 p.m. that collected Jenna and me for the trip back to Villarica, and our German hotel, Zum Stadtmusikant. That was when we said goodbye to Adam since he needed to stay at his site and get some work done. I was very surprised the taxi could get here over a single track road that was filled with deep ruts and water. The ride back in the taxi was a bit less taxing than the bus ride, but not much, and Jenna and the driver chatted like long-lost friends all the way back. BTW, Jenna thought the owner of the hotel was not giving as a Sieg Heil when he said hello, but I thought he was and felt a bit freaked out by that - I mean, this Jew might be a little sensitive.

Jenna and I hung out at the hotel where we had dinner. Today, it's a 4-hour bus ride back to Asuncion, and my plane leaves at 3:30 a.m. tomorrow. I have such mixed feelings about leaving. I miss my wife, but it's hard to leave Jenna. Life here is harder than I imagined, for the locals and the PCVs, as well. I can see how wearing/tiring it is to be here for long. It is an understatement to say that every day takes effort, physically and emotionally. I was stunned to learn that Jenna's neighbors are as young as they are -- they easily look 20-25 years older. At the same time, the Paraguayans are right when they talk about their tranquilo lives. So many contrasts. I could not have gotten a clue about all that if I had not seen it and felt it for at least a little while.

I am impressed with Adam. He's a good man, obviously bright, gentle, a sports fan who is easy to be with. He was very gracious with me. What's not to like?

6/12/2010, back in California

More thoughts about the trip to Paraguay:

The flight home went on schedule. After arriving at LAX and being picked up by Steve Cooper, I stopped for 30 minutes at Coopers for conversation and some of Daniel’s new coffee brew (which I highly recommend). I got juiced enough on caffeine for the 2-hour drive to Palm Desert where I’m now camped out at the Marriott Shadow Ridge. Let’s see, 24 hours from Fassardi, Itape and Villarica to Palm Desert, equals culture shock.

Given that I’m a doctor, Jenna knew this was bound to happen. It may be true that I know more about medicine than anyone else in Fassardi even though it has been 30 years since I did anything other than psychiatry. Jenna’s neighbor, Elissa, 38 yo who looks as old as I do at 60, has a grandmother who is still alive at 85, which is ancient by Paraguayan standards. Grandmom speaks only Guarani, not Spanish. She is having breast pain, but does not want to go to a doctor, so the question was, what could I prescribe for her that would make her feel more comfortable. Jenna knew that I would simply advise them to get her to a doctor for an exam, but that is not a simple process to enact in rural Paraguay. While there is a medical clinic in Fassardi, they don’t have a car. They have to take grandma to the clinic by ox cart. Grandma is very old fashioned and associates hospitals with the unknown and submitting to doctors’ requests, and given their cultural passivity and deference to any form of authority, they often don’t understand such recommendations do not have to be accepted. Jenna translated for me that there is no way to tell whether her grandmother’s complaint is minor or major without doing, at least, some blood tests, and that she needs an exam by someone who has touched a breast with a clinical frame of mind in the last 30 years (leaves me out). We talked about differential diagnosis from cyst, to infection, to cancer, but I don’t think that led to any understanding. They are fearful of the medical system because they think they are giving up any control over their lives just by walking in the door of the clinic. They also know Jenna has been willing to help them out in the past and see me as an opportunity to skip the complicated processes that occur in a top-down health system. We’ll see what happens, but my guess is they won’t be getting her to the local clinic any time soon.

To put that in a little more context, before this trip, Jenna had texted me about the local belief that goiters are caused by cat hair. I texted her back that goiters had nothing to do with cat hair, that it was an iodine deficiency. She communicated that to her neighbors and said it probably had no impact on their thinking. I was sitting with her neighbors, passing the mate (the a is short “a” sound, and the e is a long “a”), when her cat, Hobbs, walked into the middle of the circle and we began playing with him. Venancio, the neighbor and husband of Elisa, commented about cat hair being the cause of goiters, so we should be careful playing with Hobbs. When I said these things were not connected, that goiters were caused by iodine deficiencies, he said his doctor had told him that cat hair was the cause, and then he changed the subject.

I was sitting in this beautiful setting (see Jenna’s Facebook pix), passing a cup of mate, perfect weather, being well-treated by the neighbors who obviously love Jenna and look out for her, who make her life so much more tolerable than it would be than if they were not there, and I was soaking up their genuine hospitality. It was humanity at its finest. At the same time, the impact of their very hard lives, limited education, and limited opportunities is so obvious. Jenna and her fellow Peace Corps Volunteers described the glacial speed of the societal progress they are seeing, and they know this effort is going to take some generations before it really makes a difference to those who live outside the cities (in the campo).

Jenna and Adam refer to their lives, respectively in Fassardi and Potrero Reduccion, as being “Peace Corps Light.” That opinion is based on a comparison of the physical effort it takes them to live compared with some other volunteers in other countries. Jenna has running water, and Adam has a well in his yard, so he does not have to go far for water. They both speak Spanish, which is enough to get by. Jenna really does not have to learn Guarani to communicate with the people in Fassardi, but Adam’s site is remote, where many people only speak Guarani, so he has become conversant in that language. They contrasted those experiences with volunteers in Africa who have to walk long distances for water. Those volunteers might be taught one language during training only to find that it is nothing like the dialect at the site where they are finally assigned, so they have to learn a new language from scratch. It makes sense that those would be significant hardships, but it’s my impression that the hardest part of this process is the emotional aspect, not the physical, and it is much more difficult than I understood before being there. When you are in your house, you’re never completely comfortable because of the weather, the low quality of the housing, the food – so even your retreat to your house is not really a complete escape. When you step foot out of your door, you are constantly working since everything is scrutinized by the locals: how you walk, how you dress, how you speak Spanish, whether you believe in god, what you eat and don’t eat, what you drink – it is endless. It is constant work to communicate, and I can see how all of it is exhausting and so very rewarding at the same time. Adam asked me if I thought I could do what he and Jenna are doing, and I would like to think I could, but that might be presumptuous. My language skills would always be challenged, and there are so many other variables to consider. I am left feeling considerable awe for what my daughter and her friends are doing and the effort that it takes them to deliver to the Paraguayans. Their efforts are the most noble of intercultural exchanges.

Part II

Jenna’s commentary on Dad’s trip to Paraguay…

Reading my Dad’s emails and comments makes me think about a few topics I would like to divulge a little bit further…

Having my Dad in Paraguay and in my site was truly wonderful. I had been talking about my parents’ trip for so long and promising their presence in Fassardi since the day I arrived that I was so pleased to finally deliver. My Dad asked if people were excited to meet him just because he was a white foreigner which made him unique and interesting. I said yes, but I think that is not all. Now that I think more about it , people in site were excited to meet my Dad because they could finally get the opportunity to see firsthand that I come from somewhere. Family is so important to Paraguayans, it is so important that most would never consider moving away from their families. So here I am, this supposedly motherless, fatherless, familyless foreigner living thousands of miles from my home country. I don’t make sense, no matter how much they seem to like me, I still appeared out of nowhere. So meeting my Dad or even getting a glimpse of us walking down the main street through town shows that I do come from somewhere, that I have a family. It puts me on their level and hopefully, in their eyes, will help them to see how we are more alike than how we are different. I think parents in Fassardi could relate to my father coming all this way to visit me. They have children who have moved to Spain or Argentina for work and they miss them desperately. I know if they had the means to visit they would in a heartbeat. So I hope my Dad’s visit let my fellow Fassardians see that I am daughter just like their daughters and my Dad is a father just like Fassardi’s fathers.

My dad made some comments throughout his emails about potential plans we had made and then never mentioned them again. Well, that is just how life goes here. If I have had to learn anything after living a year in Paraguay, it is try to be more flexible. I know we Westerners like to say the only things that are certain in life is death and taxes, well the only things certain in Paraguay is your day will never go as planned and your week will never turned out as you expected. In the states, I could have my whole day planned ahead of time knowing what I would be doing and where I would be at each hour of the day. This is not the case in Paraguay and this is something I can still struggle with sometimes. But most of the time I love it. I love the freedom from the schedule and the grind. Its liberating. But I really had to learn to make changes on a moments notice. So, I didn’t make any big plans for me and my dad for the week, I only had a general outline for our travel plans. Plans changed and then plans changed a few more times, but that is just how things go. Even after a year in Paraguay and my old habits sometimes still come back to haunt me when I find myself getting frustrated that people are not abiding by the set schedule. Just goes to show how hard it is to break some culturally learned habits.

Health legends and beliefs are rampant in Paraguay and I am often told stories like the goiter story by Paraguayans that contradict modern medicine. Paraguayans have lots of beliefs about mixing specific foods, specifically hot and cold foods together will make you sick, or watermelon with tererre will give you a stomach ache etc… But these are beliefs they have strongly held their whole lives and have never questioned. So me telling Paraguayans their beliefs are wrong just because I know they are wrong can seem insulting. It is a balance game for me, I have to pick my battles in these situations and decide if it is appropriate or necessary to challenge the belief or just let it go. I usually choose the latter. I am not convinced of my persuasion skills in Spanish or of my authority as a foreigner or rather lack their of has the power to change anyone’s mind.

I am thankful for my Dad’s visit because I got to spend so much quality time with him. I am thrilled that he was able to meet my boyfriend Adam. I know that I have talked enough about my family that I am glad he is able to know at least one other member of the Houts family now. I am also thankful he was able to see, experience, and articulate what I could never personally express to my family and friends back home, which is exactly what it is like to be here. PCVs always say that they have such a hard time having phone conversations or writing emails with people back home and trying to answer questions about their lives in Paraguay because it just doesnt come across the right way. I agree with them 100%. I can tell my parents all the facts every week on the phone, write them emails and write blogs but it will never be enough, they will never understand unless they see it for themselves. So I am so thankful my Dad was willing to come all the way here, travel for 24 hours (in couch!), and experience my life first hand, otherwise he never would have known. I know my mom wanted to come and see Fassardi for herself more than anything. The people of Fassardi desperately wanted to meet her too. If my Dad was asked any one question the most it was where was his Senora. They all asked him to send their best wishes back home to her as well. Everyone was so concerned about her and asked about her well being. Like I said, families are extremely important to Paraguayans, but they love their mamas most of all…

PS I will be home July 31st to August 18th and I cant wait!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Read an article about me in the Peace Corps on the UCSD Website News Page at:

Jeeves the Cat

I got a kitty! His name is Jeeves. He is a little six-week-old, black and white kitten. I have had him a week and already I feel like I am raising a baby. But I have grown so attached to him. He requires constant attention, cries a lot and drinks lots of milk. He is very active and just wants to play.

Now that the time has changed and it gets dark at 6 o’clock and everyone is indoors at this time, he makes the long nights feel a little less lonely. He is my new little baby!

World Map Project

I have a few projects going on right now but by far my favorite is the world map project. If you want to understand the background of the map project you can read this article…

The idea of the map project is to paint a giant world map mural on a wall in a central location in town to teach kids and everyone else about geography and Paraguay’s relations to the world. In general, most Paraguayans know very little about world geography and I have been asked a lot of interesting questions about geography during my service. But, not until I started painting this map did I realize how unaware Paraguayans are of the world surrounding them. It has been an eye opening experience to say the least.

I decided to paint the map on the wall of the library, the municipal library almost no one knows exists. It is a dreary place and has about 100 dusty books that no one ever looks at. The place remains locked up most of the time and is attended by the town “librarian”, a bitter Brazilian woman who comes to work when she feels like it and is only nice to the young, cute boys.

The youth group was fixing up the plaza where the library stands the weeks before school started, which was my perfect opportunity to get kids involved in my map. Kids where hanging out at the plaza all day and every day to fix up the decrepit old plaza around the library, because lets face it there was nothing else to do, and so I was able to spark some interest in the map project.

The process for creating the map is pretty simple. Peace Corps has published a handbook with everything you could ever need to know about making the map. First I petitioned the municipality for supplies and then got to work. Day one we painted the dirty, disgusting and grafitied wall a beautiful blue. We painted two coats, a new concept. The handbook has formulas and graphics that demonstrate how big to make the map and how to center it on the wall and all other logistics. With the formulas we figured our map to be 3 meters by 1 ½ meters. We were going to draw the map using the grid method, meaning, small box by small box we would trace the world onto the eastern wall of the library. But first we had to draw each individual box, over 1500 boxes actually. Each box was to be 5 cm by 5 cm. So with a meter stick I marked out every 5 cms along the left border and bottom border and then very tediously drew lines up and down the wall all day long. The kids took turns helping me. It was very time consuming.

Then we started to draw. I was recruiting kids from the park to help out. A lot of kids would look on in interest but recoil in fear when I would ask them to actually participate claiming they didn’t know how to draw. I tried to explain the brilliance of the grid method was that you didn’t have to know how to draw but some would still refuse. Paraguayans are afraid of new things so I didn’t try to push them to much. But I still had a lot of participants that would practice drawing on the handouts I gave out and then move on to the wall. Some kids were great drawers and saw quickly how easy and fun it was. A lot of people would walk by and assume I had drawn the whole thing myself. Because I am the Americans they assume I know all and can do all, therefore I must be a professional drawer and painter as well. It doesn’t matter how many time I repeat that I don’t draw or paint they don’t really believe me. Actually, I only contributed a small part, the kids have done a lot themselves. I always supervised but they were the bulk of the input.

Now that the kids are in school I am most likely to get participants in the late afternoon, around 5 o’clock. I can always show up to the library and get out my supplies and within thirty second find myself surrounded by a few kids firing away with questions. Usually these kids are too little to actually put paint to the wall but they love to watch and touch all the paint supplies. But I can always tempt some older kids passing through to lend me a hand.

The map project has been a great way for me to get to know a lot of kids in Fassardi. I have spent so many hours at the library/park where these kids hang out and I have been incorporated into their world. Now while working on the map I have lots of little voices calling my name asking me a million questions, asking me to look here, look there, look at this, to borrow my bike, how you say words in English …..
After one long day of painting and lounging in the shade, two little girls that almost never leave my side scraped all the paint off my hands and arms. They were determined to get every last drop of paint.

The most eye opening part of this whole project has been the questions I have tried to answer about geography. I knew Paraguayans knowledge of the world was minimal, but throughout this process I have begun to slowly see how uneducated they really are. A lot of people understand that I am painting a world map but some do not. I have had a few people ask me what the map is of exactly. As Americans, we have grown up with the image of the world map, I am sure you can conjure up a mental image of it right now and possibly draw an outline of the continents yourself but in the last few weeks I encountered Paraguayans who had never seen this image of a world map before! They had no idea what they were looking at.

Also, looking at and reading maps comes very naturally to us, you probably don’t even remember when you were taught how to look at a map, but I promise you it happened sometimes when you were a kid. Most Paraguayans out in the campo never had this privilege. I thought kids could look at the map in the handbook, pick a country to paint, and then go ahead and paint it. I was wrong on this account. Most kids have been unable to do this, they get lost between the small map in their hands and the big map on the wall even though the picture is the same. The idea of looking at and comparing maps is so new and can be so disorienting for them. For example, once two kids were looking in the book at the map of Europe and pointing to a country in Africa assuming they had found the same country in the book, assuming a map is a map and not realizing they looked completely different. Or I will point to a country on the wall and outline the border with my fingers and show them exactly where they are going to paint, they will say ok, go get the paint and paintbrush, come back to the wall and have forgotten which country they are supposed to paint.

The map project is almost completed. Right now we are in the process of erasing the grid lines. The next steps are to repaint the oceans, label the countries, and finally paint a clear protective varnish coat and then we will be done! Creating the map itself has been a unique and rewarding experience, but this is just the beginning. I have big plans for the map once it is completed. I am planning to teach interactive geography lessons using the map with the high school and elementary schools classes. I always loved geography lessons when I was in school so I am excited to create fun and interactive lessons using the map. Think of the potential for what these kids could learn.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Toughest Job You Will Ever Love

I know my blogs over the last few months have become less frequent but as I have begun to slip into my day-to-day life in Paraguay I have found some kind of a routine: an everyday life that is not as interesting and new as I used to find it and therefore I find myself with less than fascinating circumstances to write about. Paraguay and Paraguayans still never cease to amaze me and I still find myself learning a lot but my ability to accept the cultural differences as norm and not dwell on these differences as much as I used to is much greater. In fact, I find myself starting to pick up on a lot of cultural habits, whether I realized I was doing it at first or not. For example, Paraguayans are a bunch of liars. I’m not being offensive, its just their way of trying not to be offensive. Paraguayans are characteristically timid, passive and will go out of their way not to offend, so saying ‘no’ to any kind of request sounds like a great offense. To avoid any confrontation or awkwardness, Paraguayans say ‘yes’ to everything, even when they mean no. I can invite the whole neighborhood to a meeting at my house the next night and get a positive ‘yes, I will be there’ from everybody and have nobody show up. I have found myself becoming quite the liar as well. I tell people, “yes, I will come visit you tomorrow”. Even when I know I have no intention of going over there. I here ‘yes’ so much that it has just started to flow from my own mouth. The Peace Corps has made me a liar.
I also have not been writing as much because life in Paraguay the last month or two has been somewhat of a struggle for me. I am very content with my lifestyle and wouldn’t want to give it up for a second. In fact, the thought of going back to the States and having to LIVE and find a JOB there sounds pretty dreadful to me. And although some of my PC friends refer to their service as ‘two years of summer camp’ (and sometimes I have to agree with them) life in Paraguay and the Peace Corps isn’t always easy. It has its ups and downs, and this past month or two has been a down for me. It could be because of so many factors. It could be because its summer vacation, the kids are not in school and the overall pace of life is small pueblo Paraguay is even slower (if that is at all possible), that also means I have to wait till classes begin again in the end of February till I can start up all the projects I would like to do with the schools…oh so many ideas.
It could be because it is the dead of summer and the heat is relentless and unmotivating. No wonder Paraguayans are stereotyped as lazy, the sun is way too hot to go outside and do anything most days. I have never experienced such continual, intense, humid heat before. I understand the need for a siesta in the middle of the day. The heat takes away all your strength and energy and there is nothing to do but sleep after lunch with this kind of weather. I couldn’t have imagined it until I actually experienced it myself.
It could be because people in Fassardi are still trying to understand what the heck I am doing here. So far I haven’t tried to convert them and I haven’t given them any money like all the other white people that have come through here in the past. All they know is I rented a house, I talk funny, and I haven’t left yet. They are still a little suspicious. In this manner I am having a difficult time finding people to work with me. Paraguayans are extremely friendly and open and they will call to me from the street and invite me into their homes. They will offer me food and what little they have. They will ask me lots of questions and I will talk to them about my ideas for projects and ways to improve their community but I still have yet to find people who are really willing to back me up and support me. Maybe they have heard this kind of talk before and nothing happened. Maybe hope is a dangerous feeling to have lingering.
Maybe it is because it is difficult for people to really understand me. Yes, I speak Spanish and I can speak it well. But I am not fluent. Who knows if I ever will be. I still make mistakes all the times, find myself stumbling over words, and still find myself in situations where I cannot express certain ideas or concepts. This is the most frustrating of all.
Maybe it is because living in a foreign culture is a difficult thing to do, something I have to remind myself, away from all I know that is comfortable and meaningful. Peace Corps is a 24/7 job, I can never escape it, I never get a break from my job. Even when I am alone in my house at night, Fassardi is dark and quite, and I think I can relish for just awhile in some of my American ways I will turn around and there will be Paraguay, still in my house, staring me in the face. A storm passes over the house in the middle of the night and the power goes out, my fan shuts off and I have to pass the night in a sleepless sweat, I want to cook dinner on my gas stove and realize my tank is empty, the water is cut and who knows when it is coming back on, I want to go to bed a little early one night but the Evangelical church down the road has a different idea and the pastor blasts his preaching accompanied by loud reggaton music over the loudspeakers into the night, some creepy dude in town has gotten a hold of my cell phone number passed from this guy to this guy to this guy and sends me anonymous love text messages.
Paraguay never goes away. My boyfriend likes to say we as foreigners are in a constant battle with Paraguay and if I don’t start to fight back Paraguay is going to win. Paraguay wins tiny battles everyday. Especially over my health. I have had countless, unidentified insects bite me that swell up to the size of a baseball. I have also had numerous unidentified ailments that have had me on my back for more than a day or two. Paraguay sure had its way with me on those occasions.
Peace Corps Paraguay PTO Jason Cochran put it best. He says you have to think about your “Little Victories”. He gave me and my fellow training group a pep talk during our three month in-service training and reminded us during all of our bitching that Peace Corps is a hard job, its supposed to be, but it’s the little victories that count and those victories are different for everyone. If you are having trouble just figuring out how to light your damn Paraguayan oven and you finally figure it out, that is quite a little victory. I have really taken his words to heart and although I think his words of wisdom can apply to anybody they really do make sense for our situation in the Peace Corps and I like to think about my little victories everyday. This strategy really helps me get through the day.
I also might just need a vacation. So my boyfriend, Adam, and I are going to northern Argentina for a week. Yeah! I am going to leave Paraguay behind and forget about it for just a second. Take a break. I’ve been working for the past eight months, I think I deserve a vacation!
But if this job was easy I wouldn’t like it, I never would have signed up. Peace Corps says it is the Toughest Job You Will Ever Love, and no slogan could ever be truer.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


I have a friend who came to Peace Corps Paraguay and was extremely disappointed when he discovered after his first week that Paraguayan food was nothing like Mexican food. He realized he would not be eating tacos and enchiladas for the next two year, instead he would be eating Paraguayan food, a traditional cuisine all its own….very different Mexico. Paraguay has many of its own traditional foods, unique to this country alone, and Paraguayans love to brag about it. So, I’m going to fill you in on some of the typical foods, eating habits and customs, and my own experiences with food in Paraguay as I have journeyed in Paraguay the last eight months.
“So what is the food like in Paraguay?” so many people from home ask me. Paraguayan food is fatty, greasy and usually lacking nutrients. But it is GOOD, which is why Paraguayans are so reluctant to change their diets when they are in poor health. Although, the diet itself is probably responsible for a lot of Paraguayan health problems such as obesity, diabetes and gastritis. No doubt, Paraguayan food makes you fat. I myself put on the pounds my first months living with a Paraguayan family. The heavy, starchy meals twice a day took a toll on me and my clothes, which started to fit much more snuggly after about two months. One night while leaning over the trash can to empty my plate my host mom patted me on the butt and told me it was much larger than when I first came. She said I should be careful because I won’t fit into my jeans anymore. She also said she was going to put me on a diet and stop serving me meat. The next night I got a plate full of fried mandioca instead, which is like having only greasy French fries for dinner.
My motto when over sees is, “Eat what is put in front of me.” I do this simply not offend or inconvenience anyone. Paraguayans love to feed their guests, especially the foreign kind. They want you to know how they make the traditional foods is better than their neighbors and they want you to emphatically agree. I often have plates of food shoved into my hands when I visit Paraguayan homes, if I asked for it or not, and Ill be damned if I don’t eat everything I am given and bless them as the greatest cook in Paraguay (I also appreciate any food given to me, because it means I don’t have to prepare food for myself that day). Sometimes I can’t help but think vegetarians are just being too picky and offensive towards Paraguayans. The fact that someone doesn’t eat meat is a mystery to a people who eat meat everyday of their lives. Choosing to not eat meat is an absurd concept to them. I personally do not like pork, or any other pig meat for that matter, but when served pig in Paraguay I will eat it. I don’t want to be rude…or go hungry.
Paraguayans have a lot of distinct food superstitions. Most of these superstitions revolve around the idea of mixing hot and cold elements. If you drink hot tea and then eat some yogurt, the combination of the hot and cold will infuse in your belly and explode by making you terribly sick. This is a superstition I hear about everyday. It seems Paraguayans everywhere emphatically believe in these food taboos. You would never want to eat an orange and then drink hot mate unless you were planning on staying in bed for the next few days. The other day my boyfriend and I were at a restaurant eating breakfast and we ordered a pitcher of orange juice. After the little old lady brought us our pitcher we ordered two coffees and yoghurt. She didn’t understand. Maybe she thought she didn’t hear us correctly because of our thick north American accents. To her, our order sounded like a death wish, what with all that cold and hot combining in our bellies to form an evil spirit and eat us to death from the inside. I guess that day we got lucky and walked out of the restaurant feeling reasonably content.
My host uncle during training claimed he no longer ate eggs because once he got sick after eating them as a child. He said he has recently drunk milk and then ate the eggs, therefore he no longer has the desire to eat eggs. I told him I didn’t believe him. I was drinking hot cocido, Paraguayan tea, at the moment and he offered to get up from the couch and make me eggs to eat with my tea. I agreed (another night of no cooking!) and set out to prove the superstition wrong. Raul sat and watched me eat the eggs in amazement, waiting for me to throw down my fork and run to the bathroom. When it was all over and nothing entertaining had happened Raul was in awe. What an awesome, powerful stomach we Americans must have!
However, food superstitions do help me out in one way. If I have been drinking terere all day and don’t feel I can squeeze another drop down my throat I can politely decline by telling my friends I recently drank something hot and they will understand with out protest.

Mandioca- Known in English as mandioc root and in other cultures as yucca or cassava (mandi’o in Guarani). Mandioca is the staple food in Paraguay. You will be sure to find a big plate of mandioca with every Paraguayn meal. Think of a potato except with little less taste and less nutrition and you have yourself some mandioca. Considering how popular and important mandioca is to the national diet, I am shocked how much effort goes into preparing a plate of mandicoa for just one meal. They must be peeled and cut up before they can be put on the stove to boil for an hour. This is not like preparing potatoes, mandioca is much sturdier and starchier and I still have yet to master the skill, best to leave it to the woman who have done it everyday. Mandioca doesn’t have much taste but it is yummy. I love it. I could probably eat mandioca everyday for the rest of my life and not get sick of it.

Asado- or a barbeque is the classic Paraguayan meal. An asado consists of meat, meat and more meat. Parguayans love their cows and especially love to eat them. An asado takes place on Sundays and any special holiday, be it Christmas, New Years, or Friendship day, asado is the only meal to make Pargauayan feel like kings. I personally never enjoy the asados. In my opinion, meat in this country in never very good. Just like the rest of the cuisine, the pieces of meat at asados are always fatty and greasy. The meat will be accompanied by a few side dishes, mandioca obviously, maybe a rice salad made with mayonnaise and a few veggies, and some of the cows intestines. I know I said I eat anything put in front of me, but I do have a few exceptions to this rule and cow guts is one of them. I draw the line at meat sausages made from the blood of the animal it came from (morcilla). There might just be a few things in Paraguay I wont learn how to eat.

Sopa Paraguaya- is not Paraguayan soup, which can be very tricky for Spanish novices who have recently learned that sopa is the word for soup in Spanish, not soap. However, Paraguay, that anomalous little country in the heart of South America, had to go and change it up on us again. Sopa is bread. Often Americans describe sopa as cornbread because it looks like cornbread but it tastes very different, and it is addicting. I promise you have never tasted anything like sopa and I could try to describe it to you but you wont understand until you have had it yourself. Sopa is a bread made with cheese, greese and maybe some onions, depending on your preference, but I am guaranteed to eat as much sopa as I can when I come across it because I too am now addicted.

Chicken, beans and spaghetti- Paraguayans always want to know if I have tried that food or this and what is my favorite Paraguayan dish, in case I ever come over for lunch. Paraguayans LOVE to talk about food. I often tell people my favorite Paraguayan food is pollo y poroto (chicken and beans). Even though I eat these things regularly in my own country, many are unaware that the chicken and the bean were not created in Paraguay. I don’t feel the need to explain this fact anymore, I just go with the flow and surprise everyone when they find out I love beans too! They think I must be acclimating to their culture just fine if I love chicken and beans too.
Spaghetti might be another staple of Paraguayan cuisine. I eat a lot of spaghetti with beef or chicken and mandioca when I eat lunch in Paraguayan homes. Its cheap, its easy and its yummy…pretty much the reason people everywhere make pasta.

Tortillas- I know what you are thinking, but forget about fresh, hot fluffy and light corn and flour tortillas that you know and love. Instead imagine a large, patty sized ball of fried batter and you have a Paraguayan tortilla. It doesn’t look, taste, or make you feel the same on the inside as its Mexican namesake. Tortillas can be made with beef, cheese, or vegetables like carrots and Swiss chard. They are fatty and dripping with grease but I love them. They can be served with soup to soak up the broth or on their own.

Mbeju- I don’t know if you will be able to find anything like mbeju anywhere else in the world. Traditionally a food served during the winter San Juan festivals, but made all year round on rainy days or cool nights, mbeju is the closest thing to a Paraguayan pancake, only very salty.

Rivero- fried flour, almost tasteless but surprisingly addicting!

You will notice a total lack of vegetables in most of these foods. Vegetables are used to season and spice up a meal but are never the main attraction. Therefore, Paraguayan adults often don’t like vegetables because they didn’t grow up with them and sure as hell aren’t going to start now. They know what they like and know what they don’t like and are often unwilling to try anything new. But when I tell my Paraguayan friends about the millions of bratty kids in America who are forced to sit and eat their needed servings of vegetables today, Paraguayans will commonly respond, “I don’t know how to eat vegetables”. They don’t know how because they never learned…or had the opportunity.

From a day to day basis Paraguayans eat food that is common to many Latin American cultures and our own. I already “knew how” to eat a lot of Paraguayan dishes even before I came to Paraguay. They make a lot of soups, stews with rice, and pasta dishes always with chicken, beef, or pork. Sometimes they cook vegetables, often they serve bread rolls along with the mandioca. I knew about empanadas and milanesa (a fried meat burger) from my time spent in Argentina. I am often very satisfied after eating in a Paraguayan home. And if you ever really want to know what Paraguayan gastronomy is like you are going to have to come visit me and find out for yourself!