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!


  1. Jenna,
    You are so right, I now have a deeper understanding of what you are experiencing. I'm even more proud of you. Can't wait until the magic day of 7/31. Loving you, MAMA

  2. Jenners - you are not familyless! We love you....if Paraguay only knew!