Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Iguazu Falls Adventure

I had wanted to go the falls since arriving in Paraguay. Many of my fellow volunteers saved the falls to share with friends and family who visited them. I knew my aunt in Uruguay had already seen them, albeit 25 years ago. My other aunt, the one who would be visiting her and my uncle hadn’t seen them. That said one thing to me: opportunity. I wondered if we couldn’t coordinate a trip so that they could travel from Montevideo and I from Asuncion to meet up in Puerto Iguazu. The date was decided upon and hotel and hostel reservations made. They would fly and I would travel with at least one other volunteer by bus from Asuncion to Ciudad del Este where I would cross into Argentina either via barge or bus.

I hadn’t been feeling to well in the days leading up to the trip. I had bouts of nausea and dizziness and wasn’t sure I’d be well enough to even make the trip – though I was determined to try. The morning I left I first stopped by the Peace Corps Medical Office to check in with the doctor there. Given the all-clear to travel, I rushed off to the bus terminal where I met my friend and in a run, we caught our bus, which had already left the terminal without us. The ticket agent ran out and stopped the bus in the street so that we could get on. That should have told me everything I needed to know about this trip!

The comfortable air-conditioned bus made great time and we got to Ciudad del Este much sooner than I had planned. I had decided that we should try to cross by barge because I’d heard it was easier. No traffic, no fuss, no muss, and no lines at the immigration office in Argentina. It was just as we were about to catch a taxi to the port that I realized I had left my home without packing my Peace Corps passport. Ughh…my heart plummeted to my feet. How could I have done that? I don’t do those kinds of things! I’m a planner and an organizer and I am very careful when I travel…but still, I had done it. Now, I had to focus on salvaging my trip.

My immediate thought was, well, if I can’t travel on my Peace Corps passport (as I’m supposed to), I can travel on my personal passport which was conveniently located in Asuncion. The Peace Corps staff was understanding and amazing and helped me get my passport into the hands of one of my most trusted friends – a Paraguayan who lives and works in Asuncion. He in turn was able to send me my passport using one of the messenger services that frequents the Asuncion-Ciudad del Este route. It took 12 hours, but I had only lost one night and the next morning my trip continued as planned. I never imagined that I would’ve overlooked something so HUGE as my packing my passport, but I also would never have imagined that the problem could be solved quite so easily.

The next morning, my friend and I set out for the port. We took a taxi but were disappointed to find that the barge was on the Argentinean side. It would take 45 minutes or so to finish loading up on that side before setting out for Paraguay – a mere 20 minute crossing. In fact, from our vantage point at the port there in Paraguay, we could see both Foz de Iguazu, a town in Brazil, and Puerto Iguazu – the town we were headed to in Argentina. Our taxi driver was really helpful and negotiated our passage with a private boat owner. It cost us a little more, but the driver was ready to go right away. His little wooden boat seemed sea-worthy enough and once the immigration officer – a man with a tattoo on his forehead and ripped t-shirt and shorts, jotted down our names and passport numbers, we were all set to go. Getting there was pretty uneventful. We tied the boat up to a rock, our captain delivered a copy of our passport information to the immigration office in Argentina who then signed and stamped us in, and we were ready to hit the town. We found our hostel – it was as cute as the pictures had suggested and after settling in, were ready to get to the falls.

My aunt, aunt, and uncle had signed up for a tour that would take them first to the Brazilian side. Brazilian visas are complicated and expensive for Americans to get, so I decided to skip seeing the falls from that side and just enjoy the view from Argentina. The Iguazu Falls National Park in Argentina is massive and has hikes, walking trails, boat tours, a jungle safari tour, and a train to keep people busy. To see the falls themselves, one must choose from three trails, a lower, upper and the “devil’s throat.” All have amazing views, just from different perspectives. My friend and I decided to start with the lower. It’s the longest of the three trails and because we got a late-morning start, it was hot and we were exhausted by the time it was over. We had seen pictures of the falls before, but nothing prepared us for how they looked close up. We took a quick 20-minute boat tour also. The tour really just takes you into the falls – yes into the falls. We close – very close and the end result is that you will walk away soaked to the bone. But on a hot day – it feels great. Too bad that along with my passport I had forgotten to pack my swimsuit. Most people got onto the boat wearing just that (the tour operators provide guests with a dry-bag that keeps purses, clothes, etc from also getting wet). Though most of us had cameras in hand, the captain and his assistants gave us fair warning when we were going to get wet so that the cameras could be stowed away as well. It was amazing though for the next while we walked around the park literally dripping wet!

That evening I finally met up with my family at their hotel. We made dinner plans and then went our separate ways to freshen up. We compared notes on our views of the falls and made our plans for the following day. My friend decided she just wanted to see the parts of the park we had missed the day before, while I decided to see everything (even the parts I’d already seen) from top to bottom with my family. We started with the “Devil’s Throat” which is an amazing view from the top part of the falls and then did the lower trail. We grabbed a bite to eat and then continued with the upper trail. My family had a free ride into and out of the park while I had to take a city bus. I wanted to get a few souvenirs, so we said our goodbye’s after finishing the upper trail and made plans to meet up at their hotel later that evening.

That evening I found my family lounging by the pool at their hotel. We ordered some fresh fruit smoothies and snacks followed by some good white wine and dinner – all by the pool. Not a bad way to spend an evening. We talked about family stuff, politics, and my plans for my last 5 months in Peace Corps. It was a great evening. Saying goodbye was more emotional than I thought it would be but at least we’d enjoyed good food and an amazing display thanks to Mother Nature.

The following day my friend and I set out with another volunteer’s cousins who we happened to meet up with at our hostel. They were headed to Paraguay and we all decided to go back together. We walked down to the port and whoops – quickly realized that immigration services aren’t opened there on the weekends. That left two options (or so we thought): bus and taxi. Well, I was prepared to do just about anything to avoid getting on a bus to go back to Paraguay – especially since the ride from Ciudad del Este would already be 6 hours on a bus. So we called a taxi and explained to the driver that none of us had visas for Brazil (we would have to transit through Brazil to get to Paraguay) but could he ask immigration if we stayed in the taxi and simply transited through … if we could pass? He drove us through the immigration checkpoint for Argentina and a mile up the road from that is the Brazilian immigration checkpoint. The line was long and eventually we got close enough so that our driver could pull over and run up to the officials and ask about our transit through Brazil. Unfortunately, they turned us down flat. Our driver drove us back to just beyond the Argentinean checkpoint – which meant that we were technically in no country at that moment. We were told that a bus that would drive us to Paraguay (and was allowed to transit through Brazil) would come along. Two hours in no man’s land and we had our doubts about the bus…but eventually it did turn up. We got on and as promised were allowed to transit through Brazil. We weren’t sure what to do once getting to Paraguay and were hoping it would be self-explanatory. Unfortunately, that was not the case…

We got to the border crossing and the bus just kept on going. Some of the other people on the bus told us to get off and go through immigration so we got off the bus and tried to figure out where immigration was. The border was nuts (that’s an industry term)! There were buses, taxis, motorcycles, and people EVERYWHERE. It took us some time to figure out where to go. As it turns out there is no “passport control” as such. It’s just a building off to one side where you have to present yourself to enter Paraguay! Oh well…once that business was concluded we all shared a taxi to the bus terminal. The bus I was hoping to take was full so we got on the next one headed out. It looked nice…big and comfy with air conditioning. This wouldn’t be so bad…however, the bus kept stopping and stopping and stopping. And people just kept piling on and piling on. Soon, the people standing in the aisle were crushed together in a mass of tangled bodies. And this continued very nearly until the end when we reached Asuncion (6 ½ hours later). Whew … stuck in no man’s land for two hours, lost at the Paraguayan border and then stuck like a sardine on a bus for six and a half hours …it was a long day!!!

So that my friends, is the tale of my trip to Iguazu Falls. I would recommend everyone go there to see the amazing beauty for themselves. I recommend not forgetting your passport and if you can fly in that’s the way to do it…leave the sketchy buses and boats to the Peace Corps volunteers!

Until next time…

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Jesuit Ruins

Sounds like the title for a bad “B” horror movie doesn’t it? I suppose, some might actually consider Paraguay’s Jesuit ruins a bit of a horror considering what they meant to Paraguay’s indigenous population. A bit of the history first (from Wikipedia):

The Jesús and Trinidad Jesuit Ruins are located in Itapúa Department, Paraguay, and are religious mission that are sill preserved and that were founded by the Jesuit missioners during the colonization of South America in the XVII century. These religious missions were created in 1609 and developed for 150 years. Both Jesuit missions were declared Historical Patrimony of Humankind by the UNESCO in 1993.

The Jesuit Missions of Paraguay are considered some of the most impressive creations of the religious work of the Jesuit, and are testimony of the historical richness of the country.

Well, the ruins are located not very far from the hotel where some Peace Corps volunteers routinely celebrate their Thanksgiving holidays. I love Thanksgiving, but the two Thanksgivings I’ve spent in Paraguay, I’ve made alternate plans and have thus not found myself in close proximity to the ruins. Of course, they are on my list of “things to see before I leave Paraguay.” With about six months left of my service here, and keeping in mind that I’m not allowed to travel during my last two months of service, I’m feeling a bit of a “now or never” feeling when it comes to what I have yet to do here.

I hadn’t planned to visit the ruins this month, not even a fleeting thought. Then I had a visitor come to stay with me and she hadn’t seen the ruins either. Well, that settled that…we set out on our adventure to discover Paraguay’s infamous Jesuit ruins. We left early on Wednesday morning. We had pre-purchased our bus tickets the day before. It normally costs between 50,000 – 65,000 Guaranies to travel from Asuncion to Encarnación. We only paid 40,000 Gs because our bus would have no air conditioning. No worries, we were pretty sure we could handle it. What it turned out we couldn’t handle (well, we did handle it, but not that well) was the roach infestation that our particular bus was suffering from.

Ick Ick Ick, now if you know anything about me, you know that despite having lived in a mud house in Burkina Faso (West Africa) for a time, I am scared of bugs. Okay, now yes, I agree with you that a person that is afraid of bugs should probably not continue to choose to live in countries in which she will be forced to live in and among high bug populations. The thing is that my commitment to my work is bigger than my fear; still, I loathe bugs of all kind. Let me just add that having worked for two conservation organizations and considering myself to be an environmentalist, I understand the cycle of life and that all life is important and they play an important part in all our lives. I just wish they could play their parts far far far far away from me (or me them). But I digress….

The bus was gross and hot and the ride seemed to take forever….but of course we finally arrived. We made it to our hotel and found that..ugh…all the rooms with air conditioning were booked so we would only have a teeny tiny room with a ceiling fan. It also had no bathroom…we’d have to share that with the rest of the people sharing our common hallway. We met Jessie, the Peace Corps volunteer in Encarn and she was thoughtful enough to show us “her” town. Although she’d only been there a few months, she was already really well oriented. So our trip was starting to improve. A coffee and quick snack at a first-class coffee shop helped keep things on the right track and then an awesome dinner at a local Japanese restaurant capped off the evening. I thought our luck was changing for the better until…ugh the electricity went out in the middle of the night and the room went from a brisk 80+ degrees to balmy 90+ degrees. Just as I thought I would pass out from heat exhaustion, the electricity came back on and the fan started to cool us down again but not for long since the electricity cut off yet again and the cycle repeated itself….

The morning came and after a cool shower, we set out to meet Jessie who had decided to join us on our trek to see the Ruins. We were lucky enough to find a bus that was leaving almost immediately and within 30 minutes, we had made it to the first of the two Jesuit ruins sites left in the area. The first site was much bigger and much more intact than we had imagined. The park staff were well versed in its history and helped us to orient ourselves to what the remnants of the buildings used to be.

We saw all we could at the first site and then we moved onto the second. It was smaller than the first but equally impressive in its remaining grandeur. Before we knew it, our time was up and we headed back to Encarn. After a great vegetarian lunch at an Asian buffet restaurant, we got on a more expensive, air-conditioned and thankfully bug-free bus. The ride back was not nearly as long as our bus ride the day before but we got in later than we had planned. My only thought on arriving home was a cool shower and the comfort of my own bed. Of course, things don’t always go as planned and so we got back to discover that the water was out, that is to say I had no running water! My guest washed up as best as she could with the trickle coming out, but I decided to wait.

As I waited, I considered the ruins a bit…

I think the thing that surprised me most the intricacy of the carvings on doorways and pulpits. These were not just plain-jane (apologies to readers named Jane) brick buildings. The artistry in their layout and design were amazing. So too, was how grandiose they must have been in their day.

I tried to imagine what it must have been like back then both for the Jesuit priest and the indigenous people that were carving their lives out on these grounds. I wondered how the Jesuit priests would describe their work or their calling to me. I’ve often thought about my own work as more of a calling. I wondered how much we would find that we had in common and this really disturbed me. Surely, I wasn’t here trying to convert people, trying to convince them to adopt my own belief system or way of life…or is that the trap that I have fallen into? I like to think I always approach my “work” here as collaboration with me learning as much from my Paraguayan friends and neighbors as they are learning from me. That’s the way I’ve meant it to be but really analyzing if that’s the way it is, is very difficult.

I think one of the amazing things about living and working in a new culture and to some extent doing so with Peace Corps is that you can remove a lot of the labels that you have attached to yourself or perhaps that others have stuck you with. You are not necessarily the “responsible one” or the “little sister” or whatever else you’ve always thought of yourself as…well not as long as you don’t box yourself into that. It’s a unique opportunity to reinvent yourself…of course then you have to figure out who you really are and doing so in the context of a culture that you don’t belong to presents its own challenges. Ha ha, if you’re next question is who am I really and what have I discovered about myself here, well let me just cut you off. I’m still on this journey and my discoveries about myself while living here are far from over. What I can tell you is that maybe sometimes labels get stuck on us because they fit. I’m pretty sure I am the “responsible one,” and most people aren’t surprised that I live a fairly organized planned out life – even here, to the extent that it’s possible. Oh well, discovering who we are doesn’t mean throwing out all that is true about ourselves. I accept who I am…for the most part…do you? Food for thought people….food for thought….

If anyone out there has any food thoughts and wants to send a care package…bagels, sour-punch straws and a box of macaroni and cheese should be on your list :)

Until next time………

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Summer Camp

The idea came from my good friend Joan Ngo about a year ago. Our group (G-27) was all together for an IST – in-service training about four or five months after we had been sworn in as volunteers. She thought putting together a summer camp that would focus on civic education and leadership would be a great way to focus on one of the themes from our project plan and a way to develop the young people from our various communities. I told her immediately that I was interested in being part of the planning. After all, planning and organizing are my forte.

We started fundraising early and did pretty well for ourselves thanks to the support of our fellow volunteers and the very kind friends and family back home that sent us cash and gifts-in-kind. We also benefitted from a small projects assistance grant (SPA) from USAID and a generous donation from the Misiones government (a department/state in Paraguay).I handled the money, Joan handled the curriculum / activities and coordinating and soliciting facilitators and Jesus handled the venue and working with his department/state of Misiones to solicit a donation. The week leading up the camp saw Joan and I spending more time together than we had during our entire service-to-date. She bunked at my place while we made phone calls, met with people, gathered our resources, went shopping, and discussed how to handle what was coming our way.

We got to the campgrounds early (but not as early as we had planned) and were relieved when things started working just as we had imagined. The campground staff was helpful and kind. The participants showed up on time and the registration process (which I was handling) went going smoothly. Our youth participants starting warming to each other right away and I noticed that many introduced themselves to those that arrived before them. Before I knew it, it was time to begin….

The first day went extremely well. The participants listened with respect to our first presenters and asked great questions. One of the campground rules is that guests wash their plates after each meal. The staff carefully explained the process and I was amazed to see it in action. All of the participants pitched in, the plates, cups, silverware got done in no time, and I was thrilled to see everyone working together so well.

The days seemed so long and there were so many details to attend to. I found myself talking to the campground director several times a day asking my questions and answering his. I was checking on details like toilet paper in the bathrooms and cold water in our main gazebo. I was ensuring that our projector was set up at the right time and that presenters could get their presentations up and running on my laptop. It seems difficult now to think of all the little things that I was dealing with them and which seemed to keep me busy all day and most of the night. A few days after the camp, Joan and I bemoaned the fact that in being responsible for all the “little things” kept us from being in the moment and kept us from having a lot of one-on-one contact with many of our young leaders.

The days lasted forever – or so it felt at the time yet the camp was over in the blink of an eye. The youth participants bonded and we volunteers got to know each other better. We all learned a lot from the camp whether it was the process of working with Paraguayans in organizing an event of this size (61 people total) or how to work as a team or how to work with Paraguayan youth (aged 15-25) or what kind of activities work with this age group in the context of the Paraguayan culture. The evaluations we gave the youth were telling and we started thinking of what we would if we had it to do all again. It is our hope that a few volunteers will take this on as a project next year. The population of Paraguay is young and it is this new, young generation that will move this country forward as it struggles with the challenges of a new and growing democracy. The camp gave us all hope – for the volunteers it meant that we could do something to make a difference and for the young Paraguayans that they could do something to make a difference. I have about six months left of my service and I can’t wait to see what happens in these last six months, though I suspect that this leadership camp will be one of the things for which I am most proud.

Next up: GAD (Gender and Development) camp with four youth from my town, continued work on my thesis and an intercultural training I’m designing and hoping to implement with AFS (American Field Service) Paraguay.

Whew….whoever said that things slow down in the summer (it’s summer down here) had it wrong (for the record, I believe I’m the one that said that). I can’t remember ever being this busy and the heat (90+ degrees most days) certainly doesn’t help. But hey, it’s the toughest job I’ll ever love…right? I’m still here people…keepin’ it real!

Take care of yourselves and each other….

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

I said I wouldn’t do it…but I did

Last year I along with my PCV neighbor and friend Julie walked with several of our Paraguayan friends from Julie’s site of Altos to the capital city of Cordillera, Caacupe. This walk is a pilgrimage that many Paraguayans do in order to satisfy a promise made to the Virgin Mary. Last year I vowed that once was enough and that, I would not repeat the experience. My friend Joan, though, wanted to walk and told me about a group of volunteers that were getting together to do the walk and perhaps we could join them. I figured, what the h-e-double hockey sticks, it will be my last opportunity to do so – at least for the next few years.

I went to the Peace Corps Office to meet up with Joan and with a few other people that had to transit through Asuncion. We left the office around 4 PM in order to meet up with the rest of our walking team at the tollbooth in the city of Ypacarai. From that point, we would walk about 18km or 11.19 miles. We met up with our friends and began to walk around 6:30 PM. We got to a favorite PCV food-joint around 8:30PM – not great timing given the relative closeness of the restaurant to our starting point, though given the thousands of people walking right along with us, it was just about the best we could do. We all had a nice dinner and then set off en serio for the rest of our walk.

Our big group separated into two smaller groups, one taking its time (this was my group) and another one who walked at a fast clip in order to make it to the Basilica in Caacupe in time for midnight mass. My group consisted of my good friends Joan, Courtney, and Brad. We walked along, telling funny stories, people watching and just trying to be in the moment. We took some pictures and stopped along the way to buy fruit juice, chipa, and water.

We arrived in Caacupe with time to spare before the midnight mass (a total of about 5 hours walking), but decided to stop by my friend Celeste’s house to freshen up, take a potty break and rest up a bit. We picked ourselves up off the floor and attempted to find our friends who were already gathered in the basilica courtyard watching the mass. Tried as we might, we could not find our friends. Resigned to stay the night at Celeste’s house, we decided to go back and rest and try again for the 6 AM mass. We crashed, literally, on the floor of Celeste’s roomy house while she and her cousin’s sold Paraguayan style burgers, soda, and beer outside her home. The other part of our original group had satisfied their “Virgin of Caacupe” promise and left shortly after the mass. Within an hour or two of arriving back at Celeste’s home, two separate distinct groups of volunteers joined us. They had also spent the last few hours walking and were equally exhausted. While Celeste and her family provided food and drink to the horde of people in town, we compared stories and adventures from our evening and then eventually fell into deep sleep.

Joan and I awoke around 5:30 AM to find Courtney and Brad gone. We assumed they had gotten up to attend the 6 AM mass. Joan and I had lost our enthusiasm for the event and decided to head for home. December the 8th is the official day to honor the Virgin of Caacupe and we thought the sooner we got out of town the better. If the night before had seen thousands upon thousands of people walking, surely the “official” walking day would be worse. Tired and sore, we set out to find buses that would take us home. It took about an hour’s walk before we saw the first buses. To say they were full is an understatement. People were stuffed into buses so that there were people literally smashed against the windows. Some were even crammed between the windshield and dashboard. Men were hanging out of the bus doors – many remaining open to accommodate the “stair standers.” Every bus that passed our way looked the same. Another hour of walking and we saw the buses dwindle until we got to the bus terminal to find thousands of people waiting for empty buses.

Joan, now limping and fading quickly was at her limit as was I. We decided to head back to Celeste’s, rest up and figure out a new way out of town. We got back to find our friends had returned and were attempting to catch up on their sleep. Joan and I soon joined them. Beyond exhausted, I just couldn’t sleep so I went to chat to Celeste about possible alternatives for getting out of town. She made a phone call and voila, her uncle was on his way to rescue us. While we waited for her uncle to come and pick us up in his truck, we sang a few rounds of Karaoke ate some brunch and celebrated our triumphant walk to honor the Virgin of Caacupe. When Celeste’s uncle turned up, we were more than ready to get the heck out of Dodge. We found ourselves – despite the exhaustion, happily singing old sitcom songs like the tune from Gilligan’s Island and the Brady Bunch. When dropped at our desired location, we all agreed, the walk had been a success. So…the lessons learned are as follows: never say never and never judge all experiences by one bad one.

I hope you enjoyed these photos. Take care and in this season of thanks, I thank you for your support!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The latest

Hi friends,

Sorry about the extended absence from this blog, but the last few months have been busy and bizarre. First of all, it was not as easy as I had hoped coming back after vacation. I was on such a “high” when I left and was so motivated and excited about my projects and it was hard to find the “thread” to continue that upon my return.

The month of August, particularly was a significant month for me for various reasons. I celebrated my birthday on the 3rd, participated in my group’s one-year IST (in-service training) and celebrated milestones with my two sister groups. Sister groups are those that work in the same sector-area but are either a year ahead or a year behind you in service. My older sister group finished their 2 year service and swore-out just as my younger sister group finished their PST (pre-service training) and swore-in as volunteers. The actual day of the swear-in and swear-out we all celebrated together at a nice Spanish restaurant. Three groups all in different places of their Peace Corps service – needless to say, it was a special evening.

In September, I participated in a parade in my town of Loma Grande as they commemorated the life of an important Paraguayan man who died in a plane crash in the 1940s. I also traveled to the South and helped a friend facilitate a civic education workshop for teachers. The friend in question – Rebecca, lives in the town of Carapegua and I had such a good time that my day and a half trip turned into a 4-day trip! Upon my return, I said goodbye to a dear friend who completed her service a bit early. It was not an entirely happy event though it did make me appreciate the lifelong friendships I’ve made in the short time I’ve been here. The month was rounded out by three events: an interesting workshop focused on preventing the bird flu from taking root here in Paraguay, a very useful meeting with the Peace Corps Paraguay Director, Don Clark and the three other Master’s International volunteers that are currently serving and a fundraiser international sports day. The sports day had been done once before but we did it this time as a way to raise funds for a few projects. We invited the Japanese volunteers (JICA), the Korean volunteers (KOICA) and the Taiwanese volunteers (ICDF) all serving here in Paraguay to kickball and volleyball games against Peace Corps volunteers. It was a lot of work to put together (and I had a lot of help) but was well worth the efforts. Everyone had fun and we made some money for two PC projects.

Now October is here and nearly half the month will be gone in travel and activities again. I’ll be heading further down south to the town of General Delgado to visit my friend Tessa and help her with some civic education work. From there I will head over to Pilar where my friend Joan lives. While getting to know her town, I hope to investigate the opportunities to work with AFS (an international exchange organization). I’m hoping to use the experience of working with them to write the main part of my thesis. Upon my return, I’ll have two important meetings, one in the capital of my department (Caacupe) to continue the bird flu prevention work and the other in Asuncion to work with young women who have been awarded a scholarship in a partnership between Peace Corps and the Paraguayan government. This month will be rounded out by an awesome 80s themed birthday/Halloween party in my friend Jesus’s town of Villa Florida. Not sure what I’ll wear, but I’m thinking either an 80s era Dolly Parton, Joan Jett or possibly a Risky Business-esque Tom Cruise (that one’s the easiest if I can figure out what to do with my hair)! My friend Joan and I are hoping to make this party a fundraiser as well.

So…on to November? Not yet! Sure, September was busy and October promises to be as well. But in the midst of all this busyness, I’m also working on my thesis portfolio. So while the time does seem to be flying by, I need it to slow down a bit too…at least to give me a chance to finish my thesis work. So, am I afraid the time will go by too fast? No way people, no way. As Dorothy Thompson once said, “Only when we are no longer afraid do we begin to live.” And friends…I’m living! Until next time friends…..

Friday, July 31, 2009

Going home…from home and back home….huh?

I have now been back in Paraguay for about one week. I took a two-week vacation to go back to the US to visit my family. I spent 16 days there and my visit spanned three states, more family than I can count, and a lot of fast food and home cooked food that I had been desperately missing.

My first night back in Paraguay, I stayed in a hotel in Asuncion and ran into a few volunteers who were also in town. They had many questions for me about my trip home – what had I eaten first (a favorite question among volunteers) and where had I gone…where was home? That has always been a difficult question for me. I mean, I spent 19 years in Florida and it’s the place I called home for the longest amount of time – even to date and yet I’ve never thought of Florida as home. After having left in 2000, it became simply the place my parents lived – that made it home-y but somehow, it just wasn’t home. For the next few years, I called many places home. I called a village in Burkina Faso, West Africa “home,” and then three years in Washington DC, two years in Rolle, Switzerland, and nine months in Vermont and now I’m working on my second year in Loma Grande, Paraguay. I’ve considered all of these places home but do I really still have a home in the US? Can an entire country just in some general way be, “home?”

My parents now live with my sister in Virginia and this was my “home-base” for my recent vacation. So, in “going home” I was really just going into a more or less “known” culture. I was with family and friends and Wendy’s Frosty and Chipotle and salt and vinegar chips. The main point is that I dislike answering the question, “where is home for you?” I noticed too, that I didn’t like answering that question from people in the US. When people asked me where I lived, I noticed that I didn’t really like telling them that I was living in Paraguay. For some reason, this is not necessarily, how I like to begin conversations with people. It’s not that I’m not proud of being a volunteer or about Peace Corps or even Paraguay for that matter. I’ve found that this often focuses the conversation around my life and work, which in all honestly I love. I love talking about my life and work. But in most instances, the attention is focused entirely on me and I often feel that that it somehow misguided. I guess it’s the “exotic-ness” of it that bothers me. It’s not exotic to me; it’s just life…a different kind of life sure, but just life all the same. But many see it as this very lofty thing, to choose to live a more humble life to help others. I think it says something about me and about my life that is easily misinterpreted and yet it’s not something I want to justify or explain to people either…especially not people I’ve only just met.

But back to the idea of home. I went home from home and now I’m back home but I’m also already missing home. Are you with me? Did you get that? Home for me has so many meanings. It’s more of a feeling than a place. Right now, the city of Loma Grande is my home but at the same time, the US in a general sense since I no longer have an actual home there, is my home. When I think of home (US) I think of the foods that I grew up with and that I love to eat, familiar voices on local radio stations and basically things that are familiar to me. Whenever I’m in Paraguay but not in Loma Grande – I get the same feeling. Going “home” to my own bed, my own food, and books. I love the home I’ve created for myself in Loma Grande and I appreciate the friends that I’ve made that have supported me and continue to do so. So, now I’m back home, from home and though I miss home, I’m glad to be home…

Got that? Keep a good thought friends….

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Paraguay: Year One

It seems sometimes, as if there are only two climates here in Paraguay – hot and cold. We are currently in the season of fall or autumn yet it feels more like winter. The last few days have seen us get an unusually large dumping of rain, and like many Paraguayans, I didn’t leave my house much during the worst of the weather. In fact, I missed my group’s one-year anniversary party in the southern town of Villa Florida. It’s hard to believe that one year ago (we left as a group on the 29th and arrived on the30th) this past week, we didn’t know each other and knew virtually nothing about Paraguay.

All that time spent at home (most of my classes were canceled due to the rain) gave me a lot of time to reflect on the last year. So much has happened and while some days were agonizingly slow (some weeks too) it is really incredible just how fast the time has gone by. Now, for those of you “in the know” you may realize that as volunteers we really have two anniversaries. One year in country and one year in site – and for the purposes of completing our service, the in-site anniversary is the one that counts. We will celebrate that anniversary on the 9th of August.

So, what have I accomplished during this, my first year of service? Simple, I’m here and I’m healthy and happy! As a taxpayer that is helping to support me here, that may not satisfy you, so here’s a few more things that I’ve accomplished, I have…

Taught young Paraguayans:
• To evaluate their choices and to focus on their futures
• The importance of caring for the environment
• How and why to recycle
• The importance of trees and why deforestation is a serious problem
• How to plant and care for trees
• Qualities of a good leader
• Leadership skills

Perhaps most importantly, I’ve tried to show them the best of what the United States has to offer, people willing to share part of themselves with others. Most people don’t think about the name, Peace Corps. Many people think it is naïve to think that through cultural understanding we can achieve some kind of global peace. I don’t think it is naïve at all, actually I believe it is the only way we can one day achieve peace. I don’t mean to pontificate or get on a soapbox here friends, but how can we ever talk about peace if there is not first understanding?

Well, as a naturalized citizen of the USA, I am proud of the work that is being done here –and not just my work, but also that of all my fellow volunteers. I’m not sure how much Peace Corps cost each taxpayer – I can’t imagine it’s all that much. But I guarantee you it’s just about the best money your government has spent in the name of Peace!

Peace out friends…..

Sunday, May 3, 2009


Friends, what a difference a month makes…

Let me begin by letting you all know, what I hope has been obvious from previous posts. I am happy and fulfilled and enjoying my time in Paraguay. What is also true is that I didn’t always have enough activities to fill my days. Then along comes an idea, hopefully known to you all, called…”Como Planear Mi Vida.”

Now, if I had been more proactive, I would have marched over to the colegio and introduced myself to the students during my first month here in site. However, I was so fixated on doing my “job” which as a municipal services volunteer is supposed to be with the muni. Secondly, let me just be honest here… I was scared. I find high school students in general a bit intimidating, and Paraguayan students are even more so. The times I had come to the school in the past, to propose project ideas (my tutoring idea, for one), I heard piropos (catcalls or whistles) coming from most of the young men. This did not help ease my fear of working with them or wanting to meet them more personally.

Then I got the idea to teach the Peace Corps program, “Como Planear Mi Vida.” Well, my intention was to teach only the 7th, 8th and 9th graders, but as you all now know, I’m actually teaching the entire student body at the colegio. Well friends, this has opened my world in Loma Grande.

Now in my third week of teaching, I can honestly say, this is the best thing I could have ever done with my service. ALL of the students now know me and greet me either by name or by calling me profe (short for profesora or teacher in Spanish). The ripple effect is that the teachers all know me now as well. They stop me in the halls to invite me to school events (before they all passed without my knowing about them), include me in meetings, and call on me for help with English or with computer problems. I had tried to get them to understand that I was here to do just that – help them with whatever their needs were and to pass time with them and understand their culture. This is why it always made me sad to know some event had happened without my knowing or being able to attend. Somehow, before, that message never got through. Now, everything has changed.

Recently I was at the escuela (the elementary/middle school) and was helping the administration with a complicated document. Along the way, it turned into a lesson on Microsoft Word. I spent most of my afternoon there before I had to rush off for a class at the colegio (middle/high school). As I left, it hit me. I need them as much as they need me … now. I really felt like I belonged there. Suddenly I had a purpose and my presence here in Loma Grande actually seemed to matter to members of this community. Perhaps that’s not an entirely fair statement. I’m sure my presence here has mattered to some – even before I began teaching. I suppose that now the difference is that I feel it. I’m no longer wondering if that is true, I know it is true because I felt it and continue to feel it.

As I wander down the streets of my town now, I am usually smiling. The sense of purpose and belonging that I have now goes way beyond anything I felt before. My town has embraced me and I them. We are truly working together to create something special.

Thanks for being part of my journey…I hope you are as excited as I am to see where it takes us next…

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Semana Santa, Como Planear Mi Vida and Every day Life

So, my friend Alfredo invited me to spend Semana Santa, “Holy Week” with his family in the “campo” – very rural area. I had also been invited by my training host family to spend the time with them. I was torn but decided to spend the four days with Alfredo and his family. I was eager to see a different part of the country and to spend time in the “interior” part of the country.

I slept in my own bed in my own room though the walls were rustic and had big spiders in all the crevices. Come on self, I said constantly, you lived in Africa; you can sleep in a spidery room! Sufficiently calmed, I went on the next challenge, trying to eat vegetarian while visiting a family that had just killed a HUGE pig. But pig is not meat they tried to explain to me. Ugh, well, yes, but you see, I don’t actually eat anything that comes from the skin of an animal. So I ate salads and sardines. See, “campo” life isn’t so hard! Well, I had a great time and was even invited back! Here are a few pics that highlight my time in the “campo.”

Making it through Semana Santa meant only one thing to me: the start of classes. The school year began here in mid-March but the classes that I am now teaching were planned to start after the Holy Week break – April 13th. Although I was anxious to get started, I was petrified to get started. I knew only a few of the students but now I would be working with virtually ALL of them. Basically I had worked out a plan to teach a Peace Corps life skills program called, Como Planear Mi Vida (How to Plan My Life) with the 7th, 8th and 9th graders from the elementary/middle school here in town. The middle/high school also has 7th, 8th and 9th grades and so I inquired if they would like me to teach the program there as well. I guess the principal liked the program – a lot, because she asked me to teach it to the entire student body (about 250 students). So 12 classes later, I’m busier than I could’ve ever imagined.

I’ve modified the program and am more or less sharing three versions with the students. One is for the younger students – the 7th – 9th graders, one for the 10th and 11th graders and the last one is a shortened version for the 12th graders. I will only have access to them about 2x/month so I’ve trimmed their program down to the essentials (basically job /career related stuff and family planning related stuff). For the two younger groups the focus will more or less be the same: self-esteem, decision-making, family planning, and job/career planning. I’ll be with those two groups once a week.

I’ve just finished my first week and am now ready (I think) to get into the real “work” of the program. Last week I mostly introduced myself to the students, talked about life in the US, and summarized the program for them. We’re starting with autobiographies. I’m having the students use a basic questionnaire (how old are you, how many sisters/brothers do you have, etc) to begin writing their stories. When we are about half way through the course I’ll ask them to do so again, but this time imagining that ten years have passed. Towards the end of the course, we’ll do our biographies one last time – this time imagining that fifty years have passed. I can’t wait to see how their lives will all turn out!

Another activity we’ll do is create our own personal flags. Just the way countries have flags with colors and symbols that represent their values/beliefs we’ll make flags for ourselves that illustrate these things. My flag will probably have a globe on it, some green color to symbolize my connection to the earth/nature and maybe something that symbolizes service leadership – if there is such a symbol.

Clearly, I’m excited abo
ut this work. I’m also excited about a new recycling project I’m trying to get off the ground. Everything is in place to get it going except…someone to buy our recyclables. There is no formal recycling program in this country but there lots of companies that will buy glass, plastic, etc. We just have to go out and find them! Well, my boss from Peace Corps helped me find a list of companies online and I’ve now given that list to my mayor. Hopefully we can work something out with one of these companies and start our program up. All of the proceeds from the sale of our recycling will benefit our local health council (of which I’m an ad-hoc member). This council oversees the running of our local health clinic and ensures the clinic is meeting our town’s needs. As an avid environmentalist, I’m happy to have found a way to begin to tackle my town’s garbage problems. I’m also happy to be working on a project related to my project plan (as a municipal development volunteer there are certain projects I should be doing with my municipality).

Finally a few comments about life in Paraguay. I’ve been asked what my day-to-day life is like. Well, not having a 9-5 job my days are always different. Most mornings I go to the municipality briefly to see what, if anything is going on. Now, I have classes every afternoon (and on Thursdays have morning classes as well). I also have the health council meetings every Wednesday afternoon (recently moved from Wednesday mornings). I spend time (sometimes a bit too much time) on my computer researching information for my projects and checking email (I recently got internet in my home though it is slow and not very reliable). So, a typical
day doesn’t really exist.

I try do laundry every few days so that it does not build up too much. I have a love/hate relationship with laundry day. I always dread doing laundry though it is not that unpleasant a task. I take my iPod and speakers to the patio where I wash my clothes and the music helps create a pleasant atmosphere. Washing clothes by hand is pretty simple: soak, scrub vigorously, rinse, rinse, rinse, rinse (usually 4 rinses before the water runs clear), twist, flick and hang, let dry (depending on sun and other factors about 2-3 hours usually does the trick in summer), then iron carefully. I was not a big ironer in the US but here you MUST iron your clothes or risk the dreaded botfly. Basically, as I understand it, it will be on your clothes (you won’t notice) and once it comes into contact with
your skin will lay its eggs under your skin. You will then develop a painful blister (looks a bit like one of those under the skin zits) that will hopefully have you seeking medical advice at which point they’ll tell you that you are about to be the proud parent of some baby botflies. Seriously, they will just dig out the eggs or whatever and you’ll be fine but still…gross! So ironing can apparently, prevent this horrid scene from occurring. In a continuing effort to make these kinds of chores more pleasant I usually iron with my laptop or iPod nearby and listen to music or watch movies.

I try not to save up household chores for weekends so that I can actually enjoy those a bit, but with my first week of classes this week, I found myself doing A LOT of laundry this past Saturday. Here’s how my day ended up:

-woke up at 7:30
-ate breakfast, changed by 8:30
-did 2 ½ hours of laundry, was done by 10:30
-ate a snack, checked email, left for grocery shopping by 11:30
-got to San Lorenzo where I do some of my grocery shopping 1:00
-finished shopping and headed back to Loma 2:00
-got home from grocery shopping 3:30
-drank lots of terere and relaxed ‘til 4:00
-took clothes down from line and started ironing
-finished ironing and started making dinner 6:00
-checked email while eating dinner 6:30
-was in bed and reading a book by 8:00
-lights out 10:00!

Yes, people, sometimes my life is just one adventure after another….until next time …

Thursday, March 5, 2009

My New Home

In December, I decided that it was time to move. I loved where I was living, though I yearned for a bit more independence than I got living on someone else’s property – just behind their home. I had a great host family, but there were so many of them around all the time and having lived on my own for more years than I care to count, I wanted to find a place that would give me more privacy. Though I found empty houses, they were not for rent. I went on vacation and left word with friends in my town that I was interested in finding a new home and asked if they would keep a proverbially ear to the ground about houses for rent. In a small town, with few people moving in or out, there wasn’t much available. I did not know when I started my search that it would take me three months to find my perfect home. I got frustrated but tried not to lose faith that my Paraguayan home was somewhere out there waiting for me to find it.

During the second week of February my host family told me that they were going to need the two rooms that I was renting and asked me to move out by the end of the month. I still had not found my perfect home and now I only had two weeks to find it. The pressure made me frantic. I called my new Peace Corps boss and felt badly that I was handing her a problem so early on in her job with us. I hadn’t met her yet, had only spoken to her by phone, yet she dropped everything and drove the 2 hours from Asuncion to come and see me. We called the mayor of my town and the three of us sat together to think about what could be done. The mayor had heard that someone had just moved out of a house located near the middle school/high school. He made a call and we went to see it. The house was adorable. A cute, new little two-room house. It had a cute little manicured from lawn and garden. The rooms were large and the bathroom, like the rest of the house was newly built and fairly large. I noted that there was no sink (the two rooms were just that – too big empty rooms, no formal kitchen) and I would have to buy and have one installed outside. The first room, the one you walked into from the front door, also had a back door. That was as good a place as any for a sink. I noted though, that there was not much back there, just dirt and not very much of the property back there would be mine to use. There was also no shade, meaning that during the summer (like right now) the sink could only be comfortably used in the very early morning or late evening, which also meant there would need to be a light installed above the sink. Not overwhelming problems, but still something to consider. At any rate, as my options were limited, I decided to rent the house and made arrangements to speak with the owner the following Sunday (the day that day was Monday).

On Saturday afternoon, I made a list of things to discuss with the owner the following afternoon. I doubt she would have any problem in my adding the sink and light as they would only increase the value of the house and property. Just as I was putting my list together and figuring out the costs involved, I got a text message from a friend of mine. She knew of a house that was for rent and had spoken to the owners on my behalf. She sent me there number and despite thinking of my housing issues as solved, I called the woman. The house in question was an awesome, modern 2-story structure next to the house I was planning on renting. I had passed the house a bunch of times always wondering who owned it. I was told the owners were seldom in town and that they lived in Asuncion.

It turned out that the family only wanted to rent me the lower portion of the home, which was completely separate from the second story. The first floor was basically just one big room. It has a very nice bathroom with a shower (which wasn’t huge, but looked brand new and had evidently never been used). The room had four large windows and a back door which led out onto a large courtyard that a big mango tree in the center (I love mangos). Around the side of the courtyard was a patio with a sink and Paraguayan outdoor oven and separate built-in barbecue. There were also a set of metal stairs which led up to a second floor patio. This patio also had a sink and space for putting up a clothesline. Next to the first floor patio was yet another patio, this one accessible through a big metal locking door. This particular patio had a number of fruit trees in it, lemon, orange, grapefruit, and mandarin. The owners understood that I had very little furniture of my own and showed me furniture that I could use if I wanted. The furniture was also great, and included a small bed, awesome desk with space for book storage, a brand new gas range with electric starter, a meat freezer which could be used at a lower setting as a fridge and a set of three storage units which together with my wardrobe could act as dividers between the main living space and a bedroom.

All in all, it was an amazing home and I was faced with telling the owner of the house next door that I had had a last minute offer and that I would not be renting her home. I was relieved that she understood that I had gotten a better offer and did not seem to be angry with me. Three days later, I moved into my new home. When I couldn’t find a good price on a dining room table and chairs (the only furniture I wasn’t able to borrow), my new landlords offered to take me to some furniture shops in Asuncion. As they were planning to come to Loma Grande the following weekend, they offered to drive up anything that I purchased. I found a great little dining room set at a good price and by the first of March, my new home was more or less complete.

Of course, the saying, good things come to those who wait, always turns out to be true for me. I did get frustrated but I didn’t really lose faith. I knew something great was out there for me; it was just hard to maintain constant optimism as the weeks went by. The only changes I’m making to my new home is the addition of screening for the windows as there are a ton of mosquitoes around and it’s Dengue season (though there hasn’t been any reported cases in my department for a number of years). Despite the use of repellent and mosquito coils (spirals that you light and the smoke and fumes are meant to keep the bugs away) I’m still constantly bitten. The carpenter just came by to measure my windows and my screening should be up next week. There are still little things to make my home more a home (like artwork from my nephews that my sister has promised to send) but little by little, I’ll get it decorated so it looks more like me.

So…now, I’ve got the perfect space for entertaining. There is plenty of space for guests, so all I need to know is who wants to visit me first? Remember, mi casa es su casa. Take care friends……