Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Pilgrimage

I had heard about December 8th nearly from the moment I got to Paraguay. December 8th is the day that thousands of Paraguayans walk from their homes to the city of Caacupe (the capital of the department that I live in) to attend special masses and to pray to the Virgin of Caacupe. Many people make special prayer requests and then do the walk as a show of their faith. Those who live very far away start walking as early as the 5th of December. Not living that far from Caacupe, it occurred to me that it would be something I’d want to do – just for the experience. As it got closer, I sort of lost the desire to take part. Later, I thought, well, of course, I should do this at least once. I asked my friend Julie if she was planning on doing the walk and she told me a group of friends from her town (Altos) were planning on going and she was going to go along, and that I should go along as well.

The plan was to leave Altos around 6PM and to walk (about 5 hours) through a neighboring town, taking shortcuts through the rural parts of that town. I was relieved at this plan because had we walked along the main road it would have taken us about 13 hours instead of the more reasonable sounding 5. We departed on time and despite the sun’s presence, the heat was not unbearable. The sun quickly went down and we found ourselves in darkness as we walked along dirt roads that were dusty, uneven and filled with holes, frogs and other creatures of the night. I had brought along my headlamp – or thought I had. When I went to get it out of my backpack, it was nowhere to be seen. Undaunted by this setback, I took out my cell phone, which has a small little light embedded in it. We used this to light our way though it only barely showed us where the road had potholes and such.

There were 7 of us in the group, two couples and three additional women including myself and Julie. The third woman, was my constant companion and we chatted endlessly about the US and Paraguay and our plans for the summer. We stopped around 8:30 and took a break, drinking and eating and basically trying to replace some lost energy. We were around the halfway point then and though we weren’t exhausted, many of us were definitely starting to feel our muscles tighten up and some were already tending to blisters and sores on their feet.

We marshaled on and finally came to the main road (an asphalt road) where we passed hundreds of people who’s destination was evidently the same as our own. There were also police lined all along the roadway, helping direct traffic and ensuring that the crowds stayed under control. The high spirits and energy that we had started out with were definitely depleted and though we were close to our goal, it did little to help us quicken our steps.

Some in our group hoped to see a bit of the midnight mass so when we were about 20 minutes away from the Cathedral in Caacupe, and it was only 11:30, we decided to take another break. Some in our group refreshed with beer others, myself included, were contented just to people watch. Already at this point, there were people who were camped out and sleeping on the sidewalks and alleyways. As the time for the mass approached, we continued on our way. The closer we got to the church, the more the crowds intensified. In addition, vendors selling everything from street food to “the Virgin of Caacupe” t-shirts and tank tops lined the way. To Julie and I, it seemed more like an evening street fair than a holy or religious pilgrimage.

We arrived at the church and I was astounded at how many people there were – not just people milling about or those trying to take part in the mass, but hundreds
sleeping along the roads, sidewalks and steps of the church. Julie wanted to try to take some pictures so we pushed our way into the crowd just outside the church. We all went in together, like a train of school children – each person holding tightly to the shirt of the person in front of them. This was one of those occasions where being a person of small stature came as a huge disadvantage. Not only could I not see anything, I felt incredibly claustrophobic in the mass of people around me. People were pushing both to get closer to the church and to escape the crowd in front of the church. I felt myself being pushed from every direction. Our group finally made the decision to leave and the pushing then intensified. For 5-10 seconds at a time, I found my back and chest constricted virtually cutting off my breath. Scared and frustrated, it was with an immense amount of relief that I was able to finally escape with my friends back into the streets.

One of the guys in our group then began chatting on his cell phone. It turned out he had a friend who was willing to come to pick us up. I was VERY relieved. The buses after all were going to be standing room only – and the trip home would take at least 40 minutes. We were all so tired, I don’t think any of us were up to standing on a bus for that long. The problem was that most roads were closed to traffic, so we’d have to walk a bit out of town to be able to meet up with our ride. When we got to the meeting place, it turned out that the police were not letting any traffic pass by. We would have no choice but to get on a bus to go further down the road. The bus we got on was beyond packed and I’m not sure why were allowed to get on. The driver pointed at a place that I could sit, in the US we would call this place the dashboard, but here in Paraguay, I suppose it was an opportunity not to stand! I insinuated myself into the nook in the dashboard and we headed on down the road. After about 15 minutes we arrived at our new meeting spot. That too, however was blocked off. Yet another bus ride (this one much less crowded) took us to the place where we finally met up with our friend’s friend.

I was so happy to finally see an end to the long evening that I barely noted the size of his car. It was made to seat 5 and we were 7, not including the driver. We all piled in, five in the back (three across the seat in the back and two of us sitting on laps) and the final two sharing the front passenger seat. Not comfortable, but at least we were on our way. It was around this time that I chuckled to myself (probably giddy with exhaustion) and thought about Murphy’s law. It was now about 1:30 in the morning and I was figuring, if all went well, I could be asleep within 30 minutes. Of course, all did not go well. Within a few minutes of getting underway, the driver complained about something and the next thing I knew, we were all out of the car looking at a flat tire. Two of our friends, along with the driver, worked on replacing the tire and within another 30 minutes we were once again underway. A few minutes into the drive with the new tire, we stopped at a gas station. I thought this was weird as the gas station was closed. Two of the guys we were with argued this last point and one finally said something like, nah, the guy is sleeping in there. Well, I figured that we needed gas or to check on the tire or something – especially if it was worth waking up the attendant. But no, what we (apparently) needed was beer. Oh well, it was just one of those nights….

We finally arrived back to Julie’s place around 3 am. Funny – it took us 5 hours to walk to Caacupe (on foot) and nearly 3 hours to get back (with a car). Going to see the Virgin turned out a lot different than I had imagined and it was a much longer night than I could have ever anticipated. I was glad (as I nearly always am) to have had this unique experience but for once in a long while, decided that once was enough and this is one Peace Corps volunteer that will not be walking again next year!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Historic Night

I wasn’t sure where I would go on election night, but I knew for sure I’d be in Asuncion and thought my friends and I could find a place at the Embassy with a TV so we could watch as results came in. The Peace Corps librarian – and “knower of all things,” Marianne told me about a party that the Paraguayan American Cultural Center (CCPA) together with the Embassy was hosting. Peace Corps Volunteers were invited along with Embassy staff and staff and students (the CCPA teaches English among other things) of the CCPA.

I left for Asuncion very early, leaving my house at 6am and after meeting Julie in Altos, we hopped on a bus and got our trip under way. Later, in Asuncion, our friends Karen and Courtney also met up with us. We treated ourselves to a nice dinner at a Mexican restaurant (very expensive but oh so worth it!) and then walked to the CCPA which, as luck would have it was close to both our hotel and the restaurant we dined at.

We were among the first people to arrive and we ushered in through the VIP entrance (which we noticed most people were using, but still). Our names weren’t on any list but we were assured if we showed our Peace Corps id’s we’d get in without a problem – and so we did. There were three big projection screens up – one was connected to a laptop and was showing the BBC’s election home page, which displayed a map of the country and as the night wore on was colored in either red or blue depending on which candidate won the electoral votes from that state. The other two screens had live feeds from CNN International (in Spanish) and the BBC.

My friends and I mingled about for a bit and cursed ourselves for eating so much at the restaurant as waiters walked around with delicious looking little appetizers. There were also waiters circulating with glasses of soda and wine (and we of course availed ourselves of the wine). There were as many – if not more Paraguayans, there as Americans and so the air was filled with Spanish and English (as well as a bit of Spanglish).

We decided that what we really wanted was to just know what was happening so we parked ourselves in front of the screen showing CNN. What we discovered was that we wanted to know what was happening but we preferred to do so in English, so we moved over toward the BBC screen. We stayed there throughout the rest of the evening. One of the local Paraguayan television stations had a reporter at the party and my friends and I found ourselves on television periodically throughout the evening. I didn’t realize they had captured us until my mayor’s wife (the mayor from my home town of Loma Grande) texted me to say she had just seen me on TV! There were also photographers around and the following day my friends and I saw a photograph of us all in one of the local papers!

A few interesting things (aside from news of the results) happened throughout the evening. We met and spoke with the US Ambassador to Paraguay and later she spoke briefly to the crowd at the party. We also saw the Vice President of Paraguay at the party (and in fact, he was standing right next to us while the Ambassador spoke). A group of Paraguayan students who take English classes at the CCPA also gave a presentation. They sang the Star Spangled Banner for us and it was very very sweet. They did a great job with a not-very-easy-to-sing song and it really touched the Americans at the party especially, I think.

As the results started coming in my friends and I were on the edge of our seats. The four of us all represented so-called battleground states: Karen is from Ohio (OH – IO), Courtney and Julie are from Virginia and of course, I am from Florida. As Florida and Virginia were too close to call for most of the evening we concentrated our efforts on Ohio and helped Karen celebrate when the final tally came in. I’m sure we amused most of those around us as we high-fived one another and held our breath as each new result came in and the numbers shifted. We explained to our fellow party guests all about where we were from, and what was meant by a battleground state. We explained (as well as we could) about the Electoral College and spoke to people about how we had all voted (absentee ballot). Another amusing thing was the fact that each of us had our cell phones in hand and were constantly texting groups of our friends with results. Not many of our friends were able to come in and of those, most have no access to television or radio. In a normal day I probably send out about 5 or 6 texts. In the course of a few hours I probably sent out about 20 or 30!

Karen and Julie, exhausted decided to go back to the hotel and watch from the television in the lobby. I didn’t want to move until the results were known. Unfortunately, the CCPA wasn’t counting on either the contest going on so long or that anyone would want to stay until the bitter end and as such began taking screens down and turning sound off around 12:45. So, Courtney and I also headed back to the hotel. We changed into our jammies, grabbed blankets from our bed and headed down to the lobby to continue our watch. We didn’t have to wait very long. Within 30 minutes of coming down, Obama’s numbers climbed to over 270 and so sealed his fate as our next President. We were able to hear McCain’s comments as he congratulated Obama but of course, it was all translated into Spanish. We were eager to hear Obama’s comments also, but by now it was closing in on 2am (we are two hours ahead of the East Coast of the US) and we were exhausted. We also realized that we’d prefer to see Obama’s words as he said them and not through the voice of a translator so we went to bed with dreams of change in our heads.

The next morning we all sat in the lobby (where there are also a few computers connected to the internet for guests) trying to find friends and family that were on-line so we could chat with them and the few of us that had laptops were scouring for updates and news of reactions. I found Obama’s speech on you tube and began the long process of downloading it (the internet connections are slow so it took about an hour to get the 20-ish minute speech to download completely) and then we all gathered around my laptop and listened to Obama’s comments.

I’m not sure how the others felt, but it was important to me to feel connected to this process. We all voted via absentee ballot, but that was, for most of us, weeks ago. I really wanted to see and feel my vote the way I would if I had been there to cast it in person. I also wanted to feel the energy, anxiousness, and excitement of the evening. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay, it was great to share the evening with my new host-country friends. That was something I hadn’t thought about and wasn’t counting on when I thought about the evening. During election night and the following day I got to speak to a ton of Paraguayans about the US, about our government, the campaign process, the electoral college about the candidates – just a varied number of topics. One of Peace Corps’s goals is intercultural exchange and I was happy and proud to be fulfilling one of those goals. Election night was memorable, but not just because of who was elected but because of how I spent it and who I spent it with.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Big Idea

So, I’m going on my third month in site. I’m still in the observing/integrating phase of my Peace Corps service – arguably the most important part of service. However, I’m eager to get started on some more “peace corpish work.” Up until now, as I’ve shared with you previously, I’ve been spending some mornings going out with the nurses from the health center during their vaccination controls. This has been a great way to get to know the people in the more rural parts of town. I’ve also spent some time at the schools in these rural areas. It’s the time I’ve spent at the schools that got me thinking about “the big idea.”

Here’s the idea: start a tutoring program. Sounds basic and easy, right? Well, in some ways it is. I envision it this way (and this is how I’m going to sell it to the Director of the high school):

• professors from the high school (includes middle school) will create a list of students that get high marks in all of their work

• professors from the elementary school will create a similar list only with students that are falling behind or require extra help

• we will create an incentive for the high school students that participate in the tutoring program (not sure what this will be)

• during the school vacation (begins in November) I will work with some professors to “train” those high school students that are interested in being a part of the program

• we will start a pilot program when the new school year starts in February
Anyway, I envision the students coming to the municipality to do the tutoring in one of the conference rooms. I can take turns with some professors to supervise the sessions and a handful of professors (hopefully) from both the high school and elementary schools can work with their respective students to ensure that the sessions are going smoothly.

This idea is in its infancy and there are a gazillion different things to still be worked out. One thing that I’m hoping to come out of this program is the idea of volunteer or community service work. Most people want to do work that they will be paid for. With a shortage of jobs and the realities of poverty all around us, that is not very surprising, but I’m hoping that once students become involved in the program, the feeling of helping others will become enough to keep it going. I think the incentive will help and I’m thinking that it can be something really productive though fun like participating in a Peace Corps workshop for youth. These are often in interesting locations (and young people rarely get to leave their towns) and are a first opportunity for most to mingle with like-minded people of their same age. The workshops are also something that they can use on their resumes. Another possible incentive may be assistance for university (a small grant) or a gift of school supplies. Hopefully, the incentive will be enough to get them in the door but the experience will keep them involved and interested.

The logistics that need to be worked out are innumerable and I’ve also got to get the Director of the elementary school on board. And then of course, I’ll need some professors from both schools on board as well. The program will only succeed if students can be convinced it’s worth their time – and that goes for the tutor and tutored. I’ll be meeting with the Director of the high school this week and will go from there. Wish me luck…

Friday, September 19, 2008

More Tour Videos of My Home!

I hope you enjoy the tours...

Monday, September 15, 2008

A simple trip to Caacupe & the inconveniences of a rainy day

It sounds easy enough – a meeting in Caacupe. Here in Peace Corps Paraguay we have what are known as VACs – Volunteer Advisory Councils. VACs are basically a collection of volunteers from different sectors that all live within a specific geographic area. My VAC – the Cordillera (this is the name of the department or state that we live in) VAC has been planning a project for several months now. The project is a trek that will take us from one of the southernmost towns in this area to one of the northernmost areas. We will be walking or trekking from town to town (where volunteers live) and stopping at the schools to plant trees and speak to students about the importance of trees and environmental conservation. We’ll be eating and sleeping at volunteers homes all along the way. The new volunteers (of which I am one) can participate but the plans are far too far along to incorporate our towns into the plans.

At any rate, a meeting was planned to discuss this project. Neither Lauren nor Julie – my two closest neighbors were able to attend, so I had to go to the meeting alone. I really didn’t want to go alone, the trip would involve a bus change – but I had no choice. Anyway, I reminded myself that I had travelled throughout Thailand alone – surely I could handle this (after all, I didn’t even speak Thai and my Spanish is pretty good). So, on Sunday morning around 10:30 – I head off for the noon meeting in Caacupe. I had all of the directions for how to get there all written out. Of course, I am the person who could get could take a wrong turn in my own home and get lost. But I digress…, I got on the first bus with no problem. It filled up quickly and all of a sudden, I couldn’t see out the window to see exactly where we were. I tried to make my way up to the front so I could look out the window but we were still a bit far from where I had to get off the bus.

Unfortunately, more and more people were getting on and I was trying to stay near the front of the bus so I wouldn’t miss my stop. Finally, we get there and I squeeze past a bunch of people and extract myself from the bus. My next step was to cross over a highway intersection of 4 major streets. It wasn’t very busy, thank goodness, so I didn’t have a problem crossing. Just as I get to the street I need to be on – I spot a bus with the name Caacupe – YES! Unfortunately for me, that wasn’t one of the buses I was supposed to take to get where I needed to go, but I figured, well, it’s going to Caacupe and so am I, but alas no, that’s not quite right. I ask the bus driver about the restaurant where we were planning on meeting and he doesn’t know where it is. I call one of the volunteers that is attending the meeting and it is then that I realize that I need to change buses yet again.

So, I get off that bus and wait for about 20 minutes for one of the buses that I need. Finally, it comes and I get on and about 10 minutes later, ….it runs out of gas. Yes, the bus ran out of gas. The driver assured me it would only take about 15-20 minutes for someone to bring us more gas but I was already nearly a half hour late! About 15 minutes later (and with no sign that the bus will start running again) another bus that is going where I need to go starts coming up the road and so I get on (and pay) for now, my 4th bus! Finally, I get there. Unfortunately, for me, the meeting is nearly finished! The great thing is that I got to meet a lot of my fellow VAC members and I did learn a few things about the trek. In addition, I learned when and where the next meeting is going to be. Plus, I got to go on a bit of an adventure.

In order to keep the bus mishaps to a minimum, I decided to go back with an experienced volunteer. She’s been in Paraguay for nearly a year and lives in a town about 25 minutes from where I live. We set out to catch our bus yet it never arrived. After nearly 40 minutes, we flagged down an expensive charter bus going to Asuncion and asked if they could drop us at the highway intersection. They said that was no problem – of course they charged us each Gs 5,000 (the currency here is called Guaraníes), normally the buses cost Gs 2,300. We get on the bus and try to squeeze into the passenger section. This was not an easy feat – the seats were all filled and so was the aisle – to capacity. After being kicked and pushed as people squeezed past us to get off the bus, we finally arrived. Thank goodness the bus that would take us back to our towns came fairly quickly. The rest of the ride home was uneventful but that was a real blessing. The ironic thing about this day is that Caacupe is not that far away so the trip should not have taken as long as it did (on either end of the trip).

Oh well, I’m in the Peace Corps and what would I write to you all about if I didn’t have these kinds of adventures? Now…about my rainy day. I’ve mentioned before that the weather here can change dramatically from day to day. This happened recently. I bought a wardrobe (like a dresser, but has room to hang clothes in) for my new home and was in my bedroom organizing my clothes. It was so hot that I felt like I was going to pass out. My host sister suggested I turn on my air conditioning (one of the reasons I love my new home) so I did and my room eventually cooled down. I heard that the weather was going to get cooler and sure enough the next morning it was noticeably cold (probably in the 50’s) but it only got colder as the day wore on. The following day it was much cooler (low 40’s is my estimate) and beyond that it was raining.

Now, if you take a look at the pictures of my new home, you will notice that I live in a home with two rooms. Those two rooms are not connected, which is to say when I leave my bedroom, I am outside and walk about 10 feet directly across to get to my kitchen door. Now, my “kitchen” is equipped with a table, chairs, and stove/oven unit and a fridge but there is no sink or water source in this room. In order to wash dishes or get water I have to go outside to the sink that lies directly behind my family’s home. This sink is used mostly for washing clothes but also, now, doubles as my “kitchen” sink. So, on this particular rainy day, I had to run through the rain to get to the sink to get water for my morning coffee. Unwilling to leave dishes lying around (and attract unwelcome critters and creatures) I also washed my dishes in the rain (though I did put on my handy dandy North Face rain jacket). It was then that I realized that one of the things I miss about the States is the convenience of life. The weather often annoys us but other than slowing down traffic, doesn’t really interfere with our daily lives much (not speaking of hurricanes and other such natural disasters here). In Paraguay, when it rains, as you’ve surely learned by now, frequently the electricity goes out and many people stay inside of their homes all day. Most people do not own cars and if they do have their own mode of transport, in all likelihood it is a scooter or motorcycle. Unwilling to risk illness walking or riding in the rain, most people opt to stay indoors. So washing dishes becomes a problem for those that do not have sinks inside their homes (this is most people, not just me). Also, it isn’t just dishes that become an issue but washing laundry as well. It is not only usually washed outdoors but even for those who have washing machines, all laundry is dried outdoors (I have yet to see a dryer though I’m sure they exist). So on rainy days, no clothes can be washed either. In fact, when people hear or suspect that its going to rain, most scramble around trying to get these kinds of things done in anticipation of not being able to do them when the weather changes.

Another inconvenience of my outdoor “kitchen” sink is the lack of hot water. All faucets here in Paraguay only have cold water. Hot water is reserved for showers only (I have yet to see a bathtub in this country) and is obtained through an electric shower head that heats water as it comes through (the more you increase the water pressure the less hot the water so unfortunately, if you desire a really hot water, you’re stuck with crappy water pressure). So, when its cold or rainy out, having to wash my hands or dishes with ice-cold water is no fun. Now, we’re just about a week or so away from the start of Spring (21st of September) and they tell me that’s when the unbearably hot weather will start. I’m therefore, trying to remember and enjoy these cool days, because I know very soon, I’ll be wishing for another one (though I’m sure the cold-only faucets will be a pleasure during the hot weather). So stay tuned, soon you may be hearing about how the hot weather inconveniences my life. In the mean time, please note that I’m happy and healthy and dealing with the inconveniences and they are nothing compared with the amazing people I’ve met and am meeting! Hugs from Laara in the small town of Loma Grande!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

My first month in site

So, my first month in site began with a bit of a bumpy start as I was in a new town, new home with a new family and with a new case of insomnia! Alas, as with so many things in life, I made it through that bump in the road. Some of the highlights of my first month: the support and friendship offered to me by the health center staff; visiting the rural areas of town; meeting a ton of people; visiting my neighboring volunteers; getting involved with the community health committee.

It sounds as if I’ve been busy, though I’ve been on a PCV guilt trip. Basically, my mornings (most of them but certainly not all of them) have been taken up with the trips I’ve made with the nurses from the health center. The days I’ve been lucky, those trips have taken up my entire morning. On the not-so-lucky mornings, I’ve either not gone out at all or I’ve been done by 9:00am. The worst feeling – at least for me, is that of being unproductive. Some mornings, when I’ve found myself suddenly free, I have managed to be productive with busy personal work. I’ve begun work on my thesis portfolio, written letters, organized my personal things, done laundry, ironed, and written this blog. A few mornings (and all too many afternoons) have been spent either sleeping or being a couch potato watching movies on my computer. Now, you may be thinking, well, Laara, our tax dollars are supporting the Peace Corps and its volunteers to work in developing countries not so they can veg out and do nothing. I would agree with that sentiment, and some afternoons I have gone to the schools to help with projects or just gone to visit people. Believe it or not, visiting people is my number one project for my first three months in site. This time is meant to be used to integrate and become a member of the community. I’m certainly not accomplishing that on those afternoons that I’m vegging out, but I would argue that I am putting myself out there as much as humanly possible given my energy levels and the fact that some nights I get only an hour or two of sleep. Some of the productive afternoon/evening activities I’ve participated in include: an artistic celebration of Paraguayan tradition and folklore at the school; a family birthday party, and a Church festival. Now, that I’ve moved into my new 2-room paradise and my sleep has nearly been restored to normal, you have my word that I will spend your tax dollars wisely. Some of my plans for the coming weeks are as follows:

I’ve already made arrangements with the health center and mayor to get a city vehicle to take a group of nurses and myself to the further out rural areas. The nurses will check for vaccinations, talk to people about local health issues and I will be meeting people and trying to find a few answers to a survey that I’ve come up with. Normally, the nurses would go to these areas on moto (a scooter or motorcycle) but PC forbids volunteers from driving or riding as passengers on these kinds of vehicles. Having arranged to get a city car (and chauffer) ensures that, not only can I attend, but also that we can take more staff members and more vaccinations, medications and teaching materials. It also helps ensure that we can spend a bit more time in these areas. We’ve already agreed on those areas that we’ll target (one rural barrio or compañía each week) for the entire month of September.

I’ve also now learned (or at least seen) where two of the rural schools are located. I’ve spoken to director of one of the schools and told her that I’m interested in coming for a visit and observing some classes. Given that I’ll have to walk that will take me a good hour and hanging out at those schools will likely take up the rest of that part of the day. Some other stuff that I have going on this month:

September 5th is the new and improved Community Health Committee’s first meeting

September 7th there is a special commemoration in honor of an ex-Paraguayan president who was also a war hero and who’s plane crashed here in Loma Grande (Paraguay’s President Lugo is said to be planning on attending)

September 9th my supervisor and volunteer coordinator will be coming to formally present me and my work to the community

September 19th I’ll be attending a GAD (Gender and Development) meeting in Asuncion

September 27th or 28th I’ll be back in Asuncion to help a few friends celebrate their birthdays

September 29th I’ll be helping one of my nearest neighbors celebrate her town’s festival

…and just like that, the month is over. And that’s how things go in the Peace Corps. Sometimes you are incredibly busy and other times you’re planning what to make for dinner during breakfast.

Now that I know more people though, it’s much easier to “put myself out there” and just go and visit or walk around. I guess that is also the challenge of being in a small town. There’s no cyber café so whiling away the hours on the internet is not possible unless I leave town; there’s no park area so just sitting and people watching isn’t really an option; and there’s no bar or café so sitting some place to just hang out, read or people watch isn’t an option either. I guess I’m trying to say that there isn’t much to do here and so it’s up to each person to decide how to spend their time. I guess that is true no matter where life finds you – we all have to decide what the best use of our time is. It’s just that so many choices have been taken away from me. Hmm, maybe that actually makes my decisions that much easier…..

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The search for a home in my new town….

My friend and fellow volunteer, Julie was assigned to Altos – the town next to mine (about 11k or a 15-minute bus ride away) so we decided to head to our sites together. I knew we could pick up a bus right outside of Asuncion that would take us directly to our sites. Despite leaving a lot behind, the two of us had our great big hiking backpacks on our backs, smaller backpacks on our fronts and small handbags dangling from our arms. Getting onto a bus (they have really high steps) with all of this stuff – especially when that bus starts moving the second you get on is quite a challenge. Of course, the challenge continues, as we have to get off the bus and then get on another one! At any rate, we made it on and off our first bus and then settled in for the long long hour and a half-ish ride on our second. An hour and a half might not sound like much, but when the bus has little to no shock absorbers, starts, and stops every few minutes and fills with people to capacity (and beyond), every minute seems to go on forever.

Julie got off in Altos and I got off in my town, Loma Grande about 15 minutes later. I walked the two blocks to my host family’s house and clapped to announce my arrival (their doorbell is busted and clapping is the substitute for ringing a bell or knocking). The housekeeper, Maria, and my younger sister Thalia (age 11) came to the door. They seemed happy to see me but made no motion to let me in. Great, let the awkwardness commence. “Can I come in?” Of course, they replied in unison. Okay, well, I’ve made it through the door in my new home in my new town. My first success….

I settle in a bit and brig my things into the room I’ll share with Thalia. This is when I realize the mistake I’ve made. I ask if I should put my things down on the second small bed in the room. She says, no put them on the big bed – the one we’ll share. The small one is where Maria sleeps. What was that? I thought I was sharing a room with only Thalia. Nope – I’m sharing a bed with Thalia and the room with both her and Maria. Okay…

“Where should I unpack?” Oh, we’ll empty two shelves in the closet for you. Great (except of course the stuff I brought only represents about a third of my possessions in this country)! Now, Maria and Thalia are really nice and sweet. Shortly thereafter, I meet my 17-year old brother, Victor. He’s also really nice. My mother comes home a bit later and she’s amazing. She isn’t charging me rent and won’t let me even pay for my own water/electricity consumption. I’ll buy my own food, but that will be the extent of what my own expenses will be (a great opportunity to save some of my money). Another great thing about this family is that they know everyone in town. What an opportunity to integrate and become a member of the community instead of just a visitor. This family runs the cafeteria for the bus drivers and employees at the bus company. The buses run from about 5 am to about 11:30 pm, which means that my new family runs a food service that offers breakfast, lunch and dinner and they all take shifts working from around 5 am to 11:30 pm (with the help of 3 other employees). Because of their work, I’ll have a large amount of independence. I’ll make my own food and generally do my own thing (including my own laundry with their brand new washing machine – YES)!

Pretty good situation … BUT… a shared bed and shared room come with the package. Realistically, there is no room for me in this family’s home. I’ve asked my mother if she knows anyone renting a home that I could take advantage of and she was a bit taken aback. It seems that she wants me to stay. I’ve offered them a few “outs” but so far, they haven’t accepted my outs. So far, I really want to stay but after my first night in my shared bed and shared room, my reservations all come flooding back to me.

The bed I share with Thalia is only a full size – so basically, it’s not really big enough for two people (even if one of those people is me), and I realized after my first night that I would only ever get a very small portion of that already small bed. In addition, the four family dogs (all different breeds and sizes) bark at every little passerby and car or bus. As a light sleeper, every noise, including those of my sleeping roommates keeps me up. Normally, I would listen to my IPod to tune them out, but under the circumstances that isn’t really possible. So, what am I going to do? Ha – read on:

My mayor and his wife have been tirelessly speaking to people in town that they know to see if they anyone is renting a small house. They turned up two houses and though the Mayor came to pick me up so I could check them out, he, nor anyone else had the keys to the houses – but I was able to see them from the outside. Hmm, how could I best describe them….slightly scary I guess would be the best way. Nah, they were actually decent from the outside, but they both appeared to need a bit of work. New doors, one needed a gate and fence around it (PC rules) and they both needed a lot of clean up (remember, this was only my impression from the outside). Well, I wasn’t feeling very “up” about this new housing development, but I kept telling myself, “You have the perfect living situation.” That statement became my mantra and…

I have found “my perfect living situation!” About a 10 minute walk from the center of town, on the main road and not far from the Mayor’s house (and right where the buses going to Nueva Colombia and Altos pass) can be found my awesome new home! It’s very cute and is BRAND NEW! It was just finished a few weeks ago. It is a 2-room house that has a very nice patio area in front and on the side. It comes with a sofa and two love chairs that are in the small living room and a brand new BIG and comfortable bed and headstand that are in the second room (it’ll save me a lot money to not have to buy those things). The second room will double as my bedroom/kitchen. The side of the house also has a built in barbeque - the Mayor’s wife lamented how it would go to waste. Here they are only used for meat but I assured her I would make delicious vegetarian delights on mine! This area also has a large picnic table and bench and my two-basin “kitchen” sink. A lot of homes here have these basins only outside. Oh and possibly most importantly, the bathroom, though small is in my kitchen/bedroom. It too is brand new and comes with the handy dandy hot water showerhead. The only hot water most Paraguayans have in their homes comes out of these electric showerheads. They heat the water as it comes through and thus the way to control the heat is to either increase or decrease the water pressure. So, I’ve got an adorable 2-room, never-before -used home complete with barbeque/dining area. Oh, and did I mention the fact that it is all fenced in with a metal main gate that locks and that my bedroom/kitchen also comes with a ceiling fan??? Now, you may be thinking, but Laara, this doesn’t sound much like a “Peace-Corps-ish” living situation. And I would reply, “I’m okay with that.”

But then, the worst happened. I was planning to talk to the owner of the house to make arrangements to rent it. The mayor came by to pick me up and he had news – the owner decided to live in the house instead of renting it out! This was a crushing blow – probably my lowest point in Paraguay thus far. I had seen a solution to my housing problem and it wasn’t just any solution – it was THE solution!

Well, the mayor made arrangements for me to go with one of my coworkers at the municipality to look at other properties for rent. We set out first thing the next morning. One family had two different things for rent – both on the property with the main family home. One was just a room – albeit a big one. It wasn’t bad really, but I was hoping for more space. The next option was better. It was a rectangular building with two separate rooms and a bathroom in the middle. The rooms were decently sized. The pro’s of this space were that they were on a family property and were fenced in so it was definitely more secure; only women live on the property and I could share a washing machine with them; it was only a block from my present living situation so was still ideally located. The one additional pro is that because it is on a family property, I would be within Peace Corp’s “live with a family for three months rule.” The cons: the rooms face the street and despite the fence didn’t offer much in the way of privacy; the fact that it is on a family property also doesn’t offer that much in the way of privacy (God forbid any of my male volunteer friends decide to visit or spend the night) for example! I was really counting on my own private space.

However, in the end I decided to go with this option. I’ve arranged to stay there until the end of December when I can either decided to commit for the rest of my time in Paraguay or start the process over and focus on a home of my own. I found out more pros for my new home though: I can keep (borrow) the stuff that is in the two rooms – this includes the fridge and hutch-thingy in the “kitchen” and the ropero (wardrobe/dresser thingy) in the bedroom. Also – there is an air conditioning unit in the bedroom – I’m going to LOVE this in a few months! The rent I’ll be paying is totally fair and includes water and electricity (until I cut my hair, I’m on the winning end of not having to pay for water). What else? Well, the family owns a dispensa (convenience store) so that’s useful and also a great way to meet the many people that frequent it. So…that’s the story of my new home. I’m going to stay with the host family I’m presently with through the end of the month. I’ll move in to my new place on 1 September. In the mean time, I’m going to buy a few odds and ends that will make my new space more cozy (screening for all the windows) and shower caddy for the bathroom. Yeah – my own bathroom!!!!

Thursday, July 31, 2008

My new home and the Peace Corps life….

Friday, July 25th was an exciting day for the G27 Rural Economic Sector (that’s my group). We finally found out where we will live and work for the next 2 years. We found out on Friday afternoon (3PM to be exact) and we all left for those new sites the next morning. These are our site visits (and I’m writing you from said site visit). A 5-day trip to our sites to meet our counterparts and see where we’ll be for the next 2 years. Our primary objective during these visits is to find ourselves a host family that we can live with for our first 3 months in site.

My site is called Loma Grande and it’s about an hour (by car), hour and forty minutes (by bus) from Asuncion. It’s not too far from the Lake (Ypakarai) and has lots of nice trees and greenery. It is also slightly higher up than the towns below just where the Lake is located. There are a few great vantage points where the views are breathtaking. It is also not far from San Bernardino, which is the chuchiest (nicest, richest, etc) place in this region of Paraguay. It’s where all of the rich people go to vacation every summer. Kind of what the Hamptons must be like. It’s small – really small; population is around 4,000 but the municipality where I’ll be working is awesome. The mayor is young and enthusiastic and has great ideas of what could/should be done. The municipality itself – the building is small but has recently been expanded and has a ton of potential!

So you’ve now read about some of the positives: great mayor, lots of green and nature, location, and views. The downsides: no internet (well, almost none, but I’ll explain that in a bit), not a lot of families willing to let me rent a room from them, no groceries to buy and not a lot in the way of diversions.

Okay, first the internet situation: the mayor and his family own the only bus line that goes in and out of town. The upside of this for me is that they are going to give me a pass so that I can ride for free. This will enable me to go to Asuncion for free (though it won’t take me anywhere useful in Asuncion so I’ll still have to pay for another bus to get to the Peace Corps Office or to a market or shopping area) and also to another slightly biggish town: San Lorenzo. In San Lorenzo I can use a cyber café and buy groceries and veggies (essential for
any vegetarian diet)!

There are dispensas (small mom and pop-type convenience stores) that sell food items and stuff like clothes detergent, dish soap but they are REALLY expensive and I’ve been advised that if I want to buy food and especially produce items, I’ll have to go to San Lorenzo or Asuncion.

As for the internet, I’ve been told I can use a computer at the bus
company’s office. That’s great, but I doubt I’ll be there during the times that I’ll want to and be able to speak to my family via skype plus, how could I feel comfortable speaking on skype while people are working?? So that’s a real downer (though at least I can keep my blogs up to date J) but hey, let’s not forget I’m in Peace Corps. But looking at the bright side of things, I will be issued a cell phone (only 10 days until I get it!) so I’ll at least be contactable in-site and will be able to make phone calls home (albeit very quick ones). If you want to call me, let me know as I’m not posting the number anywhere as public as this blog. An occasional phone call would be a delightful surprise (and Paraguay is on the same time as the East Coast of the US at least until daylight savings kicks back in this fall). Again, not trying to be a negative Nellie here, but the downside again of the cell phone situation is that the cell phone company that Peace Corps uses doesn’t get a good signal here. I’ll have to use Tigo instead of Personal and so my phone calls to Peace Corps staff and most other volunteers will not be free but will eat up the minutes on the plan that Peace Corps provides. I guess that’s one way to ensure that I don’t use my phone as a crutch and rather spend my time integrating in the community!

As for my living situation, only one family had a living situation that met both my and Peace Corp’s standards (and mine were decently low). It seems like a great house but the downside again (not to be too negative here) but I have to share a room with a 12 year old girl. So much for my privacy! At least I’ve got free reign in the kitchen and can make my own meals and such. I’ve also got the use of the washing machine – a huge plus! The family runs a local cantina in town and I’m hoping I can use that as a way to meet a lot of people. I’ll be living with a married couple, their 12 year old daughter and 16 year old son (and their two dogs). A full house, but then I’m told they’re both out of the house most of the day (plus the kids are at school).
It’s close to the municipality (like a block away) and is across the street from the church (another great way to meet people). Also, because they have to go to either San Lorenzo or Asuncion to buy their food also, I will probably be able to work something out with them to get my own food. Lugging all of my groceries on a bus for an hour and a half (to San Lorenzo) does not sound remotely appealing to me (but if I have to like so many things, I’ll just make the best of it).

There are a few more ups that I’ve yet to mention. All of the roads (both of them) in and out of town are asphalted. Also, the road that leads
towards my closest neighbor in Altos (about 11 km away) is a great windy road with pretty views and decent shade. I will definitely be exercising by riding my bike to and from Altos as soon as humanly possible (should get my bike sometime in August or September). And writing about exercise reminds me that the Muni owns a huge piece of empty land across the street from where their main building is located. I’m told it’s quite safe to go jogging there alone if I want (and I want).

So I got a great site but it comes with certain sacrifices. I’ve been on a roller coaster (the roller coaster analogy gets old but there’s just no better way to describe the Peace Corps experience) since I got here to Loma Grande. I love it and then I feel disappointed that it doesn’t have something or that I won’t be able to find something that I think I need or want here. Then I remember – duh, you’re in the Peace Corps, Laara!!! It’s about service and sacrifice and that’s what you’re about too! Well, heck, I’m far from perfect and I too forget (from time to time) what’s important in life – but I usually come around.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Long Field, nearing the end and a rainstorm in Paraguay!

Long Field – this refers to a week where four aspirantes got to a Volunteer’s site and participate in activities that the Volunteer has set up. It’s supposed to be a weeklong experience of Volunteer life. Along with three of my fellow trainees, I went to a very pretty site named Aregua (pronounced Are-a-wah). Aregua is on a lake – the biggest in Paraguay. It’s an old colonial town and has a lot of old homes, some of which have been restored to their original beauty. One of the things the volunteer there – Josh, is working on is tourism and he is starting with trying to get the colonial homes historical protection and funds to restore and maintain them. During the week, we met the staff in his municipality, gave charlas and planned activities for kids at a “camp” for their winter break, participated in volunteer meetings and took an awesome canoe ride on the lake. All in all, it was a great and relaxing week.

We stayed with host families (as usual) during the week. The family I stayed with lived on the last road in town and were definitely more campesino than any of the families I’ve stayed with thus far. Their house was on a big piece of property and they had a vegetable garden and lots of fruit trees. They also had a lot of chickens, ducks, three dogs, and two cows. They were really nice and were amazing cooks (leading me to begin my diet immediately upon return to Guarambare).

Things are really beginning to speed up now. On Monday, we’ll start our last complete week of training. On Friday, we’ll be told what sites we are going to and on Saturday, we’ll leave to visit our sites. We’ll be in our sties from Saturday and we’ll return to Guarambare on Thursday. Our main objectives on these visits are twofold: find a family with whom we can live for our first three months there and get to know our counterparts. Peace Corps believes in working with and not for people so none of the work we do is in isolation. Rather than do projects for people we do them with people and the best model is always working with our counterparts who can then pass on information/knowledge to many others. And as per Peace Corps policy, we are required to live with a family for our first three months in site. How one goes about finding said family is the big question. Imagine, I’ve got to visit families (essentially interviewing them) to see if both they are comfortable with me and I with them (enough to share a living space for three whole months). It involves negotiating what they will charge for room/board/food and in my case also trying to find out if they are comfortable preparing food for a vegetarian (meat is such an important part of the culture here that many find it uncomfortable and strange to give someone food that has no meat).

At any rate, we return from site visits on July 31 and the following day is just a debrief on visits and our final training evaluation. We are also planning a final end of training party, probably on the 2nd (Saturday) but it will also hopefully be a birthday party for myself (3rd of August) and my friend Joan (4th of August). We only have the 4th and 5th of the following week before we leave for Asuncion and swear-in! Swear in is on August 6th (a Wednesday) and we’ll probably be told to be in our sites by Sunday or Monday (which means we have time to shop in Asuncion for things we think we might need in site). After the mandatory 3-month family stay, I will almost definitely find my own home and will hold off buying too much stuff until I see what I need.

The rainstorm…it started as a non-typical winter day. That is to say that the high temps (in the 70’s and 80’s) continued and this day was particularly warm. It looked like rain in the morning and I was annoyed at forgetting my rain jacket at my host family’s home. It didn’t rain and in fact, it turned out to be a nice day. A group of us had arranged to meet at Mark’s house after training class that evening to exchange photos. There was about 10 of us there when the lights went out. We thought we had blown a fuse – what with so many computers and what not going at once. It didn’t take long for us to realize it was the entire neighborhood though. It was then that Mark’s host-father warned us that if we wanted to leave, it was now or never! His warning was a bit too late though because the torrential downpour started before we were able to get our jackets on (I had mine this time)! We had no choice but to unplug all of the technology and sit in the dark and chat. We hung out there until the rains subsided a bit, probably about 45 minutes to an hour. Not bad really. However, due to the lack of drainage in Guarambare, we were all walking through the several-inch-deep-mud puddles to go the few blocks to our homes. The fact that there was a lot of lightning had us all a bit nervous, as there was no way to avoid the puddles. I made it home to find my own host family hanging out in the dark. I sat with them a bit and then decided to see if I could do a bit of work on my computer (working off of the battery). About an hour after I got home the power finally came back on. Ahhh – finally, I can wash my face and get some sleep. Oops – not so fast – the water was turned off! Not only that, my host family’s living room had about an inch of water on the floor (the origin of the leak has not yet been discovered). I waited for about half an hour (until around 11PM) and then decided shut-eye was more important than a clean face and brushed teeth!

Next morning…well, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Not at the mess in the streets from the night’s rainfall, (another torrential downpour began around 3am) but at how cold the morning was. The day before the weather had been extremely hot (somewhere in the 80s) and this morning it clocked in around 53 degrees. Pull out the sweaters again and find the knit caps. What a winter! It has been more or less like this since we arrived in late May, but a 30-degree swing in temps from one day to the next is too much! Oh well, life in Paraguay is nothing if not unpredictable!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Random Week & Independence Day the Ex-Pat Way!

Before I get into how my friends and I spent the 4th of July, let me give a brief overview of the last few days:

We’ve now reached the halfway point in training – unbelievable how quickly the time goes by! The halfway point means that we had to have assessments – in both language and technical skills. Actually, the tech part also included areas like cultural adaptation, motivation, health and safety and security. The language assessments were actually interviews conducted by a certified language proficiency expert who is also one of the language teachers that CHP (our training providers) uses. The teacher isn’t teaching now, so the test wasn’t biased towards any one aspirante (that’s what they call us since we’re not yet volunteers, translates loosely as trainees). At any rate, I, along with the 4 other people I’m in class with, were tested in our Guarani skills (such as they are). I was really nervous about the interview but it went really well. I’m on track as far as where Cuerpo de Paz would like us to be, but I was still hoping to test a bit above that. Though given how tough this language has been for me, I’m happy to just be getting by!

The technical interview went really well. Our tech trainer, Ricardo, called me out of Guarani class and my classmates all teased me about being in trouble (ooohhh, Laara, you’re in truh-bull). I was the first aspirante to be interviewed so I had no idea of what to expect. The chat was pleasant and in reviewing the assessment documents and reading the comments made by the other trainers, (there’s a development trainer and the trainer that coordinates the cultural, health, and safety and security pieces); I was pleased to be surpassing my own expectations (and theirs). As someone who has just spent 9 months learning about training and aspires to be a trainer, I have involved myself as much as possible in this training process. The efforts were noted and appreciated.

All in all, I came away from both the language and technical assessments feeling good about my training experience thus far.

The erratic winter weather in Paraguay continues (thank goodness) and we’ve gone from terribly cold freezing days to autumn/spring cool days to warm short sleeve, capri pants, and open toe shoes pleasantly warm weather. Just in time to have a nice summery 4th of July!

Starting three weeks ago, one day a week has been spent on “Dias de Practica” (DdP) (practice days) where we are supposed to practice being volunteers. There is no structure to these days. The only thing we are told is that we should find something to investigate. The great thing is that we are able to work in pairs and that we can do whatever we want. The annoying thing is that we can do whatever we want. Though we don’t have to, it makes sense to start on something that can be built upon on each successive practice day. My friend, Joan, and I thought this through and were thankfully interested in the same thing: the education system here in Paraguay. On our first DdP, we went to a local school that is supported by the Municipality (City Hall). It was definitely a revelation. The first interesting thing about schools here is that though they run from 7:00 – 11:00 and again from 13:00 – 17:00, the students only attend one of those sessions. That is, all students attend school for only 4 hours per day. Some attend in the morning and others in the afternoon. Our DdP is only half a day (we need to report to CHP by 13:30) so Joan and I got to the Municipal school shortly after the school day had begun at around 7:30. We went directly to the Director’s (Principal) office in order to present and introduce ourselves and give a little background as to what we were doing there. Our goal was to simply to observe how the classes run. The Director was the host mother of one of our friends. She instantly recognized us and gave us all the support we needed. We spent a few hours in a 3rd grade class. A few insights:

  • Despite the frigid day, there were no heaters in the class (or in any class)
  • All of the students had to wear their hat and coats in the class to keep warm
  • Some of the windows did not open/close (making it even chillier in the room)
  • Only one of the four lights in the room worked, making it dark and difficult to read the chalkboard
  • The only person with a textbook was the teacher – this is VERY common
  • There is no library at this school

Although this school is one of the more humble schools in the area, it is quite typical of the schools in general here in Guarambare. Joan and I have now (we just completed our 3rd DdP) visited five schools, two of which were private. The most expensive and well-run school was one of the local Catholic schools which is run by nuns. Even at this school, the children had no textbooks. All books, especially textbooks are simply WAY too expensive here in Paraguay. During our shopping trip in Asuncion, a few of us wandered into a bookstore. An ordinary looking paperback book averaged around ~$40 USD – WAY out of reach for the majority of Paraguayans. The expensive private school had a pretty nice library, but it was tiny and had only primary – level books. The other books in the library are textbook type of books that are mostly reference books on specific subjects. The teachers mostly teach the same way they were taught – they read passages out of the textbook that they have and the kids copy it all down. Sometimes they use the textbooks that are in the library. The main challenge that teachers and students face here is a lack of materials.

On our next DdP (#4) we’ll be preparing for our 5th and final practice day where we’ll be evaluated by our language teachers (and I’m expected to use a bit of Guarani – in public!) and our technical trainer. We’re planning to do a “charla” or a talk. We’re going to use some of the facilitation tools that we’ve been taught to work with some of the teachers at the municipal school. We’ve developed a survey which will be distributed to them tomorrow (and which we hope to get back fairly soon thereafter). We’ll use their responses to tailor our charla to their needs. We’re hoping to discuss what they consider to be their biggest challenges and collaborate with them on practical ways that they may be able to overcome some of those. Wish us luck on that one though you’ll likely hear from me again before that day (24th July) is upon us…

Other ramblings (keep reading, I’m almost to the part where I tell you about the 4th of July!) I thought I might share with you include tidbits about my sleeping bag and my hair. Sleeping bag first – it’s my new best friend. Despite the warm temps lately, it still gets chilly at night and I slept so well in my sleeping bag when it was cold, I’ve just kept sleeping in it. I have a pretty comfortable bed and the combination of my sleeping bag on top of a decently comfy mattress makes for a pretty good night’s rest. I’m so terribly cozy in my sleeping bag that it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning. I’ve been jogging with my friend Karen every morning at 6am and the commitment to not gain weight during training helps to lure me out of my cozy little cocoon. What’s the best thing I brought with me to Paraguay – definitely my sleeping bag! What’s the worst thing I brought with me to Paraguay? My hair!?!

My hair? Yes, my hair! When I decided to go to grad school, I thought growing out my hair would make me look more student-y. Then it started getting really long and I wondered how long I could let it get grow before I got sick of it. Then I remembered about a great organization that I did some volunteer work for years ago. It’s called “Locks of Love” – check ‘em out @: . You send them your clean, unprocessed (not grey-coloured) hair and they make free custom wigs for children with alopecia. I was tasked, a few times, with helping them open their mail. They get (or at least used to, years ago) a ton of mail and opening it is a lot of fun. Most people that send in hair donations also send in a photo of “before” and “after” shots of them with long hair and then short. Many also include stories of why they were inspired to chop their locks. So, I decided I would grow my hair long to donate it to them (which I’ve never before been in a position to do (i.e. haven’t had long hair since I was 20). So how long can my hair get before I’m sick of it? Not very long apparently, since I’m already sick of it! I was hoping to cut it before getting sworn in (as a Volunteer) but it’s not quite long enough yet. It has to be at least 10 inches and at this point if I cut off 10 inches I’ll be left looking like a new military recruit (not a good look for me, I assure you). So, my water wasting, shampoo and conditioner guzzling, but not quite long enough hair gets to stay put. But, if you’re reading this and have long hair, consider chopping it and donating it along with me. I’ll keep you posted on the day I get to regain control and chop these locks off!

Okay, INDEPENDENCE DAY! Every year (or so I’m told) the American Embassy has a 4th of July barbecue that embassy staff and their families, PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) and ex-pats in the area are invited to attend. It was a “school-day” for us aspirantes, but it just so happens our activities for that day were going to be taking place in Asuncion. Our technical session had us going to the Botanic Gardens, which is a project of the Municipality in Asuncion. In addition to the gardens, there is a small environmental education component to the park that we were going to check out. That took us to about 11:00 am and what do you know – just in time to start the festivities at the Embassy (I have a feeling our trainers were as anxious to join the party as we were). Security was tight and we could only go through one by one (there’s a security office that we had to go through, but as I said, one by one, so the rest of us waited, impatiently, outside), but once we cleared it, we were in. The embassy is huge, really unbelievably jinormous. Once we made our way to the barbecue (a few hours after being cleared through security) we were able to join the about 100 or so Americans that were celebrating Independence Day. We ate the 4th of July staples, hot dogs, hamburgers (or soy burgers for those of us maintaining a vegetarian diet), potato salad, mac and cheese, chips and soda. It was deelish! We got to interact with a lot of volunteers that we had never met and a bunch that we had. We played volleyball against the embassy staff (we got beat, but hey, we don’t have a net to practice with!), we heard great music and generally just hung out. It was a great day and was followed by another great day (see pictures). On the 5th of July we had a party at Shola’s (one of my fellow trainees) host families house. We all brought ingredients and together made several very delicious pizzas. We stayed a lot longer than we probably should’ve but it was great fun.

Change in Training -- Latest Update: We just found out a few days ago that due to budget cuts (and the falling value of the dollar) our training is being cut short! We were supposed to swear-in on August 14th but will now be swearing in on August 6th. I will update this blog and my information with my updated address as soon as I know it (sometime in the next 3 weeks). You can always reach me via email or by snail mail through the Peace Corps Paraguay address listed in my profile. Cheers!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Life in the fast lane

Life in the fast lane…

…hmm, life in the fast lane. Not sure why, but that old tune has been rattling around in my mind for a while now. I guess going from spending several hours a day on the internet to spending one hour a week on the internet will make one question a few things in life, like, “what did I do before the internet?” I suppose there was a time that I was more patient and either asked my questions to teachers, professors or supervisors and colleagues. It wasn’t even that long ago that I consulted encyclopedias for answers to my nagging questions. Here in Paraguay and more specifically, here at CHP (the name of the organization responsible for our training) we like to rely on something much more innovative: Google unplugged. The term was coined by one of the trainers and seems rather apropos given our limited internet connections. Actually, considering the limitations that still exist in many countries, we are rather lucky. Nearly every medium-large sized town has at least one internet café (called cyber here, they pronounce it seeber) and it costs around 5,000 Guaraní’s per hour (not too expensive by our meager stipend standards). At any rate, Google unplugged works like this: you think of a question and then ask a person to see what they say. Like any Google search, you usually have to check a few sites and so with unplugged you ask a few different people. Usually the answer reveals itself after about the 4th or 5th person. It’s either majority rules or what makes the most sense to the person asking the question. Overall, it’s rather similar to the WWW’s version of Google.

I think the thing that surprises most of all (aside from the fact that Google unplugged actually works) is that even with checking email only once a week (although a few of us are still addicted and check much more often than that, those these are always the people that end up with little to no money on “pay day), there isn’t usually anything in our in-boxes that is really all that important. Oh sure, hearing from you – our friends and family is great, but while our lives are full of new friends, information, skills, foods, etc, we somehow expect that there is that much going on back in the world we left behind. Often we find that nothing really new is happening. And that’s not to say your lives are all boring, not at all, just that feeling disconnected we seem to expect that somehow all of these things are happening back home without our knowledge – when in fact, most things are as we left them (and thank goodness for that). I notice that when one of us has actually spoken to a friend or family member back home and the question, “what’s new with them,” the response is almost always, “nothing.” And that’s the way it goes. I guess the most ironic part of this is that we all generally always have 50 or more emails in our inboxes and that most of our one hour on the internet is spent not answering, but deleting emails. And a small plea here to all of our good friends and family: please don’t send us any forwarded messages, while we all love those PowerPoint messages with beautiful songs and images and appreciate the poems and prayers that remind us how loved we are and how many friends we have and that we’ll only have good luck if we pass the messages along, it really costs us a lot of money to view, read, download and pass those messages on! So while we thank you, we also ask that you limit those kinds of emails until we’re back in the States and able to check email every few hours instead of every few days!

What else, well, just got done with celebrating the 4th of July at the American Embassy in Asuncion. Where do I begin? Well, there´s too much to tell, stay tuned....