Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Adjusting to what it means to “come home” and adventures in Asuncion

As noted in my last entry, I had a great trip in Horqueta and the fact that I didn’t have to take another overnight bus (or any bus for that matter) to get home was great. But spending an extra day away from my host family’s home was brutal. I was eager to sleep in my own bed and shower in my own shower, etc. It made me reflect on what “my own” meant and what “coming home” actually meant. My host family is great and for the next three months, their home is my home. Despite the fact that my current living situation is only temporary, it was great to feel so connected to it and to genuinely look forward to returning to it. It also caused me to reflect on the fact that once I get to site after swearing-in (as an “official Peace Corps Volunteer – I’m only a trainee at the moment) I’ll find myself in yet another temporary living situation. Peace Corps requires that all Volunteers stay with a host family for their first three months at site. After that, we are free to find our own places to live or stay with the family we are with or find another family with whom to live. Most of us plan to move out on our own but until that moment, our living situations are all longish-term temporary, at least until November!

We normally have technical/cultural sessions on Saturday from 08:00 to 12:00. This past Saturday we had a morning session from 07:00 to 11:30 and then another from 13:00 to 17:00. That meant that Sunday was our only “day off.” Four of us decided to go to Asuncion for a little shopping and adventure. By bus, the trip takes about one hour and 15 minutes. We left around 10:00 and got into Asuncion around 11:30 (mostly because we neglected to get off the bus at the right stop and so we ended up circling the outskirts of the city for 15 minutes)! We had planned to go straight to town to do our shopping but because we found ourselves in front on two of the three shopping malls in Asuncion, we decided to simply stay put for the time being. We entered the mall in Asuncion, but what it really felt like was a brief trip back to the States. We used CLEAN bathrooms and settled in to the warmth being piped in by the central heating. We ate awesome meals (we found a salad bar and loaded our plates with veggies) and got soft serve ice cream from McDonald’s (we couldn’t resist). We shopped at the American style grocery store (though I didn’t find any peanut butter) and then we finally prepared ourselves to leave. Stepping back into the nearly freezing weather, we reflected on how easy it was to spend nearly half the money we had brought with us and decided that the mall would forever be a special treat. We did spend a little time looking around. I, in particular, was interested in acquiring a new pair of jeans. Levi’s are my favorite and I figured they wouldn’t be too expensive. The pair I found were 418,000.00 Guaranís. Unfortunately, our salary is 210,000.00 Guaranís – every other week! Everything we saw was out of reach…but then, that’s true for most of the population in Paraguay.

Heading towards the local markets in town, where we were guaranteed to find something we could afford, we instead found a ghost town. Not only was in Sunday, but it was 14:00, which meant it was siesta and all the shops were closed. Unfortunately, for us, given that it was Sunday, they would not be reopening at 15:00 as they do on all other days. We resigned ourselves to sightseeing and vowed to return on a Saturday afternoon or to head to the markets early on a Sunday. We saw the things we had read about in travel guides or the internet, the monument to the Spanish conquista of 1537, the Pantheon of Heroes, the legislature and the government palace to name a few. In order to save 2300.00 Guaranís and to get some much-needed exercise, we decided to walk back uptown to catch our bus back home. We over estimated our energy level and the actual distance we would need to walk and an hour and half later we were exhausted. We passed the American Embassy and all waved as we passed a piece of home. We finally reached the street where we would see our bus pass (you can flag the bus down anywhere and don’t necessarily need to wait at a bus stop) and waited the 10 excruciating minutes for it to pass.

The exhaustion of the day had made me cold and hungry. My host family doesn’t really eat dinner, just a little snack late in the evenings so I was relieved to see that my little sister (4-year old Valeria) had requested and received some homemade popcorn. I inhaled the leftovers and then grabbed my sleeping bag and cozied up inside. One of my fellow trainees (and a good friend), Mark, came over so we could study our Guarani together (we’re 2 of 5 people skipping the Spanish lessons for the local indigenous language, Guarani). We studied for an hour and a half until our brains collectively decided to stop working. My family had decided the evening’s cena would be pancakes (just like we make back home, but paper-thin) but didn’t want to disturb my study session so neglected to tell me they were done. I gobbled mine up in their stone-cold state (and was thankful to have something – even carbs, to fill me up ‘til morning). I wanted to wash my hair and since I would be jogging with my friends first thing in the morning (6AM), I decided an evening shower was in order. Hair washing showers are always obviously longer, but the cold weather conspired to make me want to stay in the nice warm water for much longer. As a result, I caused a fuse to blow as running the hot water (from the electric water heating showerhead) and was rewarded with a pitch-black bathroom and nearly instantly freezing cold water. Given that, it was probably around 48-50 degrees in my home that made the next few minutes unbearable. My host brother was able to quickly restore the power, but I was still left shivering (thank goodness I was rinsed off and ready to get out anyway)! I decided to stay up for a bit to let my hair dry and so I crawled back into my sleeping bag to watch a movie on my computer. Despite the presence of two warm blankets, I decided to sleep in my sleeping bag, mostly because I was just already so warm and didn’t want to have to re-warm my sheet and blankets!

Monday morning greeted me with an even colder blast of air. Jogging with friends ensures that I keep my commitment to exercise – none of us want to let the others down! Still, getting up at 6am in COLD weather is difficult. I grudgingly got up and put on a few more layers than I normally do. I walked over to Courtney’s house but her host mom told me that her knee was bothering her (probably from our long walk in Asuncion the day before) so I proceeded to Karen’s house. I found Karen walking towards me with her own host mother. Karen’s host family has a small farm and each morning her mom goes to collect the milk from the cows. Her host sister wasn’t feeling well (a common theme here on cold days) and so Karen decided to go in her place. I didn’t really feel like jogging anyway, so I accepted their invitation to tag along. The farm is about a 20-minute walk from the center of town (where most of us live) and we were all feeling a bit less cold by the time we arrived. The farm was bigger than I thought it would be. They had a lot of pigs (including some so-ugly-their-cute baby pigs) and about six cows. The milking had already begun and so Karen’s mom began to strain and bottle the milk. A lot of people here drink fresh milk rather than store bought. I’ve decided to forgo the milk drinking completely and instead just use store-bought yogurt. At any rate, the process was interesting if smelly. It was strange to see the amount of steam rising from the buckets of milk (there was a slight ewww factor at this, let’s face it, I’m not the most mature wine in the cellar) and I was surprised and how bad it smelled, but there is something nice about being so connected to the food you consume. Karen and I got back to our respective homes a bit later than planned and had to run to make it to the training center on time. We’re in the same language class (beginners Guarani) which made it a bit easier to walk in late (only a few minutes). Class went well and I was surprised by how far my language had progressed: Che cherera Laara, che aiko Zayas familia ndive ha che aspirante Cuerpo de Paz pegua. Che Estadus Unidosgua, Floridape. Che areko 32 ano ha avy’aiterei Paraguaipe = My name is Laara, I live with the Zayas family and I am a Peace Corps trainee. I come from the US, specifically from Florida. I am 32 years old and I am happy in Paraguay. Actually, we’re learning Jopara (that word means mix in Guarani) which is a mix of the Spanish and Guarani languages.

After a few hours of language class, I was more than ready for lunch. As lunch is the main meal of the day, I always prepare myself to eat a bit more at this meal. Thank goodness today’s specialty was yummy – vegetable soup and tortillas (tortilla here refers to little fried pieces of dough). Despite not wanting to eat too many fried dough delicacies, I ate like 5 or 6. I also ate two bowls full of the healthier yummy veggie soup. Oh well – that’s why I’m jogging! Before I knew it, it was time to get back to CHP (stands for the Center for Human Potential and it’s the name of the company that handles all of the Peace Corps training needs here in Paraguay) and an afternoon of technical training. The topic of this tech session was civic education. Getting people – especially kids, to see the importance in getting involved in their new democracy is really important. We learned more about a local NGO working out of Asuncion named ABC Color. They make a lot of games that are easily purchased (very cheap) and can be played by both adults and children.

The day was rounded out by my after-school snack, 4 mandarin oranges and a handful of peanuts. Dinner, when it came was yet more Sopa Paraguaya – a type of corn bread that has onions and cheese in it, in case I’ve not mentioned it before. Not bad really, but you get sick of it after you eat it for dinner a few days in a row!

After dinner I watched a movie on my laptop and then crawled into my sleeping bag and appreciated the warmth it provided. It´s amazing how cozy and comfortable warmth can be! It makes it that much harder to get out of bed in the morning – especially for a 6am morning jog! Oh well, my two friends (Karen and Courtney) and I are committed to getting some excercise during training.

Well, that´s a typical day for me, if there can be such a thing. Thanks for the comments – keep them coming. And thanks for all of your support!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Adventures on the way to, from and in Horqueta!

As promised, here are my tales of my recent visit to Horqueta:

I was supposed to travel with Sasha, who is a member of the Rural Economic Development (RED) group, so I waited at our training site for her to come from her training site a few towns over. One of the trainers was coming up to Guarambare and had offered her a ride. While I waited our Associate Peace Corps Director, (the Municipal Development Volunteers’ work supervisor) or APCD Fernando, and the Muni Coordinator (a 3rd year volunteer who extends to act as an assistant to the APCD), Chris, turned up at the Guarambare training site. The reason I bring up their presence is that they were surely headed to Asuncion and I was certain they would offer us a ride. Oh to avoid the buses in Paraguay!

Not only did they offer us a ride, but we even stopped at the bus terminal on our way into Asuncion. Sasha and I bought our tickets in advance so all we would have to do later is find our bus and get on it! Chris also offered to let us crash at his apartment while we waited for our bus. We got into Asuncion around 8PM and our night bus wasn’t leaving until 11:45PM. So we all headed to his apartment where he lives with four other PC Coordinators. Each sector here (AgroForestry, Health, Environmental Education, and the Muni’s) has a 3rd year volunteer that acts as a coordinator. At any rate, Chris and his roommates had planned “Italian night.” This consists not only of preparing cuisine from said region, but dressing the part as well. One of the other volunteers lent Sasha and me some cute clothes that could pass for Italian. The men were all dressed as Italian-American stereotypes but it was pretty funny nonetheless. We had great food and great fun – and all before our trip even began!

The night bus was pretty chuchi (Paraguayan Spanish for posh) – but we didn’t mind one bit at all. The trip was supposed to take about six hours (making our ETA around 6AM) but the rainy weather slowed us down and we didn’t turn up in Horqueta until nearly 7:30AM. Rachel, the Volunteer I would be staying with, spotted us right away (not sure, if it was the bewildered look on our faces or our fancy hiker’s backpacks) and we all walked the 10 minutes to Rachel’s house. Sasha still needed to get on another bus to go to her site but the volunteer she was visiting, a Tennessean named Mary, was trying to come and meet her. The roads had been washed away in Mary’s site (Tacuati) and she was stuck in a town b/t hers and Horqueta. Sasha left a few hours later when we figured out she could take a bus that was running on another road that let into Mary’s site.

Rachel took me around Horqueta, introducing me to neighbors and friends and letting me tag along as she ran some errands in town. I was happy (and surprised) that I was able to carry on “normal” conversations with all the people I met. Now, what do I mean by “normal”? Well, I suppose the thing that struck me was that I wasn’t trying to engage the people I met in conversation – the conversation was just happening. We just talked and even if we didn’t, it didn’t feel strange. I didn’t constantly feel like an alien in a strange world. That was a fantastic feeling.

Rachel and I made a great lunch (a vegetable soup made from her mother’s recipe) and hung out most of the day on Saturday. She was great at answering my questions and never tired when I had more and more questions for her. She filled me in on some of the projects she is involved in and told me exactly how she got to know so many people in her town. During the course of that first day, I also got to meet two other first-year volunteers. The two were beekeepers and made up part of the Agro Forestry sector. Unlike our group, they skip the Spanish (though some of those volunteers already speak Spanish) and only learn Guarani since they are all working/living in very rural situations. I was amazed at how well they spoke – especially given that they had been in-site less than a year (6 months at site, 9 months in-country). It was also great to hear about their experiences just in general – as volunteers.

On Sunday, we both took it easy and slept in a bit. We had a nice lunch and then got ready for members of the local youth group. Rachel works a lot with the local library and was working with a few girls from the youth group to make a street sign advertising a celebration of Paraguayan books that is going to take place at the library on the 25th of the month. She had purchased a large banner, but all of the information needed to be painted on to it. The girls came over and we all had fun painting – and the banner came out great. The girls all had so much fun that they kept painting – and at the end, Rachel had two very brightly colored wooden chairs!

The football (soccer) game between Paraguay and Brazil began just after the girls left. We weren’t watching the game, but followed all of the goals with the roars, hoots, hollers, firecrackers and gun shots (into the air) that rang throughout the streets of Horqueta. Paraguay won 2-0 (though we sadly lost the next game against Bolivia). After the game ended we headed into town both to see the madness in the streets (just good-natured celebrating with loud music and cruising cars & motos up and down the one paved road in town) and to phone our fathers for father’s day. A quick bite to eat at a local establishment capped off a great day (in case you’re wondering, Rachel had a traditional Paraguayan hamburger which is served with a fried egg on top of the meat and I just had a fried egg sandwich).

Monday was the day in which I would be able to go to “work” with Rachel. I use the word work in quotes only because the job of most Peace Corps Volunteers is not a 9-5 type of affair. More on this point later and throughout these little stories in the next two years….

At any rate, I went to the Municipality with Rachel and was greeted by all of the staff members (funcionarios) with a smile, handshake, (or double cheek kiss when meeting the women) and some hot mate. Mate is an acquired taste, but I’m definitely on the road to acquiring it. The day was freezing and the hot beverage was as welcome as a great strong cup of coffee. The mate that I was offered was prepared not only with yerba mate, but with a few local jujos (medicinal herbs). The jujos that were used in this particular brew of mate gave it a minty and slightly sweet taste – not bad at all! In truly Paraguayan style, there is only one guampa (special cup that you drink mate in) and one bombilla (special straw for drinking mate) and it is passed among whoever wants some mate. I was happy to share in this little ritual – if only because it makes me feel like I’m “in the club.” Most people took the time to speak to me about their jobs, what they did and why and I came away with a greater understanding of how the muni works (and as a soon-to-be Municipal Services Volunteer, that’s kind of the point). We went to the library after that and I got to see the kind of work that Rachel has spent most of her time doing. We had lunch with the host family that she lived with when she first arrived to site and then headed back to her home for siesta. I got a little too comfortable and snuggled in my sleeping bag, as the day was still really cold. I ended up staying in my sleeping bag for most of the rest of the day as the book I was reading started to get too good to put down.

The next morning we packed up the Peace Corps car that Fernando and Chris had come down in (they had had a meeting earlier that morning with Horqueta’s intendente (mayor)). Then we hit the road for the 40K drive to Tacuati. The road was not paved and in fact, with the recent rains, was more like a roller coaster. In addition, the one some-what high bridge we had to cross was a leftover from ano de la oopa as my mother would say, or really freakin’ old as I would say. It was made of wood and looked like it might break under the pressure of having me (and my whole 110 pound body) gingerly walk across it. Needless to say, going over it in a fully loaded SUV made me a little nervous. It creaked with every little inch that we went over. Every plank of wood creaked and even wobbled as we made our way across! We of course did make it across, but I was hard-pressed to imagine one of the local buses crossing over it and I couldn’t help but think of poor Sasha going over it just a few days before!

We finally made it to Mary’s place and found both Mary and Sasha in good spirits. Mary is an Ag (agriculture) volunteer and lives a bit more modestly than Rachel. She has two small houses that are connected. The first is a concrete structure that is her foyer/living/dining room. The next part of the house is made of wood and can be described as a 3-room shack. It is wood slats and there are thin spaces between the slats (so you can kind of see into the house from the outside – but only a little). The first room and the one that adjoins with the concrete room is the kitchen which she has organized really well. She’s got a gas stovetop/oven and a mac-daddy modern (if small) fridge. The next room back is her bedroom and the last room behind the bedroom is just a storage area. She has done a lot with her space and it’s actually a really warm and inviting little home. She made us a great lunch (chicken-noodle soup for the meat-eaters and a taco salad made with soy meat, which is surprisingly delicious for me) and we gobbled it up in no time flat. We hit the road again – this time for the long 6-hour haul back to Asuncion.

Adventures we encountered along the way – nearly running over an armadillo (which are eaten here and are considered a delicacy) and stopping to take a look at some wild ostriches. We listened to some great 70’s and 80’s hits, ate snacks, slept and told jokes and stories to make the time go by. We made it back to Asuncion late enough that Chris offered Sasha and I the use of his apartment and couches so that we could simply get back in the PC SUV the next morning and head in to Guarambare with him and Fernando! Sasha and I managed to do most of our “volunteer visits” avoiding public transport and instead rode in style courtesy of the Peace Corps SUV. The way I figure it, we have the next two years to enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of public transport – so we might as well take full advantage as long as we can!

As you can tell, the adventure was great – and it’s only just begun! This is Laara, signing off and wishing you well, no matter where in the world you find yourself reading this and remember, electronic communications are great – but there’s nothing like getting an old-fashioned hand-written letter in the mail. Also, interested parties should note that little luxuries like hand sanitizer, light Skippy peanut butter, and cliff bars are always welcome!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Leaving for Horqueta

Hi Friends,

Its official - I´m visiting a first year municipal development volunteer in Horqueta (northern Paraguay, near Concepcion). I leave this evening with a fellow trainee who is visitng a different volunteer nearb. Our journey will first take us to Asuncion (via bus), where we will hang out in the Peace Corps office for a few hours. Then, we´ll take another bus (a harrowing experience if there ever was one) leaving at 11:45 PM and travel all night to get to Horqueta sometime between 6 and 7 AM. We´ll be staying with our host volunteers through Tuesday morning when we have to make our way back to our training site - Guarambare.

I´m missing my camera terribly (forgot it and my parent´s have sent it, but the waiting and missed picture opportunities are driving me crazy) and sorry I can´t share more images with you all. So far, Paraguay is a great country with warm and kind people. I am looking forward to venturing out and seeing more though.

While in Asuncion on Wednesday I was able to visit with a USAID representative and that was really interesting. The program is small, but seems to be contributing to Paraguayans especially in their transition to democracy. USAID primarly supports local government institutions and specifically the local municipalities (which is where I will eventually be working).

Well, the connection is slow and expensive so I´ll sign off. But keep coming back as the next installment is sure to be better!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Second week of training

Hi Friends,

Second week is under way. It´s hard to believe we´ve only been here for two weeks. We all feel as though we´ve known each other much longer and we are all settling in to our lives here in Paraguay. Our training staff has prepared a few adventures for us this week. First, a vist to Asuncion on Wednesday. We are travelling in pairs and we´ve all been given assigments. I´m travelling with Liam (the tallest guy in our group) and our ¨mission¨ is to find the USAID office and attend a meeting there. I´m excited to visit them and can´t wait to hear what they have to say about working with Municipalities and how they feel they can help (or how they feel they cannot help). The second adventure is a 3 day trip to visit a volunteer. We don´t know which volunteer we will visit or where they are located, but we will find out on Wednesday. The volunteers we will visit are either in their first or second year and are all working in the same sector as us (Municipal Development). This is our first opportunity to see the work we´ve been learning about first hand. I´m sure I´ll have tales to tell soon....