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!

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