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....