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!

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