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!!!!