Tuesday, December 15, 2009

I said I wouldn’t do it…but I did

Last year I along with my PCV neighbor and friend Julie walked with several of our Paraguayan friends from Julie’s site of Altos to the capital city of Cordillera, Caacupe. This walk is a pilgrimage that many Paraguayans do in order to satisfy a promise made to the Virgin Mary. Last year I vowed that once was enough and that, I would not repeat the experience. My friend Joan, though, wanted to walk and told me about a group of volunteers that were getting together to do the walk and perhaps we could join them. I figured, what the h-e-double hockey sticks, it will be my last opportunity to do so – at least for the next few years.

I went to the Peace Corps Office to meet up with Joan and with a few other people that had to transit through Asuncion. We left the office around 4 PM in order to meet up with the rest of our walking team at the tollbooth in the city of Ypacarai. From that point, we would walk about 18km or 11.19 miles. We met up with our friends and began to walk around 6:30 PM. We got to a favorite PCV food-joint around 8:30PM – not great timing given the relative closeness of the restaurant to our starting point, though given the thousands of people walking right along with us, it was just about the best we could do. We all had a nice dinner and then set off en serio for the rest of our walk.

Our big group separated into two smaller groups, one taking its time (this was my group) and another one who walked at a fast clip in order to make it to the Basilica in Caacupe in time for midnight mass. My group consisted of my good friends Joan, Courtney, and Brad. We walked along, telling funny stories, people watching and just trying to be in the moment. We took some pictures and stopped along the way to buy fruit juice, chipa, and water.

We arrived in Caacupe with time to spare before the midnight mass (a total of about 5 hours walking), but decided to stop by my friend Celeste’s house to freshen up, take a potty break and rest up a bit. We picked ourselves up off the floor and attempted to find our friends who were already gathered in the basilica courtyard watching the mass. Tried as we might, we could not find our friends. Resigned to stay the night at Celeste’s house, we decided to go back and rest and try again for the 6 AM mass. We crashed, literally, on the floor of Celeste’s roomy house while she and her cousin’s sold Paraguayan style burgers, soda, and beer outside her home. The other part of our original group had satisfied their “Virgin of Caacupe” promise and left shortly after the mass. Within an hour or two of arriving back at Celeste’s home, two separate distinct groups of volunteers joined us. They had also spent the last few hours walking and were equally exhausted. While Celeste and her family provided food and drink to the horde of people in town, we compared stories and adventures from our evening and then eventually fell into deep sleep.

Joan and I awoke around 5:30 AM to find Courtney and Brad gone. We assumed they had gotten up to attend the 6 AM mass. Joan and I had lost our enthusiasm for the event and decided to head for home. December the 8th is the official day to honor the Virgin of Caacupe and we thought the sooner we got out of town the better. If the night before had seen thousands upon thousands of people walking, surely the “official” walking day would be worse. Tired and sore, we set out to find buses that would take us home. It took about an hour’s walk before we saw the first buses. To say they were full is an understatement. People were stuffed into buses so that there were people literally smashed against the windows. Some were even crammed between the windshield and dashboard. Men were hanging out of the bus doors – many remaining open to accommodate the “stair standers.” Every bus that passed our way looked the same. Another hour of walking and we saw the buses dwindle until we got to the bus terminal to find thousands of people waiting for empty buses.

Joan, now limping and fading quickly was at her limit as was I. We decided to head back to Celeste’s, rest up and figure out a new way out of town. We got back to find our friends had returned and were attempting to catch up on their sleep. Joan and I soon joined them. Beyond exhausted, I just couldn’t sleep so I went to chat to Celeste about possible alternatives for getting out of town. She made a phone call and voila, her uncle was on his way to rescue us. While we waited for her uncle to come and pick us up in his truck, we sang a few rounds of Karaoke ate some brunch and celebrated our triumphant walk to honor the Virgin of Caacupe. When Celeste’s uncle turned up, we were more than ready to get the heck out of Dodge. We found ourselves – despite the exhaustion, happily singing old sitcom songs like the tune from Gilligan’s Island and the Brady Bunch. When dropped at our desired location, we all agreed, the walk had been a success. So…the lessons learned are as follows: never say never and never judge all experiences by one bad one.

I hope you enjoyed these photos. Take care and in this season of thanks, I thank you for your support!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The latest

Hi friends,

Sorry about the extended absence from this blog, but the last few months have been busy and bizarre. First of all, it was not as easy as I had hoped coming back after vacation. I was on such a “high” when I left and was so motivated and excited about my projects and it was hard to find the “thread” to continue that upon my return.

The month of August, particularly was a significant month for me for various reasons. I celebrated my birthday on the 3rd, participated in my group’s one-year IST (in-service training) and celebrated milestones with my two sister groups. Sister groups are those that work in the same sector-area but are either a year ahead or a year behind you in service. My older sister group finished their 2 year service and swore-out just as my younger sister group finished their PST (pre-service training) and swore-in as volunteers. The actual day of the swear-in and swear-out we all celebrated together at a nice Spanish restaurant. Three groups all in different places of their Peace Corps service – needless to say, it was a special evening.

In September, I participated in a parade in my town of Loma Grande as they commemorated the life of an important Paraguayan man who died in a plane crash in the 1940s. I also traveled to the South and helped a friend facilitate a civic education workshop for teachers. The friend in question – Rebecca, lives in the town of Carapegua and I had such a good time that my day and a half trip turned into a 4-day trip! Upon my return, I said goodbye to a dear friend who completed her service a bit early. It was not an entirely happy event though it did make me appreciate the lifelong friendships I’ve made in the short time I’ve been here. The month was rounded out by three events: an interesting workshop focused on preventing the bird flu from taking root here in Paraguay, a very useful meeting with the Peace Corps Paraguay Director, Don Clark and the three other Master’s International volunteers that are currently serving and a fundraiser international sports day. The sports day had been done once before but we did it this time as a way to raise funds for a few projects. We invited the Japanese volunteers (JICA), the Korean volunteers (KOICA) and the Taiwanese volunteers (ICDF) all serving here in Paraguay to kickball and volleyball games against Peace Corps volunteers. It was a lot of work to put together (and I had a lot of help) but was well worth the efforts. Everyone had fun and we made some money for two PC projects.

Now October is here and nearly half the month will be gone in travel and activities again. I’ll be heading further down south to the town of General Delgado to visit my friend Tessa and help her with some civic education work. From there I will head over to Pilar where my friend Joan lives. While getting to know her town, I hope to investigate the opportunities to work with AFS (an international exchange organization). I’m hoping to use the experience of working with them to write the main part of my thesis. Upon my return, I’ll have two important meetings, one in the capital of my department (Caacupe) to continue the bird flu prevention work and the other in Asuncion to work with young women who have been awarded a scholarship in a partnership between Peace Corps and the Paraguayan government. This month will be rounded out by an awesome 80s themed birthday/Halloween party in my friend Jesus’s town of Villa Florida. Not sure what I’ll wear, but I’m thinking either an 80s era Dolly Parton, Joan Jett or possibly a Risky Business-esque Tom Cruise (that one’s the easiest if I can figure out what to do with my hair)! My friend Joan and I are hoping to make this party a fundraiser as well.

So…on to November? Not yet! Sure, September was busy and October promises to be as well. But in the midst of all this busyness, I’m also working on my thesis portfolio. So while the time does seem to be flying by, I need it to slow down a bit too…at least to give me a chance to finish my thesis work. So, am I afraid the time will go by too fast? No way people, no way. As Dorothy Thompson once said, “Only when we are no longer afraid do we begin to live.” And friends…I’m living! Until next time friends…..

Friday, July 31, 2009

Going home…from home and back home….huh?

I have now been back in Paraguay for about one week. I took a two-week vacation to go back to the US to visit my family. I spent 16 days there and my visit spanned three states, more family than I can count, and a lot of fast food and home cooked food that I had been desperately missing.

My first night back in Paraguay, I stayed in a hotel in Asuncion and ran into a few volunteers who were also in town. They had many questions for me about my trip home – what had I eaten first (a favorite question among volunteers) and where had I gone…where was home? That has always been a difficult question for me. I mean, I spent 19 years in Florida and it’s the place I called home for the longest amount of time – even to date and yet I’ve never thought of Florida as home. After having left in 2000, it became simply the place my parents lived – that made it home-y but somehow, it just wasn’t home. For the next few years, I called many places home. I called a village in Burkina Faso, West Africa “home,” and then three years in Washington DC, two years in Rolle, Switzerland, and nine months in Vermont and now I’m working on my second year in Loma Grande, Paraguay. I’ve considered all of these places home but do I really still have a home in the US? Can an entire country just in some general way be, “home?”

My parents now live with my sister in Virginia and this was my “home-base” for my recent vacation. So, in “going home” I was really just going into a more or less “known” culture. I was with family and friends and Wendy’s Frosty and Chipotle and salt and vinegar chips. The main point is that I dislike answering the question, “where is home for you?” I noticed too, that I didn’t like answering that question from people in the US. When people asked me where I lived, I noticed that I didn’t really like telling them that I was living in Paraguay. For some reason, this is not necessarily, how I like to begin conversations with people. It’s not that I’m not proud of being a volunteer or about Peace Corps or even Paraguay for that matter. I’ve found that this often focuses the conversation around my life and work, which in all honestly I love. I love talking about my life and work. But in most instances, the attention is focused entirely on me and I often feel that that it somehow misguided. I guess it’s the “exotic-ness” of it that bothers me. It’s not exotic to me; it’s just life…a different kind of life sure, but just life all the same. But many see it as this very lofty thing, to choose to live a more humble life to help others. I think it says something about me and about my life that is easily misinterpreted and yet it’s not something I want to justify or explain to people either…especially not people I’ve only just met.

But back to the idea of home. I went home from home and now I’m back home but I’m also already missing home. Are you with me? Did you get that? Home for me has so many meanings. It’s more of a feeling than a place. Right now, the city of Loma Grande is my home but at the same time, the US in a general sense since I no longer have an actual home there, is my home. When I think of home (US) I think of the foods that I grew up with and that I love to eat, familiar voices on local radio stations and basically things that are familiar to me. Whenever I’m in Paraguay but not in Loma Grande – I get the same feeling. Going “home” to my own bed, my own food, and books. I love the home I’ve created for myself in Loma Grande and I appreciate the friends that I’ve made that have supported me and continue to do so. So, now I’m back home, from home and though I miss home, I’m glad to be home…

Got that? Keep a good thought friends….

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Paraguay: Year One

It seems sometimes, as if there are only two climates here in Paraguay – hot and cold. We are currently in the season of fall or autumn yet it feels more like winter. The last few days have seen us get an unusually large dumping of rain, and like many Paraguayans, I didn’t leave my house much during the worst of the weather. In fact, I missed my group’s one-year anniversary party in the southern town of Villa Florida. It’s hard to believe that one year ago (we left as a group on the 29th and arrived on the30th) this past week, we didn’t know each other and knew virtually nothing about Paraguay.

All that time spent at home (most of my classes were canceled due to the rain) gave me a lot of time to reflect on the last year. So much has happened and while some days were agonizingly slow (some weeks too) it is really incredible just how fast the time has gone by. Now, for those of you “in the know” you may realize that as volunteers we really have two anniversaries. One year in country and one year in site – and for the purposes of completing our service, the in-site anniversary is the one that counts. We will celebrate that anniversary on the 9th of August.

So, what have I accomplished during this, my first year of service? Simple, I’m here and I’m healthy and happy! As a taxpayer that is helping to support me here, that may not satisfy you, so here’s a few more things that I’ve accomplished, I have…

Taught young Paraguayans:
• To evaluate their choices and to focus on their futures
• The importance of caring for the environment
• How and why to recycle
• The importance of trees and why deforestation is a serious problem
• How to plant and care for trees
• Qualities of a good leader
• Leadership skills

Perhaps most importantly, I’ve tried to show them the best of what the United States has to offer, people willing to share part of themselves with others. Most people don’t think about the name, Peace Corps. Many people think it is naïve to think that through cultural understanding we can achieve some kind of global peace. I don’t think it is naïve at all, actually I believe it is the only way we can one day achieve peace. I don’t mean to pontificate or get on a soapbox here friends, but how can we ever talk about peace if there is not first understanding?

Well, as a naturalized citizen of the USA, I am proud of the work that is being done here –and not just my work, but also that of all my fellow volunteers. I’m not sure how much Peace Corps cost each taxpayer – I can’t imagine it’s all that much. But I guarantee you it’s just about the best money your government has spent in the name of Peace!

Peace out friends…..

Sunday, May 3, 2009


Friends, what a difference a month makes…

Let me begin by letting you all know, what I hope has been obvious from previous posts. I am happy and fulfilled and enjoying my time in Paraguay. What is also true is that I didn’t always have enough activities to fill my days. Then along comes an idea, hopefully known to you all, called…”Como Planear Mi Vida.”

Now, if I had been more proactive, I would have marched over to the colegio and introduced myself to the students during my first month here in site. However, I was so fixated on doing my “job” which as a municipal services volunteer is supposed to be with the muni. Secondly, let me just be honest here… I was scared. I find high school students in general a bit intimidating, and Paraguayan students are even more so. The times I had come to the school in the past, to propose project ideas (my tutoring idea, for one), I heard piropos (catcalls or whistles) coming from most of the young men. This did not help ease my fear of working with them or wanting to meet them more personally.

Then I got the idea to teach the Peace Corps program, “Como Planear Mi Vida.” Well, my intention was to teach only the 7th, 8th and 9th graders, but as you all now know, I’m actually teaching the entire student body at the colegio. Well friends, this has opened my world in Loma Grande.

Now in my third week of teaching, I can honestly say, this is the best thing I could have ever done with my service. ALL of the students now know me and greet me either by name or by calling me profe (short for profesora or teacher in Spanish). The ripple effect is that the teachers all know me now as well. They stop me in the halls to invite me to school events (before they all passed without my knowing about them), include me in meetings, and call on me for help with English or with computer problems. I had tried to get them to understand that I was here to do just that – help them with whatever their needs were and to pass time with them and understand their culture. This is why it always made me sad to know some event had happened without my knowing or being able to attend. Somehow, before, that message never got through. Now, everything has changed.

Recently I was at the escuela (the elementary/middle school) and was helping the administration with a complicated document. Along the way, it turned into a lesson on Microsoft Word. I spent most of my afternoon there before I had to rush off for a class at the colegio (middle/high school). As I left, it hit me. I need them as much as they need me … now. I really felt like I belonged there. Suddenly I had a purpose and my presence here in Loma Grande actually seemed to matter to members of this community. Perhaps that’s not an entirely fair statement. I’m sure my presence here has mattered to some – even before I began teaching. I suppose that now the difference is that I feel it. I’m no longer wondering if that is true, I know it is true because I felt it and continue to feel it.

As I wander down the streets of my town now, I am usually smiling. The sense of purpose and belonging that I have now goes way beyond anything I felt before. My town has embraced me and I them. We are truly working together to create something special.

Thanks for being part of my journey…I hope you are as excited as I am to see where it takes us next…

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Semana Santa, Como Planear Mi Vida and Every day Life

So, my friend Alfredo invited me to spend Semana Santa, “Holy Week” with his family in the “campo” – very rural area. I had also been invited by my training host family to spend the time with them. I was torn but decided to spend the four days with Alfredo and his family. I was eager to see a different part of the country and to spend time in the “interior” part of the country.

I slept in my own bed in my own room though the walls were rustic and had big spiders in all the crevices. Come on self, I said constantly, you lived in Africa; you can sleep in a spidery room! Sufficiently calmed, I went on the next challenge, trying to eat vegetarian while visiting a family that had just killed a HUGE pig. But pig is not meat they tried to explain to me. Ugh, well, yes, but you see, I don’t actually eat anything that comes from the skin of an animal. So I ate salads and sardines. See, “campo” life isn’t so hard! Well, I had a great time and was even invited back! Here are a few pics that highlight my time in the “campo.”

Making it through Semana Santa meant only one thing to me: the start of classes. The school year began here in mid-March but the classes that I am now teaching were planned to start after the Holy Week break – April 13th. Although I was anxious to get started, I was petrified to get started. I knew only a few of the students but now I would be working with virtually ALL of them. Basically I had worked out a plan to teach a Peace Corps life skills program called, Como Planear Mi Vida (How to Plan My Life) with the 7th, 8th and 9th graders from the elementary/middle school here in town. The middle/high school also has 7th, 8th and 9th grades and so I inquired if they would like me to teach the program there as well. I guess the principal liked the program – a lot, because she asked me to teach it to the entire student body (about 250 students). So 12 classes later, I’m busier than I could’ve ever imagined.

I’ve modified the program and am more or less sharing three versions with the students. One is for the younger students – the 7th – 9th graders, one for the 10th and 11th graders and the last one is a shortened version for the 12th graders. I will only have access to them about 2x/month so I’ve trimmed their program down to the essentials (basically job /career related stuff and family planning related stuff). For the two younger groups the focus will more or less be the same: self-esteem, decision-making, family planning, and job/career planning. I’ll be with those two groups once a week.

I’ve just finished my first week and am now ready (I think) to get into the real “work” of the program. Last week I mostly introduced myself to the students, talked about life in the US, and summarized the program for them. We’re starting with autobiographies. I’m having the students use a basic questionnaire (how old are you, how many sisters/brothers do you have, etc) to begin writing their stories. When we are about half way through the course I’ll ask them to do so again, but this time imagining that ten years have passed. Towards the end of the course, we’ll do our biographies one last time – this time imagining that fifty years have passed. I can’t wait to see how their lives will all turn out!

Another activity we’ll do is create our own personal flags. Just the way countries have flags with colors and symbols that represent their values/beliefs we’ll make flags for ourselves that illustrate these things. My flag will probably have a globe on it, some green color to symbolize my connection to the earth/nature and maybe something that symbolizes service leadership – if there is such a symbol.

Clearly, I’m excited abo
ut this work. I’m also excited about a new recycling project I’m trying to get off the ground. Everything is in place to get it going except…someone to buy our recyclables. There is no formal recycling program in this country but there lots of companies that will buy glass, plastic, etc. We just have to go out and find them! Well, my boss from Peace Corps helped me find a list of companies online and I’ve now given that list to my mayor. Hopefully we can work something out with one of these companies and start our program up. All of the proceeds from the sale of our recycling will benefit our local health council (of which I’m an ad-hoc member). This council oversees the running of our local health clinic and ensures the clinic is meeting our town’s needs. As an avid environmentalist, I’m happy to have found a way to begin to tackle my town’s garbage problems. I’m also happy to be working on a project related to my project plan (as a municipal development volunteer there are certain projects I should be doing with my municipality).

Finally a few comments about life in Paraguay. I’ve been asked what my day-to-day life is like. Well, not having a 9-5 job my days are always different. Most mornings I go to the municipality briefly to see what, if anything is going on. Now, I have classes every afternoon (and on Thursdays have morning classes as well). I also have the health council meetings every Wednesday afternoon (recently moved from Wednesday mornings). I spend time (sometimes a bit too much time) on my computer researching information for my projects and checking email (I recently got internet in my home though it is slow and not very reliable). So, a typical
day doesn’t really exist.

I try do laundry every few days so that it does not build up too much. I have a love/hate relationship with laundry day. I always dread doing laundry though it is not that unpleasant a task. I take my iPod and speakers to the patio where I wash my clothes and the music helps create a pleasant atmosphere. Washing clothes by hand is pretty simple: soak, scrub vigorously, rinse, rinse, rinse, rinse (usually 4 rinses before the water runs clear), twist, flick and hang, let dry (depending on sun and other factors about 2-3 hours usually does the trick in summer), then iron carefully. I was not a big ironer in the US but here you MUST iron your clothes or risk the dreaded botfly. Basically, as I understand it, it will be on your clothes (you won’t notice) and once it comes into contact with
your skin will lay its eggs under your skin. You will then develop a painful blister (looks a bit like one of those under the skin zits) that will hopefully have you seeking medical advice at which point they’ll tell you that you are about to be the proud parent of some baby botflies. Seriously, they will just dig out the eggs or whatever and you’ll be fine but still…gross! So ironing can apparently, prevent this horrid scene from occurring. In a continuing effort to make these kinds of chores more pleasant I usually iron with my laptop or iPod nearby and listen to music or watch movies.

I try not to save up household chores for weekends so that I can actually enjoy those a bit, but with my first week of classes this week, I found myself doing A LOT of laundry this past Saturday. Here’s how my day ended up:

-woke up at 7:30
-ate breakfast, changed by 8:30
-did 2 ½ hours of laundry, was done by 10:30
-ate a snack, checked email, left for grocery shopping by 11:30
-got to San Lorenzo where I do some of my grocery shopping 1:00
-finished shopping and headed back to Loma 2:00
-got home from grocery shopping 3:30
-drank lots of terere and relaxed ‘til 4:00
-took clothes down from line and started ironing
-finished ironing and started making dinner 6:00
-checked email while eating dinner 6:30
-was in bed and reading a book by 8:00
-lights out 10:00!

Yes, people, sometimes my life is just one adventure after another….until next time …

Thursday, March 5, 2009

My New Home

In December, I decided that it was time to move. I loved where I was living, though I yearned for a bit more independence than I got living on someone else’s property – just behind their home. I had a great host family, but there were so many of them around all the time and having lived on my own for more years than I care to count, I wanted to find a place that would give me more privacy. Though I found empty houses, they were not for rent. I went on vacation and left word with friends in my town that I was interested in finding a new home and asked if they would keep a proverbially ear to the ground about houses for rent. In a small town, with few people moving in or out, there wasn’t much available. I did not know when I started my search that it would take me three months to find my perfect home. I got frustrated but tried not to lose faith that my Paraguayan home was somewhere out there waiting for me to find it.

During the second week of February my host family told me that they were going to need the two rooms that I was renting and asked me to move out by the end of the month. I still had not found my perfect home and now I only had two weeks to find it. The pressure made me frantic. I called my new Peace Corps boss and felt badly that I was handing her a problem so early on in her job with us. I hadn’t met her yet, had only spoken to her by phone, yet she dropped everything and drove the 2 hours from Asuncion to come and see me. We called the mayor of my town and the three of us sat together to think about what could be done. The mayor had heard that someone had just moved out of a house located near the middle school/high school. He made a call and we went to see it. The house was adorable. A cute, new little two-room house. It had a cute little manicured from lawn and garden. The rooms were large and the bathroom, like the rest of the house was newly built and fairly large. I noted that there was no sink (the two rooms were just that – too big empty rooms, no formal kitchen) and I would have to buy and have one installed outside. The first room, the one you walked into from the front door, also had a back door. That was as good a place as any for a sink. I noted though, that there was not much back there, just dirt and not very much of the property back there would be mine to use. There was also no shade, meaning that during the summer (like right now) the sink could only be comfortably used in the very early morning or late evening, which also meant there would need to be a light installed above the sink. Not overwhelming problems, but still something to consider. At any rate, as my options were limited, I decided to rent the house and made arrangements to speak with the owner the following Sunday (the day that day was Monday).

On Saturday afternoon, I made a list of things to discuss with the owner the following afternoon. I doubt she would have any problem in my adding the sink and light as they would only increase the value of the house and property. Just as I was putting my list together and figuring out the costs involved, I got a text message from a friend of mine. She knew of a house that was for rent and had spoken to the owners on my behalf. She sent me there number and despite thinking of my housing issues as solved, I called the woman. The house in question was an awesome, modern 2-story structure next to the house I was planning on renting. I had passed the house a bunch of times always wondering who owned it. I was told the owners were seldom in town and that they lived in Asuncion.

It turned out that the family only wanted to rent me the lower portion of the home, which was completely separate from the second story. The first floor was basically just one big room. It has a very nice bathroom with a shower (which wasn’t huge, but looked brand new and had evidently never been used). The room had four large windows and a back door which led out onto a large courtyard that a big mango tree in the center (I love mangos). Around the side of the courtyard was a patio with a sink and Paraguayan outdoor oven and separate built-in barbecue. There were also a set of metal stairs which led up to a second floor patio. This patio also had a sink and space for putting up a clothesline. Next to the first floor patio was yet another patio, this one accessible through a big metal locking door. This particular patio had a number of fruit trees in it, lemon, orange, grapefruit, and mandarin. The owners understood that I had very little furniture of my own and showed me furniture that I could use if I wanted. The furniture was also great, and included a small bed, awesome desk with space for book storage, a brand new gas range with electric starter, a meat freezer which could be used at a lower setting as a fridge and a set of three storage units which together with my wardrobe could act as dividers between the main living space and a bedroom.

All in all, it was an amazing home and I was faced with telling the owner of the house next door that I had had a last minute offer and that I would not be renting her home. I was relieved that she understood that I had gotten a better offer and did not seem to be angry with me. Three days later, I moved into my new home. When I couldn’t find a good price on a dining room table and chairs (the only furniture I wasn’t able to borrow), my new landlords offered to take me to some furniture shops in Asuncion. As they were planning to come to Loma Grande the following weekend, they offered to drive up anything that I purchased. I found a great little dining room set at a good price and by the first of March, my new home was more or less complete.

Of course, the saying, good things come to those who wait, always turns out to be true for me. I did get frustrated but I didn’t really lose faith. I knew something great was out there for me; it was just hard to maintain constant optimism as the weeks went by. The only changes I’m making to my new home is the addition of screening for the windows as there are a ton of mosquitoes around and it’s Dengue season (though there hasn’t been any reported cases in my department for a number of years). Despite the use of repellent and mosquito coils (spirals that you light and the smoke and fumes are meant to keep the bugs away) I’m still constantly bitten. The carpenter just came by to measure my windows and my screening should be up next week. There are still little things to make my home more a home (like artwork from my nephews that my sister has promised to send) but little by little, I’ll get it decorated so it looks more like me.

So…now, I’ve got the perfect space for entertaining. There is plenty of space for guests, so all I need to know is who wants to visit me first? Remember, mi casa es su casa. Take care friends……

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Summer Camp Fever

Summer in Paraguay is notoriously slow (and hot). Many people go on vacation, schools are all closed, so what’s a volunteer to do? Well, the most common answer is summer camp. Lucky for me, I have three Peace Corps volunteers close by – my neighbors and my friends, and we decided to work together to do summer camps in each of our sites.

We decided early on in December that we should go forward with our idea. We began meeting after Julie and I returned from our vacation in early January. We started meeting over the lunch hour with our two other friends, Jenny and Andrew. We soon realized that if we met around a meal, we spent most of our time preparing the food, then cooking the food, then eating the food and finally resting after eating too much. The end result was that our meetings were less than productive. We amended our meeting times and soon we were on the road to productivity. We all agreed that the them would be the environment and we all decided on activities that focused on different aspects of the environment. It helped that one of us – Jenny, is an Environmental Education volunteer. The materials she provided us all with were invaluable.

We all worked together on deciding the activities that we would do and who would take the lead on each one. The schedule had us working first in my site (in the compania of Yaguarete Cua), next in Neuva Colombia (Jenny’s site), third in Acuna Andrew’s site) and lastly in Altos (Jenny’s site). I structured my 3-day camp in more or less the same way each day: name game, icebreaker, song, main activity, wrap-up. I was very nervous about how many kids would actually turn up. The principal of the school in the community of Yaguarete Cua is a friend of mine and was eager to work with me from the moment I arrived in site. She is also a very well connected member of her community and by having the camp at her home, I had hoped to get a good turnout. I was happy and relieved to have had at least 20 students every day which is the amount I was prepared to have).

Our first day was focused on garbage. Not a very fun or even interesting topic, but Peace Corps has lots of fun and interesting activities for a range of topics –including this one. We talked to the kids about the kinds of garbage that Paraguay produces and about how long different kinds of garbage take to break down (glass, plastics, etc). The second day was all about animals and all of our activities had an animal theme. Our main activity was more fun than educational – we made bird masks. The kids loved it and it was fun to see all of their creativity come alive when they put their masks on. It was also great for them to have something to take home from our camp. The final day was all about trees and deforestation. Another experienced environmental education volunteer (who is in his final year) came and facilitated a fun deforestation activity that really brought home the importance of trees not only for our own use but for animals as well.

We learned a lot from my camp and each successive camp got better and better. We modified activities and added activities and I was left with an excitement in thinking about the next summer camp opportunity (July, this winter). However, truthfully by the end of the last summer camp in Altos, I was glad to have them all behind us and it feel great to finally be done though. I hope to continue to work with my friends on summer camps, they are a great way to not only spend our time but a great way for kids to spend their time as well – and regardless of the work that goes into them, we all end up having a fun time as well!

Well, now the new school year is upon us and I’ve been asked to work with the 7th, 8th, and 9th graders on issues of responsibility. Peace Corps has a great text called Como Planar Mi Vida (How to Plan My Life). I will be sharing this information with students from both the elementary/middle school and the high school (both schools have 7th, 8th and 9th grades) here in the center of town. I hope to work with the compania (rural) schools on service learning as previously planned. My tutoring program is temporarily in limbo but I’m hopeful that once I get to know the students and teachers better that we might still be able to get the program going. At this point, I’m happy to have at least planted the seed of the idea.

In my immediate future (as in the next few days) is moving day. I’m moving out of the place that I’ve been living since September and am moving to the first floor of a 2-story building. It’s a large, lovely space that comes complete with a garden, patio and barbeque area. So, despite having recently completed my sixth month in site, I’m back to settling in anew.

Well friends, until next time…

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Vacation

From the moment I heard that I was assigned to Peace Corps Paraguay, I thought, great, I’ll be close to family. Over 40 years ago, my aunt married a Uruguayan and has lived in Montevideo ever since. It immediately occurred to me that if I could not be home with my immediate family for Christmas, at least I could be with my extended family. Since Montevideo and Buenos Aires are so close together, it also occurred to me that I could spend; New Year’s there and begin some of the travel that I hoped to accomplish in this region. I broached the idea of my trip with my aunt and she seemed as excited about it as I was. It occurred to me that a few of my friends would perhaps be interested in this trip – and travel is always more fun with friends, so I invited my two friends Julie and Karen.

I had been planning the trip for so long that it seemed unbelievable that the day would ever arrive that we would actually leave, but of course, the day did arrive. Julie and I traveled together and met Karen at the bus station. The cheapest way to travel between Asuncion and Montevideo is bus. The bus is one of the large double-decker buses that has a bathroom and offers movies. Those amenities didn’t really comfort us when thinking of the 20+ hours that we would have to spend en route though…

The time actually went by much faster than we could have hoped. My aunt was waiting for us at the bus terminal in Montevideo and our vacation was underway! My aunt lives close to the “beach.” I use beach in quotes because though it looks like the ocean it is really a river. Ocean or river, we walked along the beach in front of said body of water nearly every day. Some days the air was really brisk and we had to wear hoodies to keep warm. The sun was always warm, but none of us was really prepared for those brisk winds.

We celebrated Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with my aunt and her children—my cousins who all have families of their own. Next up was a trip to Punta Del Este, a really amazingly beautiful beach town about 3 hours from Montevideo. One point resembles Greece with its jagged rocks and beautiful blue ocean. We parked the car and walked around a bit. We saw yachts from all over the world parked in the marina and delighted in the sea lions that hang out there hoping to get a bit of a treat from the local anglers. We took another look around by car and then got ready for a few hours of relaxation down on the beach. The water was freezing but Karen, Julie and I braved going in anyway. After a nice dinner, we were headed back to Montevideo. My aunt also took us to Colonia, to the “campo” – the farming area where my cousin lives and works and to the old historic part of Montevideo.

Despite filling our days with activities, we had plenty of time to rest. The days passed slowly but the week passed quickly. We treated my aunt to a nice dinner the night before we left and before we knew it, we were on a boat headed to Buenos Aires.

Our boat arrived late and by the time we checked into our hostel, it was after midnight. None of the directions we were given to find food led to us actually finding anything open though just as we were about to give up we did finally eat (well after 1AM). The next morning we set out to by our tickets for our trip back home, change money and do a little shopping. Errands duly completed, we concentrated on our next objective: finding plans for New Year’s Eve. Most of the area restaurants/bars were already fully booked and it turned out that venturing too far away from our hotel would mean not having transportation back as taxis, buses, and subways would not be functioning late. Just as we were going to give up, we found a place that still had openings (thank you Lonely Planet).

The place we spent our evening is called Querandi and was offering an amazing meal and tango show extravaganza. They offered us a pick-up service, which we happily accepted though it was only a few blocks away from our hostel. When we arrived, we noticed that staff members of the restaurant were dressed in 20’s era regalia.Then we were offered our own costumes of sorts – flapper style headbands with feathers in them, long black gloves and red feather boas.

It was fun to see that most of the guests present that evening (around 70 people) were all happily joining in the fun with their feathered hair bands, gloves, and boas. The menu for the evening offered a choice of three appetizers, main courses, and deserts (they offered me special options for the appetizer and main course as a vegetarian). Alcohol was also included in the price of the evening – meaning we could drink as much as we wanted of what we wanted. We drank (not in excess of course) champagne, beer and wine throughout the evening. The floorshow was also scattered throughout the evening with shorter numbers between the appetizer and main course and then a series of longer numbers after the desert was served. We were all offered more champagne to ring in the evening and all of the guests were also presented with a special bag of noisemakers and silly string. We all played happily with our gift bags and most of us were covered in a mixture of confetti and silly string.

The evening didn’t end there though. They started playing great dance tunes and my friends and I (and most other patrons) hit the dance floor. We danced the night away and soon my feet were giving out. I sat out for a bit when one of the wait staff handed me a bundle of papers – songs for karaoke. I shared the song list with my friends and we picked out a few to sing. By the time the night was over, we had hit the stage with four songs (two in Spanish by the singer Juanes and two in English, Girls Just Want to Have Fun and I Will Survive). When the few remaining guests (about 20 of us) had had enough, around 2:30AM, they called the van and we were all driven back to our hotels. The evening was a smashing success and was one of the best ways I’ve had to ring in a new year in a very long time.

The rest of our days in Buenos Aires were spent on walking tours with guides or just discovering the city on our own. We visited an old friend of mine from Switzerland and had fun touring her neighborhood (Palermo) and shopping in the gorgeous shopping mall located there. We also spent time in Recoleta at a very well known old cemetery and in Retiro seeing old palaces and plazas. We walked along the port in Puerto Madero and had an excellent dinner there as well. We visited the zoo and walked through a few of vast parks located throughout the city as well.

Just as in Montevideo, we did a lot but never felt as if we were trying to do too much. We relaxed on our last day and prepared ourselves for the 18-hour bus ride back to Asuncion.

Now we are all back and getting (or trying to get) back into the swing of things here. Fortunately, the weather has not been as hot as we had all feared and we’ve even gotten some rain (it always seems to cool things down a bit). The summers are often slow here, especially just after the holidays. Soon our lives will be filled with summer camp plans, new school-year projects and much much more. Stay tuned….