Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Iguazu Falls Adventure

I had wanted to go the falls since arriving in Paraguay. Many of my fellow volunteers saved the falls to share with friends and family who visited them. I knew my aunt in Uruguay had already seen them, albeit 25 years ago. My other aunt, the one who would be visiting her and my uncle hadn’t seen them. That said one thing to me: opportunity. I wondered if we couldn’t coordinate a trip so that they could travel from Montevideo and I from Asuncion to meet up in Puerto Iguazu. The date was decided upon and hotel and hostel reservations made. They would fly and I would travel with at least one other volunteer by bus from Asuncion to Ciudad del Este where I would cross into Argentina either via barge or bus.

I hadn’t been feeling to well in the days leading up to the trip. I had bouts of nausea and dizziness and wasn’t sure I’d be well enough to even make the trip – though I was determined to try. The morning I left I first stopped by the Peace Corps Medical Office to check in with the doctor there. Given the all-clear to travel, I rushed off to the bus terminal where I met my friend and in a run, we caught our bus, which had already left the terminal without us. The ticket agent ran out and stopped the bus in the street so that we could get on. That should have told me everything I needed to know about this trip!

The comfortable air-conditioned bus made great time and we got to Ciudad del Este much sooner than I had planned. I had decided that we should try to cross by barge because I’d heard it was easier. No traffic, no fuss, no muss, and no lines at the immigration office in Argentina. It was just as we were about to catch a taxi to the port that I realized I had left my home without packing my Peace Corps passport. Ughh…my heart plummeted to my feet. How could I have done that? I don’t do those kinds of things! I’m a planner and an organizer and I am very careful when I travel…but still, I had done it. Now, I had to focus on salvaging my trip.

My immediate thought was, well, if I can’t travel on my Peace Corps passport (as I’m supposed to), I can travel on my personal passport which was conveniently located in Asuncion. The Peace Corps staff was understanding and amazing and helped me get my passport into the hands of one of my most trusted friends – a Paraguayan who lives and works in Asuncion. He in turn was able to send me my passport using one of the messenger services that frequents the Asuncion-Ciudad del Este route. It took 12 hours, but I had only lost one night and the next morning my trip continued as planned. I never imagined that I would’ve overlooked something so HUGE as my packing my passport, but I also would never have imagined that the problem could be solved quite so easily.

The next morning, my friend and I set out for the port. We took a taxi but were disappointed to find that the barge was on the Argentinean side. It would take 45 minutes or so to finish loading up on that side before setting out for Paraguay – a mere 20 minute crossing. In fact, from our vantage point at the port there in Paraguay, we could see both Foz de Iguazu, a town in Brazil, and Puerto Iguazu – the town we were headed to in Argentina. Our taxi driver was really helpful and negotiated our passage with a private boat owner. It cost us a little more, but the driver was ready to go right away. His little wooden boat seemed sea-worthy enough and once the immigration officer – a man with a tattoo on his forehead and ripped t-shirt and shorts, jotted down our names and passport numbers, we were all set to go. Getting there was pretty uneventful. We tied the boat up to a rock, our captain delivered a copy of our passport information to the immigration office in Argentina who then signed and stamped us in, and we were ready to hit the town. We found our hostel – it was as cute as the pictures had suggested and after settling in, were ready to get to the falls.

My aunt, aunt, and uncle had signed up for a tour that would take them first to the Brazilian side. Brazilian visas are complicated and expensive for Americans to get, so I decided to skip seeing the falls from that side and just enjoy the view from Argentina. The Iguazu Falls National Park in Argentina is massive and has hikes, walking trails, boat tours, a jungle safari tour, and a train to keep people busy. To see the falls themselves, one must choose from three trails, a lower, upper and the “devil’s throat.” All have amazing views, just from different perspectives. My friend and I decided to start with the lower. It’s the longest of the three trails and because we got a late-morning start, it was hot and we were exhausted by the time it was over. We had seen pictures of the falls before, but nothing prepared us for how they looked close up. We took a quick 20-minute boat tour also. The tour really just takes you into the falls – yes into the falls. We close – very close and the end result is that you will walk away soaked to the bone. But on a hot day – it feels great. Too bad that along with my passport I had forgotten to pack my swimsuit. Most people got onto the boat wearing just that (the tour operators provide guests with a dry-bag that keeps purses, clothes, etc from also getting wet). Though most of us had cameras in hand, the captain and his assistants gave us fair warning when we were going to get wet so that the cameras could be stowed away as well. It was amazing though for the next while we walked around the park literally dripping wet!

That evening I finally met up with my family at their hotel. We made dinner plans and then went our separate ways to freshen up. We compared notes on our views of the falls and made our plans for the following day. My friend decided she just wanted to see the parts of the park we had missed the day before, while I decided to see everything (even the parts I’d already seen) from top to bottom with my family. We started with the “Devil’s Throat” which is an amazing view from the top part of the falls and then did the lower trail. We grabbed a bite to eat and then continued with the upper trail. My family had a free ride into and out of the park while I had to take a city bus. I wanted to get a few souvenirs, so we said our goodbye’s after finishing the upper trail and made plans to meet up at their hotel later that evening.

That evening I found my family lounging by the pool at their hotel. We ordered some fresh fruit smoothies and snacks followed by some good white wine and dinner – all by the pool. Not a bad way to spend an evening. We talked about family stuff, politics, and my plans for my last 5 months in Peace Corps. It was a great evening. Saying goodbye was more emotional than I thought it would be but at least we’d enjoyed good food and an amazing display thanks to Mother Nature.

The following day my friend and I set out with another volunteer’s cousins who we happened to meet up with at our hostel. They were headed to Paraguay and we all decided to go back together. We walked down to the port and whoops – quickly realized that immigration services aren’t opened there on the weekends. That left two options (or so we thought): bus and taxi. Well, I was prepared to do just about anything to avoid getting on a bus to go back to Paraguay – especially since the ride from Ciudad del Este would already be 6 hours on a bus. So we called a taxi and explained to the driver that none of us had visas for Brazil (we would have to transit through Brazil to get to Paraguay) but could he ask immigration if we stayed in the taxi and simply transited through … if we could pass? He drove us through the immigration checkpoint for Argentina and a mile up the road from that is the Brazilian immigration checkpoint. The line was long and eventually we got close enough so that our driver could pull over and run up to the officials and ask about our transit through Brazil. Unfortunately, they turned us down flat. Our driver drove us back to just beyond the Argentinean checkpoint – which meant that we were technically in no country at that moment. We were told that a bus that would drive us to Paraguay (and was allowed to transit through Brazil) would come along. Two hours in no man’s land and we had our doubts about the bus…but eventually it did turn up. We got on and as promised were allowed to transit through Brazil. We weren’t sure what to do once getting to Paraguay and were hoping it would be self-explanatory. Unfortunately, that was not the case…

We got to the border crossing and the bus just kept on going. Some of the other people on the bus told us to get off and go through immigration so we got off the bus and tried to figure out where immigration was. The border was nuts (that’s an industry term)! There were buses, taxis, motorcycles, and people EVERYWHERE. It took us some time to figure out where to go. As it turns out there is no “passport control” as such. It’s just a building off to one side where you have to present yourself to enter Paraguay! Oh well…once that business was concluded we all shared a taxi to the bus terminal. The bus I was hoping to take was full so we got on the next one headed out. It looked nice…big and comfy with air conditioning. This wouldn’t be so bad…however, the bus kept stopping and stopping and stopping. And people just kept piling on and piling on. Soon, the people standing in the aisle were crushed together in a mass of tangled bodies. And this continued very nearly until the end when we reached Asuncion (6 ½ hours later). Whew … stuck in no man’s land for two hours, lost at the Paraguayan border and then stuck like a sardine on a bus for six and a half hours …it was a long day!!!

So that my friends, is the tale of my trip to Iguazu Falls. I would recommend everyone go there to see the amazing beauty for themselves. I recommend not forgetting your passport and if you can fly in that’s the way to do it…leave the sketchy buses and boats to the Peace Corps volunteers!

Until next time…

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Jesuit Ruins

Sounds like the title for a bad “B” horror movie doesn’t it? I suppose, some might actually consider Paraguay’s Jesuit ruins a bit of a horror considering what they meant to Paraguay’s indigenous population. A bit of the history first (from Wikipedia):

The Jesús and Trinidad Jesuit Ruins are located in Itapúa Department, Paraguay, and are religious mission that are sill preserved and that were founded by the Jesuit missioners during the colonization of South America in the XVII century. These religious missions were created in 1609 and developed for 150 years. Both Jesuit missions were declared Historical Patrimony of Humankind by the UNESCO in 1993.

The Jesuit Missions of Paraguay are considered some of the most impressive creations of the religious work of the Jesuit, and are testimony of the historical richness of the country.

Well, the ruins are located not very far from the hotel where some Peace Corps volunteers routinely celebrate their Thanksgiving holidays. I love Thanksgiving, but the two Thanksgivings I’ve spent in Paraguay, I’ve made alternate plans and have thus not found myself in close proximity to the ruins. Of course, they are on my list of “things to see before I leave Paraguay.” With about six months left of my service here, and keeping in mind that I’m not allowed to travel during my last two months of service, I’m feeling a bit of a “now or never” feeling when it comes to what I have yet to do here.

I hadn’t planned to visit the ruins this month, not even a fleeting thought. Then I had a visitor come to stay with me and she hadn’t seen the ruins either. Well, that settled that…we set out on our adventure to discover Paraguay’s infamous Jesuit ruins. We left early on Wednesday morning. We had pre-purchased our bus tickets the day before. It normally costs between 50,000 – 65,000 Guaranies to travel from Asuncion to Encarnación. We only paid 40,000 Gs because our bus would have no air conditioning. No worries, we were pretty sure we could handle it. What it turned out we couldn’t handle (well, we did handle it, but not that well) was the roach infestation that our particular bus was suffering from.

Ick Ick Ick, now if you know anything about me, you know that despite having lived in a mud house in Burkina Faso (West Africa) for a time, I am scared of bugs. Okay, now yes, I agree with you that a person that is afraid of bugs should probably not continue to choose to live in countries in which she will be forced to live in and among high bug populations. The thing is that my commitment to my work is bigger than my fear; still, I loathe bugs of all kind. Let me just add that having worked for two conservation organizations and considering myself to be an environmentalist, I understand the cycle of life and that all life is important and they play an important part in all our lives. I just wish they could play their parts far far far far away from me (or me them). But I digress….

The bus was gross and hot and the ride seemed to take forever….but of course we finally arrived. We made it to our hotel and found that..ugh…all the rooms with air conditioning were booked so we would only have a teeny tiny room with a ceiling fan. It also had no bathroom…we’d have to share that with the rest of the people sharing our common hallway. We met Jessie, the Peace Corps volunteer in Encarn and she was thoughtful enough to show us “her” town. Although she’d only been there a few months, she was already really well oriented. So our trip was starting to improve. A coffee and quick snack at a first-class coffee shop helped keep things on the right track and then an awesome dinner at a local Japanese restaurant capped off the evening. I thought our luck was changing for the better until…ugh the electricity went out in the middle of the night and the room went from a brisk 80+ degrees to balmy 90+ degrees. Just as I thought I would pass out from heat exhaustion, the electricity came back on and the fan started to cool us down again but not for long since the electricity cut off yet again and the cycle repeated itself….

The morning came and after a cool shower, we set out to meet Jessie who had decided to join us on our trek to see the Ruins. We were lucky enough to find a bus that was leaving almost immediately and within 30 minutes, we had made it to the first of the two Jesuit ruins sites left in the area. The first site was much bigger and much more intact than we had imagined. The park staff were well versed in its history and helped us to orient ourselves to what the remnants of the buildings used to be.

We saw all we could at the first site and then we moved onto the second. It was smaller than the first but equally impressive in its remaining grandeur. Before we knew it, our time was up and we headed back to Encarn. After a great vegetarian lunch at an Asian buffet restaurant, we got on a more expensive, air-conditioned and thankfully bug-free bus. The ride back was not nearly as long as our bus ride the day before but we got in later than we had planned. My only thought on arriving home was a cool shower and the comfort of my own bed. Of course, things don’t always go as planned and so we got back to discover that the water was out, that is to say I had no running water! My guest washed up as best as she could with the trickle coming out, but I decided to wait.

As I waited, I considered the ruins a bit…

I think the thing that surprised me most the intricacy of the carvings on doorways and pulpits. These were not just plain-jane (apologies to readers named Jane) brick buildings. The artistry in their layout and design were amazing. So too, was how grandiose they must have been in their day.

I tried to imagine what it must have been like back then both for the Jesuit priest and the indigenous people that were carving their lives out on these grounds. I wondered how the Jesuit priests would describe their work or their calling to me. I’ve often thought about my own work as more of a calling. I wondered how much we would find that we had in common and this really disturbed me. Surely, I wasn’t here trying to convert people, trying to convince them to adopt my own belief system or way of life…or is that the trap that I have fallen into? I like to think I always approach my “work” here as collaboration with me learning as much from my Paraguayan friends and neighbors as they are learning from me. That’s the way I’ve meant it to be but really analyzing if that’s the way it is, is very difficult.

I think one of the amazing things about living and working in a new culture and to some extent doing so with Peace Corps is that you can remove a lot of the labels that you have attached to yourself or perhaps that others have stuck you with. You are not necessarily the “responsible one” or the “little sister” or whatever else you’ve always thought of yourself as…well not as long as you don’t box yourself into that. It’s a unique opportunity to reinvent yourself…of course then you have to figure out who you really are and doing so in the context of a culture that you don’t belong to presents its own challenges. Ha ha, if you’re next question is who am I really and what have I discovered about myself here, well let me just cut you off. I’m still on this journey and my discoveries about myself while living here are far from over. What I can tell you is that maybe sometimes labels get stuck on us because they fit. I’m pretty sure I am the “responsible one,” and most people aren’t surprised that I live a fairly organized planned out life – even here, to the extent that it’s possible. Oh well, discovering who we are doesn’t mean throwing out all that is true about ourselves. I accept who I am…for the most part…do you? Food for thought people….food for thought….

If anyone out there has any food thoughts and wants to send a care package…bagels, sour-punch straws and a box of macaroni and cheese should be on your list :)

Until next time………

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Summer Camp

The idea came from my good friend Joan Ngo about a year ago. Our group (G-27) was all together for an IST – in-service training about four or five months after we had been sworn in as volunteers. She thought putting together a summer camp that would focus on civic education and leadership would be a great way to focus on one of the themes from our project plan and a way to develop the young people from our various communities. I told her immediately that I was interested in being part of the planning. After all, planning and organizing are my forte.

We started fundraising early and did pretty well for ourselves thanks to the support of our fellow volunteers and the very kind friends and family back home that sent us cash and gifts-in-kind. We also benefitted from a small projects assistance grant (SPA) from USAID and a generous donation from the Misiones government (a department/state in Paraguay).I handled the money, Joan handled the curriculum / activities and coordinating and soliciting facilitators and Jesus handled the venue and working with his department/state of Misiones to solicit a donation. The week leading up the camp saw Joan and I spending more time together than we had during our entire service-to-date. She bunked at my place while we made phone calls, met with people, gathered our resources, went shopping, and discussed how to handle what was coming our way.

We got to the campgrounds early (but not as early as we had planned) and were relieved when things started working just as we had imagined. The campground staff was helpful and kind. The participants showed up on time and the registration process (which I was handling) went going smoothly. Our youth participants starting warming to each other right away and I noticed that many introduced themselves to those that arrived before them. Before I knew it, it was time to begin….

The first day went extremely well. The participants listened with respect to our first presenters and asked great questions. One of the campground rules is that guests wash their plates after each meal. The staff carefully explained the process and I was amazed to see it in action. All of the participants pitched in, the plates, cups, silverware got done in no time, and I was thrilled to see everyone working together so well.

The days seemed so long and there were so many details to attend to. I found myself talking to the campground director several times a day asking my questions and answering his. I was checking on details like toilet paper in the bathrooms and cold water in our main gazebo. I was ensuring that our projector was set up at the right time and that presenters could get their presentations up and running on my laptop. It seems difficult now to think of all the little things that I was dealing with them and which seemed to keep me busy all day and most of the night. A few days after the camp, Joan and I bemoaned the fact that in being responsible for all the “little things” kept us from being in the moment and kept us from having a lot of one-on-one contact with many of our young leaders.

The days lasted forever – or so it felt at the time yet the camp was over in the blink of an eye. The youth participants bonded and we volunteers got to know each other better. We all learned a lot from the camp whether it was the process of working with Paraguayans in organizing an event of this size (61 people total) or how to work as a team or how to work with Paraguayan youth (aged 15-25) or what kind of activities work with this age group in the context of the Paraguayan culture. The evaluations we gave the youth were telling and we started thinking of what we would if we had it to do all again. It is our hope that a few volunteers will take this on as a project next year. The population of Paraguay is young and it is this new, young generation that will move this country forward as it struggles with the challenges of a new and growing democracy. The camp gave us all hope – for the volunteers it meant that we could do something to make a difference and for the young Paraguayans that they could do something to make a difference. I have about six months left of my service and I can’t wait to see what happens in these last six months, though I suspect that this leadership camp will be one of the things for which I am most proud.

Next up: GAD (Gender and Development) camp with four youth from my town, continued work on my thesis and an intercultural training I’m designing and hoping to implement with AFS (American Field Service) Paraguay.

Whew….whoever said that things slow down in the summer (it’s summer down here) had it wrong (for the record, I believe I’m the one that said that). I can’t remember ever being this busy and the heat (90+ degrees most days) certainly doesn’t help. But hey, it’s the toughest job I’ll ever love…right? I’m still here people…keepin’ it real!

Take care of yourselves and each other….