Sunday, October 25, 2009

This is the patio at my host families house- yes, we have corn growing in our patio, along with chickens and ducks, a tire swing and we used to have a hammock but one day I came home and that was gone....not sure what happened there? This is a photo of the muni I force myself to go to everyday where the employees sit around and drink mate and try their best to do as little work as possible. A photo of the street I live on- this is without all the motorcycles that are usually whizzing by. And finally, the best part about being here, my "family." Soledad (on the left), her mom, Elvia, and Sole's two kids, Nori and Sofi as you may remember from the last photo.

Trips to the capital

I would have liked to start this with a really good excuse as to why I haven't written anything in over a month, or that I've been so busy that I just haven't had time to sit down and write but in all honesty there is no really good excuse and I haven't really been that busy (unless you count holing up my your room and reading countless numbers of books as being really busy, in which case, I've been really busy. In any case, I have finally found the right moment and the energy to sit down and write...

In the past I would say I was the type of person who highly valued a busy schedule and I have a feeling I will return to being that person when I get back but for now I am the type of person who values the "I hope I have at least one thing to do today" schedule. I have wireless internet access on my laptop now so the problem of killing time is not an issue- I know I could spend a number of hours looking things up on Google, but I didn't come down here to use the internet. And this is where the challenge lies: in forcing yourself to leave your room every day, or at least mostly everyday, to go out and talk to people, identify possible resources in the community, show people that you're not a spy (a common misperception of Americans in Peace Corps countries...gee, I wonder why?) and that you're actually here to work and not just to hang out, etc. I would say as a general rule this is exhausting work, not only, because I'm not used to wandering around town chatting with people at random hours of the day, but also because all of this is done in another language. There are definitely days when I wake up thinking that having another awkward conversation with a Paraguayan is just not worth getting up for and then there are days, like today, where I find myself in a really beautiful place with some really great people.

This morning I had the opportunity to visit a small farmer's market that is run by 10 women in a neighborhood just outside of my town. About two weeks ago, Soledad and I had helped them put together a brief proposal to request funding from the municipality to buy tents for shade, more tables, and chairs so that they would be more comfortable selling their products. It was at this meeting that they invited us to come out and visit. They were super surprised when we actually showed up, thrilled that we bought half of the vegetables they were selling and then were kind enough to show us three of the gardens where they grow what they sell every Friday morning at the market. They all speak Guarani which made things a bit more complicated for me, as I haven't said one word in guarani since I left training, but I find that a smile and just the acknowledgment that they're talking to you goes a long way. The thing is, Paraguayans tend to want to talk at you and tell you stories, so if you just nod and smile, you can usually get away with not understanding much. They're not really interested in asking too many follow up questions to make sure you understood, they're just happy you listened the whole time. Lucky for me. Spanish is fine, Guarani is another story.

In other news, I have been to the capital twice since I got to my site- surprisingly enough, both times have been in private vehicles. The first time I was offered a ride by what I thought was going to be two older men who are respected members of the community and who I asked Sole and her mom about before going with (it was still probably against my better judgement but if you knew what riding the busses was like here you would have accepted the ride too). In typical Paraguayan fashion, this group of two men actually turned out to be four. After the original two picked me up, we then swung by two other houses to pick up two more, one got in and put his harp in the back- no joke- and then we proceeded to drop them off along the way, one at his house about an hour into the trip, the other at the hospital in a town an hour later. So random....and welcome to my life. This five hour trip, which began at four in the morning, was spent listening to four old men speak Guarani really loudly, watching them drink mate, helping them figure out how to change the CD in the CD player so we could listen to endless hours of Paraguayan polka music, and making sure my seatbelt was securely fastened. The driver didn't drive fast, nor do you really have to worry about running into anything except cows, but I'll just suffice it to say there were a lot of other "distractions" that made me more nervous than usual in a car.

My second trip to Asuncion was this past Tuesday and provided me with the opportunity to see just how small Paraguay can be (I knew it was small geographically speaking) but now I know how small it can be when it comes to family trees. This was also an eye-opener as to how "connections" still mandate the way Paraguay runs. As the story goes.....since the mayor here wants me to work on "all things cultural," I have been attending meetings for the Comite de Arte y Cultura (it means Committee for Art and Culture but I prefer to call it Culture Club because it reminds of Boy George and this group couldn't be further from that). As a side note: against my will, this group also elected me to act as secretary, which is not to say that they really value me as part of the group or even care if I'm there, but rather means that none of them wanted to be the one to have to take notes at the meetings or bring really un-important documents to the president's house when he asks for them. Both of which what I have been doing for the last couple of weeks. This was not my intention in joining this committee so my plan is to tell them next week that I can't act as secretary due to some made up Peace Corps rule so that I can get out of it. I used to blame my mom when I didn't want to do something (thanks mom :), and now I can blame Peace Corps- it works out well for me.

Anyway, back to the story, so I recently traveled to Asuncion with three members of this culture committee to visit various organizations and ask for funding for the projects they're interested in doing. In this group was a man named Sergio Rojas who is part of a music group here in town. Our third stop in the lineup of orgs. to visit was an organization that offers technical assistance training for youth in the country where Sergio's nephew, Olimpio Rojas, is the director. We went to his office because he had a connection at a national organization that runs the Itaipu Binacional hydro-electric dam here in Paraguay, which is currently the biggest source of funding for projects in Paraguay. Because the folks who work at this org. are regarded as "oh so important" we ended up having to wait three hours to meet with the "connection" that Mr. Rojas had at Itaipu Binacional during which myself and the one other woman in the group had to listen to five men sit around the table and stroke each others egos while they talked about all the other dude friends they have in common back in San Juan Nepomuceno. Let's just say it was not my ideal afternoon. We finally entered into the conference room to have the meeting where we waited another 15 minutes and then finally in walked the second-in-charge of Itaipu who I quickly recognized as someone I had met two months ago at a Peace Corps event- he happened to be the former director of the Municipal Services Development program for Peace Corps, the program I'm currently working under. He, of course, immediately recognized that I, first of all, wasn't Paraguayan, and secondly that I too looked familiar. In the middle of this "very serious" meeting, we chatted a bit about Peace Corps while the Paraguayans stared in surprise that the random American girl living in their small town and who just happened to travel with them to Itaipu had already met and worked for the same organization as this person that they were so excited to get a meeting with. In all honesty, I wasn't expecting it either, but I thought it was pretty hilarious. To finish off the story of "small Paraguay," the farmer's market I traveled to on Friday was with a representative of an organization in my town that works with agricultural producers. When I got in the car and we started talking, he introduced himself as Ramon Rojas who happens to be the brother of Olimpio Rojas and the other nephew of Sergio Rojas. I don't know why I'm still surprised when these things happen because they seem to happen all too often, but it's just so different from life back home that it still throws me off a little bit. It does, however, help to put things in perspective as to why some families in this country seem to do pretty well for themselves and others continue to struggle just to make ends meet. Paraguay was ranked number two in the list of most politically corrupt countries last year....I can't help but wonder if all these "family connections" have something to with why the country remains on that list.

Lastly, and on a completely different topic, I would just like to give a shout out to Paraguayan women, especially my host mom (Sole's mom) here in San Juan. In spite of dealing with the endless effects of a country who prides itself on machismo, they work super hard everyday to keep their houses and families in order and things running smoothly. I think they give new meaning to the term "housewife." My host mom for example, is raising her four kids, helping raise her kids kids, she makes sure everyone (including me now) is fed three times a day, she washes all the dishes (except when I make her let me do it on occasion), that there are always clean clothes to wear, that the animals are fed, the plants are watered, the house is clean, the bills are paid on time, that people are always comfortable in her house. She is the first one to wake up in the morning and the last one to go to bed at night and she does all of this without one word of complaint and usually without thanks or even an acknowledgment. I'm sure a lot of stay at home moms do these same kinds of activities in the states and I don't want to make their work appear to be any less difficult, but as I've come to notice in my time here, there just aren't as many conveniences to ease the burden of this work here like there are at home. A few that come to mind are dishwashers, washing machines, dryers, the luxury of always having running water and electricity, and a stove that doesn't require them to go out and fill the, already very heavy, gas tank every couple of weeks to make sure they can cook. I was made aware of this last one recently as it just happened to my host mom today. She was only able to go to school until the 6th grade and her husband until the 2nd grade and she is now making sure that ALL of her kids receive a college education. I'm super impressed by her hard work and dedication on a daily basis and just want to make sure she gets credit for it!

That's all I've got for now- I hope you are doing well back at home- I miss you all and think of you often!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

New host nieces- Sofi and Nori and What my lifes consists of from 1-3pm everyday (books, oranges and coffee)

Paraguay´s Day Off

Well... as you prepare yourselves for the fall and winter weather headed your way, I am preparing myself for the spring and sweltering summer that is headed my way. It's only the beginning of September and it's already getting hot and sticky, which means showering twice a day is acceptable so I'm excited about that because it caters to my slight case of OCD. I'm just glad to know that Paraguayans value cleanliness as much as I do because when we're all crammed on a bus with no air-conditioning in 105 degree weather in January for five hours, I know I'm going to be super grateful for that "two-shower-a-day" cultural trait. Unfortunately with this heat also comes the bugs....I have no less than 26 bug bites on my legs and the other day I was in the bathroom showering and there was a huge beetle, 3 crickets and a lizard all crawling around on the wall- it was pretty awesome. One of my friends recently mentioned that he has frogs in the bathroom he showers in and my other friend said she has rats that wander around in the rafters in her room so we're all learning how to live amongst the nature and quite frankly I prefer beetles and lizards to rats, so I'm not complaining. The other thing I get to look forward to now, when I shower, is my three year old ¨host niece´ who has found a crack just big enough to peek through in the wood-paneled door of the bathroom. She seems to always find time to come over when I'm showering to talk to me through the peephole. If she was any older than three I might do something about it but for the time being, I just think it's pretty hilarious. Speaking of showers, I took my first bucket bath last week that thank god my host family collected before the water went away for the day- this is a common occurrence here, along with the disappearing electricity. The other night we ate dinner by candle light, right after my bucket bath. As you might imagine, it was pretty romantic...just me and the fam hangin' out in the dark. I busted out the headlamp, which ended up being a hit with the kids and actually very useful for my host mom while she was cooking.

As far as business at the municipality is concerned, my strategy has been to attend to every single meeting I hear about to scope out the work happening in town, see who's doing what, what people are talking about, potential community contacts, etc. Out of the twenty-five or so employees in the municipality, there are a total of two women that work there, which does not bode well for me or for gender equality- something we're supposed to be promoting as volunteers. There's not really a job description per se when you get to your site, just a general idea of what you might be working on, so I met with the mayor last week and he asked me what things I was interested in doing in the community. After I threw out a few ideas, he promptly told me all of those would be second priority to the dept. of culture, which is what he wants me to work on. Please note: there isn't actually a dept. of culture in my municipality, but apparently there used be so I´m working on figuring out why it doesn't exist anymore. I have a feeling all I have to do is start asking around and I'll get all the answers I need, plus a few others that I could live without. All I can think about is how hilarious it is that he wants me (the foreigner, from the U.S....hello... did someone not tell him that I'm not Paraguayan) to get the community dept. of culture up and running. I think also for the time being, I'm having a hard time getting used to the idea that I'm supposed to working on cultural awareness here when there are so many other pressing issues. My guess is that I've been given this assignment because it's relatively non-political, non-threatening and will probably involve mostly women (of which I am one) so in the eyes of the male mayor this makes perfect sense. This is not to say that this will be my only role here as I have intentions of getting involved in a few other places in the community, but lets not get ahead of ourselves.

In an attempt to get to know some of the municipal employees better, I set up a schedule to spend a day in each of the departments to get a sense of how things work. Last week I spent two days with two different departments. The first day I spent three hours with the two guys who are responsible for collecting the money that citizens come into pay the municipality for taxes, transfer of property, the slaughtering of animals, etc. I arrived at 8am, introduced myself and we started chatting. We chatted for a about an hour and then they attended to the only two people who came in to pay for something that whole day. We sat around and chatted some more and then the electricity went out so we sat in the dark for an another hour and a half while they drank mate (the yerba tea that everyone drinks here, all day, every day). Then the electricity came back on, which normally would be a good thing, but in that particular case it was not because it meant that they were going to show me the high quality video clip of half naked American girls dancing at the beach that they had recently downloaded….. just another day in the life of a true professional. After this experience, I can't say I'm looking forward to the other 13 days of "job shadowing" I have planned.

On a more successful note, I recently helped out with a Special Olympics event here, helped in the planning process of a neighborhood commissions meeting and met with some women city council members who are working on putting together a commission that is supposed to be looking at gender issues- three things that reminded of the reason I wanted to come and do something like this. I don't think I'll ever have another job where I can wake up each morning and decide what kinds of things I want to participate in and what things I don't.

For you soccer fans out there, Paraguay's national soccer team beat Argentina last Wednesday night, which is really exciting because it means that they get to go to the World Cup next summer in South Africa. I happen to think it's awesome that they get to go, but not awesome enough that the president of the republic should call for a national holiday the day after the team won, which is exactly what happened. When I woke up on Thursday morning I woke up to news reports about closed schools, closed medical clinics, closed office buildings, even the senators took the day off....all because Paraguay's national soccer team won the game the night before. True story.

In between meetings and wandering around town, I've been getting to know people, spending time with my host family which includes two awesome little girls who are super fun to play with, and reading a lot (I have a lot of down time these days so I'm doing my best to try and enjoy it. I'm not really good at enjoying free time so it's taking some getting used to)- I feel really anxious about starting work on something, anything, but I'm learning that work around here is all about who you know, not what you know, and it takes time to build relationships and gain the trust of people in the community so I'm focusing on that.

I hope all is well up there in the north- un abrazo from Paraguay!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A few visual aids

This is where I am on the big map of Paraguay, a final family photo (mom and host sister from another family included), a Paraguayan television interview, myself, Mary and Liz after the swearing in ceremony, and Mary and I as happy city people for a brief moment....

San Juan Nepomuceno for real

Alright folks, it's official, I'm a real Peace Corps volunteer - I had to take an oath and everything. In all honesty, it feels like I've been one since I stepped off the plane three months ago but I guess now begins the real thing and my two year commitment to being a U.S. government employee. Last Friday we left our training communities and our host families, which included crying from host mom and sisters, even though they know I'm only going to live four hours away and I plan to visit often. The thing is, the idea of someone leaving their family to go anywhere in Paraguay is a totally foreign concept. I am constantly being asked why I left my family in the US, why I would come to Paraguay, what my family thinks about me leaving, etc. They are fascinated by the fact that most of us leave our parents' house at age 18 to live alone, go to school, make our way in the world- whatever you want to call it and this is because everybody here stays with their parents, at least until they get married, and sometimes even after that- a notable cultural difference and one that I appreciate. I'm going to assume my parents also feel that me leaving the house and making my way in the world was a good idea? Don't get me wrong, I love them, but I think we all know we're better off living in separate houses.

Anyway, last Friday was our swearing in ceremony at the American Embassy in Asuncion. The country director of the Peace Corps was there, along with the US Ambassador to Paraguay whom I spoke with for a brief time after we ended up in the same place at the same time being interviewed by the press. The story goes like this: I happened to be hanging around with some other volunteers eating cake after the ceremony when the country director came over to the group and asked who spoke "pretty good" spanish. I didn't really pay much attention to the request until somebody mentioned my name, which is when I realized that I was then walking with the director toward the Paraguayan television camera crew who was waiting to interview newly sworn in Peace Corps volunteers. I could understand why they would want to interview the ambassador, but us....we barely know how to take the bus here, let alone speak spanish in public and on t.v.- it was all a bit much. I took comfort in my assumption that the interview wouldn't actually make the news as they often don't in the states and that nobody would see it, but much to my surprise, later that night we were watching tv in our hotel room, and there I was talking about being a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay. Two days later, on Sunday afternoon, when I arrived at my host family's house for a final goodbye lunch they informed me that they had also seen my interview on, so much for assuming that nobody would see it.

Aside from the unexpected spanish television interview, I spent most of the weekend and the greater part of last week holed up in a hotel room with my friend Mary playing around on my laptop- we had free wi-fi and I just have to say that it was incredible. As much as I like going to the cyber cafes here to try and use Skype with headphones that are falling apart, Paraguayans yelling at the computers in Guarani and random people standing behind me staring into the camera while I try and talk, it was a nice change to be able to use my own computer in a private space. Privacy is definitely not valued here as much as it is back at home, which I have a feeling is something I will never get used to. Mary and I did leave the hotel a few times and when we did we were pleasantly surprised by what we found in the capital city. We ended up in a great coffee shop with mochas and cappuccinos and books and everything, and we went to see a documentary film from Peru that was part of a whole film festival. I realize this doesn't sound that out of the ordinary for those of you reading this, but if you were living in the places we were for the last three months you wouldn't expect either of these things to be anywhere in Paraguay. Being that I'm used to living in San Francisco and Mary is used to living in New York, coffee shops and film festivals felt as close to home as possible for us and we were very happy campers for a good five days. And then...our little city life bubbles were burst and it was back to awkward interactions with Paraguayans, a whole new host family experience, and feeling really out of place…but this time it’s without any other English speaking folks around to whine about it with.

Just to give you some perspective about how different life can be here- as I'm writing this, I'm sitting in my little room that has cement floors, lots of crickets, no heat, a luke-warm shower in a bathroom that's not technically connected to the house, a sink not anywhere near the bathroom and reggaeton music blasting in the neighbors backyard at 11pm and I'm in a small town five hours from the capital city all by myself.....BUT, I have an awesome host family that takes really good care of me and you learn quickly here that it's the people that count, not what they have. As you may remember my brief introduction of Soledad in the last posting, I´m back at her house with her two little girls and her mom and all is well in my little town of San Juan Nepomuceno. I've been here for just five days and let me tell you: when it's only been five days in a place you know you're going to live for two years, two years feels like a long time. As we all know, two years in "development time" is nothing so I'm on the lookout for work- there seems to be plenty of it, it's just a matter of deciding exactly what I want to work on and more importantly, what's feasible and sustainable.

For now, I'm just trying to wrap my head around the fact that I'm actually doing this- for weeks now I've been having these moments- temporary lapses in reality, really- where I'll be sitting in language class or hanging out with my host family and I think to myself, " you know what I should do is join the Peace Corps," and then I quickly realize that I'm way ahead of my own life planning process and that I already have and now that I'm here I just have to make the most of it. More updates soon- I don´t want to get too excited, but I may eventually have wireless in my site which would make this whole blog posting thing a lot easier on me!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Some more of my life here....

A picture to show you how useful headlamps can be here and I haven´t even been camping yet- this is just in my room. The new addition(s) to my family and the soccer field where I spend a little bit of time each day running around in circles for excercise and to maintain my sanity.

San Juan Nepomuceno

Things are moving right along down here south of the I mentioned at the end of my last posting we were waiting to find out where Peace Corps was going to send us for our two years of service. We finally found out about our sites just over two weeks ago in a very dramatic, day-long, drawn out process. Our trainers tried to distract us with games in our language classes, Paraguayan song and dance routines and endless snacks- none of which worked and none of which prevented us from totally harassing them. Finally at about 4pm, they handed out Peace Corps folders with letters stating where we would be living, some information about the town, the projects the municipalities are working on there, and who are site counterpart/contact person would be, which meant nothing at the time but now means a lot after our recent site visits. In case you're interested, the name of my town is San Juan Nepomuceno, it's in the department of Caazapa and it's about a five hour bus ride southeast of Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay.

The day after we got our assignments, our site contacts came to meet us at in our training communities where our language teachers made us participate in a lot of awkward ice breakers, did some "get to know you" activities, had lunch with our current host families, and then brought them home to stay the night....again, really awkward. It may not have been so bad, had my site contact not been a 22 year old dude who spent the greater majority of his time texting and talking on his cell phone. Add this to the fact that my host dad was upset because they sent a male as my contact (he was expecting a female, even though nobody ever gave him any information either which way), and my (male) contact had to stay over at the house, which meant that my three sisters who share a room all had to move into their parents room because my contact needed a place to sleep. Needless to say, I was grateful when that night was over. The following day, we all traveled, with our contacts, to our future sites to meet some people, get to the know the area and find a place to live- yes, we have to find our own place to live once we get to our sites, which they don't really tell you have to do until you leave for your site. I'm guessing this is intentional as they don't want to freak you out week 1 of training when realize that you have to just ask random people in your new community if you can move in with them for a month or so. We're required to live with a host family for the first three months in site and then we can move out on our own. Anyway, enough Peace Corps policy talk- so my contact dropped me off with the librarian in town who was also identified as a contact for me, and I didn't see him the rest of the five days I was in town. I'm not going to take this personally and I'm going to assume he still wants to work with me once I move there...we'll see. Lucky for me, the librarian (Soledad is her name) was awesome and I think she will be, not only, a great person to know in town as far as finding out work information, but also a really good friend- she's actually the same age as I am, but recently got divorced and has two little girls who are 7 and 3. I'm still having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that she and I are the same age and yet have such different lives but I'm looking forward to spending more time with her as she offered to let me stay in her house where she lives with her mom and her two girls.

So a little about the visit...I spent a lot of time with Soledad wandering around town- she took me to the grocery store (I'm very excited there is one, a lot of towns don't have one), meeting neighbors and family friends (everybody is related to everybody, like most towns in Paraguay), eating, talking and drinking lots coffee because it rained for three of the five days I was there and we all remember what happens when it rains stops.....and in this case, the coffee drinking began. My ideal weekend doesn't usually include being over-caffeineted and trapped in a house, but I had good company and I got to watch Superbad on cable t.v, which was kind of a highlight. As far as work-related activities were concerned, I took a trip to the local hospital, which is not somewhere you would want to find yourself if you actually needed any of the services Americans normally assume a hospital provides . To give you some idea of what it was like, Soledad and I were able to walk through the hospital in about 3 minutes, we could see everybody in the 7 rooms they have available, all appeared to be indigenous folk with respiratory problems and on fluids but there wasn´t much help aside from that. I saw one nurse on duty and one other person cleaning the floors. Soledad then took me out to the back of the building where she proceeded to explain that, that was where they dump all the bio-hazard material that they collect in the hospital and then burn it because there is nowhere else to put it. There is no sanitary landfill to use and definitely no process for properly disposing of these kinds of materials. Although I knew this was true of hospitals here in Paraguay from my training, it's still something that shocks you when you see it. On a less intense note, I invited myself to a neighborhood commission meeting where everyone spoke Guarani and I understood about 1/4 of what they said, I went to a meeting about bringing potable water and health supplies to indigenous people who live in rural areas outside my town, and I went to a dinner with all the employees of the municipality for the "Dia de Amistad," which means "Day of Friendship." I honestly have no idea what this day is supposed to represent or where it came from, aside from the fact that people use it as an excuse to have a party with their friends, but there was a dinner and I was invited…so I went. The mayor stood up and said a few words to all the employees, proceeded to introduce me to the group and then asked if I would stand up and say something in front of everyone, including most of the city council members. Did I mention that Paraguayans like to make things as awkward as possible?

After surviving five days of speaking only spanish and being in a new place in the middle of Paraguay (alone), I was ready to get back to my training community and my host family and pretty excited about speaking english. Overall, I'm pretty pleased with my site assignment and think it will be a good fit for me, although I'm a little concerned because I recently met a representative from a local NGO (non-governmental organization- a Paraguayan, no less) who works with municipalities in Paraguay and when I told her the name of my site, she said "Oh, good luck with the most sarcastic tone." That's not really what you want to hear about the municipality that you're about to go work with for two years, but such is life. We'll see how it goes- I'm going to assume this is part of the reason they requested a volunteer?

For now, I'm just enjoying my last week with my host family and spending as much as possible with them, as I will officially be done with training this Thursday and then we "swear-in" as volunteers on Friday, which sounds much more official than I think it really is. To make things a bit more interesting, there are rumors that President Lugo has been invited to our swearing in ceremony at the American Embassy. I have a feeling he won't be able to make it, since he is the president and all, but it was nice they invited him. We´ve heard he really likes the Peace Corps, as the last time he visited the United States he made a point to have lunch with former Peace Corps Paraguay volunteers at the national office, but as far as i´m concerned, that means nothing here.

I think that´s enough for now- i´ll write again when i´m a real volunteer….Thanks again to all of you who have written comments on the blog and/or sent e-mails- I can't tell you how great it is to hear from you even if it is just a quick hello. I miss you all and hope things are going well in your part of the world!

Friday, July 24, 2009

My ¨other¨ host family, ¨walking¨ to the beach, an attempt at artistic photography, and Jenna and I teaching microsoft word to paraguayans

Beach in Paraguay?

So today I was walking home from class and as I'm walking down the street to my host family's house I hear this woman, who is sitting outside her house just watching the world go by, sing "Macho, Macho man (please sing this to the tune of ¨Macho, Macho man¨ in your head, otherwise this just isn´t that funny)...." If that doesn't make you miss home, I don't know what does? You would be surprised at how many weird things from the U.S. show up down here in this little country they call Paraguay.

For example, the death of Michael Jackson.... a really big deal here. I not only watched his funeral on cable tv with my sisters (yes, there's cable tv in my host family's house- not something I'm proud of) but I was also recently involved in an impromptu interview about Mr. Jackson during my second volunteer visit last week. Four of the eight of us in my group went to visit a volunteer in a town about 2 1/2 hours from where I'm currently living. We were there all last week and we each had our own host families- I was excited to be in another site and meet some more Paraguayans. Unfortunately my host family experience was hindered a bit by the fact that as I was walking to the house where I was going to be staying, and about two minutes before I actually met the family, the volunteer casually mentions to me that their 20 year old son was killed in a motorcycle accident five months ago. I don't even know what to say to people in the U.S. when they lose a family member, let alone what I'm supposed to say in spanish. In thinking more about that experience now, I realize that Americans are really good at mourning in private. In any case, the death story didn´t come up all week and they never said anything to me about it, which saved me from having to figure out the right thing to say at the right time.

And in staying true to my American roots, I'm just going to continue on in my story here like nothing happened, and go back to talking about myself and Michael Jackson (funny that that´s also related to death, but somehow much easier to talk about). So after the introductions took place with my host family, my host mom and her sister sat me down in the back of the house and began the question and answer period of my visit, which included everything from how much money Michael Jackson had, to how he died and then wandered into why anyone would want to join the Peace Corps, why young people in the U.S. move out of their parents house after high school, and finally, a list of all the people they know that have been to the U.S- (a personal favorite of mine with Paraguayans because they can never remember the state, nor the city where that person went and even if they could, I'm pretty sure I didn't meet them. About half way through the week there, I was talking with the other volunteers and mentioned that it's probably only in the Peace Corps that a group of five people would roll into a town in the middle of a country where some other crazy American is living and stay at some random person's house where they take you in as one of their own. They feed you, worry about you when you don't come home on time, and tell you you're either too fat, too skinny, or some other inappropriate comment about your personal appearance or preferences that they just don't feel bad about saying to your face. The two I get the most are about my short hair and that they think I´m going to die because I don´t eat meat. They tell me that they don´t like when girls have short hair and that they don´t know how I´m still living since I only eat vegetables and beans. Amazing that I´m still alive, I know. Honesty in personal relationships is highly valued here, which I find refreshing....some other volunteers, not so much.

All in all it was a pretty good trip- it was nice to get out of our training community and see some of the country on the drive there, spend some time talking and working with a real live volunteer and getting a better sense of what our lives will be like in another month. We participated in a career fair where there were 12 people who came to talk with young people in the community about their professions, we went out to a neighborhood where the governor was presenting pipes for potable water to the community, we walked in a "Race for Friendship" which was really just a few people walking from where the pipes were presented to the soccer field about three blocks away, but a "race" nonetheless- and the first of its kind in that town. By far, the highlight of the trip for me was when we went to the local radio station to encourage people to come to participate in the career fair and as soon as we were done talking on the radio, the volunteer received a call from a member of the community who asked if we would come over to meet her 12 year old son. Apparently he had heard us talking on the radio and asked his mom to call because he wanted to meet us- this was a big deal because this particular 12 year old boy has a very rare skin disease (one of only two people in Paraguay) which doesn´t allow his skin to grow properly. Because the family doesn't have a lot of money they are unable to take him elsewhere for medical treatment, so all he has to alleviate the itching and pain this disease causes him is a cream which is also very expensive. He can't go to school, leave the house, or play outside because he is so susceptible to infection and the volunteer told us that he typically doesn't like meeting people because he's afraid of what they'll think or say about the way he looks....needless to say, it was a pretty awesome invitation for us and he was such a sweet kid who unfortunately is in a lot of pain and discomfort all day everyday. I think the best part was when his mom said to us, (in front of him), " my son has a little problem that we have to deal with and it's very expensive, but he's absolutely worth it." It brought tears to his eyes and to all of ours....and I think really put things into perspective for all of us...

On a happier note- on our last day at the volunteer's site, we got to go to the only beach in Paraguay. I know that's confusing because you're thinking, "wait, how did they go to the beach, Paraguay is a land-locked country?" (For those of you who still haven't looked at a map of South America to see where I am, this might be news to you). We got lucky, in that, the town we visited happens to have sandbanks beside one of the bigger rivers that runs through the country and they use it as a tourist destination in the summer. Of course it had rained the three weeks before we got there, so the sandy walkway that you normally take to get there was under 1 1/2 feet of water- but don't think that stopped us from enjoying the only beach in Paraguay! We took off our shoes, rolled up our pants and ventured forward. It was well worth the walk and even sunny once we got there- an added bonus.

I was happy to get back to my host family's house in my training community on Friday afternoon and they were happy to see me, which makes a girl feel good. This week is going by particularly slow, I think, due to the fact that we find out our where are sites are going to be this coming Monday and the anticipation is killing me. Just a few more days and I'll finally know where I'll actually be living for my two years of service in Paraguay. I feel like I'm getting my Peace Corps invitation all over again....ugh!

chau for now!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Food, a Spider and the Rain

Well it's been another two weeks here in Paraguay- time seems to pass very quickly since I'm in class all day, everyday- thank god for the sabbath, our only free day during the week! This is the day I come up for air, wander around the neighborhood, go for a run, try and use skype at the very loud internet cafe/school supplies storefront (a whole other story) and I've been trying to keep up with my e-mail even though I only check it once, sometimes twice a week, which makes me feel normal and somewhat connected to my previous life. Speaking of e-mail, I recently received a "request" for a blog post, of which I am accepting, so if any of you are interested in hearing about something specific, I would be happy to address your request in a future post. My first, and only, request so far has been about what the food is like here.....and to sum up this part of my life in Paraguay, I have two words: meat and fried (and in no particular order). Basically if something can be fried, it is, and if something can have meat IN it, ON it, next to it, or by itself, the better. The Paraguayans are not ashamed to talk about how much they love meat and how weird they think you are if you don't....story of my life. Everyday my 6 year old sister asks me if I want meat ( as a joke, of course)- I'm pretty sure she thinks she's the funniest person she knows- I, however, thought it was funny the first time, maybe the second time- after that, the charm wore off. I thought when I got here I might be so overwhelmed by how delicious the meat was, that I would get over my total dislike for eating it and indulge, but no such luck. Since that hasn't happened yet, I instead just live with the harassment, which I’m fine with. I do, however, eat a lot of things here with pig fat in them because that seems to be another key ingredient in the cooking here. I'm starting to understand why people like bacon so much- pig fat really does makes things taste a lot better. Who the hell knows what else I've been eating, I have a feeling that just because I'm not eating big pieces of meat doesn't mean that I'm not getting my daily intake of meat products on a daily basis.

As for other food items, I'm pretty sure we get our milk from the neighbor´s cow, as do the families that other volunteers live with. Someone just comes by the house every couple of days with an old Coke bottle filled with milk and none of it's pasteurized, of course, but I drink it every morning in my tea. So far nothing terrible has happened and I'm not exactly sure how that that's worked out for me, but I feel like it's better not to ask questions when you're scared about how something gets from "the outside" into your mouth. The same goes for Paraguayan cheese- the smell could not be worse and I continue to eat it...again, better not to question. As for fruits and vegetables, I thought that maybe they were scarce since I wasn't getting very many of them in my first couple of weeks at my house, but as I wandered around I saw lots of families with gardens and found a little store that carries some vegetables. I also inquired about some of the other volunteers "vegetable situations" and realized that my host family just didn't like to eat them. I'm sure it's not very "culturally competent" of me, but I couldn't take not eating vegetables any longer so I started buying vegetables on my way home and making myself salads and various other vegetable-laden things. Long story short- my host mom got the point and now buys lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, green pepper, radishes, etc. which I'm extremely grateful for, and I ask the neighbor for avocados. He has a really big avocado tree in his yard and doesn't ever pick them because nobody eats avocados here- which I can hardly believe because I love them so much! Me eating avocado happens to be another really fascinating thing for my host family. I tried to explain how expensive avocados are in the states and how much people love them but it didn't seem to convince them that they should also eat them. I even tried making guacamole…no luck there either. Needless to say, I'm pretty happy about the avocado tree next door. There's also a mandarin tree, a lime tree and a pomelo tree in the backyard- all fruits that they DO eat on a regular basis. The last and, most important, food item to mention is mandioca, which is a root vegetable that looks like a sweet potato when it's pulled out of the ground. They skin it, boil it, and serve it in a dish like we would serve bread and it´s at every meal. It's mostly just starch, but I happen to think it's delicious so lucky for me because there´s lots of it and the Paraguayans are happy that I like it. My last comment about food, while I'm on the topic- the two things I miss most from home in case you are wondering are peanut butter and Peet's coffee.

In other news- my group went to visit a volunteer in her site last weekend. She's mainly working in the schools in the more rural part(s) of her town so we got to go and hang out with some really awesome Paraguayan kids for the afternoon, we saw their school garden, attempted to sing some songs in Guarani, and then the highlight of my trip, which was getting a photo of, and then promptly killing a gigantic spider above the bed I was sleeping in that night. I hate killing things, but I just couldn't let it hang out there all night while I dream with my mouth open....sorry spider- R.I.P.

In sticking with the nature theme- I have found that trying to avoid dealing with "the elements" here is much more difficult than it is at home. For example, today after lunch I went for a run close to my house and noticed while I was running that it was getting warmer and warmer, more humid, and a bit more overcast than it had been. I haven't been here a long time, but long enough to know that when this happens, it means the rain is coming, and fast. I started for home because I had seen earlier, on my way out, that my host mom had washed a lot of my clothes and put them out on the line to dry...I'm sure you all can guess what I was thinking as the rain started to come down hard? I picked up my pace to get home in time to save my clothes from being washed again by Mother Nature. (She's helpful and all, but my host mom had done a fine job the first time). When I got back to the house I started grabbing everything I could, as quickly as I could, just as two of my three sisters flew out the front door to help me, the whole time laughing and screaming because it was raining so hard. I thought it was pretty funny too, but only because we got there just in time to save the clothes from round two of the wash, everyone go into your laundry room and say thank you to your washer and dryer.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A few more pictures for your new sisters, angelic, me, liz and mary, and the view of posadas, argentina

California Neighbor

I've decided that the second best thing about Paragauy is how much soccer is played here. This is based on the fact that the past two weekends I have spent no less than 3 hours watching games Saturday and Sunday. No matter where you are, what day of the week it is, or what the weather is like, you can find a game to watch. There are neighborhood leagues, local leagues, regional leagues and, of course, the national league. I really appreciate, not only the enthusiasm, but the dedication to the sport. For example, there are entire neighborhoods here that are known for which soccer team they support....I have yet to think of a similar situation at home, except maybe Oakland's very own "Raider Nation" although I hate to compare these amazing soccer fans to something so ridiculous. This is futbol, after all....not football. This past weekend, I went to visit a volunteer and we went to one of the local soccer games on Sunday, where there were fireworks, a marching band, painted faces and a guy screaming at the players on the field while holding a portable radio up to his ear listening to the play by play commentary of the regional soccer game. Now that's commitment.

Based on a few of my other observations so far, I've decided that the first best thing about Paraguay is, hands down, the people. While there continues to be a lot of blatant staring, I have observed in the (almost month) that I've been here, that there is a very effective method of putting an end to the stare down that takes place while walking down the street. I picked up a new method of handling these very awkward situations from my host sisters and the volunteer I went to visit last weekend. It goes like this: just as I pass someone, I make eye contact for just a brief second and then say "adios." I realize it sounds totally weird and I actually have this really strong desire to say "hola," but I have to hold back and stick with the "adios" because the result is amazing! The other person knows to say "adios" back (this is where cultural norms come in handy) and then we both go our separate ways. It lets them know that I'm acknowledging their presence so they can't be offended and talk about me behind my back at a later date, AND it seems to be particularly effective in warding off the cat calls that seem to be ever present for women in this country. I think I'll stick with this the two years I'm here, as it seems to be working well.

As promised, a little info. about the volunteer visit...I took the bus six hours last Saturday to the southeastern part of the country to visit a volunteer who has been here for just under a year now in the same kind of position that I'll be doing. She lives in a relatively small town, right off one of the three main highways near the city of Encarnacion. This is where we spent the better half of Saturday afternoon. We walked down to the water where you can see Posadas, Argentina right across the river- it's really quite amazing as on the Paraguayan side there is not much to see except a few run down houses and boats, young people parked along the river playing their music as loud as possible and, and garbage, and on the Argentinean side, while you can't see details of, you can see that Posadas is much more developed and has an amazing skyline complete with skyscrapers, restaurants, and dance clubs along the water. Needless to say, it is quite a contrast....

I think I got really lucky on my volunteer visit because the girl I stayed with was also from California (southern California, but California nonetheless), she's a vegetarian and she was super sarcastic, which, as you all know, I always appreciate. Clearly the training facilitators put some thought into matching trainees with volunteers......Sunday we went to the local soccer game, as I mentioned above, and then Monday began the rain. It rained all day, which I've come to find out means that nothing actually happens in real life because everyone is suddenly paralyzed. Students don't go to school and people don't come to work- this is a result of the fact that most of the roads aren't paved, and therefore busses aren't able to make their normal routes. Life just kind of gets put on hold until the rain stops. I can only imagine what the boss might say in the U.S. when I come in Wednesday because it's been raining Monday and Tuesday and my excuse is that it was raining...I have a feeling that's not going to fly so I'll take advantage of it here. Long story short, we spent Monday trapped in the house and found ourselves just hanging around and cooking a delicious vegetarian soup, which was great until the electricity went out. This is when we resorted to reading in bed with our headlamps- thank god for REI! Tuesday I went with her to the local high school where I was taken around and introduced to all the classrooms and the introduction consisted of my name, that I was a new Peace Corps volunteer, that I was also from California but that i was not the neighbor of the other volunteer (surprising, i know considering the size of California), and also a vegetarian- i can understand the first two pieces of information being relevant, but really, the last two? Only in paraguay....We then headed over to the municipality building, where i was introduced and then promptly ignored by all seven of the men who work there.....and then I got back on the bus to come back to my training community for some more ice breakers and language learning. Good times!

Hope all is well in your neck of the woods! Besos!

Monday, June 15, 2009

My training group making chipa on a stick, a picture of somewhere in my neighborhood and the first thing I saw when I got off the plane in Paraguay

Unexpected bonds of sisterhood

Don’t worry- I’m still here! Sorry to keep you all waiting for the next update from Paraguay….it wasn’t until last night that I finally got a minute to sit down and write something substantial for this thing. My new strategy is to write my blog posts on my laptop in my room at night and then bring them to the internet cafe on my flashdrive so I don't have to sit there for hours thinking of interesting things to write while everyone stares at me.

Speaking of being stared at.....I’m currently living with a host family and will be for the next three months and there are three girls in my house who are 6, 10, and 14. Needless to say, it’s been difficult to find time to myself, let alone to write, as I’ve recently become very popular- thanks to my new Paraguayan sisters. For the last two weeks, my every move has been tracked- they look at me while I eat, while I brush my teeth, while I’m reading in my room, watching tv, etc. Luckily, since we’ve gotten to know each other a bit better in the last week or so, I find there is less staring happening and more human interaction, which I’m grateful for- all three of them are very sweet and very interested in having me around at all times. I must admit, for an only child, it’s been a bit overwhelming to have three new sisters, but to their credit they make it very difficult not to want to be around them AND we recently discovered that we all love Britney Spears….so who can discount that sisterly bond?

Outside of home, I spend four hours in the morning in language training and four more hours in the afternoon in technical training. This Peace Corps training business is no joke! We had language interviews the first Friday we got here and somehow the person I interviewed with seemed to think that my level of Spanish was good enough, so I was put directly into the language class that starts day one learning the language of the indigenous people of Paraguay, it's called Guarani, not that it matters to any of you because NOBODY else in the world speaks this language. Technically both Spanish and Guarani are official languages of the country and we are all required to learn at least some Guarani before they send us out to work, as many people in the more rural areas of the country speak only this. It's definitely not as easy to learn as they tell us it is- I kind of think they just say that to make us feel better about not being able to pronounce anything and my expert opinion is that there are just far too many vowels and apostrophes and not nearly enough words that sound either exactly like Spanish or English. I was hoping for a bit more similarity between the three but it’s just not happening. I must admit it is a pretty language, but me listening to other people speak it doesn't help with the fact that I don't understand anything they're saying…it’s going to be a long road ahead on the Guarani front.

So far I haven’t ventured too far out of the community I’m staying in, although I did go with some other folks in the Peace Corps group to the Paraguay vs. Chile soccer game last Saturday in Asuncion, which was fantastic. Paraguay was the number one team in South America until they lost to Chile last weekend and then lost again last week, to Brazil. The Paraguayans do love their soccer- so much so that they were willing to brave even the threat of H1N1 transmission from the Chileans- I guess there was a lot of people with the flu in their country at that time so there were tons of people wearing facemasks at the game. Being the bold Americans that we are, we opted for not wearing facemasks and seem to all be doing ok.

To our surprise we ended up in the section with the most dedicated fans, as evidenced by their gigantic banner waving, a full 90 minutes of chanting, gratuitous use of obscenities directed at the other team, etc. And to top off the night, on the bus on the way home, two beer bottles came through the back window and shattered glass all over the back seats. Fortunately we had made our way to the front of the bus and I’m still not exactly sure why that happened but the bus driver didn’t seemed too concerned about it, as he didn’t even turn around so I figured I shouldn’t be either. I have a feeling this is just one of the many stories I’ll have from riding the buses here….

This weekend all of us in training have been sent out to various sites around the country where other volunteers are living and working so we can get a sense of what it’s like to be a "real live volunteer." I took a bus six hours on Saturday to a small town in the southeastern part of the country, really close to Argentina, to spend some time with a girl who has been in her site for a year now. She’s also working in municipal services development (the job I'll be doing come August)- I'm hoping to get the inside scoop on what it's really like once you get to work. More to come on this trip!

Lastly, I wanted to say thanks to all of you who have either sent e-mails or posted comments on the blog- it makes my day to read your messages and I miss you all! Hope all is well in your lives and I’ll be in touch- hopefully sooner rather than later, although my track record isn't so good thus far! Besos!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Bienvendio a Miami.....nope- Brazil....nope- Paraguay

Hello all-

I think maybe i should have posted something before this like an introduction or something about me packing or leaving but of course that didn´t happen so now here i am in Paraguay posting that i´m in any case, i got here on thursday morning after approximately 48 hours of traveling- i left the bay area at 11am on tuesday, was in miami, fl for one day and then got on a plane on wednesday night at 8pm, arrived at 5am in sao paolo, brazil, then waited for four hours, got on another flight for two hours and landed in Asuncion, Paraguay around 10am on thursday morning. Needless to say, i´m happy to be staying in one place for awhile....and i´m serious when i say awhile....two years is a long time, people! Not to worry- i plan to go other places while i´m here although not for at least a couple of months.

Unfortunately i only have a few minutes now, but i found an internet cafe close to my house, so i intend to write again soon, and post pictures, as i realize that´s the fun part of reading these so-called blogs.

I miss you all and lots of things in the states, but so far so good on the Peace Corps front!