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!