Hello everyone! I am pleased to report that I am still alive and kickin’, despite the long time since my last entry. A lot has happened since coming back from vacation, most of which has been good. I’m starting my garden again, the school year has started, I had the chance to help edit the quarterly volunteer newsletter, work has taken some interesting turns for the better and my cat loves me more than ever. I like to pretend that the weather is getting cooler, but even though it’s really not I can take comfort in the fact that I don’t have very long to wait before the near-constant sweating subsides to near-constant shivering.
Right now I’m in Asuncion for a sort of "one-year reconnect" conference with members from my training group, which, true to Paraguayan form, is actually being held three months after the one-year-in-site mark. Igual, nomás. It’s been very beneficial and did for me just what it was supposed to do: help me to process my service up to this point and to clarify and focus my outlook for the last leg of my time here.
They started out with an activity that helped us to visualize where we are in our service. They drew a timeline on a long banner of paper that stretched the length of an entire wall. It started with us arriving in Paraguay and ended with our follow-up group swearing in and going out to our sites to continue the work we are beginning in our communities. There were little illustrations like a book and terere during training, to symbolize the fact that during training we were clueless and so just read a lot and drank a lot of terere. Then they asked what kinds of pictures should be in the stretch between swearing in and today, and we joked "more books and terere!" Our coordinator asked us what kinds of projects we’ve done in this time, and people ended up calling out things and we came up with a list of seven things. "Great start!" he joked to our group of 15, "You guys have done seven things!" Then he asked us what kinds of projects we have planned for the next stretch; the part between now and when we swear out in December. We called out our goals for the next 9 months and came up with a list of about 15 different kinds of projects. The point, which we have been hearing since training, emphasized that the 2nd year of service is always much easier and more productive that the 1st year. Though it is possible to carry out some real project development during the 1st year, for the most part the real work of the 1st year is social; getting to know people and your community so that, once you have developed trust, can mostly tell what is going on and can communicate better, you are able to make better choices about who to work with, what to do and how to do it. Putting it into perspective like that was really helpful, and it justified the struggles that we’ve all been facing during the first, and hardest, part of our service.
I really identified with this activity because, as I sort of mentioned before, I have struggled with my primary project of beekeeping since I got to site. It took me a long time to figure out what people really wanted from me in this aspect, and to my great dismay I realized that the last volunteer for the most part taught them what they really wanted to know about bees: how to build simple inexpensive beehives at home, how to capture wild colonies and how to harvest the honey. I was aware they knew how to do these things, and so I tried to teach them more advanced hive management skills, but it became clear that it just wasn’t where they wanted to focus their efforts. Fine, but I still live and want to work here and so I had to figure out somewhere else to put my energies and talents where they could really help to meet actual needs and desires of Paraguayans.
Well, my ship finally came in. After vacation I contacted a high school teacher named Maria who I met last year when I was teaching English in the next community down the road. I really connected with her and she impressed me as someone who was a bit worldlier and naturally curious than most people I’ve met here. Last year she asked me about things like composting and school gardening, but at the time my language skills were abysmal, I didn’t understand the culture and I made the mistaken assumption that any garden project would have had to go through the high school science teacher, with whom I had tried to work and failed and who I really did not like or trust. So instead last year I focused on teaching English. This was probably for the best because it allowed me to tend my own garden at home for a season and to develop, through trial-and-error, an understanding of the local soil and weather, which are totally different from anywhere else I’ve gardened and made me feel practically like a beginner all over again.
I contacted Maria via text message to arrange a visit. I mostly just wanted to get her general advice on how I could work in the schools this year and how to approach the school director (like the principal). I mentioned the possibility of a school garden project almost as an afterthought. Even though I hadn’t worked with her directly last year, she was the teacher who I felt the biggest connection to; she had taught me Guarani a few times on the side and I’d developed a relationship with her family via beekeeping. I saw her as my "in." She responded immediately and invited me to have afternoon snack at her house the next day, Sunday afternoon.
When I showed up she was cooking empanadas with two other women who I recognized from last year, but whom I’d never actually met. Luckily for me, one of the other women was the director for the elementary school. They were cooking empanadas filled with soy protein, an inexpensive and healthy meat substitute which Peace Corps volunteers use and promote in health projects but which almost no Paraguayans know of or use, especially in the campo. Trust me that this is a sign of worldly "with-it-ness" that you just don’t see around here. She also uses olive oil for its health properties and eats oatmeal, which even urban Paraguayans don’t think of as human food. Believe it or not, in a homogenous culture like Paraguay, something that simple makes someone very different. We’re talking borderline revolutionary. Anyway, we got into a long conversation about the magical isoflavinoid wonders of the common soybean, preventive healthcare through proper nutrition and she even asked me what the word "organic" means. I was thrilled to oblige and share my knowledge, and while munching on the golden pockets of vegetable protein I realized something—I was really having fun! I really and genuinely liked hanging out with them.
Usually when I visit people, no matter who it is, I have the same conversations every single time; it’s always either about weather, bananas, chickens and whether or not I’ve found a Paraguayan boyfriend yet. I wish I were exaggerating, but sadly, I am not. If the opportunity presents itself, and sometimes even when it doesn’t, I try to steer the conversation in a direction that will allow for "everyday teaching moments," as Peace Corps likes to say. But usually when I try to find ways to pass on knowledge through conversations it just doesn’t work. People aren’t interested and may listen politely for a while, but the conversation ends up back at bananas and boyfriends sooner or later because that is what they really want to talk about. When I was around Maria and the other women it occurred to me that none of my other neighbors actually ask me good questions like they do. The difference is that they really want to learn things, and in addition to a friend or neighbor with a funny accent, they see me as a resource available to them that can help them know about what they are already interested in, and achieve what they already want to do. After a year and a half in this country, I know I have finally found my people. I have finally found my work. Now that I see what it really is, the difference is like day and night.
I asked Maria about the school garden project. In the work papers left to me by the volunteer before me I had found an official inquiry to the local government for materials to begin a school garden, and it was signed by the previous volunteer and Maria. She explained that the volunteer had helped them to put together and file the pedido (official request, like a grant proposal) with the state government and that they had gotten all the materials they needed, but that the volunteer didn’t continue working with them to show how to implement it and so it never got off the ground. (Sidenote: In the volunteer’s defense- she never wanted to work in the schools, wasn’t a diehard gardener and I think only helped them in the 1st place during a point in her service when she was desperate for work, but soon she found more people to get started with beekeeping and since that was her primary project and her passion she focused on that for the rest of her service, successfully introducing beekeeping to several families as a result. I, on the other hand, really do have a passion for working in the schools and gardening and I welcome the opportunity to carry on what she, luckily for all of us, got started in the schools. Development is a process, after all..) So anyway, as soon as we started talking school gardens Maria lit up completely. She told me that they still have all the materials, from the fencing right down to the seeds. There is a tractor available to till the land, which could be used at any time. All they need, she said (looking at me directly in the eye), is someone to help plan the implementation; someone with experience and technical skills to really make it into a learning thing.
She pointed out that lots of people here grow a few vegetables at home, but really there isn’t a whole lot of real technical understanding of how to make things better. In general people are discouraged by the harsh climate. They lose faith that anything can work and as a result end up not tinkering around or experimenting to see what works, which any gardener will tell you is the very essence of tending a garden. What happens is that people plant a bunch of seeds and sort of "leave it to God." This means that nothing comes up at all or everything comes up at once, the harvest lasts a week, and the rest of the year there is nothing. When the teachers themselves come into a gardening project with these same experiences and skill sets, of course they are not prepared to understand how to really take advantage of a garden as an interactive learning lab. It made sense.
Luckily, I had brought with me two books that I was hoping to base my work in the schools on this year. One was called "Using School Gardens as a Learning Tool" and the other was a handbook for teachers with detailed lesson plans for teaching environmental education alongside standard subjects such as math, language, social studies, art and science. I whipped those babies out and started showing them the lesson plans. I showed them that you can teach geometry and area by planning garden layouts, practice multiplication by calculating square meters needed per plant and seeds needed per acre, teach social studies and geography by showing where in the world each vegetable originated and what kinds of foods people make with it, teach language by reading stories and songs about the water cycle or biodiversity in Spanish, etc. etc. There were also hands-on activities for almost every lesson plan, which is something practically unknown in Paraguayan schools. Each lesson listed which requirements it can fulfill in the general education plan issued through the Ministry of Education, so there’s no guesswork for the teachers to know where they can fit them in.
Maria and Gabina, the director of the elementary school, basically flipped. They were stunned. Amazed. I can’t even describe to you the looks on their faces. The switch turned on, the fire was lit; they saw for the first time just how not-boring and truly interactive learning can be. They were almost urgent in their insistence that I help them do this. They told me to show up at school the next morning at 8am to get started.
I showed up at 8, very optimistic but not really knowing what to expect. I talked some more to Directora Gabina and met the other teachers. We sat and drank terere for a long while just getting to know each other, and I assumed that that would be the bulk of what I would do that day. Well, I was wrong. After the terere break, Gabina, Maria and I went back to Gabina’s office and we basically planned the launch of the project. We brainstormed for 3 hours and came up with a basic outline for an official project description. They decided they also wanted to start a fruit tree grove next to the garden, and make a "miniature forest" plot of native hardwood trees to teach about the environment. They listed all the resources we have, material and human, and those that we still needed. They identified and prioritized their goals and objectives. They planned 2 bake sales for the next week (which were successful and carried out on time) to pay for the gas to run the tractor. They even made a timeline—with dates—for the next few months for when we could plow, put up the fence, make the beds, have the parents’ meeting, etc. The vast majority of this was all them; I just occasionally weighed in with a few opinions, but they were driving the whole planning. I cannot emphasize enough that in Paraguayan culture this kind of spontaneous, self-directed planning and attention to detail just doesn’t happen. I felt like I was in the Peace Corps Twilight Zone. Peace Corps puts on workshops to try to teach our community contacts these kinds of skills, but these ladies were already way ahead. I don’t know where they learned to do it, but they absolutely knew what they were doing.
Now it was my turn to be shocked and amazed and have my fire lit. I came back a few days later and Maria had written the entire project description out in pencil, and had made a "spreadsheet" timeline with a ruler and pencil that detailed meticulously, line by line, every activity we need to do to for the entire year for the project, who’s going to do it, and on what week it’s gonna happen. I just have to say again that here this just doesn’t happen. I know in the states that kind of thing is common and even expected, but here it might as well have come from outer space. I didn’t even have to push them or remind them to do it; the very next visit it was done. I was totally dumbfounded. All I had to do to dumbfound them in turn was to flip on dusty, untouched computer in the corner and type up the project description and put the timeline into Excel. This is what Peace Corps should be, but up to this point for me, hasn’t been: me bringing just a little push of inspiration and a few computer skills to help people to accomplish what they already want to do in the first place.
The next step was the parents’ meeting. The lucky part was that my new Paraguayan boss was up in the area already doing site presentations for newly sworn-in volunteers and she was able to extend her trip and visit me for the day. First she stopped by my community and talked to my contact for beekeeping, who has long ago decided he doesn’t like bees, which made for an interesting visit. Before she or I really said anything, my contact launched into a longwinded explanation and pseudo-apology for why there’s just no work for me in my community, why people aren’t interested in beekeeping and why it’s nearly impossible to get people there to work together. These are all things I’ve come to understand about my community, but I can’t begin to tell you how gratifying it was to hear my contact say them to my boss. I felt so justified for struggling all this time, and as she explained to him, professionally but firmly, that two years is too long to expect an adult to not have real work and that Peace Corps expects that if I can’t work in my community that I will look for work elsewhere, I felt a huge relief. I felt finally free to not keep putting my energy where it wasn’t appreciated and to pursue this new work, though not in my primary project of beekeeping, guilt-free.
After this necessary but somewhat awkward encounter, we drove to the next community to have lunch with Maria and Gabina. My boss was extremely impressed with them, and it was really great to have my new "co-workers" be able to talk to my Spanish and Guarani-speaking boss about Peace Corp, since she was able to explain far better than I can all the ways I can help to support their work. Maria and Gabi kept saying things like, "We know we need to take as much advantage of her time left as we can," and "We don’t want to waste the opportunity we have to work with a volunteer." No one has ever said that kind of thing about working with me, and it made me feel appreciated and like they really get why I am here and how I can help. They were already asking my boss about the possibility of getting another volunteer after me to continue working with them. I had pretty much given up on the idea of having a follow-up volunteer since there’s not even enough work to keep me busy, but for the first time I realized that it’s not only possible but actually likely that I’ll have a follow-up, only they won’t live in my community of L. Petit, but instead in Móngelos, the community where the school is. This really changes my outlook entirely. Thinking no one is going to come after you is kind of a bummer. But now I’m not just finishing out my time here, I’m getting things ready for someone else to continue. Big difference.
After lunch was the parents’ meeting. At first we were afraid that no one would show up because it’s sesame harvest time and most families are busy with that. But sure enough people started showing up—many of them even early! By the time the meeting was scheduled to start the classroom was full, people were standing and spilling out onto the porch. Gabina got up and introduced the theme of environmental education, which I’d been promoting to her pretty hard as something we could focus on through the garden. Without even telling me, she had prepared a poster with a picture of a crying sun, a crying tree and a crying Earth. She gave a great little mini-lesson to these farmers/parents on what the environment is and how our lives are dependent on it. She even had two of the most famous environmental quotes written out on other posters in Spanish: "Only when the last fish has been caught, the last tree has been cut down, and the last river polluted will man realize that money cannot be eaten," and then she asked the group, "What can we do about it?" and then read the quote "Think globally, act locally." Again, I was just astounded. Where she gets this stuff I have no idea, but man I’m glad she gets it. My boss just looked at me and I smiled, like, "Can you believe this woman??" Gabina had me get up and say a few words, and then my boss got up and explained to the parents what Peace Corps is and why I’m here, how I can help to work with the school and support this project, etc. etc. It was basically like the site presentation Peace Corps does to introduce to a community brand new volunteers in their sites. My boss is really amazing, and it was half information speech and half pep talk. The parents were so excited that they asked her tons of questions, and they were even already asking about getting another volunteer after me to keep supporting the project for the longer term. It couldn’t have gone better. This is really important because it’s the parents who will volunteer their labor to put up the fence and make the garden beds. Without the parents’ support the whole thing would be much more difficult.
The next week I went with Gabina to the state government to ask for a few more materials that we still need to add the tree groves and carry out the project. The visit went extremely well and I think we will get everything we need. The school year is only now really getting started (even though classes started a while ago nothing really starts in earnest until after Easter), and when I get back to site there will be a detailed schedule available of all the classes with their learning objectives. I’m going to sit down with the teachers to plan when we can do which lessons and we’ll make another nifty little schedule in Excel. I’m also going to do a half-day or all-day workshop in April with all the teachers to introduce to them how they can make the most of the garden to teach their various subjects, as well as how to integrate environmental themes into their standard curriculum. I’m pumped. Very pumped.
So that’s the bulk of what’s been going on. The other big thing in my life is that I’ve decided to train for a marathon in Buenos Aires that will take place on October 12th. Originally I wanted to do a half-marathon, but come to find out you can only register for the full marathon and I would not feel good about running just half of it and just sorta going, "Oh crap," and then stopping without a finish line or anything. So I’m going for it. It’s a huge undertaking. I know two volunteers who did it last year and it is an all-consuming thing to take on, but I’m really looking forward to the challenge. I know there will never be another time in my life when I have both youth and tons of free time to train, and so I want to take advantage of it. I’m looking forward to getting to that level of health and fitness and I know it will be a great example to show my community of goal setting and persistence and all that good stuff. I’ve been running regularly for a while now and it’s been really surprising how much opportunity it has given me to teach about health, exercise and nutrition because everyone is extremely curious about it and no one really knows about that kind of stuff here. I’ve even gotten one of my host mothers, a diabetic woman in her 50’s to exercise for the first time in her life. That kind of thing just blows me away. Sometimes the obvious work, the work we think we’re "supposed to be doing" is the hardest to do as a volunteer; but one day you go for a run and before you know it people are literally running up behind you, wanting to be taught about exercise. Así es la vida! (Life’s like that!) At any rate, I’m having a blast with it and I’ve finally gotten to a fitness level where I can run a long time at a good speed and really feel great doing it. If anyone feels overcome with desire to support me on my goal, I would appreciate gift certificates to www.roadrunnersports.com to help me cover the costs of keeping in non-worn-out running shoes and stocked up on energy gels.
One other development in my life is that my cat has fallen totally and irretrievably in love with me, and I’ve decided I just can’t leave him in Paraguay. He never leaves my side. When I take a shower, he waits outside the door for me. When I wash dishes at the spigot, he’s playing with bubbles between my ankles. It’s cute. So I’m bringing him back. Seeing as my entire family is allergic to cats, chances are I will try to find someone else in the States who in inclined to adopt a needy Paraguayan feline, but I’d feel so much better turning him over to someone else in the US, land of kitty tunnels and Fancy Feast, than I would leaving him here, land of throwing random things at cats for fun. So there ya have it. If you anybody out there wants a sweet little trilingual kitty named Pringles, let me know.
I’ll try not to wait so long next time before I update so it won’t be so ridiculously long.
Peace, love and Meow-Mix,