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Oct. 6th, 2008

It´s the Home Stretch!

Hey everyone! Well, I´m still here in Paraguay even though I´ve apparently dropped off the face of the planet! I only have about two months left and things are really starting to feel like they´re coming to a close. Last month Peace Corps put on a ¨Close of Service Conference¨ for all the volunteers who I trained with, as we all have a lot of things to take care of and think about before heading back to the states. We did a lot of ¨processing¨ our Peace Corps experience and discussed what´s next; job interviews, GRE, graduate school, etc. It was a lot of logisitics along with a lot of vagueness about the future. We talked about our concerns for what it will be like to reintegrate back into American culture (most returned volunteers say its harder to reintegrate back into your own culture after experiencing Peace Corps than it was to integrate into your host country initially), as well as strategies for sharing our Peace Corps service with other Americans and how we can use it to teach about other cultures for the rest of our lives.

Perhaps the most valuable part of the whole conference was when the Assistant Country Director talked to us about how to ¨sell¨ our Peace Corps experience during interviews. He pointed out that what we´ve done--move to a totally unknown place and culture, learn two new languages, adapt to living and working on our own in a totally new environment with very few resources, pick up entirely new skill sets, etc.--has prepared us to do anything. Through this experience we have proven our adaptibility and perseverance, and we have demonstrated that if we don´t know how to do something we will do what it takes to learn how, even if it is difficult. Ya know, when you say it like that it sounds pretty darn good! It really made me realize that what we´ve done here is kind of a big deal, and that its something I will always take with me throughout my life. So that made me feel pretty good.

But now comes all the logisitics of getting ready to go. First and foremost, I have to get rid of all my stuff. I feel like I´m making a will and getting ready for my own funeral. As it turns out, the community I´ve been working with is requesting an Early Elementary Education volunteer instead of an Environmental Education volunteer, and this means that if I do get a follow-up they won´t come until the next training group is ready in April. So what that effectively means is that I can´t plan on giving any of my stuff to a follow-up volunteer because I won´t even know if there will be one until I´ve been gone for four months! I will try to sell my furniture and larger stuff at a very reduced rate to my community and other volunteers because just giving stuff away can be political and cause all kinds of jealousy nightmares about who got what. For my smaller stuff I had a really great idea, a real moment of divine inspiration: I´m going to have a carpenter build me a cornhole set and we are going to have cornhole tournaments with my stuff as prizes at my going-away party in my community!!! For those of you who don´t know what cornhole is, (I really can´t imagine why not, but I´m just trying to be sensitive here) it´s a wonderful game that originated from the west side of Cincinnati, where I was born and raised (West side!!). It´s a cross between horseshoes and ski-ball, only with beanbag-like cloths sacks full of corn. Talk about intercultural exchange! If there´s anything at all Paraguayans and Ohioans can agree on, it´s corn. So I´ll be going out with a bang by having a cornhole and beer-fueled goodbye party while giving away my spatulas, pruners, and saucepans. Brilliant!

In other news, I got a dog! Well, a puppy really. He´s really barely doglike at all, seeing as he´s sort of a froofy little mess of a pooch. I know, I know, it´s crazy to get a dog 3 months before going back to the states. This is true, it´s completely insane. Apparently I had reached a breaking point in my petlessness, and I happened to see the adorable little guy at a petstore in Asuncion. I would have been able to resist, except that he is a fox terrier, which is one of the very few hypoallergenic breeds I can stand to be around, and I was planning on getting a dog very much like him as soon as I got back to the states. So I just went ahead and got him not so he can keep me company these last few months and so I can always say he was my souvenir from Paraguay! His name is Harvey and he´s really playful (read: totally crazy and hyperactive) and cute.

The other major thing going on right now is that the marathon is in LESS THAN A WEEK!!!!!! AAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!! I haven´t been running much the last week or so because I´ve been sick, which is very very bad news, but as long as I´m better before the marathon I don´t think it´ll slow me down. I´m almost totally better now and I even ran 5 miles yesterday, although I pretty much hacked and coughed the whole time and wanted to die or at least pass out for an extended period of time. But no worries! It´ll happen, I know it. I ran 22 miles 2 weeks ago and real runner-types say if you can run 18 or 20 miles, you can run the marathon (26.2 miles). That sounds good to me so I´m just gonna trust that.

I have decided to raise money by running for Arkansas Hospice Foundation, the really great organization I worked for in Little Rock before coming to Paraguay. I realized it would be wasting an opportunity to not raise money for a good cause with all this damn running, and I know and respect this organization a great deal. I also figure it will help motivate me to struggle through the final few miles if I know I´m doing this for something other than myself. Please support my fundraising by going to http://www.firstgiving.com/arkansashospicerun and making a donation!!!!

Keep on smiling!


Jul. 16th, 2008

Incas, Moonwalking and PowerGels

Hello again! It's been almost three months since my last entry, for which I apologize. All the strange things in Paraguay have by now become pretty mundane to me. I don't even notice anymore when "bloggable" moments happen, as I've lost all sense of perspective on what is out of the ordinary and might be interesting or amusing to an American audience. When 5 people drive by on a motorcycle, I don't even bat an eye. When the administrative assistant at the Parguayan embassy also says he's a cab driver and can take me to the airport himself instead of calling a cab? Totally normal, how convenient. When classes are cancelled so all the teachers can make cornbread for the soccer game? Well now, how else do you expect there to be cornbread? So basically, it's same old same old here. What to share? Major highlights will do.

Well, first of all, my sister Gretchen came to visit me, which was GREAT!!! (Thanks Gretch, you're a trooper.) My friend Jill and me flew to Peru and we met Gretchen there. We spent about 10 days there before heading to Paraguay. We took an organized 5-day hike in the Andes mountains to Maccu Picchu. It was amazing. Beyond amazing. I've never seen anything so beautiful in my life. I've never gasped so much for air while sitting on a rock (due to the altitude and the tiny fact that we hiked 85km in 5 days, none of it flat). I've never eaten so many cream soups. It was the best vacation I've ever taken. We had a nice small group, the three of us plus a really nice married couple who were doctors from Nashville, and our amazing guide, cook and porters from our trekking company, Peru-Planet (www.peru-planet.net). Everyone got along great and the trek was a hiker's (read: my) dream come true. Peru's landscape and culture are very different than Paraguay's and I couldn't help but be struck by the differences and wonder how life must be for Peace Corps volunteers in Peru. The scenery and abundance of amazing music, arts and crafts (especially alpaca clothing and weavings) would be a real plus, to say nothing of the fact that Peruvians who understand English actually exist, but if you were anywhere near the Andes marathon training would be a total no-go with all those hills. It was amazing to me to see how people could farm slopes that were practically cliffs, of course using terracing techniques to combat the erosion. I saw cows happyily grazing near snow-capped mountain peaks above 15,000 feet on slopes that would humble a mountain goat. It was pretty cool if you happen to be into livestock.

We got a great lesson in the history of Peru and the Incan empire from our very knowledgeable guide, Pabel. He studied for 5 years at University to be a guide and he was very passionate about sharing his knowledge of the Incans with us over the course of our 6 days together. The Incans ruled for only a short period of time, but Cuzco (where we were, and close to Maccu Picchu) was the capital of their empire, and thus the center of knowledge and culture for much of the southwestern part of the continent. They had very advanced knowledge of architecture, astonomy, mathematics and engineering just to name a few of the many fields they mastered. They built amazing structures, often without mortar, carved enormous stones out of the living rock to exact dimensions, transported them for miles over mountainous terrain, and lifted them into place, sometimes very high above the ground. Most of these structures, though ruins, are in amazingly good shape. "Ruins" in this case only means they don't have roofs and sofabeds and cupboards full of cutlery and such; very little of the walls were actually coming apart due to disentegration over time. Most of the damage, in fact, was done by the Spanish when they conquered the empire and dismantled the Incan temples to rebuild them into cathedrals. The stones were carved with divots and knobs to fit together like Legos and the doorways and seams were angled trapezoids to absorb the region's frequent seismic activity. Even today the stone blocks (which are "bricks" like 5' tall and 10' long) lie so perfectly that you can't even slide a piece of paper between them. Pretty cool, I thought. And to top it off, what they DIDN'T have was steel or the wheel. They did all that with bronze-age technology and log ramps. It was such a neat place to be, knowing that it had stood the test of time and that it would surely still be standing hundreds or thousands of years in the future. That stuff was built to last.

After Peru we came back to Paraguay and Gretchen got a taste of my life here. I took her to my site and she got to meet my three host families there, as well as the amazing family who have "adopted" me in the adjacent community where I do the majority of my work. We ate lots of Paraguayan food, they played Paraguayan polka music for her on the harp, we made chipa, we visited a hive of killer bees.. it was idyllic. Well, idyllic for flat, scrubby, out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere Paraguay. I had a workshop planned for the teachers on how to teach with the school garden which was scheduled for before vacation, but they cancelled on me so I got to do it when she was visiting. It actually turned out better that way because I loved the chance to show her the kind of work I do here and she got to spend a whole morning at the school to get a sense of what the schools here are like. After that we went to Jill's site, who is an Urban Youth Volunteer, so she could see what a volunteer's life is like who doesn't basically live on the moon like I do, and to see the volunteer-produced radio show. We had to cut the broadcast short because the DJ was being annoying, but we still had time to "interview" Gretchen on the air, which of course involved us asking the question in Spanish for the benefit of the audience, us translating live for her, her replying in English, and us translating back to Spanish for the listeners. It was amusing. Oh, and when I say "interview," I mean questions such as "Can you do the moonwalk?" etc. After that we came into Asuncion for the 4th of July party at the American embassy, and then we headed east to see the amazing HUGE waterfalls at Iguasu. Good times. It was really great to have her here and it was nice to sort of see my life through someone else's eyes. I really forget sometimes that what I'm doing here is not exactly normal for the average American, as all the Americans I know these days have the same job I do, and it was nice to be reminded that what I'm doing is not just frustrating and stressful at times, it also happens to be pretty cool. Thanks, Gretch, for coming and putting up with the occasionally annoying lack of conveniences and things-going-right that define Paraguay. For as much as it frustrates me at times, it was really important that I got to share this strange little world with you!

On another note, my service is starting to wind down, as I only have 5 months left. I can't believe it! I really can't. So for the next 5 months I will be focusing on getting done what I want to get done before I leave this place, and setting things up for the probable case of me getting a follow-up volunteer to continue what I've started. I will have the opportunity to do a full-day workshop in August for 50-60 teachers from the whole district. I'll be focusing on how to do school garden projects and how to teach environmental themes through activities. I'm pretty excited about that! I've gotten together a pretty wide range of activities and topics I can use and am comfortable presenting, and I want to sort of take this "toolkit" I've developed to more ears before I leave.

I'm also really focusing on my marathon training pretty intensely now. There's only 15 weeks until the marathon! What was I THINKING?!? Who knows, but I am actually really enjoying it and enjoying the challenge, as well as the ability to eat an appalling amount of guilt-free carbs. I got pretty derailed from vacation but am working steadily to get back on track. With a little faith, a lot of PowerGels and an ample dose of crazy, hopefully I'll get my carbo-loaded legs to the finish line in October.

Peace, love, and ample glycogen-stores,


Apr. 30th, 2008

Quick Update

Hi folks, just a quick update for now.

1. I did a half-day workshop for 8 teachers on Earth Day (April 22nd) on how to integrate environmental education into their existing curriculum. I did it with the help of my new neighbor PCV Travis, who is actually an environmental ed volunteer. It went really really well for a 1st run! We´re gonna probably do it for the high school teachers too and for the schools in his community as well. The Paraguayan government actually mandated that environmental themes be included in the curriculum over 10 years ago, but they never provided any funds or training AT ALL and so it was just a nice piece of paper. That´s Paraguay for ya.

2. My cat has been missing for quite some time and is presumed to be dead. There are various theories on this, a) He was killed by a dog, b) He ran after a girlfriend cat and can´t find his way home, or c) Someone thought he was surely a great hunter or perhaps some fancy purebred cat since he was owned by an American and had the reputation for being smart and not mean, and so someone stole him, not understanding that he is smart and not mean because I pet him and feed him and not because I paid one red cent for the little guy. I´m going with A. Bummer, but I guess that solves the cat-bringing-home issue.

3. There has been a political revolution in Paraguay. Really. The ruling part of 61 years was peacefully voted out through popular vote on elections April 20th. Trust me that this is a huge deal. Below is an email another volunteer friend of mine sent to her folks back home, and it explains it pretty well and gives a very interesting little peek into the crazy world of Paraguayan politics.

Love you all!


*From my friend Adelia:
The first thing I want to let everyone know is that I'm safe and sound after an historic election here in Paraguay. There were worries of violence, but it went as smoothly as we all hoped! A little background to the elections.... 196 years since there has been a peaceful turnover of power. 61 years since a new party as been in power. Basically, The Colorado Party has been in power for the last 61 years. It was the party of Stroessner, the last Dictator of Paraguay who was overthrown in 1989- Not that long ago folks!!! However, somehow, his official party has maintained power. The main reason is that most people are given their jobs for being Colorado. Jobs are scarce (The biggest minority in Argentina are Paraguayans living and working and sending money home) and you have a cousin that works in such and such ministry and he can get you a job, but you have to say you're Colorado. So now you're Colorado and your job depends on them staying in power. No joke, the hospital here in my town had a huge banner up out front saying "The Directora and all the workers here are Colorado" . The other reason, and it's pretty simple, is that they use national pride. Colorado happens to also mean Red which happens to be the color of the soil here. Their platform this year was basically that you should vote for us because we're all Colorados. Unfortunately, you shouldn't vote your best friend to be president, but the smartest and the one who will think of everyone's interest and not just their best friends'.
The Colorado Party was the reason Paraguay is the 2nd most corrupt country in THE WORLD. It actually varies year by year from 2nd to 7th, but you get the point. They don't publish financial documents because they line their pockets with the state's treasure, mainly the hydroelectric dam Itaipu on the PY-Brazil border.
Finally, this past April 20th, Paraguay mustered the gumption to vote them out of power. But it was a delicate balance of things happening all at once that really prompted the vote to tip in favor of the other guy. First of all, Lugo, who is the new president elect, was an ex-bishop who joined together the biggest opposition party (The Liberales) and a bunch of little parties into the Alliance. The other candidate, the Ross Perot of Paraguay, was a guy named Lino Oviedo who has spent the last 5 or 7 years in jail for attempting to kill the president (before the current prez Nicanor) in an attempted coup. Everyone says he's innocent. He split the Colorado vote. The Colorado candidate was Blanca Ovelar. Before you get excited thinking that Paraguay is SOOO modern for having a woman candidate, know that she was Nicanor's sister in law and chosen over his V-P (Castiglioni, who ran anyway in the primaries and lost in a still contested vote) and proably in order for Nicanor to maintain power. He'd previously tried to re-write the constitution to allow him to stay in power. When that failed he chose his sister in law as his candidate. A little fishy... and obvious to most Paraguayans.
To make this a bit shorter, I'll just say that Lugo won and everyone, even most Colorados were elated. As the results came in, they took to the Plaza de los Heroes and partied until the morning. There people in a 12 block radius. It was amazing to see all this happen.
Here's some links to some articles if you're sufficiently confused!!! ha ha.




I just have to tell you these stories, TRUE stories, of the election.

My neighbor Pablito supported the V-P candidate during the Colorado primaries. So, that candidate's people came out to help Pablito out with his teeth, which were rotting out of his head. They took them all out and were gonna come back with false teeth. However, that guy lost and they never came back, so my neighbor has no teeth.

The Colorado Party paid for 60 two story buses to bring Colorados living in Argentina to vote in Asuncion. However, after they lost they never bought the return tickets and there were 500 people standing in the bus terminal waiting to go back to Argentina.

Apr. 1st, 2008

There is a Season

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,


Feb. 6th, 2008

(no subject)

February 4, 2008

Well, here I am in Asuncion again back from vacation. After spending two weeks in Buenos Aires and Uruguay, I´m a little more tan, largely refreshed and considerably more broke. I have lots of stamps in my passport, a few rather amusing pictures and impressive leg muscles from carting my crap around three countries in my ginormous backpack.

I went with my friends Jill, Loren and Rosana, who are all Urban Youth volunteers from another training group. During their training they decided (half jokingly) to end their Peace Corps experience by forming a motorcycle gang of three called ¨Big Mama¨ and two-wheeling it back to the states. This was no doubt influenced by the fact that Peace Corps reminds volunteers roughly 17 times per day during training that we are forbidden to ride motorcycles in Paraguay. I was taken on as an honorary member of Big Mama, for this, the preview voyage, which came to be known as Big Mama Goes to the Beach. And no, I don´t plan to Harley my way back to Ohio after my service in December.

Big Mama Highlights

Day 1: Big Mama buses to Buenos Aires. 21 hours. Board the bus and go only about an hour before stopping at the border. Wait for like 3 hours for all the people in the herd of buses in front of us to go through passport control. Can´t wait to stop sweating. Sleep overnight in the bus. Seats were described to us as ¨semi-cama,¨ which means ¨half-bed.¨ This is a lie.

Day 2: Big Mama gets to Buenos Aires (BA) and stops sweating. Perfect weather. Stay at a really cute hostel run by a crazy Argentine woman who was like the crazy Latina aunt I never had. Realize Argentina is nothing like Paraguay. At all. Delight in the smorgasboard of options and foods newly available to us. Buy good wine and real cheese (!) and go to a really beautiful park for a picnic. Lay on the grass and eat exotic things like cherries. Drink terere (cold yerba mate) and have all the Argentinians look at us like clueless tourists because they only drink their yerba mate hot in Argentina. Giggle. Eat good dinner. Realize the downside of Argentina being as developed as Europe is that things cost just as much as Europe or the states. Remember that Pepsi exists. Struggle to not speak Guarani. Start to develop an Argentine accent in Spanish.

Day 3: Go to La Boca, birthplace of the tango. Site of a really neat artisan market. Old working class neighborhood settled by immigrants, mostly Italians, who worked on the docks of the Rio Plata. A neighborhood of unbelievably colorful houses everywhere you look. Festive atmosphere, live tango shows at every cafe, impromptu street parades, a hundred million tourists. Ate tamales at a cafe on the main strip and watched tango dancers swirl around me. Realize Americans just don´t know how to dance. Male tango dancer pulls me up from the table to his little sidewalk dancefloor, puts me in a rather expressive tango pose, friends snap picture. More giggling. In the afternoon tour Recoleta cemetery, the burial site of Eva Peron and every other super-rich Argentine who has ever lived. Take a million pictures. Peruse another artisan market. Enjoy taking the subway. Am reminded just how much America misses out with our gaping chasm of a public transit system. Continue to enjoy not sweating. Even wear makeup and cute clothes. Barely recognize myself. Eat more real cheese and drink more good wine.

Day 4: Big Mama takes the boat. Catch giant ferry boat across the channel to Uruguay. It was a huge boat probably capable of carrying 300+ people. I didn´t even know when I walked onto the boat it was so huge and decked out (no pun intended). There was a lobby. A full duty-free store onboard. A video game area. A live dance show. Seats like a huge airplane. It looked like a cross between a casino and an airport. It was like flying and taking the airport with you. The only way to travel, as far as I´m concerned. Make port at Colonia, Uruguay. Big Mama decides to wait and take the later bus to Montevideo and spend a few hours in Colonia. Big Mama may or may not have examined the possibility of renting motos and two-wheeling it for a few hours along the coast with the wind in her collective hair. Have dinner and catch the last bus to the capital, Montevideo. Realize that Uruguay is nothing like Paraguay either, and it´s not just due to the total absence of the Catholic church and the overwhelmingly white population. Realize Paraguay is surrounded by largely developed countries that are nothing like it which barely know or care it exists. It might as well have been a different continent, or planet. Even in the countryside there were tractors and trucks everywhere. Get funny reactions everywhere we go when we say we live in Paraguay. Arrive late at the hostel in Montevideo. Fall asleep almost immediately, but not before discovering Big Mama is sharing a dorm with the craziest Brazilian lady on the planet whose hee-hawing laugh is loud enough to raise the dead.

Day 5: Montevideo. Walk up and down the main drag window-shopping. See the sights, take it in. Notice that all food in Uruguay is square. I must be the national shape. Big Mama buys bongos. Stay up late at hostel hanging out with our roommates, a cool Argentine girl and the Brazilian with the colorful chuckle. I have to admit she really added something.

Day 6: Big Mama checks out of hostel and buses to Punta del Este. Supposedly one of the best surf spots on the South American atlantic coast. I say supposedly because it was really windy and the waves were crazy and choppy and just plain nasty the whole time we were there. Discover where South America keeps all of its money; there on that narrow speck of a peninsula jutting out into the atlantic. Probably no more than 2 miles long and 6 blocks wide, it wouldn´t surprise me if Punta del Este has a Gross Domestic Product greater than the entire republic of Paraguay. It was a weird little tribe of old rich white people and trust fund babies with designer sunglasses. I saw a vegetable peeler on sale for $29. I was underdressed at McDonalds. I am not kidding. They didn´t even give me a tray. Wow. And there we were having just crawled out of Paraguay, feeling a bit disoriented by all of it. For example, Loren got a bit shaken up by an automatic door on the way into the gas station. When she reached for the handle and the door opened all on its own, it scared her half to death. We´ve kinda gotten unused to that kind of thing.

Day 7: Big Mama gets beached. Jill and me get up early, grab a surfboard and head to the beach. Punta del Esteñans are apparently not early risers. Beach totally deserted until after 9. Jill paddles out and tries to catch waves, but mostly just bobs around on her board for a few hours because the waves aren´t breaking well enough to surf. She catches three short rides but still has a ball being knocked around by the surf like a rubber ducky in a typhoon. Weird girl. I watch, alternatively trying to pick up pointers for how to do it and wondering if I´ve completely lost my mind. I spend a lot of time just playing in the waves, diving under the big ones and popping up on the other side. Good times. I get a feel for handling the surfboard in the whitewater near the beach, but it´s hard because the surf is crazy. Ride a few waves on my belly, realize it´s way harder than it looks. Decide it´s not the day to learn to surf. Big Mama spends 9 hours straight on the beach. Proof I´ve lost my mind. I read, play bongos, read, play bongos, slather on copious amounts of sunscreen. We all get burned anyway. Jill gets sun poisoning and spends next 3 days vomiting and wishing she is dead. But how bad can it be, we´re on vacation? Besides, it was 2 for 1 mojitos night at the bar in our hostel. Yes, there was a bar IN the hostel. Drink mojitos with random people we meet from Norway, Sweden, Ireland and Nigeria.

Day 8: Big Mama takes it easy and applies a lot of aloe vera. Loren and Rosana go dancing and get back at 7:30am, but I call it an early night. They are insane. Jill remains in a sun-poisoning induced coma.

Day 9: Get up early and jog all around the coast of the peninsula. Probably the longest I´ve ever ran. Made me feel 100% better. Had been eating so many french fries that I felt myself turning into one. In BA Big Mama collectively decided to train for the annual Buenos Aires marathon that happens every November. Well, we decided to train for the half-marathon. Lots of PCVs do that kinda thing as a way to keep themselves mentally and physically healthy during service. So jogging around the coastline of a beautiful little peninsula on vacation, complete with perfect weather, was the best possible run to have after deciding to push myself in that way. I like jogging in Paraguay, but the scenery leaves something to be desired and it´s usually 100 degrees. Leave Punta del Este in the afternoon to go to La Paloma, a sleepy little beach town where we rent a beach house for the remainder of our time in Uruguay.

Days 10-12: Big Mama kicks back. Take it easy in the beach house. Watch cable TV. I take advantage of the nice kitchen and cook lots of delicious food, which was fun for me and also a good way to save money after being in Punta del Este. Beach time, etc. On the last night we build a fire in our little backyard area and have a little ceremony where we write down things we want to leave behind in our lives and in our service, and then things we want to bring into our lives or change for the better. We put our papers in the fire and share with each other, and it was all really nice. We really don´t have much opportunity for that kind of reflection in Peace Corps. Usually when we do get together we just want to have fun and blow off some steam, and sometimes the hard parts are the last thing we want to talk about. Afterwards we took some of the ashes down to the ocean and put them into the surf. It was a nice way to end our vacation.

Days 11&12: Loren and Rosana go back to Asuncion. Jill and I go back through Buenos Aires and spend two more days there before heading back to Paraguay, where we immediately resume our familiar lifestyle of near-constant sweating.

All in all it was a great vacation. Lots of good relaxation, nice companionship with English-speaking folk, lots of fun and a surprising amount of perspective on Paraguay. I´ll put up pictures when I can!



p.s. Very highly recommended beach books: The Kite Runner by Khalid Hosseini (I think), and The Hummingbird´s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea. Best books I´ve read in a long time.

Jan. 18th, 2008

Yay for kids, I'm going surfing

I managed to put together a passable summer camp for the first two weeks of January, and I'm pleased to say it went well. The first day about 15 kids showed up. They were extremely shy and looked a little scared. They had never been to anything like a camp before and didn't really know what to expect. Paraguayans tend to avoid unknown situations like the plague, so even though things went well the first day I was a little terrified they wouldn't show up for the rest of the days. After all, when I tried to do things with their parents a few people would show up at first and then less and less each time until no one showed up at all. This would be especially bad since I've been sort of hoping to work with more with kids during my second year of service.

Thankfully they proved me wrong. The next day about 25 kids showed up. After that 32, then around 45. I chalk this up largely to the fact that I had a drawing for goodies at the end of each day. I wrapped up Burger King crowns and bubbles and bracelets and stuff in the pages of Newsweek and raffled them off. Word spread fast, apparently!

I think they did have fun during the rest of it, too, though. We sang songs, played games, made drawings and I gave fun educational talks. One day I talked about bees and their community and how a hive is like our own community in that it's important and ok for everyone to do different things so we all help each other. Another day I talked about parasite prevention with another health volunteer who came to help me out. After that I talked about dental health and how to NOT lose your teeth, and taught 45 kids how to brush their teeth. Now THAT was a riot! Two days got rained out; nutrition day and self-esteem day. I'll try to do them after I get back from vacation if I can herd up the kids again.

So all in all I'm feeling pretty good about the camp and my prospects for doing meaningful work with youth over the next year. They actually keep coming to meeting and even bring their friends!! Yay for kids. It's nice to leave for vacation on a brighter note. I'm boarding a bus in 4 hours to go to Buenos Aires, Argentina. A real vacation! Woohoo!!! I'll spend a few days there, then go to Uruguay for some serious beach time and surfing. Then back to Buenos Aires for a few more days before coming back to Paraguay. I won't have my cell phone so if anyone needs to reach me, try email!

Cheers, amigos!


Dec. 24th, 2007

I Miss Frosty

Forget eggnog. On Christmas Paraguayans drink a much more weather-appropriate cocktail called clérico that´s made of chopped tropical fruits, wine, and soda. It´s oddly refreshing in a slightly gross way. They also kill thousands of pigs and roast em up on a spit. Today will be filled with the fairly constant death squeals of the Christmas pigs. A rather different ambiance than jingle bells and christmas carols, but hey, to each their own.

Forecast for Concepcion, Paraguay
December 25, 2007

Partly Cloudy High


Wind: SSE 5 mph
Max. Humidity: 60%
UV Index: 10+ Extreme

Sunrise: 6:02 AM Local Time
Avg. High: 91°F
Record High: N/A

Partly Cloudy Overnight Low


Wind: E 5 mph
Max. Humidity: 80%

Sunset: 7:37 PM Local Time
Avg. Low: 72°F
Record Low: N/A

Last Updated Monday, Dec 24, 3:29 AM Local Time

Dec. 9th, 2007

Getting Over the Hump with Ping-Pong and Scotch

Last time I posted I didn´t really talk about what´s been going on in my life, so pull up a chair and I´ll tell ya. I was partying it up with about 130 other volunteers in Encarnacion at a swanky resort run by German-Paraguayans. Here are some highlights: I developed a taste for Johnnie Walker scotch, played some canasta, learned that I do NOT have a future in competitive ping-pong, listened to accordian music, jumped off the diving board in all my clothes and then climbed out and decided that I might as well just go ahead and try firedancing with fire for the first time since I was all nice and damp, caught up with friends, ate turkey. (Sorry mom, about the firedancing. I know I promised, but just think how much more interesting Thanksgivings will be after I get back if I could add that little spark to the after dinner festivities! You could watch while standing by anxiously with the hose.) It was a lot of fun to say the least. It´s the biggest party of the year and I´ve been hearing about its well-deserved reputation since training last year.

Going back to site after all that excitement was a bit of a bummer, but that´s to be expected. I´ve been disappointed with my community a lot lately and I´m definitely feeling the 1-year hump a lot of volunteers go through. If my service were a week, this is definitely Wednesday. The short version is that I´ve realized (or rather finally accepted) that for the most part my community doesn´t really want to work with me. The beekeeping committee thing is permanently stalled. It was hugely disillusioning to discover that people in my community would rather pass up a real live opportunity than actually work together. And I know full well that they understand how much money they could make--on par with their cash crop in a boom year, but every year, and with way less work and income. So basically they lost the opportunity to get a LOT of free equipment they´d never be able to buy to secure that opportunity, to say nothing of the temporary technical assistance they´re never gonna get again. At this point I would not recommend to Peace Corps that they place another PCV in my community. I kept having meeting after meeting and 1 person or no one would show up, different people each time. Everyone knew that all they had to do to get the free equipment was to show up to a meeting and bring the equivalent of their SSN so the Municipality could verify they´re a real person, and still no one showed up. Eventually I flat out told people I wasn´t gonna pursue it anymore they were basically like, ¨Yeah, that development stuff is for other places. Here we don´t like to cooperate on anything.¨

All this was punctuated by the Red Cross relief that was brought into the community after the drought and wildfires. Apparently in every other community the distribution went orderly and well, but in my community they forgot the list of names and people lied and took 2 or 3 times what they were entitled. As a result food didn´t reach everyone. The insults and gossip flew and Red Cross threatened not to come back with subsequent rounds of rations. The Municipality called an investigation, which of course went no further than gossipy radio reports about the idiots in Roberto L. Petit. ¨Great,¨ I said to one of my host mothers, ¨We´re famous.¨ As it turned out the Red Cross did come back, this time with the list. On the day they came back I went to watch how it all worked, and I saw my entire community crushed up together around a cattle truck full of bags in the hot sun, casting sideways glances at each other and elbowing for position, waiting to be given their bag. I knew then that my community does not want to function by going to meetings and classes and making official requests to the Muni. It wants to function by having outside people pull up and start unloading a truck full of free stuff so they can start fighting over it. Too bad that´s not how you get beehives. Or anything for that matter, except a few bags of food in a drought year. This is what dictatorship teaches people.

Also, my contact Don Guillermo has decided he doesn´t like beekeeping. A bit of a bummer, but not unforeseen. He´s a terrible beekeeper because he can´t relax and doesn´t even comprehend the concept of ¨gentle¨ so he always pisses off the bees, starts getting stung and then splits on me halfway through the job. It´s actually kinda funny because even though I´m there they don´t get pissed at me. I guess they can tell a difference. So there I usually am calmly closing up the hive and finishing watering his bees for him and there´s a black stream of bees flying over my shoulder trying to chase him away. When I finally make my way out of the apiary, he always asked me if I got a lot of stings and I always tell him I didn´t get any.

This past time I gave him a nice positive pep talk about being tranquilo and slow movements and all, and as soon as we got into the apiary he was like a maniac with a death wish. After a few panels he split, predictably, but this time he took the smoker with him. I was so mad that after a minute or so I left the apiary, hive wide open, and chased him down. I was like ¨What the hell are you doing leaving me there without a smoker? There are THOUSANDS of bees over there and we´re trying to steal their honey!¨ I told him I couldn´t work with him anymore if he was gonna keep doing that, that it wasn´t safe, that I couldn´t do the revision for him every time while he just stood there smoking himself, asked him how he was gonna work bees after I leave when I wont be there to do it for him, blah blah blah. He told me he was just gonna harvest the honey and then burn all the hives because his bees were ¨ungrateful.¨ All in all it was a good heart to heart. He´s never shown any interest in anything but just harvesting, so by this point I realized it was a lost cause. I´ve also realized that all my beekeepers but one are scared of the bees and only interested in going out to harvest. Two more of my beekeepers had their hives die over the winter. The new families I´d found to work with were under the unfortunate impression I was going to just do it for them, and don´t seem sincerely interested in making their own bee veils and smokers so they can even accompany me to the hives.

So in large part my primary project is spiraling away from me and I´m sort of taking stock of what I can do to make my second year worthwhile. Its more clear to me every day that, as sad as it is to say, most adults are pretty much beyond hope to reach for meaningful changes in their lives. By the time people get to a certain age they just don´t want to change anything, they only want things to get better. I´m sure this is not a uniquely Paraguayan thing, but the culture that´s developed here in the wake of hundreds of years of dictatorship really takes it to a new level, there´s so little hope and no one believes anything can happen unless well-connected people are in charge. So I think I´m gonna focus my second year on working in the school and working with youth, since not only is there actually the possibility to affect their lives, but they actually want you to tell them things and help them learn stuff. All you have to do is sing songs with them and they´ll listen to whatever you have to say for the rest of your life. I also think I like teaching and the classroom environment. In addition to teaching English I´ve gone in and been a special beelady guest for elementary school age kids, and I loved it. For now I´m planning a summer camp and hopefully other volunteers up in Concepcion will make the trek out to my site to help give talks on nutrition, parasite prevention, and self-esteem in between sessions of macaroni-necklace making, juggling and drumming on random stuff. I´ll help out at another PCV´s summer camp in late December to sort of learn the ropes a little better and then hopefully put it together in time for the 2nd week of January, and if not then, February.

In late January I´ll be headed to Buenos Aires and Uruguay for a sorely-needed vacation, during which I plan to spend a lot of time on the beach enjoying fruity drinks with little umbrellas, staring at the ocean, and occasionally paddling out with a surfboard and trying figure out what the heck I´m supposed to be doing, hopefully without drowning or getting eaten alive by sharks. Oddly, I´m really looking forward to it.

Today I´m headed to the goodbye party for the other beekeeping volunteer up here in Concepcion. She is in the group that came a year before I did, and she is finishing her service in a week or so. I can hardly believe that my sister group is about to swear out and my new sister group is about to swear in! That means I´m one of the big kids now. Time really flies here. Only when I think about how much I didn´t know a year ago, how I didn´t speak hardly any Spanish and had only heard of Guarani, the language I now use primarily at home, do I realize how far I´ve come. When I think of it that way, I feel really ready to take on the next year and apply all that I´ve been working so hard to figure out these past 12 crazy months.

I love you guys and miss you! Wish I could be there for Christmas and I´ll be thinking of you guys. Maybe next year I´ll go out in the back yard and firedance in the snow for you all! Hahahaha!


p.s. I´m learning to play banjo. Now THAT´S gonna be a great addition to my 2nd year.

Nov. 22nd, 2007

Thanks Giving

November 18, 2007

Thanks Giving

“Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” G.K. Chesterton

Being a Peace Corps Volunteer affords many valuable, hard-won lessons. I am grateful for them all. Volunteers are sent to places that suffer the absence of basic things that contribute to quality of living. That means you can bet life is harder there for everyone, including volunteers.

When some aspect of my life or work is difficult I try to remind myself of this: that whether or not I can see it at the time, there is a lesson disguised in there that will become obvious with time. This is what keeps me from becoming overwhelmed by what is missing here in Paraguay.

The lessons take many forms, but usually they just boil down to the same things: becoming aware of how much I don’t know, and discovering how much I really have. The lesson I am most grateful for is the most simple: always be grateful.

If you have never lived outside of your own culture it is hard to have perspective on what is and isn’t really there. In Paraguay the real problem is that people are so used to accepting hardship and powerlessness that they can’t imagine a better life or believe they can improve their own lives. In America we have so many blessings the real problem is remembering or noticing them all. Let me show you how it looks from my perspective.

As an American I am grateful for:

Paved roads—and the trucks that use them to bring things to our stores, and the cars that use them to take people to jobs and schools, which means income and education, which means empowerment and connection to the larger world, which means hope and broadening of minds; roads that may hurt our environment in many ways but also are the backbone of our municipal trash collection, which makes our world less littered and less toxic because we don’t have to burn or bury our trash at home; roads that bring ambulances and fire trucks when we need them, and the peace of mind of knowing that they could come at a moment’s notice even when we don’t need them; roads that keep people moving around, learning about and coming to appreciate different places and opportunities and lifestyles, that let us meet and know so many more people than just a few close neighbors, which teaches us to not fear the differences.

Electricity—that doesn’t go out every day and spoil everything in our refrigerators, that lights up our streets at night so we can leave our house after sunset and not be afraid, that powers our computers and vacuum cleaners and keeps us from freezing in the winter and baking in the summer, that always brings us cold drinks and cooks us hot food, that helps us open cans at the touch of a button and reheat our food without burning wood, that lets us bathe with warm water, that keeps people’s hearts beating in hospitals and premature babies alive and growing, and that is so important and omnipresent that we only notice it when it fails us, and that also does a lot of frivolous stuff we probably don’t need.

Running water—that lets us clean our bodies, things and homes, that brings us water that is safe to drink without boiling and doesn’t taste terrible, that waters the crops we rely on for our food and keeps pets and livestock from relying on ponds and puddles, that doesn’t go out without warning in the middle of a shower or stay broken for days, that lets us easily maintain good health and hygiene, and makes our world more beautiful by making flowers and lawns and landscaping even possible, to say nothing of golf courses, swimming pools, and fire hydrants.

Washing machines—and other radical instruments of women’s liberation; because I spend SO much time washing my clothes by hand here, because I know that Whirpool did as much to free women as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Betty Friedan combined, because if we still had to wash clothes by hand like they do in Paraguay, women might not have discovered yet the historically and culturally alarming fact that, hiding right behind their eyes and between their ears, is a fully functioning brain should they care to use it. Because it kills me that the women here are so busy cooking and washing clothes and doing dishes and sweeping the dirt and feeding the chickens and nursing the kids and shelling the corn that it seems like they don’t ever have time to think about anything else. Because it kills me that it seems like the women here are almost as invested in machismo as the men. Because I sometimes wonder what the women here would do with themselves if all of the sudden they didn’t have to do all of that, and I think it would terrify them and many in this generation would do it anyway because that’s their comfort zone; it’s all they know. But hopefully a few of them would discover they have a brain too. I’m grateful that I discovered this fact early on, which I now attribute in part to early exposure to washing machines and electric stoves.

Schools—which people gripe endlessly about but are unimaginably much better than they could be, which have teachers who generally know what they are teaching and are expected to do more than make students just copy lines verbatim for every subject and call that learning, which encourage kids to actually think critically and turn into adult citizens instead of just adults, which on the whole expose kids to a world of things they might be good at and enjoy, which usually have books (thought they may be old) and paper and maps and on-site lunches (though they may be unhealthy), which still expect kids to hope for something by telling them they can be anything they want to be if they apply themselves (though they may be building false hope for some, at least they aren’t denying it to all).

Supermarkets—where you can go and get whatever food you want and thus not worry about being malnourished or even getting bored with the same thing all the time, where you can walk in with a purse or a bag and not have to check it at the desk because the manager thinks you’re going to steal something if you keep it with you, where your biggest problem is choosing between 93 kinds of salad dressing rather than not even finding the white vinegar that you were going to use to make it from scratch.

Computers—Especially access to the internet and early childhood exposure to computers, which teach kids without them even knowing it what a window is, a cursor, and a keyboard, which connects us to information and gives us a truly revolutionary belief: that if we want to know something, we can find it out. That changes everything.

Bookstores—Barnes & Noble is a triumph of civilization. All that knowledge in one place, all those people who can and want to read who make it economically possible, and a culture that understands that reading can be a leisure activity. Not to mention the good coffee. I can’t tell you how much I want to take my 14-year-old Paraguayan host sister by the hand and walk her through the foyer and polished wood and brass doors of Barnes & Noble; I can’t tell you how much I want to see the look on her face as she sees that many books.

The Home Depot—Another triumph of civilization. Where you can build absolutely anything you want. It’s all there, and there are even trucks that can take advantage of our paved roads and deliver it right to your house.

Window screens—Because life is better when you’re not covered in flies and mosquitoes.

Restaurants—Because we know what things taste like everywhere, because half the time when I share “American” food (which is to say food I eat in America that Paraguayans don’t know of) it’s really Italian or Asian or Mexican or something. Because we enjoy the gastronomic riches of the whole world and the only reason we don’t have Paraguayan restaurants is that the food isn’t all that great here.

Art—Because we also get exposed to all kinds of music, and there are things like art museums and theaters (movies) and theatres (stage plays), and performing arts of all kinds, because our kids get to play with crayons and markers and some of them even grow up to make objects of breathtaking beauty, which they then share with us all.

Hospitals—Where we have equipment and supplies and real doctors, and where you don’t have to bring your own plates and silverware if you want something to eat like you do here in Paraguay.

And above all else:
Democracy—Because we got the whole modern experiment started and as a result our culture has never been brainwashed to blindly and without question accept the whims of a dictator, because instead we’ve been raised to believe in civic responsibility and accountability of government to the people, because we can complain out loud and do often, because when a whole culture believes in self-determination and the possibility of progress people start believing that about themselves as individuals too, and when that happens people learn to improve their own lives and the whole thing takes on it’s own momentum.

But we’re just learning that our wonderful democracy works so well because we have an equally wonderful history that makes it uniquely like it is. The biggest challenge of this century will be discovering how democracy can really take hold in places with very different histories. Dictators create cultures where people learn to look to others to tell them what to do, and to respect people who command fear and make their own rules. Paraguay has officially had democracy for 18 years now, but with a few hundred years of dictatorship under its cultural belt, it really doesn’t have a clue what to do with it. Americans can’t tell them (or anyone else) what to do with it by commanding respect and making the rules; how would that be different for them than being told what to do by a dictator? Democracy is about people figuring out on their own what they need to do about their lives. This is a mindset that must be learned; the desire for freedom may be universal but the skills to make responsible use of it is not. We are lucky as Americans because we both have democracy and a clue what to do with it. Remember your high-school history and civics teachers? I do. Thank you, all the Mrs. Meadors of the world. I’ll think of you when I’m eating turkey this year.

Oct. 14th, 2007

Let it Rain

On a less positive note, we are still waiting for the Spring rains to begin. Winters here are usually dry, but this past one has been especially so. Normally the dry stretch is made bearable by the assurance of heavy, regular downpours in the Spring. The rains are over 2 months late and there is little sign of a break anytime soon. The situation is actually quite dire; farmers must wait on the rains to plow and plant their fields. Corn, sesame and beans should have already been in the ground a while now.
When I arrived in Paraguay almost exactly a year ago the fields were lush and green. The corn was off to a good start, tobacco already waist high, the tight rows of new sugarcane reaching proudly towards the sky, towering above my head. Now there is practically nothing left in the fields. The corn has long been used up, and now the sugarcane.
This is a real problem not just for people, but for animals as well. The pasture grasses are nothing but brown tufts stubbornly held in place by the hard crust of the sun-baked ground. The cows have nothing to eat. Some are so skinny it is painful to even look at them; nothing but bones sticking in all directions and patchy, sunken skin. For a while they were being fed sugarcane, which does nothing but keep them alive; no nutrients, just calories. Now with the sugarcane gone or almost gone, people have no choice but to slaughter their cows for the meat before starvation takes them, and even still there are animals dying in the fields. The cows wander around the pastures all day looking for minuscule bits of green. They cluster under the trees and look up tiredly at the leaves, eventually getting the energy to stand up on their hind legs and reach with their probing tongues at the few leaves that might not have been stripped off yet, as many times as not returning to the ground with a defeated thud. Many of the ponds are also dry. The farmers whose ponds have dried up completely must herd their cows twice daily to deeper ponds farther away. All day long herds of tired, skinny cows flow back and forth past my house.
People generally have too many cows to begin with and would do better with fewer well-fed cows than many starving ones, but the mindset that having more cows means having more security is deeply rooted and resistant to change. I’ve been talking to some of the farmers I know about improved pasture management and the need to reduce herd size, but for now they’re so consumed with worry I know it is not the time to reach them about that. After the drought is over I hope to return to the subject in earnest, using the drought as a very real example to learn from. But for now animals are suffering the brunt of the drought.
The situation got even more complicated about 2 or 3 weeks ago when the wildfires started. Of course everything was completely dried up. Unfortunately traditional land preparation methods in Paraguay for agriculture involve burning the fields to clear out the noxious weeds before planting. Add to that regular strong winds and what resulted was a real national disaster. The fires in Paraguay made international news. I don’t remember how many thousands of hectares have burned so far, but it´s a lot.
My community was unfortunately no exception. One day I got a call on my cell phone from the Peace Corps Safety & Security office, asking me if I smelled any smoke or saw any flames. I told them no, but they informed me there were wildfires up around my area and that I was to evacuate and notify them if I saw or heard anything. It was a bit disconcerting to realize that I was Peace Corps´ best source of up-to-the-minute information on the issue. If I was Peace Corps´ early warning system, then what was mine?
As it would turn out, my early warning system was a rather loud roaring sound. Sure enough, the next afternoon I was sitting in my house when I heard it; a low, crackling groan coming from the fields across the street. I leaned to look out the window and saw dark red flames shooting up high above the fields, singing the lower leaves off the mango trees and shooting up the blackening trunks of the coco trees. The fire was still a few hundred yards away from my house and the winds were blowing it parallel to the road. I felt like I would have at least enough warning to get on my bike and get out to where I could take a bus if the winds shifted the fire towards me. Luckily, the winds held and the fire spread South in a line that burned all the fields but spared the houses and animal corrals.
I was already planning to take the 3am bus out the next morning since I happened to be out of cat food. When I went outside to catch the bus the sky was neon orange. The eerie glow swirled and rippled as the backlit smoke churned upwards from the horizon. It was an artificial, strange kind of daylight, like snow-cover seen at night through polarized lenses. It reminded me of the scene in Gone With the Wind when Atlanta is burning.
When I got into town I heard a radio report that the fires were worst in my community, and that they stretched all the way to my neighboring PCV´s community 15 miles away. There were rumors about a special airplane coming in from Russia to put out the fires by air. I thought this was just another one of those things you hear in the Paraguayan media that aren´t true, but come to find out a Russian plane was in fact supposed to come, but it was diverted at the last minute.
Most of the farmers I worked with had fields burn. One of my socios went out in the middle of the fire to move his one hive of bees so that it wouldn´t burn. Thankfully, he was able to save it. As far as I know no one had their mandioca burn, which would have been a real tragedy. With food scarce and the growing season looking more and more bleak (since nothing has been planted yet), people will have to rely on their mandioca to keep them alive. It´s kind of like the human equivalent of the sugarcane for the cows; it has no nutritional value, but it has calories and it will keep people from starving even if none of the other crops come in. I don´t even want to think about what would happen if the mandioca ran out. Even though it didn´t happen in my community, I know there are a lot of Paraguayans who have lost their mandioca and even their homes in the fires.
Thankfully the Red Cross showed up and has started giving out emergency relief rations to the communities hardest hit by the fires, but there are still lots of communities suffering from the drought who are in just as dire of a situation. They brought 88-pound sacks of mixed foodstuffs to each family: pasta, rice, flour, beans, corn, coffee, sugar, salt and yerba mate (the tea for terere). They will come back every month or so with more rations. I imagine the situation will only get worse over the next year as the full effects of the delayed planting come to the forefront. Crops might not have time to develop properly before it gets cold again, and even if they do yields will be less and cash crops will be sold after the market is glutted from the harvests of other regions.
Every day we sit together and talk about the rain and how it hasn´t come. We never get tired of talking about it. It´s always the most interesting and important thing to talk about. Some people have started sleeping outside, not for usual reasons like it´s too hot to sleep inside, but because if it starts raining they want to know right away. We spend a lot of time sitting in silence looking at the clouds; sizing up the wind. It´s starting to make people go a little crazy, myself included. Whenever there are clouds at all you get your hopes up all day long, and invariably they´re blown away by nightfall.
It´s just exactly like The Grapes of Wrath. What farmers in Paraguay are facing—increasing desperation due to competition from outsiders who can afford to buy up land and modern machines, longer droughts and increasingly severe weather, overextended soils due to year after year of corn and cotton, families split apart by children leaving the farms to find profitable work elsewhere—this has all happened in my country generations ago. The farmers themselves didn´t fare too well when it happened in the states and there´s no reason to believe they´ll fare any better in Paraguay. It´s a hard situation to be in, and a hard one to walk into and to try to find some way to help. I just hope that by teaching people beekeeping I can give them one way to diversify their income and become less vulnerable to a single crop or source of income.

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