October 26, 2009

365 Days

365 Days. 365 days of speaking a foreign language (two in fact) every day. 365 days of seeing places I never thought I’d see, and meeting people with perspectives and backgrounds unlike any I’ve met before. 365 days of appreciating the hospitality of these crazy but warm people that have adopted me like one of their own. The best 365 days of my life. It’s been a year! Over a year, in fact. Sept 25th marked my one year anniversary in Paraguay. I didn’t even realize it until my dad called me that day and reminded me.

Hearing that number out loud makes it sound much longer than it seemed. Like most volunteers say, it goes by incredibly fast. I have to say that I’m just really thankful for this opportunity to live here. Most days I feel like all of this is normal, hearing the roosters in my yard waking me up, me speaking in Spanish, drinking terere, and trudging around town surrounded by the Paraguayan countryside. But I still have days where something happens that makes me think, “holy crap! I’m still in Paraguay?” Like I’m gonna wake up some morning and be back in Califon, NJ instead of Yhu, Paraguay.

And it’s not even halfway done yet! Sept marked when I got to PY for training, at the end of December I’ll really have one year left.

10/25/09

Well I dropped the ball again. It’s been a long time since my last update (which rereading now seems quite bitter, I was pretty angry when my wallet got stolen)! Tanto tiempo, like they say here. Mostly I have the same excuses for not writing, it’s that when I get home for work/school/family visits I’m usually too exhausted to write. I’m hoping that during the upcoming summer vacation (PYan summer that is) I can get some more blog entries out, and more consistently. Instead of trying to recall a lot of them and writing them down long after the fact now, I’m simply going to try and make my newer entries shorter but more frequent. Let’s see how this goes.

10/26/09

Today the water coming out of my faucet was a thick chalky white. Should I be worried? I looked at it for a moment and then shrugged and gulped it down. Que rico! Also someone texted me asking me to translate directions for a mounted sight on a rifle that are in English. Good to know I’m useful around here. I knew I joined the Peace Corps for something!

Recently I printed a million photos from my time here in Paraguay when I went into Caaguazu. A couple were me with my favorite families in town but most were just pics of people and kids in town. So I spent almost all afternoon walking around town and handing out photos to people. What a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon! They’re always really appreciative because many have very few fam photos. I’ve discovered (on the advice of other volunteers) that photos are some of the best gifts to give to PYans. There’s obviously no place to print them here in town and people don’t have enough money to go to Caagauzu to do it themselves. I found it strange that after I handed them the photos they always ask, “How much does it cost”? As if I was going house to house selling them like a business. I gave a couple of my fav families framed versions of them and me and my mom and sister when they came to visit. The visits took a long time because each and every family tries to make me drink wine or terere or eat something. And they all want you to sit down and talk to them for hours.

Also this week I download some new music onto my computer from the internet that I have in town hall (a long process), and it’s made me realize how much I miss music from the states, esp. the soft spot in my heart for country music. Currently listening to Brandi Carlile’s new CD (thx for getting me hooked dad) and my new fav country band, the Zac Brown Band. There’s only so much Reggaeton and Guarani Polkas that I can stand, although the polkas are growing on me.

Stopped by the tail end of a friend’s B-day party and it quickly became apparent that most of the invitees were pretty drunk. Which for the most part is pretty entertaining. One drunk guy looked at my feet and declared in guarani and I had huge feet (“PY GUAZU!”). Then he struggled to remember something, and then blurted out “BIG FOOT!”, in english mind you. I was impressed. Then he was like (in Spanish), “what do the Americans say….Yeti, right?” Which was pretty funny. I just hope my new nickname doesn’t become big foot. They’ve just recently stopped saying that I look like a young version of Jesus (since I cut my long hair).

But other obnoxious drunks also start talking to me really loudly in guarani and they stand really close to your face and are spitting at you while they talk. This annoys me a lot and I usually have no patience with them after I explain that I don’t understand what they’re saying. This one obnoxious guy wouldn’t stop so I made an excuse and left early.

Which was timely cause my mom called me from the states right after that! We have a sort of tradition now of talking every Sunday which I look forward to. Thanks for all the care packages mom!

Last week I had a visit from an EE (environmental ed) aspirante (trainee). Crazy to think that new group of EEers are already here and training in Guarambare like good old times. This new group G-31, is much bigger than ours was and the EE sector consists of 13 new aspirantes. I had signed up to get a visit (like I did with Dan a year ago), and because there are so few guys in this new group I got a girl, Jessica (not that I was complaining). Anyway the visit was pretty exciting because we were in the midst of Fiesta Patronal, a celebration of our patron Virgen Mary, Virgen del Rosario, or the virgen of the rosary. What it basically means is that Paraguayans take this innocent religious holiday and turn it into a week long excuse to party and drink!

Well anyway I met Jessica in Caaguazu and we had a quick lunch there before heading for the noon Santa Ana, the 2 hour bus to my site. When we arrived at the bus station they told us the bus just left, but that we might catch if we run (why does this happen to me so often). Anyway thankfully we caught it by cutting it off around the corner, only to discover that it was PACKED. Seriously, it was one of the most packed Santa Ana rides of my life. Jessica and I stood up for the entire ride and managed to talk a little during the ride. While standing up this lady sitting down in front of me kept nodding off and leaning her head on me, which I wouldn’t have minded if it wasn’t in such an awkward spot. Moving on! So we made it and I introduced Jessica to her new host family with Professora Tomasa, the librarian from the school I work at. I even dragged her to Soccer match that was just ending and while we were there the wooden bleachers next to us collapsed and some guy hit his head on the concrete post. They dragged him off…I never did find out what happened to him.

So this very same happened to be arguable the biggest party of the year in my town apart from New Year’s. I had agreed to work there to help the school which was sponsoring it, so we got there and predictably no one was there yet. So we spent a good two hours just hanging around and stamping entrance tickets to sell later. Next as the people started to show up (at around midnight) they told us our job was to stand at the gate and take people’s tickets and control the crowds. Which I quickly realized was the absolute worst idea because first of all people have enough trouble understanding me and it doesn’t help when there is blaring reggaeton music in the background. In the end this became clear to the Paraguayans as well and we ended up just sitting there at the entrance people watching. Which was pretty funny because I got to watch all these people I knew in town, including the teachers I work with, arrive decked out like they were going clubbing. I just wore jeans and a t-shirt to the party. Later we were able to slip away from the entrance (around 2am) and danced a bit. I even got Jessica to dance with my Paraguayan friend Alberto. Chisme (gossip)!

I knew from the moment that I heard I was getting a girl volunteer that I would take a lot of crap from people in town about it. Put simply, Paraguayans have a really hard time imagining how a guy and a girl can be just friends. They assume if you went into a girl’s house that you slept with her, and vice versa. It may sound like an exaggeration, but trust me, this perception is very real. Just today in fact I heard through a friend that some girl in town is claiming that she slept with me just cause I visited her house (this is another case entirely because the girl herself started this rumor). Anyway, as we walked around town during her 4 days here people were constantly giving we knowing nudges or winks. Or they would say something in Guarani like, “Guess you’re not looking for a girl anymore!” Thankfully Jessica didn’t understand most of the stuff in guarani.

Jessica’s visit also included a district horse show where two horses collided, a big storm coming through and knocking out power and water for a day, and basically us walking around town all day on Monday visiting all of the schools. I thought back to my visit with Dan a year ago and in honor of that we visited a High School English class where I had her talk in front of them for a bit. Predictably the students (and teacher, who basically speaks very little English!) all stared at her as if she was speaking Chinese.

Overall a good visit, but then I got an email from her a couple days later and she told me that on the Santa Ana bus ride back she had to stand up and again and ended up getting really sick and barfing out the window of the bus. I told her she’s a true Yhuense now (person from Yhu).

May 24, 2009

Up A Creek...

Well, here I am in the Peace Corps office on a Sunday afternoon. My wallet just got stolen on the bus. After a four hour ride from Caaguazu it got stolen in the last 15 min before the PC office. About 20 soccer fans heading to a game got on my tiny bus and as a result I got packed in like a sardine standing up in the middle of this group as they started obnoxiously singing team chants. I being my absentminded self started looking out the window to block out the singing and wasn't paying attention to my backpack, when this guy unzippered it and swiped my wallet. I saw him do it out of the corner of my eye and wheeled around just to see it being passed behind his back to someone else. And of course in the spur of the moment my brain refused to think in spanish so I grabbed him by the shirt and yelled a string of expletives at him in english. He feigned innocence and my brain started working again and now yelled at him in spanish to give me back my wallet. Now they all stopped singing and the whole bus turned to look at me. But what could I do? Punch the guy? I wish I had now. Tell the bus driver? He'd just laugh at me. So I pushed my way to the front of the bus and waited till my stop to get off. I lost almost $200 bucks (about a month's salary), my driver's liscence from the states, all my PY Peace Corps ID, and my bank cards. Thankfully I'm going to stay with Alberto and Lourdes (who live in Asuncion) tonight. It makes me angry that I wasn't more careful about my stuff. That's life in the city. Now I remember why I like life in the country so much. Lesson learned I suppose.

May 17, 2009

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/10/world/americas/10paraguay.html?ref=americas

Living in the Corazón de Sudamérica

3/16

Where has the time gone? Just so no one gets further concerned, no, I have not died from dengue fever/been taken hostage/sold into slavery in a Brazilian drug cartel. I sincerely apologize for not updating sooner. Since my last update so much has happened that I often felt overwhelmed when I sat down at my computer to write. That combined with a busier work schedule meant that I am usually passing out around 9:30 every night. I know, it’s sad.

At the end of March I’ll have been in PY six months. When I think about that number, half a year, it’s very weird. But all the sayings are right; time has really flown by.

So where to start? I think the last time I updated I was still living with Antonia Caballero, the almost retired teacher (even though she’s only 46! Asi es la vida en PY…so life goes in PY). Annie tells me that she has a love/hate relationship with Antonia, and I tend to feel the same way. There were times during that month when she drove me nuts. She would say something in Guarani, and I of course would say “mba’e?” (what?), having no idea what she said. At which point she would chuckle to herself. “Que dijiste?” (what did you say?), I would ask in Spanish. Somehow she found this funny as well but still would not answer the question. After weeks of repeating this routine I kind of just gave up asking for explanations. She also has the cunning ability of making one feel like a child whenever they’re trying to do something by themselves. (“You want to hang up your clothes to dry by yourself? You’re doing it wrong! You want to cut that onion yourself? That’s how you cut it? Hilarious!”). At times I left the house to walk around town just to feel better.

And yet, despite all of this, I knew that if I ever needed anything, she would give it to me. If I had an advice question, she would usually turn serious and answer it honestly. And it’s hard to be frustrated with someone when they cook you two good meals a day. I guess that has more to do with my love for food, but still. Love/hate.

The stifling heat of summer rolled in, most days being over 100 degrees. Asuncion recorded a temp. of 47 degrees Celsius one day…that’s 116 degrees Fahrenheit. Being caught in the house during the day under the corrugated metal roof was literally like being inside a life sized over. I would wake up in the morning already sweating. Paraguayans like to take mid-day siestas, but in the summer it’s too hot to sleep inside the house. So many of them just spread a sheet outside in the patio and nap in the shade. It’s kind of a bizarre sight. One day I discovered that the plastic apple symbol on the front of my Mac notebook had melted. I knew that wasn’t a good sign.

I love the hot weather, but it did become annoying when my clothes were already drenched in sweat by mid morning. It meant washing tons of clothes and taking lots of showers. Antonia had a rudimentary washing machine that swished the clothes around in soapy water without a spin cycle. It meant often washing clothes again by hand and wringing out the water afterwards. I found myself wearing nice clothes only when I had to. My days were spent in cheap soccer shorts and flip-flops in the shade. Incidentally, I have a nicer pair of sandals that I would wear to meetings and parties, so I realized that I had gone months without wearing actual shoes. Too bad I didn’t take a picture of my flip flop tan.

As the middle of January rolled around, I had been in the Caballero house for 5 weeks, and I knew it was time for a change. I began actively searching for a new family, and my mind drifted back to my first week in site when I had met a cool guy named Victor at the High School graduation party. We had been talking and I mentioned I wanted to live with a couple different families. Somebody nearby said I should live with Victor and his wife because he had a little tree farm near the town that he was working on. “Sure,” he said. Just like that. That’s what I love about Paraguayans. So now, weeks later, I tracked down his house by asking around and found myself clapping outside his gate in the afternoon heat. He invited me in and I met his wife, Mariela. They’re a young couple; she’s only 28 (and very pregnant) and he 37, and we talked about random things until I finally broke the question. “I talked about it with my wife and we think it’d be fine.” So there I was, with my second family. I was riding high; I never expected it to be that easy.

Sometimes I think about what would happen in the reverse situation in the US. Imagine, for example, a volunteer from the Chinese government showed up on your doorstep speaking limited English, asking to live in your house for a month: “I want live here one month. You feed me, and I pay you. You agree?” How would I react? How would the average American react?


3/20

Victor and Mariela turned out to be just what I needed. After my awesome host family from training, I was looking for another young couple to live with, and I lucked out. Living in their house was more like having two cool roommates than it was living with a family constantly breathing down your neck. They were completely hands off and even gave me a key to the house within the first week. Mariela just so happens to be an awesome cook as well, always a plus.

Mariela is a teacher at one of the elementary schools, but she hasn’t started teaching yet because of the pregnancy. She was 8 months pregnant when I moved in and just continued to get bigger while I was there. Victor helps politicians organize their political campaigns in town, which was surprising to me because Yhú is so small that I wouldn’t think the political campaigns are big enough to warrant help. Regardless, together the two of them do well and they have a nice little yellow house near the church. Victor, as it turns out, is a movie buff and has a collection of pirated movies that we watched during my month in his house. He also loved talking about politics in the US and Obama in general. During our lunches I found myself stretching my Spanish to its limits trying to discuss such topics as the world economic crisis and the future of agriculture in PY. Victor and Mariela also have two dogs that were kinda protective when I moved in. They snapped at me my first day there. But within a week they had warmed up to me. Milo, the German Shepard, even started following me around town when I left the house. It was like having my personal bodyguard to intimidate drunken Paraguayan men.

******

One day when I was walking around town looking for empty houses to rent, I came across three little girls that couldn’t have been more than 6 years old. Suddenly they looked up and saw me and a complete look of terror came across their faces. It was as if I was the grim reaper out to get them. They squealed and ran to hide behind a nearby bush. I managed my best smile and a “Hola!” but this didn’t seem to alleviate their fears about this strange looking foreigner. So I continued on my way and this seemed to give them the courage to make a run for it. It’s definitely sobering when little kids are scared of you. I just have to remind myself that it’s only a matter of time before children get used to me.

******

During this time Annie and I decided to do a weeklong summer camp for the kids in town, following in the tradition of many EE volunteers before me. Suddenly we were thrown together working everyday to plan the camp. You’d be surprised how two Americans in the same town can somehow not see each other for several days. Annie was often in Asuncion working from the office, so this combined with our separate projects meant that I hadn’t seen a whole lot of her so far. So now we brainstormed and came up with the idea of an environmentally themed summer camp. We decided upon a different theme for each day, such as animal day, tree day, solar system day, etc. We made an age limit of 3rd to 5th grades and got a couple Paraguayan High School kids to go around the town with us to invite kids. We limited it to families near one of the schools so that we weren’t overrun. Each day was essentially a day of environmentally themed games with one short lesson thrown in. The first day we had about 30 kids and each day we lost a few. Some of the games were pretty ridiculous; these included animal races (the kids had to race like a crab or a frog and everyone started cracking up) and the chainsaw tag game where there are three kids that are chainsaws and the rest of the kids are trees that have to survive…chaos!

It quickly became apparent to me that there was a huge disparity in reading levels between some of the kids. Even within the same grade, there were those that breezed through the nature books during reading time. Some of them got impatient while others struggled to even read a complete sentence. I could tell that the kids who had teachers for parents were way ahead of the more campo kids. I also noted that the girls tended to be much better readers than the boys. I think this has to the fact that the boys are often out playing soccer and playing in the streets while girls tend to stay in more and have more time to read. These old gender roles are still a standard in rural Paraguayan society. There are no organized girls sports leagues in town; in fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a single girl playing soccer since I’ve been in Yhu. They’re still expected to help out with household chores more than boys.

Anyway, trying to cater to the different levels in the camp was definitely a struggle, but overall I thought camp worked out well. Plus, it’s pretty magic when I see some of those kids now and they say hi to me rather than run away.

******

A string of bad luck struck me in January. I lost several things in a row. It started when one day I went to shave and found that my electric razor had just up and disappeared from my room. I searched high and low throughout Victor and Mariela’s house but it was nowhere to be found. I never for a moment suspected them (to this day they’re one of the families I trust most in Yhu). But the day before the girl that cleans their house had taken all the things out of my room to clean. I thought maybe she swiped it, but throwing around accusations wasn’t going to help, so I didn’t say anything.

Then a week later I accepted an invitation to visit the chacra (the country or farm) outside town with my friends Alberto and Lulu. Their family owns several hectares of soja (soy bean) fields about an hour’s drive from Yhu. It was a great day that we spent tramping around the fields and talking with the guys that cut the soy with these huge tractors. I even got to see arguably my first real forest in Paraguay…a part of their property that they had left untouched. We took a little hike through the bosque (forest) and I almost ran into about 17 big spiders. It reminded me of the good old days getting stung by things in Costa Rica. But really, that’s how bad deforestation is in Paraguay. It’s pretty sad actually. You have to look pretty hard to find preserved forests in this country. When you see one, it almost seems out of place. I’ve spent many an hour staring out the bus window during the six-hour journey from Yhu to Asuncion and the majority of what one sees are wide open spaces for cattle grazing.

Anyway, I got a little off topic there. We got home that day only to discover that my cell phone was gone. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but I think it probably slipped out my pocket when we walking around the soy fields. So I learned to live without a cell phone for a couple weeks in Yhu. It was kinda refreshing actually; it was like training all over again. People should try it sometime. Go three months without a cell phone. I found that I felt pretty liberated actually. I mean, people used to do it all the time before the nineties! It did kinda suck in terms of keeping contact with people for work projects in town, but oh well.

So later I found myself traveling to Asuncion to get a new cell from the PC office. And you wouldn’t believe it, but while I was there my sneakers got stolen from the office! I put them in an overnight storage cubby overnight in the office and the next morning they were gone. Now, there are Paraguayans that work in the office, but then again Paraguayans do not have size 13 sneakers. So did another volunteer steal them? Really? I mean, come on guys, we have to stick together in this country!


5/12

Well, I had intended to crank out a blog entry back in March but that didn’t happen, obviously. I got lazy with my writing. I’ll try this again.

So to backtrack a little! I believe we last left our intrepid protagonist Brendan back in January. Life with Victor and Mariela was more and more comfortable, and meanwhile Mariela’s stomach just got bigger and bigggger. Life there settled into a comfortable routine. I started to leave the house a lot more, hanging out at la municipalidad (town hall) and making random visits to families. I still had about a month and half of summer vacation left so school hadn’t started yet. I watched a bunch of random old western movies in Spanish with Victor at night, as he turned out to be a huge Clint Eastwood fan. El bueno, el malo, y el feo anyone?

I also started hanging out with Annie a lot more, and I would usually make visits to her house at night to eat dinner and compare stories about what crazy stuff had happened in town that day. As I began to know the people in town better and better, Annie and I became like the Paraguayans, filling each other in on the daily gossip in town (“Did you hear Zunilda is sleeping with Prof. Walter? Scandal! Did you know that Directora Sonia got fired? No!? You’re messing with me. Really?”). I mean, really, what else are you gonna talk about in a town this small?

Annie also filled me in on the gossip that people were spreading about me, which was hilarious but also scary at the same time. Annie would usually know such details about my daily life as the fact that I bought 3 yogurts in the dispensa (market stand) that day. 3! Can you believe it? Who eats that much? But people also started thinking that I was sleeping around with girls in town when they saw me come out of someone’s house any later than 8pm. That’s the thing about PY. I’ve come to learn that Paraguayans have trouble wrapping their minds around the fact that guys and girls can be JUST friends. If you went into her house, of course you slept with her. I mean, why else would you be visiting?? It was the little things like this that I came to be more aware of in my first months in Yhu. I often just wanted people to think I was friendly. I mean, as Peace Corps Volunteers, we’re supposed to be ambassadors of goodwill from the states. But when you’re neighbors think you’re dating someone just because you answer her text messages, you learn that you can be too friendly sometimes.

Some of the rumors do get even more ridiculous though. Annie’s neighbor told her that she thought one of my neighbors (a teacher at the school) was transporting drugs to Brazil and that I should avoid talking to him to avoid being arrested in the future.

So in these summer months I filled my time trying to get to know as much about Yhu and its people as I could. I have a general policy of accepting any invitation that people offer me. Whether this be eating lunch or going to a quincinera, I was generally there. So one day when hanging around Town Hall, I got to talking with some Paraguayans that work for Accion Social (Social Action), which is a Paraguayan welfare division of the PY government. Some of them were visiting from Asuncion and were planning to do a weeklong census of families in the campo (country) outside Yhu. I got invited along for one of the days after I explained what the Cuerpo de Paz was all about. I accepted at once, eager to get a little more out into the campo and see what some of the poorest living conditions were like around here. Accion Social works by trying to identify the poorest families that have children all around Paraguay. It does this by electing “madre lideres” (mother leaders) in regional areas that are supposed to act as informants to the government in regards to which families in their communities are the poorest and need aid. The madre lideres are also supposed to organize events/talks/meetings that are designed to help mothers in the community. The government gives money directly to the families.

I could see many problems with this system even before I left with the workers that day. A huge problem in Paraguay is proper distribution of resources and money, from all levels, from corruption in the national government down to the poorest families. And more often than not, it is the men in the families that are literally drinking their lives and salaries away. Giving money directly to the families never seems like a good idea to me because many fathers are inevitably going to buy beer or caña (like whisky) rather than food or school supplies for their kids. Also, what control of the madre lideres is there? Who’s to enforce that they’re organizing those meetings and properly identifying poor families. The truth is that while Accion Social tries to get the local community perspective, this perspective isn’t necessarily accurate. The workers distributing the money in Asuncion are just too far removed from the level of these extremely isolated rural communities.

We set out at 6:30 in the morning in a pickup truck full of people, and we alternated between riding inside and in the bed. I had been a couple times to the town just north of Yhu, which is called Vaqueria, which means, literally, where the cows are found (just as a side note, I prefer black water as a name to cow town). Most recently I had visited with Alberto and Lulu. But now we just passed thru it and as the truck pushed further and further into the country, the roads just got worse and worse. Some were little better than a dirt path just wide enough for the truck, with corn stalks jutting out hitting the people in back of the truck in the face. We passed through communities that the workers identified as Primera Linea (first line) and Segunda Linea (second line) (which seemed to me like very unpersonable names), and Mariscal Lopez, which, like the big avenue in Asuncion, is named after the infamously crazy Paraguayan dictator/general that simultaneously declared war on Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil in the late 1800’s (aptly named the war of the triple alliance after the three countries decided they would come together to outnumber the Paraguayans 10 to 1 and crush them by wiping out half their prewar population and taking 26% of its territory). Why Paraguayans are proud of this man is beyond me, but that’s another issue.

Anyway, some of the “communities” that we passed through could barely be called communities at all. Some are little more than intersections of two dirt paths or collections of 10-15 houses. I began thinking about how hard it would be to secure basic food or supplies this far removed from a paved road or real town. We had been in the car for 2 hours already, so literally these people would have to travel 4 hours on a moto (motorcycle) just to reach a paved road, and most of them don’t even have motos. My town is isolated but it still receives an influx of supplies and food to all the little dispensas (little market stands) that dot its roads.

Eventually we came to a small community near Mariscal Lopez and the group split up down different paths. Essentially they were updating their census forms about the families they already had on the list and consulting the madre lider to add others. I stayed with the truck and then followed one of the women workers around to the houses, some of which were little more than wooden shacks of hastily put together boards and corrugated metal roofs. Some looked like a strong wind would knock them over. The questions of the workers included if they had running water and electricity (many didn’t), how many kids they had, if they had a bathroom or just a latrine, etc. They also took down basic personal information of the parents, grandparents, etc. I noticed several things from the get go. People were staring at me like I was a three-headed alien, especially the kids. But despite this, they would always shake my hand before that of the woman worker from Asuncion, just because I was a man and she’s a woman. (As a side note, I noticed this in Yhu when I would visit families with Annie and the men would shake my hand and completely ignore Annie…it’s rough being a woman volunteer in this country). The other thing I noticed was that some parents didn’t know some of their own personal information, such as how old their kids are exactly (“5 or 6 years I think”) or the date of their own birthday. It occurred to me that their parents before them probably just didn’t record it, and when some of these families have upwards or 12 or 13 kids, why would you think about such a thing when you’re more concerned with simply surviving?

We visited one house where no one came out when we clapped. So I was shocked when the workers simply strolled right into the person’s house and woke up a sleeping mother. It seemed like a pretty big invasion of privacy to me. She stumbled out and her two young children woke up and started crying. She was young, probably around 18 or 19, and her husband wasn’t there, she said. He hadn’t been able to find work in a year, she said. She didn’t smile at all, and I felt embarrassed and guilty for just being there, observing. But then again, it was hard to read any emotion at all on the faces of the families. They were often just blank slates to me.

Most of these interviews took place completely in Guarani, as the majority of the parents simply didn’t speak Spanish. So as a result I didn’t understand much of the responses, and spent much of the time just sitting there on the side watching the people or looking around their houses from where I was. I wondered if they wondered who this strange gringo was who didn’t talk at all. But even when we were back in the truck the workers continued to speak in Guarani (which I find to be a habit of Paraguayans, that once they get started speaking Guarani they usually keep speaking it). As a result I was getting pretty frustrated and also feeling very useless. Of course, this was a pretty common occurrence for me at this point in PY, and I’ve come to the decision that there has to be some value to simply observing the world in silence with only your own thoughts (or at least that’s what PC volunteers tell themselves so they don’t go crazy).

One house seemed especially elusive and we couldn’t find it on the dirt path. So after asking around we got directions to the house in the woods. We set off from the wider dirt path to one that was only wide enough for a dog, with weeds and bushes smacking you in the face along the way. We also crossed a small stream in the process of the 20-minute walk. I was loving it, but I couldn’t possibly believe that there was a house out here. But there it was in a clearing that suddenly appeared out of nowhere. While the workers started their interviews, I marveled at my surrounding, thinking about how incredibly isolated this place was from the outside world, and what it would be like to grow up in (kind of like Swiss Family Robinson, I decided, but poorer and not as jolly). All of sudden my cell phone rang, which startled me, and I ducked away to answer it. It was my mom calling from the US, which only reminded me than for as isolated as one can be in PY, without running water or electricity, the cell phone towers still dominate the world down here. I mean, how is that there was great cell phone reception in this place but back home in Califon, NJ the crappy reception cuts out sometimes? That thought just made me laugh.

I asked about the selection process that the workers go through for picking the poorest families once we were back in the trucks. I had seen them trying to identify new families during the day, and noticed that they passed up one house. When I asked why, they said because it had a tiled front porch, which “probably meant they were better off”. To me that seemed like a big probably. Why should a family be punished for taking pride in their house and trying to fix it up? Perhaps that family was just as poor as the others, but saved its money better and bought that tiling one day. The criteria for selecting poor families seemed very flimsy, but I sympathized with the workers who were dealing with little time to spend out in the campo and equally little funding.

At another house I kicked a soccer ball around with some kids and said a few basic phrases in Guarani to the parents, which made them howl with laughter. It just confirms my suspicion that the only true way to enter into the hearts of Paraguayans is to speak Guarani.

******

This is a kind of random side note, but I swear there is less wind in this country than there is back in NJ. I felt like something had been bothering me about the summer weather for a while, because normally I love hot weather. But this was different. And then suddenly it hit me. There is a distinct lack of wind, at least in Yhu! It’s too still, too quiet, I swear! That could make sense right? I know nothing about wind weather patterns, but maybe our placement dead center in the continent thousands of miles from any coast prevents wind from reaching here.

Or maybe I’m just going slightly crazy here. Who knows.


5/13

Paraguay has the distinct honor of playing host to one of the world’s most annoying bugs, the pique. I had heard about pique during training from other veteran volunteers, almost in passing. Volunteers on their way out would brag about this bug. “So Jim, did you know I got 12 pique during my two years here?” To which Jim would respond, “12?! That’s nothing, Bob. This crazy country gave me 23 of those suckers! Beat that!” I laughed at the time, but the infamous pique had yet to make my acquaintance so I quickly forgot it. Maybe I was pique-proof.

It turned out I wasn’t. After visiting my nearest neighbor Roberto in Yataity for an overnight, I was mildly surprised to find a black dot on my little toe a couple days later. I scrubbed the little thing pretty hard, but for all I did it just stayed there. So I figured it was a speck of dirt in my skin and chalked it up to my extremely dirty feet I now have (seriously, my feet are disgusting these days). But then I grew concerned when the dot had apparently grown bigger a couple days later. And now there was a white ring around it! And then it hit me. All those descriptions of the dreaded pique with its white rings of horror. You see, the pique, when free to happily roam the world on its own, is a miniscule creature, almost invisible to the naked eye. But once it burrows into your skin it begins to grow and grow and grow. And then it lays its egg sacks, which appear as a ring of white around it.

Suddenly I hated this little thing feeding off my skin. I asked a Paraguayan what they do if unattended and was told they would gradually eat all the flesh in my toe. Oh fun. The only real way to get rid of pique is to simply cut it out. Meaning you grab a clothespin or other assorted needle and cut the thing out. The longer you wait, the bigger it gets and the more painful it gets. So I manned up and tried, but just couldn’t seem to get the damned thing out no matter what I did. So I went to a Paraguayan and had them skillfully cut it out for me. It didn’t even hurt that much. At this point I was happy. My first pique! And who knows how many more to come.

******

In my first months in site, I also loved hearing the different theories about where I was from. A lot of people didn’t know me yet, and I would get stopped on the street and people would guess where I was from even before I introduced myself. “So you must be from Brazil,” they’d say. I got that one a lot. And I suppose it makes sense. We’re not that far from Brazil, and Brazil has a huge diversity of ethnicities. I didn’t mind looking like a Brazilian, I decided. I even got mistaken for a Chilean once, which I liked even better. It seemed more mysterious, or exotic somehow (which I decided was because I knew little about Chile). Me being from the United States (an estado unidense, as they say) was usually a last choice, which seemed odd on the one hand because they had seen Annie before, but at the same time logical because the US is just freaking far away! However, my favorite is when people think I’m from Spain even after they’ve heard me talk. Because, wouldn’t my Spanish be a hell of a lot better if I was, you know, Spanish?

******

One fellow volunteer made a comment to me the other day that I thought was hilarious. Someone was talking about how their PC volunteer friend in an African country was swearing in after completing training, and the whole training group was putting on the typical African dress (I forget what it’s called now) for the swearing in at the embassy. And the other volunteer commented that maybe we should have the worn the typical Paraguayan dress of jeans and a t-shirt to our swearing in. Which made me laugh but also realize just how westernized this country has become. That even in its most isolated parts jeans and coca cola t-shirts are about as common as you can get around here. So kudos to those of you in Africa. It’s just that much stranger over there.

******

Around this time it was early February and I made a return visit to Asuncion to run some errands and also to visit my training host family. And what a great trip it was. At this point, in May, I’ve been back three times, and it always feels like coming home again. I get put up for free in their house and Ana spoils me and cooks me food like gluten-free pizza. They even let me sleep in my old room again. Each visit I always feel better about my Spanish because I think they can see the difference better than I can, being away from me in the meantime. I find that I can understand almost everything than Ana says in Spanish because she speaks so clearly. And it’s always great to catch up with Bebecho, Maggy, and Deo too.

Another nice part of these visits is simply being in Asuncion and enjoying all the things that go along with a city. This included going to a mall and eating Sushi one time. Sushi! Yes, I found it in Paraguay. Granted, it was from Chinese restaurant (and isn’t sushi Japanese?) but it still tasted like sushi. Or eating from the buffet at the Super Seis is another pleasure that seems almost unworldly. The food isn’t even that great…but there’s just such variety! Or that rare occasion at the hotel that has carpeted floors (carpeting! Yay!) and Brazilian cable with real, honest-to-god CNN in Spanish (huh? Swine flu? Nobody told me about this!).

I’ve been trying to fit in something useful to my work every time I visit Asuncion, like visiting NGOs or looking for materials in the Peace Corps library. Like one time I went to visit ABC Color HQ, the biggest newspaper in PY, where they hand out educational materials for free. Which was a fun romp around the downtown of the city, mostly getting lost on buses and asking a million people for directions. And it’s nice to see Paraguayans walking briskly around the streets, like they have a purpose, or somewhere to be. It makes me feel like I’m in the states again. Mostly it’s nice to feel more comfortable in the city now in terms of navigating its buses on my own. But the truth is I usually start getting antsy in Asuncion after two days there and I feel like I’m wasting my time not being in site.

The last time I got back from Asuncion, which was in March, I actually felt relieved to be back in Yhu. Suddenly it felt more comfortable here, even more than it did back in my training host family’s house. And I think I didn’t even feel it until the bus drove by the plaza in town and some people I knew waved hi to me. For the first time I think I felt like a part of the town rather than just an outsider.

******

On one of those return trips from Asuncion I also made a side detour and visited my volunteer friend Dan. Remember Dan? I went to his site Caraguatay way back in October during training, which seems like a lifetime ago. When I got off the bus and trudged through town looking for his house and sweating like a pig with my backpack, the town seemed transformed. If you remember, Caraguatay is like USA-town Paraguay, as most of the people in town have relatives back in the states. And as such are among the richer of Paraguay. I remembered the town as seeming pretty small and normal during the last visit, but now it seemed huge and very chuchi (ritzy or fancy in English). It thought it was funny the way being in your own site changes your perspective. But I was received warmly by some of the Paraguayans in town including the Oviedo family with whom I’d stayed the last time. Their son Hector was having his 15th birthday party that night and I got invited (btw, how come only girls get quincineras and sweet 16 parties and not guys?). Overall a good solid visit. I want to visit a lot of the other volunteers from my training group G-28 in the future, including Sarah, Brian, Greg, and Lisa and Jesse. It will be like a tour of Paraguay to make the rounds.

******

In February I also moved in with my third and final host family. At this point I was pretty comfortable with Victor and Mariela and didn’t want to leave, but Mariela was getting near her expecting date and I really felt awkward about being there when the baby was born, like being a third wheel. So I began searching in earnest again, and this time I was determined to live with a more campo family. For two reasons: I wanted to practice my Guarani more, and I also just wanted to experience a more campo lifestyle.

So I began wandering around Yhu’s more unknown parts during my afternoons, getting sun burnt and lost several times. It was good for me because I’d tended to stay near the center of town lately and I wanted to explore more. I would come across a little dirt road leading off to who nears where and it was fun to just explore, sometimes on foot, sometimes on bike (which gets hard because the roads are really sandy here and sometimes its too much of a hassle to keep getting on and off the bike). It brought me to some cool little back roads of Yhu, where I would awkwardly approach the houses of complete strangers and explain myself and who I was over and over again. I had a little speech memorized at that point (“Hi, I’m Brendan, I’m from the United States, I work for the Peace Corps, which is a development organization from the US…”etc). I found that many of the families spoke limited Spanish and I struggled with my disastrous Guarani. Inevitably I would breech the topic that I was looking for a new host family (“You know, I just happen to be looking for a family to live with. Oh wow, I notice you have a really nice house there!”) But the first week I got a lot of worried looks from people. Or responses like one older guy who just struggled to say “no tengo” (I don’t have) very slowly in Spanish. I was getting discouraged.

One day I remembered a family in a more rural edge of town that I had visited once with Annie. I made a return visit, this time solo, and asked about living there and was disappointed when they answered they didn’t have space, but then I asked if they knew anyone in the barrio (neighborhood) that might have space. A woman named Lida took me over to one of her neighbors, an older woman named Urbana Paredez, and rapidly explained my situation in Guarani. I stood there silently with my best smile, trying to look both pathetically needy and friendly at the same time. The señora looked me up and down while she listened to Lida. I interrupted with my best Guarani (“Aikose petei familia ko barriope. Acompartise nde comida ha apracticase che guarani!” – I want to live with a family in this neighborhood. I want to share your food and practice my guarani!) Her 19-year-old daughter Ana came out and translated a few questions into Spanish for me. The señora asked me if I knew they were poor and why I wanted to live with poor people. I told her it didn’t matter to me, I just wanted to practice my Guarani. She told me they were humble people and didn’t have much and just had a latrine without a bathroom. I told her it didn’t matter to me. But she still seemed slightly suspicious. At the end she said she would ask her husband but that she thought it would be ok.

So I left there pretty hopeful. And it paid off when a couple days later they called me to tell me it’d be fine and I could move in whenever I wanted. So that’s how I ended up in the Paredez house at the beginning of February.

I got a friend of Victor’s in town with a truck to help me move my stuff, and settled in. I immediately felt guilty because I realized I hadn’t even looked inside the house the last time. And now I realized I was taking up what was arguably the only real bedroom in the house, as the rest is just one open space and now the parents and my two new host sisters Ana (19) and Rosita (16) were all sleeping in the same room. I protested but they insisted I take the room. I explored the house a little and found it indeed didn’t have a bathroom, a sink or any kind of mirror at all. Half the house had brick floor (including my room and a small living room with a TV) and the other half was just a dirt floor. They did have running water and electricity, but just one spigot on the side of the house and another connected to an outdoor shower. I set up my mosquito net in my room and went out to chat with my new family.

Which was going to be difficult, I knew from the get go. The dad, Juan, does not speak Spanish at all although he understands it when spoken to. Urbana can speak limited Spanish when she needs to but always asked me everything in Guarani. Both Ana and Rosa, though, spoke Spanish just fine and they suddenly became my translators for the rest of the month. Inevitably Juan or Urbana would ask me something in Guarani and I wouldn’t have the slightest idea what they were saying despite trying my hardest to understand. To which I’d say “Mba’e?” (what?) and the daughters would crack up and translate. Then I’d say, “ohhh” and awkwardly try to answer in a mix of Guarani and Spanish. Which provoked a howl of laughter at my pronunciation of Guarani. I have to admit that first night was quite bizarre, sitting in the dirt floor kitchen under a single hanging light bulb with the four of them huddled around me asking question after question in Guarani. Dinner was plain white rice with mandioca.

Much of the month went by like this, actually, me being a constant source of entertainment for them. I was relieved when they stopped seeming embarrassed or nervous about having me around and started to relax a little. I quickly decided that living there was kinda like camping, and I could get used to that quickly. Using a latrine is not a big deal, you get used to it. I quickly started missing Mariela’s food though, when I was once served plain white rice for dinner four nights in a row. One thing I actually grew to like was the open outdoor shower stall. There was no hot water but that never mattered because I started taking my showers after lunch in the mid-day heat when I preferred the cold water. Another weird thing about living there was going 3 weeks without seeing myself in a mirror. I just assumed I looked presentable as I left the house each day.

One day in the second week I came down with a fever that quickly worsened as the day went on. By nightfall I was covered in sweat and took two Tylenol and tried to go to sleep. It was nearly impossible, and I drifted in and out with a major headache and sweat soaked sheets. I also realized that I was shouting in my fever induced dreams and would wake up embarrassed because a couple thin wooden planks are the only thing that separated my room from their beds a few feet away. They probably thought I was crazy. I took more Tylenol but it didn’t seem to help at all. Then at one point I woke up and my stomach was killing me. I stumbled out to the latrine with my headlamp, a process which I repeated several times that night. The latrine had a little wooden stand to sit on over the hole, but when I looked at it the first time I decided I didn’t want to sit on it, so I perfected the art of squatting. I deduced that I must have eaten something really bad that day. It was not a fun night.

The next day nothing seemed to be better, and I would repeat trips to the latrine in between lying down with a washcloth on my head. I could tell the family was getting really worried that I was staying in my room so much so I tried to go hang out in the living room and watch TV a little bit. They invited a few neighbors over to look at me and this made me kind of angry, because I was sitting there and all these strange Paraguayans were staring at me in a circle and rapidly discussing my situation in Guarani. Some of them left and then came back with medicine from their houses. They insisted that I take it now, and I looked over what appeared to prescription medicine brands that I’d never heard of. I refused but couldn’t seem to convince them that my own medicine, namely Tylenol (which they’d never heard of) would actually help my fever.

The fever lasted about three days but eventually went away, but I continued to have stomach issues during my stay there, and another bout of fever a little later on. I never figured out what caused them, but thought that maybe it was unwashed or dirty food. I loved the family but was getting frustrated with feeling sick and also being hungry all the time and not having a variety of meals. It made me not want to eat their food which consequently made me just feel worse about inventing excuses to duck away. I started coming up with more and more elaborate excuses to accept invitations to go eat lunch with Victor or Antonia or other families.

******

I really hate cockroaches. I must say, they must be the worst of all bugs out there in the world. It’s almost like they are evil inside, plotting to drive you crazy. Or that’s the way it seemed sleeping in my new room that I discovered had almost nightly visits from cockroaches. The worst part is how they make noise. Other bugs are pretty silent but you always know when there’s a cockroach in the room because you can hear them making noise with their little antennae. I’d be content to sleep if they were there and I just couldn’t hear them, but it’s that noise the drives you crazy and prevents you from falling asleep. And they’re fast little buggers too. The moment you get up determined to squash one it skitters under some open wall plank. I was even getting used to living with them as roommates because I rationalized that with my mosquito net wrapped around my mattress, how could they possibly get inside? It was with this thought that was I gradually drifting off to sleep one night. When, wouldn’t you know it, I felt something skitter up my foot. I think I jumped about three feet off my bed and started thrashing the mosquito net about, now my prison with this cockroach and me as its sole inhabitants. Somehow this little evil thing had gotten inside where even the mosquitoes can’t get inside. It seemed almost planned, almost laughable. Perhaps the thing had waited there all day for its chance to get even with me for killing some of its brothers. But now he was gone and I began realizing that the mosquitoes were making a beeline for my exposed flesh and also getting inside my opened net. At this point I cursed all bugs in Paraguay and jumped back under the net.

On one of several nights like this when sleep seemed impossible, I began reading back issues of the Kuat, the Peace Corps Paraguay newsletter written by volunteers, mostly to pass the hours and prevent going insane. I came across this section of an article written by a volunteer describing his life in site:

“[I spent nights] staring at the slats in my wall for whole eternities of hours. I cry more easily…I even created imaginary friends to deal with my psychosis and spent June of 2005 muttering to myself…(my neighbors just dismissed this as cultural differences). I mean, heck, they got insects here that can burrow into your skin and come crawling back out as worms. D*mn. But that’s why it’s so good…”

I finished reading this part and just laughed out loud, like a maniac, at like 4 in the morning. Which probably just contributed to my host family’s belief that I’m crazy. But with luck they’ll just chock it up to cultural differences.

******

The stars are different here. They’re upside down. I used to know a bunch of the constellations back in the northern hemisphere, but here I’m clueless. Except for Orion. He’s still here. Except just upside down. I think I miss the big dipper. Is that sad?

******

Here in Yhu, I was often shocked to find signs on peoples’ houses and stickers on peoples’ cars that say STROESSNER in bold print. General Alfredo Stroessner was Paraguay’s last dictator, and a brutal one at that. Here’s a quote from my Lonely Planet South America book: “A 1954 coup installed [Stroessner], whose brutal 35 year, military dominated rule was characterized by repression and terror. Political opponents, real or imagined, were persecuted, tortured, and ‘disappeared’, elections were fraudulent, corruption became institutionalized and the country became a safe haven for Nazis and other international war criminals.” This was a man that was known for having political enemies thrown out of airplanes mid-flight. So I found it hard to believe that Paraguayans could still revere the man. When I brought the subject up with Antonia one day, her response was, “there was less crime back them. The country was safer.” And I stammered in response, “But now there’s democracy, and he tortured people!” And Antonia just brushed that off that off with a wave of her hand. All the while Elena, her sister, found our conversation to be very amusing.

Annie told me that this is still a common sentiment, probably in much of the older population of PY. Kind of in a “good old days” kind of way. Which baffles me, but I guess the same kind of thing exists in the US, like when older Americans still think it was ok to have Japanese internment camps in California during WWII.

******

Another political aspect of Paraguay is the extremely polarizing effect of the two main political parties. Here you are either a Colorado (red, the very same party of Stroessner, btw) or Liberal (blue, the party of the current president Lugo, a former bishop who was recently found to have fathered two sons while her was a bishop. I love the scandal in this country). Just because they’re red and blue and one’s called Liberal, however, doesn’t mean than they’re like the republicans and democrats back home. As far as I understand it, the ideological differences are less at extreme opposites here. And yet, party affiliation seems to be taken really seriously in this country, as in you’re probably not friends with a Liberal if you’re a Colorado. Lately, people in positions of power are being replaced just because they’re a Colorado, and Yhu is no exception. When I first got to site the long time Colorado director of the health post was replaced with a young 25-year-old Liberal doctor. I mean really, you know politics have been taken to an ugly extreme when something as completely apolitical as medicine becomes politicized.

Also, wearing bright red or blue clothes means that you openly support that party. I considered this briefly in my first months in site when putting on my fire engine red polo or my royal blue soccer shorts, for example. I decided that it would be crazy to get sucked into that nonsense, and just wore whatever I wanted to wear. But then one day Annie warned me, half joking, half serious, “Be careful with the red shirt around here.” It’s stupid, really. I wanted to wear both bright red and blue at the same time just to mess with people’s heads.

Annie even informed me of the latest chisme one day, that people think I’m a Liberal because of the people I hang around with, such as my contact Elisardo, the principal of the High School, or Victor. And Annie is clearly a Colorado because she hangs out with Elena, a Colorado. It must be a wonder to them that Annie and I are still friends then, I thought.

******

I knew that I would be able to move into my own house soon (as I was coming to the required 3 month mark of living with families). I loved all my Paraguayan families that I had racked up but I was verry anxious to live on my own. At this point I’d been living in other people’s houses for nearly 6 months and I longed to cook my own food, play my own music, and be able to go to sleep or eat at whatever hour I wanted.

Just like the last three times, I began searching for a new home again, except now it was an empty one. I had no idea where to start. On the one hand there was always Annie’s house, which I had to admit was very nice. It would mean living nearly two extra months with families if I wanted to wait, because Annie wasn’t leaving until the end of April. While her house was centrally located, it didn’t have any yard at all, just a small stone patio. I had my heart set on making my own garden so I decided to look for other houses. I started randomly telling people in town that I was looking for a house to rent, and hoping that word would get around. It was a slow process and I didn’t hear anything for a while. Victor showed me a house that was near his, but it just didn’t jive with me. I started walking around neighborhoods I liked and asking around at strange houses if they knew of places to rent. One day I got a call from a teacher at the High School named Edgar who was moving out of town and wanted to rent his place. I went to visit and it was a good hike, pretty distant from town center. But it was a new house made of bricks with a modern bathroom. I was tempted, and I liked how much privacy it had. I decided to keep looking, and a week later I got a call from Annie’s landlord, Doña Yudi, who was looking to rent out her mother’s old house since she had gotten too old and moved in with the rest of the family. I immediately liked the house from the get go. It was a white concrete casita a block from the plaza. It had one main part that was basically just a big concrete box. In the back it looked like people had successively added wooden additions over the years. In fact, altogether the house was pretty darn big for one person. The yard also intimidated me. Apparently Yudi’s mom had a thing for gardens and planted about every variety of fruit tree and bush that could be found in PY in her yard. It was big (by Yhu standards) and shady and had orange, lemon, grapefruit, and passion fruit trees. I wouldn’t be at a shortage for fresh fruit in this place, I decided. The yard, however, was a mess, and I didn’t know if I could handle it by myself without the help of modern wonders like lawnmowers, weed wackers, and hedge trimmers. Seriously, cutting this much grass with a machete would be a full time job.

So I put the decision on the backburner to see if other options would come up. However, my decision was made for me a week later when Yudi called me to tell that another guy had come looking to rent the house. I took Annie to look at the house. I took detours during my walks around town to pass in front of the house and pensively stare at it, wondering if it would be my home for the next 2 years. In the end I went for it and decided that somehow I’d manage the yard. I couldn’t move in, however, until my Site Presentation from the Peace Corps.

The site presentations are given by each volunteer’s APCD (Associate Peace Corps Director) and Volunteer Coordinator, who are in my case Holly and Robyn respectively. Holly is change of the EE and Agforestry volunteers, and she basically comes out to give a talk to members of the community about what the Peace Corps is and what the EE sector does. I didn’t have to do much work except invite leaders in the community to the event and find a place to host it. I chose the Casa de la Cultura (Culture House), which is a neutral meeting place in town, and spent about two weeks handing out invitations to teachers, directors, the mayor, students, and friends, among others. My main Paraguayan contact in town, Elisardo, helped by bringing a microphone and speaker. When the hour of the presentation arrived, Elisardo dragged the entire High School to the event. The meeting house was packed as Elisardo gave a short presentation and handed it over to Holly. At the end I had prepared a short speech in Guarani that went by smoothly enough. Another turning point come and gone. Now it was time to move into my new house.

The first day, when I moved in, Roberto and his Paraguayan girlfriend Yoanna came up to Yhu and helped me load the truck with all my crap. We got everything in just before a huge thunderstorm rolled in (I was relieved that the combination grass/corrugated metal roof was not leaking). We waited it out and they took off back to Yataity. I stood there looking at all my stuff and wondering where to start. The house, made of concrete, has two windows on either sides (without glass) with wooden shutters that open on the inside. I’ve got a brick wall on two sides of my yard and fences on the other two. For some reason they put two front doors on this house, so I decided to keep one permanently shut. I got a small, borrowed wooden dresser from Yudi and I bought the old wooden bed frame from her as well. I’m borrowing an old mattress from Elena so I was all set to sleep for the first night. I drifted off to sleep easily that night, staring at the grass roof above me.


5/16

I inherited a considerable amount of stuff from Chris, the volunteer before me, so I already had some plates, silverware, and cooking pots and pans. He even gave me his little oven, which just connects to a propane tank (which I didn’t have yet) but is pretty nifty. I didn’t have any food, however, or a fridge, so I was still dependent on friends and neighbors for a while to eat. Nor did I have a sink, so I had to depend on the little sink in the bathroom for all my water. The bathroom is pretty nice, actually. It’s got a tiled floor and a full modern toilet. So as far as volunteers go, I’ve got a pretty nice set-up.

For the first two or three weeks before I got a propane tank for my oven, I started visiting families just a little before mealtime. This means showing up about an hour to half hour before lunch on the pretext of an innocent visit and then nonchalantly commenting that whatever they’re cooking smells very good. I found if I hung around long enough the guilt complex of the Paraguayans would kick in and they’d invite me to eat with them. Repeat this process at dinnertime.

In a way I felt like I was slightly homeless, and I would have to keep track of which families I had visited recently so I didn’t overdo it. I had a cycle of friends and families I would go through visiting before starting back at the beginning. At first I felt a little weird and guilty about it, but the reality is that Paraguayans really want you to come over and just showing up before a meal is not as strange as it would be in the states. The alternative to all this was inviting myself to lunch by calling them up beforehand, and somehow I could never think of exactly how to go about that (“How are ya? Good? Yeah, listen, so I’ll be over there around 11:30 to eat lunch with you guys today. Well, see ya.”).

******

I got through those weeks and eventually got a propane tank for my oven and went to Caaguazu to buy a small used fridge (for about $700,000 Guaranis, about $140 bucks). The fridge guy even transported me and the fridge back to Yhu in his pickup. Sweet. The sad part is that the two hour Santa Ana bus ride between Caaguazu and Yhu is just about an hour in a truck. The bus is just frickin slow.

So now I was nearly all set up in my house. What I was still missing, though, was a sink. I asked around and eventually found this guy Florencio who lived near the Paredez family who does construction and odd jobs. I got a price quote on the sink and repairing the crumbling walls inside of my house. And then Yudi told me it was too much and told him to make it lower. Which made Florencio mad and he told me Yudi was “mala” (bad). When Paraguayans start talking bad about other Paraguayans or chismorreando (gossiping), I generally just keep my mouth shut. He and his brothers came and dug out a 2-meter deep pit in my yard, and then lined it with bricks. This was the poso de desechos (waste pit) for the sink. When he told me it would last for 25 years, I was tempted to say, “but I just need one for 2 years!” But I kept my mouth shut. Better to do it right I guess.

I spent a day going into Vaqueria on bus to buy the actually sink. This thing is, a task that back in the states might take an hour or two suddenly becomes a daylong task (or longer if you can only find it in Asuncion) here in Paraguay. I started waiting at the bus stop at 7:30am like Florencio told me, but then someone told me the first bus to Vaqueria doesn’t come until 9:30. So two hours go buy and I read my book that I brought with me (it’s always wise to bring something to read as an alternative to staring aimlessly at nothing). The bus comes at 10. Then it’s a half hour trip to Vaqueria. Then I meet Florencio there and we hit up a few hardware stores, bargain a little, buy the sink and the parts. Then I thank him, eat some lunch at a dispensa (which seem to serve only breaded, gluten filled food like empanadas so I suck it up because I’m hungry) and wait on the street for the bus back to Yhu. But all of a sudden the bus coming down the street suddenly turns a block before me and goes who knows where. So I, alarmed, stand up and scratch my head, wondering why my bus decided to forsake me and leave me hanging on the street. So I start walking, asking along the way where the bus went. People seem confused by my question so I drop it. Half an hour later I run into Edgar, a friend from Yhu. He explains that there’s actually a bus station that I didn’t know about and the bus turns off at that block to go to it. So I just happened to choose the one block that it doesn’t pass in front of. I also learn from him that the next bus won’t come for another 2 hours, so he invites me back to his family’s house to hang out for a while. I accept, lugging my sink and plop myself on his front poach and drink terere and listen to dirty jokes in Guarani and answer questions about the women of the United States for 2 hours. Then the bus comes. I stow my sink underneath and get on. A half hour later I’m in Yhu and dump my new sink and dust covered self in my house. I’m home. It’s 4:30pm. That’s a typical day in Paraguay. I think I will be more patient after two years here.

******

Florencio came back and installed the sink, which looked pretty linda (nice) and it was great to finally be able to wash dishes inside. He told me the price for the sink, and I paid him, thinking I’d figure out another day when he could come fix the walls. Later on, when I talked to Yudi, it turned out that price was for both the sink and the walls. It was obvious that Florencio was being a little shifty with me. So I went to visit him in his house to talk with him. But then when I showed up his family came out and offered me terere, and I began to look around. His house was like the Paredez house, a wood shack, except that they didn’t even have running water here. I changed my mind and decided I would just pay him again when he comes back for the walls.

Because the truth is, the Peace Corps pays us comfortably, and I can afford it. The Peace Corps pays me $1,300,000 Guaranis a month, which comes out to about $260 bucks (about $8.50 a day, I figured out), and that’s a pretty good living here. It’s comparable to what a teacher gets paid here, and they usually have a family to support as well. I’m living alone and only paying about $200,000 Guaranis a month in rent (about $40 bucks). That leaves $220 each month to buy food, pay bus fares, and any other assorted costs. Which means that I usually have a surplus every month. I’ve never even had to go outside my Peace Corps salary yet. So while our salary is supposed to be just enough to live and eat and rent a house, the truth is most volunteers can save a little money if they don’t buy crazy extravagant things. So we’re true volunteers in name only, I suppose.

******

So there I was in my new house with my own yard. I found it ironic that the first house I was renting in my life was in PY. I felt responsible for it like I never had for my apartment in college. The yard was (and continues to be) a disaster, but I have plans to start my own garden in it…one of these days. Right now I have a family of chickens living in my yard. It doesn’t matter now b/c I don’t have a garden yet. In fact, they’re actually a great help. I generally just chuck all my organic wastes (fruit and vegetable peels, leftovers, etc) out the kitchen window and the chickens go to town. In the morning there’s nothing left. It’s a great system.

I started experimenting a bit more with cooking. I’ll be the first one to admit that I’m one of the world’s worst cooks. Going through 4 years of college with a fully stocked buffet style cafeteria didn’t help things, either. Annie started teaching me a little, basic things such as how to properly cook rice, beans, and lentils, among others. I tried to cook some rice and vegetables one time and it came out horribly, so dry that I didn’t even want to eat it. So I decided to fry the whole thing and then it actually tasted ok. Which started off my new trend of frying everything I cooked. Which admittedly tasted great. But I knew it wasn’t that healthy so I kept experimenting. My new thing now is cooking huge portions of food and then eating the leftovers for like 3 days afterwards. Also probably not very healthy, but what can you do. I have yet to attempt cooking meat myself, so besides visiting other families, PY has turned me into a vegetarian of sorts. I also enjoy mixing things in big conglomerates of food that should probably not be mixed at all. This included rice, assorted veggies, lentils, tuna fish, and oatmeal one day. Another day I cooked pasta with corn and roasted peanuts. It wasn’t half bad, I must say. I’m also clueless about spices so I tend to just use all of them at the same time, such as a little bit of salt, pepper, curry, oregano, soy sauce, and hot sauce. Again, the result was not the best thing in the world (understatement of the year), but it also wasn’t the worst!

******

April rolled around and the days started getting slightly cooler. By this point I had taken on more work responsibilities. I started an English class in March with the plan of teaching only the kids in the high school (which here includes 7th grade and up). I started with two nights a week, with two separate classes. I figured it would be a good introduction to teaching in town. The first day when I handed around a sign up sheet in the HS, 150 kids signed up for the course. Annie taught an English class in her first months in site but the students had dwindled until there were only two. In class I started off with basic greetings and nouns and tried to play at least one game every class. But before long more and more students were coming, and suddenly sixth graders were asking if they could come. I made the mistake of saying yes and asking them to not tell anyone. But really, how was I supposed to say no to a cute little sixth grader Paraguayan girl? I figured people would just stop coming. But before long there was a steady stream of new students coming each week, and the classes were getting really full. It sounds bad, but I wanted kids to stop coming. I now had no choice but to divide the classes again, into four nights a week. But now I had fourth graders in the same class with high school seniors, and the classes were chaos. Each class had almost 50 kids and there was barely enough room for all the desks. People were yelling, throwing paper airplanes, and generally being obnoxious. I had to yell at the top of my lungs to make them listen, despite the fact that the PC told us in training to never yell in class. But nothing I could do seemed to work.

I started thinking back to what my teachers in school would do to make kids quiet down. I tried just sitting there at my desk and staring at them with the look of death thinking they would get scared, but they just laughed. I started giving speeches in Spanish about how they apparently had no respect for me and didn’t take the class seriously, speeches that I think came word for word from teachers in my High School. They also refused to come back to class after recess and I started yelling at them. I even asked some people to leave the class after they took 10 minutes to walk back to class after recess. One teenager muttered under his breath at me as he walked away, probably cursing me in Guarani that I didn’t understand.

I would come home from class angry and frustrated and force myself to breathe to calm down. This wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing here, I thought. As volunteers we’re supposed to spreading good will from the US, not getting teenagers pissed off at us. At the same time, I needed to learn how to manage the classes better. I decided to make big changes, dividing the classes into two groups of 14 years and younger and 15 years and older. I imposed new rules about kicking students out if they missed too many classes. I even had to move the class from the high school to the casa de la cultura because parents started complaining that they thought their kids were having sex in the high school grounds during recess at night (that’s a direct quote, btw). To which I thought, well, if they can get it on in the 5-minute recesses that I hold, then I’d be singularly impressed.

The changes seemed to help but between the classes and prep work, English class was taking up a lot of time and I decided that I needed to start focusing on more environmental activities, the real reason I’m here.

******

Another big project I’ve been working on is the Community Vivero (tree nursery), the project Chris originally started way back in the day. The idea was to start a town vivero that could be maintained by a hired worker and the trees could be sold to maintain the costs. I found a NGO that agreed to give us the plantitas (seedlings) and seeds for free, so I figured we were in the clear. Or so I thought.

Little did I know how hard it would be to organize Paraguayans. I could spend all this time organizing meetings and schedules and plans, and then two people would show up to my meeting. Also, I continued to be the only one organizing meeting. Which was fine for now, but the ultimate goal of all projects is to make them sustainable, since we as volunteers will only be in the community for 2 years. That meant I needed a Paraguayan to clearly step up to the plate, and I just didn’t see that happening. And how could it, I thought. It would essentially be a volunteer position, as the leader would not be paid. Also, who would organize prices and handle requests for the trees? The Vivero commission? I didn’t see that happening, as it was hard enough to get them to all come to a meeting.

It was during this time of indecisiveness that I got invited to the PC Project Design Workshop near Asuncion in late April. I decided to bring my contact Elisardo to the workshop. Eight other volunteers came, all with their contacts, to discuss possible and current projects during the 3 days of the workshop. While I found much of the information to be repetitive and general, I think it still helped because it gave me and Elisardo 3 days together to sit down and discuss the project without distractions.

When we got back home to Yhu, we decided to make some changes to the project to make it more a school initiative, with the Vivero being managed directly by students in the new Agricultural High School, B.T.A. I also cut out the commercial part of the project completely, making it a purely educational and reforestation project. The selling part just made it too complicated if there was no clear leader. So that’s where we are at this point.

This, along with another project with funding from a woman in the states, are keeping me busy, but I do feel that I want to get back to the schools more to organize small environmental activities. The idea of the Peace Corps is to bring development to communities with skills-based projects, and to make them sustainable by have Paraguayans continue to teach the same things we’re teaching after we leave. Bringing outside money into a community is an added bonus, but can actually be detrimental to communities because it makes them reliant on outside funding from the states and they never learn how to fund projects on their own, using internal sources.

******

As autumn was in full swing in Paraguay and winter coming around the bend, the days were shorter and it was getting dark really early at night. These days in May it gets dark around 5:30, and unfortunately Paraguayans seem to lock themselves in their houses once it gets dark, so my visiting hours are cut short. And so, with no TV and no radio in my house, what’s a guy to do but read? I don’t think I’ve read this much for pleasure since I was a kid. And I’m really enjoying it. I catch glimpses of TV when I visit families, but besides that I haven’t watched TV in nearly 3 months. I’ve read a bunch of books lately, including the Bill Bryson book In a Sunburned Country (about Australia), two Isabel Allende books, a book about the communist revolutions in Guatemala (Silence on the Mountain), Barrack Obama’s memoir Dreams from my Father, and even my first book in Spanish (granted, it was the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in Spanish [El Leon, La Bruja, y El Ropero], but still). We get all these books from the PC library in Asuncion, and they’re all volunteer donated. It’s a great system. I was skeptical about The Da Vinci Code but started it one day and read it in one weekend when I barely left my house, as it turned out to surprisingly addictive. Then I repeated that process with the prequel Angels and Demons. Right now I’m reading the Che Guevara biography. My new goal is to read more books in Spanish, but I’m going to stick to children’s books like Harry Potter for now.

******

One day I was talking to the Vice-Supervisor of all the schools in the district about the University classes that are offered in one of the elementary schools in town. We got to talking about where I went to college and what I studied, Environmental Science. And without asking anything more about my credentials, he asked me straight up to teach an Environmental class at the University. Here’s the thing. I think I’ve got my head on my shoulders pretty well, but I am nowhere near qualified to teach a college class. I’ll openly admit that. Which just makes me very suspicious about the quality of classes being offered at this University. I told him I’d think about it and quickly changed the subject.

******

In late March I also attended Roberto’s Wedding. He met a Paraguayan girl Yoanna (Joanna but the J here is always Y) during training and they’d been dating for nearly a year and half. With his time to leave approaching fast (he’s from the same group as Annie) they decided to get married and he would take her back to the states. To me it was very sudden and a big decision. But who’s to say that it won’t work for them. Every couple is different, I thought. Besides, Yoa’s a sweetheart and I knew she wasn’t getting married just to get a free trip to the states. Anyway, they had their wedding near Asuncion and I traveled out to meet a bunch of other volunteer friends for the ceremony and the reception. We drank and danced until 5 o’clock in the morning. It was a big mix of Paraguayans from Yoa’s fam and volunteer friends of Roberto, and it was a blast.

On the way back from the wedding I stayed over one night at the Cabañas-Gonzales house and even had Sunday brunch asado (BBQ) with them. While we were eating somebody started saying something in Guarani and asked me something. I had no idea what they said and told them so in Guarani. And then Maggy said, “Oh Brendan, you still don’t understand Guarani?” I stopped for a second and didn’t know what to say. It was an innocent comment but it just made me mad. I thought to myself, well, let’s put you in country where two languages are spoken and see how well you do with both of them after 6 months. Sometimes I feel like Paraguayans don’t understand how long it takes to learn a language, let alone in a country where they speak two. And especially when you’re following up a volunteer like Annie, who had her masters in Bilingual Education and spoke Spanish fluently coming into the country (the comment “But Annie speaks Spanish and Guarani much better than you” is thrown around a lot in Yhu). However, at the end of the day, all I have to do is talk to another volunteer about these frustrations and they know exactly what I mean. And then I feel better.

******

When I was living in the Paredez house, I had been reading the book Silence on the Mountain about the failed revolutions in Guatemala from the 1950s until the 80s, and I came across a part about poverty in Guatemala that struck me deeply. It describes how a leader in town (named Mario) had taken the author to a house to show him the poor people in the area and had simply walked in on a sleeping mother and, without asking her, had taken her kid in his arms and pulled out his hair to show how badly malnutrition was affecting him. Here’s an excerpt:

“Well, Mario, you showed me what it means to be poor all right. Poverty is when your kid’s hair falls out because you can’t give him enough food – because you husband can’t work, because he has a problem in his head which he can’t treat, because he can’t afford the medicine the doctor prescribed, and even if he could afford it, maybe that’s not what he needs, but he doesn’t know for sure.
Poverty is when your family has to survive for who knows how long on your wife’s wages – which in almost every plantation in the region is half what a man receives – and what a man receives is already below the legal minimum wage – and the legal minimum wage isn’t anywhere near what it would take to give your kid a truly healthy diet and a decent education.
Poverty is the first child dead, the second one ailing, and perhaps no chance of having a third. Poverty is no medical attention – or on rare occasions too much, but never fully understanding what’s happening and rarely having much control.
That’s the crux: poverty is not having control. Not controlling your diet, your work, your health, not even who enters your home. That’s right, Mario, poverty is when your kid’s hair comes loose – but more than that, it’s when strangers can walk into your home and pull it out.”

I read that passage and I immediately thought about that day when I went out with the Accion Social workers into la campaña and they had woken up the sleeping mother who told us her husband hadn’t found work in a year. Of course, the workers were a little more respectful than this guy Mario, but the comparison was there in my mind. The lack of control she had as strangers entered her home. The lack of control of nearly everything in her life. The poverty she lives in.

And for a moment, I thought, being in the Peace Corps is learning to live with less control. That’s the idea, after all, right? To live at the level of the community. That’s what attracted me to the Peace Corps in the first place. But as soon as that thought came into my mind another one replaced it: feelings of guilt and the realization that I was fooling myself if I thought this was true. If any volunteer thought this was true. Because the reality is that we can never completely know what it’s like to live without control. We live with a comfortable salary and the resources of the US government at our mere request. Any problem, be it personal, work related, or health related, would be dealt with by our government. If we needed something special, some luxury as simple as a fridge or an oven, we have enough money to travel to the city to buy it. If conditions in the country become dangerous, our government will evacuate us.

I had a PC volunteer friend in Madagascar in Africa named Lorna, and I received a letter from her recently (which takes over two months to get to PY from Africa btw). She wrote the following (and I hope she doesn’t mind me quoting her here):

“I am starting to really see things and understand what life is like here for real Malagasy people, and thinking about what the effects of this political mess will have on them has really made some of those realities hit home. One day my Malagasy tutor apologized for not responding to my text message because he didn’t have enough credit (pennies…) after spending all of the money over Christmas. I spend craploads of my living allowance on phone credit, and so things like that are really eye opening. I used to get annoyed when people assumed I was rich, because aren’t we all living at the same level as people in our communities? But I’ve realized that no matter how humble our standard of living compared to what we’ve come from, we really are wealthy. We can’t escape the so-called “vazaha” (foreigner) privilege, and sometimes it’s nice (like if there were an emergency the US would have us out of here in a second), but at the same time it can be kind of unsettling. Sigh….the guilt of the privileged. Can’t escape it, but must learn to work with it and to do the best we can to bridge the gap.”

The letter turned out to be a startling prophecy of things to come because weeks after she wrote it the Peace Corps evacuated the volunteers and temporarily suspended PC Madagascar when a Mayor of a major city attempted a coup to overthrow the President. She’s now waiting in the states to return or find another placement in a different country.

It just served to emphasize her point more. We are privileged just by being born in the USA, even if we’re poor. The privileges, rights, and protections that come with being a US citizen are just incredible compared to citizens of third-world countries.

******


In March all of the environmental Volunteers from G-28 came back for IST (In Service Training) at the training center in Guarambare. It would be the last time during our two years that we would all be together for a training session, which was somewhat startling but also made me realize how quickly time was passing. What struck me at the time was to the progress each volunteer had made in the languages. Especially in the sense that each volunteer had taken either the path of speaking more Spanish or more Guarani depending on their communities. I observed guys like Steve having a decent conversation in Guarani with a professora while I struggled to understand. Meanwhile, other volunteers had no idea what I was saying in Spanish to some of our teachers.

Being in Paraguay has definitely made me more interested in language and the process of learning it. It has also led to a kind of fascination with Guarani and how it continues to survive and influence the Spanish here.

There’s an obvious influence on the Spanish here in PY due to the fact that Paraguayans have attempted to translate several phrases directly into Spanish from Guarani with the results being translations that are clear to them but really have no meaning when translated into English (and which would be utterly confusing to a Spanish speaker outside of PY). I have started calling these "Paraguayanisms", and I have fully embraced them in my Spanish. An example is the phrase "no mas", literally "no more" in English. Paraguayans say it after nearly every sentence. They use it as a substitute for the word solo (in this case only, or just, in English). It comes from a translation of a word in Guarani.

Another example: “Y despues?” Literally in English it would be, “And after?” The confusing part is that Paraguayans use this as a greeting. They come up to you on the street and ask, “Y despues?” It really confused me at first, because I thought, “And after? After What? Something has to happen first before you can have something happen after!” Again, the reality is that it comes from the Guarani phrase “Ha Upei?”, which could be translated “as after” but also as “what’s up?” or something similar. Which is what they really mean.

A final example is when they ask you, “Sabes tomar terere?” Literally, “Do you know how to drink Terere?” The first time I heard it during training I thought to myself, hmmm, do I know how to drink? What should I say, “Sure I do, I put my mouth on the straw and suck. It’s not that hard actually.” But it also comes from the Guarani meaning, more or less, “are you accustomed to drinking terere?”

All I can say is my Spanish is going to be so messed up after two years in PY.

******

The more I read about the loss of other native indigenous languages across Latin America, the more it amazes me that Guarani has survived. It seems to me that in nearly every other Latin country, the powerful elite in the nations, the wealthy, stigmatized the indigenous languages and cast them out as backward and belonging to the poor people. That process of social and economic pressure divided societies into those of Spanish decent and those of indigenous decent, with the Indigenous people nearly always being on the wrong side in the eyes of the elite. It was a process of racism as old as the days of the Conquistadors. It was a process that discouraged people to identify themselves as having native ethnicity and encouraged them to learn Spanish and forget their native languages during the passage of generations.

And yet, PY, to me, seems to be the one exception to this trend of history. Other countries like Bolivia have significant populations that speak the indigenous language, but none to the degree of PY. Sure, in Asuncion there are those that look down on Guarani as backward and dying, but from everything I am told (and what I personally see in Yhu), they are the exception. People are very proud of their indigenous heritage and the continued survival of Guarani. As they should be. What confuses me is how exactly this happened.

In my mind I can think of only two explanations. The first is that over the generations Paraguayans seemed to have mixed the two ethnicities (namely, the Spanish and the Guarani tribes) better than other Latin countries. They produced more of a melting pot, as is it. Today about 95% of the country claims to be of mestizo decent (a half-half mix of Spanish and Guarani ancestors). In my mind, this would produce less racist tendencies, if most of the population had indigenous ancestors.

The other explanation may lie in the relative isolation that PY continues to enjoy. Cut off from the sea, cut off from nearly all outside influence, small rural communities (which still make up a huge part of the population) would have little need to switch from Guarani to Spanish. Of course, this is changing today when even some of the poorest families have televisions that broadcast Spanish news and telenovelas into the house 24/7. I see it here in Yhu in how Juan and Urbana Paredez barely use Spanish all day but how their young daughters use it just as much as Guarani. I see it in the increasing migration of the children of the poor campesinos to the city as they realize they may never escape the vicious cycle of the poor if they take over their father’s farm and stay in the rural campo.

******

It’s now mid-May and I’ve been in Paraguay for nearly eight months, only 6 of those in site (with a pique count of 3 for those that are interested). I’m just about a quarter done with my time here, which seems crazy to me. Still seems like I just got here and some days I will just stop myself and think about how incredible it is to be here.

Annie and Roberto left in late April so my nearest Volunteer is now Alissa, two hours away in Caaguazu. I’ll definitely miss them. It was great to have their advice and help with almost everything when I first got here. But I don’t think I’ll feel lonelier without them, as I feel pretty connected to my Paraguayan friends in town.

But, nowadays, more often than not, I realize that it’s been a process getting used to things. Things that once seemed very strange when I first got here now seem very normal. These include random animals (cows, horses, chickens, stray dogs) wandering around the streets of Yhu at all hours of the day, people always waiting to drink until after they’re eaten (never at the same time – your stomach might explode!!), setting fire to a stuffed scarecrow version of Judas from the Bible during religious holidays, and a host of other examples. Talking to my mom on my cell phone in English even seems weird sometimes, and I usually have this instinct to say certain words in Spanish first and have to pause to remember it’s English version.

It’s also a process of realizing what I really should be focusing on here. As far as communities in PY go, I have to admit, Yhu is not among the poorest. The majority of people here enjoy a comfortable living and few lack food and water. Sure there are still houses that have no running water or electricity. One day a kid told me he couldn’t come to class because his mom didn’t have enough food to feed him breakfast and he didn’t feel good. So yes, Yhu still has poor people that lack basic needs. But what the majority lacks is education and work opportunities, more specifically opportunities to make farming profitable again.

These days it’s also getting really cold at night. Last night I woke up shivering since my house has no insulation from the outside. My neighbor sews things so I’m going to have her make a thicker comforter for my bed. But so far it’s been a welcome change from the summer weather. My mom and my sister Meg are planning to come visit for two weeks in August so I can’t wait for that. Miss everyone back home!!

Here’s a list of things I miss about the US and things I like better in PY:

Things I miss about the US (apart from friends and family):
-Juice, esp. Orange (Juice is really expensive here…better to make it yourself)
-Peanut Butter (Skippy Super Chunky anyone?)...thx for sending some mom
-The gym, my old weight before Paraguay
-Tennis
-Watching Football (and my Giants baby!) on TV
-My mom’s home cooking
-Potato Chips/Tortilla Chips
-Snacks of any kind (in PY you eat three meals and that’s it! Who does that?!)
-Sushi
-Fish of any kind
-Being able to tell a joke in English (here they just laugh when I speak at all)
-The feel of carpet on your feet (I haven’t seen any kind of carpet outside of Asuncion hotels)
-Driving in my car with country music blaring
-Cold weather and snow, the change of seasons in general (putting a jacket on for the first time)
-Wind (I swear it’s never windy here)
-Not being stared at in public; blending in
-Feeling like an independent adult
-Cheese sticks
-Granola Bars
-Variety of meals in general (ie not having meat and cornbread three times in one day)
-Going to the movies
-Finding new music online
-Tissues! It sucks when you have a cold here (toilet paper becomes more useful)
-The beach/ocean
-Swimming in Round Valley Lake back home with my dog Farley
-The can-do attitude, productivity, and optimism of the US

Things I like about Paraguay:
-How close families are
-Really being part of a small town, including the gossip for better or worse
-Less stress
-The friendliness and trusting nature of people
-Terere
-Less technology (checking email every two weeks or so is kinda refreshing)
-Appreciation of the little things in life
-People don’t take things as personally (they call each other fat on a daily basis)
-Learning a new word in Spanish and Guarani everyday
-People offering for you stay in their house after meeting you one time
-Laughing at ridiculous Latino soap operas
-Every day is different; lack of monotony
-My job forcing me to be more social
-Being able to navigate Asuncion on my own
-Getting used to how Paraguayans drive buses
-Everyone carrying terere thermos around on the street
-Visiting neighbors and having a meal with them is part of my job here
-Explaining something simple about the US that a Paraguayan didn’t know, such as how poor people exist in the US too
-Having something to write about in a blog

Now let’s see how this list changes over the next year and a half…

PS – check out my Picassa page as I added like 250 new pics, including of my new house

PPS – check out this cool video my trainer Ricardo made about life in PC Paraguay. I feel like it captures life here pretty well:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mZA78xUzwTA