Monday, December 31, 2012

“Rock out like the mangos are in season.”

How can I presume to have a handle on a country that is still figuring itself out?

Paraguay surprises me every day. Still. Nearly 20 months in and the moment I think I have this place pegged it throws me for a loupe. Some days the surprises give me a little smile and a soft flutter in my heart--a random neighbor kid calling me by my actual name (as opposed to Doña Kevin or la yankee). Other days, these surprises drop my jaw to the ground--peering 70 meters over the edge of Salto Cristol and climbing down over boulders to take a dip in the pond formed from the falling water. Lately, my favorite surprises come in art form.

Volunteers spend a lot of time discussing frustrations related to standard teaching methods present throughout Paraguay’s classrooms. Teacher reads from book or writes on board, student copies. Teacher draws something on the board, student copies as exactly as possible. Parents and teachers often discourage children to paint a tree pink or a dog purple.

However beautifully and skillfully Paraguayans may produce traditional ñanduti and leather-work, these pieces often lack evidence of the artist’s hand. A hold-over from the dictatorship, they all tend to look the same. Tightly controlled governments--especially those requiring the submission of a few million people--generally do not push art education initiatives that include personal expression. Interested in keeping a nation under your thumb? Control your artists. Art inspires critical thought. Art builds self-esteem. Art teaches creative problem solving. None of these qualities help maintain the status quo under an oppressive regime.

Though much of Paraguay’s national cultural identity lies within this highly available craftwork, it does little to reflect today's burgeoning democracy. Finding work that does proves quite a challenge. 

Nonetheless, I feel the tide changing. Every time I come into Asunción I see more and more street and installation art. New galleries--supporting more mediums--keep popping up. Art activists get more visible. Paraguay’s growing artist scene includes brilliant minds and inspiring personalities, many of whom as dually dedicated to art-making as to reaching younger generations of Paraguayans.

This year I have had the distinct honor of working with Ahecha Paraguay, a participatory project that enables Volunteers to teach basic photography. Since 2007, this program has served 150 Peace Corps communities and nearly 1,000 Paraguayan youth. And 2013 holds something very special in store: ImaginARTE. Partnering with some of Paraguay’s most influential artists and cultural promoters, we proudly announce a three day, two night creative arts camp benefiting fifty youth from all over Paraguay.

Participants will meet like-minded peers, working artists, and professionals working in art related fields. They will have the opportunity to learn new skills, see workshop space, and gain a toolbox full of strategies for living an artful life. In short, for three days these kids will "rock out like the mangos are in season.” And they are in season.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Have You Voted Yet?

Four years ago Kevin and I spent the better part of an afternoon waiting in line with our neighbors to vote in one of the most important elections of our lifetime. I never thought that this year we’d have even more at stake. 

Despite missing the inundation of television ads and the camaraderie of a polling place, this time around we still managed to get swept up in the spirit of democracy. Not surprisingly, exercising your civic duty from 5,000 miles away takes a little extra planning. We started the process in August and wrapped things up in late October. As long as the Embassy keeps up their end of the deal, we care, we count, we voted.

  • Checked the Chicago Election Board website for weeks waiting for the launch of their online system
  • Started paperwork online to register for an Overseas Absentee Ballot
  • Walked over a mile to one of the only working printers in town 
  • Paid to print documents
  • Signed documents
  • Taped completed documents to the front door of my house and waited for enough sun to photograph them (no scanner in town)
  • Processed files in Photoshop to export in PDF format
  • Optimized PDF in Acrobat to make file small enough for email
  • Emailed documents to Chicago Election Board
  • Waited
  • Received link to mark ballot online
  • Rode 6 hours on a bus with sort-of-working air conditioning on a 100 degree day to the capital
  • Rode 1 hour on a bus with no air conditioning on a 100 degree day to the Peace Corps Office
  • Strained brain to remember password to login to the Peace Corps computer system
  • Found email from Chicago Election Board and followed link to mark ballot
  • Voted
  • Started printing election documents
  • Ran out of paper halfway through job
  • Emotionally prepared myself to argue that even though the Volunteer computer lounge had used it’s allotted amount of paper for the week, denying us more would allow the terrorists to win
  • Learned the person in charge of paper was out of the office and received a ream of paper, sans argument
  • Resumed printing
  • Strained brain again in an attempt to remember the words to Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American”
  • Gathered documents, headed off in search of a glue stick and scissors
  • Hit pay-dirt when the Peace Corps librarian had appropriately sized envelopes so instead of making envelopes from scratch, we could just glue the official envelope front to a ready-made envelope
  • Assembled envelopes for overseas absentee registration, ballot documents, and ballot
  • Modified a ready-made envelope with scissors and tape so I could fit the ballot envelope inside the ballot document envelope
  • Cleaned up craft station
  • Placed stack of envelopes in the Peace Corps Office Embassy mailbox
  • Tracked down an “I Voted” sticker
  • Drank some tereré

As Chicago residents we actually had it easier than a lot of other Volunteers. So what’s your excuse?

As a Chicago voter, I couldn't help but wonder if the city was encouraging me to vote twice
Setting up our craft station
Required materials
The coveted sticker
"And I'm proud to be an American..."
"...'Cause there ain't no doubt I love this land..."

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Se fue...

A few months back, two Peace Corps technical trainers stopped by our little house in the South while surveying locations for future training activities. As Americans who have lived in Paraguay for ten and thirty years, respectively, they both offer unique perspective into the cultural differences between our two countries. Over dinner, Kevin and I enjoyed their insight.

For example, in Paraguay greeting people involves a sort of ritual. Women meeting other women press cheeks on each side and make a kissing sound. Women greeting men guide the introduction and choose either the same kiss shared with the ladies or a handshake. Men greeting men shake hands, sometimes gripping the opposite shoulder with the free hand. Men rarely kiss each other. At this point in the conversation, Kevin mentioned that our host father always kisses him. Jon smiled and replied, “That means he actually considers you his son.”

We didn’t need another person to point this out to us.

In Peace Corps Paraguay volunteers live with host families during their first six months in country. Especially during training, our host families often regard us as confused baby birds, a little lost and incapable of fending for ourselves. Although in many departments this assessment hit spot on, in other ways it got tiresome. I knew this constant scrutiny came from a loving--and initially helpful--place. (Even the most common daily tasks, when placed in a Paraguayan context, required re-learning.) I, though, couldn’t wait to cook for myself, walk a block alone, or self-supervise my ironing.

I started thinking about moving into our own place as soon as we stepped foot in site. As much as I deeply appreciated these folks opening their home to us, I still found myself in desperate need for some alone time. Many volunteers form deep bonds with their Paraguayan families, others keep them at arms’ length. As I had little desire to relive the critique of my teenage years for the now third time, I expected to fall into the later category. I already had a mother and she stopped nagging me about a decade ago. Lucky for me, I didn’t have an option in this particular situation.

Nelly (aka Mitad) and Felipe, their adult children, and extended family took us in and never gave us the chance to say no. They included us in everything and introduced us as family members from day one. When it came time for us to move into our our house, Mitad stopped by every day--and never empty handed. Felipe helped us hang our mosquito net and made sure we had a safe, hot shower--rewiring the whole operation before we could even ask. They made us feel like one of their own.

August 7th, we lost Felipe. He never regained consciousness after the stroke that befell him two weeks previous. Before that, he hadn’t had so much as a cold in six years.

While Mitad took control of making sure I ate enough, spoke minimal English, and scolded me for letting my husband do any housework, Felipe maintained a more quiet, reassuring presence. Whenever I prepared American food, he always took seconds. He never pushed me or criticized my Spanish. He had the best giggle.

We giggled over the reappearance of lettuce on the dinner table after months of summer drought. (Felipe maintained a beautiful--and impressive--vegetable garden behind the house.) We giggled when we overheard the kids curse or make smart aleck comments. We giggled the hardest the day after Carnaval when he asked me--with a straight face--if I saw lots of “colas afuera” (tails out).

The last time I saw Felipe, I kissed him on the cheek and told him I’d see him tomorrow. I have no idea if he knew how much Kevin and I cared for him. His love, though, was never in doubt.

Felipe loved his children and grandchildren deeply. For last year’s first day of spring parade, he outfitted a big wheel with a refrigerator box creating “The Candy Train.”

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Tanto Tiempo

Deep down, I knew I would not avoid this moment. I hemmed and hawed and even put in precautionary measures, yet in the face of a litany of promises made to myself, I have arrived at the inevitable. Despite my best efforts towards the contrary, I have little alternative but to lead off this installment of “Rate of Exchange” with one hateful phrase: tanto tiempo, aka long time no talk.

There comes a time when nearly every Peace Corps Volunteer with a blog starts to neglect posting--and often at about the same point in our service. In fact, in our Welcome Book, Peace Corps advises us to warn our friends and families that a normal lapse in communication often comes around the nine-month-in-site mark. Our projects pick up, we get busy, and we settle in. Somehow things start to seem normal.

With the ability to adapt written into our DNA, humans can eventually acclimate to most any situation. Last October’s hassles now register as standard operating procedure and once odd sites seen enough times stop making an impression. No longer fazed by things that felt so strange a matter of months ago, these days I don’t really have anything to write home about. Nothing has changed, except me.

The Peace Corps’ adeptness in predicting these personal changes continues to surprise me throughout our service. During our first few months in country, our trainers spent a lot of time talking about the “Emotional Roller Coaster” that follows every volunteer. This timeline maps out two years worth of high and low points, often to the month.  Like many of my new colleagues, I found the idea ludicrous that a prophetic piece of charla paper knew my reaction to situations so far in advance. How could a stranger predict that in mid-January of 2012 I’d probably feel a little frustrated or that September of 2011 my life would fill with wonder and excitement?

Startlingly, their formula preaches the truth--and evidently applies to Peace Corps volunteers worldwide, regardless of assignment. Just within Paraguay, our sites, jobs, backgrounds, beliefs, and ages vary greatly. And yet this crystal ball works in each region where volunteers serve. How?

As a devoted reader of worldwide Peace Corps blogs, I’ve come upon countless entries starting off, “You know you’re in...” or “Only in...”  Funny thing, though, I can relate to most of the incidents on these top ten lists. Very rarely do any of the things/moments/attitudes listed occur exclusively within the Peace Corps post in question. Down here, in the heart of South America, I regularly find myself annoyed/tickled/flabbergasted by incidents supposedly unique to the Peace Corps South Pacific experience.

So, then, where lies the commonality? Do the countries where Peace Corps serves bear such a striking resemblance that their corresponding volunteers parallel each others' experience? Does development work look the same no matter where it happens?

Yet these countries do not look the same nor do their citizens act the same. More likely, it’s us. Our humanity unites every person on the planet, but could our American lens impact the way we react to life? As much as the United States stresses the contribution of the individual--encouraging the unique and rewarding those who have made themselves distinct from their peers--our American-ness links us. Regardless if we’ve spent our lives embracing or rejecting these values, they make up the core of our personalities. This shared upbringing resonates as we develop impressions of new cultures.

Travel and spending time with people from different places often teaches us that we have more in common than not. I’ve never felt more “American” than I do now, living in Paraguay. After years of training pushing me to set myself apart, perhaps this time away will show me that I have a lot more in common with my neighbors back home too.
In spite of the universality of the Peace Corps experience, we still have rare moments. For example, I don’t know another volunteer whose neighbor’s pet carpincho wears a child’s tank top on cold days and is best friends with a giant (and over-protective) dog.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Someday, I’ll Hug a Tiger or Another Friday the 13th Passes Without Incident

Joanna and Sultan.

Some weeks, nothing happens. Days pass by and we go about our business without anything of note transpiring. Upon developing a comfortable routine of leadership activities and youth group meetings, sometimes things get a little boring. This week, although very busy, I felt like climbing the walls. Not every week falls into this category, however. Two Thursdays ago I met a tiger.

Those who know me, know that I have a bit of a things for cats. Big cats, small cats, I like them all the same. Few things melt my heart like an expressive meow, make me giggle like a silly, sleepy pose, or inspire me to gush compliments like a good feline full-body stretch. As such, I could hardly believe my luck when I learned that an actual tiger had taken residence in my town.

The big sell...
... and the real deal wearing a dog collar.

That afternoon Kevin and I altered our walk home from the local high school so I could take a peak at the traveling circus setting up shop in our town’s center. Already an odd morning, our charla on values and self-esteem resulted in one girl punching another in the face. Still trying to determine where asking the kids to rank things like “getting good grades” and “getting married” went so far off the rails, Kevin generously humored me with a detour to the soccer field across the street from the elementary school.

While taking in the extravagant signage, a friend stepped out from behind a rapidly emptying semi-truck trailer. Motioning towards an advertisement, I asked her if she thought they would really have a tiger. Much to my delight, she replied, “Yes. She’s over there.” And by over there, she meant unsupervised just beyond an open gate. A six month old beauty sat all by herself in a patch of freshly cut grass, enjoying the light breeze in her fur. Someone hooked her collar into a thick chain-link lead attached to a stake pounded into the red dirt--a rusty tiger version of something you’d put a dog on--probably more for human comfort than actual security.

Important tiger alone-time.

My dream to hold a big cat in my arms before me, I stepped forward. Only common sense, already in short supply, kept me from scratching behind her giant ears. So badly I wanted to reach over, throw my arm around her giant neck, and walk her down to the beach. Tigers love water! Surely this field trip would cement our future friendship. My plan hinged on determining this cat’s tranquilo-ness.

Famous for its laid-back attitude, a relaxed way extends beyond the people of Paraguay to its animals as well. Dogs often bark without bothering to get up and enjoy napping in the middle of the street. I’ve never see a horse in my town run. But do Paraguayan tigers take the same philosophy?

Becoming fast friends.
In the end, I decided to hedge my bets on the tranquilo-ness of the tiger’s trainer (who when he finally joined the three of us, mostly just yanked on Sultan’s tail), and decided not to push my luck. I couldn’t stay away, though. Over the course of her three days in town, I visited her at least eight times. Every time I approached her, I played out the conversation with the Peace Corps Medical Office first... “Mary, does my rabies vaccination cover tiger bites?” “Mary, I briefly lost consciousness while trying to hug a tiger. Do they have the equipment to assess a concussion in Encarn or do I need to come up to Asuncion?” “Mary, I cut my leg open tripping over a tiger’s leash. My tetanus shot is up to date, right?”

I'm not sure if Sultan was more annoyed by this kid blowing in her face or introducing her as "Tigresa".

For all my devotion, though, when the time came to see my girl in the spotlight, I missed the show. In a year of record drought, the rain finally came the night we planned to take in the big top extravaganza after English class. Somehow, attending a Paraguayan circus featuring a tiger who’d spent the day having her tail pulled during a thunder and lightening storm on Friday the Thirteenth seemed like one strike too many.

Hopefully next year she’ll remember me and maybe then she’ll have a little free time for the beach.

Artist's depiction.

Thank You for Your Support

Special thanks to the nice people over at Wanderlust and Lipstick for including an extended version of my holiday season rundown in the "Tales" section.  For all the details on hosting an American-style Thanksgiving in Paraguay, please click here.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

I’ll Never Take Score Again or The Trouble With Democracy

I now completely understand elementary school sporting leagues who do not keep score.  Please strike any of my previously snarky comments from the record with my deepest apologies.

I’ve heard parents liken having children to allowing your heart to walk around outside your body.  Although I have no children of my own, I understand this sentiment increasingly-every day with our kids from youth group.  When they have a good day, I feel great.  When I see them struggle, I wish I could feel the frustration for them.  And most of all, when I see them try something new--push themselves and embrace something outside their comfort zone--I feel overwhelmingly proud.

I would not describe Paraguay as a nation of risk takers.  Culturally folks tend to stick to what they know.  Whether dinner, professional paths, or gender roles, although exceptions spring up regularly, for the most part people here stick to what traditionally works and don’t venture into the unknown.  (You might remember me having to bully my host mother in Ita into trying peanut butter with chocolate.)

Although this could spark a chicken or the egg debate, I attribute a lot of this attitude to the Paraguayan school system.  When teachers follow a curriculum designed towards a test and center study on the answer key, a nation runs the risk of raising a generation focused on getting the right response--as opposed to the process of learning, critical thinking.  Accordingly, most of the kids we work with have such deep fear about getting things wrong that if they can’t do something perfectly, they won’t try it.  I’ve stopped counting how many times a kid has called me over during a lesson on self-esteem to approve their reply to a question about their feelings.  I never expected the concept of “no wrong answers” to cause such trouble.

Eager to validate their presence in the community, last week our youth group held elections--and it nearly ripped my heart in two.  Six of our kids stood up announced their intentions to run for the offices of President, Secretary, and Treasurer.  The runner-up to the presidency would serve as vice-president, the others would form an executive committee.  While I felt no surprise certain individuals declared their candidacy, when one of the quietest kids threw her hat in the ring I felt a lightness in my chest.   

Among our most dedicated participants, she has an almost painful shyness about her.  Her thirteen year old fingers shook she gave a speech to her peers highlighting her qualifications.  She made herself vulnerable in a way most of her classmates wouldn’t dare. 

In an effort to promote transparency in a country often labeled the most corrupt in South America, we counted the votes out loud in front of everyone immediately after voting.   As we sorted the ballots, her opponent (also a great kid but less prepared for the position) started to pass her and a pit formed in my gut.  In the end, he received the same number of yeses as he had cousins the in group.  

She appeared visibly crushed.  After, she asked me to sit with her and her best friend to talk it out.  Even though she giggled as we said goodbye, I couldn’t quite tell her true feelings. 

Americans take risks to an almost pathological level.  On one end of the spectrum, we create jobs if we don’t like the ones available.  On the other, we reward the most controversial behavior with a fifteen episode run on TLC.  But how often do we do the terrifying things build our character?

Our youth took the loss hard, but she came back the following week and pledged to support her former political adversary.  The ache I took on as the election results rolled in grew into admiration.  She tried and failed and returned with her head held high.  A risky move and an example for us all.
Executive Committee

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Feathers and Foam and Dancing girls... Oh My!

Time moves differently down here. Phone tag that starts on Monday feels like a full month passes until it catches up on Thursday. Events from early January feel like just moments ago all the way into mid-March. Between the flip in seasons and an irregular schedule, my internal clock needs a serious tune up. Following this, I can’t hardly believe that Encarnacion’s Carnaval threw its final water balloon over three weeks ago. 

Home to the biggest celebration in the country, Encarnacion considers itself the Capital of Carnaval in Paraguay. Other cities host festivals and parades throughout the season, but none party like this southern border town.

Carnaval arrived in Encarnacion (or Encarn as most volunteers call it) with the railroad, in 1916. Originally a three day celebration leading up to Ash Wednesday, today Encarnacenos paint the town red for the entire month leading up to Lent. Friday and Saturday nights Rey Momo (King Momo) leads the corsos (parade route) through blocks of brightly lit bleachers along the waterfront. Sundays, the entire city becomes fair game for a no-holds-barred water fight. Kids run through the streets with buckets of water and full balloons, older participants launch their watery weapons from moving cars.

As Kevin and I walked to the bus with our tickets in hand, I had no idea how our first night at Carnaval would unfold.  Would we encounter a mild-mannered evening where men and women sit opposite each other without speaking (not an uncommon set-up for a Paraguayan get-together) or a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah, with free-flowing alcohol and wild crowds?  I wavered between basing my expectations on the Mardi Gras themed beers ads who found their inspiration here and listening to my host mother remind me how Paraguay’s deep Catholicism prevents activities from escalating above a PG rating.  (An insistence, I should mention, that becomes a little farther from the truth for me daily--but more on this later.)  The event ends with the start of Lent thus making the connection between the party and the church undeniable, but still I couldn’t get the image of feathers and dancing girls out of my head.

Admittedly, I counted myself among those with mixed feelings about a shindig that supposedly centered around half naked women shaking their heavily glittered bottoms for the eager hoards.  A few minutes into the parade, however, and these reservations disappeared.  Of course some took the night as an excuse to drink to excess, I quickly recognized the true essence of the occasion in the Samba beat.

Organized through neighborhood commissions and social clubs, everyone dances--regardless if in the spotlight or in the stands.  The biggest associations have themed floats, bands, drum-lines, multiple sections of dancers, and a children’s division.  Although most adult dancers wore a little less than your typical ballerina, few looked truly scandalous.  
The little girls (in leotards and tights) aligned with various organizations held their heads higher than I’ve yet seen in this country.  (The United States and Paraguay hold generally differing views on fostering self-esteem in children.) Overwhelmed by the pride of the proceedings and unable to resist the foam fight, I can't wait until next year.  Long Live Carnaval.

For an entirely different type of Paraguayan Carnaval, please click here to read Discovering Paraguay's account of festivities in the Chaco

Sunday, February 19, 2012

"You are not the father..."

Meet Mima
Last week the cat next door had four kittens, each spotted black and white with fat little tummies.  A few days after the birth, Kevin and I had our very own Maury Povich moment right here in Paraguay.

Neighbor: Your cat fathered the litter.
Me: Um, I’m pretty sure our cat’s female.
Her: Really?  Tell me about the cat’s nipples.
Me: Well, she has them.
Her: Okay.

Evidently in my neighborhood, cat nipples can break paternity cases.  And to think I spent all that time googling feline genitalia to determine our cat’s gender.

During service, many Peace Corps volunteers get pets.  A handful of these cats and dogs make their way back to the States.  Others get passed on to new Gs.  Some move into the care of Paraguayan friends.  Early on, people asked us if we planned to get pets during our time here--especially when they learned our history of fostering animals back at home.  In fact, for every Paraguayan that asked about when we would get started on making babies, an American asked us about furry children.  Officially, we did not plan on getting a pet during our service.  Animals complicate things and we’d rather not have to worry about caring for a cat or a dog.

We never stood a chance.

On our third night sleeping in our brand new suburban house, still relishing in our rediscovered freedom, we shot up out of a 2am sound slumber to a racket outside our front door.  Once we determined the low statistical probability of a bobcat and a hog wrestling in our patio, we realized one of the neighborhood cats chose our yard to entertain visitors while in heat.

In the weeks that followed, one of the cats drawn to our home that evening gradually moved closer and closer to our kitchen door.  She ran whenever we got too close, but she always came back.  Everything changed the night our host family mother brought us a basket of ham biscuits.  While holding a piece in my right hand, a meowing blur ran up and ate it directly from my fingers.  The following morning Kevin came home from the market with cat food, “just in case.”

Like I said, we never stood a chance. 

As she got progressively more comfortable with us, we watched her belly grow and debated if that fateful night would make her a mommy or if gorging on third helpings at breakfast led to a swollen stomach.  We made her a cozy outdoor bed and started calling her Mima--because we spoil her.
Kevin and Mima
As I’ve mentioned before, life in Paraguay changes and becomes more “western” daily.  This rapid transformation includes people’s attitudes towards pets.  Like many agrarian societies, for years animals stayed outside.  You might train a dog to guard your property, but not to sleep at the foot of your bed.

Recently, though, many Paraguayans have started to adopt animals for companionship.  Often a family will have one or two dogs for protection and another--usually of the fluffy variety--that gets to come inside.  Dog collars and toys have become increasingly available and our neighbor’s cat has her very own ball.  (I still have yet to see official cat toys for sale anywhere in this country.)   Back in our training community, every day we walked by a Weimaraner who wore a red shirt in the morning and changed into a black and white Olympia fútbol jersey after siesta.  However, just as with any culture-wide behavioral modification, a period of transition--and confusion--persists.

A few months back, while sharing dinner on the patio of a restaurant in Caazapá with a group of other volunteers, we heard the unmistakable sound of a dog and a car meeting in the street.  A teensy thing, this dog howled for at least two full minutes.  As he made his way toward us, I braced for the worst.  Would he have bones sticking out?  Would he have a broken jaw?  I almost couldn’t look.  When I finally peaked through my covered eyes, I realized that this lucky and scared pup erred on the side of the dramatic.  He and the car never made contact.

Once the little fur-ball stopped crying, he started scanning the sidewalk for an area of refuge.  As soon as he met our collective gaze, he ran over and hid himself under our table--shivering and batting his pitiful eyes.  Moments later, the driver of the car spotted his tail and rushed over to check on him.  The dog, recognizing his newly acquired nemesis, adamantly refused to come out and let the woman look him over. 

After some back and forth, the driver’s companion suggested something about the dog needing water.  I so clearly remember smiling to myself and thinking, “How sweet.”  Mistake number one.  The driver slipped into the restaurant’s kitchen and returned with a tall pitcher of water.  At this point, I recall two simultaneous thoughts: One, how might the dog manage to drink from that?  Two, did the other lady use this same pitcher to fill our water glasses?  Second mistake. 

Next thing we know, the woman starts throwing water at the dog.  Mind you, the dog, still refusing to change positions, has hunkered down around our ankles.  Every time this woman attempted to splash the dog, she soaked us.  Unfazed, the dog (heretofore referred to as the most stubborn dog in existence or TMSDIE) continued his stand-fast under our table.  Clearly having missed the day at school that covered creative problem solving, the woman persisted, undeterred by her lack of success, to heave the now semi-full pitcher of water in our general direction.  After drenching all of our shoes (and one friend's pant leg), she eventually grew tired of this strategy (more likely ran out of water) and grabbed a broom to shoo TMSDIE across the street.  With her mission accomplished, she turned and smiled at us proudly.  We stared back baffled and slightly horror struck.

Our group laughed about this woman and TMSDIE for the rest of the weekend.  On the one hand, the experience felt surreal.  Yet on the other, it felt like just another Thursday night in Paraguay.  Every day I find myself caught in a moment or conversation that feels completely familiar--so much so that I forget what continent we now live on.  These split seconds, though, usually get interrupted by something completely off the rails.

With increased industrialization, the farther and fewer these instances will occur.  Similar to the dogs who don’t quite understand their role anymore, I too feel caught in the middle and conflicted by changes that accompany development.  I like Paraguay like this--and not for the novelty of odd stories.  I could come up with a litany of little aggravations, but most of the time I find myself charmed.  Time will reveal if Paraguay maintains its sense of self as it emerges in the global market; the consideration of pets sits just on the tip of the iceberg.

I only hope that terere doesn’t get lost in the shuffle--even if it means buying pre-fabricated yuyo (herb) packs and pre-flavored yerba.  (Both available at our local market.)  For now, though, I’ll stick to worrying about the demands of keeping a certain someone’s food dish full.

Standard summertime pose

Friday, February 3, 2012

Thinking Smaller

Volleyball at dusk

I’ve spent a lot of my time as a Peace Corps volunteer struggling.  I struggle with language.  I struggle with finding my place in my community.  I struggle with maintaining relationships back home.  I struggle with finding projects and people to work with.  Then I struggle with sustainability.  I struggle with what comes next.  Inherent to the Peace Corps experience, every volunteer I meet struggles with something--more often, many things.
Ready for another icebreaker?

A recent RPCV reflected in her blog that as an organization Peace Corps finds success in teaching us how to fail.  When you grow up playing on soccer teams that don’t keep score, you don’t always learn how to deal with rejection gracefully.  And Peace Corps volunteers face constant rejection and failure.  We interview our neighbors about their needs and when we set up trainings to meet those needs nobody comes--even when the whole town promises that they’ll attend.  We facilitate the foundation of a much anticipated community group and meeting attendance nose drives after the third gathering.  The sit-down your community contact agreed to during your first few days in town gets pushed back weekly.

Over and over again we tell ourselves, “you only need to reach one.”

During training, our country director shared the story of a pair of volunteers serving together in the early 1960s who reached one: Alejandro Toledo.  As in former Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo.  Born into extreme poverty, he ended up with a PHD from Stanford.  A potential reached, he frequently explains, through the support and guidance of Peace Corps volunteers.

When you reach one, they reach others.  Alejandro Toledo reached millions.

I have no intention of holding myself to the standards set by Nancy Deeds and Joel Meister, arguably some of the most effective Peace Corps volunteers in the history of the program.  I do, though, try to place my focus on reaching just one and celebrating small wins.

"Who will change the world?"
This past week, many members of our sector (Community Economic Development) got to reach just one as a group.  Ñande Ha’e Tenonderã (We Are the Future) Leadership Camp gathered almost thirty volunteers with seventy Paraguayans between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four to share four days of leadership, development, and self-esteem training.  Youth participated in seminars presented by various Paraguayan NGOs, engaged in many team-building exercises, and partook in countless icebreakers.

Opening night charlas

Teatro'i and creative problem solving
In our final activity, the youth formed two circles, one inside of the other.  While the inner circle stood with their eyes closed, the outer circle walked around them and responded to a series of questions by touching members of the inner circle on the shoulder.  “Who made you laugh this week?... Who changed your mind about something this week?... Who will change the world?” 

By the end of the exercise, many of the youth could not contain their tears.  Many of the volunteers could not contain their satisfied smiles.  The camp meant something--something maybe even life changing--to these kids.  They met, they exchanged ideas, and they realized that they really could change their worlds.  The volunteers didn’t create any of it, we just supplied the tools these youth needed to get there on their own.

Early morning Taekwando
Only in Paraguay... do harps make the summer camp packing list
I had personal goals for each of our kids.  I hoped our fourteen year old would gain a new perspective while seeing more of Paraguay, our fifteen year old would start to realize his own leadership potential and gain some organizational skills, and our sixteen year old would connect with like minded individuals and learn that others share his dream for his country.  All of them grew more in four days than I knew possible.

Introducing s'mores to Paraguay

A train of excited jovenes pulls into the Caaguazú bus terminal
As we left camp, the kids sang and danced in the Caaguazú terminal and promised to keep in touch.  They made plans for our re-connect camp in July and confirmed everyone’s name on Facebook.  I started to question if we’d ever manage to herd them all on to buses.  Eventually, the southern contingency made our way onto a packed double decker headed back towards the capital.  Little did I know, on the way home from camp I would reach one of my personal goals too. 

Standing in the aisle and pressed against strangers, our fourteen year old surrendered to motion sickness all over herself, me, and another man.  Surprisingly, no one got up to offer her a seat.  In fact, no one seemed all that put off by the incident.  About twenty minutes later the seat next to where we stood opened up.  As I ushered my youth toward it, a young man tried to sneak in. 

Now, we’ve all heard the story about the mother, who upon seeing her toddler stuck under the wheel of a car, summons the strength to lift the vehicle and pull her kid to safety.  My “(substitute) mom” adrenaline came in a different form: without thinking, I grabbed this teen by the waist, pulled him from the seat, and plainly explained to him why he’d have to stand for just a little longer.  Evidently I have picked up a little Spanish along the way after all.  (Of course my body language could have had a lot to do with my clarity, but this still counts as a victory.)

Later that night, around 9:30pm while our youngest slept off her nausea, I got to do some eavesdropping.  Nearly nine hours into our journey and still an hour and a half from home, in a pitch dark bus surrounded by dozing strangers, our fifteen and sixteen year old started planning a project that would ultimately benefit our entire community.  They even considered logistical issues regarding reaching our most isolated rural areas.  To call myself proud wouldn’t even begin to cover it.

When we finally reached the entrance to our town, the boys excitedly bounced ideas off each other as we walked the two kilometers back from the main route.  Our fourteen year old, still not quite yet awake held back, half listening.  Worried that a rough bus ride sullied her camp experience, as we approached her house I asked her, “Did you miss our town?”  “A little,” she replied.  “But I miss camp more.”
Over the next few months, I can’t wait to see where this new-found enthusiasm takes them--even if it means struggling to get our camp’s theme song out of my head.  Aaaaaaaauuuuuuuuttttoooo-estima....

"Auto-estima, no se puede comprar. Auto-estima, viene de adentro...."
"Self-esteem, you can't buy it.  Self esteem, it comes from within...."
The Southern Contingency: On Wednesday, we left before sunrise.  At 4:45am we collected the kids from each of their houses and exchanged goodbye kisses with their mothers.  In the dark of early morning, we could barely make out their expressions.  Excitement?  Fear?  Two thirds of our youth had never before traveled without parent and yet they headed halfway across the country with two Nortes who possess only limited Spanish.  Around 11pm the following Saturday we returned everyone safe, sound, and ready to work.

Kevin, Vero, Damian, Joanna, and Luis