Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Paraguay for the Uninitiated

“Not all those who wander are lost.” -J.R.R. Tolkien

Beloved by Peace Corps Volunteers and Lord of the Rings devotees alike, these words serve as a mantra for many of us who have not followed the straight and narrow. Interpreted abstractly (I’m not off course, there never was a course to begin with), they help us justify some of the questionable choices made along the way. Examining the quote more literally gets straight to the heart of why so many of us travel.

Anyone who has spent any amount of time on Pinterest has at least heard the suggestion that the adventure lies in the journey, not necessarily the destination. Although the world is full of incredible, miraculous places, often the road there gives us our favorite moments--the tales that stay with us long after we unpack our bags. The opportunity to disorient ourselves and our senses can change us. It can also scare us half to death. Perhaps the greatest trick to travel is staying on the right side of that fine line where the best stories live.

Certain travel guides contain a small section in the front asserting that true travelers should forget about the book they just dropped $20 on and figure a region out for themselves. While I have always found these blurbs a little pretentious, they hold some truth. I love reading a few bits about a location to develop a framework and then letting the place reveal itself once we arrive.

However, in Paraguay--a land full of secret handshakes where indirect communication rules--the journey can wear us out pretty quickly. Sometimes, while wandering through Paraguay--albeit searching for an actual physical destination or navigating social mores--we just get lost.

In an effort to help keep those of you looking to pass a little time in the heart of South America in the fun “What just happened?” phase of the adventure (and out of the “Oh dear god, am I going to die here?” zone) I have assembled a haphazard collection of hints for your stay. Go forth, enjoy, and live out your Pinterest “inspiration” board like a boss.

This face should do the trick negotiating bus
fare and when store clerks who should be able to make change,
won't break your bill.
  1. When you say hello to someone as you pass them on the street, you actually say goodbye. ("Adios!")
  2. Unless you are serving the mate/terere, never touch the bombilla.
  3. The a-okay sign is vulgar here. So is miming revving up a motorcycle.
  4. Mango sap and poison ivy are close cousins. Watch out.
  5. If someone offers you something and you don't want it, you say "Gracias." (Thank you) If you do want it, saying "Yes, thank you" will lead to a lot of confusion.
  6. Never leave your cell phone unsupervised with people you don’t know/trust. It’s very easy and requires no password to move all your phone credit onto another person’s account.
  7. Careful when crossing traffic in the big city. Even if both lanes are stopped, motos will still weave through.
  8. Petty crime is on the rise in Paraguay. Money belts and ankle wallets can give you piece of mind when traveling.
  9. Ask locals and other PCVs how much the long distance bus fare should cost before you get on. Use exact change if possible. If the driver tells you a higher price, a long hard stare and a suggestion of the correct price should do the trick.
  10. Buses are competing for your business. Unless you have experience with the line, when at the terminal wait to buy your ticket until you see the bus arrive. (For example, just because someone tells you their bus is the next bus leaving, that doesn’t make it true.)
  11. Always save your receipts until you get off the bus.
  12. If a dog (or group of dogs) is hassling you, lean down a pretend to pick up a pretend rock. This will make you king of all the dogs and they will run away.
  13. Unplug your computer the second the power goes out. It often surges when it comes back on.
  14. Carry toilet paper/wet wipes.
  15. No paper of any sort goes in the toilet. (If you forget once or twice it’s not the end of the world.)
  16. If you turn on the electricity in your shower before the water, you may get shocked when you turn the water on.
  17. Don’t touch the shower head when the electricity is on. Turn the electricity off if you want to change the setting.
  18. Always wear flip flops in the shower. Squeegee the floor when you are done.
  19. Make friends with your local dispensia. Coke and beer bottles usually require a deposit or a trade. If your dispensia knows you, they may let you take one on credit.
  20. If you are drinking beer in group, don’t expect your own glass. Do NOT wipe the lip off when if gets you.
  21. Men and women rarely sit together during parties.
  22. If you arrive “on-time” for the party, you’ll be early.
  23. You may be called fat and then yelled at for not taking seconds within the same conversation. Try not to read too much into this.
  24. Paraguay is considered an “indirect” culture. For example, you don’t dislike a food, you don’t know how to eat it. (No se como comer.)
  25. Paraguay is home to a handful of food/drink combination myths that many people take very seriously. Beverages are consumed after the meal, snacks before terere, and never concurrently.
  26. Red and blue are highly politicized colors. However, unless you wear them to a parade or a government office, most people won’t make the association.
  27. Even if you are struggling with Spanish, learn a couple Guarani words/phrases. Nothing will endear you to your neighbors faster.
  28. You will stick out. That’s okay. Your language skills might not be great. That’s also okay. Just do your best, expect to get teased, and join in the fun. You’ve got this.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Body Electric

It’s official: I passed another stage in Peace Corps Paraguay blogging. I passed the “Sorry I haven’t written in a while, but my computer died” milestone.

Paraguay is murder on electronics. In the not quite two years since we arrived in the heart of South America, we have managed to destroy more gadgets than either of us had previously in our combined half century of living in America.

In Memoriam:
  • 1 MacBook Pro internal hard drive
  • 1 MacBook Pro internal DVD drive
  • 1 MacBook Pro touchpad
  • 2 external hard drives (including one specially deigned for “tough” living)
  • 2 usb hub extenders
  • 1 usb modem
  • Countless thumb drives
  • 1 iPod nano
  • 1 Sandisk mp3 player
  • 1 food processor
  • 1 electric water kettle
  • 1 double hot plate
  • 3 fans

We’ve also rewired every outlet in the house, replaced the resistance coil in our shower head four times, the blender is on the fritz, the oven shocks me if I use it after a rain storm, the computer battery holds a quarter of its original charge, and my cell phone only has a few calls left until it dies completely.

Perhaps I ran through that list a little briskly. Yes, I included our shower head in an inventory of troubled household appliances with an electrical component. No foolin’, sometimes my shower electrocutes me.

Many advertising campaigns suggest that a certain product or event will wipe out any previously held ideas pertaining to said product or event--generally in a positive way. This mini-SUV will reinvent your definition of a family car. This spa package will reinvent your definition of Wisconsin Dells. These soapy gloves will reinvent your definition of giving the dog a bath. Peace Corps pushes you to reinvent your definition of a hot shower.

In those precarious months before we left for Peace Corps, I savored every drop of hot water I came across. Knowing I might spend the next two years bathing in a bucket, I lingered a little longer in the shower and read books in the tub. Imagine my wide eyed surprise when Kevin and I arrived at our training host family’s home to find our very own shower complete with a fancy tank water heater. Granted some days I could see my breath as I washed my hair, but glorious running water could do no wrong!

Most of our fellow trainees used--in however a bewildered state--an electric shower head similar to the one we have in our current house.

In the United States, we spend a lot of time teaching our children that water and electricity do not mix. Between junior high science classes and chain emails perpetuated by our mothers, most Americans don’t feel great about introducing an electrical current into our showers. Many a Peace Corps Paraguay blog post/Facebook status update/twitter feed include profanity laced tirades questioning the safety/sanity of this bathing system.

Wikipedia claims that, until the Three Gorges Dam showed up, Paraguay’s Itaipu produced more hydroelectric energy than anyone else, worldwide. Perhaps this power over power gave Paraguay a certain boldness when it comes to mixing water and electrical current. Or maybe Paraguay’s relaxed attitude extends to an irreverence toward laws of thermodynamics. Either way, if you are a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay and you have a shower and that shower occasionally gets marginally warm chances are you also have uninsulated wires running through your shower head.

And after nearly two years of working with this arrangement I can confidently say, it’s sort of genius.

Home, sweet shower head

Packing for Peace Corps Service in Paraguay in 80lbs or Less

(Don’t tell, but technically you have 100lbs to work with.)

In less than 30 days, Peace Corps Paraguay will welcome in its newest crop of Community Economic Development trainees. In honor of the arrival our new baby G, here’s a list of what I would include in my precious 100 pounds if I had to do it all over again. 

A few considerations before we dive in: 
*Paraguay has a funny little insect called the bot fly. Some Volunteers blow this little bugger off, however I am paranoid and insist on ironing all my clothing. You may want to consider this as certain quick-dry fabrics melt when pressed.
*You can buy near about anything in the Capital, including clothing and shoes. Problem is, in order to get something comparable with US quality, you pay through the nose. Paraguay can be really hard on fabric, so I wouldn’t bring anything you would be upset if you couldn’t wear again in the States.
*Paraguay is covered in red dirt that with get on and into every thing you own. 
*Red and blue are highly politicized colors. However, unless you wear them to a parade or a government office, most people won’t make the association. 
*In the winter, Paraguay average low temperatures measure in the mid-50s. As a mid-westerner, I scoffed at this “cold”. Trust me when I say, without insulation or heaters this can feel down right frigid. Layering is key. Also, it’s perfectly socially acceptable to wear the same outfit four days in a row--especially in winter. 
*As someone who didn’t wear makeup in the States, it didn’t occur to me to bring at least one cute going out outfit (or anything, really that made me feel beautiful). You’ll have the opportunity every month or two when you’re in the capital. Personally, I was surprised how good it felt to get dolled up after too long in-site. 
*Peace Corps will provide you with a Spanish/English dictionary. 
*Try not to stress about your bags too much. At the end of the day, you can buy most things here and have anything else shipped. 

*** = Available in Paraguay for a reasonable price

Clothing (Joanna): 

  • 5 t-shirts 
  • 4 tank tops 
  • 2 pairs of work pants 
  • 2 pairs of jeans 
  • 2 pairs of capris or shorts or skirts
  • 2 work shirts (light weight and wrinkle-free) 
  • 1 long sleeve shirt 
  • 1 pair long underwear bottoms or leggings 
  • 2 cardigans for layering 
  • 1 sweater 
  • 1 nightshirt 
  • 2 pajama bottoms 
  • A lot of underwear 
  • Whatever you like to workout in 

For the Lady’s Foot: 

  • 3 pairs super fuzzy fleece socks*** 
  • 1 pair of leg warmers (seriously) 
  • 3 pairs of regular socks 
  • 1 pair of shoes for work (comfortable flats with durable soles) 
  • 1 pair of shoes for working out 
  • 1 pair Chacos
  • 1 pair of Crocs*** (Horrible I know, but the roads in my town turn to soup when it rains) 
  • 1 pair of flip flops for the shower***
Clothing (Kevin) 

  • 2 lightweight short-sleeved dress shirts*** 
    • (Ao Po’i, the traditional shirt, is very popular amongst Volunteers) 
  • 4 polo shirts 
  • 4 t-shirts 
  • 2 long sleeved cotton shirts 
  • 1 sweater 
  • 2 pairs of work pants
  • 2 pairs jeans 
  • 2 pairs of shorts 
  • 2 pairs of pajama bottoms 
  • 2 pairs of long underwear bottoms 
  • Many pairs of boxers 
  • Whatever you like to workout in 

 For the Manly Foot: 

  • 3 pairs of dress socks 
  • 4 pairs of cotton/workout socks
  • 1 pair of cross-trainers 
  • 1 pair of shoes for working out
  • 1 pair of Chacos 
  • 1 pair of work shoes (comfortable with durable soles)
  • 1 pair of flipflops for the shower*** 


Gender-free Accessories and Other Stuff:
  • 2 pairs of sunglasses (We have crazy sun in Paraguay. We also have crazy dust that tends to scratch up glasses. You may want to keep this in mind when choosing your pair.)
  • 1 belt (I like the kind with the secret money compartment.)
  • 1 hooded raincoat
  • 1 medium weight or fleece jacket
  • 1 pair fleece gloves that turn into mittens (My host family got a huge kick out of these.)
  • 1 sun hat or 1 baseball cap***
  • 1 winter knit hat
  • 1 swimsuit
  • 1 backpack (daypack)
  • 1 tote bag***
  • A pile of handkerchiefs (or more accurately sweat rags)

Electronics and Gadgets:
  • Computer
  • Registration codes and startup software for essential programs (learn from my mistakes)
  • External hard drive
  • Plug adapter and surge protector
  • Pen drive
  • Usb extender (One of the major internet companies now uses these wifi thingies. However, if your town is not in their network, you’ll probably use a usb internet stick. Unless you have ports on both sides of your computer, a hub will make life easier.)
  • Mac port converter for projectors
  • Canned Air (so much dust)
  • Camera
  • iHome Speakers
  • Cord to connect iHome speakers to computer
  • Kindle
  • MP3 Player and earphones
  • Headlamp

Office Supplies:
  • Favorite pens
  • Sharpies
  • Stationary with envelopes (if you plan to write any letters)
  • Construction paper and crayons (especially if you enjoy spending time with kids)

  • Sleeping bag
  • Your favorite brand of water bottle
  • Self stick hooks
  • Nails for plaster walls (keeps my backpack off the floor)
  • Multi-tool (Leatherman)
  • Measuring Cups
  • 1 small, quality pillow (What's more comforting than a good pillow?)
  • Full sized sheets (I love cozy bedding and you can buy something cheaper and better quality at Target than you’ll find here.)
  • 1 quick-dry towel
  • Photos of friends, family, and America
  • Except on rare occasion, I’ve only seen instant coffee outside of the capital. However, if you plan to bring a favorite blend or receive some in a care package you may want a French press. (There are ways to rig up a system, too. You can buy filters in the capital.)

Personal Items:
*We packed way too many toiletries. A week or so worth of supplies should do the trick. (There is a store right next door to the training center where you can buy soap, shampoo, etc.)
*About a week into training you will receive a med kit with everything from bug spray and sunblock to aspirin and allergy pills to antacid and diarrhea medicine.
  • 3 Months worth of prescriptions that you absolutely need to live
  • Speciality hair care products
  • Gold Bond powder
  • Razors (Anything better than a throw away bic is very expensive.)
  • Face moisturizer with sunblock
  • Anything that makes you feel great

  • One book for the plane (PC has a great Volunteer library.)
  • Card games
  • Supplies for your favorite hobby (Guitars and yarn are available here.)

Random and Optional:
  • TSA locks for your luggage (Although these do not have the best reviews, they have suited our needs just fine. It’s been my experience that these type of locks help deter opportunistic theft.)
  • Travel duffel bag for your hiking backpack
  • Gifts for your host family (We brought a small book of photos taken around Chicago, a tiny Chicago skyline snow globe, and a box of Lemonheads.)
  • Workout bands
  • Climbing gear (There are opportunities to go climbing here, if that’s your cup of tea.)
  • Hiking boots and clothing (Optional, but you'll probably never live this close to Patagonia again.)
  • Tent (Optional)
  • Sleeping Pad (Optional, but you might end up sleeping on other Volunteers’ floors more than you planned.)
  • Spices (See below)
  • Pet toys (My cat is really attached to her American mousie.)

A note about spices: All my favorite care packages have included spices. By reputation, Paraguayan food tends not to pack a ton of flavor. Most Paraguayans consider a little black pepper super spicy. Here are some of the seasonings I miss the most: 
  • Cinnamon (available here but very weak)
  • Anything to make Thai or Indian food (we do have curry)
  • Ginger powder
  • Creole spices
  • Maple extract (can be used to make syrup)
  • Anything to make things spicy.
  • Also, decent cheese is a rare commodity here. If you like mac and cheese, bring a handful of the flavor packets. (We already have plenty of pasta.)