Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Paraguayan Christmas

Merry Christmas! It doesn’t feel like it though. Somehow the 40 degree weather and the lack of constant, in-your-face Christmas commercialism (which I’m sure exists in Asunción, but is limited out in the campo) did little to foster my Christmas spirit. Not to mention, k-chak-a Christmas songs didn’t enthuse me in the same way that Christmas carols usually do. It’s way too hot to be Christmas! Let alone no snow, there are no winter coats or gloves or ice-skating or bare trees or biting winds that make me want to run inside for a hot cup of cocoa or sit in front of a warm fireplace. It’s quite the reverse here, and I’ve actually spent the past few weeks trying to escape from the heat: turning the fan on full blast, lying outside in my hammock, sprawling on my bed below my hot tin roof and cursing the gods above for the miserable heat, running to the río every chance I get.

With all these weather distractions, Christmas snuck up on me this year. All of a sudden, it was Christmas Eve. I wanted to celebrate Christmas the traditional Paraguayan way, with a family, so I went to the house of mamá’s (my host mom from training) mother who lives a little outside of the capital to celebrate Christmas the traditional Paraguayan way. Christmas and New Year’s are opportunities for big family gatherings here. Usually families will spend one holiday with one set of parents, and the other holiday with the other set. The house was full of all 7 of mamá’s sisters, their husbands, and their kids. The custom is to stay up until midnight. So we spent the time chatting, chowing down on sopa paraguaya, and preparing clerico, the traditional drink of Christmas and New Year’s in Paraguay. Clerico is very similar to sangria, it’s a fruit salad with wine. The Paraguayans remove the skin and dice all sorts of fruits, squeezing the juice out and putting them into a bowl. They then add wine and soda and leave the concoction to marinate for a few hours. Our clerico consisted of the current seasonal fruits, pineapple, green and purple grapes, plums, peaches, mangos, apples, pears. The only thing we were missing was melon (not watermelon…Paraguayans believe that if you mix anything with watermelon, you’ll die. I’ve been attempted on more than one occasion to invite them over to my house for tereré and watermelon).

At 11:30, we finally commenced our feast with all the traditional Paraguayan foods: sopa paraguaya, chipa, chipaguazu, asado, ensalada de arroz, and tarta de verduras. The radio was playing in the background so that we would know when it was midnight. At midnight, we toasted with cider and soda. Everyone kissed me on the cheeks and wished me “Felicidades” like I was part of the family. I felt lucky to be a part of this family-oriented Christmas celebration. Then the really fun part began and the kids and I set off fireworks. We lit rockets and then ran, screaming, in the opposite direction. There were cries of “Nde rasore!” (darn/damn it!) as we threw mini sticks of dynamite and they jumped about, exploding near our feet. It was just like July 4th in the States.

Christmas morning, we had a breakfast of clerico (mamá had made me special clerico with just soda…even the kids will drink it with wine). Papá even added cider to his (there’s nothing like alcohol first thing in the morning!). We spent the day chilling in hammocks outside and drinking tereré. We napped, ate leftovers from the night before, napped some more, ate some more, and drank more cleric. There might not have been snow, and it have been hot as all hell, but it was a day with spent with family, eating, drinking, and sleeping, and for me, that’s what Christmas is all about!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Trapped

I was trapped. I was standing in a chakra (farm field) of some crop or another. Behind me was a banana chakra, dense with rows of banana plants, and in front of me was the río. To my left was a tiny little camino, leading God-knows-where. And there was a man grabbing me.
Let me explain from the beginning. I had gone out running that morning, an activity viewed alternatively as inexplicably weird and as super-guápo by my community. I ran down 2a línea, one of our main street (in so far as you can call dirt roads “streets”) and a road populated by houses on either side, many of them belonging to my friends. I ran until the end of the road and then journeyed down a camino to the right, thinking that it would lead me to 1a línea (the two líneas are connected on the other side). This being the Paraguayan campo, it led me into the world of banana chakras. One camino led to another and, somehow or another, I lost my way. I was lost in a maze of banana chakras. Now if you’ve never seen a banana chakra, let me tell you something: they all look the same. It’s very hard to identify one from the other. I once visited my friends’ field with their younger brother as my guide. The next day I returned the next morning on my bike and it took me an hour or two to find the same field because I couldn’t remember which camino to turn onto and all the trails looked exactly the same. Banana chakras are also very dense, meaning that it’s very easy to get lost within them. This is the reason that I usually don’t visit banana chakras by myself.
Anyways, I made the mistake of turning down the wrong trail and was lost by this point. A man riding by on a motorcycle stopped and asked me where I was from. This might unnerve some of you back home, but this is an everyday occurrence for me. While walking down the street, I often have men on motos stop and offer me a lift. Most of the time, it’s a well-intentioned gesture, as they don’t want me to walk 10 kilometers in the heat. Other times, it’s just because they want to stop and stare at the norteamericana walking down the street. I always kindly refuse, telling them that Peace Corps doesn’t allow me to accept rides on motos, and continue on my way. So this man stopping was not at all out of the ordinary. Neither was the fact that he was leering at me and telling me over and over again, “Sos una mujer muy linda. Muy linda” (“you’re very beautiful”). I asked him where 2a línea was, but he refused to tell me. He told me that it was far away and ‘why didn’t I just come with him?’ I refused, thanking him for the offer and telling him that I was going to get back to jogging, and sprinted off in the opposite direction. I didn’t stop to breathe until I was several hundred meters away. My heart was racing from running and because something in his demeanor had seemed threatening. Unfortunately (remember that I was lost), I landed up running in a big circle. I hoped he had gone on his way, especially as he was on a moto. He hadn’t. I saw him at the end of the trail and dove into the banana chakra. Unfortunately, he spotted me at the same time as I spotted him. I ran and hid behind a banana tree, making way too much noise stepping on the layer of dry banana leaves covering the ground. He drove his moto up to the point, got down, and started walking towards me. I knew the jig was up. We both exited the chakra and he asked me where I was going. I said, “the río, no más,” trying to play it off like I had found my way. He said, “Come with me to my house” and called me his “muñeca,” his doll. At this point, I was having a heart attack. I thought I was going to be raped. I was trapped and I didn’t know where to go. He grabbed me, hard. I knew his intentions weren’t good, I knew he meant to hurt me. All I could about was what I had learned in my RAD (Rape Aggression Defense) class and how and where I could hit him to stop him from hurting me. Somehow I freed my arms, and ran down the camino to my right, not stopping until I reached a house. He followed me, but turned around when he saw that there was a group of men and boys were sitting around drinking tereré. Deciding that a group was safer than this guy, I asked them for help. I tried to play it cool, telling them that I was lost and asking them how to get back to 2a línea. They could tell I wasn’t okay. They said, “You’re breathing hard and you look really tired. Are you ok?” They sat me down and had me tell them what happened. Luckily for me, the boys knew who I was from the high school and escorted me back home, up to my doorstep.
Why am I telling you all this? This is not a story that’s meant to scare anyone or have you worrying about my safety. Normally, I’m very careful about where I go. I rarely go out after dark, and if I do, I make sure that I’m accompanied. The one day that I accidentally wandered down the wrong road and got lost, this happened, in broad daylight too. The point is that this can happen to ANYONE, anywhere, no matter how careful you are. Thank God, I’m safe, I got out of the situation unharmed, but many of my friends in the U.S. have not been that lucky. LADIES, SIGN UP FOR A RAD CLASS. They’re FREE. TAKE A SELF-DEFENSE CLASS, IMMEDIATELY. I don’t care how safe you think you are; take one now, because you might never know when you’ll need those skills. They can save your life.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Educación Jodida

Jodido literally means "fucked." Paraguayans don't actually use the word in that sense; they use it more in the sense of "screwed." When I talk about the Paraguayan education system, however, I use it in the literal sense of the word, because the Paraguayan education system is fucked. This might seem rather harsh, especially in light of the fact that the American school system is plagued with problems of its own, not the least of which is the No Child Left Behind Act. Why am I so harsh in my criticism of the system? First of all, Paraguayan schoolchildren only go to school for 4 hours every day. That's half a day! I went to school for a minimum of 7 hours every day (usually it was between 9 and 10 including after-school activities and sports). Paraguayan schoolchildren also rarely receive homework. I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen kids doing homework for school in the past 6 months. Some of you might still have your doubts, you might think "4 hours a day, that's not so bad. I didn't pay attention half of the day anyway" or "I never liked doing all that homework every day after school." Ok, fair enough. For those of you who actually did pay attention during math class, here's a question: what's 28 hours a week divided by 15 subjects? Into those 4 hours Paraguayan educators try to cram between 10 and 18 subjects. That means that a student might have only 1-2 hours a week, maximum, of a subject like math or Spanish. I know that's how the classes in our university system work, but do you remember high school? Between the notes passing, the immature teenage boys, and the complete and utter indifference to formal schooling at that age, we needed to see our teachers several times a week to get anything through our thick heads. Subtract from that time the time spent in recesses, at least 1 hour a day, and you have 3 hours of school per day. That is, when Paraguayans actually have school. I've been trying to talk with one professor for almost a month with no luck. That's because he only works on Tuesdays and Fridays, and God forbid it rains, there won't be any school. Thought it was bad when your children complained, "I don't want to go to school today! It's snowing! " (in DC this translates into there's .005 of an inch of snow on the ground, which might just put the city's two snow plows out of action permanently). Paraguayan schoolchildren make the same plea to their parents when it rains. Now granted, when you live out in the country and all the roads are made of dirt, it's considerably harder to get where you need to go. I too am guilty of skipping meetings because of rain. But, the amazing thing is how even after a small drizzle, not only will the students not go to school, the teachers won't go! Sometimes for days after it's stop raining! School is often also cancelled because of holidays or special events. It leaves one asking when Paraguayan kids actually do go to school. On the days in between the rain, special events, and random other days when their parents keep them at home to do housework (in the case of girls) or work in the farm-fields (in the case of boys), unless of course they live too far for the student to attend, the cost of school supplies is too expensive, or they're untrustworthy because they're female, in which case they don't go at all. And on those days when they do decide to grace the school with their presence, it's rare for them to actually receive lessons. I try to stop by the high school at least once a week and only once or twice have I ever seen a teacher teaching a class. Most days, they sit outside drinking tereré, gossiping, and complaining about how jodido the students are and how they never seem to want to learn. I wouldn't have any interest in learning either, given the fact that the teachers teach by rote memorization, reading abstruse passages – completely irrelevant to students' lives – from the government-issued textbooks the students don't have a copy of, and expecting the students to copy them down word by word so they can cough them up later on exams. The result of all this so-called "education," I use better grammar and can spell words in Spanish better than these native Spanish-speakers can!

This discussion wouldn't be complete without a mention of school-sponsored fiestas. It seems that almost every week there's a party sponsored by one grade or another. Fiestas are the one thing the administration is serious about organizing. There may not be rain-dates for classes, but there are always rain-dates for fiestas. What's the purpose of these fiestas? To raise money for one school project or another. I'd like to know what "school projects" the fundraising benefits, because I've seen students charged for the cost of their exam papers (and we are not talking big packets the likes of your high-school exams, I'm talking about a single-sided piece of paper). Lessons are often put on hold so that students can get ready for one fiesta or another. I've walked into classrooms to find that instead of teaching the students, the teachers are showing the students how to model for that night's fashion show. On other days I've witnessed the teachers sitting around while the students run amok because that night there was a fiesta and the teachers wanted to give them a break from class (What class? Talk about pre-party!). What happens at fiestas is another matter in itself. The school raises fund by charging students for food and drinks. Ok, that may not seem so bad. Let me be more specific: alcoholic beverages. Schools charge their own underage students to raise money for those same students' education. The Paraguayan custom is to take a sip of a drink – any drink: tereré, Coke, wine – and pass it around. I've seen teachers take a sip of a beer before passing it to one of their students. Meanwhile, the police at the police station look on as if nothing is happening. I always thought that restricting the drinking limit to 21+ was a stupid, unenforceable law. While it's true that the U.S. government can't stop underage kids from drinking, you have to at least appreciate the fact that there's no alcohol served at school-sponsored events. Teachers are supposed to be role models for students. How can they be role models if they get they're as drunk as their students? Or worse, if they get their own students drunk? We hope for teachers that inspire youth and an education system that educates the leaders of tomorrow. The Paraguayan education system is certainly a far cry from that.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

An Ode to Compost

Remember that feeling you had the first time you were covered in cow manure? Well, I certainly do! It was disgust at that green slime running down my arm; disgust at that pungent odor permeating my clothes. Why was I covered in cow poop you might ask? Because I needed it for my abonero, my compost-pile. I have a large bin in my backyard (hopefully it’s tall enough to keep the chickens out). I first put a layer of dry leaves to cover the bottom. Then I spread a layer of oh-so-sweet-smelling manure on top, after which I put another layer of dry leaves, followed by a layer of green leaves and rotten lemons, another layer of dry leaves, and finally kitchen scraps. I made sure to water the pile between every layer and add soil as well, just for consistency. The layers alternated between carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich organic matter, as to create the proper chemical reaction that will cause the pile to heat up. What was the point of spending all morning shoveling piles of shit, raking up leaves and rotten fruit, and hoisting buckets of water out of my well? What’s the goal? Crumbly, sweet-smelling compost (and this time I really do mean sweet-smelling) – the best all-natural fertilizer you can give your garden. A supplement that puts carbon, nitrogen, and potassium into the soil, enriching it and helping fruits and vegetables grow faster, last longer, and taste better.

Since I was already covered in dirt and sweat by this point, I decided to experiment with manure tea. I put heaping piles of cow dung into an onion sack, tied it shut, and placed it in a bucket of water where it will steep for a week or two, resulting in rich, liquid fertilizer. There was one hitch with this plan. I was getting the cow poop from my neighbor, whose house I reached by hopping a barbed-wire fence. The problem I did not foresee was transporting this bag of manure back to my yard. Imagine the sight of me stumbling around, desperately clutching in both arms, trying to move a surprisingly heavy sack of shit. This brings us back to the point where we came in, the one where I was covered in shit. Oh well, all in a day’s hard work!

P.S. Another problem I did not foresee was getting shit stains out of a shirt. I guess I’ll have to keep that shirt aside for my “lifting piles of cow shit onto my abonero” days.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

What I Do

I officially no longer live in the world of fast-food, electric appliances, 24/7 power, and flushing toilets. In my world, the power routinely goes out for stretches of anywhere from 20 minutes to 20 hours. In my world, food is often cooked over wood piled on the floor. In my world, heating consists of a charcoal stove. While my brother is sitting a world away trying to get Internet installed in his apartment in Pune, India, I am bargaining with my future landlord to construct for me a brick shower outside where I can pour water over my head with a bucket. My brain is kept occupied with ways to improve my latrine. I’m thinking of digging a two-meter hole into the ground as to avoid burning my trash. I hung a soda bottle filled with water from the fence of a chicken coop, using some wire and a stick which I whittled with my pocket knife, as a way to wash my hands (and to promote Paraguayans washing their hands). I’ve chopped firewood with an axe, which may look easy (which it is if you’ve been doing it since you were 10), but I lack the practice to hit logs in the same spot repeatedly. When I want to eat mandarin oranges or guavas or lemons, I pluck them off trees. If the season is over, like it is for mandarins, I no longer have access to them (I spent the better part of this afternoon squeezing lemons into bottles so that I can conserve the lemon juice in my neighbor’s fridge for the next months). Sometimes I hack ancient weeds with a machete because it beats ripping them out with my bare hands. Rough life, eh? Sounds like I’m permanently camping. And yet, these are fun little diversions that keep me amused in between or distract me from the hard part of my job.
So what is my job? In the future, it will be working with the community radio and a banana production cooperative. Right now, it’s trying to learn the language and get to know people in the community. This is much harder than it sounds. Imagine going to Mars, neither speaking Martian nor understanding how Martians think, and having to solve Martians’ relationship problems. Obviously this is an overstatement, but the premise is the same: without having adequate knowledge of the language or the culture, being expected to remedy everyday problems. I have to get to know the people, their names, their families, their work; know the community, its leaders, its rich, its poor, its intricate system of relationships; know the needs; know what projects are feasible in two years, what I can facilitate, what I can start, what will be sustainable; and do all this “knowing’ in Guaraní, a language that I had no exposure to until 3 months ago. So I spend my days visiting people, drinking tereré with them, explaining to them why I can’t the meat they want to offer me for lunch but still having to stay and either eat what they scrambled up at the last minute or cook my own food in their kitchen, and chatting about the weather or one of the few topics I can converse about in Guaraní (including introducing myself). I attend every meeting of the radio and the cooperative, even though I have no idea what the members are saying, because it gives me credibility.
A lot of the time, I’d rather stay at home than walk for 30 minutes or ride my bike in the hot Paraguayan sun. My head hurts after a full day of intense concentration trying to decipher conversations in Guaraní, and it is intense because I have to be cautious of tuning out every time they lapse from Spanish to Guaraní (which is 90% of the time, they usually only speak Spanish for brief periods of time for my benefit). I hate having inane conversations with people about the weather because I can’t express myself better in Guaraní, and most people don’t feel comfortable in Spanish.
At the same time, am I learning? Yes. Am I making relationships that will last for the next two years but shape the rest of my life? Yes. I had a happy insight last week when after leaving a Señora’s house I had visited for the first time I realized that her family and I were going to be very good friends.


Pictures:




Sunday, September 28, 2008

Paraguay´s Feminist Mystique?

My back hurts. It’s not hard to see why: bending over a stone basin scrubbing clothes for an hour will do that to you. So will chopping wood with an axe. Living in the campo where you do everything from scratch, whether it’s washing and hanging clothes, rolling dough for empanadas, or waiting 20 minutes for water to boil over a fogón (wood-burning stove), has made me grateful for electrical appliances. On one hand, I enjoy the simpler life. I was surprised to find that the face looking back at me in the mirror a few weeks ago was healthy and looked happy. Despite the latrines and lack of amenities, I didn’t look worse for the wear. In fact, I’ve come to relish my bucket baths (not only because they waste so much less water than showers). I take pride in my work; every sparkling white sock represents my struggle with the red dirt that pervades everything and is attracted to clean clothes like pimples to thirteen year-old boys’ faces. Then again, everything takes so darn long! It’s fine for me; I have all the time in the world. But imagine what this implies for families with responsibilities. There are no shortcuts, even if a family has a “washing machine” (they refer to it as a washing machine but it’s really an agitator) they still have to spend time scrubbing out stains and rinsing out the soap. There is constant work doing chores that Americans easily complete in a few hours in the evening or over the weekend with the help of modern machines (we would consider it a waste of time if it took any longer than that). Most of the women here are housewives, though many of these so-called “housewives” own dispensas or almacenes (small general stores). They are responsible for caring for their many children (Paraguayan families are big, eight children seems to be the average among the families I’ve met), while their husbands work in the fields. They cook, clean, wash clothes, tend to the garden, feed the pigs, chickens, cows, etc. Most men have time to relax during the day, often taking multiple terere breaks, while sometimes it’s hard for the women to find time to even take one break. Because there’s so much work, much of it gets passed on to the daughters. This is one of the challenges I’ve encountered trying to start an informal girls’ volleyball club. While the boys have all the time in the world to play sports or hang out, the girls are responsible for the household chores throughout the day, from as early as 5:00 AM before school. Imagine if you never had the chance to play sports or attend art or dance classes or participate in after-school clubs or go to camp or read as a kid (and you complained about how your soccer-mom mothers rushes you from one activity to another!). From this perspective, American children and youth have much richer lives than those in Paraguay. Yet, as adults, I’m not sure whether our lives are better. For all our “modern technology,” we don’t have less work. Instead of spending all our time doing chores, we spend it at the office. Paraguayans spend time throughout the day with their families. We suffer from stress, while they relax and enjoy their days. So what’s the solution? Modern appliances or a tranquilo attitude? Maybe a combination of both?

P.S. Returning to this blog entry after a few more weeks in site, I’ve come to some new conclusions. The division between American and Paraguayan lifestyles isn’t as much a factor of age as it is of gender: Paraguayan men have time to relax and be tranquilo; the women, not as much. I think I approached this topic too much from a Betty Freidan Feminist Mystique point of view, essentially chalking up women’s inferior status in Paraguay to their inability to seek employment outside of the house (women in fact are very isolated because they are rarely able to leave their houses, but that’s a completely different issue). And with this approach came the condescending attitude toward housewives that has become so ingrained into our culture. Women in the U.S. were able to ponder the question of whether they were finding fulfillment in their roles as housewives because the U.S. is a developed country with such time-saving devices as dishwashers, laundry machines and dryers. We have the luxury of fighting for equal rights within the workplace (not that these rights are any less important or it’s any less wrong that they are denied to us). The battle Paraguayan women have to face first is gaining equal status within the home. They need to gain recognition by the men that their work in the home is significant to the production of the home as an economic unit. In other words, that their work is just as important as men’s; that they, in fact, work harder and longer than men.

Check out my pictures

Friday, August 29, 2008

Welcome to 1984

I was sitting in my room last night when all of a sudden a mouse darted out from behind the dresser. This surprised me because I had just set a trap I was sure it couldn´t escape. A few minutes later, another mouse darted out. When yet another mouse darted out, I started worrying. I realized that the mice had started multiplying! I now have at least 3 mice in my room, maybe even 4. I could handle the one because it spent of its time behind the dresser, but these mice were running everywhere! They were running, 2, 3 at a time all across the floor and it was freaking me out. I was so shocked that I let out a scream. My host parents came over, heard my hysterical explanation in Spanish, laughed, and returned to bed. An hour later, sitting on my bed still in complete shock (with the mice still running everywhere), I knocked on the door to the main section of the house (I sleep in a room next to the kitchen). I had to knock for more than 15 minutes because everyone was alseep. I told them I was sleeping in the main room with my host sister and I wasn´t going back until they were dead. If the only news you hear about me in the future is about the Peace Corp volunteer who went crazy and spent all her time hovering above the space behind the dresser with a machete in her hand...you´ll know why.

Welcome to the Jungle

As I lay in bed last night, wide-eyed as I tried to locate a mouse with my cellphone flashlight, I reflected on the days before I spent half my time asserting my superiority over dumb animals. Actually, to tell the truth, I’ve been for the most part unsuccessful in contending with nature.
Let me start from the beginning. I used to think that roosters were smart birds that signaled the dawn by crowing. I was sooo wrong. Roosters are the dumbest birds alive. They crow ALL THE TIME. One rooster starts up so the others feel obliged to respond, and before you know it, they’re engaged in the loudest and most obnoxious conversation you’ve ever heard in your life at 10 PM…and 12 AM, and 2 AM, and 5 AM. The roosters here make me want to give up being vegetarian and kill them with my bare hands (Incidentally, you kill a chicken by grabbing it by its head and twisting it around until it breaks. It apparently takes a few minutes for its heart to realize that it’s dead, so it will usually run around for a few minutes afterwards spurting blood everywhere – a site I have been lucky not to have witnessed as of yet – giving rise to the expression "like a chicken with its head cut off.")
Americans love having dogs as pets, and I am no exception. Paraguayans are not so nice to dogs and it’s understandable once I realized that dogs here are mangy, pike-ridden beasts. As one other volunteer said to me, "It’s amazing how the only thing Paraguayans have managed to coordinate on around the country is having their dogs freak out when they pretend to throw a rock." I’ve pretended to throw a rock on more than one occasion, when I’m running and a dog comes chasing after me, barking. Kissing also works. It tends to stun dogs, just stop them in their tracks. However, my host family has the two stupidest dogs in Paraguay. Somehow, they missed the message about going away when someone kisses at them. I’ve consequently spent the last week chasing one of them out of my room with a stick (he has a habit of laying under my bed, making my room smell like wet dog). I’m still too American to actually hit a dog.
I don’t think twice about squishing bugs between my fingers. I talk to the many creatures who hang around inside my shower, including a praying mantis, a toad (luckily still a tadpole and not yet the huge slimy creature as big as the size of your head that it will soon grow into). My new bedfellow is a mouse. At times I think it’s cute, crawling out from behind the dresser to gnaw on pieces of food. On the other hand, the endless scratching at night has me desperate to kill the sneaky bastard (It successfully avoided the trap I laid. The food was gone alright, but it’s still at large…or small as the case may be). That as a matter of fact is what I hysterically started yelling the last time I spotted it, along with, "Die! Die!"…to think I used to think I was vegetarian because I didn’t like the killing of animals. Now I spend my days plotting how to kill a rodent. To be fair, when a pig was being slaughtered outside of our training center (right in the middle of class people started walking through the house, preparing to kill and cook a pig in order to celebrate the fútbol victory from the day before), I practically had a meltdown.
I’ve had to deal with all this while at the same time constantly telling Paraguayans, "That’s right, I am vegetarian. Why? Because I believe that animals are life too and I don’t want to hurt them." Sigh…I’m officially living in the Paraguayan zoo.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Friday, August 8, 2008

Off I go!

I finally got my site assignment. I will be in the department of Caagazú, very near the border of Alto Paraná. Apparently, weeks of intensive studying and paying attention in class, as well as mad-Guaraní skills, actually paid off. I got the site I wanted, I got the prize site. You have to cross a river to get to my site! (which is especially exciting in a landlocked country. The lake is actually the result of the Itaipú Dam, meaning it is man-made) There’s a balsa (barge), which takes people, motos, buses, and huge semis filled with bananas across the lake. Being that this is Paraguay, the balsa doesn’t have a motor. Instead, it’s pulled by a motorized boat which is tied to the side! Somehow it manages to make it across every time! My site is even more rural than I asked or hoped for. There is no running water and the electricity often cuts out. Because of the lack of running water, I’ll be using a latrine and getting my water from a well. The site is practically an island (an island within the island that is Paraguay), meaning not only is it in the middle of nowhere, but it’s also isolated. It’s 10 km from the nearest town (not including the river). Only one bus runs everyday, heading into town at 7 in the morning and returning at 12 noon. It doesn’t run if it’s raining of course, leaving me with a two hour walk along the muddy dirt roads on either side of the river.

The name of my site means “there’s work to be done,” which is an incredibly appropriate name. The volunteer before me was super-guapo (hard-working), super-active, meaning I have a lot to live up to. Hardly anyone speaks Spanish and he spoke pretty fluent Guaraní. For the next several months, while I learn the language and observe the community, I’m going to be known as “that quite girl who never speaks.” It helps that I’m the complete opposite of the former volunteer; they’ve already commented how they’re trading the blond blue-eyed boy for the morocha (“burnt skin,” basically brown) girl. But, I’m still absolutely terrified of not living up to the high standards the past volunteer has set for me.

To completely contrast with that, I’ve spent the past three days in Asunción in “chuchi-town.” After our swear-in, the entire group of us checked into a really nice hotel which offers discounts for Peace Corps volunteers. To celebrate our swear-in, and because we know we won’t get it for a while, we’ve been treating ourselves to good food at nice, super-expensive restaurants around town. For the past two months I’ve been contrasting Paraguay with Argentina, as that’s my former Latin America experience and it’s what I know. I was shocked at how different they are, but now I realize how completely wrong I was. Asunción is pretty similar to Bs.As. minus the amazing food and gorgeous architecture. The youth party till 6 AM, they use the same slang – “che, boludo!” –, they listen to American music. They say that the cities of the world are much more similar to each other than they are to the rest of the country. For example, Mumbai and New York are more alike than Mumbai and the rest of India. The same applies to Paraguay, maybe even more so. Asunción has the same standard of living as Israel, which is number 15 of countries, while rural Paraguay has the same as some of the poorest African countries, around 147. That’s a huge gap! That means that all the wealth is concentrated in the capital, while the rest of the country lives in poverty rivaling Bolivia. It makes me think that maybe Paraguay isn’t such a weird country after all; it’s not that different from what I know. But the fact that this gap exists is the reason Paraguay needs development workers: because becoming number 15 is within the realm of possibility for the rest of Paraguay. Our job as PC volunteers is to work to make it so.


My address has changed. It is now:

Pooja Virani, PCV

Cuerpo de Paz, CHP

162 Chaco Boreal c/Mcal. López

Asunción 1580, Paraguay (South America)







Pictures of my future site: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2112995&l=0d4a4&id=7402849



Friday, July 25, 2008

Mandio-Bindi

Latrines, wells, outside showers, coconuts, home-made bridges…you might be wondering where I went.

I spent last week at a volunteer’s site in Alto Paraná. We went in a group of four, three trainees and our language professor. I was worried it would be more class (All of us are ore kuerai – fed up – with class by now. We just want to get out to our sites.), but it was anything but. There was a great moment when I squatted in front of an outside spigot in the dark to wash vegetables and I thought “This is Peace Corps.” There were actually several of those moments, especially the afternoon we spent sawing and sharpening sticks of bamboo and peeling Brazilian coconuts, all with our Swiss Army knives (I actually cut my finger pretty badly, which I’m sure the whole town is still talking about using “ploos,” the Paraguayan noise for when a person loses a finger). We actually spent a lot of the week lying around in a hammock reading or playing with our Swiss Army knives. I don’t want to give the impression that Peace Corps volunteers just siesta and T-re all the time, because that’s not true at all. The truth is that it’s not a 9-5 job, it’s a 24/7 job. Our host volunteer may have read a ton of books since arriving in his site, but many of those are work-related. How many people do you know who spend the time they’re not in the office reading up on pisicultura or agro-forestry? He spends days at a time hashing out finances and coming up with project proposals, but he also spends a lot of time bonding with his neighbors and integrating into his community. Sitting around and drinking tereré is actually the time when most coop or comité members talk business and make decisions. Integrating into the community is not only part of our job, it’s necessary for us to make any contributions. To that end, this experience wasn’t great just because it was super tranquilo, it was also a chance to practice integrating into a community. Instead of having a four-hour language class each day, we practiced speaking with our host families and the coop members. And I was amazed at how much Guaraní I’ve learned! I can actually hold a decent conversation if the people have patience with me and are willing to listen to my slow speech and comprehension. The nice thing is, they are. I’ve learned how important Guaraní actually is. Sure Spanish is the official language of business, but Paraguayans (especially in the campo) tell jokes, they tell their stories in Guaraní. Knowing a little bit of Guaraní makes them much more ready to open up to you.

Now here are the fun details about living conditions in the campo you’ve all been waiting for: latrines, wells, and outside showers. We’re talking a hole in the ground and a separate caseta (wooden hut) for the shower. This actually wasn’t too bad, I have a latrine in my host family’s house and by now am used to bucket bathing in all temperatures. They did have running water luckily, though it was sparse and they had no sink. And the water we drank definitely had little red worms floating in it (hope those don’t come back to haunt me later…). It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be (though man, that latrine did stink!), though it did make me realize how my current town is much more of the suburbs than the actual campo (countryside). It was easy to see that just looking at the chacras (farm fields), which were mixed in with the wilderness instead of being ordered and neat rectangles (of course that may also be because the town we visited has only been around since 1984). One field is divided in sections by a stream, which the farmer can cross at two points, either by way of a thick branch (not a log) or a homemade bridge. Think Indiana Jones and you can imagine what this homemade bridge looked like. It was made out of bamboo ready to snap at any point. The funny thing is how the farmer once planted watermelon on the other side of the bridge and had to carry it all back across!

And finally, for mandio-bindi. As many of you know, there’s a wonderful Indian dish called aloo bindi (potatoes and okra). Well, this volunteer has been trying to get his neighbors to plant okra because it grows very well in Paraguay, so he essentially used me as the tool to convince them. Being resourceful (as every PC volunteer should be!), I substituted mandioca for potatoes, fresh cilantro for coriander, and ground mustard for mustard seeds, and added cumin and lemon…and voila! Mandio-bindi! It wasn’t quite Indian, but it definitely wasn’t Paraguayan either. And they loved it! It was actually quite interesting because the volunteer set me up with the host mom that loves to cook vegetables. So the last night she brought over vegetables, pots, pans, plates, cutlery, and the whole family to the volunteer’s house and prepared an amazing Indian meal. That’s right, Indian. She mixed together red peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, cumin, peas, the water from the peas, and a ton of ginger. The volunteer suggested curry powder and unlike most Paraguayans who would have been hesitant to try a new spice, she readily agreed (a Paraguayan with actual taste!). And so we had Indian curry! (And it did really taste exactly like aloo-mutter) Talk about a cross-cultural experience!


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Call For...

I find out about the next 2 years of my life on Friday (meaning I finally get my site). Please pray for me.

This is also a call, more specifically a plea, for packages or letters...yes, snail mail. Please brighten up my life with some love from the States :)

My address is:

Pooja Virani, PCT
Cuerpo de Paz, CHP
162 Chaco Boreal c/Mcal. López

Asunción 1580, Paraguay (South America)

Run around, get dirty, climb over fences, get hurt for crying out loud!

The other day I returned home from school early. I saw my host dad riding in a carro (bull cart) with one of his helpers, so I asked for a ride. Cristhian, my host brother, and his friend scrambled up the wheels into the cart. I tried the same, failing miserably and scraping up my arm in the process because the cart had started to move. I got up the more conventional route, sitting down on the back and hoisting myself up. The two bulls were new and the two men were testing them out, with success. They even let me steer the cart for a while, which is much harder than it looks (and that ride is much bumpier than it seems!) After the ride, I went out to the fields with my host parents where I helped them pick mandioca, while my mom mocked me for covering the back of my pants in red dirt (from trying to get into the cart). I broke the mandio off in pieces, covering my hands in dirt. I then walked with my dad through the farm while he talked about the cows. I returned to the house, my hands and pants dirty, my feet scratched up from walking through the chacra in my sandals, and my arm bruised, but completely content. I realized that this is why I’m in Paraguay, I want these experiences. I want to get dirty, scrape my arms and legs, work and learn in a farm. It’s like being a kid again, unafraid of anything, especially getting dirty or a little bruised.

P.S. Anyone who can tell me what movie the title of this blog is from wins a prize.

Una Finca Urbana (A Farm in the City)

Recently I visited an urban farm, by which I mean a farm smack in the middle of a city. That might seem unusual for the U.S. Believe me, it’s unusual for Paraguay as well. The farm has been around since the 1970s, but the area has only developed into a city over the past 10 years or so. It’s a small farm, less than a hectare, but it’s amazing what you can do with that little land. This farm is particularly remarkable because it’s an organic farm, or to be more specific, perma-culture. What is perma-culture? It’s similar to organic (no reliance on chemicals) in practice, but the theory is a closed system that reuses everything. For example, they use the manure from the cows as fertilizer for the fields. That’s actually common in Paraguay, but what isn’t as common is the idea of feeding animals entirely with home-grown food. Paraguayans, though they do grow some food for their animals, will often buy a ton of food from outside. Not only does this not make economic sense, but it leads to a loss of energy. Our guide, Fernando explained to us that perma-culture farm tries to maximize its energy. When plants and animals are raised in a natural way, they have a higher level of energy. When they sell products from the farm, it’s almost as if they were selling energy. As they sell mostly dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt) and jams, they lose very little energy. Coming from the U.S., where we’re either suffering from an overdose of cancer-causing corn syrup in our food or tasteless and nutritionally-drained genetically-modified vegetables, this concept may be strange. This isn’t as abstract or as crazy as it sounds, however; look at how the quality of soil and plants goes down as a result of overuse of fertilizers and pesticides. Imagine land that’s never been exposed to poisonous chemicals. The soil there was darker and richer, and full of nutrients. Consequently, the food is richer, tastier, and more healthful (we ate the most delicious chipa I have ever tasted, along with rich, creamy yogurt, sweet strawberry and hibiscus jam, and drank hibiscus punch).

We also learned what a biodigester is, and it’s a fascinating thing. It functions by taking organic matter and through an anaerobic process, facilitates its decomposition it into biogas. Translation: you put cow or pig shit into a long tube that’s partially underground, where it’s transformed into gas. One of the components of biogas is methane gas, which means that they have tubes from the biodigester leading directly to a stove. The liquid residue can be used as a biofertilizer for plants, while the solid residue can be used as animal food; they use it to feed their worms. One man’s (or animal’s) waste is another’s alimentation. All this from a plastic tube, heat, and water.

Speaking of worms, they have a ton of worm compost. I was impressed. Worm compost is pretty much unheard of here, but man, is it effective. Worms are amazing creatures: put them in dirt and they put air holes in it and enrich the soil. They can also speed up the decomposition process in a pile of trash, hence, the effectiveness of worm compost. This farm had California Red worms because they’re much more effective than Paraguayan worms. They also had three huge, enviable piles of compost. Compost is a beautiful, beautiful thing: decomposing trash that turns into mulch and acts as a natural fertilizer. They had the idea of building a shower near the compost piles, and this is wild, heating their bath water with the compost piles. You heard me right. Decomposition is an exothermic process, it gives off heat. Stick your hand in the middle of a compost pile and you’ll feel an intense heat. So the idea is to stick a spiral tube into the middle of the pile where it will heat water.

I don’t think this entry can do justice to how amazing this farm was. It was inspiring to see an organic farm in a country where too often farms suffer from excessive chemicals and people suffer health wise because of a lack of vegetables and poor nutrition.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Una Americana en Aveiro

That’s the name of my radio program. Yup, that’s right, I have a radio program. Every Saturday from 3-5 PM on a local radio station I get to host my own radio show. Translation, people have to listen to me talk and I get to play whatever music I want. How did I get such a sweet deal? Well, there’s a housing coop down the road from us, which we visited during class one day. The coop has a community radio station run by volunteers. One of the founders of the coop invited us volunteers to do a radio show, but the rest of the volunteers tenían mucho miedo (were very scared) of speaking live on the radio in Spanish. But, as my Colombian friend told me, I am sin verguenza (without shame) when it comes to speaking Spanish. I figure, my Spanish is never going to be as good as hers so why don’t I use her to practice? So two hours of speaking Spanish on the radio doesn’t phase me too much, especially since most of that time I’m playing music, not talking.
I had my first show this past Saturday. I was actually pretty worried because I’m never done radio before (and of course the first time I do, it’s in another language). It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be, however. After giving an introduction (“You are listening to 101.9 FM…”), all I had to do was introduce the songs. The boy controlling the music would cue me with my very own theme song, and after I was done speaking I would signal to him, it would fade out, and he would play the next song (my theme song, btw, is “Carolina” by Seu Jorge, though I’m wondering if that was the best idea picking a Brazilian song when everyone confuses me for Brazilian…). I played a mix of everything: bachata, reggaeton, Franz Ferdinand, Ok Go, Shakira, Justin Timberlake, Usher. And because I like talking, in between the music I talked about the artists, the songs, what’s popular in the U.S. Halfway through the show, I even gave a brief bio, explaining what exactly an American is doing in Aveiro: that Í’m in the Peace Corps, my project is Rural Economic Development, there are 6 volunteers living here, and we love Aveiro. I said all this in Spanish and then in Guaraní. They loved it! The moment I started speaking Guaraní, the highschoolers who were doing the music started cracking up; they were rolling on the floor with laughter. It remains to be seen whether the rest of the coop liked it, but for now “Soy Pooja y voy a ser tu locutora para las próxima dos horas.”

Saturday, July 5, 2008

I went to the U.S. for one day!

As you all know, yesterday was Independence Day. One advantage of being here is that the American Embassy invites all the Peace Corps members to its 4th of July party. I honestly thought that it was going to be lame as all. I´ve been to several embassies in my life, including the American Embassy in China, but most are just compounds full of office buildings. The American Embassy in Paraguay, however, is the 2nd largest in the world! That´s right, in the middle of Paraguay, of all places, is the 2nd biggest American Embassy (after the one in Iraq of course). This goes back to Stroessner, the dictator who ruled over Paraguay for 35 years. The US had great relations with him (of course) during the Cold War, because he was anti Communist and would use the ¨Cuba threat¨ to his advantage. Also, Paraguay has a very strategic location in the middle of Latin America, with Brazil, Bolivia, and Argentina as its neighbors. The point of this story is that the American Embassy here is huge! It honestly is more of a country club than an embassy, complete with a basketball court, a volleyball court, and 2 swimming pools! So I officially left Paraguayan soil yesterday and entered US territory for the 4th of July party, and it was a blast! They had hamburgers, hot dogs, veggie burgers, mac&cheese, potato salad, and brownies, all prepared American style. The lawn was decorated with American flags and red, white, and blue (for the American flag, not the Paraguayan one which has the same colors). Even the radio statio was straight from the U.S. We played in a volleyball tournament where we were absolutely demolished by the Paraguayan police team (Paraguayans are absolutely amazing at volleyball, in part because they cheat by carrying the ball and playing with their feet...but still they´re gooooood). I know they say cultural sensitivity, but it was nice to celebrate Independence Day the American way, with a picnic and beautiful weather (it´s been unseasonably hot for winter). We ended the day by squeezing 19 people (18 volunteers and one technical trainer) into one van. So here´s wishing everyone a belated happy July 4th!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Farm Life

For a city girl, I´m learning a ton about the campo and Paraguayan farm life. Paraguay is known for the quality of its produce (a fact not known by the rest of the world because it doesn´t have the infrastructure or the regulations to make it a major exporter like Argentina or Brazil). As part of my technical class, we visited my host dad´s chakra (kokue in Guarani). He grows a little of everything: mandioca (yucca), corn, tomatoes, sugarcane, and pasto camerún. He also raises cows (we have 12 including 3 milking cows), chickens, ducks, rabbits, and pigs. His farm is a microcosm of the spectrum of Paraguayan farms, which is a good thing. Most farmers will only grow one or two crops, a cash crop and mandioca. Everyone grows mandioca, despite the fact it has no nutritional value and is all starch, because it’s easy to grow and is a traditional crop. When I visited Guayavbi in San Pedro, I saw mostly bananas and pineapples. In my village they grow sugarcane because of the sugar factories nearby, this despite the fact that sugarcane is not a profitable crop. It’s labor-intensive and takes a while to harvest, so the farmer lands up working for six months to a year to harvest a crop and in the end gets paid a low price which doesn’t adequately compensate him for all his months of work. Mainly farming families squander their income in a matter of weeks because it’s a large amount of cash all at one time (more than they see for the rest of the year). Paraguay doesn’t have a functioning system of credit and survives mainly on cash, meaning that rural families often have to turn to loan sharks that charge anywhere from 10-50% interest per day to get by the rest of the year. This is where cooperatives come in. Savings and loans cooperatives aim to provide Paraguayans with access to affordable credit, while production coops can provide education about better farming practices, better the quality of goods, provide access to expensive technology, provide access to the world market (exports), and so on. My host dad is the ideal farmer because he does the things most Paraguayan farmers don’t. He rotates the crops from year to year to cut down on the number of insects (it also prevents against soil erosion). He diversifies his crops (meaning he doesn’t just grow one crop) because he understands that if his tomato crop fails or if he gets a low price for sugarcane, he always has other crops to fall back on. When you talk about diversification here, most farmers will agree with you but then go back to doing the same old thing. I met another farmer in Guayavbi who was impressive because he saw a Dole banana plantation in Costa Rica where they were growing the bananas in circles instead of lines, so he said, “I’m going to experiment and grow my bananas in circles.” Experimentation and change is natural to the American mind, but not so much to the Paraguayan mind. My host dad raises animals because if he needs cash in a hurry (because of a failure of either his crops or a sharp drop in the price of commodities) he can always sell one of them. That doesn’t mean that he treats his animals badly though; he treats them like his own children, not like animals that he’s just taking care of for a little while. My mamá and I often make fun of him actually: “Where’s papa?” “He’s with his cows.” So my host dad is the ideal farmer because he 1) works hard, 2) works smart, and 3) works in groups. Paraguayans, in general, do not know how to work in groups. This is because while Americans have been taught since grade school how to work in groups, for 35 years Paraguayans lived under a dictatorship in which a gathering of more than 2 or 3 people was prohibited or repressed. That’s the beauty of coops, teaching them the benefits of and how to work in groups. My host dad is a relatively well-to-do farmer (he’s certainly not rich, not even middle class, but he’s not subsistence level either) and he has workers that help him harvest his crops. But he has taught these farmers everything he knows about farming: his methods, about his fields. Most farmers are afraid of doing this because they view other farmers as competition, and this is in fact what happened to him when he was learning how to be a farmer. But he’s smart in that he realizes the fact that if he gets sick, his workers need to know how to farm his land in order to take care of his family. Besides the economic rationale, he cares about their well-being. His family used to live in a much bigger house with two-stories and a modern bathroom when he worked as a day labourer farming and as a night watchman at the hospital. They moved because he didn’t like that style of life where he wasn’t at home and couldn’t spend time with his son. He told me that he could have a modern bathroom now, but he doesn’t because (for one thing he built the house from scratch a couple of years ago) “How can I have a modern bathroom if my workers don’t even have food to eat?” My host dad is very impressive. He’s the guy who my technical trainer said he would teach so that he could be a leader in the town and teach others. I’m really lucky to be the only volunteer living on a farm with a smart farmer who encompasses all of the ideal qualities that RED volunteers hope to teach to other Paraguayans in our sites. As we’ve learned, it’s not about helping people have more, it’s about helping them be more.







Pictures from my visit to a banana farm/coop in Guayavbi in San Pedro

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Pictures!!






Pictures of my house. I´ve also put a bunch on my Facebook page and you can view those at http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2106157&l=80fb7&id=7402849

One of my friends here has also posted a ton of pictures on her blog which you can check out at www.peacecorpsparaguay.blogspot.com

Friday, June 13, 2008

A Quick Lesson in Guaraní and Guaranís

That title might not make any sense so let me explain it. Guaraní is the indigenous language spoken in Paraguay, while the Guaraní is the currency. Before Spanish rule, Paraguay was inhabited by a number of indigenous peoples each speaking different languages. The Guaraní cooperated with the Spanish conquistadors in order to survive. Ironically, this led to the virtual extinction of their race. The conquistadors fathered numerous children with the Guaraní leading to the mestizo race that calls themselves Paraguayans. Like their mixed blood, their language is also a mix called Jopara, a mix of Guaraní of Spanish. You might ask, if I know Spanish why do I have to learn Guaraní? While some people in Asunción do not speak a word of Guaraní, the majority of Paraguayans mix it into their everyday conversation. The farther into the campo you go, the more Guaraní the people speak. They say that Spanish is the language of the head, but Guaraní is the language of the heart. So in order to truly know Paraguay, I have to know Guaraní. Luckily for me, the language isn’t too difficult and I’ve been picking it up quickly. Some key phrases:

Mba’éichapa? (How are you?)

Iporã, nde? (I’m fine. And you?)

Iporã avei. (I’m fine also.)

Che heterei la tembi’u (¡Qué rico la comida!)

And of course, the “who I am” spiel:

Che cherera Pooja. Che aspirante Cuerpo de Pazpegua. Che Estado Unidogua. Che proyecto Desarrollo Económico Ruralpe. (My name is Pooja. I am a Peace Corps trainee. I am from the United States. My project is Rural Economic Development.)

Now for a lesson in the Guaraní, or rather, how much money I make. The 4,000 Gs is equivalent to the dollar (it’s a sign of how much the U.S. dollar has depreciated when I learned that only three years ago it was worth 7,000 Gs). That might sound like a lot but let me put it in perspective. A pack of cookies is roughly 2,500 Gs, a bus trip 2,200 Gs, a bottle of shampoo 20,000+ Gs. When I go to the main training center in Guarambaré, I have to take two buses to get there and two to return (plus walk 35 minutes each way). That’s 8,8000 Gs. I have to pay 5,000 Gs to use the Internet for an hour (with service that makes a snail look like Speedy Gonzalez). To put this further into perspective, I get paid a stipend of 15,000 Gs per day. That’s less than $4 a day. I have to use 1/3 of my salary to use the Internet for an hour. I have to use for than a day’s worth to buy a bottle of shampoo. How’s that for Living Poor?

Mi Nueva Familia

I love my host family. I don’t know who briefed them about crazy American ways, but they did a really good job. Unlike the other families, mine gives me my privacy. They let me sit in my room for hours to study (since training is like attending school 9 hours a day, 6 days a week and I always have a ton of homework/readings), which I often use as alone time and instead read or write in my journal. In fact, my host father often gives me a thumbs-up when I head off to study. This is very atypical of most traditional Paraguayan families. The concept of “alone time” or privacy doesn’t really exist in Paraguay. Everyone knows everything about everybody. The fellow volunteers and I are the chisme (gossip) of the town. When one of us makes a mistake or says something stupid to our host families, everyone knows about it. Today in fact, two of my friends couldn’t make it to a barbeque at another volunteer’s house. When I ran into them later at a fútbol game, I asked them what happened. I told them that sy (Guaraní for mother) had seen one of them walking to the hospital with her hermanita….maybe they had gone to see her aunt’s new baby. Another volunteer had heard from her mom, who had heard my friend’s mom talking, that they were planning on renting a car. We all our surmises about where she was from the different pieces of gossip we had heard (It turns out she was just spending some time with her family). Anyways, back to my host family. They give me alone time, but they also love to spend time with me. I’m surprised by how much they want to spend time with me. The little time that I’m not at home (and not at training), they include me in every part of their daily routines, from eating to drinking mate. Often, even when we’re not drinking mate or terrere, we sit outside and chat. We discuss different cultural aspects – how things are like in Paraguay, how they are in the U.S.; politics, economics, and development; Paraguayan crops and vegetables, especially those that túva (Guaraní for father) grows on his farm; Guaraní and Spanish; and what I learned at school. My parents take their job to teach me Guaraní very seriously. Most other host parents think that just by living with them their volunteers will learn the language, but my papá and hermanito make a conscious effort to teach me vocabulary in Guaraní. Whenever I’m sitting with túva, he’ll start teaching me a type of vocabulary, such as vegetables and fruits, parts of the body, weather words. My sy and my hermanito often help me with my homework, and my hermanito even created a Guaraní for me. My hermanito is so cute: every night he tells me how the next day we’ll practice Guaraní together. I feel bad because I can’t spend as much time with my host family as I’d like because I’m at training, and when I return I need to study. But my hermanito has so much patience with me; even when I don’t get time to spend with him, he tells me every night, “Tomorrow we’ll practice Guaraní and the computer” (I’m teaching him how to type properly, after which I’ll teach him how to use Word, etc.).

I love how my family takes care of me. In many ways, it’s like being a 5 year-old again. Not only do I not do any work in the house (though I’d like to and when I have time, sy has been showing me how to wash my clothes by hand), but they treat me like their child; this despite the fact that my mom is only 5 years older than I am (she’s 27 and túva is 37). In the mornings, they walk me to our gate and wish me good luck. I always give sy kisses on both cheeks before taking off. I return home for lunch, and if I have training in Guarambare, she packs me lunch. When I return home in the evenings, they ask me what I learned. It’s like I’ve regressed to the state of a kindergartener, but honestly I love it. After a year of never being at home (which I’m sure my mom can tell you plenty about), it’s nice to be at home in the evenings and sleep at 9 or 9:30.

I’ve been talking to some of the other volunteers about their host families, and I really think I lucked out (actually, all 6 of us in my community have great families). The Muni volunteers have super nice houses, but their families have completely different lifestyles. One of my friends, with whom I ate lunch the other day and who is also vegetarian, was complaining that her family doesn’t give her enough vegetarian food, specifically vegetables. They usually just her one of the side dishes, and she never feels like there’s enough variety. My host mom specially prepares vegetarian food for me. On most nights, that’s all we eat. Even when there’s not meat, the main meal is vegetarian. Most of the Muni volunteers complained about how much time their families spend in front of the TV. They want more quality family time. In contrast, I always have quality family time. More than I can handle in fact. My parents spend hardly any time in front of the TV; they always have plenty of time for me and are always ready to and enthusiastic about spending (I prefer the Spanish word compartir…you don’t spend time with people, you share time with them) time with me. In a way, the Muni families are much more like the modern American families, each member is independent and leading his or her own life. But my family, and the families of the other RED volunteers, is a much more traditional Paraguayan family. That’s what I came to Paraguay to experience, not the comforts of home.

What do you mean you shower inside?!

I am amazed at how easily impressed I am here. We saw the houses of the Muni volunteers on Saturday and I was blown away. One of the volunteers had a house with a garage! There were pictures hanging on the walls, a wooden cabinet in the dining room with two Ming vases, a large couch in the living room encircling the TV, and a nice patio. Another house had actual sofa chairs in the living room. From the front, it looked like a Spanish villa. In another house, I was amazed by how big the kitchen was. It had two types of ovens and looked kind of like the typical American kitchen. The bathroom actually had a shower curtain and a padded toilet seat. The final house I saw had three bedrooms. Three!

None of these descriptions may sound particularly astounding, but here they are. Some of them are not much better than houses in India. Others resembled a lower middle-class home in the U.S. Yet, I was completely shocked by how luxurious they were. It’s amazing how much we take for granted. As the other RED volunteers and I walked through these houses we exclaimed, “You have a sofa?! And a shower curtain! And a kitchen inside the house with a sink!!” We thought that the house owners must be millionaires! In less than two weeks, my mentality has completely changed. I honestly can’t remember what a shower indoors, with endless hot water, in a tiled-floor bathroom, feels like. All I know now are showers outside, in a brick bathroom, with hot and cold water mixed in a bucket, and a window through which the cold air and wind enter. But, I don’t mind. I might even like the feeling of not having as many luxuries as I’m used to. It makes me appreciate what I have in the U.S.

An interesting thing I’ve noticed about Paraguay is the persistence of inequalities. The Muni volunteers live hardly half-an-hour from my house, yet they have these luxurious houses. They have tiled bathrooms with flushing toilets, sofas or couches, decorations, wall hangings and paintings. On the other hand, my house is completely utilitarian. It doesn’t have decorations. The bathroom is outside. There are few lights and are naked light bulbs that hang from the ceiling or are placed next to the stove, not embedded in light sockets. Even within my community, there are significant differences among houses. Two of the RED volunteers have much nicer houses because their parents are professionals are relatively well off. One hardly has a house, just a bunch of rooms in the vicinity of each other. He doesn’t even have a proper stove, just a charcoal pot outside. Yet, we, the RED volunteers living practically in the campo, are having experiences the other volunteers aren’t. We may have more rustic living conditions, but many of our parents have acres of farms. For the most part, we eat what we grow from the tierra. I wake up everyday thinking that I’m in a postcard. The clouds are also perfect; they seem to go on forever. And the sky is always the perfect shade of blue. Watching the sunrise over our chacra the other day, was one of the most incredible views of my life. The sky appeared to be on fire. It was filled with pinks and yellows and oranges. We’re having a different experience, in a way I feel more real, than anything we’d ever have in the U.S.