Monday, August 31, 2009

Swearing In + Peace Corps Office Pics

August 17th, 2009

It’s Official; I’m finally a volunteer!

Wow it’s been a long journey to officially become a volunteer. I’ve been an aspirant, an applicant, a nominee, an invitee, a trainee, and now finally, a volunteer.

It all started back in October of 2007 when I was in my 1st semester of senior year. I began preparing my application, so that I could leave shortly after graduation, but couldn’t submit it due to unforeseen circumstances that took until March of 2008 to resolve. By that time I was so busy in classes, preparing my senior thesis, and making final preparations to graduate that I didn’t have time to complete my application. Immediately after graduating in May of 2008, a group of my friends and I headed off for a celebratory Eurotrip. I got back in June, and finally officially submitted my application on June 22, 2008.

I was nominated for service on July 8th, 2008, didn’t receive all my clearances until January 15th, 2009, and finally received my invitation to serve on January 17th, 2009, which I accepted on January 28th, 2009. I did more waiting and more paperwork between then and my staging date of May 26th, 2009.

On May 27th, 2009, I flew out of Miami and arrived in Paraguay around 10:00 AM the next day, May 28th, 2009.

At that point I began 3 months of language, cultural, health, safety, and technical training.
On August 14th, 2009 at around 10:45 AM, I said the same words the President of the United States says at Inauguration and swore in as a Peace Corps Volunteer!

The longest beginning of my life...

Swearing In Ceremony and Festivities:

We arrived at the embassy, and basically just stood around talking and taking photos. Sometimes you take photos and try to make the environment seem a lot better than it really is...but I want to give you the real deal perspective for once.

The ceremony began shortly after the Ambassador arrived. Our APCD (Assistant Peace Corps Director), Elisa Echague kicked it off with a short speech. She was followed by Country Director, Donald Clark, the Ambassador (I could look it up on Google and pretend I know her name but the reality is I don’t), and Ronnell Perry.

The moment they asked us to nominate people to make the speech, I immediately nominated Ronnell because I knew he was the man for the job. He delivered in a major way. His speech put the Director’s and the Ambassador’s respective speeches to shame. He used the physical and nonphysical things trainees pack in anticipation of their Peace Corps adventure to provide comic relief and draw insights about what has and will serve us well as volunteers. In the end, it’s the things we intrinsically bring with us that are most valuable in our service.

After his speech, the Ambassador administered the oath, and with that we were official!

Then we went to a beautiful gazebo structure out back for a celebratory reception. I had heard about how delicious the cake is, and how I should eat as many pieces as humanly possible, because it would be a very long time before I had anything that good again. It did turn out to be really good and I had several pieces.

We stood around talking. The things that stand out in my mind are the following:
  • Mike placing two small, round empanadas up against his nipples not three feet from the Ambassador and in view of our bosses, the Country Director and the APCD. Haha. It was hilarious. I told him the Ambassador saw him do it, and he had no way of knowing because I was facing her and he wasn’t. He turned blood red, and couldn’t stop nervously laughing. It was hilarious.
  • Mary having a long conversation with the Ambassador, and then telling me that she hates bureaucratic officials, and told me how the Ambassador was an idiot and didn’t even know that the department she would be living in existed in Paraguay or where it was. The ambassador just threw around buzzwords of the moment. Mary has a Masters in International Development, Public Policy, International Relations, or something like that from Columbia, and some really good experience. She’s really smart, super sarcastic, and critical. It was really funny. It is bad that the US AMBASSADOR doesn’t even have a basic understanding of the departments and fairly big cities in Paraguay...

  • Mike, in dressed in his traditional A poi shirt, which reveals his very hair chest, getting interviewed by a Paraguayan news channel. He immediately agreed to it because the reporter was hot.

  • Me talking to the Ambassador about her rise to the Ambassador position, the role of public-private partnerships in development and telling her to invite me to her next pool party, and her subsequently offering me an open invitation to come hang out whenever I would like. She even said she might come to San Juan for the famous Dia de San Juan.
  • Me talking to Country Director Donald Clark about my senior thesis, which concerned creating a consulting service for Peace Corps volunteers in the field, and him telling me to write a proposal for it, because they were looking for new ways to partner with institutions in the States
We snapped a few group pics and that was that...short and sweet.

Oh, interesting side note! Our swearing in was on President Lugo’s agenda, and he was really excited to come. We made preparations by learning the Paraguayan National Anthem and Ronnell translated his speech to Spanish, which must have been difficult because they were some lofty ideas, abstract thoughts, and English slang weaved throughout it. In the end, someone erased it off his agenda in favor of something else, and when he found this out, after it was too late to change, we are told he was upset (whether or not that is true or just political BS we’ll never know).

Peace Corps Office

Next on the agenda was a trip to the Peace Corps office to handle some administrative tasks such as getting our debit cards, money, cell phones, submitting forms to solicit bicycles, getting mail and packages, visiting the doctor to get medicines to take to site with us, signing a few forms, etc...

I'm going to give you a tour of part of the Peace Corps office complex for your enjoyment and for future Peace Corps trainees curiosity (I know how it is to scour through Peace Corps blogs looking for insight into what my future life would be like...look out for a future blog post on training and recommendations to future trainees).

The whole complex is surrounded by a big brick wall. 1st you have to go through a little security building at the entrance from the street, but once you're on the other side of that this is what you see...the main office.

This is the view from the inside of that building.

I love seeing the Peace Corps logo and President Obama's picture front and center in the office. I know a lot of people reading this blog may be of different political persuasion but personally I'm very proud to call Barack Obama my President, and am proud to be serving under his term. I think he is sincerely passionate about changing the direction America is headed in and the way politics work in Washington. He has good ideas for how to invest in America's future, and is a dynamic and intelligent leader and speaker who represents America well in international affairs. It puts a smile on my face, renews my motivation to be effective in making a positive impact during my service, and overwhelms me with a sense of pride and patriotism every time I walk into the office and see his photo next to the Peace Corps logo. That's all I'll say about that so lets continue with the tour.

Next up is the office of the assistant to the APCD of the RED sector.

This is the office of the Peace Corps coordinator. If you are a particularly motivated volunteer interested in extending your service as a coordinator in Paraguay, this could be your future office. Fancy right?

Once you get on the other side of that building, this is what you see. Directly ahead and to the left a little is the entrance to the library.

The official Peace Corps collection of books are located on the second floor of the building (It's not impressive). What you see is a Volunteer initiated and maintained book sharing project. You are free to take from, return to, and add to the library as you wish. There are some interesting books there, and it's my goal to read some along with my professional reading and GMAT study. I've already read Ismael and have started Collapse by Jared Diamond (an analysis for the reasons of collapses of societies throughout history) and Open Veins of Latin America (the book Castro gave to Obama).

These are the computers available for volunteers to use free of charge and anytime during office hours. There aren't usually a lot of volunteers at the office at any given time, so the lack of a large number of computers isn't a big problem.

This is the view as you leave the library and look back towards the main office. Those chairs and tables serve as a hang out spot for volunteers, and just on the other side there is a big grill that we can use as well. There is also an entertainment room in the building to the right, which has really comfy couches and a television (no dvd yet, only vhs but maybe sometime soon). There are also bathrooms, and a couch, which can be used as a very short term place to sleep and relax in between trips in and out of Asunción.

I threw this pic in to show the Peace Corps cars used by staff. For Paraguay, these SUVs are super lindo, and a treat to ride in because of the AC, comfortable seats, and smooth ride. Don't expect to ride in them much though because most of the time we pack in one of two crappy vans for our transportation to and from places as groups.

My next post will describe the weekend after Swearing In.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Nostalgia- Playing like a Kid Again

August 10th, 2009

The last few days I’ve been playing a lot of the traditional games Paraguayan children play.
It was all prompted because Saturday I had to give a charla (small instructional presentation) about a cultural topic of my choice. Since I spend a lot of time playing with kids, and already knew some of the games, I decided to do my charla on juegos de niños (children’s games). So I began asking the kids and other family members what the most popular games were, and explaining the games in words just wasn’t sufficient. I had to play them to understand them. So we all, including my older, sort of hefty sister, acted like kids again and had tons of fun doing it.
Many of the games are the same traditional games kids used to play in the States.

Muñeca (Doll)

Muñeca (Doll) is a game that resembles hopscotch. You basically draw the photo below in the dirt with a stick, broomstick, your shoe, a rock, or something else. It can also be played on concrete surfaces and chalk is used to draw the doll.

Then you toss a rock into the first square. You have to hop on one foot skipping the square the rock is in. You can use two feet when you get to a sectioned portion of the muñeca. Once you get to the head you turn around come back and bend over and pick the rock up on your way back. Everyone takes a turn. Then the next round you throw the rock into the next section. Repeat the process. If you use two feet when you’re not supposed to, fall, go outside the lines, or toss the rock and it lands on a line or in the wrong square you lose. The person that lasts the longest without mistakes wins.

La Cuerda (Jump rope)

Two people hold two different ends of a long rope. Then they start making circles with the rope. The first person enters, and goes as long as they can, and then tries to exit without the rope touching them. While the person is jumping the people with the ends of the rope turn it faster and faster every time. The next person has their turn, and the game continues. In theory, you count how many times you were able to jump before exiting. The next person has to beat that. If the rope touches you, you’re out, and if you don’t jump as long as someone else, you lose. In practice what ends up happening is everybody just takes turns jumping and holding the ropes. You never really declare a winner or keep track. You can add two ropes if you want to get really advanced.


This is a game where an elastic rope (the elastic in the waste of sweatpants for example) is place around two people. It starts around their ankles. The first person has to step on the two pieces of rope, pressing them to the ground. You are allowed to do one at a time. The next person goes. If you aren’t able to do it, you’re out of the game. This continues until everyone has gone, and then you raise the level of the elastic rope. The game continues until the second to last person has failed in pressing the strings to the ground. Usually by the time the elastic rope is around the peoples’ necks, there is a winner, and if not almost for sure there will be one after that round.

Balitas (Marbles)

A day or so later, I asked the kids about marbles because I had seen some kids playing on a street corner as I was riding home on the bus a few weeks ago. They didn’t have any marbles, so we set out to find a place to buy them. Fabiola, Mary, Junior, Jacquelin, and I all went together. We went to 3 different stores, but finally found them. I bought 20 marbles, and we were off to play. We played a silly version of chicken on the way home. I had Mary on my shoulders and Jacquelin had Fabiola on hers. We would run at each other and ram into each other, and let the two little girls battle a bit. Then one person would take off running and the next person would follow in pursuit.

Shortly after arriving home my sister explained to us exactly how to play the game and we began. You basically draw a circle in the dirt, and put an indented hole in the middle of it. Then you draw a line about 5 feet away from the circle, and each person in turn rolls their marble towards the center of the circle. The first person to enter the whole places their marble outside the hole and waits for someone else to make it in. When that person makes it in they get a chance to knock the other person’s marble outside the circle, which means they lose. This keeps happening until there is only one marble standing, and then you start a new game.
It was a CATASTROPHE. These kids were screaming at each other arguing about the game and vying for position. They would crowd over the person as they were trying to shoot, and would get upset over whose marble was whose, and whether or not someone did it the right way, or whose turn it was, etc... Fabiola quit every time she lost even though she had won the most games or was tied at any given moment. I had to put some order to the game, and the major frustration was they couldn’t remember whose turn it was, and would fight over who got to start the game, which is stupid because the first person to make in the hole has the largest likelihood of getting knocked out first. I mandated that the person who won the previous game would go first in the next, and the rest would be determined by height (to make it easy). Next I wrote down the order every time on a piece of paper and would announce whose turn it was after every turn. Coming from the states, I assumed it would be easy to remember which person you’re always after, but that’s not the case here.

Anyway, after getting some basic rules down and providing structure, everything went fairly smoothly except for the fact that Fabiola ruined our playing spot by squatting about 3 feet from the circle and peeing everywhere. Oh yeah, it’s completely acceptable to just pee pretty much anywhere at anytime. I may have forgot to mention that. I see people, including grown men, pissing on the side of the street, in peoples’ yards, etc... all the time.

Escondida (Literally translated hidden, the game is a lot like Hide and Seek, but with several major differences)

Escondida starts like this. Everyone puts their hands together and going up and down say, “Ma..yo...ri...a.” On “a” everyone throws their hand face up or down. The majority stay in and the oddball steps out. This process repeats until there is only one person left. That person has to stand at the “tambo” and count. They will count somewhere between 10 and 50 seconds, depending on another game. A person says a saying while touching the person’s back with alternating fingers of one hand. At the end the person has to guess which finger touched them last. Then they have to pull that finger. If the finger pops, you double the seconds that finger corresponds to, and if not, they just count the number of seconds that finger corresponds to.
While the person counts, the others run and hide. Then the person at the “tambo” starts looking for people. If they see someone they can yell out their position, their name, and say “tambo,” which means that person can’t get to the tambo. The idea is to not be the last person to get to the tambo. While the seeker is looking for hiders you could take a chance and run for the tambo, and if you make it there before the seeker does, you’re safe. The last one to get back to the tambo, or caught before making it to the tambo has to be the seeker the next time.

I struggled with this game at first because it’s illogical to me. The game is called escondida, which means hidden, but the rules of the game are such that the person who hides the best loses. If I hide really well, I will be the last found, and will have to be the seeker the next time. The trick is to hide yourself near the tambo, and make a run for it, or you could just get found first and most likely everyone else won’t make it back to the tambo without being caught by the seeker. A little illogical...but the kids love it here.

Polibandi (Cops and Robbers)

In Polibandi, you play ha kem bo (paper, rocks, scissors) to determine the cops from the robbers. I’ll explain the Paraguayan version of Paper, Rock, Scissors. It’s basically the same, but there is a well too. The scissors and rock fall in the well and the paper tops it. Also, the first to five wins, and you keep track using fingers on the hand your not using to throw your weapon.
Once the cops and robbers are determined. The cops go to the area designated as jail and the robbers to the area designated as their home base. Then the robbers have to run, and the cops have to catch them and take them to jail. Once in jail, another robber can break their fellow robber out by tagging them inside the jail. The robbers can always run back to their home base where they are safe from being arrested. I guess this is kind of like the idea of cops not going into certain areas because it’s so dangerous.

Once all the robbers have been caught and taken to jail, you switch roles and start it over.
This continues until people quit because their either too bored or tired to play it anymore.

Casita Robada

This is played with cards. You deal each player 3 cards and turn up four in the middle. The player to the left of the dealer starts and tries to make a match from the cards in the middle. If they can, they place those cards face up in their “casita” pile. If they can’t, they discard a card. At any moment someone that has the top card in someone’s casita pile, can rob it and place it in their pile. When all the players run out of cards in their hand, you deal 3 more cards to every player, and flip up cards if necessary in the middle.

When all the cards run out, you count your cards like this, “Casa, Casita, Rancho, Palacio, Casa, Casita, Rancho, Palacio.” That would be 8 cards for example. The translation is house, small house, ranch, palace. Palace is the highest valued and casa the lowest. Yet again, it’s illogical to me that small house has a bigger value than house, but that’s just the way it is.
You keep saying that, one word for every card, and the word you land on for your last card is what you own. Then you compare that with the other players. For example, if I had 4 cards I would have a Palace and if you had 3 cards you would have a ranch, therefore, I would win. If there are any ties, you settle it with Ha Kem Bo (Paper, Rock, Scissors).

I find the game really interesting from a social perspective because we normally would never play a game like that. You spend the whole game trying to collect as many cards as possible (capitalism) but in the end its up to luck (and basic math –if you’re final number of cards is divisible by 4, you’ll always win) (communism or socialism) that determines your material standing at the end of the day.

American Games

I taught the kids to play Go Fish, which they absolutely loved, and later taught them crazy 8s (thanks Mom for the cards), which they also loved.

Fabiola only knows numbers one, two, three, five, and ten by memory so it was difficult playing with her at times. We would help her, because it was simply not an option not to allow her to play. I tried teaching her numbers and made some progress. I ended up giving her the Crazy 8s cards because it made the perfect gift for her...something fun and educational. With those cards, she’ll have a fun time and learn her colors and numbers.

It’s really fun to play with kids here, and much easier and more fun than passing time with the adults. Sometimes you might think parts of the games are illogical, and usually they are, but just spending time having fun with the kids is what matters most.

Bridge to Service at the Peace Corps Office

August 7th, 2009

Yesterday we all went to the Peace Corps Office in Asunción. The agenda for the day was something like:
  • Orientation to and tour of the office
  • Security Briefing
  • Other Peace Corps Paraguay Sector Presentations
  • Administrative Tasks
Of these, the security briefing was the most interesting, and the only thing I think anyone reading this might be interested in. The Regional Security Officer, an FBI agent, gave the briefing to our group of 18 soon to be volunteers. That’s pretty cool right? FBI agent!
I am going to summarize his presentation.

Overall, Paraguay as a whole is a pretty safe country, especially when compared with many other countries, both developing and developed. He broke down the security situation in Paraguay geographically, looking at departments, cities, and areas within cities.

The department of San Pedro has traditionally been a rejected department and is the poorest segment of Paraguay. EPP is an organization that exists within that department. They’re a revolutionary, guerilla group that has made a call to arms and wants a violent overthrow of the government. A few weeks ago, $30,000 was found in the woods, and was linked to a kidnapping of an affluent individual executed by members of the organization. That sounds a whole lot worse than the situation really is. They are a small organization without a lot of resources at this point. However, there were 2 or 3 bomb incidents in Asunción about a year ago, and they haven’t yet determined whether or not EPP was responsible. So even though they are really small and don’t have many resources, they still deserve mentioning and the ongoing attention of the governments of Paraguay and the US.

There are also a lot of campesinos sin tierras (country folk without land). They have formed a group called “Sin Tierras.” Land distribution has been a historic problem in Paraguay. Paraguay is in the Top 10 countries with the largest income inequalities, and they are number 1 in Latin America. 10% of the population with land owns almost 67% of available land. The country folk without land are pretty upset about this, and are trying their best to do something about it. They often squat on land and form squatter villages, execute pretty big demonstrations, block roads, march in front of the President’s house, etc... Usually, there is a big threat, and they announce a day of demonstrations promising numbers like 50,000 people, but usually only about 5-10,000 show up. Their demands are to remove the Minister of the Interior along with several Supreme Court judges and to redistribute the land. I’ve heard what they want is impossible and will never happen.

He pointed to the Southern part of the country, and said that overall it is pretty safe and stable. The department of Misiones is more developed and very safe.

Ciudad del Este is a city in the East of the country where the borders of Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina all converge. As such it is a hub of illegal contraband, and a source for terrorism fundraising. Some of the money made there ends up in the hands of Hezbolah, so the government keeps close surveillance on this area. The reason it is a hub for illegal contraband is because there is a huge under valuation of imports and exports, lots of corruption, and little control in the area.

Amambay and specifically Pedro Juan Caballero, is probably the most dangerous part of Paraguay. It is lawless there due to a lack of police. There is a lot of drug trafficking and intra-gang warfare in the area. Peace Corps doesn’t send volunteers into that area, and it is recommended we not go there.

There is also a lot of drug trafficking across the Chaco on the way to Bolivia. I think cocaine gets trafficked from Brasil through Paraguay.

The traffic situation in Paraguay is dismal. Like many countries, traffic deaths far exceed any other crime. First the road infrastructure is horrible. There are very few highways; most of the country has dirt and stone roads. There are minimal standards and regulations with respect to traffic. It’s wild riding on busy roads with Paraguayans. They weave in and out of traffic, run red lights, hit the gas and breaks hard, pass in the double yellow all the time, go off road to avoid speed bumps or other cars, etc... The bus drivers drive like maniacs! You will be riding down a two lane road, and they’ll pass a slow truck on a double yellow with a car coming head on without blinking an eye. Often there are several cars or motos occupying the same lane. Speed limits aren’t enforced. It’s actually pretty a rollercoaster every time you get in the car with a Paraguayan.

The US has a great relationship with Paraguay, and the Peace Corps is well receipted. The US embassy in Paraguay is the second largest US embassy in the world, second only to that in Iraq. We have around 200 volunteers in country. President Lugo, newly elected President of Paraguay, mentioned the Peace Corps in his first meeting after being elected. When he was a priest in San Pedro, he knew Peace Corps volunteers and their work in the country. One of Lugo’s only meetings in the US was with Peace Corps returned volunteers and executive staff. Paraguayans as a whole are very amiable with Americans, so overall, the security situation in Paraguay is pretty optimistic. The most popular crime that Peace Corps volunteers fall victim to is petty theft, and we were given strategies to avoid this happening to us.

I always seem to comment on the food, so I’ll tell you the special treat we had for lunch. Mike, Jenna, Carlos, and I went to Pizza Hut. We had two family size pizzas. They were amazing. Oh and I’ve become so unpicky by this point. Everything, including onions, was on the pizza. I can eat, and like, so many more things now than before. While at the restaurant we saw two guys that looked like wizards, a hippie, and girls beautiful and tall enough to be models. We talked about how this one wizard was probably in wizard training and the other was a retired wizard, and how they both knew we were talking about him....We were in a silly mood. It was funny if you were there...

Future Site Visit

August 4th, 2009

I spent the last 6 days in San Juan Bautista. It’s called Future Site Visit. The idea is to check out your future site, find a family with which you can stay if you come back, meet some people, and fill out a few forms to bring back to Peace Corps with information about your site. Ultimately, it allows you to see your future life for 2 years, so you can make the decision of whether or not you want to swear in as a volunteer.

Avelino, the representative from the Coop who was sent to accompany me, and I arrived to San Juan Bautista on Tuesday in the early afternoon. Avelino was hungry so we went to a restaurant about a block down from the cooperative. I had recently eaten while on the bus so I just got a piece of cake. It was delicious. We went to the cooperative, where I met a few of my future co-workers. They were all very cordial.

The cooperative is super-nice. It has glass door entrances, looks like a modern bank and has modern style offices. There is a guard with a bulletproof vest and gun posted out front. There are two police officers close by holding what looks like sawed-off shotguns. Everyone has their own computer, the people dress in formal business attire, and almost everyone has a University degree. There is a store in the cooperative in which they sell appliances, shoes, electronics, etc... There is a big screen TV in the entrance for goodness sakes! Wait. I did sign up for Peace Corps right? Haha. That just goes to show you that Peace Corps isn’t just living in villages, playing with poor kids, and teaching AIDS awareness and prevention to the local villagers.

Around 4:00 PM, one of the managers, Mariño and Avelino drove me to a “hotel,” which was basically a long house, but there was no vacancy. Then they took me to this pension-like place. There are like 6 dormitories, which the Señora of the house rents out to students who are studying at the local university.

They just kind of dropped me off so I was a little depressed. It didn’t quite work out how Peace Corps says it is supposed to. I was supposed to stay with a local family. Nonetheless it ended up working out, and my depression lasted less than an hour because around 6:00 PM, Mariño, who had dropped me off earlier, picked me up and took me to an urban style soccer field at a local school beside the park. I watched the guys play soccer for a little while. It was like an And 1 commercial but in soccer.

I just remember having this feeling of how nice everything was when compared with Paso de Oro and many other places I’ve seen in Paraguay. It’s like a completely different country. The people are educated, the streets are clean, there are parks, recreational activities, nice restaurants, etc... The large towns and cities in Paraguay are very different from the countryside.

When they finished playing soccer, we sat in the park and drank Brahma, the local beer. On the way home, Marino stopped at this local burger stand and bought us some delicious burgers.

The next day I felt like I was a consultant or executive on an international business trip. Shortly after arriving at the cooperative, two of the managers gave me a tour of San Juan by car. Upon arrival back at the cooperative, a few of the managers and the general managers all went out to lunch at this really nice restaurant. We all walked the two blocks to the restaurant. Imagine this...the managers are all dressed in power suits, and we’re all walking down the road together. The cooperative is by far the largest and most important institution in San Juan. Many people greeted them as we passed. It kind of felt like I was walking down the street with either important political officials or the mafia. You may think that’s a big jump between mafia and officials but in many countries the lines are blurry and sometimes they are one and the same.

It was the kind of restaurant where the waiters are dressed in nice suits and hold the wine bottle with a towel while gently pouring your glass. It was the kind of restaurant where the chef drizzles a cream on the plate and strategically place parsley for decoration. I had really good pasta and a strawberry dessert. It was a wine glass filled with finely chopped strawberries, whipped cream, chocolate shavings, and this other sweet creamy stuff. AMAZING!!!

Dia de Amistad

July 30th, 2009 was Dia de Amistad (Friendship Day) in Paraguay. This is one of many really cool holidays Paraguay has. Throughout the day everyone was wishing each other Felicidades, or Happy Friendship Day. Certain people exchanged gifts. Someone brought in a few delicious pizzas. I noticed a few people standing around in one of the offices eating something. Then Avelino said, “Brad, eju,” meaning come in here. I did and was invited to partake. I had three slices. You have to keep in mind, things like cake, ice cream, good pizza, desserts, etc... have been very rare events for me up to this point. Most of my food is simple, bland, and I eat the same kinds of things day in and day out. So when I get things like really good pizza, it is an extra special treat for me.

Later, around 3:00 PM, everyone headed to a building out back. I didn’t really know what was going on or what was about to happen, until I saw people carrying food and drinks. At first, I thought it was like a company meeting, but it turned out to be a company party.

Here is how the tradition goes. 15 days before Dia de Amistad, they draw names out of a hat. Then everyone buys a present for their amigo but they don’t reveal who their friend is. Then during the party, everyone sits in a semicircle to begin the gift exchange. The really weird and funny thing about it is that all the girls sat on one side and the guys on the other side. It was like I was at an elementary school dance or something.

Someone starts it by saying something to the effect of, “My friend is someone who is short, very funny, and likes Olympia.” They continue talking about the person as they walk towards them, and then reveal who it is by calling their name, giving them a hug (between men) or kisses (between women and between men and women), and handing them the gift. Then it’s that person’s turn to reveal who their friend is. The process continues until the last person has gone. The atmosphere is amazing. Some give serious speeches but most joke around. Sometimes, they start chanting, “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” and other times the room explodes in laughter after someone’s comments and someone else.

After all the gifts were exchanged, the ladies brought in the food and drinks, and everyone stood around the table eating finger food and pieces of cake. That’s the Paraguayan way. You don’t get your own little plastic plate and napkin. You just pick up what you want to eat, and eat it. It’s actually less wasteful, and is more conducive to a close, friendly atmosphere.

After the party I went home, and was picked up around 6:00 again to go to the cancha to watch the guys play soccer. Once they finished playing, we celebrated Dia de Amistad together by having some beers in the park. After that, Marino took me to a Dia de Amistad BBQ.
Now is a good time to talk about how a lot of Paraguayan BBQs go down. Everyone basically sits in the Paraguayan equivalent of lawn chairs in a circle. A glass of wine and coke or beer is passed around the circle. One man is designated the cook. He mostly attends to the meat on the grill but also partakes in the drinking circle. There could be one of a few meats on the grill. The most popular items are chorizo, which is sausage, and carne de vaca, which is cow meat. I say cow meat instead of beef or steak, because that’s exactly what it is...cow meat. Most times its still on the bone and is full of fat and slimy stuff. Another popular option is to throw a pig head on the grill, which was the case for this particular occasion, along with chorizo. Once the meat is ready, they put it in a large pan in the center of the table. Then everyone pounces on it like lions on antelope. Everyone has a fork and a knife, and you just proceed to cut off pieces. Usually there is something like bread, mandioca, rice, or lettuce and tomatoes, to accompany the meat. When I didn’t immediately pounce on the meat, they encouraged me to hurry up and get in the circle, or risk missing out on the best meat. The Paraguayans know where all the best meat is. One particular nice fellow, would ever so often, slice off a specially chosen piece, and hand it to me.

After eating the pig head and sausage, we sat continued with the drinking while listening to music. Later, a few of the guys started dancing together. It’s all very relaxed. When you have to pee for example, you just walk a few steps away from everyone else, and let it go. After that, Marino drove me home, but when we got there, he was like, “let’s continue the party.” So we went to a little place that was still open, and some of his friends met us there. We continued the party there late into the night, and then one of his sober friends drove me home.

It is a very cool holiday, and I don’t know why we don’t have something like that in the US.

The next day was pretty uneventful. I slept really late, watched a few movies, read some out of a book I was reading entitled, Ismael, and went to the coop later in the afternoon to play on the internet.

Funny Story- The Carrolin catastrophe

The next day was August 1st, and yet another interesting day in Paraguay. The tradition on this day is to take a shot of a drink called Carrolin, which is caña with Ruda plant leaves. You do this to purify your body, clean your blood, and build up defense in your body in preparation for the month of August, which is a bad month full of sicknesses, etc...

Funny story: Obviously I knew nothing about this tradition or the drink before the day began. They told me it was strong, so I waited until mid morning to take my shot. I prepared some water as a chugger in case it was awful. A few people were waiting in anticipation for this gringo, foreigner, to participate in the tradition and take the shot. I think they were waiting to see my reaction. I chugged down a big gulp, and that was that. It was HORRIBLE. It was very strong and sour, and left a nasty taste in my mouth, so nasty that I ended up walking to the pharmacy, and bought a pack of Winterfresh, to take the taste away. It turns out you aren’t supposed to drink the leaves too. You’re supposed to use your mouth to filter the leaves and only drink the Cana. Obviously, I had no way of knowing, and no one told me. They thought it was hilarious, and said they figured I knew. Of course I didn’t. In the end they said it wasn’t dangerous, and I would just have really clean blood, and be strong for the coming month.

Birthday Party at Ranch

That night my soon to be new family, which I found through a co-worker, took me to a birthday party a few miles outside San Juan. It was held at the birthday boy’s ranch. This birthday party was super nice. There were tables set up, waiters, a live band, an open bar, and a spread of food like I hadn’t seen since arriving in Paraguay. Out back, the men were grilling. This consisted of gigantic pieces of lamb, pig, and cow meat on big wooden sticks stuck in the ground in a circle around a big fire. Ever so often they would rotate the sticks so as to grill all sides of the meat.

Inside the ladies were cooking. There was a fish soup, which took me forever to eat, because I had to carefully chew each piece and pick out the tiny little bones. I regretted accepting the invitation to the fish soup, even though it was really good, because it took me so long to eat it that it was awkward because everyone else had finished and all but my new host sister had abandoned me.

When the meat was ready, we all took our plates to where the meat was, and the guys sliced off portions of our choice of meats. I ate every meat available including lamb, which was the most delicious. It was so tender and juicy. You sprinkle a little lemon on top of freshly slaughtered and cooked lamb and whaala, you have yourself a delicious meal.

Speaking of food, I want to give a shout out to Joe McGinnis! There is no way you’re eating more organic than me. Many times, I can literally see my food walking around or growing. Most of my veggies come fresh from home gardens; fruits come from backyards, and meats from local ranches. I’ve talked with a lot of farmers and ranchers, and I know most of what I’m eating is truly organic because they can’t afford the chemicals, and preservatives aren’t used.

Anyway, the birthday party was a blast. I was introduced to a lot of people, listened to good music, ate good food, and even danced a bit. Just another day in Paradise...
All in all, my future site visit was really good. I read a book, watched a few movies, went to several parties, played on the Internet, met my future family and co-workers and began a few friendships.

My general thoughts on the town:

San Juan Bautista is a very nice town in comparison with many places I’ve seen elsewhere in Paraguay. It is almost too nice...I am in the Peace Corps after all, and part of me craves that living poor experience. I mean while on my future site visit I ate delicious desserts, pizza, pasta, and hamburgers. I went to a rich man’s birthday party, was treated to a fancy lunch, and spent a good amount of time in the comfort of a modern air-conditioned office.

It’s not like a huge city and it’s not like a really small town either. I really like the size. There are plenty of people and businesses, but it’s not overwhelming. It’s really clean; there are some paved streets. The people are nice and very welcoming. They are more educated and a bit more sophisticated. There is a pretty rich culture, and I’m told it is very safe.

I don’t think I’ll be able to help the Cooperative too much in the way of their administration, but instead hope to be able to leverage coop resources to reach more humble people surrounding San Juan.

Site Assignments

July 28th, 2009

Just a short post today.

I received my future site assignment!

I’m going to San Juan Bautista, Misiones. San Juan Bautista is the capital of the department of Misiones, and according to many, the nicest city in all of Paraguay. It is located in the southwest of the country. I posted a map of Paraguay with San Juan Bautista marked and outlined.

The population is about 18,000. I have been assigned to work with Coopersanjuba, an agricultural production and services cooperative with over 20,000 members. That’s huge compared to most cooperatives volunteers are assigned to.

My assignment says the Cooperative wants someone to help with Feasibility Studies for various projects and to work with members of the coop in better project planning. They say it is also possible to work in marketing and consult with local small businesses.
I feel anxious to meet my counterparts and new family, and hope that I make a good first impression.

Zoo and Cancha

July 27th, 2009

Yesterday almost my entire family went to the Zoo in Asunción. My brother, Hector, drove everyone in his truck. He used a tarp to make a tent-like structure in the back of the truck, which everyone sat under. I had to sit in the front with my brother and his wife since it is prohibited for me to ride on main roads in the backs of trucks.

On the way to the zoo, we passed some interesting sites. One of those sites was the former house of Alfredo Stroessner, who was dictator in Paraguay from 1954 until 1989.

The other site was the location where 400 people were burned alive inside a supermarket because the owners ordered the doors locked so that the customers would not leave without paying. There was a massive public outcry, but in the end no one was held responsible for any substantial amount of time. I’ll talk about it later, but that’s a good example of how justice is hard to come by in Paraguay.

When we arrived at the zoo, everyone crowded around a pile of meat and bread and made cold meat sandwiches for brunch. I think this was to avoid paying the high zoo prices, and fill the kids up so they wouldn’t beg for snacks in the zoo.

We walked around the zoo for a while looking at different animals. Though I like going to the zoo, and think it is very educational, there is a part of me that finds it sad that animals are caged up for our amusement. They lead miserable lives. Tigers weren’t made to be caged up...they were made to roam free, to hunt, to conquer and to mate. I imagine those animals sense something is wrong about their environment Imagine having instincts and not being able to act on them! How frustrating and depressing it must be to lead the life of a zoo animal.

Some of the animals we saw were tigers, various tropical birds such as toucans and parakeets, a hippopotamus, a puma, monkeys, a baby anaconda, an elephant, ostrich, guinea pigs, turkeys, turtles, and bunnies.

The chimpanzees intrigued me the most. I spent a bit of time just observing. I was standing on one side of the cage, facing one of the chimps that was sitting on top of a tire. When I walked over to the other side of the cage, he jumped down, rolled his tire over to the other side of the cage, positioned it perfectly, then climbed on top and continued his observation of me. Sometimes you wonder if maybe they think we’re the strange attraction, instead of the other way around. I talked with my niece about how intelligent and human-like chimps are. They experience emotion, wage wars, make tools, methodically teach their young how to use tools to access food, communicate, have opposable thumbs, and sometimes walk upright. It’s not a big stretch to see how Homo Sapiens evolved from a common descendent as the chimpanzee.

After the zoo, we went to the cancha to watch Paso de Oro play. The previous week the goalkeeper was ejected from the game, and thus suspended for two games. Paulo, my nephew, stepped in to fill the position, so we arrived especially early so that he could dress and then prepare with the team. Poor Paulo...the opposing team scored goal after goal against him. He hadn’t practice in a while and was noticeably nervous. The cancha is always fun regardless, and if the adult team wins, we celebrate in the back of the truck on the way home, and at my house once we get there. When the weather is good, my Mom racks up because people buy a lot of alcohol, other drinks, hamburgers, and empanadas.

Check out these pictures from the Cancha and make sure to watch the video at the bottom.

This is how to celebrate a win at the cancha:


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Cow entrails soup and yet another birthday party

July 24th, 2009 – Cow entrails soup and yet another birthday party


Thursday, July 23rd, I came home to a special surprise. I had walked in and heard some loud noises outside my window. I went out to see what it was, and it was my father and his friend unloading the remains of a cow on a table in our this case I guess cowport. Haha. It’s been a while since my last incredibly witty and funny pun.

They told me they were going to prepare a special treat for the soccer players to give them energy for the upcoming game. What they do is cut up and cook all the entrails of the cow, and make a big soup out of it. I think they grill the head and sit it on the table, give everyone a fork and a knife, and everyone digs in. You have to be fast to get the best parts, which I’m told are the tongue and the brain. As they were telling me this I’m looking at a pile of cow organs and a big meaty cow head. Haha. The head still had the horns, eyeballs, and some hair on it. I had to get a picture for your enjoyment.

I snapped a picture after the head was prepared a bit, and as they were cleaning and cooking the meal.

It was Jacqueline’s, my niece’s, birthday. She’s only 13 years old, as of this birthday. She’s kind of shy and you can tell she doesn’t have a lot of self-esteem, and probably doesn’t receive a lot of favorable attention from her parents. At lunch that afternoon, I walked over to her house to wish her Happy Birthday. She was still lying in bed watching TV. That’s awesome because she probably never gets to do that, but it was her birthday so if she wanted to lie in bed half the day and watch TV, then that’s exactly what she should have done. Anyway, I asked her what she was going to do for her Birthday, to which she had no response. I told her I hoped she had a great birthday and to do whatever she wanted, hung out with her a bit, and then gave her a big birthday hug. After lunch she told me her parents said they were going to have an Asado, a BBQ, for her birthday.

When I came home from school, she had invited a few of her friends over to attend her Birthday BBQ, and they were running around playing. The hours passed and it soon became evident that there would be no BBQ. Her Mom came home announcing there was no cake to be found in town, and her Dad said it was too late to start a BBQ. She ran to her Mom’s bed and began to cry. It broke my heart. Here it was her 13th birthday, she had invited friends over, and her parents didn’t come through. I felt so bad for her, and could understand exactly why she was crying. It was like she wasn’t important enough. What makes it worse is that she had just seen the fairly large party we had for Mike and the big extravaganza we had for Angelic. Her family had thrown big parties for her sister’s last 2 birthdays including her 15th, which is huge here. I mean it’s so big that people go in debt for it. She had been anticipating her birthday, and probably imagined a party, and the day comes, she gets a promise for a party, invites some friends, and nothing happens. Can you imagine the humility, and the feeling of rejection? It broke my heart.

Her parents promised her they would do it the next day. It’s not the same, but at least it’s something.

So the next day we had a small party. Her parents are very humble from a financial perspective and not nearly as organized and motivated so the party was kind of thrown together and simple, so I still felt bad. The party started out just as just a few girls and their Moms’/relatives and I sitting around a TV listening and watching a music DVD.

Regardless there were balloons, music and dancing, cake, and friends....all the important ingredients for a good birthday party. Later the men quit working and joined the party. About that time, we started eating and then drinking.

It was freezing...literally. To let you know how cold it was, I had already gone home for like 20 minutes to put my feet in front of a heater, to warm them up because they were so cold. I tell you how cold it was so you’ll fully appreciate how funny it is that these two Paraguayans, my brother and Carlos’ brother, took their shirts off and danced together in 32-degree weather.