Friday, August 28, 2009

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.

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