Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The News from Paraguay OR The Emperor Has No Clothes

It´s about time for a short break from deep philosophical life theories, so in this episode, we´ll talk about the down and dirty, the nitty-gritty - what I´ve actually been DOING with myself lately. After all, they don´t pay me $300 a month for nothing.

With a bit of negotiation, coupled with a strongly poverty-driven cheapness, I managed to get a really nice apt for the same price as my dirty little rented room, and I moved a month ago. There are 5 roommates and we share the common areas- it´s like the Paraguayan version of my beloved Howard House in Atlanta, and it feels like home.

Thursday Morning Barbeque Party

Right after that was my in-service-training, the point of which I think is just to let us see American again. In the middle of it I got a call from my coop contact, Nimia, and the conversation went something like this.
-Hola Angelica! I was just calling to let you know I´m moving to Switzerland.
-Uh, Switzerland? For how long?
-I´m not sure. I´m going for a surgery.
-Are you coming back? When are you leaving?
-Hmm, yeah, I don´t know about coming back. I´m leaving tomorrow morning.
-Huh. Well good luck. Thanks for telling me.
This sort of thing has been par for the course with the coop. The virtual library has been completely ready for 2 months on my end,the computers are approved, and yet...
You may be wondering, how could this be? Well, thanks to a Community Study the PC requires and the interviews I had to do for it, I have a much deeper understanding of what´s actually going on, and I can tell you exactly how this could be. This is the unofficial part of the PC report I wrote:

After hours and hours of wading through the business double-talk that hangs like a plague on the lips of everyone involved in the coop, I was able to get some definite answers as to what exactly is going on. For the 3 months I`ve been here, I assumed that although many of the activities didn`t make much sense to me, it was only my own lack of insight that made it so. Once I could talk candidly with people, it became clear that everyone is assuming that other people are seeing the big picture, so he or she doesn`t have to. Each person works on their small piece of the puzzle and just hopes (or perhaps it never occurs to hope) that there is a point to it all. In truth, the emperor has no clothes, and rather than working cooperatively, the right hand has no idea what the left hand is doing. And because no one is empowered to make decisions for themselves, the head (la presidenta) is so overworked with daily tasks that she can`t worry about the bigger picture. The socios are frustrated, don`t feel like they can communicate with anyone in the coop, have no system for addressing issues, and only continue to pay for fear that if they need a loan someday (which will be at a rate of 16-26%), and they wouldn`t get it otherwise. The idea behind cooperativism is completely lost, and everyone in the coop talks about nothing except getting more and more socios, and therefore more and more money, and THEN and only THEN, could they start to help people. “Once we buy the property next door, we can expand the building, once when we have a bigger building, well, we`ll really help people. If only we had more money to do it...” There are 2 main problems according to the consejo and management of the coop. The first is morosidad (people not paying their loans), but when lower rates are suggested, they gasp in horror, because that would mean less money, and the idea that it might mean more money when people are able to pay their loans is ridiculous. Higher rates is more money for the cooperative and that is the goal (cooperativism having fallen by the wayside long ago). The other problem is the attitude of the socios – they think of the coop as nothing more than a source of loans and don`t know or don`t appreciate all of the other benefits. What are those other benefits? They work with agricultural production, right? It`s supposed to be the PA in Coopafiol. Well, they help by giving loans to people that want to do production work. That counts, right? What else? Well, they`re doing a lot of environmental work. They had a battery collecting project because thrown away batteries can poison drinking water. But that was last year, and now the containers full of batteries are in the yard where the rain is fastidiously undoing all the good of collecting the batteries in the first place. And they`re doing reforestation and forestation projects...well, not right now. If only someone came up with a plan, they could do it in the future...With a strategic plan they could do so much...if only someone was managing things...But in the meantime, it`s in those pamphlets they hand out every year about the coop`s activities as a current project (they THINK about helping a lot of people). And what do they think about their socios not feeling connected? “We manage enough”. And how do you communicate? “They can come to my house and ask me any time they want. We communicate a lot by phone and with notes, and just word of mouth about what is going on in the coop.”...with 4000 socios. The employees are frustrated with the lack of communication, the beauracracy, and the confusion of roles (read: that`s not my job, someone else will do it). The president is frustrated because she is overworked and if they only had more money they could do so much...and so it goes. But if you asked ANYONE in this system how things function here, “perfectly, very well, or excellent” are all the answers you`ll get. Had I not strapped on my chest-high, rubber waders to crawl through the muck and the bullshit, that might have been all I ever knew, and I might have thought that my frustration with getting things done (or not) was only my own fault. But then again, I might just be passing the buck, like everyone else.

So I´ve mentally released any expectations of accomplishment with the coop and am once again perfectly content, chillin with my tereré.

Right after the training was the big Thanksgiving trip where all the volunteers who can afford it (or who spend their move-in-allowance and decide that not only are ovens over-rated and unnecessary, but it is also possible to live on nothing but apples and peanut butter for 2 weeks) go to a resort and drink for 3 days straight. How do Paraguayan PC volunteers party, you ask? They put mint leaves in the guampa and liquor in their termo and serve mojitos tereré style on the party bus that left at 7:30am. Pics to come.

After that, I was invited to give charlas at a leadership camp by Chris Diaz, another volunteer working with a job training program for supermarket bagboys. He warned me that giving charlas to 100 15-17 yr old Paraguayan inner-city boys might be tough, but truthfully the whole experience was awesome. They were awesome kids, really positive and participatory, although it probably didn´t hurt that they thought I was "muy hermosa" (beautiful). After I was demonstrating to the first group how not to lean on the counter and got an enthusiastic "Haikue!" (holy cow!) when I bent over, I was a little more careful with that sort of thing. The other educators weren´t that amused when the women´s room got a serenade on the last night of camp ("tradition" the boys said, although it was their first time being there), but I thought it was great. Who cares that it was at 3am?

I got back to site just in time for the crippling sinus infection I´d picked up at Thanksgiving to hit me (thanks Brad), so after 3 days in bed, it was off to my first pilgrimage.

I´d been arranging this trip for a couple of months, my campaign slogan something to the effect of "When else are you going to get to go on a religious pilgrimage?" and it was everything I dreamed and more. About the whole pilgrimage thing - every town in Paraguay has a patron saint, a hefty percentage of which are different versions of the Virgin Mary. Caacupé has a gigantic pilgrimage for their virgin on Dec. 8 and thousands upon thousands of people from all over Paraguay travel there to go to mass at the giant Basilica and buy their genuine Virgin of Caacupé souvenir T-shirts. 10 of us (8 volunteers and 2 Paraguayans) left from Ypacaraí (I figured 20k was a good first pilgrimage - no sense going all crazy with it) at 6:30pm. Thousands of people walking up and down the steepest hills in Paraguay along the ruta (some people were actually passing us, which is the fastest I´ve ever seen Paraguayans walk, but most were moving along at a decent shuffle). We got there in time to buy t-shirts before the midnight mass started, which was just a normal mass but with people standing in the plaza with candles, crammed like sardines around the other people sleeping on the ground on mats - Paraguayans can seriously sleep anywhere). That virgin really does work miracles though because we managed to get seats on the bus going back (Praise be.) and I got home about 5am.

The next day was Erin´s despedida (farewell party) in the campo. She rented sound equipment and her pig, which her mormom friend had killed the day before, was served for lunch. This is tradition for campo volunteers, but it was no less funny when someone would compliment the pork and Erin would answer, "Thanks. Her name was Shakira". I discovered I love dancing to reggaeton (never before have I had so many opportunities to do that booty-jiggle move) and we left exhausted and smelling like Shakira had a few days earlier.

Melissa and I used the goodbye ceremony the mayor gave Erin the next day to talk about our projects with him. Melissa´s going to extend a year (hooray!) and the mayor hooked me up with Kavichuí (little bee) which is one of my NGO Betel´s community centers. It´s a women´s group (with 1 guy) trying to start a bakery and the municipality is funding it. The ladies are super guapas (hard-working) and awesome. This is what I was trained for,and just so happens to be exactly the type of project I wanted to do in my service, and I´m super stoked. I´m helping them develop a business plan now and building connections with my NGO and the local government.

That weekend we used our newly developed relationship with the mayor to finagle a minibus. SOme of the people in Erin{s community wanted to surprise her one last time at the bus terminal before she left for good. She had just told Melissa that she really needed a hug when all of her people popped over the balcony above her with a big sign, so that was great. The minibus was equipped with a gigantic soundsystem about an inch in front of my knees and we car-danced to reggaeton for 2 hours, and, amazingly, tlaked. Paraguayans listen to music at eardrum-annihilating decibels, yet still have freakishly good hearing, I don{t know how they do it...and the kids were even sleeping through it.

The following weekend was Ronnell´s birthday and the plan was to go dancing all night and party Paraguayan style (intensely). We started out strong, ready to party, but after pre-gaming in the hotel and then a very late Peruvian food dinner, (which I threw up), we were lame and went back to the hotel at like 2am. The next day, swimming in the embassy pool and a real movie, called Dos Mil Doce (2012) in a real movie theater. Very exciting.

Jenna, Elmer, and Ronnell


At the risk of deep-life-theorizing, I´ve come to the conclusion over the last month that my habit of feeling out a situation before I loosen up and be myself is pointless. I can´t hide my light under a bushel, after all, and I only have 2 years here, and I can´t make friends if I sit quietly off to the side. Can I speak Guarani? No! But does that stop me from butchering it every chance I get? No! Can I digest meat? Not really, but Paraguayans love it, so I eat it anyway. Can I dance to reggaeton? Well, yes, actually, that booty-shake move is a huge hit. The point is that I´m here for the experience, (it´s always all about the experience) so I´ve been living it up and diving into to everything whole hog (that last pun in tribute to Shakira), and thank the holy virgin Mary for that blessed miracle.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Puns Falling Flat

My cousin Delaney in the US is doing a project for school with Flat Stanley. For those of you who don`t know, Flat Stanley is a character in a children`s book, and the premise is that he was ironed flat so he could be mailed places and have adventures. The idea is that you take pictures of Flat Stanley doing different things and send them back to the kids. This is the letter I`m sending about what Flat Stanley and I did together.

Dear Delaney and Class,

Flat Stanley was very excited to come to Paraguay, but he didn´t know very much about it. I explained that it was a small country in South America in between Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia. We were in Asunciòn, which is the capital city, in the Peace Corps Office. Flat Stanley told me he thought people in the Peace Corps were super cool. I immediately liked that kid. Then he wondered why it was so very hot in October, and I explained that since we were south of the Equator, the seasons were opposite, and it was Spring right now. Also, the climate in Paraguay is kind of like Florida, and being in an envelope in a mailbox can be pretty hot anyway. Flat Stanley agreed.

Then we went on a bus to my city, which is 3 hours East of Asunciòn, in the middle of Paraguay, and is called Coronel Oviedo. I explained that in the US, Coronel Oviedo would be a town, but it is a very big city for Paraguay and you can find almost anything you need here. Flat Stanley said that Paraguay was a beautiful country and he really likes how it`s very green and there are a lot of animals everywhere. I agreed.

The next day, Flat Stanley thought it was about time to help the world, so we went to an event that I`d helped organize for the 350 Project. This was when groups of 350 people got together all over the world on the same day to have a walk and show that we should take good care of the Earth. Flat Stanley thought it was very funny when the "Pigeon of Peace" was released at the end of the Walk. It instantly fell to the ground at the same moment that a huge storm started and sent everyone running for shelter. The four of us (My Peace Corps friends Melissa and Erin, Flat Stanley and I) all ran to Melissa`s house where we dried off and watched a movie on her computer. Flat Stanley hogged all the popcorn ("pororo").

The weather had cleared by the next day, which is good because Sunday is Asado Day ("Grilled Meat Day"). Flat Stanley and I visited my host family and we all ate a big meal together. Flat Stanley thought it was rude when everyone wiped their mouths with the tablecloth, but I explained that was normal here. Nobody got mad when Flat Stanley hogged all the asado because Paraguayans are very generous and love to share. They also like to fatten up really skinny people.

Flat Stanley asked me why he couldn`t understand what anyone was saying in this crazy country, so I explained that Paraguayans actually speak two languages - their original language called Guarani, and Spanish. I told him how cool it was that everyone here is bilingual, and then suggested that being flat is no excuse to be narrow-minded. After that, we studied Guarani together with my flashcards and now Flat Stanley knows a few new words. He can say "Op!" which means "Hi", and "Mba`eichapa" which means "How are you?", and "Cheñengua`hy" which means "I`m hungry".

We were very busy that week. Flat Stanley helped me with all of my projects. We went to my Cooperative and he learned all about how the goal of co-ops is that everyone is better off working together than they would be separately, and how they all make decisions together and help each other. Flat Stanley thinks this is a great idea. My project is to help them start a library. Flat Stanley was supposed to be helping, but he loves to read and was literally lost in the pages of a book for hours. Then he met some people that worked there and helped out the security guard for a while.

We went to my other job, called CCAB, which is a group that helps out kids by starting community centers in poor neighborhoods. Being a kid himself, Flat Stanley thinks this is awesome. We helped cook and serve food for a Field Day the kids had. There were games and activities and Flat Stanley had lots of fun. He liked watching soccer the best but he didn`t play because he didn`t know how, and his team would`ve gotten flattened.

On Thursday, he came to the radio show that I do every week with Melissa and Erin called Rojapo Radio (Guarani for "We do Radio"). It`s very popular in Coronel Oviedo. We talk about different helpful topics and play a little American music. Flat Stanley wanted to sing along but his voice was a little flat.

On Friday we went to a formal dinner ("Cena") for my Co-op`s 19th anniversary. Flat Stanley was shocked when stray dogs kept wandering in and out, and when everyone rushed to the buffet in their high heels like a pack of hyenas on a dead zebra. I told him that those were just some of the charms of Paraguay and it`s a great place once you get used to it. Then everyone danced to reggaeton. Flat Stanley really knows how to drop it like it´s hot.

The next night was Halloween and we had a party with other Peace Corps volunteers (Paraguayans don`t really celebrate Halloween because it`s sacreligious). We were all zombie versions of Paraguayans (I was an apple seller ("Manzana vendadora")) except Flat Stanley, who was a wallflower.

Throughout the week, Flat Stanley:
-Met lots of new Paraguayan friends,
-Had a dance party with some neighbor kids (they had more fun than he did, and his enthusiasm was a little flat),
-Went to my yoga classes (he`s a natural yogi and can really fold himself into all sorts of crazy positions),
-Helped me teach my English class ("Soy Llano" means "I`m Flat", he taught),
-Went to several meetings (I was worried he`d be bored but it turns out he likes things a little flat)
-And helped me study in my apartment (predictably, he called this my Flat).

Most importantly though, we spent a lot of time together with Paraguayans drinking tererè. Like everyone else in Paraguay, Flat Stanley LOVES tererè. It´s kind of like iced tea, but it`s yummy crushed herbs ("yerba") in a special cup ("guampa"). You pour ice cold water over it from a thermos ("termo") and drink it through a metal straw/spoon ("bombilla"). The most important thing about Paraguay is that it`s very "tranquilo" (tranquil) and it´s a huge part of the culture to sit around, talk, relax and drink tererè together. Flat Stanley loves to be tranquilo.

By the end of the week, Flat Stanley was starting to wilt in the 110º heat (the
98º nights didn`t help much) and he wanted to get back to the northern hemisphere (although he said he would really miss the tererè). He said that maybe when he grows up (and out) he`d join the Peace Corps, too, since it seems so awesome. He`s quite the flatterer.

I wanted to tell Flat Stanley that he was a great guest and it meant a lot to me having him around, but I just couldn`t. Words fell flat.

Thanks Delaney! I love you!
Your Cousin and Friend,

Being crazy kids with a camera, we also took some pictures I will not be sending to the 2nd graders:


Chuchi - this is probably my new most popular word. It means snobby or fancy, but is used in the Peace Corps as anything nicer than dirt roads and shacks, or for a person, anyone who showers with hot water. Living in the city, I am super chuchi for here.

Fuerte - literally means strong, but because the culture is based on talking around everything, it´s when a person says anything they want in a direct way - it means asshole

Puede ser and otro dia - literally means "could be" or "another day", but because noone will directly blow someone off, both of them mean "never" and are the answer to a question of when something will happen

Deseas, en tus sueños, Que Arriba Perra/o and Es lo qué es - these are the terrible translations of American sayings that are not used here and don´t really translate, but we say them anyway. Literally they mean "you wish", "in your dreams", "What´s up bitch/dog?" and "it is what it is"

Qué guapa - this means "what a hard worker" and is used by Paraguayans every time I do ANYTHING manual, including carrying a dish to the sink or sweeping out my room. I don´t think they have high expectations for Americans and work.

Saludos - sending saludos by way of a mutual friend is how people tell each other they have a crush on them. The most serious kinds are given with a pinch on the arm and they mean business.

Thumbs up - this is done everywhere here and is a simple answer to pretty much any question. I will probably have carpal tunel in my thumbs when I leave here because I do this so much.

No se como comer esta - this is how one refuses food in Paraguay. Literally, it´s "I don´t know how to eat this" which creates an internal struggle for me each time it´s said because I want to be a smartass and explain that, just like any other food, you put in in your mouth and chew, but I don´t think that´s acceptable here.

No Más and Un poco - this is said after almost every phrase for no real reason other than to make everything sound like it´s not a big deal, even when it really is. Literally, it´s "No More" and "A Little", so the translations are something like "Sit down no more", "Come here a little", and "Do you want dinner no more?"

Cocido - this is a hot drink mixed by carmellizing sugar with a little yerba, adding just enough water to wet it, and then adding more sugar. It´s served by the thermos-full just before bed.

Mosto - this is to sugar what crack is to cocaine. It´s a "tradional" drink capable of putting even the sweetest tooth into a diabetic coma, and is served continuously at fun gatherings like funerals.

Ch-ch-ch-ch - this is the sound Paraguayans make to get each others´attention - like "Psst" . It´s especially used for catcalling, and they have nothing to follow it with - they just want you to look.