Thursday, May 12, 2011

3 Years in Paraguay and I all I got was...

I have just over a week left in my Peace Corps service. In the three years, nearly four months I have spent in Paraguay, I have:

  • Gained a pretty good grasp of the Spanish language, Paraguayan style. I took my Spanish language exam on Tuesday and tested at the Advanced High level, the second highest. This makes me happy seeing as I came here knowing very little.
  • Survived for three years without a car or other motor vehicle.

  • Ran 1 Marathon, 1 Half Marathon, 2 10ks and lots of fun runs!

  • Conducted a weekly informational radio program first with Erin, then with Angelic, called Rojapo Radio (We Do Radio)
  • Got a grant to build a building

  • Created a new position at the local Municipality
  • Taught hundreds of students life skills and computer classes.
  • Started eating meat again, hey I see them on the street and I know what they eat. Much better than the factories in the states.
  • Survived without a washing machine or dryer.
  • Learned how to do Paraguayan crafts including Nanduti and Ao'poi

  • Learned to love terere.
  • Spent over 2 years with this wonderful guy without whom I never would have made it through.
  • Made lots of friendships that I will never forget

I am sure there are tons more to list, but this is what I came up with for now. Coming to the end of my service is one of the hardest things that I have ever had to deal with. When new Peace Corps volunteers start their training they are warned that it will be harder to leave than it was to come and this has become a reality for me. Leaving Paraguay, unsure of when I will be back and when I will see and talk to all the people I have formed relationships with over the past three years is heart wrenching, but has to be done. I will miss everyone and everything, but I will always hold on to my memories.

Monday, April 18, 2011

2do Foro Juvenil Parlamentario

After a stressful week of completing voter registration and finalizing logistics for Saturday's forum, the day finally arrived for the election.

I invited Liz and Jenna to come help with activities in the morning and they arrived Friday night. We got up early Saturday morning and headed to the location for the event. We got stuff set up and at 8:30 when we were supossed to start there weren't any participants. That was not too surprising, events rarely start on time in Paraguay, So we waited, continued with set-up and figured we'd start when the mayor arrived. By 9:00 the mayor was present, but there still weren't many participants. Not even the candidates for Youth Secretary were present. Eventually they arrived, but only to finalize their campaigns, not to actually participate in the needs assessments activities that we were doing.

While people debated over the big vote outside, we were deciding what to do inside. Eventually we started the activities with the few people who were there and talked about problems affecting youth in Coronel Oviedo. Then we ate lunch and headed over to the gym where the election would take place.

The election was a huge success. There were more than 4000 people registered to vote and about 1000 participated in the election. A terna, group of three, was elected and will be presented as candidates to the mayor for Youth Secretary. Unfortunately I don't know any of the candidates, so I have no idea how well they'd do with the new job, I guess I'll find out soon enough.

Hopefully next year they will have better success with both parts of the event.

Brochure for the Forum

Meeting with the Candidates

Ivan, exhausted from entering all the info in the computer

Setting up

Needs Assessment

Hard-working Parliament members


Thursday, April 14, 2011


It was nearly two years ago that I first heard about the democratic election of the Youth Secretary in Villarrica and the subsequent creation of the Youth Department and Casa de la Juventud in the town to my south. I was intrigued. Everyone in Paraguay talks about the youth, but few actually create projects that benefit the largest sector of the population. Coronel Oviedo had a Youth Secretary when I first arrived, but he was politically appointed and did not do many projects. He ended up quiting within a few months and was never replaced. The position sat vacant and although I heard rumors that the mayor wanted to appoint someone new, he never did, and therefore no new projects were planned.

During the two years I was in Oviedo I occasionally worked with the municipality and had a few contacts there. Together with these contacts I presented the idea to the mayor to reopen the Youth Secretary position as a democratically elected position in order to teach the local youth about civic participation, democracy and leadership. I planned a full day of activities and invited the youth. In May of 2010 we held the Primer Foro Juvenil Parlamentario, in which about 100 youth conducted needs analysis activities and elected three candidates from which the mayor chose one representative to hold the position of Youth Secretary.

Throughout the past year I have worked with the current Youth Secretary and the Youth Parliament to plan and execute various projects and promote civic participation. For the past two months we have been focusing on planning this year's forum. I have left the majority of the planning to the youth, while I serve as more of a guide. The project will only be sustainable if they know how to execute it again in following years.

This year the candidates for secretary had to sign-up early and those who want to vote have to register, like in a real election. There are currently 9 candidates for the position and over 4000 people registered to vote. The topic comes up often on local radio and tv shows and people all over town are talking about it. The participation has far exceeded our expectations.

Unfortunately the growth in participation has also resulted in corruption and dishonesty. I have heard rumors of people being paid to vote for a certain candidate and people sneaking in extra voter registrations past the deadline

One of my major goals with the project is to show the kids that democracy is possible, there can be clean and honest elections. Their generation can bring about change. The first year went really well. This year the politics have changed from small and clean to large and dirty. I hope that we can resolve these problems before the vote on Saturday. I hope that they can see that democracy can bring people to power who actually want to help bring about change.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Birthday #4 Paraguaype

This past Saturday I had my fourth, yes fourth, birthday in Paraguay. Because my birthday fell during training I was one of the few to celebrate an extra birthday here. The first one, my 24th birthday, I spent at my host family from training's house. I invited all the other trainees to hang out on the front patio area. We drank lots of beer, wine and coke, and cana and ate mac and cheese that my friend Heather helped me cook up. Then for my 25th I invited a few Paraguayan friend, my PC buddy Erin and a visitor she had to my house for tacos. Birthday number 26 was pretty depressing. It was Good Friday, which means most places are closed all day. I ate lunch with the novio's family, which was nice and then made homemade pizza for dinner. Victor and Angelic came over for dinner and cards, although it was a good time and we enjoyed ourselves, this year I wanted to do something more. So Victor and I went to Asuncion for a date night. We went to dinner at Las Palomas, a mexican restaurant near the hotel where we stayed and enjoyed a yummy spicy dish served in a molcajete and I had a refreshing margarita. It was wonderful and relaxing. Victor's family also prepared an asado for lunch and even got me a cake. I can definitely say I had a great birthday this year.

Our food looked something like this, with tortillas:

And the margarita:

Monday, March 28, 2011

Guarani Humiliation

I often find myself in the same situation, sitting around in a circle with a bunch of Paraguayans, drinking terere or beer or whatever is being served at the current function, just hanging out and talking. My predicaments usually start out in the same way. I greet the group as I join it. You have to say hello to each person individually, kissing their cheeks' or shaking hands, whichever is appropriate to the situation. Here is where I have to make my first big linguistic decision, throw in a little Guarani and get it over with, or wait it out. If I am feeling up to it, I'll throw in a "Mba'e la porte" or "Mba'echapa" and watch their faces light up due to my use of their native tongue. This is inevitably followed by a reference to volunteer x who spoke "perfect" Guarani. Then they make me feel bad because I don't speak Guarani, or not nearly as well as that other volunteer does. Because of this, I usually stick to Spanish in the initial stages of the conversation.

After a minute or so of polite banter in Spanish, the conversation reverts to Guarani and I am lost. Sometimes its worth my energy to try and follow the conversation and if its something work related I usually get it, but when its social chat I just don't understand. Words are cut off and pronounced differently than their original forms. Most of the time I zone out.

Paraguayans always tell us how no one really speaks the true form of Guarani, "its Jopara' they say, its a mix of Spanish and Guarani. Really its pretty much all Guarani with some Spanish words mixed in. During these conversations where I am in my own head and not paying any attention I'll hear myself mentioned in the conversation. "Melissa doesn't talk much" or "Melissa blah, blah, blah" accompanied by a look to me "You understood that, right? Hahaha" Of course I didn't understand, I wasn't trying to. At this point the conversation then goes to volunteer x who spoke "perfect" Guarani. Bring on the humiliation. I have to choose my battles, be humiliated right from the start or sit there hoping the conversation doesn't turn to my lack of linguistic abilities.

Sometimes they don't mention me or my lack of ability. Sometimes they just sit around talking and telling jokes. Another decision must be made. Do I laugh at the jokes just because everyone else is laughing? Or do I sit there, looking confused, obviously the only person not laughing? When I laugh I risk the common questions, "Did you understand that? What did we say?" When I don't laugh I look like a sour pus. Fiddling with my phone is a culturally accepted distraction that I sometimes use to be excused from the conversation. Other times I just sit and smile, hoping that just this once it won't be too awkward.

There are also lots of situations in which the Paraguayans speak Guarani because they know I won't understand. They seem to enjoy the look of confusion on my face and they like to laugh at the Gringa who doesn't understand. This is when it hurts the most. Whether its a statement directed at me or a comment about me, its not fun to be laughed at like that.

My peace of mind comes from the knowledge that during my three years here I learned Spanish, the language that will be of use to me for the rest of my life. Learning Guarani would have helped avoid awkward social situations and humiliation, but I can use Spanish even in my own country. Plus I did learn at least of few key phrases in Guarani like my current favorites anichene, kinda like you don't say?, and ndaikuai, I don't know.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

My High Class Amenities

Three years in Paraguay has changed my expectations a bit when it comes to comfort. I used to live in a nice apartment with central air and cable tv. Now I live in a two room apartment behind the house of a Paraguayan family, below two loud 19 year old med students and next to a public washing station. There are more cows and bugs in my life than I would ever have imagined. I would like to share some of what now comforts me here in Paraguay and some other stuff that just helps me get by. Even though I look forward to some of the comforts of home, I will miss this stuff!

The entrance to my home

Public Washing Station, it doesn't have running water so those who wash here pull it from the well.

The Refrigerator, it doesn't close properly so I secure it with a bungee cord.

Cooking and Storage Area

My Bed/Couch/Living Space, best purchase in Paraguay

My Sink/Washing Machine/Dishwasher


Entertainment, although its typically drowned out my neighbor's bigger speakers.



Homemade Shelf


Hot Water

Don't forget the pool!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Coffee without a Coffee Pot

Pretty much everyday for the past 10 years has started with a cup of coffee. When I came to Paraguay I knew that I could not give up the habit. Unfortunately here in Paraguay coffee is consumed in the instant variety. Since I only resort to consuming Nescafe in emergency situations, as in no other coffee available, I have some delicious ground coffee sent from my mother's coffee business, Java Express, regularly. Although there are coffee makers available for purchase, they don't fit into my $300 monthly budget, so this is how I prepare it. Its not quite the same as a coffee pot but the result is still a yummy cup of caffeine infused deliousness and I get to drink it out of that awesome cup.

Also I finally ordered a thermos so that I can bring my terere habit back to the states. Initially I ordered one from a woman who sells thermos in a plaza in Asuncion. She told me it would be ready within a week. I went back a week and a half later and she said it'd be done the following day, I, being pretty trusting, believed her. I went back the following week and she finally told me she never sent to have it made. So, I decided to get it done elsewhere. I placed my order at a tourist shop for leather products and was notified within three days that it was ready. The result is my beautiful new equipo below.