Monday, September 13, 2010

Losing yourself

With all the wonderful experiences that encompass my life in Paraguay, I think it is important to share some of the biggest challenges I have faced as a volunteer. When reflecting on what is the hardest part of my life here, I think it’s just sometimes not being able to be my complete self. Jokes are lost culturally and through language, ways of thinking, intellectual conversations, hobbies. When I am upset, I always have to stay positive and remind myself that I’m a representative of something a lot bigger than myself.

I’m stripped of so much self-expression here because you have to come to the level of how people operate taking into account how you’re perceived constantly. You sacrifice a lot of who you are, what you enjoy doing or discussing, by nature of being in a community where things are just so different. When I deal with bouts of racism, there’s no one that really understands what I’m going through. We have fellow volunteers to talk to, but sometimes it’s not enough. On some issues, I just don’t have anyone to relate to. There are aspects of life that I have in common with some of the people in my community: the common interest for improving the lives of those less fortunate, family, talking about sports, and a general curiosity to learn new things. With all of this however, it is frustrating to think that at the end of 2 years many people still might not really get where I’m coming from.

I think just by nature of my experience living the way I do, it’s a beautiful struggle that teaches you so much about yourself and life. I wish more Americans did something like this at some point in their lives. Being taken completely out of one’s comfort zone not only in terms of things like food, water, or style of living, but intellectually, and in terms of self- expression and how one relates to other people. If we don’t have to serve in the military, I think we as citizens should have to do something like Peace Corps when we come of age. After all, we didn’t earn our citizenship, and for that matter who does? We won a lottery and were arbitrarily born into conditions that supercede 95% of the rest of the world. One can only wonder what this world would be like if more of us had to spend a time in our lives where we were completely absorbed by the precarious situations of people thousands of miles from us or( sometimes simply on the other side of town). Would that change how we lived our daily lives, the assumptions we made, and what we dedicated our lives to? Would we have more meaning, be less concerned with vanity, be less depressed, less image conscious, less materialistic, and more happy?

De todo un poco

I will start this off by saying I’m sorry for all those who grew accustomed to my frequent blog updates . My absence these last few months hasn’t been for a lack of thoughts, I have just been extremely consumed by my life here. I will try to recap different things that have gone down these last few months leading up to now.

Present: I have been in touch with one of the heads of recruiting for Latin America in the Harvard admissions office. I am currently working on a project that would recruit exceptional Paraguayan students to study at Harvard and am now an official interviewer.
I had the pleasure a few weeks back of meeting Dr. Benjamín Fernández Bogado: He is a native Paraguayan who has received degrees in journalism, law, political science, etc. He studied and was a visiting professor at Harvard. He has studied in Oxford, Mexico, Ecuador and done work all over the world. He also is a former Fulbright scholar. He came to Encarnación a few weeks back to present his newest book. I had the pleasure of conversing with him about my experience in Paraguay and motives for joining the Peace Corps. I also had the pleasure of meeting another friend who was traveling with him, Federico. Federico just got back from studying at the London School of Economics (MBA I believe) and is back home starting his career. Myself and Federico will be meeting later this month to discuss a sex-ed campaign he is working with the government to put on in different states.

All 3 of us got the chance to spend some time together and discuss various things in Paraguay. After the book presentation, I hopped in the car with them to a conference on globalization, economic development, and other themes related to Paraguay. There were many people in attendance, and Dr. Benjamín helped me make a lot of contacts. I met the president of cooperatives in Paraguay,( who I will be meeting with later this month to discuss opportunities for the cooperative in my barrio), and various heads of industry throughout Paraguay. I met university students interested in helping me with my projects. I’d say I received about 10-15 business cards that night and have been in touch with most of them about working together on projects. Later that night us 3 traveled to the mayor of Encarnación’s house which is a really big deal. We had some good food, and soaked in good music and had good conversation. The mayor spoke with me about how he was interested in sending computers to the comedor I worked at so kids could study and the community as a whole could have access to them. I ended up later that week going with the directora of my comedor to the mayor’s office and he promised to deliver 20 computers for us! The comedor recently had it’s 3 yr anniversary, I helped work with another teacher to put together a performance by the kids where they sang and danced to the World Cup song “waving flag.” It was hilarious getting them to pronounce words in English. In the end they did a great job and left an impression on many of those people from the government that were in attendance. I am now working to institute a new discipline system in the comedor as there are a lot of problems with behavior and bullying. The teachers sometimes feel overwhelmed and don’t always feel like getting involved. We will be meeting as a staff to discuss solutions and work on classroom management.

Dr. Benjamín came back to Encarn this past Thursday to present his book at the 6th annual book fair of Encarn (librofería). The Dr. asked me to give an opening to his book and so I had to speak in front of various people from Encarn, business men, doctors, college students, professors and others about my experiences as a volunteer working with youth, my time at Harvard, and my hopes for the future. It was completely off the cuff, making my first true speech in Spanish in front of a bunch of news cameras ha. This past weekend, myself and another volunteer (Jess) went to the University of Pilar with the Dr. as he spoke about the importance of making drastic changes to the education system of Paraguay. This time I spoke in front of faculty and students about the importance of establishing the value of education for kids here at an early age. Fellow volunteer Jess talked about teaching kids about the importance of environmental education as well. We returned to Encarn sat night, and got to meet Dr. Benjamín’s wife Lizza Bogado, who is one of the most famous singers in Paraguay. She wowed and amazed us all and it was a wonderful experience. Him and his wife are two truly amazing and inspiring people who have given me a renewed sense of commitment and service to this country. I will be staying with Dr. Benjamín and his family at the end of the month in Asunción.

In other news, I am working with my youth group on creating the first community library in my barrio. We have a space in the school that the principal is letting us use to create it. We have begun to raise money, selling artesanía. We are in the process of sending out requests for books and other educational materials, as well as book shelves, tables, and chairs to various institutions. Thanks to support from Dr. Benjamín, we already have Paraguayans interested in donating lots of books and internet access to our library! I am also working with the head of the national library in Encarnación to go about receiving resources for our library. I cannot stress enough how important libraries are to Paraguay. Books here can be pretty expensive and there simply isn’t a culture here of reading. Bookstores are small often times and families simply do not have the money to buy books and often time the values to educate their children outside of the classroom. Libraries here also generally do not let people check out books because they have had problems with people returning the books. Sometimes when I am on the bus going into the centro reading, I notice the weird stares people give me when they see me reading. Some of my students have even asked me why I’m reading, claiming, it isn’t enjoyable or fun. I remember a specific moment where I was reading Dreams from My father, completely engaged in the beautifully written work, and I looked over at a teenager who was playing a video game on his cell phone and I thought about how big of a knowledge difference there is in a society where people simply aren’t reading. I’m learning something new every day and yet there are so many following the status quo, not being challenged or exposed to new ideas. I hope to establish reading clubs and perhaps discussions with older youth to encourage a passion for reading. Many kids are embarrassed about their reading level and are ashamed to pick up a book.

At the end of the month I am headed to the capital to talk with several Harvard alums about how we can work together to recruit more Paraguayans to Harvard. I am excited to see what possibilities we will have for a successful project.

I am also still working with governor’s office to put together a youth employment program right now. We still have to do a study of the market and see what demand there is for companies in the region and what kinds of things young people need to be trained in. I will be meeting with the NGO sponsoring the program at the end of the month to go over details. I am also in the process of working on another youth vocational program called Proela (through Fundación Dequeni) which provides youth with work, life skills and leadership training.

English classes in my community have been a great way for me to get to know more youth from my barrio. The kids are really eager to learn and we are having a great time. You learn so much more about your language when you have to teach it.
I have been continuing to work in the high school at night doing life skills and vocational training. A few weeks ago I had the chance to travel with the 10th grade to the Entidad Binacional Yacyreta, which is the dam responsible for displacing people from their homes along the Paraná river and the reason why my barrio exists. It is a massive dam and it was interesting to learn about its history considering all the politics I hear about.

Lastly I am starting to help out my friend and environmental ed volunteer jess, who has started a zero waste campaign in 10 schools throughout encarn. She just got back from the governor’s office and he will be throwing a bunch of money at her project so she can implement it in more schools throughout the state! I helped her out with one leadership charla so far and look forward to working with her more in the future.

Old posts:

Winter here can be BRUTAL. Any hubris I had developed from enduring New England winters has disappeared. While it only gets to about 30s at night here, it might as well be 0. When you have no heat and houses are made to ventilated air for summer, times can get tough. You really can’t escape the cold. Think about in the states how on the coldest days you may walk around a bit, but anywhere you go there is heat. Now imagine that cold when you’re in your bed…when you wake up it’s still there, while ur cooking the hawk is still out…while your teaching you still shiver… haha builds character I guess. Luckily there is a very old space heater I had found in my house that works ok and I try to put it as close to my face as possible. Its crazy I can skype my family or that people can have computers in their homes, but heat is still something almost no one in my barrio has.

World Cup fever was once-in-a- lifetime. It was incredible to witness how much conversation shifted the last few months. I already had tons of soccer conversations since my arrival here, but this year’s world cup took it to another level. It was a great experience especially because Paraguay went so far this year. I watched the Japan game in the comedor with the kids and teachers, where the teachers were in tears as Paraguay won on penalty shots and for a moment it seemed like everyone forgot about the difficulties in their life and just basked in the success of the national team. People honked their horns throughout my barrio, blasted music and kids ran through the streets screaming and playing with a joy I haven’t seen for some time. Paraguay was showing the world what it was made of, it wasn’t some insignificant country and that it too mattered. It never ceases to amaze how sport can unite. As someone who always invested a lot of my time and energy into playing sports and being a fan, it is truly a sight to behold and simultaneously discouraging at times to think about how we invest a lot of our time living vicariously through our athletes like a long drawn out movie with a protagonist we identify with. People spend money on jerseys, make down payments on televisions and yet since I’ve been here, have almost never seen someone reading for pleasure. Sports are beautiful in a lot of ways; in my opinion, most importantly because they can build character and teach life lessons. Too often however, I don’t see sports being used in that way. Kids all want to be pros without reflecting on what achieving that dream means. Hard work isn’t their understanding of greatness, fame is. Sports can be such a great tool to motivate and inspire and hopefully during my service, I can use the passion youth have for soccer to teach them about something more.

On another note, the Spain game was truly a once-in-a lifetime experience. Me and some friends went to a bar/restaurant rocking our Paraguayan jerseys. Once people realized I wasn’t Brazilian they cut me some slack it seems haha. We cheered on Paraguay with all our hearts, letting out gasps at near goals and screaming at the television as if the refs heard our complaints. At key moments I found myself hugging strangers and cheering with a fervor that was a flashback to my childhood when sport was like a battle between good verus evil. I can’t recall being so emotionally invested in a game since I was playing high school sports. The /Brazilians have an expression of playing beautiful (joga bonito) to describe the creativity and style inherent in their game as they go on to victory. It could be said that Paraguay lost beautifully. They played with all their hearts and came up short in the end a lil luck for spain here and there made the difference. Men, women and child alike let out tears, but everyone was so proud of their team and it showed. People cheered and clapped for their team as Paraguay enjoyed its best world cup finish yet. They showed the world what they were made of and people felt more important because of that. An interesting back drop to the game was the racial undertones that had been brought to the forefront due to the Spanish press attempts to insult Paraguayans based on their indigenous heritage. It was fascinating to see how belittled and angry people felt. I found myself having conversations with them on the basis of how people did not like feeling inferior or discriminated against… I definitely used it as a tool to discuss the reaction many Paraguayans have towards people of darker color to explain that many of us suffer the same things from Paraguayans. There is always an in group and out group. If Spaniards claim superiority to Argentina then Argentina does so to Paraguay and so on… People never stop to think about how it’s all just a vicious cycle of racism.

In terms of work in schools things slowed down for quite some time. There was a teacher’s strike for about a 3 week period that went right into winter vacation which is another 2 weeks. Teachers wanted a salary increase that was promised to them by the government. It’s tough because so many kids were missing out on a lot of school and have little to do. I was also just starting to get my feet wet, working with teachers and getting to know so many students who were eager to learn and work together. While the strikes were going on, I had been working in the comedor planning out a bunch of activities with the teachers. I am working with the teachers to come up with more dynamic ways to teach subject matter along with making games more fun and establishing a better way to discipline..

At the women’s center, many of the students are getting up to speed on how to use a machine and I’m looking forward to teaching on gender in the upcoming months. I am working with one of my contacts to implement various programming for our youth group. We want to have meetings regularly that are based in leadership and community building. We have the support of the organization junior achievement to get things rolling with project implementation.
I am hoping we can work together with the cooperative to have a nice computer lab where kids can come to study. I have also been in touch with various NGOs and people about trying to bring vocational training here for youth where they can have internships with companies that may be interested in hiring them in the future. Right now I am working on a study to understand the bigger labor demands by the businesses in my region to see if we can come up with some partnership to empower youth. Once I have a better understanding of which sectors are looking for hires and what kinds of skills they are looking for, I am hoping our community can work with government and non-governmental orgs to help work with businesses to incentivize training. Many programs like this exist in the capital of asuncion, and now it is just a matter of decentralization.

Lastly, I hope to work with other volunteers on diversity training as so many youth here have little exposure to people of other cultures, races, ethnicities, and ideas. Some of the questions I have gotten here speak volumes about how little is being done to address this need. Along with that, gender is something I want to really dedicate a lot of time to. I find that various orgs are trying to empower women but not doing a solid enough job of gearing more gender education at men. Guys need to learn about the social constructs that have come into play about what it is to be a man or woman. The machismo here is unlike any place I’ve ever been and men need to own that and work to change. It’s disheartening that there aren’t more men out there teaching about how we all have to work to improve as human beings and citizens.

Having my sister Sam come visit me was great. It was the longest stretch I had gone in my life without seeing a member of my family and it was be cool to just hang out and catch up. I have a new house and she got to know my community and comprehend what PC life is like.

It was a nice treat to return to Buenos aires, a city that I love with so much culture and things to do. I went with a few PC friends, my sis, and a friend of a friend from the states. I caught up with old Argentinian friends. A friend from college is there killing that game on a fulbright. I also had the pleasure of meeting up the director of the Harvard internship program in BA (I did the program 2 yrs ago). She asked to speak to a group of Harvard Students about my experiences in BA and Latin America in general. I got to pub Peace Corps a bit and and how important it is that more students take that intellectual capacity they have and consider at some point doing something that challenges your whole existence. There are tons of different Peace Corps experiences to be had in big cities, rural communities, and small towns.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Great Limitations

The word that I dread most when thinking about my time here: patience. I knew when I arrived in Paraguay it would be a battle to deal with the different pace of life and bureaucracy that goes along with trying to get things done. Right now I have a lot of work going on. I am working with two youth groups, planning community projects and meeting to go over topics like leadership and self-esteem. I work at the comedor doing school reinforcement and games with younger children. I am working in two schools teaching life and job skills. I am putting together my English and computer classes that I will teach through the community cooperative. I am also working at a women’s center that is being built in the community with the aim of providing technology to adolescent girls and women who wouldn’t have access otherwise. I’ll be teaching computers along with themes on gender, sex-ed and other topics with Paraguayan counterparts.

What I am really learning to deal with is how everything is a process. To get a project approved or funded by the right source is a process. To get a list of students put together for class is a process. To be on the same page with teachers and principals as well. When it rains, no one wants to leave their home to do anything. Operating under the lens of US efficiency helps us do a lot here but at the same time, it allows for easy frustration if you don’t take a deep breath and realize “it is what it is.” All in all I am pleased with my progress thus far. I have done a few charlas in the schools on geography and self esteem and will be co-teaching with Paraguayan teachers in the upcoming weeks. It has been great getting to know people in my community. Everywhere I go kids call me out to say hello. People are finally starting to believe that I am indeed American and not Brazilian haha. It is an interesting experience to live in a place continuously and always stand out. Everywhere I walk no one looks like me and no matter how much I have grown used to it traveling and living in different places overseas, it never gets old. In Paraguay it provides a new twist as I am living in a specific barrio where most people at least know of each other and poverty runs rampant. I have really been trying to integrate into the community. We drink mate exchange life stories and find commonalities. It’s amazing how different a life you can live from someone else and still come to appreciate and admire similar things.

The politics of who is aligned with who can be trying at times when I am trying to get unanimous support for a project but I guess it’s good practice at diplomacy. Ita Paso has a painful past where people displaced from river flooding had to relocate and start from scratch. They had to overcome lack of electricity and water along with violence that plagued the community upon its inception. To this day some people still live in shacks that are essentially like living outside. It’s hard to take in but all you can do is keep working to help any way you can.

I’ve found the challenge of adapting to life here to be somewhat difficult but overall not too bad. A good dose of optimism and mate keeps me going most days. Fighting the good fight keeps me in good spirits for the most part. When I need to escape, I can head to the centro of Encarnación to a nice restaurant or café. Last Sunday when the gf was in town we went to this cool Uruguayan café and had some cappuccinos croissant sandwiches and juice while I read Sunday NY Times. Life couldn’t get any better haha. We also hit up a cool French restaurant and NY pizza place. I have also met a few Dominicans who own a gyro shop and I have gotten to shoot the breeze with them a few times. One of them actually lived in the same neighborhood as my grandparents in NYC before moving to Paraguay because of marriage. One day I was walking down the street and as he is brown skinned, he saw me walking and shouted out “Dominicano?!” I immediately shouted back sí! We struck an instant bond and in Paraguay of all places I got a chance to cling to that part of my heritage, which has often eluded me. Hes invited me over to have rice and beans whenever I want and I’ll be sure to take him up on that offer. One of his friends is also trying to hook me up to get on a club basketball team in my free time. Sometimes standing out the way I do has its benefits haha. Another great stress killer has been the cell phone plan we have with other volunteers. I can call my fellow volunteers from training for free pretty much anytime and we all get to vent, whine, joke, motivate, and inspire each other within the same conversation. Although I may be alone physically most of the time, I never feel too far away from people that I can truly rap to. Internet is also a crucial component. Espn, facebook, NYT, Gmail, tv shows, gotta love it. I truly give props to Peace Corps volunteers living with a lot less access to technology than I have. It’s a trip at times to be able to talk to my fam in the states from my computer and look out the window and see grass being cut with machetes and cows and roosters making noise at all hours. Juxtaposition for 500 Alex? I’m headed to the capital this week for a few meetings. I’m pumped in 2 weeks for my bday as a bunch of us will be getting together to celebrate in my training community as I enter my Jordan year (Jmac reference!). Much love to all my fam and friends out there. I’m out like Arizona’s respectability. (Sorry Jhall & Nick)

Shout out to my sister Sam who is in Buenos Aires for the summer doing big things. (See you in month or two!)
And my sister Primavera for closing out Senior year and headed to Syracuse U next fall!

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Return to the Grind

Swearing in as a volunteer on April 30 was a great experience. We rolled to the US embassy and were sworn in by the US ambassador in her residence. We raised our right hand, repeated a few words and just like that we were the latest edition of Peace Corps volunteers in Paraguay. I had the pleasure of being chosen by my fellow volunteers to deliver the volunteer speech after we swore in. Here’s the link:

The rest of that weekend was a good time to celebrate with volunteers, relax, and hang out for once. One of the highlights was meeting volunteers from Japan and South Korea during a sports mixer we had at a park in the capital (they have their own Peace Corps type organizations). We played ultimate Frisbee, and shortly after, I directed a bunch of us to the basketball courts and we had a blast. It truly is amazing how much basketball is growing in Asia and it was so interesting to compare our stories growing up, our passion for sport, and our experiences in college. A few of the volunteers spoke English and some even had parents who studied and got PhDs in the states.

Another highlight was pizza hut, burger king, hot showers and all things western. Paraguayan food can at times leave something to be desired. They really don’t believe in seasoning their food well and the blandness can wear down the best of em.

I got to my site May 4th and had to start the task of immersing myself in a new community, getting to know people all over again, debunk stereotypes, and making new friends. It is a hard thing to arrive in a country develop a certain niche during training and then move to a new place and be asked to do the same thing only this time without any other American friends or host families that make it easy for you to have a support system. I consider myself a pretty extroverted person and with all my travels I have learned to adapt quite well, but since I’ve arrived, there have been a few days where it is truly rough to go about my routine. For the first time I found myself a little sad in Paraguay. Everyone tells you it’s natural and it happens to everyone so I kept that in mind, plowing through, meeting people, arranging meetings and reminding myself of why I’m here, how challenging times like these build character and test it at the same time. Being truly alone with yourself can be pretty daunting and at the same time quite liberating.

My housing set up right now isn’t too great but I have my privacy at least. I live in a little house in front of the house of a mom and her 7 yr old son. I take mostly bucket baths and I don’t really eat food there because her cooking doesn’t look too delightful to say the least. I’ve been able to make my rounds in the neighborhood eating at different people’s houses and it has been a great way to know community members. One of the sites I will be working at is a comedor which feeds kids from really poor backgrounds in the community. The comedor also offers school enrichment and kids get to work with teachers at the comedor to reinforce what they are learning in school since school days here are only 4 hours in either the morning or afternoon session. Some of the kids only speak Guarani and so I will continue to have to get my game up. Luckily the food at the comedor is amazing and I get to eat lunch there for free so that is a huge plus. One of the women that works there is also really chill and is helping set me up with a nice place to live.

I am also in the process of setting up my computer and English classes that I will teach through the community cooperative and school. In Paraguay people are all about getting certificates for courses completed so that it will help them become employed. I have reached out to the ministry of education and some other gov’t groups to approve my curriculum so my students can receive certificates. I will also be working with an NGO that is building a women’s technology center in my community to help teach women of all ages how to use technology along with other empowerment activities.

I am really looking forward to working with two youth groups in my community as well. They want to work in areas like sex ed, leadership, and self-esteem building for young people in the community. One of my contacts in my community has worked with me to take some students in 8th and 9th grade to this opportunities fair that the vice ministry of youth is putting on in our city next Friday. We also hope to work with teachers in the school to incorporate important life development themes into their curriculum. The teaching methods in Paraguay often times don’t allow youth to develop in a manner in which they become critical thinkers, creative, or proactive. Classes can often be students sitting at a desk and simply copying off the board and being tested.

The history of my neighborhood is really interesting. It is a neighborhood about 5 miles from the center of the city that was displaced due to river flooding from the building of a new dam. The community has a lot of people who are struggling to get by. It has a little over 5000 people and everyone goes to the city to work. The community lacks a lot of infrastructure. There is a small health post but most people have to go to the regional hospital for serious treatment. The school only goes up to 9th grade and you have to go further into the city to finish. There is a lot of land but no parks and few soccer fields for kids to play. There are A LOT of young mothers who have little knowledge on how to raise a kid. The barrio is full of children. Everywhere I walk there are tons of kids with little to do. There is so much work to be done and I’m just looking forward to working with community members to make an impact. My community is very politically charged and at times that poses problems for my work but all in all I try my best to always remain neutral and remind people I am just there to work with youth and help the community at large.

On a lighter note it has been nice to be able to have a fellow volunteer who lives in the center of my city, about a 25 min bus ride away. She has been here since September. Her project is environmental ed and she is awesome to hang out with. All in all life is good and I’m still trying to get my bearings, making a lot of meetings, identifying leaders in the community and community needs, going to NGOs and trying to compile a list of contacts who can come in and work in our community.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Great Expectations

Currently sitting in the Cooperative of my future site pondering the next few years and all the ideas, hopes, and challenges that await me. The last few weeks have been a changing of the guard. So much has gone down and my thoughts are in a million places but I will try to recap. After coming back from long field practice in a barrio of Asunción, I had the week off spending time with my host family and community members for Semana Santa, the week leading up to easter.It was a pretty tranquilo week. I saw my family members make the infamous chipa which is a type of special Paraguayan bread that is made every year at this time. We had asado aka bbq and got a lot of quality time in. I also got the chance to play quite a bit of basketball. In the center of our town a bunch of guys from the area come and play and it´s surprisingly decent competition. It´s pretty hilarious playing ball with these guys and talking trash in spanish with lines like en tu cara, basura, and yo tengo vos en mi bolsillo.It was a much needed rest from the rigors of training. I got to study a lot of guarani and continue to get better.

The following week was one of much anticipation. We were finally going to get our future sites. I was pretty calm about it up until the day where we actually found out. It was nuts to think that the place I´m gonna call home for two years was a decision out of hands more or less although they take into account our preferences and ideal projects. I received my site on Wed April 7, my sister Sam´s 21st bday. I was handed a folder that said Encarnación, Barrio Ita Paso....

My initial reaction was shock. A bunch of my friends were really happy with their placement laughing and getting alittle rowdy. I on the either hand was quiet and trying to let it register. Somehow I had it in my head I would be in Asunción the capital or somewhere near because of the rough neighborhoods they have and what my experience has been. i knew nothing about Encarnación except that it was far away and on the border of Argentina. It was pretty apparent to everyone I was a little thrown off because I am known in the group for my positivity and constant smile. The director of placement came over and talked to me and asked me if I was disappointed.I told her that I was a little surprised and didn´t know anything about the site. She proceeded to explain to me the history of Barrio ita paso. It´s a poor neighborhood that was displaced form its original location due to the flooding of the river about 13 years ago. It´s an often forgotten part of Encarnacion because it is on the outskirts and has a lot of needs. She told me for the last 5 years she had been pondering in putting someone there but didn´t think she had found the right match. She told me it is a pretty daunting task with a lot to do and that she picked me because she felt I had the drive, charisma, skills, and work ethic to impact people. Anyone who knows me knows what a sucker I am for a motivational speech haha. Needless to say it helped put me in good spirits about where I was going and being far away from my host family in Villeta.

After finding out about our sites on Wed, we travled to a retreat the following day to get to know our community contacts. We stayed at a beautiful religious retreat center. All of us in Urban youth dressed for the occassion, busting out ties, sports coats, and dressing to impress. A shor ttime after we arrived, the contacts began to pour in and greet us. One by one hands were shaked, people kissed on both cheeks as Paraguayans do and the ice was broken. There was one problem... my contact was nowhere to be found! I spent the whole day hanging out with my friend and her contact who I had met on long field practice in Asunción and is a good friend. It was cool but a disappointment that my contact wasn´t there to hear about the process of Peace Corps and all the expectations in our partnership. I was under the impression that he would arrive the next day in the morning but he couldnt make it. I traveled to my site in car with some other volunteers that will be working near by. Luckily I have a bunch of volunteers in my region. A good 3 or 4 are within 15 min to an hour of me working in various projects.

I arrived to my site and met some of my contacts. One named Jorge and another Herbierto. Jorge is 30 yrs old and head of he nieghborhood commission, he is very politically connected and ambitious. Herbierto is a pastor at a local church that I did not have the chance to spend much time with. I also spent a lot of time with a man named Elvio who is 33 and heads the community Cooperative, a place that handles a variety of community needs like microfinance, help with economic development and seeking to expand to educate the community on various issues. Jorge and Elvio are both guys that have good hearts and really want to see a change in their community. It has been impressive to see how hard they work and how they defy a lot of the stereotypes about laziness or watercooler talk here. They expect A LOT out of me. At times I have had to be clear about how the Peace Corps works. Because of where and what I studied along with the Peace Corps name and our contacts they have lofty ambitions of community change. I think they are head on in a lot of ways but we have to be careful about how we go about talking to people and not making false promises. We have started a plan of needs assesment for the community where we are hoping to identify major issues placing the community in various sectors. There are the obvious problems of education, environment, too much free time for youth and so on. From there we are trying to look into all the resources and human capital the community has to offer. Right now we are planning on starting English and computer classes after my first month here. We also are working on reforming a youth commission that once had great ambitions in the community. I have had meetings with principals, youth leaders, and various community members about ideas and projects we hope to start. Today I got to meet the intendente of all of Encarnacion which is the equivalent to the mayor in the states. He has a lot of power and can make things happen. I have been working pretty hard already, trying to reach out to NGOS about potential partnerships to do vocational training in the community along with health, environment and many other workshops. I´ve been looking into grant writing processes and the requirements to receive funding for sustainable projects. I hope to reach out to current and former volunteers who helped establish community centers and recreation areas. We will be starting our classes sometime in mid June with a few computers in a small space. We will also be hosting meeitngs of various youth groups, neighborhood ocmmissions to be on the same page about planning. The first month and a half from may to mid june will be a time for us to organize our thougths, create curriculum for training, and organize potential contacts in the community, paraguay as a whole, peace corps, and internationally. I want to compile a solid list of people to reach out to for different things and take advantage of all available opportunities and information.

Some ideas that have been runnning through my head and normal urban youth programs are, charlas in schools, youth group meetings and fundraising, parenting workshops and meetings, english, computer training, community partnerships with other ogranizations like red cross and ngos with clout, and support from the local and national govt to assist us in implementation of projects.

Lofty goals I know and I dont want to get too far ahead of myself but they are all things worth thinking about. 2 years isnt that long and I really want to make sure projects are successful in the long run. The idea is to help people in the community learn things so that they can transfer those skills to the community at large.

Thankfully my contacts Elvio and Jorge are very trusted and liked in the community. The political thing worries me a little but I am coming to see that on some level it is necessary to get things done here. So much here is about who you know. I know we have a lot of that in the states, but it is paramount here. I am heading back to training tomorrow for another 2 weeks and I swear in as a volunteer in the US embassy April 30. I will have a few days to hang out and soak it all in in the capital b4 i head to my site. I hope to reach out to a few contacts in the capital while I´m there as well. I feel a lot of pressure to get things done and on some level it´s refreshing to have such a challenge in front of me. Since I graduated I have kind of been out of the game and I´m glad to be back on the grind with a job that I love doing. In bed at night I think about it, when I wake up I´m running possibilities through my head. Passion is a funny thing.

On a lighter note I played a pretty hilarious game of 2 on 2 volleyball the other day. I was a lot more athletic than some of the players but they were fundamentally sound and I got my butt kicked. I told them give me 2 weeks I´ll be the best in Paraguay. It has been fun meeting so many new people and learning about their lives. In my community we only have running water a few hours a day and the style of life is so different. People are friendly and eager to chat. This will be a wild ride and I´m looking forward to it.
Till next time...

Monday, March 22, 2010

A beautiful day

Sorry for the drop in posts, I´ve been extremely busy as of late. I have another post on my computer that I will post at a later date from when I visited another volunteer out in the field. This week I am out on long field practice. We stay in a volunteer´s community for a week and shadow there life while doing charlas in a variety of places. I have also been working with a fellow trainee and a group of high school students. We had the director of environmental action in the local govt come and talk to the kids about recycling global warming and a bunch of Paraguay related issues to the environment. We are also organizing a scholarship packet of all the scholarships in Paraguay that high school students can receive as well as those offered to study in other countries often times through special programs from embassies. It is astonishing at times at how often all available information is not presented to promising youth. I know in the states, parents and children dont know about the college process, and often miss out on great opportunities. Similar issues exist here only at an extremeley higher level. There are a lot less class based initiatives here as to be expected but surprisingly the kids here who often have the grades to go to college and would get full rides simply dont know that such scholarships exist. As volunteers one thing we can do is make sure people are as educated as possible. By doing this Paraguayans can then teach other Paraguayans, making for a sustainable project. The idea with the high school students I am working with during training is to get them up to speed and then have them teach their fellow classmates and other high school students throughout their community.The epitome of paying it forward perhaps.

I am on my first day of long field practice in the neighborhood of Puerto Botanico a neighborhood in the capital of Asuncion. Currently chilling at the community center. This week me and fellow volunteers have to teach about Parasite prevention, dental health, nutrition, geography, and global warming. we will be in schools the community center and comedors which feed very poor families. I am taking the lead on geography and global warming. For geography, I´ll be trying to get kids to have a basic knowledge of the continents and certain countries by using current teams entered in this summers world cup. for global warming myself and a fellow trainee are hoping to show an inconvenient truth followed by a discussion. It´s excellent getting to meet people in communities and see how promising things are. Right now I´m, sitting next to a 17 yr old who got a scholarship from the US embassy to study english and wants to do so many big things. The family Im staying with has a son who is a great leader, wants to go into public service and has been trained a lot by peace corps staff. His family lives very modestly and yet his passion and hope is so apparent. It is truly motivating.

On another note being able to keep up with health care the little i have is amazing. I love being young and having the optimism that it brings. I hope to never lose that.I was just explaining to my language teacher the magnitude of the bill. i talked to her about where i came from what i aspire to be and how thankful i am to be here. I had the ability to follow my dreams and there are so many who cant.I hope on some level for that to be my lifes work. For all the ills of politics I am truly amazed with our President and all the unsung heroes of this era. There is no time for apathy we can each do our part and stretch ourselves, challenge our assumptions, and never stop learning or being curious. Striving towards greatness and a greater compassion daily. We can make it better we really can.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Arriba... abajo


The Good

Last weekend I went on a site visit to spend time with another urban youth volunteer who is currently in the field. She lives in a town called Quiindy. It was pretty similar to where I live now but a little smaller. It was a three day weekend so we had a lot of time to talk and chill. It was a much needed break from the rigors of training. I got to ask a bunch of questions about what my process will be going forward and what life is like as a volunteer. She is currently working with a youth group as a facilitator, providing them with leadership training and various workshops on things like sex-ed HIV/AIDS etc. The group is fairly new and has very energetic and ambitious young people. They want to do a lot in their community and just need the guidance and training to be effective. The volunteer’s other project is working in the local library. She is helping do inventory and soliciting the US embassy for computers and other resources to have at the library. They hope to start having computer classes and various sorts of e-learning with the help of donors. One thing that volunteers have to constantly keep in ind is making our Projects SUSTAINABLE. It’s been drilled into our head day in and day out. In essence we have to establish projects that will be functioning long after we are gone. Because of this, in some ways it is a bit detrimental at times to establish projects that constantly rely on outside funds and do not incentivize sustainable innovation within our communities.
It was cool hearing from some of my other trainees about how their visits went. One volunteer works at a juvenile hall with a broad spectrum of kids. Some sold drugs and grew marijuana, others committed homicide. In another project a trainee got to watch a youth group do a charla on diversity and went to visit a comedor. Comedors are more or less the equivalent of a soup kitchen in the US. Poor families send their kids to eat there several times a week and they are funded for the most part by the church or other private goups. Other trainees co-taught in a school and worked with teachers. What I’ve come to learn is that as an urban volunteer you can do so many different things. You can be as busy as you want to be (or as free). It was also very interesting meeting a returned Peace Corps Volunteer (She did environmental ed) who was a volunteer in the town of Quiindy in the late 80s. She married a Paraguayan and lives there to this day. She goes to the USA for periods of time but for the most part has lived in Paraguay. She saw the country go from dictatorship to democracy and had a lot of insight about how things were here. One other cool rural volunteer I met is finishing her service here in the next 2 weeks. She is then extending for a third year to Jamaica. It is becoming more and more common for volunteers to extend their service a to a 3rd year. Most stay within their country in which they have been serving but some go on to another country to do a similar project.

The Reckless
This past Sunday was a huge day in Paraguay. The national religion here is futbol (soccer). The two most famous club teams Olympia and Cero were playing each other. Towns and cities pretty much shut down minus a few bars and restaurants that stay open for people to come watch the game. I rolled with my host to the town of Carapegua to catch the game. We met up with a couple rural volunteers and one a municipal volunteer. It was cool hearing about their experiences one year in. My host dad and brothers are all Olympia fans and naturally so am I. Most Paraguayans are actually Cero fans. The experience at the bar was unforgettable. People crowded around small TVs in complete silence. There were gasps or cheers depending on a play or event that took place. Feelings of anguish, joy, fear, and hope were being projected from so many faces. Olympia ended winning the game in a thriller. Immediately after, all the Cero fans walked home silently. About 5 minutes later, a good 50 people rolled through the center of town on motos screaming shouting and dancing. People rolled through with cars blasting music from the speakers in their trucks. It was truly una locura. We hung out with the locals cheering and enjoying ourselves. Me my host and 2 other volunteers ended up staying out all night and didn’t leave the town until 5am. When we were on the bus back home, my host accidentally had us get off at the wrong stop. Consequently, we walked through the campo aka country side for 2.5 hours! It was definitely a battle haha. At first it was cool just being there with the crickets in cow country gazing at the stars. After the first hour of walking it started getting a litte tedious. My feet were hurting from dancing all night. By the time we arrived home I had never been more thankful for a bed and a good night (morning’s) sleep.

On Thursday night we went to a celebration of Villeta’s 296th birthday. (Villeta is the city I live in) We got to see/hear a bunch of Paraguayan music and dancing. It was a good time and everyone was out with their families enjoying themselves. Most of us volunteers crashed early as we had class today while our families ended up staying out till 3.

Hard Times

Today some of our group went to visit a comedor (soup kitchen) which serves food to very poor youth in a given neighborhood. We talked briefly with some of the staff and got to talk to some of the youth. It is tough at times to see families living in precarious situations. A million thoughts start running through my head about the problems of arriving from a lack of equity in society, poor education and parenting, the dark side of capitalism, the corruption of government and the apathy of humanity. Why was I so lucky to be born in the US? Then again, even having some of these thoughts is a Western luxury. No time for intellect when dinner tonight isn’t guaranteed. The anger and sadness I feel does nothing for those I see and a sense of hopelessness arises, if only for a moment. Then I tell myself keep pushing, keep trying don’t dwell on the bad, just work towards the good I want to see. These kids don’t need my tears or anyone else’s, they need to be empowered, they need to believe in themselves.

What leaves a strong impression is that despite a lot of these adverse circumstances, there is a joy more prevalent among the people here. They are aware of how tough things are but take more stock in the simple things. It makes one wonder how much more beautiful life could be if we didn’t spend the majority of it concerned about acquiring resources and achieving a certain level of economic achievement and defining it as a life well lived. Obviously we all want to live comfortably, but I can’t help but think about how much energy the masses spend towards trying to eat well and then renting a house and then owning a car and then owning a nicer car and so on. I wonder when we become content… perhaps some of it is (as we learned in Psych) relative to how we feel compared to those around us (social comparison). Is the idea of rags to riches somewhat damaging in itself? A perpetual cycle of wanting more? I will say that I’m just glad to be able to help the best I can and be a part of something I believe in. Some days are full of inspiration and some are full of desperation. Such is life I guess.