Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Saying Goodbye

The last few months have been a lot of preparation for ending my Peace Corps Service and transitioning for the next stage in my life. It has also been the holiday season and I was able to celebrate Thanksgiving over the course of a whole week. It started with a trip south to another volunteer's house where about 10 of us prepared and enjoyed our own Thanksgiving feast. This year did not include any Turkey but there was some traditional food such as stuffing, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie and green bean casserole in addition to the summertime foods of coleslaw, barbecue pork ribs and chicken and jambalaya cooked by our Gulf Coast native host. It was all super delicious and got us nice and full for the following day spent next to a beautiful 100 foot waterfall. Immediately following this was the Lady Gaga concert in Asuncion. I cannot say that I would ever attend one of her shows in the US but considering the price of the tickets and the amount of volunteers that went I had to go. She put on an hour and a half long show that featured a giant 4 story castle and a bunch of monologues in English that basically only the Americans in the audience understood. She really could have used a translator to help her connect a little better with the Paraguayans. The day after her show I was off to my friend Josh's site to cook another Thanksgiving feast for his teachers. Between the two of us we threw together an 11 dish meal over the course of 7 hours. There was very little resting and whole lot of sweating as the two of us were slaving away over the gas stove trying to get everything done in time for an 11:30 lunch. After all the effort the Paraguayans seemed to love the meal and learned a bit about American tradition as we explained what Thanksgiving means to us. Once this excursion was done it was back to site for me to go on one more field trip with some of my Professors to the famous Lake Ypacarai and now here I am preparing to pack and leave the place that has been my home. I will be leaving behind a lot of clothing that in reality is worn to the point of not being socially acceptable in the States but my neighbors will happily use and give away to other families. I am leaving my dog, Leon, who has been my faithful companion for most of my service. He will stay with my neighbors who have basically adopted him already and feed him at least twice a day with table scraps. I will be leaving behind several American flags and plenty of NY sports apparel that hopefully will be around for years to come.

The official countdown for my return to the United States of America has ticked down below 14 days and I have only a few more days left in 8.000 Bertoni where I have lived for the past 24 months. I am currently doing my best to wrap things up with Peace Corps and my house as well as saying goodbye to the people who have been my neighbors, coworkers and family for the past 2 years. Once I do leave a new volunteer will be living in my community from the Agricultural Sector. The hope is that the new volunteer will continue to work with the farmers of my Aquaculture project and help to further develop the fish farm as well as whatever other project that the group would like to pursue. However, every volunteer is different and each one will discover new opportunities in the community that the previous volunteer never realized. I have been saying this the entire time of my service, as the volunteer before me primarily focused on the local school in my community and even lived in the school. Early on I decided that I wanted to reach out into the community a little more and work with farmers which resulted in my aquaculture project and various small agricultural activities with various members of the community. I did continue to work with the school but in a minor role sometimes teaching an English class or giving an environmental themed talk. After a few months in my community I was approached by an NGO that asked me to teach a computer class in a school about 5 miles from my house and I agreed to it as long as that school would feed me on the days that I taught. Shortly after I was requested to teach a computer class at another school about 4 miles away and I agreed to it as well. These two other communities were further away than the normal zone a volunteer works in but I was happy to help teach the kids a very useful skill set that most of Paraguay is lacking. As a result of my working in these two communities they will each receive their very own Environmental Action Volunteer. That means that my little area will have three volunteers for the next two years and the hope is that they will collaborate together to accomplish much more than I was ever able to. Looking back on my service I have a lot to be proud of, I accomplished things that I never imagined myself accomplishing. I learned a new language (I am now trilingual), I taught a ton of kids to use computers, I built energy efficient wood-burning stoves, I helped to make the dietary and financial futures of members of my community more stable, I lived in a strange place for 2 years and yet there were so many things that I was not able to accomplish. My women's group never was able to attain its goal of raising chickens for egg production, my youth group only lasted a month or two, I had failures at planting green manures. My failures are mostly my fault from either lack of experience or lack of time and I feel terribly that I did not put more effort into making them work. However, everyone has their limitations and I learned a lot and more about my own limitations as a human being. That does not mean that I don't feel terribly guilty about letting people down because I do but I can live with it. I am not perfect but I did try my best and that is all I could do. Sometimes things just do not work out. I have built some lasting friendships and gotten to know some wonderful people whom I will miss a ton. So now is the time to say goodbye and letting them know that I leaving and I do not know when I will be back again. In one of my schools I have been replaced by a Paraguayan computer teacher which was the ultimate goal of mine all along. However, it was very sad because it cut my time short with the kids and when I visited afterwards they would come up to me and ask why I was not teaching them anymore and that they liked me better and if I would come back next year and teach them again. I was not expecting this reaction and I had an awful time explaining to them that I was going back to my home and family and that they have a new teacher now and a new American that will be working in the school. It was the first time that I realized how much I am going to miss this place. In my site the people are used to the coming and going of volunteers as they have had quite a few over the years and they now know they will get a new one so it is not as big a shock or even as big a deal. That makes it easier on me as they understand my goodbye is for real but obviously still very tough. Overall, I am proud of myself and what I was able to do over the course of two years.

Now it is time to go home and be with my family and friends for the holidays. After that.....the sky is the limit.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

To the First World and Back

I have travelled from the third world to the first world and then back to the third. I went from getting around by riding my bike over miles of sandy red dirt roads to driving my car at high speeds down the New York Thruway. I went from eating chicken necks and mandioca to chicken wings and sweet potato fries. I went from drinking the standard Brahma to flavorful microbrews. I went from sweating in the shade to sweater weather picking apples. And then I came back to the third world to spend a few more weeks and wrap up this adventure that has been my Peace Corps service. September was highlighted with preparations for the tail end of my time in Paraguay with a couple of weeks spent in Upstate New York as a strong reminder of what I will be going back to come December.

The start of September marked the last 3.5 months of Peace Corps service for G34 and brought on the preparations for our departure in the form of a Close of Service conference. At this conference our entire group that arrived in Paraguay in September of 2010 got together for the first time in nearly a year and we were able to catch up with each other and enjoy each other’s company. The workshop focused on our reflections about the Peace Corps as well as our service, what we need to do in preparation for our departure from Paraguay and ending our contract with the Peace Corps and what the future can hold for us. It was a very informative couple of days that also allowed for a little bit of pool time and even a dance party that featured a Winter Olympics theme. At the conference we learned about the work and educational benefits that we receive as a result of our PC service which really started to shift my focus to the real world. I have been looking at jobs opportunities for some time and now is the time when I can start applying to different opportunities that I find. I have also opened my mind to further education as I imagine that I will need a more advanced degree at some point in the future. Why not take a look at the programs that Peace Corps promote? I have found a program that offers a Master of Science in Environmental Policy which is an exciting and important area in the modern world as climate change has come to the forefront of environmental issues. By the close of the conference we were all excited about our futures and how close we were to finishing our service but also sad at the fact that we will be leaving the place that we have called home for the past two years as well as saying goodbye to the people who have welcomed us into their homes and made us a part of their families. As is every life change the ending will be bittersweet but the future is bright.

Immediately after this conference I had the opportunity to go to some Jesuit Ruins in the southern part of the country. I went to Trinidad where I visited another volunteer and saw the remains of a Jesuit ruin dating back to the 15th century. The first tour I took was at night and the ruins were lit up with beautifully placed lighting with great background music giving the place a wonderful museum feel that was completely outdoors. The scale of the place was astounding and imagining how the old Jesuit priests organized the Guarani Indians to construct the place with their bare hands and simple tools is mind blowing. Throughout the ruins there are statues with their heads removed which were supposedly removed by looters in their search for gold. One of my favorite little details was the flower emblems found all over the place which symbolized the passion fruit flower. The history of these ruins of the Jesuit reductions dates back to the 1600’s when the Jesuit priests gathered the Guarani Indians into these compounds in order to keep them safe from the Brazilian slave traders that would constantly take the unprotected Indians captive during this time period. In the reductions the Jesuits taught the Indians about Christianity but at the same time helped to preserve the Indigenous culture by writing down the language and this is a big reason why the Guarani language is still around today and continues to be an official language of Paraguay. These reductions were also working villages where the Indigenous peoples learned modern crafts as well as received education. Eventually these missionaries were expelled in 1767 and the Missions went into disuse and disrepair and we are lucky to have what remains of them to this day.

After my little in-country excursion it was time for my big out of country excursion to the USA. I was originally going home for 10 days  but ended up staying for 6 extra days due to missing my flight and then a little bit of negotiating with the airline. So in those 16 days I did a ton of things but not too much. I went on a nice mini road trip with a group of college friends in order to see Justin, my college roommate, get married in Lancaster, Pennsylvania to his lovely bride Kayla. I went apple picking with my family. I saw the Giants win on Thursday night football. I went for a hike up an Adirondack High Peak on a very wet yet colorful day. I ate a lot of chicken wings. I visited a Grad School. And I spent a lot of great quality time with my family. After my wonderful time at home it was time to come back to Paraguay to finish my last 9 weeks.
Since being back it has been hot, really hot….as in over 100 degrees every day. That part has not been a ton of fun and it has been made worse due to buses breaking down and inconveniently travelling at the hottest parts of the day. I need to get my Paraguay smarts back and relearn that all I need to do at the hottest part of the day is sit in the shade and drink terere. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Month of Firsts

August has been a month of new experiences and lots of success. It has been one of those great months that come along once every so often over the course of the Peace Corps service. It has also just flown by! It is hard to believe that this weekend will mark the beginning of September and therefore the last few months of my Peace Corps service. September will be spent mostly out of site as I have a Close of Service Conference and then shortly afterwards I will be travelling to the US for a 10 day vacation. I suppose this is just the craziness of the last few months of Peace Corps service.

This month has been a culinary adventure and I have had more crazy food in the past few weeks than I had in my first 22 months of service. It all started with a conversation about what I had and had not eaten in Paraguay. Of course I have had all the normal things like pork, beef, chicken and spaghetti, sopa paraguaya, pig head, cow head, cow feet, cow intestine, bull testicles, pig intestine, chicken feet and neck, armadillo, blood sausage....the normal stuff. It came out that I had not eaten some of South America's famous wildlife so the Paraguayans decided to change that. I can now say that I have eaten and enjoyed eating Carpincho, Paloma and Yacaré. The Carpincho or Capybara, is the worlds largest rodent and is really just a Giant Swamp Rat. This was prepared very similarly to pulled pork and was slow cooked for half a day with various spices and vegetables that apparently rid it of its normal swampy flavor. The result was delicious and tasted like a drier pulled pork that would have been great on a sandwich only with random rodent bones thrown in. The Paloma or Pigeon, left a little more to be desired. The cook told me at first that it was frog soup and I tended to believe him as the way the bird was cut looked like a squatting toad. This dish was prepared as a soup and the meat tasted like chicken but just with a lot less meat...the juice wasn't worth the squeeze. A fun fact that I learned afterwards is that pigeon is supposedly an aphrodisiac...can't say that I can verify that. The Yacaré or Caiman, was a result of a surprise invitation and included a nighttime walk to someones field where a small group of people were preparing this dish. Caiman is renowned to be a tasty dish and I was really excited to give it a shot. This was also prepared in a slow cooking type of way that resulted in tender meat that was as white and flaky as fish, meatier like pork and flavored like chicken. It was  quite tasty and well worth the adventure. The least adventurous of the different meals was something called lechón which is really just a young pig barbecued in its skin. While this for me was very delicious and produced very tender meat it was also very fatty and made me a bit sick. Also watching Paraguayans attack it like lions eating a zebra but with a knife and fork caused it to lose some appeal for me.

The Asuncion Marathon was also this past weekend. In an effort to get in shape and lose a few pounds I signed up for the half marathon a couple of months ago and have been diligently training for my first race ever. My training consisted of running 4 days a week at various distances in and around my site. All my running was done on dirt and sand which has probably saved my knees and ankles but also made me nervous about a transition to pavement. Turns out I had nothing to worry about and it also turned into my advantage to have a relatively hilly site which gave me a lot of practice running up and down hills which turned out to be the key to my race. Throughout my training I had set a goal for myself of an 1:45 to finish the half marathon which works out to be about 8 minute miles. Some days I felt this was attainable others not so much. So this past Friday I arrived in Asuncion and Saturday I picked up my race kit which included a shirt, hat, washcloth, vitamins, and my number 598. About 20 or so other volunteers also participated in the race with the majority doing the half marathon, some doing the 10km and a few crazies doing the full marathon. Saturday night we went to a pasta dinner held for the runners so we could all  pre-race carbo load. This turned out to be a nice event that gave shout outs to the participating countries and had some traditional music and dance including the bottle dance where the dancer had a total of 20 bottles stacked on her head and she seemed to struggle just keeping them up there much less dancing with them on her head. The marathon had participants from England, Kenya, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Argentina and of course Paraguay among others. Sunday morning came around and it was cold, in the 50's, for me this was the ideal running temperature so by 6:30 we headed to the starting line checked our bags, pinned our numbers on, stretched out and prepared to run with 3,000 other people. At 7:00am the clock had counted down and we were off, well the Kenyans were, we were still way back in the midst of the crowd. Eventually we got going and started to get some space to run when we got to the first of many hills for the day. Then it was on, I killed the hills both up and down and loved the feeling of running past people next thing you know I am 10km into the race and the crowd has significantly thinned and I am feeling great. All I could do was smile as I confronted yet another hill or saw a friend also running, it just felt great and I was making excellent time.I also learned that drinking water while running is extremely challenging and half of my drinking attempts resulted in choking...I will have to work on that. At 18km I knew I only had 3km to go and I had to push it and so I ran faster and the closer I got to the finish line the faster I tried to run and the more people that were there cheering. Finally, the finish line was in site and I passed the old man that had passed me only a few minutes before ad I crossed the line at 1:41.39! I crushed my goal and finished with a more or less 7:45 minute mile. I couldn't have been happier. So maybe a marathon could be in my future....

Last week also included another fantastic event which was the Environmental Expo that was planned by the Volunteers in San Pedro. This event was held in Itacurubi del Rosario where currently 3 volunteers are living as it is a medium sized city. The idea was to have several stations set up with the school children rotating through. In total we had 13 volunteers to help manage the 450 or so kids that we had in the gymnasium. The six stations were climate change, deforestation, tree planting, trash classification, trash management and the snake kit. I was in charge of the snake kit which I would not be wrong in saying was the biggest draw of the six stations. So 450 kids and 8 mini talks later we had gotten through the mobs of kids after a tremendously successful event thanks to the planning of the volunteers in Itacurubi and the participation of the rest of the volunteers in San Pedro. This was just another success in what has been shaping up to be a tremendously successful Peace Corps Service.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Agosto Poty, Vaka Piru

“Agosto, vaka piru ha tuja rerahaha” this Guarani expression states that ‘the old, skinny cow dies in the month of August’. This is the last month of winter and can be a time of hardship due to cold weather, lack of food and generally considered somewhat unlucky. A typical tradition is to drink Terere with two medicinal herbs, agosto poty (August flower) and pyno’i (a small stinging nettle) and is said to purify the blood. Another traditional drink is called Carrulim which are the words caña (a sugarcane rum/whisky), ruda (an herb) and limon (lime) put together to make a fun sounding word. The purpose of this tradition is to free the body of all the bad that can happen during the month of August including death. So enough of all this death and disease, Happy August! 

Winter Break has come to an end this past week after the kids and professors got an extra week off due to a widespread flu that has been going around. That means back to teaching for me! I was able to enjoy the three weeks off doing various things in my community as well as travelling and seeing some other volunteers. To kick off the winter vacation some of the Peace Corps Volunteers in the area helped to train the Amigos de las Americas which is a cultural experience program from the US that sends high school aged kids to countries like Paraguay for cultural exchange and a primary project or two. In Paraguay their focus is on youth empowerment as well as fogon (wood burning stove) construction. As Peace Corps Volunteers many of us are practically professional fogon builders so the Amigos staff invited us to their training event where each of us took a group of Amigos and trained them how to build these stoves from the ground up. After their initial training they spend another 6 weeks in Paraguay in their designated community with one or two other Amigos while they build fogones as well as work in the schools for the youth empowerment aspect of their assignment. This past week several of the Amigos Volunteers as well as some Paraguayan Volunteers came to a community close to my site to build a couple of fogones for a school that was previously without. I was invited to help instruct and supervise the construction of the stoves I had 12 workers to watch over and with so many hands we made quick work of the simultaneous construction of the two fogones and within 5 hours we had completed them both… a record time. 

Over the break I also had an opportunity to travel a little bit within the country and went north to San Pedro de Ycuaamandyju (San Pedro of the Cotton Well) to visit some volunteers that live up that way. This small city, the capital of the state of San Pedro, always reminds me of an Old Western town with its many dirt roads and narrow streets lined by many shops and saloons. While in town we went to a concert for a local band called Los Verduleros (the vegetable sellers) which has been a very popular group in Paraguay with two major hit songs Borracho (drunkard) and Soltero (bachelor). The concert was a blast; we danced on stage while the group was playing, went backstage with them to enjoy some free beverages, stayed out until the sun came up and even had some pancakes before the sunrise. To say the least we all had a lot of fun during our time in San Pedro and as always it was enjoyable to spend time with other volunteers in order to see what they are doing and how they are living.

After the trip to San Pedro I was off to an Environmental themed Winter Camp at another volunteer’s site. This is planned to be the first of a series of workshops where the volunteers from my area will teach Paraguayan children about various environmental themes including trash management, climate change, biodiversity and deforestation. The next ones that we have planned promise to be even bigger (a couple hundred kids) but they would only be over the course of a single day with rotations to break up the number of kids per presenter. During this camp I helped to teach about trash management, the food chain and biodiversity as well as showed off the snake kit that includes a preserved venomous snake and gives information about the identification of the venomous snakes of Paraguay. This camp went extremely well, after a day and a half with about 20 or so kids and a lot of educational activities we were all exhausted. I finally made it home and I have never been quite so happy to be back.

As a result of the extra week of vacation I was able to enjoy some relaxing time in site and had the opportunity to visit many of the families that I had not seen in some time as well as do some much needed work around my house. One day was spent with a machete in hand as I cut all the grass and weeds that were in my overgrown front lawn. Another was spent visiting various families which resulted in me going out into the fields to get mandioca, hoeing some overgrown plots of melon, cutting brush (with machete) and taking leaves off of moringa trees (the magical cure-all tree from India). I have even started my very own radio program that airs on Saturday afternoons. I talk about various environmental themes and I can also play whatever music that I choose. This past week I covered gardens; everything from the benefits of gardens to what vegetables can be planted together to homemade pesticides. This coming week I will be talking about beekeeping in preparation for the spring. For my first program I decided to play some American music so I played LMFAO’s Sexy and I Know It as my intro song with some Levels by Avicii constantly in the background. I have no idea what music to use this week but I intend to keep it American. 

At this point in my Peace Corps service things are definitely winding down. I am currently in the process of site development with my bosses. This means locating places where future volunteers could end up being placed. The current idea is to have a volunteer living in the community where I am as well as one or two others in some of the surrounding communities where I have also been working. The idea would to have a small group of volunteers close enough to each other that they could coordinate on projects as well as enjoy the fact that another American is living fairly close by. I am personally winding down my own projects and thinking to the future and of life back in the USA. Currently, I am still leaning towards a job and am waiting to hear from prospective employers. I am also in the midst of training for my first race, a half marathon that is at the end of August in Asuncion. I have been doing a lot of running on the sandy, hilly roads of my community over the past few months and I am making great progress towards the goals that I have for the race. So on August 26 wish me luck as I attempt to run further than I ever have before! The next bit of news is that I will be taking a trip to the USA in September in order to help my college roommate celebrate his marriage to the love of his life! I will be home for 10 days and I hope to see lots of family and friends as well as to enjoy some of the flavors from the states that I have missed the most including a big healthy Sandwich and Buffalo Wings. 

Oh yeah, it is also my Birthday this Saturday and as I turn 25 I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be a quarter of a century in age. A friend directed me to this page, 25 things to do before you turn 25. I feel that I have done the vast majority of things on the list. Number 23 is one of my favorites: Leave the country under the premise of ‘finding yourself’ …. and go home when you start to miss it. The one about buying a Macbook Pro will never happen and I don’t feel the least bit bad about it. To say the least, I feel pretty accomplished for my first 25 years of life and I have to thank my family and friends for supporting me in my journey to get where I am today. I have been on a lot of adventures that span the Western Hemisphere with different pretenses for each trip along the way I have learned a lot about the world as well as myself. I have learned that: 
  • People are people, no matter where you go there will always be good and bad.
  • It is important to always be open to trying new things and taking advantage of all the opportunities presented to you, as you never know if you will ever have the chance to do it again.
  •  The world is full of beautiful and amazing places but the places that you tend to miss the most are the ones closest to the place you grew up.
  • The most important thing is to be happy with your life and if you realize that you are not, you must to do something to change that. 

Come a few months’ time I can add Peace Corps to my accomplishments and I will be able to say that I have lived outside of the USA for a little shy of 3 years if all of my travels are put together.  I can’t say that I have found myself while living abroad because I realize that I had never lost myself in the first place, however, I can say that it is almost time to go home.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Aftermath

In the time since Goatgate there has been quite a bit of excitement in the news from Paraguay. The week following the disappearance of Ears, a conflict between landless farmers and the police resulted in casualties on both sides as a peaceful eviction went wrong. Exactly two weeks after my goat was taken, the Paraguayan Parliament impeached the President as a result of a history of poor judgments, within 48 hours the President was out of office and the Vice President was sworn in. This of course caught the attention of international media and resulted in backlash from the neighboring countries in the region. Needless to say Paraguay is experiencing some interesting political times and the future remains uncertain. So what does this mean for the daily life of a Peace Corps Volunteer in the interior? Not much, in fact, it would be hard to tell anything has changed at all. Sure, there are some new conversation topics that come up when drinking terere with the neighbors, but in reality the daily life in Paraguay has not changed at all. I continue teaching, visiting neighbors, shopping in Santani, riding my bike, running, reading, talking with other Peace Corps Volunteers and of course drinking terere (or more likely mate now that it has gotten so cold). The Paraguayans continue to go to school, listen to polka, work in the fields, plant their gardens, drink terere, go back to the fields and of course drink more terere. So while the news abroad may seem quite dramatic, the tranquilo Paraguayan lifestyle has tranquilly prevailed. Personally I have found this Paraguayan attitude extremely refreshing. I have to admit that for several days I was very much the typical American following the news minute by minute expecting the worst and getting myself really worked up to the point of hysteria. Then I looked around to the people who would actually be affected by whatever consequences might come and saw that they were drinking terere just like any other day. These Paraguayans by no means were oblivious to what was going on in their government and most definitely had opinions about the occurrences, but in reality nothing was going to affect their lives that day or the next. I found this approach very refreshing, especially after a couple days of following the news late into the night, it resulted in much needed break from being too connected to the world. This just goes on to support the idea that my Peace Corps service is just like camping. I essentially am outside even when I am not, I sleep in a sleeping bag, bugs are a constant nuisance, cooking is either done with a fire or a gas tank and (if I so choose) I can be completely disconnected.

Currently, 8.000 Bertoni as well as all of Paraguay is getting into another cold spell as winter seems to come and go. Only last week it was in the 90’s and now it is back down into the 40’s. Of course this has resulted in me getting a cold and has even made my cellphone sluggish but to be honest this beats the heat because it is much easier to warm up than it is to cool down when air conditioning is not an option. The best part of the last few weeks has been the abundance of pineapple. I have my piña hookup (a 10 year old kid) that comes to my house at least once a week to give me pineapples in exchange for a few sips of water and of course some money. This has made my life much happier as I can experiment with all sorts of pineapple smoothies that mostly include pineapple, powdered milk and water (if I am lucky banana). It is also gardening season and I have spent some time working on my neighbors garden as well as my own and very soon my spinach, chard, cabbage, parsley and broccoli will be ready for transplant and I will be able to eat a bunch of tasty salads. 

This past week was of course Independence Day in the USA and of course the Peace Corps Volunteers had to celebrate our Nation so a lot of us went into Asuncion for the annual picnic at the US Embassy for some hot dogs, hamburgers, Cuban Music and Mexican Beer. My personal favorite moment was winning a door prize! I won a bath kit that including 4 different ways to scrub myself, a bar of soap and a basket. While it may not be as good as the massage that was another prize it will be handy to try and keep my feet pique free and keep my toenails from permanently taking on the red color from the soil. In case you were wondering, pique is probably the most disgusting thing that I have experienced on an almost daily basis. It is a type of flea that thrives in sandy soil (aka my yard) and infects humans and dogs by penetrating into the skin of the foot and then growing as it fills up with eggs resulting in a painful spot on the foot.  While not recommended I prefer to pop them out with orange spines which results in a white pus looking substance coming out as well as the body of the flea. I have gotten so good at this procedure that my elderly neighbors, who don’t see all that well, entrust me to take out their pique for them. Another life skill learned.

Speaking of life skills, a few weeks back I received a phone call from Karai Nelson, one of my neighbors, he says, “Gregorio, come here right now! I just killed two Jarara, come here to take a look.” How could I say no? So I head on over and when I finally arrive to the edge of his forest at the back of his fields I see the two dead Jarara hanging from the fence but I don’t see him.  I take a couple of pictures and go into the ka’aguy (woods) to find Nelson where I find him cutting down some trees. He asks me if I saw the Jarara and of course I say that I had and then he tells me that I have to bring them home with me. I am pretty reluctant but as most Paraguayans he is very insistent and I relent. I ask him if he has a plastic bag around as they are bleeding a lot and I only have my backpack and don’t especially want it to get covered in Jarara blood and of course he doesn’t. Grudgingly, I place the two 6 foot long Jarara in my backpack and take them home (a jarara, by the way, is the Guarani name for Lancehead which is one of the more dangerous venomous snakes in Paraguay).  I now have these two recently killed jarara in my house and am trying to decide what to do with them; my predecessor famously ate a jarara during his service and I decided it would be best to break from this tradition so that Paraguayans don’t think that all Americans just love eating snakes. I decided that the best use for these two dead snakes would be future belts. So I quickly looked up how to skin a snake and then did so. The result: two beautiful 6 foot long snake skins that will someday be transformed into belts once they stop stinking. Life skill learned: I can now confidently skin a snake.

Now that I am down to the last 5 months of service it feels as if life is starting to speed up. School Vacation has just started which gives me two weeks off from my classes and I plan to visit a few other Volunteer’s sites with this free time and before I know it July will be over and then it will be August! At some point I still need to get to Iguazu Falls, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, and maybe even the Jesuit Missions in Southern Paraguay. This is also getting to be the time where I have to start getting my site as well as some others ready for new volunteers who will replace me when I am gone. My follow-up will likely be the last Environmental Volunteer in my site as there is a three volunteer cycle and I am the second, but new cycles could start up in some neighboring communities ensuring that Peace Corps continues its long tradition in my area. And so the Peace Corps will continue working in Paraguay; each of us as Volunteers are just minuscule pieces of the vast Peace Corps Sustainable Development puzzle.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Sometimes while serving the Peace Corps bad things happen. In reality, volunteers who have no negative experiences at all in their two year service are a minority. That is the nature of the work and life in general. Not everything is good all the time and everything can have an ugly side to it that accompanies the beautiful. As volunteers we are put into a fish bowl and our communities view us as apart from themselves no matter how much integration we do. Peace Corps Volunteers will be viewed as rich even if they live just as their neighbors in the most rustic conditions. Peace Corps Volunteers will be viewed as foreigners no matter what and as a result we stand out. These are the only justifications that I can come up with for my goat being stolen. As an American, I stand out and am viewed as someone that has some wealth and therefore some people want what I have. In this case my goat was taken from me and is most likely long gone by now.  The positive spin from this incredibly negative experience has been the initiative that my neighbors have taken to attempt to recover the goat. People went house to house letting them know what had happened, a town meeting was held to try to find a solution and people expressed their concern to me directly and apologized on behalf of their compatriots. While none of this will get my goat back it is good to know that my community has my back.

In other news, the aquaculture project has officially been inaugurated. This is hard to believe since it seems like only yesterday that they first broke ground. This past Friday the group invited the Governor, Mayor, a Polka Band and other government officials to help celebrate this new resource in the community. All told there are now 24 fish ponds in 8.000 Bertoni with 12 being constructed with this project for 11 different landowners and their families. So after some opening speeches where the politicians talked about the importance of small-scale projects such as this one to improve food security, create an additional source of wealth, utilize marginal land that couldn’t be planted otherwise and at the same time having a low environmental impact on the land. Other themes that were touched upon was the importance of taking responsibility for outside investments in Paraguay that historically have cost Paraguayans more than they have gained for them as a result of long term environmental impact that have ruined land and contaminated water sources. This responsibility is a very important current issue as much of Paraguay’s land has been sold to foreigners that take part in large scale agriculture and mining projects that have a tendency to lay waste to the land. So the idea of an ecologically friendly project such as raising native fish on land that wasn’t being utilized for anything previously in order to produce protein that has a much smaller environmental impact as other protein sources such as cattle is an incredible valid and important one in modern-day Paraguay. Anyways, once the speeches were made and the band had played a bit the crowd headed down to one the ponds where the ceremonial ribbon was cut. Afterwards, everyone was invited to a cookout to celebrate the completion of the project. Moving onwards the group hopes to obtain more fish and to dig more ponds in the community in order to make a sort of fish resource in the interior of San Pedro. I am incredibly proud of the group for accomplishing all that they have and making the project work no matter what setbacks we faced. Hopefully, this group will be successfully raising fish long after I am gone and finding ways to improve their project in order to make an environmentally and economically sustainable project.

Speaking of me being gone! I can’t believe that only six months are left in my service and it is getting to be time to start thinking about my immediate future. To be honest, I have been thinking about my post-service future for some time now keeping an eye on the Texas A&M job board for any interesting opportunities whether it be a job or an assistantship for a Master’s Program. At this point I am looking into job opportunities more than Graduate Schools as a result of my arrival date in December. Most of the Graduate School programs have fall start dates. I think it may be time to make money anyhow and if I ever feel so inclined I can go back to school and receive my Master’s or who knows maybe even my PHD. For now there seem to be some interesting opportunities in the job market. I may be getting ahead of myself with the job search as there is still much to be done in my last six months. For one I have my computer/English classes that are continue to be very rewarding for me. Another project is a travelling Environmental Workshop that I am helping to plan for the entire state of San Pedro that will take place over the next couple of months in order to bring some environmental awareness to a variety of schools in a variety of locations. It is also about the time in my Peace Corps service where I am to start thinking about follow-up volunteers in my area. As of right now it appears that a volunteer will be coming to my community once I am gone as well as another possible volunteer in each of the communities to which I travel to teach computer use. Over the next few weeks I will start to determine the possibility of having volunteers in those communities.  Besides that I am starting to prepare to wrap up my service. The months are flying by and the days are super short. Before I know it I will be on a plane out of here and back in the USA. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Winter is Coming

It’s hard to believe that only 3 months ago one of my favorite activities was sitting under a cold water shower for as long as I liked. Now I try to stay warm by eating hot food, drinking maté, wearing all of my clothes while curled up in my 15°F sleeping bag with a movie on my laptop. I hate to make it sound that bad because it is only getting as cold as the 40’s but when you are in an unheated, uninsulated house that has a metal roof, concrete floors, and half inch wooden planking for walls that don’t quite reach the ceiling that  40 degrees tends to infiltrate every part of your life. As the weather changes my daily routine changes. Waking up isn’t so hard but getting out of my nice cozy cocoon is terribly difficult especially knowing that I am only to go outside with the sun barely up and hop on a bicycle to ride about 3.5 miles through sand, uphill the entire way, to teach some 50 kids ranging from 4 to 14 year olds the basics of computers. Nobody said it would be easy. Luckily this scenario only happens two days a week. The other days can be a slower start, after staking the goat out to forage I can sit down with piping hot maté that gives me a little energy boost as well as warms me from the inside out. Then in the morning I generally walk around town to see what is happening whether it be in the school, my neighbor’s house, or how many fish ponds have been dug for my aquaculture project. Around lunchtime I get back home to move the goat and give her some food and then I have to decide if showering will be in my future because I know by afternoon it will be impossible to convince myself to stand under cold water for any amount of time and bucket bathing does not sound entirely appealing yet. The very short afternoon is much like the morning but recently has included a little bit of exercise to get the blood circulating. Then I bring the goat back close to the house and feed her again maybe make myself some dinner and get another pot of boiling water ready for maté and settle into my sleeping bag. Then I have time to plan activities for the next day, watch whatever movie strikes me on my laptop, listen to the rats crawling around my kitchen and hoping they finally eat the poison and not my soap and eventually I fall asleep resting to start another day.

Luckily, I took a vacation before this most recent cold snap and was able to escape to Uruguay for a week with my bestie, Josh. The whole point of the trip was to break up our service a little bit in order to see someplace new as well as spend some time in a bigger city and to lounge on the beach. So after a severely delayed hour and a half flight we landed in Montevideo, Uruguay, the third most southern capital city in the world, which is a decent sized modern city with a little over a million residents and sits on the River Plate where it enters the Southern Atlantic Ocean.  We stayed in a place called the Red Hostel right outside the Old City and right in the center of the city not far from a McDonalds. The very first night we were able to experience a lot of what Montevideo had to offer us. It started and ended with the Uruguayan variety of Pilsen and in between a great dinner of Seafood Paella (it had been a really long time since I had seafood) accompanied with Uruguayan Tannat wine. After this we were drawn in with some Brazilian tourists and some others staying in the hostel and went out to see what nightlife is like in the Uruguayan capital. To say the least it was not what we expected. Turns out that music circa the 1950’s US is the popular scene in the dance clubs. That the dance club scene isn’t really inside the dance club at all but instead out on the street outside the club where everyone is gathered drinking, smoking and being raucous. After an hour of this it was decided it would be a good idea to move on and try to find our way back which we eventually did but not before getting some good old South American street food, hamburgers and hotdogs. At about 5 am we were in bed. The next few days in Montevideo were spent walking around and seeing the sights that included the zoo where we discovered a giraffe and a housecat that had formed some sort of symbiotic relationship, the famous Port Market where every booth sells more cuts of meat than you could ever imagine, McDonalds where the Big Mac is the Big Mac no matter where you are, and the Old City where the streets are covered in dog poop. Then it was off the Punta del Diablo (the Devils Point, named for its trident shaped coastline) for some fun in the sun. Luckily it was sunny 80% of our time there which is unusual for low season and the temperatures were warm enough to go into the surf. As a result of it being the Low Season the whole town was empty. Normally, during high season, there are probably 50 or so hostels and hotels open, for low season only one, the Diablo Tranquilo Hostel. Lucky for us it is also the best hostel in Punta del Diablo and offers all sorts of excursions that include surfing, sand boarding and horseback riding. We didn’t participate in any of these excursions but still had a great time. The Diablo Tranquilo hostel was the first ever hostel in PDD (Punta Del Diablo) and was created by an American entrepreneur at the age of 25. After several years of managing this hostel and opening up an associated restaurant and suites he has decided to get out and sell especially since PDD has blown up with hotels and luxury suites as a result of it being listed as one of the 10 Places in the World to see in 2008 by Lonely Planet. I imagine that low season in PDD is not much different than the early years as far as the crowds go and I was happy to get into the ocean every day and even get a little bit of sun. Aside from that we did a lot of walking and saw a lot of the coastline that included dead sea turtles and sea lions as well as live dolphins and many beautiful vistas and opportunities for beach jumping and planking. After a few days at the beach, barely avoiding ammonia poisoning, we had to get back to Montevideo in order to fly back to Paraguay and then of course to get back to our cold countryside reality.