Monday, November 24, 2008

Building a school...Photos of pretty things and carnage and inappropriate school materials

Protecting my face from the sun, no matter how dorky it makes me look.

Hello all! This month I’m super busy, actually. Some let me just throw some stuff at ya. Life is great and I´m really happy on my little street. Here’s some of the stuff that’s going on lately:

13 Nov. In the hills

I went with a group of five other volunteers to help build a school up into the hills that I only before saw from a distance.

Having covered education as a reporter in St. Johns County, Fl, I’m used to talk of million-dollar plans and technology. This school was just two leaky rooms with sunlight spraying in from between the old boards of wood.

But the kids lived in paradise. This town is in Independiencia, which is partially a German settlement. It’s a two-hour bus ride from my house, then an hour walk up red dirt into green, where the second-highest point in Paragauy looms in the distance.

We stopped by a man’s house to do a radio show first. Half the area is curtained off for his bed and tv. The volunteer there, Karen, is about to finish her service. Her Guarani was inspiring.

We got to the house after a long walk uphill, sat on the porch exhausted and debated the best kinds of yerba for terere.

The work we did at the school was basically moving stuff. We moved a huge stack of bricks so that they could dry and be used for the floor. We moved a huge stack of rocks to make way for the dirt to be brought in. We moved lots of moist red dirt in grass-covered clumps onto a ox-drawn cart then into the school’s floor.

The whole time I was marveling at how beautiful the place was. Green green green. My friend bathed in a stream. I went to bathe there but fell on my butt in the mud. Then I decided that I was more of a shower girl. Sometimes you wonder if you’re going to do something just for the war story. “When I was in the Peace Corps, I bathed in a muddy stream!” When I was in the Peace Corps, I still preferred a clean shower over a muddy stream.

We did swim in a gorgeous river though. Some cute kids came down and showed off, jumping off the rocks. I thought, what a beautiful little place to grow up.

But then walking back up, we saw yet another abandoned house, its owners working in Buenos Aires. And these kids, who get the benefit of the education of nature, have to learn about everything else in that depressing schoolhouse. Does simplicity always mean poverty? Does opportunity always mean complications?

Pictures from Independencia:
Karen in her house

The view from her front porch

A Ind. street

Inside a classroom of the current school

The new brick school being built next to the old wood one. In the background, the 2nd highest point in Paraguay.

Dramatic rock-throwing shot.

My new boyfriend, Prince Elroy. More delicious than cute, Elroy will be the main dish at Karen´s going away party.

Another thing I want to talk about is Language.

The language thing is cool right now. Never before in my life have I been like, hmm, which language will we be speaking today?

A few of us were at dinner in Villarica, the nearby city, when a volunteer from Koika showed up. Koika is the Korean Peace Corps equivalent. There’s also Jika from Japan.

The volunteer, a friend of the volunteers in VR, sat down to join us, and immediately the conversation went Spanish. It’s funny that it’s not the native language of anyone, but it’s where we all intersect.

I have this other volunteer friend Brandon who only speaks Guarani, no spanish. Since Guarani seems like the second level to me, it’s funny when he’s spouting off in perfect Guarani, then someone says something in Spanish, and he’s like, “What did he say?”

There are parties with Paraguayans, where Guarani and English and Spanish are all floating around. My Pyan buddies love to say stuff to me in English and squeal with delight. “Howayou?” “Ilovyou” “My nae is”

Then there are the Spanish and Guarani words that are part of our mixed vocabulary of the PC Py Volunteer:

asado: barbecue

latrado: sneaky

guapo: hard-working

lindo: neat, pretty

huerta: garden

jahatama (or jaha): let’s go

Sometimes the Peace Corps can be like High School

We are the freshman, excited, arriving on time with our pencils sharpened. I’m aware of this most when I’m hanging out with the seniors, cool and jaded and preparing to move on, filled with advice. There are those who have extended, like the fifth-year senior, and you wonder what they’re still doing here and if they don’t have a life to get to, but then again who would really want to leave?

There are the bad kids (and how do I always seem to enjoy their company most?) There are the goody-two-shoes, the loners, the jocks. There are the couples.

There’s the gossip. Take away our daily intake of Paris Hilton news, and we don’t know what the hell to talk about other than who made out at the last fiesta.

My social life is like high school, at least in Paraguay. I spoke with one of the evacuated volunteers from Bolivia, and she told me she saw other volunteers there three or four times a year. Here, it’s like every weekend there’s some party, some trip to be taken or not.

And little did I know that there’s a high schooler still alive inside of me, wanting to go to every party, wanting to know everyone. This saturday I choose to stay in site, sure that inside jokes were being formed at the party in Asuncion.

But Peace Corps is not a popularity contest. High School wasn’t either, right?

Luckily, I love my site. And, like I had to remember that I was there to learn in high school, I have to remember that I´m here to know Paraguay and to help people.

And now more photos of life in Yataity and other random things that made me pull out my camera.

The ladies from next door in the terere circle of plastic chairs.

The Recycled Grill

This is Oscar from next door with a grill he just made out of a washing machine, the legs of a chair and a bike chain.

Danny and Vivi

This is Danny, the little three-year-old who runs around calling me tia, and Vivi, somehow related to my next door neighbors, on the playground in my back yard.

First Communion

I went to the first communion of my next-door neighbor girl, Vanessa. She’s in the middle. All the girls had on their Ao Poi dresses.

The Best Notebook Cover Ever
This is the notebook I bought for my friend Timmy for his birthday. It was just too creepy to pass up. Can you believe this was meant for a young boy? Look at the butt cheeks on that man!

Carne Man

We were walking to the bus stop in Aveiro, the host community where we had our training. We recently went back for a few days to visit and have a few sessions of language class. On the way to the routa, there’s always this guy with a cart, just hacking up meat on the side of the road there. Friday Matteo, Pooja and I were walking together, engrossed in a heavy political conversation, when out of the corner of my eye I just caught this red, skinned cow’s head teeming with flies. It was just too good. So I had to take some shots. Can you see why I’m edging toward vegetarianism?

This photo just about made my day. I thought it was so crazy. But the funniest thing is when I show it to Pyans. They’re like: Yeah, so?

Modeling Practice

The Ao Poi festival is coming in December, and for a while the board members of the cooperative have been joking about me modeling in the Ao Poi fashion show. Well now the joke has come to life. After the discussion about how, although my butt is big (this is always accompanied by hands of the speaker held out to the side of his or her butt for emphasis), the rest of my body is ok. So it looks like I will be walking down the runway with the skinny, 18-year-old Paraguayan girls.

I had some anxiety about this, as I am 26, big-boned, and recent victim of a diet of pig fat and breaded fried meat. But I said whatever! It’s my policy that when a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity presents itself, I take the chance. I have the rest of my life to not model in an Ao Poi fashion show in Paraguay.

We had our first practice this morning. These people are serious. You start with your left foot bent out, with the heel of your right foot meeting it in the middle on the inside. Don’t bend you knees. Keep your head up. Walk natural. One turn in the middle, pose at the end, walk to the left, then the right, pose at the back of the stage, and done.

The first time I walked, the woman said that it didn’t seem like my first time. I believe she’s underestimated the hours I’ve spent watching America’s Next Top Model. Could I be one step closer to being Paraguay’s Next Top Model?

Probably not. They had some bride’s dresses that were too big for the other girls, who are about 102 pounds, so they wanted me to try it on. I did. Of course, it didn’t fit. I walked out with the older woman running the show, who announced to all, “Ella no entra. Muy gorda es.” (She didn’t fit. She’s very fat.)

I seem to have two choices in the face of all this talk about my body, the one to be to care about it, but that would involve dieting. I choose to view it as exposure therapy. The more I hear people talk about it, the more I’m like, whatever. Someone tells me I'm skinnier at lunch, then by dinner time two others are talking about how I must be happy because I've gotten so much fatter. I feel less sensitive about it, but then why do I write about it so much? I think the underlying message is that it’s just your body. What does it matter so much? Because all my life, steeping in our culture, I’ve absorbed the message that we are our bodies. I’ll know I’ve risen above that when I really stop caring what people say about this thing I live in.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Getting my own house

Oct. 23, 2008: Che rogare (My future house)
After a downpour yesterday, the family preparing my house discovered that the straw roof leaked. We inspected and I saw that yes, if you stand at the right angle, spots of sunlight come through above the beams.
This gave me eight days to find and prepare a new house, sans Craigslist. It actually turned out to be kind of fun, visiting all the people I know around town, telling them I was looking for a house. Almost everyone knew a señora just a few blocks away who might have a place.
I walked all around town, finally plopping myself down at the counter of Ña. Lourdes, drinking a mil coke in a glass bottle with a straw.
“Sabes con quien necesitas hablar?” she said, and I love that this literally translates to Do you know who you need to talk to? It’s just such familiar phrasing.
The woman down the street had a place, she said, so I went and spoke with her, sweaty from tromping around all day long.
She has a little house, next to hers. It’s got a small living room/kitchen, a modern bathroom (which the other house was missing), and a bedroom. That’s it. I’d guess 400 sq. ft. There’s a bunch of bananas hanging right there where you open the back door. There’s room for a garden and there’s a metal playground. There’s a bed and a “sofa.” You’d understand the quotes if you ever sat on a sofa in Paraguay.
It seems like a perfect just-me little place.
The rent’s 200 mil (about 50 bucks). I’m going to see my other options, just so I don’t rush into a decision, but it seems like this might be the place.

Oct. 24: A beautiful day in the neighborhood.
The sun was shining, birds were chirping, terere was flowing like wine, and I was twirling about my finger the key to my very own house.
I went over to confirm with the woman that yes, I would love the little house, which turns out to be 293 sq. ft. little.
The owner and her two daughters were hosing down the tile and scrubbing when I showed up. There was another woman helping and a little three-year-old boy playing in the water. When I walked up he said “tia” (aunt) and put his hands together like he was praying. Kids do this to their older relatives, who in turn give them a quick sign of the cross, so that’s what I did.
We drank t-ray and the girls looked at the photos in my camera. The younger one is adorable and very curious. When they asked me if I had a computer and I said yes, she gave a little squeal and put her head on my shoulder.
The little boy kept shooting me with his gun, then we had a tickle fight, then I taught him high-five, low-five, fist.
Monday I’m going with Mariela to Villarica to buy my appliances for my 11 ft. x 11 ft. living room/kitchen/dining room.

Oct. 28: Che añe’e Guaraníme! (I’m going to speak Guarani (dammit)!)
I found a Guaraní tutor and it’s actually coming along. It’s been like a locomotive leaving the station, lots of noise and smoke and little movement! It’s moving.
It’s funny learning two languages back-to-back, like an experience echoing itself.
I can recognize where I am. In Guaraní, I’m in the stage where I recognize words here and there, and I can form some sentences. But I have to say to myself, ok, this is what I want to say, do I know that in Guarani? Yes, ok, wait. Arms out as if to steady myself. “Ahata akaru nde rogape.” (I’m going to eat lunch at your house.) And each completed sentence or recognized word warrants a tiny celebration.
Most of us can either chose to learn Guarani or not. Another volunteer said to me, “You’re never going to use it again,” but it had the same ring as “We’re all going to die anyway.”
To not learn it would mean sitting around for countless conversations where I remain the outsider. I may never use it again, but I’m here now. This is the language, this is the experience.
So I’m going for it. The good news is I get to use all those vowels, the ô and the ũ and the ĩ, with the party hats and fake mustaches.
Now I’m off to memorize words such as yvyty, yvytu, yvoty, and yvyra. That’s hill, wind, flower and wood to you.

Oct. 30: My people
Back home, I didn’t associate strongly with any group. I guess that just comes with being a mix in the majority.
So I’ve gotten my first taste of stereotyping, where people take my entire country and its history, and somehow it’s all contained in me.
“You’re country had slaves, right?” Uh, yeah.
“Americans take advantage of immigrants.” Um, sometimes.
Today someone said something like all Americans hate black people. She was basically saying that I hated black people, and really for the first time, I felt like, “Hey, not fair! You didn’t even ask me.” I said, “We’re about to have a black president!”
Recently, someone asked me: “People from America don’t cry much for their dead, right?” This hit close, as almost a personal insult that I didn’t care about family members who died. I put a surprised look on my face and said, “Yes, we do.”
“Aah, then in that way we are alike,” said my friend.
Today I explained to the people I was terere-ing with that in each country, you are going to find good people and bad people.
Already the Paraguayans, to me, are not Paraguayans. They’re just people. I know that sounds like a public service announcement, but it’s true. I can’t remember what it was like to think differently. Yes, on top of everything, there’s culture. But most people never get the chance to look past that.

Nov. 7: Roga Sweet Roga
This morning I arrived at my very own house with my stuff, which has metasticized from two backpacks full of stuff to a collection that would barely fit in my host sister’s car. We loaded my stuff, they left, I went into my room and did a jump skip, yelling “My house, my house, my own _ house!” They I kicked up my leg and touched my toes with my fingers like a cheerleader.
Now I have to live on my own. In six months I haven’t washed a dish or a piece of clothing, practically. I hope I remember how it all works. My neighbors are going to see the smoke from my burning stove and come in to see me poking the floor with a broom, weeping.
I went shopping today, like a big girl. I got a industrial-looking cart from the front of the shop, then walked in and realized that all the other shoppers had normal carts. I had taken the kind the baggers use to go out to the cars. So then I wheeled it back up front, where all the check-out people laughed at me. Luckily nothing could bring me down on move-in day.
For food I got Fruit Loops, yerba, vegetables and juice packets. I got dish gloves, and I know I’m going to get laughed at. The truth is that I hate house work, but I could inseminate a cow for all I care as long as I have dish gloves on, so I got them.
This grocery store also has housewares, a problem area for my shopping addiction. This is the usually the part where I buy way too much stuff. I stand there in front of the dishes, wondering which ones express my personality most accurately while matching the decor and mood of my home. Then I buy all these little kitchen gadgets for making recipes I’ll never make.
I did this exact thing when I moved into my first house after college. When I moved out, selling everything, I laughed out loud when I found an unused rolling pin.
So today I tried very hard to stick to the basics, to get the cheapest version of only things I need. Because I am not my flatwear.
As I was walking around, a woman saw my plates in my cart and said to her friend, Ooh, que lindo (How pretty.) Yes, thank you, I picked them out myself.
One of the funny things about Paraguay is that you can’t always buy things that express who you are. One great example is notebooks. Since the biggest buyer of notebooks are kids, they all have kiddie designs. So everyone from security guards to professors to shop owners write their notes on books with cartoons or Mickey Mouse or the beaming cast of High School Musical 2.
I had hoped to get rid of all the props we used to get across the theme of who we are. Because last time, I went into debt trying to buy everything that would make me feel like an adult. (Don’t forget it has to be brushed steel!)
But my house is cute, for sure, and again, I worry I’ve already spent too much on it. But I’m getting better.
Home Depot still sends me emails, promising that they can help me make my dream kitchen come true. At least I know, and love, that I don’t dream about kitchens anymore.

House update: 1st night after dinner.
They came today and installed a ceiling fan in my bedroom. The owner lady said as soon as her husband gets paid they’ll put one in the living room/kitchen/dining room/study.
There’s no sink in the other room, so I planned on washing my dishes with a spicket outside. I did that tonight, and the owner, who lives next door, came over and told me ... something. I admit it -- I’m a dirty faker. Sometimes I just smile and nod.
Later I see what she’s talking about. She had her husband put a spicket in the bathroom where normally the tub faucet would go if this country had bath tubs. She means for me to wash my dishes and my vegetables in the shower.
Isn’t there a Seinfeld about this?
Now, I know water is water. And a faucet is a faucet and nothing is tecnically touching, there’s just something wrong about this. There are just certain activities that go down in the toilet inches from my shower that I don’t want associated with washing my spoons.
As I was setting up to wash my dishes, strapped my Paraguyan-size yellow rubber gloves on my American Amazon hand and sat down on plastic seat with my shower shoes on, I just kept saying, “Oh gross. This is gross. This isn’t right.”
I close the toilet lid because it’s hungry mouth was looking at me. I set my bottle of blue dish soap on top of it.
We’re so taught from Clorox’s commercials that everything should be so sparkling clean. But it’s just not true. I’ll get over washing my dishes just inches from my toilet, with the help of this quote from Fast Food Nation, about the effect of washing meat in the kitchen:
“A series of test conducted by Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, discovered far more fecal bacteria in the average American kitchen sink that on the average American toilet seat. According to Gerba, ‘You’d be better off eating a carrot stick that fell in your toilet than one that fell in your sink.’”

Nov. 9: En Casa.
It seems like overnight, one night in my house, I went from a guest to a resident. I walk down the streets with my little bag of lettuce. I’ve acquired a straw hat.
I’m feeling Peace Corps: opening cans of tuna with my Leatherman, bird poop on my sheet from drying in the sun, measuring my rice in my Nalgene bottle.
I can’t go two blocks without sitting down in several groups to chat or drink t-ray.
It’s always, “Egaupy,” “Take a seat.”
I love my neighbors, the family that owns the house. There’s a husband and wife, a 21-year-old son, and daughters 18 and 11 years old. I went over for asado today and brought the salad like a good neighbor. We had a talk about racism and the history of the U.S. and why this election is so important.
Tonight they invited me over for dinner. I saw some strings on the grill and said, What part is this? And they said Tripe. And I said Oh No!
We all had a good laugh about it while they heated up some meat for me. They are a family that loves to joke around, so I feel at home.
I poked the inside of their intenstines they were eating and said “What is that?” “Este es caca.” said the 11 year old in her matter-of-fact way.
The son said to me tonight that when he talks to me he feels lower, inferior. I told him that I too feel lower than some people, when I think that they are more intelligent or they have nicer things. I told him that will never end, unless he just decides that he is not inferior.
And now I’m sitting in my house. A weird scratching noise was freaking me out, so I opened my front door and there were two horses right out front, chewing the grass. When they saw me they turned and clopped away on the cobblestone. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Aregua and Obama

Hello everyone,I have had a beautiful couple of days. We went to Aregua for a halloween party and I was Miss Peace Corps, dressing in my typical volunteer outfit with a sash. A little lame, but the best I could do at the time. After the party I'll just say I hung out in Aregua for "a little while." I think you can see why from the photos.
We drank terere, we had ice cream, we cooked, we read, we laid in the hammock. We took turns putting our iPods into the speaker dock and playing whatever chill music we had, Beck and Feist and Bon Iver and Radiohead, while the bugs crawled over the stacks of our cards as we played hearts. People kept saying, I kept saying, ok, I have to leave. Then it would rain, or then someone would say, "But we're going to have Indian food for dinner."
I had the kind of time you hope to buy with all that vacation savings. For all those women freaking out that you're not married yet: Alone is another word for free.

Last night in Asuncion we gathered to eat grilled food and watch the elections on CNN en Espanol. My eyes just kept tearing up as I realized it's possible, it's happening, that Obama is winning. And they continue to water, as I read the news today. Behind it all in my mind are two books I recently read.
The first, "The Known World" by Edward P. Jones, about slave culture in Virginia, about the buying and selling of humans called property. Then "Black Like Me" by John Howard Griffin, by a white man who traveled the segregated South in 1960 after making his skin dark, and saw what it was like to be treated like walking garbage for his skin color. I recommend both books.
And now, in 2008, I see that we've come so far as a nation that we chose as our leader someone who could have been bought when our nation started, and someone who couldn't have sat next to me on a bus just fifty years ago.
I just sat there and thought that whatever force it is that can break through hundreds of years of terrible legacy to change this world for the better, into a more unified, more intelligent, more peaceful place, this is what I want my life to be about. Here, I can look around and say, Yes, I am a soldier in that army.

Now let's look at pretty things...
The lake

Flower on a tree

A secret castle near the lake

Paraguayan dock graffiti

My friend Josh's house. He has a gardener.

This lady lives in Josh's yard. His house belongs to an artist, with her workshop right next door.

New buddies Josh and Jenny during the halloween party

Peace Corps feet of my friend Stu. I'm on my way there, Birks style

The view from a Paraguayan bus ride