Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Land of Opportunity

Next week I will be returning to Guarambare along with the other volunteers in G27 for our 3 month In-Service-Training (IST) and Reconnect. IST gives volunteers the opportunity to come together, after months apart, to share our experiences, recieve additional language training (kind of like a language booster shot), and the chance to meet with our Peace Corps Medical Officer, Security Director, and CHP staff as a group. IST is a milestone in PC service. We have made it through one of the most difficult periods of our two years here, "becoming one" with our community. However, while this is a time of self reflection and, in most cases, re-evaluation about our roles and our futures, we have also gained the experience and, therefore, the right to have and share opinions about our new homes and Paraguay as a whole.

I have to start by saying that I truly do love Paraguay. Within the 6 months that I have lived here (3 months in training, and 3 months in site) I have grown to regard Paraguay as a second home. I have even caught myself having conversations with other volunteers about retiring here, down the road! But, unfortunately, under the smiles, hugs, and kisses exists serious political, economical, and social issues.

Now I have to switch gears, and speak only of my site, my home, 25 de Diciembre. This is not to say that these problems are not prevelent in other areas of Paraguay, and even the world, these are simply my observations from my time in 25.

My community, when compared to many others in Paraguay, is no where near "impoverished." While there are barrios in need of extreme changes, the majority of families have solid homes with all of the basic utilities (some even have washer machines and satallite dishes). Few families are unable to clothe and feed themselves. They follow the "tranquilopa" attitude to a T, and are quite content with life, possibly at the expense of their future generations. I honestly believe my community has the means. What they lack is the proper education and motivation. The generation of los padres grew up under the Strossener era, where public oposition could mean your life. How are the older generations expected to teach the new generation about freedom of thought and public participation when they have little to no experience?

It is interesting being a Municipal Serivces volunteer in a community that has never had one before. 25 de Diciembre has had all sorts of volunteers in the past; from beekeeping to health, and education to agroforestry. But never MSD. So everyday I have to explain to the community what it is exactly that I am doing here for the next 2 years. To the best of my ability, I think I give good/ optomistic answers, despite the fatc that I know my community has little faith in thier municipality (Muni) and intendente (Mayor). But I cannot help but feel like my words are going in on one ear and out the other. And somewhere in the midst of this lack of understanding, dollar signs appear in thier eyes.

It is simple math really when you think about it:

The Muni handles money

Americans have money... lots of money


American + Muni = more money $$$!!!

Now, after 3 months of expalining to people that I am not a blank checkbook, I have come to the realization that (while yes, of course more money would always be wonderful) it is not the amount of money my community should be concerned with, but the way in which it is spent. More funding from the government and private organizations will do 25 no good if it is wasted on the same "things" it is now. So, I am trying to send a new message... create a new stereotype for America that developing countries like Paraguay can look up to;

"America is the land of opportunity..." where anyone, no matter thier race, religion, or socio-economic background, has the opportunity to improve thiers lives, and that of thier family, if they choose to.

What my community lacks is opportunity,and the first step to providing this is education. I fear for the future generations of Paraguayans. Here is a generations with parents that grew up under a dictatorship. Here is a statistic for you: 40% of Paraguayans are under the age of 15. Under 15! If you ask a child in the US what they want to do when they grow up you will hear all sorts of answers, from doctors to lawyers, firefighters to cops, teachers, etc. You would smile and say something warn and encouraging. I have been affraid to ask children here what they want to be. I think 80% of the time they would say futbol player, or farmer like mom and dad. Obviously, I am exagerating. But you get the point; when there is little education, there is little motivation.

Whenever I meet a new person in 25, or any of the barrios, they ask me the same questions about America, and my life there:

A. You are American, why would you want to live in Paraguay?
B. You must have lots of money?
C. There are a lot of jobs in America... and no poverty like Paraguay?
D. After 2 years, you get to return, verdad?

These questions make me not upset or angry, but sad. It is almost like they dont know how much beauty there is right here. I think that is the problem with many developing countries. Things like the media fill thier heads with visions and thoughts about what the good life is, and what it should entail. But what about all of the amazing traditions, customs, and history right here?

So that is what I try to do; remind Paraguayans of the wonderful country they are so fortunate enough to call home. You are probably tired of hearing me praise Paraguay, but I can´t help myself! It really is an amazing place, and full of so much potential. The people are beautiful, the traditions are fun and exciting, and the food... let`s just say I might have gained a couple since coming here in May!

I digress, Paraguayans, or maybe just those here in 25, need to be reminded of what they have and what they could have. So, aside from my professional responsibilities as a volunteer, I am trying to be a "Paraguayan cheerleader" so-to-speak. I know that sounds cheesy, but you haven´t seen the looks I get from grown adults when I praise their country and all is has. It is a truly wonderful feeling.

When you enter thier hearts, you are home forever.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

"Why does America control Coca Cola?"

To an American, this may be an odd question. But to the average Paraguayan, it is completely legitimate. And why did I put that question in quotes? Well, because I was actually asked this question by a young Paraguayan named Carlos. That question, and so many others I have heard within the 4 months I have been in Paraguay, may seem like an innocent case of naivety on the surface, but after thinking about WHY Carlos would ask me something like that; a deeper social and economic issue arose.

Please take note here that, like all of my other blog entries, these are my experiences and my opinions. I will try to tread as lightly as I can on this subject without sacrificing my message. This entry has little to do with American corporations and the American government (which depending on who you are talking to are synonymous), but more to do with the face Americans paint on themselves from an international perspective.

Bueno… I am a politician. I am an ambassador. My name is Lisa Simpson, and I am from Springfield, USA. I am every American family. And if you have traveled outside of those beautiful United Sates of America, you have been too. So before I get too deep, let’s meet Carlos!

5 de Septiembre, and it’s about 23:00 hrs. Julie and I, on our amazing journey from Asuncion to Altos, are stranded in Ypacarai. There are no more buses, and the taxi cost Gs 70.000 (about $17). If we were in any other country in the world, I probably would have just paid the taxi the outrageous fair. But we are in Paraguay, and in Paraguay things work themselves out… tranquilopa.

Even in the quiet darkness of the street corner we were on, something about us screamed “Americans” (surprise, surprise). Maybe it was Julie’s blonde hair, or the enormous hiking pack I had on my back, who knows, but along came Carlos (at this point, it’s about midnight). Carlos is a native and proud Paraguayan, in his mid 20’s, who sells cell phones in Asuncion. That night, he would be the inspiration for this blog.

“Ustedes son Americanas!? Verdad?”

“Si,” Julie answers, and we begin talking to Carlos.

He proceeds to tell -more like teach- us about los Estados Unidos.

“America is in between Canada and Mexico! And you have 50 stars on your flag to represent your 50 states!”

“Si,” we answer, excited that he knows so much. Then, things go down hill. (This is going to seem really random, but literally this is what we talked about with Carlos for about an hour).

“…and Arnold Schwarzenegger is the governor of California. I like the Terminator. Sarah Connor is from American too. So is Chuck Norris, Mike Tyson, Michael Jackson (yes! Of course), and Evander Holyfield (I guess he likes boxing)… I’ve met a lot of Americans here, and Germans too; there are a lot of Germans. But Americans and Germans are different. German women have nice asses, and breasts too (he grabbed his ass to emphasis his point; I wish I had my camera). Americans are not as good-looking. They are all fat. Americans love to eat, right?”

“Umm, si?” we say.

“… You like hamburgers, and pizza, and French fries. Oh, and you like Coca Cola! I love Coca Cola. Americans are all rich. You have a lot of money, and you control everything. The world is yours. You even control Coca Cola! Why does America control Coca Cola?!”

Something changed in my mind at that moment, with that question. While I was trying to explain to Carlos in my bad Spanish that Coca Cola is an American corporation, I realized that my words could, and most likely would be repeated over and over again throughout Ypacarai, Asuncion, and the whole of Paraguay.

I was not surprised at all at what Carlos knew, or thought he knew, about America. But I felt bad that he had such a limited, and odd, collections of ideas. At first, the thought of “educating” people like him seemed like a daunting task. Who am I to say, “No Carlos, actually…” But as an American, with all of the education and opportunities I have been afforded, it is my duty to not “preach” the truth, as I see it, but to “share” my experiences and knowledge. My truth is that yes, as a human, the world is mine… and with this ownership comes responsibility. The U.S. has amazing organizations, like the Peace Corps, whose soul purpose is to help others, spread “good”, and exchange culture. But it does not end there. Every time someone leaves their native soil for a foreign land, they have the opportunity to be an ambassador for good. Every time you meet someone within our borders that is from another country, you have the chance to be a “tour guide” so-to-speak. It’s the butterfly effect (eh, I didn’t want to use that analogy). But your actions and comments, or lack of action, says SO many things about not only you but America as a whole. I am not trying to scare you away from interacting with others; on the contrary, I am trying to encourage you to take on this unique and special role.

So Julie called me the other day to tell me that she was passing through Ypacarai on the bus, and she couldn’t help but look out her window at “our” corner for Carlos. Wherever you are Carols, I hope you learned a little bit from Julie and me. We aren’t German, but I think we are pretty cool, and I hope you had fun with us. I’ll tell Arnold, Sarah, Chuck, Mike, Michael, and Evander you said “Hola” when I get back to the States.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

It's always Christmas en 25 de Diciembre!

A little bit of background information before I dive into this next blog...

The Republic of Paraguay has just entered a new era. Whether or not you are in a Red home, or a Blue home, you cannot deny that fact. From 1954 to 1989 the country was under a cruel dictatorship; the history of which varies, depending on whether or not you are talking to a member of the Colorado Party, or the Liberal Party. However, this past spring, Fernando Lugo achieved a historic victory in Paraguay's presidential election, defeating the ruling party candidate and ending 61 years of conservative Colorado Party rule.

Now, imagine that you are a poor Paraguayan housewife. Mother of five children, and living in a small isolated barrio. You do not have a television, but word here in Paraguay travels fast. You just heard the news, "down with the Red." But what does this mean to you?

Peace Corps volunteers are encouraged to find a counterpart while they are living in site. A counterpart is a member of the community, and is someone who act as a mentor. It takes some volunteers months to find a good counterpart, and some end up having multiple counterparts during the course of their two years of service. I was extremely fortunate enough to meet Raquel Romero my very first week in site. And when I say I was extremely fortunate, I mean it... EXTREMELY. Raquel is a very unique, dynamic, and inspirational woman. She lives in La Virgin de la Asuncion, the barrio next to mine, with her husband (retired National Police officer) and is mother to five children between the ages of 8 and 26.

When I met Raquel, she took me under her wing with no questions asked. Wow, I really didn't even mean to have a play on words, but with her help and guidance I feel like I have literally been able to have a birds-eye-view of my district, the people, and its problems. My day-to-day routine normally consists of shadowing Raquel as she visits each of the 23 barrios to meet with the different women's committees in 25 de Diciembre.

"The purpose of organization is change... the only change in our government is color, we cannot rely on them."

I have heard Raquel say this about 20 times now, to 20 different groups of women, and every time I hear her and I am that much more motivated. As an American, it is impossible for me to completely understand the degree to which Paraguayans dislike and distrust their government. What have they done for that woman and her five children? But that woman, like Raquel and so many others, does not need the national government to make her family's life better.

There is no solidarity between the different groups. No representation in the Municipality. These women have ideas and motivation. But no means of change...

So now I am sitting in on a neighborhood women's committee meeting. It is about 14:00 hours (2:00 pm). Around me there are between 15 and 20 women, of all ages. On their knees are babies, and around them playing in that red Paraguayan dirt, are their children. It is 32 degrees Celsius (about 96 degrees Fahrenheit), so we are sitting under the shade of large mango tree. The breeze from the south is amazing, so you forget all about the heat. The meeting begins with "Mba'eichapa"... followed by besos and hand shakes. There is always ice cold Terere (, and you don't have to wait long for it to be passed around to you. Chickens, dogs, and pigs are wandering around. And there is always music somewhere in the background; not loud enough to hear the lyrics, but enough to add a lively beat to today's meeting. The meeting starts, and everyone is listening to the speaker intently. una buena punta is followed by an applause and smiles.

"We need to unify all the committees... there is potential for comercialization of our products. There is funding from Asian and European organizations, we do not need to wait for the Muni..."

"We need basic services here. We should not have to go to Santani (about 20 Km away) for medical support! We need to invest in our youth. They are our future, and deserve more than what we have."

The women here are the heart and soul of change. They literally and figuratively give birth to the future of Paraguay. I will give men credit too, where credit is deserved, and attribute to them the role of backbone. It takes a strong man to work these fields. Back breaking labor, to provide for their families. They are the physical strength, and provide the physical substance of life (food, clothing, shelter, etc.). But the women, the women, they are the soul, spirit, blood, faith, energy, and all of the above that drive this community, and all of Paraguay.

I am so excited to work with them, and Raquel, and will keep you posted on all of the changes yet to come.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

When Paraguayans give you lemons that look like oranges, make lemonade.

I have to begin this entry with a bit of information about my emotional state right now. I arrived in Paraguay with very little expectations regarding my future living situations. I honestly knew nothing about this country, its culutre, or its ways of life. I was telling a fellow volunteer the other day (because I like weird metaphors) that Paraguay and Peace Corps has been like a mountain for me, that I am determined to climb. From day one, there was no map or guide, but I had an amazing support network of fellow volunteers, and family and friends from home behind me.

Now, three months later, I have expectations. I have ideas about what life here should be like. I have finally mastered the crazy bus system. My Castellano finally makes some sense. I can see the peak of the mountain!

But then, I moved to my site- 25 de Diciembre (what I like to call my little "truck stop town"). Now, there are clouds over my mountain, and I cannot see a thing. This is not the Paraguay I have grown to love over the past 3 months, and I have no idea where I am going!

I asked for a site with solidarity, and a sense of community. Some common bond (art or culture perhaps) that brings the community together. Something to be proud in. Something to show off. Instead, I get the exact opposite. 25 de Diciembre, a large, isolated, underdeveloped and poor district that does not work together, and has no trust in thier Intendente (mayor) or Municipality. Oh... what have I gotten myself into...

But then, a light switch went off.

I do not like my site, at all...

and because of this, I love it.

It´s not me, and it is not what I expected nor wanted in a site, which makes it perfect. I don`t know if Peace Corps knew this when they chose 25 for me, but their MISS is slowly turning into a dead on hit. With each and every day... each and every; mosquito bite, cup of terrere, Km I have to walk (and its a lot), cold shower I have to take, horrible translation, time that Raquel`s car breaks down or is stuck in the mud, sun burn, beso y adios, explanation of what the hell it is I am doing here in broken Castellano, rooster at 4am, and block of mandioca I have to eat... I feel stronger.

So yea, I can see the light. There is so much potential here beacuase there is litterally nothing. When you have nothing, the only direction you can move is up.


Wait, look past the nothingness that is my site... past the open fields and long stretches of dirt roads, and you can see passion for change. Need for change. Desire to work. Willingness to try. Faith in belief.

So now I have a map. A little guide for conquering this mountain. Sure it´s in Guarani, and the illustrations make no sense, but it`s my home. And if 25 can welcome me into their homes and hearts with no questions asked... I can let them into my heart as well.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

How many Paraguayans can fit on a bus?


If you can touch any part of the bus, it´s going!

The Paraguayan bus system is privately owned and operated. Basically, anyone can buy a bus, register it (which I´m sure is not hard to do) and start picking people up. If you can stand on it, it´s fair game as a bus stop. And the bus stops anywhere and everywhere... I mean, ANYWHERE AND EVERYWHERE. If you are getting on, be sure to grab on tight because as soon as the driver thinks you have a good enough hold, he takes off. If you are getting off, try to scope out a good place to land, because your way of disembarking is just short of a tuck and roll. If you are on your way to a restaurant, or to go shopping, don´t be suprised if you have everything you were looking for by the time you´ve reached your destination. On a Paraguayan bus you will see everything being sold, from underwear... to lottery tickets... to toys... to tv antenas... and of course, "CHIPA!!!!" (Chipa is a Paraguayan bread that comes in many shapes. It`s baked, and sometimes stuffed with meat and cheese. Best when eaten hot... or made by the man with the curly mullet in Guarambare)

My feeling right now is that everyone should, in some point in their life, make a trip to Paraguay. There is a lot to be said about a country that, to be honest, few people know anything about. I admit that when I recieved my Peace Corps invitation my reaction was, "Awesome, Paraguay!... wait, where is that?"

I could try so hard to explain to those readers I have out there what it is like to be a Paraguayan. But I would fail, miserably... because what I have experienced thus far is pure emotion. Good, bad, and everything in between. To be a Paraguayan is to understand those feelings you get when you hear the words Lopez... Chaco... Stroessner... Colorado. It amazes me how a country so rich in history (with all of it´s not so happy endings) could be ignored by the rest of the world. Sure we don´t have beautiful beaches lined with tiki torches. But, we can sure as hell light anything we want on fire. And sure, we eat mandioca and bread with EVERYTHING. Yes, pretty much anything that would insult an American is a compliment here. And no, no one shows up for anything on time (except futbol games). However, we have... we have... umm, I have 2 years to get back to you on that one.

Actually, all jokes aside, Paraguay is very interesting. This country is one of few where it´s people´s behaviors, beliefs, and ways of life are soley the result on internal influences. What other country has dating days? Yes... dating days: If you are seen with the opposite sex (not being your spouse of course) on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, or Sunday, it will assumed by EVERYONE that you are dating. And I cannot forget Friday, that is reserved for your special "someone on the side." I almost made the mistake the second week I was here of going to a male friend´s house for lunch on a Tuesday. Something as simple as lunch could have ended in wedding invitations!

I am so very excited to share these stories, and thank you for taking the time out to learn about Paraguay. I will try to have a balance of history, gossip, and all that jazz in posts to come.


Also: Sorry for the bad spelling. Spell check does not want to work... and I was never a fan of bees.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Just the basics...


I`m finally here.

After almost a year of waitng, thinking, and reflecting... I am finally here in Paraguay. I have so much I would like to share about my experience here, and why I decided to joing the Peace Corps in the first place. Now that I have this blog up and running, I will try my best to give frequent updates on my status... as well as share some of my thoughts about my training, service, and life in general.

But first, the basics.

Currently, I am trainging to become a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guarambare, Paraguay (which is about an hour outside of the capital city of Asuncion). My training will last until August, at which point (if all goes well) I will be sworn in as a Peace Corps Voltunteer, and sent off to live on my own for the next two years. Exciting, I know.

During training, I will be living with a host family. My family is the Sosa-Torres family. I have two parents, Zulmira and Pedro, and three siblings; Pedro Jr. 24, Anna 21, and Milagros 11. My training group, G27, consists of 18 trainees from all over the US. I am very exctied to get to know all of them over the next three months... they will be family away from home while in Paraguay.

So, those are the basics!

Till next time... Chau.