Thursday, December 29, 2011

Christmas town

I write from the comfortable and affordable Asuncion hostel. It is clean artsy and convieniently located, and with the Peace Corps discount costs the equivalent of 8$ a night. There´s a continental breakfast in the morning, but the coffee is terrible. Asi es

Spent the 23rd and 24th in Aregua with Elmer Calata. Saw artists and hippies and hipsters like I have not at all since I came to Paraguay. I saw beautiful things! Man made things, no less. For all my affection for this country I do believe that it suffers much for want of aesthetic taste. The old fancy traditinoal houses downtown here are cool, and there is a beautiful chruch up the hill from the hotels that outshines the cathedral even. But generally speaking, people built ugly things (even more so than in postwar America!).

But in Aregua there were tall dark trees, fine houses, taste. It was soothing.

Then on Christmas day I went down to Quiindy in dpto. Paraguari where Jonathan Rosario lives in Barbara Dean´s old house. My cousin Bryan lived in a nearby compania six years ago or so. It is a pretty town. It´s not  so isolated as many places, but with a rural charm. Departamento Paraguari is my favorite because of it´s varied landscape and Quiindy has rolling hills and dells that give it character.
There were four of us at Jonathan´s house and we watched movies and restored an amoir. I slept in my hammock in the yard which was real nice and something I´d wanted to try for a while. As long as it doesn`t get to cold at night it´s a bed I can take with me that is superior to a thermarest (which I don`t have anyhow).

And now I´m back in the city. I`ll go to Guarambare this evening to visit the host family. Then I`ll take the bus home which passes through the town of 25 de Deciembre, but which I prefer to call Christmas town.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


A good night tonight after a hot as balls day. There is a warm breeze blowing the leaves beneath the stars. No moon, so far. Across the street at the Samudio house there are loud male voices and Brazilian sertanejo music on the stereo. There are just a few lights and I just have a candle and a beercan-oillamp lit, because my porch light is a fluorescent tube which is blindingly powerful.
There was no power or water for most of today, which, combined with the debilitating heat, made it a pretty low key day. The national power company ANDE was replacing power poles in our neighborhood, replacing old palm tree trunk poles with concrete ones. The water thankfully came on again around 5 and I was able to take a cold shower and finally get around to some laundry. The power came back on around 7. I rarely lose power or water, but they do both go out together sometimes. I am thankful for my regular water, which is not foul tasting either, when I hear from other volunteers that more often than not have no water in their pipes.
Today my only real activity was to go by the comedor (literally 'eater', where poor kids get lunch 3 days a week) and I gave out Christmas gifts to all the kids there. When dad came to visit I casually suggested he might bring down some toys, as there are lots of kids in my part of town and I rarely see them with any. He brought a shoe box and a bag stuffed with all sorts of action figures and matchbox cars and old beanie babies left over from my childhood and from Granny's Attic (best thrift store ever, back home). I had about 60 items, over varying size and quality, and figured I could let each kid in the comedor choose one toy and still have plenty left over. It actually was a little less chaotic than I expected, and only got mob-like at the very end. Walking home I felt good about putting these toys to good use, but weird about the way in which it had happened.
We do not want to be seen here as purveyors of charity here. It is a whole touchy issue, but comes back to the idea of good development, of helping folks help themselves. It seems silly to split hairs when it comes to giving toys to poor kids, but even so I realized the way it happened was unpleasant to me. The mobbing was to be expected, especially with no planning and with Teresita, the philanthropic Señora in charge, absent today. And I hold the right of kids to have toys above philosophical distinctions about charity and development. But the point of giving out Christmas presents should have been to help establish a relationship with the kid.
Hannah Freedman, my neighbor an hour away in San Pedro de Ycuamandiyu, has done amazing things just getting to know and trust a group of kids there who have grown up mostly neglected and occasionally abused. She trusts and opens her life and home to these kids far more than most volunteers are willing to do, and finds them usually to be kind, smart, honest and helpful. I´m always amazed how they clean up after themselves; legoes, paint, food, whatever. What she says is that these kids have just been ignored by adults their whole lives and that when they do get a little bit of attention and appreciation they shine.
The point then in this Christmas gift business is that it is a great opportunity to establish something personal, to say to the kid that they are important and special and that they matter in the world. To build some self-worth, (which anyhow is a core focus of my project group: Education and Youth Development). What I felt I ended up with instead was a more or less impersonal charity hand out. All the more so since it was within what is in fact a charity hand out (for all its merits), the comedor itself. The rest of the toys I´ll be giving out to kids I know in the neighborhood and around town. That will be more personal, and more satisfying.
I just hope they play shit out of those toys.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

there's no good translation for 'porch'

It is a beautiful night. There is a wind in from the south which is warm and friendly and somehow invigorating. There are nice non-threatening high-up clouds moving across the evening sky which is changing from blue to grey to orange to green to dark blue again and I recline in my lovely hammock on my lovely front porch and drink $2.50/bottle wine. I have a candle burning, because why not? These lovely quiet nights and afternoons and mornings on my front porch are the most special, reliable, beautiful part of my life right now. Tranquilo is a favorite word of Paraguayans, and with good reason. My street, as I like to say, is paved with grass. Kids play soccer in it, men and women come and go, occasional motorcycles and horse carts pass by. There is only one other house beyond mine before the proper edge of town. After that there are mostly pastures for cattle and a few scattered homes. The big river lies south of here and runs perpendicular to this side of the town. To get to it I walk down my street, turn right, and follow the road for what would be about 6 blocks. There is a crossing there with usually about 5 canoes tied up, adults fishing and sometime children swimming.
The recently paved highway runs through my town and past where I lived my first 3 months with my host family. Large trucks pass noisily by carrying soy or corn on their way to the port on the Rio Paraguay at Antequera (about an hour away). I was very happy to move off the highway, and though I am just 5 blocks from it the difference is profound. Here you can see the ancient character of a road, as a multipurpose public space. Soccer field, pasture, pedestrian trail, and vehicle route. In the states we have specialization of all things, because it is efficient. I am glad to experience the many not yet specialized realities of a life here.
I am also very happy to be typing at night with my window open, which I can now do because today I installed a screen (a novel idea!) over it.
I have started teaching English class two nights a week. I held off for a long time because it is not part of our project. I am glad to be doing it now, and I partly wish I had begun earlier, but beginning now that normal school is out for the summer does make sense. It is great to have some normal kind of work to do, and not to worry too much about its long term sustainability, about involving local counterparts, about NGOs and grants and collaborations. I enjoy teaching this damn language that is the only one I will ever speak well. And it is fun to be with the jovenes (young people) doing something concrete. Just having a set concrete thing on my schedule helps my sanity a great deal. Something to plan around and for.
I will be doing a remedial summer reading class for illiterate 3rd and 4th graders, but that won't start until after the New Year. I've been trying to have drop-in drawing class and story hour at the library, but lately nobody shows up. With the English class they've had to pay to sign up (to go towards buying a new ink cartridge at the library) and they have to keep up, so they have some skin in the game. I hope it goes well anyhow.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Prairie Home

I listen to a lot of NPR podcasts here. I can download them on the wifi network here at the library and listen to them on my stereo in my house and it makes me feel so much at home. I listen to KCRW´s To The Point, which has long been my favorite news show. They focus on 3 issues for the whole hour and get really smart, well-informed and usually quite reasonable people to talk about each issue. Context, context, context.
I listen to This American Life and Selected Shorts in the evening or while I clean or do laundry. The quality of the story telling and even just the good use of language, the quality communication, is a welcome relief after a day of bungled, half-misunderstood attempts to communicate with my friends and neighbors here.

My favorite though is Garrison Keilior`s News from Lake Woebegone, the only part of Prairie Home Companion that you can download. The story telling and use of language is great, but it goes even beyond TAL and Slected Shorts in its beautiful rendition of the mundane of (United States of) American life, which I miss so much. The stories of the characters in the small town, who have known each other thier whole lives, of thier strange behaviors and thier own hesistant interactions with one another, all take place deep within a distinct strain of (United States of) American culture. All these people speak the same language, or often don´t even speak it; they can communicate with a grunt or a back-handed compliment more than I can with all my train-wreck Spanish or Guaranì.

To live in your own culture, to be so deep within it that the entire world is understood through its meanings and connections is a very special, but rarely appreciated thing. You only notice it when you go far away from your native place and you realize that not just the words are different, but that nearly everything else about how people communicate is as well and that you cannot possibly learn it all over again because it has to be hardwired deep down within you to be really natural.

One can learn to fit in, and to an amazing degree communicate with people in a culture so unlike to that in which you were raised (and here I am not even leaving the Americas, speaking a romance language!). I believe there is a limit however, and that even the most brilliant Indian or Paraguayan could come live in rural (United States of) America and be unable to learn the myriad assumptions and unspoken rules of interaction. This is not meant to bash foreigners or immigrants. On the contrary I am in awe of how difficult it must be to permanently leave your native country behind. What I mean to say is that we should all be thankful and proud of our unsurpassed ability to know and speak our own culture, and that even the dullest among us can communicate in a language that can never be completely learned, no matter how supieror the student may be to us in all other subjects or tests of mental ability.

Miss you guys.

Where all the women and strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.

Friday, December 9, 2011



It's raining now. It rained a little bit this afternoon, but only briefly. I have the feeling now that it is settling in for a good long soak.
The weather has been humid since Saturday, with a few showers that night and big ominous looking clouds every day since. But the weather here needs a good soak to reset. Then you have several pleasant warm sunny days, followed by increasingly unbearable humid heat until you get a good soak again. Sometimes the weather tries for a good soak, but it doesn't pan out. Then the weather is overdue for a reset but can't get up enough umph for another 5 days at least. Like when the toilet doesn't quite flush all the way, but you can't flush it again until the tank fills up.
That happened after thanksgiving. I was glad it didn't rain that day, but the weather afterwards was awful until Wednesday the first.

I have not written in awhile. I've been in Paraguay 10 months now, which might as well be a year. It was a year ago that I got my invitation packet and finally knew for sure where I'd be doing these two years and change. At this point my most recent memories from the states are outdated. My understanding is that everyone and their mother has iphones now. I won't even be able to communicate with folks by the time I get back. They will have their cybernetic chips implanted and I won't even be in the habit of using voice-mail. (Nobody seems to use voice-mail here, I'm not sure why).

It is hard to write because it is hard to explain anything without having to explain everything. Which I would be very happy to do, but it is beyond my powers. It is best to stick to concise topics.

When it rains here most everything comes to a halt. This is understandable with so few paved roads and so few cars. Of course, it also rains much heavier here than it does in the North-West. It rains year round, but least in the winter. As a result everything is green. I have lived in my house less than 5 months and I have several plants that are as tall as I am that have grown in my back yard in the meantime. Young trees have grown 3 or 4 feet. This area was all once rainforest, and it is a shame that so little remains, but I can't help being reminded of the comparison of Paraguay to Ohio, which was also once completely forested (right?). And I can't very well make a big fuss about folks clearing Ohio 200 years ago.

In my garden I've got cucumbers and tomatoes so far. The cucumbers are growing fantastically and it is a pleasure to watch their vines and tendrils grow and move from one day to the next. My tomato plants are coming along and I just put four more plants in the ground. This is my first garden, and I am moving slowly, but it is a great pleasure to have the freedom to go about it as I like and to learn from my own trial and error.