Monday, April 30, 2012

The rain and the mud.

One of the cultural dissonances we experience here is our attitude towards the rain and the mud which it spawns. I think our national attitudes towards these common phenomena, which are of almost no concern at all to us in the States, show us something about how our level of development affects our daily lives.
When it rains, it pours.
Paraguay's weather is like that of the mid-west in that it is far from the coast and prone to thundersorms. They can arrive with great fanfare and speed but move on just as quickly. When a really big rainy system moves in the sky just opens up with water in a way that almost never happens in the Pacific Nothwest. Back home the rain is drudgery, here it is exciting, not least because it means no one has to go to school (more on that later). Folks don't go out much in the rain. I have many times been scolded for going out in the rain, even with an umbrella. As a Seattleite I've got some pride about my comfort with moisture.
"But you'll will catch a cold!", they say. These is not a valid concern in the States. If it were, the Northwest would be laid low eight months out of the year. One doesn't worry about getting sick in the brief period of exposure between leaving the heated house and getting into the heated car (even if you have to wait 5 minutes for it to heat up). In December 2010 when I was ringing bells for the Salvation Army I would be completely bundled up, as I had to stand outside all day, but I would see people get out on thier car and come into the store in a T-Shirt with the temperature in the 30's.
In Paraguay most people don't have a car, they have motorcycles, and thier houses are generally not heated. The lack of even basic fireplaces causes me great distress. I hate being in a cold house. It could also be hazardous to my health if I come in wet from the rain.
The mud which follows the rain has some supernatural quality to it. It has powers that render analogy with my past North-American mud experience irrelvant and even absurd. Mud affects people's daily lives in Paraguay in a way that is inconcievable to those raised in the USA. After it rains the chief consequenceit is that the land of this country is transformed into a red-purple oozing chaos which takes days to subside.
The color of this clay-soil is what you first notice. Red-orange in the North and purple-black in the South, the coloration is attractive but it is potent, it stains. Clothes, walls, hands, feet, toe-nails in Paraguay are all highly susceptible to its dye. Last August I was told I had "pretty feet". They were white from being in socks all winter, but before long I was wearing flipflops everyday and my toes and soles of my feet were orange, not to mention cracked and dry, just like everybody else. There is no school on rainy days. Volunteers like to joke that it is because Paraguayans melt in the rain, but the truth is that kids usually wear white shirts as part of thier school uniform but which will be near impossible for thier poor mothers to clean and then dry if the kids are allowed even go down the street in them.
This speaks to the another aspect the of mud here, its omnipresence.  Most streets are not paved. Towns will have cobble-stone streets (some rural highways are also cobble-stoned) which are a bumpy pain in the ass most days, but thier value is seen after it rains when they are compared to the impenetrable slurry of the dirt roads. Cobble-stone roads are not a legacy of colonial Paraguay; the government continues to stone more roads, because anything is better than the molten nightmare of the dirt road after it rains.
Volunteers that live several kilometers down a dirt road will get either trapped in site after it rains or will be unable to return for days until the roads harden again. Walking just a few feet across dirt will layer the soles of your shoes in the stuff, which is amazingly difficult to quitar. In the States you would expect that one would want shoes with traction, some good waffle-stompers, when it is wet outside, but here, to the extent that it even makes any difference in the face of such a mightily sticky substance, you want a shoe with a flat sole to give the mud as little as possible to attach itself to. Otherwise you will be carrying half a kilo of the stuff with you wherever you go including into your house.
special red dirt in Nueva Germania which is better than sand on dry days, worse on rainy days
So, you stay inside when it rains. I have been doing a lot of that lately, and have also become well aquainted with where the roof of my new house leaks. Fortunately, and for reasons I do not understand but which must be related to said rain, I have more water coming to my house lately and am now able to take a proper shower, provided I wait until about 10pm to do so.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Fall is here, back to school

It has gotten distinctly autumny here in the last few weeks. You notice it especially with the time change. I hate how easily we are fooled by the artificial hours the clocks and governments give us, but there it is.
Autumn is the time to be in school. It feels right. The golden light in the late afternoon and sweaters and jackets and new books and pens. (I can tell that we are going to be friends...) And the crunchy leaves and smoke in the air. There's no pumpkins or wild red and orange leaves on the trees, but I can fill that in with my imagination.
I went in to the school here today and yesterday to start getting to know the teachers and observe thier classes. It is easy to do and totally important for my work, if a little tedious. Once I know what different classes and teachers are like it is easy to think of the little things that would be helpful to introduce. I can also gauge how receptive different teachers are to new ideas.
This school so far appears to be more advanced than my beloved EB 236 in Nueva Germania. Two of the classrooms I've sat in so far were covered with didactic materials and educational posters. One profesora in particular was also using many of the little tricks we've been taught to show teachers here; she says that Lizzy, the volunteer I'm following up, taught her a lot and it shows.
Another classroom was more like the norm I've come to expect, and although the teacher was involved and the students well behaved the walls were barren and dirty. Sitting there as the students copied a non-sensical fable about a dancing bear and a monkey and a pig I was first hit with longings for a clean but cluttered, interesting, engaging and well lit american classroom, and then for the rooms in Nueva Germania which also looked depressing but I didn't mind anymore because I knew the teachers and the students. I suppose I will be able to get to that place again here if I let myself.
I went into Asuncion last week for a workshop by the Ministry of Education about the use of Information Communication Technology in the classroom.  It was at least interesting and succeeded in getting me thinking about the subject, while the other volunteer in attendence and I were able to share our experience with ITC with the Parguayan teachers. Then Friday there were commitee meetings at the Peace Corps office; CoCuMu (culture and art I think), Jopara (diversity), Trash, Libraries, Seed Bank, Gender and Development and several others. I only went to the Library meeting this time around. Saturday morning was the National Volunteer Action Council (nvac) meeting which I also didn't go to, but I did happily attend Ahendu, the concert that night which featured both PCV musicians and Paraguayan acts. All these PC events happen three times a year, every time a new group of volunteers swears in, and their preceeding group swears out. I swore in exactly a year ago and so our "sister" (same sector, one year advanced) "G" (for Guarambare, where we were trained) was swearing out and for the first time I had to despedir (saw farewell) volunteers I knew well.
The event was a lot of fun and at a great venue, just across the street from the presidential palace in a bar/cultural center/museum in the oldest part of town. It helped me to start getting my head back in the right place about Peace Corps and my commitment to service in Paraguay.
I'm in my new house now, which is about twice as big as my old one, has a cool checkerboard tile floor and is much safer, though it has its own drawbacks. It recieves very little natural light through the two windows (which are both under awnings) and only recieves water for part of the day. The water that does come does not have enough pressure to reach the shower (which theoretically can have hot water). It gets up high enough to fill up my toilet tank in the middle of the night, which means I only have one good flush a day. The knee level spigots get water most of the day and so I fill up may various buckets and basins from there.
I have built and alternative shower using a metal garden watering can and a set of ropes and pulleys. With this I can juntar cold water with the lower spigot, pour in 2 liters of boiling water from my jara electrica (I guess we call that a hot pot?) and hoist it up above my head for about 90 seconds of bliss. Of course, if my house had a latrine (which is very common in rural Paraguay) and a bathtub (I've never seen one in this country) I could poop and bathe in ease with the water pressure as it is. Ah well.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Moving on up to the East side

What is a Peace Corps volunteer without a community? Basically nothing.  It's an oxymoron, like a designated hitter in the National League. Homeless, bored, homesick, but most importantly without purpose.
I have a new community now but it continues to be a struggle accept that and to begin again the long process of getting to know it. A Peace Corps volunteer without a community is nothing; the greatest part of our job is just becoming a part of the community. My job right now is to be outgoing, to seek out unknown people and explain to them in my goofy spanish who the hell I am and why I am here of all places. On the plus side, I am by now pretty good at this. My Spanish is better than last year and I've done the same basic introductions and explanations a thousand times. It's practically automatic. I think I can also read Paraguayans better, the things they do or don't say.

What's lacking is the motivation, the ganas. But I think I am beginning to find the threads of continuity from my service so far. Even just living here, though I have not done much else, I am starting to feel a little like a Peace Corps volunteer again. From which the motivation to make something of my time will flow.
It is probably very hard to comprehend why it's been such a shock for me to move from one site in Paraguay to another. The mostly it comes from the quality of the connections I had made with people in Nueva Germania and the suddenness and completeness with which I had to leave them behind. A few of the kids are on Facebook, but saldo (phone minutes) are scarce, and I doubt I will be able to go back and visit, so it really is goodbye forever. Except I didn't even get to say goodbye.

The other aspect though is the great difference between Natalio and Nueva Germania. They are on opposite ends of the country from one another and pretty well exemplify the two sides of Paraguay.

Natalio is in the SE of the country, just 10 km from the border with Argentina. It is between Encarnacion and Ciudad del Este, Paraguay's most prosperous, and most economically active cities respectively. It was all forest until the mid 20th century but now it is all highly productive farmland. There is a yerba factory in the town and the surrounding country is covered in a patchwork of huge, mostly soy farms with Cargil and Alpa silos. According to my father this kind of countryside resembles Ohio. The dirt is nearly black. There has been a fair ammount of German and Ukainian immigration here, more recently and in greater numbers than in Nueva Germania. From all of this comes a greater general prosperity and level of economic activity, but most importantly a greater connection and awareness of the world beyond the community.

Something I came to love, and felt that it was just what I'd been looking for in Peace Corps, was the extreme remoteness of Nueva Germania and San Pedro in general. Even though it is closer (5 hours) to Asuncion than Natalio is, the last 27 km of the highway have only been paved for about 4 years and generally people have fairly little knowledge of other areas. Many have indeed been to Asuncion to study or work, but many have not, especially the older generations. Living there on the edge of town with the huge river flood plain just a block away I delighted in the beauty and the bizarreness of it all. I really felt that I was on a plane that was just slightley elevated or somehow skewed from the rest of reality. It was stifling at times but it really came to be a home were I was popular, I lived well and I felt that I a purpose.

Also there was water pressure, unlike in Natalio. I have been learning the art of bucket bathing, which is practiced by so many of my fellow volunteers, but which I had not so far experienced.
I am already feeling the PC volunteer in me beginning to reawaken after a diffcult two months. I have previously thought to myself how excellent the Peace Corps structure is, arriving in a community fresh and new and confused but excited, and then how the work just develops naturally. I hope that process can happen again, though I am neither fresh or new.