Thursday, July 18, 2013


Welcome to my Peace Corps blog. I'm done writing here, but please have a look if you're interested in Peace Corps, Paraguay, or my silly life.

These are some of the posts I'm most proud of:

My ode to Paraguay

A run-down of one of my best days of Peace Corps service

A journey I took through the dark heart of the country during summer vacation

A short portrait of a pleasant evening in summer

An essay on the global entertainment industry, the third world and Opa Gangnam Style

A visit to the first part of the country I lived in and a profile of two friends/PCVs who lived up there.

A breakdown of all the cool stuff I made there

Some interesting comparisons from my statistics phase

Some philosophizing after my site change

My ode to buses

I guess I have a lot of favorite posts.

My essay on the relevance of rain and mud in daily Paraguayan life

My reaction to being suddenly relocated to a different site on the other end of the country 

Interesting experiences in my old site in the summer

Thursday, June 13, 2013


I just added pictures to the last two blog posts
the entire album can be accessed here


Wednesday, June 5, 2013


a rundown of my arrivals and departures since Cafayate

Salta again 5/26
bought my ticket to Coquimbo, walked to the top of the big hill, took an early morning taxi to the bus terminal 5/28

Had the most epic and beautiful bus ride of my life crossing the Andes and the Atacama desert. I took about a million pictures, we´ll see if any turn out.

Antofagasta 5/28
waited three long hours in the inexplicably crowded terminal at Antofagasta. I should have just bought my ticket to there, and then bought another to Coquimbo once I arrived. There were buses leaving headed south every half-an-hour, but I had already purchased my ticket for 2am.

The bus ride down the coast and through the mountains was incredibly barren.
Coquimbo 5/29
A seedy but in its way charming little port city across the bay from La Serena. Stayed two nights in a neglected hostel in an majestic old house.

Vicuña 5/31
A charming little Chilean-Andean town up a sweet, relatively lush valley.  Met nice French and Spanish girls at the hostel. My camera battery died as I took pictures of the sunset from the big hill there. I haven´t yet found a way to charge it.

Santiago 6/1
Stayed three nights with a sweet, generous, and hilarious Anglo-Chilean couple at their nice house by the country club in Santiago. Explored downtown two days. It is an impressively modern, cultural, sophisticated, vibrant, efficient city.

Valparaiso 6/5
Just arrived in the most wonderful hostel I have ever seen. Can´t wait to explore this quirky, wonderful city. Had a big great meat-tomato-avocado-sauerkraut sandwich as I walked from the terminal. I will try and find a way to charge my camera.


Friday, May 24, 2013

Other places

Three days after leaving Paraguay I´m in a town called Cafayate, south of the city of Salta, Argentina. This is wine-country, a high desert valley watered by mountain runoff. The mountains rise steeply rfom the valley floor and seem to come in all shapes and colors and forms imaginable. The town is tidy and peaceful, with many tourists, and is surrounded by wineries.

Yesterday I stayed in Salta, which is a lovely, sophisticated city. There are many differences between this part of Argentina and Paraguay, 800 desolate kilometers away, but what struck me most profoundly was the sophistication, the civilization even (if civilization is a measure of how good a group of people is at living in cities) of the urban culture, which could not be more different from Paraguay. In the beautiful central plaza, surrounded by interesting and historic buildings, with hundreds of pedestrians passing in all directions I was struck by the near silence of it all. There were hardly any motos, the buses do not roar like semis, many of the streets around the plaza are only open to foot traffic, there weren´t even any barking dogs.  The city operates with a casual, elegant earnestness.  

Between here and there lies the vastness of the Chaco. As we were crossing it the night of the 22nd, I could still see Paraguayan culture in the items for sale in the lonely little towns where we stopped. Here, though, Paraguay is completely absent, except in the practice of drinking yerba mate.I keep wanting to speak Guarani with people and being disappointed.

It was not so easy to get out of Paraguay. I think I was reasonable in not expecting it to be so difficult, but I´ve always been bd at these sorts of things. I was in Guarambare last Saturday night and Sunday, visiting the Benitez family one last time, then I came into Asuncion last Monday to complete my paper-work and swear out as a Volunteer. My phone broke on Saturday, making it hard to make those last goodbye calls, and I started having major gastro-intestinal issues Sunday. Peace Corps service doesn´t end without a fight.

I spent Monday morning trying to figure out how to get my readjustment allowance check into my bank account. With dad´s help, and at a cost of about 200$ I got that taken care of by about noon. I swore out Monday afternoon, turned in my broken phone, and stayed the night in my favorite hostel. Tuesday I went shopping for gifts for my family, which went well, and met Ellie and her fianceé Alexis in the plaza for tereré one last time. We got a good Paraguayan lunch in a nice little place frequented by working Asuncenos. One of the things I like about hanging out with Ellie and Alex is that they live in a much more Paraguayan way than most vounteers, because, well, he is Paraguayan. I could always count on an inviation to a hearty hot lunch when I was in Encarnacion, and here in Asuncion, instead of going to the same touristy/fancy restauarants that volunteers always go to they had sought out an authentic Asunceno lunch place as a matter of course. They will be married in the states as soon as they can get the paperwork processed.

I headed to the office to pack and ship a suitcase of things I didn´t want to take with me on my travels, and to finally pay my 170$ Argentine entrance fee (which was a pain in the ass, also). Once my suitcase was ready I went to DHL to send it. I expected a cost of $200 or so, hopefully less. I was told that it would cost no less than $600 to ship my 20kg suitcase home, and that was if I took out my laptop. Stunned, I returned to the office again by taxi. Generous as always, Ellie and Alexis agreed to carry my suitcase home with them on the plane and ship it from Tennessee, saving me about $430. I dropped off the suitcase with them to the bus terminal to buy my ticket to Salta.

I had inquired the week before about going to Salta and there hadn´t been any problem, I was told that buses head there at 9am daily. However it seemed that the Argentine bus companies had changed thier schedule, or that Argentina had changed its clocks, and that the connections no longer worked. After about half an hour we cobbled together an itenerary with two layovers with the second of which only 10 minutes, meaning I could easily be stranded in Formosa if the bus from Clorinda were late.

True to form I overslept slightly Wednesday morning. Granted, I no longer had a phone with an alarm clock, but I should have asked someone else to set an alarm to wake me. I got confused by the city buses one last time and arrived at the terminal frantic and wet from the rain 5 minutes after my bus to Clorinda was scheduled to leave. I hired a taxi to chase it down, and after about 15 minutes we caught up to the bus somewhere in the northern sprawl and I was able to board, relieved.

Arriving in Clorinda I had a hell of a time convincing the customs agents that it was fine that I have two passports: a peace-corps one (which I used to leave Paraguay and will not use again) and my old, regular one (which I used to enter Argentina). Fortunately it was not my Clorinda layover that was tight.

Clorinda was dismal, grey and muddy in the rain. I changed my Guaranies to Pesos with one of the many street corner money changers after searching about an hour for a proper Casa de Cambios and stocked up on bread and fruit for the long trip across the Chaco. So far things looked about the same as the other side of the river, but there were more bicycles and donkeys (I don´t think I ever saw a donkey or mule in Paraguay) and fewer motorcycles. The schools looked nicer. Though my bus left 20 minutes late from Clorinda we arrived at the large, clean terminal in Formosa with plenty of time to spare.

Clorinda, Argentina

During the night we stopped in many tiny towns in the Chaco. They all followed the same plan, a large double avenue with a park down the middle, turning off the highway to the south. Streets gridded out from the central avenue. The investment by the federal government was obvious in these otherwise poor, isolated towns. Around 11pm the bus stopped on the highway. There was a torch-fire burining and there appeared to be a tree across the road. The Chaco is partially forested, but the trees are not tall and mostly grow a good distance from the hiughway, so I was surprised thinking that wind had blown it down. It turned out that the road was being blocked by the indigenous tribes of the region, protesting I don´t know what, but the proper protest had not begun, so after ten minutes or so, they moved the tree and let us through.

In the night I searched for signs of the distant Andes. The near-full moon lit up the overcast sky, but everytime I opened my eyes the horizon was still perfectly flat. We didn´t begin climbing hills until 5am or so, after the moon had set. Arriving in Salta I still had seen just a few hills in the early morning light. I didn´t glimpse my long imagined Andes until Thursday morning. 

In Argentina there are more:
Donkeys, goats
Varieties of beer
Nice things
Wool hats and sweaters
Hot water tanks

in Paraguay there are more:
Toilet seats
Cows, chickens, pigs
Money changing houses
Mobile vendors
Cars with huge speakers
Stray dogs
Imported products
Plastic bags (with every purchase)
Medicinal herbs

bicycle fish vendor in Clorinda

Hope you´re well. I´m loving it all.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Visit to Nueva Germania

I'm in Guarambaré with my host family, Cristi and Artemio, again. I spent most of last week up in Nueva Germania visiting and saying goodbye. That visit was the most powerful part of my long Paraguayan despedida. Even after 14 months absence, 4 months longer than my actual presence, it was almost as if I'd never left. I was received warmly and enthusiastically as always. For the most part everything is the same, but there are new babies.

All the differences between Nueva Germania and Natalio make it hard to figure out what in particular it was that made it so hard for me to resettle in the South. The most important difference has to be in the smaller size and greater isolation of Nueva Germania. The warmth and hospitality that I always found is that of a very small town far from any city. The school I worked in was enthusiastic about working with me to improve reading competency; apart from receiving a Peace Corps education volunteer there was little they could do to jump-start change. I really do regret not having been able to work with them last year, they are a good group of people and seem serious about improving the quality of their school. Of course, their ganas de trabajar means that they don't really need me, they are able to make changes on their own if they are really serious about it. At best a volunteer multiplies and assists the efforts of already motivated counterparts. Without those ganas the volunteer would be irrelevant, as no amount of encouragement from an accented foreigner will get people to change in ways they are not interested in. This is roughly how I felt at the school I worked at most in Natalio.

Apart from the school however, there is an overwhelming passivity in the people of Nueva Germania, a serious lack of ganas, and a fatalistic attitude that makes any kind of real development project an exercise in futility. The community has received outside help over the years, mostly from the German government or philanthropic communities in Germany, but in every case that local officials have taken control of the sponsored institutions: the technical school, the municipal market, the hospital, the library; the institution has been closed and looted or quality of service has declined precipitously.

The passivity, la tranquilidad, is not such a bad thing in itself. People in Nueva Germania are generally quite content. They are vaguely aware that they are considered very poor by international or even Paraguayan standards, that there is a lack of work for young people, that local politicians use patronage to get votes and reward loyalty by giving out public-sector functionary jobs (which mostly involve sitting in a chair and drinking tereré) and are basically uninterested in the work of governing (not that it's that much work). But people don't dwell on these problems. Instead they swim in the rivers unpolluted by industry, drink beer, play soccer and volleyball, kill a hen for a big family lunch, slaughter a hog for a party, pick grapefruits or mandarins or mangoes from the trees with grow everywhere, the youth flirt and drive around on motos and get each other pregnant, adults drive around on motos and have affairs, grandmothers play with new baby grandchildren, dogs eat chicken and pork bones, life goes on and people are adept at ignoring or waiting-out their problems. This is a pretty sustainable way of life. Drugs are uncommon, family bonds are tight, the air is clean and fresh fruit is plentiful.

My friend Lyda and her family live in a ramshackle clap-board house. 

The flip side of all this is the attitude that acknowledges the poverty and the corruption and all the past attempts made to remedy these and then regards all new attempts as inevitably  doomed to failure. People know that their neighbors will not keep up their commitments, and that it would be foolish to not do the same. The only way to move forward is for a single individual, or at most a family, to invest and work to move themselves up in the world. If they are successful they will likely be regarded with suspicion and resentment by their neighbors or outside family-members.  This attitude I encountered again and again during my five days in town, and it stands in pretty stark contrast to the general attitude in Natalio and Itapua in general. Because of this different I'm thankful that I got the opportunity to work in Natalio, especially with the library. I now share this fatalistic attitude in as much as I think such a project in Nueva Germania is probably doomed to failure.

Tomorrow I'll go into Asuncion to conduct my final business in Paraguay. I've got to turn in my phone and medical kit and get various signatures to officially close my service (we say "COS", the O is for of) as a Peace Corps volunteer. I've got figure out how to get a chunk of money into my bank account to use while I'm travelling. There are a few more souvenirs to buy and then a big suitcase to send home with DHL ($$$$$!). I'll buy my bus ticket for 9am wednesday to Salta, Argentina and spend a last night with my chika'i asucena. Wednesday I'll board my 20 hour bus ride to Salta by way of Clorinda, Formosa, and Resistencia.

Ha sido divertido

Monday, May 6, 2013

tetâ hovy'û

What I love about Paraguay

I love long bus rides through the epic plains of Missiones and Paraguari, seeing the isolated forested rocky hills rise mysteriously in the distance.

I love getting warm chipa on those long bus rides.

I love the vigorous chaos of Asunción on a weekday morning.

I love drinking máte on a cool evening with friendly families, talking about anything, looking at pictures, making faces at the kids and walking home under the stars.

I love tereré. I love that people know about medicinal/yummy herbs to pick, mash up, and infuse in the ice water. I love tereré in the shade on a cruelly hot day after walking too far, which is any distance at all. I love mint leaves, lemon leaves, parsley, and other more mysteriously named yuyos in my tereré.

I love bus terminal comedors, where BBQ vendors compete to sell you a roast chicken or sausage and beer while you wait the hours for your bus. I find that a liter of beer makes the wait quite a bit more pleasant. I love the chaotic free-market of the terminal, and the travelers with their bags and their families.

I love the Paraguayan clouds.

I love the Paraguayan sunsets.

I love the ancient, green, slow, impenetrable, ethereal, infinite Paraguay which exists in my head. It's pieced together from all I've read about the history of the country and still exists to in some leeward pockets of hills and rivers away from the highways and cities.

I love being away from the self-obsessed, self-consuming media culture of the USA. I'm still too plugged-in to it, but at least I can just shut the computer and it all disappears.

I love working in a library and having near complete freedom to make it as awesome as possible.

I love being my own boss, mostly.

I love making things for schools or the library with markers, scissors, a ruler, and cardboard or charla paper.

I love inventing things in my house to solve problems that in the States would be solved by buying cheap plastic crap. I love not worrying about what my landlord or the government thinks about what I invent or do to the house.

I love drinking máte or tereré on my front porch, listening to the birds and the neighbors, especially when not-too-many motorcycles are driving by. 

I love the rolling-fields of soy or wheat or sunflowers and the curving green line where they come up against the wooded gullies and streams.

I love green hills and flowering trees.

I love bike rides in the country-side when I feel like I'm a million miles away and all there is is just vast spaces of land and sky all around.

I love family cows with their big beautiful eyes. I love goofy-eared pigs and piglets. I don´t have a lot of love for chickens and roosters.

I love the mostly-local, seasonal produce. I love, depending on the time of the year, watermelon, mango, pineapple or mandarin binges. 

I love passing warm evenings visiting other volunteers, cooking, drinking, laughing, watching movies, sleeping on the floor on foam mattresses borrowed from neighbors.

I love walking all around town, visiting the library, the school, the municipality, a grocery store, and some shops just in the morning. I love exchanging friendly greetings with everyone I meet in these places and everyone I run into in between.

I love the kids. I love it when they call my name when I pass by, when we give each other thumbs-up, all thier big smiles, their excitement, sincerity, and sweetness.

I love the hard-working people who do their job everyday, Saturdays too.

I love that all people want to do on Sundays is get together with their family and friends and have a barbecue.

I love the kindness and the hospitality: all the times I've been offered a meal (or have it just assumed that I would join the meal), been offered a bed to stay the night or sleep the siesta, the importance put in offering guests a place to sit, the times people have come after me to hand me whatever it is (purchase, hat, change, cell-phone, umbrella) that I've forgotten and left behind. I've almost never felt cheated in this country and certainly never because I was foreign.

I'm almost gone. This is my last week in Natalio, then I'll spend another in Nueva Germania and Asunción. I'm trying to take it all day by day and to be generous, thoughtful and grateful.

Thursday, April 25, 2013


The New York Times has a good article about the huge economic growth some parts of Paraguay are experiencing right now. My part of the country specializes in the kind of modern, mechanized, GMO agriculture that is leading this growth and many of my students and counterparts make their living, and live well, from monocultural GMO soy, wheat and corn production. I think the economy in my area is somewhat more equitable than in the cities; there are a few mansions here, but there does seem to be a fairly large middle class in my town. There seem to be relatively many smallish land-holders who can make their living in this way, and there few desperately poor people here.

On the other hand, this morning I rode my bike out to do literacy activities in a tiny school about 6km outside of town. The school is only open in the morning and has 9 students (and two teachers!). They say that there are so few students because more and more families have sold their small plots of land to the larger land-holders and moved into town. The teachers told me the families often aren't able to manage their money though, so now they all come out to work on the land that they used to own. 

It's hard to say that this boom is a bad thing for the country overall. The article "notes the overall poverty rate has fallen to about 32 percent in 2011 from 44 percent in 2003, said Roland Horst, a board member at the central bank" and that "the government had been trying to reduce poverty, noting that a program of giving small cash stipends to people in extreme poverty, begun in 2005, now included more than 75,000 families".

But the shamelessness of the rich can be really shocking: "“How is it possible to reconcile the fact that hundreds of people survive each day by sifting through garbage in the municipal dump of Asunción while Paraguayans are also the biggest per-capita spenders in Punta del Este?” said Mr. Rojas Villagra, referring to the Uruguayan resort city where rich Paraguayans vacation alongside moneyed Argentines and Brazilians."
and the government has little resources (in tax revenue) or interest in major poverty-reduction programs:
" Paraguay’s social welfare programs remain meager compared with antipoverty projects in neighboring countries, which have lifted tens of millions of people out of abject living conditions. They blame Paraguay’s relatively weak state, with tax collection corresponding to only about 18 percent of gross domestic product, a figure lower than that of African nations like Congo and Chad."

As Americans, we volunteers occasionally have the opportunity to rub elbows (is that a phrase?) with the wealthy elite of Asuncion, and some of the places we frequent in that city principally cater to that class. It's usually an interesting experience and we're always surprised how little they know about life in the rest of the country, how they speak English but not Guarani, how they've been to Disneyland but not Santani. 

Soy field after harvest, September 2012

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


I'm feeling run-down, worn-out, numb. Some good will still come of my being here an extra month, but not every day. Sunday I could have been in the US and nothing would be lost. Most of yesterday and today tooñ I'd like to be able to commute in to get those couple important tasks in, and then fly home to sleep in a bed on Vashon, or Seattle, or Portland.
It seems that the very act of getting to know someone and liking them determines that they will go to some far off place.
Lyda, Antonio, Ña Dolores, Francisco, Claudia; the San Pedro volunteers: Chris, Dion and Evelyn, Carol; the German filmmakers Stepan and Andreas, Brian and Emily in Asunción, G-34: Hannah, Matt, Sybil; almost everyone in my G, including: Nicole, Johnny, Zach, Travis, Johanna and Jeremy; in Itapua: Stacy, Benito, Rick.
Who is left? From my G Nicole, Katie, Champe, Claire and Ellie haven´t left the country yet. Lydia is still in Itapua and I may yet make it out to see her in Fram.
The successive waves of goodbyes make me all the more apathetic about my own farewells here in site, which ought to be the most important goodbyes of all. Then there will be the long-delayed return and farewell to Nueva Germania, and at last a farewell to Paraguay and Peace Corps.
I just don´t know

I was talking to Carolina, the librarian, about all this and she told me at least I'm lucky that on one has died. I haven't lost these friendships, I just have people I love in many places.

on a completely different note, I was talking to Denis, who studies English with me about the results of the recent election, in which one of the richest men in the country with no political experience won the presidency. Denis said that he won't be corrupt because he already has all the money he needs. I'd never heard that argument made before. I hope he's right.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

happy four twenty!

My thoughts have been too scattered these last two months to come up with anything worth posting. There is much that I would express... I ought to try and write a proper reflection piece on the last two years.

I was travelling a lot the last two weeks and I'm glad to be back in site. I will be around here mostly for the three weeks I have left in Natalio. My main priority is to finish up the big world map I've been painting in the back yard of the library with a 6th grade class. It's really beautiful so far and I'm going to be working on finishing it up this week. I've got a few other things I've said I'd do. We'll see.

I've still got to sell or otherwise divest most of my belongings.  My intention is to ship a box of things, including my computer, some souvenirs and clothes, back to the States and just travel with my medium backpack and a side bag. 

Most of my "G-mates", the volunteers I arrived with 27 months ago, have already left. Friends have been leaving the country every 4 months though, so it's not much harder to say goodbye than it's always been. I'm looking forward to spending a week in Nueva Germania after I leave Natalio, before setting out on my further travels.
Today was election day. The Colorados won back the presidency by a landslide and are celebrating boisterously about half a block from my house. It will probably a loud night. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013


Semana Santa was last week. I visited three families, rode my bike 43 km to the closest large town, and went to see a fantastic waterfall near my site. Next week my training group swears out. About a month after that I'll leave Natalio, to go visit Nueva Germania for a week before leaving Paraguay from Asuncion. I'll travel three weeks in Argentina and Chile and then fly to Seattle from Santiago June 7th. I'll get in in the evening (though the sun doesn't set until like 9:30pm in June, doesn't it?) on Saturday the 8th. My younger brother graduates from college June 15th and, if Facebook is to be believed, is hosting a music festival at his house called "Return of the Dagobah Sound System" on the 29th. There is a family reunion in Pennsylvania in July. I'll be looking for a job. I'll be riding my blue Schwinn. I intend to ride around golden Maury island with a tub on my rack and pick blackberries. I'll jump in the cold green water off Tramp Harbor dock and at night it will glow like green fire. On grey rainy days, of which I'm sure we'll have this summer, I'll get fresh coffee at the Roasterie along with herbs and roots for my máte. I'm going to walk in forests, smell the moss and the mud and look up at tall trees. I'm going to be with people.

I want to engage with family and friends, but especially family, more earnestly when I am back home. I've spent two years with other people's families, I've talked about other family members, and many of these families have taken me in as one of their own. My own family doesn't even exist as a unit, we're four people with relationships with one-another, who all live in different places. My social life of the last ten years could be visualized as a series of explosions. First our family splits into two houses. I graduate from high school and leave home to go to college. My friends and I attend schools all across the country. I made fast, deep friendships in college, then in a few short years we graduate and move all over the country and world. I live in Portland another year, work in Americorps. My housemates move to New York, I join Peace Corps. I live in Guarambare four months, Nueva Germania for ten, and Natalio for fifteen. My fellow volunteers are constantly arriving and departing for parts of the US I can only vaguely imaging visiting. I am so damn tired of meeting people. I would like some stability, in these next few years.

I've got a lot to do before I leave. Finish work, sell my things, ship a box home, visit everybody, give gifts, plan my travels. I'm working on getting a CommunityEconomicDevelopment volunteer assigned here, but I won't know the verdict until after I've gone.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

when it rains

[animated .gif - maybe click on it if it's not moving]
Every time it rains I'm like

my attempt to imitate the great

Saturday, March 9, 2013


The latest episode of Planet Money, Business Secrets of the Amish,  is fascinating. They start to go into a lot of important underlying issues that are almost never analyzed or even acknowledged in public discussions of economics like: the power of real communities, the role of technology in assessing one's standard of living, the relativity of wealth and well-being, the ambiguous benefits of cars, phones, etc., the relative value of labor in a world of mass production, the implications of mass production for craftsmen, the joy of inventing things  vs. buying cheap consumer goods, among others.

I frequently think about these kinds of issues as I try to put my life in Paraguay in the context of the 21st century global capitalist economy. So much of the way I live here is strikingly different from the way people live in the states just because of the lower price of labor and relatively higher price of material inputs and industrially manufactured goods. Private vehicles, paved roads, supermarkets, telephone lines, instant meals, suburban sprawl, printer cartridges, industrial scale farms and cattle feed-lots are all less common in Paraguay than in the USA because they are relatively more expensive. Bus lines, cobblestoned roads, "corner" stores, food made from scratch, street vendors, shoe-shiners, dense development, and small-scale family farms and livestock grazing are all relatively more common in Paraguay than the USA because the labor involved and the locally-produced inputs are worth relatively less monetarily.  Some highly-useful or desirable technology items are also common such as cell phones, motorcycles, well pumps, electric fans, televisions, and hot pots, because these items justify their high cost (relative to their cost in the USA) .

The value of strong community organization is also quite visible here. The Amish in the Planet Money episode are historically linked with the Mennonites, several groups of which arrived in Paraguay in the early 20th century. The Mennonites (and a couple other Anabaptist groups) arrived in material poverty, many of them fleeing Stalin's USSR, and settled in some of the least hospitable parts of the country. Nonetheless, with their superior community organizational skills and dedication to labor the Mennonite communities in Paraguay are today among the most prosperous in Paraguay. Other "colonies" founded by Japanese and German immigrants throughout the country have similarly prospered.

These communities benefited from cultures that highly value cooperation and strong community organization. Though they have farmed the same lands as native Paraguayans they've managed to prosper while the rest of Paraguay has only stumblingly advanced economically during the last century. I have really come to appreciate how fundamental culture is to humans; how deeply and irrevocably it molds us and how durable it is through the centuries.
{The Penguin History of the World by J.M. Roberts (Penguin the publishing house, not the bird) stressed this point quite a bit. This article about family structure in Europe also illuminates the subtle durability of cultural norms.}

The national Paraguayan culture is essentially composed of the highly formalistic, bureaucratic, and aristocratic culture of the Spanish Empire on top of the loosely organized personal and family-centered culture of the Guarani. The result is a culture which regards official organizations with a certain cynical ceremony, paying homage to formal systems but only putting real trust and investment in personal and familial relationships.

Before I came to Paraguay I imagined shedding my American cultural norms during Peace Corps and slipping into an idealized version of traditional life. I intentionally did not bring a computer or music played because I intended to replace my American cultural consumption with Paraguayan equivalents. Very quickly I realized how deeply ingrained American-ness is in my being, how much the things I like are American things and how alien I find most of what Paraguayans like. The efforts I have made to adopt Paraguayan attitudes and tastes have been valuable and I would benefit from trying to do more, but I'm now somewhat resigned about that project. I will never be Paraguayan and I'm fine with that. I am proud of my American-ness and of American culture even as I'm happy to criticize it and be careful not to impose it (that much) on others.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

what is a great day like?

The famous unanswerable Peace Corps question is "what is an average day like?" Unanwserable because each day is so different, or each week, or you forget what is normal and what is remarkable. Or you are doing one thing for a week, or a month, and then never do it again. Or somedays you don't do anything, and you like it. Some days you don't do anything and you hate it.
So, instead of saying what an average day would be, I'd like to write what a great day is like for me.

Saturday 2/23/12

At 8:00am I wake up, reheat some of yesterday's coffee on my gas stove and eat two bananas for breakfast. I sit on my backporch and read La Guerra Civil de 1904, lent to me by the lonely local history buff.

At 9:00am I leave my house and walk around the block to the offices of the two local radio stations, which are side-by-side. I go in and I speak on air with both morning show hosts about an environmental youth group meeting and a public showing of "Toy Story", both at the public library, and about the English class which will start up again in a week and a half.

At 10:15am I ride my bike to library with my speakers and subwoofer in the vegetable crate that is attached to my rear rack. At the library I set up the speakers for the movie this evening and then work on a large welcome sign that I'm making for the library. It is a collage made out of books' dust jackets.

At 11:30am I ride my bike home. I find that my bread is all moldy. The bakery won't make any more until Monday morning. I buy some hamburger buns, ham, and a liter of coke in a cold glass returnable bottle at the store two doors down from my house. I make a sandwich while I listen to NPR's news update and see what's happened on the face-book.

At 1:30pm I ride my bike to the library. I forget the key. I ride the four blocks home, get the key and return to the library. I work on a presentation about how to deal with trash and why not to burn it, for the environmental youth group meeting. I set up the speakers and projector (which I picked up yesterday at the school district office, on the same block as the library) and my computer and rock out to Eddy Grant and the Gipsy Kings and Sidney Bechet while I make color coded dividers for the book shelves.

At 3:10pm Fatima, the leader of the youth group comes in for the meeting. She is starting her Junior year at the local high school. She loves Nirvana and Kurt Cobain. I regale her with stories about Seattle and what I remember of local music growing up (very little). I tell her she might like Modest Mouse and I put on the Moon and Antarctica, I tell her it's called "La Luna y Antarctica" and it's their best album.

At 3:45pm Fernando shows up for the meeting. Fatima asks me if I know the bridge which Kurt Cobain slept under. I say I didn't. She asked if I knew the Jimi Hendrix statue. I say I did, it's up in Capitol Hill in front of an Everyday Music store. We talk about the group, if anybody else is coming, about how cool it is to have free, thrice weekly trash pickup. We watch a movie clip about a community near Asuncion that has a student orchestra that builds instruments out of things found in the the giant landfill. We end up planning to meet n my front yard in two weeks to make drinking glasses from old wine bottles. I try not to stress just how many old wine bottles I have.

At 4:25 Carolina, the librarian arrives on her dirt bike with her leopard-print purse in one hand and a large plastic grocery bag of fresh popped popcorn in the other. She's also got her brand-new thermos, with her name, the name of her university, her major, and the coat of arms of the university embroidered in the black and blue pleather. It's about 90F in the library, we've got all the fans on full blast and some doors and windows open, but we'll need it to be dark once we start the movie. The three neighborhood kids come. I put on Planet Earth: Mountains to test out the projector and sound. Twice the power regulator overheats and shuts everything off. I'm not sure if anyone else will come.

At 5:25pm we start "Toy Story". About 20 kids and 3 moms have arrived. We're charging 1,000 Gs. or about 25 cents at the door. Popcorn is also 25 cents. I'm able to figure out the technical difficulties such that the projector only shuts off once during the movie. Another 6 or 7 kids come in later. In total we make just four dollars after we pay the woman who made the popcorn.

At 6:45 the movie ends. I get a text message that my samba drum group is meeting at 7:00pm, that we'll be playing tonight at the Carnaval parade in Maria Auxiliadora, which was rained out last weekend. I clean up with Carolina. We walk out to the gate and she tells me she doesn't like it how I roll up my pant legs when it's hot. I tell her it makes me feel like a pirate.

At 7:00pm I ride my bike to Manu's house. There's road work (cobblestoning) on several of the streets, and I maneuver carefully with my messenger bag and laptop in the cargo crate in back. At the meeting we decide we'll meet up again at 9:00pm to board the bus. I ride home. I pass a wild-haired girl wearing purple pants and a light-green dress. Grey clouds stand out against against an orange sky in the east above vines and banana trees as I ride down the road from Manu's. A 10 year-old student of mine named Cristian is riding behind his father on a motorcycle, they turn onto my street and then pass me by. Cristian and I make faces at each other as they accelerate and leave me behind.

At 7:30 I am home again. I take of my shirt and pour a cold glass of water from the green bottle in my fridge. I reheat Thursday's pasta. I put on water to make more coffee, to help keep me going until 5am or so when we'll come back from Maria Auxiliadora. I'll try and write a blog post and take a shower before we leave.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

watercolor evenings

It's a glowing evening here in Paraguay, even in my noisy, ugly neighborhood. There are a lot of ways in which Paraguay does not measure up very well, but the quiet evenings, in vast lush country, with spectacular sunsets, is one area in which Paraguay excels.

I'm doing very well in site since the New Year. It's so much better than it was, I'd rather not even think about last year.

I've been teaching a little remedial reading class for elementary schoolers on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the library and teaching English classes there for youth those afternoons. While the goal of the reading class is to help these kids out, the English class is really just a sneaky way for me to get warm bodies into the library. It's been successful in that and it's also been pretty fun to get to know the youths.
The municipality has suddenly and spectacularly sprung into action this month, after four months of inaction (they receive a big chunk of money annually from the hydroelectric dams around the New Year I think). They finally fixed the voltage issues that had prevented us using any of our computers and they paid to build a really nice porch and extended roof in the back part of the library. The roof extension was necessary because the whole place would turn into a big puddle every time it rained from water would runs under the back-double-doors.

English class in the library
Most importantly the municipality finally decided to hire a new librarian. Carolina is smart, competent and enthusiastic. I can't stress enough how awesome this is. This is sort of enterprise that can only work if you'e got the right person, and the previous person was not it. I'm suddenly at ease about the future of the library and proud of what it's become in the last 9 months since it's been open. It feels like my whole two years of service working with libraries in Paraguay are validated all of a sudden.

It's so much more fun to work with Carolina and to teach my classes that I was shocked yesterday when I went to visit the school I'd been in last spring. The overwhelming indifference I encountered was so familiar from last year; my soul winced at that memory.

I am so proud of the library. I can't take credit for it all, but I was behind much of the establishment of the space and how it feels. And I find it so satisfying now. The experience has reminded me a lot of working with the student co-op in college. The co-op was ostensibly a coffee shop, but it's most important function was to serve as a comfortable student-controlled space on campus. Relying on student volunteers meant there was a lot of dysfunction, and attempting to work with the college administration meant there was always plenty of misunderstanding and opaque bureaucracy, but I really loved putting in the menial hours tinkering to make it a special place.

In my last three months as a volunteer I've got lot of exciting things I'd like to get done. If they don't all come through, so be it, but I'm trying to give a Diagnostic Testing workshop to area teachers, possibly give a didactic materials workshop at the school I worked at last year, do another 6-week English class, paint a world map on the back wall at the library, receive the box of books sent to the library by Darien Book Aid, visit the little schools a few km from town to give a quick one-day all-out didactic materials/book reading/interactive lessons demonstration, complete all my PC and grant related paperwork, , take more pictures in Asuncion, take Carolina to the National Peace Corps Libraries workshop in May, visit Nueva Germania, Quiindy (cousin Bryan's old site), Benito in Ayolas, sell/divest my stuff, and figure out where I'm going next and what I'm bringing with me.

And I love summer! And just how great it all feels to be in a period of change and newness again!
My bike is severely messed up so I haven't been enjoying my occasional rejuvenating rides in the surrounding countryside, but I've been feeling the mythic rolling fields closer in than before. I can sense them even from my house, which recently seemed to be so visually and acoustically foul. I'm so glad I didn't go home early, that I waited it out and that things have now come together so well and so unexpectedly.