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.

Monday, February 11, 2013


I'm not a good enough writer (or thinker or feeler) to properly capture the experience of my Carnaval in Paraguay, but I hope that these pictures may convey the general feeling. There is no carnaval celebration in the north where I lived last year, so this is my first carnaval in South America. It's not like anything I've ever seen or heard or felt before.

I've been performing with the Batucada samba drum group in my town which has been a really cool and totally new experience. It's composed of about 25 youths, aging from about 12-22 years old. The core members organized themselves five years ago, started practising with buckets and whatever they could find, held fundraisers, bought drums, and have grown and improved year after year. We've performed in five corsos now (carnaval parades), twice in Natalio the weekend before last, once in Capitan Meza last Friday night, and twice in Yatytay, last friday and then again last night.
The towns in this part of Itapua rotate hosting carnaval weekends with parades and all the neighboring towns send performance groups of dancers and drummers (mostly dancers) to perform and compete for prizes in whichever town is hosting that weekend. This weekend both Capitan Meza and Yatytay were hosting, so we played at both Friday night. On the second night of the corsos (theoretically Saturday, but delayed to Sunday both weekends because of rain) prizes are awarded to the best groups; our group won first prize both times. The prize was almost $200 for the Natalio carnaval, which I think will just go to drum purchase and maintenance. We got invited to a carnaval in the middle-of-nowhere town of Itapua Poty in two weeks which will have a top prize of $400.
I love playing with the group, it is quite challenging and fun and the combined effect of so many drums is exhilarating  The performance is challenging as well, but I have now twice been surprised when we've won top place, despite my many errors and perceived general dis-coordination.
What's hard about participating in the group is passing the many hours waiting to perform. The group is mostly composed of teenage boys, and they can be just as obnoxious and rude and stupid as teenage boys can be anywhere. I feel very comfortable with most of the other players, but there are a couple of clowns who love to taunt me.
"Norteamericano, Hello Norteamericano! Goodmorning! One, two, three, Hello Baby!"
I'm working at being better at joking around, but these guys are really awful. I remember kids just like them when I was in High School. I'm not going to fight them, I can't verbally jab at them with my accented and awkward Spanish. I try and maintain some quiet dignity, but doesn't feel very effective. Some things never change I suppose.

We got back last night at 3:30 am. It is really incredible how wholeheartedly these conservative small towns go in for a party. The most popular thing for spectators to do is buy aerosol cans of spray foam and mercilessly spray each other. I don't think I've ever seen anyone wearing safety goggles in Paraguay except for the in bleachers at Carnaval. Beer is for sale of course, proceeds go to help fund the prizes for performers. The carnaval in Yatytay was sponsored by the volunteer firefighters, they were using the ambulance (flashing lights, but no siren) to deliver ice to the beer stand last night.
Fortunately I have no major commitments today. Last Monday I had a 7am meeting with the mayor, after getting home around 2:40 am. And it's a rainy day so I'm hanging out around the house and drinking coffee. I just made a lentil stew for lunch.