"An Island Surrounded by Land": Adventures in Paraguay

A chronicled account of the happenings in Chris and Marisa's lives during their two-year, three-month stint with the Peace Corps in Paraguay, South America. Disclaimer: Nothing written here should be interpreted as official or unofficial Peace Corps literature or as sanctioned by the Peace Corps or the U.S. government in any way. We have chosen to write about our experiences online in order to update family and friends. These are the views solely belonging to Chris and Marissa.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Photos of Late

Basking Beauty of the Rio Iguazu

Mini Bear

A Menacing Capuchin Double-Threat

A Bird's Eye View

Before the Baptism Under the Falls (Yes, we did go on that boat under those falls in the picture below this one, and we got soaked!!)

Iguazu Falls, Puerto Iguazu, Argentina

Carnaval Villarica 2008

Eye-Reddening Foam Fights

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Happy New Year 2008!

It's been a LONG time coming for me to update the blog. I apologize for lack thereof. I will try to do an accounting of the last three months or so, going backwards.

First of all, we spent New Year's eve in Asuncion looking for a restaurant that was open. We had planned a nice dinner with friends at the nicest restaurant we've been to thus far. It was closed. Not only was it closed, so were all the other restaurants that we knew of as well. In fact, there were no restaurants open. We did find one-a Peruvian restaurant on the other side of town. Then after dinner, we wanted to ring in the New Year amongst revellers in a bar or club with maybe some dancing perhaps. Nothing doing until after midnite. Apparently everything is closed on New Year's eve with the exception of some clubs, bars, and discos which only open after midnite. We rang in the New Year on the roof of our hotel, watching many of several private fireworks displays going off around us. The whole time the bomb siren was ringing. Yesterday, New Year's day, we experienced a strange phenomena. We were in search of an open supermarket, which brought us to one of two of Asuncion's largest, nicest malls--Shopping Del Sol. We discovered the market was closed, but the mall was open-- and with air conditioning we decided on a brief respite from the heat. To our surprise, not a single store was open, but there was the mall anyway-- still filled with people walking around as if they were shopping. What the...?

Umm yes, we went home from November 14th to December 2, and it was great. We stopped off in Santiago, Chile for a day-long layover we had on the first leg of our trip, and had a great, expensive time and look forward to going back. We spent one week in Flagstaff; one in Cincinnati, and we saw all manner of family and friends. We were in culture shock, but had an awesome time. It was great to feel cold weather, clothes from the washing machine, carpet, and eat sushi and turkay again. It was hard getting back and adjusting. We are back in the saddle again now though. The only big surprises when we got back were the two black widow spiders that I found had set up shop in the house and the ring of black mold growing in the shower. Other than that, our house emerged relatively unscathed and minus one machete. Oh yeah, and the 4 leaks that sprung in our plastic water line...

We spent Christmas in our community with our married Peace Corps friends, Adam and Angela, who came to join in the festivities with a freshly killed baby pig which we bought from our neighbors. Adam did the killing, Chris and Adam shaved it, and I even helped gut it! We ate lots of yummy grilled baby pork, pineapple, chipa guazu, and fresh peach pie. We had a great time shooting off fireworks and drinking sangria and homemade eggnog with our friends. It even rained just in time for the eve and cooled off nicely. Then, Christmas day, we were surprised with the news of my sister-in-law, Jamie's engagement to her boyfriend Byron. Chris and I are both happy and excited, and all I can say is...TOLD YOU SO!!! ;o)

Pre-vacation, we worked very hard on our demonstration plot. We have sesame, melon, corn, beans, peanuts, castor bean, and a couple green manures for seed. Hoeing in the heat is hard, hard work, and weeds grow almost instantly due to the intense periods of rain and heat. I hate hoeing!

To be honest, I don't remember much of what was going on before around November. We started to do some work with bees, and have tried to capture our own wild hive, but have been unsuccessful with getting the hive to stay once transferred. I think it's largely due to fact that we haven't found the queen yet, which is not an easy feat. We'll get it right sooner or later.

Right now, work is slow. School is out for summer break, and we are working on our field a lot, and our weekly radio show. We are planning to have a summer camp for the students around the beginning of February. February also brings Carnaval, which we will plan on going to either in Encarnacion, which is supposed to be really fun, or in Villarica--a much closer and probably cheaper option.

2008 will see us traveling a whole lot more. We have vacations planned to go see Igauzu Falls in Argentina, a possible trip to Bolivia or the Brazilian Pantanal for Chris' birthday in April, and then Jim and Sally will be down to visit in July! This year's gonna fly by, and we have lots to do.

We wish you all a great start to a new year! One of my resolutions is to try and update the blog more often. Thanks to my little bro, Hillary, I can do that now on the comfort of our own laptop. Thanks again dude! Life's much sweeter here with the occasional movie, game, and more music.

Chau chau (as the locals say, when saying goodbye on the phone) with love from Paraguay to all our family and friends.

The Updikes

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Reflecting On One Year

Chris and I went to the ´botanical´garden in Asuncion. Okay, think more like a large park with a zoo, natural history museum, and 100-hectare nature reserve. (Okay people, it´s a developing country--discard all pre-conceived notions of the aforementioned places. It´s not like the places at home). I had already made up my mind previously that I would avoid the zoo like the plague. We paid the entrance fee to the garden and walked up to the museum. The museum was okay. Just a bunch of taxedermied animals, animals in jars, and a large collection of indigenous artifacts. Afterwards, we edged towards the zoo, which Chris was adamant on seeing. It was a disaster. After seeing series upon series of ill-housed, unhappy, and frustrated exotic birds, large cats, and other mammals, we arrived at the tapir enclosure. The tapirs were housed with an extremely large white crane-like bird with a black head and bill (there were almost no information placards on the animals, so I have no idea what it was). The ¨caretakers¨came to feed the tapirs and one man proceeded to hit the bird with a large, bulky leather glove on the bill repeatedly after the bird proceeded towards him and the exit gate. As this happened, his companion cackled with delight. I couldn´t take it and completely lost it. I had been bawling previously, but this was the last straw. I´m almost glad, for I would have reached the elephant and rhino exhibits, and that surely could have been far worse.

After leaving the zoo, composing myself, and boarding the bus, we headed back towards the hotel. Unexpectedly on the way, we passed the Ycua Bolanos grocery store. This was the site of a massive fire a few years back in which some 400 people perished. A fire had broken out, and the owner had locked the customers in to prevent looting. Last year while we were trainees, the sentencing verdict passed on the owner. He got off of on 5 years, which was reduced to 3 due to 2 years already having been served or something like that. As a result widespread rioting and protests shook up part of Asuncion. It was sad to see the empty black hulk where so many died. It was covered with memorials and the victims´names.

To top that, we passed by Plaza Uruguaya, which is situated by the hotel which we frequent. There, some 100+ native peoples from the Chaco region of Paraguay are camped out (and have been since the winter), as they have been displaced. Not sure on exact details, but they are essentially landless due to some sort of government dealings and negotiations. It´s really humbling to see truly poor people washing clothes on the street, cooking over fires, showering on the sidewalk, living in black plastic lean-to´s; going about all their daily motions all on public display in a public square. It´s difficult for me to see urban poverty versus poverty in the countryside (campo). In many ways they are alike, but at least the people in the campo have a little bit of land to build a house or have a garden or farm. Not so for the city homeless. And of course there are very little or no services to help the poor. As many times as I see it, I can´t get used to it. There is such a startling class divide here in Paraguay.

We finished our day by going to one of latin america´s most beloved past times: a club soccer game. The two teams that have a very strong and old rivalry are Cerro Porteño and Olimpia. We did not go to one of those games as they have the tendency to become extremely violent, often ending in rioting. People are known to fight each other, throwing bags of urine, swinging belts with buckles; throwing and shooting nails, rocks, cement, and anything that can possible vist bodily harm on another. Nevertheless, we did witness a little bit of violence at the game we went to which was Olimpia vs. 12 of October. It was relatively tame, fun, and exciting. The guards took Chris´ belt away, and the cops in riot gear waited patiently at the top of the bleachers waiting for any mass violence. The only remarkable thing that happened is that an Olimpista (Olimpia fan) tried to spear a supposed Cerro Porteño fan for allegedly trying to rob him. The large noisy crowd of Olimpistas seated directly to my left started to move and sway and I turned to see a man approach another with a sharpened flagpole. The situation was diffused shortly thereafter, and everyone went back to cheering for the game. There wasn´t even beer sales at this game. People are just passionate about soccer in this country.

That all happened in August. As of now, Chris and I are officially farmers. We are cultivating a piece of land in front of our house about the size of 1/2 hecater. It´s hard work, but we´re planting peanuts, melon, corn, beans, and cassava in association with abonos verdes (plants that fix nitrogen) to show farmers an alternative (and better) way of land management. We are also planting sesame and tartago to demonstrate cultivation of these crops as a possible source of supplemental income. Tartago is used in making industrial oils and is also a source of biofuel. The government is not offering credit to grow cotton this year, and farmers need to be looking at alternated sources of income. We hope by showing them these plots, it will encourge interest and show how easy it is to actually do. Paraguayan farmers do not want to take risks and try it on their own land and are skeptical if you just inform them by mouth. They need to feel it and see it with their own hands before they have buy-in.

Tomorrow we will be getting a future volunteer in training to come and visit us. Wow. I still remember when we were in training and we went and visited our volunteers, Justin and Amanda, who have also become friends. Now they are leaving in December as they finish their service and we are hosting our own trainee.

Chris and I have grown immensely. We are different people now than when we left. I am forever changed and if nothing else comes out of this, Chris and I both agree that we are better citizens of the world for it. We have learned about ourselves, each other, other cultures, other parts of the world, and this experience is so uniquely different from anything we could ever do at home. We are better people now no matter what happens from here on out. Even though this experience is rife with frustration, lack of hope, and impatience some days, I am truly grateful to have been given this experience.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Brief Hiatus....We ARE Alive! (And Kicking Too..)

So, of course the first thing you´ll hear me say is that I want to apologize for not having updated the blog since July, and I realize that while the hiatus may have been brief for me, (who does the majority of the blogging around here), it may have felt like longer for our devoted readers. Time just flies sometimes. And while I don´t want to make excuses, I´ll just tell you how it is. Coming to town, whether it be Caaguazu or Asuncion, is a little bit of a time vacuum. Which is not to say that time doesn´t exist in these places, but rather, the hours fly by like minutes. We´ll come in to town and I´ll sit in front of the computer. I´ll start calling people, checking e-mails, and before you know it we´ve passed 4 hours on the internet. The worst part of it all is that after one of these episodes, I feel like I have not accomplished one thing that I´ve set out to do. And then the guilt sets in. It´s even worse when we´re in Asuncion at the office. Inevitably all your friends come in and want to chat, eat lunch, go out for a beer, go shopping, eat ice cream, etc., etc. They want to know how you´re doing, and the feeling is reciprocal, which is why you get even less stuff done when you´re in the office. As if it´s not bad enough! Somtimes, you actually have legitimate business in the office. Things like finding books, information for a project, photocopies to make, meetings to attend, and forms to fill out. By gosh, on these days I literally dread going to the office. This is how it´s pretty much been the last month or so. We´ve been in to town a lot lately for things which required our presence. For example, we just celebrated the 40th anniverssary of Peace Corps in Paraguay. There was a big to-do about it and we received a decent amount of press from it. The Peace Corps director, Ron Tschetter, and his wife Nancy, schlepped all the way down from the states with a bunch of suits from D.C. to commemorate the event. There were about 2 days of activities, including an informal barbecue, and then a formal, dressy event where the ambassador spoke and all the suits looked important and photos were taken and we had a reception and photo exhibition spanning the 40 years of Peace Corps here in Paraguay. Nice, but for the most part, most of the volunteers were hung-over due to a house-party fundraiser held the night before. I happily bartended, which was great damage control for me. Others were not so lucky.

Right now, I am taking full advantage of the internet services offered at the design and management workshop which we are currently attending, while Chris is off happily learning Paraguayan card games (most often used as betting and drinking tools) so that he may better "integrate" in our community. Nice one, honey.

We´ve also experienced a lull in our work in the community. It´s still winter, and has been cold off and on, which always lowers the frequency and intensity of agricultural activity. But it´s on the way to warmer weather and should pick up some. Right now is a great time to garden and this is how we´ve been spending our time fulfilling the agricultural portion of my commitments. More time has been spent in school lately, and we are right now working to improve the garbage management situation in the three local schools. For now, they throw garbage into a shallow "pit" and burn it. Sometimes when the kids are out of school, and sometimes when the wind blows away from the classroom. Either way, it´s a horrible situation, and we take every opportunity to inform people (usually housewives and children) that burning plastic and other synthetic materials is terrible for your health. We give formal lessons in the classrooms about the specific health effects of burning plastic on various organs of the body and the like. We are working with one teacher in particular to implement a management program which would seperate the school garbage into 3 classes: organic (for compost), paper (which can safely be burned), and plastics, glass, metal and anything else you can´t burn or won´t burn--to be safely buried in a DEEP pit. It´s a bit challenging to educate adults about things like this because they flat-out don´t believe you. We´ve been laughed-off, shrugged-off, and been told that we´re straight up lying. Children though, we think we have a better chance with them. It´s hard with them because they lack a good, basic understanding of science a lot of times, and of course if burning plastic isn´t producing any tangible damage for the moment, why should they believe you? You can´t really try to explain these ideas using science. If you wanted to, you´d have to basically go back and teach them biology, chemistry, and other things of which they have little or no grasp, which would complicate matters. You just have to hope that they kinda take your word for it.

Which brings me back to why we have a really hard time with work sometimes. Why should anyone believe or trust or want to understand us?? We are essentially playing at being poor. We try to live at their level, but poor as we might feel, we will NEVER know how it feels to live poor, what it´s like to be under-educated, live without adequate healthcare, live under-nourished, or any of the other million things that they are that I have the good fortune of probably never being. We will finish our service, return to our rich country, attend rich graduate schools, secure good jobs, travel, buy houses, do so many other things that will never in a million years, be accessible to probably 99% of the people that live in the campo. I just pretend that I live humbly. Am I? Not really. I am certainly living what is considered below the poverty line by U.S. income standards, but definitely not here. We are the rich of the poor people in my community. No, not the rich of the poor. We´re just rich period. And I don´t blame them one bit for not trusting, not wanting to work, not wanting to understand us. I probably wouldn´t if I were them. We have a darn hard time speaking their native tongue and I want them to change farming practices which have been in use for decades when I can´t even convey my ideas clearly? Not only am I a woman, I am young, I am American, I am seen as being rich, I have never farmed--hell, this is my first time with a vegetable garden!, and I wonder why they don´t want to take me seriously when I offer up ways to improve farming and agriculture in their community? For sure, I´d laugh at me too if I were them. They probably wonder "Who does she think she is?" But that can´t stop me. I´m mainly here to show them things that they already have and that are working for them, and say "Hey, this is what you do have, and it could really work for you well if you just do this a little differently or think of it this way." I am not going to revolutionize the way my community grows crops, but I can get a few families to have a better garden. A garden with more variety and more vegetables, so that maybe their diets are better and then maybe their children like to garden, and so on and so on. I will not reform the schools near my community, but I can reach some of the students and teachers about the importance of critical thinking, and show them that school is not one big memorization lesson. And I probably cannot bring running water to the entire community, but I can try to help Paraguayans realize that they are their own best resource for goals they want to achieve, and that they don´t always need to ask an outside entity for money and assistance with the goals they want to achieve. For this I am here, and am grateful most days. We are also having a blast, making friends, sharing in peoples´lives, learning a new language, working on a marriage, living in a really laid-back culture, and becoming connected to a different part of the world I thought I´d never know. I really love this country... most of the time.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Everyone Needs A Place To Poop, Pt.II-Happiness

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Finally Moved! (And Other Stories...)

The Traveling Sofa Salesman

A Ghostly Morning Outside Our House

*Note: The house IS looking a bit white trash. We still have to paint, plant grass around the house, bring in the laundry, and deconstrtuct Chris´wood working bench in front. Add the hammock and a few chairs out front and it will look much better! Don´t be afraid.

We moved a week ago, halleluiah!!! It´s already been one long, nice week of tranquility, no chickens, no neighbors, and beautiful vistas. Thank you to our wonderful neighbor, Karai Taito, for hauling our table, fridge, stove, bookshelf and other crap up the hill in his ox-drawn cart. So glad we have friends in the community!! Chris and I are working on the house little by little every day. We started cleaning up the space for our garden yesterday, and we are going to buy seeds today. Oh happiness!! Little time until we have a veritable cornucopia of fresh vegetables and herbs. This is what we have been slaving away for...a little slice of campo heaven. And that is not all, my friends. Our work is starting to get underway very nicely. For those of you who have not heard, Chris and I are helping to establish a committee of farmers in the neighboring community of Yataity. There are about a dozen of the more hardworking farmers in this committee, and our first project is to start growing vegatables in a donated hectare of land which belongs to the president of the group. Our goal is to grow tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage, carrots, bell peppers, and beets to sell at a Saturday farmer´s market at the neighboring pueblo of Yhu, about 7 k. away. This does not sound astonishing in and of itself, but the clincher is that we are running this group to do everything organically, without benefit of chemicals, and also trying to get the members to employ soil conserving techniques and in effect better the soil AS they are using it, rather than stripping it bare. If this is a success, we can start looking for other markets, such as Asuncion or Caaguazu, and increase production. The members are also interested in finding alternatives to cotton growing such as growing sesame or sugar cane for biofuel. Gracias a Dios!! We are aiding them in getting them information and bringing people with experience to give lectures on these topics. We are also starting to plan our work at the school in San Miguel. We will be doing the school garden and a vivero with the students, teachers, and hopefully the parents. We have been giving charlas (little lectures) on building compost piles and making organic pesticides. At our house we are also busy planning our own demonstration plot to show the community. We have more or less a hectare of land to work with, and we want to use just about everything we´ve learned to show how to manage the land better. We are going to use erosion-control techniques (curvas de nivel), grow abonos verdes, and use agroforestry systems to show the people a more efficient use of their land. The problems in the community are that people think that they have too little land if it´s less then say, around 5 hectares. They also think they we don´t know anything because we were not farmers in our former lives, we are young, we are american, we don´t yet speak fluent Guarani, and we haven´t SHOWN them anything yet. We can talk all we want, but until we have something to show, it´s hard to have buy-in from the locals. On top of all this, our new American fellow-volunteers are nice and we especially enjoy Roberto´s company. He is laid-back, funny, and very very nice. I am especially looking forward to doing some cross-sector health work with him, like reproductive health workshops and building latrines and such.
It´s so exciting and refreshing to feel like you are starting to finally emabark on what it is we came here for in the first place: which was to help people.

On that note, we had an even quicker high last weekend when we went to the Mana concert in Asuncion. We had bought tickets, but apparently didn´t need them after all. I think there were in the neigborhood of about 60 to 70 thousand people who came to the biggest soccer stadium in all of Paraguay, El Estadio Defensores Del Chaco, and it was A M A Z I N G!! We showed up a tad late, not expecting them to start on time, as is usually customary for a show, especially of this size. The band had already started playing as we ran up to the entrance. There was chaos and cops in full riot gear all around the entry ways. I expected the worst, and in fact, the pòlice had to use rubber bullets on the crowd just before we showed up because the mob had torn down a gate. Chris and looked for the entry for people with ´grass´seats, but instead ended up pushing and shoving our way through a sea of people, while being pressed up against the shields of the police in riot gear, and being hurried through to the inside of the stadium. No one even took our tickets or bothered to see them. I think it was such a big turnout, that it would have been impossible to admit people in an organized fashion, and lots of people did not make it in. It was a rush, just getting through that and finally entering the stadium and seeing all the people there. The concert was amazing and I sat on Chris´ shoulders a lot of the time, which afforded me a spectacular view. It had been raining all day, but seemed to stop just for the duration of the concert. Many of our fellow volunteers also went and all agreed that it was an awesome night. The sad part was that about 6,000 fake tickets were sold to a sold-out show!

Okay, last thing. So once upon a time, we had a neighbor named Gordo, who started using our wood that we bought to build our house, to build his other house down another road in our community. Gordo probably thought that we would not even notice that our wood was missing because we had so much of it and that we have lots of money anyway, so we can just buy more, no problem (NOT the case). As luck would have it, Chris noticed our pretty redwood on his new house and confronted Gordo about it. Gordo just stared at the ground and thought that the problem would go away if he ignored it long enough. Being the reasonable human that Chris is, he offered for Gordo to return the wood, pay for it, or work it off so we wouldn´t have to involve anyone else in the matter and he could handle it like a man, pride in tact. No dice. Eventually, as a month passed by, Chris grew impatient and angry. Finally when confronted by the owner of the land and Chris together, Gordo fessed up and offered to pay for the wood, though he had no money at the time. Too late. The owner of the land told Gordo that he and his wife and two daughters had to move out ASAP becuase he violated his trust and does not want dishonest people living on his land and working for him. This story is all too sad because Gordo has a family and even though Gordo is indeed very poor, you should not steal from anyone. Even if your neighbors look like rich ´nortes´. The old neighbors have indeed moved, and hopefully we will have nice new ones who will not steal from us.

And hopefully the poison that was thrown down the neighbors well will not filter down to our artesian well, rendering our water undrinkable. I HOPE! But, that´s another story for another day. Just another day in the campo! Hee hee! In all seriousness, this type of behavior is not all that common, and campo life is more or less very ´tranquilo´.

Thanks for reading our blog.


Monday, April 16, 2007

Easter, Paranoia, and Chris' Birthday

So we're momentarily in Asuncion, after having finished 4 days of language training. Chris celebrated his birthday aptly, along with a bunch of other volunteers who have birtdays this month. Rather, he spent the first part of his actual birthDAY hungover, which is how we know Chris celebrated right.

House news: we have a roof, door, windows and electric to go still before we can move in. We feel better now though, knowing that others in our group still haven't even started their houses. Hope to be in by 1st week of May. Man, this thing is getting obscenely expensive...

Being here has gotten me to realize how I think Americans can be overly paranoid about germs. For instance, we wash everything in our house such as pots, pans, dishes, kitchen rags, hands fresh from the nasty latrine, and sometimes clothes with the same bar soap and sponge. I don't have antibacterial soap for my hands and I don't have liquid dish soap for my dishes. We cut raw meat and butcher whole live chickens using the same plastic cutting board and knives and we don't even have hot water and it's all fine. My friend back home wears disposable surgery gloves when she handles any kind of raw meat! (Raquel...) I use bleach once in a while to sanitize thoroughly, but other than that there's not a whole lot you can do. I mean, you have to go visit people and share terere (tea) with them out of the same guampa and bombilla or risk offending them. And you don't know what their well looks like or if they wash their hands or their dishes. We don't have Lysol antibacterial kitchen spray or any other fancy stuff for the bathroom. I mean, you can buy it in the city but it's expensive and I think people would think you were odd if you had this mad collection of soaps and stuff. I guess what I'm getting at is that I think soap companies in other parts of the world pretty much make a killing off of taking basic soap and adding more chemicals; making it different colors, scents, and textures. I dunno. Just an observsation of mine. And I'm not a dirty person, anybody who knows me knows that I like a very clean house. Maybe it's just that I've gotten to used to it here and when I move back home I'll revert to my usual cleaning arsenal of products.

Easter came and went with so much as a person attending church. Semana Santa (Holy Week) is celebrated here with the making of chipa (bagel-like bread (only in texture), made with the campo cheese, anis seeds, pig grease and cornmeal). We were given so much of it by our nice community members that we still have like 5 kilos in our fridge, but at least the cat likes it. Anyway, chipa is made on a Wednesday (always), followed by the last supper and volleyball and beer swilling Thursday, and then on Good Friday no one is allowed to work and all you do is sit around and eat the chipa you made on Wednesday and eat oranges and drink a mate-based beverage called Cocido. Chris and I worked every day though, including Easter. On Easter day everyone that came from the city leaves to go back and the buses are incredibly full and we didn't even have church services because we don't have a full time father at the the Catholic chapel; and in fact he only comes once a month. But no one does anything on Easter Sunday. I pretty much felt like a dumb-ass trying to tell them what happens in our country for a typical Easter. And then I realized how absolutely ridiculous the concept of the Easter Bunny and hiding eggs and buying candy for your spoiled kids sounds in order the celebrate the fact that Christ has risen.

Hope you all enjoyed your Easter turkeys and hams!!