Sunday, August 8, 2010

First Impressions

My first visit and first week at my site in Departmento Caazapa presented many new opportunities and experiences. The most obvious and striking impression when one first arrives, is that I am quite removed in Caazapa. From my town it is 96km to the north (most common route) and 60km to the south (only one bus per day this way) from a paved road. Which translates into a very very long bus ride to the capital- it took me 8.5 hours to get to my training site in the Asuncion area! This makes for quite an adventurous bus ride- tiny bridges of wood over large rivers, skidding buses in the tierra roja, etc. It also means that when it rains, there is no going anywhere due to flooded roads. The landscape in this patch of Paraguay is quite beautiful- large flat valleys with scattered small hills much like the mid-west of the United States or much of England in the UK. The red dirt roads really stick out in contrast to all the green. :-) 

The town has about 5000 people in the center with a total of 35,000 in the surrounding area. It's very clean and quiet for Paraguay... much more so than my training site for sure. Bring so small, it appears to be a pretty tight-knit community. While the primary livelihood is definitely agriculture for the local population, there is also a huge focus on education. Quite unlike other pueblos I’ve visited, they have two universities and a teacher-training institute in town- a lot of education centers per capita. The result is lots and lots of teachers around; for example, my host family members are virtually all profes.

My main project is working with a group called the "Constructores de la Soceidad.” Basically, they want to increase civic participation in the area and help support their fellow neighbors. My group is comprised of about 70-80 members which appear to have joined through the local Catholic church, most from my town but representatives from the compaƱias also have a strong standing. My main contact is a very influential Catholic priest who has been a key motivator in the creation of the group. They are brand new (started up less than 6 months ago) and still have a lot to organize and consider as a new-formed team. Currently, there are no existing NGOs in my town, so starting this organization for the purpose of general community support is definitely a learning curb. My job, as such, is to help them get organized as a team so that they can start working to achieve their goals. Some projects they are looking into include opening a comedor comunitario (soup kitchen) and developing viviendas economicas (economic housing for the poor and elderly). I’m thrilled to be working with such a motivated and unique group in my community!

Side projects are plentiful, thanks to a long history of Peace Corps volunteers in the area. Some activities that seem to be of interest to the community include basic finance classes at the local cooperativa, presentations or charlas/talleres at the colegios on project management and community integration/civic participation, and English classes at the Instituto de Docentes. Clearly, there is no lack of work for my next 2 years.

All that being said- my first job in site is just getting to know people and making connections. I started the process during my short stay last week, but I have a long way to go. There are many more schools, government organizations, and businesses I have yet to visit and interview for my estudio comunitario required by Peace Corps. Naturally, I also have tons more people to meet and friends to make.

A final and very important lesson I took from my visit is a keen awareness of the language barrier and implications thereof. Although I've been studying Guarani for virtually all of training and practicing Spanish daily with my host family, I still cannot express complex concepts or feelings in Spanish nor can I understand pretty much anything people are saying in Guarani. In large part, this is because the accent is hugely different between the Asuncion area and Caazapa... so I hope that with more adjustment time it will get better. However, I also realized that the Guarani I am learning is professional in training, but the people don't really use professional Guarani where I live. Guarani is a language of complex expression and therefore is used for jokes, stories, songs, and social settings. So, It looks like I’ve got a lot more learning to do in my last 2 weeks of training.

For now, please send me luck and patience! Swear-in is rapidly approaching: August 20th I will become a REAL Volunteer!

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