Sunday, May 8, 2011

Una Semana en la Vida

It’s been a while since I’ve given an example of typical life as a Peace Corps Volunteer. This time, to mix it up a bit, I’d like to talk a bit about my past week- which has been a whirlwind of activity mixed with fiesta, siesta, and descansa.

Sunday started off the week well with a restful morning during which my weekly youth group meeting was cancelled due to “Día del Trabajador” (Day of the Worker), as such there were several parties throughout the town. Being that many of my youth are part-time employed, many were out and about eating asado. Meanwhile, I caught up with friends and family on Skype from the convenience of my newly purchased sofa (as internet is one of the perks of service in Latin America- if you like to see globalization in this way as a perk- but I’m not getting on that soapbox today). That afternoon, it was off to Barrio Santo Domingo to kick off their neighborhood Fiesta Patronal with a hot chocolate party for the kids at the local chapel. About 50+ kids showed up and we went through two huge pots of hot chocolate and several cakes. Yum! My job? To be there for moral support, take pictures, and try to help with any last minute decision-making (like moving indoors when it started to sprinkle). Upon my return home, it was time to make up a big vat of guacamole for my birthday party. Yep- I am now 25 years old- half a century already speeding by. Guacamole has become my signature potluck dish ever since my avocado tree came into season. Avocados are typically eaten with milk and sugar in Paraguay, so this salty Mexican party dip is out of the ordinary but highly enjoyed if one can get past the virtual disgust at thinking a fruit can be eaten with salt, pepper, onion, tomato, lime, and cilantro. “Guacala!” they say- translation “Ew! Gross!” However, most everyone so far has changed his/her mind after the first homemade chip. Thus the choice party dish for the evening. By around 7pm, my friends and neighbors started to filter in. We played a bit of UNO, drank red wine mixed with coke, and chatted about everything from underwear to the cycle of poverty. Happy birthday was chorused in three languages (Spanish, Guarani, and yes… I did sing my own version in English which got a good laugh), the candles were blown-out, wishes were made. What was the night before a rather sad tribute to 25 years now felt just right. It’s wonderful to have such great friends and neighbors to remind me. By midnight my friend/coworker and I had cleaned everything up and went to sleep for an early start the next morning.

4am and the alarm sounds for our early Monday start. Today, I am bringing the secretary of our new soup kitchen to a 3-day workshop on project planning and management. She does not live in my town, rather in a compania just outside the pueblo limits- thus the spending the night. We feed the cat, pack up our mate/thermo, and start the walk to the terminal. It’s freezing outside for the first time this year. We arrive just on time. I call in my trip in to the Whereabouts Line (anytime I leave site I have to call it in to the PC office), and within minutes have fallen asleep for the bumpy ride. About 2 hours late I wake up to a completely packed bus, several young men are hovering in the aisle and leaning on the backs of the seats. Claustrophobia has never been a problem for me, but this sardine-like situation can get you feeling pretty darn cramped. I pull up my hood on my winter jacket (it’s still freezing especially since some of the windows won’t close) and pretend I never woke up. “We’ll get to the pavement soon,” I hope. Finally, we reach the world of asphalt and development and the bus clears a bit- with breathing room and a smooth ride, my contact and I decide to eat some chipa for breakfast and enjoy the view. Finally, by 11am we arrive at our destination. A short trip off Ruta 2, and we are at registration. A quick shower, lunch, and the introductions begin.

The workshop focuses on the project cycle of community projects. Step 1: Needs Analysis and Identification. Step 2: Prioritization. Step 3: Planning. Step 4: Execution and Monitoring. Step 5: Evaluation. From there we start all over again. Over the first day we only make it through step one, but we focus heavily on the “why?” behind each project. Frequently in Paraguay, events are started and planned but the “why?” is never asked. So, what are the real needs in our community? My contact and I identify several needs that the Constructores de la Sociedad are attempting to address with our work. First, the need for public debate and community solidarity. Thus the formation of barrio volunteer projects and youth groups. Second, environmental contamination and deforestation. Thus our projects on city clean-up, trashcan installations, and tree planting. Third, poverty. Thus our soup kitchen and attempts to bring the impoverished medical services and capacity building to escape the cycle. By the end of day two, we have worked through prioritization and tried to focus our investigation and project planning on the root of the problems we see. We realize that our work with the soup kitchen is only meeting a superficial need- we need to dig deeper and aim our intervention strategies at the real struggles these families face: lack of work and education. Day three, we start to plan a new intervention strategy focused on inviting parents to the soup kitchen for small capacity building days culminating with a CV writing session. We leave the session pumped- maybe we can actually get this soup kitchen idea off the ground and really making an impact. We listen to stories from contacts and PCVs around the country, and we see that the struggle is not just our own. On the ride home, we start to think of how to present our new findings to our fellow peers. There-in lies the challenge.

I arrive home at 11pm on Wednesday night. My cat is waiting on the doorstep clearly displeased. I perk him up with some food, eat an apple, and crawl into bed. I’m exhausted; it’s not everyday that I wake at 6am and sleep at midnight in my site. The workshop has me excited but drained. I sleep-in Thursday, relax around the house, buy some groceries. I’ve started keeping a meticulous budget of all purchases, as my PC living allowance seems to be cutting it closer every month. I recently learned that every “hot” electrical shower I take costs me 1.000Gs. Great… winter electric bills are going to be high. After a veggie lunch, I put on my smile for an environmental charla (presentation) at a high school in one of the companias. It goes fairly well, although most of the kids have to stand as we don’t have sufficient chairs. We end the 1.5-hour event with a tree-planting lesson. We have donated 250 trees to this high school, one per student. The trees were received from Todos Pulmon Paraguay Respira. Our aim is to plant 4,000 trees by August. With each set, we also try to educate the recipients- why is this important? How can you take care of your trees? Etc. I make it home by 4pm, have a terere chat with a neighborhood contact, and head home to clean-up for the next event. Tonight I have the highlight of the Fiesta Partronal in Barrio Santo Domingo- an artist showcase and bake sale. I hop on my bike and head over to set-up. When I arrive they announce a problem: a larger event has been rescheduled to this evening as well in the plaza. We decide to sell as much food as we can while two of our artists play- they were the only ones left as all of the others were invited to play at the plaza show. We finish our event just in time for the fireworks at the plaza. Riding my bike, I see the glow breaking over the trees. I get to my porch and watch until the last sparks fade into the night.

Friday is another busy day, my first meeting of the day is at 9am with a women’s group from another compania at the municipality. We have the municipality secretary help with any translations as the president only speaks Guarani. The conversation starts well with a request for assistance with sales of their soap products, which I’ve helped them get started. However, things start to turn south quickly when she asks me to purchase her a motorcycle to transport the soap products to other towns. I explain that this is not my function here; I cannot provide such funds. We also talk about the drawbacks to such a proposal in the first place, with a profit margin of only 25.000Gs. for every 10 liters of soap there is no way the women’s group could pay for the gas even if they had a moto. We talk about other options: collaboration with the muni to sell in their farmer’s market, door-to-door sales, requests at local stores to sell alongside other products. She leaves seemingly disappointed, but my contacts at the municipality are relieved; this group has been trying to get a free ride for some time now. Perhaps now they will come back with a better proposal. A few errands and visits around town are my next order of business. I visit with a fellow volunteer from the north purchasing a fridge after 5 months in site, another volunteer recently assigned to my town to work with the schools, and several local contacts just to catch up on the local happenings. That afternoon, I plan the workshop overview charla with my contact to talk about the results of our trip. In the evening, it’s the mass and procession for the Fiesta Patronal in Santo Domingo and then a Constructores meeting. The mass goes well and includes a reading of all the donations from the week- a good practice in transparency that is often lacking. The meeting does not go so well, the head of the Constructores did not unlock the door to our meeting space earlier that day and then arrived over 45 minutes late. There goes the charla plans we had made. Instead we decide to talk about soup kitchen promotions and conclude that we really need to let the public know more about this project. There is no use keeping it out of the public spotlight any longer. I get home at 11pm, eat dinner with a friend, and attempt to sleep soundly.

Given the promotions discussion the day before, I am up at 5am the next day for a 6am radio show to talk about our soup kitchen project. A good group of representatives shows up and we have a lovely chat about all that we are doing and need to do with this project. After an hour of questions and comments, I am off to type-up and print up the new attendance sheet for the soup kitchen kiddos. I have set up a meeting with the María Goretti youth group at 9am to talk about a gardening project the PCVs in my region would like to implement starting in the soup kitchen. Sadly, I can’t get there on time due to endless printing errors, which would be easily fixed if the photocopier shopkeeper knew a little more about excel files. I chastise myself a bit for not yet having taught a computer class- gotta get on that and resolve some of these misunderstandings. Luckily, depending on your view, the youth didn’t show up till 10:30am anyway. So, I had plenty of time to help our cooks learn about cooking with soy. We had a large quantity donated from Asuncion, and I was excited to try it out with the kids. The experiment worked out splendidly, I’m happy to report, as not one of the kids even seemed to notice a difference between this particular pasta dish and one with ground beef. In fact, it went over so well we actually ran out of food. I’ve sent the notice to our donators- we should be using much more soy (high protein, low fat) in the future. J My (albeit late) youth group meeting was also a success; we decided to install a soup kitchen veggie garden in two weeks (if the weather permits of course). From the soup kitchen I hurry over to the Cero (popular Paraguayan team) soccer fields for a pollada (chicken sale) run by several of my contacts. Back at home, I relax, eat, and chat with a fellow PCV via phone about the week. At 3pm, I head out for another youth group meeting. Sadly, after all the excitement of Fiesta Partronal, the kids are too worn out to show-up (or that’s what I tell myself so that I won’t be personally offended). Instead I visit with a neighbor and am gifted some fresh oranges. I head home for one final meeting of the day with my workshop contact to organize all of our donations and volunteer records for an official announcement at a second radio show in the morning. We finish up at 9pm after a visit from some Mormon missionaries (just around to chat in English) and a friend by for dinner. I stay up a little too late dicussing the differences between Paraguayan and American society- my friend enjoys bringing me any song that remotely implies something insulting about Americans. This time, he decided to bring over a song all about McDonalds and Donald Trump. Lovely. It’s a good thing we get along and a pleasure to have someone around to discuss such things with. At the end of the day, we come from pretty different worlds.

My week finally ends. Sunday I have some time off... well, if I don’t get any last-minute phone calls!

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