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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Site Presentation, Dog Attack, and New Home?

This past week was really eventful in the bustling Paraguayan metropolis of Juan E. O’Leary. I spent a lot of time handing out invitations to what Peace Corps calls my site presentation. Basically what that entailed was a visit from my bosses, the environmental education and conservation sector, to my site from Asunción to have a meeting explaining what the random American who has been wondering around for the past 2 months is actually suppose to be doing. What that meant for me was a lot of time walking in the staggering heat inviting people to come to my presentation that was going to be held at the local elementary school. Where I hope to work in the coming school year Thankfully I had my 10-year-old host brother Mathias in the trenches with me during the days when I was handing out the invitations. All said and done I think we walked well over 10 km inviting people to come to the presentation. I boasted that there would be soda and cookies as an added incentive for people to attend, but I knew in the back of my mind the whole time I was talking to people in my broken Guarani that if it was raining or the weather was going to be too hot nobody would show up, so I was content to resign to the reality that if more than 5 people showed up I would be happy.
Most people when I took the time to sit down and talk to them seemed really enthusiastic, but that was when they were sitting under a tree or in a hammock drinking ice cold terere. I had one woman who I would say was slightly overweight straight hand me back the invitation saying it was going to be too hot. My interactions with people are very unique here, and to date I havn’t figured out all the subtleties. When you want to announce your presence when you walk to a house you wait at the gate, or what you can surmise is the entrance to the house, and clap until you see someone stirring from within his or her domicile. More oft than not they will invite you to come sit and drink terere, but rarely do I get the questions what do you want or why are you here? In fact, I rarely even get asked my name so I have gotten into the habit of saying what my name is when I shake their hands, but even still I find that I walk away from many of the interactions with no idea of who exactly I met or what there name is unless I ask. It isn’t like anything I am used too. Back home common curtsey is to introduce your name in the first few seconds of your conversation. It could very well be the same here and the only reason people are not telling me their names is because they know that some random American named Tomás is living here and they have no reason to ask. Still though I find it frustrating when I meet someone and come away with very little about them except for few word answers like: “its very hot today” (which it is everyday), and “there is a lot of dust here.” My responses to their questions are usually: “no I don’t have a girlfriend, no I am not against having a Paraguayan girlfriend”, and “che avya Paraguaype” (“I like Paraguay “in Guarani). After a while conversations blur together and I have a hard time remembering some of the things we talked about until I realize that I am having the same conversations over and over again with very little to distinguish one interaction from another. However, the more I think about it the more I realize that it probably a good thing that I am having any level of conversation despite how void of substance it may appear just for the pure sake of becoming more of a familiar face in the community in the eyes of the person I am talking to.
Preschool Building
On this past Wednesday we actually had to clean the school for the presentation, and seeing that nobody had set foot indie the building since school concluded at the end of November it was a good thing we did. With the help from the whole family of five we spent about 2 hours mopping floors, sweeping steps, raking leaves, and carry water from the well to the places where water was needed. Earlier in the day my family had informed me of this impending task. To that point I had no idea that we would be cleaning the school, and the lack of notice caught me a bit off guard causing a sudden schedule change that prevented me from my original plan of lounging around the local lake. I have noticed that when my family has a meeting or something pressing it always seems like it comes up at the very last minute, or the planning for it occurs the day or the night before. There seems to be a general lack of written schedules, and a lot of communication is done through word of mouth, so I decided that I would not be upset if only 5 people showed up for my event considering the way news travels here. I did my part to the best of my ability and the rest is out of my hands.
Escuel Segrada Familia
When Thursday rolled around it was time for the big show. I was a bit nervous, but feeling confident that there was nothing more I could have done to prepare for the presentation. I had written a speech that was a good mix of Spanish and Guaraní, and had my family look over it before it was performed live. I arrived at the school around 2:30 with my bosses Alistair and Brian, but quickly realized that we wouldn’t be starting anytime soon despite the invitation saying we would be beginning at 3 sharp. Promptness is something that also seems to be missing here in Paraguay. When I set the time for 3 I honestly was expecting it to actually begin at 3:30, which it did so I was content. All and all I had 8 people come to the presentation excluding my bosses from Asunción and I. That number included my three year old host brother Damian and Kristin the one of the other volunteers in O’Leary. The presentation itself lasted about 45 minutes in a room that can only be described as a sweat lodge. The power to the school had gone out near the beginning of the presentation hence eliminating fan, which was naturally the only form of relief from the heat albeit a weak one. I was relieved that my speech was intelligible even though some of the pronunciations had to have sound brutal with my noticeable American accent. What followed my speech was essentially an explanation to all the people in attendance about what Peace Corps is, its history in Paraguay, and the specifics about what environmental volunteers are trained to do in their communities. Some of the topical stuff we spent a lot more time discussing if someone had an interest. For example, I started a worm compost bin in a cement bathtub that is underneath a mango tree next to the house I live in. That sparked a lot of interest because worm compost and the worms themselves can be sold for a decent profit especially if one uses the California red worms that volunteers have access to in the office in Asunción. We also talked a lot about the potential for a garden project and a library because of specific interest. When the presentation wrapped up we all shared some soda and cookies that I had bought, and some grape juice and cake with jam that a lovely woman named Augustina was nice enough to bring while we all mingled around for a bit. That was pretty much how it went down nothing too exciting, but a success in my book.
My Potential New House
One of the other priorities for the visit is to help me find options for housing. The family I live with is currently in the process of building a relatively large house right across the street form the elementary school where my presentation was and where host mom Iris is a professora. We have been in deliberation for a while about completing part of the house to make it livable by using the money all volunteers are given for site adjustment allowances. The tricky part to this point has been the inconsistencies about how much it would cost to complete, and the timeframe for finishing it. I have never built a house before let alone tried to negotiate a contract for building one in a second language, so I am sure it is going to be an adventure getting this thing off the ground, but the good news is that after talking with my bosses in Asunción they agreed that it is a good option and that the cost should be roughly 2-3 million guaranis (between $450-$650) not too bad when considering I am finishing up a house.
Damn Dog Alley
This past Saturday also marked what I would call my first near death experience in Paraguay. The house I live in was jammed to capacity this past weekend with the number of inhabitants rising to a lofty 10 people. That was enough of an excuse for me to get out the hell out of dodge and hang out with Kristin. I ended up spending most of the day there casually drinking beers while waiting for the sudden storm that hit to pass. By the time dusk rolled around I suddenly realized that it was almost dinnertime back home and I needed to haul ass to get back before it got dark. Thankfully I had my bike with me, but for anyone who has ever tried to ride a bike in the mud while in a hurry will know that the going was slow, and coupled with a stomach full of beer I wasn’t exactly progressing with significant speed. That was until I got to what I now fondly call damn dog alley, which is a small corridor of houses close to the school where no matter what hour of the day it is or your mode of transportation you will be chased and barked at incessantly by a pack of dogs of all shapes and sizes. It is always an unnerving experience making it through damn dog alley, but I figured on a bike that they would be less likely to attack or be annoying right? Well the correct answer to that question is wrong. As I made my through the corridor of terror arguably the biggest dog in the alley smelled my vulnerability and started running after my bike barking wildly and salivating. The faster I peddled the more he barked. It was by the graces of a higher power that the dog finally turned into his house and the momentum I gained from that petrifying experience was enough to propel me home. However, that extra energy exerted in my intrepid escape from the clutches of death was enough to make me quite nauseous when I arrived home haggard and perspiring like a polar bar on a tropical island. The first thing my host dad, Julio, said to me upon my arrival was naturally “come drink some beer!” It took every ounce of my being not to heave profusely on the spot in front of several onlookers, but thankfully I somehow managed to avoid that particular embarrassment. Instead I ran inside stripped off my cloths as fast as I could and laid down in front of my fan until I felt human again. I am going to have to think of some effective dog deterrents for the future, but for now I am just glad to be alive.
On the agenda for this week a lot of laundry, beating the heat and preparation for Carnival in the city of Encarnación located right on the boarder of Argentina in Southern Paraguay. It should be an interesting experience, so look for another update soon.

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