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Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Emotional Roller Coaster

A small tajy (Guaraní) or lapacho (Spanish) is the national tree of Paraguay

            To this point of my service, I have to admit that finding a topic to write about has been pretty easy. Seemingly everyday I see something or have an experience that is interesting enough to write about, but since my last entry I have to come clean that I feel really stuck with new stuff to write about without rehashing old topics I have already discussed at length. I think that could indicate a couple of things that are happening to me. First, that I have become pretty accustomed to my day-to-day life, and that after almost 8 months the cultural aspects of Paraguayan life no longer seem as alien to me as they did in previous months. The other reason is that while my electricity is still pretty shoddy and my water pump doesn’t work consistently I do now have my own static location and space close to the school that a good number of people are aware of. There is much less confusion about cultural norms now especially basic communication, I am slowly getting a grasp on people daily schedules, and for the first time I feel like I can spend more time thinking about project ideas rather than where I am going to live. With that being said I feel really stuck with my work here right now. I am still in the process of planting the trees with Mike (we have planted 661 to date), I do at least one activity with the school every week, and am in the process of starting my own garden at my house. However, the pace and the manner in which projects are started and completed occur over a really long and inconsistent periods of time that occasionally leave me very discouraged.
            During one of the first weeks of training back in September, one of the presentations was about the emotional rollercoaster that occurs during ones time as a volunteer. I distinctly remember a graph that looked something like this:,r:0,s:0,i:72

Now this isn’t a cry for help or anything like that, but I distinctly remember feeling really excited and on a seemingly endless high my first 4 months here from the time I landed, living with Nilda and Francisco, making new friends, spending the holidays with Julio and Iris, working with the youth group and the days at the lake in January and February were all on the uptick of the trend. Then March rolled around and school started, my struggles with getting my house livable, organizational challenges with the trees and garden projects have made life a bit harder than it was at first when I was everything is still new. I guess this seems obvious to some, but after spending a significant amount of time in one place it is no wonder that the first few months are referred to as the honeymoon period, but after several months the excitement of the newness wears off and it is not unheard of to go through a bit of a lull. I feel like I am in that lull stage right now. It’s by no means a bad thing. In fact, I think it is a good thing because it forces me to really think through what I have done to this point, and how I would like to move forward in the future.
            The tree-planting project, the more I think about it, is an ambitious undertaking. Planting trees is a very important goal of the environmental sector in Paraguay, and no matter how you break it down it is better to reforest an area that is vacant than leave it as is if you have the ability to do so. With that being said this project in particular has taught me a lot about the rollercoaster of doing a project in O’Leary. It isn’t enough to have a good idea and the support of a noteworthy institution to get it done. If there is a lack of motivation on either end the project will inevitably have hiccups. With the trees, it was the confidence and the go ahead given to us by the municipality that motivated Mike and I to go ahead and to the formal request to get 2,500 trees. We rode around with a municipal representative and selected locations where trees could be planted. We also informed them what kinds of trees were available, the best time to plant them, and the need for transportation when the time came in to get the trees in May. We submitted the application in late March and waited until May when everything was suppose to be ready. May came around and we called the tree nurseries that we requested the trees from. Neither had heard from the organization we submitted the request to about the project. When we fixed that situation the Municipality had for the most part forgotten the idea altogether and was unable to let us use the truck to get the trees. We then needed to find a new driver who had a truck. When we found that we were able to get 2,000 of the trees from one of the nurseries. When we arrived the family who operated the nursery wasn’t totally aware of why we were there. When we sorted that out we had to load the trees into the truck and take them back to the Municipality. In the middle of unloading the trees it started to rain, and everyone we got to help us ran for cover as Mike and I finished unloading the remaining trees. Then we had to wait for the rain to stop and make sure the ground wasn’t too hard to dig in. After it rained we didn’t have sufficient transportation, which required us to physically carry the trees to the locations where we were originally told we could plant. When we started to plant the municipality representative wanted it done in a very specific way that didn’t allow for the maximum utilization of the space where we were planting. We are still missing 500 trees from another tree nursery because the owner is very flaky and is awfully passive about delivering on his agreement despite the fact that it is a financial opportunity for him to earn a decent payday. The motivation and the complicatedness in finishing every step of the process is arduous, but the part that gets me down is that I am at the point where I almost expect every step of the process to be a challenge.
Where we planted trees at the school after the school.
We planted 13 trees to replace 2 large ones that were
sold to add funds to the parents commission.
            In no way do I regret doing the tree project. I actually feel like the harder it is to do any one individual part teaches me something about the different people I can rely on, the way to approach someone when asking a favor, and the etiquette needed to do it. It has given me many cultural insights about how Paraguayans do business, and the ways in which I need to adapt to those methods. Nevertheless, I still struggle with it daily, especially when I think about starting other projects that require working with large numbers of people who have differing opinions and ideas about how we should move do it. It has made the garden project at the school all the more challenging to start. To date, the garden has a fence and a couple of seedbeds to plant. That is all well and good, but the process just to get it to that point has taken 3 months. I have done 2 activities to date with regards to the garden, but we have not planted or had the chance to do anything in the garden itself except for the construction of a half a seedbed. In the since I started doing work on the garden there have been 7 days where school was canceled for one reason or another, a three week series of national exams occurred sending the teachers into a stress cycle that made them very unmotivated to do any work in the garden, and my former host Dad, Julio, who is the area director of 7 schools including mine, did a application to get huge boxes of Lego’s for all the grades in all the schools that ended up distracting the kids immensely whenever I wanted to do an activity The icing on the cake though was a the school obtaining a super detailed and specific manual about how to do a garden from the ministry of education. The reason the manual is a problem is because teachers, for the most part, use the materials provided by the ministry of education as a bible whose word is final and cannot be changed with regards to all educational materials. They want to do the garden in accordance with the manual despite the fact that the school doesn’t necessarily have the credentials, resources, or materials to do the garden by this book. The teachers often lack the ability to use that type of resource as a reference that can be adapted to their circumstances, and instead try to do everything by what the super specific curriculum says.
What that means for me is that all the work I have done to this point may be for naught if my activities weren’t the ones recommended by the manual. Now instead of doing a garden for 4th-6th graders I have been asked to do a plot for each grade kindergarten-6th. The range of ability between those grades is significant. The manual says it can and should be done, but you try planting a garden with kindergartners and expect them to be able to maintain it as effectively as someone in the 6th grade. I am not saying it cannot be done somehow, but I will say that it cannot be done the same way it should be done for older kids. The most frustrating part is that if you try to explain that to the teachers they get flustered because while I am an educated individual with some knowledge on the topic of gardening and a better knowledge of the school and what it is capable of, I am not the bureaucrat at the ministry of education whose assessment of the project determines further funding of the program. It is hard enough to go against the grain in any organization, but in Paraguay, especially if you work for the government in some capacity, it is sinful to go against the grain when provided the materials to meet the extremely detailed parameters of a lesson plan or project. The worst part is how people, like teachers, think that way when in reality, nobody from the ministry of education is going to take the initiative to go visit a really small elementary school of 45ish students 2 km off the main highway 4 hours from Asunción to see if they are implementing the lesson plan correctly. Not only is that pointless, but they wouldn’t have the resources to do that even if they wanted to.
I guess I’m still learning the ropes. People still aren’t sure of what I am capable of doing, and to be honest I still don’t know myself. I am the first volunteer to work directly with the majority of the people in this community. It takes time to develop a relationship, and even more time for them to understand what I can do for them if they ask. The importance of an institution like the ministry of education is deeply rooted in the mindsets of people who work with the schools, and the vast majority, if not the entirety, of the people around me went through the same education system that their kids are currently going through with only minor differences in administration. I came here with an education, and skills that I probably couldn’t have developed in if I was from here. My way of thinking, solving problems, cooking, cleaning, and living is simply different than it is here. A lot of these feelings might seem obvious when written down, and honestly the more I think about it the more obvious they seem, but for whatever reason it was only recently that I came to these realizations. I think that might be why I am feeling a bit stuck at this point. I am slowly gaining an understanding of why the things work the way they do and why to people act in the way they act. I sense that is why I am feeling a bit stuck. I have been working here for a bit over 5-months and I still feel like I have only a general grasp of how get something from point a to point b accomplished, and that is slightly discouraging. Deciding to apply for the Peace Corps to spend 27 months living in a developing country sounds like a life time when you are about to get on that plane, but the more time I spend here the more I think that two years isn’t nearly enough time. Sure plenty of positive things happen that benefit many people, most of whom you might never meet, but the work that I am doing here right now, in many cases, will take generations to complete entirely and when you think about it like that 2 years hardly seems like any time at all.
On my agenda for the immediate future is to keep doing what I have been doing since I got here. I’m going to take it day by day and see where that takes me. I also want to start thinking about potential vacation spots, and if recently being exposed to a lot of trashy Brazilian TV is any indication of how interesting that country is I’ll bet that is where I’ll start.

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