Friday, December 11, 2009

6 Months Already!?

As of November 24thish, I have been out of the country for 6 months. This surpasses my previous out of country expirence of 5 months while I was in Santiago, Chile studying abroad. So far, it has been a breeze. No offense to those of you state side of course.

I spent pretty much all of my first three months in site, which is what PC recommends, but is something I do not intend to repeat. By the end of the 3rd month I was itching for some time away. I’ve decided to try to get out of site and go spend some time with other volunteers, either at their sites or in Asuncion at least once a month…starting next month. This month I have to stay in site because I’ll be babysitting Luna and Carly’s house for three weeks while she is on vacation. Consequently January is when I will begin making leaving site for a weekend a part of my routine. Unfortunately this means that I’ll be in site during Christmas and New Year’s, which is no fun. A friend from my group is going to visit me for a few days before Christmas and we are going to do Hanukkah stuff. I don’t like Christmas, she is Jewish, perfect fit. We’re going to make potatoes pancakes and Jalla. Holla Tee hee, I couldn’t resist.

I will say that Christmas is a lot more low key here. I’ve seen a few lights in the city, but nothing else. In Asuncion there were a few advertisements with a Christmas feel, including some with penguins in snow hats and scarves. Its summer here btw.

I could do Christmas with my host family, but Marcia is subtly moving me from the house guest to renter. Her son, who occupies the room next to mine, is moving out, I’m assuming to the city where his wife and child live. She told me that I could rent the casita, referring to his room, my current room, and the outdoor bathroom, for 250,000/month. I’m not sure if this includes utilities or not. If it doesn’t include utilities it is a complete ripoff. The wooden house Carly almost rented cost that much, not including utilities, and had 2 rooms, a large living area, a large yard, a partially enclosed half-room. We’ll see. Right now I pay her 150,000 a month ‘for gas.’

I think the progression is very interesting
We started at ‘You can stay here for as long as you want rent free’
To her asking for 125,000 to ‘help with gas’ (she made it sound like a onetime thing)
To me giving her 150,000/month voluntarily, which I had to practically force her to take the first time.
To her basically telling me that I need to rent the other room and my current room for 250,000/month

What was most interesting was the way she framed the proposition. She said it was an opportunity for me to be more ‘independent’. The funny thing is the only real way that I could be more independent is if I moved out. I do all of my own cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc. I’m in a room that they probably couldn’t rent out by itself without at least providing meals to the renter.

The only thing I use of theirs is the shower inside the main house, it has electricity, and the kitchen. I have a shelf I’ve taken over in the refrigerator, but I don’t feel bad about using it because they don’t keep leftovers. I also use the gas stove, though I’ve been cooking much less lately. Occasionally I may eat some of their bread, mandioca, or rice which I’ve perceived to be a negligible amount. She did tell me to act like the house was my own. She has repeated this mantra on several occasions including when I asked her if it was all right if a female volunteers spent the night.

However in her rental proposition she mentioned me setting up my own kitchen. Perhaps that is her indirect way of telling me that those ‘negligible’ amounts of food I’ve eaten or the shelf I’ve commandeered are not such trivial matters.

I’m bothered by her suggestion that I become more independent, because it sounds like she wants me to leave. But I don’t think that was her intention. She is a smart woman, a business woman. She knows that Nortes value independence and she knows I like to cook, so she used those items as her buzz words in her sales pitch… Also my three required months of living with a family are complete and evidently so is my semi-free ride. Her generosity has run its course, she has gotten me through the rule book. Now she wants rent money.

Perhaps I’ve not wowed her with my three months of community observation, as recommended by the PC, while I’ve stayed with them. The course of her life was changed by a PC volunteer and maybe she is disappointed I haven’t brought that same personal revolution with me for her daughter.

My plan is to accept her proposal beginning in January, assuming the David is out of the room by then. This also assumes utilities are included and I still get to use their refrigerator. Carly is leaving me hers when she leaves, so it would be absurd for me to get one of my own to use only for three months. If something about my refrigerator habits is annoying her…well it’s only for three more months.

Being moved into the renter position makes me feel less like family, so I don’t know if I want to spend Christmas or New Years with them. It also makes me even more eager to get out of the house before Carly leaves in April. If all goes according to my new plan, I’ll move in with Carly after her boyfriend Stephen leaves with Luna for the US in mid March.

Anyway, that’s me after 6 months. I’ve been trying to keep up with the news as best I can. I get CNN updates headline updates sent to one of my email accounts. Though since I read the most recent emails first my reactions to

CNN: ‘Fort Hood shooter apprehended’
Me: Wait! There was a shooting a Fort Hood?!

So I’m curious, what do you all think are the most important events I may have missed out on, things that in about 2 years will still be good to know?

And no, not that Kanye West stole Taylor Swift’s spotlight and Beyonce came to the rescue and then Obama broke the cardinal rule of being famous in the technology age thinking anything he says if off of the record or the overly aggressive female soccer player who is lucky she didn’t get charged with assault. Though I am curious about what songs are being most overplayed on the radio there.

Thank you for your assistance in reducing my culture shock upon reentry :)

Please post below.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


A butterfly that has decided to live in my bathroom. Scared the daylights out of me the first time. I thought it was a bat.

Lila´s current cage, as opposed to the lego inspired set up before made from my luggage.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Our Lady of the Holy Bug Repellant

Every year around December 8th, thousands of Paraguayans make a pilgrimage to Caacupe.
Paraguay is a predominantly catholic nation; by law their president must be catholic. Their current president was a bishop.

As such Paraguayans also have the prerequisite affection for the Virgin Mary, which yields may local variations. You may have heard about the Virgin of Guadalupe, which is the normal Virgin Mary celebrated due to her appearance to a man in Mexico.

In following with this tradition, Caacupe has its own Virgin of Caacupe. Go here if you´d like to read about the specifics.

Now the truth is that most Paraguayans can’t really tell you much of this back story. They do the pilgrimage out of respect for tradition. Some don’t even stay around for mass. They walk to the city, arrive, and then head bus. No, you don’t get bonus points in Heaven for walking back to your house.

However I have renamed the Virgin of Caacupe as Our Lady of the Holy Bug Repellant; during the pilgrimage I didn’t get bitten once. I know, me, the personal buffet of millions of little blood suckers developed some mystical shield for one night. It was beautiful. That’s the story book ending, now back to the beginning.

You have to do the Caacupe pilgrimage at some point; it is an unofficial requirement of Paraguayan citizenship and interestingly Peace Corps volunteer service as well. If you did the walk when you were twelve, you’ve fulfilled your duties and don’t have to walk again. However there are some families that make an annual journey out of it. The purists start walking from wherever they live in the country. Initially, after being inspired by Jim Carey’s Yes Men, I said yes to the 13 hour trip with some local purists who annually made the trip from their house. I’m happy to say that trip fell through. What can I say, I am not a purist, just a visitor. I’m too out of shape to go on 13-hour whims.

So my Peace Corps buddies and I all met together at a nearby city Ypacarai, 20k/12mi outside of Caacupe. Actually 3 of us had to go through Caacupe in order to get to Ypacarai in the first place, which felt a little silly, since we’d actually be backtracking on our pilgrimage. Anyway, we were told this would take us about 5 hours. We took 3.5!

Well at least half of us did. We initially started with about 10 people, but the group split between the group clearly descendents from the grandmas who power-walk around the mall [that’s the fast group for any of you who haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing this suburban phenomenon] and the tranquilopa group who actually took the walk at a semi normal pace. I was in the first group, and for the record my grammy doesn’t walk around the mall, but she probably gets more exercise than I do at this point from her lengthy daily walks through neighborhoods.

We stopped for dinner at El Cucuruchu. I’m not sure about the spelling, but it sounds like the word for cockroach, la cucaracha. In spite of the possible name confusion, they have really good food. I bought a muffin to save for breakfast. After this quick rest, the power-walking decedents made our abuelitas proud by hauling it to try and make it to the midnight mass. Actually we got to the main plaza around 10:30pm, plenty of time to spare.

After staking out a spot on the plaza with a good view of the jumbotron screen set up in the back of the church, we sat for a bit, Angelique and I played a seemingly generous game of ‘No, seriously you take the trail mix’ aka ‘If you don’t get that bag away from me I’m going to eat the whole thing, so pleeeease take it’. Ugg, where are Nam or Rujie when I need them to keep me from getting more bootylicious off of peanuts, raisins, and chocolate pieces.

Anyway, Angelique, Melissa, and Angelique’s 2 Paraguayan friends when to look for t-shirts and to see if they could find Angelique’s family that she stayed with during training. Elmer and I diligently guarded the groups valuables and spot on the plaza…aka we fell asleep. Our lullaby was Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth playing in English with Spanish subtitles at a nearby kiosk against trash, for recycling. I do wonder where that group was when we walked for 20 trash lined kilometers without seeing more than 1 or 2 trashcans.

I wasn’t actually able to sleep on the ground. Melissa had the foresight to bring a blanket, but that only softened the ground a little bit. Besides, I was too distracted by how surreal the experience was.

First, was able to get a seat on the way down to Caacupe, which is amazing in and of itself. The week of Caacupe until about Easter are the busiest bus times for Paraguay, unfortunately they are also the hottest. Carly was kind enough to recount last year’s stories of standing the entire 4-hour bus ride to Asuncion in sardine-esque conditions. Unexpectedly my bus to Caacupe decided to go no farther than that, which really upset the people who had paid to go all of the way to Asuncion. Fortunately I was able to catch a local bus to meet up with my posse in Ypacarai. While I waited for my party to arrive I watched large thunderheads pass overhead, but didn’t get more than a drizzle of rain which cleared up by the time we started walking. The rest of the evening/night had perfect weather, just cool enough to make our pace enjoyable, though I did wish for a light sweater once we settled down in the plaza. This is a very different experience from the boiling hot temperatures experienced by the volunteers who walked last year. The sky was clear and I was able to see the stars when the trees over the highway weren’t too thick. Everyone was in good spirits selling chipa, all using the same recorded voice ‘Chipa, Chipa, Rrrrrrica Chipa!!!’, snacks, drinks, etc. There were also plenty of people giving out free drinks, though I had brought along one of my Camel backs, which I conveniently realized fits perfectly into the pouch inside of my day-pack that is too shallow, and strangely shaped, to fit anything else. There were the standard religious trinkets, kitschy knick-knacks, t-shirts, sunglasses, hats, one kid trying to sell me a candle for 1mil, when everyone else was selling them for 500, then dropping the price to 2 for 1 mil… which is still just 500 per candle. There were some very entrepreneurial people setting up bathrooms on the side of the road… not port-a-potties mind you. They dug holes in the ground and then build a wooden frame surrounded with black tarps/trashbags for privacy. People who had actual bathrooms in their homes or businesses along the ruta rented them out for about 1 mil, some people even offered their showers. Many of the Paraguayans were wearing flip flops. We were amazed at how quickly some of the Paraguayans were walking, considering that one guy I know from my site was in serious pain after casually walking about 2 blocks with Carly and me when we took Luna out that evening. No one walks here unless they have to, they will use their moto to make even 1-2 block trips. So to see so many people out and about, sans motos, was astounding. Melissa commented that they should have something like this once a month, to help encourage people to be more physically active.

Then we got to Caacupe and headed for the plaza, which was pilgrim central. People sold mats and card board boxes to help soften the ground, people were curled up everywhere in small groups, home of the temporarily homeless.

I listened to Al Gore drone on for a while, waited with Elmer for our laggard group to catch up [they never did and ended up sleeping for a while at someone’s house, one of their friends, and catching the 6am mass], watch the policemen make their rounds, occasionally escorting people away, most people seemed to be in pretty good shape, though I did see one boy fall onto a mother who was rocking her child. His friends picked him up, woke him up and, calmly walked him away.

I guess that was the most remarkable thing…how calm everything was. Perhaps it was because it was the middle of the night and most people were tired from their several hour walk. But it was just amazing to see so many people, in such a small space making so little noise, so little movement, no rush, maybe taking a nap or just sitting talking quietly. Some catholic missionaries were out an about trying to convert people. One came over to Elmer and I starting with a completely inappropriate line of ‘I’m going to tell you something you’ve never heard before…standard Jesus love, sin, and forgiveness pitch. I’ll give the guy credit, he had a very nice and soothing voice, perfect for converting tired people on a plaza, if I would have been 5 years old, I would have asked him to read me a bed-time story to help me fall asleep. But come one honey, Christianity is the most popular religion in this have of half of the globe, hands down with no close seconds. And we’re in a country where Catholicism is state-sponsored. So started with the ‘I have something to tell you that you’ve never heard before…’ pitch is probably not the most accurate starting point. I also don’t understand why you think that spending time trying to convert people making a Catholic pilgrimage to Catholicism, since most people are Catholics already.

Actually another interesting occurrence in my site specifically is the presence of Jehovah’s Witnesses from Germany who have been sent specifically to try and convert the German speaking Mennonites…Except they are already Christians. Alas, I will never truly understand the whole Christian vs Christian conversion. Aren’t they all batting for the same team in the end?

Other than the interruption by my little soul saver, no one bothered us or made much of a fuss. As the plaza got more and more crowded people started tripping over my leg which I had extended into what became an informal walkway, I chose not to move it because it was the only way it could rest my leg with my knee in a comfortable position…and my leg was there before the walkway.

Our souvenir hunters got caught on the opposite side of the church when the midnight mass began and the crowd suddenly solidified. I caught bits and pieces of the mass on the jumbotron screen on the back of the church that I was facing. It seemed like someone was inserting little musical intermissions whenever the priests weren’t talking.

After mass, Angelique, Melissa, and the Paraguayans made it back, with their t-shirts. We decided to find buses to take us home and ended up finding another group of volunteer who had just arrived and were going to stay around until the 6am mass. They had more men with them and as such were quite happy to take the rest of my trailmix off of my hands.

We chatted, spotted a bus to take us to Angelique and Melissa’s site, and jumped on. To our amazement, the bus was almost empty. After picking up a few more passengers, we started to leave Caacupe. Then the bus decided to do a 23 point turn, mas o menos, on a small 2 lane, city street, go the opposite direction back into Caacupe, and procided to drive around for about an hour picking up additional passengers until the bus was stuffed. Finally we headed to Coronel Oviedo, arriving around 5:30am.

I caught a few winks of sleep at Melissa’s house then woke up with an allergy induced cough around 7:10am. Realizing that I wasn’t going to get rid of my cough anytime soon, which would needlessly keep both of us up if I stayed at Melissa’s house, I decided to head home. I walked 2k/1.2mi to the bus terminal and bought a ticket home.

I had my first real encounter with a terminal attendant who seemed like he might be in the mood to justify his hiked up ticket price. Silly man, he should know better than to fight testy tired people during Caacupe week, even if I look like a tourist. I gave him 15mil, while he was writing 20 on the ticket, he told me in a very innocent tone of voice that the cost of the ticket was 20mil and acted like he was going to start justifying the price, when I gave him a quick lesson in basic algebrat:

‘No. It is 15 mil to Campo 9. It costs 30 mil from Campo 9 to Asunción and its 15 mil from here [Coronel Oviedo] to Asunción.’

Now I didn’t actually know what the usual price was to C9 was, but I was too tired to care if 15 wasn’t the standard rate. It was fair according to the above calculation and I was not going to pay ningún Guarani más damit!

He gave me my ticket 15 mil ticket without another word and pointed me to a bench where I could sit and wait for the bus.

A while later I got on my bus, and had one last final joy of completely freaking out the lady in the seat next to me by drinking water out of my camelback hose, which was poking out of a hole in my backpack designed specifically for that purpose, thus concealing the water itself. I always feel a bit like a reverse scuba diver when drinking from the mouthpiece.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Red Water

They are working on the wells again. No water at all until about 11am. After that it turned on and off and alternated from almost clear to this red mess.

It is red because that is what color the dirt is, so it isn’t toxic; I could strain the sediment out it I wanted. Or I can just wait until they stop fiddling around with the pumps and the clear water starts flowing again.

Friday, December 4, 2009

RIP Eeyora

Nati’s white rabbit, the one Carly and I nicknamed Eeyora, the one I bought her in place of Lila, just died. Big surprise.

Marcia said she thinks the male rabbit did something to her. Oh I don’t know if I mentioned him before. Nati threw a fit a few weeks when the cat disappeared for about 2 hours, so her parents immediately bought her a new rabbit. He is full grown, brown, quite handsome actually.

Naturally they are going to get her a new one, because according to them, she ‘loved it so much’. Loved it so much she gave it all of the foods I told her time and time again were not good for her, often didn’t have water in the cage, kept her in a cage with the cat [which is too small for one animal, let alone the three they’ve been keeping in there], never cleaned up after her… Oh goodness, do not get me started again.

Nati is at her grandmother’s house and doesn’t know yet that the bunny is dead. I wonder if they are just going to try and buy her a new white rabbit and not even tell her the old one died. I doubt she would notice.

At least Marcia found a new cleaning woman, who now is the one taking care of the pets and cleaning up after the pets.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Home Sweet Home

We finally did it! We finally found a new house for Carly!

After two months of telling everyone I knew that I was looking for a house to rent and getting no-where, Carly and I started pounding the pavement, going up and down the city blocks looking for ‘For Rent’ signs, ‘For Sale’ signs, or houses that generally looked abandoned, and popping into stores or talking to people outside of the houses every few blocks to see if they knew of any available areas. In the entire city we found:
• 1 house that had a ‘For Rent’ sign but that was too expensive
• 1 house very cheaply priced but nowhere near the urban areas where Carly and I work, it also didn’t have a bathroom
• 1 apartment that was beautiful, but the landlady never got back to me with a price, it was also a little ways outside of the central area, which wouldn’t have been a problem if the area in between was a little safer to walk through at night
• 1 house not in the central area that was priced way to high considering its location and it didn’t have a modern bathroom.
• 1 wooden house that we was rented out from under us. It had a modern bathroom, 2 rooms, a living room, and an area in the back with a sink to do laundry. It was perfect, had a really nice sized yard that I had hopes of turning into a vegetable garden. It was located on a main street, Carly was good friends with the people who lived across the street, and the landlord lived just a few more houses down, and there was one of the city’s best ice cream places and pizza parlors just a few blocks away. We actually found the house while taking a break from the heat to enjoy some ice cream and asked the owner if she knew of anything that was available. I was a little worried about the house being made of wood, because all of the other houses in the street were made of bricks. Naturally a wooden house is easier to break into, though it did have a wrought-iron door in front of the normal door, which would at least make it look more imposing. Also another volunteer in my area had his wooden house broken into; they just tore off the tin slabs his roof, which is was this house’s roof was made of. Also, wooden houses have more bugs. However Carly didn’t seem worried about that and also assured me that wood houses are very nice and cool in the summer, which was our main complaint about her current home aka the tatakua[oven]. Unfortunately when we came back, less than a week later, to have sign the rental contract, the landlord told us that actually they house was technically rented to someone else, but he just hadn’t seen them in a while. I think he just found someone else.

So we went back out on the streets, block by block. Finally we walked into a little corner store selling small gifts, house decorations, crafty stuff and nick-knacks. A very friendly woman inside informed us that she did indeed know of an available house, hers, which was right next door. Actually her house was shaped like and ‘L’. They were renting out the ‘_’ part and living in the ‘I’ part. The available area consisted of 2 rooms, a modern bathroom, a large garage area, and a yard separated from the main house’s. The price was right, the location was perfect [2 blocks from where Carly currently lived], the family seemed nice, they had their own business, so they would be less likely to try and bleed Carly dry.

Determined not to have another house slip out from under us we went back the next day, showed her the standard rental contract that PC used, which she approved. Carly was going to bug bomb the house herself, but the new landlady offered to do it before she moved in for free.

A few days after that, Carly arranged a move-in date, and by November 26th she was all settled in. I felt really bad that I couldn’t help her move, but I had a required 3-month check-in[Reconnect] with the Peace Corps, so I was gone the entire week that she packed up and moved. She was also babysitting Lila for me, so she had to cart her between the old and new home. Actually I heard that our friend Richard transported her in a box on his moto, which she was not too happy about.

Anyway, I’ve promised her an apple pie from Grammy’s recipe when she gets back from helping her boyfriend, Stephen, clean his house in preparation for his parents visit. The Granny Smiths have been very tasty lately.

I did get to see her all settled in when I picked up Lila on Monday. She has everything set up quite nicely and was working on a few repairs with Stephen.

Why the New House is Awesome
Fair Price: 300 mil, not a bargain, but a good price
Temperature: The new house has good shade and faces east, which I am convinced is better than west facing houses [like my room and Carly’s old house]. The house has good cross ventilation through the windows. Also the two rooms are not too large, which will make it easier to heat them in the winter.
Space: 1 bedroom, 1 kitchen, 1garage/living room instead of the matchbox I currently live in or the 1 large room that Carly was in before. Actually I think her new garage is the same size as her old house. Yard: The house also has a small yard, so Luna now has a place to run around instead of being tie to a tree all of the time. It should also be enough room for me to make a small garden.
Floor: The floor is rough unfinished concrete like Carly’s old house, which sucks, but the rooms and bathroom are both tiled, so they will be really easy to keep clean.
Location: 4 blocks from the Muni, within 5 blocks of the city’s main three schools where Carly works, 4 blocks from the city’s smallest super market.
Rent substitution: The landlady will allow us to make improvements to the house in lieu of rent. So we could tile all or part of the garage, have someone put in finished cement, etc.
Non-Miserable-Landlady: The new landlady has a little store so Carly will not be her sole source of income. Carly’s miserable former landlady didn’t have any other notable source of income, so she robbed Carly blind at every change. Carly is too nice and paid whatever the landwench asked, even when she knew it wasn’t fair, instead of telling her to bugger off. Actually, since this is an indirect, non-confrontation culture, I’ve found that looking someone directly in the eye and telling them ‘No’ or correcting them in a confident manner is extremely effective. The bus people always quote me the Norte price but have yet to fight me when I simply hand them the correct fare.

Fun Side Note: Ironically, while we were knee deep in our house hunt the landwench told Carly at the Beginning of November that her daughter was coming back from working in Spain or Argentina, perhaps as early as December and so she would need the house back. At first we were disappointed because we were afraid we had missed out of that gotcha biatch moment where Carly tells Miserable-excuse-for-a-landlady that she is leaving..See ya wouldn’t wanna be ya. Kind of like when you are about to break up with someone but they beat you too it. The final result is the same, but for some reason it just doesn’t have the same feeling of triumph. Fortunately Sra. Miserable… disappeared for most of the month of November and never mentioned her daughters potential return to Carly. So Carly did get her moment of victory, indirectly since she had out buddy Richard tell Sra. Miserable that Carly was moving…as she was physically taking her things over to the new house. At little last minute but whatever, technically she did as Carly to move. Sra. Miserable little leech tried once more to claw more money out of Carly, telling her via Richard that everything was fine as long as she paid her November’s rent that she owed… One problem… Carly pays her rent at the beginning of each month, so she already paid November’s rent. Carly said she would pay the rent, which she doesn’t actually intend to do. She plans on avoiding the leech for the next 5 months.

Not so great points:
• There is a small soccer field caddy corner to the house, which does get a little noisy some nights.
• There seem to be more mosquitoes at this house than her last one. Hopefully living there for a while will disturb their breeding sites enough that their numbers will go down.
• The room Carly has made into a kitchen wasn’t originally intended for that purpose, so there isn’t a sink or counters. However, I might try to add those things and substitute them for rent if there are water connections.

And in summary, after two months we found a grand total of 2, yes 2 houses, that Carly could move into. Did I mention there are about 20-30,000 people in my community? Let’s just say the housing market is a little tough here. Which is why I’m toughing it out with a host family until Carly’s service ends.

I’m just jumping out of my sock in anticipation of living at Carly’s house temporarily for three weeks when Carly goes on vacation and permanently at the end of April when Carly moves back to the states.