Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Goodbye, Paraguay

I am sitting in a hostel in Asunción, drinking beers with a few of my friends, and in complete disbelief that I just said goodbye to my community and in 2 days I will be back in the States. I have found that for me, saying goodbye is often easier when written in a poem (and performed as a rap – obviously). I did it for the Top Shelf when leaving the dorms freshman year of college, for Illini Water Polo my senior year, and for the volunteers in my training community at the end of training. I never write artistically outside of goodbyes, so I’m not sure what that means…. But when trying to figure out how to write my last blog post from Paraguay, my mind went yet again to prose. Here is my goodbye to Paraguay, my amazing community of San Pedro, and the incredible people I met along the way. The other poems were easier. This one was nearly impossible, and doesn’t do it justice. I mention only a fraction of the people who touched my life over the past 27 months. But I hope this will help you all understand just a little bit about how much this experience has meant to me.

I remember that feeling I felt on the plane
Knowing that once I landed nothing would ever be the same
27 months I dedicated myself to live
In a distant country with so much to give

27 seemed to be my lucky number
Because that same day I met 27 others
They became my family, the ones I depended on
G38 - what we have created is an incredible bond

The first 10 weeks were spent in a bubble
Language and culture training, giving us time to stumble
But at the end it was time for us to go our own ways
And in San Pedro, Misiones I was to spend the rest of my days

My first host family was the craziest of all
With 10 people in and out, time never stalled
I then lived with 4 families more
Each one after the next opened their door

The generosity didn’t stop when I moved on my own
And I came to realize that the people here were home grown
They didn’t have gadgets and gizmos to share
But they knew that a smile would show that they cared

The sunsets were the most beautiful I’ve seen
While the grass and the trees were the greenest of green
The campo landscape of wide open spaces
Who knew this country had such beautiful places

I grew to love my hammock and the tranquilopa style
Drinking tereré with families for quite awhile
Making chipa and enjoying all their amazing traditions
And getting myself into some awkward situations

Attempting to speak Guaraní at family parties
Dancing with drunk uncles, and creating stories
Playing pool in the evenings with some of my friends
Or coloring parties at my house that seemed like they’d never end

I was invited to birthdays and asados galore
All of which left me smiling deep down in my core
The people of Paraguay showed me what it means to be
Kind and generous and loving endlessly

My ‘job’ was just a small part of my story
Summer camps, charlas, and trying not to be boring
I like to think I made a tiny little dent
But what meant the most were times with families spent

Esperanza and Fatima were my go-to gals
With undying support, they became my best pals
Sixta was my second mom and always had my back
I knew I could go to her when I needed a good laugh

Auxi and Erika participated in everything I did
My absolute best students, some amazing kids
And Silvia, she was my partner in crime
Going on crazy adventures with me at the drop of a dime

Thiago gave the best high-fives around
While Jesica was the cutest 5 year old I found
Dulci was asking questions, ever curious
And when I wouldn’t let Dana color she would get all furious

Then there was Nancy who taught me how to cook
And her son, Angel, who could kill me with his looks
Ana Liz and Alfonsina were quiet and kind
While Nelson, Hector and Rodrigo were pranksters all the time

And who can forget my pup, la loquita Negri
Proving that 3rd time’s the charm, happy as can be
And Matias, my Godson, perfect in every way you can
I can’t wait to watch him grow up into an incredible man

Those people are really just the beginning
If I were to list them all I would never stop writing
Each one of them made my service one-of-a-kind
Truly, the experience of a lifetime

While I don’t know when exactly I’ll visit again
Be it in 1 year, 5 years, or maybe 10
San Pedro has been my home from the start
This place and those people are forever in my heart
~~~~~~~~~

Here are some pictures from the going away party I had in my site last Saturday:

The Paraguayan band I hired to play
Dancing with Armin, my first host dad in site
Me and my favorites of San Pedro!
My neighbor volunteers and I with the band
My last  sunset in site! I'm going to miss the incredible beauty of my home.

What a ride it has been! In the words of Dr. Seuss, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened”. See you all soon!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Beautiful.

We are getting down to the wire here, folks. I have exactly one month left in site. And while the ticking clock is starting to weigh heavy on my heart, it also is allowing me to reflect back on my time here in Paraguay. The other day I went through all my pictures from start to finish. It was fun to see how much my favorite kids have grown, how my friendships have developed, and how lucky I have been to live in Paraguay as well as to travel South America. In honor of the (just under) 27 months I will spend in Paraguay, here are 27 of my favorite pictures.

Love me those campo roads
Drinking terere with mi amiga :)
The Tajy tree in front of my casita
Prepping the tatakua
A Peruvian woman excited to see her friends
Relaxing on the beach in Punta del Diablo, Uruguay
Coloring party!
Arturo practicing the proper brushing technique at summer camp
Campo sunsets are my absolute favorites
Fresh hot chipa!
My amazing pup, Negri!
Spring flowers :)
G38 at Mid-Service Training
Love.
Angel's smile kills me every time
The beautiful chaos of my local store
Mooooooooooo!
Teenagers sharing an important message about HIV
Chanchito <3 

Making eco-brick benches with some grade schoolers!
Afternoon spent watching soccer
These kiddos are the absolute best
Preschool students on the last day of class
Ushuaia, Argentina
Campo storm!
Summertime bliss
Riding on an ox cart!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Lessons Learned

I recently got back from my Close of Service (COS) conference. COS is a time where you reunite with the group of volunteers you came to Paraguay with. It is an opportunity to reflect on the past two years, see how much we have all grown, and start looking towards the future. From that conference, came this blog post.

Over the past 2 years, I have had more time on my hands to reflect on life then I ever imagined. I thought about EVERYTHING. What makes me happy, what I hate about the world, what really matters, what I want from my future, etc. People talk about the Peace Corps as a time of transformation for the volunteer, of finding out whom you really are. While I don’t know that all that much has changed about me, the things that I value most and are important have certainly become clearer. Here are some of my biggest realizations (in no particular order).

  • What is generosity? In the states, I understood generosity as receiving something. $50 bucks for my birthday, free Cubs tickets, free drinks, a new iPod -- how generous! And while this is still certainly true (and all free Cubs tickets still welcome!), I also learned a new definition of the word. Generosity is extending your hand to someone even when your hand is empty. The people of Paraguay showed me true generosity in the form of opening up their homes and their hearts to me when they had nothing to give but themselves. Many of the families I spent the most time with barely had enough money to pay their electric bill, but that never stopped them from taking the time to talk and drink tereré with me, cook with me, and show me their way of life. Their character and endless giving spirit even when times were tough is something I will always carry with me.

  • What is the value of a simple hello? Stateside, I don’t even remember the names of all my neighbors. During college, I never took the time to get to know people in the apartment next to me, and I was always too rushed at work to take the time to meet the people in other departments. Here, however, I learned the importance of saying hello. Of getting to know the people around you, since you will inevitably run into them at the local store or party. A Paraguayan woman could be cooking breakfast, milking a cow, and washing clothes ALL at the same time, but if I passed by her house she would always, without fail, flash a smile and say hello. At first I thought it was weird saying hello to everyone I passed on the street, but in the end, I realized it was something that really made me comfortable in my site. No one was a stranger, and sometimes a simple hello turned into walking home with bags full fresh fruit or hot chipa and a great afternoon spent drinking tereré with friends. I’m not saying I’m going to come home and say hello to everyone I see at Starbucks and Walgreens, but I am certainly going to make a bigger effort to get to know the people I see most often.

  • What do I really need to make me happy? I remember when I was the last of my friends to have an iPhone. I thought the fact that I still had a flip phone while everyone else was playing angry birds under their desk was the end of the world! Now, I couldn’t care less. Do I like nice things? Of course! But those aren’t necessarily the most important things to have. I learned that a beautiful day spend outside can be the best medicine. That surrounding yourself with people who really care about you (and not fretting about those who don’t) is the best thing you can do for your self-esteem. I learned that there are friends and family I have both stateside and here in Paraguay that will stay in my life forever. It is more important to surround yourself with the things that can’t be replaced, than to stress over having the latest technology or nicest pair of jeans. Because it’s those things – a beautiful day, time with friends, holidays with family – that make me the happiest.
  • What is the importance of diversity – a lesson taught to me by my fellow PCVs. I came to Paraguay thinking I was totally open to everything. And while that remained mostly true, I realized how little I had actually been exposed to. I grew up in a wealthy suburb of Chicago. I went to a university where practically everyone I met was from Illinois. Sure, I met people who were different from me, but all of my closest friends back home are just like me. Then I came here, and met an incredible group of people. Some of my closest friends grew up in a different state, with a different socio-economic background, different ethnicities, different sexual orientations, etc. And while I learned that yes, I am an open person; I also have a lot to learn. And a lot of questions to ask. But I feel that I have learned so much from my friends here, and am so grateful for that. I now seek diversity, knowing that I become a better person when I surround myself with it.

  • And last but certainly not least - Who am I, and am I okay with that person? You have some serious time throughout the Peace Corps to evaluate every damn aspect of your life. When things were good I was incredibly happy, while when things were bad I would spend hours in my house analyzing the situation and making myself feel worse. But if I learned anything, it’s that I am who I am, and I do, in fact, like that person. Do I make mistakes? Yes. Do I swear too much?  Yes. Sometimes drink too much? Yes. But I also like to think that I am kind, I learn from my mistakes, and that I take the time to get to know different people and different cultures. I try not to judge a book by its cover, and I am curious about the world. Learning to accept my whole self has been an incredible gift from my time here in Paraguay.



And so, from all the lessons I have learned, maybe I will come out of this whole Peace Corps experience a slightly better person than the one I came in as. While sometimes all the time I had on my hands was a curse, at least it allowed me to reflect of life and discover what I truly value. 

G38 and the Community Health Staff at COS Conference

Monday, December 30, 2013

Goodbye, 2013

December for me was all about family time. As the weeks pass, I am spending less and less time alone in my house and more time with the people in my community I love. With just over 3 months left, I am doing my best to force myself out the door on those scorching hot days to visit with families. The effort has resulted in a few things:
  1. I have way more money all of sudden because of all the meals I am eating at other places. Helloooooo, post PC traveling!
  2. I have never felt more a part of my community. I have friends, best friends, and best of all – family here. I have felt it for a while, but this month really drilled home just how much I love the people who have been so incredibly generous to me here.
  3.  I consistently dream in Spanish – FINALLY!

Aside from the standard family visits, some other fun activities have been happening in site. In the first week of December, I went to my high school’s graduation, in which diplomas were given to those who passed 9th and 12th grade, as well as the top performer for each grade. That same day was also the graduation for the computer class in my community, in which the Mayor came to hand out the diplomas.
12th Graders post-graduation!
I have now been to my neighboring volunteers’ site twice to talk on her weekly radio show that she puts on with a Paraguayan/American that lives in San Juan. The first week I went we talked about Sexual Health with a focus on condom use, and the next time I talked about Christmas! The show is a lot of fun, and I am hoping to go at least once a month for the rest of my time here.
First time on the show
The unbearable heat is in full force, so my friends and I are always looking for ways to cool off. Last week, we headed to the local arroyo (stream) during the siesta! It was full of people looking for the same relief we were, and we spent the afternoon splashing and keeping cool.

When I went home to the states, I received a package full of toys from the previous volunteers in my site. I decided the best way to distribute was to simply put a sign at my local almacen (store) letting kids know they could pass by my house the morning of the 23rd for a little Christmas present! Over 30 kids stopped by that morning for gifts! They were all amazed at the crazy toys we Americans have (things that made fart noises were definitely the favorite. And a surprise to me, play-doh was not so popular).
Feliz Navidad!

Christmas in Paraguay was spent with my two closest families in site. Christmas Eve is actually the more important night, and I spent that with Sixta and her family. I enjoyed an afternoon of tereré, dinner of chicken and pasta, and when the clock struck midnight we all hugged and kissed and wished each other a Merry Christmas. Then Christmas day I hung with my neighbors for more or less the same thing. For a moment I was a little disappointed, as Christmas here is spent the same as all the major holidays (hanging with family and eating meat). Then it dawned on me – OH! This is how holidays are without all the commercialism of the States and Hallmark! Paraguay has definitely helped me realize that it’s not the tangible things you have in your life that matter, but the irreplaceable. At the core of every special occasion in Paraguay, you can find the people appreciating all the family and friends they are surrounded by and are thankful that they are healthy and happy.
Sixta's beautiful family :)
FELIZ NAVIDADDDDDDDD!
prepping the tatakua for some Christmas day sopa Paraguaya
roadtrippin' with Fatima and my amazing Godson, Matias
So what’s coming up next month? I will be spending New Year’s Eve in site! I will eat dinner with a family I didn't visit for Christmas, then head to the local town party where we will welcome the New Year with a night of dancing until the sun rises. On the 2nd, I am off to visit one of my best friends in her site for a couple days. Mid-January I will be having my second week-long summer camp! Last year’s theme was health, so this year I decided to go with art & environment. Then at the end of January I will be attending my Close of Service conference with the rest of G38. It’s pretty crazy how quickly my end date in Paraguay is approaching!!


Wishing you all a wonderful New Year! See you in 2014 :)

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Summer in Paraguay Rant

This blog post has been inspired by the insane heat that has officially taken over Paraguay. It is unbearable. I wake up at 6am sweating. I take a cold shower to cool off, but am sweating by the time my clothes are on. I visit a family. We drink tereré while complaining about how hot it is. Between the hours of 11-5 you can find me trying to stay cool. I shower again. Then maybe my feet are in a bucket of cold water. Maybe I have a cold and wet headband on my head. Maybe I am drinking more ice cold tereré. Maybe I am in my hammock, outside, with a fan plugged in via several extension cords to give me a breeze. Maybe I am doing all of the above at the same time and STILL sweating. It never stops. The sun sets around 8 these days, and I am lucky if by then there is a slight breeze. I shower again. I sleep with my windows open, the fan on high. Sometimes, on the really hot days, I can’t even lay still in my bed without sweating. I am lucky if I get a couple of intermittent hours of shut eye. Then, I wake up in the morning at 6, and do it all over again.

In case you were wondering, I hate summer in Paraguay.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Trip to the States!

Well, I returned to Paraguay last Monday morning and it wasn’t until Thursday or Friday that I finally felt recovered. My first day back I slept for 14 hours at night, woke up for lunch, then went back to bed for 3 more hours. I was wiped out! And while my trip back to the states was short, jam packed, and a blur; it was also so much fun, filled with laughter, and completely refreshing.

To sum it up:
·        - I saw over 25 friends and 30+ family members (Two of which were new baby cousins who I had never met before! And are both adorable!)

·         - I hung out in Wilmette, Chicago, Denver, and Breckenridge

·         - I ate chipotle (twice), as much Starbucks as I could handle, Chinese food,  Portillo’s, Chicago style pizza, Thanksgiving dinner, delicious salads, and apple pie (yes, I am still full.)

·         - I went to target. Twice. (I had to go back because the first time I was too overwhelmed and couldn’t get everything on my list)

·         - I went sledding with family, danced and drank beers with friends and saw Catching Fire in theaters with my parents!

Everyone kept asking me if it was weird being back. And while yes, it was, I honestly was too busy to notice. The thing that caught me the most off guard was the taste of bananas. They taste sterile in the states, Paraguayan bananas are way better! Haha but in all seriousness – I did notice things here and there that stuck out to me, but since I was home for so little it didn’t bother me much. I have a feeling when I go back for good it will be a much bigger cultural adjustment.

Also, I felt like when people asked me what my life is like, they were expecting some incredible answer like I am delivering babies or finding the cure for some big disease down here. But the reality of my life is that I am simply living in Paraguay. 2 of the 3 Peace Corps goals are to share culture and interact and live in your community. And while I understand this, I felt like people expected concrete answers as to how I have changed the lives of the people in my community, and so the response in reality may have been a disappointment to some.

And in the theme of Thanksgiving (and since we never did go around the table and share what we are thankful for this year), I will share mine with you all! Going back to the states made me so incredibly thankful for all of you who have been there for me throughout the Peace Corps process. It was great to go home and realize that even after such a long time apart, I still have so many people who I love back in the states. Also, I am thankful for another 4 months in Paraguay! (can you believe that’s all that’s left?!) While the upcoming months are the sweatiest ones, summer in Paraguay gives me ample time to hang with my family and friends here before tackling whatever comes next in my life.

Night out with some Illini friends in the city!
Hanukkah party with the whole Zaideman fam! (we missed you Seth!)
Thanksgiving day sledding with some of the McWilliams crew!
My cousin and I made an awesome turkey veggie display! Tasted as good as it looks :)
First full family pic in 2+ years! 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Sleeping on Tiles

With every group of volunteers that come and go, the volunteer community in Paraguay publishes the Kuat (short for Kuatiañe’e, meaning 'paper that speaks'). I look forward to the Kuat every issue because its usually filled with great stories and advice from my fellow volunteers. In the most recent edition, I decided to submit a story myself. The theme this time around was 'Travel in Paraguay', and I figured my post may help those who sometimes get stuck in places they don't really want to be... 

Here is my article that was posted in the most recent Kuat -- hope you enjoy!

~~~~~

When evaluating my Peace Corps service thus far, there are a few areas that I feel I excel at. I plan a mean summer camp, work great with jovenes, can drink tereré for hours on end, and can sleep on just about any tile floor you place in front of me. It may come from my years of sleeping on shady motel floors during college travelling for water polo, or maybe it’s because I have a knack for missing busses, but either way I have found that practice makes perfect – and throughout my time in Paraguay, I have gotten plenty of practice.

I have decided to evaluate for you all a few of the floors I have slept on based on several different indicators. This way, if you find yourself in a similar situation while travelling around Paraguay, you will be well prepared!

Disclaimer: All ratings are based on experiences between the hours of 6pm and 6am.

Ciudad del Este Bus Terminal
Story: I was heading to Iguazu to meet up with my brother. I ended up leaving Asuncion a little later than planned, and got to the CDE terminal at 6:02pm. The last bus for Puerto Iguazu left at 6:00. After chasing it out of the parking lot and realizing my fate, I called Gustavo to get the OK and settled in for the night.
Cleanliness: Not bad! The NSA bus company has an air temperature controlled area with comfy chairs to lounge on.
Food: Plenty of options all night long. They even sell Ramen noodles in there!
Security: Surprisingly excellent! When you get kicked out of the NSA lounge at 2am, you move into the main terminal area. There is a police officer stationed in an office, so I slept just outside his door.
Chance of getting peed on by a homeless man: Más o menos…. There are some characters that are lurking, but the police officer helped steer clear any possible offenders.
Miscellaneous: Not gonna lie, I thought I was going to get shanked since I was in Ciudad del Este. But the night passed sin problemas!
Overall Rating: 4/5 Pillows!

Encarnacion Bus Terminal
Story: This happened to be on the same Iguazu trip; only coming back to site (I was on a roll). It was Paraguayan Labor Day, so fewer buses were running than usual. My bro and I got out of CDE fine, but then in Encarn we had some problems. The bus we planned on taking was broken and all the other busses weren’t running because of the holiday, so we didn’t get out of there until 6 hours after we arrived.
Cleanliness: Disgusting. I napped on a bench that very likely carried diseases.
Food: Not many options, just your average gum man. Thankfully, though, you are in the middle of Encarn!
Security: Nada.
Chance of getting peed on by a homeless man: Extremely high. And if you aren’t going to get peed on, you are likely sitting where someone previously peed.
Miscellaneous: Yeaaaaaa that terminal was gross. There are volunteers in Encarn – use them!
Overall Rating: 1/5 Pillows

Asuncion Airport Terminal
Story: I had a flight leaving for Santiago, Chile at 2am. Unfortunately, due to extreme fog in Buenos Aires, I was stuck in the airport until about 6am.
Cleanliness: Not bad. If you get there early enough, you may be able to snag the row of chairs without arm rests in the middle to keep yourself off the floor.
Food: Café is open all night long with plenty of options to munch on.
Security: Plenty, I felt pretty safe.
Chance of getting peed on by a homeless man: Very low as long as you are sleeping inside!
Miscellaneous: Wifi at the café! Really not a bad place to crash. I would likely even do it again to avoid paying for a hostel. Che sogue (I'm broke)… 
Overall Rating: 5/5 Pillows

I (fortunately) have not had the opportunity to sleep on the floor of the Asuncion bus terminal. I will be sure to update you all if that changes, however! (I also have slept on several international tiles, and am happy to answer any inquiries regarding the Buenos Aires airport, Santiago airport, and London Stansted Airport)

Happy napping!

~~~~~~~~~

A post about my insane trip home is coming soon! Just waiting on a couple pictures from my lovely mother (and I'm hoping calling her out in public will help speed up the process).