Wednesday, August 20, 2008
“I like to think of the Bengals as a bowl of Cincinnati chili and Chad Johnson as the hot sauce. The chili is good in its own right, but when you add that hot sauce, it’s soooo much better.”
-Sports Illustrated (2005, I believe)
A married couple volunteering in some sector somewhere in Paraguay posted that quote on their mailbox in the Peace Corps office and I couldn’t help but post it because it made me think of my peeps back in the Nati or with roots in the Nati. Shout out!
Today was a shopping day in Asunción. I went with my host señora and her daughter Rosanna. Luckily Rosanna has a car, so we left town at about 6:35 and dropped off Rosanna´s husband off at his work. Next we went to the Peace Corps office so I could get my gigantic red suitcase, sleeping bag and backpack out of long-term storage. I now have my Reds hat to shield me from the sun, although it doesn’t match a lot of my clothes. Besides, wearing a lot of red within a municipality can give people the idea that you are affiliated with the Colorado political party. The presidents of Paraguay were Colorado for 61 years until the most recent election on April 20th of this year electing Fernando Lugo of the Liberal Party. Lugo was previously a Catholic archbishop and rumor has it that the Catholic Church was not so happy about his leaving behind his clerical profession to take up Paraguayan politics. He seems to be good so far, and there is a lot of hope that he will lead Paraguay down a better path. I see tidbits on the news in the morning and at night.
I visited another school today on the edge of town. There are about six classrooms. One or two of 9:30 am and again at 2:30 pm. I am going to get some huge sheets of paper (think Win Lose or Draw) and some colored markers, hopefully from my contact at another one of the schools in town. If I can’t get the paper I’ll have to go to Asunción tomorrow to bring it from the Peace Corps Office. In other words I’ll have to spend the majority of the day traveling to and from Asunción because the bus takes way longer than it should. It would only take about a half hour to travel the distance from Asunción to my site if I were in the United States. Here in Paraguay we compete with horse drawn carts, mopeds passing on your right and left simultaneously and riding on the dotted line, vehicles running red lights and/or sitting in the middle of oncoming traffic.
A ride on a Paraguayan is so exciting that I’m shocked that I haven’t mentioned it here yet. First off, they are all private companies originating in whatever the bus’s destination town is. For example, Guarambaré has its own bus. Each bus is painted different colors, and a lot of them have Jesus stickers on the windshield and back window. The drivers take your money, give you your receipt, give change, drink terere or talk on their cell phones while they are driving. Somehow, I haven’t seen any buses wreck yet! There are hardly any official bus stops, so the bus stops what feels like ever three minutes to pick up someone or drop them off. The twist on the Paraguayan bus system is that many bus companies have a deal with the municipality in which they reside to be the only bus company in town. No other bus companies are allowed to transport people to or from Nueva Italia, for example, even though the few buses that do run are perpetually packed. So much so that they are called salchicha (sausage) factories. I don’t know how most of the buses are still running because they are old enough to be antiques. All of them run on diesel, producing a lovely smog cloud above the city. Most other vehicles use diesel as well, so that smell is always lingering in the air in the center of the capital.
September 17, 2008
I just changed my desktop wallpaper to a photo of Jack when I went to visit Amy’s in Cleveland last winter with snow all over the ground. He is in his yellow jacket, with a big smile on his face and a bit of drool dripping down his chin. It makes me miss him, especially because I know that he has already changed so much since then! One 14-year-old boy who works in the muni in the mornings asked me if one could touch the snow after I showed him a photo of Dad shoveling the snow. It is strange to think that most people here in Paraguay have never seen, much less touched, snow.
Sept. 22, 2008
Yesterday was the first day of spring here. For the first time in 23 years, September means spring and not fall. The weather here has been in the 60s and 70s the past two days because it just rained. The weather cycle begins with really hot weather, then comes a day or two of rain, and after the rain it’s usually pretty cold. That has been the trend for the winter in Paraguay, the only season I have seen a good deal of so far.
Today I went to a seminar in Asuncion with two of my co-workers from the municipality regarding municipal budgets. It was sponsored by OPACI, the Paraguayan Intermunicipal Organization. There were about 300 people in attendance: civil servants, city council members and mayors. Information such as organizing an office so that employees self-evaluate themselves and/or that there is an independent assessor of performance is not as common sense here as it is in the United States. Therefore the first part of the morning was dedicated to discussing how to organize the institution of the municipality so that it functions like a well-oiled machine: creating a mission statement, setting goals/objectives, then making plans and assigning certain people to certain tasks.
What makes the Paraguayan situation different is that after the end of the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner and the subsequent creation of a new constitution in 1992, a large chunk of power was transferred to the municipalities. Since they had never had such power, they did not know how to organize themselves to administer to the needs of the people. Change is slow anywhere, therefore municipalities are still learning how to govern and function. Some phrases I heard today at the seminar are, “Make sure you have enough money in the bank before writing a check,” and “Civil servants should be in a position that is necessary. They should be useful.” Both statements seem to be no-brainers, and I would be embarrassed to have to be told such a thing, but for some municipalities, it’s not a no-brainer! The reasons for this, aside from that already mentioned, are complex. For example, according to two of my friends in the muni, they did not have to undergo any official interviewing or application process before obtaining their current position. Rather, because of their political party or family relation, they are in their current positions. This does not always turn out bad, because the people hired, or rather appointed, in this way do a good job in most cases. However, it’s the principle of the thing: there seems to be no competitive process for civil servant positions.
The muni’s public audience should have taken place this past Saturday, but it was suspended due to the rain. We wanted as many people as possible to attend, but since most roads were muddy streams, a lot of people couldn’t travel. The weather and road conditions is one challenge we face as volunteers in Paraguay.
So far I am very happy here and I know that I made the right decision to come here. Of course I have my doubts occasionally. Just this past weekend I was thinking, “What am I going to do once Peace Corps is over? No doubt I’m going to have to uproot my life all over again and start over again, as I have done way too many times I feel.” When I was trying to decide if I was going to teach English in Spain or if I was going to do Jesuit Volunteer Corps, I sought the advice of Father Howard Gray, a Jesuit who taught my Catholic Studies Seminar at John Carroll. He told me that the right decision would leave you with a feeling of underlying peace in spite of doubts and apprehension. That was how I felt when I decided to do Peace Corps. I had so many doubts and so much interior resistance to uproot myself again after I had started a routine in Ohio, but looking down the road I knew that if I hadn’t accepted the invitation to Paraguay, I would have regretted it.
Sitting with my neighbor and his two friends around the corner drinking terere today, I said out loud, “Que extraño,¡estoy in Paraguay! Ja ja.” Life here can feel so normal that I often forget I’m in the middle of South America and that about one year ago I initiated the roller-coaster Peace Corps application process. It was worth it, in the end! Let’s hope I’m still saying the same thing 23 months from now! The time is going to fly…