Wednesday, June 18, 2008


Samantha Cooper-Morrison, PCT
Cuerpo de Paz
162 Chaco Boreal c/ Mariscal Lopez
Asuncion 1580, Paraguay South America

Kickin It with the Homies in Asuncion and My Trip to Tacuati - 6.18.08

Tacuati 6.16.08 - So I am sitting here typing this entry on the laptop of my host volunteer, Mary, in the small town of Tacuati, which is about 8 hours from Asuncion.

By the way, I am kicking myself for not bringing my laptop with me because it is such a great thing to have (yes Kara, I now understand what your brother meant), not to mention the fact that several people in my group brought theirs with them and have used them to store photos, music, and pre-write blog entries so you don't use up all of your internet cafe time. One person's laptop burnt out, not sure what the details were about that though. So Mom, whoever comes down here first will definitely need to bring my laptop, external hard drive, and backup software cd's. But I digress, back to my story.

I arrived here Saturday afternoon around 2pm via teeny local bus. A large van with a center aisle, it left from Horqueta, the closest urban center (about 1.5 hours away via Peace Corps jeep). Nevertheless, the roads were bad from the previous night's rain so it took about 2.5 hours, which apparently isn't the longest trip seeing as how the bus only broke down briefly. Before I go into that, however, let me recount the hours leading up to my arrival here.

This past Thursday was a national holiday so we all had the day off, which I spent laying around, eating, napping, and studying. It was the perfect opportunity for me to make some Guarani verb conjugation cards that were SO NECESSARY - I feel like my language capabilities improved just from the execrcise. I was starting to get frustrated with the fact that all the Guarani was getting jumbled in my head and I couldn't quite get it organized. After making the cards, I can say that the fog is definitely starting to lift. Two weeks and some change - I swear it's been two months that I've been down So Friday during technical training class we went on a field trip to Pooja's host family's huge farm and her host dad gave us a tour of the expansive chacra (farm). It was rumored that there was a 3-legged cow in residence, but we were not able to confirm this as we only saw cows with four legs.

After class, since Eric and I were among the trainees (PCT's) that had to go into Asuncion to catch night buses to head out to our volunteers' sites, we were able to hitch a ride with some PC staff that had come into town. Chris, the Volunteer Coordinator, invited us to his apartment for dinner so we didn't have to hang out at the bus terminal. He also informed us that it was Italian Night at the crib he shared with several other PC affiliates and that we would also be expected to dress in costume along with everyone else. Eagerly anticipating dinner, we all set out for dinner along with another group member and PCV that was also going to crash at Chris' place. Oh, what the night had in store.

On the way in we stopped at this HUGE supermercado just outside of Asuncion to pick up some dinner items, as well as some little food gifts for our host volunteers. It was amazing - I hadn't been in a supermarket since I left the States!!! I couldn't believe it; how we celebrate the little things here. So the apartment was really nice, lots of space, and the roommates were really cool. They were all former PCV's that decided to stay in the country and were currently working in the capital with various groups. As they prepared dinner we all hung out and talked, enjoying the time away from our training sites. Just before dinner was ready everyone changed into our Italian/Godfather- themed attire - three ladies were dressed in knee-length skirts or dresses (Nayeli was kinda enough to lend me a dress that I ended up stretching a little, she was a good sport, one person was Sonny (James Caan's character), there were two dudes in wifebeaters with slicked-back hair (and in one person's case, drawn-on chesthair), the PCV was Al Pacino from Scarface (I will make it my Facebook pic as soon as I can - an heroically priceless photo) and last but not least, two suited-up mobsters. For those of you who have seen me throwdown at a table, this night was no exception - beef lasagna, risotto with squash and swiss chard, vegetarian stuffed peppers, eggplant and garlic bread. Y'all know that I massacred that food - both helpings. Laara and I changed our clothes and relaxed for a bit before catching a cab back to the Terminal in time for our 11:45pm bus. Luckily it was comfortable (or maybe I was just that tired) enough to sleep for all but 20 minutes of the 7-hour (yes, S-E-V-E-N) bus ride.

Laara and I arrived in Horqueta around 6:30am where we were met by her host volunteer, Rachel, who lived and worked in the town. My volunteer would have also met us there had the road not been washed out to Tacuati as a result of the previous night's rain. I spent a few hours in Horqueta eating pancakes and hanging out until Mary called to say that the 11:15am bus to Tacuati would in fact be leaving. We headed back to the center of town, I picked up some veggies for Mary, and we sat and chopped it up with another PCV that came to visit Rachel. The bus (aka EconoVan with center aisle) showed up around 11:40 and I was off.

The bus was my first trip alone along the back roads of Paraguay. Yes folks, this was truly a Peace Corps experience. After making several stops in Horqueta we stopped to have someone fill the tank from two 20-liter jugs in the back, which were put in some guy's car parked on the side of the road where we stopped. I understood why we stopped when we did, as the next 1.5-2 hours were spent driving at various lower-range speeds along a seemingly unending dirt road. Many houses had no electricity let alone running water, so the people were among the poorest of the poor. A number of super-skinny, dirt stained kids were also on the bus; by the way two of the girls were staring at me, I might have been the first black person they'd ever seen. After navigating myriad giant mud puddles and one brief breakdown, we arrived in Tacuati around 2pm.

My hostess Mary, who is from Tennessee, has been here for about a year and works with a savings and loan cooperative in the town. The coop isn't doing too well; in addition to the former secretary embezzling a significant amount of the coop's funds, historically the coop has not been good about debt and interest collection. Mary has made amazing progress in helping the coop recoup outstanding debts, as well as getting their books in order (how many coop members are there, who owes/is owed what, etc.). On Saturday night the three members of the coop's board of directors came by for dinner (eggplant lasagna), and one of them even brought fresh parsle and lettuce from his garden. They are nice people who are all eager to get things in order with the coop, so they have helped Mary out a lot.

Mary's house is a three-room shack with a huge backyard, big front porch, and most importantly, indoor plumbing. In addition she has a four-range stove and oven and a refrigerator, so definitely enough to make life easier. Sunday morning we ate scrambled eggs with polenta (closest thing to grits) and care package pepperoni sticks. It was great :-). We hung around for the morning and then took a walk to the river about a mile or so away, the Ypane (uhl-pah-NAY). There are some rocks near the river that are rumored to have Viking carvings from the they came up the river, but the more plausible explanation is that they were carved by indigenous folks umpteen years ago. I took pictures. We also saw the old moorings that used to control the barge that allowed traffic to cross the river until the current bridge was built. Gotta love history! We headed back, picked up some empanadas and fried chicken (or at least the closest thing to it) and ate on a park bench by the park in the center of town. We then came back to the house and I was able to talk to Daddy and wish him a happy Father's Day. For dinner we had barbecued chicken and rice (y'all know how I love my chicken and rice!).

So the "Bored Paraguayan Kid" theme also holds true here, as Mary receives numerous visits throughout the day from neighborhood kids with nothing else to do. When I first got here I played a boardgame with some of them, and then one them, Valeria, yesterday came up with the idea to have a wedding for her male cat and one of Mary's cats, Mimosa. Apparently they were proclaimed married before, but this will be the actual "religious"ceremony. Yes, I'm serious. She has spent the past day or so making decorations for the occasion: her aunt is making the groom's tie, she made a centerpiece with mud and grass, and even brought by two little rings. If nothing else the girl is definitely creative; at least she's not doing something mischevious and illegal (lol).

For breakfast yesterday we had pancakes, and I continued uploading some music CD's to iTunes and transferring them to my iPod. Mary was also happy to get some new music. In the afternoon we went by one of the boardmember's house so Mary could give her daughters computer lessons. We were greeted by the family's employee, Ada, who is also in training to be the coop's secrtary. She informed us that they were not there so we walked around their property, which has a main house where the family lives, a smaller house where Mary initially lived when she got to site, a flock of chickens, three turkeys (yeah, who knew), and the community radio station. We were warmly received by the DJ, Fortin, who was immediately like, "que bueno, una morena!" (translation: how nice, a brown-skinned female!). So that was funny. I also became a surprise guest on his radio show and introduced myself to the residents of the town. I taped it on my camera, so hopefully at some point I'll be able to upload it. So that's one other thing I have accomplished in my short time here - guest on a radio show! After that we headed over to the coop office from 4-6, which are the daily hours, and Mary showed me a lot of the work she had done, namely and impressive Excel spreadsheet with all of the vital information about the outstanding debts. Truly a masterpiece if I've ever seen one. We headed back to the homestead, chilled out, and Mary prepared an excellent barbecued chicken pizza from the leftover chicken.

So here I am on my last day here in Tacuati before I head back toward Guarambare. The visit has been excellent - in addition to keeping me well fed Mary has been an invaluable source of information about everything from housekeeping tips to care package do's and don'ts to places of interest in Asuncion. I just hope that I remember most of the suggestions she provided! Instead of having to catch the bus I came in on I will be hitching a ride with the PC staff that's coming out to meet with the town mayor to another town where I'll get a bus back into Asuncion and then back to Guarambare.

This has been one of many great trips that I will have during my time here and Mary is one of many great people I'll meet along my journey. Until next time folks!

The Only Low-Income Housing Cooperative in Paraguay - IN MY TOWN!!! - 6.6.08

"It's like I wake up everyday in a postcard!"- Pooja, fellow trainee

Aveiro, 6.6.08 - After our lunchtime and siesta we went to visit a multi-active cooperative that specializes in low-income housing. Since this was my concentration back at HCS, I was super-excited to see it. Little did I know that it was more than anything I could have ever imagined seeing in Paraguay, let alone up the road from my training community. Suffice it to say that it was certainly the most amazing housing-centered project I had seen in my life.

The cooperative, whose name in Guarani means "sunrise", is the only multiactive (meaning providing a number of services) one of its kinds in the entire country, as all other coops are savings and loan or other food/goods production. While its main goal is to provide affordable housing (yes!!!), the community also has a school, cement factory, dispensa (general store), blacksmith shop, community radio station, hair/nail salon (yes ladies), community recreational and job training facilities, and even a community trash collection system. I probably forgot something but it is, for a good part, self-sustaining and entirely self-managed. And to top it all off, the shot callers on the Board of Directors are all women! I love it!

The project currently houses 130 families with 80-something units under construction and a final 85 that have yet to be constructed, for a total of 300+ units. The houses are all on one level and all attached except for the end units. Each house has 3 bedrooms, a living/dining area, indoor plumbing and modern bathrooms (i.e. flushing toilets and showers), and a kitchen, with about 400 sq. meters of space (I think, definitely bigger than my 620 sq ft condo). Each house has a front patio as well as side and back gardensThe project was made possible by a Swedish NGO (non-governmental organization) that provided money and professionals for the conceptualization of the project, modeled after a similar housing development in Montevideo, Uruguay. Additional money was provided by local and national government bodies.

The initial inhabitants came from Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, who had to take cooperative living class (yay-yayeee! just like what I did!) and other capacitation before moving into the barrio (Spanish for "neighborhood"). Families that did not contribute manual labor to the project had to pay a certain amount to buy into the coop; I am not sure about the exact income limits required for the members. Inhabitants were trained and certified in all aspects of construction and, to this day, maintain facilities that provide professional capacitation. In order to prevent or at least ameliorate the job shortage that is beginning as a result in the decreased construction in the barrio, the coop is in the process of forming a construction company to provide services to other communities. Although the roads are not paved, they are lined with cobblestone to prevent them from washing away when it rains. One sight that will remain with me forever was that of a husband and wife excavating dirt in preparation for the cement foundation. The woman was right in the ditch IN A WHITE JACKET THAT WASN'T EVEN DIRTY, I was like what do you mean??? And it was hilarious because she commented that this was a surefire way to lose weight; I agreed with her, saying that she wouldn't even notice that she was working out!

To top off this most amazing day, my fellow RED (Rural Economic Development) trainees and I decided it would be an excellent idea to climb the 81-meter-high radio tower, which had a lookout point at the top. At first I thought the others were insane for doing it, but once I actually saw them climbing up the caged-in ladder I ran up to join them. Let me say that I have never been so scared in my entire life than when I was climbing that ladder. I know you all probably think I'm insane and wonder why I would have dared to do such a thing, but the folks assured us that it was safe, as someone from the barrio has to climb it anytime the radio antenna needs repairing. However, this did not change the fact that I was praying out loud to my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ the entire time up and down the ladder. A little less fervently on the way down. Once I reached the top I shouted, "I'M THE QUEEN OF THE WOOORLD!!!" and the breathtaking view made it all worthwhile. Palm trees, sugarcane fields and countryside spanned the landscape as far as the eye could see, with some mountains (or at least foothills) rimming the horizon. It was truly "God's Country". What made it even more special was that I shared the accomplishment (overcoming a fear of heights) and the beauty with my fellow RED trainees - Pooja, Matt, Eric, Tim and Paulette - which brought us even closer together. After savoring the view with two pre-teen girls from the barrio that accompanied us up to tower and taking a few pictures, we headed back down. Lord Jesus Christ please get me down safely, I prayed again.

While other things may not seem as death-defying, it will be one of many things that I would not have likely done anywhere else but in the Peace Corps. At other points in my life, I have regretted not doing certain things or taking advantage of opportunities I had available. For the next two years, I have promised myself that I will live every moment to the fullest, and take advantage of every opportunity to meet new people, try a new food (well maybe not every one, no liver or, and travel to new places. I am truly living out my dreams and having the time of my life; I will have no regrets. I hope that others will live to say the same about their own lives.

The Uneventful Lives of Paraguayan Kids - 6.6.08

Aveiro, 6.6.08 - We have recently begun the practice of playing frisbee during breaks in the yard next to our schoolhouse, which has brought new best friends - the neighborhood children - whether we wanted them or not. Quite a few were playing with us at the end of the day today: Pedro aka Pedrito de la Selva (Pedro of the Jungle, according to his friends), Ariel, Miriam, Fernando, Gustavo, Ivan and Belen. Even baby Gustavito from across the stree, age 1,made it over at point with an empty paper towel roll in hand that he was using as a chew toy. They are so funny because they know all of our names, as does much of the town, and even make fun of us, like today when they started calling Tim (aka Timoteo) "Tomate". In general they're good kids, but they just get really really bored and just kind of wander over to see what we're doing, like for instance if we're doing an activity outside. They're harmless but they can get really annoying. The parents don't really keep tabs on them and just let them wander around, usually because they're trying to figure out how to make some income; their families are among the poorest in the town. Some of the kids are not in school because they have to help with the household chores and other responsibilities, so you can't really blame them for wanting to know more. I'm sure this will be a recurring theme I will witness firsthand throughout my time in Paraguay.

The QuinceaƱera (15th Birthday) and My PC Movie - 6.2.08

Juan Antonio Saldivar, 6.2.08 - Tonight we went to a quinceanera for a younger cousin and had a blast! My host brother, henceforth known as Junior, is super ridiculous with the audio/visual and DJ action, so he was getting the party started with some sick, off-the-chain 80's-early 90's mix - WITH THE VIDEOS - and played so many classics that reminded me of my childhood. INXS, Tears for Fears, Milli Vanili, Air Supply and Kool & the Gang, just to name a few. (Hey Nia - I think the only thing missing was Duran Of course they also played some of my favorite Latin track such as Aventura, Dom Omar, Daddy Yankee, and an extensive mix of cumbia songs (not as much of a fan but of course I still danced). I also picked up some new best friends - other younger family members, one of whom I think has a crush on me (I know, - all of whom were so much fun. We left there after 12 and as if that wasn't enough (since I had class the next day), we had so many people in my host sister's Kia that we got stuck in a ditch so we all had to get out of the car so she could drive it out. Naturally, she would have had to almost run over her mother and I but we got out of the way in time. Absolutely hilarious.

The next day, aside from being half asleep for the afternoon portion of class, we went into Guarambare because the Peace Corps COuntry Director (PCD) was coming to talk with us. It was the first time in a few days since we had seen our Peace Corps (PC) friends that live in the town, so it was like a little family reunion, plenty of hugs to go around. THe PCD said some great things about what to expect from our PC experience, making the most out of it, and reiterating the the PC staff role in terms of support, etc. He urged us to envision our own motivational "movie" of our service that led us to join PC, and also shared his experience. I thought about my movie, which included complete immersion in another culture, building my professional capabilities in the field of development, as well as my leadership and project management skills, not to mention make myself more independent. What most resonated was when he said that leaders are those who take the tools they're given and find opportunities. This is definitely a major part of my "movie" and experience - to show people how to create opportunities to improve their communities in the long term and work with them to optimize their results. For that reason I have no other choice but to continue along the path I've laid out. Amazing.

San Lorenzo 5.31.08

Since I've arrived here, I've been discovering that many of the things I was told about Paraguay were not true, or I have yet to confirm the initial claim. The city of San Lorenzo, which is about 30 minutes away from the community I live in, was one such pleasant surprise.

I am not sure whether San Lorenzo is the capital of the departamento (like a U.S. state) in which we live, but it is definitely a bustling urban center. It looks like many of the smaller cities one might go to in the Caribbean (such as La Romana, Dominican Republic); the streets are lined with retail shops, vendors, open-air markets and lots of people. There are sounds of the traffic, people selling and buying goods, and Latin music such as reggaeton, bachata, cumbia, and Paraguayan polka. The availability of the latest Latin music assuged my fears about not being able to get the latest tunes because there it was - not to mention various bootleg DVD's for my viewing pleasure.

My host sister, Leti, set out to buy some shoes and a sweater, which she finally found after tearing through several stores. In the shoe stores there appeared to be a wide range of shoes in my size, which I had the impression would be harder to find, so this was also comforting. Granted, I didn't try anything on to see if it fit, so maybe that claim has yet to be disapproved. I am confident, however, that my shoes will hold up so I don't have to spend extra money on shoes. We even passed by a cellphone store that appeared to sell T-Mobile phones (shocker!!!). Of course when I have tried to find a network signal on my phone I have not been successful, but it was worth a try. After Leti dragged me through several stores in search of a sweater to go with her boots, she finally found one at a store manned by a pleasant Brazilian woman who thought I was Brazilian. While Leti tried on sweaters the lady and I had a nice convo about Brazil, the town she was from (the cleanest in Brazil, probably also the world, according to her) and how hard it was ("sumamente dificil") to get visas into the US. My sister purchased the sweater and we were finally able to get by the pharmacy so I could get some liquid body wash (Dove shampoo), and then caught the bus back to the house.

As you can see, there was very little that I would not have been able to purchase in San Lorenzo, which makes adjusting to live here even easier. Not that this may not still happen, but I have not experienced any verbal harrassment from Paraguayans about my skin color or hair type. I mentioned this to my mama and she was like, "of course there are people of color here, they just think you're Brazialian", which is completely fine with me. Since we touched down we've been welcomed with open arms and treated like family. Granted, once we leave for our posts this could all change, but at least I will have plenty of tools to deal with it at that time - not to mention what I hope wil be a more than sufficient command of Guarani (native language).

Until next time my folk!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Obama 2008!!!

So let me first say that i was super excited when i was walking through my host sister´s room last night from the bathroom to see that obama secured the nomination!!! obama 2008!

although tomorrow will be my first complete week in paraguay, it seems like i´ve been here for a month. everyone has been so welcoming, inquisitive about what we´re doing, embracing, that i´ve already carved a little place for myself with my host family. i have amazing friends down here. it really was like we became best friends overnight, and when my group of 6 is out in our satellite community and then returns to meet the rest of the group, we gives each other big hugs like we haven´t seen each other in days. i have great communication with my host family, and we do a lot of the things that i was accustomed to at home - sundays are spent eating, chillin, laughing, talking, and just hanging out.

and, you all will be happy to know that my dancing skills are becoming known within my peace corps groups and the family. last dunday we went to a quinceanera (15th birthday party) for another family member, and they were playing all of my favorite latin songs!!! my absolute favorite part was when my host brother, who was the dj and av technician for the party was playing this super ridiculous, off the chain, what-do-you-mean audio video mix of ALL of my favorite 80´s and 90´s songs - i mean tears for fears, inxs, def leopard, milli vanilli, kool and the gang, the list goes on - and i almost lost my mind!

also, last saturday my host sister and i went into a city called san lorenzo, which pretty much has everything i could possibly need to get, and i actually bought some liquid body wash :-). but with this city there is really no huge need to go into asuncion to get supplies, including music, clothes and shoes. it pretty much looks most cities i´ve been to in the caribbean.

that is not to say that there are not times when i ask myself what i´m doing here, and at this point i don´t even know what the end of this three months will be like, let alone two years, but i look at my situation and think about how i want to do development work and realize there absolutely is no better situation i could be in. not only that, but i have the support of all of you all back in the states, as well as the support of my family here in paraguay. my host mother brags to all of the family and her friends how about how happy she is with me and how intelligent i am...ok let me lay it on a little thinner...lmao...but seriously, i already know that they will be a major factor in getting me through the two years.

so my lunch time is running around and i need to send a few emails. i love and miss you all and continue to keep me in your prayers!