Aveiro, 6.29.08 - This past Friday after class we headed out to a small town called Valenzuela for our Tech Overnight. The Tech Overnight is when the Rural Economic Development (RED) and Municipal Service Development (MSD) groups each go to visit a volunteer in their respective sites. The RED homies and I went to visit a female volunteer, Jen Cheng, who works with a cooperative in the town. On the way there we stopped at a little place called Casa de Mani, which specializes in things made from peanuts. They also have bomb lomito sandwiches (seasoned chopped beef, the sandiwch also had melted cheese) and soft serve ice cream.
A little less than an hour later we arrived in Valenzuela and met up with Jen and then got dropped off at our various households where we were staying for the night. We hung out at our houses for about 30 minutes and then got back together to go see the women's center where Jen had done a lot of work, AMUR, which stands for Asociación de la Mujer Rural (Association of the Rural Woman). The house and land on which AMUR is located was donated by a Swiss family that lived in the town. In the front room they a small general store in which they sell various handmade and miscellaneous goods, mainly school supplies and stationary. In another room they have a computer center that is populated with computers y'all might've seen in the 1990's, which is an accomplishment in itself. Two computers were donated initally by one woman's son who had a successful business in another part of the country, and the other computers were purchased with grant money. Not sure how often the acutal classes take place - if I am not mistaken, I think they're on hold because the demand was greater than the teachers available. In the kitchen, they have a commercial oven recently purchased so the women could learn how to bake bread in the hopes of selling it in the community. They currently have a professional baker that's teaching them; we'll see how it turns out. Since she is leaving, one of us will actually be going to her site; possibly me? In another room they have a huge weaver that didn't seem to really be used much. But, if folks decide they want to make hammocks or some other weaved product, it's there. It also doubled as a storage room.
After that we went back to the cooperative where we were met by the woman that maintains the coop's office in the town. The coop, which is similar to a credit union, is in much better shape than that of the volunteer I visited a number of weeks ago. It has a lot of members and a strong Board of Directors. Jen actually lives at the coop in a room they constructed for her along with a modern bathroom and a kitchen; I think the kitchen might've been there already. After the woman left, we hung out with Jen drinking mate (pronounced MAH-tay, a type of tea, the national drink of Paraguayans) and talking about her time in Valenzuela. She said that she absolutely loved it; aside from a period in the summer when she got really depressed because of the heat, which apparently is very strong. That was also when she was applying to schools and stressing over that. She's going to grad school at Yale in the fall for international relations. It started to get a little late so we all headed back to our houses.
Let me say that the house I stayed at in Valenzuela was NOTHING like my house in Aveiro, and I was living in relative squalor for one night. Let me give y'all the lowdown. They basically live in two rooms, eat and brush their teeth in an outside corridor between the sleeping quarters and the kitchen shed. The bathroom - thank God they had a modern bathroom - was filthy and next to the sleeping area. I didn't dare sit on the toilet; I had brought my toiletries but please believe they stayed right in my backpack. The shower floor was covered in dirt, and the sink was not even hooked up. Anyway, when I came back from Jen's that night I watched tv with a granddaughter of Ña Pitu (short for Doña, pronounced DON-yah) and Ña Pitu's older son who has some sort of chronic disease (Parkinson's maybe?). When I first met him earlier, he would ask me a question and then just kind of stare at me, which the two neices were also doing. I might've been the first black person they'd seen up close. But yeah it was kind of weird; I was like, "man I hope this man is not staring at me when I go to sleep and then I wake up and have to knock someone out,". But he actually looked kind of like David Copperfield. So after some time, Ña Pitu called me to come and eat dinner, which was stewed chicken and sopa paraguaya (remember, the paraguayan cornbread). I ate what I could of the chicken because I wasn't really seasoned that well and was undercooked on the inside Oh my God, it definitely was not my Paraguayan mom's cooking. They also gave me some really sugary soda, which I can't stand, and the weird son asked me why I didn't drink more of it. So I failed to mention that they spoke primarily Guarani so while I was able to get in some practice, at times I had NO IDEA what they were saying. She asked about how things were in the States and then, I am reminded as I write, inquired about how much I was paid. The Paraguayans are super-forward at times. I lied and told her I didn't know exactly, but enough for living expenses. She also asked if there was crime in the States, I said there was, and then she said that Paraguay didn't really have any crime until after Stroessner (the dictator) fell in 1989; I got the sense that she wished that the same (or similar situation) was still in place. This same dictator of course initiated a lot of violent repression of dissidents and all great things the worst dictators are known for. Nevertheless, we were watching a hilarious comedy show that I hadn't seen prior to then (because I am usually sleep or in my room reading way earlier than 9pm), so that was cool. At 10:15pm I finally excused myself to go and lay down, in the same room as they continued to watch tv. Her bed was also in the same room on the other side on a big wardrobe. I put on my iPod and was down for the count.
The next morning I was supposed to meet the other RED folks at 7am, but for some reason (I don't know why, I guess my mind wasn't right) I thought they were going to come and get me, since we had all been dropped off by car the night before. So instead of meeting them I hung out with Ña Pitu and 'nem drinking mate, chopping it up, and watching her cousin sew clothes. I had just received a letter from Mommy with a pic of Granny so I showed it to them and they immediately thought Granny was white...lol. Naturally I turned it into a teachable moment about Black American history and told them about how we have many colors - they also said that they also have family members of various shades, so we had even more in common. So finally Ña Pitu was ready to head over to the AMUR center for Jen's going away party and rolled in around 9:30 am. Everyone wondered where I had been - I apologized to Brian, saying that I thought he was going to come and get me, he said that it was no problem, that he figured that I was fine and had meant to come get me but got trapped in conversation. I love how everything is so "tranquilo" (pronounced, tran-KEE-lo) down here. No worries. My friend Mateo was singing and playing a song on his guitar at the time, after which Jen came up and said some farewell remarks. Afterwards there were refreshments, including some nasty food I couldn't eat, and then we piled in the car to head back to Aveiro. Before heading back, however, we stopped by the coop's main office in the nearest urban town about 15 minutes away. As I mentioned, they are extremely well established - they also have a weaving warehouse on the office grounds where coop members (socios) make rugs and hammocks, and an agricultural technology building.
The first thing I did when I got home was to go to the bathroom and take a shower; easily the best one I've had, laid down for a bit, and ate. Despite the fact that the living conditions of the people I stayed with were a bit different that those I had become accustomed to and the food was nasty, they were great people. The bed, at least, was extremely comfortable (although I slept in my fleece jacket because it looked a lil dirty). It definitely made me appreciate my current living situation, but also made me realize that I can deal with a lot more. And it could've been worse - at least they had indoor plumbing.