“To be on a quest is nothing more or less than to become an asker of questions.” -Sam Keen

Thursday, March 31, 2011

And my site is...

¡San Pedro Word-I-Can't-Pronounce!

San Pedro Word-I-Can't-Pronounce is located in central Paraguay, with a population of about 35,000 people. It's the capital of its departmento (state), but the region itself is sparsely populated. While San Pedro is technically an urban center, the surrounding area is almost exclusively agricultural, with its main crop source being cotton and soy. My site is in the middle of Paraguayan cattle country, so I can expect a good steak every once in a while. As of now, there are two other volunteers in my site, but not from my sector. Basically that means that I'll be the only PCV focusing specifically on education and literacy, but I'll also be able to work collaboratively with people specializing in health and environmental ed. My community had another education volunteer before me, but about six years have past since she left. I have the option to work with 5 or 6 schools and a teachers' college, depending on my interests and contacts. From San Pedro, it's about a 5-hour bus ride to Asunción.

When I first received my placement I didn't know what to think, but now I'm starting to get excited about what's in store for me.

In San Pedro, I believe that most people speak Guaraní as their first language, but the majority are also fluent in Spanish. Since I'll be working in schools, my professional life will revolve around castellano, but I'll have to brush up on my Guaraní for cultural integration/making the locals like me.

I'm glad that I finally know where I'm going and can start planning for my future in PY. Tomorrow I'm having my first meeting with someone in my community, and on Saturday I'm going to visit San Pedro for the first time. The rest of my training is absolutely going to fly by--I swear in as a Peace Corps volunteer in only 15 days. It's crazy how slow and how fast these past couple months have been.

P.S. I may or may not have adopted a puppy.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The ABCs of Paraguayan Schooling

Now that I've been in Paraguay for a little over 6 weeks, I'd like to dedicate a blog entry to what I've observed so far about the country's educational system. As part of my training as an Education volunteer, the Peace Corps has matched me up with a school and teacher that I'm supposed to work with over an 8-week period. My language group and I (4 of us in total) have been assigned to the Municipal School, an elementary school that caters to children from Guarambaré's asentamientos, or shantytowns. I chose to work with the second grade because my dad used to teach that age group and I consider it lucky.

I'll start off by saying that school here is very, very different. Kids here only go to school here for 4 hours a day. The school day is divided into 2 turnos: the morning turno is from 7-11 and the afternoon turno is from 1-5. Usually, the second turno is more female-heavy because their parents keep them at home during the morning to help with household chores. Some colegios (high schools) have a third turno at night that lasts from 6-10 for the students that work full-time during the day. Since the classrooms have different grade levels and teachers depending on the time of day, no one is able to decorate or prepare a classroom for a specific age group. In terms of methodology, the teachers believe that a quiet classroom is an efficient one, so the best teachers are the ones who can keep their students in the seats and copying from the board. Although the government gives some elementary schools kits filled with basic school supplies, they often arrive late or not at all. That means that the parents are left to supply their children with notebooks, pencils, pens, art supplies, etc. At my school, parents can barely afford to give their kids a soft-cover notebook and one pencil. Parents are also expected to buy their children uniforms (white tops and navy bottoms for public schools), but if the children don't come in dress code, the school cannot legally send them home. Usually, only the neediest students don't come to class in something that resembles a uniform. Paraguayan teachers come to school in the same navy-and-white uniform as their students.

Teaching here usually boils down to a teacher writing something on the blackboard and having the students copy it into their notebooks. If they finish early, there is no alternate activity for them to do, so they usually occupy themselves by bothering their classmates. Part of my job is to introduce new teaching methodology, but it's hard coming. During one of my Días de Practica, I gave my second-graders a diagnostic reading test. About 70% could not recite or identify the alphabet in order. Only one child could indentify the letters both in and out of order. None could read. That day was really disheartening because the kids are capable of learning, but no one is giving them the help they need. Instead, the teacher simply writes lessons on the board, and the kids copy. How are kids supposed to answer a word problem like "If Claudia has 4 apples and Mariel has 17 apples, how many apples to they have together?" if they don't know that the letter A says "aaaa"? You gotta know the letter A before you can even think about apples.

A large part of the educational tradition in Paraguay (and its subsequent challenges) has roots in the Stroessner dictatorship. Back then, all teachers had to be registered members of the Colorado party in order to work in public schools. Creative or analytical thinking was openly discouraged; instead, the objective of education was to make a nation of followers. Although the dictatorship fell around 20 years ago, some of the same teaching strategies are still employed, and unfortunately, the educational sector remains highly politicized. That means, if your superintendent knows the right people, your school might recieve a surplus of supplies or snacks (each elementary school student is supposed to get milk and bread, but it doesn't always work out that way), but if you're out of favor, your school might not get anything.

In sum, the situation is disheartening. But in spite of the institutional challenges of the working in Paraguayan schools, the kids are still kids. And they're a blast to work with. They're willing, engaged, and happy to have your attention. They're what make it possible to keep going back.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Happy Anniversary!

Paraguay is such a weird and wonderful place. In honor of my one month anniversary in country, I'm going to compile a list of some of my favorite and not-so-favorite things thus far.


1. 5 brothers. They've got my back, get me out of awkward situations, and enhance my social life. Awesome.

2. Cremosita cookies. I'm totally, hopelessly addicted to this brand of cookie. They're made in Bolivia, cost a palry 1 mil (around 20 cents) and are readily available at every neighborhood dispensa. I eat them nearly everyday.

3. Mis amigos. I truly think I've lucked out with the group I'm in. At least thus far, everyone works and plays well together.

4. My mosquito net. My host mom helped me put it up yesterday. I heart my ghetto green canopy--it makes me feel like I'm in the Peace Corps. Plus, it keeps me dengue-free.

5. The cost of beer. It's cheap. Really, really cheap.

6. Tereré. I've quickly learned to like this beverage and the ritual that goes with it. It's especially useful because I get super antsy during our training sessions, and tereré gives me the perfect excuse to move around. No one says anything when I prepare the drink and act as the server. In fact, it's considered guapa (hard working) of me to do so. Win-win. Plus, yerba mate has energizing properties, so it keeps me awake. I'm in the market for my own tereré pitcher, but I'm holding off until I go to San Lorenzo, where they have shops that customize the termos.

7. The plaza. I really like Guarambaré's plaza, or city center. The church and city administation buildings are here, as well as a park and a line of businesses.

8. Visiting Misiones. I had a great short field visit with a volunteer named Natasha. She was super welcoming, friendly, and willing to let me sleep in. Plus Misiones is a lovely part of the country. I especially enjoyed seeing the Ahecha photo exhibit in San Juan (Ahecha, which means "I see" in Guaraní, is a PC-run photography workshop for kids and young adults. I intend to do this project in my perminent site.)

9. Playing games. Whether it be icebreakers in class or volleyball at Jonathan's house, I've been having a great time playing with my peers/Paraguayan kids. Plus, my youngest brother thinks Uno is the shit.

10. Adios! Instead of saying "hola" or "buen día," everybody here says "adios" when passing someone on the street. It's a really nice tradition, plus for me it helps curb the staring.


1. Red dirt. Most of the streets here are not paved, and red dirt has gotten into EVERYTHING, including my suitcases, my purse, my hair, my fingernails, my bed, you name it. Nearly all of my shoes are ruined. This one doesn't seem like that big of a deal, but every Paraguayan I know wages an unending battle with the stuff. Plus when it rains, all of that red dirt turns into red mud.

2. Dirty bathroom. This situation is the result of my five brothers plus the red dirt. Without getting into the gorry details, let's just say it's really, really disgusting. And filled with bugs.

3. Mosquitos. Speaking of bugs, let's talk about my mortal enemy, the mosquito. Apparently I have sweet-smelling skin/blood because they will not leave me alone.

4. Mi horario. Actually, my schedule here doesn't suck that bad, but I regularly find myself overwhelmed and underslept. Plus, it is not cool that the Peace Corps schedules training events on Saturday morning. Hear that, Peace Corps? Not. cool.

5. The food. Okay, okay, it's tolerable, but let's just say I dream of the day I'll have full control of my diet again. I am, of course, not including Cremosita cookies in my assessment of Paraguayan foodstuffs.

6. Piropos. The dreaded catcall. The men here think that hissing at me will get them a date. How wrong they are.

7. The humidity. It gets really hot and humid here. I knew that going into it, but it's not something I'll ever enjoy. Luckily, this past week has been cooler in the mornings and evenings.

8. Awkwardness. This is a general one, but sometimes life here gets super awkward. It has to do with cultural differences, language barriers, nothing to say, etc. A third-year volunteer told us that we'll become so expert at handling awkward situations that we'll be able to put it on our resumes.

9. Not being allowed into Asunción without permission. This is a new PC policy meant to enhance our safety as trainees. Once we swear in as volunteers, we can travel more or less freely throughout the country, but for now it's an annoyance. Especially because we can't go to the Shakira concert. Boo, hiss.

10. Language difficulties. Sometimes I get frustrated with Jopara (the Spanish-Guaraní hybrid) because I've worked so hard to aquire Spanish. Now I have to throw parts of another language into the mix. Honestly though, I go back and forth between this one. I like learning about languages, so it's really interesting to me on an intellectual level. I'm still in the adjustment process on this one.

Overall, I'd definitely say that the good has outweighed the bad. I'm happy to be here, and thrilled that volunteer swear-in is only a month and a half away :)