Monday, April 9, 2012

Worst. Week. Ever.

Good lord we're bored.

Last week was Semana Santa. For those who don't know, Semana Santa is a week-long celebration to commemorate some guy the locals call Jesus (pronounced Hey, Zeus!) and his rise from the dead.

Here in Paraguay, they pay homage to this zombie Jesus by doing absolutely nothing all week and eating cheesy bread. Government offices and area businesses shut down. Fields go unattended. Schools are closed. Dogs are left unkicked. The entire country is encouraged to take a break from work and spend time with their families. Which is all well and good, unless you're a couple of Nortes in desperate search of work and whose closest family is on another continent.

Roughly 24 hours into Semana Santa the stir craziness started to kick in. Since everyone else in site was pretty much on vacation for a week, we elected to create work for ourselves just to get out of the house. For instance, one of the world maps we painted at a nearby school was essentially finished. But, since we literally had nothing else to do, we decided to "trick out" said map.

We added the school's logo in one corner. Next, we threw in a snazzy compass. The entire map got an extra coat of paint. Everything was labeled and, sometimes, re-labeled. Out of sheer boredom, we started to go a little overboard. You know what would really spruce up Africa? A racing stripe!

Unnecessary map work only got us through two days of the doldrums of Semana Santa. We survived the middle of the week by feasting on a steady diet of running, crossword puzzles, full-on philosophical discussions with the cat and watching It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia on our computer. And you were worried your tax dollars were going to waste here, America.

On Friday, things picked up a bit. It is Paraguayan custom to fast and only eat chipa on Good Friday. Chipa is basically dry, hard cheesy bread made in a brick oven. Starting at the crack of dawn (literally), we had neighbors lining up at our gate to give us some of their homemade chipa.

Carly and I decided to follow the local custom and eat nothing but chipa all day. This wasn't for religious reasons, we just had so much of it gifted to us and we forgot to buy groceries before all the stores closed earlier in the week. We gorged ourselves on the stuff. By the end of the day, we could hardly move. Chipa has a tendency to sit like a rock in one's belly. It became a struggle just to get up and answer the door when the next neighbor came a calling with another batch of chipa.

"More chipa? You shouldn't have. No seriously, you shouldn't have. I just took a dump the size of a football."

A crazy windstorm came from out of nowhere on Saturday and we lost power through the weekend. As if the week wasn't bad enough, now we were incredibly bored in the dark. It was pitch black everywhere and eerily quiet except for the gentle sound of Carly and I sobbing.

Time was moving so slow it actually felt like the clock was ticking backwards. And then on Saturday night, it actually did. Like some cruel joke, another hour was added to the longest week in history thanks to daylight saving time.

Easter Sunday was no better. We were still without food or power, but now it was cold and rainy. Add to that the random flying bug infestation that overtook our house and you have yourself the perfect ending to the worst week ever. The annoying-ass icing on a shit cupcake, if you will.

Thankfully, Semana Santa is now over. Paraguay is up and running again and Carly and I have some important work that is sure to keep us busy this week: we're headed to Uruguay for vacation.

Until next time, amigos.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

One Year in Paraguay by the Numbers

Jesus Cristo, has it been a year already? It sure doesn't feel like it. It seems like only yesterday we were nervously stepping off the plane into the sauna that is Paraguay. Now, we're seasoned volunteers fully immersed in a culture that once seemed so foreign. These past twelve months have been a blur. Though I can't help but wonder, if it's really been a year, shouldn't I be able to speak Spanish by now?

Before getting started, I feel the need to emphatically emphasize this post is completely tongue-in-cheek. We honestly love our neighbors, Paraguay and the work we're doing here. Below you will find some of the observations we've made about life here over the past 365 days. We mean no disrespect. With that being said, here's a disrespectful breakdown of our first year in Paraguay by the numbers:

spoonfuls of mayonnaise in a single serving of salad
1,000,000: times in a row our neighbor listens to a song before getting tired of it
3: plastic bags given to carry one egg from our local dispensa
41: books read during service thus far (apiece)
2: sizes too small Paraguayan men buy their t-shirts
67: times I've been asked why I have a beard
102: degrees Fahrenheit on a typical summer day
24: severed cow legs discovered on the roadside one day near Salto Monday
4: toads accidentally killed every time I cut the grass
5: highest number of people seen riding on one moto (not counting the baby)
10: flies that will bathe/have sex on my sandwich if it's momentarily left unattended
3: guaranteed misspellings/grammar mistakes on any t-shirt printed in English
20: minutes a Paraguayan needs to take money out of the ATM
14: prostitutes hanging outside the Palace Hotel in Asuncion this very second
7: teacher strikes last year
71: average days between blog posts
3: sharts
9: hour at which we completely lose water every night in the summer
237: conversations in Guarani we pretended to understand
4.5: acceptable number of days between showers in the winter
19: minutes a local will stand breathing over a trash fire before walking away for a cigarette
2: liters of soda consumed daily by a typical infant
58: rhinestones on every pair of ladies jeans
8: zippers on every pair of mens jeans
15: months we have left in service
6: members of the Peace Corps Paraguay family that contracted Dengue (that we know of)
1: gallon of sweat Carly loses every night in her sleep
202: miles run
8: longest stretch of days without pooping
15: shortest stretch of seconds between poops
19: eggplants in the garden
404: tomatoes in the garden (who knew 20+ tomato plants would be overkill?)
European countries poorly free-handed on our giant world map
0: kids that noticed how poorly Europe was drawn
33: days of vacation left to travel throughout South America
250: empanadas consumed
578: combined hours on the bus
5.5: longest wait in hours from the start of a BBQ to when the food was actually served
2: feet it is considered appropriate to step away from someone before peeing
23: times I've been asked why Carly and I don't have kids
times I've been asked if I have kids with another woman
23: times I've been asked if I was sterile
48: headbutts taken to the crotch when my little neighbors go in for a hug (I'm tall here)

Just to reiterate, this was supposed to be funny. You know we're crazy about you, Paraguay. Don't get all sensitive on us now--not after all we've been through.

Also, for those interested in a blog post that is actually informative, Carly has agreed to write something this week. Stay tuned, amigos.

Monday, October 10, 2011

So You Think You Can Dance?

No. No, I don't think I can dance actually. I'm not sure where you got that idea. Did someone tell you that? If they did, they're a damn liar.

It's not that I harbor any ill feelings towards dancing, it's just not my thing. In fact, thanks to a complicated mix of lame excuses and feigned injuries, dancing is one of those activities I've managed to avoid the majority of my adult life--like watching "Titanic" or flossing.

So it's understandable that I was a little apprehensive last week when the teachers at a nearby school asked Carly and I to perform a traditional Paraguay dance in front of the whole town. While I was busy trying to figure out how to politely say "Aw, hell no!" in Spanish, my darling wife was beside me happily accepting the invitation.

We had three days to get ready to boogie down for the entire barrio. Having no clue what we were actually supposed to do, we called a neighbor and asked her to teach us a few steps of a traditional Danza Paraguaya. She invited us over and we immediately got to work.

First, we listened to a CD of Paraguayan music and decided on the song that we liked best, i.e., the shortest. We then spent an hour gracelessly learning each step exactly as she showed us. It was hard, sweaty work but we actually started to feel pretty good about what we were doing.

Full of new-found confidence, we headed for the front door and thanked our neighbor for all her help. She asked if we wanted to stay a few extra minutes and watch a DVD of professional dancers doing the exact same dance she just taught us. The idea being we'd get a better understanding of what Danza Paraguaya should look like. We agreed and sat down to watch.

Two things immediately jumped out as the tape began to roll: 1) Carly and I shouldn't quit our day jobs 2) The moves the professionals busted out looked nothing like what she taught us, not even close.

It was the equivalent of someone spending all day teaching you the nuances of country line dancing then putting on a VHS of "Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo" and saying "See. It's just like I taught you."

We were floored. We politely thanked our instructor for her help and headed home more dejected than ever.

The next day, Carly borrowed some steps from a few YouTube videos and choreographed a completely new dance for us to master. We practiced for a couple of hours and got to a point where we were confident we would only slightly embarrass ourselves in front of everyone.

<--Me and Carly practicing in the creek by our house

We visited the school the morning of the festival to make sure the flash drive that contained our music was compatible with the DJ's prehistoric sound equipment. Imagine my excitement when the DJ broke the bad news he couldn't play it. As I turned to Carly with my hand in the air looking for a high-five, she rolled her eyes and reminded me we could just use the CD that we copied our music from and dance to that.

Carly called the neighbor that initially lent us the CD and asked if we could use it that night for the festival. She informed us that had just lent it out to someone else. I'm not an emotional man, but I take no shame in admitting that I couldn't hold back the tears of joy that streamed down my face upon the realization I had once again avoided dancing in public.

Even though we weren't going to perform, Carly and I decided to head to the festival anyway to support our students who had worked all week on the festival. (Note: They literally did nothing all week but practice dancing. No math. No reading. No health. Just dancing...sigh)

As we approached to buy our tickets, we were told that the "talent" didn't have to pay the entrance fee. We regretfully informed the teachers we didn't have any music and would be unable to shimmy for the masses. They preceded to lay arguably the biggest guilt-trip in the history of mankind upon us.

They talked about how much they and the students were looking forward to it. They mentioned a bunch of our neighbors had paid the entry fee to specifically see us prance around. They whined about how this was a fundraiser and we'd be letting down the kids. They actually said the following: "The entire world is here to see you dance."(Another note: This fundraiser was to replace a perfectly serviceable concrete floor with a prettier tile floor. Not money for books. Not money for badly-needed chalk boards. Not money to clean up the river of slime/mosquito breeding ground that runs next to the school. Money for a pretty floor...sigh)

Me and the Mrs. were helpless after having that sort of guilt thrust upon us. We agreed to run home and grab our laptop which also held our music to see it the DJ could somehow use it.

Unfortunately, since we assumed we'd no longer be dancing, we had already returned the traditional Paraguayan garb we needed for the dance earlier in the day. Desperate, Carly grabbed a skirt from the dirty clothes hamper and I threw on my Paraguayan soccer jersey. We might have no longer looked like traditional Paraguayan dancers, but we could still perform like ones. Or so we thought.

Maybe it was the fact we'd already mentally prepared not to dance. Maybe it was the fact we were forced to cut a rug on a 6ft-tall stage the size of card table and twice as wobbly. Maybe it was the fact we downed two 40oz Brahmas earlier in the evening. Whatever the reason, our Danza Paraguaya was a complete disaster and my loathing of dancing was thus reaffirmed.

Both of us completely forgot the choreography about one minute into our performance. We basically just hopped around on stage after that, desperately counting the seconds till we could get the hell out of there. Based on the amount of laughing and finger-pointing however, the audience appeared to enjoy it.

Below you will find a video of our historically awkward performance. Due to poor lighting and the abilities of our 9-year-old camerawoman, the quality is pretty poor-- which isn't necessarily a bad thing in this instance. You've been warned. Watch at your own risk.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Making Kids Fart

We must’ve had at least a dozen kids pass gas in our faces yesterday and it was glorious.

To adequately explain how we got to the point where we enjoyed being immersed in the toots of tikes, we should probably supply a bit of background info:

There are two elementary schools in our barrio where we work every week, alternating between language arts activities (Carly’s program) and health activities (my program). One of the schools is a dream situation. The principal is into it. The students are into it. The teachers are into it and are actually incorporating some of our activities into their curriculum. It’s going exactly how the Peace Corps drew it up.

The other school, to put it mildly, has been a complete clusterfuck. As soon as we enter the classroom, the teachers walk out the door and go on break. There appears to be zero concern as to whether or not the kids actually learn anything. We tell the teachers one of the 6th graders still doesn’t know his ABCs, they tell us how lindo (pretty) our teeth are. We point out that a lot of kids don’t even know they should wash their hands after using the bathroom, they talk about the weather. If anything, the entire faculty seems annoyed by our presence.

Since the school made it perfectly clear they had no interest in us bothering their students with trivial matters like learning how to read and write or basic health knowledge, Carly and I had to figure out some other way to be involved with the students.

We’d noticed the kids usually spent at least two hours of their four-hour school day outside playing soccer while their instructors were busy staring off into space. It was great they were getting some exercise but the only muscles getting worked were their legs. What about their tiny, malnourished arms? Couldn’t they use a little strength? And why were so many elementary-age kids sporting beer bellies already?

It became clear that after a lifetime of ingesting hunks of meat and a 2-liter of coke at every meal, these kids needed a full-body workout. So, we harkened back to the PE classes of our youth and brought the Presidential Physical Fitness Program down south to Paraguay.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Presidential Physical Fitness Program, we'll let this sweet 80's PSA explain:

Our workout program got underway this week and the kids loved it.

Sit-ups were the first exercise on the docket. We began right after lunch and the vast majority of the kids had never even tried a sit-up before. It made for quite an interesting/noisy/odorous experience.

I can only assume the caveman-like Paragauyan diet coupled with flexing dormant abdominal muscles was responsible for what happened next. Almost immediately as the crunches began, the first kid broke wind. Seconds later, someone else backfired. Before we knew it, all of them were baking brownies and the air became filled with the subtle sounds and smells of anal acoustics.

One of the great things about this country is how little attention everyone gives to bodily functions. Despite the abundance of air biscuits being baked, the kids kept right on doing their sit-ups like nothing was happening. Even the poor bastards stuck holding their partners feet while being pelted with ghost turds just took it and smiled.

The kids were having a blast and me and the Mrs. were just thrilled to finally have a program at the school that was working somewhat like it was supposed to.

We ended the day with push-ups and, once again, the kids were really excited to try them. Honestly, they were terrible at them but they still had fun. I’m pretty sure the only time kids here use their arms is for throw-ins during soccer games and to flag down the ice cream man. They vowed to practice them because we promised certificates to anyone who does really well in every exercise category. We’re also going to make a big poster with the names of all the "super-athletes" to hang up at the school.

The vaunted sit and reach is on tap next week. Stayed tuned to see what happens next in Carly & Jeff’s Club de Ejercicio.


We’d like to end this blog post by giving a shout-out to Durward Fant aka “Double D” aka “Doble D” aka “Cabezón.” Señor Fant flew all the way down here last month to cheer us on for the Bicentenario Half-Marathon in Asuncion and to help us start a few vegetable gardens in our backyard. More importantly, he smuggled us a suitcase full of beer! Paraguay essentially offers two beer options: Brahma (think an even more watered-down Coors Light) and Pilsen (think cat piss). Don Durward made it through customs with a myriad of American microbrews. Mere words won’t do justice in describing that extraordinary moment when we tasted actual hops go past our lips for the first time in seven months. I’m tearing up right now just thinking about it.
God bless you Double D and God Bless America!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Wait, What? We We're Supposed to be Blogging This Whole Time?

I once again have to apologize for the abnormally long gap between blog posts. But in our defense, we've been super busy lately watching The Wire...err...helping the good people of Paraguay.

Here are a few quick highlights of what we've been up to and the goings-on down here in South America over the past month or so:

We Gave Kids Drugs- Me and the Mrs. got all the local kids hooked on our stash. We've been straight hustling the anti-parasite med Mebendazol (street names: M-Boogie, Raid, Dr. Bendo) for weeks on the corners and at the schools where we work. Mebendazol tastes sweet like bananas but still gives you that good high that comes from killing all the worms in your intestines. There ain't a single kid in Barrio Virgen de Fatima, grades Pre-K through 9 that hasn't sampled our product. Have I mentioned how much Wire we've watched of late?

It Actually Got Cold (and yes, we used a space-heater)- It was legitimately chilly here south of the equator for about a week in late June. And do you know what Paraguayans do when the thermostat drops below 50F? Nothing, literally. Kids didn't go to school. Parents skipped out on work. Meetings were cancelled. Fiestas postponed. But it's not only social responsibilities that take a holiday when there's a nip in the air. The water tank in our front yard that supplies the whole nabe overflowed for three straight days and we couldn't figure out why. We complained to our one-armed plumber, Juan Carlos, and his explanation was simple: "The tank is overflowing because no one uses water when it's so cold. No one is showering or washing their clothes right now." Maybe all those cancellations weren't such a bad idea in hindsight.

There's a Cat in the House- Apparently, our neighbors thought a flea-ridden, dreadlocked kitten was just what our humble abode was missing. We named her "Bicho" (Spanish for bug; pronounced "beach-o") after her favorite food and after what is currently crawling both in and outside her tiny, malnourished frame. She's actually been a godsend. Every time I start thinking how nice it would be for someone to trip me or randomly start scratching my legs for no reason, Bicho's there to answer the call. Just when I was starting to worry our moldy shower wasn't gross enough; Bicho has turned it into her own private litter box. And who needs an alarm clock when you can be awoken every morning before dawn by a cat trying to nurse on your nose, fingers, feet and crotch with tiny, razor-sharp teeth? It's customary in Paraguay to repay one gift with another. I'm still undecided how to payback my neighbors for Bicho. Right now, it's a toss-up between a fruit basket and taking a dump on their front porch.

Are You Ready for Some Futbol?-The entire country has been enthralled watching the Pride of Paraguay, the men's national soccer team, compete in this year's Copa America tournament in Argentina. Paraguay has fought its way into the quarterfinals following three thrilling matches in group play--all ties! ...sigh

Norte Americanos Teaching Norte Americanos How to Be Paraguayan- A group of about 60 American high school students descended upon our site as part of an exchange student program. And who better to teach these gringos about Paraguayan history and culture than the hand-full of Americans who have lived in said country for only a few months? These poor saps paid $6000 to come live with a Paraguayans for six weeks and it was up to us and a few other Peace Corps volunteers to show them the ropes before they moved in with their new families. We taught them a few phrases in Guarani, Paraguayan table etiquette (including when it's appropriate to spit on the floor or blow your nose in the tablecloth), showed them how to construct brick ovens called fogones and what kind of reaction to expect from your host community--get ready for a lot of uncomfortable staring kiddos!

Well, that about sums anything of note we've done in the past month. Carly's still teaching English every week and helping area kids learn better. I'm still giving awkward health charlas and looking into the sun in my free time.

The next few weeks are going to be pretty hectic. We have a 4-day camp starting tomorrow and we're expecting anywhere from 80 to 100 kids. The plan is to make it an art/theatre/dance/sports camp. I will be teaching the little rascals how to properly throw a frisbee. Carly's in charge of everything else.

The following week we have to head back into the capital of Asuncion for some more training. Word on the street is I will be learning how to talk to Paraguayans about various STDs. If my complete lack of language skills didn't make being in front of the classroom awkward enough before, just imagine me bumbling along for an hour while simultaneously trying to fit a condom on a banana.

After training, we're slotted to help Un Techo Para Mi Pais (South America's version of Habitat for Humanity) build 40 houses in our site for a few days before we had back to Asuncion to run the Bicentenario Half Marathon.

We'll blog about it all at some point. Until then, amigos.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Floating in Feces

The cement top to our septic tank here in Paraguay was constructed without the use of rebar.

How do I know this you ask? Simple, really. As I stepped across it yesterday, it broke open like a trapdoor and I plummeted into its murky depths. One second I was strolling in the backyard enjoying some South American sunshine. The next, I was chin-deep in everything Carly and I have eaten the past month.

It was a somewhat surreal experience to suddenly find myself submersed in a sea of stool--a pond of poo, if you will. I couldn't have been in that dam of dookie for more than five seconds but time sort of stood still and gave me the chance to really absorb my surroundings. Speaking of absorbing, I lost a flip-flop somewhere down in that Mississippi mud, too.

Thankfully, Carly heard my apropos cries of "Oh shit!" as I climbed out of that estuary of excrement and came to my rescue. She helped me strip naked in the front yard and got me pointed in the direction of the shower. I could even hear her mopping up the slime trail I left in the house as I tried desperately to scrub away the memories of what just happened while picking the peanuts out of my beard.

The poop plunge left my entire body covered in one big scrape. So, the Peace Corps medical staff has me keeping an eye-out for infections. Carly's been helping a lot with applying anti-bacterial cream and keeping the messier wounds covered--God, I love that woman!

But Carly hasn't only been helping my disgusting self. She's apparently got it in her mind to help the people of Paraguay while we're here, as well.

She has morphed into a volunteering machine in our community lately. Just last week, she gave 140 diagnostic tests at one of the local schools to figure out which kids need extra help, setup/ran a really cool recycled art table for an Earth Day festival, attended 3 community meetings, accompanied me as I stumbled through my health census (i.e. worked as a translator), and taught a class of 7th graders the importance of washing their hands by fashioning sinks out of old, 2-liter bottles.

Well, that's about all for now. We'll try to sort out a video tour of our new house once we have everything set up (we're so close).

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Sandpaper, Toliet Seats & Bird Murder

It was another sweaty week of nonstop work at the casa con tanque here in sunny Santani.

First order of business was getting the plumbing into good enough shape to handle our weak, American bowels. Thankfully our barrio is home to best damned one-armed plumber in Paraguay, Juan Carlos.

Juan Carlos fixed our leaky toilet (complete with a sparkling new seat), repaired the concrete floor in our shower, remounted our bathroom sink and built us a brand new outdoor sink---all with 3/4 of the usual appendages. The guy was a machine.

Next, we needed to remove various forms of debris that collected over the years in our ceiling. This included a tiny bird's nest. Despite the fact the it was 15 feet in the air and impossible to look into, Carly assured me the nest was empty. She encouraged me to just yank it down and I obliged. Imagine my surprise when, after a few pokes with a stick, I got a face-full of baby birds. The poor bastards were dead as soon as they hit the ground. But they didn't die in vain. The neighborhood kids had a blast playing with their corpses.

We spent the final three days of last week sanding every inch of insert your favorite poison here-based paint from the interior walls. I'm no longer afraid of hell because I've been there--and it's hand-sanding walls in the humidity of Paraguay. We both wore protective masks and glasses but they were no match for the toxic dust we created. Our boogers are still gray two days later.

Stay tuned for more exciting news next week. If all goes according to plan (which it won't) we should have a fixed roof, a new front door, bars on all the windows and whole heap of furniture moved in. We'll keep you posted...probably.