Saturday, December 7, 2013


One thing that my time in Paraguay taught me is that Americans are obsessed with teeth.  I always knew that I valued straight white teeth but it was not until I became acclimated to life in Paraguay that I realized the rest of the world does not, or possibly cannot, place such a high value on cosmetic dentistry.  Paraguay is no exception. 

Going to the dentist, even brushing your teeth with tooth paste, is considered to be a luxury activity.  My 71 year old host mother does not own a tooth brush, and never has. Often you will see children with black teeth and terrible cavities, they do not go to the dentist until the only affordable option is to pull the tooth.  Having all of your teeth is a huge status symbol.  Aside from my ‘blonde’ hair my most commented on feature in Paraguay was my teeth. Paraguayans were constantly asking how many teeth I had, if they were all my original teeth, and how I managed to keep them into my twenties.  These are questions we do not even think about asking in America.

I realized early on in my service that I wanted to help teach Paraguayan children the importance of dental care.  Although it is too late to try and change the habits of Na Julia, the majority of Paraguayan children in my community wanted to learn how to keep their teeth.  I told my family early on of my intention to teach in the school and they said that I should find a way to hand out tooth brushes.  It was not until the last month in my service that I finally had everything in order: tooth brushes, individual flossers, tooth paste, huge model teeth, and a huge model tooth brush.

The tooth brushes and floss were all generously donated from my family dentist, Dr. Pascaner.  She has been our family dentist for the past 10 or so years and was very supportive of my desire to join the Peace Corps.  She worried slightly since the water in Paraguay does not have fluoride and I have cavity prone teeth but for the most part knew that I would come back 27 months later after having a fantastic adventure.  My Dad told her of my intention to give a lecture series at the school and she jumped at the opportunity to help.

In total the dental lecture was given to 20 Paraguayans.  This may not seem like a large number but my site only has around 30 children.  Each child practiced proper brushing techniques on the model teeth, learned what foods to avoid, and discussed proper oral hygiene. Everyone that received a tooth brush commented on what a nice brand they were (colgate) and how they could never afford these tooth brushes.  Although colgate tooth brushes only cost around $3 to $5 in Paraguay that price is not realistic for subsistence farmers.

It is an interesting experience watching as the younger generations in Paraguay being to put a higher value on things like oral hygiene. Things are beginning to change in Paraguay and although development work is slow I am very pleased that I was able to play a small role in helping these kids develop habits that will benefit them throughout their lives. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Day of Souls > Wrecking Ball

Souls Day:

Halloween is not really a thing in Paraguay. The candy companies are trying to make it happen by sending down themed candy and promoting trick or treating but let me tell you right now nestle… it’s a lost cause. Paraguayans (keep in mind I am speaking for the people in my community) do call October 31 witches day. What this means is that throughout the day they playfully insult one another by saying congratulations and happy witch day. I did my best to explain the candy and trick or treating but it never really made sense to them.  

One thing I did notice from Paraguay (although I am writing this from the comfort of my bedroom in my parent’s home in Powder Springs, more on that in later blogs), is that people in America seem to be into the “Día de Muertos” or day of the dead.  Although this day falls on Halloween it is more about honoring the dead than begging strangers for candy and seeing if you can still pull off the slutty cop look.

Paraguay’s version of day of the dead falls on November 2.  The name my host mom gave me is “The day of souls” but I have heard there are other common names.  This year it happened to fall on a Saturday and I was invited to join the family at the cemetery.  The man who would have been my host father, Na Julia’s husband for 50 plus years, died 1 year before I arrived in the community and the family was heading to the cemetery to pay their respects.

Na Julia, Lourdes, Solidad (my host cousin, she’s 21), and I all piled into a taxi and drove the 6 miles to the cemetery.  Once we got there we walked past all of the grave sites to the final resting place of Na Julia’s husband.  We spent the next half hour cleaning the grave and rearranging flowers.  A candle was lit and we said a prayer.  Next we moved to the grave of Na Julia’s son, he died 11 years ago.  He was around 40 when he passed away from what I believe was a brain aneurism.  I am not positive because my host mother just told me he dropped dead in front of the house one day and no one knows why.  It is not uncommon for people to be unsure about a person’s cause of death, especially if it happened years ago. Tests and autopsies are expensive and often a spiritual or cultural justification is given.  Once we finished cleaning his grave and changing the flowers we just hung out.

We stayed at the graves for around 3 hours, and really the idea was just to spend time with them. To me it seemed like a really nice tradition. There were a lot of Paraguayans all visiting loved ones and some brought soda and snacks.  They spent the day greeting each other and spending time at the graves of loved ones that they had lost.

After we spent time with the graves of the immediate family members we went to find Na Julia’s father’s grave.  He died around 50 years of tuberculosis.  His grave was interesting because his brother had been buried on top of him around 10 years after he was buried.  We visited with other family members that happened to be at the cemetery, and then we returned to the original graves to say goodbye one last time.

In my opinion this is a much better holiday than Halloween.  Paraguayans spend the day remembering loved ones.  Oddly, it is not a day full of tears.  It is a day where you sit around the graves of loved ones and have conversations as you normally would.  It is as if you are filling them in on what they have missed in the past year and to me that is far more special than dressing like a half-naked Miley Cyrus on a wrecking ball.


Lourdes cleaning her father's grave.

Na Julia visiting her husband
Na Julia's father and Uncle

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Bee careful what you wish for...

Tree Planting

The most important update in my life is that a certain woman who birthed me is going to come to Paraguay!!! I sent a sad, sad email to all of my family hoping that someone would take pity on me and help me leave Paraguay and lucky for me my mother agreed to come celebrate my birthday and bring me home! As the date (rapidly) approaches I am beginning to realize how grateful I am that my Mom is willing to do this. Not only will she get to see my home for the past 2 years but she will also get to rip me from Na Julia’s chubby arms as I say farewell to Valois Rivarola and the people there. Now on to my service…

The past few months have been very busy for me, which is a good thing.  I have been working with my women’s group to take care of the chickens, raise money, and plant trees.  We have made chipa and bread this month and we have also planted over 100 trees.  Half of my women’s group got together last week and we made our first batch of homemade chicken feed! There was some drama with the group because in order to get the fodderer properly installed we had to pay 170.000gs ($40 or so) to the electrician.  Many of the women believed that the money should be put toward purchasing more chicken feed but I put my foot down and ultimately acted as group Dictator, insisting we install the fodderer.  The first batch turned out great! We made around 80 pounds of feed and the fodderer worked great! Thanks again to anyone who donated to the project making all of this possible!

So far out of the 200 chicks purchased only 5 have died. That is both good and bad news. It is good because chickens, Yay!!! It is bad news because I had anticipated around 40 chicks dying and increased the amount purchased in order to make up for the deaths. Since only 5 have died the women have more chicks to feed than originally anticipated. The women have been doing a good job of taking care of the extra chicks because all of them look great! They are around 35 days old and loving their chicken coops!

I also attempted to assist in the training of the new group of Agricultural volunteers which was a huge disaster. I am serious, it was awful. I have wanted to be invited in to help train a new group for as long as I have been a volunteer. It just seems like such a fun experience to share knowledge and get to interact with the new trainees fresh from America. When I was invited to train in Small Animal Husbandry I was thrilled! Not only have I been doing a chicken coop project, but I also have 4 chickens of my own.  I should have known it was too good to be true. Due to a scheduling error I ended up getting switched, I was now in charge of beekeeping.  Although I am not as confident beekeeping, I was still thrilled!  In addition, this training would be for 2 days, instead of just 1!
The plan was for me to arrive at the training center on Friday morning with Mel, the third year volunteer coordinator for the Agriculture sector.  From there we would go to the agricultural school and fill up three jars with bees. Then we would go to the training communities and sting each volunteer with a bee.  That afternoon we were to give a lecture on beekeeping and answer any questions. The next day, Saturday, we were going back to the agriculture school to work bees with all of the trainees – simple, right? Nope. 

When Mel and I got to the agricultural school, along with 2 other ladies, Joanna and Zahrina, we had a very casual and cocky attitude.  I believe I might have uttered the statement “this ain’t my first rodeo”. Mel, as confident as I, insisted that we did not need to bring smoke to the boxes (*always bring smoke when working bees. Always).  I hesitated since it was a cloudy day and the last time I worked bees on a cloudy day I had been stung around 10 times, but Mel’s confidence gave me the courage I needed to push through.  The four of us arrived at the boxes and Mel and I got to work. Using my leatherman we began to remove panels trying to shove the bees into the jars. By the time we got the third panel out all hell broke loose. The bees were LIVID. I mean it, they were bees on steroids and they did not want us there. They began to attack.  They somehow sensed that in my cockiness I had worn tall, thin socks and began viciously attacking my ankles.  They also learned that Joanna had not tucked her shirt in and entered inside of her veil to attack her head. We lasted around 3 more minutes before running out of there – panels still out, leatherman forgotten, and box still open. 

We spent the next half hour running around like idiots. Trying to shake the bees, still getting stung, and generally just miserable. I must give a shout out to Joanna, it was her first time beekeeping and she managed to keep her cool with 20 or so bees inside her veil. I have no idea how she did not freak out and cry.  

Once the bees were somewhat under control we decided to go back in, this time with smoke. Exactly the same thing happened, only this time Mel was brave enough to close the boxes back up before we ran out. By the time we returned to the car we were completely defeated. We collected 0 bees and were each stung approximately 50 times. 

My afternoon lecture with the new group was cancelled because they were worried that no one would want to work bees after seeing how swollen Mel and I were.  They also cancelled the bee work the next day, assuming that the bees would be just as angry.  

That was my one and only attempt that training and it was a HUGE failure. I never got to interact with the trainees and my feet were so swollen that I had trouble walking for the next few days. Mel looked into it and later informed me that that Paraguay had an earthquake the day we ‘worked’ the bees. It was a level 4 earthquake and apparently enough to enrage all of the nearby bees. Since then she and another volunteer have successfully stung all of the trainees and given the lectures without me. My time in Paraguay is coming to an end and it looks like I won’t ever get to teach the new kids but I guess that’s better than being remembered as the dumb volunteer who didn’t know better than to enter an apiary without smoke.  

That’s all I’ve got for you guys for this Paraguay update. I do not plan to continue blogging from the States, so we are coming to the end of our time together. Keep an eye out for my last few blogs. I am sure they will start to get sappy and emotional in the very near future!

Sunday, October 13, 2013


My boss asked me to write a vignette so send to Peace Corps Washington, since I already wrote it I am now using it as a blog! Here you go:

When I first received my site placement I was filled with a mixture of emotions: excitement, nervousness, and awe.  This was it, the moment that my 10 weeks of training had led to, I was going to visit my new home for the next two years.  As all new volunteers do my friends and I quickly began comparing site placements and it was only then that a new emotion entered my mind, intimidation.  All of my friends had been placed in sites at least twice the size of mine, many with existing groups awaiting their arrival.  I was heading to Valois Rivarola, population approximately 120, with only one family expecting me.
My first year in site was spent getting to know families and building important relationships.  I quickly learned that the small town, like most small towns, loved gossip and did not believe in their ability to work well with one another.  I was told time and time again that committees and groups were pointless because they would not accomplish anything.  Year two I decided it was time to prove them wrong. I went house to house inviting everyone to an interest meeting about forming a committee. I was met with doubt and in some cases full on laughter when I stated my intentions.  The meeting resulted in a small women’s group forming, with 11 official members. Together we received governmental recognition on the local and departmental level as well as implemented a sustainable egg production project. With help from a Peace Corps Partnership grant 8 chicken coops were built and each family received 25 chicks. 
The group met every two weeks for over six months before implementing the project.  Meetings involved lectures on various topics, brainstorming possible projects, as well as fund raising.  Each family is in charge of growing corn and beans in order to make their own homemade chicken feed to reduce costs and increase the sustainability of the project.  While watching the project take effect it has been amazing to view the impact in more than just the physical sense, the nontangible results.  The women not only received physical assistance from the Peace Corps Partnership grant but also a sense of empowerment.  This project has given them a new potential form of income allowing them to provide for their families in new ways.  The group has also requested tree saplings, as well as seed, from a local source to help prevent deforestation and to replace the trees cut down in order to build their chicken coops.
The women now look forward to meeting every two weeks and want to rewrite their constitution to strengthen the group.  They are considering opening the group to include other members of the community, the naysayers who now wish to join after seeing the project’s success.  This project means more to the community than just a few chicken coops; it is an example of how they can band together and make positive impacts on their lives.  My hope is that they continue to work together, expanding the group to include more members of the community.  As my two years of service come to a close I cannot help but be thankful that I was placed in such a small community; although my impact may not be much in terms of numbers and raw data I know that it has had a huge influence on the lives of the members of this community.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Little bit of this, little bit of that...

I currently feel like I am sprinting, full speed ahead down the back of the mountain that is my Peace Corps Service.  I will officially close my Service on November 15, and the new group of Agriculture volunteers arrives in country on September 27.  It is terrifying, exhilarating, nauseating, and confusing.  I am terrified of the unknown that lurks in America.  The changes that have taken place while I spent the last two years bucket bathing and learning how to milk cows seem to be waiting just around the corner.  This blog was meant to be my “So you want to join the Peace Corps” blog but it has morphed into something else so here it is:

I would first like to say that, regardless of whether or not you join the Peace Corps, you should never, ever tell a returned volunteer that you “thought about joining the Peace Corps”.  Just about everyone in the world considered being a marine biologist and a vet at some point in their childhood, but do they tell every vet they meet that they thought about doing it too?  No. This may seem uncaring but I do not care that you considered joining the Peace Corps.  If you don’t do it, that’s fine just keep it to yourself.

When I began applying to the Peace Corps I had no idea what to expect. I had been studying Spanish in college and wanted an opportunity to improve my language.  I was also worried that I would get a job and pick a town and never leave.  Where is the fun in that?  Where is the adventure? I do not consider myself to be a very adventurous person but I knew that I wanted to do something big.  There also was some first world guilt thrown in there.  During my study abroad experience in Argentina I wrote a research paper on a welfare program and was able to visit and interview different families living with essentially nothing.   The biggest money crisis of my life had been my mother forcing me to wear a hand-me-down dress to homecoming, oh the shame! A part of me felt that I did not appreciate everything life had given me, everything my parents have worked to give me, I felt that Peace Corps would teach me to be truly thankful.  

Did I learn what I set out to learn? Am I a Spanish master who can return to America and never again feel guilty swiping a credit card and paying $6 for a coffee? Absolutely not.  

My Spanish is now interlaced with random words of Guarani and typical Paraguayan phrases, such as “un poco” (a little).  Instead of asking someone to “come here”, I now say “come here a little”.  I do not use proper tenses and I make up words or just use my hands to gesture.  I am absolutely effective with my community and received an “advanced high” rating on my language exam but I have lost any semblance of professionalism that my Spanish once held. 

My first world guilt has only risen.  I used to be aware that I had it easy, in the sense that you are aware that it is cold in Alaska.  Two years in Paraguay is like going to Alaska, getting frost bite on your toes and trying to explain the sensation to others.  They nod their head and make the appropriate “ouch” face but they do not get it.  Unless they get frost bite too, they never will.  I find myself listening to friends and family (sorry guys) complain about their lives and I nod my head and respond in the appropriate manner but inside I am screaming “IT DOESN’T MATTER”.  There are bigger issues in the world, your wifi speed is absolutely irrelevant. 

I know that after a few months back home I will return to caring about a lot of these things too but Peace Corps has taught me something invaluable.  I now understand some things just are not important in the grand scheme of things.  I do not have a car when I get back, my neighbor does not have direct access to potable water.  She has to rely on the kindness of another neighbor, who lives a half mile away, to share their well water.  Not only does she have to walk multiple times a day to get water but she also has to worry about maintaining the friendship in order to provide her family with drinking water.  I think I can live without a car. 

This is what Peace Corps has done for me.  It is liberating.  I often find myself stressing out about what awaits me in America and then I stop. I have a place to stay and access to food and water.  I am not naïve in thinking that I am now above having petty problems or that I will live an altruistic life, free of selfish indulgences.  I am fully aware that I will return to America and binge on food and culture until my brain and stomach hurt.  I am just thankful that now when I do allow myself to be bogged down by life’s challenges that I can think back to my little rural Paraguayan town and appreciate how good I really have it.

As you may have noticed, if you read the introduction, this blog did not turn out to be my “so you want to join the Peace Corps” blog. I am not really sure what happened but I’ve gone too far to turn back now and fix it. Here are some site updates:

  •  All 8 chicken coops have been built!!!
  • 200 chicks, 8 bags of feed, and vaccinations will be delivered on October 1.
  • My women’s group is planning on making chipa (cheese bread) to sell and raise money for the group on October 1.
  • Na Eugenia’s bees have officially been moved into their new Kenya Top Bar Hives and a new swarm took over my hive that got eaten by a random wild animal! The new swarm looks really strong so hopefully I can bring some honey home!
New comb from the new bees! They've only been there for 2 or so weeks! Que Guapas!

When we were bee keeping the bees seemed to really want to gather around my crotch.  I have no idea why this happened, and it was a little terrifying.  The only answer I can come up with is that perhaps the queen had flown there and they were gathering around her.  I got stung around 8 times and now, 2 days later, have the itchiest thighs of my life. Bee perks! 

Doesn't normally happen.


Look how big Todd has gotten!
 That's all the updates I have for you now! I hope all is well in the Northern Hemisphere and I miss you all! If any of you are my amazing Peace Corps Partnership Donors please be aware I have not forgotten that I need to properly thank you! I am working on it now!