Tag Archives: Paraguay

Getting Ready For The Trip Home

Flag-map_of_Paraguay.svgThere won’t be any more updates from your South American correspondent for a few days, as we’re packing in the morning for the final leg of our Paraguayan journey and will be on the road and in the air.

Honestly, I feel like I have severely under-blogged during this trip. Reading the posts I’ve written gives me some mixed reactions. I am not sure I have been fair enough to Paraguay, and I freely admit that some of my reactions to this proud republic are too narrow-minded—I don’t want to sound like I’m passing judgment on a country or its customs from a 20-day stay.

It may be only as populous as two Iowas, but it’s as big as California, and there is far more that I don’t know and have not seen than what I know and have seen in this isolated, wonderful country hidden in the most remote corner of these two American continents.

Anyway, I am sure I’ll write one or several blog posts about Paraguay after I get back home. Future topics to look for:

  • The chow of Paraguay, or how I learned to share a cup and sip from the same metallic straw as others without a qualm. Not to be confused with the “chau” of Paraguay which is how they say goodbye. Adios, Spanish students, means “hola” in Paraguay.
  • The Jesuit ruins of Trinidad, or how important it is to do routine maintenance on your stone roof (or maybe how European architecture of the 1700s was no match for the climate of Paraguay).
  • The angel of death for Paraguayan tree frogs—the strange and awesome hunter (who also freaks out and has odd fears) that is my son’s and daughter-in-law’s cat.
  • My impressions of the capital city, where we’ll spend two days before winging our way back to the United States.

I also may make “Paraguay: The Movie.” I shot some video that I have not had time to look at or edit, so we’ll see.

Anyway, it’s been a blast. Our time last year in Norwich, England was my first extended stay in a foreign land, and Paraguay feels 10-times as foreign as the UK—it’s about as foreign as you can get in this hemisphere. I’m sure parts of Africa or Asia would seem even more alien, but besides Haiti, I don’t know if there are lots of places in the Americas or the world that feel further from Los Estados Unidos than Paraguay.

Of course, I freely admit that’s a uniformed opinion. Give me a break. It’s a blog. (Inside joke for Jon and Nalena).

The fact that it’s not Iowa is not a criticism of this contradiction of a country that manages to be simultaneously huge and tiny (big on land, not densely populated).

"Flag maps" of Paraguay downloaded from Wikicommons.

“Flag maps” of Paraguay downloaded from Wikicommons.

It’s good to get away from home, now and then. It’s good to experience a country where you are the outsider, an oddity.

I saw a rather ignorant Facebook post the other day from someone who passed on along a meme to the effect that English ought to be required before a person could get a USA green card.

I did not repost. I was repulsed. That would exclude my grandparents, legal U.S. residents who spoke only Hungarian. That would have excluded many WWII refugees or the Hmong from Laos who were our allies in Vietnam. I suspect it would exclude some ancestors of the person who posted the meme.

It’s good to be in a place, now and then, where English is not only not “the” language, it’s not even one of the two. Paraguay is the only American country that preserves its indigenous tongue as a major, official, national language.

Maybe we should have all been forced to learn the pledge of allegiance in Cherokee. I hope Paraguayans have a pledge that they recite in Guarani.

Anyway, I’ll be very glad to get home to my familiar haunts in Iowa. But in just tres semanas, Paraguay has changed me. Among other things, it has reminded me how much more I have to learn to claim I can even start to speak Spanish.

So, no, I don’t think adult immigrants to EE.UU should be forced to prove that they speak English any more than I should be forced to prove fluency in either Spanish or Guarani should I decide to make the other red, white and blue country my home.

Anyway, end of rant and tangent. I didn’t want to get preachy or political in this post. Mostly, I want to say muchas gracias to my son; his lovely bride; his loca gata; and the mysterious, friendly, beautiful, complex and iconoclastic people of Paraguay.

I’m sure I’ll have mas to say before I’m done writing about Paraguay. I’m sure that even then, I’ll have left too much badly said or unsaid.

For now, chau, chau.


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Riding on the Magic Bus

Busy in Concepción, Paraguay, from Wikicommons, posted on flickr by Concepción.

Bus in Concepción, Paraguay, from Wikicommons, posted on flickr by Concepción.

We were getting ready to leave the bus, and my wife had my jacket, so she handed it to me. She’s innocent in what happened next.

With a clatter, my water bottle, which I had been holding in my lap, fell to the floor and rolled away. My daughter-in-law got down on the floor (if you’ve ever seen the floor of a Paraguayan bus, you will understand what a courageous act that was) to look for it.

Sadly, it was not evident. We had to exit the bus before it was found.

It was not our only bus loss on a little tour of southern Paraguay—one of Jon’s caps is now somewhere out there, absorbing the sweet, bitter odor of diesel exhaust, as it rides around on a clinking, clattering bus.

We visited several sites in the past few days—Paraguaría with its hills and old train station, Encarnación with it’s river walk and big city restaurants, and Trinidad to see the ruins of a Jesuit settlement.

The trip was definitely fun. But bus travel in a developing country takes some getting used to. Some notes should you ever find yourself in need of transit in Paraguay:

  • Ask people waiting on a street corner of a busy road. There are bus terminals in larger cities, but in most towns, you get a bus ride just by standing by the road, watching the destinations listed in the passing omnibuses, and hailing with your hand when you see the city you want (or if the city you want is on the way to some other city listed on the bus). You may need to brush up on enough Spanish just to ask “does the bus to Villarrica use this road?” And probably to understand the answer.
  • When you board, be ready. The bus will move before you find a seat—even before you finish climbing the stairs if the you’re the final one aboard.
  • Don’t always expect a seat. You may be startled to find a bus packed with people both sitting and standing. Get over any USA notions of personal space, and just squeeze in. Make room when people have to squeeze by. It didn’t happen to us, but Jon says pick-pockets are a potential problem on busses, so have your “stuff” secure and don’t leave a wallet in a back pocket. Anyway, just be ready to stand and hold on, sometimes for an hour or more.
  • Go with the flow. Don’t be shocked at what you’ll experience. The busses in Paraguay are basically busses that were condemned in other countries. They are not clean, they are noisy and rattle, and they smell strongly of diesel exhaust. But they don’t cost a lot and they will get you there. You never know when one you want it coming—you just have to wait—and, unless you’re headed to a big city bus terminal, you want to indicate when you want to get off. It’s not a terribly organized system, but then again, Paraguayans who don’t own cars and foreign visitors can find easy transit from town to town.
  • Drink carefully. Skip the extra coffee, and sip judiciously from your water bottle before you lose it. I have not been brave enough to use a bus restroom. Restrooms in general are not as common here—you usually find them in a restaurant and probably should buy something if you’re going to use it. Public restrooms are few and far between, and when available, they are not free. They have an attendant and you have to buy a ticket (it’s only 25 cents, which is 1,000 Guarani, but still …). You will be able to find restrooms, but don’t think that they will be as common as you’re used to (or that they will work the way you’re used to).

Anyway, despite the challenges and lost items, bus travel has been our mode of transportation in Paraguay. It’s had its drawbacks, but overall, if you’re willing to be a bit flexible and adjust your North American standards, busses in Paraguay provide an easy way to get from town to town.

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The Bad Boys of Rap Sing To Maria, Mujer De Fe

A school girl carries the Paraguayan flag in a parade. Students with the highest grades were flag bearers.

A school girl carries the Paraguayan flag in a parade. Students with the highest grades were flag bearers.

I can’t say that I know much about education in Paraguay, because I’ve only seen indirect manifestations of it. Jon and Nalena say that the limits of Paraguayan schools and a resulting lack of achievement in this area is a problem that has held this developing nation back. I believe them, but I don’t have the facts firsthand.

What I have seen are little snippets of the educational system, and what I can say is that kids are recognizably kids en todo del mundo.

I was at a school concert last night. Two English classes that Jon and Nalena have been teaching on Thursday nights came to an end earlier in the evening. They had a “certificate” ceremony where students who had attended received a paper—such papers are important in Paraguay, Nalena notes, and only those who had attended most of the classes received one.

English students and their certificates.

English students and their certificates.

At Nalena’s request, Audrey and I had made American treats—she baked an apple crisp, I made peanut butter cookies. Both proved popular.

Anyway, several of the students who had been in one of the classes are teens who attend a Catholic school that is just across the street from the offices where Jon and Nalena held the English classes, and they invited us to come over to the concert. Their grade, they assured us, would perform after 8 p.m., when the English classes were scheduled to end.

Students in one class with Audrey and I. Note some school uniforms.

Students in one class with Audrey and I. Note some school uniforms.

So we went over. The concert has already begun, but in Paraguay they do things a bit differently. Nobody hushes during a school concert, and constant comings and goings, as well as constant conversation, are simply how people behave.

The school apparently goes from lower grades all the way through high school, and they arranged the concert so that they skipped around between lower and upper grades. When one third grade performed, the daughter of one of the people Jon and Nalena works with sang, so Nalena and I joined the cluster of parents at the front of the aisle snapping photos.

Since it was a Catholic School, all of the songs were praises to Mary. And the concert took place in a kind of facility that would be very familiar at almost every older small-town school in Iowa: A gymatorium. There was a stage at one end of a large room, the floor was painted with basketball court lines and a hoop was at the other end, with stands along one side and most of the audience seated in removable chairs arranged on the gym floor.

At the concert, one of the lower grades and their "Mary."

At the concert, one of the lower grades and their “Mary.”

The difference between this gymatorium and those found in Iowa was that one side of the space was completely open to a cobbled central school courtyard—in Iowa, our climate demands four, rather than three, walls on our school gyms.

It was interesting watching the school groups perform. The kids were noisy and boisterous, but mostly pretty serious when they got to sing (or at least stand up there and move their lips, I’m certain that some of that was going on, too). Most of them, except the special performers, were in the grey and white uniforms of their school, skirts for girls, pants for boys, black ties for both (sorry, SHS alums, no awkward jumpers).

Each class had designated one girl to be “Mary.” Some had rather elaborate skits that accompanied or preceded their songs, often in which Mary rescued someone from despair and helped her (always her) turn back to God.

Nalena asked one of the high school students from her English class if it was an honor to be Mary. Not really. The student replied, in Spanish: “The blonde girl gets to be Mary.”

Indeed, most of the Mary’s were rather lighter in hair tone than the other students in their grades—a bit of a historic anomaly. Given who Mary was and when she lived, she probably looked much more like the raven haired girls relegated to the chorus.

Anyway, the concert got a bit long, and we were fading by around 10, but we did see the group that had Jon and Nalena’s high school students in it. Despite the late hour (Paraguayans are night owls), I thought the concert was a hoot. It was just fun to watch all the kids be kids. In each group they varied in size and shape. Here in the fourth grade or so is the big boy in back who looks like he’s about to explode out of his suddenly undersized uniform. I felt for him. With my August birthday, I was always one of the youngest students in my grade, but nonetheless almost reach adult height in sixth grade.

One of the pleasures was the variety of skits and songs. At one point, a girl was in despair, surrounded by two twirling, black-costumed dancers, until Mary came to her and she perked up and white-clad ballerinas started twirling around. She was saved, by Maria, Mujer de Fe.

Mary has saved someone and is surrounded by white-clad dancers.

Mary has saved someone and is surrounded by white-clad dancers.

Anyway, we burst out laughing during another number. It was a rock-and-roll style tribute to the mother of Jesus—and two girls were, at first, the primary singers, but as they performed, a quartet of bad boys entered the stage behind them. We could tell they were bad boys—their uniform shirts were not tucked in, and their ties were loosened.

They proceeded to rap in praise of Mary. We’re not sure how the nun in the front row reacted.

We laughed.

The final group we saw, with a student from the English class in it.

The final group we saw, with a student from the English class in it.

School in Paraguay takes place in shifts, and students only have three hours of class time a day. High school science courses are deathly dull, a student told us, because chemistry, for instance, is strictly lecture—there is no lab.

That’s too bad, and I hope Paraguay finds ways to lengthen the school day, and extend more science labs for students. They’re just kids, after all, and have all the potential, problems and eccentricities of children anywhere.

We saw this school concert. Several days earlier, we viewed a long parade that featured the favored pupils of Villarrica in a procession that celebrated the republic’s glorious victory in an obscure 1930s war that left it in possession of most of a desert except the corner that has oil in it.

There’s a religious parallel there. Moses led the chosen people around a desert for 40 years until he settled into the one corner of the Middle East devoid of petroleum.

Mary has a place in her heart for the red, white and blue--of Paraguay.

Mary has a place in her heart for the red, white and blue–of Paraguay.

It seems to me that the Paraguayans sometimes take pride in the wrong things—but then again, militaristic displays using red white and blue motifs (the colors of Paraguay’s flag, too) are not a sin restricted to Paraguay. Still, despite the odd military overtones of the procession, the parade was mostly a day for school kids to dress up and march around and be admired by the town.

Officer at city hall watches over parade, music provided by military band.

Officer at city hall watches over parade, music provided by military band.

Worldwide, parents take pride in their kids. Well, they ought to. And I hope as time goes on, the education that those kids receive can be improved. I suppose that’s just as verdad en los estados unidos como es en la republica de Paraguay.

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The First Few Days in Paraguay

Butterfly in Yayaity, Paraguay. I'm visiting my son and daughter-in-law in Villarrica, and am having a good time.

Butterfly in Yayaity, Paraguay. I’m visiting my son and daughter-in-law in Villarrica, and am having a good time.

Well, blog fans, I think I’m on a bit of cultural overload. So many days have gone by, and I have not had time to write. We’re in the midst of a visit to Paraguay, where my son Jon and his wife Nalena Santiago are Peace Corps volunteers in Villarrica.

It’s clear that Paraguay is not Iowa. One glance at the Asuncion Airport and we knew we were in another place.

The place looks, honestly, a bit tired. Everything seems aged, from the broken pavement of the streets, to the motos that are the majority of traffic, to the loud cars and trucks and even horse carts that clatter by every morning. In the airport, there was not the cold, efficient feel of even the Eastern Iowa Airport. The officials who took our cash and granted our visas took their time. The webcams that were used to shoot our photos were held together with tape.

Several of our $20 bills were rejected because they have small tears. Don’t ask me why. But if you travel to Paraguay, bring only crisp, clean, newish bills, blog fans.

Well, we spent only a little time in the big city, and moved on to the town where Jon and Nalena are based.

As a state capitol, the city of Villaroca still has a very small-town, rural feeling to it. Thin dogs wander the cobblestone streets. The sidewalks are narrow, often appropriated as extra space for shops or as a motorbike parking area. You have to keep a sharp eye out for rather chaotic traffic that sometimes includes cattle, but, on the other hand, Paraguayan traffic is pretty orderly compared with Puerto Rico.

The people have mostly been friendly. The students in Jon and Nalena’s classes have been excited to have American guests.

The food is not very diverse—in a state capitol of more than 100,000 souls, I have not yet seen a single Chinese or Italian restaurant, beyond a couple of pizza joints. I could really do want some Indian or Thai food.

But the Paraguayan chow has been good. They drink a cold tea called terere, which involves using a special cooler for water, the pouring it into a cup filled with herbs, then drinking it through a spoon-straw. It’s a bit bitter at first, but gets better.  A group is expected to share the cup and straw.

They make a sort of cornmeal-starch-cheese bagel, the chipa, which is sold on busses during trips. Jon and Nalena say that it’s not always good, but the one I had on the bus from Asuncion was very tasty—chewy and cheesy and warm.

In a park in Villarica, we also had kabure, which is a dough cooked on a thick stick. It’s a little like having a corndog without a hotdog, although I’ve heard Paraguayans might blanch at the idea of meat inside a kabure.

We’re planning on doing some traveling around Paraguay, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of this country. It’s definitely “deep South” feeling. But it’s not completely a land that time forgot.

There are apparently no noise ordinances in Villarica, and one way things are promoted is by cars driving around with loudspeakers. One morning, there was a horse cart that went by the house, with loudspeakers mounted on top, promoting something.

And it’s often that you see a horse cart driver texting Cell phones are quite common.

When I was speaking with students in one of Jon and Nalena’s classes, the Paraguayan teens asked about what music I liked. They perked up when I said “rock and roll.” They didn’t react much when I said I like The Beatles, but when I said “Green Day,” there were lots of smiles.

Besides seeing a new country, this vacation has been a welcome rest. I’ve been using a Spanish review book and have tried to communicate in that language, but that’s been so-so. I’ll keep working at it. I’ve read two books so far, one week into this trip:

“Cannery Row.” I mentioned once to my sister Cate that I had not enjoyed “Of Mice and Men” that much, and she suggested “Cannery Row” as a very different Steinbeck novel, and she was right, it was a fun read.

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Don’t tell me the end, blog fans, I’m about 80 percent of the way through the book. It’s very different from “Cannery Row!”

Anyway, blog fans, I feel like I have had lots of experiences in Paraguay. I’ve been to a university here, seen a parade, been accosted in an ice cream shop by a begging child—it feels like I could do many blog posts a day, but I have had neither the time nor the computer access.

But, stay tuned, I’m sure at some point I’ll report a bit more on my Southern Hemisphere adventures. I haven’t written yet about the city part dedicated to a poet, the school parade, or the dozens of other things I’ve seen.  I’m sure I will at some point.

Here are some photos from the trip so far.

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And They’re Off


At the Eastern Iowa Airport this morning, Audrey, Nalena, Jon and I. They have tickets, the bags have been turned over to TSA and they will soon be off through security for a flight to Chicago and then South America. Good luck, you two!

In the movie “Ruthless People,” one of the villains is infamously incompetent—he thinks he and his girlfriend will run off “to Haiti,” when her plans are to run off to “Tahiti.”

Neither Jon nor Nalena has run off. But, they are headed far away. Not to Haiti nor Tahiti, but to Paraguay.

Paraguary is a landlocked nation along the Tropic of Capricorn in South America, roughly twice the population of Iowa, roughly three times the square miles. Iowa is not a very dense place, which means Paraguay must stretch out a bit. Like Iowa, the western half of Paraguay is the empty half, but the disparity is much greater there—the country is divided into a fairly densely populated eastern part and fairly empty and much larger, somewhat arid, western part.

We don’t know yet exactly where in this tropical land Jon and Nalena will be living. They have some training time before being deployed by the Peace Corps. The both have an advantage—Nalena is from Puerto Rico, Jon had a semester in Spain and minored in Spanish at Iowa State—they both speak one of the two languages of Paraguay, Spanish. They don’t speak Guaraní, the other language. Most people in Paraguay understand both, although the indigenous tongue prevails in rural areas. If they are posted to a rural village, the training Jon and Nalena will receive in the coming months on the rudiments of Guaraní will be important to them!

Reverse side of the flag of Paraguay

Back of flag of Paraguay. The other side has a coat of arms and says “Republic of Paraguay” in Spanish. This side is cuter.

We don’t really expect that they’ll be in a rural village. Jon is a computer scientist and worked for Microsoft, the Peace Corps has already told him he’ll be doing computer-related economic development. To me, that sounds like “city,” but which city? And what is a “city” in Paraguay?

I know it was a big “uh-oh” moment when they left. We got them to the airport in Cedar Rapids around 7 a.m. this morning, and it seemed like check-in went too smoothly. Before we knew it, it was time for farewell, and they slipped away from us, bound first for Chicago, thence to Miami to enter the Corp, and finally, in an overnight flight tonight, to Asunción.

It will be a bit before we hear from them, and even longer before we can see them again. It’s only a bit over two years—27 months—and we may fly down to Paraguay ourselves at least once during that time.

Well, if you don’t wait until you’re retired to join the Peace Corps, I suppose it’s best to do it when you’re young. Good luck, Jon and Nalena. May you feel that you’re doing good work, may being tri-lingual be a cool experience, and may you learn to love the people and places of far-off Paraguay.


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