Nueva Esperanza, Paraguay
I have changed my name for good. There is no way a Paraguayan can say Chance. The A comes out weird and no way can you continue the strangeness with an N and then an S. Those two letters don’t combine well when they just end like that. The word seems unfinished, incomplete, utterly worthless and jumbled in the mouth. Even I have trouble saying it in the middle of a statement in Spanish. Not going to happen. I am now Chance, but with a Spanish pronunciation. Chaunsay if you will. I am asked, “But what does it mean?” “Oportunidad. Suerte,” I reply. They laugh, but I can tell they don’t get it. Sometimes, chance is actually a Spanish word. When my dad gets a lottery ticket, he always states, “tengo tres chances. Tres chances.” And then he laughs. Because I’m Chance. And he has three chances. Que suerte. I’m not even going to try with my last name.
I realized that I jumped straight into this blog without really informing my readers about what exactly it is that I am doing in the heart of South America. I am working with the Peace Corps, yes, but it’s not very well known what happens in this organization once we get to our designated country. I am now a trainee with the United States Peace Corps. I am not an actual volunteer here in Paraguay until I swear in on the day after Thanksgiving. As trainees, we live near the training facility in Guarambaré in satellite communities of about 12 people. Every day, we have language classes focused on Guaraní, medical workshops, security debriefings, and technical trainings focused on environmental conservation. Interspersed throughout our ten weeks here, we go on trips to visit relevant places in our field, such as tree nurseries or certain NGO offices, as well as trips to other volunteers’ sites to get a feel for a real volunteer’s life. Once we swear in, an environmental conservation volunteer can focus a vast spectrum of different projects. We plant trees, help families with gardening practices, and teach farmers about green manure and worms. We work in schools, teach students about biodiversity, do recycled art projects, and start youth groups. We build biodigestors, healthier ovens, and solar food dryers, amongst other amazing projects. We focus on raising awareness, changing habits, educating, and creating a more sustainable Paraguay.
Last weekend, we went on a field trip to an organization called REFOPAR (Reforest Paraguay) to work with youth, plant trees, and see the organization in action. We started the visit in their headquarters in Caacupe, watched some overly dramatic videos, and then went to their reserve to plant trees, which didn’t actually involve working with any youth and only two trees were planted (the teenagers who worked at REFOPAR told us we were doing it wrong and wouldn’t let us plant any more). But because of our newly open schedule, we decided to be proactive and go for a hike up the nearby cerro. A cerro is basically a steep hill with a flattish top. They are the closest things that Paraguay has to mountains, but when in need of a good hike, they do the trick. When we arrived at the top of Cerro Cristo Rey, several of us discovered two crumbling altars to Jesus with a perfect view of the valley surrounding Caacupe. Caacupe is known as the spiritual capital of Paraguay. It is the home of Tupasy Roga, a large basilica dedicated to the Virgin Mary and my language professor stated that it is one of three “multimillion dollar basilicas” in Latin America, alongside those in Guadalupe and Buenos Aires. Every December 8, a large pilgrimage comes to an end in front of the basilica in honor of Mary and Caacupe is filled with pilgrims from all over South America. After our strange visit to REFOPAR and the hike up the cerro, we quickly ate lunch in the plaza before exploring this beautiful cathedral. Time permitting, the pilgrimage to Caacupe in December has been added to my official list of things to see in Paraguay.
Saturday seemed to continue with a religious tone, as after our hike to the altars and exploration of the basilica, I got home and was informed it was my brother Ale’s first communion that evening. I was told I didn’t have to go if I didn’t want to, but it is un día especial and of course I was going to go. Mamá told Ale and he asked with surprise, “Chance is coming?!” To which she responded, “Of course he is, he’s your brother!” I’ve never felt more at home here than that very moment.
My last trip to the campo was to visit my mentor, Mike. There are two more trips throughout training and last week we embarked on Long Field Practice, which is a more in-depth look at what a volunteer’s life is like and to further demonstrate the project opportunities for environmental conservation volunteers. Each group of four goes to a volunteer’s site, along with a language professor and a technical trainer, works on a larger project, continues with language classes, and integrates into the community more than in our first visit to the campo. Along with my friends Nick, Liz, and Molly, our language professor Ramona, and Christhian, our tech trainer, we went just north of Caaguazu to Kaitlyn’s site, of which she brags is the “most campo site” of all of her group. She has an amazing site and lives in an old schoolhouse with big open windows, a huge back porch, and even has her own classrooms.
Our main project at Kaitlyn’s was to create an eco-bench, which is constructed of cement and eco-bricks. Eco-bricks are two-liter soda bottles filled with plastics and other trash in order to create a hard, durable construction material that also acts as a trash-management opportunity. In only a day, we constructed an eco-bench with some help from the schoolkids using forty eco-bricks that they had brought in over the last month or so. Kaitlyn had given a small prize to each kid that brought in an eco-brick and she said they went crazy trying to pick up trash for their bottles. It ended up being a beautiful bench with handprints pressed into the top and leaf prints around the base. As well as the eco-bench, we mainly just hung out with Kaitlyn, cooked with her, did Guaraní practices, and even milked cows, but my favorite part by far was our hike to a small waterfall in the forest about a forty minute walk from her house. If you’ve never showered under a waterfall in the middle of the jungle, you should add it to the top of your bucket list. And make sure you’re with some incredible people; it heightens the experience. Incredible people always heighten the experience and I’m extremely blessed to say that these days, I’m surrounded.
We got back to our communities on Halloween and I think that it was the first time that I’ve forgotten about my favorite holiday. Luckily, I got my fill, as Paraguayans also love the holiday and dressing up, so a party was happening in Nueva Esperanza at a bar we sometimes frequent. Our whole group decided that the best group costume would be to dress up in Paraguayan-food related costumes. We showed up as a crew of sopa paraguaya, choclo, an empanada, calabaza con leche, and even popular boxed wine. I was a chipa salesperson (essentially a vendor who hops on buses or works at stands along the ruta to sell Paraguayans’ favorite snacks, fresh out of the oven. Paraguayans loved my costume, but it wasn’t until much, much later in the evening when they decided to tell me that chipa also has dirtier connotations related to female genitals. Paraguayans have dirtier minds than anyone I’ve ever met. I swear, any food also means something dirty. Luckily I’m a funny guy and know enough Guaraní to make some dirty jokes and become the life of the party. Please forgive me. Please. It was a Halloween for the books and I’m glad I was yet again with incredible people, both of the Peace Corps and Paraguayan varieties.
With that, I’m over halfway done with training. We receive our site assignments next week and then go visit them immediately after. I swear in on the day after Thanksgiving, which is less than a month from now. I love training and my current community, but I really can’t wait to see where my home will be for the next two years. Until then, I just plan on spending the remaining time here having just as much fun, as I’m sure the next four weeks will speed by.