Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Personal Pilgrimage

35 kilometers, or about 21 miles, that seemed like an attainable goal from the balcony our group stood on while posing for our pre-pilgrimage photo.  At about mile 13 I started to question my sanity and wonder if the fresh mango I picked off the tree for breakfast or the water I had drank that morning had altered my judgement.
Pre-Pilgrimage Enthusiasm

We hit the road at five in the afternoon, just as the sun started to dip, with plans to arrive at the Cathedral of Caacupe by midnight. As we marched along in good spirits the unrelenting rays of the sun stung our faces and we sweated our way into the night.  As soon as dusk fell we were joined on the trail by more and more pilgrims.  Thousands were making their way to either give thanks for a miracle that had occurred in the past year or ask for one.  I spoke with several Paraguayans who were walking for the health of a family member or to thank the virgin for the miraculous recovery of their sick infant or mother who was diagnosed with cancer.  Some walked for hours, others for days in converse and flip-flops with nothing more than a thermos for ice-cold terere and perhaps a baby in their arms.  Amazed by the asceticism of these light travelers, I did not regret wearing my hiking shoes and carrying a backpack full of provisions as we grew weary after several hours in.

Sunset along the Pilgrimage

Eight hours later we crested the hill leading down to the cathedral and witnessed the fireworks exploding in the distance to mark the stroke of midnight.  We missed our goal but hobbled down the hill into the crowed about half an hour later.

The sea of people was hardly navigable in our large group and we tried not to lose each other as we snaked through the crowded streets filled with vendors of all kinds.  T-shirts, crafts, wood carvings, fans, and figurines of all sizes of the virgin of Caacupe anointed the streets.  Mothers with children, grandparents and teenagers slept on the sidewalks, some with bamboo mats and a sheet, others with nothing but the clothes they wore and their shoes still on, undisturbed by the flow of activity and clearly exhausted by the long trek from their unknown starting points.  We made it to the cathedral to witness the last part of the midnight mass, where the sea of tightly packed people insisted on shaking each of our hands and offered welcoming benedictions as we stood on tiptoes to catch a glimpse of the ceremony.
The Basilica of Caacupe

Just two streets over there was a huge festival with make-shift restaurants and bars in the streets, carnival rides and betting games of all times.  Smells and sounds drifted through the hot humid air from all directions.  Men gathered around big roulette tables placed their bets with gregarious gestures and threw back bottles of beer.  Children dodged in and out of the crowds, running to see the next diversion.
Litter Along the Pilgrimage

The dualities of the holiday were compelling.  On one side a devout religious ceremony on the other a heathen ruckus.  Along the path people spoke of the reverence they felt for the miracles the virgin had provided while they carelessly tossed plastic cups from the water stations into the ditch leaving piles of trash in their wake.  It made me reflect on the Thanksgiving party that I had attended only a week before with about 60 other volunteers, which resembled something more like spring break Cancun than a day of giving thanks.
View from the Thanskgiving Party at Hotel Triol 

Thanksgiving Ads in Encarnacion
Pondering these contradictions and the past few busy work weeks have delayed me from posting this experience in a timely manner.  As Christmas and the New Year approach I look forward to participating in other holiday traditions here in Paraguay, keeping in mind that the tendency to vacillate between opposing ideas, beliefs and worlds is a human reality and is a place I find myself in from time to time. While I will be thinking about my family and friends in the states I will be sharing the holidays with my Paraguayan host family, hoping that my presence is felt in both places.

We made it!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


I should have known, at least that's what I keep telling myself.

I should have known to bribe the police to actually do something with the police report that I had to file regarding my stolen bicycle.  I also should have known that a luxurious mountain bike in a third world country is a huge liability, and I should have know it wouldn't be safe sitting inside a government building out of my sight, (without cameras, a guard or locked doors), only 10 feet away from where I was sitting.

We all make mistakes, "sigh," and in retrospect everything is much clearer. But the lesson learned here is not only about my personal frivolity and carelessness but really about how things are here in Paraguay.

Clearly someone saw an easy opportunity and took it, and how can I blame them?  Sometimes one small opportunity is all you get, and here you take it, whether or not it's "the right thing to do."

However, I have been touched by the shared embarrassment that all of my colleagues expressed after my bike was stolen from under our noses.  And then, I just have to smile as the sentiment immediately fades and they all crack jokes about how tired my feet must be after walking so many kilometers to the office, ("maybe that will help you loose weight, Emily").

Thanks to my colleagues' goodwill, yesterday, I found myself on an exhilarating stake out, with two old Paraguayan guys, patrolling a rough neighborhood outside of the city.  In between sips of terere we discussed the hot tip I received on facebook from someone who thought they saw a bike like mine, refinished in matte black, cruising around this shady part of town.

Our driver was slow and deliberate, and so was his accomplice who explained to me the master plan of recuperating my bike, if we did indeed catch a glance of it.  "I will promise a couple kids a reward if they tip me off about anything suspicious in the neighborhood, then we will visit the house where the suspected bike is, pretend we are looking for a place to rent, identify it quickly and discreetly, and then finally bring in the police in to investigate."

"Yes, genius," I mumbled, distracted not by my low-profile backseat search for the bike but by the rows and rows of shacks that served as cramped, inadequate living quarters for entire families. This was my first glance of the shanties outside of the buffer of wealth and the touristy facade that envelops the city center where I spend the majority of my time.   The exhilaration of the search faded into a scene of abandonment, where both the people and their neighborhood seem to have been cast away to the fringes.  The sun was shining, but the wind had a chill in it and it rustled the garbage piles in the ditches and sent plastic bags rolling across the road like tumbleweeds.  No one would be cruising around on their new bike this afternoon.  We turned up a rocky hill littered with potholes, waved at the old men on their stoops and drove back to the city.

I lowered my eyes and thought that if my bike was the one opportunity that some kid from this forgotten neighborhood saw and took, then I should have known...his need was greater than mine.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Getting to Work

Building a new routine, making new friends and basically building a new life from scratch, in a different culture and language is not an easy task.  In fact, it feels more normal to fall into the Paraguayan trap of being kaigue, or without energy to do much at all.  Fortunately this last week, I shook off the cultural roller coaster and had a break though week as a guapa, hardworking, Peace Corps volunteer. 

Inspiration appeared in the form of Paraguay's own Land-Fill Harmonic, a brilliant orchestra composed of instruments made entirely of garbage.  Carried by a refreshing river breeze the rusty, metallic twangs of junk reassembled itself  into music of various forms.  John Lennon, Metallica, Paraguayan folk and even a Pakistani tune were among the set list.  I stayed to thank the Maestro and a few of the musicians afterwards, who even after traveling to all corners of the globe, remained true to the humble origins of their recycled violins, guitars, violas, trombones, string bases, flutes, saxophones and accordions.

DAYS 2-5
The concert kicked off the ALEA, a week long South American architecture student convention, and with it a 5 day workshop with Encarnación Sustentable (my pet NGO, check them out!  Our participants designed various prototypes for recycle bins made of recycled materials.

DAYS 2-5
Oh yeah, then I started a 20 hour a week course on teaching methodology for the employment office that I work at.  In order to give my future students super official SNPP certificates, I have to take this class with about 25 other instructors-in-training.  Although the four hour classes are a little tedious, this is a great opportunity to share time with Paraguayans and really analyze the learning style here. So far, it's painfully obvious that they love to share personal anecdotes about pretty much anything, no matter the relevance to the subject matter, haha!

And if that wasn't enough, I also held my sixth and final employability class, with a group of young people that I really enjoyed meeting with for the past six Saturdays.  They did great, and though our time was limited, they scooped up their certificados, (literally printed certificates saying they were in the course - a pretty big deal around these parts), and passed their final exams, a game of bingo, with flying colors.

So, did I rest on the seventh day?  Heck no, this week was too unstoppable.  I rode my sweet new bike to the bike shop around 6:30 am to meet up with the "team" for a morning ride.  Little did I know, 5 hours and 50 kilometers of beautiful Paraguayan countryside later, I would be sitting, rather uncomfortably because I didn't brink bike shorts to PY, at an asado (traditional Sunday BBQ), with a new group of biking buddies.  The lingering pain of muscles I forgot I had continue to remind me that for the first time my Paraguayan mission was accomplished, and that this was a week to remember.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Thunderstruck, The Musical

The first stanza of most Paraguayan conversations begin, of course, with the weather.  Then, a brief ceasura is taken for the important business of sipping terere, and the conversation returns da capo to, you guessed it, the weather.

The weather as of late has been nothing but a colossale display of mother nature's symphonic wrath.  For days now I have been jolted awake at night by the duet of thunder and lightening that produces a deep rumbling tenor with haunting vibrado, crecendoing to the deafing stacatto of biblical rains slapping my apartment's uninsulated tin roof.

As I sit here amused by the cacophony of thunder and raindrops that attempt to drown out Thunderstruck by AC/DC blasting on the Paraguayan radio, I wonder if I am witty or just sleep deprived.  Finally, the diminuendo from the forte to the coda of yet another score of nature's magnum opus begins.  The streets are converted into temporary rivers, the timpani drums resonate in the distance, I take a sip of terere and I think to myself, "at least I will have plenty to chat about at work tomorrow."


    Sunday, September 7, 2014

    The Peace Corps Games

    Six actors stood frozen on stage, one pair in colonial dress, a woman in a psychedelic green seventies motif, a second couple in all white beach clothes and a third in a silver jumpsuit with futuristic LED lighting.  All were caste in gold-face and were shimming yet frozen in various poses on stage while the most important community figures spoke about a theme completely unrelated to the awkward living statues; the book fair that was taking place next door.

    Fake blondes plastered with makeup and false eyelashes clapped madly as the speakers finished their self-congratulating speeches that hardly touched upon issues of literacy, reading or access to education but instead reveled in the accomplishment of putting on the tenth annual book fair, where one could buy a single book for the cost of what many people have to feed their families for the week.

    It has been the running joke that I am Katniss living in the Capitol of a remote South American country.  As much as I love to hate the truth in a pop-culture reference, I couldn't help but smile at the irony when the grand finale of the book fair inauguration revealed eight carnival dancers on stage, scandalously embossed with strategically placed bling and ridiculously large feather headdresses who gyrated to blasting carnival music as a tribute to the great accomplishments of this machista city of the south.

    As the room full of ‘somebodies’ gawked and applauded over-approvingly at the ‘performance’, I couldn't help but scream inside, “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE BOOKS???!!!” 
    In my position, I've been repeatedly warned against negative blogging about specific people, events or places.  I mean no offense with my description of this night but can’t help but share the reality of living in a country that is rated by Transparency International as having the 27th most corrupt public sector in the world (  Guarding information and impeding access to education is a celebrated fact when elites surround themselves with books and pervert the transformational and liberating potential of the written word into another show of affluence and decadence.

    Signing off from the Capitol…

    Monday, August 18, 2014

    Settling in as an Encarnecena

    I'm going on my third week as an Encarnecena; and since I will be living here for the next two years I might as well adopt the local namesake.  I am amazed that I will be living the life of an urban Peace Corps volunteer, instead of my romanticized image of a rural volunteer watching her garden grow and fending off the occasional hostile cow.  Although my site placement has hit me somewhat by surprise, I am thankful for the many opportunities I have to pursue here. 

    As soon as I arrived I hit the ground running with a two-day conference promoting volunteerism with various speakers and projects highlighting local volunteer organizations.  I made friends with young people from the three Rotaract organizations here in Encarnacion and was able to accompany one group on a project visit to a neighboring health clinic and attend the awards ceremony for elected officer positions, which turned out to be an elegant evening of pomp and circumstance at a sushi restaurant.  I have been pinching myself lately and wondering, "am I really in Paraguay?"

    I also am working a few days a week at the office of employment where I will develop curriculum to help young people find employment, better their resumes, improve their professional English and even start a social entrepreneurship course with a national seed funding competition as the end result. 

    The rest of my time I am using to work with various non-profits in the area, specifically one that focuses on sustainable urban development on a city, national and international level.  I get to develop a best practices course for non-profit management and help bring these organizations along from the start-up/fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants phase to a more sustainable and operationally sound model.

    I also confirmed with Fundacion Paraguaya, a reputable microfinance organization, that I will be collaborating with them to perform a social performance audit using the measurement tool developed by Truelift, an organization I worked with in Colorado.  This will be the basis of my work for my master's thesis at the University of Denver.

    In addition, I should probably also mention that I will also be compiling a community study of Encarnacion and various SWOT analyses of the organizations and institutions I will be working with here in Encarnacion.

    So if anyone (including myself) thought that I would be lounging in the countryside, sipping on terere and voraciously reading Anna Kerenina and all the other classics I downloaded on my kindle, you're dead wrong.  Now if I can just get my professional Spanish up to snuff, I will be ready to take on the next big life challenge that has been handed to me: become a guapa (hardworking) Encarnecena and make some serious waves over the next two years.

    Wish me luck!

    Monday, August 4, 2014


    Besides internet being scarce and unreliable, I have also experienced a technology computer se decompuso (the handy word used for every situation in which an object is destroyed, decomposing or dead). 

    Instead of dwelling on being disconnected, I have taken advantage of the extra time to read, study guarani and hang with my Paraguayan family. In the past few weeks I have unraveled some stories and created a few stories worth repeating of my own.  Like last weekend when my sister, fellow PCV Ashley and I had a close encounter with a blood thirsty toro (bull) that chased us off the empedrado (cobble stone street) into a concrete wall, where our only defense was to crash into each other haphazardly, limbs and umbrellas flailing, and land in a panicked, bruised and muddy heap, which of course drove the rabid toro away. This is my second encounter with a cow here in Paraguay, and I was certainly pondering my animal karma as the owner of the bull stood in the near by field laughing hysterically. 

    The last couple weeks have also revealed stories of hardship and faith that exude a strong sense fatalism and realism in Paraguayan daily life. Religious ceremonies and festivals are omnipresent as the last week has been filled with celebrations of San Juan, the saint who apparently dictates young Paraguayans' relationship statuses (San Juan dice que si, San Juan dice que no), and doll-like effigies of virgins passing by in candle-lined streets followed by a procession following their virgin to the neighborhood chapel. I've heard an incredible Paraguayan story of a pilgrimage to the basilica in Caacupe while six months pregnant with a one year old on her back to thank the virgin of Caacupe for miraculously bringing her sick child back to health. And most recently, there's the story of my young Paraguayan friend who has had to make some difficult choices because of her abusive family situation. In her words, si dios quiere (if god wills it) she will survive.

    Overall the time has flown by and although I have been missing much of the events of the outside world and the community I used to know, I have been able to take a closer peek into the lives of  my Paraguayan friends and family. Please excuse me if my lack of technology has taken me away from my former network, but be assured that in the long run being absent/or more present has helped me to aprovechar (appreciate) the Paraguayan stories that are to be told. 

    Until my next post...

    Officially a Peace Corps Volunteer

    With great pleasure I am now able to say that I have officially begun my journey as a Peace Corps volunteer. As if packing up and moving to Paraguay wasn't enough, I survived the training process an am now living and working in the Southern city of Encarnacion.

    Of course the goodbyes from training were bittersweet. Our training group of 25 bright, diverse and like-minded individuals from all parts of the US is now dispersed throught Paraguay, after sharing our first two and a half months together. For me, the hardest part was leaving my host family who not only opened their home but also their hearts to me while I was there. I spent my last day in Villeta visiting my 91 year old grandmother, still sharp as a tack, and my last night snuggled in bed with my host sister and mom like I had always been part of their family.  Generosity is not limited by language or culture and is a truly universal human characteristic. 

    I arrived at my site after 6 hours on a bus to a plethora of opportunities, now all I need to do is a comprehensive community study and spend some serious face time with anyone willing to share a terere session with me. I kicked off my time here with a two-day conference centered on the importace of being a volunteer, which for me was not only fitting but inspirational to be surrounded by young Paraguayans who are truly changing their world. It was difficult not to jump in with enthusiasm during every activity, but instead I chose to observe and will continue to do so until the big picture of who, where and what I will be working with comes into focus. 

    For now I would like to extend a thank you to all who encouraged me along the way and everyone involved in the process of me being here. I am seeing so many possibilities on the horizon of the next two years and look forward to sharing my experiences and learning life lessons along the way. 

    Friday, June 13, 2014

    Volunteer Visit

    This week I was finally able to experience some freedom and little bit of travel within Paraguay!  We were released from our busy training schedule to hit the road and visit other volunteers in the field.  Two buses and five hours later, thanks to the random Paraguayans I had to interview for directions along the way, I made it to the small town of Caraguatay in the Cordillera district.

    My volunteer hostess received me with delicious homemade pizza and loads of hospitality.  We settled in for the afternoon in her vibrantly painted one room house and lounged on the patio in her equally colorful hammock.  For four days I was able to get a sneak peak into the tranquilo life of a volunteer in a small community.  We went to the radio station for the weekly program…but nobody showed up to put us on the air.  After waiting for a half hour or so, we caught a bus to Caacupe and toured Paraguay's basilica, which attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year, who walk along the camino for a few miles or a few days to pay homage to the year's past miracles attributed to the Virgin of Caacupe.

    In my hostess's community we hung out at the library she helped run, sipped terere and read aloud the many Paraguayan sayings and myths.  We also walked an hour to the national park called Vapor Cue, where two huge steam ships used to transport supplies and troops along the nearby Rio Negro during the War of the Triple Alliance in the 1860's were on display.  Next to the ships and the monument we had a picnic and enjoyed the sunny weather.  I hope to spot a crocodile in the murky waters that have been rising far above their banks due to all the rain, but to no avail.  On a serious note, there has been significant flooding in all of Paraguay this winter, and upwards of 500,000 people have been displaced.

    Today I'm back in training and have a while to go before I will be able to travel again.  But I'm feeling more confident in navigating my way around the hectic Paraguayan bus system and am reassured by the friendliness of Paraguayans.  Visiting a volunteer was also a good look at challenges and successes in the life of a Peace Corps volunteer (PCV).  No matter where I end up six weeks from now it is apparent that my ticket to success will lie within the slow but meaningful cultivation of community relationships, not only to combat feelings of loneliness and cultural isolation, but most importantly to build a foundation for impactful projects to come.

    Saludos, Emily

    Monday, June 2, 2014


    Mba’éichapa!  That is to say, “Hello, how are you?” in Guaraní, the indigenous language of Paraguay. 
    I have already been in the country for one week but have not been able to access the internet in the small town my training group (G-45) is staying in.  The first few days were extremely rainy and cold, which made me question how I was going to survive the winter without indoor heating.  Fortunately, the sun has come out and the temperature has warmed up in the last few days.  Nonetheless, I am finding that everything exists in a permanent state of dampness no matter how much you sun yourself or your clothes hanging out on the line. 

    I am staying with a host family that is super guapa (very hardworking) and very generous and kind.  Us rubias (blondies) are a constant source of chatter for the town and it has been very fun stumbling back into Spanish while meeting all of the extended family in the area.  I am writing down the recetas (recipes) of all the new Paraguayan foods I have encountered and have been helping my host mom in the kitchen, which she clearly loves.  So far, it has been an exhausting and enriching week full of cultural exchange and daily fumbles on my part, which makes everyone laugh until they tear up.

    I am also attending Peace Corps training classes that go from 8am to 5pm or later.  This is exhausting, but is a huge help for language and technical training.  My group, G-45, is full of like-minded adventurers and we have all proved to be a great support network for each other. 
    Time seems to be moving quickly, but my priorities have certainly slowed down.  Without the internet and other distractions, I have found that life revolves mostly around Mate (a shared hot drink) and meal times, and the sharing of stories that go along with them.  Dare I mention that my 29th birthday is approaching next week?!  As I ride the cultural immersion rollercoaster, I remind myself to be thankful for the opportunity to have this experience and truly live an infinite number of possibilities here in Paraguay until the ride comes to an end.

    All is well in el sur (the south)!  When the Peace Corps training center gets its wifi up and running, I will have pictures for you.

    Until then, happy trails.

    Wednesday, May 21, 2014

    Friends, family and fellow adventurers: the start of my Paraguayan Peace Corps passage has begun!

    My wanderlust has brought me across the US to Miami for staging, and after all the anticipation tomorrow I finally hop on an eight hour flight, one straight shot, to Asunción and the unknown.  It's my last night stateside, but I have already enjoyed so many last nights; at school, at work, in Denver, in Montana and with friends and family.  So I prefer to spend tonight with you, as I ponder my last truly reliable connection to a virtual network of readers that soothingly shrinks the distance between yesterday and tomorrow.

    I cannot convey my appreciation for the amazing amounts of support I have received as I embark on this exhilarating new epoch in life.  Thank you, to all who have made this possible by encouraging me to follow my crazy dreams.  Again, life has revealed that anything is possible, and now it is time to let go of past ties and move forward with determination into something completely new.

    As most of you know, I will be working as a community economic development volunteer, a mouthful of words indicating I will be doing small and rural business development work.  For the first ten weeks I will be stationed with a host family outside of the capitol for training and then I will get my site placement. I am so looking forward to sharing these adventures, but I would also love to have my day brightened by you.  Feel free to comment on the blog, email or send snail mail to:

    Emily Joy, PCV
    Cuerpo de Paz
    162 Chaco Boreal c/Mcal. López
    Asunción 1580, Paraguay
    South America

    Happy trails and jajotopata!
    - Emily

    Tuesday, April 8, 2014

    Peace Corps Paraguay Preparation

    Dear friends,
    I'm counting down my last days in Denver and in the US!  I will be leaving for staging in Miami on May 20 and from there on to Paraguay for 27 months.  Please check in with me as I post about the Peace Corps process, my projects in the community economic development sector and my progress as a  dedicated volunteer.  Thank you all for your support up to this moment, I look forward to having you along with me, (albeit virtually), for the ride.