Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Happy Holidays from the Heart of South America

Season’s greetings from Paraguay to my faraway family and friends!

My time here in the Peace Corps has been slipping by from what was once a daunting and some say crazy two-year endeavor to what now seems insufficiently short. 
Even though I’ve lived it first hand, I look back and think, ¿Es posible? (is it possible), that I’ve had so many adventures, overcome so many obstacles, connected with so many people and still have so many lessons yet to learn during my last six months here in the heart of South America.

The heart.  Paraguay is just that, and it’s helped me to open mine to many things.  Sometimes it’s flowing over with kindness and hospitality, other times it’s a sanguine and emotional rush, but most times Paraguay is the steady beat of a tranquilopa (relaxed/chilled-out) philosophy that will be hard to let go. 

There’s also the heart I see in all of the young people I work with here in Paraguay, who have hope for a better, more just, more prosperous Paraguayan future. “Otro mundo es posible,” (another world is possible), they say, and I most wholeheartedly agree.

So, my most humble holiday wish is to appeal to your heart to accompany me in my work here in Paraguay.  I have been the coordinator of a national program called Paraguay Emprende for the past year, which gives young entrepreneurs the tools they need, including a small investment of seed funding, to make another world possible for themselves, their families and their communities.  This has been my most impactful and gratifying project, and I invite you to join me in a holiday giving campaign by doing whatever you can to help spread the word about this cause.

Please take a few minutes to explore and share our crowdfunding page http://bit.ly/youcaring_ParaguayEmprende and if you have the time, the heartfelt video from, Walter, one of our past participants: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BAXXGuJJVlQ  It inspires me to see how far one young person with a dream and a little help from those who believe in him can go.  Heck, that’s how I got here, thanks to all of you.

Wishing you joyous holidays and a better future for 2016!

Warm regards, Emily

Monday, November 9, 2015

Cross-Continental Whirlwind

Finally I feel as though I am adjusted back to reality after September and October were spent in a travel time-warp.  Even though I was only gone for about a month in total, the preparation and then decompression from a journey through four countries, (I am counting Texas as its own country), feels like I had been checked-out for much longer.

My solo journey back the the US for my sister's wedding reception and a quick family visit started with a bus ride and a border crossing from Ciudad del Este to Foz do Iguazu and then a flight from Sao Paolo to Houston and finally landing in San Antonio for a couple days to visit my sweet little Grammy and my Aunt, Uncle and cousins.  Good company, micro-brews and homemade fajitas did not disappoint.  But admittedly I was a little shell shocked while driving in rush hour on the interstate and especially when trying to work the technologically advanced ice-maker in my Aunt's fridge. "Yes," I thought to myself, "I have been in Paraguay for too long."

After three days in Texas I hopped another series of flights that deposited me in the midst of the Rocky Mountains, beautiful Whitefish, MT, my home.  Glued to the window, gawking at the Bob Marshall Wilderness, as we got closer to Kalispell, I exchanged friendly chit chat with the tourist who seemed more excited at that moment about my homecoming than I was.  However, when I saw my mom jumping up and down on the other side of the glass wall that separates the two terminals from the lobby in the Glacier International Airport, tears welled up in my eyes and I ran to greet my folks with joyful embraces.

It felt so amazing to be in my element, even though I felt totally estranged from it, for the next ten days.  Spending time with my friends and family and enjoying the beauty of Montana and all her treasures filled up every waking second.  I was exhausted but overstimulated every day as I raised my red solo cup of Salmon Fly Honey Rye to the newlyweds, climbed Great Northern Peak looking into Glacier National Park (an 8,705 foot shock to the system), and caught glistening cutthroat at a family favorite high mountain lake that resulted in five stitches - a small price to pay to take Montana's mark along with me for the rest of the journey.

It seemed like that old cliche, "things change but they stay the same," applied to both Montana and myself.  It was amazing to fall back in so easily to the groups of people I had quit cold turkey for the last 16 months, but a part of me felt sad for the friends and family I had left in Paraguay, and will leave for an undetermined amount of time when I go back to the states for good in 9 months.  It's a funny place to be, nostalgic for something that hasn't ended yet.

I bid my mom goodbye at the Missoula airport and met up with a Montana friend in Denver over lunch.  From there I flew to Sao Paulo where I met up with another Montana buddy who traveled with me through Brazil and Paraguay for the next two weeks.  Our final destination was Curitiba, Brazil where we soaked in the local sites, including a national park reminiscent of a slice of Canyonlands National Park in Utah, if it were covered in jungle.

Then we hopped on a scenic train through the misty jungle covered mountains and stopped in Morrettes, a beautiful colonial mountain town.  From there we hopped a couple buses and a boat to arrive at Honey Island, or Ihla do Mel at dusk.  Dolphins rose close to the boat and we cheers-ed with a Brazilian beer to the upcoming adventure.

After 3 days of camping, hiking and enjoying the island, we made moves to return to Paraguay, but stopped first at the incredible waterfalls at Foz do Iguazu.  Although it was my second time visiting the falls, it still took my breath away, especially when we doused ourselves under one of the waterfalls entering the "devils throat" or "garganta del diablo," in a speedboat raft hybrid.

After an especially tricky boarder crossing, we spent a few hours waiting for, hands down, the most horrendous overnight bus I have taken in Paraguay (and that is saying quite a bit).  I drifted in and out of consciousness as we stopped every half hour or so and boxes were thrust in my window and over my head, then lighting struck and rain drizzled in through my window that didn't close for what seemed like an eternity.

Fortunately the hell-bus deposited us in Encarnacion, home sweet home, where we spent a few days seeing the sights. But we didn't stop for long. We headed to Asuncion, caught an Argentina vs. Paraguay soccer match at the national stadium and hopped on a small military plane to Bahia Negra, in the heart of the Paraguayan Pantanal.  After standing on top of a peak looking into Glacier Park only two weeks before, I associated the same feeling of grandeur and natural majesty with the Pantanal, only in a completely different context.  The Pantanal is the largest wetland in the world, where the Amazon basin drains all of its waters, and the Paraguayan side is by far the most remote part.  We rode a speed boat up the Rio Paraguay to its confluence of Rio Negro where the murky Rio Paraguay was noticeable cut by the clear dark water of the smaller Rio Paraguay.  At that point the tri-boarder region of Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil appears, though there are no signs of civilization that would reveal it.

We spent three days at an eco-lodge and biological research station watching wildlife such as caymen and giant river otters from tree stands, photographing and identifying a handful of the 250+ bird species in the area and fishing for piranha from canoes.  We did not want to leave this incredible wilderness, so instead of flying back, my friend and I took the merchant boat back down the Rio Paraguay for two days.  The boat was a cultural experience of its own, and we felt, and certainly smelled, like wild-west pirates making our way from river-town to river-town, stopping at each port along the way to take on cargo and people and then unload them again.  Besides being able to buy weekly staples in a market in the lower hull of the boat, there was everything from a pony to a washing machine on board.  Indigenous people in cowboy garb spoke languages other than Guarani and Spanish and we played slap-jack with their kids at the lunch counter until we all took siestas as a hot and humid thunder stormed rolled over us.

Arriving in Concepcion signified our return to the land-lubber life and to civilization.  We had traveled through the Pantanal and Gran Chaco by boat, an adventure few foreigners or even Paraguayans make in a lifetime...I hope I get the chance to go back one more time!

After a stop-over at another volunteers site and a few bus rides my friend and I parted ways.  She was heading to Bolivia and I was heading home, finally, after covering thousands of kilometers swept up in a whirlwind of travel and adventure.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Press Release & Video: Paraguay Emprende National Workshop 2015

August 21, 2015

Paraguay Emprende is celebrating the successful conclusion of the 2015 National Workshop and Business Plan Competition which took place from August 13 to 15 in the city of Luque near the capitol, Asunción.  The national workshop and business plan competition was made possible by the collaborative efforts of Peace Corps Paraguay, the Secretary of Youth of the Paraguayan National Government, the Cooperativa Universitaria and the Asociación de Jóvenes Empresarios, a non-profit network of young entrepreneurs.

The 2015 theme “Realizar Tus Sueños,” or “Realize Your Dreams,” highlighted the possibility for Paraguayan youth to convert their entrepreneurial dreams into reality.  The activities at the three-day workshop concentrated on promoting the entrepreneurial spirit, and specifically focused on business plan implementation, networking and financing.  These topics were enriched by the expertise of Paraguayan organizations such as KOGA, a social enterprise incubator, and Fundación CIRD, an economic development non-profit.

57 youth participants representing 11 departments of Paraguay presented their business plans, which had been developed over the past several months in Paraguay Emprende’s “Construye Tus Sueños,” or “Build Your Dreams,” entrepreneurship courses.  The participants valiantly pitched their business ideas to Paraguayan business professionals who acted as judges to determine the viability of each project.  PYG$84.000.000 was awarded in seed funding to the 30 participants who’s business plans were most likely to yield sustainable businesses and a positive community impact.

Paraguay Emprende will now move forward with the follow-up stage of its program cycle by providing the seed funding winners mentoring and consulting services.  To conclude the National Workshop, winners we paired with Paraguayan mentors who over the next year will provide their specific industry expertise, support and perspective to each young entrepreneur, in order to help them successfully navigate the challenges of establishing a successful and sustainable business in Paraguay.

For more information, please find Paraguay Emprende on Facebook, visit our website at www.pyemprende.wordpress.com or send us an email at pyemprende@gmail.com

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Count Down: A Year to Go Here in Paraguay

I'm sitting on my balcony, my happy place, overlooking the River Parana as the sun sinks into the horizon transitioning from bright orange, hot pink and finally to dusky violet revealing a smiling sliver of the moon and Venus shining bright despite the dying light.

I haven't written a blog post since April, because I'm happy to report I was just too busy with activities. Looking  back on the last few months it's hard to believe I was able to pull so many things together considering the 'tranquilopa' nature of Paraguay.  Recently I heard from my main contact at the office of employment that my hard-working attitude had set a new standard at the office, which as hard as this is for me to believe, is a meaningful compliment nonetheless.

I learned more, I think, than my students during the two classes I taught from April to June. Beginning English for the Tourism Industry and "Construye Tus Sueños" or build your dreams, a business planning course for young entrepreneurs kept me up at night with lesson planning and on my feet during the day as I worked with my students to either have a basic conversation in English or develop a business plan (both things not easy!).  I also was able to reap the benefits of community collaboration by teaming up with the municipal department of youth and the employment office to facilitate two month-long workshops directed at teaching seniors in high school how to look for a job, write their resumes and conduct an interview, all important skills that are often overlooked here in Paraguay where most people have to rely on connections in the right places to find consistent employment.  By traveling to schools outside of the ritzy city center I finally felt like the 100 kids we brought the workshops to could truly use the information to change their futures, it's just a matter of follow through on their part, which is the second biggest challenge.

My entrepreneurship class ended with 11 students writing full business plans and 6 competing in a local judging competition that decided the top 3 plans to compete at a national level.  I was amazed at how emotional I felt as I had to announce the winners; I was invested in every one of the plans, though the time and effort I spent with my students in class, in tutoring hours and alone reviewing the plans and presentations.  From a catering company with an organic garden to a native tree farm to a Paraguayan crowdfunding site, the business ideas were compelling and original and I can only hope that at least a few of them get off the ground.

I am also the coordinator for Paraguay Emprende the entrepreneurship initiative that the course "Construye Tus Sueños" is part of.  In addition to teaching, I am also managing the institutional relationships, overseeing the largest budget to date and helping to organize the three day event that willl hopefully see about 100 young entrepreneurs compete for upwards of $16,000 in total seed funding prize money.

On top of these core activities, I piled on the extracurricular events, by taking some students to an international entrepreneurship forum in Asuncion, participating in several events in partnership with the local university's business incubator, and two entrepreneurship focused non-profits.  I also collaborated with other Peace Corps Volunteers to give gender equality presentations for the UN initiative "He for She" that reached about 550 students in my city alone.  I recently headed out to Trinidad, a beautiful small community with Jesuit ruins, with the organization Encarnacion Sustentable to participate in the Paraguay Verde'i event.  We gave a presentation about the concept of creating sustainable citiess and giving attention to environmental issues especially relating to water.  I have continued to work with Encarnacion Sustentable, a group of young sustainable development enthusiasts that love to work hard and play hard.  We recently launched an organizational development course that I designed to get the group better organized and working more effectively on the projects that aim to raise consciousness about the need to bring an equilibrium to the social, environmental and economic sectors in Encarnacion.

Reflecting on the time that I have been here, I finally do feel as if I have reached a fair amount of people in my community, by educating, participating in capacity building and acting as a nexus between groups and institutions in order to inspire change with very little resources.  Incredibly enough I have reached the point of only having one year left in Paraguay, which some days feels like forever and other days like not enough time to do everything.  It also marks another lull in my service as my teaching momentum comes to a halt and I am forced again to think of the remaining work I must finish, like the organizational design of the Paraguay Emprende program, my graduate thesis (which I haven't even started yet) and my personal health and life.  I still want to cross off all the items on my Paraguayan adventures bucket list while dealing with the reality of being so far away from family events like my sweet aunt's passing, my only sister's marriage, becoming an aunt and other big family and friend moments that I feel excluded from at times.

I wish I could say I'm riding high on a one-year-left adrenaline rush, but maybe its better that I'm not. I'm feeling accomplished and in a place to set new goals while at the same time seeking my center, a balance between myself and my work, life in the northern and the southern hemisphere, my desire to make a change and the impossibility to see an actual impact in the amount of time I have left here, among other existential dilemmas it would seem,  Haha.  Peace Corps, what a trip.

View from "Le Gran Chuch Hotel" (my 100 square foot imaginary pent house)

Adventure to the sand dunes of San Cosme y Damien for the 4th of July

English Class

Construye Tus Sueños

 He for She

 Paraguay Verde'i, Parque Ita Cajon, Trinidad

 Encarnacion Sustentable

Peace Corps Family, 4th of July

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Social Enterprise, Career Coaching and Urban Sustainability: How My Peace Corps Service Has Become My Dream Job

Peace Corps is what you make it.  I have heard that phrase from multiple sources, returned PC volunteers, PC staff, PC trainers and other volunteers.  Combine that mantra with the right sector placement (I'm in the Community Economic Development sector), the right people and a little bit of luck, and come to find out, you can create your dream job.  The only catch is, you don't really get paid, but the freedom is arguably worth the sacrifice.

I never thought I would have the opportunity to fully ride the momentum of my graduate studies and professional experiences into a country such as Paraguay, where language, culture and climate could cause my wave to break and disseminate in unforeseen ways.  But the truth is, after a period of adaptation and relationship building, I have been drawn to people and activities that not only reinforce my decision to come here but also support the work that I enjoyed in the past and look forward to in the future.

Social enterprise is a new concept here, but there are already social enterprises blooming in urban and rural parts of the country.  Taking charge of the role as coordinator for the Peace Corps national initiative, Paraguay Emprende, is allowing me to insert my passion for innovative solutions into a business incubator curriculum, seed funding competition and consulting services while managing public and private partnerships on a national scale.  The piece of me that loves the big picture is totally occupied by the current and future possibility for strategic growth of the program.  And the problem solving side of me is working on overdrive as I navigate local challenges with my entrepreneurship class to national-scale, attempt to synchronize logistics on Paraguayan time and work with an equally adept team of Peace Corps volunteers to make sense of running a private-public partnership in a foreign country.

The people piece that I crave is being satisfied too.  Although it has taken the last ten moths to get here, almost suddenly it seems that I have several classes and groups that I am either leading or supporting.  Whether its my entrepreneurship course, or teaching English with a tourism focus, I am loving the interaction with my students, and even more importantly cultivating relationships with Paraguayan facilitators so that I can pass the leadership torch to them.

My initiative in employability training and career coaching has suddenly taken a life of its own.  In addition to offering weekly workshops at the local employment office for young people on topics like, how to write a resume and how to practice for a job interview, we now have a list of high schools and organizations asking us to take our workshops on the road.  This means my projects are scaling to reach a much larger audience.  I am looking forward to the potential to pass on this important skill set to many young people who have never even considered that they have a choice in their future career.

Lastly, sustainable urban development is a concept that is coming to life in the city of Encarnación. Working with the NGO Encarnación Sustentable and the larger network of Sustainable Cities here in Paraguay has introduced me to a group of people that are committed to positive change. From fact gathering to report on the quality of life in our city, to working with the local government to set up a transparent and public document setting development objectives, the organization is working at a grassroots level to inform and inspire the public to engage in participatory development.

Consulting, organizational design, inspiring and empowering youth, city planning, environmental and social justice activism, social enterprise development, capacity building, civil society building and training host-country trainers are all suddenly part of a days work here in Peace Corps Paraguay. And the best, and sometimes worst part, is that I make my own schedule and can say yes to everything, every experience and every individual who seeks me out.  Building partnerships, trust and dialogue with individual Paraguayans and within groups is a daily challenge to my soft skills while my technical side is stimulated by the variety of projects and people that I am involved with.

At this point, I am filled with gratitude for the learning opportunities I have here in Paraguay, but also for the people and places in the past that have helped me to cultivate this possibility.  When the nagging little voice of the uncertain future enters into my mind, I chose to recognize and accept the transitory nature of my time here in Paraguay instead and focus on the now in order to enjoy the dream job that has suddenly started to bloom.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Development Dilemmas

The cumbia beat blasts throught the makeshift sound system above me and the warm wind welcomly blasts me in the face as we crawl through the city slowly making our way to the highway. I'm on the bus headed out of town for the second weekend of a four weekend tour to give presentations about social entrepreneurship and promote the national initiative Paraguy Emprende, which I am now putting a lot of my time into. 

On top of that I am also mentoring a young girl to strengthen her youth group, working with a collegue at the office of employment to implement a continuous series of job coaching workshops, attempting to write an NGO consulting curriculum, preparing to teach business planning classes, supporting the tourism office in organizing a community farmers' market, teaching a little English here and there and basically whatever else pops up around me. 

Staying busy keeps me level, gets me out of the house and gives me a purpose.  Although sometimes progress is slow, it might take a week or two to get a follow up meeting or a response to an email, I think I'm making headway. Sometimes it's difficult when I get overly excited about an opportunity only to find that I may have misread the situation or didn't recieve an entirely honest overview.

Development work is tricky, and on top of cultural and language differences there's the huge challenge of finding people who are open enough to be inspired to try something different. Then pair that with the desire to be self motivated enough to follow through and you've got the magic but rare combination.  I can't help but reflect on who I interact with and I wonder if I can make an impact or if I'm even reaching the segment if the community who could benefit from my work the most. 

It's hard to quantify, to see the long term possibilities and to arrive at the strategic outlook I am trying so hard to impose upon my projects. It doesn't hurt to take a step or two down the symantec ladder to get my head out of the clouds and my feet back on the Paraguayan ground.  At this level I'm the one benefitting, with the lessons I'm learning, the relationships I'm making and the idiosyncrasies I'm accepting. 

Today, I'm perfectly content sweating profusely on a crowded dusty bus, listening to the same reggeton songs I've heard a thousand times. Although I still look like an outsider, I'm starting to really feel Paraguay in my heart. And that's a development dillema that's not quantifiable, it's hard to articulate, and perhaps it's not even a dillema at all. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

A New Year Begins with a New Adventure: Trekking Brazil

After a quick day at one of the seven wonders of the world, the waterfalls at Foz de Iguazu, I welcomed the New Year with my good friend and room mate on the beach of Copacabana in Rio de Janiero with two million other festive faces.  Dressed in white to usher peace and prosperity into the New Year, people packed onto the beach for free concerts, steaming street foods and an incredible fireworks display at midnight. But Rio's natural beauty, urban excitement and bronzed beach bodies couldn't hold us for long, our adventure was destined for the interior of Bahia State, over 36 hours of bus rides, to a National Park called Chapada Diamantina.

Before arriving, Chapada Diamantina seemed mysertious and wild from the lack of information online and in travel guides.  After the last ride of the long trip in a rusty old van along a curvy one lane dirt road, I was surprised to find ourselves in a small hippy community full of good vibes, Hare Krishna folks, organic and vegan foods and beautiful views of the surrounding wilderness pervaded the small town of Valle do Capao.  It felt like a little island of culture all to its own, and there was certainly not a shortage of helpful happy people tucked away in this mountain refuge.

We enjoyed the atmosphere, went on two day hikes to nearby waterfalls (one of which is the highest in Brazil where the water falls so far it dissipates into a plume of "smoke") and staged our trip into the park.  Armed with a map, the essentials for survival and enough hubris to think that we didn't need to contract a guide, we set off at 6:00 am on what would turn into an 11 hour day to make it into our destination, Valle do Paty.

The first night in the shared camp or posada, people smiled with amazement that two girls made it into the valley without getting lost on the way.  We didn't pay much attention to the comments because our legs were jelly and our bellies were growling.  After setting up camp and taking care of our immediate needs I walked away from the camp in the dark where I could see the faint glow of  thousands of lightning bugs.  I sat by myself on a hill in the dark, overlooking what I knew was the wilderness we were going explore, surrounded by magical flickers of neon green light.  The clouds started to brighten and the moon began to appear between two rocky mountain tops, a wedge of light illuminated the valley and I delighted in the spectacular of the natural light show.

The next morning it was clear that we were going to have a rough time finding all of the waterfalls, caves and trails that the park had to offer.  Not a single trail was marked and the trail on our map was more of a friendly suggestion than an accurate guide.  Fortunately, we meet a young married couple who invited us along on their day trip to the first waterfall.  Creek crossings, bouldering along the river and narrow jungle pathways took us past a series of waterfalls that we would have never found on our own.  We swam in the pool under the largest waterfall and basked in the incredible scenery. We had a great time getting to know the couple; the wife was Brazilian and the husband French. They had met years ago, but their marriage was delayed by two sizable barriers that they eventually overcame, an ocean and a language.

During our entire Brazilian adventure I was continuously grateful for serendipitous meetings with the right people at the right times.  The couple invited us to go along with them on the hike through the park, as we had a similar circuit mapped out and a similar timeline.  They saved us with great company and knowledge of the trails and we returned the favor by sharing food, our camp stove and our company.  We camped under cliff ledges, hung our heads over incredible canyon overlooks, swam under waterfalls, awed at the vermilion green and red tint of the rivers and creeks and were astounded by the various micro climates that shifted between dessert, cloud forest, jungle, mossy fern groves and palm forests. We literally climbed a rocky mountain face, called the castle, and then bouldered through a cave to the other side of it where the view of the valley where we trekked through for 6 days took our breath away.

The last night sitting under the unbelievable blanket of stars after just barely finding our camp spot before dark I felt a little tinge of sadness because the adventure was about to end.  Valle do Paty definitely pushed our limits but it was a chance to experience natural beauty unique to its remote niche on this planet.  The next day we were on a bus by dusk, headed to the nearest coastal city, Salvador, and from there I hopped a plane back home to Paraguay.  It was time to get back to work, but to take the images, experiences and inspiration from this fantastic escape along with me.

Friday, January 30, 2015

In Case You Missed It...The Christmas Email

Dear Friends and Family,
I am wishing you very happy holidays from far-away Encarnacion, Paraguay.  This year has been full of exciting challenges and I thank you for sharing these moments as well as supporting me along the way.
Paraguay has transformed from an unknown destination into my new home over the last six months.  My professional Spanish is improving and my Guarani vocabulary is limited but growing.  I have started working on several projects in community economic development, including teaching courses in English, entrepreneurship and employability skills.  I am working with inspiring young Paraguayan leaders to build the capacity of a sustainable urban development NGO and I am also newly part of a national Peace Corps initiative that serves as a small business incubator and consulting firm for young entrepreneurs.  I have the opportunity to work on a local level with women’s groups and youth groups in  marginalized areas as well as work on a national level to strengthen the organizational structure of several country-wide initiatives.   I could not have asked for a more fitting service to complement my Mater’s program in International Development from the University of Denver, which I completed in March.
It has been quite the adventure getting to this point, and I have certainly had both ups and downs.  The heat here is unlike anything I have ever experienced, but fortunately there is terere, (the iced version of Yerba Mate), and plenty of activities to take my mind off the intense weather.  My community, Encarnacion, has been a pleasant surprise.  It is much more urban and touristy than I imagined  my Peace Corps experience to be.  However, I am appreciative for the uniqueness of my service and the opportunities I have to grow professionally and personally over the next two years. 
The time has already flown by and I have no doubt that I will be reconnecting with everyone from Montana, Colorado and elsewhere before I know it.  Until then, take care and know that I am truly grateful to have you with me on this adventure.   All the best for  2015!  Cheers, Emily