Friday, December 18, 2009

Trip of a Lifetime

While some of you out there think that Jenna and I are permanently on vacation while living abroad, that is certainly not the case. However, we have had the chance to take some amazing trips since we moved abroad. None of those trips compares to the trip we are about to begin though. In a few hours we are hopping on a plane to begin what has to be defined as the trip of our lifetimes thus far, and very probably for the rest of our lives. Here's an update on where we're headed and why you won't see any new blog posts here for a month and a half!

First we fly to Santiago, Chile where we are going to meet up with old friends Alex and Caitlin for a trip out to Easter Island: famous for it's huge Moai and the disaster of its deforested environment.
Then we head to Valparaiso on the coast of Chile to spend my birthday and Christmas on the beach by the Pacific Ocean. Next we head down to the lakes district in southern Chile to hike and enjoy some mountains. Then it's back to Santiago for New Years and visiting some vineyards to sample some great Chilean wine.

After Chile, we say goodbye to Alex and Caitlin and fly up to Lima, Peru. There we meet Jenna's dad and fly up to Cusco, capital city of the Incas, and meet with teachers Amy, Sara, Jac and her boyfriend Guillermo. Then we hike the Inca Trail for 4 days and arrive at Machu Picchu on the morning of the 4th day.
After this we head to Puno and Lake Titicaca, then a large canyon, and then back to Lima to leave Peru.

Next we fly up to Quito, Ecuador to reunite with Alex and Caitlin who live there. We're not exactly sure of everything that we're doing in Ecuador, Alex and Caitlin are our trip planners for that section, but we know a few things for sure. We will visit the equator, hike some of the mountains surrounding Quito, check out some great local craft shops, and hopefully visit the headwaters of the Amazon in eastern Ecuador.
All in all it should be a crazy month and an half, cost a lot of money, and leave us exhausted and in need of another vacation. It will also be the trip of a lifetime and we look forward to sharing stories and pictures from it with you when we return. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all and well talk to you again in February!

Finding a Little Memento

In the process of packing for our big upcoming trip last night, I found a little memento of last summer that made me laugh out loud. As you can see below, I found a key in one of my bags and the Hodagers among the readership out there will instantly recognize this key as the one that we couldn't find at the end of last year's Hodag.
I guess the Hodag had to make sure I was thinking of Wisconsin and family even though I'm not coming home for Christmas this year. Happy Hodag and Merry Christmas to all of you out there!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

It's in the Air

I have to admit that I haven't really been feeling the Christmas spirit so far this year.  I'm not sure if it has to do with the heat, the rain, Jesse's general Scrooginess when it comes to me buying a tree, us not returning to the white landscape of Wisconsin for the holiday, or my mile long to-do list.  Whatever the cause may be, I think it was remedied at least a tiny bit this weekend.  We needed to do some shopping, and you could say, Christmas is definitely in the air at the mall!  Huge trees, garlands, wreaths, lights, sales, and people everywhere.  I feel that when the Latin culture attaches itself to something, they do it big! 

While there wasn't the classic American mall trademark of Christmas carols playing (there was actually Taylor Swift in the background when Jess was trying on shoes- it was very, very difficult to find a store that carried his size!!), the decorations are enough to make anyone's spirits feel at least a little bit brighter.  We ended up going to three different malls in the past two days and although I still don't have that Christmasy feeling in my soul, it definitely elevated my mood a bit to know that if I need a dose of Christmas decor, I can head to the mall. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Caacupe Holiday

December 8th is a national holiday in Paraguay to celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.  Caacupe is the Paraguayan virgin, and the holiday is actually called the Virgen de Caacupe.  The amazing part of this holiday is that thousands and thousands of Paraguayans walk, starting on the 7th of December, the 40 or more kilometers (sometimes they walk as from as far as Ciudad del Este, which is a 5 hour car ride) to arrive at the Basilica of the Virgin of Miracles of Caacupe.  The basilica is huge and has a statue of the sacred virgin Caacupe.  Everything is shut down in the entire country for this holiday.  Apparently, there was once a flood through the city of Caacupe, but the basilica and the statue were safe from the flood waters.  That started the holiday and the pilgrimage to the city.  If I didn't have grades due on Friday, I would try to go to Caacupe just to see the spectacle, but that will have to wait until next year.  I've heard this is one of the best cultural experiences in Paraguay.

A Perfect Breakfast Pizza

Today, is the holiday of Caacupe, which will be explained more thoroughly in a later posting.  In celebration of this Paraguayan holiday, we got a day off of school!  So, as Jesse and I often do on the weekends, we made a big breakfast this morning.  In celebration (and to use up a few items in the fridge) I decided to make a breakfast pizza.  This is the first time I have attempted this, and I can't help it, I'm super proud of how beautiful it is and how good it tasted! 

Monday, December 7, 2009

Un Techo Para Mi Pais

This past weekend, the high school and the PTA had set up a volunteer opportunity for the high school students, teachers, and other school families.  The orgranization that they worked with is a South American volunteer organization called Un Techo Para Mi Pais (a roof for my country).  This organization builds 6 x 3 meter houses for the most poverty stricken families in Paraguay.  The organization started in Chile, and has only been in Paraguay for about two years.  The families need to sign up and do a lot of prepatory work (pay some money, volunteer their time as well, and demonstrate strong financial and circumstancial need).

Jesse and I volunteered to help for one day.  And it was a long day.  I really admire those people who worked both days, because it was a very difficult project.  The school volunteers were divided into seven groups, each one building a house.  Where the families lived was in a small community outside of Asuncion, right by a landfill and a small pond.  The water level was very close to the surface, so every time we were digging holes to place in posts, the water rushed in a filled it.  There was also a lot of trash, since the families in this community make their living by sorting out trash, selling what they can, and taking the recyclables to the recycling plant for money.  The living conditions of the families were very, very poor.  Houses are basically any scrap piece of metal or cardboard they can find to put together, electricity is wired in with system that literally electrocuted someone on Sunday, and in an easily flooded region where every time it rains, the houses flood. I don't think anyone living in the U.S. can really even imagine what this was like. 

We worked all day on Saturday, (leaving our house at 6:15am and returning after 9pm) digging holes in the mud to place the posts that will support the floor.  During our lunch time break, the family and two volunteers made us spaghetti and we all ate together.  On Sunday, our neighbor Chaya and some other teachers and students returned and finished the house by placing on the pre-fab floors, walls, and the corrugated tin roof.  Chaya told us that our family was very emotional when they were done, because this house is sturdy compared to their old house, and this will protect them and their belongings from a large amount of the flood waters.  Spending a day surrounded by poverty really makes me grateful for what I have been given and reminds me that I should not take anything I have for granted. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Paraguayan Commercial

A Paraguayan soda company called Pulp has been running a series of commercials in English with Spanish subtitles down here where the actors pretend to be famous people from the US speaking to Paraguayans. The first one featured "The Jonas Brothers" (not quite sure if that's legal since it wasn't really the Jonas Brothers in the commercial) but this one is even funnier so give it a look!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Jesuit Ruins

The day after arriving in Encarnacion on that sweaty bus ride was much cooler and overcast which made it a perfect day to walk around and explore the ruins of a former Jesuit settlement 28 km outside of town. We hopped on a bus crowded with other people and not knowing exactly where to get off the bus. About half an hour into the ride, 2 women got on and we immediately guessed that they were American. Our guess was confirmed when we could hear them speaking English over our shoulder on the bus and apparently they heard us speaking English as well and struck up a conversation. It turned out that they were Peace Corps volunteers who were staying at a hotel with a huge group of other volunteers and celebrating Thanksgiving weekend. They were headed to the ruins too so we had some company and people who knew where to get off the bus which helped.

The ruins are set on top of a nice green hill (as far as I've seen it must be one of about 10 hills in all of Paraguay cuz this is a very flat country) with views for a long way in all directions.
The ruins overall were much larger than we expected them to be and there was definitely more intricate stonework than we had expected as well. While the cathedral wasn't as polished as one in Europe or other large ones in Central America that we've seen are, it was still beautiful and seemed more human because you could still see the chisel marks in the stone.
There were plenty of intricate carvings to check out including these above one of the doors.
These pieces apparently had fallen off of the structure and were displayed in a back room.
The main cathedral was actually much bigger than expected.
This is one of the pulpits on the side of the main cathedral.
This baptismal bath had a date on it which we shall assume is somewhere near the date for construction of the entire cathedral. We don't know for sure because we didn't want to pay for the guide and entrance fee so we just walked into the park past the guards. Nice how you can do that sometimes in Latin America.
So overall it turns out that there is at least one tourist activity worth doing in Paraguay (with a few more possibilities yet to check out) and we would recommend this to anyone who makes their way down here for a visit.


This past weekend, Jesse and I traveled to a smaller town in the southern part of Paraguay, right along the Argentina border.  Our reasong for travelling to this town was to see the Jesuit Ruins UNESCO site that Paraguay has to offer.  However, upon arriving in the city of Encarnacion, hot and sweaty from a 6 hour bus ride with a broken a/c, we decided to do the ruins the next day.  For our evening entertainment, we decided to go across the border into Argentina, to the city of Posadas, where we heard they have a different atmosphere and some delicious restaurants. 

So, we boarded a crowded city bus and went across the border.  It was actually an interesting experience, since buses would leave people behind at the immigration checkpoints, but it wasn't a big deal, because we would just show our tickets to the next bus and hop on.  It amazed me how many people were crossing the border; full buses every 20 minutes or so.  Below is a picture from Posadas of the bridge across the river that connects the two countries.

Once we had crossed into Posadas, we went on a search for the boardwalk.  Posadas has really embraced their location on the riverside by placing a great walking/biking/running path along the riverside, complete with benches, miradors (viewing areas), and riverside restaurants.

We walked along the path for awhile, then we chose a restaurant with a great view of the river.  The food wasn't very good, but we couldn't complain about the location.

After dining, we headed back to Encarnacion and our hotel.  We were a little concerned about the border closing, or the buses not running.  We were able to catch a bus between the two immigration posts (leaving Argentina and entering Paraguay) and that might have been the most crowded bus I have ever been on.  We were crammed into the bus, and literally, we touching at least five different people each, crammed in to get every last person on the bus.  Not too shocking, the bus didn't wait for us at the second immigration station, and we had to take a taxi back into the city.  It was an interesting border crossing to say the least, and we got to spend some time along a riverfront that reminded us both of Minneapolis and Milwaukee.

View of Encarnacion from Posadas.

Thanksgiving in Paraguay

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I feel like it is the one holiday that we share with family, there isn't any pretenses about gifts or candy, and there isn't any religious controversy over it. Thanksgiving has this wonderful idea behind it, being thankful for what you have. That is an idea that I can certainly embrace.

This year marks the third year in a row where I have been away from my family for this holiday. While it always makes me a little bit sad when I think of the wonderful time my family is having back in Wisconsin, I am thankful for the opportunity that I have been given to explore or wander the world and see it in a different light.

The holiday festivities this year were the closest to my family's traditions than I think I've ever had overseas. Five teachers live together, and they organized a potluck style Thanksgiving dinner, with them providing a turkey (specially ordered from Brazil). Everyone brought a favorite dish to pass so we had a cacophony of choices including two different types of potatoes, gravy, three different styles of stuffing/dressing, carrot souffle, sweet potato casserole, dinner roles, green bean casserole, spinach rolls, pumpkin pie- it was delicious.
The bird and all the food, without the people.
Cristi, Shauna, and Chaya celebrating a great holiday.
The full table, complete with people. There were over 20 people there, which might be my biggest Thanksgiving I've had in the last 10 years. There were Americans, Paraguayans, and a Canadian, all coming together to spend time together and be thankful for what we have been given.
After dinner was over, one of the teachers brought over a special cable box, which transmits signals from the states. We were able to watch some American football, with English commentary, for the first time in a while. It really added a dimension of home when we were able to sit down with full bellies and do exactly what we would be doing if we were in the states.
During halftime, Jesse and some of the other guys took out a football (American of course) and started throwing the ball around. That made for the perfect Thanksgiving day, although Jesse told me, multiple times, that it can't really be a perfect Thanksgiving when its over 80 degrees.
I can't help but be thankful for the wonderful people that I am spending time in Paraguay with, and that we were all able to come together and spend a wonderful holiday together.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Two Down, Eight to Go

This past Saturday Jesse and I finished our second master's class, this one a statistics based class. We both got A's! But after a long two weeks of spending every minute of our time at school (or so it seemed), after our final on Saturday we came home and relaxed in the pool.
Also, on a side note, what I am sitting on, and Jesse is holding, has become a necessity of our life here in Paraguay- the floatee. It gets very, very hot here, so having the pool and the floatee available make the heat a little bit more bearable. To give an example, today was 107. And it isn't even summer yet.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Better Late than Never

A while ago now I attended a party at the ambassador from South Korea's house here in Asuncion celebrating the South Korean Independence day. I have been meaning to make a post about this for a while but haven't gotten around to it. At the party some other teachers and I noticed a couple of women wearing tiaras and sashes who seemed out of place. It turned out that for some reason it was the reigning Miss Paraguay. Why she was there nobody seemed to know but fellow teachers Cristi, Jac, and I had to get a picture with her.
That now makes 2 beauty pageant queens that I have met counting this meeting with Miss El Salvador in the airport in Honduras a few years ago.

Interesting Article

Looking at the website for one of the Paraguayan newspapers a little while ago I couldn't help but pause when I saw a picture that seemed out of place. Check it out yourself and see if you can figure out the problem:
I can only wonder what the concert will be like if this is how she responds to the concert announcement.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Halloween Part II- The Festival

The festival begins at quarter past 5, with the kids all excited and dressed in their wonderful costumes. It contains a magic show for the kids, a parade, trick or treating in the classrooms and then games. This year, my 5th graders had a special presentation for the school, a Thriller dance, which they did twice- once for the students, once for the parents during the parade.

My teaching partner Tim and I.

The "Melrose Apartment Ladies", Chaya, Shauna and myself.
Jesse and I before the nighttime teacher party.

Halloween Part I- Decorations

Apparently, since our school is the American school, they have grasped onto some American ideas, one being Halloween. Last week, room mothers (yes, each classroom in the elementary have assigned room mothers to plan birthday parties and I'm not sure what else) started showing up to decorate the school for Halloween. Now, most people would assume that decorations might include a few streamers, some pumpkins, and some pictures of some kind. Well not these decorations. You could say, that Halloween has gotten a bit out of control. It almost appears to be a contest between the rooms to see who can decorate the most.

This is outside of my room.

In front of the office.
These decorations do little for the education of the kids and do a lot for exciting the students. It makes me a little bit sad to think about the amount of time and money spent on our school's decorations when there is so much poverty still around us.
They also decorated for the Halloween festival that happened after school on Friday. I didn't take pictures of the decorations there, but they were quite a sight.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Folklore Day

A few weeks ago, the elementary school has their Folklore Day. Folklore day here is somewhat similar to the Dia Tipico's that we had in Honduras, but it did have some differences. To start, a little history is needed to understand Paraguayan schooling. For most people in the country, Spanish is not their first language, Guarani is. Guarani is the name of the traditional indians that lived in Bolivia, Paraguay, and northern Argentina when the Spanish took over.

Outside of the big cities, Guarani is the main language of the country. Jesse and I hear Guarani being spoken almost daily by our guard and our maid. However, during the 1930's and 40's, Guarani was viewed as an inferior language, and therefore was banned in the nation's schools. Sometime in the 1970's (my dates may be a bit off) the government realized what a diservice it was doing to its youth, and now, every student has to take a Guarani class as part of their education. It is still viewed as a campesino language, a poor person's langauge, so many of our students don't value the language or its culture.

Fast forward to today, and as a part of the elementary school Guarani program at our school, they have a Folklore Day. This is where each grade level is taught a traditional dance and they wear traditional clothing as well. The girls wear traditional colored skirts, and wear fake hair braids to give the illusion of long hair. The boys wore gaucho clothing with a traditional belt, and the 5th grade boys also got to carry a guompa (my spelling may be off) to simulate a machete to harvest crops with.

The celebration is held for the parents to come and watch, with announcements made in three languages- Guarani, Spanish, and English. As it is the 5th graders last year dancing for Folklore Day, they got to do an extra dance to celebrate. Teachers were also asked to participate, although for my first year, I chose to sit out and just observe the celebration.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Three months in...

This week is our 13th full week here in Paraguay. Every day that I put the date on the board, I'm amazed at how fast our time here has flown. We just finished our first quarter of the school year, had parent-teacher conferences, and have done one really nice vacation so far. There have been some struggles, but overall, I am enjoying my time here and I really like my job. It is a little difficult trying to think of October as spring, but I'm working on it. I do wish we had a few more three day weekends to see more of Paraguay, but what can we do. I've been designated our official trip planner (since I have a little bit less of a teaching load than Jesse), and I've been spending a lot of time planning our upcoming two month vacation. I am really looking forward to spending time with Alex and Caitlin in Chile, Easter Island, and Ecuador; and seeing Dad in Peru. I have a feeling it will be here before we know it. Time, it is a-flying.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Buenos Aires- Recoleta

I realized this afternoon that I hadn't posted on our visit to the Recoleta neighborhood in Buenos Aires. The most famous part of the Recoleta neighborhood is the Recoleta cemetary. This cemetary was amazing, with astonishing architecture for the family crypts. This is where Eva Peron rests with her family, which added to my desire to visit it.
A startlingly beautiful statue.
An example of the architecture. The cemetary was set up with alleys to guide you around.
Eva Peron's gravesite.

Recoleta also has, what is commonly called, a Hippie Market. Here, hippie portenos sell their artistic wares. Jesse and I bought a painting, some earrings (for me), a ring (for him), and some picture frames. We also stumbled upon a live music show going on, so we just sat and listened for awhile.
What may have been Jesse's favorite part of the neighborhood was where we ate lunch. Around the hippie market there are all these outdoor cafes and restaurants. Well, we found a microbrewery among those outdoor patios. We bought a sampler and enjoyed the variety of beers.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Boca Juniors

One of the things that makes the La Boca neighborhood famous is its soccer team Boca Juniors. CABJ (Club Atletico Boca Juniors) is one of the 2 giant teams in Argentina and they have had some pretty famous players and lots of championships over the years. Their stadium called "El Bombonero" (which means chocolate box because it looks like a box of chocolates from above) is only 4 blocks from the touristy street with all the painted houses so we decided to pay it a visit and take a stadium tour.
The tour was only $5 and took us all around the stadium including some of the nicer box seats which felt like they were right on the field, under the stadium and into the visitors locker room, and even onto the corner of the field.

We were also able to take pictures where the players and coaches give press conferences after the games.
The most famous Argentinian of all played his club soccer for Boca Juniors. Of course I had to get my picture next to the bronze statue of Diego Maradona. This other picture is of a giant mural covering an entire wall of the Boca Juniors museum depicting Maradona.
Unfortunately there was no home game while we were there, but the next time I'm in Buenos Aires, taking in a game at the Bombonero will be high on my list of things to do.

La Boca

Buenos Aires is a city with many very distinct neighborhoods. One of the more famous of these neighborhoods is La Boca. It is a neighborhood located next to the port in Buenos Aires which was settled by many immigrants from Italy and Spain. These immigrants worked in the port and used lots of colorful paint to make the barges and ships that they worked with more pleasant to the eyes. When they had leftover paint, they brought it home and painted their houses with it to make the tin and old wood look better too. This tradition led to a beautiful and colorful neighborhood that became popular with tourists.
We wandered around the neighborhood for a while, took some pictures, and picked a place to sit down for lunch after being hounded by what seemed like 50 restaurants offering food and a tango show. We settled on one and had a nice steak lunch while watching the show. Crowd participation is apparently highly encouraged in Argentina because Danielle got pulled up on stage for a little dance as well. Overall Boca was interesting and beautiful but a little touristy and fake as well. Still worth a visit though.