Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Shifting of Focus

I find myself shifting from the here and now to the middle of next week when I will be back to begin assistant dean and getting my bearings as the acting chair of the chemistry department. I begin to think about taking my place as President of Noon Rotary where Mindy Clonginger has stepped into the breach for the last month. Do I have a gift for her? I'd better check.

The e-mail in my inbox seems more urgent, like something that is going to effect me. I begin to think about packing my bags and getting my back medicated for the flight home. The kids have gotten online trying to see what the inflight movies will be on the stretch from Buenos Aires to Atlanta. Nothing like staying up all night watching mediocore movies with a couple of hundred perfect strangers.

It has been a good experience for me and my family here at El Rinconcito. As I mentioned to Celeste the other day. She says it is a hotel, but it is a home. It is a home where you are fed and cleaned up after.

My family has used it to expand our horizons and to rest. Looking back on the beehive in which we live isn't exactly comfortable. Both Jean and I worry about the pile of work that has piled up on our respective desks. We also worry about all of the activities that await us. But that is reality, those are our lives. I will never be the gentleman rancher in the Chaco who writes novels. Jean will not be the mistress of the house, supervising the cook and the grounds keeper. We will go back to our lives as Professor/Administrator and Librarian.

But we will plan to come back.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Lomilita and Evangelica

This is my last Tuesday in Paraguay. Friday noon we will climb on plane and in less than 24 ours we will be breathing air in the US of A. In spite of all of the fun we've had and all of the wonderful people we've met, home is home.

Last night I spoke at Universidad Evangelica, which is a Mennonite school. I did this at the behest of Vincente Aguilar who is connected with the Comite Paraguay-Kansas. He is a native of Paraguay but received education at Emporia State. He invited me to give a mathematical lecture to his class and I responded with a collection of problems I've written on at my other blog . My thesis was using humor to make the teaching of mathematics more engaging. His class was to interpret what I said to the audience. In order to make a talk that could be translated, I removed the cultural references which removed most of the humor. The talk was in danger of seriously tanking until I said "the mathematical theory of sets" and the student translating translated this as "the mathematical theory of sex." A good laugh was shared by all.

Celeste drove us there, and I must commend her because this was over on the other side of Asuncion. She sat through the talk, and then on the way home convinced us to stop for Lomilita's.

Let me describe the lomilita warning you ahead of time to believe what I say as it is so incredible. Imagine if you will a hamburger, but then remove the pattie and replace it by a thinly-sliced piece of filet mignon. Yes, you read that correctly, filet mignon. I would say it was sliced between 1/8 and 1/4 in pre-cooked. But wait, my friends, there is more. Put cheese on it as you might expect. But I am not finished. Atop the cheese, which has been fused to the meat in the process of cooking, place a fried egg. Yes, you read that correctly, a fried egg. As you may recall from a previous entry, a fried egg topped the french fries served with another entry. I must say I hadn't known that the frontiers of fried egg usage had been pushed so far out.

Let me just say I ate one and a half of these at 10pm after have had steak for supper.

Yes, this might be my last Tuesday in Paraguay for a while, but parts of it I will take home in my arteries. And happily too, I might add!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Muy frio: A cold weekend

Celeste took us to the market downtown on Friday afternoon. She was concerned that I was freezing to death as all I had to wear for warmth was the sweatshirt I had brought along. We were going to the tropics in July, so I had not anticipated the cold. I should've been thinking Florida in January, which might be warm to Kansans in January, but not Kansans in July. The temperatures have been dipping into the forties and, occassionaly, the thirties at night and only briefly into the sixties during the day.

The market is a living organism. The prices on the produce are not to be believed. I can't recall a single example as my mind was filled to overflowing and was constantly overtaxed by converting from Guaranies to dollars and kilograms to pounds. Celeste gave us a tour of the market were Sarah and I each bought coats and I bought a belt. We also bought a Yerba Mate cup and straw for Lora's fiance Andrew, but don't tell him, as it is a surprise.

Friday night we ate with Dr. Harmon's PSU group and Saturday we did the zoo. These experiences are documented in the previous blog entry and an forthcoming column in the Morning Sun/Ada Evening News.

One thing I've not shared is that I've been slowing coming down with bronchitis. I do this once or twice a winter at home. Guess what, it is winter here. I've been shy about mentioning it as folks seem to be in a tizzy about H1N1 flu, and I don't want to be put in a hospital/prevented from boarding the plane home this coming Friday. Saturday, I finally gave in a mentioned it to my hostess Celeste who took me to the pharmacy where I got my antibiotics. You can get antibiotics just by asking for them here. I've not been able to find so much as an aspirin at the supermarket, but they will let you have artithromicin at the pharmacy just by asking for it.

Sunday we hang around until after lunch and in the afternoon we shopped for groceries at the Superseis. Superseis is a modern supermarket that is a half-hour's walk from El Rinconcito. It deserves a blog entry of its own, but I will give it a go here. It holds a special place in my heart because it was the site of our first real interaction with the Paraguayan culture. It is set up like a Dillons, HEB, or IGA; take your pick. It has a deli, a butcher shop, and aisle after aisle of groceries. There are significant differnces. You can look your eyeballs out for potato chips and not find more than a bag or two. They are just not a part of this culture. Also, you have to know your meat if you are going to get what you want. They slice the carcass a bit differently here.

Last night we ate at La Vienesa in the company of Maria, Celeste's daughter. I had a steak and the girls each had Milanesa de Pollo. Milanesa de Pollo is fried, breaded chicken breast. It was served topped by a fried banana, wrapped with a slice of bacon and a strip of fried sweet pepper. The papas fritos (French fries) were topped with a fried egg. I've found heaven. We will bring a junket of cardiologists with bushel baskets full of lipator.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

No Country for Vegetarians

While we've been here, the staff El Rinconcita, always wanting to make the guests happy, have enabled us to stay on our usual eating schedule. This is with breakfast in the morning as we each dribble down from our rooms, lunch at noon, and dinner at 6:30 or 7.

Traditionally, Paraguayans do not eat that way. They do have lunch at noon, but they eat the evening meal much later, at 8 or 9. The noon meal is much heavier in order to accommodate the late supper.

Yesterday, as we were eating out with the PSU students who've been visiting under the guidence of Dr. Steve Harmon, we dined on Paraguayan time.

We dined at Paulista, which is an Argentinian restaurant, arrived at the front door precisely at 9pm, and were seated with the group.

I will say that there was a buffet and you could return to it as many times as you desired, and, indeed, you could make a whole meal out on it, if that's your bag, but the buffet was mainly for side dishes. The main attraction is the meat, and you don't see the beef a the buffet, and you don't order it from a menu. They bring it by your table on skewers.

The drill is as follows. A young man with a chef's hat approaches the table with a skewer sporting a big hunk of meat in one hand and a very sharp knife in the other. They ask if you want some. The answer is usually yes. They then slice you off a hunk or two and go on to the next person.

Each of these hunks of meat has a special name, and none of it, as far as I could tell, corresponds to the American way of chopping up a cow. We were presented with portions of meat there is no word in English to denote, but we do have an adjective to describe: Delicious.

There was a good 2006 Argentinian Cabernet Sauvignon present at the table. I am a white Zinfidel man myself, but one wine connoisseur at the table referred to it at "headache juice." The Cabernet had been aged in oak and was delightfully smooth, but the best part was how the waiters kept refilling the glasses even when you'd only drank a sip or two. I've no idea how much I drank of it. I did sleep past nine this morning, but with no hangover I can discern. Really.

After having achieved some depth in drinking the wine, Steve Harmon and I began devising a plan on how we need to accompany the president of PSU down here on a tour. Steve could serve as translator and I volunteered to be the food taster. Steve seemed to be amenable to this notion as you always have to have the translator present at a restaurant.

After having achieved a somewhat greater depth, I began thinking of bringing a group of meat smokers down to learn the Argentinian-style of doing things. I am short on the details now of how to make this happen, but somehow I think maybe a little wine will help to recover them.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Al lado de Universidad Católica

The time I've had to explore the environs surrounding Universidad Catolica has be limited because my class runs from 2 until 5; I am left off by my driver at 1:30 and picked up at 5. Yesterday I gave an exam and since my students had finished taking it and I was finished grading it 4, I decided not to call my ride to pick me up early but decided to use the time instead to explore.

I did it all from a park bench.

The park bench is located in a park that is beside Universidad Catolica. When I looked into the distance in front of me, the horizon was in Argentina which is just across Rio Paraguay. On the Paraguayan side of the river, there is a flood plain which supports a marsh. Nearer to me at the edge of the park there is an ornate stonewall. It looks to be gleaming white from a distance, but as you look at in more closely, you notice that it is in need of a new coat of paint.

The fence runs along the edge of a bluff where the ground begins to fall in stages down to the the marshy plains and into the river. One either end of the fence, there are stairs that lead downward into the area below. It is on the other side of the fence that the slum begins.

I've walked along the stone wall on a couple of occasions looking down onto the slum. In the manner of slums, it consists of hovels. Among the hovels there are an endless variety. Some of them have ten roofs which are held in place by lumber. The lumber is not nailed down, you understand, but just laying there in hopes the wind will not blow the roof way. Other roofs are, surprisingly, made of tile. Here and there you see lines strung where clothing is hung out to dry. One of the cloths like poles caught be eye because it looked like a cross. Not a crucifix with our Lord still attached nor the empty Cross of a Risen Christ, but the cross of Holy Saturday with the crucifixion past but the promise of the Resurrection not yet fulfilled.

Yet upon many of the roofs there were toys. Tricycles and other toys tossed to a high place for safe keeping.

And adjacent to the slum there is a field that has been cleared where I saw children flying kites.

I've on a number of occasions given coins to the children in front of Catolica. At the time, I thought the money was going for food, but then isn't a kite food for the soul? The weathered skeletons of kites hang in the electric lines above the parking lot at Catolica. Did the same children once fly their kites there?

From my park bench I turned to look at Catolica which is on my right hand and to the east of me. It is not a handsome building. It is of weathered orange brick and has been built onto multiple times and from the shapes of the windows I infer no attention has been paid to continuity of styles. In contrast to this, its entry way is stately and delimted by columns on either side.

To the south of Catolica, there is a church that is very beautiful on the outside.

To my left, there is the Legislative Palace. It is a gleaming coral-covered building. Across the park from it is the headquarters of the National Police, members of which are patroling the park, especially the tops of the stairs which arise from the slum.

I sat an the bench for 40 minutes taking notes of the world around me. Then my nose grew cold and I went to the front of Catolica to wait for my ride.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The world is flat

The world is flat.

El Rinconcito has access to three wireless networks. Every morning, I walk down to put the laptop computer I use on the dining room table where the bandwidth is better and make an entry to my blog so that it can be read by my friends and collegues most of whom are 5000 miles away. It wouldn't matter if they were 12000 miles away. The Internet has made the world flat.

Every night we have a set time when we call our eldest daughter who, with the help of her grandmother, is taking care of our home. We use Skype to call computer to computer and it is free. On those nights when she has been out of pocket, we've called her on her cell phone, and it's cost about 2 cents a minute. I don't talk to her that much when I'm home.

Morning, noon, and evening, I check my e-mail and deal with the matters that can be dealt with. This is a blessing and a curse, as Monk would say. It is a curse because, technically, I am on vacation and vacation should be, well, vacation. On the other hand, I've been dealing with 30 or so e-mails a day. Multiply that by 28 and you'll get the number I would've had to dealt with when I get home if it weren't for e-mail.

When I went to Russia in 2000, we were yet at this point. This is coming into Paraguay quickly and hard. Everyone I know here has at least one cell phone. Many have several because of the introductory plans. All of those tricky manuevers I've been telling you about on the street, they've been done while the driver it talking on the cell phone most likely. A huge percentage of the signs I read while trying to learn Spanish are about either cell phone service providers or Internet service providers.

Paraguay is now spanning three centuries in technology. On one hand, there are still horse-drawn carts going down the road halling items of produce and trash, and on the other, there are high-end users. The other day coming back from Brasil we passed a pickup that had boys in the back who were texting.

With this comes the modern world with all of it's advantages. No doubt the quality of life will improve in some measureable ways. But we all know the other half of that. Paraguay will become less like Paraguay and more like the rest of the world.

The world is flat. It is a blessing and a curse.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

No habla Espanol

In hindsight, it should've been clearer to us before we left that an almost complete lack of Spanish on the part of anyone in our family would've been a handicap. Indeed, all of the Spanish I knew before this trip was what I'd picked up from cowboy movies and Speedy Gonzales cartoons. I've now a hunger to take a class in Spanish--if ever given the time--but I am amazed at how much I've been able to understand and learn without any formal training.

Any traveler without fluency in the local language needs to get over his shyness right away. You are going to have to interact with people and you are going to have to impose upon their time. I've not found that to be an irritant to the people here in Paraguay. They've been friendly and patient with me.

Another technique I've discovered is that nouns and context will get you a long way. If you are at a lunch counter and say "Empanada" you will receive a wonderful little pastry-wrapped meat. It works even better if you throw in a por favor.

This brings me to a refinement of that technique. If you know a few works and phrases like "por favor" (please), "gracias" (thank you), "con permisso" (excuse me), and "lo siento" (I'm sorry) it can really lubricate the process.

When you are in a city, the whole world around you is a laboratory for language learning. Every poster, every billboard, every sign on a store window is an opportunity to gain vocabulary. Here context is a helper as well. If you know a few words, they can help you to learn the meaning of the words around them.

Here in South America, there is another tool available: TV. An exceeding large number of the television programs are from the good Ol' US of A, and a significant proportion of those are in English with Spanish subtitles. I've watched "The Family Man" and learned that carino means something like "Honey" or "Sweetheart." I've watched "My name is Earl" and have learned that "Diabolos!" is a profane utterance on a par with "Dammit!"

(This can be dangerous as my friend Khamis Siam learned French this way by watching movies about WWII and though the French word for German was "Bosch" which actually means "pig." )

I am beginning to be able to combine these. Last night at Shopping del Sol, a local mall, I ordered a wonderful meal with "Cuatro chipa cuatro queso, por favor, y cuatro agua sin gas."

My main problem comes when they talk back. I can't understand what they say. The sounds have a hard time resolving themselves into words. I think I just need to spend more time listening to television.

Another important factor are numbers. They are a mixed blessing. Written out in numerals, they are a universal language. Said outloud in words, I can't understand. My technique in dealing with this at the checkout is to put down a 100,000 Guarani note and to hope that is enough. If it is not, they will let you know.

I am going to investigate Spanish-learning opportunities in a formal setting as soon as I get home. Maybe sooner.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Avenida Artigas

Every working day I am navigated down Avenida Artigas--Artigas Avenue--to work at Universidad Catolica. I say navigated down because it is more like a swiftly flowing river than it is a street. It is a divided highway with a median down the center, but the pavement on either side has no line down the middle. The traffic itself, like a living entity, is left to decide how many lanes there truly are.

There is room for one generous lane, but most of the time it functions as two, and, upon need and need is frequent, three. Using "lane" as a word is misleading; "currents" is better. The currents flow, speeding up and slowing down, with the occasionaly eddie to mix them up. Frenquently, a bus will intrude into a lane like a large tree being pulled into the flood of an engourged river. Just as the flood waters build up behind the tree to push it aside, traffic builds up until the bus is pushed onward.

There are driving techniques practiced as a matter of routine on Artigas, and indeed on every street in Asuncion, that would result in a shooting in Los Angeles with the shooter acquitted. There are practices performed by the second that would result in the middle finger of the most impotent Kansas driver becoming erect.

But it is not just the driving on Artigas. There are the people. The first kind are the ones crossing the street. Only fools cross at the crosswalk where you are blind to the traffic coming up the street behind you. You cross in the middle of the street if you can. The best time is when the street is full of stopped traffic when you can squeeze yourself between the cars. Other times, you run toward the median, catch your breath, and the run to the other side.

The other kind of people are those doing business from the median. The could be selling bags of fruit, bottles of cooking oil, or chipa, a donut-shaped bread made of yucca-flour, from baskets balanced on the top of the sellers head. Artigas is the ultimate convenience store.

Having ridden on Rio Artigas, I can understand the connection between riverboats and gambling. There is a thrill associated with the motion somehow, but one Rio Artigas, with trucks and taxis and buses and cars and pedestrians and bicycles and motor cycles, the stakes are not just your money. They are your life.

Monday, July 20, 2009


This weekend represented the midway point in our visit to Paraguay, and much happened. The question I have it how to begin to describe it. It cannot be done in a single blog entry, so what I will to today will be to outline the experience with the promise to write a couple of more essays about special events.

Arpa Paraguaya

The weekend began on Thursday night with the pizza party that Celeste put on for the visiting PSU students in Steve Harmon's group. The pizza was Paraguayan style and was cooked out on the grill. It is topped with marinara sauce--though not as much as in the US--cheese (sliced and liquid), pepperoni, olives, and corn. It was cooked over a wood-fire out on the patio.

The highlight of the evening was the Paraguayan Harpist who played, of course, the Arpa Paraguaya. We sat in the living room of El Rinconcito in a semi-circle around the harpist. The Paraguayan Harp is smaller than its ancestor and more portable; we've seen one carried on a motorcycle. It is played with the finger nails. The group, students and adults alike, sat enraptured around the musician as he played. At one point, he played a song the Celeste and Graciela (who works with the Comite) both knew and they sang along.

Afterward, we stepped into the backyard to talk and looked up at the sky where we saw Alpha Centauri and the Southern Cross, a star and a star formation, which cannot be seen in Kansas. Somewhat like the evening.

Encarnacion and the Ruins

Friday we tripped over to Encarnacion where we saw the Jesuit Ruins. These are churches which were abandoned before John Wesley founded Methodism. It is very peaceful. I will not attempt at this point to describe the ruins themselves, but let it be said that the Jesuits knew how to pick a building site. The beauty surrounding the place is, to use accurately and overused phrase, awe inspiring.

That night we hopped over the border to Argentina for supper. I promise to write a column on this.

Itapua, damn, but the birds

The third site we were to visit was to be the Itapua dam which generates electricity for Paraguay and much of Brazil. It was closed do to the N1H1 flu. This strain of influenze has been a worry to folks while we've been here. To be quite frank, I don't know whether it is really that prevelent or whether there is simply panic. When you don't know the language, you just have to guess.

Instead of going to the dam, we went to the Bird Park in Iguazu. It is a zoo devoted almost entirely to birds. God has chosen to design many improbably birds and to color his creations in colors that would be considered beyond the realm of good taste were a human to do it. But God is God. And it he looked at it and saw it was good.

That night we ate in Brazil. There was dinner and a show, and this might also require and essay all its own, but I don't know. What happens in Iguazu stays in Iguazu.

El Cataratas

In Spanish they call Iguazu Falls, el Cataratas, the cataracts. It has often been the case on this trip where I can describe something to you and I could even take a picture, but it is no substitute for being there. I looked at my watch at one point that Sunday morning as we walked down to toward the river and watched at the falls flowed over the precipice and noted that in Kansas we were usually singing the Doxology at this particular time, so I began to sing it:
Praise God from Whom all blessings flow,
Praise Him all creatures here below,
Praise Him above ye heavenly hosts,
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
It was a sunny day, so there were rainbows everywhere. My daughter Sarah, who got a new digital camera for High School graduation, put it to good use. Though the photos cannot capture it, they will serve us as reminders that we were actually there.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

En Universidad Catolica

I thought that today I would give the reader a little idea of what teaching is like at "Catolica" for folks in the PSU in Paraguay program. The first detail that I will share is something I didn't notice for a couple of days. When you enter into Catolica, you don't have to open a door. You walk up a staircase an you are in the building. There is no door to open until you get to the classroom.

The alert reader will discern from this that the building has no central heat and air. Each room has its own individual unit, which I believe is a heat-pump, but I have not asked.

When you walk into the university, you walk past a porter who keeps the non-University people out.

On the way to my classroom, I walk past the office of Diana who helps with house-keeping chores. She makes copies of exams, she gives me new markers for the board, and once she bought a scientific calculator.

The room I am in has no real window. It does have its own air-conditioning unit. It has a whiteboard attached to the wall. There is a screen and a projector. It is equipped for powerpoint. Indeed, with the lack of windows, it is better for powerpoint that 215 Yates at PSU, but I digress.

But a class isn't the room, the class is the students. On the first day of class, the students walked into the room, and all of the boys looked me in the eye and shook my hand. They all greeted each other and shook each other's hands. They started conversations with each other that continued in a more or less continuous fashion for the next three hours as I taught. The only exception to this were the breaks, recreo, where they could concentrate entirely on talking to one another without the distraction of a lecture.

At present, this has improved. This has happened in three parts. The first of which is that I had a serious talk with the class explaining my expectations of them. Second, I've attached more names to faces, and when I turn around and see someone talking, I call them by name and have a small conversation with them. Third, we are deeper into calculus, at a point beyond where many of them have mastered. There were times yesterday when the silence was almost deafening.

Every day I cover the amount of material that I would cover in a week back home. This is done on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. On Thursday I test. It might work better with fewer exams or with a different design. If I ever get to do this again, I will try to work in more collaborative work which I think would help with classroom management. (This is a suggestion from Alice Sagehorn.)

I'm also trying to get to know the students better as individuals and to let them know me better. This is, of course, part of the joy of teaching.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Typical Day

We are approaching the half-way mark of our stay, so I thought I would describe yesterday which was a typical day.

I awoke in the morning to the sound of roosters crowing. Whether they are crowing in Castellon or Guarini, I cannot discern, so I roll over again and sleep for one more short segment. I arise, shave, shower, dress, and then grab a computer to go down for breakfast.

Leo has set the table and put on a pot of coffee. I pour myself a cup of coffee while the computer gets connected to the Internet and work on the cup of coffee and e-mail left from the previous day at the same time. Once that is done, I have breakfast of toast, jam, and juice--OH THE JUICE--and sort out thoughts regarding the day's blog entry.

After breakfast, I write my blog entry. By this time Jean is down, and we discuss our itenerary for the morning. We decide to walk to a Farmacia where I can get some ibuprophin for my back. After Lydia awakes and breaks her fast, we do this.

We decide to walk past the law school, Faculdad De Derecho, which is less than a block from El Rinconcito. We do this because Celeste has shown me where Jose and Cincita's house is being built, and this is across from the law school. It is on Congreso de Colombia. We walk up Colombia to Avenida Santisima Trinidad. Turning leftt would take us to Superseis, the big grocery store, but grocery stores don't carry medicines as near as we've been able to discern. We turn left instead. It takes us past a park where Lydia plays on teeter-totters with her mother. We then make our way to the Farmacia which is not too far from the intersection with Artigas.

In the Farmacia, everything is behind the counter. This is the point where it becomes important that I've never taken Spanish and that Jean took hers 30 years ago and hasn't really used it. I know a lot more Russian than Spanish, but a fat lot of good that has done me here. However, on my trip to Russian, I did learn something. One important thing to remember is that nouns, in the proper context, can do the work of sentences.

"Actron," I say. This is the brand name of an ibuprophen based analgesic here.

The Farmacist takes my name, making me write it down for her, and then gives me the Actron. The then asks me my nationality.

"Soy Americano," I say and she smiles at this sweetly.

We return to El Rinconcito and Cintia is making lunch for us. It is potatoes and eggs and is delicious.

German, our driver, arrives and drives us to Universidad Catolica. This is a little different, because it is the first time my family has gone downtown. German gives them a tour while I teach.

When I am done teaching, German, with my family in tow, picks me up and takes us to El Rinconcito.

I grade quizzes, record them in Angel on the computer, go through the e-mail that has accumulated over the day, and then Cintia serves supper. It is beefsteak smothered in onions with rice on the side. After supper Celeste informs me this is often served with a fried egg over the top of the steak. It is a meal meant for cowboys after a hard days work.

It is cool in the evening, so Celeste builds a fire for us in the fireplace and we watch "The Bridge to Terebithia" with Spanish subtitles. I am picking up a bit of Spanish this way.

Then it is up to bed.

For the sake of faculty who come to teach in the program, I will expand a bit on what goes on at Catolica in a subsequent entry.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Rich and poor

Every piece of writing has a point of view just as there is a perspective in a painting. I can only share my experiences through my own personal lens and I can only share the particular slice of life that I see. Being in Paraguay in this particular program, I am meeting students who've themselves come through a path that brought them to this place which is a class meant for those who have serious plans to come to study in the United States. They are an elite either because of wealth or intelligence or both.

Those who know me and know my writing also know that I have certain populist tendencies. That having been said, I also have to say that I really like my students. I can see that they've had much teaching on how to present themselves. Good eye-contact. Excellent people-skills. These young people have been raised to be leaders, and leaders I believe they will be. I believe that, before I retire, some of the students I see in this class will have grown to be folks of much influence, and as a teacher, it is my priviledge to have some tiny part--whatever can be done in 45 hours--in shaping that.

I've also seen people who are not rich. I've seen the poor on the streets. Near every stop light on Artigas, Trindad, Sacramento, or Transchaco--every major street I've been on--are the poor. There are boys with squeegies who will come out to clean your windshield for a few coins. Women with babies come to the windows to beg. Near Universidad Catolica there are children who come with their hands out to harvest from those who are waiting for a ride.

This is not an easy subject and it shouldn't be. Our natural empathy leads us to want to give, but there have been words created to make it easier not to: enabler, codependent. We giving we are perhaps enabling an able-bodied person not to work. We are enabling the government to get out of it's obligation to provide a safety-net for the poor. When we give, we are only making ourselves feel better while preventing the begger from finding a more productive way of making a living.

I've decided that a few dollars a day to make myself feel better is a rather small price and if the person at the other end doesn't need the money, then, well, that is his problem. In this, I think I'm following the example of some of the people here in Asuncion I've come to think of as virtuous. German, for example, always carries a few coins for the kids. I've seen him give half a bottle of pop to a boy who cleaned his mirror.

It is a bigger issue than me.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Holy Water

Ypacarai is Guarani for Holy Water. It is also the name of a lake that is just about an hour out from Asuncion. We visited it yesterday as part of our first excursion out into the country side.

In looking around El Rinconcito, it is easy to see that Celeste Ramos, the owner/operator of El Rinconcito is interested in the art of the indigenous peoples of the region. There are statues and masks and other works of ceramic art to be found. Yesterday, she arranged for us to take a tour that included stops to see the work of a couple of her favorite local native artists.

The first stop was at a shop that featured primarily Indian art. There were small scultures of local animals as well as ceremonial face masks. What was striking to me was the low price attached to all of it. We walked out with a sack-full that only cost 55,000 Guaranies ($11).

The next place we stopped was the abode of an artist named Chacho. Chacho has quite an operation and he showed it too us. The mixes various kinds of the local clay together to make a clay suitable for his pottery and he, through Diana, our interpretor, explained the process from the making of the clay to the firing of the finished pieces. Chaco is not so much into Indigenous art as he is other things. He makes clay fruit so realistic that you might accidentally try to take a bite. Seriously. Celeste has some of his apples in a bowl and I had to touch one to know it was fake. I bought one of those.

We had lunch at a park on a beach on the lake. This is the slow time of year and we had the place pretty much to ourselves.

After lunch we proceeded to Casa del Monte, which is a park of sorts. It is hard to fit into North American catagories. It is developed around an awareness of nature theme. There are animals in cages, there is a pony ride, their is what looks to be a very nice restaurant, there a health spa, and they have WiFi.

Two things that they have help to encapsulate the joy of foreign travel. The tucan and the cactus tree. If you've ever seen a tucan face to face instead of on a cereal box you know what I mean when I say it looks like a made up animal. If a child were to color a bird with yellow and orange on its beak and deep blue around its eyes, you'd think the child ignorant. The same with the cactus tree (whose real name I don't know). If a child drew a plant with the trunk of a tree and cactus instead of branches and leaves, you'd praise him for his vivid imagination.

I can't. I've seen it with my own eyes.

Occasionally, as we rode through the countryside, I'd lean over to Jean and say, "Okay, cows grazing among palm trees? You are putting me on. This is ridiculous.

In the evening after we returned, we went out to supper with Steve Harmon. We went to Bolsi's which I am told is a favorite of Alice Sagehorn and Lynette Olson. For five people with two glasses of wine and two coffees, it was $40, and this might be the fanciest restaurant in the city. Seriously.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Nuestra Expo es una gran Expo

Took the family today to the Expo here in Asuncion. If I call it the Paraguayan National Fair, then everyone in Kansas and Oklahoma will understand it exactly. German (pronounced Herman) who is our driver for the month, drove us down Avenida Transchaco and let us off there about 1o:30 this morning with a cellphone and instructions to call when we were done.

It was very clean and very safe. I felt safer there than I did at the Oklahoma state fair the last time I went. Maybe it was the Policia with the automatic rifles. There is nothing quite like seeing the good guys carry a lot of fire-power to calm the spirit. My daughters feel differently about this, so maybe I am wrong.

We saw a lot of nice cattle, hereford, brahma, brangus, and some I didn't recognize whose names didn't stick. They were all well-scrubbed just at you would expect animals to be at the fair.

The folks in attendance seemed to be middle-class and upper-middle-class for the most part. I did not see the redneck types I would've expected to see at such an event back home. Maybe I don't recognize the cultural markers or maybe it was just the time of day. We went in the morning and folks in these parts seemed geared to run later in the day.

After a week of trying to sample the local fare, I caved-in to the kids and ate a Burger King. This was a great sacrifice as there was tons--and I mean TONS--of barbecue to be had. There were sheep and goats that were being roasted on skewers over open fires. And Empanadas were to be had for a song.

This reminds me; I haven't introduced you to the empanada yet. Take a piece of pie dough about 4 inches across and pile some ground beef on one have. Put some onion and chopped up boiled egg on it for good measure. Then fold over and deep fry. This gives you an empanada de carne. Replace the beef with jamon y queso (ham and cheese) and you have an empanada de jamon y queso. This can be repeated for other fillings mutatis mutandis. They are pretty danged good as far as I am concerned and incredibly filling. But it was Whoppers and fries for us.

We bought some ponchos and other souvenir type stuff, pumping the Paraguayan economy as much as e could. The we gave German a call and he picked us up at 4:30.


I've always wanted to learn Spanish, but never have. In the 5th or 6th grade, I got a think Spanish/English dictionary and tried to learn it a word at a time. That didn't work out. Since then, whenever I've had the opportunty to learn a language that language had to be something else: German, Russian, or whatever. Now we are up to our necks in it.

We are fortunate that Leo, the custodian at El Rinconcito, is eager to learn English. He has a Espanish/Ingles dictionary and is trying to learn a word at a time. He is teaching us Castellon (this is how he refers to Spanish), and we try to teach him English. He is a very pleasant and patient teacher. As a bonus, he will throw in a word or two in Guarani, the native Indian language, now and then. We've learned meechi is the Guarani word for cat. Meechi is the name of the cat in residence at El Rinconcito.

By way of ethnic mix, Asuncion seems to be a reverse of the mix in Oklahoma. I mean to say, there are about the same number of Indians in Asuncion as there are whites in Oklahoma and vice versa. There are also quite of few of those who it my younger days we would have said "have just enough Indian to make them pretty." I look at that and don't know whether it is a racist statement or not. What I do know is, there are quite a lot of pretty people.

We've also been impressed with the number of people who will continue in their attempts to communicate with us in spite of our lack of Castellon. A general contractor who noticed that I was admiring the work he was doing across the street came over and talked to us in Castellon for about 20 minutes. He trotted out floor plans and the whole bit. We understood a shocking amount of what was being said. However, I am discovering that I am cursed with a good ear. I can pick out important words from a sentence, repeat them back, and they think I understand.

Friday, July 10, 2009

El Rinconcito

We are staying in a house named El Rinconcito. El Rincon means the corner and cito in a dimunitive suffix, so El Rinconcito means "my little corner." If you were to see it, this might confuse you because it is not on a corner and never has been on a corner. I believe it is meant in the sense of "my little quiet corner of the world."

Across Espiritu Aranda from El Rinconcito, there are some houses being constructed. I wish that my friend Verl Strong, preacher/bricklayer, could see. The houses are being framed by concrete columns reinforced with rebar. There are PVC conduits down them I believe for plumbing, electricity, etc. The walls themselves are made entirely from bricks that look to be six inches by six inched square. The builders have been making good progress since we've been here. I imagine they are taking advantage of the relatively cool weather.

The roofs are make of clay tile. Each tile is about 45 degrees out of a cylinder. They are laid over a wooden roof in columns which alternate curved side up and curved side down and are cemented down.

I say all of this because El Rinconcito shares the same construction. With thick walls, El Rinconcito is a quiet, little corner.

Most yards are surrounded by thick brick walls as well. Some of the walls are topped with concertina wire and come topped with electric, but these are mainly the very, very fancy homes. At El Rinconcito, only vines grace the walls. The yard at El Rinconcito has a number of palms. There are at least two, depending upon how you count them. There are a pair that come out in a V and there is another that stands alone, and in addition there are a couple of smaller ones. There is also a passion-fruit tree, and we've drank juice made from the fruit, though it is now out of season.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Oklahoma, S.A., II

Cynthia, Celeste's daughter-in-law who cooks as El Rinconcita where we are staying, made us something call marineta today. It's tenderized beef dipped in batter and fried. Chicken fried steak is, you may know, my favorite food, and this resembles chicken fried steak in the same way a nuclear bomb resembles a fire cracker. Jean and I have discussed adopting Cynthia.

I went out walking this morning and bought a bottle of soda pop. We deal with guaranie, the local currency. There are 5000 G to the dollar, so it makes the arithmetic interesting. I walk slowly, soaking up the scenery which dilutes any aerobic benefit I might get, but that is made up for in trying to cross the street. Terror is an aerobic activity.

The traffic on the road makes me think of gerbils on meth, somehow. The north-south road we take going to UC is Artigas. Artigas is a divided highway with a median about 18 inches wide. This is just wide enough to accommodate folks selling fruit if they are skinny. There are a variable number of lanes on either side of this. Anywhere from 1 to 3, depending on the need at the time. I would rather watch Paraguayans making left hand turns than Olympic gymnasts on the beam. One trip the driver was making a left turing and going through a space I thought a tad too narrow when a car passed on the right and went through the space during a moment's hesitation.

My class and I are getting along nicely. We have our first exam today. It will mark 1/4 of the way through our trip. The students are an interesting mix. While most have Spanish surnames, many have English, German, Russian, and even Asian surnames. It is a reminder that the United States is not unique in multi-ethnic makeup.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Oklahoma, S.A.

Yesterday I was caught by the differences, but today I was made very comfortabl by an unexpected similarity: Food. This is odd because food is one of the areas where nationalities display their uniqueness and where people are most sensative. The scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where the female lead is offered the chilled monkey brains illustrates our fears quite nicely.

This morning we went to Superseis (Super-6), one of the local supermarkets, to buy come groceries. They have a little deli, similar to the one at Wal-Mart, where you can buy prepared food. There our cook/driver for the morning Cynthia pointed out a tradional Paraguayan dish. It was rectangular in shape and golden brown on the top. We brought it home, cut a piece from it, and gave it a taste. Corn bread. Maybe another ingredient or two, but corn bread never the less.

Cynthia whipped us up a lunch that included fried pork chops, rice, and roasted chicken all like my Momma would've done when I was growing up.

We also tried some mandioca (cassava) root that wasn't half bad. It's like boiled potatoes. It's very popular here and I can see why. It's good comfort-food.

One unexpected challenge is having someone to cook for us. The food is wonderful. The people are great. But it has been hard to let other people wait on us. I can hear you laughing, saying "Oh, yeah, I bet it's hard." But we've habitually taken care of ourselves for years. The "do it yourself" thing has been firmly ensconced in us--Jean and me at least, mainly Jean.

The students are smart, well-spoken, comfortable with the teachers, and like to talk to each other. That part is a challenge, but we, students and teacher, are learning.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Lunes, Lunes

Their is a full moon tonight as I write this. It has been a long day and I am tired, but it is a good tired. I taught my first class at Universidad Catolica. It was different, and I mean exactly that: different.

Over the last couple of days we've noticed the same things that everyone who engages in foreign travel learns. There are things that are the same as home and things that are different and even the things that are the same are different. There is ketchup. That is the same. It is marketed by Hellman's. That is different. It tastes just a little different too. That is okay because if everything was the same we could just stay home.

Jean, mi esposa, and I took a walk today. Hardly any of the plants we saw are the same as we have at home. There are some that look familiar but would look more at home in flower pots than standing alone as a tree as they are doing here. I did see mother-in-law's tongue, vast quantities of it in fact.

An then there are the palm trees and the orange trees and the fruit trees for which there is no word in English.

But back to my class. They are intelligent, nice, polite, and have a great deal of affection for one another. I am exhausted. They will be a challenge for me, but I know they will learn. I know they care.

My first Monday is over and the moon is full. Lunes, lunes.

Saturday, July 04, 2009


We are in Paraguay. I have showered, eaten, and slept. After about thirty hours of travel, those activities are essential.

The leg of the flight from Atlanta to Buenos Aires was one of those overnight jobbies. You are supposed to sleep, but this rule is honored more in the breach than in the keeping, to coin a phrase. For my part, I am six feet three inches tall and weigh many hundreds of pounds. The folks who designed the plane used something which was the length of my femur to measure the distance between the front of my seat and the back of the one in front of me. Eventually, I turned over on my side and got a bit more comfortable with my feet hooked under the seat in front of me. Try this in a straight back chair sometime and you will apprecate my abilities.

We landed in Buenos Aires at 7:45 and were there until 1:20 (13:20). It is an old airport and the manner in which it has be kept up reminds me of Oklahoma. Let ye who have the wisdom understand. There were people walking around in the airport wearing surgical masks because of the swine flu. Apparently there are many cases of it in Argentina. From there it was a short hop to Asuncion.

We were met by our host Celeste at the airport. She took us to her home in her king-cab pickup truck. She showed us our rooms and arranged a snack for us. We went to bed early. I am pounding this out before coffee, which I will now go to seek.