Friday, November 13, 2009

The Official Slogan of Paraguay: "Come back tomorrow. It'll be ready then."

Back in May, I wrote about the official uniform of Paraguay. To refresh your memory--or if you didn't read that post--it basically consists of a Paraguayan national soccer team jersey, baggy shorts, toe wedge sandals, and a guampa (basically, a large water bottle used to refill cups of tea).

Recently I figured out the official slogan of Paraguay: "Come back tomorrow. It'll be ready then." It seems as if no matter what you need or want, be it a signature on a document, artwork, laundry, an answer to a question, or anything else you simply cannot get it on the day that you were originally promised. In other words, if you are told to return on Tuesday to get whatever it is that you need and then you do return on Tuesday, you will be met with the seven words mentioned above. And just because you are told that "it" will be ready tomorrow doesn't mean that it is so, which brings me to the translation of Paraguay's official slogan.

"Come back tomorrow. It'll be ready then." really means "It's not ready and who knows when it will be so come back at a later, undetermined time and hopefully it will be ready then." This could mean the following day or, more likely, the following weeks sometime. In Paraguay, it's all a guessing game.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Visa Paradise

Will wonders never cease? It's finally for real officially official. This past Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at approximately 11:45 am, Catherine and I received our temporary resident visas. When the woman handed me our two visas it was a wonderful, almost surreal moment since I had been to immigration at least a half a dozen times and walked away empty handed. But not on this fateful day. On this day the planets and stars aligned just right, the gods smiled down on us, the sun shone brightly, the clouds parted, and I walked out of the immigration office for the last time.

Now we can legally stay in Paraguay until October, 2010. It feels good to be on the up and up and finally have our visas in hand even though we return to the states in a mere eight weeks. We did, however, come close to our prediction that our visas would be handed to us as we were boarding the plane. Hey, what's a nine month delay when it comes to government paperwork?

My visa.

Catherine's Visa.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

It's cliché I know, but: Fame! I'm Gonna Live Forever.

Since Grease I have been working on Fame at the Stael Ruffinelli de Ortiz English Language School. This time instead of merely being the assistant director and pseudo language coach, I will play the part of Mr. Myers, the acting teacher. But enough about me. Back to the students.

Even though the students in both shows are approximately the same age, they differ greatly in attitude, work ethic, and discipline. The Fame students come to rehearsal on time and prepared to work. It is such a welcome change from having to wait for 45 minutes to over an hour for the Grease students to arrive. And rehearsals are focused, solid, and productive. What a difference.

Do not get me wrong, Grease was a great show. The students did an excellent job and they really came together in the end. By the final performance they were comfortable with their characters, the audience, and each other. Yes, it was the last performance; however, there is an old addage in the theatre that I'll paraphrase here. It says that every show has a ton of dress rehearsals and closing night. This is exactly what happened with the cast of Grease.

Fame goes up in just over four weeks and I believe it will be a spectacular show. Everyone has been working incredibly hard singing, dancing, acting, memorizing lines, speaking in a foreign language and putting in more hours in rehearsal than most people put in at part-time jobs. Having said that, there is still a lot of work to be done before those curtains rise and "I'm gonna live forever" sounds throughout the theatre.

Now, maybe to balance out the superstitions of the theatre, I should say that the show will be a disaster. But where's the fun in that? Granted, I have been put into an extensive dance number where I will be jumping and spinning, picking up other dancers and putting them on my shouldes, twirling and galavanting all around the stage, but I still don't forsee a disaster. Wishful thinking? Not with two years of ballet and a Movement for Actors class in grad school that was really a cover for Intense Modern Dance 101.

Giving some instructions to the actors.

Working on lines and blocking with "Serena."

Echar This!

Is it me or does Spanish need more words?

Echar: A Partial List

to throw; to toss; (water, wine) to pour (out); (culinary) to put in, add; (teeth) to cut; (discourse) to give; (employment: despedir) to fire, sack; (leaves) to sprout; (letters) to post; (smoke) to emit, give out; (reprimand) to deal out; (story) to make up; to put on; ~ a correr/llorar to break into a run/burst into tears; ~ a reír to burst out laughing; ~se to lie down; ~ abajo (government) to overthrow; (building) to demolish; ~ la culpa a to lay the blame on; ~ de menos to miss; ~se atrás to throw oneself back(wards); to go back on what one has said; ~se una siestecita to have a nap

Yes, I know there are a lot of words in English that can mean a lot of different things too (just think of everyone's two favorite four-letter words). But the last time I checked, English had the most words of any language, somewhere between 750,000 and 1,000,000 words.

Paraguayan Left Turn

Some intersections are quite busy in Asunción. They are so busy, in fact, that left turns become an exercise in right turns--three right turns, in fact. Instead of making a simple left turn onto the desired street, you must pass the street, turn right on the next available street, a right next on the following street, and finally another right onto the street you originally wanted to turn left on. Once you are finally on the street you wanted, you get to once again pass the intersection that you visited only moments ago. Fun! With rush-hour traffic a never ending stream of lights, horns, pedestrians, colectivos (buses), motorcycles, street vendors, and exhaust, what's one quick circle around the block? Unless that block turns into 12 and adds 30 minutes onto an already exhausting commute.

For those Michiganders who read this, you will probably notice that a Paraguayan left bears a slight resemblance to a 'Michigan left.' For those of you who happened to miss those wonderful creations of traffic engineering the last time you visited the only two peninsula state in the union, Michigan lefts are those wacky left turns that require a right turn followed by a U-turn, usually with a traffic light thrown in between. Here goes: Instead of turning left to continue your journey you must turn right and then immediately get into the far left lane so as to be prepared for the next step. Merging into the far lane after turning right is sometimes easy and sometimes virtually impossible, depending on traffic, the number of lanes you must successfully navigate, and how far down the U-turn is. Once you are in the far lane you drive to the designated U-turn spot and either wait for a) the traffic light to turn green, b) oncoming traffic to dissipate, or c) both before completing the U-turn. Once option a, b, or c presents itself you may then turn onto the street you couldn't originally turn left on. What could be easier? Oh, I know. Turning left.

A street sign indicating that to turn left onto Avda. Perú, you must make a Paraguayan left (i.e. pass Peru and make three rights only to emerge back onto Avda. Perú)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Look Both Ways Before Crossing The Street

Mom's age-old advice about making sure no cars are coming before you cross the street rings especially true in Asunción. This is a city where the car--not the pedestrian--has the right of way. Be it a major, four-lane road or a single lane one-way street, it is wise to check both directions before taking that fateful first step off the sidewalk and into the street. Sometimes you even need to check the sidewalk for that random motorcycle who feels like using your designated walkway as a personal lane to skip the traffic. More on this later.

The major roads are pretty easy. Everyone knows to look both ways and proceed with caution. Most people will wait for an intersection before daring to leave the safety of the sidewalk; however, since there is no jay walking law here you may occasionally find that brave soul who throws caution to the wind and crosses in the middle of the street. My wife and I have been known to do this as well, especially on a hot day and the other side of the street beckons us with its shade. Keep in mind that when you do cross, be it at an intersection or the middle of the street, to keep an eye out for two things: motorcycles moving up between the lanes and that overzealous driver who speeds past everyone in the oncoming traffic's lane to make the green light.

Somewhat trickier are the smaller roads (two lanes or fewer) since they might be two-ways or one-ways. The signs marking these streets' directions are generally small and difficult to find, if they exist at all. This makes knowing which way to look especially tricky. Furthermore, since these smaller roads tend to be found mostly in residential areas (downtown being the big exception), people frequently cross them whenever and wherever they please. The best way to know which direction the traffic flows on these streets is to memorize it. You could look at which way the parked cars face, but that can be misleading since cars will park whichever way suits their fancy at the time. (Those of you who live in Texas know what I'm taking about.) Another seemingly smart thing to do is see which way the cars are heading and deducing from there where to look before crossing. But again, I urge you to exercise caution when doing this. Cars are known to ignore the signs--and sometimes other cars traveling in the opposite direction--to go down a one-way street so they do not have to travel around the block. It can be quite surprising to see a car whiz past you going in the wrong direction down a street that you know is a one-way.

As you may have noticed, motorcycles have no problem driving between lanes to get farther ahead. They also have one other trick they employ when they just don't want to use the streets. They drive on the sidewalk. That's right, if traffic is bad or the road just doesn't hold that magical appeal anymore the motorcyclist will opt for the sidewalk. And you better watch out. It doesn't matter if you were there first or even the trivial fact that sidewalks are made for walking, if Mr. Motorcycle wants to drive down it you are the one who's moving. To avoid this, maybe you should cross the street...

Looking both ways before crossing the street is not only sage advice passed on from mother to child; in Asunción it's a survival technique.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Paraguay's Two Seasons: HOT and Not Quite As Hot

As today's high hit 94 wonderful degrees, I realized that Spring has officially hit Paraguay. Even though the new season doesn't officially start until next Tuesday (Sept. 22), the oppressing heat has returned to remind everyone that even more oppressive summer heat is just around the corner. And in that brief description are Paraguay's two seasons: HOT and Not Quite As Hot.

The summer months--December, January, and February--are unbearably hot. Temperatures average at least mid 90s during the day (with most days above 100) and, at the lowest, mid 80s at night. Humidity never breaks, not even for a day and not even when it rains. When it does rain, outside feels like a steam bath. March and April offer no respite from the heat. Days might dip into the low 90s but the nights are still just as hot. May is the first month where the glimmer of cooler weather starts to emerge. But by 'cooler weather' I mean temps in the 80s. I guess cool is a relative term. Winter, described below, ushers in Paraguay's second season. Once those all too short three months are over, it's back to the season of HOT. Thanks, September, for reminding us that Paraguay hasn't forgotten how to turn the streets of Asunción into an oven.

I must admit that Cat and I enjoyed a nice three month reprieve: June, July, and August. Aside from a few cold nights where the mercury registered the low 40s, the temperature still averaged in the 70s during the day and 50s at night. Coming from constant triple digit highs and lows in the mid 80s, highs in the 70s were incredible. And we felt nice and cool.

Unfortunately, Cat and I won't see those nice, cool temps until December when we return to the States and Northern Hemisphere winter. Texas will be going through its own version of Not Quite As Hot and Cat and I will take full advantage of it. Plus, we'll have air conditioning everywhere we go, be it in a house, a car, a store, a restaurant, everywhere! Oh, the possibilities are endless.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Spanish Speaking Milestone

While on vacation a few weeks ago in Chile, my parents, Cat and I returned to Santiago from Viña del Mar via a bus. When we arrived at the bus station a taxi driver greeted us at the bus and offered to take us to our hotel. Cab drivers normally approach bus passengers and offer to drive them to their hotels, apartments, etc. so this was nothing abnormal. We decided to go with this particular driver for whatever reason and piled into his car.

The driver suggested that we take the freeway to our hotel because it would be faster and easier than taking surface streets. Based on what little I knew about the city (having been there only once before) it sounded reasonable and not like he was trying to take advantage of us out-of-towners.

As promised, the ride was fast and easy. I sat in the front and enjoyed a nice conversation with the driver. When we arrived at the hotel everyone else unloaded the luggage from the trunk while I paid the driver the fare plus a small tip. However, this did not seem to satisfy him. He pulled out a 1000 peso bill and gestured vigorously at me with it.

The following took place entirely in Spanish.
The cab driver told me that I still owed him 1000 pesos. Wanting to make sure I understood him correctly, I asked him to repeat what he just said? He said again that I owed him 1000 pesos. Surprised, I asked why I owed the extra money? He told me that the freeways were in fact toll roads and that I owed him for those tolls. I asked why he did not tell me this beforehand so I could decide whether to take said toll roads (and incur the extra charges) or stick to the surface streets. Instead of answering my question he pointed to the bill and told me that I owed him more money. Refusing to yield, I kept asking him why he didn't tell me about the extra charge. To which he again pointed to the 1000 peso bill and told me that I owed him more money. Finally, after he realized that I wouldn't pay until he answered my question, he relented. He told me that he didn't tell me about the extra charge because he thought I knew about it. Laughing out of disbelief, I asked him how I could possibly know about it when I am from the United States. Oddly enough the driver could offer no explanation. By this time my dad came over and asked me what was going on. I explained everything and my dad said to just walk away and not pay. Taking his advice, I told the driver that I was not going to pay. I shut the passenger door and started walking toward the hotel entrance. The driver got out of the car and yelled something inaudible. Obviously my dad understood what he said because he told him that he had his number and was going to report him. Upon hearing this, the driver immediately got back into his car and drove off.
My parents, Cat, and I surmised that we probably did owe the driver the extra toll charge, but we were upset that he never told us. Instead, he assumed we already knew (or at least that is what he said). We also found it difficult to believe that the extra charge was 1000 pesos. Based on that number (about $2 for every 4-5 miles), freeway/tollway driving in Chile is one very expensive undertaking. And I thought the new tollways in and around Austin were pricey.

Now the point of this blog is not to complain about possibly crooked Santiago cabbies or the cost of driving in Chile. Rather, it is to mention a milestone. I argued completely in Spanish with a cab driver and we both knew exactly what the other person was saying. In other words, I understood his Spanish and he understood mine. Despite the unpleasant ending to the ride, I was very happy that I could even have the argument. If only all my conversations in Spanish were as clear.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

San Bernardino: The Hamptons of Paraguay

Most middle to upper middle class Paraguayan families that live in Asunción have a summer home in San Bernardino, a small, lakeside town a relatively short 40 minute drive from the city. The town is tiny and hardly anyone lives there year round. Instead, San Bernardino serves as a summer getaway. When the heat and humidity becomes unbearable in January and February, families pack their bags, temporarily close their Asunción homes, pile in the car, and escape to their summer homes in San Bernardino. After two months of lounging around on the beach, sipping drinks poolside, late night parties, and relaxing the summer away, families pack their bags, temporarily close their San Bernardino homes, pile in the car, and return to the city for another 10 months of work or school.

A few Sundays ago Cat and I visited this vacation town. We were invited to spend the day there with one of my students, Mati, and her family. Naturally, an asado (Paraguayan barbeque) was the meal of choice. And, true to Paraguayan form, the family was incredibly welcoming, generous, and treated us as if we were long lost friends.

It started with Mati and her husband driving 25 minutes back into Asunción to pick us up after they had spent the entire morning at their youngest daughter’s golf tournament. On the way to San Bernardino, we stopped twice on the side of the road to buy strawberries and chipa just so we would have a snack while waiting for the asado. Once we arrived at the house the grandmother talked us up and down, asking questions, telling stories, sharing her ‘love’ for the military government that she grew up with, regaling us with her crazy protesting and subversive, anti-establishment days, explaining the joys of orgasms, and predicting when Cat and I were going to have children. She even predicted the exact day we would conceive (this September 21st). In other words, she was the crazy, old, loving, still young at heart grandmother that exists in all families. As she told us story after story, her husband just smiled and shook his head slightly. It was quiet acknowledgement that he’s heard it all before and, yes, his wife is crazy but he still loves her dearly.

After eating, Mati and her husband drove us all around town showing us the historic San Bernardino hotel (where Cat and I are supposed to conceive), the club on the lakefront, the downtown area, and the small ice cream stand where we stopped for a delicious strawberry smoothie-type creation. On the way back to Asunción we stopped at a mall to pick up yet more food. Cat and I mentioned that we never tried a quintessentially Paraguayan food, whose Guarani name escapes me at the moment. It was flat and thin, made of cheese and bread, and served hot. Despite being sufficiently full and not hungry at all from a day of non-stop eating, it was delicious. Of course Cat and I ate every last bite.

A day complete with wonderful company, tasty food, intriguing stories, and great memoires—what more could Cat and I ask for?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Day Trip to San Bernardino

Below are a few pictures followed by my wife's perfect summary of our trip today to San Bernardino.

portion of the patio of Mati's house

front entrance of hotel del Lago

pool area of Hotel del Lago

Cat in the dining area of Hotel del Lago

upper balcony of Hotel del Lago

Today we got invited by Andres' student and her husband to join them at their lake house in San Bernadino (40km outside of Asuncion). They had to take their daughter to an early golf tournament, which is about 25 minutes outside the city. Around 11:30 am they came back into the city to pick us up and then drove the 40 kilometers to the lake house. This is a perfect example of Paraguay's greatest asset, the people. They are generous to a fault and willing to extend their hospitality and make us feel welcome all the time. We were waited on hand and foot and yet never felt like an inconvenience. They made us a delicious lunch and had wine followed by a delicious trifle for desert. They even gave us a great tour of the town, stopping at scenic overlooks and beautiful hotels. There was one beautiful old hotel that looked like an old castle. Each room is named after a famous Paraguayan who stayed in that particular room. They even got someone to open one of the rooms so we could peak in. It was amazing. Mati's (Andres' student) Mom told us many stories while on our tour. She said that Andres and I need to come back here on Sept. 21st and pretend to me newlyweds and stay at this hotel. That will allow us to see it all through the romantic eyes of honeymooners and if we happen to get pregnant even better. She really wants Andres and me to have children and not to go to the hospital and instead have a natural birth at home with a midwife. If they only had the drugs.
San Bernadino is an amazing town. It is picturesque, centered around a large beautiful lake. Apparently a lot of foreigners, especially Germans tend to settle there and I can see why. The buildings are older, but in great condition. There are bars with seating outside, a park and delicious ice cream parlors! Today was technically still winter, even though it was above 80 degrees by 9am. There was hardly anyone in town, because even though many people who live in Asuncion own homes there, they only go there for about a month in the summer. I don't really get that, but I enjoyed taking advantage of no traffic or lines and having the city basically to ourself. If I couldn't live there, I would definitely be out there on the weekends. The family's house that we went to today was a block from the lake and their mom, sister and cousins own homes right next door. All the family can be together, because in Paraguayan culture, family is #1. Each home has a large patio with a built in barbeque area, tiled counter space and outdoor sink. It was beautiful.
As if that isn't enough, there is a country club that pretty much everyone belongs to within walking distance of their home. It has full lake access, 2 pools, a soccer field, several tennis courts, a gymnasium, large outdoor party area, man-made beach, restaurant and bar. There is a large dock area and a marina to store the boat and other water toys. If you are a member there, you also get to be a member at their large club in the middle of Asuncion. They drove us by there on the way home and it was equally as impressive, minus the lake access, of course. They also found out on the way home that we had never tried Mbeyu Queso. So they stopped on the way to our apartment and bought us some. Even though I was full from our day of eating, I still dove in and boy was it delicious. Mati also made a list of all the sites and places to visit while we are in Buenos Aires next week. She and her husband discussed it on the drive back and compiled a whole list of things for us. Because Mati and her family will be in Buenos Aires around the same time, we made tentative plans to all get together. The people here are amazing and this is just one example of what we have encountered.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Happy Friendship Day

Today, July 30, is Friendship Day in Paraguay. It is just like Valentine's Day, except it occurs in July and it is more geared towards friends. Friendship Day is as important and as seriously celebrated as Valentine's Day is in the States; however, you do not need a significant other to feel special on this particular day. Anyone and everyone participates.

This is not to say that Valentine's Day is not celebrated in Paraguay. It is. However, it is solely for couples so those without someone special in their lives must sit on the sidelines and watch as couples partake in all the traditions and mores of February 14.

When two guy friends see each other, they say 'felicidades' (congratulations) and exchange a hearty handshake. When a guy and a girl or two girls see each other, they too say 'felicidades,' followed by a kiss on each cheek and a big hug. Close, and even not so close, friends then exchange gifts. They range from small toys to candy to stuffed animals to the traditional flowers and chocolate. Today is a day of togetherness and happiness, celebrated by all.


School's Back in Session

This past Monday (July 27), after an extended winter break, school reopened for all students. Officials felt it was safe to allow everyone to return to their respective locales of learning, deeming the swine flu scare over. Despite the okay from the government that schools are once again safe, the schools seem to be about half full. Either people are still on vacation or they don't quiet agree with their elected officials.

It was a nice, quiet, pleasant three weeks. There were no constant screams and yells from recess or horns from parents' cars during after school pick up. Thankfully, because the students are not back in full force yet this week is acting like a buffered transition back into the near constant noise that fills up the day. Ah, kids...youth is wasted on the young!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Swine Flu Closes Schools

The swine flu (a.k.a. H1N1) has made its way to South America. Actually, it arrived about a month ago but it didn't really make much of an impact until it all but shut down Buenos Aires (B.A.) three weeks ago. News reports showed vacant B.A. streets and shuttered up storefronts. It was as if the Argentine capital was deserted. Tourism virtually stopped and stores and restaurants closed.

The flu outbreak coincided with Asunción's schools' two week winter break. Vacation, as students and teachers lovingly call it, started on Monday, July 6 and was originally scheduled to end on Friday, July 17. However, because of fears that the flu could spread quickly among students--especially young ones--the government decided to extend winter break another week. This fear was not unfounded since the week before winter break several schools closed early after over half of their students got the flu. In one particularly bad case, one school reported a 90% sick rate among its students.

This coming Monday, July 27 is supposed to be the first day of school after the extended winter break; however, another problem has presented itself. Public school teachers have gone on strike, demanding more pay and better working conditions. This strike has threatened to extend the already extended winter break at least another week. Paraguay's education minister has been frantically trying to resolve the strike before Monday. Unfortunately, it doesn't look good.

What originally was supposed to be a two week breather in the middle of the school year has turned into a mini summer vacation of three or, more likely, four weeks. While I am sure that students welcome an extra two weeks of no school, the fallout of such a long-lasting break will surely affect the school year. Namely, what will happen at the end of the year? Will the school year still end on its regularly scheduled day? Will it be extended an extra week or two to make up for the lost time over break? And if the school year is extended, will the teachers get paid for that extra time? Additionally, an extended school year puts summer travel plans in jeopardy, especially for those who leave immediately after school lets out (which is surprisingly common). Everything is up in the air right now. It will be interesting to see what happens over the coming weeks and months. One thing I do know; the Minister of Education's job is not one I envy.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Potable Water

I cannot believe I have not mentioned this before. Contrary to popular belief, not all tap water south of the border comes packed with its own version of Montezuma's revenge. Granted, in a majority of countries it is still advisable to steer clear of tap water in any of its forms. Hence, why bottled water quickly becomes everyone's friend.

However, Paraguay (along with Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile) has its fair share of safe, drinkable tap water. It is considered safe to drink the tap water in Asunción (the capital) and Ciudad del Este (second largest city). Once you venture outside the cities, though, the water is no longer treated and thus becomes unsafe to drink.

I found out quite by accident that Asunción's drinking water is safe. After a few weeks, I noticed that my house mother filled up the water pitchers directly from the sink and put them in the fridge. She did not boil the water, put in iodine tablets, or otherwise filter the water in any way. Since I had already been drinking copious amounts of water without getting sick I reasoned that it must be safe. My Frodor's South America travel guide and various websites confirmed it.

Safe, drinkable tap water makes everything--from cooking to washing fruits and vegetables to enjoying a refreshing glass of water--easier. It's great not having to worry if the ice in a drink at a restaurant is safe or if lettuce was washed in dirty water.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Paraguay Visa Requirements, Part I

Obtaining a tourist visa for Paraguay is relatively easy. First, decide whether a single or multiple entry visa is the right choice. Second, send to the Paraguayan Consulate your passport and visa application. Third, wait for your visa to come in the mail. It shouldn’t take longer than three or four weeks to arrive. Pretty simple. I think my visa arrived about two weeks after I sent in my application.

If you plan on staying for longer than 90 days—which is what a tourist visa allows— you will need a one-year temporary resident visa. A 10-year permanent resident visa is available too, but I am going to stick with the visa that I am still attempting to procure. As you will see, the necessary documentation for the longer term visa grows by leaps and bounds. (As always, contact the Paraguayan Embassy to get the latest immigration information.)

The following is from a form I received at the Paraguayan Immigration Office. Keep in mind that everything is in Spanish and no one speaks English. Also be prepared to spend a lot of time—months—collecting all of the necessary forms, signatures, and stamps. And once you submit your forms, be prepared to wait some more to finally receive your visa.

The first four requirements (and number 12) are to be obtained in the country of origin and the next seven are to be obtained in Paraguay.

Visa Requirements

  1. 1. Document of Identity: Passport or ID license.
  2. 2. Birth Certificate.*
  3. 3. Marriage Certificate, Certificate of Divorce, or other documentation to show civil status.*
  4. 4. Local police record (from 14 years of age) from your country of origin or from where you lived for the last five years. For people from Argentina and Brazil it should be a Federal Police record.*
  5. 5. Background Certificate, obtained from the Department of Information from the National Police. (Boggiani and R.I. 2 Ytororo)
  6. 6. FBI Criminal Background Check. (Cnel. Garcia N 468 near Tte. Rodi)
  7. 7. Health Certificate, obtained from the Ministry of Health, evaluating the mental and physical health and making sure there are no infectious diseases. (Brazil and Manuel Domínguez)
  8. 8. Certificate of Life and Residence, obtained from the Judicial Police.
  9. 9. Your entry stamp, this is the stamp you received in your passport upon entry into the country.
  10. 10. Tourist Visa, from the countries that require it (verify by the Ministry of Foreign Relations). (14 de May and Palma)
  11. 11. Two pictures of fotocarnet size (2.5cm x 2.5cm).

Additional Requirements for a Temporary Residence Visa

  1. 12. A high school diploma or greater, authenticated by the Ministry of Education and Culture.*
  2. 13. An employment contract mentioning your salary, certified in front of a public notary in Asuncion.*
  3. 14. Statement of financial guarantee in the case that you are a student or unemployed.

Additional Requirements

  • · All documents from the country of origin or foreign residence (except the identification document) must be authenticated by the Paraguayan Consulate in the foreign country and legalized by the Ministry of Foreign Relations in Asuncion.
  • · All of the documents presented must include the originals and two photocopies authenticated by a public notary in Asuncion.
  • · All documents that are in a foreign language (except Portuguese) must be translated into Spanish by a public translator in Asuncion.
  • · These requirements are subject to change.
In a subsequent post I will do my best to explain what to expect when trying to get all of the required documents. The list may look easy but there are a lot of things no on there that are good to know before you venture out into the great Asunción.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Spanish's Dreaded Four Horsemen

Below are the four parts of the Spanish language that non-native speakers struggle with the most. Compared to these vocabulary, aural and written comprehension, reflexive verbs, commands, masculine vs. feminine, and even rolling the 'r' are easy to master. Why can't Spanish be cool like English?
  1. Por vs. Para (very basically, for vs. for)
  2. Preterite vs. Imperfect (the two past tenses)
  3. The Subjunctive (too difficult to explain fully: basically it deals with expressing doubt)
  4. Ser vs. Estar (the verbs to be vs. to be)
I guess if these four parts of Spanish were easy, the language wouldn't be as much fun. Besides, if it were easy then everyone would be speaking it (less the continent and a half as well as a European country, among other parts of the world).

Friday, July 3, 2009

Tidbits about Paraguay

Here are a few fun facts about Paraguay.
  • It is the only South American country with two official languages: Spanish and Guarani (a native language).
  • The damn at Itaipú holds the largest hydroelectric power plant in the world. Almost all of Paraguay's power comes from it.
  • It is the only flag in the world with a different front and back (i.e. the coats of arms are different).
  • Asados (barbecues) are a regular weekend occurrence.
  • It is one of only two landlocked South American Countries (Bolivia is the other).
  • Tereré (a drink) is a national pastime.
  • First country in South America to have a railroad.
  • Ranked as the cheapest city to live in (150 out of 150).
  • Before the Triple Alliance War (1864-1870), Paraguay was the most economically advanced and richest country in South America. Now it is the second poorest.
  • In the desert regions (the Chaco), some telephone numbers only have 3 or 4 digits.
  • The full name of the capital city, Asunción, is La Muy Noble y Leal Ciudad de Nuestra Señora Santa María de la Asunción (The Very Noble and Loyal City of Our Lady Saint Maria of Assumption).
  • The headquarters of the CONMEBOL (the South American Soccer Confederation), one of FIFA's sub-governing bodies, is in Luque, which is just outside the capital Asunción.

Friday, June 26, 2009


Today was a good day in Asunción, Paraguay. After three months of running around and collecting all that we needed, Cat and I turned in all of our documents to the Paraguayan Immigration Office and they were accepted! That's right, we were not given a new list of requirements to fulfill, we were not turned away for whatever reason, we were not told to come back tomorrow. Instead, we handed in our paperwork and immigration kept it.

Of course it couldn't be quite that easy. When we first arrived and asked to speak to the man--i.e. the director--who we were told to ask for the day before (when we were told to come back today), the guard told us he wasn't there. Instead, he told us to talk to a different guy in a different part of the building. We found the other guy who, at first, handed us the same list of document requirements that we received three months ago when we started this grand adventure. We quickly informed him that we had all of the necessary documents. Whatever we said must have triggered something because he immediately called someone and talked for a few minutes.

When he hung up he told us to follow him. Any guesses as to whose office we went to see? That's right, the first person we asked for when arriving, the director. Apparently, we needed a letter from him stating that our FBI fingerprints were in transit from the US Embassy and to go ahead and process our visa request. (The whole fingerprint ordeal is another story.)

Letter in hand, we returned to the same place we were only a few minutes before (the first office we went to today) to present our documents. Of course. Why have it any other way?

Everything seemed to be going smoothly as the worker flipped through all of my documents until the very end. He told me that I was lacking my financial guarantee. I quickly showed him my letter from Rotary stating that I was to receive money for my year abroad. He reviewed the letter and then asked who I can only assume was his superior if the letter would be sufficient to satisfy my financial guarantee. After discussing the letter for a few minutes, the supervisor said that I would need to show an ATM receipt. As bad luck would have it, I don't carry them around with me. However, since I keep all of my ATM receipts, I was left with one alternative: go home and get one to prove my financial solvency. And, I only had 20 minutes to do so or be forced to return tomorrow and start the whole visa presentation process over again.

I told Cat to start her visa application while I run home and grab a few receipts. I literally ran down the street, grabbed a cab, ran up the stairs to my apartment, rifled through my receipts, found three that would work, ran back down the stairs, ran down the street, grabbed a cab, and made it back to the immigration office with two minutes to spare. Mission accomplished. Or, mission accomplished?

I had to then have the ATM receipts copied and notarized. Thankfully, there was an escribiana (notary) across the street. I completed that and handed them in. Finally! The worker signed off on my documents, handed me a bill, and put my documents aside.

Next, Catherine. While I was looking for old receipts the worker went through all of Cat's documents and found that she was lacking nothing. However, for whatever reason two notarized copies of my passport was needed to go accompany Cat's paperwork. I crossed the street once again and got two copies of my passport. Once I handed them in, the worker signed off on Cat's documents, handed her a bill, and put her documents aside.

We were given temporary 90 day visas. These will hold us over until our temporary resident visas are ready. When I asked if the immigration office would call us, the woman said it would be better if we called the office. For some reason that did not surprise us. She also said that the visas will be ready in about 15 days. Based on everything I know from obtaining all I need for this visa--from the health certificate to the police record to the tourist visa authentication to everything else--15 days is an optimistic estimate. I'm guessing the visas will be ready in 30-50 days. Guess all I need to do now is wait.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Rotary Banner Exchange

On Wednesday, the 17th, I participated in a banner exchange at my host Rotary Club in Asunción. I presented to the president of the club a banner from my sponsor club, Austin-Oak Hill, and he gave me a banner from his club, Asunción-Catedral.

The banner exchange is an important part of Rotary International. It is a personal gesture of friendship between two clubs. It also fosters relationships between them. With rotary clubs all over the world, the real and symbolic gesture behind the banner exchange keeps clubs connected.

(Alescandro Riline, president of Rotary Club Asunción-Catedral.)

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Dining Out after 10:00 pm

In the States, Cat and I would normally eat dinner anywhere between 8:00 and 9:00. Among our family and friends that was pretty late. (For example, Cat's sister eats dinner around 5:00). We were always considered the late eaters. People couldn't understand how we could wait so long before dinner. For us it was simple. It was the dinner pattern we chose and it worked well.

In Paraguay, however, eating at 8:00 or 9:00 is considered early. From our experience, people do not eat dinner until 10:00 or so. In fact, some restaurants do not even open until 8:00. Needless to say, Cat and I had to adjust our dining times. We find that if we go to a restaurant before 9:00 we have our choice of tables. However, if we wait and go to dinner at 11:00 we must wait for a seat to open up. It's incredible. The tables are packed, the atmosphere is vibrant, and the patrons are coming in from all directions for a bite to eat.

We have adjusted well and now we do not eat dinner until 9:00 at the earliest. Normally, we eat after nine, mostly closer to 10:00. We have even gone to 8:00 movies and have gone to dinner afterwards. When dining out that late, we have never had a problem finding an open restaurant to accommodate us. Finding an open table, however, has proven a bit more elusive.

Little story about dining out.
After around two months here, Cat and I went to a local mall to look around and take in the local shopping scene. After walking around and checking out the stores, we decided to go to 7:00. We found a restaurant that looked quite nice so we decided to stop in. Unbeknownst to us, the restaurant was not actually open yet. We were about to leave when one of the workers came up to us and asked if we wanted to eat there. When we asked him if the restaurant was closed, he replied that it was but he could open it up if we wanted. We took him up on his offer and suddenly found ourselves exclusive diners in that fine establishment. At one point we saw a cook come out and give us quite a perplexed look. Obviously, the guy who invited us in forgot to tell the cooks that they had patrons. We were very glad that we decided to stay because the food was excellent and we were treated to a great set of Bossa N' Marley and Bossa N' Roses.
Below is one of our favorite restaurants, Indigo, at two different times of the night. The difference is plain to see.

(Indigo at 9:00, still kind of dead)

(Indigo at 10:00, bright and lively)

Friday, June 12, 2009

GREASE: It's the One that I Want

Yesterday, I started helping out on a production of everyone's favorite set-in-1959-at-Rydell-High-School musical 'Grease.' It is being performed in English by students of the Centro Cultural Paraguayo Americano (CCPA). The actors range in age from 13 to 17 or so. The director is in college and has done a few shows before at the CCPA, most notably a rendition of 'Phantom of the Opera.' Needless to say, it is a young production. Even the dance choreographer cannot be more than 21.

What I did not know before I volunteered to assist in any way I could (i.e. sight unseen) is that along with 'Phantom', 'Grease' will be performed using playback. This is a seldom used technique where all of the songs are not performed by the actors, but instead the professionally recorded cd is played on loud speakers. This allows actors who cannot quite hit those high notes to not have to quite hit those high notes. Hence, playback is very beneficial for that obvious reason. It also allows for a production that could not have happened otherwise. However, playback presents a very obvious drawback: it completely disconnects the the show from itself. In other words, during the songs the actors onstage cease being their characters and instead become glorified lip-syncing, karaoke performing puppets. While this might not come across as the most dire thing in the world, it has the potential to completely devastate an otherwise decent show. Playback is always a last resort, and one that should be approached with extreme caution. A general rule of thumb, especially in musical theatre, is if the talent ain't there, don't do it.

Having said all that, I must be fair and say that the director in fact did not choose 'Grease.' A colleague of his basically told him that he was going to do 'Grease' and that was that. Guess I should have mentioned that little tidbit before.

As I was saying, I am now helping out on the production. After watching my first rehearsal I have to say that this show has a looong way to go before its July 22 opening. Granted, I am not expecting Lawrence Olivier spouting Hamlet. To be honest, I am not sure what I expect. It is difficult to judge after one rehearsal. I will say this, however. Everyone seems to be having a lot of fun and really enjoying the material. After all, it's 'Grease.' If you cannot have fun with Danny, Sandy, Greased Lightning, the T-Birds and Pink Ladies then you cannot have any fun at all.

Was 1959 really like this:
"Look at me, I'm Sandra Dee. Lousy with virginity. Won't go to bed til I'm legally wed. Oh look. It's Sandra Dee."

Monday, June 8, 2009

World Cup Qualifying

(my beautiful wife gearing up for the game. you cannot see him in the picture, but the kid who sat next to her--11 at the most--introduced us to a whole new vocabulary. we never knew such words existed in English or Spanish.)

Paraguay hosted Chile last night in a World Cup qualifying match in the national soccer stadium. (Yes, it is the same stadium that shut down a few months ago after part of a support section broke. But, all better now...) Cat and I sat at just about midfield, 16 rows up. Incidentally, we were in the same section of the stadium that broke. Putting that little bit of unpleasant information aside, the seats were great. We had an incredible view of the entire field and of all the action. And by "all the action," I am referring to both the action on the field as well as in the stands after the referee's no-call or, conversely, foul call against Paraguay.

The atmosphere was unbelievable. 35,000 plus cheering fans packed the stands. The most boisterous, vehement fans occupied the end zones. They chanted and cheered the entire game. That's over 90 minutes of non-stop drumming, singing, cheering, and jeering. When you add in the 30 minutes of pre-game and post-game cheering, the end zones rocked non-stop for over two hours. It was quite a display of energy and devotion.
(crazy end zone fans!)

To keep the suspense at a minimum, Paraguay lost 2-0. Chile scored a goal in each half despite Paraguay carrying the play for most of the game. Now I am not making excuses but due to an accumulation of yellow cards, Paraguay was without some of its best players. Had Paraguay won, however, it would have qualified for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Thankfully, Paraguay has five more chances to capture that victory: two away games and three home games. And one of those home games is against Argentina. Oh the gods are kind.

(yes, that kid in the background is wearing a mask because apparently swine flu has made it down here.)

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Top Ten Most Useful Spanish Verbs

After living here for a few months, I have come up with a list of ten verbs that I think are very important for everyone to know when speaking Spanish. These verbs are used all the time for their literal meanings as well as numerous idiomatic expressions. If you master these verbs then you will be able to get along pretty darn well in any Spanish speaking country. In no particular order, here they are:
  1. Ser (to be)
  2. Estar (to be)
  3. Hacer (to do, to make)
  4. Querer (to want, to love)
  5. Dar (to give)
  6. Decir (to say, to tell)
  7. Tener (to have)
  8. Haber (to have)
  9. Poder (to be able to)
  10. Ir (to go)
As you probably noted, some verbs mean the same thing: tener & haber and ser & estar. The trick is knowing when to use each verb. Once you figure that out, you are well on your way to speaking Spanish like a pro. At least, you will be well on your way to using these ten verbs like a pro.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Politics, South American Style

This little diddy comes from an American friend of ours, Arlo. True, false, partially true, partially fibbed, judge for yourself. Cat and I think there is more truth in this story than not.
A Paraguayan politician visited an Argentine politician. While they were at Argentine's house the Paraguayan marveled at how glamorous and big it was. He asked how the Argentine how he could afford such a place.
The Argentine said, "See that four-lane road over there behind the field?"
The Paraguayan looked and replied, "No. I only see a two lane road."
To which, the Argentine said, "Exactly."
A few months later the Argentine official visited the Paraguayan official. The Argentine couldn't help but notice how extravagant and big the Paraguayan's house was. The Argentine asked how the Paraguayan could afford such a large house.
The Paraguayan said, "See that bridge there spanning the river?"
The Argentine looked out the window, saw nothing, and answered, "No."
Unfazed, the Paraguayan said, "Exactly."

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Official Uniform of Paraguay

Because of the preponderance of armed guards protecting government buildings, banks, apartment buildings, museums, businesses, schools, and just about anything in between you might think that the official uniform of Paraguay consists of black army boots, tan pants, belt with sidearm and spare ammo, long sleeve button down tan shirt, black hat, and, depending on what is being guarded, a machine gun. However, this is not the official uniform of Paraguay. The official uniform is, in fact, quite different.

The official uniform consists of toe-wedge flip-flops, shorts to the knees (preferably blue but any color will do), soccer jersey (either a favorite club team or national team), a guampa (thermos) filled with water, a cup filled with herbs, and metal straw (all for the purpose of drinking tereré--a Paraguayan tea). Obviously, men don the uniform 99% of the time; however, women, on occassion, have been known to partake.

The uniform is suitable for all ages, from six to 60, from nine to 99. If one is ever in doubt as to what to wear, there is nothing more reliable than the official uniform of Paraguay.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Asunción: A Green City

Catherine and I took advantage of the short break between storms today to go to the rooftop terrace of our apartment building to take in the views. The building is not tall compared to ones in the states--only 9 stories --but it allowed us to see the city in a different way.

What struck me about Asunción is that it is a very green city. It's not green in the trendy, environmental, reduce greenhouse gas emissions sense but rather green in the old-fashioned, large, sprawling old trees everywhere sense. As the pictures show, trees dominate the landscape. Even when looking downtown, the most noticeable feature of the city is trees. They are everywhere, interspersed between sidewalks, yards, and roads. In fact, the school across the street from our apartment (Colegio Internacional) just planted around 40 trees around its property.

This is a refreshing change from the perfectly manicured and sparsely located trees found in most U.S. cities. It is as if Asunción was built around the trees instead of vice versa. In fact, the trees so effortlessly blend in with their surroundings that even though I walk by them every day it took a view from 100 feet above the ground to see just how much "green" there really was. All these trees provide shade and comfort, and give passers by something nice to look while navigating through the city.
(facing downtown)

Monday, May 18, 2009

Currency Connection

Here are the coins and bills of Paraguayan currency. The coins range in denominations from 1 to 1,000 and the bills range in denominations from 1,000 to 100,000. Nothing below a 50 G coin is ever used because its value is just too small; however, occasionally they turn up.
Just for fun, 1 Guarani equals 0.0002007 Dollars.

(Not pictured: Guarani coins in denominations of 1, 10, and 50.)

Friday, May 15, 2009

Break Out the Winter Coats on Independence Day

The temperature barely made 60 degrees today, making it the most pleasant Paraguayan Independence Day Cat and I have ever celebrated. Braving the brisk wind, we walked through the downtown streets wearing jackets and feeling chilled. It was blissful. To put it in perspective, Cat wore a jean jacket and I wore a light windbreaker whereas we saw people wearing scarves, knit hats, and heavy coats. I guess we haven't fully acclimatized quite yet.

As I alluded to in the above paragraph, May 14 (Thursday in 2009) is Paraguayan Independence Day. It will be met with a no work or school Friday and lots of asados (or barbecues) on Saturday and Sunday. If you haven't stocked up on your meats before today, good luck finding any. Since asados are commonplace on weekends and super-sized on holiday weekends, the supermarkets are undoubtedly out of fresh cuts.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Visa: if only I were referring to the credit card...

The following excerpt is from my wife's blog, "The Real Paraguay." She perfectly captures our exceedingly long, exceedingly tedious, exceedingly frustrating attempts to procuring a temporary resident visa. Keep in mind that this is just one step in our journey.

I have much to say about the past 2 days, but before I do I really want to warn you that it is not positive or upbeat. On Monday we went and got the new documents that we had finally obtained, copied and notarized. We then walked into the immigration office hopeful but not naive. I can't say I was surprised that after looking at ALL of our documents they had more for us to do, but I was surprised that it was 3 more things. I then realized that this could go on forever. We could return with our 3 new documents and there could be a new list. It could be never ending.

We now need to get fingerprints sent to the F.B.I. (even though we have fingerprints that were already processed and say F.B.I. on the back and were told those were fine the first time immigration looked at our documents), we need a letter from Andrés' University saying he is a student there (even though we have a receipt and a schedule from there) and we need to get our tourist Visa that Paraguay issued legalized. Sounds simple? Not quite. Today we went to the U.S. Embassy to get fingerprint cards. They don't do fingerprinting there, but they will give us the cards (which are exactly the same as the cards with our fingerprints that we already have but are inadequate). After going through a tremendous amount of security, going into the entry one at a time, through a metal detector, scanned with a wand and bags searched, we were walked to the Embassy main enterance by a guard. We were then directed to the office we needed and there were only 2 other couples there. We took our number and waited. Both couples left and we sat there, and we sat there. Finally a guy motioned us over and told us that there would be a security drill and we had to go outside. So we headed towards the door and another guy told us we could stay here and wait. It should take about 10 minutes. Now all we need is finger print cards, keep that in mind. As we are waiting, 3-4 groups of people come in. When the employees return, one lady immediately goes up to a window and begins to get some help. I didn't really mind that she cut in front of us since she had a crying baby. We continue to wait, patiently with our number, thinking that we will be the next to be called. We wait about 20 minutes and after everyone else had gone up to ask questions, we decided to as well and were told to wait for our number. 5 more minutes go by and they call number 97, we are 98. The people that came in after us go up there. I look over and see their number 99 sitting on their chair. 5 more minutes go by and they call 98. We walk up they hand us the cards and we leave. Needless to say, I am not impressed with our Embassy in Paraguay.

Now we get to go to Interpol where they actually do fingerprinting. Oh did I mention it was 35 degrees celcius which is about 98? We get on a bus- no a/c, luckily it wasn't crowded. We get off and walk about 10 minutes to get to Interpol. This place was really high tech- that is a joke. We were pulled into a room that did have a/c- yeah! There was a black stamp pad and the guy ran our fingers over the pad and pressed them into the cards. Our fingers were black afterwards. I don't know what solution was on the rag he gave us to clean off our hands, but it worked amazingly. There was not a trace of black ink on our hands when we left. In total it cost us $20 so far.

We then headed to a mall that was about 10 blocks away. Now the sun is down, so it is much cooler. We had to go to the cyber cafe there to use the printer. We needed to print out the cover sheet and payment form of the F.B.I. We were able to accomplish that easily. And we headed home. We were able to catch a bus after walking about 6-7 blocks. I was tired and just wanted to veg out in front of the T.V Well that was derailed since our power was out. I cooked dinner by candle light and we ate in silence since we were so tired. I decided that we needed some vodka and chocolate so we headed off to the store. That was definitely the highlight of this day. Tomorrow we are off to Fed Ex to send our fingerprints off. That will cost about $35 and the F.B.I. will charge us $32 total to process our fingerprints. It should take 3-4 weeks to get them back. That will give us plenty of time to get the university letter ($6) and tourist visa's legalized ($40). I am now convinced this process will never end, nor will the expense!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Cost of Living Chart

Here’s an idea of what things cost in Asunción, Parauguay. I imagine things cost less in the country. On average, the exchange rate is 5000 Guaranis (Gs) to one dollar. (I apologize for the small size and blurriness but the chart was too small otherwise.)

Two things I forgot to put in the chart:
One dozen eggs: 6,600 ($1,32)
One liter of gas: 4,250 ($0.85, which is about $3.40 a gallon)

I overestimated the cost of milk. One liter costs 2,150 Gs (not 4,500), which is about $1.70 a gallon.

Friday, May 8, 2009


A local team's soccer stadium is only blocks away from our apartment. When we're lucky, we get to partake in the victory celebration with the fans by enjoying the fireworks display. Or, as they say in Spanish, las luces artificiales son magnificas! Vaya el equipo, ¡vaya!

With celebrations like these and Paraguay's version of its own hooligans, our porch is the perfect place to watch these victory parties. Although rumor has it that I will be going to the Chile vs. Paraguay World Cup qualifying match on June 6. If these fireworks are any indication of the kind of celebration Paraguayans throw for their teams, I surely hope the national team wins. If so, that will put it one step closer to going to South Africa in 2010 (currently in first place in South America). ¡Vaya Paraguay!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Santiago, Chile

While on vacation in Santiago, Chile Catherine and I took advantage of the cable cars (aka teleféricos) to get some great views of the city. Word to the wise: if you are afraid of heights you might want to skip the teleféricos and stick with a city bus tour.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

...when the volcano blows

Most of the time the rain isn't so bad, although every once in a while a good drenching rainfall hits the city. This particular storm is a result of the volcano that erupted in Chile about 800 miles south of Asunción.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Paraguayan Friendliness

A quick example of typical Paraguayan hospitality.

Catherine needed some pictures for her visa so we went to a photo studio to get them. While they were being processed, the owner of the studio offered us cake and coke. Apparently our timing was impeccable because we just so happened to pick the same photo studio that was hosting a baby shower. Hence, the cake and coke.

When Cat's pictures were developed and the bill figured, the owner encouraged us to stay and take our time finishing up our unexpected--and delightful--snacks. We took her up on her hospitality and stayed an additional five or 10 minutes enjoying our treat and chatting with the owner and the woman who took Cat's picture. They were never in a rush to get rid of us and really seemed to enjoy our company. It was either that or our broken Spanish...

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Public Transportation: Austin vs. Asunción

I wrote this letter to the editor/article to the Austin American Statesman to highlight an Austin deficiency.

I am a Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial scholar living in the capitol city Asunción, Paraguay. It is a landlocked South American country, bordered by Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil and it is the second poorest nation on the continent (ahead of Bolivia—the other landlocked nation). I write this to highlight a startling difference between Asunción and Austin: public transportation.

Before moving to Paraguay I lived in Austin for two and a half years on Congress and Riverside and then on 2222 and MoPac (where I will return in December when my scholarship period is over). In that time I became intimately familiar with the lack of a public transportation system. Moving from Boston, Massachusetts—where a subway system, buses, and taxis made owing a car unnecessary, even excessive—only highlighted Austin’s public transportation shortcomings.

Austin has a bus system, yes; however, it is inadequate in providing wide-ranging service to all parts of Austin and its surrounding cities. One must wait at bus stops that are few and far between for a bus that might not arrive for 20 minutes. Furthermore, the small fleet of buses serves as a reminder that much needs to be done to provide a comprehensive public transportation system. Taxis exist too, but they can be costly and difficult to find when one truly needs one.

Asunción, on the other hand, has a remarkable public transportation system. It might be the second poorest country in South America but it ranks far superior to Austin in its public transit infrastructure. Although Asunción does not have a subway or commuter-rail, its bus system more than makes up for those perceived pitfalls. Buses and bus stops are numerous and located in popular areas. Routes are plentiful. Service is fast and safe. One may take any number of buses to neighboring towns and cities or even the airport. To compliment the buses, there are an abundant number of inexpensive taxis that serve the city.

I mention these differences not to pan the city in which I live. I show them to illustrate a point. If a little-known South American city, with its significantly weaker economy and dramatically less funds, can give its residents a comprehensive public transportation system then surely Austin—a city with the money, resources, and political will—can do the same.

Furthermore, with Austin’s desire for more residents to move downtown and the increasingly ‘greener’ stance of its citizens, the city should embrace this lesson from its South American neighbor and its all-encompassing public transportation system. Increased bus and taxi service combined with a commuter-rail system (that is continually promised but continually delayed and, hence, never delivered) would dramatically improve Austin’s public transportation system. It would also give its citizens a much more viable option than they have now. Public transportation only becomes a feasible alternative to cars when it provides fast, reliable service combined with a service grid that has stops in places where people want to go.

Toll roads are not the answer. An efficient, effective public transportation infrastructure is.

The author is the recipient of a 2008-2009 Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholarship, which allows him to study abroad for an academic year. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Humanities from Michigan State University and his Master’s degree in Dramatic Arts from Harvard University. He wrote this article while watching buses race down the street in front of his apartment at dizzying speeds.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Weekend Shutdown

Normally Saturday and Sunday are very busy times in the States. People flock to the stores, malls, theatres, and anywhere else they want to go because they have the time but mainly because everything is open. Stores on Saturdays generally offer extended hours to accommodate the increase in window-shopping traffic. Sundays, although generally not quite as busy as their weekend counterpart, still offer a wide variety of things to do to pass the time.

Paraguay, however, likes to take it slow on the weekend. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is open on Saturday and Sunday. Apparently, taking a day of rest is so important and cherished that Paraguayans take two. Not that I can blame them, however. It is rather nice knowing that you can relax for two straight days—whether you want to or not. In the interest of full disclosure I must mention the exceptions to the the-entire city-is-closed rule and that is the one thing directly related to the States: malls and movies. You may escape the summer heat or lack of anything else to do by visiting the mall, doing some shopping, and taking in a movie. Not a bad idea for a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.

I think a big reason nothing is open on the weekends is because it is prime assado (b.b.q.) time. Most Paraguayans will wake up early to grill what seems the equivalent of a half of a cow and spend the rest of the day eating and spending time with friends. It’s quite the tradition and quite the sight. In fact, it is ubiquitous to the point that every home comes equipped with a built-in grill specifically designed for assados. With such a strong tradition of passing weekends with friends it is no wonder that the country virtually shuts down two days out of the week.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Language School Commute

Rotary Meetings in Asunción

Yesterday Catherine and I attended our first Rotary meeting for Rotary Club Asunción – Catedral (district 4840). It was held in Hotel Chaco from 7:30 to 8:30 am. Breakfast included a delicious mixed fruit bowl, fresh-squeezed juice (of which Cat and I are not entirely sure), coffee, and bread with assorted jams.

While we ate and waited for the meeting to begin, we talked as best we could with some members. We learned that one member was visiting from Miami (small world) and another has a sister who lives in Holland, Michigan (even smaller world considering Holland is not far from where I grew up). They both spoke English, which was nice, but Cat and I only resorted to it when it was absolutely necessary. For the most part we got along with our limited Spanish.

I observed several differences between this club and the Austin, Oak-Hill club. First, this club only has about 15 members compared to the 35 or more members I am used to seeing. Second, there was no guest speaker. Instead, the president would talk about a topic and when he finished other members would comment on it or add something relevant to the discussion. From what I could understand they talked a lot about past and upcoming events as well as various things going on with other Rotary clubs. Third, because of their jobs and, I imagine, the time of the meeting some of the members had to leave early. I do not recall this occurring in the States; however, I’ve only ever been to meetings during lunchtime, which, based on the U.S. work schedule, makes it easier to stay the entire hour. Fourth, there was no reciting of the four way test.* These are but mere small observational differences between Rotary clubs of the States and Paraguay. I believe that in no way do these differences undermine the common goal of each club to help others.

Although I observed differences I did notice some important similarities. First, the president rang the bell to begin and end the meeting. Second, and most importantly, despite the fact that I did not understand everything that was being talked about, what I did understand reinforced the idea that Rotary: no matter where it is in the world or what district it is, Rotary genuinely cares about helping others. I could identify that thread running through every discussion, every comment. Cat and I could feel willingness to help and the passion with which each member spoke. It was a great feeling.

I gave a short presentation on my thoughts about Paraguay and its people. I said that I admired the more relaxed attitude people had here. It is not like the States where time is money and if you’re not constantly going, going, going then you are somehow failing to ‘make it’ or achieve success. In the States, relaxing and taking the time to enjoy life’s little pleasures is not seen as a positive. Three-hour dinners and two-hour siestas are unthinkable. The prevailing thought is “who has the time?” If you make time then you will have the time. It sounds overly simplistic but it’s true. Where we place our priorities is where we devote the most time.

My comments sparked a little chuckle from a few members. One even said that Paraguayans might have more time but a lot less money. To which I replied that there is no point to having a ton of money if one cannot enjoy it because he or she is too busy. Additionally, I asked him, what is the point of money if you have no one to share it and enjoy it with? Money is an object that comes and goes, but true friends and family will be by your side forever. (Cat later told me that as I said this she looked around the room and could tell that everyone was very interested in what I had to say.)

I also mentioned how delicious the food is here, especially the only non-soup soup I have ever eaten, sopa Paraguaya (literally Paraguayan soup, which has the consistency of cornbread but is much tastier). Everyone laughed at that.

The Rotarians were impressed that I am attending classes at the Universidad del Norte (UniNorte). I told them that at first I was going to study Advertising but then switched to International Relations and Commerce. After reading over the description of each major and some of the classes, the latter major sounded much more interesting. And, as an unforeseen bonus, one of my first classes is Spanish Grammar. After seeing that, the choice was easy.

* Rotary's four-way test of things we think, say, or do:
1. Is it the TRUTH?
2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Golden Arches

This goes without saying (but I’m going to say it anyway…) that a McDonald’s restaurant can be found the world over, and Asunción is no exception. There is one about 7 blocks from our homestay and another one a short distance from our apartment. When I was in Acapulco, Méxio in 2002, I saw a McDonald’s with a plaque that stated that that particular restaurant was the 15,000th McDonald’s in the world. I wonder what numbers the two in Asunción are?

I know that every restaurant must follow the same guidelines and protocol designated by the home base in Oak Brook, Illinois. Each building’s design must be roughly the same shape and size, the menus need to look similar, the same foods must be offered, the packaging needs to be uniform. It is the corporation’s intention that every time someone walks into a McDonald’s, no matter where that person is in the world, that he or she feels like it’s his or her hometown McDonald’s. Everything is planned to meet such a high standard of uniformity that even the smells are the same. In fact, every time Cat and I pass by our neighborhood McDonald’s on our daily walk, we catch a whiff of that unmistakable McDonald’s french fry smell. If you happen to like Mickey D fries, which we do, then you are in luck. Although we haven’t ventured into a McDonald’s yet, we plan on doing so when we become nostalgic for some greasy, fat laden, good, old-fashioned American fast food.

Apart from the ubiquitous Golden Arches and red and yellow colors there are three things I noticed about Asunción McDonald’s that might be difficult to find in the Sates. The first relates more to nomenclature than it does a radical departure from the standard restaurant. And that is the drive thru, or as it’s referred to in Paraguay, the auto-mac—a rather clever translation that works in any language.

The second difference is the Mcdonald’s here come with outdoor patios where you can enjoy your quarter pounder amidst the hustle-and-bustle of everyday Asunción life. And, despite the summer heat and humidity, many patrons take advantage of the outdoor seating.

The third, and I think most intriguing, difference is the McEntrega, or delivery. Entregar means ‘to give’ or ‘to hand over’. Therefore, the delivery system is quite literally handing over the meal. That’s right. If a ‘mac attack’ hits you just as your favorite program is starting, you don’t have to worry. Just call your local McDonald’s and have it delivered. However, most people take advantage of McEntrega because they do not have cars themselves. In the parking lot, you will find anywhere from three to 10 scooters equipped with what look like oversized pizza delivery boxes strapped to the back. The concept must be working because every time Cat and I walk past a McDonald’s we see a McEntrega scooter either coming or going. I cannot attest to the freshness or quality of the delivery service but I must admit that I am intrigued and am half-tempted to try it one of these days.

Ray Croc was once asked how he liked the hamburger business. He replied that he wasn’t in the hamburger business at all. Puzzled, the interviewer then asked him what business he was in, to which Mr. Croc replied that he was in the real estate business. This philosophy certainly holds true in Asunción where, even with the addition of added bonuses like a delivery service and outdoor patio, every McDonald’s restaurant is situated in a prime real estate location.