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.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sim Cards & Banda Ancha

Cat and I are in our last week of intensive Spanish classes. It seems like forever ago when we started. We've been progressing poco a poco (little by little) to the point where we can sometimes, sorta understand what's going on. One big accomplishment that made us feel good about our Spanish is when we got a new sim card for our cell phone. I will admit that the person who helped us needed to repeat himself a few times but we finally got a cell. (Now all that's left to do is figure out how to make international calls on it.)

Our next big test will be when we try to get banda ancha (wide band) mobile internet for our laptop. Since internet cafes can get expensive--even at a mere 5000 Gs an hour ($1/hr.)--we figured out that this would be more cost effective. As before, we must put our Spanish to the test and see if we can walk away with mobile internet. Results to follow...

Friday, February 13, 2009

Study Abroad

Tuesday, February 10

One of my host Rotarians, Julia Gonzalez, told me that she ran into the president of la Universidad del Norte (UniNorte), Dr. Juan Marcos, and she told him about me. He gave her his business card and told her to have me get in touch with him because he would like to talk to me about my plans in Paraguay. Among other things, this will be the perfect opportunity to propose my idea of starting a study abroad program between UniNorte and Texas State. I have already spoken to the study abroad coordinator at Texas State and she was excited about the idea. Now I need to see how UniNorte feels about it.

I am excited about the idea of opening up an exchange between the two schools. It is a great way to keep an open line of communication between the two schools and the two countries. Furthermore, it will expose the often overlooked country that is Paraguay. This is a great way bring Americans to Paraguay and show them what a great country Paraguay is. Plus, with the cost-of-living as cheap as it is down here, this is a far more attractive option than most other study abroad programs offered at Texas State.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Called on Account of Rain

February 3, 2009

Yesterday and today we caught our first glimpses of the oft fabled Paraguayan rainstorm. This truly torrential tempest is sure to simultaneously delight and strike fear in the eyes of those who behold it. ‘Storm’ in Spanish is tormenta, a very apt description. The word sounds like ‘torment,’ which perfectly describes what happens if you get caught outside when the heavens decides to unleash its fury. Because of an inadequate sewer/drainage system, after only a few minutes of steady rain the streets literally turn into rivers. Good luck if you drive a car. More luck if you drive a motorcycle. Most luck if you must traverse the street-river on foot. You’d be better of in a canoe during this time. It’s an amazing sight to behold to watch the streets you just walked down only minutes ago transform into raging rapids. The worst streets create impromptu torrents three to four feet deep and several feet across.

Then there’s the color of the water. Because of the dirt, as the water picks up speed and volume it turns red. Seeing it gives new meaning to the expression that goes something like “And the streets ran with blood.” If you decide to visit Asunción, this is one tourist attraction that is most definitely not on the list; however, it is most assuredly worth checking out.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

El Club

Saturday, January 31, 2009

My host Rotarian, Julia González is amazing. She took the time to meet me at the airport and welcome me to Asunción. Since then, she has been exceedingly helpful, whether it be communicating with our landlord or helping Catherine and me make sense of our new surroundings. She has made our transition much easier than it otherwise would have been. I look forward to working with her and her Rotary Club.

El Club Deportista Sajonia (The Sajonia Sports Club) is the place to be during the lazy summer nights of December through February. Almost every night—but especially on weekends—the club transforms from a relaxing, quiet escape from the heat into an outdoor entertainment extravaganza. The entire town makes its way to the tables and chairs that surround the dance floor to relax and enjoy the evening’s festivities. One night live singers will entertain the crowd, another night a DJ will keep the people dancing, and yet another night a band will make sure people don’t stay in their seats for long. The music ranges from classic and contemporary American hits to traditional Paraguayan music. The club spares no expense either. An abundance of DJ and strobe lights light up the stage and dance floor while the plethora of speakers ensure that no one misses a note. The club provides for quite the fabulous night’s entertainment.

I cannot talk about the club without mentioning that it is the place to go if you are and young lad or lass between the ages of 12-17. If you did not spend your summer nights (and presumably your youth) at the club then you are just not that cool. You would show up on the first day of school with nothing to write about when the teacher gives that timeless assignment, “What I Did During My Summer Vacation.” If whatever you did didn’t happen at the club then you really didn’t do it. It reminds me of that age old ‘Old Money’ question when the inevitable Tuesday after Labor Day prompt is not “What did you do this summer?” but rather “Where did you summer?” Seemingly similar questions but entirely different in meaning.

Catherine and I have taken advantage of these wonderful evening festivities, especially on Fridays and Saturdays. Despite the lingering heat, we dance no matter what music is playing. We attempted the salsa, danced our version of 8th graders dancing at a winter social, felt-like-we-were-at-a-wedding-reception dance, and any other form of expressive movement that crossed our fancies. It is a nice to look around and see the dance floor packed with people of all ages having a great time. It is easy to get swept up in the moment and before you know it, 30 minutes have gone by and you are still out there dancing away.