Posted by: ghostdawg2 | February 22, 2010

Paraguay – 1800 Kilometros al Comienzo Nuevo by Christine Loftus / 20 12 09

guaranies and beauty..

When discussing my plans for 2009-2010 school year, I often say that I moved to South America.

This statement, although obviously true, is a bit misleading in that it completely ignores the immense differences between my two homes on the continent. Chile is arguably one of the most developed nations in the world as evidenced by its recent admission into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It possesses adequate infrastructure and services in most parts (but not all), although it certainly should improve access for poor citizens. On the other hand, Paraguay remains nation in the midst of development. Roughly 1/3 of the population falls beneath the poverty line, although I've read articles claiming that the real number is actually significantly higher.

Regardless of its struggles, Paraguay has proven to be an excellant home. In addition to sweltering temperatures (46 degrees Celsius or 115 Farenheit at La Escuela Agricola on Friday), it boasts some of the warmest and friendliest individuals I have ever met. Some tourbooks attribute this phenomenon to the lack of foreign visitors, while Paraguayans suggest that it stems from a sense community created by the nation’s small size. After all, it is often nicknamed the “nation of amigos” by its neighbors.

Not only have I had an excellant time meeting numerous Paraguayans, I have also enjoyed my internship at Fundacion Paraguaya. This microfinance organization operates throughout the country and has allowed countless of small businesses to grow by providing access to credit markets for poor Paraguayans. Fortunately, it has been successful in many of its endeavors including the creation of Committees of Women Entrepreneurs. These groups of about 10-15 women receive credit as a group for their businesses and are responsible for repaying it collectively and attending financial training sessions. Not only have they been incredibly successful monetarily, but they have also added further evidence to the proven hypothesis that female borrowers invest much more of their earnings in their families and communities than their male counterparts.

More recently, the Foundation has opened a self-sustaining agricultural school to teach impoverished children in rural areas various methods to maximize their crop production and use of animal products. Interestingly, many students do not simply return to the farm after graduating. Many continue onto the university and study subjects such as agronomy and later use this knowledge to help their childhood communities.

While the Fundacion has obviously had great success with both of these initiatives throughout the past twenty-five years, poverty remains rampant in Paraguay. Thus, it recently embarked upon a new initiative known as "Proyecto Ikatu" (Ikatu means "Yes, I can" in Guarani, Paraguay's other national language). This program has identified 50 indicators of poverty and is attempting to address each individually in an effort to further improve the lives of borrowers. These range from illiteracy to a lack of sanitary restrooms.

As an intern, I will be working with Proyecto Ikatu while concurrently learning more about microfinance in general. Specifically, I will be developing a program to address one of the poverty indicators: the inability of many poor women to assert their human rights. Ideally, I’ll also help conduct some training sessions with the Committees of Women Entrepreneurs before returning to Chile.

My time in Paraguay has not, however, been all work. On Friday, the entire organization consisting of upwards of 270 individuals descended on the agricultural school for the annual end-of-the-year party. Deep in the absolutely stunning Paraguayan countryside, we sang Christmas carols, honored the most successful workers from the past year, and gourged ourselves on traditional Paraguayan dishes including Sopa Paraguaya (it's corn bread...go figure) and queso con dulce de leche. Fortunately, the calories were quickly sweated away throughout the next few hours as we played volleyball, soccer, and danced in the 46 degree heat. Eeek.

Saturday marked my first day in the city without any work obligations. Although I enjoy my internship, I was eager for the opportunity to explore Asuncion. The other intern and I began by roaming through various artisan markets. Obviously, I enjoyed seeing the crafts, but the highlights had to be my long conversation with a begger (typical Paraguayan hospitality) or discoving that I am absolutely horrible at bargaining. If you have a child nearby who even vaguely looks undernourished or stereotypically poor, I will most likely agree to pay whatever you ask.

After doing some shopping, I began visiting the typicsal tourist spots: pantheon de los heroes, plaza uruguaya, plaza de los heroes. Eventually, I continued down to the river to see the port and the various government buildings alongside it. The cabildo and President's Palace were absolutely stunning with the piranha-infested river as a backdrop. Unfortunately, this image was marred by the shantytowns creeping alongside the buildings. It's a shocking and somewhat upsetting contrast; the grandeur of the government institutions and the too-skinny, desperately poor families that administration has failed to protect. However, this image can also be seen as being representative of Paraguay and too many other countries across the globe.While some enjoy excessively opulant lifestyles, others wonder if they can find enough food to serve for dinner.

Hypocritically, I spent awhile considering the scene outside the government buildings and then proceeded to eat far more than was necessary after meeting some friends at an incredible tenedor libre asadito. Salad, pasta, and prime slabs of beef abounded along with wedding guests; a couple was celebrating in the restaurant, so we too had the chance to enjoy the festivities and an incredibly entertaining wedding singer. Afterwards we ventured to a bustling Paseo de las Carmelitas to explore the nightlife in Asuncion and the company of some awesome Paraguayan acquaintances.

Like in Chile, Sundays in Paraguay can be described as dead. There is no one in the streets and only a few people in the shops that are actually open. I did a little exploring, a lot of organizing, and met the gringos for some ice cream. It was such a good time; it really is too bad that Hillary forgot her cell phone. Or maybe not?

Monday was spent researching human rights abuses and influencer theory in Paraguay. As both obviously interest me immensely, the day passed quickly. Before I knew it, I’d returned home to meet with the Gringos for the last time before they continued onward to Peru. They brought some Paraguayan and Argentine friends and we soon started playing Cranium – Latin American Edition. So hard. But fortunately, as predicted, the girls pulled off the come from behind win so it was definately an overall success. Especially when we finished the night with a delicious homemade dinner and watermelon. I’ll be eating left-overs for days, which should be delicious when I add a dessert of the strange and unknown fruits I found at the farmer’s market today.

Asunción, Paraguay at Night

Photo courtesy of Alexander Steffler

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