Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Paraguay
From Peace Corps Wiki
Your mailing address in Paraguay will be:
“Your Name,” PCT [for trainee] or PCV [for Volunteer]
Cuerpo de Paz
162 Chaco Boreal c/Mcal. López
Asunción 1580, Paraguay
Compared with mail in many developing countries, mail between the United States and Paraguay is relatively dependable (an estimated 80 percent of letters arrive). Airmail normally takes two to three weeks to and from Paraguay; surface mail can take months.
The current situation, however, is not normal. As a result of a the departure of American Airlines and Varig, only two regional airlines now serve Paraguay with smaller aircraft and cargo space for mail is extremely limited. Packages and other types of correspondence are being delayed for weeks and even months at intermediate points, such as Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo, where they await eventual delivery to Paraguay by other means of tranport.
Packages are often opened, and sometimes items are stolen. Paraguayan postal and customs inspectors determine which packages will be sent directly to the Peace Corps office for distribution and which ones will be retained for further inspection. Any package—regardless of content or weight—may be held at the Paraguayan post office. Should a package addressed to a Volunteer be retained, the Volunteer is responsible for retrieveing the package and for paying any fees.
Items with a declared value over $200 are usually sent to customs. If your package is sent to customs, you will be assessed a tax based on the type of merchandise and its value. Volunteer who receive notification that their package is in customs is responsible for paying any fees and taxes.
We recommend that you establish a regular pattern of writing friends and relatives in the United States because they may become concerned if they do not hear from you for an extended period of time. You may want to tell them, however, that once Volunteers move to their sites and become more involved in their projects, their writing habits often change.
Some Volunteers and their families number their letters in sequence to try to keep track of how many have been sent and received. This is a good way to know whether someone is just too busy to write or letters are not arriving for some other reason.
Peace Corps regulations prohibit Volunteers from accepting gifts of property, money, or voluntary services directly. Such gifts can cause confusion about the role of the Volunteer, who might be perceived as a facilitator of goods and funding, rather than a person who is working to build a community’s capacity to identify local resources. You are not permitted to solicit materials or funds for your community during your first six months at site so that you have time to engage the community in project identification. To ensure that any request for funding or donations is appropriate for your project and your community, you must have prior authorization from your project director and the country director.
The Peace Corps has a mechanism in place for you and the communities you work with to access U.S. private-sector funds. The Peace Corps Partnership Program, administered by the Office of Private Sector Initiatives, can help you obtain financial support from corporations, foundations, civic groups, individuals, faith-based groups, and schools for projects approved by the country director. To learn more about the Partnership Program, call 800.424.8580 (extension 2170), e-mail [email protected], or visit www.peacecorps.gov/ index.cfm?shell=resources.donors.volproj.
International phone service to and from Paraguay is fairly reliable and accessible to most Volunteers. Volunteers are provided with a cellular phone and a basic calling plan. If Volunteers want to increase their minutes, they must do so with their own living allowance. Although not all areas of the country are accessible by cellphone, most Volunteers are able to call Asunción and to receive international calls with their cellphones.
Recently, the Peace Corps office, in collaboration with the U.S. embassy in Asunción, installed a direct phone line between Asunción and Washington, D.C. This line is mainly for conducting official business with Peace Corps headquarters, but it is available for Volunteer use after office hours and on weekends. Volunteers can place direct calls to the Washington area at no charge, while calls to all other areas are billed at the long-distance rate from Washington. This service has become extremely popular with Volunteers, so a sign-up sheet to regulate use has become necessary. To take full advantage of the service, Volunteers should bring a major telephone company calling card or prepaid phone cards to Paraguay with them to charge toll calls made through this line.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
Paraguay is hardly at the forefront of the “e-revolution,” but Volunteers increasingly are able to rely on the Internet to communicate with family and friends in the United States. There are several Internet cafes in Asunción, and cafes are opening with increasing frequency even in rural towns. There are also computers with Internet access available for Volunteer use in the Peace Corps office. Many Volunteers acquire free e-mail accounts and use these computers to send and receive e-mail while they are in Asunción on official business.
Housing and Site Location
Most Volunteers live and work in rural areas, but more are being assigned to work in urban centers in response to the recent increase in urban migration. The latest census shows that more than half of the population lives in larger towns or cities. Your Volunteer assignment description should indicate whether your project site is likely to be urban or rural. All Volunteers spend some time in Asunción because it is the location of the Peace Corps office, as well as the site of conferences and some in-service trainings.
About 80 percent of Volunteers live in small towns or villages with fewer than 5,000 people, and some of these campo (countryside) sites have fewer than 200 inhabitants. Most (but not all) have electricity, as the country has increased the availability of electricity from 24 percent of Paraguay’s 3 million people in 1978 to more than 60 percent of the current population of about 5.8 million. Generally, streets in the campo towns are unpaved, and there is no running water or indoor toilets. Few people in these towns have traveled outside Paraguay, and many have never even been to Asunción. The only people with cars are likely to be the doctor, the priest, and a few businesspeople, government officials, and ranchers. Horses, motorcycles, and oxcarts make up the majority of local traffic, while children play freely alongside roaming cows, pigs, and chickens.
For both rural and urban Volunteers, housing in Paraguay is basic. All Volunteers are required to live with a Paraguayan family during their initial two months of service. Some Volunteers then choose to live alone in one- or two-room wood or brick homes; others choose to live with a Paraguayan family for their entire two years of service. Peace Corps/ Paraguay strongly recommends that Volunteers, especially single women, consider this option. Living with a family not only helps with community integration, but also decreases personal security risks. If you choose to live with a family, the furniture will be adequate and functional, but probably not overly comfortable. If you choose to live on your own, you will likely need to furnish the place yourself.
Volunteers who live in the capital or other large cities will have easier access to services such as running water, electricity, telephones, public transportation, and the Internet. They will also find many of the same shopping and entertainment amenities found in similar-size cities in the United States.
Living Allowance and Money Management
As a Volunteer, you will receive a living allowance that enables you to maintain a modest but safe and adequate lifestyle.
While the living allowance is calculated to enable you to live at the same standard as your Paraguayan neighbors, the Peace Corps requires that Volunteer housing meet minimal standards for security and that Volunteers have the resources to maintain a healthy diet and respectable lifestyle. Living allowances are reviewed once a year to ensure that they are sufficient to meet basic needs, and they are adjusted by the Peace Corps if necessary.
You will receive three additional allowances: a monthly vacation allowance (along with two days of vacation for each month of service); a one-time settling-in allowance to cover the initial expenses of furnishing a house or room and purchasing basic supplies; and an allowance set aside by the U.S. government of $225 for each month of service. This readjustment allowance, which is available on completion of service, permits returning Volunteers to resettle in the United States without undue financial burden.
While Volunteers are expected to live at the same level as the Paraguayans in their communities and are encouraged to make do with the allowances provided by the Peace Corps, some Volunteers bring additional money or credit cards for extraordinary expenses or for travel during vacations. The Peace Corps strongly recommends that cash be held in the form of traveler’s checks to prevent loss or theft. The ATMs that are increasingly available in Asunción and other large cities accept ATM cards from most U.S. financial institutions, including Citibank, the most prevalent and dependable institution for international transactions. Peace Corps will safeguard traveler’s checks—not cash—for Volunteers in the office.
Food and Diet
Paraguayans tend to eat more simple meals than people do in the United States. Dietary habits and the lack of agricultural diversity often limit meals to beans, rice, noodles, meat (when available), corn, onions, tomatoes, and manioc. Manioc or mandioca (more commonly known in other countries as yuca or cassava) is the staple food in rural Paraguay and is as ubiquitous at the table as bread is in other countries. Paraguayan food is not spicy and is quite different from Mexican food (for instance, in Paraguay, a tortilla is a kind of fritter). Most Paraguayans are exceptionally generous and will insist on sharing their food, no matter how little they have.
Volunteers who choose to maintain a vegetarian diet are able to do so with varying degrees of difficulty. Such a diet is much easier to follow if one incorporates eggs and dairy products, and some Volunteers choose to add fish and chicken. While it is possible to maintain a vegetarian diet, it can be very difficult to find the variety of foods necessary to remain healthy and challenging to get Paraguayans to understand such a decision.
Most Volunteers live in communities served by a simple dirt road, which may or may not be close to a paved road. Inexpensive bus service is available to almost all communities, although heavy rain can unexpectedly close dirt roads to bus traffic for an unpredictable length of time. While a community may not be a great distance from the capital in miles, getting there may involve a trip of several hours because of the condition of unpaved roads. You will receive assistance in identifying alternative forms of transportation (i.e., a private vehicle, taxi, or truck) from your site in the event of an emergency. Volunteers may, upon request, be issued a mountain bicycle and helmet.
Peace Corps/Paraguay, as mandated by Peace Corps/ Washington, prohibits Volunteers from driving or riding as a passenger on any two- or three-wheeled motorized vehicle (such as a motorcycle) for any reason. Moreover, Volunteers are not allowed to own or drive private vehicles in Paraguay. These prohibitions are in response to serious safety concerns, and violation of the policy will result in the administrative separation of the Volunteer from Peace Corps service.
Geography and Climate
Unlike more tropical countries, Paraguay does have distinct seasons. Summer (November through March) is long, hot, and humid, with temperatures reaching as high as 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius). Winter (June through mid-September) is short and mild, with periods of cold weather (down to 30 degrees Farenheit) and occasional frosts. Because of the high humidity and lack of indoor heating, cold winter days may seem more severe than they actually are. The short spring and autumn seasons usually are mild and balmy.
Because of Paraguay’s southern latitudes, the length of daylight also differs according to the season. In the winter, the sun may set by 5 p.m. In September, the country goes on Daylight Savings Time, and by mid-December it is light outside until nearly 8:30 p.m. Paraguayans adjust their social and business calendars according to these differences. In the winter, activities are compressed, and people are in bed by 10 p.m., but in the summer, people may not even eat dinner until after 10. At the same time, activities slow down remarkably during the summer, especially in rural areas, and a long midday siesta divides the workday into early morning and late afternoon periods.
In the eastern part of the country, there is no marked rainy or dry season, and there is apt to be abundant rain throughout the year. Summer rains tend to be short and intense, while winter rains tend to be longer and lighter. There are months with little or no rain and months when it rains nearly every day.
Recreation in smaller towns often centers on the family, with an occasional dance, soccer game, or horse race to attend. In the evening, many families gather with friends for volleyball games. The losers pay for drinks, which might be soft drinks (gaseosas) or beer. People frequently sit in clusters (often limited to one gender or age group) to drink the ubiquitous yerba maté, a common local drink made from the leaves of a shrub native to the region, either cold (tereré) or hot (in the early morning or in wintertime). During the hot summer, an important social activity is likely to be bathing in the local arroyo, or small stream. The electrification of the countryside has increased the popularity of telenovelas (soap operas). Volunteers often participate in organized groups, such as ecology clubs or youth groups, that meet occasionally for selected activities.
In Asunción and larger towns, there is a wider variety of options for social activities, including movie theaters, nightclubs, restaurants, and sporting events. Volunteers usually take advantage of their rare weekends in the capital to see the newest movies and enjoy some night life. Volunteers also have access to the swimming pool at the U.S. embassy while in Asunción.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
Cleanliness and a neat personal appearance are very important to Paraguayans, as they are for Volunteers who represent the Peace Corps and the United States. You must dress appropriately when meeting with government or other officials. Shorts, tank tops, and flip-flops are inappropriate except around your home or for recreational activities.
Whether you work in a school or office setting, in rural or urban Paraguay, proper attire will help establish your professional credibility. It also reflects your respect for the customs and lifestyle of the people with whom you are living and working.
Although affluent Paraguayans in Asunción may be influenced by international trends and fashions, most Paraguayans view shoulder-length hair, dreadlocks, ponytails, tattoos, and earrings on men with suspicion. It is not unusual for a person to be labeled a drogadicto (drug addict), based on appearance alone. Therefore, Volunteers are not permitted to have facial piercings (nose, tongue, eyebrow). Tattoos for both men and women should remain covered until Volunteers have been at their sites for at least six months and can realistically judge the degree to which these would be accepted by community members. Female Volunteers should always wear bras outside their homes. Male Volunteers with beards must keep them well-trimmed and clean.
If you do not cut your hair and remove body rings before you arrive in Paraguay, you will be asked to do so before you are placed with a host family during training. Adherence to these rules is considered to be a sign of your motivation and commitment to adapt to your new environment. If you have reservations about this, or if you view this as an unacceptable sacrifice, you should reevaluate your decision to become a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay. If you decide to conform to the country’s norms, you will be amply rewarded by the great adventure and lasting friendships that await you.
More information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is outlined in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Paraguay Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal security incidents. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Paraguay. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.
Rewards and Frustrations
Volunteers have a variety of reasons for joining the Peace Corps, but high on the list must be the desire to help others. Most Volunteers bring an abundance of motivation and enthusiasm to their service. These are not lost in serving others, but are necessarily tempered by the process of learning about the daily realities of a different culture. So while Volunteers should not expect to “change the world,” they can look forward to making a tangible impact.
Being a Volunteer requires adjusting to alternative ways of thinking, living, and working. Such adjustments are neither simple nor painless. The people you work with may have strong feelings of pride and nationalism, so your own enthusiasm for change, however well intended, may be misunderstood. You will constantly need to take into consideration the emotions, needs, traditions, institutions, and way of life of the people you work with.
Your satisfaction will come from your commitment to learning and the flexibility you possess to deal with new values and experiences. After living and working with the people of another culture, Volunteers often develop strong ties that are reflected in strong emotions. Intense feelings of desperation, satisfaction, anger, happiness, anxiety, and peace of mind will crop up over and over. These feelings are the heart of the Volunteer experience. But in the end, it is a rare Volunteer who does not feel that the experience was one of the most important in her or his life.