Santa Clara University's Ashley Armstrong traveled to Paraguay for five weeks to focus on social business and the positive effects it has throughout the globe as part of the Global Social Benefit Fellowship (GSBF). She shared her experiences with us on SantaClaraBroncos.com.
The senior to-be in 2012-13 was recently named a West Coast Conference All-Academic Team honoree for the second consecutive season and was tabbed by the Jesuit Basketball Spotlight as a National All-Academic Team selection. The native of Reno, Nevada owns a 3.88 cum GPA as an Anthropology major. She is also one of the team's key players, starting 29 of the Broncos' 30 games as a junior, finishing second on the team in rebounding and scoring in double figures 12 times.
To learn more about Fundación Paraguaya or to support this organization, please visit the website http://www.fundacionparaguaya.org.py/index.php?c=208&i=2.
Part V - Bittersweet Goodbye
July 30, 2012
Thirty-six hours and four flights after leaving Asuncion, I am back in the land of snow-capped mountains, slot machines, and legalized prostitution. Yes, I am home in Reno for three days before summer training starts. A welcoming embrace from my mom, an hour-long bubble bath, and a fully-stocked fridge of fresh fruits and vegetables felt borderline magical, much like Disneyland. A week prior to leaving I felt more than ready to come home. The fried food, cold showers, and the monotony of ball handling drills every night were starting to wear on me. However, my last week was so special that it completely reinforced the highlights of my experience in Paraguay, and I was actually really sad to leave.
My last weekend was incredibly eventful to say the least. On Friday, I submitted my final outline of activities and material, and I am hopeful those will help educate women on how to live a healthier life. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I learned that cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death and that while people have access to healthy food, their cultural values and lack of education prevent them from eating well. For the outline of activities, I took foods frequently eaten in the Paraguayan cuisine and compared them so women can learn what foods they are eating too much of and what foods they are lacking in their diets. I then got word back that Fundación Paraguaya really likes my materials and is going to use them so maybe I have made some difference. Margarita then randomly took me to a Paraguayan rodeo called a Jineteada in the middle of nowhere. There were informal competitions seeing which horses could make a figure-8 around plastic chairs the quickest or which horse could jump the highest over a stick. And the grand prize was…a pack of beer.
Amanda and I then ventured to an Expo in Asuncion that featured Paraguayan business and culture – food, animals, music, and crafts. I had my first intense bargaining experience where I argued for a $4 discount on laced, flowery patterns although I totally acted like I just won the lottery because I was so excited. My heightened feeling of self-satisfaction was even more elevated after returning to the park and playing basketball with the only men in Paraguay who actually own a ball. Because I have no idea how they keep score and because they are usually arguing with each other over god knows what, I tune everything out. Thus, towards the end of the game, when I made a three pointer after a shot-fake that sent my man flying passed me, I did not realize I had made the game winning shot until Paraguayans started hurdling towards me, swinging me around, and asking for chest bumps. Their reaction was so ridiculous that there could be an inspirational sports movie about it. My new bball friends even offered me a ride back. Although I am sure they are all well-intentioned people, I took the bus - just in case one was a Stranger Danger.
Later that night, Amanda and I got our first taste of Paraguayan nightlife, going to a discoteca until 3 in the morning. It was actually a lot of fun. We could just dance freely, and we did not feel like we needed pepper spray to ward away any creepy guys who come without friends and are obviously too old for clubs. To the contrary, everyone looked fourteen years old. We then returned to our host family to make them a traditional American meal of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese with hot dogs and Oreo bars for dessert to show our gratitude for everything they have done. However, our host family outdid us once again and our host mother's, Nora's, mom brought us a cake and gave us hand-sewn place mats that took two days each to make. It was honestly one of the most special gifts I have ever received. I then had my nightly bonding session with Juan, my host dad, where we discussed everything from politics to sports and his favorite subject, beer.
My last day in Carapeguá was just as exciting. My coworkers threw an asado for me, which is like a Paraguayan barbecue. Margarita gave me a soccer shirt of the local team and said how she will never forget me. In the evening, the whole family came over - grandparents, aunts, cousins - and we feasted on a traditional Paraguayan meal. Juan also taught me how to drive a manual motorcycle, which was most interesting considering that I do not even know motorcycle vocabulary in English. After stalling a handful of times, I finally mastered the skill. Leaving the next morning was hard, as I had to say goodbye to the family and my coworkers. I left everyone hand-written card with elementary school like pictures I drew on the front, trying to express my gratitude for their kindness and hospitality.
As soon as I landed in the states, I has already had four messages from everyone asking if I had arrived safely.Although there are some good places to visit in Paraguay, it is by no means the most exciting country there is, but it is the people who are just so overwhelmingly wonderful and kind that make Paraguay such a special place. Paraguay is the poorest country in South America, but everyone I met was welcoming and generous despite their lack of means. I experienced so much in my short five weeks in Paraguay- a presidential impeachment, the most gorgeous waterfalls in the world, amazing food, majestic ruins, and driving motorcycles. However, the most special things to me are the bonds I formed, the conversations I had, how I grew in my Spanish speaking ability, and how I learned so much from being immersed in another culture.
I am so grateful to Santa Clara University and the opportunities it offers, my supportive coaches and team, my friends and family, and Fundación Paraguaya, which allowed me to meet wonderful people in Paraguay and enabled me to have such a transformative and powerful experience. As hard as it was to say goodbye, I am overwhelmingly anxious to start up again full-throttle and do everything I can to help our team have the most successful year possible.
Part IV - My Life in Ruins
July 19, 2012
Last weekend, Amanda, Michelle, and I ventured to the Jesuit ruins of Jesús and Trinidad. These ruins are possibly the most exciting things to see in Paraguay next to the gringas from Santa Clara running around in short shorts. These buildings were erected in the 16th century and were places where Jesuit missionaries tried to create utopian societies and protect the indigenous Guaraní people from the encomienda system. Jesuit missionaries tried to "culture" the Guaraní by teaching them reading, writing, mathematics, and music and by converting them to Christianity. Many of these communities were self-sufficient, and many Guaraní worked as painters, blacksmiths, carpenters, tailors, cotton weavers, and printers. Some missions had up to 2,000-3,000 Guaraní living in its compounds at a given time. The missions slowly deteriorated after Spain expelled the Jesuits from its realms in 1767.
Although I am not a huge fan of most colonial legacies, the missions were truly sites to behold. We were blessed with perfect weather. The clay-colored ruins beautifully contrasted with the green grass and blue skies. I'm honestly thinking of writing Spielberg to let him know that he should film a scene in the next Indiana Jones movie here. Since the Paraguayan ruins are some of the least visited UNESCO world heritage sites in the world, we had the ruins completely to ourselves. Needless to say, this opportunity called for a photo shoot because we could get away with antics that would not fly at many other historical places or would be borderline inappropriate in front of strangers … such as planking on a 350 year old altar (not very anthropologist-like I must admit).
The glorious photo shoot ended with the death of my camera's battery. We spent Sunday in Posadas, Argentina, which is a beautiful city, but literally the only things open were a few restaurants so our day transformed into a culinary tour. By the end of the day, we were more than sufficiently stuffed with chicken, steak, ravioli, chipa (a Paraguayan cheesy bread), peanut bark, ice cream, croissants, and hot chocolate. However, the bus ride returning to Carapeguá qualified as one of the most awkward moments of my life. The bus driver did not stop in our town, and there was no way to inform him that we missed our stop. I tried to go to the driver's door bumping the backs of chairs with my backpack only to find out that no one is allowed to talk to him. It would be the equivalent of trying to talk to the pilot flying a Southwest 737 – not highly recommended. As I turned around, I kid you not, thirty or more Paraguayans were staring back at me, undoubtedly thinking that I am an idiot. Luckily, there are not any marshals on Paraguayans buses to take me down so the only harm done was to my pride.
Working in Paraguay has been a very different experience. In the U.S. everyone is concerned about being extremely efficient and accomplishing as much as possible. However, in Paraguay, the pace of life is much slower. If someone says there will be a meeting in an hour, they'll probably show up in two hours. There is no urgency to get anything done. Many of my coworkers spend half of their time on Facebook. For me, it has been hard to get accustomed to the easy-going schedule because I am someone who constantly needs to be doing something. Nonetheless, the experience has taught me to relax (not much but a little), and enjoy free time, which is a completely new concept to me.
Living in a lower developed country started to wear on me this week. As much as I have enjoyed the food, I want something that does not taste Paraguayan so I regularly look at food blogs, gawking at things that I have absolutely no access to here like strawberry-rhubarb pie with a maple graham cracker crust topped with vanilla bean ice cream. It is a very healthy addiction if you ask me. I also starve myself throughout the day because my overwhelming generous host family fills up my plate at night. Although I say I am full and cannot eat another bite, they will keep the food coming even when I still have a lot on my plate, which I then try to eat so as not to offend them. The phrase "no means no" obviously is not understood in Paraguay. I also go days without showering because there is no hot water to shower with which I guess is typical in Paraguay. After a few days, my hair looks like John Travolta's in Grease. So in case anyone was wondering, I am probably not going to find the love of my life here.
Despite my minor complaints about the "hard-life" in Paraguay, I am doing what I have always dreamed of doing – traveling the world, meeting amazing people, and hopefully helping improve a life or two along the way. As we were riding to one of the ruins in a flat bed of a car with wind blowing in our hair and miles of rolling green hills stretched out before us, I could not help but to think how special this experience truly is and how lucky I am to be here.
To learn more about Fundación Paraguaya or to support this organization, please visit the website http://www.fundacionparaguaya.org.py/index.php?c=208&i=2.
Part III - Motorcycle Diaries
July 12, 2012
What do Che Guevara and I have in common? Other than the length of our hair, we have traveled in South America by way of motorcycle. However, unlike Che, my experiences have not inspired me to become a communist and lead a revolution in Paraguay. Anyhow, motorcycles are more popular here than they are at biker bars. The style in which Paraguayans ride motorcycles on average is immensely dangerous. For starters, there is no speed limit in Paraguay and most of the roads are unpaved. I have seen families of four on motorcycles with none of the children wearing helmets. This phenomenon would probably qualify as child endangerment in the US. I have witnessed people texting while driving a motorcycle. And although the legal driving age here is 18, I have seen children who are at the most 13 driving a motorcycle.
I shadow Margarita, an assessor, to the field everyday and ride on a motorcycle for about 1-2 hours. As much as I would like to pretend that I am Evil Knievel, hopping over ditches and speeding down the highways, in reality I am only going 30 mph. Margarita, despite the connotations of her name, is not one to get out of control. She is also one of the few Paraguayans who wears a helmet, but she only wears one to keep her face warm, not for safety reasons. Margarita and I sit down with poor women who have received loans. Many of these women live in dismal conditions. Most of their homes have only one to two rooms with beds directly next to the stove. They lack modern appliances such as washing machines or heaters, and very few of them have warm water to shower with. Because of their level of poverty, many of these women depend on loans from Fundación Paraguaya to help them in their daily lives.
This last week and a half I have been working on a nutrition guide for the women. White flour carbs, fried food, fatty red meat, and sugary drinks account for a majority of the Paraguayan diet. The leading cause of death in Paraguay is, not surprisingly, cardiovascular diseases of some sort. Before starting the guide, I did some research to see if healthy food is more expensive or if there is no access to it. While the access to healthy food is slightly more limited and processed products are plentiful in the supermarkets, the cost of healthy food is about the same. I think the main contributors toward poor eating habits are cultural values and lack of education. When bottled water and coke are priced the same, most people choose coke because it has more flavor. Another cultural attitude I found interesting is that although these women do not eat a sufficient amount of food, almost all of them have cell phones and TVs. According to Margarita, food goes bad, but luxuries like TV and cell phones last. As part of my guide, I tried to be respectful of cultural values by recommending traditional Paraguayan foods that tend to be healthier such as corn-based meals, mandioca which is a potato-like vegetable, and chicken. Hopefully, the guide will help women make simple changes that can drastically improve their health.
For the last week and a half, I have also been working and living in Carapeguá, a small city two hours outside of Asuncion. I am living with the Nora who is the manager of the Carapeguá branch, her husband, and her two children. I spent the weekend cheering on coworkers in a soccer tourney, crashing the birthday of one of Nora's nieces, and attending one of the most interesting masses of my life. Sunday was the day of the Classico, one of the biggest soccer games in Paraguay between the two main teams. It is more epic than the Odyssey and Iliad combined. After the game, hundreds of people stormed the streets, blasting music from their cars and setting off fireworks. The noise continued through the mass, which not many people attended, and it was difficult to hear what the priest was saying. I guess most Paraguayans are Catholic but do not go to mass very often. I'm pretty sure soccer is the unofficial religion here. Then there was a random wedding in the middle of mass, and it closed without the Eucharist being distributed. The experience has seriously unhinged all of my stereotypes regarding religion in Latin America.
Unfortunately, because there is no basketball hoop in the whole city, I am restricted to ball handling, passing, and defensive drills. Sometimes Ceci, Nora's 7-year-old girl, joins me for ball handling or jump roping. I run sprints in the street and get run down by stray dogs (I am glad I have my rabies shots). Anyone running who is not playing soccer is a phenomenon, and my neighbors honestly stare at me for the entire duration of my conditioning workout. I stick out more than Kobe did during the Beijing Olympics. I am tempted to just start randomly dancing outside to Brittany Spears or something to just see if their expressions change. However, with my luck I'll probably have an equally awkward moment without even trying. Actually, I'm guaranteed to have such a moment.
Part II – A James Bond Fantasy Fulfilled
In the 007 movie Moonraker, which I watched at the obscenely young age of 7, James Bond hang glides over Iguazu Falls to escape a boat chase. Since then, I had always dreamed of visiting these spectacular waterfalls. Good thing I was allured to a tourist site rather than to a license to kill or vodka martinis shaken, not stirred. To see the falls of my dreams, Amanda Nelson, Michelle Maddex, Professor Keith Warner and I embarked on a six-hour bus ride, and then a car drove us to Las Tres Fronteras where Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina share a border. We were then ferried to Argentina. When we arrived to Argentina, it was immediately obvious that this country was much wealthier than Paraguay, and the living standards improved considerably. The streets were cleaner; the houses were bigger; and most importantly the food was heartier.
Let's just say that Argentineans like their meat more than the National Rifle Association likes to vote Republican. Think of Texas on steroids. I had meat for five straight meals. At dinner, our waiter served us this platter of meat intended for two people. The platter came with two types of sausage, four huge ribs, two pieces of steak, entrails of some sort, and mystery meat. Being an adventurous traveler, I tried the entrails which were mostly fat, but it was the mystery meat that was truly disgusting. I later found out it was a kidney, and I am now a firm believer that the only purpose kidneys should ever serve is to act as regulatory organs in the body. However, the Argentinean man who had slicked back hair longer than mine and who was dancing the tango distracted me from sordid taste in my mouth. Nonetheless, the food as a whole was unbelievable, unless you are a vegetarian that is.
The next day we made our way to the falls, and I was scared that I expected too much from James Bond. Would I just be another woman he let down? However, James (we are on a first name basis) did not disappoint. No picture or video could do justice to what we saw. Cascading water surrounded us, and the weather was absolutely perfect with the sun and mist making hundreds of rainbows. There are approximately 275 waterfalls at Iguazu Falls during high season. For a second, I contemplated going native and spending rest of my life at the falls. It would be like the modern day Jungle Book without the racial overtones. In the end, I settled for a boat adventure that took us under some of the falls and drenched us for rest of the day. Four days later I am still overwhelmed by the grandeur of Iguazu.
This week I had the opportunity to play pick-up in the park with some Paraguayan men. The game here is very different than in the U.S. For one, the hoops were 12 feet high, and there were no nets. The concepts of spacing and passing are also completely lost on the Paraguayans. It was like playing soccer with 6 year olds where everyone on both offense and defense huddle around the ball. I guess working in such a confined space will improve my handles. While playing, I crossed up one of the guys who tripped when reaching for the ball, and the whole pack of men started howling. Although they were probably shouting sexist vulgarities that I could not understand, I reveled in the moment. Also, I had a conflict with this guy I call The Paradox who would pretty much tackle people to steal the ball. I call him The Paradox because he wore Laker shorts with a Lebron James jersey. I wanted to tell him that he is a walking contradiction in the heat of the moment, but I decided against it in fear of being culturally insensitive. Playing in Paraguay has been an enriching experience especially for my curse word vocabulary.
Over the last week, I have made many more trips to the field. I follow someone from Fundación Paraguaya who works with the women committees. During one visit, we met with some women who lived about twenty minutes outside a small town. These women possessed an incredible talent for weaving and crocheting. They made everything from table linens to ponchos to hammocks. These crafts were gorgeous and took about a day each to make. However, the local market is saturated with similar goods, and the women are forced to continuously lower their prices. They only make about $8 profit per piece. It is essentially a race to the bottom. The purpose of our visit was to see if their works could be used for a microfranchise. Fundación Paraguaya would buy these crafts at a bulk rate, and then have other women who are receiving assistance from them try to sell these crafts in towns that are not artisanal and where the markets are not as competitive. Because of Fundación Paraguaya's size and breadth, it has many resources that help eliminate poverty.
Part I – Acclimation, Impeachment and Protein Powder
June 28, 2012
Last Thursday, I packed up my bags and took off to Paraguay for five weeks. When people asked me what I would be doing in Paraguay, I would either give them the long version, which is I was fortunate enough to receive a fellowship that entails collecting and analyzing data relating to the livelihoods of rural women who have received microloans; or, I would give them the short yet immensely cool sounding, not-at-all exaggerated version of saving the world. With Coach Mountain's support, I was able to accept the Global Social Benefit Fellowship offered by Center for Science, Technology, and Society, which is a department at Santa Clara University that promotes social entrepreneurship.
For this fellowship, I am working for Fundación Paraguaya with two exceptional Santa Clara students – Michelle Maddex and Amanda Nelson. Fundación Paraguaya is a non-profit organization that has three branches. It has a Junior Achievement program that supports entrepreneurial education. It has self-sustainable schools where teenagers go to class half of the time and then the other half run various businesses such as an agricultural farm, dairy farm, hotel, and restaurant. The profit generated from these businesses then goes back into the school so these teenagers do not have to pay for their education. Lastly, it has a microloan program that gives loans to people who would otherwise not have access to loans, and it is the branch in which I will be working.
I am now finishing up my first week in Paraguay, and it has already been quite an experience. First off, on the day we left, the president of Paraguay was impeached, and there were political demonstrations going on. The impeachment was instigated by a violent encounter between peasants and police where seventeen people died. As much I would like to brag and say how I was in the center of it all, joining the protesters who were fighting for land reform, I was actually on house arrest for the weekend and now have much more sympathy for Lindsay Lohan. The media also dramatized the situation making it appear like a coup d'état although the country was relatively calm. Second, I quickly learned I am not fluent in Spanish, although I am improving greatly each day. I watched the original Star Wars trilogy in Spanish to prepare for my immersion, but so far there has not been an appropriate time to say "may the force be with you" or "destroy the Deathstar." My vocabulary might need to expand a little.
Most of this week has been about learning more about Fundación Parguaya and exploring the capital city, Asunción. On Monday, we visited one of the self-sustainable schools which was in the countryside. It was absolutely gorgeous and very impressive. We witnessed firsthand how effective the "Education that Pays for Itself" model is. Later in the week, we went to the El Centro and saw historic buildings in Asunción like Palacio de los Lopez and Palacio del Independencia. Although there are some charming cobblestone streets, Asunción is not a very clean city and appears dilapidated in many areas. On the upside, the food here has been amazing. Cheesy breads and dolce de leche (a caramel-like spread that tastes like drops of heaven) have replaced Wheaties as my breakfast of champions…just kidding… maybe.
Because I am a basketball player and need to burn off the insanely good food I am eating, I have different obligations than a muggle or non-athlete abroad. For starters, my bag was embarrassingly larger than everyone else's because I packed protein powder (which was fortunately not confiscated at the airport for looking like cocaine), two basketballs, a basketball pump, two tennis balls for ball handling, an interval timer, a jump rope, and the Insanity workout videos. I also found a gym only two blocks from where I am living. However, when I lift there, I feel like I am defying Paraguayan gender roles because most people look at me like they have never seen a girl in their life who could do a body weight pull-up or who could bench plates. I should also maybe invest in a longer pair of shorts because there is a chance I may be exposing too much skin. Either way, I do not blend in.
My first week here has already been an adventure. I am constantly learning and absorbing everything around me. I cannot wait to see what the next four weeks have in store, and hopefully I will be able to help improve the lives of underprivileged Paraguayan through my work for Fundación Paraguaya.