Change Yourself…Change The World.


Worms Are My Friends
October 8, 2012, 2:46 pm
Filed under: Paraguay, Pictures Post

Last week a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer and VAC-mate helped me make a worm compost bin in my backyard. I’ve always dreamed of having a worm compost bin, even in the United States, and I vowed that when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer I would make one in my house. It took me a year, but the dream finally came true, and now all of my kitchen scraps go to feed my little worms!

For those of you who don’t know the glorious benefits of worm compost, it’s a wonderful way to recycle a huge amount of your trash and additionally create fertile soil chocked with minerals that are great for the earth. If you’re a gardener, having a compost bin is pretty much the most organic way you can go for fertile, gorgeous crops. And if you care about the earth, it’s a fabulous way to recycle your kitchen scraps and recyclables without it going into landfills or dumping it into oceans all over the world. Plus, it’s fun!

Here’s some additional information on vermicomposting (via my friend andchristina):
redwormcomposting
how worm composting works

And you’d be shocked at how many common things you have in your house that you can compost. Check out a few links on different products you can compost through your worm bin:
90 things you can compost
163 things you can compost
75 things you can compost, but thought you couldn’t

Since composting, I’m astonished at how much less trash I have- it’s basically only plastics that now go into my trash. And for those of you that are worried about the smell- if done correctly, worm compost bins are completely odorless and don’t attract flies or any other critters.

Making my compost bin was super easy and fun! Here are the steps:

Get yourself some California Red Worms (thankfully my VAC-mate Gabe had some and brought me a few to start my bin- thanks Gabe!)

If you look reeeaalllllyyy closely you can see a tiny little red worm poking out of the soil  (Gabe’s finger is pointing at it). Aren’t they tiny?! They hate the sun light, so they just popped up for a moment.

My worm bin: a small fruit crate inside a larger fruit crate. This provides great drainage, since I need to water my compost bin to make sure it stays moist and keeps other critters (such as ants) out. 

We filled the first layer of the fruit crate with dry leaves and dirt (thanks backyard!)

Our second layer was kitchen scraps I had been saving for the past week- cucumber peels, tomato skins, eggplant scraps, etc. 

In goes the worms, right to their food!

Here’s a shot of the worm layer, ready to munch away on the kitchen scraps!

the final layer: lots of more dry leaves and dirt. You can also shred newspaper or cardboard, the worms love them!

Our makeshift top to my worm bin: a discarded window shutter. True posh corps.

This is my makeshift (and recycled!) additional trash bin, where I now put all of my kitchen scraps. I used an old paint can- the top stops fruit flies or other critters from getting wild over the scraps, since I usually leave it in there for a few days before throwing them all into my worm bin. 

Here are my kitchen scraps ready to be thrown into the bin- banana peels, passion fruit skins, egg shells, and mango scraps!

I know it’s weird for me to be obsessed with a bunch of worms, but I’m so excited we are friends, and I love feeding them. I like to think of them as my little pets! I’m also excited that this great compost will make for the perfect fertile soil for my vegetable garden (coming soon!) This is definitely something I’d like to continue when I move back to the United States. Well, time to go feed them dinner.

Much love,

Brittany



Love Conquers All: Meet My Paraguayan Family
September 29, 2012, 10:45 pm
Filed under: Paraguay, Pictures Post

I’ve been living in Caazapá for over a year now, but still have yet to introduce some of the most important people in my life on this little slice of the internet!

Over a year ago I went out on a house-hunting search in Caazapá. Geared with nothing but a barely sufficient grasp of Spanish, my super ‘negotiation skills’ I thought I had acquired from living in street markets all over Asia, and my pursuit of a good bargain, I thought I had all it took to find a super affordable and stylish house in my little city. W.R.O.N.G. As I spent fruitless days wandering up and down streets in each of the little ‘barrios’ in Caazapá, I was met with dingy little one-room shared-bathroom places for a whopping 300-400 mil a month (Translation: roughly 75-100 dollars, which is big amount to dole out for a 9′ by 9′ square room, at least with the salary I get). The reason for this is because Caazapá is a college town and has a bunch of universities, so all of the students quickly rent out all of the apartments and split any available houses. And as for my so-called negotiating? Turns out my ‘skills’ didn’t translate in Paraguay (either that or I’m just awful and refuse to acknowledge it). No one budged on their prices, and I thought I was totally out of luck.

That is, until I stumbled upon a run-down house on a beautiful street, sandwiched between a church and a couple of apartment rooms (you can see some photos of my house in this old post). The price was 350 mil per month, which was a total bargain (well, the reason why it was so low was because the walls are full of mold, but I didn’t let that deter me- I’ve just lived with my windows open for the past year). Besides, the landlord was this adorable little old man with the biggest, most genuine smile.

But what was the biggest sell? The first day I looked at the house, I decided to wander around the neighborhood and get a feel for the place. Right next to the church (the house on over) had a little grocery store. I timidly wandered in and immediately encountered a plump, middle-aged woman relaxing on a lawn chair and sharing tereré with what appeared to be her daughter. We struck up a conversation, and when she found out that I was considering renting the house right by her, she broke into a huge smile and said we would be neighbors, and friends! Her pure happiness was infectious. I loved being around her, and it was at that moment that I decided that this was a sign telling me to rent that house.

It was the best decision I could have made- not for the house, but because I’ve gotten to live next to Mari and her family for the past year. They have become my family in Caazapá. Not a day goes by where I don’t go over to Mari’s house to drink tereré, or share a meal, bake sopa paraguaya or brownies, or chat with her daughters, who have all become my ‘sisters.’ I feel so infinitely grateful to be a part of their lives for the past year, and for them to accept and love me.

Truthfully, Mari is wholeheartedly the number one reason why I was able to make it through some of my toughest moments in my service the past year. No matter what difficult phase I was going through- whether it was one failed project after another, my frustrations with communication, wondering if I was making any sort of difference in my community, missing home or my friends and family back in the States- Mari always was there with a smile and a hug, and usually hot chocolate. We’ve spent days together talking long into the night about her family, my family, and our lives. She lets me use her washing machine and always watches over my house when I have to go to the capital or to visit another site. She even got up at 11 PM at night when I was locked out of my house to make sure I was okay, and brought me back to her house to sleep.

Since she’s been so open to sharing her life with me, I thought it was only fair to share it with all of you! Here are some pictures of my ‘Paraguayan mother,’ and family.

This is Mari, and her beautiful smile! In this picture she’s making home-made popsicles that she sells in her grocery store. She’s extremely hard-working, loves her family, and is one of the most generous people I’ve ever met.

This is my ‘Paraguayan Dad,’ Higenio. This guy is also one of the nicest men I’ve ever met in Paraguay. He does a lot of work in construction and electricity, and has fixed a lot of stuff around my house. He’s also a very moral and upstanding person that I respect a lot. 

Mari and Higenio’s youngest daughter, Techi. She’s 15 years old and is in high school. She’s pretty quiet, but we have a special bond. 

Techi along with her older sister Fanny. Fanny is a dear friend of mine who loves to dance, sing karaoke, and wants to desperately get married (she’s 21). She’s very opinionated and we have a lot of interesting discussions together.

Fanny with our other little adorable neighbor

The three sisters! Techi, Fanny, and Laura (in the middle). Laura is in her late 20’s and has a little daughter. All three of them live in the house with their parents, along with Mariam, Laura’s little girl. Laura is a lawyer and very laid-back. She’s fun to watch ‘The Simpsons’ with, and always corrects me on my Spanish conjugation.

The two Mari’s! Mariam is Laura’s daughter, who also lives in the house. Mariam wouldn’t directly speak to me for about 7 months- it took her a LONG time to warm up to me! But now every time she sees me a huge smile breaks out on her face and she screams ‘BRIIITTANNYYYY!’ I love this little girl. 

Mari cooking something delicious in her kitchen, which her husband built for her.

A shot of their living room, which is where I sit nearly every day to drink tereré, eat lunch, or have dance-sessions with Fanny.

Mari proudly showing off her little grocery store. Yes, I am one of her ‘clients!’ (Her customers are her neighbors). 

So there’s a little bit about each family member that I’ve come to love dearly over the past year. They are incredible, and I am so thankful every single day that they love and accept this weird little American living in Caazapá. I’ve learned so much from them about neighborly love, about being accepting and open to strangers, and sharing whatever you have. I love Mari, and I love her family. I consider myself so lucky to have found my house, but not for the reason I thought. I’m lucky because Mari is my neighbor, and that I get to have such a wonderful relationship with her family. I’m lucky that they have always been there for me as a life vest, even at the worst moments when I felt like I was sinking. It just goes to show that love conquers all. Mari and her family will always hold a special place in my heart forever.



‘I See’ Progress: A Photography Exhibition in Caazapá
September 23, 2012, 9:31 am
Filed under: Paraguay, Pictures Post

One of the great things about being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay is that we’re one of the largest posts in the world. With about 250 Volunteers (in a country about the size of California, with all of us pretty much crammed into the lower half of Paraguay), we’re super close geographically. Because of this, we’re able to have lots of productive cross-sector events, collaborate together on plenty of cool projects, and high-tail it over to our nearest Volunteer’s house to support them in their initiatives. My nearest fellow Peace Corps Volunteer only lives a half hour bike ride away!

We also have a ton of national committees, conferences, and camps that Volunteers work on together. One of our national committees is a photography  project called Ahecha (‘I See’ in Guaraní). Inspired by the ‘Born Into Brothels’ documentary, Ahecha is dedicated to giving young Paraguayans more access to creativity development, and providing them with a new life perspective through the guided use of cameras. Peace Corps Volunteer can sign up to the project and are given a camera kit with 5 digital cameras for a period of 2 months. During that time, they teach youth in their communities all of the basics in using a camera, taking pictures, and documenting their lives through film. Basically, it’s a really cool way for Paraguayans to show their creativity and uniqueness, which is something I find sorely lacking here. And best of all, it’s a really fun project with super successful results.

I signed up for my Ahecha kit right when I swore in to my service, but because it’s in such high demand with Volunteers, I didn’t get my kit until May. Following in the footsteps of a nearby Peace Corps Volunteer, I decided to teach Ahecha as a free class to members at my cooperative. I ended up teaching mostly employees at the cooperative, but we still had a ton of fun. Every Thursday for five weeks I taught them the basic elements of photography, perspective, self-portraits, movement, and taking color versus black and white photos. The employees took the cameras home during the week and took shots of their family lives, outings with friends, and our community.

At the end of the course my 5 students each got certificates signed by the cooperative (certificates are a big deal in Paraguay), and we put together an exhibition of their best photos to show at my cooperative’s 22nd birthday anniversary bash, where many people in our community attended and were able to see the pictures. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to be there during the actual party (I was at our JEP competition in Asunción), but here are some pictures of our exhibit all put-together and ready for the big day.

Our exhibition on a large blank board

A description of ‘Ahecha Paraguay’ for the attendants of the birthday to read.

I had each of my student’s write a poem and answer a few short questions about what they loved about Caazapá and why they were proud to live there.

The poems went up next to their best pictures, which each had their names printed underneath.

My student’s were so proud to see some of their best photos up!

All of these photos are pictures of our community. 

Whether our famous church, road signs, or even multi-colored recycling bins, my student’s did a great job of showing off Caazapá at the exhibition.

Peace Corps

This trash can picture is one of my favorites. I also sneakily put one in that showed off the logo of our cooperative!

The exhibition overall. We put it in front of the door leading into the birthday event, so that people could look at it when they first arrived. 

One of my students, José, proudly showing off some of his best photos. 

(A huge thanks to the Ahecha committee that makes this incredible initiative happen- and especially because it is almost entirely run by my G-mates! Special props to Joanna, who’s the head of the committee.)

The event was a big success, and the employees still talk about how much they loved the Ahecha course. Ahecha also has a national exhibition all over Paraguay that shows some of the best photos from each community. I’m going to be submitting Caazapá’s photos in hopes that one (or more) of our photos will be shown at the Asunción bus terminal, or the huge shopping center, or various embassies around the capital. Isn’t it incredible that they get the opportunity to have their photos shown in a national exhibition? I’m so proud of them. This has definitely been one of the best projects I’ve done in my community, and I’ve already signed up for Ahecha again to teach it to more youth next April.



How A National Business Plan Competition Changed Everything
August 18, 2012, 9:19 pm
Filed under: Paraguay, Pictures Post

The Jóvenes Empresarios del Paraguay  (JEP) business plan competition that my sector put on three weeks ago was absolutely incredible! I’ve been at such a loss of words about this life-changing experience that I didn’t even know what to write on my little corner of the blog-o-sphere.


All of our awesome youth who attended JEP.

But pushing right on through writer’s block, let’s start at the beginning: right at the commencement of my Peace Corps service, 2 fellow Peace Corps Volunteers and esteemed colleagues, Lindsay Jordan Fay and Maureen Stickel, co-founded Jóvenes Empresarios del Paraguay (Youth Entrepreneurs of Paraguay). Their vision was to hold a national business case competition for youth from all over Paraguay to get excited about entrepreneurship, which would motivate them to take our sector’s business course ‘Construye tus Sueños.’ Through this course they would create a business plan with a business that addressed a need in their community, and eventually compete in a national business plan competition for seed funding.

I helped Lindsay and Maureen put on the first JEP business case competition back in February, where I worked on the programming and content team. Bolstered by the success of our first national event, I took on the Project Manager role to co-lead a team of Volunteers and literally start a National Business Plan Competition from scratch. It was a huge challenge: and getting a place for the event secured, solicitations and meetings for sponsors and funding (both for the event and for the 5 millón prize money we planned to give away, or over $1,000 dollars), speakers, industry experts, judges, piecing together a business plan template, coordinating all of this with numerous Volunteers and the Peace Corps (and so much more) wasn’t even the hardest part!

It was all of us motivating and teaching Paraguayan youth to put together THIRTY PAGE business plans each, with their own ideas and expressed needs from their communities, to compete at this event. If that doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, think again. One of our biggest challenges as Peace Corps Volunteers in Paraguay are getting Paraguayans motivated and excited to go to even one meeting, let alone attend a course steeped in finance and numbers, and demonstrate creativity, vision, and belief in their own ideas by making their own business plans.

Yet, we still got 34 youth to this competition, and 18 business plans. That alone was a HUGE success!


Some of our hard-working youth taking notes at JEP.

But that doesn’t even compare to the amount of success that we experienced with this event. It was virtually flawless. For 2 1/2 days and 2 nights, we were able to pull off a phenomenal, sophisticated, and very effective competition. We had a speaker come to congratulate youth on their business plans and talk about the next steps to make their dreams a reality, a restaurant owner who talked about dealing with failure in business (one of my favorite quotes from him was “every failure is a step towards success”), and another one who stressed starting small, but dreaming big. We hosted 10 Paraguayan businesspeople to attend an industry lunch and talk to the youth about their business plans. We had industry experts from hotel and tourism, food and restaurant, chocolate, sales, social enterprise, and technology that inspired these kids to continue pushing forward with their businesses. We invited nine judges to help us determine the finalists, and winner of our competition. And let’s not forget our Sister G, G-39 (recently sworn-in Volunteers!) came to the event to put on an elevator pitch competition, including handing out prizes and certificates to all.


Marino, the owner of a Peruvian restaurant ‘Flor de la Canela,’ talking to youth about his experiences with failure, and how it ultimately led to great success.


A prominent hotel owner from Aregua, Paraguay chatting with youth on how to take their business plans to the next level.

Then came the actual competition, which was (hard to believe), even MORE incredible! All of these kids from all over Paraguay put on their suits and ties and presented to a panel of judges their businesses and why they were viable. Every single presentation blew me away.


My favorite PCV Vicky holding up one of her DIY signs so youth know how much time they have left for their presentations.

Finally, we announced our four finalist teams, and on the last day of the competition everyone (including a new panel of judges) came together to watch and determine who would win first prize of $1,000 to start their business. The competitors were a pizza restaurant from the East of Paraguay, a photography printing service from the middle of Paraguay, a machine to dispense wool for artesan-makers, and an organic lettuce growing business, both from the South of Paraguay.


‘Yankee Pizza’ giving their final presentation.


‘Distrilan,’ the business plan that wants to build a machine to dispense wool to artesan-makers in San Miguel, Misiones.


One of our finalists Carmen explaining her organic lettuce-growing business to a room full of youth, judges, and Volunteers. 


The four finalist teams of our business plan competition!

Our 1st place and grand-prize winner of over $1,000 went to Carmen Correa Benítez of Santa Rosa, Misiones. It’s only been three weeks since the competition, and she’s already started her organic lettuce-growing business with our prize money!


Carmen accepting her first place trophy, with raucous applause from the entire room!


Carmen with her proud Peace Corps Volunteer, Amy!

Overall, the event was truly spectacular. There were many moments during the competition where I teared up because I was so blown away with how it all came together: how a team of 7 Volunteers were able to plan this event and actually pull it off with the help of our bosses and the Peace Corps; how 17 Volunteers were able to teach the business course ‘Construye tus Sueños,’ work with their youth to write the business plans, and hold business plan competitions in their sites to determine who to bring to the competition; and to these incredible, incredible Paraguayan youth who spent countless hours preparing for this and for coming to JEP with open minds and such enthusiasm.


All of the Peace Corps Volunteers who put their hearts and souls into making this event happen.

The Jóvenes Empresarios del Paraguay business plan competition far exceeded my expectations and has been the most rewarding event of my service. I know for certain that we have changed lives through this, that real businesses have been started through this, and that JEP will continue to change lives to make a better Paraguay. For that, I am infinitely humbled, blessed, and proud.



Greece, Part 3: Santorini!
June 25, 2012, 9:30 am
Filed under: Greece, Pictures Post

Continuing from my two previous posts about Greece (Mykonos and Athens), my family’s last leg of our vacation in Greece was to Santorini. Santorini was the best place we visited yet, and my favorite island in Greece. It is absolutely, breath-takingly gorgeous. The entire island is curved like a crescent shape (or as I like to think of it, a long croissant), and the views are absolutely stunning. Concurrently, Santorini seems to offer everything- winding little streets full of shops and restaurants set against the backdrop of a most spectacularly blue ocean and sky, black AND red sand beaches, sumptuous food, and charming whitewashed buildings. I was so enchanted with the place that it’s made the top of the list of places I want to return to someday.

My favorite part of Santorini was taking a 2 hour hike with my cousins, siblings, and uncle, stretching one end of Santorini to the other.  We also ate some incredible meals, and stayed at a little boutique hotel overlooking the best views of the island. I also loved the black sand beaches- I’ve never been to one before!

Check out the amazing pictures of Santorini below!

Santorini



Greece, Part 2: Athens
June 24, 2012, 11:58 am
Filed under: Greece, Pictures Post

Continuing from my previous post about my fabulous trip to Greece with my family, our second leg of our vacation was to Athens!

Athens fascinated me. As a child, I used to obsessively read Ancient Greek mythology, so it was such a treat to be in the capital. During our stay in Athens, we toured the ever-famous Acropolis (one of the finalists for the new 7 wonders of the world), Parthenon, and walked around Plaka, a famous street that sells all kinds of Greek merchandise and souvenirs. We took a day trip out of the city and saw the beautiful canal of Corinth, an ancient open amphitheater in Epidaurus, and ate lunch in the old capital of Nafplio. I also had the opportunity to walk around the city alone, and I found it to be totally charming. Though Athens is a city of nearly 4 million people, there were parts of it that were quaint, quiet, and enchanting.

I really enjoyed our time in Athens, and I loved the city. Definitely a place I would enjoy living in the future, or at least coming back to for awhile!

Check out some great pictures of our trip to Athens below.

Athens!



Country Number 30: GREECE!
June 23, 2012, 7:51 pm
Filed under: Greece, Pictures Post

Hello all! It’s been nearly a month since I updated on my website, but for good reason: I went on vacation to Greece with my family!

My parents have dreamed of taking all of my family on a special trip to Greece for years. My Dad went there when he was 16 and had always wanted to go back- and since he talked about it so much, it made my Mom really want to go! They wanted to wait for a time that they could take their whole family, and so finally, for my parents 25th wedding anniversary, they were able to fulfill their dream and take my four siblings and I on the vacation of a lifetime. And the icing on the cake? My Aunt, Uncle, and three cousins from France came along as well.

My trip to Greece marked a very special occasion- Greece is the THIRTIETH country I have traveled to in my life. Pretty incredible that in a matter of four years, I’ve been to thirty countries! I feel so very blessed for this opportunity, and even more so because Greece was AMAZING. It did Country Number 30 serious justice. I absolutely fell in love with Greece: the gorgeous architecture on the islands (white-washed walls and rounded at the edges), the stunning views, the food (I have now fallen in love with tzatziki, baba ganoush, moussaka, and the myriad of other dips and stews served, along with Halloumi cheese, Saganaki cheese, Souvlaki, Gyros, and let’s not forget the seafood), the history, the culture- and to top it off, it was the best family vacation we ever had. Greece left such a huge impression on me, and I would dearly love to go again someday.

I’ve decided to kick off the trip with pictures from the island Mykonos, the first (out of three) legs of our trip. Mykonos is an incredibly lovely island, with winding streets, friendly people, and plenty of things to see and do. Check out the pictures below and turn green with envy at this incredible place- or perhaps inspired to travel there yourself!

Here is to Country Number 30! Here is to Greece! Here is to my wonderful family! And here is to Mykonos!

Mykonos!



What Every Day In the Peace Corps Should Look Like
January 21, 2012, 5:37 pm
Filed under: Paraguay, Pictures Post

So I haven’t loaded pictures on my blog for a long, long time. The reason is because my camera cord to my computer broke in October, and I had to wait to get my spare one when I was back in the United States for Christmas. I have a lot of back-logged pictures, so there will be a few posts coming up showcasing the last couple of months!

But for this post, I’d rather focus on a more recent event this past week: for the first time, I traveled with my cooperative to an extremely rural village two hours outside of our city! I’m going to start working with the production team to teach farmers who take out loans how to invest wisely in their businesses, rather than buying consumer items like TVs or flashier cell phones. This is a great development for me, and so I was really excited to go on my first big trip with them, just to meet some farmers and learn about the process. The particular trip we went on were to meet a couple of farmers that had an organic cotton export business through the cooperative.

It was an amazing experience- trekking through the woods and fields of corn, mandioca (Paraguay’s staple starch food), sesame, and cotton, meeting with two farmers to update their organic certification, and of course a tereré session followed by a lunch of chicken and pineapple juice. Check out some of the photos below! Just another beautiful day in Paraguay.

Pictures of Bertoni



How To Build A Fogon: A Paraguayan Oven
September 9, 2011, 1:55 pm
Filed under: Paraguay, Pictures Post

This is why I love being in the Peace Corps. I get to do really fun construction that helps people, and call it my job.

On Wednesday, another Peace Corps Volunteer Lauren that lives close by invited me to help her construct a special type of Paraguayan oven called a ‘fogon.‘ Made out of bricks and ‘mescla’ (dirt mixed with water), a fogon is a special type of outdoor oven. Many rural Paraguayans cook over open fires in their houses, which can be dangerous and also bad for their health- therefore, as Lauren is a health volunteer, a big part of her Volunteership so far has been building fogons.

It was an incredible day, and I feel that the pictures really say it all. So without further ado:

How to Build a Paraguayan fogon