A Son's Peace Corps Experience in Paraguay

A Son's Peace Corps Experience in Paraguay

After graduating from Earlham College with degrees in economics and English, Dan Vecchi focused his attention on international economic development, and searched for jobs with a social and public policy bent. After a little over a year in the Washington D.C. area, Dan was motivated to go get hands-on experience in the countries where the needs exist. After many nights of sitting around with friends and discussing how to save the world, one day, Dan decided to stop talking and just do it. The Peace Corps was a natural choice, so Dan applied and was ultimately accepted.

Dan loves to travel. As a child, he lived in Venezuela, and later studied in Greece, England and the Czech Republic. Fluent in Spanish, Dan was thrilled to find out that he had been assigned to Paraguay — a country he knew nothing about, but where he knew he would at least have the ability to communicate. However, Dan was taken by surprise when he discovered that he would still need to learn Paraguay's other official language, Guarani. "Ikatu" was the first word he learned in Guarani and Dan said it was a useful one, as it can be translated to mean whatever particular definition its user desires — it can be used to mean "yes," "no," "maybe" or absolutely anything else.

After completing his Peace Corps training in both the United States and Paraguay, Dan moved to his assigned site in the Chaco region, a high-altitude plateau that reaches into the mountains to the Bolivian border. An inhospitable area, the Chaco is referred to by many as the "Last Wild West." Dan's first day in Santa Cecilia, the 28-person village that was his new home, was memorable for many reasons — one being the surprise appearance of a rattlesnake. Fortunately, Dan's host family quickly taught him how to kill a snake with a shovel.

The Chaco is a huge area of arid land in the northern two thirds of Paraguay. Once a rain forest, it is now almost completely desert. The Chaco is sparsely populated, as its inhabitants hail from a population decimated by the War of the Triple Alliance, which killed 50 percent of women and children, and 90 percent of men. It is a tough land where the people are kind, but their lives bleak. Not surprisingly, the Chaco was not an easy assignment for Dan.

Daytime and nighttime temperatures in the Chaco hover around 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and rise even higher during the warmer summer months of January, February and March. The Chaco's inhabitants exist on rainwater, and yet, it is a region that only sees rainfall a few times a year. It rained a mere four times during Dan's first summer there. However, Dan said that through the tough periods and difficult conditions, the Peace Corps was always there for him — whether it was with water and medicine, or communications and expert advice.

SINCE PEACE CORPS volunteers are not permitted to drive motor vehicles of any kind, Dan moved around on bicycle or on foot — with the exception of the few rare occasions he was able to hitch a ride. His travels out of Santa Cecilia began with a 7-kilometer walk. Carrying his heavy backpack the entire way, Dan eventually arrived at a rural bus stop. From there, he took a 9-hour chugging bus ride into the capital city of Asuncion. However, one side benefit of the constant walking and numerous soccer games with local teams, is that Dan is now in better shape than ever before.

Asuncion offered Dan a much relished break from his routine. While there, he formed a band with some of his Paraguayan friends and fellow Peace Corps volunteers, and has been playing at clubs throughout the city for over a year now. Dan writes his own music and he and his fellow band members are enjoying their experience very much. Dan tells us that the various Peace Corps volunteers go on group field trips to Paraguay and Brazil, and also visit each other's assigned sites to share information over barbeques and soccer games.

Dan's assignment in Santa Cecilia was to propose potential solutions to local economic issues, and then provide assistance to local residents as they implemented the economic development projects that they considered to worthwhile. By the time Dan left, he had completed several initiatives which had made a direct impact on the daily lives of the residents of the community. Dan was successful in bringing electricity to the school, transforming a simple local store into a small supermarket, complete with aisles, carts and an accounting system, and starting a regional government with an emphasis on studying model farm systems, crop rotation, marketing and learning about the voting process and how to elect a representative government.

Dan is now assigned to the larger town of San Juan Nepomuceno, which has a population of about 23,000 people. After spending more than a year experiencing a tough but satisfying existence in the Chaco, Dan loves his new assignment. In San Juan Nepomuceno, he plays soccer and rugby, and is now on the city's representative rugby team. His yard boasts fruit trees of every type, including what he refers to as a "bombardment of mangos." Since the city already has water and electricity, Dan is tackling projects that go beyond the basics, such as bringing in the internet. He has started a cooperative which allows the wives of farmers to augment the family income by selling food from their kitchen gardens, and according to him, the extra income from the wives' sales has proven to be monumental. Dan is also teaching them about the administrative aspects of a market economy, and is bringing in other volunteers to teach them better planting methods and the importance of diversifying their products. In addition, Dan runs a business seminar that teaches basic economics, accounting, marketing and quality control.

THUS FAR, the Peace Corps has been an amazing experience for Dan. It has given him the opportunity to come to a new understanding of the world. He has worked harder than he has ever worked before, and he has truly been able to help other people. Dan has lived through harsh conditions and dealt with many problems that had previously been nothing more than a story on the evening news. There have been moments of frustration and loneliness, but he has learned to turn these around and use them as opportunities for creative development. He has worked to help the people of the Chaco take steps to rid themselves of poverty, apathy, inexperience and a beleaguered educational system. He has made things happen for the better under conditions hindered by passivity and lethargy.

We had an opportunity to see Dan last summer when he came home for his brother's wedding. What a great opportunity to enjoy his renewed confidence, his contagious enthusiasm, his optimistic insights, his mature assessments and his sobering analysis. Dan's Peace Corps work has delivered many good things to his hosts, but in return, they have given him more than their fair share toward his maturity, and toward his intellectual, emotional and physical development — to say nothing of his new friendships and comradeships. His two-year assignment will come to an end later this summer, and he expects to enroll in graduate school. We look forward to more successes and satisfactions during his last months remaining in Paraguay.