An Interview With Romy Natalia Goldberg, Author Of ‘Other Places Travel Guide, Paraguay’

Courtesy of Romy Natalia Goldberg

Since April, I’ve been writing about my adventures in Paraguay. Gadling sent me there for the exact reason most of you are reading this post: because few people, especially Norte Americanos, know anything about this mysterious country. The lack of guidebooks doesn’t do much to dispel the myth that Paraguay is a place not worth visiting or knowing about.

As it turned out, that line of thinking couldn’t be more flawed. Paraguay is one of the loveliest countries I’ve ever visited, both for it’s scenic beauty (think virgin rainforest; tropical farmland; dusty red roads; colonial (and colonial- and Baroque-style) architecture; Jesuit missions; a vibrant ranching culture; sleepy villages; the cosmopolitan capitol of Asunción), and the generosity of its people.

My companion in Paraguay – discovered online just days before I left – was the very excellent guidebook, “Other Places Travel Guide, Paraguay,” by Romy Natalia Goldberg, which came out in late 2012. This book saved my butt innumerable times, because Paraguay is a challenging country for visitors due to its lack of tourism infrastructure and remoteness.

In reading her book, which has plenty of historical and cultural background, I learned that Goldberg is the daughter of a Paraguayan mother and a North American father. She lives in Paraguay with her husband and two daughters, and maintains a travel blog, Discovering Paraguay.

Because it was Goldberg’s book that in part helped me to understand and fall in love with Paraguay, I wanted to share her insights with Gadling readers. Read on for her take on the country’s fledgling tourism industry, intriguing cuisine, and why you should visit … stat.

You currently live in Paraguay. Did you live there as a child?

My father worked for the U.S. Foreign Service, so I lived in several Latin American countries growing up, but never in Paraguay. I visited my family here frequently, however. I’ve been here for the past five years. At first I lived in Asunción, the capital city. About three years ago I moved to Piribebuy, my mother’s hometown. It’s the closest thing I ever had to a hometown growing up. Writing the guidebook was a great opportunity to get to know Paraguay on a deeper level.

Have you always been a writer or was your book inspired by your love of the country?

The idea to write a guidebook arose while I was planning a trip to Paraguay with my husband. There was so little information available at the time. No Lonely Planet [LP now has a bare bones section on Paraguay in its South America On A Shoestring, and a forthcoming dedicated guidebook] no travel blogs, nothing. I felt the need to create something that accurately depicted the country I knew and loved. Before this I had never even considered writing.

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jmalfarock, Flickr

Well, you did a great job – your book was indispensable to me while I was there. I fell in love with the country for myriad reasons, which I’ve been chronicling on Gadling. What makes Paraguay so special to you?

To me the most fascinating thing about Paraguay is the strong presence of indigenous Guaraní culture in everyday life. The most visible example of this is the Guaraní language, which is widely spoken throughout all levels of Paraguayan society. You don’t have to go to a museum to learn about Guaraní culture, you can literally experience it just by interacting with regular Paraguayans.

Why do you feel the country isn’t a more popular tourist destination?

Traveling in Paraguay requires advanced planning as well as some legwork once you get here. Understandably, most tourists don’t want to work that hard while on vacation. But I think the biggest problem is that people simply aren’t aware of Paraguay and what it has to offer.

Do you see this changing in the near future? It seems as though the government is really working to promote it.

I do see a change. In fact, it’s not just the government. Now that Internet access is widely available here, it’s easier for the Paraguayan tourism industry to market itself to the outside world. Hopefully, they’ll figure out how to reach the type of tourists that will enjoy traveling in Paraguay.

I would characterize that genre of tourist as those who love adventure and getting off the tourist trail. Would you consider Paraguay a challenging country for tourists?

Being a tourist in Paraguay requires time and flexibility. This isn’t Disneyland. There are few English speakers, it’s hard to schedule an itinerary ahead of time, and travel within Paraguay is often delayed due to bad weather and road conditions. Of course, there are tourists who like a challenge. My goal in writing the guidebook was to help people overcome the challenges and make the most of traveling in Paraguay.

Would you like to see Paraguay become a major tourist destination? Or do you feel it would eventually change the character and culture of the country?

That’s a tough question. I would definitely like to see Paraguay become a better developed tourist destination, but not necessarily a major one. The reality is we’re surrounded by Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia, all of which are much more developed and established travel destinations. I think we’ll always appeal to a smaller subset of tourists.

paraguay tattoo
Laurel Miller, Gadling

Since few people are familiar with Paraguay, what would you tell readers who haven’t spent much time in South America/are leery of the political turmoil and crime often portrayed by the media (not to say things are or are not blown out of proportion)? I found Paraguay to be very safe; do you feel that it’s safer than other countries in South America?

In my experience, Paraguay is one of the safest countries in South America to be a tourist. The usual warnings about using common sense in crowded or touristy areas apply. But there’s no need to be on guard all the time, especially when you’re traveling in the countryside. If someone approaches you, it’s more likely out of curiosity and friendliness than a desire to do harm. As for what’s portrayed in the media, political turmoil and corruption do exist, but, to be honest, are unlikely to affect you as a tourist.

What’s your favorite thing about Paraguay?

The open, friendly attitude most Paraguayans have, even towards total strangers. Paraguayans are always up for a conversation, and they love talking about their country and culture with foreigners. There’s something about it that’s very refreshing, and I often hear from tourists who say these social interactions were the highlight if their visit to Paraguay.

I couldn’t agree with you more. I met so many wonderful people, and I’ve never experienced such cultural pride. It wasn’t boastful; it was sweet and genuine. But I have to ask: what’s your least favorite thing about the country?

It’s very hard to see so much unfulfilled potential. This is a country with a rich culture, friendly, outgoing people and beautiful landscapes. As my aunt likes to say, Paraguay still has a lot on its “to-do” list.

What’s your favorite destination in Paraguay?

I love Yataity del Guairá. It’s a small, peaceful town where people dedicate themselves to making and embroidering fine cotton cloth known as ao po’i. Some women even hand-spin raw cotton into thread and then weave it on a loom. It’s like stepping into a time machine. The New York Times‘ “Frugal Traveler” columnist Seth Kugel recently wrote a really great piece about traveling in that region of Paraguay.

I became obsessed with Paraguayan food, which I learned is a big part of the culture. What can you tell us about that?

chipera
Laurel Miller, Gadling

Here it’s all about comfort food. Hearty stews with noodles or rice, deep-fried treats like empanadas and fritters, and a ton of dishes made with corn flour, mandioca (cassava/yucca) and cheese. Chipa is the most ubiquitous; it’s a cheesy, bagel-shaped cornbread that was considered sacred by the Guaraní.

Why should readers consider a trip to Paraguay now (as opposed to, say, in five years)?

Even compared to a year ago, the tourism industry has gained momentum. There are more hostels, restaurants, and more information available in guidebooks and on travel websites. And American Airlines began a direct flight from Miami in November.

But Paraguay remains firmly off the beaten path, as you said. So people who enjoy under-the-radar destinations should come now. As for the future, a massive number of tourists will travel to Latin America for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. By then, there will hopefully be enough buzz around Paraguay that a significant portion of those tourists will come here as well.

10 Volunteer Programs For Budget Travelers

thailand Pay to volunteer? While many people assume volunteering is always free, going abroad to participate in community service projects often costs money. I realized this the first time I volunteered abroad teaching English in Thailand. After doing weeks of research, I found there are a lot of companies charging a small fortune ‒ sometimes thousands of dollars ‒ to have travelers come over and spend their time helping other communities.

Every program is different. Some are completely free but offer no housing or meals. Others may charge a program fee but set you up with accommodation and a local chef. Sometimes programs will also include orientations, airport pickup, language courses, cultural activities and 24/7 support. Keep in mind what you want to get out of your experience while browsing the following list of budget-friendly international volunteer programs.

WWOOFing

WWOOFing is one of the best networks to use for having a worthwhile volunteer experience on a budget. The acronym stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and allows volunteers to browse countries from all over the world to choose an organic farming project that most interests them. In exchange for labor, volunteers usually receive room, board and the chance to experience a culture from a local point of view. Opportunities can be anything from strawberry picking to working with animals to harvesting grapes on a vineyard and making wine. By participating in these types of projects, you’ll be contributing to positive ecotourism and helping to create a healthier planet.SE7EN

SE7EN is a free and low-cost volunteer opportunity network. Their focus is on social and environmental projects from around the world. What makes this option so affordable is that the middleman is cut out, as SE7EN simply lists the projects on their site and allows you to contact hosts directly. Usually, room and board is either provided or very cheap. Some project examples include:

volunteer International Volunteer Headquarters

I’ve used International Volunteer Headquarters many times and highly recommend them. Their placements are very reasonably priced, and are especially great for people who have never volunteered abroad before, as full-time support, an orientation and airport pickup are included. Instead of putting you in a fancy hotel, they allow you to stay with local families and in local villages to really get to know the culture and help the people. Furthermore, certain recreational activities are often included in the price. Their programs, which generally include room and board, are located all around the world and range from about $200-$2,300, depending how long and where your program is. Some placement examples include:

Peace Corps

If you’re really interested in doing community service abroad, have a couple years to spare and want to earn some money; Peace Corps may be for you. There are placements in 75 countries, and volunteers get the chance to work with a community in need for 27 months. The Peace Corps’ mission is to “promote world peace and friendship,” and areas of focus for programs include: health, education, youth and community development, business and information, and communications technology, environment and agriculture. What’s great about going overseas with Peace Corps is they provide you with language, cross-cultural, and technical training, so it can be great for your resume. There are also a lot of benefits, like possible deferment or partial cancellation of your student loans, a monthly stipend and $7,245 payment once the project is completed, free flights to and from the country, vacation days, free medical and dental care during the project and affordable health insurance for 18 months after. It’s more like having a very proactive job than the usual volunteer experience, and you won’t have to pay any kind of fees to participate.

volunteer VAOPS

VAOPS is a directory of free and low-cost volunteer opportunities, which allows you to save money by cutting out the middleman. Because everyone has different needs and wants, their programs vary in price, style, and what’s included. Some examples include:

United Nations

The United Nations is one of the most famous organizations in the world for helping communities in need and working to keep moral responsibility in check. What some people may not know is along with their staffed projects, they also host a volunteer program called United Nations Volunteers (UNV). Volunteers usually work for six to 12 months and can choose from placements in about 130 countries. Projects focus mainly on human rights, agriculture, education, health, information and communication technology, community development, popular, industry and vocational training. It’s free to volunteer with the United Nations and you’ll also be given a monthly stipend, medical insurance and annual leave.

favela Volunteer South America

Want to volunteer in one of the most naturally beautiful continents in the world? Volunteer South America is designed with backpackers and budget-travelers in mind. There are no middleman or agency fees associated with the programs, making them drastically cheaper than many others that exist. Although room and board will not always be included, being able to choose how you will live and eat for yourself can help you save a lot money, especially if you opt for a homestay. Some projects available include:

Winrock

While a bit more competitive than some of the other programs, Winrock places volunteers in diverse programs all around the world and even pays for airfare. When a volunteer position opens up, Winrock places the most qualified individual in the program. Some of their current volunteer opportunities include:

volunteerUBELONG

UBELONG offers one week to six-month volunteer opportunities throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia. While not free, their programs are very affordable and offer all accommodation and meals, orientation, 24/7 support and project supervision. There are also recreational and cultural activities included to help volunteers get to know the country better. Prices for placements range from $250 for two weeks in Peru to $4,320 for six months in the Galapagos, although most six month placements average around $2,300. Some program examples include:

Katelios Group

Located in Greece, the Katelios Group works to help sea turtles. The main objective of the group is to “protect the natural environment on the island of Kefalonia, Greece.” There is no program fee to participate, although room and board is not included. The organization does work to provide volunteers with low-cost accommodation and suggests that participants cook meals together to save money. To give you an idea of how much you will spend, accommodation is usually about $200-$250 per month, while food is normally about $40 per week.

Ultimate recyling project: Building a soda bottle classroom

What happens when Peace Corps volunteers, the non-profit organization, Hug it Forward and a bevvy of school children and teachers in Guatemala recycle plastic bottles and trash? A school classroom.

The collected bottles were stuffed with trash and used to form the walls for a classroom addition at a school in Granados, a small mountain town in the Baja Verapaz region of the country. Amazing.

This video shows how the project was done. The music is a fitting addition to a project that brought the widest smiles to dozens of faces.

Imagine what might happen if similar projects happened on a massive scale world wide. There are a lot of plastic bottles on the planet.

For another version of a building project that fits into travel and activism, check out this gallery on house building with teens, college students and adults in Mexico through Amor Ministries, another non-profit that welcomes volunteers.

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Dispatches from Lesotho

Back in my heady days of ultimate Frisbee stardom, I used to have a mighty forehand flick, but it was nothing compared to Mr Will McGrath’s. Now, in our sodden old days Will has moved on, to the small country of Lesotho, where he works in the education system and maintains a blog called Pudgy Millions.

With apologies to my sister, I rarely post personal blogs onto Gadling, because there are many irrelevancies among them that just don’t apply to the greater travel audience. But Will’s is different. Reading his words you get a real feel for the kingdom of Lesotho, the gravity of its inhabitants, the color and shape of its land. Will tells the story that I’m sure many foreign workers experience in Africa, of plight of AIDS, the poor education system and the general madness of the Dark Continent.

Start by taking a look at a few of his more gripping articles, covering none other than scrabble, getting mugged in South Africa and an bittersweet essay centered around a local boy named Thato. Yes, they’re long, but they’re good lunchtime reading.

If it suits your fancy, take a look at the rest of Pudgy Millions and say hi to Will while you’re there.

Peace Corps volunteer murdered in Benin

“Did you hear that a Peace Corps volunteer was killed last week?” one of my friends asked me when we were at a restaurant with a group of returned Peace Corps volunteers. I hadn’t heard, and she didn’t have any information, only that the incident happened in some country in Africa and that the victim was a woman. The news was startling, particularly since I hadn’t heard or read anything about it.

After a bit of sleuthing, I’ve gathered some details. The information about what happened is sketchy, and the death is under investigation.

The volunteer, Kate Puzey was a 24-year-old living in Benin, West Africa. Last week on Thursday morning, friends found her dead outside of her house in the village of Badjoude where she was posted as an English teacher. It is believed that she was murdered, although, I haven’t found more details than what’s in this article at Finding Dulcinea. The official news is that she died sometime the night before she was found.

This story is one that resonates with me for a few reasons. One is because Puzey was the age I was when I was in the Peace Corps. It’s a time that I can recall as if it happened last week. There are certain sounds, sights and smells in a West African country that one doesn’t forget. There was also a coziness to being in a village with people who welcome you into their families and culture without reservation and an amazing amount of generosity. That the coziness could be dangerous is alarming. It doesn’t make sense.

From what I read, Puzey was one of those vibrant, loving volunteers who dove into her time in Benin with open arms and a giving heart. The fact that someone could have done such harm to her is hard to imagine. In general, a person who is an outsider but is welcomed into a village as a guest–and then brought into the fabric of village life, is given a high amount of respect and regard. The villagers would have seen ensuring Puzey’s happiness and safety as something to take seriously.

I can’t imagine what the 100 volunteers posted in Benin are feeling. This is not a death caused by not wearing a motorcycle helmet and having an accident–or becoming ill. This is maliciousness at work. People who may think their villages are safe may be thinking again. Families of volunteers who have heard the news most probably have the jitters.

For an occurrence that is so rare to have not made more of a news story is a bit stunning to me, particularly since both McCain and Obama praised Peace Corps as an important part of world development and volunteerism. Particularly when someone so engaging as Kate Puzey was killed in a place where such things virtually never happen.

My thoughts are with her family and the volunteers who have lost their friend, and possibly feel that the world is less safe than they thought before.

Here is another post I came across about Kate’s tragic death.