Tag Archives: trains

Fundraising Goal Reached!

20 Mar

My Peace Corps Partnership grant has been fully funded and we’re moving full speed ahead with the Cultural Conductors training this weekend.

A giant Thank you! to everyone who donated to this project–you’re helping to make awesome things happen in Paraguay.

I’m off to prep for this weekend but I’ll write a longer update soon!



How Exactly Do Steam Trains Work?

15 Feb

I wasn’t sure of the specifics of making a steam train run besides, well, the steam.  And a burning fire!  I knew that was part of it, too.

I visited Howstuffworks.com to gain some insight.



Visit the website to see animated graphics and for further information.

I think my favorite tidbit was the explanation of the choo-choo sound: When the valve opens the cylinder to release its steam exhaust, the steam escapes under a great deal of pressure and makes a “choo!” sound as it exits. When the train is first starting, the piston is moving very slowly, but then as the train starts rolling the piston gains speed. The effect of this is the “Choo….. choo…. choo… choo choo-choo-choo” that we hear when it starts moving.

Get moving on making a donation to the Train Station Community Center because 30 Days of Trains! is slowly winding down.

How Far Would You Travel For The Ones You Love?

14 Feb

On a day where love (or at the very least roses, chocolates, and consumerism) is being celebrated in many countries around the world, take a moment to think about all of the people you love.  The people that make you laugh, that raised you, that wiped your tears away and provided for you; how far would you go for them?

More specifically, how far would you travel for them on the tops of speeding trains through Central America if you thought a safe arrival meant access to the “American Dream?” How far would you journey if it meant you would be reunited with family members who had already risked their lives crossing or to earn money in order to provide for your loved ones back home?

Thousands of children are traveling alone through Central America each year in hopes of crossing the North American border.

“What I think is so incredible about the stories is how dehumanizing the situation is.  Whether you’re an adult migrant or a child migrant, once you get into Mexico you have to take that 1500-mile journey just to get to the northern border.  There are gangs that kill people, rob people, rape women, kidnap migrants for money.  There are all kinds of police corruption.  Then there are the dangers of jumping on freight trains and falling under the train wheels.  There are people who have to prostitute themselves just to get farther north.  People die.  In the film, two children are found dead and are brought back from the desert… People are forced into an incredibly dangerous and demeaning situation just to try and find a better life, and that’s unacceptable.”

Rebecca Cammisa, a documentary filmmaker, discusses what struck her most in her research for her documentary on this topic, Which Way Home.  You can read her full interview with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants here.

While I’d like 30 Days of Trains to be entirely stories of inspiration and hope, that is unfortunately not the world that we live in.  However, I think that these stories of pain and sorrow are relevant because they almost always occur in the pursuit of hopes and dreams.

Inevitably, American culture is exported constantly to the world through movies, news events, TV shows, and the internet.  I even feel guilty at times for my presence in Paraguay as a Peace Corps volunteer, being one more sensationalized exportation of American culture.

The young girls at the train station thumb through my books and ask with wide eyes where I got them from.

“The United States.”

One girl rolls her eyes at the other, “Duh, everything beautiful comes from the United States.”

And even in Paraguay, a country that seems a world away from the train hopping of Central America (or the border cities of the U.S./Mexico that I visited in 2010) and whose citizens are most likely to emigrate to Argentina or Spain, the “American Dream” starts to look pretty shiny from this angle and distance.

There’s plenty of work to be done to revise (If not just getting rid of all together) what the American Dream means in the U.S. and its implications around the globe, but work should proceed on other fronts.  Blockbusters will continue to be shipped out to world screens that glamorize the U.S. and don’t alternately show the unemployment, underpaid dishwashers, often inaccessible higher education, crippling student loan debt, and human rights abuses that go unpunished and unprotected without documents, because they don’t make for a cheery storyline.

Countries and their education systems, governments and politicians, health care systems, public spaces, employers, infrastructure, and citizens need to start giving people good reasons to stay.  This is obviously much easier said than done.  Some goals require sweeping legislation change, others billions of dollars, but a few require just a handful of committed citizens.

I think the Train Station Community Center in Paraguari is one of those projects.

The other day I was sitting in my neighbors yard drawing a Sombrilla del Mar tree into a square of styrofoam to use as a stamp.  I told them that it was my favorite Paraguayan tree for the way it’s leaves grow out of the top of the branch, optimistically toward the sun.  The mother peered over my shoulder at my design and said, “You can tell Molly’s not Paraguayan because she’s so creative.”

I can’t wait for the day when I walk into the train station and see a Conductor proudly admiring the work of a young girl and remarking, “You can tell she is Paraguayan because she’s so creative.”

Interested in more movies that tell stories on this topic?  Check out Sin Nombre and Under the Same Moon

How Have Trains Impacted Your Life?

13 Feb

A guest blog from brittanygoesglobal.com

While Brittanygoesglobal.com is certainly a celebrity, I’m lucky to also know the Brit behind the scenes.  A fellow Peace Corps volunteer, Brit has provided support and encouragement for me on this project and through out all parts of our Peace Corps journey.  Another volunteer and I were discussing our lack of direction and plans for after PC when he remarked on how Brittany is so driven and well-defined in her passions.  Brit is a lady that knows what she wants and it’s inspiring to watch her work every day toward that.  Luckily for us, she also loves to help other people identify what makes them tick and then do everything in her power to help them achieve their goals.  Thank you for helping me achieve mine, Brit!

When I look back throughout the span of my 24-year-old life, it’s pretty crazy to realize how much trains have influenced me culturally. Perhaps trains, or just the general form of transportation, inspired me to travel over 4,000 miles across the world to join the Peace Corps in Paraguay, where I met Molly. One thing is for certain though- trains have held a pretty important place in my heart throughout all of my major phases in life. Check some of them out below:

1) Thomas the Tank Engine

When I was a toddler, I remember getting up early every morning with my brother and sister to watch Thomas and Friends, one of our favorite television programs. My parents, obviously getting the hint that trains were our thing, bought us toy trains and tracks to play with- you know, one of those KidCraft build your own train tracks that were so popular in the 90’s. Thomas the Tank Engine, through the TV show and the toys, really taught my siblings and I the importance of sharing- which definitely proved to be key when our family grew to seven!

My brother was even Thomas the Tank Engine for Halloween! But I couldn’t find that picture, so here’s one of my Dad and us enjoying a train ride in New Jersey.

2) The Little Engine that Could

The Little Engine that Could will always remain a classic in my family. When I was a child learning how to read, The Little Engine that Could was one of my favorite books. But what did I really love best? The animated movie! I remember watching that so many times as a kid. The song “I Think I Can” was always my favorite part, and I would watch it over and over again. I believe this song definitely inspired me to never give up on my dreams. I’m sure that resilience proved key in some of my tougher moments as a Peace Corps Volunteer!

Check out the song here. This song always made me feel happy. It’s contagious!

3) Platform 9 ¾

In 1999, At age 11, I started reading Harry Potter. I never stopped until 2007, when the last book came out. I was definitely one of those hardcore fans who stood in lines for hours at every book release. I can’t even begin to describe all of the things that Harry Potter taught me, and how it influenced me growing up. Through Harry I learned leadership, the importance of friendship, and to always do the right thing. Harry Potter also brought my whole family together- each book release and movie was a rite of passage. I’m really grateful to have grown up with these books, and with Platform 9 ¾.

Me visiting King’s Cross Station in London, 2009.

4. Atlas Shrugged

As a junior in college, I first read Ayn Rand’s tome Atlas Shrugged while I was in India. I ripped through the 1,000+ page book in three days. It’s a captivating tale about industrialization in the United States, and the protagonist’s attempts to keep her rail line company afloat. It’s a book about justice, honesty, and a novel that turns capitalism on its head. This book really made me think about the world in a completely different way, and changed my perspective on business, government, and philanthropy. While this book has had a lot of critical reception, it’s definitely worth a read. It was a great rite of passage into my adulthood.

5. Molly’s Train Station!

There are so many more little ways that trains have influenced me throughout my life, but I’ll leave you with the most important one: Molly’s train station in Paraguarí. The dedication and hard work that Molly has put into this project to make it happen is truly inspiring, and will have a lasting impact on her community. She inspires me to be a better person and most importantly, a better Volunteer. I feel really blessed to know Molly and see the impact her service is having on her community.

Molly and her sister Carybeth, after painting a beautiful tree in Paraguarí! They also painted on the tree the famous quote, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” (Greek Proverb)

In Paraguay, children have not had these same cultural influences that I had growing up. By donating to Molly’s campaign, you’ll be giving them the opportunity to have a train station impact their lives. You’re not just investing in a train station- you’re investing in a place where Paraguayan children can come to read and play games, a place that will create local jobs for youth, and a place where a community can gather together to celebrate their cultural heritage.

So after counting all of my blessings by looking back on how trains have influenced my life and looking at my second home in Paraguay, I leave you with one question: How can we help trains impact and inspire theirs?

Donate to Molly’s Train Station Here.

Trains as Currency

10 Feb

Since the 14th of January of this year Paraguay’s 5 mil bill (approximately $1.25) got a makeover!  The train has a prominent spot on the newly designed bill that is said to last for four years in circlulation because it’s made from plastic.  The current 5 mil has a one year circulation time and is made of cotton.  This will certainly be an improvement as there are plenty of bills that have been taped back together multiple times over floating around out there.

Read the full story here: http://www.paraguay.com/nacionales/con-la-entrada-del-plastico-billete-de-papel-no-perdera-vigencia-90439  (If you speak Spanish)


Want to support the train station of Paraguari?  Lucky for you we’ll even accept bills that don’t have trains on them.  Donate now! https://donate.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=13-526-009

Don’t Get Caught With Your Pants Down on the Train

8 Feb

Improv Everywhere began organizing a No Pants Train ride that became so popular it was replicated around the world.  It’s too bad there aren’t still trains that run in Paraguay because I would love to watch Paraguayans reactions to this situation.

Don’t forget that you can make a $15.00 Donation TODAY and I”ll send you a postcard from Paraguay.  Donate in the next 11.5 hours to receive a postcard!  Be sure to send me your address to ensure it arrives. (Peace Corps doesn’t give me a list of donors until I’ve fully closed my grant)

Like a Big Party

6 Feb

He reminisced about the everyday rhythm of the place. Every morning a huge clock that hung at the train yards let out a blast an hour before work started. The workers stirred in their beds and soon rose to drink mate and sweet milk tea. A second blast sounded half an hour before work began. They hustled out of their houses to get to the yards, the clock whistling twice more as the beginning of the workday approached.

I asked him what he liked best, and he responded without even thinking. “My favorite thing was eating breakfast with my brother and my friends in the mornings,” he said. “It was like a big party. People went to sell things, they went for curiosity.”

My first memory of St. John (Santo in Paraguay) was shaking his hand through a mitten, but more distinctly I recall hauling giant chunks of metal through the plaza of my town to his bus for his Fogon project– a design for a cookstove that reduced smoke inhalation. I yelled, “Que guapa que soy, cierto??” (How hard working I am, right??) at all of the Paraguayan men whose jaws were dropped staring at the woman doing a “Man’s work.”  Secretly I was thinking, ‘I’m so glad I’m not in the health sector, I don’t want to make lugging heavy metal around a regular part of my service.’  Luckily, my city was an obligatory stop en route to Santo’s tiny campo town, so I got to learn more about what was underneath his Boston exterior during the time our Peace Corps services overlapped (Also, luckily for me, that was the last time he made me haul heavy metal).

Turns out, he’s a great writer!   He currently writes for The Gazette, but wrote an excellent article for his Alma mater about the trains of Paraguay that you can read here.

Here’s what he had to say when I interviewed him:

This is Santo (not in Paraguay)

This is Santo (not in Paraguay)

Why do you think the trains are such a source of pride for Paraguay?
I can’t say for sure. Obviously, in the national lexicon of Paraguay, the country believes they were the first to have a transcontinental railroad in the Western Hemisphere, and that’s something to be proud of. And in a history where much of their past has been destroyed or has decayed into oblivion, the trains are a permanent, concrete example of something the country accomplished..
What was it like researching this story? What sort of feedback did you receive on the story? I wrote my story as a blog post initially. I knew I could probably get it published somewhere, but really just thought the trains were really neat and that it would make for a cool story. For the most part, I got all positive reactions. That was different from some other stories I wrote about other elements and places of Paraguay.
What do you miss from Paraguay?
I miss the physicality. I lived not far from the trains, maybe an 8 minute drive between pueblos. From there, I was about 5 miles inland, in a town called Potrero Pucu. It was incredibly rural and rustic. I was on the top of a hill with an incredible host family. I miss my thatch roofed house, the long walks, the presence of my host family. I miss the misadventures I got myself into, and the cool Peace Corps Volunteers I hung out with. I miss the buses, and the mate, and the heat and the mandioca and speaking Spanish and Guarani.
What’s your favorite train in the world– real or imaginary?
Soul train.



St. John Barned-Smith was a Rural Health and Sanitation volunteer for the Peace Corps in Paraguay from 2010-2012.  He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2008 and is interested in politics, the outdoors, and international issues.  You can read more about his adventures on his personal blog here: http://sinjininparaguay.blogspot.com/
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