Monthly Archives: November 2012

How to eat a watermelon in Paraguay? Ask Wendía.

Be bold or Italic. Never regular.

Life is busy and every week it seems harder to find the time to write (sound familiar?) I thought I’d start today’s post by sharing logistics of what’s about to happen in the coming weeks. Not as entertaining perhaps but I know many of you have had these questions….

The first 10 weeks in-country are strictly training (language, culture, safety, technical skills, etc) and during this time trainees live with host families (more on my awesome host family to follow). Week Ten, in a mere 2 weeks and after passing all exams, is when we officially Swear-In as Peace Corps Volunteers: Friday, December 7. That following Monday we travel to our new communities where we’ll live the next two years and do the work we came to do. (Over the weekend, I plan to explore Asuncion with friends.) For the next 3 months I’ll again live with a host family but thereafter, I can live on my own or continue living with a family. I plan to live alone.

A community must request a Peace Corps Volunteer (the PC doesn’t just randomly send us to villages in the middle of nowhere) and identify a Contact as part of that process who will help me integrate, meet people, answer my questions, and find my way. This past week, I received my assignment and spent a few days in the community where I will live for the next 2 years. I’m soooooo excited!

It is a wonderful, tiny village of 35 homes (~150 people) in central southern Paraguay, a 5 hour bus ride to Asuncion, far enough into the campo that it’s quiet but close enough to a large town called Caazapa (17km or ~11 miles) that has everything I need. The ‘village’ has one school, a despensa, and a church. All other means of survival are agriculture. It is an hour’s walk to the bus on a quiet, dirt road. Road signs do not exist in the campo and every fork in the road looks the same to me. Roads range from all dirt to a grassy-dirt path that looks more like a cow trail. I don’t know how the locals find their way around! The road into our village ends at a river about 4km down the way so the village is superbly peaceful, enjoys minimal traffic, and is fairly safe by Paraguayan standards. My Contact and host family is Profesora Victor and his wife, Isabel. Victor is a well-respected community leader, the school principal and town pastor. They are a friendly and welcoming family, with 7 amazing and respectful children, 5 of whom live at home, ages 6-15 or so. They live in a 4-room house and several of the kids had to share beds during my stay so I had a bed of my own. Paraguayan families are incredibly generous, even when it appears they don’t have much to give. As the guest, I am given my own bed, seated at the head of the table, given the first and largest plate of food, the best cut of meat, not allowed to help clean up, given a chair when others must stand or sit on the ground if chairs are lacking, etc. It’s hard not to feel guilty. But I loved the family and they invited me to stay with them through March, which I agreed. And Victor was incredibly helpful and proactive in introducing me to members of the community, inviting me to committee meetings, classes at school (grades pre-school to 6), his church service, a rezo, etc. While there, I picked out my future house for March: an adorable little one-room, thatched-roof place about ¼ mile away from Victor and Isabel. It has 2 huge mango trees in the back (a major selling point for me), a guava tree, beautiful veggie garden, good fence to keep out the animals and needs a few repairs but should be up and running in short order. I just need PC approval to deem it safe (in terms of isolation, personal safety at night, etc) and agree on the terms with the landlord. Safety is a priority for Peace Corps (and me!)

My goal during the week was to meet as many people in my community as possible and begin to get a feel for the area. Since my community speaks primarily guarani, I also got to practice a lot (or at least practice the look of non-understanding, which they quickly learned to recognize). They do speak some Spanish but nearly all of the real sharing happens in guarani. I already have a nickname: Wendía… because Wendy is hard for them to say but Wendía sounds like Buen Día (good day) and is much easier. Plus we all think it’s hilarious. So now I’m Wendía. Overall, the week went well. The site has had a volunteer for the past 2 years so I am his follow up. We were able to spend quality time reviewing his projects, discussing the community, and having him introduce me to various community members. I am fortunate to follow such a strong and productive volunteer who made a positive reputation for himself and Peace Corps. A great tee-up to begin my service!

Back at ‘home’ my current host family is truly fantastic and has treated me so well these past few weeks. Recently host mom bought me a mortero (like a mortar and pestle) for crushing my own herbs for terere. She also knows I love the watermelon here (always perfectly ripe and sweet) and ensures I have a constant supply. I think I have eaten my weight in watermelon since arriving in PY and am the envy of my groupies, many of whom never see a veggie or fruit, as much of the food here is meat and bread. When they learned that one of the things I miss most from home is good, dark chocolate (without wheat) – I have not been able to find decent chocolate here at all – they bought some for me in Asuncion! ‘Sweet’ – haha! My host sister makes gluten-free cookies for me using mandioca flour and, a new favorite, Arroz con Leche (rice pudding). Oh yeah, and there is a plentiful supply of ice cream at the bakery onsite (I had kiwi ice cream last week). If I don’t gain 15 pounds before I move in December it’ll be a miracle.

In my time here, I’ve only met two Paraguayans who have heard of a wheat-free diet. Most others 1) don’t think or realize they eat wheat at all or 2) once they understand how pervasive wheat is in the diet, they cannot comprehend how I survive without it…”what does she eat if she can’t eat ‘trigo’?” they ask. Few people in my new community wanted to host me because they didn’t know how to feed me. Fortunately, Isabel was courageous and quickly realized I’m not really extra work and has been quick to share her positive experience with others, which I appreciated. Admittedly, I’m already tired of my diet being the primary topic of conversation everywhere I go (because clearly I must be a freak of nature if I can’t eat wheat) but the community IS very interested in learning more about nutrition and the ladies want to lose weight (but don’t know how) so perhaps this is a sign and a springboard for the work I’m meant to do with them.

The vast majority of health problems in this country are diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, caused by the Paraguayan diet heavy in sweets, salt, and red meat. This week my host Mom told me that she was inspired by me, making the connection that perhaps my wheat-free and otherwise healthy diet is related to my small size, and once she realized I still eat a wide and interesting variety of foods, she was inspired to talk to her doctor about changing her own diet to help combat a series of health problems. Fortunately her doctor was very supportive and she is now eating wheat-free, sugar-free, less salt, minimal meat and feeling better already without feeling deprived! I feel honored to be her inspiration and, if I make no other impact while here, this one will be worth it. Also, my host sister and I have been walking in the evenings and she recently asked me to teach her some yoga. Yay! Many Paraguayans are overweight and make poor food choices, partly due to 1) unhealthy food often being less expensive for already-tight budgets, 2) availability of vegetables and fruits is very seasonal, 3) families, especially in the campo, don’t leave their communities much and therefore seldom travel to larger towns where fresh veggies and fruits are more available, and 4) roads are unpredictable and not always suitable for delivering delicate produce, often closing after a good rain. It is not uncommon to see families feeding soda to infants, as it is cheaper than formula. But I’m super psyched to begin this conversation with them, grow a better understanding of nutrition, and discuss options to help!

Two of my host nephews had their First Communion recently and to celebrate with them and their fellow students were over 250 people, standing-room-only, in the small church. While not Catholic, I went out of respect for my family and as a cultural experience, wondering what would transpire. I expected a solemn service but one look toward the altar assured me this would be an entertaining event. While the priest spoke, I noticed dogs wandering in and out of the church and a particular vertically-challenged Dachsund occupying the center aisle. As he trotted away from me toward the altar I almost burst out laughing watching his knock-knees and turned out feet paddling along as his belly bulged in one direction and his fanny swayed the other. He even got in line with his master for communion! The entertainment value of this dog was priceless for me. To the locals, it was just another day in church. Best Communion ever.

Thanksgiving is my all-time favorite holiday though this one was bittersweet. My group of trainees was invited to the Ambassador’s house in Asuncion for a traditional Thanksgiving meal (how cool is THAT?!), fun in the pool (oh wow- I got to SWIM! First time since September and it was heavenly. Heavenly! Luxurious, delicious, magical. I love the water but we’ll talk about that another time.) And while I very much loved spending the day at the Embassy I really missed my family more than anytime since arriving in PY. Fortunately, we got to call home and it was such a treat to talk with everyone. Overall great day of 102 degrees, good fun, good food, good company.

Now, time for my typical random facts and observations:

How does one eat a watermelon (sandia in Spanish) in Paraguay? Grab the whole family or as many friends as you have nearby, distribute spoons to everyone, cut melon in half lengthwise, politely fight for your piece as you scoop fruit with spoon. Eat with spoon or fingers and spit seeds to the chickens if desired. Repeat until satisfied or watermelon is devoured. It’s great fun. You are a freak if you cube it, otherwise cut it neatly, or eat with a fork (I speak from experience here).

As we head into summer, the television alerts begin for dengue fever, a sickness caused by a particular mosquito. Fortunately, it’s most prevalent in the city so it’s unlikely I will need to worry too much but I still have my mosquito net handy nevertheless. The first time one gets dengue it’s more akin to the flu but can be extremely serious and often deadly if contracted more than once. This has never happened to a PC volunteer in Paraguay. I mention it because hearing things like this is so different from what we have to consider in Maine (Nor’Easters, hurricanes, Lyme disease, but a dengue alert? Never)

I saw my first pink pineapple this week. Yup. Pink on the outside anyway. It was still growing so I don’t know about the inside but am totally curious. There are several people in my new village who grow pineapples and it might be fun to experiment with pink ones. Pink. Who knew?

While visiting my site this week, I also attended an agriculture extension day where workshops were given on sustainable farming methods with examples for dry beans/abono verdes/green manures and sugar cane plus an interesting discussion on soils and nutrition. It was another “scorchah” of 102 degrees and the nutrition talk was thankfully given under the shade of an ancient mango tree. Not only does this tree provide fantastic fruit, but it’s shade is so dense it lowers the ambient temperature 15-20 degrees. Tolerable on this day. It has already become my favorite place to be (except when an early mango falls rudely on your plate and nearly feeds your lunch to the scavenging chickens but it’s all good!)

One of the beauties of having a brick floor throughout your house is that they are easy to clean. Forget mops and brooms; you can simply hose it down. That’s right. I saw it firsthand with our housekeeper this week! Drag the hose from the barn into the house and spray away. It’s all about simplicity. I’m beginning to see the benefits of some of these practices though I also forget that these folks have cement walls, no basements and no mold issues.

The currency in Paraguay is called guaranies (gwa-rah-NEE-ace) and the coins come in 50, 100, and 500 gs or 1 mil (= 1000), plus bills of 2, 5 10, 20 50, and 100 mil. With the exchange rate at approximately 4.500, the bus ride from my house to the training center is 2.3 mil which is about 50 cents.

A Paraguayan teacher earns the equivalent of $500/month, which is considered pretty good income here.

Other than the national police, my fellow aspirantes and our medical staff, everyone here wears flip flops…..on motorcycles, plowing with oxen…no matter. Tranquilo.

During a recent trip to the closest ‘despensa’ (mini mart) I purchased some soap. On the tiny checkout counter, our cashier had just dished out his lunch of a soup-like meal with chunks of beef and some sopa paraguaya (cornbread). He left his meal on the counter while he waited on us. There are no cash registers here except the larger supermercados. Everyone uses calculators to determine your purchase total and even then you want to double check. There is no tax. This culture continues to impress me and impress UPON me how much we have to learn from them. Mi amigo and I were fortunate to have a despensa open, as most businesses on the street were closed for siesta (annoying when you want to shop but otherwise perhaps my favorite part of Latin America! haha) We passed a construction worker taking his siesta on a brick wall next to the sidewalk while his teammates forged ahead on his behalf. I totally love this.

When meeting a Paraguayan for the first time, it is customary for them to ask: how old you are, if you are married or have a ‘novio’ and if not, why?, how old your kids are, comment on your age when your children were born (young in my case which can sometimes be a personal sore spot and I have to filter my reactions carefully), how much money you make, how much a certain item of yours cost to purchase, comment on your weight (you are fat [gorda], you are skinny [flaco]), etc. … all the things considered politically incorrect/rude back home. This takes some getting used to!

One of the most popular sayings in PY is “en seguida” (ayn-se-GEE-da) which means: in a couple minutes, in a couple hours, in a week or two, next year, or never. If someone gives you an ‘en seguida’ don’t hold your breath! When will you get my next post? En seguida!

Until then, live out loud and make every moment count.

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Don’t be sad that it’s over. Smile because it happened.

Wow. I have so much to share since my last post.

First and most importantly was my grandmother’s passing. Today’s title reminds me to be grateful for what we’ve had instead of focusing on what we’re now missing. Can we rearrange our grief into delight for being blessed with her life and presence? We were blessed with time to say our goodbyes and her forever cheerful and courageous spirit through it all. We were blessed in knowing she was ready. We are blessed to be part of a large, wonderful, loving, close-knit family she created for, and within, us. When she left, neither side had any doubt they were loved and cherished. Little did she know that she taught me through her own actions to be thrilled by the tiniest things: watching the birds out the window and marveling at their colors or the way they were bickering on a particular day, admiring the swirly composition of a small stone, really savoring the flavors of a dish at her Thursday family potluck, seeing the wonder and possibilities within everything appearing before her. In the busyness of our modern lives she reminded me to slow down, be present in the moment, and never forget that awe is at your fingertips in everything you do if you choose to see it. Staying true to her positive nature, she asked not for a funeral but a for Celebration of Life party….and (I love this) requested that attendees wear bright colors. She always loved wearing bright, cheerful colors. So the day we celebrated, I did just that here in Paraguay. And when my time comes, I want that too. We already miss her terribly but the lessons and love she left behind will forever remain within us.

The morning of the Celebration party provided yet another chance to witness the ‘fruit’ and sweetness of life that I learned from my Gram over the years. My 60-year old host mama, machete in hand, gave me a tour of the ‘back 40’ (as we say in Maine), slashing a walking path through the undergrowth as easily as she cooks a chicken or hangs the laundry. (I’m told you never go anywhere in a field, woods, etc without your machete [except maybe the bus]…just in case. It is pretty common to see people walking down the street here with a machete in hand and not really think much of it. Afterall, EVERYONE has one and because most people are farmers, it’s a necessity for work. But if you are caught with a pocketknife on the bus, they will confiscate. Umm…. But I digress.) I’ve been here for 6 weeks and had no idea that ‘back there’ amongst all those trees was a veritable orchard of tropical fruit trees and herbs. Wow! Our house is nestled into its own mini rainforest, an oasis of beauty and bounty. I had asked her for a yuyo tour, yuyos (pronounced ‘JOO- johz) being the fresh herbs used in terere. Today we focused more on identifying fruit trees but next time will be more herbs (though many fruit trees have incredible medicinal properties.) We found starfruit, mandarin, oranges, bananas, a cinnamon tree (wow!), pomelo, lemons, limes, sweet lime, durasno (like a mini-peach), laurel (bay leaf), manzanitas (cherry-like fruit), café, guava, and my two favorites: passionfruit (mborukuja) and mango-mango-mango! I was in heaven. This didn’t include the papaya and Heart of India fruits growing over the extensive arbor by the backdoor. Host Mom picked some fresh eucalyptus leaves for flavoring my water bottle. Refreshing!

For training earlier this week I experienced what we call “Long Field Practice” where we visit a current volunteer’s site in the campo (countryside) to help us get a glimpse of campo life first hand. I traveled with my 4-person language group and our profesora. We each stayed with a separate host family that spoke only guarani and did activities with the community’s volunteer during the day. I was initially quite intimidated, ok semi-terrified, at the idea of spending 4 days with a new family who spoke neither English nor Spanish. I mean seriously, I’ve only been studying guarani for 2 weeks! How was I going to communicate other than rudimentary sign language? AND my group was expected to give a charla (ie presentation) on soils to a group of local ladies…in guarani. Huh? Are you kidding? I can barely say ‘Hello, my name is Wendy. It’s hot today. Yes, I like what you cooked for dinner. How many chickens do you have? Do you grow mint? I like to read. I will sleep now.’ Though I’m really good at saying, “I don’t understand. Can you repeat that?” and “Do you have tarantulas here?” Haha. But it was all good.

The trip was full of fun things: we learned to cook sopa paraguaya (cornbread from dry cornmeal), queso paraguaya (cheese), and chipa guazu (cheepa wahSOO) (cornbread from fresh corn and sometimes onions), toured a successful garden, got a mini yuyo lesson, did hoeing in a farmer’s field, and all had a reading from a deaf fortunate teller which was translated from sign language into guarani then English. Haha. Campo life tends to be more extreme than where I live now and offers a wonderful perspective on the many layers, definitions, and faces of poverty. Natives in the campo are much poorer but it is beautiful to see how happy (and resourceful!) they are overall (another reminder that stuff doesn’t make us happy and I am more and more grateful for the opportunity to live simply and happily without all the frills from home… WHILE still always grateful for my daily internet access for now. Wink.) Paraguayans are known for their abundant laughter (usually at my expense, tranquilo).They are present, mindful, and prideful in every step of their work and daily lives. One of my favorite people I met this week was the 63-year old woman who taught us how to make chipa guazu: vibrant, spirited, strong, happy, and bold, with missing teeth, the best laugh and most beautiful wrinkles I’ve ever seen. Her advice: “It is important to work for your food.” So we did. How do you make chips guazu? You begin by plucking every kernel from the cob…by hand, then grind the kernels in a hand-cranked molina (like one of those old fashioned meat grinders that bolts to a table; we took turns because it’s tiring but the guapa ladies to it all themselves) which makes a liquid corn mush, add veggie oil, lots of eggs, salt and sometimes onions. Cook in the tatakua (outdoor cave-like brick oven) for 15 minutes. Yum! Yes, we worked for our food that day and it tasted all the better. In the end, I experienced so much growth from working through the difficulties of the week and was really glad for the experience. My language vaulted to new levels and, by day 4, my host family and I were learning to communicate with each other. I came ‘home’ feeling much more confident and prepared for when I arrive at my own site in a mere 4 WEEKS!!! Yes, this Wednesday I receive my site assignment where I will live for the next 2 years and will go there on Friday for 5 days to begin meeting people and getting a sense of my new community. My entire training group is so excited for Wednesday! In September this time seemed very far away but it’s almost here! The next four weeks will be a blur of activities starting with next week’s site visit, then Thanksgiving at the Ambassador’s house (how cool is THAT?!), final exams, swearing-in on December 7 and then I’m off to my community! In the meantime I am frantically spending every possible moment on my language skills to be as prepared as possible for the transition (which will still leave me superbly underprepared but every bit will help.)

Tonight my host sister and I walked about 3 miles, returning home just as a gorgeous sunset slid below the treeline. We chatted easily and filled the spaces with comfortable silence. There’s a lot to be ‘said’ for comfortable silence. I’ve always been a fan myself but it’s amazing how UNeasy people in the States are with pauses, silence, quiet within a conversation. Silence is common in Paraguay though when the talk is juicy there is no shortage of chatter! Along the way I admired a full moon rising over a crest of waving sugar cane and a sky streaked with pinks and oranges that turned the red soil into a vibrant salmon glow. We walked through a swarm of fireflies dancing along the roadside and listened to frogs singing their chorus in the background. The frogs sing very different tunes here and locals describe them by the sound they make: cien, cien (which is 100 in Spanish), or cuatro cuatro cuatro (which is 4 in Spanish.)

Tonight we had 2 kururus in the kitchen, which are giant frogs the size of grapefruit. They are a bit freaky looking when you first see them though not poisonous and local tales say that, if you pick one up, it will pee in your eye. Haha! Ikatu – it’s possible! Tonight, one was stalking a lembu (big beetle) and actually attacked it but the beetle was too big! Yeah, I never walk through the house at night without a flashlight and shoes!!

In addition to walking, I’m running more frequently now and find my energy level has skyrocketed and my body much happier (though a full night’s sleep continues to elude me). Running on anything other than paved roads is more akin to trail running, requiring intense focus to avoid slipping or turning an ankle on the smooth bedrock, sharp cobblestones, eroded channels, or soft, beach-like sand, all of which can be found in a single 30 foot stretch. I’m looking forward to doing more training once in my site and perhaps entering the Asuncion or Buenos Aires half-marathons next October. I was surprised to hear how many races can be found in Paraguay…something to aim for.

Random stuff and more firsts:

Recently I: had my first juggling lesson from a classmate, ate my first passionfruit (now one of my new favorite fruits which I plan to grow once in my site!), ate my first honeycomb with pollen (if I were a bear, yeah I’d raid a hive to get at it too. Wow – deeeelishhh. More incentive to become a beekeeper while here!) and found a Paraguayan woman who makes fine cheese (like Brie, mozzarella, swiss, etc…her French husband taught her and we discovered her place on lunch break this week – what a find!!! It’s nearly impossible anywhere but Asuncion to find any cheese other than the single standard Paraguayan style, queso paraguaya, which is fresh and fairly bland)

For Halloween, some of the ex-pats on staff carved watermelons for jack-o-lanterns because we either don’t have pumpkins here or they are out of season.

November 2 was Paraguay’s Day of the Dead where locals honor their deceased loved ones. My class went to a cemetery to observe – I have never seen so many people in a cemetery at once…hundreds praying, playing, chatting, honoring; flowers on graves, candles on altars, scarves on crosses. Most burials are above ground with tombs ranging from petite to the size of a cottage. Those whose families can’t afford the more expensive and preferred above ground accommodations are buried in the ground.

My yoga mat is laid out next to my bed, a constant invitation to practice or stretch. Because of this, my host family’s 6-year old niece, Maria Clara, has discovered it and runs into my room every Sunday to practice and learn new postures with me. I love her enthusiasm and I have to admit that listening to kids speak Spanish is so cute! It’s not something I encounter in Maine and was quite a novelty for me when I first arrived.

Guinea hens are rampant here, easily identified with their loud squawk and great for insect control. The noise seems not to be a problem. No one minds barking dogs, 2am roosters, or smelly pigs either. It’s quite refreshing to have neighbors not bickering over these things. Everyone is simply tranquilo. Speaking of birds, one of the female geese was hit by the bus today and both the human and goose families are grieving over her. Her mate and their baby spent the afternoon calling pitifully for her and looking everywhere. It was really sad and my heart went out to them. I’ve never been a fan of geese but I really love the geese here on the farm, parading around like they own the place, and very protective of their babies.

There is a major ‘lindo factor’ here (lindo meaning beautiful or good). Of course, most people anywhere are drawn to pretty things but here you can make significant headway on something the more attractive it is. For example, we were building lombriculture bins (composting bins where red worms do most of the work) and were advised that people were more likely to use it if it was ‘super lindo.’ Ditch the scrap wood, pull out the tiles and bamboo. Paraguayans take tremendous pride in their appearance, even if it’s simply wearing their cleanest flip flops when company arrives. Small things like sparkly barrettes, glitter on shirts, bows on bags….all carry far more importance here than back home.

Did you know that Paraguayans clap at someone’s front door instead of knocking?

Did you know that instead of greasing a pan for baking you can simply line it with banana leaves to prevent sticking? Way cool!

My favorite guarani-isms of the week:

Nandu=spider

Guasu=large

Kavaju=horse

Nandu+guasu=ostrich (huh? Large spider is an ostrich? Apparently!)

Nandu+kavaju= tarantula (horse spider? Yup.)

Like I said, random but too interesting not to share. What are you interested in reading or learning about Paraguay in the future?

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

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