Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.” – Sargent Shriver
You´re getting a “two-fer” today since I didn´t have a chance to post last week´s update. Grab a cup of tea and curl up for a few minutes…
I’ve learned a lot about myself since joining the Peace Corps and one of them is … that I don’t pack lightly. I bet you thought this would be one of my deep, soul-stirring revelations of ‘Aha’ moments from my first 10 weeks in country. Nope. Just a superficial need to pack like a tourist and plan for everything that might arise. I’ve tried to change. I really have. And I want to. I’ve practiced. I blame it on my Girl Scout years: “always be prepared”. And I am. But part of me craves a life lived by the seat of my pants. I’m certainly in the right place for THAT. The Adventuress in me says it could be more fun being unprepared and ‘making do.’ The Girl Scout in me cringes at the thought. Unfortunately, over Swear-In weekend which gave me a 3-day stay in Asuncion then a day of travel to my community, several others were the recipients of my ‘preparedness’ for which I felt just a bit guilty. For example, two taxi drivers, 2 bus staff, and 1 Peace Corps staff. I warned them the bag was heavy. They looked at me and my little body with an ‘Aw shucks’ type of grin as if to say ‘That’s because you’re little and wimpy. This’ll be no problem for ME.’ Their smug, knowing look quickly turned to a dismayed ‘Holy shit’ when they realized I wasn’t joking. Never underestimate the power of the little woman.
(And she might also know how to wield a machete….)
That’s right. I got a new machete as a ‘graduation’ gift! Better yet, I have already used it in my kokue (field) in my new community to cut weeds, dig holes for seeds, and as an accessory to look super ‘guapa’ while walking down the road (sorta kidding on the last part). But my villagers definitely know I’m here. I arrived on Monday afternoon the 10th and by Tuesday afternoon they were already abuzz with the fact that the ‘Norte’ (the one from North America, that’s what they call us here; we are never called Americans because people here consider themselves Americans also, from SOUTH America) not only ran to the rio (3 miles to the river, one way) early in the morning, she then WENT to the kokue at 10:30am (most people head home by 10am because of the heat). Day 1 I planted passionfruit. Yup. That was my mission for my first full day insite. Plant passionfruit. The second day I planted dry beans (called poroto in Spanish and kumanda in guarani, not to be confused with ‘pororo’ which is popcorn). The plant, which I think I’ve mentioned before – Kumanda Yvyra ‘i- is a green manure workhorse, not only improving soil fertility but also producing beans for human consumption and can be used as animal forage, firewood and for windbreaks. I’ve also had plenty of practice with my new asada (guarani for hoe, not to be confused with an asado, which is a BBQ, usually on Sunday). But it was my turn for smugness to go awry. I’ve had many years’ practice with a hoe and consider myself pretty deft in using one. I was relishing the long-lost feel of confidence (something desperately lacking these last 10 weeks of training while learning many new skills and languages) and proud of the accuracy with which I was wielding my new asada. My accuracy was all the sweeter because the asada belonged to the previous volunteer, a big guy at 6’4” who bought all the largest tools including a two foot machete. The asada handle is – no exaggeration- 6’ long with the biggest blade available. I’m just shy of 5’4”. Most women would not use this asada – it’s huge, unwieldy and heavy. The women in the village think I’m nuts. But I figure it’s great practice and a better workout all in one. Anyway, the point of this story is that while my accuracy is quite good, my eyesight is not. Or perhaps the fault is a wandering mind that failed to see most of the squash plants before my beloved asada cut right through the stem. Again and again over the course of the hour. But somehow I managed to let the sandia (watermelon) survive. I guess that’s something. Will replant squash tomorrow. My lesson: smugness, even in the privacy of your kokue, gets you nowhere but hungry. Tranquilo.
Speaking of privacy in the kokue, I need to add a blurb about ‘sharing’ in this country. I think it is prevalent across Latin America but have noted it especially here. Everything is shared among families, friends, neighbors. You drink terere from the same bombilla as 6 other people, you might share a spoon while eating watermelon, multiple people share the same bedroom – adults and kids- doesn’t matter, privacy is not valued or needed, a tired old sheet is all that separates bedrooms and bathrooms from the main living space. The list goes on. I felt I had reached a milestone with my new family when one of the kids reached for my used, empty glass at the dinner table to fill it for her own drink. I’d been accepted. How does this relate to the kokue? Stay with me. It is customary for kids to live at home with their parents until they marry and, even then, sometimes they continue to live at home with the new spouse and forthcoming children. It is also customary, especially in the campo but not exclusively, for the wife to stay home and tend to domestic duties with children, farm animals, housework, elderly parents, etc. Because homes are constantly busy, there is literally no time for spouses to be alone and it is widely known that they go to the kokue for sexy time. This is one reason why a lady never goes to a kokue alone with a man who is not her spouse. Even if nothing happened, everyone would assume something did. As a female volunteer, I am highly aware of this tradition and careful about when, where and with whom I go. Perception is EVERYTHING.
Highlights from my weekend in Asuncion:
Saw my first live scorpion. Shopped in Mercado 4, an infamous section of the city for cheap shopping and hard living, but you can find anything you want there. It’s an outdoor shanty town of sales stalls topped with metal roofing, held together with tarps, offering everything from fruit and illegal animals to clothing, guitars and more. I found nearly everything on my list. We had Chinese food for lunch, saw the latest Bond movie and on the way home at 11:30pm our taxi followed behind a moto with a rack body on the back (kinda like a 3-wheeler). They were collecting garbage off the sidewalk and lying on the bags of trash in the back was a young boy (6 or 7 yo?) fighting to stay awake and looking quite terrified. My heart broke. His legs dangled over the tailgate and I feared for him should his vehicle get rear-ended. This was dangerous on so many levels. Asuncion is not a safe place at night, even for adults. On Sunday, I and a couple buddies set out in search of a Buddhist meditation center in Asuncion. We had an address and got directions and a handmade map from the hostel manager. It was a 25 minute walk, we were told. Along the way we shared much but spent equal time in silence enjoying the journey, sights, sounds, new parts of the city. Two hours later we arrived at our destination in an upscale part of town. Unfortunately, it was the private residence of a solo meditation practitioner. We were politely told there was no temple and told that the few activities he hosted would resume in a few weeks. We were invited to return then. The lesson: remember it’s the journey that matters, not the destination. We rounded the corner to begin our return only to find a homeless mother of five bathing her infant on the edge of a sidewalk plant pot and a 2 year old sitting naked on a dirty sidewalk. My heart broke again and I was sickened at the idea of people having to live this way in a world that has so much.
I want to talk about daily life for a bit. During training, our schedules were very regimented, like being in college and living with your parents. After having lived on my own for many years, this was tough. Monday through Friday (and most Saturdays) the Peace Corps bus would pick us up from our host family home and deliver us to the training center by 8am. We would have language class from 8am until noon. My first 2 weeks were strictly Spanish then we switched to guarani which was taught in Spanish. Lunch was an hour then the afternoon (1-5 ish) would consist of various other lectures on safety, health/medical, culture, technical skills, facilitation, etc. Now that we’re in our communities where we’ll live for 2 years, we make our own schedule. One of the most fun challenges is creating the life and experience I want to have. I’ve put a lot of thought into crafting my days and activities to begin integrating with my neighbors. While it’s only been a week, so far, it’s looking like this: Every morning up by 6am. Alternate mornings I run and am home by 7am to join the family for breakfast. Other mornings, I do yoga or read or have mate with Victor and Isabel on the patio (korapy in guarani). A typical Paraguayan breakfast is cocido: soy coffee with lots of milk and sugar and golf-ball sized white bread/rolls. I’m all for integrating into traditional customs but I need sustenance and can’t eat wheat so, while my diet seems crazy to them, my family ensures I am well fed with eggs and mandioca or oatmeal and yogurt. While there are some fruits here (bananas and lots of citrus) not much grows in the summer- including vegetables- because it’s too hot and the sun bakes the plants. This is why I’m starting ASAP on my own garden…to ensure I have plenty of veggies! After breakfast I work in my kokue for an hour or two. If it rains, I study language or play with the girls in the house. A bucket bath is in order by late morning. I’ve been spoiled with hot showers at my first host family. In this community there is no running water. You fetch your water from the well and bathe from a bucket. I’ve even bathed from my thermos when the buckets were unavailable. I don’t prefer it but, as is my way, I find something to love about everything including this. It’s actually not bad once your body goes into shock. The water feels pretty tolerable then, though on my first go I couldn’t contain a shriek and a gasp when the initial splashes hit. Winter bathing should be interesting! But there is joy to be had in seeing the activity from start to finish – drawing water from the well, being mindful not to be wasteful, warming the water over the wood fire on cold rainy days, and the satisfaction that comes with ‘roughing it’. There is currently a ‘running water’ project underway and a tentative date of winter whereby my community should have hot, running water in kitchens and bathrooms. That would be spectacular. But this is PY and I’m not holding my breath just yet. Lunch is around 11:30 and is usually a hot stew regardless of how hot the ambient temp is outdoors. Isabel is a good cook and I appreciate her efforts to flavor food. Most Paraguayan food is relatively bland and salt is the preferred accoutrement. Salt is used in everything and, in my opinion- one who prefers simple food- I think is greatly overused. After lunch most everyone takes a siesta for a couple hours. Isabel milks the cow before her siesta. Not much happens again until 3pm though I usually try to visit at least one new family every afternoon. Paraguayan dinner is typically served after 8:30 because people are busy in the evening bringing in their animals and doing evening chores. I do not like this custom of eating and going to bed shortly thereafter. Also, sweets are very common in Paraguay with every meal (sugar in coffee, cookies for dessert, etc) but my family seems to keep them to a minimum. Yay!
One night I stepped outside after dinner and the air smelled like my grandparents’ house: old farmhouse, pipe smoke, woodstove, homemade biscuits, traces of barn aroma. I was suddenly quite homesick. I tried to recall the most recent Skype visits with my Mom and daughter where we could both see and hear each other. My favorite sound in the world is that of my baby’s voice. Seeing her face, hearing her voice, knowing she’s ok without me there is reassuring beyond words. I know she’s in good hands, surrounded by our family, but it’s not the same as being there. All you parents out there know what I mean. (In case you’re not in the know, my ‘baby’ is now 24) My Skypes, emails, letters, texts, and Facebook messages from my family and friends have meant the world to me and made this transition much easier than it would have been in a pre-technology world. I’m grateful to have a family that supports this dream of mine even through times when they didn’t want to for concern of my safety and being away from family. That’s love.
My first week here has been wonderful on so many levels. I appreciate those locals who have patience with me and are willing to speak slowly, repeat, and wait while I decipher their questions. I find the kids in my house are the best at this. They’ve figured out how to talk with me and understand my broken Spanish and guarani when no one else understands. This also makes them wonderful to have along on my daily visits to families in the community. Every family knows these girls so they make a great ice breaker, they can translate when necessary, and can carry the conversation when I’ve run out of vocabulary and things to ask. Above all, they’re fantastic kids… never any trouble, happy to help, and also very eager to learn English. I’ve never seen kids so happy to learn English. This week has also been tiring with language immersion, lots of new stimuli, new names and faces, learning where people live and remembering their stories, the insecurities of visiting an unknown family with my limited language skills and finding things to talk about, REALLY wanting to agree or say ‘yes’ to a comment just so they don’t have to repeat the sentence AGAIN though I have no clue what’s being said, etc. The other thing that’s difficult is being compared to the previous volunteer who left shortly before I arrived. He was a fantastic volunteer, human being and immensely hard worker. This village LOVES him dearly and still speaks of him fondly and often. Of course and they should. I expected that. What’s difficult is having EVERYONE say how well he spoke guarani and Spanish and telling me that I don’t, how guapo he was, how much he did. They don’t remember him when he first arrived and spoke little of their language, stumbling through awkward visits as I do today. I feel my total intelligence is being measured by my language proficiency. I can understand that too. They don’t understand that I’ve gone from zero to volumes in a mere few weeks. I began telling people that I’m a college graduate and reminding them I’ve only been speaking their language 7 weeks so they would know that just because I don’t understand sometimes (ok, often times) doesn’t mean I’m ignorant. Some people look surprised as if they hadn’t considered this concept. They told us in training this would happen and I promised myself I wouldn’t let it bother me but it does. Same with people calling me flaco (thin), fat (gorda- yes someone did call me that), asking my age/my daughter’s age/and commenting on me being a young mom, why I don’t have a husband or boyfriend, or saying “Nantendei” (she doesn’t understand) in front of me and laughing at my non-understanding, etc. The locals aren’t doing anything wrong. These things are culturally acceptable. They don’t understand their comments are hurtful in my culture. But I’m not in my culture anymore. I need to adapt to their norms, be less sensitive, laugh it off. And most days I can. Other days it adds up. The other piece adding to this is Christmas. They tell me it’s Christmas season but never in my life has it felt so UNLIKE the holidays. Instead of snow, temps are over 100 degrees daily, decorations are non-existent in my village, there’s no Christmas music or Rudolph on TV, and – most importantly- no family nearby to share the excitement of this time of year like spending extra time with each other, family parties, decorating, etc. This experience reiterates what’s most important about the holiday: Family. I’ve never been away from my family for the holidays. Ever. I thought their letters, emails and Skypes would get me through unscathed but I’m sad. I know it will pass. It always does. The day I was supposed to post this blog section, I was able to Skype my daughter and the world was fine once again. We are seriously missing each other but there is something magical in hearing her voice. AND I got my first package from my family – SOOOO EXCITED to have something from home! It makes me feel connected again.
Every daily visit to a new family provides the chance to share my photo album and talk about my family and have these complete strangers tell me how beautiful they are. It’s heart warming and it helps. I’ve also been spoiled during training with internet at the house so I had regular communication with my family and friends. Not so now. I did the non-courageous thing and holed up in my room for a day or so, wanting to be alone – and knowing I shouldn’t-, recalling the voices of my family, their encouragement, the comments and encouragement from friends and co-workers before and since I left the States, letters from home, remembering the reasons that brought me here in the first place. I actually opened a book that wasn’t self-development or language training (shocker, I know!): Lynne Cox’ “Swimming to Antarctica”. Read it if you like swimming. Or the ocean. Or courageous people. Peace Corps told us there would be days like this. I called a friend from training and discovered he and several others had gone through multiple rounds of similar feelings already this week. I felt much better. I wasn’t alone. What I am experiencing is totally normal. I decided that exercise and getting out of the house would offer a facelift on the day and indeed it did. I visited a new family (who is one of 10 siblings with 2 sets of twins! Large families are the norm here). She and her husband own the land I am borrowing as my demo field for teaching purposes. Later I walked halfway to the rio. I hope I never get tired of the spectacular view: miles of prairie with forest and hills in the background. It takes my breath away and I could stand there all day and gaze across the horizon. Unfortunately, pictures don’t do it justice. (I’m trying to add pictures to this site but until then they can all be found on my Facebook page.) Tranquilo. Overall, my first week was great.
The other thing to which I’m committed is learning 5 new words in guaraní and/or Spanish everyday. I’m writing this on Day 1 of this decision and the girls in the house are playing along and have already made my word lists for the next several days (except they’ve given me both guaraní and Spanish versions for every word so I guess I’m learning 10 words a day) . We agreed that in return, they would each learn 5 new English words every day.
My commitment to visiting one family per day is to help me know my community and them to know me. This is how I start conversations that will ultimately help me understand what this community wants and needs and will drive my work here. Knowing each other is also a safety measure. The more people who know me, the more people will watch out for me. One of my first visits was to a man in his 60s named Ismael, who I met my very first day here a few weeks ago on a temporary visit and who visits the neighbor daily. I liked him immediately. He had that kind, gentle spirit that I’ve come to love and, when he smiles, his whole face participates. He reminds me very much of my maternal grandfather, one of my favorite people in the world. Two of the girls from my family tagged along, which is culturally appropriate, since a lady never goes to visit a man alone unless she wants to invite trouble or at least provide fodder for chisme (gossip, which is rampant here). I learned that Ismael has lived in his home for 30 years with his mother and aunt and has some of the best views in the area of prairie and the highest hills in all of PY. He makes his own leather from his cattle, which I learned by asking about a lasso hanging from the rafters. He made it. He also uses sheep skin from his sheep as a saddle. He rides his horse everyday to round up his cattle. Like nearly everyone in this village, he has lived here all his life. We toured his kokue, he encouraged me with my guarani, finally chatting and sharing terere under a massive mango tree. Yeah, this is why I’m here. Getting to know the people, their language and customs, and hopefully giving back even a fraction of what they’re giving me.
Isabel is a super-guapa woman with whose family I’m currently living, is my age, very genuine, and carries herself with the regal qualities of a queen. She is fit, beautiful and reminds me of the Queen of Jordan, not the mother of 7 in a poverty-stricken country. I asked her to teach me to make cheese, milk the cow, and kill a chicken. She offered all the following day. I ‘chickened’ out on killing the chicken this time and asked to watch instead. This is something I definitely want to get right the first time. I do not want to cause anything to suffer at my hands. I think she was a bit disappointed, as she doesn’t kill a chicken often and this became the talk of the village thereafter…that I wouldn’t do it. Though I think they give me points for carpiring in my kokue with a man’s asada in the heat every morning. Next time I’ll be ready. But we did make cheese and I helped milk the cow. Poco un poco (little by little).
Just when I think I’m winning the mind game of insects (bichos) in my personal space I am tested further. This morning I pulled on my clothes and immediately a cricket crawled out of the shirt and up my neck. Note to self: inspect and shake out all clothes before wearing. (Though I was psyched to see 2 praying mantises feasting in the bathroom along with a small toad making his way up the tile wall. Pretty fascinating how his little feet could stick to such a slick surface.) I also learned this is why locals never use a top sheet and don´t make their bed until it´s time to go to bed. They pound the bed with a towel or pillow to swoosh away the dust and bugs before going to sleep. I, on the otherhand, want to prevent them from getting there in the first place!!
You know it’s hot when the locals complain. I thought I knew heat. Afterall, temps have reached well over 100 many times since I arrived in PY. And I’ve sat through humidity in Maine, both days it happened this year. I knew nothing. The day I moved to my new community (with a 5 hour non-air-conditioned bus ride and a half-hour walk with no shade) it was 116 degrees. And HUMID. But I’m not complaining…I’m ‘educating’ you. Yes, I still love the heat. It might slow me down a little and gives me a greater appreciation for the siesta, one of my favorite cultural norms about Latin America, but I’d take 116 over ice and snow any day (as I’m writing this my daughter informed me that they got seven inches of snow today back home. I am not envious). I was born to live in the tropics. What intrigues me is that Paraguayans don’t sweat until it’s at least 107 degrees and even then, they’re just ‘glistening’, sweat stains on their t-shirts just beginning. I, on the other hand, at 100 degrees have had 2 clothing changes by 10am and am in a constant state of looking like I fell in the nearest well. Tranquilo.
Overall, my first week has gone extremely well. And I can’t believe I’m finally here doing this. Someone pinch me!
Public buses proudly display words and/or pictures of Christ outside or inside as well as the Playboy bunny symbol. Hmmmm. I think the Christ piece is for safety and to prevent crime. Many a thief will think twice before committing a crime in the presence of words or depictions of Christ. When my family sends me packages, they put Christ stickers over the seams for the same reason. It could also be that the drivers are praying for safety in traffic since no one obeys traffic laws and traffic lanes are only a suggestion. I’ve been on a long-distance bus which was passed by vehicles on both sides simultaneously (to clarify – it was a 2-lane road. One car was in the breakdown lane, the other a moto driving down the center line.) If you’re in a bus that’s passing a moto, the moto moves to the right edge of the road. Quite often there’s another vehicle in the oncoming lane. They also have to move to the edge in order to clear the bus that’s hogging the center of the road. (oops Mom, you weren’t supposed to read that part – lol) In the city, it’s just as bad: 4 lanes of traffic that were planned for 2. Motos make their own lane. And rules.
It is culturally acceptable to publicly pick one’s nose in Paraguay. It should go without saying but I’m sayin’ it anyway: this is not a practice I’ve chosen to adopt. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get used to the sight of a grown adult, professionals included, doing this. And shaking hands…well I just can’t think about that either. Please pass the hand sanitizer.
The Japanese Ambassador came to visit the elementary school in my village (across the street from my house) and has promised them new computers for all the students. Japan has supported this school in the past by building a sizable addition last year. The principal, (aka ‘Professor’, my contact with whom I live), has agreed to let me teach a computer class to the kids when the computers arrive next year.
Electricity supply is unstable in PY. It is common for ceiling fans to suddenly decrease speed for a few seconds then resume normal tempo. Some days this happens multiple times an hour. But at least we have it, which is more than I expected before arriving.
Music and dance in PY is primarily Paraguayan polka (different than American polka in both respects) but beloved by the people here, especially in the campo. Harps and guitars are the instruments of choice. Latin and US pop are alive and well too but more so in the city.
Most water bodies in PY have crocodiles, or the potential to have crocodiles. I´ve been given conflicting reports about the river in my area. I´m suppose to go to a birthday party there this weekend. I guess if the locals go it must be ok?
There are 2 types of fireflies here: ones that blink and ones that shine steadily. The constant shiners are pretty fascinating. They have 2 bulbous protrusions on the back of their heads that look exactly like eyes and shine bright neon green at night. You can distinctly make out the ‘eyes’ from several feet away and the green light from at least 100 meters, like tiny flashlights moving in the night. The insect itself is about 2” long.
Unlike in the States, Paraguayans do not name their animals. Most animals here have a lowly status and are simply called what they are: perro (dog), gato (cat), vaca (cow), lodo (parrot), especially when being shooed out of the house or yard. Also, cows are only milked once a day as opposed to twice a day in the States and the time can vary according to the day’s events and priorities. My grandfather was a dairy farmer most of his life and insisted on a firm commitment to his cows: that they be milked twice a day at exactly the same time every day. PY cows do not give much milk and perhaps this is why the farmers can have this schedule (or perhaps the opposite is true?) It is unusual for Paraguayans to have much drinking milk in the fridge; instead it is used for cheese, “queso paraguaya”. Next week I am planning to make yogurt to ensure I have a steady supply since I eat so much of it. It’s the perfect snack for my speedy metabolism.
My village is too small to be considered a pueblo and is instead called a companía. Liken it to a township in Maine.
Did you know that teachers and engineers in PY are called by their title by everyone in the community whether they are in school, on the job, visiting a neighbor, at church, etc? (Professor Victor, Ingenerio Julio) The titles are highly regarded, similar to the way we address doctors, priests, etc in the US.
That’s all for now. Smile and enjoy every breath. Pass along your joy simply by being joyful. You never know when your actions might inspire another.
2nd post. Date: 12-25-12
“Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” – Tao de Ching Stephen Mitchell
Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah everyone!
I’m fortunate to spend Christmas Day with a couple other volunteers in Caazapa where we’ll make a traditional U.S. Christmas meal, decorate, play Christmas music and try to feel as much at home as we can. Skyping with my family today was the most wonderful thing of all and while we chatted I opened their gifts from last week´s package. Later other volunteers and their local Paraguayan friends as well as two from Canada joined us in a traditional US Christmas feast, a spontaneous bout of dancing, and a late night movie. It truly was a wonderful day. Christmas here is not the huge holiday it is in the US. Nearly all of Paraguayans celebrate on Christmas Eve with a late dinner fiesta going to midnight or beyond. It is not common to share gifts or, if they are exchanged, they are small.
Since I wrote the blog above, which didn’t get posted as planned, here are some highlights from my second week insite:
I visited Caazapa the other day for a meeting with the other volunteers in the area. To get there, I walk one hour (at a rate I’ll call “Let’s break a sweat”) to catch the bus in the nearest pueblo then have a 20 minute bus ride to town. By the time I got to the bus stop at 7am it was already hot and my shirt was sour against my backpack. Great. Nice way to introduce myself to the group. The day went well and we ‘newbies’ learned our way around town. I celebrated Christmas Day with this group but since there were no buses running on Christmas Day I borrowed a bike and rode it home last week so I could get back in town for the holiday. It’s about 11 miles (17k) each way, which wouldn’t normally be a problem but three things didn’t help: lack of exercise since I’ve been in PY, soft sand, and riding in the heat of the day. It was memorable. And fun. I left Caazapa for my village at 2pm- possibly the hottest and worst time of day. Oh yeah, and I was in a skirt. I always wear a skirt, whether visiting neighbors, hoeing in my field, etc. It’s the best thing for the heat but not a fashion statement widely used among my female villagers. Most wear pants. But more on that later. I hadn’t anticipated borrowing the bike or I would have been better prepared (refer to my Preparedness Strategy in the post above). The skirt worked well though. I headed down the main drag which was nothing more than a bumpy, dirt road… bumpy being the operative word here. I’m sure I was a sight for the few vehicles that passed: ballcap, oversized long-sleeved white shirt (works great to protect from sunburn and for working with bees), flowy skirt and my Keens. I pedaled at a clip fast enough to look strong so no one would mess with me but measured enough to ensure I’d make it to my village. It was another 100+ hot, humid and dusty afternoon. Every vehicle that passed blasted dust between my teeth, into my lungs, and covered my eyelashes. My shins were rusty red from the soil spitting from behind the front wheel. The ride was a constant search to pick my way between hard pack and soft sand and time the transitions with the traffic. I have never ridden a mountain bike in my life and this was so different from my beloved racing bike back home! But it handled great and I felt great for a long time. Eventually a headache and fatigue settled in and I was aware of the heat and the effects it could have on my body. The little water I had left was very WARM by now. I was wishing my backpack full of food would teleport itself home. When I finally saw a lone tree on the horizon offering potential shade, my heart dropped when I saw I’d be sharing the shade with a bull. Thanks but no. They are normally pretty tranquil here but this week they’ve all been quite feisty. Not taking my chances. I stopped many times to rest, stretch, drink, and apply sunscreen. It’s disappointing to feel how much the heat can knock you down. About ½ mile from my house the road was filled with a herd of cattle, probably 100 of them. Just in time, I heard a moto approach behind me. Timing my speed just right, I motioned for her to pass, using her to carve a path through the cattle for me, then I pedaled like hell to stay right behind her. The cattle wasted no time in filling the gap once she’d gone through so while I was pedaling furiously to take advantage of the space I also had to shout to the cows to stay out of the way. Some of the mamas are aggressive and gave me a shake of their heads but overall it was pretty fun actually. Until I hit a patch of soft sand that almost wiped me out as I was passing a bull. Fortunately, he was the gray bull – a tranqui guy- and I stayed upright and made it home without incident.
Love is in the air….On my morning run the other day, I had noticed the same gray bull alone in the road making eyes at the ‘girls’ in the pasture as he sidled up to the fence. I had hesitated whether or not to continue my run past him. As I said, the bulls have been a bit feisty this week. Usually the entire herd is in the road and it’s easier to zigzag my way through the group to avoid the bulls. But it was early morning and the herds were still fenced in. I looked for escape options in case I needed them: jumping the fence was all I had. I looked in his eye to gauge his mood. He was more interested in love right then so I continued on. Later that day I watched the same gray bull as well as two others chase a small group of heifers around the futbol field for 2 hours. The roosters are doing the same. Is it the moon? Looking for a date for Navidad? Sheesh. It’s quite hilarious watching a rooster run full tilt across the yard after a hen who is trying to avoid him. It’s like watching Roadrunner cartoons. And it’s just a bit awkward sitting in the yard in a group of mixed company when the rooster finally catches the hen. The people just laugh, take a swig of terere, and continue the conversation. No big deal.
I had a couple ‘firsts’ this week. Isabel and I made yogurt, which came out very well, using milk from her cow. The two older girls liked it so much both have made batches of their own and yogurt is quickly becoming the snack of choice in this house…much healthier than white bread or mbejy (a tortilla of mandioca flour, hog fat, water, and Paraguayan cheese with the consistency of a gumdrop). Another day I had my first taste of fresh sugarcane. The cane is first peeled with a big knife or machete. The inside is quite fibrous so you bite off a piece, chew and suck the juice out of the fibers then spit out the fibers.
We’ve had a couple days of rain this week which was welcomed as the road near the house gets impossibly dusty, billowing great volumes of red dust as each vehicle passes, and I’ve quietly watched the water level in the well lower a couple inches each day and its color become more yellow (thanking my friend Caron back home for my handheld water sanitizer right now!). Last year was widespread drought (sequia), causing significant shortages in the mandioca and other crops. Also, I realized this week I’ve been fighting a daily battle with dehydration even now with a plentiful supply. It’s tough to keep up given the amount of sweat I lose in a day.
I visited another neighbor on the edge of the village named Celso, a visit delayed a couple days due to rain and mucho hot weather. I decided to stop using rain and heat as excuses and headed down the road. After a day of rain the red clay was as slick as ice and provided enough suction to have me tightening my Keenes for the first time in the 5 years I’ve owned them. The cows watched from their yards with a curious horror as I slipped and slid my way down the road in my bright orange LL Bean raincoat, local handwoven handbag, hiking pants rolled up to my knees and my Keenes now full of mud. At some point, I was overcome with joy and the ridiculousness of it all and started laughing hysterically at myself. I’m not sure anyone in my village owns a raincoat; most wear ancient, threadbare clothes well-worn from years of hard living. And if I was going to feel mud ooze between my toes wouldn’t it be far more fun to simply remove my shoes? – oh the temptation – but the risk of glass and rusty metal was too high so I settled for a ½ mile of slip-sliding away until I arrived at Celso’s house. It’s always awkward to arrive unannounced and expect folks to stop and accommodate you but it’s what they do here. Hospitality is the utmost in virtually every household. I chose Celso because I’d met him on my initial visit to the community in November and found him very welcoming and warm. This boosted my confidence. It became immediately clear this day that he and fellow villager/visitor speak primarily guarani, fast, and much of our conversation was me saying ‘Nantendei’ and ‘Ikatu, rerepeti?’ (I don’t understand and Could you repeat that?) Somewhere I mentioned that prior to coming to PY I spoke no guarani and little Spanish and had only been studying guarani for 7 weeks. His eyes lit up with a new understanding and suddenly he realized how much I’ve accomplished in very little time. The magic moment came after a while when I realized he had changed the way he spoke to me to accommodate my language skills. Not only was he speaking slower and more simply and explaining in Spanish when guarani totally failed me but was also taking the time to repeat words I clearly didn’t understand. And when I pulled out my great little notebook (thank you Emily!) to write down the word and show him I really was trying to learn, he ensured I spelled it correctly, then used it again later in the conversation for practice. I was grateful and felt a special kinship. Despite how we started out, we had many a fantastic laugh and an agreement that I’d teach him to make yogurt on my next visit. I called the afternoon a vibrant success and left with a skip in my step.
In my tiny village, not much changes from day to day, month to month except perhaps the gossip (chisme, CHEEZ-may). It doesn’t take much to become gossip and I’m trying to make it work FOR me. I’ve already mentioned a few things I’ve done or said that have gotten the locals talking, including my language barrier, that I ran to the rio (only a loco norte would do something that ridiculous), biked from Caazapa, or pronounced a word so WRONG in guarani that they found it hysterically funny. The list goes on. But seriously, things really don’t change here. I cheerfully asked a couple people last week “What’s new?” and they looked at me like I was nuts. Nothing is new. There are only 35 families here and no jobs until you are hired to work in someone’s field. The school employs 4 teachers – all of whom come from the next pueblo- and the principal, who is my contact and in whose house I currently live. Otherwise, people must leave the community for work. Most of the boys either quit school to work in the field or move to Asuncion to find work. Some of the girls make it to high school then become housewives and moms. Unfortunately, when it comes to feeding your family vs going to school, often school falls by the wayside.
Isabel has discovered that I love popcorn and she now frequently makes it for me as a snack. Delicious cooked over the fire in the fagone (fah-GOHN…outdoor brick stove/oven, not to be confused with the tatakua cave-like oven).
I mentioned laundry in an early post. Most Paraguayans, except perhaps those in the choochier sections of Asuncion, do their laundry the traditional way: by hand, in a basin. Even those who have washing machines often use them only for the larger items like sheets and towels and do the clothing by hand. I have enjoyed this practice of handwashing my clothes. It has a meditative quality to it. Even when it takes an hour or two, it is a time to slow down and focus on the task at hand. To practice being present. I’m confident ingredients in the soap here and especially the popular detergent, “OMO”, are probably banned in the states. Stains nor the skin on my hands can resist either one.
Currently, clocks in Paraguay are 2 hours ahead of EST. Daylight is from 5:30am-8pm.
Apart from birds, insects, and venomous snakes there’s not much wildlife in this part of PY. There are no large game animals except in the Chaco region in the NW part of PY. There you’ll find jaguars, crocs, very large snakes and more. Yes, there are venomous snakes where I live and …tarantulas.
Saffron is quite expensive in the U.S. but here you can purchase a sizable amount for $.25!
Paraguayans use a lot of sugar. This is evident in the ice cream. It tastes like frosting.
In the pueblos you can find rotisserie chicken cooking on the sidewalk. Open air, no screens for insects, no shields from the public. Initially I was horrified. Now, not so much. Amazing what we get used to.
This culture focuses and values ‘fitting in’ rather than ‘standing out’ or ‘differentiating’ like we do back home. Perhaps this is why there are so many tiny shops and pharmacies offering identical products or services. My friends and I question how one decides where to shop. Everything is the same. Why should I choose one over the other? They don’t WANT to stand out. At bus stops, 3 vendors sell the same chipa, 4 sell Coca Cola, etc. Every pharmacy has medicine, gifts, and shampoos. Sometimes the despensas will differ in what they offer and cater more to the local community. It’s so different from the US culture.
There is a fantastic, bitter herb here called ‘boldo’ which is perfect for curing an upset stomach. Locals often put it in there yerba mate with mint.
Many of the buildings here use posts made from trees. They cut the tree just above where it splits and use the crotch to hold the cross beams. Pretty clever really.
The nighttime sky in PY is brilliant and many a fellow volunteer has commented how many ‘other’ constellations one can see in the southern hemisphere. And it’s super dark here in the campo without light pollution.
My ‘local’ internet café costs 4,000 guaranies/hour to use the web, equal to $1/hour.
That’s it for now. Again, wishing you and yours much joy, health and happiness now and always. Lots of hugs and love to my family – without them I could not be here, living out a dream. So grateful and blessed.