Monthly Archives: November 2013

Homosexuality in Paraguay

November 24, 2013

“Safety in a community gets defined by how the most marginal person in the community is treated. We all believe that if people could see into our hearts and know who we really are, we too might be rejected, so we notice how those at the margins are welcomed.” – Emily Sander

I rarely go to church in my community but one day last winter, for reasons I did not initially understand, I was compelled. I cursed the cold and donned my winter boots, layers of pants/shirts/fleeces, hat and mittens and arrived to see the pastor underway with his sermon, his breath and that of huddling parishoners, clearly visible in the cold air.

While I believe everyone in my community is Catholic this pastor has a history of being open and respectful of other religions and practices different than his own, evidenced the day I ‘outed’ myself as a Buddhist and proudly hung my prayer flag outside of my house. He asked many questions and was genuinely curious in a most respectful manner. So I was particularly surprised when his sermon circled around to emphatically state that marriage was only ‘right’ when between one man and one woman and that same sex unions were “NOT normal.” I am personally strongly opposed to this opinion and, not wanting to confront him in front of the church goers, sat awkwardly silent for the remainder of the service, quickly filing questions for later.

That conversation was successful since it was aimed to seek further understanding rather than provide attack or blame AND he was very open to hearing my opinion and differing cultural practices in the US (culture sharing goes both ways as a PCV). I emphatically differentiated between ‘not normal’ vs ‘less common than the norm’. He understood my point that it shouldn’t matter what your sex is if you truly love another human and I offered several examples of gay friends from back home who have been together longer, and happier, than a number of my hetero married friends. While he’s not jumping on my bandwagon any time soon, we agreed to disagree and parted with a better understanding and mutual respect for the other’s opinion and cultural norms. Beautiful and magical. And, for once, when I really needed it, my language did not fail me!

Our little red church, known locally as the 'oratorio' or 'iglesia'.

Our little red church, known locally as the ‘oratorio’ or ‘iglesia’.

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Meet My Community – The Espínola-Romero family, Angels by My Side

November 11, 2013

“What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.” – Albert Pike

Recently, I was invited to make chorizo with the Espínola-Romero family (in PY and perhaps much of Latin America the husband’s name is written first followed by the wife’s maiden name; many women keep their own family name but the kids will have both; it is important to acknowledge your family). Chorizo is a type of very popular sausage here in PY and can be bought commercially or made at home. Sadly, the family needed to slaughter one of their two breeding sows because they ran out of crops due to two consecutive years of summer drought and could no longer afford to feed them both. This adult pig was thin from lack of food and didn’t provide much meat so the family got only a few cuts to BBQ and a large kettle’s worth for sausage. Day 1 consisted of chopping the meat into very small pieces and adding garlic, lime juice and salt then cleaning the intestines. Day 2 had us filling the intestines with the mix from Day 1, tying off the ends and hanging to cure for a couple days outside. I will never look at an intestine or a sausage the same way again but it was fun and tasty.

The family's only son dressing a freshly killed pig.

The family’s only son dressing a freshly killed pig.

This family hosted me in their home during my first three months living in this community. Already bursting with four kids still at home it seemed to me such an imposition. But Tranquilo! They gave me my own room and the four sisters moved into a room partially shared by their parents, Victor (46) and Isabel (43). In the campo, it is extremely common for an entire family to share a bedroom. I have seen five or six beds in a room. Privacy and space is not needed or valued. The girls Irma (17), Irene (goes by Rocio, 14), Hilda (11), and Ingrid (6) shared two beds among them. The family was enormously generous and patient during my stay (and beyond), helping me with language, inviting me to meetings, helping me find my way with bus schedules, meeting the community, keeping me safe, teaching me to cook local foods, etc. Victor is the most educated person in the community with degrees in Education Administration and Ministry (most people in my community have no more than a 6th grade education). He is the town pastor, Director of our elementary school, well-respected community leader and my contact, my Go-To for most questions, developing work plans, or general help (Ex: **Where will I live? Where can I have a garden? The shower is dripping and I can’t fix it…Who do I call? I had a big misunderstanding with a teacher and I think I hurt her feelings…Can you help me explain to her? What time does the bus come on Sundays? Is this person safe to visit? Will you teach me to plant yerba? When is the next committee meeting and who do I talk with to see if I can give a workshop for them that day? Can you teach me to kill a chicken? Where do I buy paint/wire/glass/popcorn/laundry soap/get my mail/? Is there a carpenter nearby? Who sells cheese and milk in the community? I’m catching a wild hive of bees tomorrow…where do I put them???**…. You can see this is no easy job for him!!!). Quiet, tranquilo, wise and forever forgiving of my language and faux pas he is the number one reason I function at the level I do here. PS – He let me put my bees on his property, even though it sometimes meant they followed me back to the house after harvesting their honey and we had to close all the windows and doors to keep them out! Haha.

Isabel with five of her six daughters.

Isabel with five of her six daughters.

The couple has seven children (only one son) and the three oldest work in Asuncion and study auto repair, administration and physical therapy. I owe the kids of the family A LOT for, at times, they were able to understand my VERY BASIC language skills (6 weeks of guarani when I arrived– eeek) when no one else could and would then translate for me. This is also one of the reasons they frequently accompanied me on my early introductory visits to local families when I first arrived. At home, the oldest, Irma, is graduating high school in December and plans to study allergy medicine. She is sad to finish school and head into summer vacation, partly because her chores at home are far more laborious than her schoolwork. While all the family has a fantastic sense of humor, she really keeps it going and doesn’t take too much to heart. She is also her mother’s right hand, doing much of the household chores of cooking and laundry for six people, which take hours every day. She and her sister, Rocio, help with the care and butchering of animals and Rocio’s role is to clean the house and yard every day. When I asked Rocio where she wanted to live after high school, in the campo or move to the city, she just stared at me blankly as if this question had never occurred to her, nor did it seem to even warrant discussion. She noncommittally gave me an answer of “I dunno. I’ll probably live right here.” Paraguayans are known for living in the moment and there’s a lot to be said for that. But I also wanted to get her thinking about her future, perhaps doing something more with her intelligence and expanding her world view than settling for a (mediocre) high school education. Art and writing are her favorite subjects and with school coming to a close later this month, she’s facing 10 final exams. Her younger sister, Hilda, is a sweet, smart mousy little thing, efficient, helpful, and an occasional tutor for me. She also was a natural yogi when I taught on their front lawn.

Hilda practicing her best "Tree" pose on the soccer field beneath a stellar rainbow.

Hilda practicing her best “Tree” pose on the soccer field beneath a stellar rainbow.

She and her youngest sister, Ingrid, don’t have many responsibilities around the house yet, other than to be generally helpful. If their Dad or guests need terere on the patio, it’s the girls’ job to prepare it. Sometimes they help herd the animals to the house in late afternoon. Ingrid is perhaps the most competitive of all her siblings, never wanting to be left out or out done and as such she is incredibly gifted in her intelligence, cunning, and athletic ability. She knows how to wrap people around her little finger with the right expression and those huge, adorable brown eyes.

Future Site visit 11-20-12 045

See what I Mean?

Isabel is one of nine siblings, two of whom live next door. She visits her deceased parents at the cemetery early every Monday morning with her sisters and is the president of the agriculture committee. She oversees the household, spends every morning on domestic duties with her children as well as manages an enormous garden and several acres of crops for the family and animals. Mid-day she milks two cows and makes cheese on days when she has accumulated enough. An excellent mother, her children are among the best mannered in the entire town. She exacts a loving discipline that demands respect, immediate action to her requests (the proper response when your name is called is “Yes, Ma’am?”), NO WHINING, NO BACKTALK, NO dilly-dallying with chores, NO half-assed work. Her children emanate excellent manners, intelligence, humor, a willingness to be helpful at all times, and to lead. Yes, they are all leaders.

Isabel cutting up a pig for an asado (BBQ) to celebrate my arrival in the community.

Isabel cutting up a pig for an asado (BBQ) to celebrate my arrival in the community.

This humble, loving family has seen me through my best and worst. They’ve sacrificed space, time, patience and so much more to see me through. (It’s not easy inviting a stranger to your town and working with all their shortcomings!) They cultivated within me a vague sense of humor and tranquilo attitude toward the daily happenings in campo life. I owe them so much but most of all, my sanity and undying gratitude.

The family (back row, L to R):  Victor, Isabel, Rocio, Hilda, Irma. (front row L to R): an uncle, Ingrid, favorite aunt

The family (back row, L to R): Victor, Isabel, Rocio, Hilda, Irma. (front row L to R): an uncle, Ingrid, favorite aunt

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El Dia de Los Muertos

In Paraguay, November 2 was El Dia de Los Muertos or “Day of the Dead”, a day where families remember their deceased. Despite it’s name, it focuses on celebrating rather than mourning the lives of one’s ancestors and can be a bit of a party in some communities. Families hang out at the cemetery for hours or all day, handing out candy, lighting candles, saying prayers, laying fresh scarfs over the crosses at the headstone, telling jokes, laughing. In the days leading up to the event, grave sites were cleaned of trash and weeds, several tombs were freshened up with a new coat of paint. Even the outhouse looked spiffy (outhouse in a graveyard? yup- people spend a lot of time here). In my community, families visit their ancestors every Monday morning. Family is everything.

Size and location of a grave is an indicator of wealth. The wealthiest have large tombs above ground, often accommodating many bodies or entire families, while the poorest bury their dead in the earth with just a simple headstone to mark the grave.

While talking to families at the cemetery this day, I asked many questions about the tradition and also explained that there is no equivalent in the U.S.  Sure, we have Memorial Day for veterans but there is no day formally set aside to remember and pay tribute to our ancestors (one of the teenagers asked me if Halloween counted; um, no.) This has prompted me to consider adopting a new tradition for myself when I get back to the States to remember and honor my own ancestors regularly, whether through a visit to their graves or a ritual of some kind. Afterall, they have all contributed in myriad ways to this life I am currently living. The idea seems fitting and right, especially as this year’s Day of the Dead celebration fell on the one year anniversary of my grandmother’s passing, the last of my grandparents to leave this world.

Local cemetery during Dia de Lost Muertos (Day of the Dead) where families honor and celebrate their deceased.

Local cemetery during Dia de Lost Muertos (Day of the Dead) where families honor and celebrate their deceased.

Symbolism of remembering their dead, examples found in a tomb during Dia de Lost Muertos (Day of the Dead)

Symbolism of remembering their dead, examples found in a tomb during Dia de Lost Muertos (Day of the Dead)

Paraguayan cemetery. Here you can see the full range of graves, from the basic simple cross headstone marking the body in the ground, to the more extravagant tombs built to hold entire families.

Paraguayan cemetery. Here you can see the full range of graves, from the basic simple cross headstone marking the body in the ground (top right), to the more extravagant tombs built to hold partial or entire families (orange  and green building). Note the outhouse stage left.

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In the Heart of South America

November 3, 2013

“It’s not death that scares me so much as not living as fully as I can.” – Lori Barg

 

It started off as a quiet walk toward the lonely end of town. A little exercise, a bit o’ fresh air, wide open prairie space to clear my thoughts after a trying week. Part-way, a family of kids (pre-school through high school) paused me into conversation and jumped at the invitation to join me. We talked animatedly about the week’s events and when the oldest asked me to teach her English, the group begged to start, right then. We spent the final half mile learning the English equivalent to every color and object they saw. My walk ended with a new group of very enthusiastic English students and a wide grin on my face.

Paraguayan sunset

Paraguayan sunset

Road toward the lonely end of town. Big Sky country; vast beautiful sky

Road toward the lonely end of town. Big Sky country; vast beautiful sky

During this time last year, I was a trainee, new to the country and spending 10 weeks learning about local language, culture, safety, and medical precautions. As part of that training we visited communities of active volunteers to get a feel for the life of a PCV. Now there is a new group of agriculture and environmental trainees who arrived in September and recently one came to visit me. A super sweet young woman named Lynsey, arrived with all the hope and desire to do good in the world that frequently inspires people to become PCVs. Despite a too-adventurous arrival that was initially thwarted by rain and involved an overnight detour to a fellow PCV’s home then negotiating a taxi ride through the mud to my house, she took it all in stride. We had a great time (at least I hope she did too!) visiting my garden with its veggies, compost piles, trials and errors; working in the kokue (demo plot); devouring vegetables and dark chocolate (usually in short supply when living with host families); visiting with a family and seeing her biodigester; seeing a cow in labor who was casually walking down the street with several inches of her calf’s feet already peeking into the world and her water sac swaying with her stride; prepping seeds for the Seed Bank I’m starting here in the community; and working with the bees. Unfortunately, the bees were in a foul mood and stung her rapid-fire eight times! I felt terrible. It was her very first experience in beekeeping I’d hoped it would be a positive one! I was only tagged once but she got me good…

Payback for stealing honey. I think my watch was acting as a tourniquet, keeping the swelling out of my hand.

Payback for stealing honey. I think my watch was acting as a tourniquet, keeping the swelling out of my hand.

Our mission was cut short but I did manage to steal a bit ‘o honey and that night we squeezed it from the comb so she could take it home with her. The same afternoon we killed a four-foot snake in my front yard. After surviving all this with such grace and aplomb, she will clearly make a terrific volunteer and Paraguay is lucky to have her.

Falsa jarara or toad-eating snake. Kinda feel bad for killing this one but it's so similar to the deadly kind we couldn't take a chance. It was right outside my front, at a school no less!

Falsa jarara or toad-eating snake. Kinda feel bad for killing this one but it’s so similar to the deadly kind we couldn’t take a chance. It was right outside my front, at a school no less!

Speaking of compost piles, this past week I held a workshop to teach my community to make compost piles and compost tea. We talked about the difference between organic materials (leaves, veggie peelings, etc) and non-organic materials (plastic, metal, glass, etc) because they are considered one and the same here so it was necessary to emphasize what belongs in compost and what DOESN’T. But the real winner of the day was the compost tea because I had living proof of its effectiveness. I had two rows of basil, all planted at the same time. One had received treatments of compost tea, the other had not. The compost tea basil was up to four times larger and they were sold. Also, because I like to encourage attendance at these workshops, I often use incentives like awarding Certificates of Completion (which are wildly popular here and held in high regard). This day I thought I’d be clever and offer free basil plants (because I had waaaaay more than I needed!) At first people took them but quickly turned around and brought them back saying “I’ve got some at my house”. Now, I might never know if this is actually true or if it’s just their non-confrontational way of saying they don’t like that particular variety of basil, kind of like when they don’t want to eat a food… they won’t say “No thank you. I don’t want any.” Instead they say “I don’t know how to eat that.” Overall, it was a good day, I’ve got lots of visits to people who want to make compost at home (Yay!), and still looking for homes for several dozen basil plants.

Basil plantitas

Basil plantitas

Abonera or compost bins. L-R: new pile started, old pile of straight cow manure now ready for the garden, 2 month old pile almost ready for the garden. The white bucket on right is compost tea!

Abonera or compost bins. (Left) new pile started, (middle) old pile of straight cow manure now ready for the garden, (right) 2 month old pile almost ready for the garden. The white bucket on right is compost tea!

I love how sometimes life really wakes us up when we’ve become blind to the everydayness of the things around us and the routines we make, how it shakes us to the core, and reminds us what a freaking miracle it is to be granted yet another day and host of experiences and adventures. I was stopped in my tracks the other day during a bus ride home from the next town. I grabbed the first available seat and turned to actually look at my neighbor to say hello and froze. He was the spitting image of my late grandfather, my mom’s dad. He had the same small, slightly stooped frame, bony face and big ears, white hair in the same pattern on a head of the same shape, the same royal blue colored shirt, large hands in his lap rising occasionally to wipe the drool from his chin and kind, kind eyes. Those eyes. I engaged him in conversation just so he would look at me with those eyes. I had to see if they were blue. I couldn’t tell from the sparkle so I asked him and he said they were black. But boy, if ever there was a spitting image of my beloved grandfather, he was it. Eventually I had to turn away as my own eyes welled up with tears, thinking about and missing this man I had loved so dearly and thinking how funny life is to give me such a stark reminder of him on a continent he had never visited. I’m overwhelmed and in awe at the magical ways of the universe. This one got me in the gut. There are few certainties in life but one thing is certain: Paraguay is never boring!

Did You Know?

  • Chickens follow free-ranging pigs waiting for fresh manure then pick out and eat the undigested corn kernels found in it.
  • Honey tastes very different depending on the type of pollen and nectar collected to make it. Honey made from coconut pollen tastes very different from honey made with jasmine pollen and very different from honey made from bean or turnip pollen. Those of you living in Maine can sample a wide variety of flavors at The Honey Exchange on Stevens Ave. (orange blossom, clover, blueberry to name just a few!)
    • The typical greeting in Paraguay when you see someone you know but are just passing by, is “Adios!” which actually means “Goodbye!” To say “goodbye” you say: “ciao!” – courtesy friend and fellow PCV, Lauralee Lightwood-Mater
    • People go blind in life because a cat hair entered their eye when they were a baby. – courtesy friend and fellow PCV, Lauralee Lightwood-Mater
    • The price of just about everything here is negotiable. Prices usually go up if you look like a foreigner, and down if you speak Guarani. I have actually had them go up because I looked like a foreigner, then back down because I spoke Guarani. – courtesy friend and fellow PCV, Lauralee Lightwood-Mater

Jajotopata! (until next time)

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