I couldn’t help but share this story of the creative, generous ways Peace Corps is helping fight Ebola in West Africa. Click here to read the full story.
Author Archives: Wen
“Do not disturb – Workin’ on My Own Dream.” – Ron Rubin and Stuart Avery Gold, authors of Tiger Heart, Tiger Mind
October 29, 2014
Gardening can’t possibly get more fun than pruning my favorite fruit, passion fruit or mburucuya in Guarani, and delighting in the gorgeous, delicate flowers and fruits hanging like heavy Christmas ornaments while stepping through masses of mint and having its aroma waft itself to my head. Oh boy. The seeds from last season’s crops were shared with the community because the fruit was SO much larger (large naval orange or softball size) than what is available locally (golf ball to mandarine size) and everyone wanted to plant this better fruit on their farms. More juice! I also donated the pith (white part between the skin and inner pulp) from my discarded fruits to a senora who dried it and made it into flour.
Lunch, which is sometimes dessert first just for fun because I have my priorities, was homemade brownies in a cup drowned in homemade yogurt (my best batch yet!) with fresh mint from the garden and organic cinnamon. I allowed myself some restful digestion in the hammock (a rare treat and first of the season) while finishing my latest read Tiger Heart, Tiger Mind by Ron Rubin and Stuart Avery Gold. (See my Library page for other latest additions of wonderful and recommended books.) We are so lucky here at Peace Corps Paraguay to have an amazing library at the office!
The afternoon continued with raking dead grass and leaves to cover the garden soil. It hasn’t rained in at least three weeks, the soil is as hard as cement, and the dust blowing off the road with every passing vehicle is unbearable. The leaves and grass will help preserve what moisture is in there and keep the weeds down. I don’t know how the plants eek out their survival but we are due for a week of rain starting tomorrow, which everyone in town is excited for.
At dusk I sauntered to the futbol field across the street to watch the kids and young adults play volley ball. The senoras had already chosen their seats in the grass among the collection of dried cow patties and thistles, except the lone senora who played goalie. I just sat and listened to the squeal and laughter of kids; the thump of the ball against bare feet, heads, and legs; the senoras whispering their gossip.
When we parted ways, the evening was so perfect that I couldn’t help but linger on my patio: a bug-free, light breeze of the most perfect tropical temperature, a bursting look-at-me sunset, the occasional squawk of a bird retreating to its nest for the night. It wasn’t long before the community retreated to their own homes for dinner, the evening quieted and the hush and dark of night settled over us all.
Thank you, Paraguay, for another beautiful day.
Stay tuned for more Tales from the Tropics soon. I’ve got some GREAT stories on the way.
Did You Know…
The word in guarani that indicates surprise, the equivalent of ‘no kidding!’ or ‘what?!” is e’a! (pronounced eh-AH), which they sometimes abbreviate to just “e” (a short, quick “EH”)
“Happiness is not given to us, nor is misery imposed. At every moment we are at a crossroads and must choose the direction we will take.” – Mathieu Ricard
October 27, 2014
I remember the first day I visited my community. We were still in training, our first delicate weeks incountry, and had a 5-day test visit, first glimpse, chance to meet people and get a feel for the place. I remember how in awe I was at everything around me and promised myself to never take these things for granted: giant termite mounds, cows/pigs/horses/sheep blocking the road, people’s friendliness, giant toads, beautiful sunsets, the smell of burning trash, the cool-looking Brahma cattle, loud Paraguayan music blasting from four different homes, free-ranging bulls, guinea hens that don’t let you sleep, millions of mango trees, wispy baby pink flowers along the footpath, how every car appeared to be older than 1980 and every delivery truck was a Mercedes model, and more.
Well, despite my promise, the other day I was walking home from the next town and saw a burrowing owl on top of a termite mound. I didn’t remember this termite mound or …the dozens next to it.
In that moment, I realized I’d stopped ‘seeing’ the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of termite mounds dotting the prairie; they’d become invisible to me, just another part of the landscape. I realized I’d forgotten to swoon over the rust colored soil all around me or the way the long spires of sugar cane waved in the breeze. My senses had become lazy, taking the everyday sights for granted so I could spend needless energy chasing, silly unhelpful stories or fears in my head, or start making plans for the next activity when I got to the house. And look at everything I’d been missing in the meanwhile!
I challenged myself to reconnect with my surroundings and be present in every moment. I caught the smell of smoke from a new prairie fire and the ever-present essence of cow manure flattened into the road; I heard the calls of various birds, felt the pang of baby goats calling to their mamas and mama cows calling to their babies; I appreciated the rumble of motorcycles and thunder in the distance. Through a simple matter of shifting my attention, I reopened a whole new world of amazement. We see what we pay attention to.
What are you missing out on by not being present? Are you even aware when this happens? What are you going to do about it?
“There is no rational reason to remain a pessimist in a world full of so many miracles.” – Karen Salmonsohn
October 27, 2014
Where else but Paraguay would you see a pig galloping down the road and a baby goat napping in the remains of a deconstructed termite mound? My daily entertainment is exquisite.
Check out my EYE CANDY page for lots of new photos dating back to August! I’m trying to get you caught up on all the adventures here in PY. 🙂
Your life follows your attention. Wherever you look, you end up going. – Martha Beck
October 18, 2014
Have you ever been so present in a single moment that the beauty of that moment and the realization of all you have to be grateful for becomes so suddenly overwhelming, the joy feels too big for your body and leaks out as happy tears?
Yeah, that happened today.
Actually, it happens a lot here in Paraguay. Blessings abound when you simply pay attention. Look and see what you find! It’s all about an attitude of GRATITUDE and being PRESENT.
PS- for more joy – try my recipe for Mandio Chyryry – my latest experiment adds a dash of curry, cayenne, and cinnamon while simmering… and I’m in love!
“You’ll seldom experience regret for anything that you’ve done. It is what you haven’t done that will torment you. The message, therefore, is clear. DO it! Develop an appreciation for the present moment. Seize every second of your life and savor it. Value your present moments. Using them up in any self-defeating ways means you’ve lost them forever.” – Dr. Wayne Dyer
October 18, 2014
Yesterday marked the beginning of my last 30 days in Paraguay. Just a moment ago it seemed I had an entire 27 months ahead of me, like a canvas awaiting its paint or the clay ready for the sculptor. Now, in the blink of an eye, those months have come and gone. I have only 30 more unforgettable sunsets, 30 mornings to step out the front door into the sunrise and invent a new day. Only 30 more days to say “Yes” to as many experiences as possible, to visit, to hear the rhythm of conversation in Guarani. Just 30 days to take in the magic, soak up the culture, witness the generosity and light-heartedness of Paraguayan people, nurture friendships, be the recipient of my community’s jokes, take in the sights of vast sugar cane fields and cows in the road, watch giant frogs feasting on bugs at dusk, hear the daily routine of cowboys herding cattle or the occasional sacrificing of an animal for the Sunday BBQ. Only 30 short days to continue sharing what I can, learning what I can, and loving the friends I have made here. I have a whole 30 days to practice being present, soaking up and being grateful every moment of this ride we call Peace Corps.
“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” – Author Unknown
October 2, 2014
My boss and her 2-man team made a visit to my site today to talk with the community and learn more about their request for another volunteer. With my time coming to a close the middle of next month, we are all making preparations for the transition.
The senoras from my Women’s Club (Club of Witches they like to be called) recounted stories of the fun we’ve had together and one in particular who proudly described how she began calling herself “Primera Bruja” or the “First/Best Witch” after a recent incident of peek-a-boo with me (see September blog post “AHAs in Cultural Exchange” for details). Since then, I only refer to her as my Primera Bruja and her sister as My Segunda Bruja (Second Witch), far better than given names! They. Love. It.
Another gent asked if I could stay two more years; the others nodded in agreement. Of course, he was one of the fellas who had hoped to marry me one day and he was running out of time. Haha. It was a great meeting of feeling acknowledged and appreciated as a person and for my work but, even more importantly, considered as one of the community.
While my team was here, my program specialist and I chatted in the garden, taking in the view of the hills in the distance, sharing various things I was trying, answering my questions about why my 3rd generation of carrots was growing deformed, and sharing the variety of plants that had volunteered (self-seeded) themselves throughout the garden – green manures, carrots, beans, and a new invasive weed. While there, we watched a beautiful orange and black butterfly tuck her abdomen under the edge of a passion fruit leaf and lay an egg mere inches from us! It took only a second and when she flew away we examined the tiny egg with its texture and color. Had it not been for his watchful eye, I would have missed the whole thing. Amazing! It pays to practice awareness and live in the moment. I’m so grateful to my team for placing me in this community to live, love, laugh and cry with these beautiful people for the past two years.
At the end of the day, it’s the relationships and the little things that really matter and make life most beautiful.
“It’s always the right time to be happy.” – WW
October 1, 2014
During my first 10 weeks in Paraguay I stayed with the wonderful Gomez Silguiera family. They coached me with my infantile language skills, fed me, taught me to milk their cow, included me in their weekly Sunday family lunch with all seven grown children and mounds of food, and my first weekend there, brought me along to my host mother’s sister’s wedding. The bride was 81 and her new husband was 82.
I’ve been back to visit only a handful of times since moving to my community because the 10 hour journey makes more frequent visits difficult. However, I am always welcomed like royalty and quickly settle into making myself comfortable, no longer a guest, just another member of the family.
Over the weekend, I returned to attend my host sister’s wedding, held on the two year anniversary that I landed in Paraguay (and the same weekend that her aunt married two years earlier!) It was a grand and lavish affair of 200 guests, created solely by the family: my event-organizer-brother did all the decorations; the bride owns a bakery and she and staff made the cake and the hundreds of cupcakes and other sweets; her sisters made her dress; the entire extended family pitched in making giant trays of various salads, beans, mandioca and more (I counted 20 pans of sopa paraguaya -corn bread- and I’m sure there were more that had already been loaded into the truck). We danced until 3am and, after about 3 hours of sleep, the gang was starting a new day by sharing morning máte. I have no idea how many people actually stayed at the house but emergence of ever more people rounding the corner into the kitchen seemed endless but joyful.
Finally came the time to catch my bus home. For the road, Mama tucked some sopa paraguaya into my hand and I embraced her. That’s when the realization hit that this would likely be our last hug. Ever. The last time I will see this loving woman who opened her heart and her home to me and treated me like her own flesh-and-blood daughter. Who worried over me when I was sick. Who learned I love watermelon and made sure there were always two in the house at all times. Who made my favorite breakfast everyday as if it was the highlight of her day. Who attended my Swear-In ceremony and cried happy-sad tears when it was time to move away to my new community. Who poured through my photo albums as if it was the greatest honor to know my family. Her soft belly absorbed the shudders that my tears brought. I held her and tried to brand the moment into memory. I couldn’t speak. When we finally separated she knew too and spoke for me. “If this is the last time I see you before you return to your country, please know that my home is your home. You will always be welcomed here. Please stay in touch.” We hugged again and I really let loose with the tears. The others nearby took their turn afterward: my host dad, an elderly aunt from Buenos Aires that I’d known for about 15 hours and with whom I’d shared a mattress the night before but nonetheless told me how she adored me, a brother, cousins. This family knows how to make people feel loved.
With a mere seven weeks remaining before my service ends, time is flying and there will be many more goodbyes. As I start down this path of closure I can’t help but reflect and appreciate all that these last two years have brought me. My heart is swelling with gratitude. It hasn’t always been easy but, damn, it sure has been worth it!
Photos by Luis Ramon and Pedro Gomez Silgueira
“The more things you try, the more likely it is that you will try the one thing that will make all of the difference.” – Brian Tracy
September 1, 2014
I walked into the meeting room laden with my microwave-sized portable oven we’d be using to make passion fruit marmalade. As I stepped across the threshold a mischievous señora and her granddaughter let out a loud “BOO!” from behind the door. I screamed, looked her in the eyes, and kept screaming while I put down the oven until I could start laughing. She was grinning with satisfaction. Payback’s a bitch.
Two weeks earlier I’d spied this same señora walking into my backyard with intentions of coming across the front of my house on her way to our women’s club meeting. I slipped around the corner out of sight and when she stepped up onto my patio I jumped out of my doorway with the same “BOO!”, scaring the bejesus out of her. Once she pulled herself together, she laughed and playfully slapped me on the rear-end then proceeded to retell the story- play by play – to every woman at the meeting.
This meeting in particular was especially sweet for two major reasons: 1) they learned that some of them are now quasi-famous and 2) we had some major “Ahas!” in cultural exchange. Let’s start at the beginning…
I was eager to share a biodigester video produced by fellow volunteer, Lydia Caudill, and featuring four people from my community. Last year, Lydia and two other volunteers visited my site to interview families who use biodigesters as a source of cooking fuel and fertilizer. The result is beautiful. While it is in Guarani with Spanish subtitles, I encourage you to take a look here to see how these biodigesters work, hear the guarani language, and get a glimpse of the proud people of Paraguay. There are some things which have no language barrier. My señoras and my Contact (the man doing much of the talking in the video) were on the edges of their seats (until I pulled out my camera then they all tried to sit back and look ‘chill’!), completely absorbed in the video of themselves and their neighbors (we watched it twice). Their sense of pride filled the room unquestionably, especially when I shared that the hope from the producers and staff is to share the video as an educational tool with Peace Corps posts worldwide! My neighbors loved the idea of being worldly famous. And then they joked about royalties. haha
Later, one señora taught the group to make bread then I taught them to make an almost-sugar-free passion fruit marmalade while the dough was rising (recipe here or click on my In the Kitchen page). With the smell of bread baking in my portable oven, I gave a talk on U.S. culture. The idea was the brainchild of my best friend and fellow volunteer, Tiffany (read her blog here), who’d had much success with this in her own community. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to do this. Despite me offering bits of this talk over the past two years, something about sitting them down and feeding it to them in one gulp broke some barriers and opened some eyes.
My rustic handmade U.S. map offered perspective on the size of the US (we don’t often use the term ‘American’ unless it’s “North American” because Paraguayans consider themselves Americans too….from SOUTH America) compared to Paraguay (which is the size of California) and subsequent population differences. They were shocked to learn that US families have an average of 1-2 children (compared to 6-8/family here!), the wide variety of religions, ethnicities, skin colors, languages and social classes. I gave an example of a ‘typical’ day in the life of a US family. They were horrified to hear that a typical working person gets a half hour for lunch (literally, their jaws dropped open at the thought; who could eat lunch that fast and at the office without your FAMILY???? CRAZY!) And when I talked about our health care system that sometimes leaves people needing to sell their homes when tragedy strikes, they looked at each other and one woman spoke up: “I guess we are pretty rich here after all. We have land, animals, gardens, wells for water, fruit trees, crop fields, close families to help during good times and bad, the ability to stay home with our children.” For a people that consistently reinforce to those with ‘more’ the notion “I am poor. We have no money or things.” this was a huge win – to hear these material-poor people suddenly realize – and claim – how rich they truly are …my heart swelled with joy.
We concluded by sharing our assumptions of each others’ cultures before I came to Paraguay and before we began to know one another. Mine went something like this. “Before coming to Paraguay, I expected:
“everyone to have brown skin, black eyes, black hair and be short.” Reality: PY is a melting pot with influences from Germany, Japan, Russia, Argentina, Spain, and more. You can find brown skin and white. Black hair and blond, sometimes red. Short people and very tall.
“the food to be spicy and based on rice and beans like Central America.” Reality: food here is bland and perhaps why people use so much salt (in addition to the heat and sweating factors). Much of the food is based on mandioca, corn, and white flour (tortillas, milanesa, empanadas, pasta). Most Paraguayans don’t like spicy food, not even your standard ground black pepper. Food is more likely flavored with onions, garlic and oregano.
“a diet rich in vegetables and fruits and little meat.” In the US meat is expensive and I assumed it would be here too but most people in the country raise their own meat and they eat A LOT OF IT. Vegetables are difficult to grow because of the poor soil and intense heat that literally fries plants if not grown in the shade. Fruits are feast or famine. During citrus season, as I’ve mentioned in prior posts here and here , there is more than can be consumed and citrus is difficult to preserve. Pear, mango and grape seasons tend to come together too but in between, there’s not much. And because the roads are not well maintained transporting fruits and veggies to or from the market can be difficult to impossible.
“everyone to ‘roll’ their ‘r’s.” You’ve probably heard Spanish speakers use that beautiful roll in words. Not here in Paraguay. They laughed and said “No, we’re too lazy to do that!”
“I thought your coconuts would be big.” Paraguayan coconuts are small, the size of golf balls. It’s a lot of work for a small amount of pulp.
When it came time for their turn to voice assumptions, their only concern was “What will she EAT?” and after my arrival they were surprised to learn I could ride a horse.
It was another super fun afternoon with the ladies and a victory in cross-cultural understanding!
Please join me in congratulating the winners of the 2014 Peace Corps’ Blog It Home Contest. While I was not among them, I continue to be humbled with the honor of being one of the top 20 finalists chosen from 350 submissions worldwide and am overwhelmed with the amazing ongoing support shown by my readers, family, and friends. Bloggers – Congratulations and thank you for sharing your journeys with us! Readers – Thank you for your wonderful support and encouragement and for sharing my journey with me!