Peace Corps Paraguay

Meet My Community – Ña Celia, Mother of 12

June 19, 2014

 

I first met Ña Celia in November 2012 during training on what was called “Future Site visit”, my brief, initial visit to meet the community a few weeks before I was to actually move here. The current volunteer introduced me to neighbors and the projects he had worked on and one afternoon we went to Ña Celia’s house for a rezo. It was the one-year anniversary of her husband’s death. That day I also learned she’d lost her home and everything she owned to a prairie fire just months before losing her husband. Despite these tragedies and me being a complete stranger, she welcomed me with outspread arms and a radiant smile as if she’d waited her whole life to meet me. With the top of her head coming to just my chin, I leaned down to exchange the traditional double-cheek greeting kiss and was offered a seat on the rustic bench made of a single plank between two tree stumps alongside other neighbors. After the service as we began taking our leave, she urged me back to visit once I moved and got settled in.

 

One day while waiting together at the bus stop I asked about her husband. They’d been married 35 years and she spoke so fondly of him. I asked if she missed him and she nodded with a wistful, longing smile. But when I asked if she planned to remarry, her eyes flew open with a mischievous twinkle and firmly answered with a chuckle, “Oh No! I loved my husband and we had a good relationship but I’m enjoying my freedom! Husbands are a lot of work!” I roared with laughter.

 

Like most Paraguayans this gentle woman in her mid-50s is light-hearted and friendly, seemingly unphased by anything. I guess after bearing 12 children (ages 14-39) and being blessed with 18 grandchildren you’ve seen it all and no longer sweat the small stuff. When I heard that her entire family was coming to visit for semana santa in April I made a plan for a group photo of her with all of her children. Printed photos are so rare here that I thought it would be a lovely surprise at the end of my service to give to her. I went to visit the Friday of semana santa, which is like a day of rest here. On this day, Paraguayans eat nothing but chipa, which would have been made on Wednesday or Thursday. I arrived to another warm, heart-felt greeting, and was introduced to all those present and available, which unfortunately was not the whole clan. When we finally settled down for a cool drink she began naming and describing all of her family: children, their spouses, grandchildren, in order of age. I commented how she had enough family to make her very own pueblo right here. “Pueblito!” she shrieked with laughter and tears stinging her eyes, nearly falling out of her chair from the hilarity of the idea. It’s now July and I continue to hear her tell the story of her pueblito. Here are some photos we managed of the day, her little house on the edge of the prairie, full of love and family.

 

Ña Celia with several of her 12 children and 18 grandchildren!

Ña Celia with several of her 12 children and 18 grandchildren!

Daughter showing off their pet parrot, known as Loro, which traveled on a motorcycle to join the family for semana santa.

Daughter showing off their pet parrot, known as Loro, which traveled on a motorcycle to join the family for semana santa.

Semana santa - Na Celia 010

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The Places That Scare You

“Serve somebody.” – Andrea Balt

July 18, 2014

 

I recently came across my copy of The Places That Scare You by Pema Chodron. If you’ve never read it, I encourage you to make it part of your library. Rather than running away, denying or hiding, this Buddhist nun encourages us to go to those places that scare us, feel the feelings that terrify us, have the conversations that make us uncomfortable, find compassion for those who seem unworthy, touch those dark places in our lives, have patience with others who attempt the same. It takes courage, it can be daunting. We may flounder over and over in our attempts. She didn’t say it would be easy. She does say it will be worth it.

 

With these thoughts swirling in my head today, it seemed fortuitous that I came upon this post written in January but somehow never posted. It’s too precious not to share as it was perhaps one of THE best discussions of the year with a host country national.

 

My adult English student, one of the most intelligent, curious and progressive Paraguayans I’d met, was completing his law degree and learning English in preparation to live in the US someday (after being Paraguay’s next President…I love his gusto). Part of our English class involved an hour of cultural discussion and my topic this day was homosexuality, chosen specifically after witnessing his negative reaction to it in a prior session. What ensued was enlightening yet heartbreaking, curious yet disturbing.

 

He explained the machismo attitude in Paraguay that prevents people, especially men, especially in the campo, from discussing the topic, befriending a gay individual, supporting gay marriage or adoption of children to gay parents, or defending gays in any way. He says it’s custom, it’s in Paraguayans’ blood to feel this way. I called bullshit. He talked of how gays have no friends and are regularly harassed. I asked if he would feel the same if his brothers were gay. Would he desert them? Turn his back on them? He said it was more complicated than that; that children of gays would be harassed and completely unsupported in the school system and have terrible lives. He reiterated that gays have no friends. I asked if he felt gays were “bad people”; no, not at all, it’s just custom not to like them (my jaw dropped for a moment, and I had to recompose myself.) I asked if he felt all people in the world were equally human. Yes, yes he did. With feelings and the same needs to want family, friends, love, acceptance, and community? Yes, absolutely. Then… why? “It’s custom,” was the reply. “We don’t break custom.” I asked how he would feel about this type of treatment from others if HE were gay? Eyes lowered. No answer.

 

We argued over the Paraguayan viewpoint that being gay is a choice. I insisted otherwise and asked why anyone would CHOOSE a life of harassment, no friends, secret love, and limited options in life? He then understood. I suggested that, because of his education and career path as an attorney and community leader, he will ultimately be more influential than many here, and perhaps he could start changing the custom by changing his perspective, and then implementing those changes little by little, especially when he becomes President (it was time for a little humor by now).

 

While he didn’t feel capable of breaking custom or habits himself at this time, he understood my points and promised to teach more tolerance to his child when the time came. At least the seed is planted. If I make no other noticeable contributions during my service, planting this seed in an individual capable of running with it and instigating the conversation with others will be a worthwhile contribution in my eyes and hopefully someday in the progress of this country and those suffering from a nation that lacks understanding and compassion in this area. This topic is a Place that Scares people. Fortunately, it doesn’t scare me. In fact, I want to do everything I can to light that dark place with love and understanding, one seed, one conversation at a time, if necessary.

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The Rezo

“We can ride through the dark times with the understanding that it will help us to appreciate the light of life and love and spirit more fully.”

July 7, 2014

 

Here in Paraguay the vast majority of people are Catholic, and devoutly religious. One of their traditions to mourn or remember the dead is through the rezo, which is a funeral or memorial service lasting 9 days. Rezos are held annually for an obligatory 7 years on the anniversary of a loved one’s death, sometimes more than 7 years depending on the family’s preferences and ability to pay for the cost. In some communities rezos are held more often. For example in my site, many families hold a rezo every three months for the first year, then every 6 months for at least seven years. This happens for every deceased person. Recently, we have had weeks and weeks of rezos and the last 3 weeks have been non-stop, at least one rezo every day. It seems perhaps winter had been hard on my people in the past.

 

What fascinates me is that members of the community never need reminding of a family’s rezo. They remember the date of each person’s passing as if the birth of their own first born. I, on the other hand, usually know a rezo is happening only when I see neighbors flocking to a single house, a sure sign of a rezo. Usually held mid-late afternoon, neighbors arrive 5-20 minutes in advance and socialize in a jovial way, unless it is a funeral when they are more somber.

 

A person is asked in advance to oversee the service and recite the 20 minute prayer. This person has had training with their local minister or church to learn the ritual. An altar is arranged for the week in the bedroom of the deceased, usually consisting of what looks like a short flight of steps covered with a  white sheet. A candle and vase of white flowers are placed upon each step along with a framed photo of the deceased. The family announces when they are ready, and the guests gather into the room or stand just outside the door. They recite parts of the prayer at the appropriate times. Once complete, the guests return to their circle of chairs on the patio or yard and members of the family come around with trays of cookies, hard candies and soda for each guest. On the 9th and final day, in addition to the regular cookies and candy, a ‘goodie bag’ is given that contains chipa bread made that morning and even more sweets. Guests often talk among themselves, as it’s a great time to socialize and after a respectful amount of time, they head for home. Even though I don’t practice their religion, families are always grateful I attend to pay my respects. It means a lot to this culture which treats their dead almost as good as their living. Forever in memory.

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What’s a Little Mold in the Oatmeal?

“Don’t forget to laugh a little or a lot every single day.” – WW

It wasn’t until I’d poured my second serving of oatmeal this morning that I realized it was moldy. I picked out the visible chunks and decided that, with a little boiling water, perhaps the mold won’t do me in. Why am I surprised? After 7 consecutive days and nights of rain, everything is growing a living surface of green or black and my supply of non-moldy food has dwindled to beans, rice, peanut butter, popcorn, frozen chipa, passion fruit and some citrus from neighbors. Despite all this, I am grateful it hasn’t been bitterly cold like last year.

During a pause in the rain this morning, I finally could burn the bathroom trash in the backyard and empty the water collected from the various leaks in the roof over the week, about 4 gallons in all, and this didn’t include all the water that missed the buckets and landed on the floor (which is estimated at least another 137 gallons itself). It’s nice to have an ‘indoors’ day now and then to catch up on reading, shelling seeds, or planning activities but I’m glad to head to the city in a few days to enjoy human interaction, dry accommodations, supermarkets, and tango!

I’m reminded to laugh and love the beauty of the absurdities in this experience. It reminds me of what’s truly important, what I can tolerate when the rubber hits the road, what I can do without; it challenges me to find creative solutions to situations that present themselves, and makes me a better person. I can choose to be miserable or to laugh. I’ve learned that life is not nearly as serious as we make it and it’s waaaaay better with some levity. I’ll go with laughter and levity. In the grand scheme of things, what’s a little mold  in the oatmeal? Bring it on! Just don’t rain on my bed, the only 30 square feet of space that has yet to leak in my house. Please. Pretty please. haha. Keep smilin’ and have a great day!

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A New Perspective

“Acknowledge someone’s gifts as if that person were your brother or sister, have compassion for their struggles, see them as connected to the same fabric as you instead of a separate entity that is somehow a threat.” – Padhia Avocado

June 28, 2014

I got the idea for this blog after reading an online story by Chelsea Fagan called “American habits that seem insane after you’ve lived abroad”: http://thoughtcatalog.com/chelsea-fagan/2014/06/6-american-habits-that-seem-insane-after-youve-lived-abroad/

After living in PY for nearly two years, I can relate to these sentiments and wanted to add a few of my own. For you North Americans who have never lived anywhere but the USA, consider that we have some opportunities here for personal growth. Of course I’m generalizing for both cultures and I realize not all of these are easy to cut and paste from one culture to another on their own but it’s worth giving them consideration and perhaps a try…

1. Acknowledging people when you walk by them.
It’s an instant feel-good. In PY, it is rare to walk past someone, whether a neighbor or complete stranger, and not have them greet you in some manner. As a reserved Maine Yankee, this took some getting used to but now I really love it. Paraguayans are often stone-faced when not engaged in conversation but the moment you smile at them or offer a greeting their faces light up. I made their day. They made mine. We’re good. It’s magical and gives you energy to throw into the rest of the day. Smiles are contagious no matter what language you speak.

 

2. Neighbors
How many of us really know our neighbors? Care about them? Or even speak to them? Of course in the US we proudly live very different, independent lives, ones where we do not necessarily NEED our neighbors to survive (except perhaps in the case of the Ice Storm of ’98 but that’s another story) but in this lack of needing and knowing we create isolation and often a sense of apathy to those around us. We’re so busy with our own important lives that we have no time to care for or share the successes and struggles of our fellow human beings. Can we do more to bring our community together, to celebrate our collective humanness, to start knowing each other?

 

3. Living life in balance.
Work, children, entertainment, volunteering, exercise, friends, extended family. We have this idea that the more we work, the busier our schedules, the ‘cooler’ we are. We call it ‘driven’ or ‘motivated’ or ‘achievement’. Other cultures just think we’re crazy because we’re too busy to actually enjoy our success and have no time for…family. Because here in PY, family is EVERYTHING. On Sundays, life of the workweek stops, the extended family congregates and spends the whole day together, simply enjoying each others’ company, sharing meals and their preparation, talking about the prior week’s tales, sharing plans for the upcoming week, celebrating successes, sharing the burdens, recalling stories from childhood or silly things that the Norte said.. And Paraguayans know the importance of resting and relaxing even on a work day. They start the day with a relaxing hot maté and the rest of the day is interspersed with regular occurrences of their famous terere (yerba mate) breaks, where sitting, sharing and talking in a circle of friends, family or co-workers are part of the tradition. They are not afraid to ask for help for the smallest to the biggest projects or tasks and easily accept it. We could give ourselves a break by doing a better job of this in the US, eh? Put your stubborn pride aside and let someone give you the gift of assistance. It makes the giver feel good and the receiver gets a hand. Win-win.

 

4. It is good to work for your food.
Meal prep is an important, and often time-consuming, part of each day. “Fast food” is an empanada. Otherwise, a senora will spend hours preparing lunch which will be savored at the table together with the family. Preparing a single meal usually means building a fire on the ground from scratch using firewood gathered days prior, plucking corn kernels from the cobs by hand, grinding kernels into corn meal with a hand-cranked grinder (this alone is a workout!), making cornmeal into corn bread in a cave-like oven- also fired by wood-  plus preparing a soup with vegetables and meat bones or a chicken which would have also been killed and dressed that morning in her spare time. The family would have worked months in the field to grow the corn and mandioca for the meal, sugar cane and different varieties of corn for the horse who pulls the wagon full of the harvested cane and brought home… and a flock of chickens and the cows which are milked by hand every morning. Thus, meal times are to be savored for each one is the fruit of months of labor.

 

5. Forgive and Forget
In my community, people quickly forgive and forget the transgressions of others, especially neighbors. In a community as small as this (35 families), they need each other for survival. Fighting and holding grudges would put them all at risk. You need my well when yours goes dry every summer, I need your help killing a cow to feed my family. So they’ve learned to pretend it never happened and I’ve done the same when offended by someone as well. It’s beautiful. We can all just relax and move forward and life is so much better. I’ve discovered tremendous beauty in this. Being on the receiving end of forgiveness is such a gift. Whether unknowingly displaying a cultural faux paz or use of an inappropriate word that I thought had a different meaning and then being filled with fear or guilt of offending my neighbors, I am greeted with a “Tranquiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiilo, Wendia!” that puts me at ease. They have no use for holding grudges, shaming or embarrassing the other party (making them “pay” so to speak), or making me feel awkward for my slip-ups (except that they LOVE to talk about them with each other in a lovingly joking way). The fact that they look past my mis-steps and shortcomings by lovingly poking fun at me makes me feel all the more supported and loved. And not just with me but with each other. They fight one afternoon and they’re laughing with each other a few days later. I’ve learned that this is something I want to bring home with me and make a regular practice in my life in the US; I’d love to see more of it and less of “it’ll teach her a lesson”. Can we do this together, please?

 

6. Taking care of family
I’m talking extended family. Chelsea points out in her article how North Americans are so eager to get away from family. In Latin America, extended families live together gladly, comfortably sharing small spaces and resources, a family of eight sipping from the same glass of water or sharing beds: from newborns to great grandparents they all care for each other without a complaint, passing on traditions and wisdom learned over the years. And when all the kids are grown, at least one family member stays at home to care for aging parents or a widowed mother, usually a younger son or married daughter. Unlike the US where there’s a stigma for young adults living at home, here it’s an honor to care for one’s elders. No woman, especially an older woman, would be left to live alone in PY’s campo.  This includes extended family too. Here in my community I have several examples: a younger male cousin caring for older female cousin, a 50-something nephew caring for an 83 year old aunt and her ‘adopted’ son of 33 years, two single men – one 26, the other 48 –  caring for their mothers and one single woman of 50 who lives alone but between two sisters with large families who act as her own children, growing food and helping her with chores.

 

7. The need for speed
North Americans are addicted to a fast-paced life. Some would argue there’s no alternative in this age of full family schedules, work demands, and a spectrum of irresistible recreational activities at one’s disposal. When you bring that hectic energy to a culture like Latin America it stresses out the locals! They don’t understand what the rush and urgency is. If I need to go to the despensa for eggs but the senora is eating lunch, it might take 30 minutes to be waited on while she finishes but she also is likely to offer me a plate of my own while I’m there. Or someone says they’ll be over “en seguida” which might be a couple of minutes, 4 hours, tomorrow or never. Tranquilo. Or your 10am bus doesn’t arrive for 45 minutes or 2 hours or at all– that’s normal so don’t get your knickers in a bunch (ok, perhaps there’s room for a middle-ground here). Or you go for a ‘quick visit’ to see a family until you realize…there is no such thing as a quick visit. Relationships are important. ENJOY the connection whilst there. If you have a specific mission in mind you must first socialize and only then get down to business. Anything less is rude. I think we would prosper a lot from practicing a little patience and building more breathing room into our lives.

 

8. Less is more
Paraguayans are among the poorest of the world, yet consistently rank among the happiest people in the world (see my News and History page for examples). They work hard, rest hard, love fiercely. They don’t stress over things out of their control and laugh about everything.

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We can learn a lot from Paraguayans.

 

More ‘stuff’ does not produce happiness. Quite the opposite, I would argue. Can we do better with what we already have (reuse/recycle?) Can we just stop with the excess? Can we stop robbing the world – and taking more than our share- of its resources for our frivolous and soon forgotten pleasures (and subsequent garbage heaps)? Can we stop raping the environment today to preserve it for a better tomorrow (do you really want to live and breathe in an environment the equivalent of a toilet in 40 years? Do you want that for your kids and grandkids?) Spend one week considering every purchase you make: Is it necessary for your happiness? Is there a better alternative? Could you live without it? Have you ever asked yourself what REALLY makes you happy over the long term? Is your ‘stuff’ a mask to cover a lack of fulfillment? Does that really work for you? Would foregoing a purchase and trying on forgiveness work just as well?

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What if we took better care of ourselves, each other, and the environment we live in? What if we got back to knowing our neighbors, dropping in on friends, lingering regularly over meals like our lives depended on it (um, yeah, cuz they do), laughing regularly, sharing hugs and I Love Yous freely, forgiving instead of begrudging (including ourselves!), offering love instead of envy, lifting others up instead of tromping them down. Wow. What a world that would be.

Stepping off my soapbox now. Let’s hear your thoughts.
 

 

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

This Is Peace Corps

“Showing up is worth it 100% of the time.” – Wendy Ward

June 25, 2014

 

One afternoon recently I sat on my patio shelling seeds with one of the local girls and reflecting on the events of the prior week, which I would have to classify as one of the best weeks of my two-year service thus far, the memories of which are due in large part to a particular favorite family with whom I’ve spent many days. It wasn’t part of my plan to spend part of nearly every day together; it just worked out that way. Slowly building from a self-invitation for morning maté which would then lead to staying for breakfast and sometimes lunch, I’ve somehow managed to spend the better part of the week there. Among the first days the señora mentioned that her biodigester was no longer working. We spent two days on it until it was functioning once more. These anaerobic biodigesters produce methane gas which is used to cook food, instead of the customary open fires on the ground that fill the room with smoke and cause a number of health and environmental problems.

On the last day of my visits for the week, I went over to buy cheese and also learned she sells milk so I brought home a liter of that too. A half kilo (1.1 lbs) of her cheese is the equivalent of US$2.25 and a liter (a bit more than 1 qt) of milk is $.60 (that’s not a typo, folks). In exchange, I brought her a baked stuffed pepper made the other day at the Women’s Club to reheat and try, as it’s a healthy, easy recipe using all locally available ingredients.

Women's Club - this day we made stuffed peppers and cut bottles into glasses and wine glasses using wire. These will be used in the women's homes instead of buying new glasses. See the bottles to the right with tape wrapped around, which acts as a guide for the wire. The wire is moved vigorously back and forth until it scores and heats the glass, then the bottle is plunged into ice water to break the score. Take sandpaper to the edge and Voila! you have a new drinking glass.

Women’s Club – this day we made stuffed peppers and cut bottles into glasses and wine glasses using wire. These will be used in the women’s homes instead of buying new glasses. See the bottles to the right with tape wrapped around, which acts as a guide for the wire. The wire is moved vigorously back and forth until it scores and heats the glass, then the bottle is plunged into ice water to break the score. Take sandpaper to the edge and Voila! you have a new drinking glass.

Her husband, daughter and I shelled dry corn while the senora made corn bread for lunch. We raced to see who could clean more corn cobs of their hard, dry kernels the fastest. The husband won despite me stealing his cleaned cobs, pretending they were mine for the count. hee hee. While there I also taught her and her two daughters to make roasted squash seeds. Unfortunately, we were so engrossed in our delicious lunch of spaghetti and beans with chipa quazu that we forgot about the seeds in the oven and burned them! Every day I have visited she has sent me home with bags of oranges and mandarins and pleas to take more. Giving away fruit during citrus season is the equivalent of giving away chipa during semana santa. Every household has more citrus than they can eat and will beg you to take as much as you can carry. Mandarines are the size of baseballs, grapefruits (called pommelos here) are so sweet you can make juice and drink it straight with no added sugar (I’ve never been able to eat a grapefruit in the US – too bitter!) Oranges are best made into juice because they are super JUICY! Actually, Paraguayans drink the juice straight from the orange by peeling the orange zest and a thin layer of pith, slicing off an end, gently squeezing the fruit with your hand and drinking from the sliced end. Today I declined another motherload of fruit but received a hunk of squash for soup I’d be making for dinner. Just because she felt like sharing.

While visiting this señora this week, we’ve had the most engaging conversations covering everything from kidney stones, ovarian cysts, menstruation (“Do women in North America menstruate?”), how our cemetaries and funeral proceedings are similar and different, why she leads the prayer for most of the local funerals (rezos) and if she gets paid for it (answer: no), and her asking me how flatulent I will be after eating the lunch of beans she prepared (this followed two days of working on the biodigester and many jokes about gas). This family has a great sense of humor.

I boiled my milk purchase (I’m all for raw, fresh and unpasteurized but due to lack of cattle vaccinations and common diseases here it has the potential to carry harmful pathogens so boiling is a necessity in PY) and made THE most delectable, homemade-from-scratch chocolate pudding I’ve ever eaten. Not bad for my first attempt.

It’s these kinds of days that make this the Peace Corps experience I dreamed of.

****Check out lots of new photos on my “Eye Candy” page!!!****

Fun  Facts: Did You Know?….

Most people are completely unaware of the existence of the Paraguayan Venomous Duck.  Belonging to the genus Dendrocygna, its full scientific name is Dendrocygna peligrosa.  Very few people have seen the Paraguayan Venomous Duck  in the wild, though it is well known to the indigenous peoples of the Paraguayan rainforest who use its venom to coat their arrowheads for hunting and warfare.

The venom of the Paraguayan Venomous Duck (PVD) is a neurotoxin which quickly causes its victim to lose control of its muscles, rendering it powerless to defend itself.  The PVD then swiftly devours its prey, which includes ducklings of other species, frogs, and, ironically, venomous snakes.

There is no known antivenin for the PVD.  It rarely attacks humans, only doing so when startled or threatened.  There have been accounts of humans surviving a bite by a PVD, but most victims die within hours.

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A Day in The Life of this Peace Corps Volunteer

“A good life is made up by the moments of presence and gratitude that you create throughout your day. Stop, wherever you are. Take a few deep breaths. Focus your attention on the now. What are you grateful for today?” – Rachel Brathen

June 25, 2014

Remembering to be grateful for life, for every breath we take is a blessing to ourselves. So instead of using a recent event to create a story designed to entertain or give you a chuckle, I decided that this post would simply show you what everyday life is like for this PCV. Not that there is ever a ‘normal’ day or that two are ever the same but there is ALWAYS gratitude to be had. And this day was a mostly-stay-at-home-because-it’s-raining-outside-and-no-one-goes-anywhere-or-does-anything-when-it-rains-here kind of day. Nothing ‘special’ yet still providing so so so much to be grateful for. So here we go…

After some meditation and yoga I took advantage of a rare bit of sun and nice breeze to hang wet wool socks on the line for drying then headed to the garden. There was a lot of catching up to do due to a series of recent travels and foul weather that has left it a bit neglected. My mission was to weed the raised beds (or clean them as they say here in PY). I dislike weeding this time of year: it is slow and arduous because the winter weeds tend to form thick mats or spiny nettle-like stems and leaves. Plus you must pay close attention because, when small, many look like carrots, others like tomatoes, still others like chard. It’s hard to know what to pull. (The fact that I dislike this task says I have an opportunity to practice mindfulness and gratitude here. It’s not hard to find when I put away the negative stories I create in my mind about it.)

After an hour I was rained out and forced back into the house. Breakfast was my daily dose of mandio chyryry (without cheese because we’ve had so many rezos lately all the senoras in town have bought up all the cheese to make chipa, which is served on the last of the 9 days of rezos), a treat of good coffee (I’m trying to quit – I always feel better in a caffeine-free body but the taste and smell of coffee in the a.m. is sooooo alluring; grateful for good coffee), and some fresh passionfruit juice made from fruits in the garden (yes, the harvest is finally here! I feared I’d be back in the U.S. before seeing the fruits of my labor.) Definitely grateful for passion fruits!

 

Lunch was buttered popcorn and a baked potato with green onions and more butter (Don’t worry, Mom, I usually eat better than that). I prepared citrus juice from grapefruit, mandarins, and oranges shared by a nearby senora with an overabundance wasting away in her front yard. Fresh juice is such a treat as it is not available in stores… too expensive for the locals, and those who have their own fruit trees make their own juice anyway. Store-bought “juice” in PY is part fruit juice with lots of sugar, preservatives, colorings and sometimes soy; closer to Tang.

During lunch I made my first attempt at bread dough since being in PY, using a friend’s recipe which we made over the weekend for pizza crust (In a day or so, look for this recipe on the “In The Kitchen” page of this blog site). Being 75 degrees this day, it rose quickly, cooked beautifully, and went down the gullet hot from the oven, soaked in butter (count that as a week’s worth of butter in one meal but it’s oh so delicious). The socks didn’t dry outside before the rains started again so I hung them on the oven door and, presto!, dry socks AND fresh bread. “Winner winner chicken dinner” as they say, without the chicken.

My first loaf of bread since coming to PY.

My first loaf of bread since coming to PY. Notice wool socks drying on the oven door handle. Ha!

Winter in Paraguay is wet wet wet with lots of rain and little sun so everything in the house gets moldy and it’s impossible to dry laundry. PCVs must get creative. I suspended a stretch of bamboo over my oven and use as an additional drying rack to take advantage of the lost heat to dry clothes or towels. Sometimes I even pull the refrigerator away from the wall to use the heat from the coils to dry my things. One must improvise to get by.

Throughout the day I continued to add To-Do items to my chalkboard (I live in an old school with a classroom-sized chalkboard that is The Bomb and I’d be lost without it every day. I will make myself a chalkboard wall at my house when I return to the US after my service!) Today, tomorrow, later this week, notations for another trip to Asuncion, jotting phone numbers, shopping lists, things to do in the city, things to bring back, call the plumber, plant seeds in the field, – because I am a planner and get great satisfaction from my list-making neurosis.

I live in a classroom in an old school and in it is a full-size chalkboard which I use every single day to make To-Do lists, jot phone numbers or write reminders to myself. Here's this week's list. haha

I live in a classroom in an old school and in it is a full-size chalkboard which I use every single day to make To-Do lists, jot phone numbers or write reminders to myself. Here’s this week’s list. haha

In the afternoon I helped one señora and her daughter finish building her solar food dryer (secador in Spanish). With it she will use the sun to dry (dehydrate) fruits, veggies and meats for her family when they are in abundance and to preserve for the leaner months (think dried mangos, onions, beef jerky and more!) No refrigeration is needed, which is a bonus since electricity here is unpredictable and contents of a fridge or freezer are often lost to spoilage. They were quite proud of themselves!

A local senora is mighty proud of her newly-finished solar food dryer built with help from her 7-year old daughter. This will allow them to use the sun to dry fruits, veggies, and meat to save for leaner months.

A local senora is mighty proud of her newly-finished solar food dryer built with help from her 7-year old daughter. This will allow them to use the sun to dry fruits, veggies, and meat to save for leaner months.

Later, I stuck to my renewed commitment for language study and then pulled out two just-for-fun-books I’ve been working through, Turn Right at Machu Picchu and The Heart of the Soul. Their reading was interrupted by a friend’s urgent plea that I read The Red Tent after we discussed my recent yearning to pay attention to signs from the Divine Feminine and a new desire to connect and align more closely with nature’s cycles like the waning and waxing of the moon, especially in respecting and responding to my own energy levels , optimal times to plant the garden and fieldsas well as seasonal movement of birds and insects . Crops really do grow much better when planted in alignment with the right moon cycle! Waxing moon= above ground crops. Waning moon= root crops. By the way, The Red Tent was incredible and I couldn’t put it down (a little slow in the beginning but irresistible thereafter). The Peace Corps office has a terrific library of books shared by volunteers so there’s never a shortage of good old fashioned entertainment for these looooooooong winter evenings. It feels so good to get lost in a great book, something I rarely have time for in the US.

This magical spot deserved a little Namaste to nature.

This magical spot deserved a little Namaste to nature.

Evenings are often filled with reading, phone calls with other PCV friends, or hoping the internet stars align to catch up on the latest news. I feel a bit spoiled (and grateful) saying that but internet sure has been handy in sharing my adventures and the culture of PY with friends and family.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of “A Day in the Life…” It was a fun little diversion from the usual. As always, with gratitude, thanks for reading! Love, S

Some days everywhere I look, I see only love. <3

Some days everywhere I look, I see only love. ❤

Did you know?

-In PY, eggs are the same price regardless of size or color and are usually sold and stored at room temperature. As long as the eggs are never refrigerated they’ll generally stay good up to six months. The exception is during temperature extremes like a Paraguayan summer or freezing temps where it’s better to keep them in the fridge. However, once they’ve been refrigerated they must stay cold until consumed.

-Fireflies (mau mau in guarani) light up after they are killed.

-Paraguayans drink their red wine mixed with soda and always served with ice. Boxed wine is the most popular because it is inexpensive. I think they mix with soda to improve the flavor and make it go further.

-Paraguayans refer to their “soul mate” or “better half” as their “media naranja” (“half orange”).

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Biodigesters – Got Gas?

“Each day when I awake I know I have one more day to make a difference in someone’s life.” ~ James Mann

June 16, 2014

 

I love my work with biodigesters. It’s fascinating stuff and for those of you non-sciency types who don’t like to read technical talk about poo I tried to keep it interesting so you’d enjoy too. Keep reading. It’ll be worth it, I promise.

I mentioned long ago that part of my work here is with anaerobic biodigesters, which decompose locally-available organic material (usually manure) and produce methane gas for cooking as well as a rich, very liquid compost that’s excellent for gardens, crops or use as a foliar spray to repel pests. I have a lot of interest in promoting these systems on farms here in PY and also because I wanted knowledge to maintain the seven biodigesters in my community, installed by the previous volunteer, I decided to be part of the Biodigester training group last year. We are a group of Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) with specialized training who travel throughout the country helping other volunteers teach about and install these systems in their communities. This alternative generally replaces a señora’s need to cook (and breathe) over an open fire on the ground and haul firewood. It better manages manure, smell and flies on the farm. It makes for healthier living conditions while helping abate nutrient loss into surface water and the massive deforestation that occurs in PY. Here’s the story of one such event I attended recently…

 

The trip to the volunteer’s community was about 11 hours by bus, including waiting in the bus terminals and alongside the road for my next rides (and missing a stop – oops). By the first bus station I was STARVING so during my ‘layover’ I went to the nearby supermarket for lunch and discovered to my delight that they had a hot buffet of prepared food. Whoa – I could hardly contain my excitement! Almost like a restaurant! After much deliberation, I’d just decided what I wanted and was about to get the señora’s attention and then I noticed it: a cockroach exploring the case and the edges of the food. My hopes sank and my excitement evaporated. I was bummed but not completely grossed out. This is PY and hygiene, sanitation and other expectations are, well, different than the US. It’s not drama, it’s just a fact. I walked away and started cruising the aisles the way teens troll the strip at Old Orchard Beach. I digress. After another tour of the store and my need for protein and carbs outweighing the underwhelming fruit and veggie options, I went back to the case. Yes, I did. Afterall, I reasoned, the insect was barely longer than my thumbnail and it was just one (that I saw) and I’ve probably eaten elsewhere with similar or worse conditions without knowing it and that roast loin with ham and melted cheese looked so deliciously inviting and I was SO hungry for something other than bus-station-empanadas. I bought my original choices and tried to push that scurrying visual out of my brain forever. My innerds remained cooperative and unaffected and I continued my journey to my friend’s community. By the time I arrived it was nearly 9pm. Two other volunteers had traveled to help as well and we sat down to prep for our morning workshop. When our travel-weary bodies called it a day, our host gave us a tour of her humble abode complete with instructions on how to use her cool, new homemade composting squat toilet (her version of an aerobic biodigester and she did a great job building it too!). This was a first for me. The composting and the squat. How I made it a year and a half in this country without an encounter with the squat toilet is beyond comprehension. I’ve been terribly sheltered it seems. The fact that the toilet was on a raised platform to allow easy management of the compost underneath combined with the outdoor spotlight that happened to shine down directly and brightly onto the squatting hole made me feel like a Rock Star Appearing On Stage every time I had business to do and stepped up onto that platform. The Leo in me saw the proximity of the neighbors’ homes and desperately wanted to do a princess wave during my inaugural visit to the throne, despite it being 10:30pm. Perhaps only Leos would understand and appreciate such an opportunity, I don’t know. Despite my Leonine leanings, I’m not especially proud of the fact that I LIKE being the center of attention and “being in the spotlight”, and this was one time I would prefer to do without either. When stepping onto the platform and standing upright, the tarp surrounding the structure came to my hips. Barely. Pun intended. I’m sure I half-mooned the neighbors on multiple occasions before getting down to business. Grateful to be no taller, I found myself hoping for a power outage when nature called after dark throughout this visit.

 

Sample squat toilet - basically a hole in the ground or cement platform (this is a stock image from the internet; the one described above is MUCH nicer)

Sample squat toilet – basically a hole in the ground or cement platform (this is a stock image from the internet; the one described above is MUCH nicer)

At daybreak we headed to a local agriculture-themed high school of which there are many in PY. The day started with four of us teaching a workshop to 50 high school seniors about all aspects of the biodigester followed by hands-on application with the kids doing what they’d just learned. The kids were motivated and eager to see it come together, though we always have to convince new users that the gas does not make the cooked food smell like manure and the biodigesters themselves do not smell despite the hundreds of gallons of soupy manure inside because it is an enclosed, oxygen-free system. By 5pm we had started filling the plastic tube with water and were mostly done. All that was left was for the volunteer and kids to begin ‘charging’ it by adding manure the following day. They will add manure for the next three weeks before enough methane gas is produced for burning. This system was installed next to the pig barn for ease of collecting manure and putting into the system (as opposed to hauling buckets of manure across campus) and the fuel will be used to cook pig food. Pigs will provide fertilizer which produces gas and liquid compost. Compost will grow crops to feed the pigs and people. Gas will help cook the pig food (and in most cases, people food), which will result in more fertilizer for the biodidgester and meat for people. And a nice, closed-loop cycle continues!

 

Biodigester installation at a Paraguayan high school

Biodigester installation at a Paraguayan high school

The amazing volunteers who helped with this project (and the woman on the right is a volunteer's community contact)

The amazing volunteers who helped with this project (and the woman on the right is a volunteer’s community contact)

 

A completed biodigester after 2 years in use. The spout on top of the bag is where the gas exits into a hose that runs to the cooking area.

A completed biodigester after 2 years in use. The spout on top of the bag is where the gas exits into a hose that runs to the cooking area.

It was wonderful to participate in this installation, spend time with other volunteers, sharpen my technical and language skills, and see youth learning valuable new information and skills for their futures. And I can check “visit to a composting squat toilet” off my bucket list.

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Father’s Day

Be present and count your blessings. -WW

June 15, 2014

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there and a special note of thanks for my very own, very special Dad:

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Thank you for all these years of love, guidance, and being there through thick and thin. Thank you for being a model of integrity, generosity, kindness, gentleness, and accepting others as they are without judgement. Thank you for showing me that we need make no excuses for who we are. Thank you for teaching me that quietness is not weakness, but rather strength lying in wait. Thank you for making your family a priority. Thank you for offering a safe, nurturing home where respect, values and hard work were emphasized. Thank you for marrying Mom. Thank you for participating in our lives and our children’s lives and for creating beautiful, grounding memories along the way. Thank you for all you have been and are. You mean the world to me. Lots of love today and always. Wen 

 

Today is Father’s Day in both the US and Paraguay. I honored the husband of my host family with a large pan of chocolate brownies with which he was ecstatic and slightly possessive. This earned me a lunch invitation where we feasted on BBQd pork, sopa, and cabbage salad. Two of his older kids (seven total) made the long journey from Asuncion to join us. This family is always joking, laughing, smiling and loving each other and today I reveled and found comfort in that love, grateful to be included.

 

After lunch I made a visit to one of the poorest families in my community. I think for the first year, the kids were afraid of me but one day as they returned from the local despensa with flour and sugar and our paths crossed while I was out for a morning run, they joined me. Barefoot and hair askew they ran alongside me, occasionally racing me despite pounds of food in their arms. We laughed and giggled the whole way. It was our breakthrough and they’ve smiled, waved and said hello to me ever since. My heart smiles at the thought every time. And so I watch them as we slowly come to know each other and it is clear the family doesn’t have much. Though it is winter, I’ve seen these kids come to school without shoes or warm clothes. Their clothes appear to be handed down through many siblings. I have refrained from giving gifts or give-aways in my site for a variety of reasons but today I made an exception. I received some great toys and socks from friends in the US and decided this family would be the recipient of that generosity. The mother was delighted and the kids were initially apprehensive, afraid to believe luck might allow them to possibly keep these goodies. But then the smiles came. Big broad smudgey grins, twinkly eyes, giggles and squeals. The four-year old held a tiny doll in her grubby hands and stared, fascinated. I don’t think she’d ever had a doll before and didn’t even know how to play with it. I took it and showed her how to move the legs and arms to make her appear to dance and twirl. Her eyes lit up. Her whole face smiled. Her shoulders hugged her ears in a bashful display of excitement. She paraded back and forth past me every couple of minutes, looking me straight in the eye with her radiant face as if to say thank you, because she had no words. The older siblings aged 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15 (yes that mama is GUAPA) took turns trying out their toys in the privacy of the tiny, run-down house and then eventually running around the yard with them. Wow. Talk about feel-good, warm fuzzies! I wish I could see this happen every single day.  It’s not the kids’ fault they are poor but there are plenty of things I can do to lift them up and make those kids’ lives a little brighter, material goods aside. A kind smile and a bit of encouragement goes a looooooong way.

 

Finally, to end the day I went to a neighbor’s rezo. Immediately, a man in his 60s began asking if I knew him. Whoa – Of course! When I first moved to my community in December 2012 I joined my host family for a New Year’s Eve party at this house where he and I danced and laughed ridiculously for HOURS until the rain drove us under cover (We made our own version of Dancing with the Stars, or better yet, Dancing Under the Stars). And then in true Paraguayan fashion, everyone at today’s rezo began affectionately recounting the story of how he’d stole me from my younger dance partner after just one dance, and how we danced barefoot that night on the cool grass in the yard inside a seated circle of about 80 amused and enthusiastic family and friends, and then how we danced under the breezeway when the rain came and never sat down until the lightning brought that party to a halt. He’d worked hard to copy my style of ‘tango-accented-freestyle” while I’d done a terrible job mirroring his practiced Paraguayan dance moves. He promised to come back to dance with me again in November before I leave. I asked why he was waiting so long. Everyone had a good laugh and are looking forward to our finale.

On the way home, I paused in a secluded turn in the road and just stood still. I could hear my heart beat, the occasional snap of a branch breaking as a bird hopped through the canopy, the zippy buzz of a hummingbird behind me, the trickle of water making its way through the mud-laden ditch, the wind rustling the roadside leaves, the chirp of a cricket in the sugar cane field, the wooden knocking of tall bamboo against itself. I felt the hardness of the packed red soil under my feet, the weight of my empty backpack freed of its children’s treasures, the breeze lifting my hair, the smile creasing my eyes and the pressure of my heart swelling with joy and gratitude and love for the gifts of today. Some call it “stop and smell the roses.” I call it “be present and count your blessings.”

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The Bees Knees

“Was it you or I who stumbled first? It does not matter. The one of us who finds the strength to get up first, must help the other.” ― Vera Nazarian, The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration

May 10, 2014

 

I do a lot of work with honeybees here in PY and this quote reminded me of the amazing way bees ALWAYS work collaboratively together in the interest of the colony as a whole. We humans could benefit a lot from being more like bees…

 

Helping  some local señoras capture a wild bee colony that was living in a coco tree. The honeycomb in this hive was three feet long!

Helping some local señoras capture a wild bee colony that was living in a coco tree. The honeycomb in this hive was three feet long!

And since we’re talking bees, here are 15 fun facts about them!

 

  1. It takes the 6-week lifetime of a single worker bee to produce 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey.

    This honeybee found a container of beeswax lipbalm that I made. Here she is stealing it! First, she scrapes the wax from the top with her mouth, then pats it into shape with her front legs. Then she passes the ball of wax from her front feet to her middle feet which pack it into her pollen baskets on the hind legs. She was so heavy with wax that had trouble flying away!

    This honeybee found a container of beeswax lipbalm that I made. Here she is stealing it! First, she scrapes the wax from the top with her mouth, then pats it into shape with her front legs. Then she passes the ball of wax from her front feet to her middle feet which pack it into her pollen baskets on the hind legs. She was so heavy with wax that had trouble flying away!

  2. A single bee can visit up to 2000 flowers a day. This means they are POLLINATING your future food supply and those pretty flowers you like to display on your table and around your home. No bees=no food for you. Think about it.
    Passion fruit flower with a giant bee collecting nectar. You can see all the pollen on her back, which is great for cross-pollinating flowers! This giant bee is very docile and stingless. On the backside of the flower behind the stamens you can see a  smaller, common honeybee. The two get along just dandy.

    Passion fruit flower with a giant bee collecting nectar. You can see all the pollen on her back, which is great for cross-pollinating flowers! This giant bee is very docile and stingless. On the backside of the flower behind the stamens you can see a smaller, common honeybee. The two get along just dandy.

    Our Thanksgiving feast!

    No more Thanksgiving feast!

    Garden tomatoes

    No more tomatoes or pasta sauce or pizza!

  3. Bees must flap their wings 12,000 times a minute to stay aloft when returning to the hive with a full load of pollen. That pollen is HEAVY.
  4. There are up to 60,000 bees in a hive and they maintain the hive at a constant 93 degrees F.
  5. Bees never sleep.
  6. Bees are ‘born’ out of the comb full-sized and immediately begin to work.
  7. There is only one queen bee per hive. If two or more queens are in the same hive they will fight to the death. The colony can make a new queen at any time by simply choosing any egg and feeding it royal jelly instead of a regular bee larva diet. The queen cell is easy to detect as it is much larger than a regular cell. Once ‘born’ the new queen will immediately know if there is another queen present by the smell of her pheromones and the fighting will begin.
  8. The queen is the mother of all bees in a hive and can live 3-4 years. Her purpose is to lay eggs and give off pheromones that keep the other females sterile and also indicate her presence, which is comforting to the workers in the various messages it relays. She can lay up to 1500 eggs per day or nearly a million in her lifetime. The queen is significantly larger than all other bees in the hive. She leaves the hive only once and that is only to mate shortly after she is ‘born’. She stores a lifetime of sperm in her body. The only other time she exits the hive is if it is disturbed (during a honey harvest or hive renovation) but she normally returns quickly.

    Illuvia de Oro tree (Rain of Gold)  last summer.

    Illuvia de Oro tree (Rain of Gold) last summer, pollinated by, you guessed it, BEES.

  9. The majority of bees in the hive are females, all sisters, and all work tirelessly. They have different roles based on their age. The newest bees tend the queen, grooming and feeding her; older bees collect pollen and nectar and will evaporate nectar to make honey; they defend the hive as needed, tend the brood and young drones, build the honeycomb, etc.
  10. Drones are males that make up a small percentage of the hive. Their sole purpose is to breed with a queen – but not their own! – and they die immediately after mating. They do not have stingers and are unable to defend the hive. Essentially they hang out cruising the local environment for queens and eating the hive’s food supply. They do no other work, not even helping collect pollen or nectar. Nothing. In preparation for winter, the female worker bees often kill off many drones to save the food supply for the working females, queen and brood and then they push the drone bodies out the front door (I’m not kidding).
  11. Bees must produce 60 lbs of honey to sustain the colony through the winter.
  12. Honeybees produce beeswax from slits in their bodies. They chew these flakes to make them soft then pat them into place to make honeycomb cells. Every cell is an exact replicate of every other 6-sided cell.

    Honey harvest! Fresh, beautiful, delicious honeycomb and honey made from jasmine flowers...the best I've ever tasted!

    Honey harvest! Buckets of fresh, beautiful, delicious honeycomb and honey made from jasmine flowers…the best I’ve ever tasted!

  13. When bees make honey from nectar, they fan their wings over the nectar to evaporate the water. Cured Honey is 17% water. When honey contains more water than that, it ferments at room temperature. When harvesting honey you want to look for the capped comb (the cells will be covered with wax- see photo below as an example) which indicates the honey has been cured and can be stored at room temperature indefinitely.

    Honey harvest and processing - cutting comb, heavy with honey, from the frame

    Honey harvest and processing – cutting comb, heavy with honey, from the frame

  14. Honey is the only food that doesn’t spoil (as long as no contaminants are introduced) and has been found buried with pharaohs in the Egyptian pyramids and … still edible. Honey is also a great preservative as its high-sugar, low-oxygen content do not allow generally growth of bacteria.
  15. Sometimes honey forms sugar crystals due to contact with air but this does not change the quality of the honey. To return to liquid simply place the jar in a pan of warm water until liquefied. Do not boil as this destroys many of honey’s beneficial properties.

*Try a google search for some of honey’s amazing uses and benefits including for swelling and pain from bee stings, cuts and burns, acne, dry skin, hair conditioner, allergies, and more.

**No bees=no food as we know it! **

Fruits of late October: peaches and guavas (called guayabas here)

Fruits of late October: peaches and guavas (called guayabas here)

Without healthy populations of bees our world would become a disastrous (and hungry!!) place. Do your part to help support bees in your area. Avoid use of pesticides. Educate yourself about these amazing creatures. Do not kill honeybees. Remember they only sting when threatened. They will not hurt you unless you look scary (too close to the hive or wearing dark colors), act scary (swat at them or mess with their babies or queen) or otherwise piss them off. If you need a swarm or nest removed call your local beekeepers association. There are always beekeepers looking to capture a hive and take it home. They will love you for it.

***Support your local beekeepers and enjoy the fruits of their bees’ labor. Yum yum.***

Sunflowers. Gotta love 'em

All things thrive when bees are alive!

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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