Posts Tagged With: bees

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

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

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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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Life is a Cascade of Moments

October 10, 2013

The Wing

I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear of falling
Or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
To allow my living
To open me,
To make me less afraid,
More accessible,
To loosen my heart
Until it becomes a wing…
choose to risk
My significance,
To live
So that which
Comes to me as seed
Goes on to the next
As blossom,
And that which
Comes to me as blossom,
Goes on a fruit.

— Dawna Markova (resharing from my friend Anne Davis Klaus)

This is a collection of random reflections on life as a PCV in Paraguay after one year and with one more to go. I know in the years to come I will forget many of the details that make my experience truly incredible so here is a drop in the bucket of the things that make up this adventure-filled journey of a lifetime and fill me with gratitude for this opportunity every single day:

What it takes to welcome a stranger. How good it feels to be welcomed by strangers. The perfumed air of blooming flowers on jasmine and fruit trees. The hum of bees in those trees. The sound of baby goats bleating for Mum (and subsequently eating my rose bushes). The aroma of cow manure and burning trash. The sight and sound of kids playing happily -very happily- skipping, laughing, commanding each other’s actions. Large families where infants, many siblings, parents, aunts, grandfathers all share a roof and who wouldn’t dream of sending grandma to a home (even if they existed) and where a son or daughter will live forever at home to take care of their mother. Prairie fires. The huge, sapphire blue, cloudless sky. The screech of tero-tero birds. The knocking of woodpeckers (campo flickers) on the window in the next classroom or sparrows pecking at my own window. The way the sun splashes down my patio in the morning. The way the cows all migrate to the village soccer field in the afternoon. The way a señora invites me to lunch of cow stomach like it’s the most gourmet meal I could have. Drying my hair in the afternoon sun on my porch during language study. The rustle of my prayer flags in the breeze. The frustration of cows or chickens raiding my porch and eating harvest of mandioca, new seedlings, or drying seed pods.  The rooster that crows outside my door at 6am every morning. Hot chipa or sopa right out of the tatakua. Hospitality. Ducks bathing in puddles and ditches. The sight of vast prairie. The wind before a rain storm. Tiny frogs that hang out under the toilet rim. Those diamond-shaped snail things that crawl up the walls. Mean dogs. Mean cows. The sweetness of baby animals nursing. Public breastfeeding.

Flip flops – the footwear of choice. My 30-day exercise challenges. Time to think. Time to read. Time to indulge The Planner within. Time to foster my creative side. Skyping with family. Gifts from family and friends. Red soil. Red dust. Droughts followed by new running water system and hot showers. Trying new local recipes. Amazing tropical fruit: grapefruits, mandarins, mangoes, passionfruits, guava, papaya, kumquats, pears. Fire ants. La cigarra insects that sound like fax machines. The buzz of hummingbird wings in the lime tree just outside my window. Hot summers. Ceiling fans. How everyone invites you to ‘sit down’ as soon as you arrive. Coordinating non-winter trips to town with quick-dry clothing knowing each 3 mile journey between my house and the bus in blazing temps and no shade will generate clothes soaked in sweat. Generosity of my community. People’s (im)patience with my language. Steady doses of humiliating myself. Regular opportunities to question myself and my abilities. Joy in seeing my small accomplishments. Washing laundry by hand and planning laundry around the weather. Being unphased at seeing pigs or chickens mating on the soccer field. Rainy days that give me a guilt-free, stay-inside day. Tarantulas. Beekeeping. The one bee that came to visit every day and would sip honey from my finger. The satisfaction of having bottles of honey from my own bees.

Winters – with cold that insisted on hot water  bottles to pre-warm the bed and prevented me from bathing for days on end. The hilarity of watching cute piglets or baby goats run. Identifying fears I never knew existed in me and seeing them fade or fall through this PC experience and the personal growth and strength that has come from it. Learning two languages and, as a rite of passage, making an ass of myself. Being the Queen of faux pas. Occasional gunshots in the distance (especially New Year’s Eve!). Never forget dancing in the circle New Year’s Eve. The night sky, Milky Way, southern hemisphere constellations. Bamboo fences. Barbed wire fences. Creative gate solutions. Homes of cement, wood or coco trees. Cooking over open fires. No trash management. Paraguayans’ creativity when they need it as well as inhibiting customs (you can’t have terere and watermelon together unless you want to blow up; you can’t have both cheese and beef in your mandio chyryry-must be one or the other). Frogs crying in ditches. Dengue fever. Mosquito nets. Stingless bees. Glassless windows with shutters or security bars (rejas). Life on the patio. Terere and mate. Strange insect invasions. Black ants in the house by the thousands. Ox carts and oxen (gueis). Asado bbq. The sound of animals being butchered. Killing and dressing my first chicken. Learning to make chorizo. Chickens in the kitchen. Pigs in the kitchen.

The amazing ability of a bus driver’s assistant to remember who has paid, who owes fare, and who gets off in which town. Signs of Catholicism everywhere. Seasonal shifts in birds and insects, weeds and daylight, weather and food supply. The level of poverty. The level of happiness among locals (sometimes in inverse proportion to poverty). The level of corruption. How I dislike the clothing styles and television programs, especially game shows that objectify women. Three showers a day in summer. How spiffy men look in traditional po’i shirts. Upbeat Paraguayan music. Radio shows that won’t play an entire song start to finish without commentary, sound effects or simply starting a new song in the middle, just when I was getting into the groove. Soccer and volleyball. Kids’ fun with simple makeshift ‘toys’ of stumps, rope, scrapwood, rocks, marbles. Playing volleyball with kids at recess. Motos and motocarros. Incredible sunsets. Simple lives. Simple thinking. Community’s dedication to each other. Sharing. There is no concept of germs, hence the sharing. The ‘lindo’ factor. Missing my family. Amandau ice cream. Super friendly national police, unless they are guarding the Presidential Palace. Getting money at the bank. Shopping for fruits and veggies at the Mercado and getting Norte, rather than local, prices. Dancing tango alone in my house at night. The squawk of guinea hens.

Sand trucks going to and from the river. Paraguayans’ non-confrontational style. Chisme (rumor mill, known as radio so’o).  How much meat I don’t eat here. Poor soil. Running to the sunrise. Morning yoga. September is “cut and sell your firewood” month. Showers at night. Five to six hour bus rides to Asuncion with no bathroom onboard. Hazardous sidewalks in Asuncion. Treating myself to a nice hotel when staying in the city. The abundance of hostels. Mercado 4. Watching the movie “Siete Cajas”. Shopping Mariscal Lopez (can you say McDonald’s French fries and sundaes?) and Shopping Del Sol. At the supermarket, having to bag, weigh and sticker your produce in the department before getting to the checkout (and how many times I forgot to do this). Making soup on cold, rainy days. Mandio chyryry every morning. Popcorn almost every day. Cheddar powder for said popcorn.  How everyone uses oregano for flavoring their food but wouldn’t dream of putting basil or rosemary in a dish…they are only for tea! Paraguayans who mumble and will never be understood by me. How much I promised myself I would never pretend to understand when I didn’t but yet I still do it (how many times can one reasonably expect a person to repeat?). Spending weeks planning the perfect workshop to teach a new skill only to have no one show up, but often something good comes of it (we get to try again!)

All the things you can carry on a bike or moto (moto: 5 people, birthday cakes, live pigs, sheets of plywood or glass, filled propane tanks, hoes, chainsaws, bags on the handlebars up to the driver’s eyeballs of freshly butchered beef, etc). Weekends are for drinking but especially Sundays, all day. Sunday soccer tournaments where the winning team earns a pig carcass to BBQ. ‘Modern’ outdoor bathrooms with toilet and shower in a 3’x4’ space just big enough to stand in but not actually move. Termite mounds dotting the prairie. Diesel fumes. When the church was repainted from pink to red-orange. Friendship, support and regular talks with special PCVs. Rezos. Monday morning custom of visiting deceased family at the cemetery. Cool looking cemetaries. Crime. If you see it and want it you take it but it’s not stealing. Purple blooming Tajy trees. Lapacho trees are bright yellow and have matching butterflies that visit it. The neighbor’s Illuvia de oro (rain of gold) tree of dripping yellow blossoms. Grape arbors. Snakes. Giant beetles. The giant chalkboard in my ‘school’house. The view of hills from my front door. Watching the sun set from my hammock. School kids conjuring up any reason to peek or come into my house. Compost piles. Using worms to compost organics in the garden or in the kitchen. Experimenting with green manures (cover crops) to nourish the soil. Agricultural experiments, some go well, some are disasters, all are lessons.

Wide-brimmed hats. Long sleeved shirts. Carrying groceries in my backpack. The most plentiful thing in the freezer is ice, in tube-like bags that fit one’s thermos. Buying cheese from a local señora. Drop-in visits. Drop-in visits that yield goodies to take home. Outdoor lights affixed to trees. Roofs of tile, chappa, metal, thatch. Animals free-range and never need their hooves trimmed. Animals that sleep in the road. Buses that come to a stop, horn blaring, until the cows move out of the road. Things that are used for many purposes (one knife is used to kill a pig, weed the garden, cut carrots and rope). All parts of the animal are used and cherished. Wealth is measured in cattle. Sunflower oil is the most common oil for cooking but soy is very popular with cottonseed more expensive. Every store has at least ½ an aisle dedicated to yerba mate. Paraguayan diet is based on fat, meat, salt, and sugar, there are few fresh veggies much of the year. Veggies rarely eaten raw except as shredded cabbage salad or lettuce with tomatoes. Sweets, soda and artificial juice are popular (cheap too) despite all the fruit trees here. Palm trees. Pine trees. Wild pineapples. Chickens pecking bugs off cows’ legs. No mail delivery and no mailboxes. Buses are used to deliver packages long distance. Electrical and running water systems not dependable.

Inequity between womens’ and mens’ roles and work load. Horses that willingly stand up to their knees in water to eat grass. Eucalyptus trees. Bean ‘trees’. How people don’t eat many eggs as a stand-alone food source but rather as an ingredient. Making candles. Drinking wine in the privacy of my house. Rain blowing through the windows on a stormy day. People working barefoot even in the cold. Kids wearing jackets and snowsuits to class because there is no heat or insulation. Cultural practice of asking personal questions like your age, income, weight, cost of an item, marital/significant-other status, and not understanding how your life could be happy without a man in it. Pigs scratching their rumps on a light pole. Everyone has a cell phone. Men think it’s sport to share your phone number with other men. Dueling is legal if you are a blood donor and there are medical staff on hand. School days are either 7-11am or 1-5pm depending what grade you are in; in winter the afternoons are shorter because it gets dark early. Only 50% of kids finish high school. Ladies- long hair and ponytails, men- no facial hair. Plunging necklines. Tight pants and clothes. Skinny jeans on men. Sparkly accessories. Very high heels. Teacher strikes. School uniforms. School cancellations for rain, if it looks like rain, if it’s too cold, or there is a community function held at the school. Harvesting green manure seeds that then sit in my house for months waiting to be shelled. Herding cattle with moto, bicycle, horse or on foot. Leaky roof. Indoor gutters. Siestas. Paraguayan soap operas.

Teaching something new. Seeing others grow. Learning something new. Seeing myself grow. Making a difference in someone’s life. Making a difference in my life.

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Happy Birthday, Dad

2-27-13

When your heart speaks, take good notes. – Judith Campbell

One of the toughest things of this journey is being away from family on important days, like my Dad’s recent birthday. I was unable to reach him on his special day due to limited technology here (phone doesn’t make international calls and I have internet access only when venturing intown once every week or two) and felt a bit sad for being unable to participate. However, I did send a birthday card which I’m hoping arrives less than a month late. Lol

Shortly after posting my last update I learned that schools across PY delayed the date by two weeks that they would re-open for the academic year due to the dengue fever epidemic here. After trying to swim at the Embassy during my last trip to Asuncion I understand why this disease is such a problem. We walked onto the campus and were surrounded by throngs of mosquitoes so thick we literally had to run to the pool and jump in to escape them. In all my years in Maine, never have I seen anything like it.

Speaking of the city, I splurged and wore lipstick during my last trip to the capital. Yup. Haven’t done that since December. And earrings too. Just needed to feel a little girly for a change. Campo life isn’t exactly for the fashion-conscious. Well, you’ve seen the beekeeping photos. ‘Nuf said.

I’ve mentioned before how happy the kids are in my community but it bears another mention. Daily, I am amazed how these kids, with perhaps two toys to their names, can play happily for hours with each other or alone and be thoroughly entertained. They use whatever is handy: an empty 55 gallon barrel, a stick, a sand pile, dried corn cobs, bug skeletons, deflated soccer ball, a grain bag and rope made into a hammock, a handful of marbles, but mostly, their imaginations! Sometimes play is simply marveling at their surroundings. A trail of ants in the dirt. The shape of a pear after having fallen upside down in a pile of cow manure. The way the smoke rises from the burning pile of trash. The feel of sand between their toes. It reminds me of my childhood when we reveled in making our own entertainment – outdoors whenever possible – instead of relying on computers, machines, vehicles, TV, or other gadgets to keep us preoccupied. Because of this, these kids are excellent problem solvers and when confronted with something that needs fixing, they can nearly always figure a solution to it themselves or in conjunction with a sibling. They study it tirelessly, try different approaches, and never frustrate that the pace of the solution seems too slow. There isn’t much they can’t do. Tranquilo.

I’ve been very inspired by my latest read: “What Makes the Great Great” by Dennis Kimbro. Though written for a black audience, heavy with religious references, and often belaboring individual points, I have found it full of inspiration and thought-provoking questions everyone interested in improving themselves, maximizing achievement, and/or seeking true happiness should consider if you haven’t already. It has provided guidance and helped me clarify and prioritize future goals and dreams.

After a couple slow weeks in my community bee work has sprung up again. This week I visited a family to follow up on a wild hive capture I did a month ago. While chatting, I was entertained by a tiny piglet in a rope harness racing around the yard, vaulting himself in and out of the kitchen whenever the señora
would open the door to check on lunch. Only in PY. After checking her new hive, we also did a small honey harvest on a wild hive on the prairie. It was relatively straight forward but several dozen bees followed us back to the house. We finished squeezing honey out of the comb and into a bucket just as the bees became somewhat unbearable. And because this señora doesn’t use the wax for anything I was gifted with it to add to my stash for the skin lotion clinic I’m holding in May. Another señora also asked for help with a honey harvest which yielded several liters of honey for her and about 15 pounds of wax for me. I see many candles and salves in the near future!

There is an unlikely war happening in my host family home: the old “over vs under” argument with the TP. What’s funny is that I, the guest, am apparently the perpetrator in the ‘over’ category and will return only to find the ‘under’ proponent has trumped me. No one says a word about it but this goes on with every roll. I can’t help but laugh in wonder what they’re thinking and laugh again that I’m actually writing about it. I guess it’s been a slow week.

I received my first shipment of chocolate (thanks Mom and Dad!), fantastic family photos of my bro’s wedding, and some yummy smelling soaps from cousins. I hear there are other packages on the way from friends. Thank you everyone who has gone to such lengths to support me here from emails, blog comments, old-fashioned letters and Christmas cards, to tango music and potato chips! It really has been incredibly appreciated and helpful in buoying me on the hard days.

We’ve been promised running water this week! I’m not holding my breath just yet but when it happens I’ll be a happy lady.

Random facts:
Did you know dried corn cobs make excellent corks? Paraguayans frequently use them to close wine bottles filled with honey.

Freezers here are not self-defrosting.

The vast majority of homes in the campo are single story. In larger towns and the city you’ll find two story homes and buildings.

Smile…it makes everyone wonder what you’re up to. And it makes you happier too. I promise.
Jajotopata!

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What’s the fastest way to jump start your morning? Awaken a hive of 40,000 killer bees!

Date: 2-6-13

“The first time you share tea… you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family… You must make time to share three cups of tea.” – “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

The Dustbowl of 2013: I’m writing on a Thursday with the promise from neighbors that it will rain tomorrow. The village is very excited. Storm clouds gathered tonight at sunset and the wind picked up. It was suffocatingly hot today, 103 degrees, and like breathing through a warm wet blanket. Even at 10pm the fans (ventiladores in Spanish) are earning their keep and relief is finally coming with the wind whipping ahead of the storm, cooling temps a bit and keeping mosquitos at bay. The power falters repeatedly. The Professor, with his connections, arranged for a tank of water to be delivered today and filled the well higher than I’ve ever seen it. I wanted to do a happy dance. No laundry in the rio afterall and the continued assurance of daily bucket baths and clean drinking water.

A couple weeks ago I made my way to Asuncion, PY’s capitol. I had business and errands at the Peace Corps office and needed a little time away from the campo. I called a nearby volunteer who also lives in the Department of , and is my favorite traveling companion. Lucky Sagittarius that he is, this Kentucky mountain man with the preacher’s hat is a people magnet who casually turns any mishap into the best adventure. He agreed some time in the big city would do him good after a rough week. My one hour walk to the bus stop entailed watching ominous clouds gather, sure that it wouldn’t possibly rain TODAY, since it hadn’t rained in two weeks. Rain it did but, with impeccable timing, held off until the exact second I reached the awning of the bus stop. Then it poured. And the wind picked up and made it impossible to stay if I wanted to maintain any dryness. I ran across the street to a beautiful overgrown bush resembling a giant Easter lily with yellow trumpet-shaped flowers which provided fantastic shelter as I hovered under it, crouching over my backpack and the laptop hidden within to keep them dry. The rain lasted only 10 minutes but it gave me time to pause and be present. With my head bowed I watched the water collecting on my curls, slowly sliding, gathering, building into droplets as they slipped toward the ends, like kids on a waterslide, then gracefully fall onto my ankles. My ankles were quickly speckled with dust and raindrops. I lifted my foot outward into the rain hoping to wash off the dust. When the rain subsided I tried rinsing my feet in a shallow sidewalk puddle. Stupid. Before the rain, the sidewalk was dirtier than my feet from the road dust. It was essentially a warm, watery puddle of mud.

Shortly thereafter the bus arrived and took me through new parts of prairie, past plantation after plantation of pines and eucalyptus trees and others I didn’t recognize, all standing in perfect formation like obedient soldiers. The tallest had foliage only at the very top and reminded me of giant rows of harp strings with cattle grazing beneath and between. We continued for two hours down this never-ending bouncy dirt road where the prairie stretched to an endless horizon, reminding me of the ocean back home, then closed in and became familiar smaller pastures like you’d find in any quaint New England country town. The smells of rain, rotting fruit, manure, and the bus’ ancient vinyl and polyester seats filled my head. The road became ugly as the rainstorm made friends with the clay soil and played games with the wheels on the bus. One moment we’re slip-sliding down a small hill and the next spinning our wheels at the slightest incline. It was a bit harrowing so I did what any logical person would do: went to sleep.

In Yuty (pronounced joo-tu), officially the most southern place in the world I have visited thus far in my life, I saw an employee at the bus terminal using crutches because his feet had grown backwards but bless him for working and the terminal for hiring him. The other volunteer and I arrived in Asuncion at 4:30am and found rooms at a beautiful new hostel downtown. I was so excited for a hot shower. We filled the day with errands at the Peace Corps office, lunch of great Chinese food, a friendly and random chance meeting on the sidewalk with an alchemist who gave us mounds of fresh fruit from his home, and catching up with a Paraguay friend, Ernesto, who lives and owns a leather goods shop in Mercado 4 and who took time away from the business to show us around. He’s super sweet. We treated ourselves to massages and headed back to the hostel where we met a Russian-German man who speaks 8 languages, has lived in Brazil a number of years and moved to PY only two weeks ago. This is what I love about hostels. You meet interesting people. We were joined by another volunteer friend and sat around sharing stories into the night.

The next morning I was refreshed and ready to rejoin my community. In a cab ride back to the bus terminal we were surprised to find ourselves in a new car in mint condition complete with new-car smell and lace seat covers….a rarity in PY, or anywhere for that matter!

My host Mom, Isabel, and I were chatting recently about food. She confessed that PY doesn’t have much in the way of food preparation education. Recipes and cookbooks in the campo are rare. Most recipes are passed on by family, hence why one family’s sopa may be very different from another’s. She added that many women in our community are eager to learn how to prepare healthier food and lose weight but don’t know how. I see some nutrition workshops and cooking classes in our future!

This last week of January has been packed with bee projects from which I finally obtained my own hive of bees. Having this work has greatly improved my overall satisfaction and minimized the normal ups and downs, at least for now. It feels good to have solid work and make a tangible contribution through beekeeping for those families. Most bees here are Africanized or the infamous “killer bees.” I did three wild-hive captures (trasiegos) with various members of my community and a honey harvest with my host family. Now that my community knows I can help them with bees, invitations keep pouring in from families wanting help and folks are eager to tell me where to find the next takuru (termite mound). Let me clarify: invitations come from families with whom I’ve built relationships. Like most places in the world, nothing is accomplished here without first building relationships (and building toward your “Three Cups of Tea” as it were). And even the most pressing matter may still take a backseat to first sharing terere with a circle of family or friends. A simple walk down the street always involves saying hello to everyone and asking about their family.

A trasiego involves moving the bees from their wild hive and putting them into a wooden hive that is managed by the family on their property. Wild hives are often found here under termite mounds, in coco trees or in holes in the soil. Often you can also harvest some honey during a trasiego, depending on the time of year. We are nearing the end of honey harvest season but were able to collect some honey in all three cases. Bees tend to be much more tranquilo during a trasiego than during a honey harvest because in a trasiego you are destroying their home, they are confused and go into survival mode rather than their typical defensive mode when you simply steal their honey. This is not to say they won’t sting because they will but overall they’re much more tranquilo. In fact, we often handle them with bare hands while scooping them from the wild hive into their new box! It’s incredible how much heat they produce in the depths of the hive and the vibration of their wings on your hands is amazing and, at first, quite unsettling.

The first trasiego was a subterranean colony living under a termite mound on the prairie. I had three volunteers who visited for the weekend to help and get additional practice for themselves. The family didn’t originally want to participate at all, the husband citing an ‘allergy’ to bee stings (I think every man in my village conveniently has an ‘allergy’ to bee stings). But ultimately the entire family was an integral part of the process, from rebuilding an old wooden hive to sewing honeycomb onto the frames of the new hive and scooping bees into their new home. Even the teenage boys came up close and helped with the smokers to keep the bees calm. The family was very proud of themselves and their new hive in the end. The second trasiego was the first on my own and I felt pretty confident. I worked with two ladies in their 50s, their first trasiego each. Again, neither wanted to be hands-on originally but, with a littIe convincing, they were cracking open the fallen coco tree with a machete, sewing comb onto the frames, keeping the smokers going and the bees calm, and learning the difference between cells containing honey, pollen and baby bees. In fact, we witnessed three ‘newborn’ bees hatching from their cells that day. Incredible because they come out fully grown, walking perfectly and ready to work. When we pulled a pristine, three foot chunk of honeycomb from the tree we all smiled and posed for a photo taken by one of my host family’s daughters, standing a ‘safe’ distance away in the brush. They realized handling bees was actually quite fun and finished with a new sense of confidence and accomplishment. Personally, I find working with bees very meditative because you can’t think of anything else when you are with them. The final trasiego was another, huge, termite mound on the prairie. A neighbor had planned to harvest the honey and invited me to keep the bees for myself afterward. Score. The final piece of a trasiego after putting them in the box is to leave the box there for a day or two so the bees who aren’t yet inside will find their way there and you take as many from the old hive as possible. Then the following night after dark you move the hive to its permanent location on your own property. Since I don’t have a property my host family offered a spot in the forest on their property for my new bees to live. The problem with this hive is that the days were so hot the bees wouldn’t stay in the box so we could move them off the prairie to their new home. Instead they were clustering outside and underneath to stay cool. So we got up at 5am the third morning and took what we could. Wrapping the hive in a sheet to prevent escapees and stings, we trekked the bumpy mile across the prairie and crop fields to their new location. As we put the box in place, we could hear the angry buzzing of 40,000 pissed off bees now loaded for bear from being so rudely jostled and awakened so we quickly removed the sheet and ran like hell. It was a fantastic week and the unanticipated benefit of this work is that my villagers insist I take home some honey for helping them.

I’ve been trying to move my bin of California red worms from the old volunteer’s house to the school garden for lessons in using worms for composting when the school year begins later this month. It took two attempts as the first try was thwarted by fire ants. I heard them before I saw them. I looked up at the sound of rustling thinking a horse or cow was moving through the bushes nearby. Initially I saw nothing but then the leaves on the ground started moving and I realized an army of fire ants was headed straight for us. Because ants don’t like wet conditions, we made a temporary barrier by emptying two buckets of water around the area but it wasn’t enough to stop them. We fled and finished the following week. During that attempt, the 10-year old from my host family told me to stop and listen to the birds. They were really squawking and she told me it was because a snake (serpiente) was near. With this newsflash I just wanted to finish the damn project and get outta there. I cursed myself for forgetting my machete this day. We worked faster, walked carefully and were glad to finish after a few trips with the wheelbarrow. Pay mind to the birds’ song for they speak when the serpent is near.

Speaking of insects and dryness, we’ve been hit with a sudden onslaught of new insects who either prefer the dry conditions or are looking for water as desperately as everything else. Many of these insects are stinger types like wasps, clinging to wet laundry on the line and sucking the moisture from it.

It’s “carnaval” season in PY. There are two types of carnaval. One is the infamous fiesta scene such as that in Encarnacion and Asuncion with fireworks, festivities, and scantily-clad dancers donning heels and plumage like a Victoria’s Secret runway model. The other meaning for carnaval is ‘water fight!’ haha Isabel encourages me to carnaval her daughters, normally Irma, when they joke with me. The other day the family was on the patio chatting away and I snuck up behind Irma after she’d given me a ration of joking and gave her a good squirt with my water bottle. Water fight and peals of laughter ensued!

February 12 is my site presentation which means my supervisor and our technical guru will visit my site to meet with my villagers, explain Peace Corps, my background, expectations the village should have of me and Peace Corps has of my village to support me. During this time, they also inspect my future living space: a classroom in an old, unused school building. I love my host family but can’t wait to move, have my own space, and make my own food again! I’m busy finishing my family visits and ensuring everyone has an invitation to the gathering.

Recently my family made chipa, a very popular bread made of corn and mandioca flour and usually shaped like a bagel or baguette. We enjoyed a breakfast of chipa and hot chocolate in the coolness and sunrise of one early morning. This reminded me of the croissants and delicious hot chocolate I had years ago in a tiny French café while chaperoning my daughter’s eighth grade class in Quebec City.

Random additions:

I recently finished reading “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen (couldn’t put it down and read it in one day) and “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. “Three Cups” portrays Greg’s life as a mountain climber who went on to build schools for children in the Himalayan mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan. If you’re a climber, interested in other cultures and/or the politics pre-and-post- 9/11 of Pakistan and Afghanistan this one might peak your interest. Next is the sequel to “Three Cups” called “Stones into School” which I am liking even better.

“Air tissue” is a popular practice here. Plus it helps with trash management. I’ve never seen a Paraguayan use a paper tissue.

It is common for Paraguayans to cook meals in a single pot. This is why stews or “caldo” is so popular. It is also very common for vegetables and meat to be cut into tiny pieces. Fewer pans, less clean up, faster cooking and thus less fuel used.

One day at the bus stop I met a woman with 14 siblings, 11 of whom were living. But she doesn’t take the record. Last week I met someone whose cousin had 17 kids and none were twins!

On my walk home from the bus one day, courtesy of a fantastic view of the prairie, I counted the smoke from 11 prairie fires. Our normally cloudless, bright blue sky was hazy for the next couple days. Everything is dangerously dry from the drought.

When you visit a Paraguayan family, their hospitality second to none, they always end the visit asking when you will visit again. At first, I just thought they enjoyed the visit and wanted me to come back. Later I realized it’s what they all say to conclude a visit. Haha!

Condiments here like mayo and ketchup are sold in small, single serve squeezable pouches, convenient for those who have no refrigeration. Spices are sold in small plastic sleeves but I’m not sure why this convention is popular. Perhaps to be used more rapidly to prevent insect infestation? I remember while working for Hannaford that our Latino populations in the US prefer the same type of spice packaging over the flip-top or screw-top canister style with which I grew up.

Don’t forget to tell your favorites that you love them.

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The day the well went dry and the cow gave powdered milk

Jan 22, 2013

“…explore the beauty of silence, and get your friends to appreciate it too…It’s amazing how refreshing it can be to share silent moments with people you really enjoy.” – How Yoga Works, Geshe Michael Roach & Christie McNally

We officially have a sequia (drought) on our hands across PY. The ground is cracking, trees are limp, the cattle are irritable for eating crunchy, brown grass and all of their usual watering holes are dry. We cringe when the trucks pass the house on their way to or from the river to buy sand as dust billows in massive red clouds in their wake, rolling across the pasture, into windows, onto clean laundry drying on the line. On Saturday our well went dry. One might think a family of 6 plus guests might be nervous about such a situation but they are quite tranquilo indeed. They’ve done this before and spoke matter-of-factly that the Professor would take the tractor to the next pueblo and bring back drinking, cooking and bath water as long as they would let him. It seems he is friends with the owners of the sugar cane factory who have this extra water. Every drop is precious. I guess it’s a good thing I’m no longer fazed with moss, fern bits or the occasional beetle floating in the bucket of drinking water in the kitchen. I’ll take what I can get. Though the 40 liter barrel is the same one used to catch rainwater from the roof and I question its cleanliness. It’s a tough spot to be in- needing water but having no control over the hygiene of the containers. In the meantime, kids were asked to consolidate bathroom trips to minimize water use, waste water from dishes is tossed on the pasture to preserve what little green is struggling to survive and we’ll be doing our laundry in the rio (river) along with several other families. Since I can’t ride the moto, which is how the rest of the family will get there, I’m negotiating with the neighbor, Isabel’s sister, to let me take her ox cart instead of walking that six mile roundtrip in the sun with a bag of clothes. The ox look like they’re going slow but they’re actually faster than my fastest walk. We’ll see. Over breakfast Isabel joked that it is now so dry her cow is giving powdered milk. Personally, I’m waiting for the chocolate! Haha

In the meantime, the beautiful pear tree near the house is having no difficulty raining fruit into the backyard. After wondering what a family might do with dozens of pears, I was delightfully surprised to be served “Peras Dulce” or Sweet Pears. OMG. Who needs apple pie when you can have THIS? (Perhaps I can convince my uncles to favor this instead of my apple pie over which they salivate at Christmas.) Isabel peeled and sliced or sometimes chunked the pears, cooked until soft with some water and sugar. Serve hot (my favorite) or cold. I like it with plain yogurt and a sprinkling of oatmeal to make it an instant pear crisp-like tasting dessert. Because of their abundance I am currently experimenting with drying pears in the solar dryer (as well as garlic). So far the pears have turned out beautifully and are super sweet, a hit with the family.

Despite the lack of water the rainstorm last week provided just enough water for mosquito breeding and there is an outbreak of dengue fever here. The entire capitol city is under alert and my neighbor and her husband are both recovering from it. The country’s 911 system has received 2 million calls from panicked residents and hospitals are overflowing with patients. Until this week I’ve not seen many mosquitos in weeks but I still use my ‘mosquitero’ nightly as it also keeps spiders and other insects at bay and allows me a peaceful night’s sleep in not worrying about critters.

Bees. I talked about them a bit last time and how I suddenly have a lot of bee work on my hands. This is very exciting and I’ve outfitted myself with new equipo (equipment) and a hive. Now I just need bees. I’ll catch a wild hive for the box later. Until then, I’ll work with other families’ bees. What I’ve discovered in my discussions with these families is that while most Paraguayans love and want honey, the majority are afraid of bees. Especially the men. So “bee-having” in my community is often relegated to the women. Paraguayan women are fearless. I love this about them. And I understand the whole fear of bees thing. I, too, was fearful for many years until I came here. And I will never forget the first time I actually worked in a hive…I was terrified. Certainly I was scared of getting stung though I’d resolved myself to the fact that, if you work with bees, you WILL get stung. Get over it. I was more scared of dropping the comb after pulling it out of the hive. Bees are highly sanitary and putting any part of their hive on the ground subjects them to insects and diseases. But with every visit to the hives, I get more comfortable and, now, downright tranquilo. Not to say I don’t get a few butterflies when I look down and see them crawling all over my clothes and my veil but the secret is remaining calm and moving slowly. Usually they just want to check you out. If they find nothing to worry about they’ll often leave you alone. When you start swatting is when you piss them off and invite trouble. Other days, they’re just grumpy for no apparent reason and you’re better off leaving them alone. The bees in PY are Africanized bees (also known as Killer Bees), hence named for their aggressive nature, and the commentary above is especially important to remember to keep them as calm as possible. This weekend we are doing two wild hive captures and a honey harvest and I’ve invited 4 other volunteers to help. Should be great fun and lots of learning. One of the hives is in an old termite mound underground, the other is in a fallen coconut tree. Bees love the coconut trees because they’re very fibrous inside and provide lots of space.

I visited three new families one day last week. My last stop was with a woman who owns a large cattle operation with her husband. We connected easily and my visit lasted longer than I expected. Just when I was planning to take leave her three daughters came home. About that time, the señora disappeared into the house for what I thought was to tend the three year old. I stayed and chatted with the girls (15 and 20) and their amiga (26) for quite a while. They talked of how they struggled to learn English in school, delighted in my family photos and asked about my work here in this tiny town in the middle of nowhere. I realized the señora had been gone a while and thought perhaps she hadn’t enjoyed our visit as much as I had. A moment later she waltzes into the kitchen with a bag brimming of dry beans, a pound of cheese, two dozen eggs, a container of freshly made Peras Dulce, and a wine bottle full of her own honey! Wow. What to say?! I’d say she wants me to come back. The honey alone is an expensive gift and potential income generator. When I got home my family asked if I was going to visit again tomorrow. Haha. We opened the bottle and sampled the honey. Two tablespoons later I was transported to heaven. To my delight, it had not been filtered but contained bits of wax, pollen and tiny, bee parts (did you know you can eat literally everything inside a hive including bees and bee larva?)

As I was walking home from the bus this week, I took a shortcut across the cattle pasture and, on the same rise where the owl and I had our mysterious connection last week, I suddenly realized how quiet everything was. The prairie, usually dotted with bellowing cattle, squawking birds protecting their nests and the occasional cowboy, was empty. At 2:30 in the afternoon everyone and everything was seeking respite from the sun’s baking heat. No cows, insects, birds, motos, people, airplanes… only a hushed wind in my ear and the massive expanse of cloudless, brilliant blue sky over a browning prairie sprinkled with palm trees and termite mounds. For a few moments, it seemed the whole world was silent.

And I counted my blessings for being here.

As many people have done a friend of mine from Hawaii asked if he could send me anything. I asked for a hacky sack. Toward the end of training I had started playing this simple game with some guys from the group and really loved it, though I also really stink at it. But no matter. So last week what arrived in the mail? THREE hacky sacks! Thanks, Joe! (and thanks to everyone who has asked…I will let you know suggestions as they come up; perhaps in March when I move into my own place?) No sooner were they sitting out of the package than the kids’ toy radar went off and they appeared at my bedroom door, wide-eyed and full of questions. In minutes we were on the patio kicking futilely and laughing hysterically. It was a scream and the fun continues. The youngest, at six years old, is fearless, bold, impressively independent, sometimes amusingly bossy in her friendly and helpful way, and full of unstolen confidence and self-esteem often already lost by other girls her age. She doesn’t stop to think whether or not she can do a certain task. In her determination not to be outdone by her five older sisters she is well skilled on many fronts from pumping up a tire to well-honed hospitality with guests. There is nothing she won’t attempt and with a maturity that leaves me in awe for her age. There are days I feel she could run the household and other days I am well-reminded that she is only six.

Rules for Dating in Paraguay. I thought you might be curious for a peek behind the dating scene curtain in PY. The complexity of the spoken and unspoken dating ‘rules’ here warranted its own class during training. Because I am here to work, I have no intention of dating during my service, thought you’d find it interesting if not humorous. For example: 1) if you look a guy in the eyes ‘too long’ then you are dating (he becomes your ‘novio’), 2) if you drink terere on a patio alone with a man then you are dating, 3) if you dance ‘too many’ dances with the same guy then you are dating, 4) if you kiss a guy then you are dating and of course 5) if you go to the kokue alone with a man, even if you are talking ‘shop’ and nothing happens, then you are dating. The list goes on. In many ways, it’s easy for the Norte men because men call the shots on relationships here. They decide when a relationship is over, however, if you are dating a Paraguayan man, he is assuming you will marry him, even if you’ve only dated once. And if you break up, which is hard to do for a woman, he may very likely still consider you ‘his’ girlfriend for years to come. In my opinion, the dating scene here is not for the faint of heart. And volunteers are strongly discouraged from dating in their communities. You can see how it could get complicated quickly. Maybe I’m just showing my age. Isabel has been laughing for a week after I shared my new Paraguayan motto that sums up my thoughts quite simply: no motos, no novios, no problems!

Random thoughts:

Things I’ve seen on a moto: family of five (including infants), two-layer birthday cake held in one hand, rolled up mattress, live pig, propane tank and spare tires on the driver’s lap, garden hose dragging behind, luggage, mounds of groceries, weed whackers, hoes, large stack of plastic patio chairs, terere termos, 55 gallon barrel, construction materials like lumber, strapping, bags of cement, and sheets of glass.

My host family is really fantastic. Every day I am reminded how fortunate I am. Lately, they’ve been making cakes for dessert and the house is filled with luscious aromas, much to my dismay because I can’t eat wheat. In the past I had to settle for cake-eating fantasies. This week however, they made a cake with ground beans and corn flour. OMG. It tasted like chocolate cake and didn’t have a hint of chocolate in it! No kidding! And served with a drizzle of my new honey, I was a happy camper. And maybe some peras dulce on the side. Yum!

Because there is no mail delivery system here bills such as an electricity bill are delivered by moto and tacked to the light pole near the house. The vast majority of cell phones use a pre-pay plan where you buy more ‘saldo’ (minutes) when you run out.

PY is primarily a cash economy. It is not common for shops outside Asuncion to accept debit or credit cards of any kind unless they are hotels or sell big ticket items like appliances. Quotas are also common. A quota is essentially a payment plan. Vendors using quotas often sell their wares via moto. They visit your home and offer you an item, say a thermos for your terere. A thermos might normally cost 100 guaranies but the vendor offers three monthly payments of 50 gs each. The Paraguayan educational system not does teach much long-term, forward-thinking and analytical skills so many people don’t realize they are paying more for the thermos using the quota than they would if they bought it outright in the beginning. They are attracted by the idea of having the item today and paying less money today than considering the overall cost.

Did you know Daffy Duck, Tweety and Scooby-Doo now speak Spanish? Yup, they are on cartoons here in PY. Funny to watch the dub-overs on a duck.

Breastfeeding is very popular here and there is no modesty in nursing publicly. Very publicly. I think this is why low cut shirts are the fashion here. When you need to nurse your baby you simply pull a breast out over the top of your shirt. No concealing it like back home. Nothing left to the imagination. There must be a certain freedom in this lack of modesty…to sit on a park bench, at the table with the whole family, at a rezo to honor the dead, or on the bus, all the while chatting away with family or friends or strangers. I think there is nothing more beautiful than watching a baby nurse (babies of all kinds, people or animals, in fact the baby goats next door are so big they get on their knees to nurse these days and when finished, simply continue grazing the grass on their knees…hilarious) though admittedly I felt a little awkward the first time a member of my previous host family suddenly decided to nurse in front of me. I’d only met her once and there we were chatting away and before I knew what was happening the breast was there in all its glory and I didn’t know where to look. Away? In her eyes? At the person next to her? Take a sudden interest in the clouds? Admire the sweet baby without gawking? But now I’ve seen enough breasts that I no longer stress. People look or don’t. The mother never cares and if she does she turns away.

Did you know a large grain bag full of dry bean pods yields only about 10 lbs of beans? It’s a lot of work to shell and clean those beans free of debris and insects. And as I was helping to shell the beans from Isabel’s harvest one evening, the insects begin their nighttime serenade. I sat there trying to think how I would describe the sound to you. It’s not chirping, buzzing, clicking or other common insects sounds. What WAS it? Then I realized. It’s a chorus of fax machines. Yes, they sound exactly like a fax. And it is deafening. If I’m on a phone call, I have to go inside and shut my door and window. The insect is called la sigarra in Spanish or ñakyra in guarani. They are about three inches long and ‘sing’ day or night, but most loudly just as the sun is setting, just when the evening glow fades and darkness nestles into the village.

Most dogs here are male and never neutered. Most other animals (cows, horses, goats, pigs) are female. Well, there are a number of male cattle including oxen and young bulls. I haven’t quite figured out the system yet but it appears young bulls are left uncastrated to see how they mature and, if they grow into a desired bull, they are used for breeding. Otherwise, they are either sold for meat or castrated for oxen (much messier and more painful when they are older!)

In my last weekly visit to Caazapa’s internet café I wrapped up my business and clapped into the backroom to get the owner’s attention so I could pay and leave. Out comes a teenager who heard two syllables of my Spanish and muttered something to the effect of “Great, your Spanish is terrible” and proceeded to tally my fee. Unfortunately, she was impossible to understand thereafter and I couldn’t figure out what she’d calculated for a total. I asked her to repeat. She rolled her eyes and muttered something incoherent. I asked her to repeat again. She looked at me incredulously as if I was trying to cheat her out of an hour. While frustrating and slightly embarrassing, it was totally hilarious watching her responses. Inside I’m laughing, wondering what she’s really thinking vs what I think she’s thinking and really just wanting this ordeal to be over for both of us. She kept looking toward the back room as if to say, “Don’t make me bring my brother out here.” My internal thought train: Sweetie, I’ve met your brother, he’s totally tranquilo…and he understands me just fine. Finally, I just handed over what I thought she wanted plus a little more and put us both out of our misery. I’m learning to find the humor in these situations!

This must be prime fishing season. I see people fishing in rivers, in culverts, in ponds in the cow pasture. There is an eel-like fish here that’s common with these fishermen and I came home recently to find my host family cleaning some in a bucket outside. The conversation started from a distance as I approached from the futbol field with them telling me it was a snake and we’d be eating it for dinner. From a distance it looked exactly like a snake. I paused to decide how I felt about that. The girls, jokesters that they are, burst out laughing, finally telling me these were fish.

There is a type of ant here (tahyi ara ra’a) that, instead of biting, actually slices your skin open and does so in a flash. I discovered this first hand as I was preparing to move the worm bin to the school garden. The drought had dried it out more than I expected, perfect conditions for ants who don’t like moisture. When we lifted the cover the ants immediately spread like wildfire…they are fast! Avoid these if you ever come to PY. They hurt! Worm bins, or lombriculture, are an important part of our work here, helping to recycle nutrients and enrich the soil by making beautiful, rich compost. The worms are simple red worms. Back in the day I used to keep some in my house under the sink, sofa or in the closet in old dishpans. People thought I was loony but it was the perfect solution for food that would otherwise go in the trash and if you do it right, it never smells. The worms don’t bite, make any noise, need a babysitter or need to be walked and require only something to eat once a week and regular watering. Perfect.

Jajotopata!

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“There´s a frog in my toilet” and other tales from the tropics

Date: 1-9-13

“…we can’t leave ourselves out when we undertake to make the whole world happy. Because we are part of the whole world too!” – “How Yoga Works”, Geshe Michael Roach & Christie McNally

A chicken walks into a bedroom… No this is not an impending joke. Those of you who know me are relieved, I know. I can’t tell jokes. This is my actual life. As I’m editing the last bits of this post a chicken walks into my bedroom. (It is far too common in this country to have chickens or guinea hens wandering freely throughout the house when no one’s paying attention.) We try to shoo her out but instead of turning around and heading back out the door like a good little chicken, she freaks out and starts flying around my room like she’s lost a propeller. She lands on the back of my neck, my pillow, the sheets, the floor. We shoo her again and she does a repeat, crashing into the wall and seemingly blind to the big open doorway. You don’t know how dirty chicken feet are until they’ve been on your neck. Eeeew. Three of the girls were in my room reading with me and we were shrieking and laughing until Isabel came running in the house to see what the bluster was all about. When we explained she burst out laughing, devoid of all sympathy. I changed the sheets and showered… I mean bucket bathed. Promptly.

I was blessed to Skype with my daughter and parents for hours last week. It was wonderful to catch up on the news and just hear their voices. I look forward to skyping, their letters and catching up each week when I get ‘in town’ (though I don’t think the owners of the internet café love me so much on days I stay through siesta hour and they don’t get their nap.) While I love the campo, I find I really need a bit of ‘in town’ once a week. It’s also a good time to do errands, grab some great chipa and groceries, have a meeting with the other volunteers in our area, etc. Last week I got the latest letters from my Mom that included the family Christmas cards and newsletter. My Mom is great that way…always thinking of others. Every year my extended family writes a newsletter with stories recapping the year’s events for each family. There are about 70 people on this side of the family and it was an amazing year of great achievements as well as much suffering and angst. In the end, we all agreed our greatest gift was each other, having an incredible family on which to lean, celebrate and love. It never ceases to amaze me how little I know what goes on in my family until I read the newsletter at year’s end. What makes it worse is that most of us live next door to one another!

Speaking of family, my very sweet and thoughtful 18-year old nephew has been having dinner with my parents every Tuesday and on one of his recent visits he told my Mom he wanted to get me something for Christmas. Mom asked him what he had in mind. He pondered intently throughout the evening and finally decided on the perfect gift. “Deodorant!” he said proudly. “I think with all that heat she probably needs deodorant. I think she would be very happy with that, Gram.” I would be happy with anything from this gem of a kid…even deodorant.

I’ve begun drying mangoes to savor for the coming winter and to begin showing the señoras here how they can improve and extend nutrition through more parts of the year by drying food in-season. I discovered that the previous volunteer in this site had already built a solar dryer so I got to work peeling and slicing, chatting excitedly with my señora in the house about the possibilities and benefits of having real, dried fruit off-season. The one thing I forgot to account for was the weather. I got a ½ day of sun followed by 2 days of rain and clouds. Half my precious mangoes that didn’t dry the first day got moldy. It has been cool and rainy since Christmas. I haven’t seen weather like this since I first arrived in PY and while it’s a nice break from the heat, it isn’t helpful for drying fruit. “Util”, meaning ‘helpful’, is one of the vocabulary words the kids gave me recently and we use it jokingly ALL the time, usually in the negative such as “Oky (rain)- no util”, “Pelea (fight)- no util”. I’ve got that word down for sure. Speaking of rainy weather, I seriously thought we were in for a tornado the other night. The sky was an eery, mysterious caldron of black swirling clouds wreaking havoc with the light of the sunset in a way I’ve never seen. The family was outside watching curiously. I was watching for a funnel. There was no tornado- at least not in my village- but the sky opened up to dump its water on us all at once, while thunder crashed and lightning flashed non-stop for two hours.

With intermittent help from the Professor and a couple of his kids, we’ve started cleaning up the school garden. We want it ready for when the kids resume school at the end of February. Plus he has agreed to let me add onto it for my own garden. This is convenient now that I’ve decided to live at the school when I leave my host family in March. This new plan is for security reasons, though I really love that cute little thatched roof hut but it’s far off the road on the edge of the forest. The school has two buildings: the new school which is the one currently being used and the old school, in which only one room is used as a library. It is in the center of the village, near my host family and very visible, which is great for security, maybe not so great for privacy as time goes on, but it’s a trade off that seems to make sense. My village is pretty safe by Paraguayan standards but after arriving here I decided I felt more comfortable with this option.

In the afternoon, the free-ranging cattle converge on the futbol field/pasture out front waiting for their owners to herd them into the paddocks for the night. Sometimes they’re still there when the daily futbol game begins. Like the other day. The guys shooed the cattle off to the sidelines where the animals simply turned around and watched the game, all lined up like parents watching their kids. There is one boy who herds his cattle with a bicycle, some people use dogs, others walk or send the kids, still others use horses.

The other thing about rezos is that they are typically carried out for six to nine days in a row, always in late afternoon. Isabel’s family is holding the rezo series for the aunt that died last week. The first day the two of us walked to and from the rezo in the next pueblo, about 3 miles each way. On subsequent days she took the moto. I am not allowed to ride motos so I continued to walk. I’m hoping to buy a bike this week which will make events like this much easier. Anyway, each day after the ceremony, it is customary for the family to serve bits of food and drink (now you know why they often raise a large hog to help fund these events. The food alone can get expensive!) Often this is candy and chipa, a bagel-shaped bread of cornmeal and anise seed. On Day 1, I politely refused the drink, candy and a stick of what looked like either rolled meat jerky or chocolate profiteroles. On the walk home Isabel offered me one of the sticks; that’s when I discovered they were hand-rolled cigars! Glad I decided not to bite into one at the service!

Many families in the campo use fagones as their heat source for cooking. These are outdoor, wood-fired brick stoves for boiling or frying food. Some have built-in brick ovens. My family has a fagone as well as a methane gas burner, fueled by a biodigester. Basically, the Professor adds cow manure to a giant bag that lies in a trench in the ground. The manure decomposes, releasing methane which is then captured by hoses and fed to a small burner for cooking. No manure, no gas. But, if carefully managed, these can produce up to two hours’ of gas a day. It’s a great option for things that cook quickly and when you don’t want to start a fire in the fagone only to fry a single egg. Also, firewood is at a premium here because much of eastern PY has been deforested for agricultural use. While we have some trees, much of our ‘forest’ is brush and vines. Every scrap of burnable wood (or other material including plastic and cardboard) is carefully collected and stored like gold.

History of PY:
From 1864-1870 Paraguay waged the Triple Alliance war between Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina, during which all but 5% of its population was decimated. It’s population has since recuperated to 6 million people, with a number of immigrants from Germany and Japan. From 1932-1935 Paraguay fought the Chaco War against Bolivia. They won but gave up part of their land. From 1954-1989 dictator Alfredo Stroessner ruled until democracy overturned the dictator with the election of General Andres Rodrigues in 1989. Paraguay continues to be a democracy though there are residents here who prefer the old ways of dictatorship because the country was more orderly and crime lower. Most Paraguayans (90%) are Catholic while only .6% practice indigenous religions. Many men work in Asuncion or Argentina to provide for their families. Divorce is only .3% but infidelity is rampant. Spanish and Guarani are the two official languages of Paraguay, despite dictator Stroessner trying to abolish Guarani throughout the country during his rule. Less than 50% of youth speak only guarani in their homes while about 28% of youth speak only guarani in urban areas. In rural areas, youth attend school an average of 6 years while in urban areas the average is 9 years. The cost to send a student to school is the equivalent of about $100 US dollars/year in urban areas and about $50 US dollars in rural areas. Uniforms are common but can be a deal-breaker for some families. It can be difficult for families to afford this education for their children so often children will alternate who will go to school (every other year or every other child). Other reasons for not attending school: kids feel they are ‘done’, there is no school nearby, and the biggest reason…they don’t want to go. Illiteracy rates among youth are relatively low: 3.6% with most of these being in rural areas. Dating days for youth are Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays with permission from the female’s parents. Unfortunately, 83% of youth have no medical insurance and even those with insurance may still struggle to afford bus fair, the doctor’s consultation fee, medications, and costs of check up visits. Many Paraguayans self-medicate using locally grown herbs or other remedies. Naturopathic healers are plentiful here, though not regulated. Youths spend as much as 4 months looking for work. (All data sourced from “La Juventud de Paraguay”, Elizabeth Covarrubias.)

Agriculture has been an important part of PY’s history for centuries, In the ‘old days’ it was customary for farmers to incorporate crops with trees, maintaining good diversity of plants and wildlife. In addition to having very acidic soils, adoption of modern monoculture practices (growing a single large crop) and deforestation are the major contributing factors to the current decline in soil fertility. The most common monoculture crops here are sesame, cotton, sugarcane, and soybeans. Sesame is sold almost exclusively to Japan. Deforestation continues but has slowed in recent years. Burning one’s fields to clear old debris, however, is still a popular practice and is one among many of my missions to help educate farmers otherwise.

Yet another tradition here is the Three Reyos Magos (Mejor, Gaspar, Valtasar) on January 6 where children place their shoes on the windowsill and Jesus leaves a gift in the shoes during the night. It’s similar to hanging stockings for Santa. Two of my family’s kids got a small plastic train that makes noise when you pull the string. The girls have been thrilled with this single, simple gift and ran excitedly throughout the house showing all of us the following morning.

This week´s headliner was a small tree frog peeking out from under the rim of the toilet as I entered the bathroom. If it hadn’t been for someone leaving the seat up as well as the newly implemented “clean shoe policy” I might not have noticed. I did pause long enough to get my camera and wonder what else might be living under there! Eeek. Tranquilo? Ummm, maybe not. The clean shoe policy, where you change into an awaiting pair of clean flip flops before entering the bathroom, came about because the shower drain clogged from all the soil collecting from from sandy shoes. Many bathrooms in PY consist of a toilet, sink, shower head and floor drain in a 4’x6’ (mas o menos) space. Unlike the U.S., showers here have no walls separating them from the rest of the bathroom so typically the entire room gets wet when a shower is taken. Understand that my house does not currently have a working shower but it is plumbed and awaiting completion of the running water project. In the meantime it is where bucket baths happen and people walk in with their flip flops from outdoors and the soil washes off down the shower drain. Fixing the plumbing and digging a 50’ trench in 100 degree heat was enough for the Professor to declare the ‘clean shoe policy’ henceforth. But I’m still checking the rim of the toilet every visit. Especially now that it´s snake season…

Yup. The day before publishing this post we found a snake in the front yard called Kyryry’o, coiled and ready to strike. Right under the clothesline. Some visiting family friends killed it but it definitely heightened my awareness, being the second one in a week. Like most snakes in this country, it was a venomous kind. (Gulp.) And especially that, coiled, it looks very much like a plop of cow manure, of which there is much here. This morning´s walk through the cattle prairie to the bus stop was not my usual stroll. It´s exhausting enough having always to be on alert for people with mal-intent, traffic, horned grumpy cattle and big spiders. Now snakes too. What worries me most is that I only know two varieties. Hard to find something when you don´t know what you´re looking for!

Random facts:
This week I was smitten with some beautiful white flowers on the roadside called Ysypo. Smelling different flowers in different stages brought some surprises: The freshest ones smelled like coconut, the older, spent ones smelled like coffee.

Did you know the leaves of a lime tree smell like lime if you tear them? Limes are everywhere here and used in a variety of dishes. Citrus trees here are thorny on the trunk and branches.

The budding beekeeper in me got my hands on my current read, “The Honey Trail”, by Grace Pundyk. Grace travels the world in search of the best honeys, learning more about bees and the history of beekeeping, and the inner workings and ties within the industry of which I was never aware; a bee education, history lesson and summary of the world’s political climate all in one.

Did you know Paraguayans serve red wine with ice? And sometimes soda like Sprite?

Did you know sorghum looks a lot like corn?

It is not common (at least in the campo but I’ve heard it’s true throughout PY) for Paraguayans to read books. Could be because many older residents in the campo are illiterate, books are not a ‘necessity’ when choices must be made between needs and wants of feeding nine kids, there isn’t enough down time to read books (though many adults find time to watch ‘soaps’ during siesta and in the evening, the most common being “Maid in Manhattan”, a daily soap filmed in Portuguese but dubbed over in Spanish), and it isn’t part of the culture. I’ve already read four books in the month I’ve been insite and Isabel commented on how much I read compared to the average Paraguayan, including herself. Downtime is social time, not reading time.

After our Swear-In Ceremony last month I was chatting with the Ambassador, a man in his 60s? and our guest of honor. He was asking about my ‘story’ and how I came to Peace Corps at this point in my life, the oldest member of my training group. After listening- really listening -he offered some great advice, inspiration and encouragement. He mentioned some close friends of his who rose to the peak of their careers in their 60s and 70s and left me with a squeeze of the shoulders saying he had a feeling I would do great things in my lifetime and that perhaps my best was yet to come. I think he’s right.

Gentle words are daisies.

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Ode to the aftershave and If you feel like you have a bug on you, you probably do

“When you do something noble and beautiful and nobody noticed, do not be sad. For the sun every morning is a beautiful spectacle and yet most of the audience still sleeps.” ― John Lennon

Today’s quote is a good reminder that generosity need not be acknowledged in order to be worthy. And, with the holidays upon us, there is a bounty of opportunity for such giving that will warm you all over. For me personally, some of my most satisfying moments are those deeds I’ve done or gifts I’ve given anonymously and for which I can never be thanked. It helps ground me in knowing I am giving from my heart, not for the recognition.

In thinking about content for this post, I had decided to write a piece on appreciation for my adventures on the micro (public bus, aka ‘collectivo’), which have been many and positive or at least humorous. However, after yesterday’s ride home, my experience took on a whole new level. The micro has an amazing capacity to expand itself. Invisible to the eye, a bus already bursting at the seams and seemingly impossible to accept a single additional passenger somehow continues to stop for passengers and manages to squeeze them in (not one, but 15-20 more). At one point I counted 9 of us on 2 stairs at the rear exit, hanging out the door. Riding the stairs is a major safety no-no but it was a better option than taking a bus after dark. After 10 minutes I worked my way 2 feet inside the door, into a pressing mass of hot, sweaty bodies and lingering diesel exhaust. Freshness was not a term that could be used today. Despite all windows being open, ventilation scored a zero in the aisle, an aisle made for 2 abreast but currently accommodating 3. We were grateful for oncoming traffic to refresh our air supply (perhaps more accurately stated as reorganizing diesel exhaust, BO, and carbon dioxide) and I was secretly praising whichever hombre it was who remembered his aftershave this morning.

Last Friday I practiced my juggling again and almost got it. Getting closer. But I did learn to build a solar dryer to make dried fruits, veggies and meat jerky. I’ll need it to preserve all the mangoes (dry mango slices anyone?) from the trees at my new house! Coolest thing of the week. Well, until I helped capture a wild bee colony a few days later. That was TOP SHELF. These bees, called Africanized bees, are typically much more aggressive than those we have in the states when you work them in a hive but I learned that when you are capturing them from inside a coconut tree and giving them a new home, they are much more tranquilo. There were hardly any stings in the group despite me cupping them into my hands from the tree and moving them into the new box hive. This is only my 3rd time working with bees in my life and I can’t believe how much more relaxed I am with them now.  I was able to take off my gloves and touch them with my bare hands. So cool to be just me and the bees, checking each other out. The feeling of bees covering your skin and the vibration of their wings is nothing short of incredulous. It has become somewhat of a meditative experience and I’m very much looking forward to helping my host family harvest some honey when I’m at my new site. The bonus is snagging and eating honeycomb/honey/pollen that was warmed to hotness by the sun. OMG. I think it’s my new favorite thing. If I were a bear, I would try and steal it too.

Speaking of new site: we Swear-In on Friday and I move to my new site on Sunday. I’ll spend the weekend with friends in Asuncion, shopping for skirts and a guitar in a sector of the city called Mercado 4 ( super cheap stuff and the site of the famous movie “Siete Cajas”), swimming at the Embassy, buying some beekeeping equipo, and hopefully finding a Shambala or Hindu meditation temple to practice. I’m very much looking forward to getting to know my community and beginning my work. Much of extension work takes month to get underway, as it must be based on solid relationships and trust with locals. So that is my first task and the people in my village seem great. ****Also, I have a new mailing address for friends who wish to send letters or packages and they’ll arrive much faster than the old address. However, for security reasons, I can’t post it here so, if you’d like the address, send me an email. ****

Thought for the day: If you feel like you have a bug on you, you probably do. Back home the sensation of a spider crawling along my arm or stomach was always just a long strand of hair falling loose down my arm or into my shirt. In PY, my hair is now longer than it’s been since my daughter was little and the sensation of a bug crawling on me is greater than ever…. Oh wait, that’s because it usually IS a bug crawling on me…. Yeah, like the other night. I was lying in bed, updating my journal by flashlight, having gotten fairly used to the feel of my hair blowing on my arms from the fan. Suddenly something was definitely crawling on my skin. The flashlight revealed  a small spider on my arm. I quickly squished it and went back to writing. Before long, same thing on the other arm, then another and another. By now, I’ve got my glasses on, flashlight in hand, out of bed, and striding for the overhead light to see WTF is going on. I had dozens, yes dozens, of small spiders in the bed – even though I had done my thorough nightly ‘tween the sheets check and found nothing. And they were crawling all over my headboard, sheets and blanket. Eeeeeewwwww. Fortunately, they were small and easily squishable but, at 11pm, I just wanted to sleep. Once I’d calmed down about the spiders, I finished re-tucking the sheets and blankets tightly around the bed and turned around in time to spot a baby lizard (gecko?) flash across the floor toward my shoes. Sigh. They don’t bite do they? And the baby spiders are too small to bite. Right? Yeah, that’s what I’ll tell myself.  And of course, I left my mosquito net in my new community (one less thing to carry on moving day) but it would have offered some semblance of protection. At least in my mind. At this point, I was too tired to care. The thought of spiders or geckos crawling over my face at night, like a lot of things…. I just can’t think about it. Oh yeah, and this happened twice in 3 days. I’d be lying if I inserted a ‘Tranquilo’ here. Lol.

Last Friday was a celebration in training: all exams are done and our fellow trainees and professors teamed up to offer fun classes, one of which was salsa dancing. While you know tango is where my heart is, we had a blast. The music is fun and people were really enjoying themselves. The other cool thing we learned (perfect for the holidays or to spice up your milonga) was how to make a candle from a juicy orange (yes, the fruit). Simply cut the orange in half lengthwise so you’re cutting through the stem end, scoop out the fruit but not the pithy white part. Take a piece cotton and stretch and twist into a tight, thin wick (the tighter it is, the longer it lasts). Coil into bottom of one orange half (you might need to prop up with another piece of cotton for height), then add cooking oil to the orange (vegetable, olive, whatever you have) so cotton is saturated and there is plenty to burn for a while. Light cotton with a match and – voila- you have a candle. To make more interesting, use the other orange half for the ‘top’ and cut a hole or interesting design in the center of it (for ventilation and adornment). Do not let candle run out of oil and center your wick with the hole in the cover so the flame doesn’t burn the orange. Beautiful and smells good too.

Last week I learned to build a thatched roof….one of my favorite new skills lately (lots going on lately – hard to choose!) I’ve always been curious how straw can keep out the rain but it’s pretty simple and durable. My new house has this type of roof. They are the best at keeping a house cool and I love the hay-like smell when it rains. Three drawbacks to thatch are 1) sometimes they leak in a hard rain, 2) those in the shade can mold (I think mine’s in the sun), and 3) they can provide habitat for the kissing beetle that causes Chagas disease, a heart and/or GI condition that appears in 10-20 years but preventable with use of my mosquito net (don’t worry, Mom! Wink wink.)

 I don’t know what it is about Paraguay but I, health nut extraordinaire, have craved Coca Cola since arriving in this country. Previously, I’ve had exactly 1 soda in the past 5 years.  Since September, I’ve had 1 every other week. Is it the heat? Is my diet lacking? Is it the effectiveness of their marketing everywhere I turn? Is it because I’ve had to relax so many old standards (diet, health, clean air, co-existing with bugs) that it’s become a coping mechanism? (of course, I jest). LoL. Those of you who don’t know me well may wonder why this is newsworthy but, to my family and closest friends, this is simply shocking. I’ve fallen off the wagon. But it could be worse. I could start burning my trash as is customary here. Wait, I’ve already had to do that too. Where is Wendía and what have they done with her???

My host family owns a despensa in the front of their house where they sell many basic necessities like laundry soap, toilet paper, cornmeal, wine (wax cartons of wine and shelf stable juice and milk are very popular here) cheese, and more. Locals simply walk up to the house, clap (instead of knock), and await someone to answer the door. In ‘Paraguayan time’, these things cannot be rushed. Customers do not approach any despensa expecting prompt service. In fact, there is a chair outside the despensa door for customers to sit while they await the Señora. At other despensas I have witnessed 30 minute waits while the Señora finished her breakfast and completed other ‘pressing’ household functions. My family never leaves a customer waiting that long but shortly after my last post where I talked about the infamous term “enseguida” , host Dad used it on a customer who came a-clapping. I answered the door with my “Uno momento, por favor” and went in search of host Dad because often the family is out back tending animals, etc and can’t hear the claps. He was at the kitchen table texting on his cell pone when I mentioned there was a client at the door. “En seguida” was his answer, meaning ‘Ok, I’ll get to it.’ For some people (not my family) this might mean anything from a couple minutes to never. Imagine the reaction this type of service would stir in the States? Wait, actually, sometimes we DO get this kind of service. Hee hee. But people here are totally tranqui about it. Sometimes they don’t want to wait and just leave after a few minutes, no hard feelings, but usually they hang out in the chair until someone is free to tend the store. I wish we had this back home! And the despensas are open at the convenience of the Señora or her family. No one here has regular business hours except bigger stores.  Last Saturday, one insistent clapper woke me up at 6am while others come up the walk at 8pm.

This past Sunday I, and 4 of my closest fellow trainees (aspirantes), enjoyed a final Sunday luncheon with my host family. I’ve mentioned before that Sunday is family day at my host family’s house. All 7 of the adult kids and their families congregate to make food, converse, laugh, drink terere and enjoy each other. My friends are amazed how well the family gets along and we noted how amazing it is that a family of 20+ people make a priority to be together every week. Nothing else matters. Nothing else takes priority. Sunday with family is sacred. It’s been an honor to witness this and remind myself how lucky I am to also have a wonderful, loving family back home. I very much miss them and will be glad to reconnect when my service is done. However, I am fortunate to feel the spirit of our connection even when we are so far apart. My host family asked me a couple weeks ago if I’d be willing to make my favorite dish from los Estados Unidos (United States or E.E.U.U. for short) for this final meal. Of course, I agreed and they’ve been hyping it up amongst themselves ever since. No pressure! I decided on shepherd’s pie, one of my favorite dishes from childhood…I loved the way my Mom made it. It came out well, they all liked it, and asked for the recipe. However, in the process I discovered why Paraguayans never eat kernelled corn. It is eaten only freshly ground and cooked in sopa or dried and ground for cornmeal. The corn here is not sweet and crunchy like back home. It is very starchy and chewy – more like feed corn for cows. I couldn’t fix the chewiness factor but a little sugar in the cooking process helped bring my recipe one step closer to home. Oh, also, my host brother just returned from vacationing in Buenos Aires and brought me an apron for when I cook in my new community. So thoughtful!

Because I am headed to my site in a few days and unsure of my internet access for the foreseeable future, I will leave you with a few more random facts of Paraguay.  Enjoy your holiday season, family, and friends. Tranquilo!

Paraguay boasts the 3rd largest Peace Corps post in the world, second only to the Ukraine and Phillipines. It also has the lowest crime in the region.

99% of all yogurt is PY is liquid. It is sold in cups like the states but most people drink it instead. I hope to make my own once in my new home.

I discovered what we affectionately call the loofa plant: a squash plant that produces a sponge as a fruit. It dries on the vine in a thin shell and looks exactly like a sea sponge though I hear it’s much more durable. Volunteers use these for bathing, dishes, cleaning, etc. I scored a couple seeds from a volunteer and will give it a try. Pictures next year. Or google it.

Sugar cane harvest  (caña de azúcar or takuare’e) is done and fields are planted with the next crop which takes 2 years to mature.  Mandioca (yucca root) is also a 2 year crop but most people begin harvesting slowly at 18 months and finish at 2 years. Mandioca is a staple of the diet here, served boiled and plain with every meal as a starch. If you don’t take a piece of mandioca to eat with your meal they look at you like you must be a french fry short of a Happy Meal. Afterall, who would refuse mandioca with their meal? Duh. This year’s crop is severely short due to last year’s drought  (sequia). The passionfruit and mango harvests are just about to begin. Heading for the bus I scored a fresh mango today as one dropped right behind me. YAY! The mango trees are laden and drooping, ready to yield their fruit, like a heavy wet snow bends the pines back home.

Volleyball (volei) is very popular here, second only to futbol (soccer).

A favorite paraguayan snack is the empanada. You cannot take a bus to Asuncion without consuming at least two.

Corn is currently waist to shoulder height in most places.

Sweet potatoes are much sweeter and more moist than in the states. Deep purplish brown on the outside, white on the inside. I love them.

The most popular vehicle brands here are largely due to their low purchase price for already-tight budgets (in no particular order): Nissan, Datsun (remember those?), Mitsubishi, Kia, Hyundai, and somehow also Mercedes (mostly for trucks).  More popular than any car or truck is the infamous moto, of course.

It seems everything is opposite South of the equator: the seasons, the way the wáter circles down the drain and the way people keep their animals. Paraguayans fence animals OUT and houses, gardens, and trees IN. In my new site, all the livestock are free-ranged, grazing randomly throughout the community by day, returning to the futbol field at dusk. Neighbors graze their animals together as well. I graze my horses, cows, goats, and pigs with yours. They are free to cross the road, lay down and block traffic, and often raid your garden if your fence is insufficient to keep out the strong, curious and hungry. If they get into your garden, it’s your fault, not theirs. You shoulda made a better fence.

I have found the national pólice to be very friendly. They are everywhere and helpful when you need directions to the baño. Perhaps because they drink terere on the job. It’s a pretty funny sight watching pólice drink terere under the shadeof a mango while on duty. Tranquilo.

Don’t wait for tomorrow to follow your heart. Even if the journey cannot be completed today, small steps are possible every day. Before you know it, you’ll be there. Poco un poco.

Chau for now. xoxo

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

My Road is a River…and the Rooster that Raced the Bus

“It is preferable to think of a course of study not as a series of classes but as a series of planned experiences.” – Two Ears of Corn

Paraguay has not disappointed me in my ongoing quest for adventure.

This morning, after a 6-hour tempest of rain, hail, wind, and more in the hours leading up to, and including, my journey to the bus stop my road was literally… a river.

I was wet as soon as I stepped from the porch. Our normally-dry driveway had turned into an angry brook. Quickly realizing I would spend the day with wet feet despite my rubber boots and best intentions, I sloshed my way toward the road leading toward the bus stop. What was normally a 30 foot wide, grassy shoulder was underwater, forcing me into the road, deserted save for the occasional public bus and moto drivers taking their chances. Here schools close when it rains (not kidding), but not Peace Corps training! I made my way to the Cruce (a crossroad with a bus stop and despensa) through ankle-deep water, torrential rain, lightning and booming thunder with my backpack of lunch and books snuggled cozily under my raincoat. Instead of the regular soft, dry red dirt road I found a roaring red river. It had rapids, it carried discarded Coke bottles to new destinations, and, with a current strong enough to pull my feet from under me, was impassable. .. perfect day for a kayak, if only I’d had one! A look around provided today’s architecture award in what mimicked the Mississippi Delta pumping silt into the road, producing a striking fanlike arrangement on the pavement. Of all days, I wish I’d had a camera. It was perhaps the most interesting scenery of all my four weeks here. Power, destruction, beauty: nature rearranging itself.

The day quickly turned beautiful – blue sky, hot, humid, and oppressive. We have a saying in Maine: “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute”. I think Paraguay has Maine beat. It, too, provides weather extremes in a single day and makes planning a day-long excursion worthy of a Girl Scout badge. Always be prepared. We toured a government-run agricultural operation in Ca’acupe that offers services similar to the US Cooperative Extension. They test varieties of tomatoes, melons, potatoes, and garlic and are currently growing macadamia nuts! Did you know that garlic doesn’t grow well in Paraguay because the heat is too intense and it prefers more hours of daylight than found here?

The day continued to improve with what became a breakthrough in my language training. Something clicked in my brain and I was unstoppable. Haha. Finally! Just in time for language assessment interviews next week…

The week provided many more ‘firsts’, including a rooster that began racing our bus every day! No joke. He was boss and cocky and I think he truly believed he would win…except for that darned fence. But he keeps trying. Then came my first experience in beekeeping –everyone should try it once, even if you decide it’s not for you. Being witness to bees working inside a hive is nothing short of a miracle. However, I don’t recommend starting with the Africanized bees we have here. EEEK! These guys are aggressive! It was intense having hundreds of bees pinging off my veil, climbing over my body, not knowing if or when they might sting through my clothes..and really hoping it didn’t happen when I pulled a panel of honeycomb from the hive and held it delicately in the air. No stings for me this time, though others were not so lucky. This week the jasmine trees are blooming and smell divine, similar to lilacs. I tucked the little white flowers behind my ear so every time I turned my head I would get a whiff. Heavenly! My host Mom and sister also taught me to hand-milk a cow for the first time. While we were milking, her baby was nearby playing HeadButt with the dog. Haha – adorable! Next on my list: killing a chicken for Sunday dinner. I’m in no hurry for that one. And I finally went running – my first real run since arriving. While I didn’t get as far as I’d hoped, my body was thanking me every step of the way. Pure luxury. Lastly, host Mom is teaching me the art of herbalism, second nature to Paraguayans, super useful for me in the campo (along with milking cows, killing chickens, speaking guarani, and wielding machetes… I’ll be super Guapa by the time I arrive!)

As part of my training each person recently had to research a type of Abonos Verdes (green manure/cover crop). A classmate outdid himself by composing a rap on Kumanda Yvyra’i (ku-man-DA u-vra-E)—similar to a black bean–, in Spanish, perfectly rhymed, making complete sense and absolutely hysterical. If he ever gets it on YouTube I will share. Never dreamed an Abono Verde could be so funny. There is no shortage of entertainment in my group of trainees.

This week was the ultimate combination of intensely taxing and extremely rewarding. Working in the kokue this week I paused and took inventory: I felt both exhausted yet fully, exuberantly alive, aware of the slip of my shoes against my bare feet, the sun warming my arms, the dry clay soil desiccating my hands, each nerve cell in my body like mini antennae, soaking up every sensation, my heart full of appreciation and gratitude that I am here as well as sadness that my Grandma is quickly slipping away and I can’t be with her. I looked across the road and admired the vista: miles of Paraguay, campo, and Argentina in the distance. Tranquilo.

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

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