Posts Tagged With: biodigester

This Is Peace Corps

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

June 25, 2014

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fun  Facts: Did You Know?….

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

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

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

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

A New Milestone: Sense of Humor Required

“Tell your life as a love story.” – Meg Worden

June 4, 2014

You know you’ve reached a new level of intimacy with a favorite Paraguayan family when, over lunch at their house, they feel comfortable asking how flatulent you will get after eating their beans, then they ask again very publicly at the neighbor’s memorial service like we’re simply speculating the weather, and again on the walk home among half the neighborhood (are North American bodies different?). Of course the topic blasted off when I helped them fix their biodigester this morning (with an ode to “essence of methane”) and the vaporous jokes were flying left and right. Instead of getting fired up I’ve learned it’s far less volatile to just play along and not put up a stink. The day was a total gas!

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In the Heart of South America

November 3, 2013

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

 

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

Paraguayan sunset

Paraguayan sunset

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basil plantitas

Basil plantitas

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

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

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

Did You Know?

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

Jajotopata! (until next time)

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Meet My Community – The Benitez-Esquivel Family

October 29, 2013

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain

Writing is a funny thing. Some days my stories tumble out of me and spill onto my keyboard effortlessly, as if pre-made. Other times, I struggle to make a story interesting and have the ideas flow from one to another. This month I have struggled. But from that came a new idea I’m going to try: starting today some of my blog posts will feature a new family from my community so you can have a more intimate glimpse of Paraguayan life and the individuals with whom I interact regularly. Leave me a comment how you like the new feature or if there are other aspects of family life you’d like to hear about. Here we go…

The Benitez-Esquivel Family

As a Peace Corps volunteer working in agriculture, I am expected to have a ‘demo plot’, a small tract of land to experiment with crops and green manures (called Abonos Verdes in Spanish) and by which to showcase alternative growing and fertilizing techniques for Paraguayans. Green manures are plants that enrich the soil and sometimes also have secondary benefits like producing food for humans or animals, providing seed for sale, being good for bees, etc. My plot of land is owned by Luciano Benitez (56) and Eligia Esquivel (‘Ellie’, 38; note – it is very common for older men to marry much younger women) and is surrounded by their own field (about 10 hectares or 25 acres), which they work daily. Like most in my community, they are subsistence farmers, meaning they exist primarily by growing most of their own food and do not have regular ‘jobs’ or income. Any income they generate may come from the occasional sale of firewood, cheese, or excess mandioca if they have it. This family is poor but fairly progressive in their interest to try new things. Their livelihood depends on the weather, hard work, and their expertise in knowing their land and crops.

I frequently see one or both of them while working my own land and sometimes they are accompanied by some of their children: Vicente (16), Lucia (11), or Luz Maria (6). In the summer, Luciano often arrives at the field at 5am and works until 10am before the heat of the day. His wife wakes about 5am to prepare and enjoy her mate then brings a breakfast of deep fried tortillas and mandioca at 8am. Sometimes she stays and works with him for a time, other times she returns home to start preparing lunch. Every other morning she also charges her biodigester with a bucket of fresh cow manure and water. A biodigester is a long plastic tube about two feet in diameter that sits in a hollow in the ground and decomposes organic matter (in PY this is usually cow or pig manure). The methane gas produced by the biodigester provides several hours of free fuel for some of her cooking needs. Both husband and wife are incredibly guapo (normally guapo means handsome in Spanish but in PY it means ‘hardworking’) and generous beyond measure. Luciano is respectful, patient in answering my questions and interested in teaching me what he knows. Ellie and I frequently exchange recipes and are brainstorming project ideas for the Women’s Club I hope to start soon. After lunch and a mid-day siesta to avoid the heat of the day, he will return to the field for most of the afternoon. Many times they bring the horse and cart when harvesting larger amounts of sugar cane, mandioca or corn.

Vicente, 16,  returning to the farm with the horse and cart full of mandioca and sugar cane.

Vicente, 16, returning to the farm with the horse and cart full of mandioca and sugar cane.

Ellie is also an avid terere drinker, stopping to refresh with this popular Paraguayan tea (also used for medicinal purposes with the right herbs) several times throughout the day. In late afternoon, Ellie goes to their other field (also known as a kokue) to harvest sugar cane to feed the cows at night. She brought me with her the other day for my first-ever sugar cane harvesting experience. I was inappropriately dressed for mosquito and snake habitat in a skirt and flip flops, thinking we were just going to visit on her patio. This can be back-breaking work as each stalk of cane must be cut with a machete, then tied and put in a wheelbarrow and carted 1/4 mile back home; some of the canes are 12′ tall! However, back at the house she taught me to make ‘mosto’, a sugar-water-juice made from crushing sugar cane in a grinder. At the end of my visit she sent me packing with an armload of peaches, eggs, and a bottle of mosto.

Bottle of mosto, a sugar-water drink made from crushed sugar cane. VERY sweet!

Bottle of mosto, a sugar-water drink made from crushed sugar cane. VERY sweet!

Luciano and Ellie were married and moved to our town in 1996 where Luciano’s family has lived since the town originally formed in the mid-1800s. She is one of nine children (with two sets of twins, including herself). He is one of six. His sisters live next door and his mom and youngest brother are across the street (note- it is customary and honorable for at least one grown child to live at home and take care of the mother; often it’s an unmarried son but sometimes a married daughter and her husband will be the caregivers; a man is needed to grow crops for food and animals). Two years later they built their own place and started a family. When not in high school in the next pueblo, Vicente helps his father in the fields or with the animals. Both girls attend primary school here in my compania during the afternoon session (school here consists only of half-days, either 7-11am or 1-5pm).

The family recently invited me to lunch for Lucia’s 11th birthday and asked me to come early so I could learn how to make tallarine con pollo (spaghetti with chicken). I arrived around 9am with a container of my mandio chyryry for them to try and a pile of carrots for the spaghetti sauce. Ellie had just killed two chickens for the occasion and cut them up while I prepared vegetables.

Eligia cutting up fresh chicken for her daughter's birthday lunch

Eligia cutting up fresh chicken for her daughter’s birthday lunch

These were cooked over an open fire on the ground in the ‘kitchen’, which is just a wooden shed. She also made delicious sopa paraguaya (like cornbread) in her new electric oven located in the bedroom. And, yes, all of this took over four hours. Birthdays are not a grand celebration here unless it is a girl’s quincinera, or 15th birthday…then it’s like a wedding. This day, there was no cake and only one gift brought by two visiting relatives. This is normal. All through the morning I observed piglets running between the patio and backyard, a day-old foal sticking close to its mother’s side, kids sulking when asked to help, birds flitting amongst the fruit trees beside the house, chickens greedily scooping up scraps of vegetables during lunch preparations and dogs dutily watching for anyone or anything that didn’t belong. When Ellie was busy working the fire in the shed, the youngest pulled out her guarani schoolbook and read to me (this was excellent practice for me too!) While this family speaks primarily guarani (and super fast!), they do understand Spanish and will sometimes use a Spanish word to explain for me when I don’t understand. Each time I visit, I can see my language improve and, in turn, the family becomes more comfortable in my presence (you can’t imagine the awkwardness that happens when you try and fail repeatedly to have conversation and can’t understand each other). Luciano keeps it light by ALWAYS asking for an update on my relationship status and, because the answer is always ‘no, I do not have a boyfriend’, he questions why and pleads for me to get myself a man. While many Paraguayans don’t understand how a woman can be happy without a man in her life, since deciding to ‘go with’ the joking instead of being defensive or avoiding the topic, it makes for good conversation and lots of joking around. I’m grateful for this family and their willingness to share their land, their lives and their sense of humor with me.

Benitez-Esquivel family (L to R): Carlos (farm hand), Luciano, Louisa (Luciano's sister), Wendia (guests are always seated at the head of the table), Clara (niece), Luz Maria, Lucia- birthday girl, and Eligia (she looks unhappy but really wasn't; in fact she looks like this in her wedding photos too, which we had a good laugh over)

Benitez-Esquivel family (L to R): Carlos (farm hand), Luciano, Louisa (Luciano’s sister), Wendia (guests are always seated at the head of the table), Clara (niece), Luz Maria, Lucia- birthday girl, and Eligia (she looks unhappy but really wasn’t; in fact she looks like this in her wedding photos too, which we had a good laugh over)

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“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.

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