Posts Tagged With: campo

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

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.

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

How to eat a watermelon in Paraguay? Ask Wendía.

Be bold or Italic. Never regular.

Life is busy and every week it seems harder to find the time to write (sound familiar?) I thought I’d start today’s post by sharing logistics of what’s about to happen in the coming weeks. Not as entertaining perhaps but I know many of you have had these questions….

The first 10 weeks in-country are strictly training (language, culture, safety, technical skills, etc) and during this time trainees live with host families (more on my awesome host family to follow). Week Ten, in a mere 2 weeks and after passing all exams, is when we officially Swear-In as Peace Corps Volunteers: Friday, December 7. That following Monday we travel to our new communities where we’ll live the next two years and do the work we came to do. (Over the weekend, I plan to explore Asuncion with friends.) For the next 3 months I’ll again live with a host family but thereafter, I can live on my own or continue living with a family. I plan to live alone.

A community must request a Peace Corps Volunteer (the PC doesn’t just randomly send us to villages in the middle of nowhere) and identify a Contact as part of that process who will help me integrate, meet people, answer my questions, and find my way. This past week, I received my assignment and spent a few days in the community where I will live for the next 2 years. I’m soooooo excited!

It is a wonderful, tiny village of 35 homes (~150 people) in central southern Paraguay, a 5 hour bus ride to Asuncion, far enough into the campo that it’s quiet but close enough to a large town called Caazapa (17km or ~11 miles) that has everything I need. The ‘village’ has one school, a despensa, and a church. All other means of survival are agriculture. It is an hour’s walk to the bus on a quiet, dirt road. Road signs do not exist in the campo and every fork in the road looks the same to me. Roads range from all dirt to a grassy-dirt path that looks more like a cow trail. I don’t know how the locals find their way around! The road into our village ends at a river about 4km down the way so the village is superbly peaceful, enjoys minimal traffic, and is fairly safe by Paraguayan standards. My Contact and host family is Profesora Victor and his wife, Isabel. Victor is a well-respected community leader, the school principal and town pastor. They are a friendly and welcoming family, with 7 amazing and respectful children, 5 of whom live at home, ages 6-15 or so. They live in a 4-room house and several of the kids had to share beds during my stay so I had a bed of my own. Paraguayan families are incredibly generous, even when it appears they don’t have much to give. As the guest, I am given my own bed, seated at the head of the table, given the first and largest plate of food, the best cut of meat, not allowed to help clean up, given a chair when others must stand or sit on the ground if chairs are lacking, etc. It’s hard not to feel guilty. But I loved the family and they invited me to stay with them through March, which I agreed. And Victor was incredibly helpful and proactive in introducing me to members of the community, inviting me to committee meetings, classes at school (grades pre-school to 6), his church service, a rezo, etc. While there, I picked out my future house for March: an adorable little one-room, thatched-roof place about ¼ mile away from Victor and Isabel. It has 2 huge mango trees in the back (a major selling point for me), a guava tree, beautiful veggie garden, good fence to keep out the animals and needs a few repairs but should be up and running in short order. I just need PC approval to deem it safe (in terms of isolation, personal safety at night, etc) and agree on the terms with the landlord. Safety is a priority for Peace Corps (and me!)

My goal during the week was to meet as many people in my community as possible and begin to get a feel for the area. Since my community speaks primarily guarani, I also got to practice a lot (or at least practice the look of non-understanding, which they quickly learned to recognize). They do speak some Spanish but nearly all of the real sharing happens in guarani. I already have a nickname: Wendía… because Wendy is hard for them to say but Wendía sounds like Buen Día (good day) and is much easier. Plus we all think it’s hilarious. So now I’m Wendía. Overall, the week went well. The site has had a volunteer for the past 2 years so I am his follow up. We were able to spend quality time reviewing his projects, discussing the community, and having him introduce me to various community members. I am fortunate to follow such a strong and productive volunteer who made a positive reputation for himself and Peace Corps. A great tee-up to begin my service!

Back at ‘home’ my current host family is truly fantastic and has treated me so well these past few weeks. Recently host mom bought me a mortero (like a mortar and pestle) for crushing my own herbs for terere. She also knows I love the watermelon here (always perfectly ripe and sweet) and ensures I have a constant supply. I think I have eaten my weight in watermelon since arriving in PY and am the envy of my groupies, many of whom never see a veggie or fruit, as much of the food here is meat and bread. When they learned that one of the things I miss most from home is good, dark chocolate (without wheat) – I have not been able to find decent chocolate here at all – they bought some for me in Asuncion! ‘Sweet’ – haha! My host sister makes gluten-free cookies for me using mandioca flour and, a new favorite, Arroz con Leche (rice pudding). Oh yeah, and there is a plentiful supply of ice cream at the bakery onsite (I had kiwi ice cream last week). If I don’t gain 15 pounds before I move in December it’ll be a miracle.

In my time here, I’ve only met two Paraguayans who have heard of a wheat-free diet. Most others 1) don’t think or realize they eat wheat at all or 2) once they understand how pervasive wheat is in the diet, they cannot comprehend how I survive without it…”what does she eat if she can’t eat ‘trigo’?” they ask. Few people in my new community wanted to host me because they didn’t know how to feed me. Fortunately, Isabel was courageous and quickly realized I’m not really extra work and has been quick to share her positive experience with others, which I appreciated. Admittedly, I’m already tired of my diet being the primary topic of conversation everywhere I go (because clearly I must be a freak of nature if I can’t eat wheat) but the community IS very interested in learning more about nutrition and the ladies want to lose weight (but don’t know how) so perhaps this is a sign and a springboard for the work I’m meant to do with them.

The vast majority of health problems in this country are diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, caused by the Paraguayan diet heavy in sweets, salt, and red meat. This week my host Mom told me that she was inspired by me, making the connection that perhaps my wheat-free and otherwise healthy diet is related to my small size, and once she realized I still eat a wide and interesting variety of foods, she was inspired to talk to her doctor about changing her own diet to help combat a series of health problems. Fortunately her doctor was very supportive and she is now eating wheat-free, sugar-free, less salt, minimal meat and feeling better already without feeling deprived! I feel honored to be her inspiration and, if I make no other impact while here, this one will be worth it. Also, my host sister and I have been walking in the evenings and she recently asked me to teach her some yoga. Yay! Many Paraguayans are overweight and make poor food choices, partly due to 1) unhealthy food often being less expensive for already-tight budgets, 2) availability of vegetables and fruits is very seasonal, 3) families, especially in the campo, don’t leave their communities much and therefore seldom travel to larger towns where fresh veggies and fruits are more available, and 4) roads are unpredictable and not always suitable for delivering delicate produce, often closing after a good rain. It is not uncommon to see families feeding soda to infants, as it is cheaper than formula. But I’m super psyched to begin this conversation with them, grow a better understanding of nutrition, and discuss options to help!

Two of my host nephews had their First Communion recently and to celebrate with them and their fellow students were over 250 people, standing-room-only, in the small church. While not Catholic, I went out of respect for my family and as a cultural experience, wondering what would transpire. I expected a solemn service but one look toward the altar assured me this would be an entertaining event. While the priest spoke, I noticed dogs wandering in and out of the church and a particular vertically-challenged Dachsund occupying the center aisle. As he trotted away from me toward the altar I almost burst out laughing watching his knock-knees and turned out feet paddling along as his belly bulged in one direction and his fanny swayed the other. He even got in line with his master for communion! The entertainment value of this dog was priceless for me. To the locals, it was just another day in church. Best Communion ever.

Thanksgiving is my all-time favorite holiday though this one was bittersweet. My group of trainees was invited to the Ambassador’s house in Asuncion for a traditional Thanksgiving meal (how cool is THAT?!), fun in the pool (oh wow- I got to SWIM! First time since September and it was heavenly. Heavenly! Luxurious, delicious, magical. I love the water but we’ll talk about that another time.) And while I very much loved spending the day at the Embassy I really missed my family more than anytime since arriving in PY. Fortunately, we got to call home and it was such a treat to talk with everyone. Overall great day of 102 degrees, good fun, good food, good company.

Now, time for my typical random facts and observations:

How does one eat a watermelon (sandia in Spanish) in Paraguay? Grab the whole family or as many friends as you have nearby, distribute spoons to everyone, cut melon in half lengthwise, politely fight for your piece as you scoop fruit with spoon. Eat with spoon or fingers and spit seeds to the chickens if desired. Repeat until satisfied or watermelon is devoured. It’s great fun. You are a freak if you cube it, otherwise cut it neatly, or eat with a fork (I speak from experience here).

As we head into summer, the television alerts begin for dengue fever, a sickness caused by a particular mosquito. Fortunately, it’s most prevalent in the city so it’s unlikely I will need to worry too much but I still have my mosquito net handy nevertheless. The first time one gets dengue it’s more akin to the flu but can be extremely serious and often deadly if contracted more than once. This has never happened to a PC volunteer in Paraguay. I mention it because hearing things like this is so different from what we have to consider in Maine (Nor’Easters, hurricanes, Lyme disease, but a dengue alert? Never)

I saw my first pink pineapple this week. Yup. Pink on the outside anyway. It was still growing so I don’t know about the inside but am totally curious. There are several people in my new village who grow pineapples and it might be fun to experiment with pink ones. Pink. Who knew?

While visiting my site this week, I also attended an agriculture extension day where workshops were given on sustainable farming methods with examples for dry beans/abono verdes/green manures and sugar cane plus an interesting discussion on soils and nutrition. It was another “scorchah” of 102 degrees and the nutrition talk was thankfully given under the shade of an ancient mango tree. Not only does this tree provide fantastic fruit, but it’s shade is so dense it lowers the ambient temperature 15-20 degrees. Tolerable on this day. It has already become my favorite place to be (except when an early mango falls rudely on your plate and nearly feeds your lunch to the scavenging chickens but it’s all good!)

One of the beauties of having a brick floor throughout your house is that they are easy to clean. Forget mops and brooms; you can simply hose it down. That’s right. I saw it firsthand with our housekeeper this week! Drag the hose from the barn into the house and spray away. It’s all about simplicity. I’m beginning to see the benefits of some of these practices though I also forget that these folks have cement walls, no basements and no mold issues.

The currency in Paraguay is called guaranies (gwa-rah-NEE-ace) and the coins come in 50, 100, and 500 gs or 1 mil (= 1000), plus bills of 2, 5 10, 20 50, and 100 mil. With the exchange rate at approximately 4.500, the bus ride from my house to the training center is 2.3 mil which is about 50 cents.

A Paraguayan teacher earns the equivalent of $500/month, which is considered pretty good income here.

Other than the national police, my fellow aspirantes and our medical staff, everyone here wears flip flops…..on motorcycles, plowing with oxen…no matter. Tranquilo.

During a recent trip to the closest ‘despensa’ (mini mart) I purchased some soap. On the tiny checkout counter, our cashier had just dished out his lunch of a soup-like meal with chunks of beef and some sopa paraguaya (cornbread). He left his meal on the counter while he waited on us. There are no cash registers here except the larger supermercados. Everyone uses calculators to determine your purchase total and even then you want to double check. There is no tax. This culture continues to impress me and impress UPON me how much we have to learn from them. Mi amigo and I were fortunate to have a despensa open, as most businesses on the street were closed for siesta (annoying when you want to shop but otherwise perhaps my favorite part of Latin America! haha) We passed a construction worker taking his siesta on a brick wall next to the sidewalk while his teammates forged ahead on his behalf. I totally love this.

When meeting a Paraguayan for the first time, it is customary for them to ask: how old you are, if you are married or have a ‘novio’ and if not, why?, how old your kids are, comment on your age when your children were born (young in my case which can sometimes be a personal sore spot and I have to filter my reactions carefully), how much money you make, how much a certain item of yours cost to purchase, comment on your weight (you are fat [gorda], you are skinny [flaco]), etc. … all the things considered politically incorrect/rude back home. This takes some getting used to!

One of the most popular sayings in PY is “en seguida” (ayn-se-GEE-da) which means: in a couple minutes, in a couple hours, in a week or two, next year, or never. If someone gives you an ‘en seguida’ don’t hold your breath! When will you get my next post? En seguida!

Until then, live out loud and make every moment count.

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Don’t be sad that it’s over. Smile because it happened.

Wow. I have so much to share since my last post.

First and most importantly was my grandmother’s passing. Today’s title reminds me to be grateful for what we’ve had instead of focusing on what we’re now missing. Can we rearrange our grief into delight for being blessed with her life and presence? We were blessed with time to say our goodbyes and her forever cheerful and courageous spirit through it all. We were blessed in knowing she was ready. We are blessed to be part of a large, wonderful, loving, close-knit family she created for, and within, us. When she left, neither side had any doubt they were loved and cherished. Little did she know that she taught me through her own actions to be thrilled by the tiniest things: watching the birds out the window and marveling at their colors or the way they were bickering on a particular day, admiring the swirly composition of a small stone, really savoring the flavors of a dish at her Thursday family potluck, seeing the wonder and possibilities within everything appearing before her. In the busyness of our modern lives she reminded me to slow down, be present in the moment, and never forget that awe is at your fingertips in everything you do if you choose to see it. Staying true to her positive nature, she asked not for a funeral but a for Celebration of Life party….and (I love this) requested that attendees wear bright colors. She always loved wearing bright, cheerful colors. So the day we celebrated, I did just that here in Paraguay. And when my time comes, I want that too. We already miss her terribly but the lessons and love she left behind will forever remain within us.

The morning of the Celebration party provided yet another chance to witness the ‘fruit’ and sweetness of life that I learned from my Gram over the years. My 60-year old host mama, machete in hand, gave me a tour of the ‘back 40’ (as we say in Maine), slashing a walking path through the undergrowth as easily as she cooks a chicken or hangs the laundry. (I’m told you never go anywhere in a field, woods, etc without your machete [except maybe the bus]…just in case. It is pretty common to see people walking down the street here with a machete in hand and not really think much of it. Afterall, EVERYONE has one and because most people are farmers, it’s a necessity for work. But if you are caught with a pocketknife on the bus, they will confiscate. Umm…. But I digress.) I’ve been here for 6 weeks and had no idea that ‘back there’ amongst all those trees was a veritable orchard of tropical fruit trees and herbs. Wow! Our house is nestled into its own mini rainforest, an oasis of beauty and bounty. I had asked her for a yuyo tour, yuyos (pronounced ‘JOO- johz) being the fresh herbs used in terere. Today we focused more on identifying fruit trees but next time will be more herbs (though many fruit trees have incredible medicinal properties.) We found starfruit, mandarin, oranges, bananas, a cinnamon tree (wow!), pomelo, lemons, limes, sweet lime, durasno (like a mini-peach), laurel (bay leaf), manzanitas (cherry-like fruit), café, guava, and my two favorites: passionfruit (mborukuja) and mango-mango-mango! I was in heaven. This didn’t include the papaya and Heart of India fruits growing over the extensive arbor by the backdoor. Host Mom picked some fresh eucalyptus leaves for flavoring my water bottle. Refreshing!

For training earlier this week I experienced what we call “Long Field Practice” where we visit a current volunteer’s site in the campo (countryside) to help us get a glimpse of campo life first hand. I traveled with my 4-person language group and our profesora. We each stayed with a separate host family that spoke only guarani and did activities with the community’s volunteer during the day. I was initially quite intimidated, ok semi-terrified, at the idea of spending 4 days with a new family who spoke neither English nor Spanish. I mean seriously, I’ve only been studying guarani for 2 weeks! How was I going to communicate other than rudimentary sign language? AND my group was expected to give a charla (ie presentation) on soils to a group of local ladies…in guarani. Huh? Are you kidding? I can barely say ‘Hello, my name is Wendy. It’s hot today. Yes, I like what you cooked for dinner. How many chickens do you have? Do you grow mint? I like to read. I will sleep now.’ Though I’m really good at saying, “I don’t understand. Can you repeat that?” and “Do you have tarantulas here?” Haha. But it was all good.

The trip was full of fun things: we learned to cook sopa paraguaya (cornbread from dry cornmeal), queso paraguaya (cheese), and chipa guazu (cheepa wahSOO) (cornbread from fresh corn and sometimes onions), toured a successful garden, got a mini yuyo lesson, did hoeing in a farmer’s field, and all had a reading from a deaf fortunate teller which was translated from sign language into guarani then English. Haha. Campo life tends to be more extreme than where I live now and offers a wonderful perspective on the many layers, definitions, and faces of poverty. Natives in the campo are much poorer but it is beautiful to see how happy (and resourceful!) they are overall (another reminder that stuff doesn’t make us happy and I am more and more grateful for the opportunity to live simply and happily without all the frills from home… WHILE still always grateful for my daily internet access for now. Wink.) Paraguayans are known for their abundant laughter (usually at my expense, tranquilo).They are present, mindful, and prideful in every step of their work and daily lives. One of my favorite people I met this week was the 63-year old woman who taught us how to make chipa guazu: vibrant, spirited, strong, happy, and bold, with missing teeth, the best laugh and most beautiful wrinkles I’ve ever seen. Her advice: “It is important to work for your food.” So we did. How do you make chips guazu? You begin by plucking every kernel from the cob…by hand, then grind the kernels in a hand-cranked molina (like one of those old fashioned meat grinders that bolts to a table; we took turns because it’s tiring but the guapa ladies to it all themselves) which makes a liquid corn mush, add veggie oil, lots of eggs, salt and sometimes onions. Cook in the tatakua (outdoor cave-like brick oven) for 15 minutes. Yum! Yes, we worked for our food that day and it tasted all the better. In the end, I experienced so much growth from working through the difficulties of the week and was really glad for the experience. My language vaulted to new levels and, by day 4, my host family and I were learning to communicate with each other. I came ‘home’ feeling much more confident and prepared for when I arrive at my own site in a mere 4 WEEKS!!! Yes, this Wednesday I receive my site assignment where I will live for the next 2 years and will go there on Friday for 5 days to begin meeting people and getting a sense of my new community. My entire training group is so excited for Wednesday! In September this time seemed very far away but it’s almost here! The next four weeks will be a blur of activities starting with next week’s site visit, then Thanksgiving at the Ambassador’s house (how cool is THAT?!), final exams, swearing-in on December 7 and then I’m off to my community! In the meantime I am frantically spending every possible moment on my language skills to be as prepared as possible for the transition (which will still leave me superbly underprepared but every bit will help.)

Tonight my host sister and I walked about 3 miles, returning home just as a gorgeous sunset slid below the treeline. We chatted easily and filled the spaces with comfortable silence. There’s a lot to be ‘said’ for comfortable silence. I’ve always been a fan myself but it’s amazing how UNeasy people in the States are with pauses, silence, quiet within a conversation. Silence is common in Paraguay though when the talk is juicy there is no shortage of chatter! Along the way I admired a full moon rising over a crest of waving sugar cane and a sky streaked with pinks and oranges that turned the red soil into a vibrant salmon glow. We walked through a swarm of fireflies dancing along the roadside and listened to frogs singing their chorus in the background. The frogs sing very different tunes here and locals describe them by the sound they make: cien, cien (which is 100 in Spanish), or cuatro cuatro cuatro (which is 4 in Spanish.)

Tonight we had 2 kururus in the kitchen, which are giant frogs the size of grapefruit. They are a bit freaky looking when you first see them though not poisonous and local tales say that, if you pick one up, it will pee in your eye. Haha! Ikatu – it’s possible! Tonight, one was stalking a lembu (big beetle) and actually attacked it but the beetle was too big! Yeah, I never walk through the house at night without a flashlight and shoes!!

In addition to walking, I’m running more frequently now and find my energy level has skyrocketed and my body much happier (though a full night’s sleep continues to elude me). Running on anything other than paved roads is more akin to trail running, requiring intense focus to avoid slipping or turning an ankle on the smooth bedrock, sharp cobblestones, eroded channels, or soft, beach-like sand, all of which can be found in a single 30 foot stretch. I’m looking forward to doing more training once in my site and perhaps entering the Asuncion or Buenos Aires half-marathons next October. I was surprised to hear how many races can be found in Paraguay…something to aim for.

Random stuff and more firsts:

Recently I: had my first juggling lesson from a classmate, ate my first passionfruit (now one of my new favorite fruits which I plan to grow once in my site!), ate my first honeycomb with pollen (if I were a bear, yeah I’d raid a hive to get at it too. Wow – deeeelishhh. More incentive to become a beekeeper while here!) and found a Paraguayan woman who makes fine cheese (like Brie, mozzarella, swiss, etc…her French husband taught her and we discovered her place on lunch break this week – what a find!!! It’s nearly impossible anywhere but Asuncion to find any cheese other than the single standard Paraguayan style, queso paraguaya, which is fresh and fairly bland)

For Halloween, some of the ex-pats on staff carved watermelons for jack-o-lanterns because we either don’t have pumpkins here or they are out of season.

November 2 was Paraguay’s Day of the Dead where locals honor their deceased loved ones. My class went to a cemetery to observe – I have never seen so many people in a cemetery at once…hundreds praying, playing, chatting, honoring; flowers on graves, candles on altars, scarves on crosses. Most burials are above ground with tombs ranging from petite to the size of a cottage. Those whose families can’t afford the more expensive and preferred above ground accommodations are buried in the ground.

My yoga mat is laid out next to my bed, a constant invitation to practice or stretch. Because of this, my host family’s 6-year old niece, Maria Clara, has discovered it and runs into my room every Sunday to practice and learn new postures with me. I love her enthusiasm and I have to admit that listening to kids speak Spanish is so cute! It’s not something I encounter in Maine and was quite a novelty for me when I first arrived.

Guinea hens are rampant here, easily identified with their loud squawk and great for insect control. The noise seems not to be a problem. No one minds barking dogs, 2am roosters, or smelly pigs either. It’s quite refreshing to have neighbors not bickering over these things. Everyone is simply tranquilo. Speaking of birds, one of the female geese was hit by the bus today and both the human and goose families are grieving over her. Her mate and their baby spent the afternoon calling pitifully for her and looking everywhere. It was really sad and my heart went out to them. I’ve never been a fan of geese but I really love the geese here on the farm, parading around like they own the place, and very protective of their babies.

There is a major ‘lindo factor’ here (lindo meaning beautiful or good). Of course, most people anywhere are drawn to pretty things but here you can make significant headway on something the more attractive it is. For example, we were building lombriculture bins (composting bins where red worms do most of the work) and were advised that people were more likely to use it if it was ‘super lindo.’ Ditch the scrap wood, pull out the tiles and bamboo. Paraguayans take tremendous pride in their appearance, even if it’s simply wearing their cleanest flip flops when company arrives. Small things like sparkly barrettes, glitter on shirts, bows on bags….all carry far more importance here than back home.

Did you know that Paraguayans clap at someone’s front door instead of knocking?

Did you know that instead of greasing a pan for baking you can simply line it with banana leaves to prevent sticking? Way cool!

My favorite guarani-isms of the week:




Nandu+guasu=ostrich (huh? Large spider is an ostrich? Apparently!)

Nandu+kavaju= tarantula (horse spider? Yup.)

Like I said, random but too interesting not to share. What are you interested in reading or learning about Paraguay in the future?

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 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

Live and go ‘live’

Today I officially make my blog public and am excited to share my journey with you!  I arrived in Paraguay, South America on September 27, 2012 to begin my Peace Corps training, a dream 25 years in the making.

If you are just joining the adventure let me give you some context on how the Peace Corps process goes now that I’m incountry: My cohort is a group of 54 individuals, some destined for the agriculture sector (like me) and the rest will work in the environmental sector. Our first 10 weeks in Paraguay are strictly training, learning language (Spanish and guarani), culture, technical skills, health, safety, and more. Training 1) prepares us for life in the campo (countryside) where each of us will be assigned a community do the work we came to do, 2) gives us a chance to examine our reasons for joining Peace Corps and question and explore if this continues to be the right choice for each of us and 3) is also essentially a 10-week job interview. Throughout this time we are continually assessed and tested to ensure we meet minimum competencies that will support our success in the community. If we do not measure up or decide this isn’t really what we wanted afterall, we go home in December. Few people do this. Otherwise, in December we will be sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) and be in our sites by mid-December where we’ll live and work for the next 2 years.

Recently, my host sister gave me a pile of magazines in which her Paraguayan recipes had been published; her gift to me for when I’m on my own in the campo. I knew she was a baker (the family owns a bakery here on the property) but apparently, she ‘s a regular contributor to, an ‘ABC Color’ magazine known throughout this country for its quality and reputation. This gift was really personal and meant a lot to me. Now I can make my own chipa (looks like a bagel but made of mandioca flour, cornmeal and anise) and other culinary delights!

Yesterday finally brought relief from the heat with cooler temps, periods of drizzle and a lovely breeze. It also brought my second round of rabies vaccinations, standard practice for all Peace Corps Volunteers in this country, and about 50 new Spanish words. My host family continues to comment that my comprehension is rapidly improving (well, it could only go up!) They are wonderfully supportive of my journey, my language training, and ensuring I have a great experience in Paraguay.

Last night I was treated to Skyping with several family members including my daughter. Hearing her voice was the most precious thing in the world and she was able to hear mine for the second time since my arrival. (My internet connection here is a bit too slow for my audio to work most of the time.) The hardest part of all this is being away from my wonderful family but we are all adjusting.

This morning, following a super yummy omelet with fresh tomatoes, beans, and Mom’s homemade cheese, my training group traveled scavenger-hunt-style to Ascuncion, the capitol, where we eventually met dozens of volunteers currently serving in various parts of the country. On a bend for good chocolate, my secondary mission was to stock up on premium dark chocolate as well as find a good sombrero, some dice, and maybe some extra clothes. While did find some chocolate in the supermercado, the choco-snob in me was underwhelmed and unsatisfied…it’s not the same as home but, alas, it must suffice. I also learned that the US Embassy has a  fabulous swimming pool and, once sworn in as Volunteers, we can use it while in Ascuncion. December can’t come fast enough!!!

Today’s National Geographic (NatGeo) moment:  this morning I watched a young boy (maybe 5 years old?) ‘riding’ a stick as if it were a horse, galloping across the red dirt and cobblestone road in his little bare feet, hair tousled, clothes askew, unconcerned of our oncoming vehicle and seemingly happy as could be. My heart skipped, my eyes smiled, and I was again reassured that I’m exactly where I’m meant to be.

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

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