Posts Tagged With: cold

What do Bullfights, Granny Pants and Moving Day have in common?

September 1, 2013

“It takes the power of an inner force to live life on your terms and not someone else’s.”

If you aren’t intrigued by today’s title, I don’t know how else to help you. This post was originally written back in March as I was moving into my new home and on blogging sabbatical so there’s a LOT you’ve missed but now I’m getting you up to speed. But first, I feel compelled to share a couple of highlights from this week.

In my last post I wrote of how cold it has been and this past week was equally frigid….so cold 4,000 cows died this week across the country (and you thought I was just being dramatic about the cold temps, right?)…. So cold (and wet from 4 days of rain) I hadn’t left my house or opened my front door in days, causing my neighbor to finally call and see if I was still alive, injured or moved back to the USA…so cold I finally had time to figure out this blogsite and actually put some cool stuff on it besides stories (so browse around when you have a few minutes)…so cold I’d taken up the habit of keeping my perishables on the counter instead of the fridge because, why not, it was the same temp either way.

As temps started to warm (we’re now back in the land of heat and sweat and I’m loving it) a friend asks if I can get a photo of the dueling male hummingbirds I see in the lime tree outside my window every day. I agreed to try but was doubtful I’d get a decent shot since they’re fast and always zipping in and out of the foliage. BUT, because the universe is always right on time, the VERY NEXT DAY those 2 dueling males delivered a stellar performance in the grass right outside my door that allowed me to get some pretty sweet photos:

Resting male Glitter-bellied Emerald Hummingbirds in Paraguay - outside my front door!

Resting male Glitter-bellied Emerald Hummingbirds in Paraguay – outside my front door!

Ok…now back to our program where you catch up on much of the exciting things that happened during my writing sabbatical. Envision us in March as I ask you: What do Bullfights, Granny Pants and Moving Day have in common?

They were all firsts. This pile of new firsts along my journey provided an exciting week and included other firsts like branding cows, making empanadas, teaching yoga in guarani and accepting a position as the school’s new physical education Professora.

First, let’s clarify the granny pants issue, lest you don’t read the entire post and start developing opinions of me. I was working in the school garden with my host family’s six year old, Ingrid. When I’m working in the field, garden or anywhere that I’m sure to get dirty, I dress appropriately in pants brought for the purpose. Function overrules fashion. (You’ve seen my photos…’nuf said.) While it’s not my best look, it’s not bad, or so I thought. On this particular day, we were hoeing weeds when Ingrid asked if I was wearing my grandmother’s pants! Caught between comic relief and horror at being called out as a granny dresser (back home I’m a true clothes horse) I asked “Why… do they make me look old?” Without pause she assertively replied, “Yes. And on your next birthday you’re going to have 91 candles, right?” Huh? Is it possible for a six year old to have mastered sardonic humor? I reminded her that I’m the same age as her mother. Maybe the lack of mirrors here in PY, which I came to find quite liberating, has taken a bigger toll than I realized. The long shadows in the dirt road have been lying all these weeks…

A couple gents from the community were harvesting honey from a wild hive when their smoker caught the nearby plants on fire, a fire which consumed a great deal of my family’s kokue down the road, including their corn and mandioca. Months of food was destroyed without apology. My family was devastated. Fortunately, they have another sizable plot near the house but this covers only a portion of their annual needs. (Fast forward to September 1 and see malnourished cows and the thinnest pigs ever, for lack of this resource that went up in flames. The cows can barely feed their newborns, much less provide extra for the family’s needs of milk and cheese. Their hunger makes them more irritable and aggressive, resulting in injuries and infections among the herd. I am working with families currently to plant a more diverse and well-rounded feed supply for their animals that includes protein, which they are not getting in appreciable amounts.) It’s not uncommon for locals to raids others’ gardens or fields or steal animals. Over the summer families resorted to using the river for all their water needs when everyone’s wells went dry (and before the running water project was completed). This included driving cattle down there for water, as all the reservoirs had disappeared. After farmers left their cattle to roam free for the day, several cows were shot and butchered on the shores or led across the river by thieves from a neighboring community. People were desperate on both sides of the equation.

I have discovered how precious supplies are here. In an effort to 1) be gentle to the environment in a country with no trash management system, 2) live within my means and 3) use my creative abilities I find myself hoarding packaging like soda and yogurt bottles to keep seeds, yogurt cups and cut-off wine bottles that make great drinking glasses, plastic pouches from dry beans and rice that make great containers for starting seeds, etc. I recently started a page on this blog called Create It which is designed to share instructions for cool projects, including those made from upcycled materials. If you have a great idea to share, please send me a note and I’ll look it over!

After being delayed two weeks due a Dengue fever epidemic, the first day of school (school calendar usually goes from late February to November) was met with much excitement by the kids in the community. However, the two oldest girls in my family were made to stay home to prepare food for an all-day meeting held to celebrate completion of the running water project. They were disappointed to say the least but this is very typical in PY. Education is too frequently sacrificed when kids are needed to care for family members, help with household chores, etc. I asked the Professor if all the kids in our community attend school and he replied “All but three.” Two are mentally challenged, including a 16 year old young man with Down’s Syndrome who incidentally has a big crush on me, blushing like a June bride and shyly hanging his head anytime I so much as look in his direction. It’s adorable. The third is a girl with crossed eyes who is likely capable of being successful in school, despite her vision, but her mother doesn’t want her to attend school. (Winter break is usually a 2-week vacation in July when it’s super cold but this year that turned into a 6 week vacation due to an accompanying teacher strike. The kids will have to attend classes longer into November to make up the time.)

In March, I attended my first bullfight. This much-anticipated event was the talk of the town and all surrounding pueblos for the weekend. Here’s how awesome my host family is: because the bullfight was after dark and it’s not safe to be outside alone at night, and the only way for me to get there is to walk or ride my bike because riding a moto is against Peace Corps policy (the #1 killer in PY), my family walked the 6-mile-2-hour round trip with me in the dark, arriving home at 2:30am. Had they used the moto like they normally would, they could have made the roundtrip journey in 10 minutes. Wow. And the walk provided a breathtaking view of the Milky Way that I couldn’t takes my eyes off plus a raging prairie fire that lit a line of scarlet, beautiful across the black-of-night prairie and inky sky. It reminded me of a burning oil slick on the ocean. The contrast of red on black was striking. Anyway, three matadors were dressed in tight pants and sequined jackets, looking sharp and playing the crowd, including acrobatics over the bulls’ heads and backs. Despite the fanfare and at-times-wild action with the bulls, my favorite part of the night was when the DJ-clown invited some 10 year old-ish boys from the standing-room-only crowd into the ring. After some intros and joking, he got down on all fours and proceeded to give each kid a ‘horsey-ride’, complete with bucking and rearing, his intent to dislodge his rider. His antics and 100% success rate were wildly hilarious. The shadow side of the bullfight which spoiled the night for me was watching how tired and petrified the animals became after a few minutes of bullfighting. Once the animals became exhausted and less aggressive they were chased, prodded and jumped on to encourage them to get feisty again. I would have been terrified too. Other highlights of the night: the make-shift bleachers were cause for close inspection before I dared get on them and even then I considered standing. Simple 2”x5” vertical supports with planks laid across the top like staging, and the ends lashed with nylon rope. And in fact, the front row DID collapse toward the end of the night and two weeks later an entire section collapsed, injuring many.

Bullfight with matadores and acrobatics

Bullfight with matadores and acrobatics

I’ve continued teaching yoga to my host family’s kids and after a particularly fun session where I’d been furiously practicing some new yoga-appropriate guarani vocabulary, the Professor asked if I’d like to be the Professora for Physical Education at the school. With a mix of excitement and intrepidation, I accepted, knowing it would force a whole new set of vocabulary. This was supposed to entail me teaching two classes on Thursdays starting in April. However, as of August, I’ve only taught class once, due either to weather (we were approaching winter), canceled classes for community celebrations, or necessary travel on my part. Hopefully, we’ll get back at it when the weather warms. However, the older kids did start inviting me to afternoon recess to join their volei ball game.

One of my yoga students posing with the rainbow on the soccer (futbol) field.

One of my yoga students posing with the rainbow on the soccer (futbol) field.

The families in my community have relied on hand-dug wells for their water supply since the community was first settled somewhere between 1840-1860. In early March, they finished installation of the running water project which provides unlimited running water to every home. Each family received a tiny outbuilding containing a toilet and shower with a multi-purpose sink on the exterior. The bathroom alone was a major upgrade for most families. Running water was a dream come true!

I was excited too because exactly a week later I moved into my own home, a classroom in an old school building. I affectionately call it my ‘schoolhouse’. I feel a bit spoiled that my community installed an Indoor bathroom for me and I paid extra to have a HOT shower, you bet. I’m honored that they really care about my safety, so I wouldn’t have to go outside at night. It is unheard of for a single woman to live alone here. People are always asking me “Aren’t you afraid living alone?” Nope. No way. I might sleep with my machete next to my bed just in case but I’m beyond content in my own space.

Sunrise from my front door. Good morning!

Sunrise from my front door. Good morning!

I think that’s enough for now. I’m sure this coming week will be no less exciting! Have a fantastic week!

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A New Level of Tranquilo and Reminders in Gratitude

August 26, 2013

“Don’t worry about what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” -Howard Thurman

Since returning from my stateside vacation earlier this month, I’ve noticed a big change in me. Somehow, in the span of a week, I mellowed. After being gone for nearly a fortnight  I didn’t check my bed for spiders before crawling inside, a ritual I’ve cultivated for 11 months now. Despite knowing that anything that doesn’t get moved every 24 hours in my house becomes potential housing for a creepy crawly, I didn’t bother to check all their regular hangouts before diving a hand into bags or clothes on the shelf (I know by  now you’re asking “where is Wendy and what have you done with her?!”) In fact, I found a thick black hairy arachnid on my hand yesterday and simply shook it onto the floor, not bothering to see if there were others on me. And it’s not just the spiders. Mini beetles in the popcorn stash are harmless once fried in hot oil, right (probably a delicacy somewhere too)? You know you’ve reached a whole new level of tranquilo when your answer is “yes” as I had to admit this week. I consulted my best PCV friend with this question. She agreed wholeheartedly and added that it’s simply a source of more protein (at least I don’t have to carry this protein 17k from the grocery store!) and said “Wait til you start eating off the floor!” My reply: “Ummm, that started last week.” For the germ-a-phobe I used to be, never did I see myself submitting to the 3 second rule in PY. Ever. Even though I have a fancy, fairly clean, tile floor, unlike many PCVs whose floors are hard-to-clean-cement or straight soil, I did not think I’d ever be so nonchalant. This, in the same week I was picking dead bugs out of my stash of beans given to me by a generous neighbor. Not exactly the self-development progress I’d hoped to make during my time in PY but I’m sure it’ll serve me somehow. We work with what we’ve got.

Last week all the volunteers in my group traveled with our community contacts to the Chaco (the Northwestern chunk of PY) for a few days of training. I was so excited to realize that my language skills had improved significantly since our last gathering two months ago. I pretty much was able to follow most of the conversations – ooooh what a feeling, halelujah! At the end of those few days of intensive Spanish conversation, however, my brain started to feel like a 20-car pile up with all those new words and phrases overflowing my mental parking lot, backed up waiting for a parking space in the memory banks. I’ve learned this is a good sign…it means things are getting in there! Hopefully the valet driver can also retrieve these when the time calls for it. haha

Despite being assured winter is almost over, today’s high in my site was a raw, rainy 45F. I try to ignore this fact and focus instead on the week’s forecast which promises temps in the 80s and 90s. It’s been raining for days and it’s been equally as many days since I’ve had a shower, washed dishes, taken my hat off, or opened my front door except to shoo away cows trying to eat the oregano on my porch. It was so raw even the cows were shivering! I will welcome the sun and sweat with open arms. Bring it. And hurry. These warm clothes I’ve worn 24/7 really need a break. In an effort to walk my own talk and focus on the positives in life, I sought gratitude in phone calls with friends, hot chocolate with honey harvested from my own bees, lingering over a fresh cup of Starbucks coffee (ok, it might have been 4 cups today), the luxury of reading, skyping with my mom, eating my fill of hot, freshly made soup from the bounty of my garden that has gone totally gangbusters since a week ago (did you realize carrot greens smell like carnations?), then rounding out the day with popcorn sprinkled with fried beetles (if you add some dry basil it helps camouflage the bodies). I’m a lucky gal.

I haven’t made too many faux pas in a while (that I’m aware of), perhaps because I’ve been cooped up in the house (there’s an upside to everything) but I did make a good one related to my birthday (go big or go home, I always say). While visiting a family the week prior to my birthday, the husband and wife were commenting on my special day coming the following week and kept saying something about “invitado” this and “asado” that and was I going to have that cake made from beans that I love so well? (It tastes like chocolate but has not a speck of chocolate in it. Deelish!) What I didn’t realize is that in PY, it’s the person celebrating the birthday who puts on her own party, cooks the food (asado means BBQ), bakes her own cake and invites the town to the fiesta at her house. Oops. I had been expecting my host family to put on a lunch for me and bake the famous bean cake since they’ve been talking about it all year (or so I thought!) It wasn’t until the day AFTER my birthday and the birthday-celebration-that-never-happened that another volunteer explained the custom. Oops again. I had let them down. NOW I understood that they were actually telling me to be sure to invite THEM to my party at my house and the family had given me a kilo of beans so I could make the cake for this fiesta that never happened. Oops…again. Fortunately, as an outsider I’m forgiven for most of my missteps. But I think they all felt a little embarrassed that I didn’t get a party at all. No worries though! We’ll make up for it next year!

Here’s something I threw out to my friends this week:

What stories do you tell yourself about you, your abilities, your worth? Have you checked their validity lately? How many are so negative you wouldn’t dream of saying them to your best friend or beloved? Maybe it’s time to tell some better stories.

I love this. I think all of us can relate to how easy it is to beat ourselves up over our perceived shortcomings and point out areas where we lack. Interestingly, we may not even realize this habit but we do know we would never want to treat our friends and loved ones the way we often treat ourselves. My Peace Corps service has brought my own self-defeating habits to my stark attention and it’s been an incredibly humbling experience. Your pride gets taken down a notch or two or four. You realize you have far more to learn from your host country nationals than they have to learn from you. Sometimes, it is far better to listen and learn than speak and never be wiser. Language barriers can infantilize a person. When you’ve led a life feeling fairly competent in your everyday work, tasks, and understanding of your culture and surroundings then suddenly find yourself feeling completely inadequate on sometimes even the most basic levels, it is disconcerting. It makes you question yourself, your worth, your ability, your stamina to see this through. It holds up a mirror that reveals facets of yourself you never knew existed. You must look at it everyday. Sometimes we are proud of what we see. Sometimes not. Even though you might have been going through life working really hard on your problem areas, being kind, being aware of your wake, striving to grow and learn, extending compassion and loving kindness, sometimes those blind spots just hit you upside the head and you never saw them coming. Peace Corps is hard this way but it is one of the best damn eye openers I’ve ever had the good fortune to be gifted. So I invite you to consider the questions above. While there’s always work to be done on ourselves, is there room for you to be more loving and gentle as you go about it?

This week’s takeaways: pride in standing up for myself and and my principles with courage to speak my peace without flinching coupled with the strength to extend compassion during a difficult situation; joy in having someone tell me my words made a difference for them; assurance that the universe delivers who and what we need exactly when we need them (including a cheap taxi that appeared out of nowhere and really was an angel of mercy on a rainy day); grateful for opportunities to practice in areas where I struggle knowing it will make me stronger and wiser; appreciating people in my life who really have my back when I need them; knowledge that I’ve made great progress in loving myself and the gifts I have to offer, blessed with a great mom who’s always there; appreciative of a super boss; never again in my life will I take for granted good coffee, indoor plumbing, an indoor stove, central heat, or electricity. Even on the hardest days, I consider myself blessed with the privilege of being here, sculpting my life, writing my own script, and making my dreams come alive.

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

Reframing and Being Present

August 20, 2013

“So, ask yourself: What can you do right now to see the other side of change, in spite of the anxiety?” -Sumitha Bhandarkar

Reframing is perhaps one of the most critical skills I have honed in the year since arriving in PY. I’m not talking about reframing doorways or watercolors for the wall; I’m referring to perspective, the situation that isn’t going as planned and will drive you crazy if you don’t reframe into something more tolerable, if you don’t shift your perspective toward the positive, if you don’t look for the lesson it’s trying to teach; it’s the moment that offers its lesson cleverly wrapped as frustration, a set back, or a plan gone awry.

This past week I had two excellent opportunities to further develop this practice: a late bus and doing business at the bank. My usual excursions into the next town are a casual affair requiring a minimum half day of my time due to bus schedules. I am only hurried to ensure I reach the bus terminal on time but, once there, it’s pretty tranquilo. On this day, I was meeting a brand new volunteer who had just moved to town and had promised him lunch, English conversation, and a tour of the town to get him grounded. Today, I had no time to spare; I had scheduled every available moment intown. Today, the bus was an unprecedented 40 minutes late. Really? Today of all days? Ok, I get it: a ‘reframing’ opportunity right here. Attitude adjustment time and asking myself how I could look at this situation differently. First, I reminded myself that it would all be ok in the end, regardless of the time we had or didn’t. We weren’t negotiating a hostage situation; it was lunch. Then I decided to make better use of all this extra time available to me. I began bargaining with my plan, seeing what could be condensed or eliminated once I got to town. I began calculating costs for my next vacation. I practiced guaraní vocabulary using the various objects within sight. Magically, the time passed much more quickly. Once intown I rushed to the bank on the way to meeting the new volunteer, thinking “This will just take a minute” and feigned patience while waiting my turn in line. When it was my turn to step to the counter, another bank employee appeared at the teller with an urgent project that needed his attention immediately and seemed to take forever. REALLY? Do you really need to count all that money now? This can’t wait until the line has cleared? I don’t have time to wait, folks! Hence began the mental gymnastics to turn my impatient thoughts into something more productive. I listened to my inner ramblings from outside myself and recognized this as yet another ‘reframing’ opportunity, muttering under my breath that there’s probably something to be learned here somewhere but what the hell is the damn lesson this time???? Surely, haven’t I already learned it?? Clearly, the universe felt I needed more practice and this was it’s reminder to just cool my jets, Chickie.

Admittedly, things weren’t as dire as they felt in my haste… yes, I’d wanted to be ON TIME, and I may or may not have been keeping someone waiting but really, this wasn’t life or death; it’s a mere blink in the collective moments of my life … and I knew I’d probably laugh about it in a few hours (which I did, exactly 15 minutes later). Getting internally impatient or externally huffy does no one any good. Second, perhaps I should have checked my ego at the airport. Third, it gave me time to really be present, to look around the bank and take in the number of guards with their M16s who look so unintimidating drinking terere; to wonder how long the teller has worked here and if those worry lines are from his job, a difficult childhood, concentration, a struggling family member, or …?; to wonder about the life stories of the others in line around me. Simply: A good reminder that situations, and we, are not as important as we think, reframing is always possible and a change in perspective usually makes for a much happier you. And, yes, it all worked out just fine in the end.

Speaking of errands and money, I was chatting with a fellow volunteer recently about how our purchasing decisions here in PY are strongly influenced by our ability to get the purchase home. This usually means carrying it in a backpack or striking gold by finding a friend to haul it in a vehicle (rare but happens). Between us, 99.9% of purchases arrive home on our backs. And, yes, this makes for one of the most effective money-saving ideas I’ve ever used. I would have purchased MANY more things if I could have tossed them into a vehicle. Instead, I’m constantly asking myself: How much do I REALLY need that? How much does it weigh? Do I REALLY want to carry it? Is there room in the backpack after groceries? One yogurt or two? Wine, a new sweater, OR a week of veggies and fruit? The large economy-price spaghetti sauce or the smaller, lighter, more expensive box? For refrigerated items we must also ask ‘How hot is it today and can I get it home without it spoiling?’ We got to wondering – and laughing – how our lives back in the States would be different if we had to use the same criteria for making purchases and getting them home.

That said, hauling a heavy pack several kilometers home has its merits. It invites you to be present, to feel the weight of your new belongings on your body and then, out of discomfort, to reframe. It invites you to shift your focus to your surroundings and the opportunity to revel in the swirl of scents, sights and sounds filling the air. Mangoes, guavas, limes, oranges, and more are blossoming right now and the bees are so boisterous in their ecstasy over the feast you hear them before you see them. You notice birds bantering, how strikingly blue the sky is and how desiccated the soil has become since the last rain. You arrive home with your supplies and a satisfaction not unlike a long season of hard work in the garden that finally generates a great harvest.

Trash is an ongoing issue here. There is no cohesive waste management system in PY and none at all where I live. There is no truck that comes by to conveniently take your discarded material to the landfill. There are few recycling programs. With every day and every purchase we are forced to consider our trash, its lifespan, its final resting place and its impact on the environment. A plastic pouch vs plastic jar vs glass jar? What will we DO with this box/plastic/soda or wine bottle/wrapper/paper/metal chair/tire when it has run its course and usefulness? What can be reused, upcycled, used for storage, etc? Ethical and moral dilemmas abound. Most Paraguayans burn their trash in the backyard. What doesn’t burn gets thrown in a pile to the side. It gets us PCVs to thinking about home and the convenience of our own systems but also the idea of how we might make different decisions and live very differently if we, too, were forced to turn our backyards into our own personal landfills, in proximity to your wells and drinking water. We are so shielded from this reality in the states that we can continue to live our destructive lives and habits without having to consider the consequences each day. Many of us don’t even know when and where we are being destructive. Many PCVs burn their bathroom trash and bury the rest. But what happens when you go on vacation and your regularly scheduled trash-burning-in-the-shed is paused? Giant, super-stinger wasps move in. Then when you finally generate some smoke again, they fall from the ceiling and land in your hair. No harm done this time but…ick. Tis the season for these.

And speaking of critters…this week the spiders are back: I found two floating in coffee mugs, one making a nest in a folded shirt on the shelf, and another sitting steathily above my mosquito net over the bed. Tiny frogs jump out from behind the silverware canister, scaring the daylights out of me. They are harmless but I reached for a fork, not a frog. Piglets try to raid my porch and are non-plussed as I use my water-bottle-turned-squirt-gun to shoo them away. Blackflies have dissipated but mosquitos are loving the now-warmer weather, as am I.

Despite living next door to Canada all my life, I do not like the cold. I’m a wimp. Before moving to PY, I was assured winters here were mild with temps rarely low enough to produce a frost. They lied. Or their tolerance of cold is something akin to Artic-loving. My bones are not made for that. I’m a tropical gal and I love the heat. The weeks before and after my vacation in early August brought several frosts and one morning of freezing rain. Even the things in our refrigerators were frozen. Because homes here are not insulated nor do they contain a heating system, temps inside one’s house tend to be the same as outside, without the wind chill. I feel for those who must economize their trips to their outdoor bathrooms and force their bladders to greater holding capacity. I sequestered myself in my house in full winter regalia: boots, wool socks and a complete accompaniment of warm clothes. I slept fully dressed under four blankets with my hat on. I ran my tiny oven with the door open to substitute as a furnace, warmed bricks in it for radiant heat later, and drank liters of hot water. My hot water bottle took on god-like status. I did innumerable squats and planks to generate heat from within. I tried to reframe (at least I’m getting exercise out of this!) I tried to be present (yes, I can see my breath inside and practice making rings with it in the air; I’m very present to how numb my toes and fingers are!) The upside to long, cold winter days is there’s more time for reading. Whether or not you are a foodie, if you’ve never read “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver I highly recommend it!

Now that we’re flirting with warmer temps, I’m feeling human again. I dare venture out to visit my neighbors whom I have missed. I’m elated in having to use sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat once again and ever more grateful for being the rare volunteer with running water and a hot indoor shower. After being cooped up, I’m ready to get out in the sunshine and work!

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

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