Posts Tagged With: community

30 Sunsets

“You’ll seldom experience regret for anything that you’ve done. It is what you haven’t done that will torment you. The message, therefore, is clear. DO it! Develop an appreciation for the present moment. Seize every second of your life and savor it. Value your present moments. Using them up in any self-defeating ways means you’ve lost them forever.” – Dr. Wayne Dyer

October 18, 2014

Yesterday marked the beginning of my last 30 days in Paraguay. Just a moment ago it seemed I had an entire 27 months ahead of me, like a canvas awaiting its paint or the clay ready for the sculptor. Now, in the blink of an eye, those months have come and gone. I have only 30 more unforgettable sunsets, 30 mornings to step out the front door into the sunrise and invent a new day. Only 30 more days to say “Yes” to as many experiences as possible, to visit, to hear the rhythm of conversation in Guarani. Just 30 days to take in the magic, soak up the culture, witness the generosity and light-heartedness of Paraguayan people, nurture friendships, be the recipient of my community’s jokes, take in the sights of vast sugar cane fields and cows in the road, watch giant frogs feasting on bugs at dusk, hear the daily routine of cowboys herding cattle or the occasional sacrificing of an animal for the Sunday BBQ. Only 30 short days to continue sharing what I can, learning what I can, and loving the friends I have made here. I have a whole 30 days to practice being present, soaking up and being grateful every moment of this ride we call Peace Corps.

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Appreciation Day

“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”  – Author Unknown

October 2, 2014

My boss and her 2-man team made a visit to my site today to talk with the community and learn more about their request for another volunteer. With my time coming to a close the middle of next month, we are all making preparations for the transition.

The senoras from my Women’s Club (Club of Witches they like to be called) recounted stories of the fun we’ve had together and one in particular who proudly described how she began calling herself “Primera Bruja” or the “First/Best Witch” after a recent incident of peek-a-boo with me (see September blog post “AHAs in Cultural Exchange” for details). Since then, I only refer to her as my Primera Bruja and her sister as My Segunda Bruja (Second Witch), far better than given names! They. Love. It.

Another gent asked if I could stay two more years; the others nodded in agreement. Of course, he was one of the fellas who had hoped to marry me one day and he was running out of time. Haha. It was a great meeting of feeling acknowledged and appreciated as a person and for my work but, even more importantly, considered as one of the community.

While my team was here, my program specialist and I chatted in the garden, taking in the view of the hills in the distance, sharing various things I was trying, answering my questions about why my 3rd generation of carrots was growing deformed, and sharing the variety of plants that had volunteered (self-seeded) themselves throughout the garden – green manures, carrots, beans, and a new invasive weed. While there, we watched a beautiful orange and black butterfly tuck her abdomen under the edge of a passion fruit leaf  and lay an egg mere inches from us! It took only a second and when she flew away we examined the tiny egg with its texture and color. Had it not been for his watchful eye, I would have missed the whole thing. Amazing! It pays to practice awareness and live in the moment. I’m so grateful to my team for placing me in this community to live, love, laugh and cry with these beautiful people for the past two years.

Tiny butterfly egg, the size of a pen tip. (stock photo)

Tiny butterfly egg, the size of a pen tip. (stock photo)

At the end of the day, it’s the relationships and the little things that really matter and make life most beautiful.

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Homosexuality in Paraguay

November 24, 2013

“Safety in a community gets defined by how the most marginal person in the community is treated. We all believe that if people could see into our hearts and know who we really are, we too might be rejected, so we notice how those at the margins are welcomed.” – Emily Sander

I rarely go to church in my community but one day last winter, for reasons I did not initially understand, I was compelled. I cursed the cold and donned my winter boots, layers of pants/shirts/fleeces, hat and mittens and arrived to see the pastor underway with his sermon, his breath and that of huddling parishoners, clearly visible in the cold air.

While I believe everyone in my community is Catholic this pastor has a history of being open and respectful of other religions and practices different than his own, evidenced the day I ‘outed’ myself as a Buddhist and proudly hung my prayer flag outside of my house. He asked many questions and was genuinely curious in a most respectful manner. So I was particularly surprised when his sermon circled around to emphatically state that marriage was only ‘right’ when between one man and one woman and that same sex unions were “NOT normal.” I am personally strongly opposed to this opinion and, not wanting to confront him in front of the church goers, sat awkwardly silent for the remainder of the service, quickly filing questions for later.

That conversation was successful since it was aimed to seek further understanding rather than provide attack or blame AND he was very open to hearing my opinion and differing cultural practices in the US (culture sharing goes both ways as a PCV). I emphatically differentiated between ‘not normal’ vs ‘less common than the norm’. He understood my point that it shouldn’t matter what your sex is if you truly love another human and I offered several examples of gay friends from back home who have been together longer, and happier, than a number of my hetero married friends. While he’s not jumping on my bandwagon any time soon, we agreed to disagree and parted with a better understanding and mutual respect for the other’s opinion and cultural norms. Beautiful and magical. And, for once, when I really needed it, my language did not fail me!

Our little red church, known locally as the 'oratorio' or 'iglesia'.

Our little red church, known locally as the ‘oratorio’ or ‘iglesia’.

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El Dia de Los Muertos

In Paraguay, November 2 was El Dia de Los Muertos or “Day of the Dead”, a day where families remember their deceased. Despite it’s name, it focuses on celebrating rather than mourning the lives of one’s ancestors and can be a bit of a party in some communities. Families hang out at the cemetery for hours or all day, handing out candy, lighting candles, saying prayers, laying fresh scarfs over the crosses at the headstone, telling jokes, laughing. In the days leading up to the event, grave sites were cleaned of trash and weeds, several tombs were freshened up with a new coat of paint. Even the outhouse looked spiffy (outhouse in a graveyard? yup- people spend a lot of time here). In my community, families visit their ancestors every Monday morning. Family is everything.

Size and location of a grave is an indicator of wealth. The wealthiest have large tombs above ground, often accommodating many bodies or entire families, while the poorest bury their dead in the earth with just a simple headstone to mark the grave.

While talking to families at the cemetery this day, I asked many questions about the tradition and also explained that there is no equivalent in the U.S.  Sure, we have Memorial Day for veterans but there is no day formally set aside to remember and pay tribute to our ancestors (one of the teenagers asked me if Halloween counted; um, no.) This has prompted me to consider adopting a new tradition for myself when I get back to the States to remember and honor my own ancestors regularly, whether through a visit to their graves or a ritual of some kind. Afterall, they have all contributed in myriad ways to this life I am currently living. The idea seems fitting and right, especially as this year’s Day of the Dead celebration fell on the one year anniversary of my grandmother’s passing, the last of my grandparents to leave this world.

Local cemetery during Dia de Lost Muertos (Day of the Dead) where families honor and celebrate their deceased.

Local cemetery during Dia de Lost Muertos (Day of the Dead) where families honor and celebrate their deceased.

Symbolism of remembering their dead, examples found in a tomb during Dia de Lost Muertos (Day of the Dead)

Symbolism of remembering their dead, examples found in a tomb during Dia de Lost Muertos (Day of the Dead)

Paraguayan cemetery. Here you can see the full range of graves, from the basic simple cross headstone marking the body in the ground, to the more extravagant tombs built to hold entire families.

Paraguayan cemetery. Here you can see the full range of graves, from the basic simple cross headstone marking the body in the ground (top right), to the more extravagant tombs built to hold partial or entire families (orange  and green building). Note the outhouse stage left.

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Meet My Community – The Benitez-Esquivel Family

October 29, 2013

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

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

The Benitez-Esquivel Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Life is a Cascade of Moments

October 10, 2013

The Wing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Celebrating Success, Awkward Moments, and Creative Energy

September 8, 2013

Your life. Your version of success.  – Danielle LaPorte

Despite everyone being down with the “Gripe” (pronounced GREE-pay), or common cold, it’s been a pretty stellar week. Success on many levels.

I’ve felt the benefits of much fantastically powerful energy from the universe these last few weeks and it, coupled with the arrival of purely blissful tropical weather, has provided one of the most creative weeks of my adult life.

New crescent moon - September 2013

New crescent moon – September 2013

The cherry on top was just yesterday when I gave a major presentation to my community that was well-received and the results of which got community members very excited. I don’t think they ever realized how many resources they have available to them right in their community or the multitude of new opportunities available using those existing resources…all right here, all this time, at their fingertips. A few of them looked at each other in disbelief as if to say, “Really? It’s been here all along?” The result was an empowered community who learned how to identify and prioritize their needs, find new uses for existing resources and thus giving me some good direction and a whole new set of projects! A true success by all accounts.

But most of the time, the joys and successes of my job don’t come neatly packaged as well-attended meetings with positive outcomes. Sometimes it’s comparing recipes for mandio chyryry with a local señora or being invited to the San Juan Fiesta of Fire in June where, in the darkness after sunset, people are literally kicking flaming soccer balls and throwing blazing chunks of straw at each other, delighting in being chased by a man in a bull’s costume whose horns are on fire, or climbing a greased pole to get the prize at the top (this took collaboration of 4 men standing on each others’ shoulders).

San Juan Festival of Fire  June 2013

San Juan Festival of Fire June 2013

San Juan Festival of Fire - Flaming Soccer Balls! June 2013

San Juan Festival of Fire – Flaming Soccer Balls! June 2013

Sometimes it’s visiting a neighbor to discover she has six brand new baby goats and falling in love with the little guys and being invited to visit every day.

Goat babies steal my heart...

Goat babies steal my heart…

Or working in an environment that exults my senses and insists I pause with appreciation like the friendly wave of a neighbor heading to the field, a perfect tropical breeze, the glowing crescent of a new moon, the arrival of new birds and butterflies for the season, outdoor yoga on my brick patio in a warm splash of sun, siesta in a hammock under a guava tree humming with happy foraging bees, the sweet call of goat babies wanting their mamas, fireants that leave a rash of itchy bites…

Sunrise yoga on the patio. Nothing finer.

Sunrise yoga on the patio. Nothing finer.

New arrival.

New arrival.

Speaking of unfortunate situations (like stepping on fireants), sometimes you’re so far from success you want to evaporate, dissolve into the soil, teleport yourself back to your house and never come out again. Here are a few things that haven’t been so successful:

Awkward Moment #951: Asking the local Professora if she had worms when I meant to ask if she had onions.

And it’s twin, Awkward Moment #952: On a sweaty, sweltering day, telling my host family I was horny when I really meant to say I was hot. Oops.

Awkward is the name of the game…The morning after making arrangements with a neighboring señora to work together in her field, I arrived at her house (fashionably late, as dictated by “Paraguayan time” standards), to learn from her confused look that not only had she forgotten our plan but she had made other arrangements in the last 14 hours (Paraguayans really do live only in the present moment.) Now I know I miss a lot due to my limited language skills but I KNOW I wasn’t wrong about the agreement. I offered to come back later or another day but she insisted that no, we’d go out now. We quickly hoed two rows and she cut me loose. What does one say? The following day she finally admitted she’d forgotten. Ultimately we laughed that she had killed 2 corn plants and I killed none then I showed off my fire ant rash that memorialized the event. Tranquilo. Success.

And just to ensure that I’ll be a pro at “Awkward Moments” when I finish my service….there’s my old favorite: To my 10 community members who spent all afternoon bringing my garden to life building a fence, turning sod and dodging tarantulas I MEANT to say ¨Thanks so much for your help.¨ (“tanto” in Spanish) After seeing confusion and concern on their faces I raced to my dictionary and to my horror realized I´d INADVERTENTLY said ¨Thanks for your STUPID help.¨ (“tonto”) Yup. What a difference a stinking vowel makes. This is my life in PY.

Did you know?

I’ve had readers from over 30 countries visit my blog.

Eating raw, organic carrots can temporarily soothe a sore throat and cough (refer back to the Gripe at the top).

A local rooster visits me daily (because he thinks I’m the chuck wagon) and coos like a cat in heat. No joke.

We’ve recently had an invasion of flying ants – you can see tens of thousands of them in the setting sun- and when they land they instantly shed their wings and start crawling. Freaky!

Paraguay’s national flower is the passionfruit flower.

Passionfruit flower

Passionfruit flower

Let your lives speak. – George Fox

Until next time…jajotopata!

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

Where Has The Time Gone?

8-11-13

“Life loves to be taken by the lapel and told: ‘I’m with you kid. Let’s go.'” – Maya Angelou

It was supposed to be a simple two-week respite from blogging back in February while I prepared to *finally* move from my host family (who I adored, but…) into my own house. Obviously, that turned into a six month hiatus as life got busy and Facebook posts became the ‘easier and quicker’ method to share the latest news of my Peace Corps adventures (oh, did I tell you? I now have internet at my house. Daily. And running water. And a hot shower. Daily. OMG). A lot has happened during this time, which I’ll try to summarize now and make a better effort to regain my regularly scheduled posts here.

In mid-March I moved into my own ‘house’, my ‘schoolhouse’ as I call it, because it is literally a classroom in an old school, residing on the same grounds as the new school. This has worked out beautifully; it is the nicest casa in the community and of course all my neighbors, especially the kids, were dying for a look inside. I am exquisitely happy in my classroom, the kids have been respectful (even inviting me to their daily voleiball games during recess), and I make fantastic use of the giant chalkboard that covers one of walls for my infamous list-making fetish, drawings, reminders, and even tallies while I do my 30-day ab and squat challenges – the only form of exercise I can get during what is currently winter of cool-to-freezing temps and sometimes rainy conditions. (Wow- that was quite the sentence!) As soon as I’d settled into my new space, I began work on my garden. The school Director, Profesor Victor, who is also my contact, gave me a space adjacent to the school garden. It was cow pasture when I started and five weeks later began to resemble a garden, complete with bamboo fence that I helped cut and build with assistance from about a dozen locals. The bamboo was delivered via oxcart from the far end of town. Unfortunately two weeks later, one of the oxen (called ‘guei’ …sounds like whey) swallowed a whole grapefruit and died. I never knew cattle love grapefruit.

Also this autumn (springtime in North America), some fellow volunteers came to visit my site to produce a documentary on biodigesters because, at the time, I had half of all biodigesters in the country right in my community. That same week I participated in a biodigester Train the Trainer workshop to learn to teach Paraguayans how to install biodigesters. Cool! I think I might want one when I come home. These biodigesters are 20 foot plastic tubes that lie in a trench and to which you add manure daily. In three weeks, this starts producing a daily delivery of amazing liquid compost for the garden and methane which the locals use for cooking… all using FREE materials!

In May, my cousin and a friend came to visit. Unfortunately, it rained…no, poured… the first three days. And it was cold. Instead of visiting locals and seeing sites around my community, this offered a great indoor bonding experience and many experiments in cooking that, after they inventoried my ‘pantry’ shelves, defied all bets we would go hungry before we ever got out of Dodge. It’s amazing what you can do with cornflour, mandioca, sweet potato leaves, beans and eggs. Ultimately, the rain broke and my cousin and I were able to play in my beehive; her first, but not last, foray into beekeeping.

Throughout this time I’ve made a couple of attempts to host beekeeping workshops but, for various reasons, including three days of rain, they keep getting postponed. As does the yogurt-making sessions I promise to my neighbors who seem very interested but are impossible to pin to a date and time. Such is Paraguay.

Most recently, I returned to Maine for a quick one-week vacation. I did not plan to visit the states until my service was over, however, Maine summer weather beckoned me after freezing my tail off in PY for a week, and all the other beautiful things of Maine including my daughter’s 25th birthday celebration, reuniting with family, swimming in the lake, tango dancing in an oceanside gazebo with friends, toes in the sand at the ocean and shared meals or walks with old friends. It was also the easiest vacation of my life in terms of packing since I was going home to my ‘stuff’. I had only the necessities: toothbrush, passport, tango shoes, a book, camera, tiny travel pillow, sunflower seeds for snacking, calendar of plans for the week, and a gift for my daughter. This was a liberating travel experience! Oh, and if you’ve never heard an American belle speak Portuguese with a deep southern twang over the airplane intercom, you just haven’t lived. I came back with a better perspective and appreciation for both cultures. What do I miss about the states? Besides the obvious answer of family and tango dancing (if you don’t know this about me, well then, you just don’t know me! I’m a tango addict), natural BBQ chips, feta cheese, fresh Maine air, seeing people exercise and trying to stay healthy, generosity and kindness of Mainers, being able to show my money at the cash register (or technology of any kind in public) with little risk of being robbed afterward, walking alone at night, full bodied complex conversations – in English-, dressing up all fancy for special occasions. What don’t I miss? The never-ending busyness, schedules going full tilt, attitudes of entitlement and rudeness, impatience, excess, and incessant marketing for stuff we don’t actually need.

After living in a culture which has the 144th worst GDP in the world but ties for first as the happiest people across the globe, I think there’s a lot to learn from the people of Paraguay. While Paraguay has its shortcomings in serving its people, a short visit with locals will undoubtedly convince you that wealth and stuff does not necessarily bring happiness. I live among very poor people who, despite the barriers they face and the limitations of their country’s systems, laugh and joke, skip and play, sing and show content in their everyday work more than any group of people I’ve ever met. They are resourceful, creative, and make the best of what they have. Want to play volleyball but don’t have a net? No problem, just balance a stick over the top of two chairs. Got a big rock and a plank? These kids will readily make their own teeter totter with such awesome materials. Or just play for hours in a pile of sand. And their generosity is second to none. A neighbor hears that I’m out of cheese and brings me the last of what she has. Another neighbor offers me unlimited access to her grapefruit tree. Others bring me popcorn grown in their field or eggs from their chickens even though they may have barely enough for their own needs.

So I’m sure I’ve forgotten some significant details but I’ll close here and save a little storytelling for next time. Feel free to leave comments, ask questions, or list things you’d like to know more about!

Until next time….jajotopata amigos!

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… the only control we have is choosing how we are going to respond to the ride (we call life). – Madisyn Taylor

At the heart of every transformation, no matter how chaotic, there is substance. When we no longer resist change and instead regard it as an opportunity to grow, we find that we are far from helpless in the face of it. – Thedailyom.com

2-17-13

This quote seemed to fit the mood of my week quite perfectly. It’s been a difficult collection of misunderstandings, feelings of incompetency and disappointment with myself wondering if I’ll ever master communication in Guaraní. The Professor, at my pleading, agreed to let me join the kids’ Guaraní class when school starts next week (they’ve been on summer break since mid-November). I asked “You’re putting me with the Pre-School class, right?” He said, “No, no, no. You go straight to Second Grade!” We had a good laugh.

This week I killed my first chicken. Back in December I ‘chickened’ out in doing this task, but I finally did it. My boss visited on Tuesday for my site presentation where she formally introduced me to my community, talked about Peace Corps, and expectations for all involved. I was determined to serve chicken that I had prepared myself and indeed I did, start to finish. Can’t say I loved the task but given that I will need to feed myself somehow while I’m here, it’s a good skill to have. Inside was a fully developed egg and two egg yolks on their way to being the next eggs. I never knew the yolk was the first thing to develop. During my presentation I served some of the dried fruit I’ve been making in the solar dryer to ‘plant the seed’ among attendees of new ways they can feed their families healthy ‘real’ food during the off-season. They loved the bananas and pears. Plus my housing was approved after security bars are installed on the windows and a bathroom is added. I will be living in an old, unused classroom in the ‘old school’. A new school was built last year near the old school and the only activity in the old school is the library at the far end. While it might sound odd, it seems like a nice set up. The space is larger than most volunteers’ homes at about 20’x20’ with a long patio perfect for tango dancing (hint hint if any dancer friends want to visit), a shed in the back for my chickens, and the ability to expand the school garden for my own use. Rent free. Yay! Plus it’s in the ‘center’ of the community and very visible from a number of homes, which adds to my safety. There are currently some masons living there who are working on the running water project until March so I’ll move in after they leave or after the upgrades are complete, whichever comes last.

I came home from a run yesterday morning to find the neighbors had just killed a cow to honor the 2nd anniversary of their mother’s passing. I grabbed my camera and snapped photos of various stages of the processing. Still in my shorts and revealing skin that doesn’t normally see the sun (can you say ‘blindingly white legs’?) folks thought my white skin was beautiful. I laughed and replied that in my country people pay a LOT of money to have brown skin like them. They looked at me like I was crazy. “Why would anyone want BROWN skin?” they asked incredulously. In other skin news, admittedly my skin has remained fairly nice for this time of year. Back home in January, it would be dry with the cold winter weather. Here, it is normal and mostly healthy, save for the dirt, bug bites and bee stings. So the other parts of the honoring-mom’s-passing include nine days of rezo next door, which is a 20 minute prayer service held by the family and open to the community. On Day 8 we feasted on stews, courtesy the cow from the morning’s slaughter, where the men did the butchering and the women prepared the meat, made blood sausage, and stew. Day 9, we feasted on mounds of barbecued ribs, sopa and chipa.

I was reflecting on what a difference a year makes. A year ago last December I was told I wouldn’t be serving in Peace Corps Asia afterall but somewhere in Latin America IF I could pass a Spanish test. So I bought a Rosetta Stone and studied. I reunited with my best friend from high school. My daughter and I vacationed in Costa Rica, one of the best vacations ever. All of my neighbors were family, spoke English and had hot, running water. I had a paying job. I shoveled snow. And I was doing yoga, tango, running and swimming several times a week. I felt guilty for taking siesta in my car at lunch. Today, the only similarity is that I still study Spanish. Haha. I celebrate that I can flow with the changes, adapt and grow.

I’m in Asuncion this weekend for a little R&R after a rough week. The bus ride is interesting if one chooses to make it so. We stop at two terminals along the way to pick up new passengers and there are always a bounty of vendors selling their wares to passengers in the bus. Some sell from the ground through the window, others come aboard. Often they will literally run to the bus to be the first sale, as many products are duplicative like soda, chipa, cold water, milanesa, and bags of fruit. There is little variety other than the occasional gent selling cheap jewelry or porn DVDs. Sellers range from kids to elderly folks. It’s got to be a tough way to make a living.
My next series of projects will be a beekeeping workshop series to teaching hive building from scratch, making value-added products from harvested beeswax like candles, salves, and skin creams, as well as teaching about honey harvest and trasiegos. Looking forward to it!

Random facts:
Other firsts: ox cart ride

Lesson 445: When traveling, always BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper), just in case

I’ve seen no sign that people here use hand sanitizer. That’s also BYO.

Hand cream is super expensive.

Because there is no real mail system here, one cannot buy stamps and simply drop your envelope into a box on the sidewalk. You must visit the post office, or correos. Office hours can vary from day to day. I’ve mailed a few things back home and never seen the actual stamp.

Paraguayans love tablecloths. It is a standard cultural practice to always put a tablecloth, even a towel, over the table before setting down your plate or serving a guest. No self-respecting Paraguayan would serve a guest on a bare table.

Did you know calf stomachs contain the rennet needed to make cheese and are widely used here in Paraguay for this purpose? Simply take a stomach and stir it in some milk for two minutes. Remove, rinse, and hang the stomach to dry for use again later. They can be reused many times. Amazingly, the flies won’t go near it.

There is an ice cream chain here called Amandau that has the best ice cream I’ve tried thus far, pretty similar to home. And they have passionfruit ice cream that tastes like the real thing. OMG.

I recently went to a large town about 90 minutes north to buy a bike and discovered the ‘caballo’ or horse taxi. They congregate at the bus terminal, lined up along the sidewalk in the shade. This horse and buggy set up looks like something from 100 years ago and is quite a novelty for the Nortes here. While I didn’t ride in it, I put it on my list for my next visit. And, yes, I got the bike, also called a ‘bici’ here (short for bicicleta). During this visit I also found “Village Candle” brand candles, made in Maine! I was floored.

The equivalent of my regular type of toothpaste costs 75% of a day’s pay for me. Sending three letters is a full day’s pay. Yes, both are expensive and yes, I don’t make much as a ‘volunteer’.

One of the girls in my family taught me how to crack the small coconuts found here. Paraguay doesn’t have large coconuts, only massive clusters of golf-ball size ones. To get the pea-sized fruit inside, one must smash with a hammer to crack the hull, then peel the hull and pop out the center coco fruit. My family has a perfect rock with a slight depression for holding the fruit while smashing. Good therapy if you’re in a bad mood. Haha

Paraguay is the place to be if you’re a dental provider. Every town has a multitude of clinics specializing in dental and orthodontia care. False teeth, gold or silver teeth or no teeth are common here due to a diet high in sugar, lack of dental hygiene education, and the occasional rock that finds its way into food due to hand processing. In fact, it’s so common that when meeting someone new I rarely even notice now if they smile and display a mouth full of gold teeth.

The news channels have some significant differences here. First, instead of many very brief stories, the station will air fewer longer stories. By longer, this includes repeating footage of film and photos many times for 10-20 minutes depending on how provocative the story is. They don’t hesitate to show photos of sick, injured or dead people, photos directly from a hospital bed or bleeding bodies in the street after a shooting or moto accident. The other major difference is the dress code for female news anchors. They show far more skin than we are used to back home: halter tops, sleeveless shirts, off-the-shoulder shirts and short dresses are typical. And, unlike back home, all women on TV have long hair, anchors and reporters alike. Of course, long hair is typical for women across PY. The final difference is that while our anchors in the states might drink water or coffee on air, here they drink terere (yerba mate) in a guampa with a bombilla, which is a tea-like drink usually served ice cold during the day. In early morning it’s served as a hot mate.

Many newsclips and commercials on tv and radio use American music. I get excited when I hear the music but, unfortunately, I never get to hear the whole song. Another chance to practice letting go!

My family built a tatakua this week, which is a cave-like outdoor oven. It is used for cooking sopa and chipa, typical Paraguayan breads. First the tatakua is heated by building a hot fire, then the coals are removed and replaced with many pans of breads. Admittedly these breads are far superior when cooked in a tatakua rather than an electrical oven. It was built using brick and held together with local clay-like mud.

I’ve seen many things with English words on them from potholders to tshirts and even products on tv I recognize from home (Sprite, Coke, Nivea hand lotion, to name a few).

Practice the art of letting go and embrace change. Clinging is natural but letting go is liberating!

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

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

Date: 2-6-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Random additions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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