Posts Tagged With: compost

In the Heart of South America

November 3, 2013

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

 

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

Paraguayan sunset

Paraguayan sunset

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basil plantitas

Basil plantitas

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

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

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

Did You Know?

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

Jajotopata! (until next time)

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

Jan 22, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I counted my blessings for being here.

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

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

Random thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jajotopata!

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

Make your own happiness

,Date 1-16-13

“It is fullness of life which makes one happy. Not fullness of purse.” – Rabindranath Tagore

Sure I’ve had some fun stories to tell but some of you may be wondering about my work here, like my friend who asked after reading my last post “…but what are you doing for Peace Corps?” Peace Corps‘ expectations for me at this point in my service are building relationships in my community and sharing what I’m learning about this culture with people back in the States. Development work is a slow process and change is difficult even for those who welcome change, never mind those who might be skeptical or hesitant why they should listen to a Norte who’s only been in the country a few months. It is essential to build trust with my villagers before attempting deeper work and also to lead by example. For example, if my garden grows beautifully a family is more likely to listen to my suggestions than if it looks pitiful. My villagers rely on their crops and gardens to feed their families for the whole year. Their gardens and crops are not hobbies, they are necessities. Many do not have income to buy staples they would otherwise grow. If a crop fails, they go without, perhaps their animals go hungry or fend for themselves. Many live on the edge every year. When crops do well, sometimes they can find outlets to buy their surplus for a little extra income. Part of my job is to help stabilize their incomes by educating them on ways to improve their soil, which makes it more nutritious for plants and more able to resist drought, as well as other ways to diversify and access other sources of income (like honey). I have one villager with a slew of plants that produce a bean similar to castor that can be sold for its oil but he has few markets nearby to purchase his beans. Most of the market is in Brazil. The other, closer market requires a minimum load, which he can’t always reach. I hope to explore a market for value-added products like salves and balms using his oils. Anyway, back to my task at hand. My priority for the first several months is getting to know my community and them to know me. Hence my house-to-house visits. I’m also working on a community census to learn more in depth about each family: how many people in the house?, what ages?, what kind of work do they do?, are the kids in school?, what do they grow?, which are for consumption or sale?, do they know about green manures and if so do they use them?, do they have experience keeping bees or want to?, are they interested in growing different vegetables or raising different animals/why or why not?, what barriers do they face?, what ideas do they have?, what kinds of things do they want to learn more about?, etc. Sure, in addition to building relationships and sharing culture there are the hands-on projects like revamping the school garden, building worm bins for composting, creating compost piles, beekeeping, talking to people about preserving fruits for winter, listening to their wants and needs (“Are you going to teach English in the school?”), and much more.

This past week has been bountiful and rich in experiences….one of the best weeks I’ve had in my site thus far.

After taking a bit of a respite from visiting families over the holidays I’m back on schedule and have had many productive outings, most culminating in discussions on bees and families eager for help. Every family with whom I’ve spoken has expressed interest in having honey (miele) but most either 1) don’t know where to start, 2) have either the beehive box and no bees or a wild hive of bees and no box in which to put them, or 3) are terrified of getting stung and don’t want to work with the bees. This is where I come in. In two days, I met 5 families that want bee help and the scenarios are as different as the families themselves. Because the community has so much interest, we’ll be using my site as a training ground for other volunteers to practice working with bees. This benefits everyone. My families and I get extra help and training in working the bees while securing a sustainable honey supply for the families’ futures and we all get extra practice and education. If all goes well, I think this will be a significant part of my contribution to this community. Honey sells at a very good price here in PY (about 30 guaranies per liter, ~US $7) and well managed hives can provide 20 liters or more per year), providing diversity and much needed income for families. Currently it is common practice for Paraguayans to simply raid a wild hive and take the honey, which often means cutting down or burning a tree. Not very sustainable. Even those residents with bees in a manmade hive often only visit the hive once a year to collect the honey…no more than necessary. Part of my job is to educate them that they can harvest far more honey when managing their hives on a regular basis.

These visits have also been wonderful for practicing language. Again, there are people who quickly dismiss me when I don’t understand immediately and others who are patient, give me time to process the words and gladly rephrase when I don’t understand. I’ve had lots of the latter this week. The other thing I’ve had lots of is walking. The rezo of Isabel’s family was in the next town for five days and because I’m not allowed to ride a moto, I walked to it every day. It’s only three miles each way but my villagers thought I’d seriously lost my mind. The first two days they’d stop on the ruta (a lonely main road) and offer me a ride on their moto. Reassured when they saw me carrying on happily, they gave up and thereafter just beeped and waved. (Seriously, after several villagers asked if I could ride a horse and me answering with a prompt and confident ‘yes’, I‘d hoped they’d loan me a horse because there are no rules against riding horses and it would be totally fun and ‘mas rapido’ but alas, it remained a dream.) My walking became the daily joke. “How did you come here today, Wendia?” they’d ask. “I walked. Again.” I said cheerfully. “Aren’t you tired?” they’d insist. “No. I love walking,” I assured them. And indeed I do. It was a gift to have two hours a day of meditative walking in silence, just me, cows, birds, and the occasional moto or car. I totaled 36 miles in 5 days and feel so fantastic because of it. It’s the most exercise I’ve had since September. Aaaaah.

Early in the week during these walks I noticed small owls sitting atop the cattle fence lining the road. At about a foot tall, these cuties had me completely smitten as they stared back with their huge eyes. I always take a shortcut through the campo (cow pasture) to save time and on one of this week’s daily walks I spotted an owl sitting on a nearby termite mound. It took flight as I came closer but, to my surprise, instead of flying away it went up and directly over me, circled several times, looking down and watching me. On the last circle, it looked directly into my eyes in a magical moment where we both acknowledged each other and then it flew away. So cool.

I mentioned in an earlier post how excited I was to get my first package from my family. And at Christmas to boot. You can’t imagine how exciting it is to get mail! Recently I received my second package sent by my tango friends back home and full of lovely notes and tango music! (The post master cut short her siesta to ensure I got the package before having to catch the bus home. Gotta love her!) As I sat on the bus waiting to depart, I read each of the notes with tears in my eyes and realized how grateful I am for the ability to read. Don’t laugh. I’m serious. We take it for granted in the States but I’m sitting on a bus where approximately half the riders are illiterate and without the gift to read such sweet words and thoughts from family or friends. Think about it. How would your life be different if you couldn’t read? Road signs, cookbooks, the newspaper, the internet, your IPhone (aghast!), a map, packaging or its instructions (I’m thinking pesticides or household chemicals but same goes for a Betty Crocker box o’ brownies), prices at the store. What kinds of jobs would you be limited to? The list goes on. I imagine you might also feel a bit vulnerable having to trust others’ interpretations for you. Now that I think about it, this is a bit how I feel with Spanish and Guarani. There are times I have no idea what the words mean and need to trust others to steer me in the right direction (at bus depots, on food packaging or signs at the store, etc). And consider how easily misunderstandings can happen. In fact, think how many misunderstandings you have when you speak the SAME language! Based on experience here, language barriers can certainly make an individual appear less intelligent than they are, as they struggle to interpret, conjugate a verb in their head, or search for the correct word to respond to you. You have these people in your community. Maine is a very ‘white’ state but we have populations of immigrants and others who can’t read. They work through these and many other situations every day (prejudice based on language, dress, skin color, gender, race, perceived income or lack thereof…the list goes on) in addition to racism and other forms of discrimination and prejudice. Perhaps your next encounter with someone who can’t read or for whom English is a second language (or third or any of the aspects above and more…) consider some of these factors if you haven’t in the past and see how it changes your experience with them.

I mentioned before that there are a limited number of local fruits and veggies currently available so during a recent trip ‘intown’ I brought home a big watermelon for my host family. The kids’ eyes were as big as saucers when I pulled it out of my backpack and they ran to the kitchen for their spoons. If you missed the post about how to eat a watermelon in PY, Paraguayans cut it in half lengthwise and scoop out the fruit with a spoon. Better if the spoon is shared by several people. By the time I got the melon to a table the kids were hovering expectantly, barely able to contain their excitement. Even the adults were excited. I don’t know the last time they had watermelon but clearly this was a treat, as I’d hoped. This family has been so generous and hospitable that this is a mere drop in the bucket of what I can do for them. The family of six devoured all but a small portion of the fruit in a single sitting, very rewarding for me to see the happiness on their faces. While my family has more ‘means’ than many in the village, in the greater scheme of things, they still don’t have much. But they share what little they have as if giving you the only, the best, the biggest, or the last of anything is the greatest honor of all. One of the things I will never forget about Paraguayans is their hospitality. The kids learn at a tender age to mind their guests, anticipate their needs and ensure they are as comfortable and happy as can be.

And Paraguayans know happiness. They make happiness out of nothing. The kids make a volleyball net from a rope strung between two trees or a stick across two chairs. They play soccer with a plastic dented ball. They marvel at the little things. They tease and joke with each other. They run to be the first to help each other, a neighbor, or a visitor. They shriek with joy throughout the day over the silly things, simply happy with each other. Though a hard life indeed, even the adults seem content in their work and each other, they don’t need external ‘stuff’ or distractions to be a pretty happy group of people. Is it because much of the work is laborious yet meditative? Is it that they aren’t tempted by ‘what ifs’ and worldly marketing? Many in my village have lived here for their entire lives, others many dozens of years. Some people in this village have never travelled further than the next town, 3 miles away. They claim they have everything they need right here: family, animals, crops. It’s fascinating they can have so little but can be so content, says the Norte from the land of plenty, surplus and all things disposable. I believe we can make our own happiness wherever we are simply by choosing happiness. It IS a daily choice. We can find joy in anything if we look carefully. And some days we must try a little harder than others, some days we must change our perspective to get there. But the result is so worthwhile. The ripples reach far beyond your own little pond.

Random facts:

It no longer seems odd to see a 6-year old using a machete.

Did you know honey is the only food that doesn’t spoil? It can crystallize over time but never spoils. It also has antimicrobial properties and can be applied externally for skin problems (just don’t get it in your eyes, as it burns.)

Did you know that fresh eggs can remain unrefrigerated for up to six months? However, once they are refrigerated they must remain refrigerated until eaten. I have never seen a refrigerated egg in the four months I’ve been in Paraguay.

Spices are not commonly used in food here other than salt. Others can be found but are typically used as a ‘remedio’ and/or in terere like oregano, rosemary, basil, and saffron. The previous volunteer left some curry and garlic powder which I’ve shared with my host family and to which they are completely addicted. Fortunately, curry can be found readily but garlic powder is not. We’re going to experiment drying our garlic bulbs in my solar dryer and making our own garlic powder as soon as we finish with the mangoes and pears.

There are very few mirrors in PY. People don’t need them? They are expensive? Not sure.

It is peanut harvest season right now. This week I was invited to help harvest with one of the new families I met. They had already pulled the plants out of the ground to dry in the sun (the actual peanut/shell that you see in the store grows on the root underground). The next step is pulling the peanuts from the plant and then they dry in the sun for three more days. I was excited to have an invitation to work and spent three hours with 12 family members pulling peanuts from the plants! Yay! They gave me a half dozen eggs as a thank you.This same family made andui for me which is diced callabala squash cooked with sugar and water. Served like a stew it is a sweet dessert, which they proudly offered during my visit and sent me home with a container of it plus a bag of passionfruit! Once home we made passionfruit juice. OMG yum.

Have an excellent week!

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Machete lessons with Wendy the Elder

Today was my best day here so far, except that I was sick this morning, I forgot my deodorant and it was 95 degrees. And of course it was our first day of physical labor that had us making compost piles and vermiculture bins (for red worms) all afternoon. But I loved it and everyone else was smelly by day’s end too. However, the highlight was…wait for it… machete lessons! Cool, eh? We learned how to cut bamboo with our machetes and explore the many handy ways it can be used (fence posts, compost piles, etc). That stuff is tough as nails, especially once dry.

I also learned that I am officially the oldest in my group of trainees though there are a couple of folks not far behind me. Most are between 22 and 26. I overheard an interesting conversation among some of the younger, just-out-of-college volunteers who were discussing that Peace Corps was the first time they’d had ‘colleagues’ instead of ‘peers’. I had to laugh inwardly as that revelation for me seems like a million years ago.
There is an Olimpia Club soccer field 2 doors down from our house and a volleyball area set up across the street. Though I’ve not seen anyone (other than cows) use the soccer field, complete with official-looking goal nets, I plan to ask my host family about its use. Could make for great space to get my fellow trainees together.

Mama took me out back a couple nights ago to proudly show me about 20 baby ducks that recently hatched. Some are following their mama around, others are not quite ready. All are too adorable.

Oxcarts are a popular mode of moving sugarcane or other goods from the fields of small farms to the barn or to market here. I hope to get a photo for you soon so you can enjoy the sight with me. Sugarcane is typically harvested by hand with a ….machete. Yup. It is a lot of work. There’s not a lot of mechanized agriculture here and farming provides employment for 60% of the working population. There are 260,000 small family farms throughout the country which provide all of the variety of foods needed for families throughout the country (unlike larger farms with monocultures of soybeans, cotton, etc, much of which is exported).

Every day is an adventure. We’re putting in long days at school, 6 days a week, and coming home to practice more Spanish with our families. It’s tiring but fabulous. I’m so blessed with this opportunity!

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