Posts Tagged With: composting

Things I Never Thought I’d Do (but do in Paraguay)

“Be ready at all times to venture into the unknown.” –  Ron Rubin and Stuart Avery Gold

And venture I have. In keeping an open mind to as many experiences as possible during my service, here’s a few things I never thought I’d do but do in Paraguay:

Language – Stateside, I’d always prided myself on my ability to communicate well and to understand others. Upon learning I was joining the Peace Corps, I heard lots of stories and warnings from people who, while traveling abroad, had inadvertently agreed to something they didn’t realize or mean to because they didn’t want to admit to the speaker that they didn’t understand. I always thought that was ridiculous and vowed I would never fall victim to that. Promise broken. More times than I can count. Here, I think I’ve agreed to a whole lot of which I have no idea. Sometimes I think I understand and, turns out, I don’t. Other times, I ask the person to repeat the question and, after the 3rd or 4th time and I still don’t understand, I just pretend I do to put us both out of our misery. Sometimes I fake it well, sometimes they see right through my wall of pride with a “Nontendei” (she doesn’t understand).

TMI (too much information) – What’s that? No such thing among volunteers. For someone who used to be very private, I’ve come a long way in the ‘sharing’ department. Whether by blog, phone, text or in person if you’re surprised to suddenly learn the status of my GI tract or the diaper rash I have from sitting in sweaty clothes on the bus for 6 hours in 104 degrees, you don’t know me very well. And don’t look so shocked when I ask about yours either.

Food – eating the same wonderful thing for breakfast nearly every day. Usually I like to mix it up and have a broad variety. Mandio chyryry rocks!

Iffy food – It’s less about ‘is it iffy?’ than ‘how iffy is it?’ I take more chances when it’s from my own kitchen than when I’m buying from others, especially those street vendors

New foods
*Pommelos – Never could stomach a grapefruit in the states but here I can’t get enough of them during citrus season – so sweet!
*Head cheese – actually pretty good if you ignore all the fat and cartilage that’s included.
*Rolled, boiled pig skin – the flavor isn’t bad what with all the onions and garlic but you might break a tooth trying to eat it. I bent the knife. Try biting a football and you’ll know what I mean
*Cow feet – Excellent with beans
*Blood sausage – Tried it but actually won’t eat that one.
*Cow stomach – also known as mondongo. Nope. Nope.
*Handmade pork sausage – Yup, that was a trip but chorizo casero rules. I even helped make it.

Hygiene – Consolidating trips to the toilet and rewearing clothes for a week in winter because 1) it’s impossible to dry laundry in winter and 2) it’s too cold to expose skin, changing clothes three times a day in the summer, not bathing for days in winter or showering three times a day in summer, foregoing a mirror, making a pointed effort to wash feet everyday because they get DIRTY!, collecting my own urine as a nitrogen source for the garden, comparing bathing notes with friends and actually congratulating them on days they bathed, high-fiving friends for a successful bowel movement after days of constipation, talking among friends about said movements in the airport cafe as casually as if it was the weather.  Bathing and BM convos could sometimes be the highlight of a friend’s day. A real accomplishment. I’m serious.

Loneliness – I don’t get lonely in the states but I get lonely here. And then I talk … a lot. And it might be to ask about your latest BM.

Sounds – I can differentiate between pig squeals meaning 1) being hungry, 2) fighting over food with a pen-mate, 3) fighting in general, 4) getting one’s nose pierced to prevent rooting, 5) being surprised/scared by an animal bigger than it (curious cow), 6) being killed for dinner.

Unannounced Visits – No need to call ahead. Here you just show up at the gate! Someone is always home and guaranteed to welcome you. They love visitors and I love this custom and local hospitality.

Handwashing clothes – I always hated this in the states but here, though it takes a little planning to coordinate weather patterns and laundry schedules, I find it very relaxing and meditative. And it tones the arms nicely.

Transportation – Not allowed to ride motorcycles (the main form of transportation here in the campo) or drive cars, we rely on the bus to get everywhere. While my bus line is less than ideal, I’ve learned to enjoy the time for reading or napping instead of having to drive! We do not have public buses in my hometown USA.

Snakes, spiders, and insects in general – No. Big. Deal anymore (says she who keeps her mosquito net tucked in tightly 24/7!) Wendy the Viper Slayer prevails. Smush bugs barehanded? Yup. Unknowingly step on spiders barefoot and find wiggly legs still moving later? Weekly, sometimes daily.

Manners and Custom Confusion– I didn’t mean to slip on this one but when in Rome…. Apologies in advance to family and friends if I bring home a few of the following without realizing it (please call me on it if you catch me!): Burping out loud. Wiping hands on the tablecloth or common towel in the center of the table. Borrowing your cup at the table, maybe silverware too. Offering you a bite of my food without getting that look of “But it has your germs on it!” Eating meat with fingers. Saying “You!” to get someone’s attention. Asking very personal questions like your age, weight, how much you paid for something. Staring at something I find interesting. Showing up at your house uninvited and unannounced (see above) and expecting you to stop what you’re doing and visit with me.

Texting friends at 1am because they can’t sleep either.

Reading novel after novel because I’ve had the time to rediscover my love for reading; winter nights are long, dark, and cold; and summer heat requires a siesta, perfect for reading in the hammock.

Burn trash – Don’t hate. I used to be a serial recycler/composter/let’s be light on the earth do-gooder. The lack of trash management here offers 2.5 options: burning, burying or disposal by wind (for plastic bags). I compost what I can, burn my paper and sneak the plastics to the pueblo for incineration. Composting is the only thing I can feel good about.

Swear – I’m not usually a fan of the Swear Words but after catching neighbors’ cows eat my freshly washed laundry right off my porch because they were thirsty, yeah, I let a few expletives fly. Or the day the piglets uprooted the garden because someone didn’t close the gate well. That too.

Lie – That’s right. This is so not me and I use it sparingly here, but it developed as a survival mechanism when Paraguayan men would ask if I’m single. For a long time, my answer was the honest ‘yes’ which always lead to follow up questions and the occasional marriage proposal. Eventually I smartened up and began making up fantastic stories of non-existent husbands with names, lives and careers of whatever popped into my head first. Sometimes these spouses were American, sometimes Paraguayan. I began to relish the thrill of creating a story on the fly and adding new details based solely on the way my counterparts were responding to my answers. This became exquisite fun and reduced the awkwardness and probability of those ‘singledom’ questions and curious probing.

Bee stings – Pre-Paraguay Wendy sought to avoid a bee sting at all costs. Now on beekeeping days, if I get stung only 5 times I consider it a good day. They don’t call these killer bees for nothing! My last honey harvest earned me 40 stings at a whack and I didn’t bat an eye. I couldn’t walk for two days and my neighbors were horrified but with my new perspective, 40 stings were well worth the best honey I’ve ever had.

Well, that’s all I can think of for now. I wonder if someday I’ll have a list titled “Things I Never Thought I’d Do (But Do in the USA)?”

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

Biodigesters – Got Gas?

“Each day when I awake I know I have one more day to make a difference in someone’s life.” ~ James Mann

June 16, 2014

 

I love my work with biodigesters. It’s fascinating stuff and for those of you non-sciency types who don’t like to read technical talk about poo I tried to keep it interesting so you’d enjoy too. Keep reading. It’ll be worth it, I promise.

I mentioned long ago that part of my work here is with anaerobic biodigesters, which decompose locally-available organic material (usually manure) and produce methane gas for cooking as well as a rich, very liquid compost that’s excellent for gardens, crops or use as a foliar spray to repel pests. I have a lot of interest in promoting these systems on farms here in PY and also because I wanted knowledge to maintain the seven biodigesters in my community, installed by the previous volunteer, I decided to be part of the Biodigester training group last year. We are a group of Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) with specialized training who travel throughout the country helping other volunteers teach about and install these systems in their communities. This alternative generally replaces a señora’s need to cook (and breathe) over an open fire on the ground and haul firewood. It better manages manure, smell and flies on the farm. It makes for healthier living conditions while helping abate nutrient loss into surface water and the massive deforestation that occurs in PY. Here’s the story of one such event I attended recently…

 

The trip to the volunteer’s community was about 11 hours by bus, including waiting in the bus terminals and alongside the road for my next rides (and missing a stop – oops). By the first bus station I was STARVING so during my ‘layover’ I went to the nearby supermarket for lunch and discovered to my delight that they had a hot buffet of prepared food. Whoa – I could hardly contain my excitement! Almost like a restaurant! After much deliberation, I’d just decided what I wanted and was about to get the señora’s attention and then I noticed it: a cockroach exploring the case and the edges of the food. My hopes sank and my excitement evaporated. I was bummed but not completely grossed out. This is PY and hygiene, sanitation and other expectations are, well, different than the US. It’s not drama, it’s just a fact. I walked away and started cruising the aisles the way teens troll the strip at Old Orchard Beach. I digress. After another tour of the store and my need for protein and carbs outweighing the underwhelming fruit and veggie options, I went back to the case. Yes, I did. Afterall, I reasoned, the insect was barely longer than my thumbnail and it was just one (that I saw) and I’ve probably eaten elsewhere with similar or worse conditions without knowing it and that roast loin with ham and melted cheese looked so deliciously inviting and I was SO hungry for something other than bus-station-empanadas. I bought my original choices and tried to push that scurrying visual out of my brain forever. My innerds remained cooperative and unaffected and I continued my journey to my friend’s community. By the time I arrived it was nearly 9pm. Two other volunteers had traveled to help as well and we sat down to prep for our morning workshop. When our travel-weary bodies called it a day, our host gave us a tour of her humble abode complete with instructions on how to use her cool, new homemade composting squat toilet (her version of an aerobic biodigester and she did a great job building it too!). This was a first for me. The composting and the squat. How I made it a year and a half in this country without an encounter with the squat toilet is beyond comprehension. I’ve been terribly sheltered it seems. The fact that the toilet was on a raised platform to allow easy management of the compost underneath combined with the outdoor spotlight that happened to shine down directly and brightly onto the squatting hole made me feel like a Rock Star Appearing On Stage every time I had business to do and stepped up onto that platform. The Leo in me saw the proximity of the neighbors’ homes and desperately wanted to do a princess wave during my inaugural visit to the throne, despite it being 10:30pm. Perhaps only Leos would understand and appreciate such an opportunity, I don’t know. Despite my Leonine leanings, I’m not especially proud of the fact that I LIKE being the center of attention and “being in the spotlight”, and this was one time I would prefer to do without either. When stepping onto the platform and standing upright, the tarp surrounding the structure came to my hips. Barely. Pun intended. I’m sure I half-mooned the neighbors on multiple occasions before getting down to business. Grateful to be no taller, I found myself hoping for a power outage when nature called after dark throughout this visit.

 

Sample squat toilet - basically a hole in the ground or cement platform (this is a stock image from the internet; the one described above is MUCH nicer)

Sample squat toilet – basically a hole in the ground or cement platform (this is a stock image from the internet; the one described above is MUCH nicer)

At daybreak we headed to a local agriculture-themed high school of which there are many in PY. The day started with four of us teaching a workshop to 50 high school seniors about all aspects of the biodigester followed by hands-on application with the kids doing what they’d just learned. The kids were motivated and eager to see it come together, though we always have to convince new users that the gas does not make the cooked food smell like manure and the biodigesters themselves do not smell despite the hundreds of gallons of soupy manure inside because it is an enclosed, oxygen-free system. By 5pm we had started filling the plastic tube with water and were mostly done. All that was left was for the volunteer and kids to begin ‘charging’ it by adding manure the following day. They will add manure for the next three weeks before enough methane gas is produced for burning. This system was installed next to the pig barn for ease of collecting manure and putting into the system (as opposed to hauling buckets of manure across campus) and the fuel will be used to cook pig food. Pigs will provide fertilizer which produces gas and liquid compost. Compost will grow crops to feed the pigs and people. Gas will help cook the pig food (and in most cases, people food), which will result in more fertilizer for the biodidgester and meat for people. And a nice, closed-loop cycle continues!

 

Biodigester installation at a Paraguayan high school

Biodigester installation at a Paraguayan high school

The amazing volunteers who helped with this project (and the woman on the right is a volunteer's community contact)

The amazing volunteers who helped with this project (and the woman on the right is a volunteer’s community contact)

 

A completed biodigester after 2 years in use. The spout on top of the bag is where the gas exits into a hose that runs to the cooking area.

A completed biodigester after 2 years in use. The spout on top of the bag is where the gas exits into a hose that runs to the cooking area.

It was wonderful to participate in this installation, spend time with other volunteers, sharpen my technical and language skills, and see youth learning valuable new information and skills for their futures. And I can check “visit to a composting squat toilet” off my bucket list.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Random stuff and more firsts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My favorite guarani-isms of the week:

Nandu=spider

Guasu=large

Kavaju=horse

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

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

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

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

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