Posts Tagged With: culture

Good News AND A Request For Your Vote!

August 4, 2014

I have some great news AND I need your help!

I’m thrilled and honored to be a finalist in the Peace Corps’ “Blog It Home” contest, of more than 350 submissions from around the world!

A public vote will help determine the final winners- here’s where you can help! It’s 2 clicks and 10 seconds of your time.

1. Starting today August 4 through Sunday, August 10, go to my blog on the Peace Corps’ Facebook page and “LIKE” the photo to vote for me.

Blog Contest Thumbnail

Blog Contest Thumbnail

2. Share my blog and the Peace Corps’ Facebook page (and a thank you from me!) with all your friends and encourage them to vote too.
*If I’m among the winners, I’ll spend a week in Washington D.C. in September to participate in blog-related events at PC Headquarters and deliver a presentation about Paraguay and my service to youth in the D.C. area

Whether you’ve been following my journey for two years (thank you for reading!!), are a new reader, or visiting the first time because of the contest, I encourage you to look around my blog site and share with your friends. The goal of my blog is to share Paraguayan culture with folks stateside and around the world through stories, recipes, photos, history, etc (and part diary to help me record the amazing memories I’m gathering through this experience.) Humor, embarrassment, enlightenment, and entertainment are just some of the things you’ll find sprinkled throughout my essays and pages!

Also check out “Passage to Paraguay”, a blog by my dear friend, Rachel Wallace. Rachel is a superbly talented writer and photographer who is also a finalist from Paraguay and worthy of your vote as well! I guess this country is not short on great storytelling material or people to tell it.

Thank you for reading, sharing, and voting! I hope you’ve learned something new about Paraguay today because of it. Jajatopata! (until next time!)

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

A Magical Birthday

“We make plans, and sometimes Life laughs at our plans and blows them apart like leaves. When this happens, if we keep ourselves open to the possibilities that the changes bring instead of being attached to what didn’t happen, we discover that these unexpected Life mishaps can be full of amazing gifts.” – Lloyd Alton Hall

July 30, 2014

 

I celebrated a birthday over the weekend. I’d had plans for a fellow volunteer to visit my community for the occasion. At the last minute she got food poisoning and we postponed for another time. I decided to use the change in plans to treat myself to a couple days in the capitol. And, for something that started as a spontaneous change of plans, last weekend will go down as one of the best, most memorable birthdays of my life. Kindness, love and spontaneity in abundance.

 

The birthday greetings began in early morning from my community, family, friends, and volunteers. While enduring the early 6-hour bus ride to the city, all of my favorite señoras called me to wish me a wonderful day. Getting a call says a lot. Calls are expensive for the locals here and reserved for the most important of life’s details or emergencies.

 

A priority for the weekend was to visit one of my best loves in PY as he prepares to complete his service and return to the US. I was so grateful to hug him one last time and wish him well as he transitions into the next phase of his beautiful life. Peace Corps volunteers are amazing people. Our bond has moved me deeply and I will forever feel a timeless friendship with this extraordinary, talented angel. Paraguay, and the volunteers fortunate enough to know him, are forever richer because of his service and presence here.

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Saturday, an ever-thoughtful Paraguayan friend surprised me with tickets to a tango orchestra visiting from Buenos Aires (if you are a new reader, you’ll learn I’m addicted to Argentine tango, one of my utmost burning passions from the U.S., and I was ecstatic to find it in the capitol city recently, offering a little fun while I’m in town on business). I had given up hope of seeing this concert so this was a splendid, spontaneous turn of events! The orchestra was amazing and we got a chance to dance tango to the live music! The orchestra was followed by some fabulous Latin tunes that brought the hundreds of guests to the dance floor. Between Latin and tango, I danced and conversed the night away with many dear Paraguayan friends.

 

 

Sunday, I was whisked away to a surprise birthday lunch with 18 immediate members of my host family (from training in 2012) who decorated their home, sang “Happy Birthday” 3 times in 3 languages, and made all my favorite foods and desserts. My host sister is an amazing chef, having several of her recipes published in magazines throughout Paraguay, and she sent me home with two of my favorite recipes (Crema and Vori Vori which you can find on my blog page “In the Kitchen” here along with many other traditional Paraguayan and volunteer-created recipes to try in your own kitchen.) Plus, the internet stars aligned so I could skype with my kids from home! Life was getting more joyful by the hour; I never stopped smiling all weekend.

Upon returning to my community, when I thought the birthday hubbub was done, one of my favorite families invited me to a celebratory birthday lunch. Paraguayans usually reserve pigs for special occasions; I was honored to discover they killed and BBQd a precious pig and made traditional sopa bread for me!! And let me tell you, it was the most delectable pork I’ve ever eaten. After lunch the señora wrote down two of her favorite recipes to send home with me (significant since all of their recipes are in their heads, passed down from mother to daughter by hands-on-learning, not in a cookbook). Click here for the recipe page and look for chipa guazu and sopa!

 

Sopa Paraguaya

Sopa Paraguaya

Not to leave out my community, I am hosting a birthday fiesta’i (little party) at my house this Sunday for my neighbors to celebrate with me and try a buffet of North American food I am making for them – a great cultural exchange! In PY it is the responsibility of the birthday gal/guy to provide food, serve and clean up; guests just come and enjoy. Señoras offered to loan me larger pans so I can feed EVERYONE (everyone? what? the whole community? the fact that I have one tiny burner and small oven is no deterrent for them; I’ll need to start cooking tomorrow!) They are excited, and a little scared, about the food bit. Paraguayans are not super adventurous in trying new foods but so far the women have loved all the new foods we’ve made in the women’s club so I think I’ve got a little street cred now. And they made me promise to play music and dance all afternoon with them. One of the husbands requested a tango lesson. I told him he needed permission from his wife first. Haha. That should be a crowd pleaser! All around, it should be super fun!

 

If ever I needed reminders of the beautiful people in my life who are always there for me, here and stateside; the incredible generosity of Paraguayans who went out of their way to show their love and ensure my time in Paraguay is special and unforgettable; gratitude for the bounty of blessings in my life…this weekend was a shining example. I trust Life will blow apart my plans many more times and bring an alternative invitation. It’s my job to stay open to it. I tried it. It worked out beautifully. My heart is full and overflowing.

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Matchmaker in the ‘Hood

“The lives we lead have everything to do with the questions we ask ourselves.” – Lori Deschene

April 21, 2014

 

I invited myself to have mate with a favorite family early one morning, which then turned into an invitation to breakfast. The husband is a real jokester and has always teased me about not having a boyfriend (novio) but with time running out, he has made it his sole mission -with increasing urgency- to see that I obtain a novio or husband sometime between now and December, preferably sooner than later so he can enjoy the fruits of his efforts. To help in my ‘decision-making’ he listed every available man within a 5k radius. When he heard I’m going to the Fiesta Hape next month, he was practically giddy over the opportunities I’d have at my disposal and dismayed at my lack of interest. His wife, who has become an accomplice in the matter, tried to sweeten the deal by offering use of their home for the wedding fiesta. They even want my family to move here so I don’t have to go home. We always have a good laugh over this game and it was a great start to the day. I’ve learned the days are always better when shared with friends and laughter.

 

Laughing ourselves silly with 'fish faces' while making chipa during semana santa.

Laughing ourselves silly with ‘fish faces’ while making chipa during semana santa.

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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

Stories on Cultural Exchange – We are more alike than we realize

October 6, 2013

“Every time you write, something valuable will occur.” – Sark

It is my hope that today’s writing will inspire you to be curious of other cultures, even beyond Paraguay. (Or even to consider your fellow humans in your own community who happen to be different from you on whatever level.) Hopefully, if you’re reading this blog, you already are. Consider the juiciness of our cultural differences but remember the similarities. Despite our different ways of going about life, recognize that we are all humans, regardless of skin color, languages spoken, foods eaten, emotions felt, living conditions, freedoms, privileges, religion, sexual preference, economic status, education, customs. We all breathe. We all feel. We all struggle. We are all connected.

Paraguayans commonly follow traditional ways and are often hesitant to try new things. Nowhere is this more evident than with food. A perfect example: me trying to spread the word earlier this year that leaves of our sweet potatoes here are edible. I thought I’d struck gold at this revelation and was eagerly telling everyone about it. Who wouldn’t be excited about a free vegetable supply (nutritious leafy greens no less!) that you previously considered a waste product? Despite my enthusiasm and offers for samples and to teach them recipes, whenever they see me returning from the field with a bucket of something they ask if it’s ‘jety’ leaves (‘jety’ is guarani for sweet potato or batata) and laugh at me (“The Norte eats sweet potato LEAVES! Can you believe it? She’s weird! And crazy!”) In fact, today I learned one of the older community members has been telling people my eating those leaves is going to make me fat. If anything is going to make me fat, it’s my first-ever attempt at making orange marmalade this week (and I’ve never liked marmalade). A la pucha! With a touch of cinnamon and ginger, I served it at my workshop with three variations of banana bread along with carrot sticks. Unlike Jety leaves, THAT went over super well, even the carrot sticks, as Paraguayans in my community rarely eat raw veggies except shredded cabbage or tomato on lettuce. As for the leafy greens…that’s like convincing a good, old-fashioned-meat-and-potatoes-loving-Mainer to trade in his favorite meal for a lentil-burger on gluten-free bread. But I’ll win them over before I leave.

Orange marmelade with banana bread - a treat for the hard-working cooks

Orange marmelade with banana bread – a treat for the hard-working cooks

Every community in PY has a Patron Saint and last Friday, October 4, was the birthday of my community’s Patron Saint: Saint Francis. And so it is celebrated with a traditional Fiesta Patronal, a day-long, community-wide party. Our day started at 7am when the señoras began preparations for the traditional lunch of spaghetti with chunks of beef, a side of mandioca, and a large cake (actually the day began at 2:30am when some families first ignited their fireworks and continued hourly until sunrise). Everything was cooked in giant kettles over an open fire on the ground behind the church. The church had been newly painted in honor of the day. Previously a pale pink, a common homestead color here, it was freshly updated with a fiery orangey-red, as close as they could get to Saint Francis’ color brown. At 10am, we gathered inside the well-flowered and candlelit one-room sanctuary for the rezo to celebrate St. Francis as well as witness a marriage and child’s baptism. I didn’t need to be Christian to appreciate their faith, devotion, and tradition of coming together in this way. It was amazing. Spaghetti lunch was served at noon, another rezo at 3pm followed by hot chocolate and cake. Of course, futbol (soccer) was an ongoing event throughout the day by kids and adults alike. I was sugared out but so grateful to be included in their important day.

Church decorated for Fiesta Patronal 2013

Church decorated for Fiesta Patronal 2013

Newly painted one-room church in my community

Newly painted one-room church in my community.

Señoras cooking lunch in large kettles over open fires for Fiesta Patronal

Señoras cooking lunch in large kettles over open fires for Fiesta Patronal. Yes, they are stirring with long sticks.

As part of the Fiesta Patronal ceremony, a statue of Christ is carried around the futbol field followed by a procession of singing worshippers.

As part of the Fiesta Patronal ceremony, a statue of Christ is carried around the futbol field followed by a procession of singing worshippers.

The following day I taught a workshop on how to start a seed bank and gave an introduction to green manures (these are not actually green feces but cover crops that nourish the soil). It was well received and concluded with each attendee receiving some seeds to grow at home and later harvest the new seeds to contribute to the seed bank at the end of the season.

It’s amazing what knowledge and understanding we take for granted in the US. Recently I had a chat with a local señora where she asked if women in the U.S. menstruate. This conversation evolved to include breastfeeding, emotions, and much more. She was shocked to learn that US women’s bodies and emotions work the same as Paraguayan women’s bodies and emotions. We bleed and have cramps, we nurse our babies, we get PMS, we get sick, we love, we mourn, we get frustrated with life and those we love, we celebrate, we worry, we support, we cry, we laugh, we joke, we are strong, we give, we demand, we have needs, we are often taken for granted, we screw up occasionally, we’re brilliant occasionally. We are the glue that holds a family together. Yes, there are differences between us, but at the most basic human level, we are more alike than we realize.

I was visiting with my host mom this afternoon, arriving without an agenda but fully enjoyed the splendor of robust conversation that covered a gamut of topics. During the visit she relived a story from months ago when I was living with them: “Carbon” is PY’s equivalent of charcoal and is great to start the smoker for working with bees. I had been visiting another family together with whom I was about to work their bees. To get my ‘smoker’ fired up I asked if they had any carbon, knowing that most houses have a cooking fire going at any given hour and a chunk of carbon readily available. Instead of ‘carbon’ (pronounced car-BOHN in Spanish), the señora thought I asked for “jabon” (pronounced ha-BOHN) and brought out a bar of soap instead. I held the soap while laughing “mas tarde!” (later!) and “despues kava!” (after we’re done with the bees!) Once she realized the miscommunication the whole family was laughing hysterically. By the time I got home, my host family had already heard about it and were making showering gestures when I walked up to the house. Never a dull moment.

There is a five year old girl who lives next door and attends pre-school in the afternoon. She seems to like me quite well, always saying “Hola Wendia!” One day during her recess I decided to make conversation. It was here I began suspecting that she couldn’t really understand me because she answered every question with “Sí” (which is ‘yes’ in Spanish). So after some small talk that generated additional predictable “Sí” answers, I started asking questions like “Do you like snakes?” and “How many brothers do you have?”  The “Sí”s continued with varying amounts of emphasis for convincability. I realize this is what my community sometimes experiences when they talk with me and I pretend to understand: How many brothers do you have, Wendy? Sí! How big is your garden, Wendy? Sí! Sí! What time is your workshop next Thursday, Wendy? Sí! Sí! Sí! Hahaha.

Another Latin American tradition that is certainly no stranger to PY is the despensa, or PY version of a convenience store, as frequently there is not a major food store for miles (my nearest supermarket is 1.3 hours by bus). Despensas are often simply a front room in people’s homes. The larger ones are sometimes stand-alone though it is very common for people to live where they work. Despensas rarely have regular hours and are open when the señora is available (if she sleeps in, takes a siesta or goes to town, the despensa is closed and you come back later). She might be the only show in town but more likely there are several others nearby. Many of them carry similar items with little individuality within a community. Imagine if we tried to run a business like that in the US? But here it works.

In PY, it is customary to ask for what you want or simply take what you want, even if it’s not yours. For example, last week a local señora came to visit and asked if I would give her some saldo (like minutes for her phone, shared by texting it to her) and if she could borrow bus fare until Monday. This is asked with no sense of hesitation or embarrassment. It’s simply the culture. Also, if people see materials lying around in a field they are considered free for the taking even if on someone else’s property. In the US it would be considered stealing. Here, it’s fair game. If you don’t want it “shared”, lock it down.

Did you know?

*People often scavenge containers to store seed, food or miscellaneous things, start seedlings plants, etc. It definitely helps with the ‘reuse’ part of trash management.

*Sunflower oil is most popular cooking oil here. Soy oil is also popular. Cottonseed is readily available but more expensive and olive oil is out of the question for most families in the campo due to its high cost in comparison: 1 liter of sunflower oil is about $2.50; 1 liter of olive oil is $16.

*I have never seen infant formula for sale in my area. I’m sure it’s available somewhere but breastfeeding is widely used to feed babies until they are ready for prepared food.

*If a merchant does not have exact change they will give you candy or a box of matches instead of money

*There are three main drinks made from cane sugar here: mosto, jugo de miel, and caña. “Mosto” is the raw form, where the sugar cane stalk is cranked through a press, and the liquid that comes out is mixed with water and consumed. “Jugo de miel,” or “honey juice” is that same liquid, cooked down to a syrup, then added to water. The third, caña, is a rum-like alcoholic beverage that costs about fifty cents per little bottle. Most people mix caña with soda; (Date courtesy mi amiga LauraLee Lightwood-Mater)

*We have these plants in my community and they are fun to play with! Plus the baby goats love to eat them: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=723488321010902

Enjoy the culture all around you.

Until next time,

Jaotopata

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

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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