Hello dear readers. I have a lot of catching up to do with stories from the end of my service. Life has been full since leaving Paraguay in November but I promise to fill you in soon!
Jajatopata! Until next time!
Hello dear readers. I have a lot of catching up to do with stories from the end of my service. Life has been full since leaving Paraguay in November but I promise to fill you in soon!
Jajatopata! Until next time!
Be present and count your blessings. -WW
June 15, 2014
Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there and a special note of thanks for my very own, very special Dad:
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Thank you for all these years of love, guidance, and being there through thick and thin. Thank you for being a model of integrity, generosity, kindness, gentleness, and accepting others as they are without judgement. Thank you for showing me that we need make no excuses for who we are. Thank you for teaching me that quietness is not weakness, but rather strength lying in wait. Thank you for making your family a priority. Thank you for offering a safe, nurturing home where respect, values and hard work were emphasized. Thank you for marrying Mom. Thank you for participating in our lives and our children’s lives and for creating beautiful, grounding memories along the way. Thank you for all you have been and are. You mean the world to me. Lots of love today and always. Wen
Today is Father’s Day in both the US and Paraguay. I honored the husband of my host family with a large pan of chocolate brownies with which he was ecstatic and slightly possessive. This earned me a lunch invitation where we feasted on BBQd pork, sopa, and cabbage salad. Two of his older kids (seven total) made the long journey from Asuncion to join us. This family is always joking, laughing, smiling and loving each other and today I reveled and found comfort in that love, grateful to be included.
After lunch I made a visit to one of the poorest families in my community. I think for the first year, the kids were afraid of me but one day as they returned from the local despensa with flour and sugar and our paths crossed while I was out for a morning run, they joined me. Barefoot and hair askew they ran alongside me, occasionally racing me despite pounds of food in their arms. We laughed and giggled the whole way. It was our breakthrough and they’ve smiled, waved and said hello to me ever since. My heart smiles at the thought every time. And so I watch them as we slowly come to know each other and it is clear the family doesn’t have much. Though it is winter, I’ve seen these kids come to school without shoes or warm clothes. Their clothes appear to be handed down through many siblings. I have refrained from giving gifts or give-aways in my site for a variety of reasons but today I made an exception. I received some great toys and socks from friends in the US and decided this family would be the recipient of that generosity. The mother was delighted and the kids were initially apprehensive, afraid to believe luck might allow them to possibly keep these goodies. But then the smiles came. Big broad smudgey grins, twinkly eyes, giggles and squeals. The four-year old held a tiny doll in her grubby hands and stared, fascinated. I don’t think she’d ever had a doll before and didn’t even know how to play with it. I took it and showed her how to move the legs and arms to make her appear to dance and twirl. Her eyes lit up. Her whole face smiled. Her shoulders hugged her ears in a bashful display of excitement. She paraded back and forth past me every couple of minutes, looking me straight in the eye with her radiant face as if to say thank you, because she had no words. The older siblings aged 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15 (yes that mama is GUAPA) took turns trying out their toys in the privacy of the tiny, run-down house and then eventually running around the yard with them. Wow. Talk about feel-good, warm fuzzies! I wish I could see this happen every single day. It’s not the kids’ fault they are poor but there are plenty of things I can do to lift them up and make those kids’ lives a little brighter, material goods aside. A kind smile and a bit of encouragement goes a looooooong way.
Finally, to end the day I went to a neighbor’s rezo. Immediately, a man in his 60s began asking if I knew him. Whoa – Of course! When I first moved to my community in December 2012 I joined my host family for a New Year’s Eve party at this house where he and I danced and laughed ridiculously for HOURS until the rain drove us under cover (We made our own version of Dancing with the Stars, or better yet, Dancing Under the Stars). And then in true Paraguayan fashion, everyone at today’s rezo began affectionately recounting the story of how he’d stole me from my younger dance partner after just one dance, and how we danced barefoot that night on the cool grass in the yard inside a seated circle of about 80 amused and enthusiastic family and friends, and then how we danced under the breezeway when the rain came and never sat down until the lightning brought that party to a halt. He’d worked hard to copy my style of ‘tango-accented-freestyle” while I’d done a terrible job mirroring his practiced Paraguayan dance moves. He promised to come back to dance with me again in November before I leave. I asked why he was waiting so long. Everyone had a good laugh and are looking forward to our finale.
On the way home, I paused in a secluded turn in the road and just stood still. I could hear my heart beat, the occasional snap of a branch breaking as a bird hopped through the canopy, the zippy buzz of a hummingbird behind me, the trickle of water making its way through the mud-laden ditch, the wind rustling the roadside leaves, the chirp of a cricket in the sugar cane field, the wooden knocking of tall bamboo against itself. I felt the hardness of the packed red soil under my feet, the weight of my empty backpack freed of its children’s treasures, the breeze lifting my hair, the smile creasing my eyes and the pressure of my heart swelling with joy and gratitude and love for the gifts of today. Some call it “stop and smell the roses.” I call it “be present and count your blessings.”
October 10, 2013
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,
To loosen my heart
Until it becomes a wing…
choose to risk
So that which
Comes to me as seed
Goes on to the next
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.
“Everything is a reflection of the condition of your own heart.” – How Yoga Works, Geshe Michael Roach & Christie McNally
On a very personal level, some of the lessons I’m meant to learn while here have become clear to me. This awakening has already stirred some deep and profound awareness. Some things are part of an ‘old, lost’ me from years ago being reignited, others are matching a ‘knowing’ from an unknown me that I always wanted to experience but haven’t, and others are simply pushing me outside my comfort zone. My resourcefulness is tested on a daily basis. I feel like a new part of my brain is waking up and it’s all so exciting.
Some of this awareness rose the day I realized I’d reached what I’ll call “Phase I” of Tranquilo. I don’t know exactly when this transition occurred but I noticed the other day while eating a mango. Mango season is in full swing, fruit is literally falling to the ground all day, and I am a happy camper with mangoes (or passionfruit) for a snack every day. Mangoes in PY are extremely fibrous and therefore can’t really be sliced so I peeled it and realized it was the gooiest, juiciest mango I’ve ever had. Thick juicy goo covered my hands and dripped down my wrists, it was on my face, my clothes, everywhere, but somehow I was enchanted and delighted and spent a full half hour in complete bliss working every last drop of mango pulp off that fruit. It was then I realized that I don’t usually have the time or patience to experience my food like that. Yes, it was an experience. I highly recommend it. Similar experiences are becoming more numerous. Even walking down the road, I’ve begun thoroughly enjoying the feel of the uneven surface massaging the soles of my feet, noticing the various prints in the sand (mostly cattle but also pigs, horses, goats, futbol cleats, and once…. a snake trail!) One of my favorite new tasks is shelling dry beans and flipping dry corn off the cob to make sopa. I spent two hours with the girls shelling beans one day. It’s mindless but meditative, we can sit there in comfortable silence or we can chat. It feels good to work for my meal. Many of the tasks that are not quick or efficient – and there are many to be had here in PY- provide similar tranquility.
I’ve always been amazed how books come to me when I’m ready for the messages they contain. This has happened innumerable times to be mere coincidence. I’ve bought books that sat on my shelf for years and out of the blue one calls me to read it. It’s uncanny how its lesson is so obvious when I begin reading. My most recent ‘Aha’ came while reading “How Yoga Works” by Geshe Michael Roach & Christie McNally. I believe this book was required reading for a teacher training class at one of my favorite yoga studios in Maine, Greener Postures Yoga in South Portland, so I bought it because someday I want to be a yoga teacher. Once again, just in time, and part of the insights from Paragraph 1 of this blog post.
Let’s talk about local attire. Women of all sizes and ages: tight clothes, skinny jeans, leggings, occasionally long shorts (short-shorts on teens and single twenty-somethings), scooped necklines with breasts ready to burst forth, very high heeled sandals or dressy or plain flip flops depending on the setting, LONG hair. Men: sporty shirts as if everyone is always ready for an impromptu futbol game, jeans or long basketball shorts, flip flops or plain sneakers. People don’t have fancy sneakers here. The vast majority of men are clean-shaven. In fact, male trainees were not allowed to have facial hair for the first month out of respect for the host national locals. Also, I’ve seen very little smoking and few tattoos or earrings on men.
As we neared New Year’s Eve, I’m realizing this Fin de Año is a much bigger deal than Navidad. On Christmas Eve, the countdown to midnight rivaled a US New Year’s excitement culminating in at-home pop-rockets, sparklers or fireworks and later I learned….firing guns into the air. The sounds all seemed the same in my village. In Asuncion on Christmas night a horrific outcome was a falling bullet that drilled through a 5-year old’s shoulder and heart, killing her. It was in the news for days and absolutely heartbreaking to watch the video of her Mom. So unnecessary but I also learned it’s quite common. A friend of a friend was shot in the back years ago after a bullet ricocheted off the sidewalk. NYE this year also brought bullets into the sky but without incident. There were two full days of preparations for the big night in addition to two weeks of spring cleaning around the house and yard. Mattresses aired, sheets in the doorways washed, furniture rearranged, yard cleaned. Isabel had told me there would be a major fiesta and many people here for NYE. There are three homes in our corner of town; one is ours, the others are two of Isabel’s sisters, one of whom has nine grown kids, more than half of whom still live at home. I thought all the food being prepared would be for visitors across the three homes. No, it was just for our house: Sopa, chipa guazu, beef and pork asado (BBQ), rice salad, champagne and cake, which we consumed just after 11pm. All seven of Isabel and Professor’s kids came for the holiday. People were sharing beds, sleeping on the floor, or on a sofa on the patio. It was crazy funny. All three homes had similar guest situations. The prior day, a sister killed a large pig and a cow for the holiday and shared with all of us, hence the asado. She presented my family a cow hoof and foreleg to cook with my beans (from the look on her face you’d think she was giving me the tenderloin!). “Que rico!” (delicious), they tell me. Oh joy…another first, along with the blood sausage. At least I can say I tried it. My experience with this delicacy will end there. While awaiting dinner, I walked to the futbol field out front to stargaze. The sky here looks so much bigger than back home, day or night. Perhaps the prairie makes it seem vast. This night it was black and clear with fantastic heat lightning in the distance and the stars were brilliant and closer than I ever remembered seeing them, like they were only a cloud’s distance away. After the stroke of midnight the families across town set off firecrackers and guns and visited each others’ homes to bid a “feliz año nuevo”. At 1am our family migrated two doors down where music and dancing ensued. Frankly, it was the last thing I felt like doing at that hour. I was anxious about my language and carrying a conversation and hoped the cultural experience would keep me awake. It certainly did.
Henceforth came yet another reminder of a popular recurring lesson for me: the best experiences often arrive when you least expect them and seldom in the form you might have anticipated.
We arrived to loud music in the front yard and about 40 people sitting in a large circle, socializing. Based on what I’ve seen so far, Paraguayans nearly always socialize while sitting. One of the first things said to you upon your arrival anywhere is an offer to sit (“Sentate”). I struck up a conversation in Guarani/Spanish with a friendly woman visiting from Ciudad del Este, on the Brazilian border, and bobbed in my seat to the beat of the music. She called over a friend to dance with me. I never sat down again. The crowd whooped and cheered that I was among the first to dance, throwing down some freestyle with lots of tango steps in the mix. This was very different from typical Paraguayan dance but they loved it. I don’t remember the last time I laughed so hard. Traditional Paraguayan music is cheery, bouncy and upbeat and eventually most of the teens and twenty-somethings joined in. Among bystanders, it was interesting to watch the divide between genders: men stood on the sidelines and the women sat collectively in chairs, too bashful to kick up their heels. More fun for me! The next day, the entire town determined that the Norte can DANCE.
I’m not a fan of New Year’s Resolutions but instead I took some advice from Portland’s Chris Brogan and began in recent years to list three or four words that will guide me for the upcoming year. I post them on my bedroom wall, where they’re the first thing I see in the morning. This year’s words will be: Stretch, learn, serve. It has worked well for providing ongoing reminders that keep me on track with current goals. What words might you choose for your year?
People in PY spend a lot of time, money and effort to remember their dead. As is common in PY, Isabel visits her families’ graves at the local cemetery every Monday. Recently, I attended a rezo for the father of a villager who died a year ago. It’s common to have such a service at significant anniversaries- 6 months, 1 year, 18 months, etc. Take 1/3 of the village, many of whom I have yet to meet, add a language barrier, and it was surely intimidating and a bit awkward. But I was so glad I went. I got to introduce myself one-on-one to each of those unknown residents and chat with those I’ve already met, learn some new names and have a few laughs. The villagers are always so impressed when you make the effort to know them and especially if you remember their names. Rezos can be costly, in part because of the food and drink provided after the ceremony. To offset these costs, families will often raise a hog and sell the meat when the times comes. Raising hogs is akin to a rainy-day fund. It’s great income for emergencies. Isabel’s aunt died last night so I’ll be going to other services in the near future. It’s an interesting experience to be a foreigner in the home of a grieving family. What to do? How to help? How to stay out of the way and let the family do their thing together without giving the appearance of disinterest or distance? How fast can I look up in my dictionary the words I need to express my condolences? I read their reactions with a U.S. culture filter but am I correct?
Speaking of getting to know the community, it’s very sweet to walk by a house and have people wave to me and say “Mba’echapa, Wendia!” Sometimes the kids will run to the road to say hi, as opposed to a couple weeks ago when I’d wave first and they’d wave back politely but wonder who the heck I was. This is happening more as I’ve taken to walking and running with more frequency.
Timing is everything if you don’t want the cows drinking your laundry water. Note to self: have the laundry done and water dumped by 5pm. When the cows come in from the prairie they are thirsty and will drink your laundry water if you leave it unattended, whether or not your laundry is finished. Did I tell you cow noses are slimy? Cute but slimy. That makes your clothes slimy too. Yeah.
It is summer here and too hot to easily grow veggies in the garden unless they have shade (just the opposite from back home where we fight to get enough sun and daylight). Local veggies currently available in the market: green peppers and carrots (on a lucky day), onions and tomatoes (anyday), corn (though not for eating straight up), hard squash, and mandioca (though this might fall in the ‘starch’ category). There are also lots of peanuts grown here, pretty much the only nut available unless you go to Asuncion. Most peanuts here are fresh, not roasted, and taste like raw peas. I’ve discovered that I can eat these peanuts and now almonds again too, after not being able to eat nuts for two years — I am slowly healing — sooo happy!! Fruits available in our backyard right now include pineapple, bananas, peaches, pears, manzanitas (flavor cross between cherry, apple and?), mangoes, passionfruit, limes, and oranges. Apples are always imported (usually from Argentina) and there are also papayas and guavas though I’m not sure if guava season has already ended. “Jugo” (juice) is either a powdered artificial drink or made fresh frequently from one of the above fruits, especially manzanitas.
In my village, pink pineapples grow wild along the road! How cool! Unfortunately, the cattle get to them before they can be harvested for people.
If it rains during the day when the cattle are free-ranging, they RUN for the trees. If it rains hard or long enough, my road is impassible by vehicle.
It is common for students to attend school for only 5 or 6 years. Others sometimes up to 9 years. Less than 15% of students attend university as most don’t feel it necessary or sometimes family obligations take priority. Both Spanish and Guarani are taught in the primary school here as well as dance, nutrition, gardening sessions, health and more. It’s pretty progressive for PY. The high school is in the next pueblo and is grades 9-12. Girls who finish high school and leave the campo looking for work frequently work as maids for families in Asuncion.
There are lots of palm trees in PY but virtually all produce tiny coconuts the size of a gumball. Locals shell them and eat as snacks.
What do I eat in PY? Oatmeal, yogurt and fruit, or eggs for breakfast. Lunch is always a stew with meat, rice, and tiny diced veggies, if available, served with a side of sliced cucumber drizzled with lime juice. Sometimes I get beans. Mandioca is always served with every meal. Dinner varies. My family eats very late so sometimes I prefer to eat early and alone and just have yogurt again. Several evenings a week I get popcorn. Once a week we make sopa or chipa guazu (cornbread).
“Peligroso” is Spanish for ‘dangerous.’ My first week here, one of the girls passed gas as we played dice and, jokingly, I pointed to the front door and said “Peligroso! Afuera!” (Dangerous! Outside!) The girls nearly fell off their chairs laughing and now the term is used daily by the jokesters in the house. Someone trips, another burns my popcorn, another tosses the fireworks onto the patio instead of the lawn (blowing a small hole in the cement wall). The list goes on. Today, I was labeled Peligroso when they invited me to play futbol and saw how terrible I am. My skill-less efforts (supplemented by lots of sound effects and crazy hand waving to distract my opponent as well as non-traditional moves that probably should have been fouls) had us laughing so hard we could barely breathe.
I mentioned earlier that mango season is in full swing. They are literally dripping from the trees. Lesson 342: don’t sit under a ripe mango tree on a windy day. (wink) The pigs and chickens fight over the drops. I discovered that instead of slicing a fibrous mango one can scrape the pulp with a knife, making a thick, ready-made juice to drink or add to homemade yogurt. Deeelish! Speaking of fruit: a popular holiday punch-like drink is clerico, which is essentially a tropical fruit salad (tiny pieces) with orange or Sprite soda and red wine added. Quite yummy. Soda is called ‘gaseosa’ here.
You know those white plastic patio chairs you have back home? Well, they are popular here too. At my house, most of the backs were split down the center. In true, frugal Paraguayan style, my contact actually sewed the split back together and they are good as new! A little tip to consider before throwing yours away next time… (wink)
Our little post office in Caazapa is tiny and totally informal. It has a lobby and one room with a single desk and 12 ‘boxes’ for sorted mail. Usually, my letters simply sit on the desk until I pick them up. She will call or text me when a package arrives for me. I was recently awaiting some mail and stopped by in the morning before they’d had a chance to sort the 2 bags of mail. The post mistress brought me to the single room in the back and let me pour through the mail looking for mine. On the one hand, it was nice to just be free to do that and not have so many rules getting in the way of my pursuit (I really like that about PY on so many fronts), yet I also appreciate a little more discretion as to who is handling my mail!
I saw my first Paraguayan snake this week- in the trees in the family huerta (garden). Called Mbo’i Huvy’u, it has a green back and white belly. Nearly all snakes here are poisonous so the family was eager to see it leave. But to where? Perhaps looking for the pile of guinea hen eggs in the cute little hidden nest they built under the squash vines? We found 14 eggs there this week.
Another first: Have you ever seen fire ants come pouring out of their nest when disturbed? It’s quite a sight to behold, especially when it’s in your garden. One tiny disturbance of the nest and literally thousands of the critters flood out of the opening and toward anything that lives or moves. Fortunately, my contact was with me and had warned me before he made them angry. Note to self: check status of hole in ground near sorghum before commencing hoeing.
One of my strategies for continued language improvement is visiting the school library and practicing with the kids’ books. “Curious George” (or “Jorge El Curioso”) is a little advanced for me but I brought it home anyway. I also snagged some sweet simple reads with text in both English and Spanish. This has been a great way to learn new words….and the kids like helping too!
Jajatopata! (until next time)
“You never doubt your anger, your depression,
your sadness, your sorrow, your misery;
but you doubt all the positive qualities that you have.
You doubt in your capabilities –
You don’t doubt your incapabilities.
Doubt the incapability in yourself, doubt your limitations,
Then the faith in your capabilities grows.”
-The Honorable Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
This weekend was a struggle. I am resenting my pride that squirms and resists admitting this, but I am feeling fully human and frustratingly inadequate. Every volunteer and every Peace Corps staff member has said the roller coaster is typical- to be expected- with highs and lows often happening in the same day. Yes, I have already experienced this multiple times in the past three weeks. This is part of the journey and is what tests our mettle. And, yeah, part of my being here IS to test my mettle…some days though I wish my test had cliff notes. I know these feelings will pass and that I can help this process by practicing gratitude because, no matter what, I have MUCH for which to be grateful; afterall I AM here making a dream come true, here to help others and to learn from them, I have the support and love of a wonderful family and tribe of friends, I am healthy; I need to stop doubting my capabilities.
I find these emotions particularly disappointing after sharing several wonderful days earlier this week with a fantastic volunteer currently working in a tiny pueblo in the Department of Cordillera. The intent of the visit was to help me understand and participate in the real life of a Peace Corps volunteer. The Monday morning, 3-hour bus ride was more nerve-wracking than any race-day morning butterflies back home. All my Spanish vocabulary seemed to evaporate out of my head the instant I needed to ask if the bus driver was going where I needed. I hoped I would not find myself in Argentina at day’s end! But I arrived safely and without incident, passing beautiful scenery and an ostrich farm en route. Score one for me.
My volunteer, Emily, lives among some 200 homes spread over a few square miles, in a tiny one-room, thatched-roof cottage with a single light bulb, cement floor, no bathroom and an outdoor shower stall by which she can ‘bucket bathe.’ She draws her water from the nearby well, one small pail at a time.
Together we visited the local school (with a total of 20 children, grades K-6) and made beet and carrot juice so the kids could see the ‘fruits’ of their labor using veggies from the school garden they created with Emily. L ater, she and Itrekked a half-hour to work in her kokue (ko-KWAY), a field where she has a demo garden and experiments with various crops to see what new techniques or crop combinations might increase yields and income for farmers in her community. One of Emily’s students, 11-year old Gloria, took a shine to me and joined me on a long evening stroll down a red dirt road lined with eucalyptus trees, watching the sun set behind a pasture of race horses, and teaching each other words in our native language. Kids are wonderfully patient teachers (but don’t hesitate to laugh at you either). The night that followed produced a fantastic storm of torrential rain, thunder and the most fabulous heavenly show I’ve ever witnessed: more than 2 hours of non-stop lightning that colored the entire sky and threw eerie shadows in every direction.
On my final day, we visited with some neighbors and drank terere, talking of everything and nothing. I sat in awe as my fellow volunteer and a friend practiced their guarani and spoke, laughed and cajoled effortlessly in Spanish. I felt like a child, focusing fiercely on every syllable and watching my companions converse animatedly but still unable to comprehend the bulk of the conversations, much less contribute to them. However, my redeeming moment came when the husband patted me on the shoulder and told me I was mucho Guapa, more Paraguayan than my fellow volunteers, because I listen and watch …like a typical shy Paraguayan. I beamed. And I vowed to remind myself to check my perspective…frequently. (And remind myself I’ve only been here 3 weeks. Tranquilo!) Eventually we toured one of their kokues where they grew pineapples, bananas, watermelon, peanuts, beans, guava and papaya trees, mandioca (yucca root) and much more. We wrapped up the day by attending a rezo, a multi-day religious tribute, in honor of a neighbor who died unexpectedly from a heart attack. This country is largely and fiercely Catholic and one is hard-pressed to not see signs of devotion everywhere, including mini chapels fit for dolls along ditches to memorialize accident victims. Unfortunately, these are numerous.
Friday brought my first day of guarani (pronounced gwa-rah-NEE) class, a very old and native language of Paraguay. It and Spanish are Paraguay’s official national languages. It is a difficult language to say the least but absolutely necessary for integrating into my community once I reach my site. Fortunately, my host family is quite eager to help me learn so here we go… and here’s a sample:
Mba’ eichapa! (How are you?)
Iporaminte ha nde? [or] Tranquilopa ha nde? (I’m well, and you?)
Iporaminte avei [or] Omarcha avei (I’m well also)
Mba’eichapa nde rera (What is your name?)
Cherere Wendy (My name is Wendy)
Mooguapa nde? (Where are you from?)
Che estado unidogua (I am from the United States)
Mba’epe remba’apota? (What do you do?)
Amba’ apota agriculturape (I work in agriculture)
Adio! [or] Op! (goodbye) [or] jajotopata (See you later)
[and my 2 most commonly used:]
Nahaniri nantendei. (No I don’t understand)
Ikatupa rerepeti ? (Could you repeat please?)
I knew I was making progress this week when realizing I was taking notes in Spanish instead of English! A good sign indeed. Score two for me.
Another first was attending with my family a ‘Quince Año’, the traditional birthday bash, like a Sweet 16, given to girls turning 15. In Paraguay, a girl becomes a woman at age 15. Boys don’t get this credit until age 18. This was not your average birthday party but rather a gala that rivaled the best weddings. And I got to dance! Not tango but it still felt great to get my boogie on nonetheless. The 1 am ride home proved quite harrowing in yet another torrential downpour, our only saving grace being the tiny reflective flaps fastened to the center and fog lines. Otherwise visibility was zero as there are no street lights outside large towns and significant intersections. Just when I thought it couldn’t rain harder, it did. And again and again. I learned that October and November is the ‘rainy season’ here. We definitely needed it, as the country has suffered from drought all year.
I am closing this segment with some random but interesting observations: Did you know KISS and Lady Gaga are performing in Paraguay in the coming weeks? Did you know that Tuesday’s official forecast calls for ‘tons of rain’? Did you know that Coca Cola so strongly dominates the Paraguayan soda market that many locals think Coke is a Paraguayan company? Did you know that most trucks larger than a pick up are Mercedes though it’s rare to find a Mercedes car outside the larger cities and universities? Did you know you can find popular US brands here like Huggies, Colgate, and Proctor & Gamble (and even McDonald’s in Asuncion)? Did you know that gasoline is sold here by the liter and costs the equivalent of $4-7 US dollars per gallon? (Yes, we are on the metric system here and it’s very fun to talk in kilometers, meters, kilograms, liters, degrees Celsius, etc) Did you know that cell phones are so popular here that only 25% of Paraguayans still use a landline? (though fortunately the smartphones are not as common as in the US, nor is the sight of seeing a table of people all staring down at their smartphones instead of talking to each other). Did you know that Paraguayan time is currently one hour ahead of the US East Coast until US Daylight Savings in a couple weeks?
Enjoy your week. Tell your family and friends how much you appreciate them. Be grateful for the abundance in your life. Make every moment count.
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