Posts Tagged With: English

A Pair of Clubs

March 3, 2014

“I want you to protect and covet the gifts of love you have to share and to trust your soul enough to let it lead you.” – Meggan Watterson, REVEAL – A Sacred Manual for Getting Spiritually Naked

I was super psyched and especially proud of the ladies this week. Up until this point, I normally drive the Women’s Club meeting, asking for activity ideas for next time, reminding them to set the next date, preparing a snack, etc. But now they are starting to do more of these things themselves, which is exactly what we want to ultimately make this activity sustainable and ensure they continue learning and having fun after my service finishes in December. It feels good to know they’re enjoying it enough to make sure it doesn’t end!

Our ice breakers tend to be loads of laughs. Perhaps you’ve done some of these yourself? One consisted of taping the name of a famous person to each lady’s back and having her guess the name by asking questions of the other ladies in the room  (Is my person male? Female? In Paraguay? Europe? Religious figure? Celebrity? Singer? Futbolista? Etc). Another was called “Sorts” where I call out 2 words, one for each side of the room, and the ladies sort themselves based on their preferences. For example, stand on the right side of the room if you like Team Cerro, or the left if you like Team Olimpia. Other contrasts included radio vs TV, salt vs sugar, asado (BBQ) vs mandio chyryry but the one that was sure to bring down the house I saved for last. With dramatic pause I announced dessert vs sex. The room erupted into giggles and slaps on each others’ backsides. Game over. Mission accomplished. Let the meeting begin.

Club de ninos 004

Ladies of the Club de Mujeres trying to guess the name of the famous person taped to their backs.

I’m also excited that the local nurse is really interested in joining us and doing a health-related talk each time. This is much needed in my community and of great interest to me personally. She talks about nutrition, diabetes, exercise and preparing great snacks, and I back her up on the importance for exercise by doing a short dance or yoga class. Because the ladies have been specifically asking how to whittle their midriffs I taught them how to do planks this week and, as encouragement to practice at home, I announced The Great 60-day Plank Challenge. On May 2 the ladies will compete to see who can hold a plank the longest (the original proposal was that they had to hold it longer than me but they shot me down and wanted to compete against themselves. Ok, that’s probably more fair.) Winner gets a liter of my highly-coveted jasmine honey. If you think that’s not much of a prize you don’t know how much Paraguayans love their honey. There might be bloodshed (just kidding on that last part.) They practiced getting horizontal right then and there. Here’s a plank highlighting the muscles it works, perfect for core strengthening:

Proper plank pose highlighting the muscles it strengthens throughout the core. This will whittle your middle.

Proper plank pose highlighting the muscles it strengthens throughout the core. This will whittle your middle.

The Club de Niños (Kids’ Club) and the English class are essentially the same group of kids so every Saturday for about three hours we study English then have fun with Kids’ Club activities. We wrapped up this week’s English class learning to pronounce the alphabet. Then we went outside and, with me calling out letters, they raced each other to make letter shapes in the grass using their bodies. It was a scream. Literally. Every Club meeting (and sometimes if we need a break during English) we practice yoga. This week to boost concentration and attention I told them each child would need to teach one posture to the group next week. I had them create fun, positive SuperHero names like Inteligente Hilda, Genial Gerardo, Linda Luz Maria (linda is Spanish for ‘pretty’), Super Sophia, etc, we drew names and they chose their posture. They seemed pretty excited about this and I’m looking forward to next week.

And since The Great 60-Day Plank Challenge was so well-received with the ladies I offered it to the kids as well. In early May the kids will compete against each other to see who can hold plank position the longest. However, this group decided they wanted to start competing TODAY and a tiny, scrawny scrappy gal won with a time of nearly 1 1/2 minutes! I was super impressed but the defeated boys were not! This, of course, motivated them into action for home practice, not to be outdone next week. This was followed by a game of Duck, Duck, Goose (aka in Spanish as Pato, Pato, Ganso), coloring, and futbol. Send in your suggestions for other fun, kid-friendly exercise games. We’re open to ideas!

Kids' Club made teams to race each other in forming letters of the alphabet using their bodies. Squeals of laughter. This is letter H. H is for hilarity.

Kids’ Club made teams to race each other in forming letters of the alphabet using their bodies. Squeals of laughter. This is letter H. H is for hilarity.

At the beginning of my service I did not foresee myself working with kids; my interest was more in agricultural work with adults in their fields and gardens. But I’ve got to admit that my recent involvement with the new Kids’ and Women’s Clubs has been some of the most fulfilling experiences of my service. I love how life can surprise us with a course correction that turns our expectations upside down and uncovers a whole new facet of ourselves, revealing interests or gifts we never knew we had. The lesson: be open. Always be open.

**Check out the Eye Candy page for new photos!!**

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Abundance

February 10, 2014

“What the mind expects, it finds.” – Madisyn Taylor

It has been a while since my last post and I was a bit overwhelmed at the thought of how best to bring you up to speed…so much has happened since November! However, I’ve decided to start with this little ditty I wrote this morning that pretty much sums up how I’m doing these days:

“Greeting the day with gratitude and a celebration of my many blessings: connecting with family from home; these Paraguayan summer days that are so hot I can create a sweaty Bikram yoga workout by simply tossing my mat onto my patio; formation of a women’s club with lots of laughter, ladies brave enough to try zucchini cake and who want to dance, and a new bellydance student as a result (gulp!); formation of a kids’ club where every child is begging to practice yoga and learn English at each meeting; deep conversations in Spanish with my English student on the history of the Roman Empire, his law school thesis research on sexual abuse of children (and the nasty cycle of its manifestation into adulthood) in a nearby pueblo, and a reminder that there are no coincidences; gratitude that I’m up to 10 mile training runs these days and feel ready for next month’s race; the joy of picking guavas and limes from my own yard; neighbors who miss me when it’s been too long between visits; practicing patience and forgiveness with myself; foreign languages that become a little less foreign each week; the meditative quality of doing laundry by hand; recognizing a “tribe mate” when you meet them; and friends you can call at midnight just because. My cup is overflowing.”

Life is good.

The school year ended in late November with a flurry of activity, including the 6th graders’ graduation or “despedida”. I was so honored to be invited and participate in one of the traditional Paraguayan dance performances that accompanies this important day and the community got a kick out of it too.

6th graders dancing at their despedida , or graduation

6th graders dancing at their despedida , or graduation. Yes, there are 4 kids in the graduating class. haha!

Shortly thereafter, I went on a much-needed vacation in December. A fabulous week dancing some delicious tango in Buenos Aires, Argentina, meeting dancers from the world over, and connecting with friends from BA and home. Then I met up with two fellow Peace Corps Volunteers for a week in Punta del Diablo, Uruguay. We celebrated Christmas Eve with dinner at our hostel on the beach, stargazing, and listening to the surf in the darkness, practiced yoga on the beach and swam with jellyfish, took our first surf lessons (I’ve found a new hobby!) and went horseback riding with a nice long gallop down a secluded section of beach at sunset. This tiny town was a little sleepy in those last few days before the busy season began and provided a beach-bum, tranquilo atmosphere with amazing ocean views perfect for relaxing and having fun.

A farewell asado (BBQ) on the hostel roof with my new tango friends in Buenos Aires

A farewell asado (BBQ) on the hostel roof with my new tango friends in Buenos Aires

Uruguay

Horseback riding at sunset on the beaches of Uruguay, Christmas Day 2013

Christmas Eve dinner oceanside, Uruguay, 2013

Christmas Eve dinner oceanside, Uruguay, 2013

surfing

First ever surf lesson with my bestie and our Belgian surf instructor

Upon arriving back in Paraguay I welcomed a friend and his daughter, Emily, for their visit from the states to work on her senior project in photography and Latin American studies. They arrived in my community on New Year’s Eve, normally a festive holiday, but this year the neighbor’s 33 year old daughter died Christmas week from dengue fever, leaving behind a husband and one-year old son, much to the devastation of everyone. I don’t know if it could be any more awkward for my friends than arriving and going directly to a final rezo (which is like a funeral) in which half the town attended and was grieving. But it was certainly a unique cultural experience. On a more positive note, they learned to throw a lasso, did some beekeeping, made cheese with a local señora, had some serious hammock time perfect for reading and siestas on these hot (I mean HOT) summer days, harvested a crop of sunflower seeds, visited families and learned to make chipa guazu, attended a “quince año” (girl’s 15th birthday), helped me kick off a new women’s group, make a solar food dryer, got lots of great photos and wrapped it up with a trip to a gorgeous local waterfall, Salto Cristal.

Emily photographing a local senora. Check out her work at  http://www.emilyrosenblattphotos.com/.

Emily photographing a local senora. Check out her work at http://www.emilyrosenblattphotos.com/.

Salto Cristal on a rare day of R&R

Salto Cristal on a rare day of R&R. This waterfall was about 100 meters tall and so gorgeous!

At this time I also learned that my grant proposal was approved to build solar food dryers for my community! The next step was to build a ‘practice’ model with everyone that would receive one in the coming weeks. Once finished, I will work individually with each family to build their own. This is a project they are very excited about! The ability to dry fruits, vegetables, meats, herbs, etc in the sun and preserve them without need for refrigeration will improve the nutrition of the families year-round. Yay! Stay tuned.

Solar food dryer. Dries fruit, veggies, meat, and herbs in 1-3 days. This sample is 1 meter x 1 meter.

Solar food dryer. Dries fruit, veggies, meat, and herbs in 1-3 days. This sample is 1 meter x 1 meter.

So I mentioned that we started a women’s group which we call “Club de Mujeres” (actually they prefer my nickname for them, “Club de Brujas”, because they are naughty and mischievous!) I led the first meeting with an ice breaker called “Pass the Mandioca” in which a phallic-shaped root of mandioca is placed between one’s thighs and passed from woman to woman around a circle without aid of the hands. I had used this successfully in other communities and these ladies were no exception. The photo shows just how hard they were laughing. They insisted on doing it again before we adjourned and again at our second and third meetings, using the excuse that since we had doubled our attendance the new women surely needed to try it. Women have hard lives here in PY, responsible for all things domestic including child rearing (in the campo most moms stay at home with the kids), cooking, cleaning, laundry, growing the family’s vegetables and fruits, caring for animals and slaughtering small animals like chickens, ducks or young pigs, and more. This Club is intended to bring some fun into their lives, give them a space to come together, chat amongst themselves, learn new information and skills, etc. So far we’ve talked about raising composting worms, building a solar food dryer, had a class on nutrition given by a local nurse, made a zucchini cake which is a healthier version than the cake they typically make, made dish detergent and fabric softener, done an intro class for yoga and bellydancing, and talked culture (they were shocked to think there are homeless people in the U.S. since most Paraguayans, especially in the countryside, think every US citizen – including a PCV – is rich, lives in a giant home and drives a fancy car, etc because that’s what they see in movies and tv). The Club is a hit and provides my señoras something to look forward to that isn’t work related. So far, so good!

"Club de Mujeres" or "Club de Brujas" as they prefer to call it. Women's Club. All fun.

“Club de Mujeres” or “Club de Brujas” as they prefer to call it. Women’s Club. All fun.

Club de mujeres pass the mandio 001

My señoras playing “Pass the Mandioca” with a large, phallic-shaped root of mandioca. The laughter was riotous and contagious. And they want to play this game. Every. Meeting. haha

Last month my mom sent a box of coloring books, crayons, and colored pencils and when neighborhood kids found out, they started showing up on my doorstep every day wanting to color. Even the high schoolers were completely absorbed, which surprised me. This apparently is a privileged activity and ultimately led to the formation of a Kids’ Club or “Club de Los Niños”, which has been great fun while the kids are enjoying their summer vacation. We meet once a week and after our first meeting where I introduced them to yoga, they always insist on starting the ‘meeting’ with it. I’m really shocked how much they LOVE yoga, even the high school boys, and they have fun but also take it seriously. This group of kids makes me really look forward to planning activities for them, teaching them new skills, and always learning at least as much as I teach (especially language!) Speaking of language, one of their goals from our brainstorming session at the first meeting (called “rain of ideas” in Spanish) was to incorporate English class into the Kids Club. Ultimately, we formed a separate class just to study English, which has been met with much enthusiasm (and where our breaks also include a quick yoga interlude just to mix things up and let them move their bodies). In fact, I’ve recently been giving private English lessons to a very motivated and intelligent law student with whom I have the rare opportunity for deep conversations about topics like the history of the Roman Empire, quantum physics, studies of childhood sexual abuse in PY, and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (I’m not kidding). He recently asked to help teach the kids’ English class in an effort to get more English practice. Perfect!

Two sisters learning Warrior Pose.

Two sisters learning Warrior Pose.

First meeting of Club de Los Ninos. It was fascinating to watch how these kids, young and teens alike, were captivated by the simple, old-timey act of coloring with crayons!

First meeting of Club de Los Ninos. It was fascinating to watch how these kids, young and teens alike, were captivated by the simple, old-timey act of coloring with crayons!

In my spare time, I’m trying my hand at guitar (not going so great) and training for a half-marathon next month with three dear friends and fellow PCVs (going quite well). I actually I hate running but it allows me to eat what I want and gives me the strong, capable body that I desire. However, summers in PY are brutally hot, making training a challenge, so I definitely need a goal/race to motivate me out of bed early knowing it’ll be 90 degrees at 8am and 100 in the shade at 4pm. It’s so satisfying to see progress as I become stronger and more prepared for the race. That I’m doing it with three terrific lady friends and making a vacation of it in Argentina’s wine country is a bonus. So, yeah I’ve been busy and the work has been very satisfying. Now in my second year with a mere 10 months to go (wow, really??!!) time is flying and what used to feel like I had a very long time to get things done suddenly feels like not nearly enough. So much to do, so little time! At this point in my service, projects are underway, relationships with my community members have deepened, and things are moving and grooving in more natural ways like back home. What the mind expects, it finds. When I seek abundance it always finds me, in ways large and small. I’m more grateful with each passing day to be here living, learning, playing, teaching, and laughing with my little community.

Sunset on the prairie in my community

Sunset on the prairie in my community; my favorite place at the end of each day. Tranquilo, beautiful, magical, simple: perfect for reminding me of the abundance in my life. (This photo is courtesy of Emily Rosenblatt Photography and used with permission. Check out her work at http://www.emilyrosenblattphotos.com/)

http://www.emilyrosenblattphotos.com/

 

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Where Has The Time Gone?

8-11-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time….jajotopata amigos!

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

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

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

2-17-13

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

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

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

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

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

Random facts:
Other firsts: ox cart ride

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

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

Hand cream is super expensive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jan 22, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I counted my blessings for being here.

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

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

Random thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jajotopata!

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

Make your own happiness

,Date 1-16-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Random facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have an excellent week!

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

Timing is everything if you don’t want the cows drinking your laundry water

Date 1-4-13

“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.

Random facts:
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)

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Making friends, why traffic lanes are just a suggestion, and thoughts on bucket bathing

Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.” – Sargent Shriver

You´re getting a “two-fer” today since I didn´t have a chance to post last week´s update. Grab a cup of tea and curl up for a few minutes…

I’ve learned a lot about myself since joining the Peace Corps and one of them is … that I don’t pack lightly. I bet you thought this would be one of my deep, soul-stirring revelations of ‘Aha’ moments from my first 10 weeks in country. Nope. Just a superficial need to pack like a tourist and plan for everything that might arise. I’ve tried to change. I really have. And I want to. I’ve practiced. I blame it on my Girl Scout years: “always be prepared”. And I am. But part of me craves a life lived by the seat of my pants. I’m certainly in the right place for THAT. The Adventuress in me says it could be more fun being unprepared and ‘making do.’ The Girl Scout in me cringes at the thought. Unfortunately, over Swear-In weekend which gave me a 3-day stay in Asuncion then a day of travel to my community, several others were the recipients of my ‘preparedness’ for which I felt just a bit guilty. For example, two taxi drivers, 2 bus staff, and 1 Peace Corps staff. I warned them the bag was heavy. They looked at me and my little body with an ‘Aw shucks’ type of grin as if to say ‘That’s because you’re little and wimpy. This’ll be no problem for ME.’ Their smug, knowing look quickly turned to a dismayed ‘Holy shit’ when they realized I wasn’t joking. Never underestimate the power of the little woman.

(And she might also know how to wield a machete….)

That’s right. I got a new machete as a ‘graduation’ gift! Better yet, I have already used it in my kokue (field) in my new community to cut weeds, dig holes for seeds, and as an accessory to look super ‘guapa’ while walking down the road (sorta kidding on the last part). But my villagers definitely know I’m here. I arrived on Monday afternoon the 10th and by Tuesday afternoon they were already abuzz with the fact that the ‘Norte’ (the one from North America, that’s what they call us here; we are never called Americans because people here consider themselves Americans also, from SOUTH America) not only ran to the rio (3 miles to the river, one way) early in the morning, she then WENT to the kokue at 10:30am (most people head home by 10am because of the heat). Day 1 I planted passionfruit. Yup. That was my mission for my first full day insite. Plant passionfruit. The second day I planted dry beans (called poroto in Spanish and kumanda in guarani, not to be confused with ‘pororo’ which is popcorn). The plant, which I think I’ve mentioned before – Kumanda Yvyra ‘i- is a green manure workhorse, not only improving soil fertility but also producing beans for human consumption and can be used as animal forage, firewood and for windbreaks. I’ve also had plenty of practice with my new asada (guarani for hoe, not to be confused with an asado, which is a BBQ, usually on Sunday). But it was my turn for smugness to go awry. I’ve had many years’ practice with a hoe and consider myself pretty deft in using one. I was relishing the long-lost feel of confidence (something desperately lacking these last 10 weeks of training while learning many new skills and languages) and proud of the accuracy with which I was wielding my new asada. My accuracy was all the sweeter because the asada belonged to the previous volunteer, a big guy at 6’4” who bought all the largest tools including a two foot machete. The asada handle is – no exaggeration- 6’ long with the biggest blade available. I’m just shy of 5’4”. Most women would not use this asada – it’s huge, unwieldy and heavy. The women in the village think I’m nuts. But I figure it’s great practice and a better workout all in one. Anyway, the point of this story is that while my accuracy is quite good, my eyesight is not. Or perhaps the fault is a wandering mind that failed to see most of the squash plants before my beloved asada cut right through the stem. Again and again over the course of the hour. But somehow I managed to let the sandia (watermelon) survive. I guess that’s something. Will replant squash tomorrow. My lesson: smugness, even in the privacy of your kokue, gets you nowhere but hungry. Tranquilo.

Speaking of privacy in the kokue, I need to add a blurb about ‘sharing’ in this country. I think it is prevalent across Latin America but have noted it especially here. Everything is shared among families, friends, neighbors. You drink terere from the same bombilla as 6 other people, you might share a spoon while eating watermelon, multiple people share the same bedroom – adults and kids- doesn’t matter, privacy is not valued or needed, a tired old sheet is all that separates bedrooms and bathrooms from the main living space. The list goes on. I felt I had reached a milestone with my new family when one of the kids reached for my used, empty glass at the dinner table to fill it for her own drink. I’d been accepted. How does this relate to the kokue? Stay with me. It is customary for kids to live at home with their parents until they marry and, even then, sometimes they continue to live at home with the new spouse and forthcoming children. It is also customary, especially in the campo but not exclusively, for the wife to stay home and tend to domestic duties with children, farm animals, housework, elderly parents, etc. Because homes are constantly busy, there is literally no time for spouses to be alone and it is widely known that they go to the kokue for sexy time. This is one reason why a lady never goes to a kokue alone with a man who is not her spouse. Even if nothing happened, everyone would assume something did. As a female volunteer, I am highly aware of this tradition and careful about when, where and with whom I go. Perception is EVERYTHING.

Highlights from my weekend in Asuncion:
Saw my first live scorpion. Shopped in Mercado 4, an infamous section of the city for cheap shopping and hard living, but you can find anything you want there. It’s an outdoor shanty town of sales stalls topped with metal roofing, held together with tarps, offering everything from fruit and illegal animals to clothing, guitars and more. I found nearly everything on my list. We had Chinese food for lunch, saw the latest Bond movie and on the way home at 11:30pm our taxi followed behind a moto with a rack body on the back (kinda like a 3-wheeler). They were collecting garbage off the sidewalk and lying on the bags of trash in the back was a young boy (6 or 7 yo?) fighting to stay awake and looking quite terrified. My heart broke. His legs dangled over the tailgate and I feared for him should his vehicle get rear-ended. This was dangerous on so many levels. Asuncion is not a safe place at night, even for adults. On Sunday, I and a couple buddies set out in search of a Buddhist meditation center in Asuncion. We had an address and got directions and a handmade map from the hostel manager. It was a 25 minute walk, we were told. Along the way we shared much but spent equal time in silence enjoying the journey, sights, sounds, new parts of the city. Two hours later we arrived at our destination in an upscale part of town. Unfortunately, it was the private residence of a solo meditation practitioner. We were politely told there was no temple and told that the few activities he hosted would resume in a few weeks. We were invited to return then. The lesson: remember it’s the journey that matters, not the destination. We rounded the corner to begin our return only to find a homeless mother of five bathing her infant on the edge of a sidewalk plant pot and a 2 year old sitting naked on a dirty sidewalk. My heart broke again and I was sickened at the idea of people having to live this way in a world that has so much.

I want to talk about daily life for a bit. During training, our schedules were very regimented, like being in college and living with your parents. After having lived on my own for many years, this was tough. Monday through Friday (and most Saturdays) the Peace Corps bus would pick us up from our host family home and deliver us to the training center by 8am. We would have language class from 8am until noon. My first 2 weeks were strictly Spanish then we switched to guarani which was taught in Spanish. Lunch was an hour then the afternoon (1-5 ish) would consist of various other lectures on safety, health/medical, culture, technical skills, facilitation, etc. Now that we’re in our communities where we’ll live for 2 years, we make our own schedule. One of the most fun challenges is creating the life and experience I want to have. I’ve put a lot of thought into crafting my days and activities to begin integrating with my neighbors. While it’s only been a week, so far, it’s looking like this: Every morning up by 6am. Alternate mornings I run and am home by 7am to join the family for breakfast. Other mornings, I do yoga or read or have mate with Victor and Isabel on the patio (korapy in guarani). A typical Paraguayan breakfast is cocido: soy coffee with lots of milk and sugar and golf-ball sized white bread/rolls. I’m all for integrating into traditional customs but I need sustenance and can’t eat wheat so, while my diet seems crazy to them, my family ensures I am well fed with eggs and mandioca or oatmeal and yogurt. While there are some fruits here (bananas and lots of citrus) not much grows in the summer- including vegetables- because it’s too hot and the sun bakes the plants. This is why I’m starting ASAP on my own garden…to ensure I have plenty of veggies! After breakfast I work in my kokue for an hour or two. If it rains, I study language or play with the girls in the house. A bucket bath is in order by late morning. I’ve been spoiled with hot showers at my first host family. In this community there is no running water. You fetch your water from the well and bathe from a bucket. I’ve even bathed from my thermos when the buckets were unavailable. I don’t prefer it but, as is my way, I find something to love about everything including this. It’s actually not bad once your body goes into shock. The water feels pretty tolerable then, though on my first go I couldn’t contain a shriek and a gasp when the initial splashes hit. Winter bathing should be interesting! But there is joy to be had in seeing the activity from start to finish – drawing water from the well, being mindful not to be wasteful, warming the water over the wood fire on cold rainy days, and the satisfaction that comes with ‘roughing it’. There is currently a ‘running water’ project underway and a tentative date of winter whereby my community should have hot, running water in kitchens and bathrooms. That would be spectacular. But this is PY and I’m not holding my breath just yet. Lunch is around 11:30 and is usually a hot stew regardless of how hot the ambient temp is outdoors. Isabel is a good cook and I appreciate her efforts to flavor food. Most Paraguayan food is relatively bland and salt is the preferred accoutrement. Salt is used in everything and, in my opinion- one who prefers simple food- I think is greatly overused. After lunch most everyone takes a siesta for a couple hours. Isabel milks the cow before her siesta. Not much happens again until 3pm though I usually try to visit at least one new family every afternoon. Paraguayan dinner is typically served after 8:30 because people are busy in the evening bringing in their animals and doing evening chores. I do not like this custom of eating and going to bed shortly thereafter. Also, sweets are very common in Paraguay with every meal (sugar in coffee, cookies for dessert, etc) but my family seems to keep them to a minimum. Yay!

One night I stepped outside after dinner and the air smelled like my grandparents’ house: old farmhouse, pipe smoke, woodstove, homemade biscuits, traces of barn aroma. I was suddenly quite homesick. I tried to recall the most recent Skype visits with my Mom and daughter where we could both see and hear each other. My favorite sound in the world is that of my baby’s voice. Seeing her face, hearing her voice, knowing she’s ok without me there is reassuring beyond words. I know she’s in good hands, surrounded by our family, but it’s not the same as being there. All you parents out there know what I mean. (In case you’re not in the know, my ‘baby’ is now 24) My Skypes, emails, letters, texts, and Facebook messages from my family and friends have meant the world to me and made this transition much easier than it would have been in a pre-technology world. I’m grateful to have a family that supports this dream of mine even through times when they didn’t want to for concern of my safety and being away from family. That’s love.

My first week here has been wonderful on so many levels. I appreciate those locals who have patience with me and are willing to speak slowly, repeat, and wait while I decipher their questions. I find the kids in my house are the best at this. They’ve figured out how to talk with me and understand my broken Spanish and guarani when no one else understands. This also makes them wonderful to have along on my daily visits to families in the community. Every family knows these girls so they make a great ice breaker, they can translate when necessary, and can carry the conversation when I’ve run out of vocabulary and things to ask. Above all, they’re fantastic kids… never any trouble, happy to help, and also very eager to learn English. I’ve never seen kids so happy to learn English. This week has also been tiring with language immersion, lots of new stimuli, new names and faces, learning where people live and remembering their stories, the insecurities of visiting an unknown family with my limited language skills and finding things to talk about, REALLY wanting to agree or say ‘yes’ to a comment just so they don’t have to repeat the sentence AGAIN though I have no clue what’s being said, etc. The other thing that’s difficult is being compared to the previous volunteer who left shortly before I arrived. He was a fantastic volunteer, human being and immensely hard worker. This village LOVES him dearly and still speaks of him fondly and often. Of course and they should. I expected that. What’s difficult is having EVERYONE say how well he spoke guarani and Spanish and telling me that I don’t, how guapo he was, how much he did. They don’t remember him when he first arrived and spoke little of their language, stumbling through awkward visits as I do today. I feel my total intelligence is being measured by my language proficiency. I can understand that too. They don’t understand that I’ve gone from zero to volumes in a mere few weeks. I began telling people that I’m a college graduate and reminding them I’ve only been speaking their language 7 weeks so they would know that just because I don’t understand sometimes (ok, often times) doesn’t mean I’m ignorant. Some people look surprised as if they hadn’t considered this concept. They told us in training this would happen and I promised myself I wouldn’t let it bother me but it does. Same with people calling me flaco (thin), fat (gorda- yes someone did call me that), asking my age/my daughter’s age/and commenting on me being a young mom, why I don’t have a husband or boyfriend, or saying “Nantendei” (she doesn’t understand) in front of me and laughing at my non-understanding, etc. The locals aren’t doing anything wrong. These things are culturally acceptable. They don’t understand their comments are hurtful in my culture. But I’m not in my culture anymore. I need to adapt to their norms, be less sensitive, laugh it off. And most days I can. Other days it adds up. The other piece adding to this is Christmas. They tell me it’s Christmas season but never in my life has it felt so UNLIKE the holidays. Instead of snow, temps are over 100 degrees daily, decorations are non-existent in my village, there’s no Christmas music or Rudolph on TV, and – most importantly- no family nearby to share the excitement of this time of year like spending extra time with each other, family parties, decorating, etc. This experience reiterates what’s most important about the holiday: Family. I’ve never been away from my family for the holidays. Ever. I thought their letters, emails and Skypes would get me through unscathed but I’m sad. I know it will pass. It always does. The day I was supposed to post this blog section, I was able to Skype my daughter and the world was fine once again. We are seriously missing each other but there is something magical in hearing her voice. AND I got my first package from my family – SOOOO EXCITED to have something from home! It makes me feel connected again.

Every daily visit to a new family provides the chance to share my photo album and talk about my family and have these complete strangers tell me how beautiful they are. It’s heart warming and it helps. I’ve also been spoiled during training with internet at the house so I had regular communication with my family and friends. Not so now. I did the non-courageous thing and holed up in my room for a day or so, wanting to be alone – and knowing I shouldn’t-, recalling the voices of my family, their encouragement, the comments and encouragement from friends and co-workers before and since I left the States, letters from home, remembering the reasons that brought me here in the first place. I actually opened a book that wasn’t self-development or language training (shocker, I know!): Lynne Cox’ “Swimming to Antarctica”. Read it if you like swimming. Or the ocean. Or courageous people. Peace Corps told us there would be days like this. I called a friend from training and discovered he and several others had gone through multiple rounds of similar feelings already this week. I felt much better. I wasn’t alone. What I am experiencing is totally normal. I decided that exercise and getting out of the house would offer a facelift on the day and indeed it did. I visited a new family (who is one of 10 siblings with 2 sets of twins! Large families are the norm here). She and her husband own the land I am borrowing as my demo field for teaching purposes. Later I walked halfway to the rio. I hope I never get tired of the spectacular view: miles of prairie with forest and hills in the background. It takes my breath away and I could stand there all day and gaze across the horizon. Unfortunately, pictures don’t do it justice. (I’m trying to add pictures to this site but until then they can all be found on my Facebook page.) Tranquilo. Overall, my first week was great.

The other thing to which I’m committed is learning 5 new words in guaraní and/or Spanish everyday. I’m writing this on Day 1 of this decision and the girls in the house are playing along and have already made my word lists for the next several days (except they’ve given me both guaraní and Spanish versions for every word so I guess I’m learning 10 words a day) . We agreed that in return, they would each learn 5 new English words every day.

My commitment to visiting one family per day is to help me know my community and them to know me. This is how I start conversations that will ultimately help me understand what this community wants and needs and will drive my work here. Knowing each other is also a safety measure. The more people who know me, the more people will watch out for me. One of my first visits was to a man in his 60s named Ismael, who I met my very first day here a few weeks ago on a temporary visit and who visits the neighbor daily. I liked him immediately. He had that kind, gentle spirit that I’ve come to love and, when he smiles, his whole face participates. He reminds me very much of my maternal grandfather, one of my favorite people in the world. Two of the girls from my family tagged along, which is culturally appropriate, since a lady never goes to visit a man alone unless she wants to invite trouble or at least provide fodder for chisme (gossip, which is rampant here). I learned that Ismael has lived in his home for 30 years with his mother and aunt and has some of the best views in the area of prairie and the highest hills in all of PY. He makes his own leather from his cattle, which I learned by asking about a lasso hanging from the rafters. He made it. He also uses sheep skin from his sheep as a saddle. He rides his horse everyday to round up his cattle. Like nearly everyone in this village, he has lived here all his life. We toured his kokue, he encouraged me with my guarani, finally chatting and sharing terere under a massive mango tree. Yeah, this is why I’m here. Getting to know the people, their language and customs, and hopefully giving back even a fraction of what they’re giving me.

Isabel is a super-guapa woman with whose family I’m currently living, is my age, very genuine, and carries herself with the regal qualities of a queen. She is fit, beautiful and reminds me of the Queen of Jordan, not the mother of 7 in a poverty-stricken country. I asked her to teach me to make cheese, milk the cow, and kill a chicken. She offered all the following day. I ‘chickened’ out on killing the chicken this time and asked to watch instead. This is something I definitely want to get right the first time. I do not want to cause anything to suffer at my hands. I think she was a bit disappointed, as she doesn’t kill a chicken often and this became the talk of the village thereafter…that I wouldn’t do it. Though I think they give me points for carpiring in my kokue with a man’s asada in the heat every morning. Next time I’ll be ready. But we did make cheese and I helped milk the cow. Poco un poco (little by little).

Just when I think I’m winning the mind game of insects (bichos) in my personal space I am tested further. This morning I pulled on my clothes and immediately a cricket crawled out of the shirt and up my neck.  Note to self: inspect and shake out all clothes before wearing. (Though I was psyched to see 2 praying mantises feasting in the bathroom along with a small toad making his way up the tile wall. Pretty fascinating how his little feet could stick to such a slick surface.) I also learned this is why locals never use a top sheet and don´t make their bed until it´s time to go to bed. They pound the bed with a towel or pillow to swoosh away the dust and bugs before going to sleep. I, on the otherhand, want to prevent them from getting there in the first place!!

You know it’s hot when the locals complain. I thought I knew heat. Afterall, temps have reached well over 100 many times since I arrived in PY. And I’ve sat through humidity in Maine, both days it happened this year. I knew nothing. The day I moved to my new community (with a 5 hour non-air-conditioned bus ride and a half-hour walk with no shade) it was 116 degrees. And HUMID. But I’m not complaining…I’m ‘educating’ you. Yes, I still love the heat. It might slow me down a little and gives me a greater appreciation for the siesta, one of my favorite cultural norms about Latin America, but I’d take 116 over ice and snow any day (as I’m writing this my daughter informed me that they got seven inches of snow today back home. I am not envious). I was born to live in the tropics. What intrigues me is that Paraguayans don’t sweat until it’s at least 107 degrees and even then, they’re just ‘glistening’, sweat stains on their t-shirts just beginning. I, on the other hand, at 100 degrees have had 2 clothing changes by 10am and am in a constant state of looking like I fell in the nearest well. Tranquilo.

Overall, my first week has gone extremely well. And I can’t believe I’m finally here doing this. Someone pinch me!

Random additions:
Public buses proudly display words and/or pictures of Christ outside or inside as well as the Playboy bunny symbol. Hmmmm. I think the Christ piece is for safety and to prevent crime. Many a thief will think twice before committing a crime in the presence of words or depictions of Christ. When my family sends me packages, they put Christ stickers over the seams for the same reason. It could also be that the drivers are praying for safety in traffic since no one obeys traffic laws and traffic lanes are only a suggestion. I’ve been on a long-distance bus which was passed by vehicles on both sides simultaneously (to clarify – it was a 2-lane road. One car was in the breakdown lane, the other a moto driving down the center line.) If you’re in a bus that’s passing a moto, the moto moves to the right edge of the road. Quite often there’s another vehicle in the oncoming lane. They also have to move to the edge in order to clear the bus that’s hogging the center of the road. (oops Mom, you weren’t supposed to read that part – lol) In the city, it’s just as bad: 4 lanes of traffic that were planned for 2. Motos make their own lane. And rules.

It is culturally acceptable to publicly pick one’s nose in Paraguay. It should go without saying but I’m sayin’ it anyway: this is not a practice I’ve chosen to adopt. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get used to the sight of a grown adult, professionals included, doing this. And shaking hands…well I just can’t think about that either. Please pass the hand sanitizer.

The Japanese Ambassador came to visit the elementary school in my village (across the street from my house) and has promised them new computers for all the students. Japan has supported this school in the past by building a sizable addition last year. The principal, (aka ‘Professor’, my contact with whom I live), has agreed to let me teach a computer class to the kids when the computers arrive next year.

Electricity supply is unstable in PY. It is common for ceiling fans to suddenly decrease speed for a few seconds then resume normal tempo. Some days this happens multiple times an hour. But at least we have it, which is more than I expected before arriving.

Music and dance in PY is primarily Paraguayan polka (different than American polka in both respects) but beloved by the people here, especially in the campo. Harps and guitars are the instruments of choice. Latin and US pop are alive and well too but more so in the city.

Most water bodies in PY have crocodiles, or the potential to have crocodiles. I´ve been given conflicting reports about the river in my area. I´m suppose to go to a birthday party there this weekend. I guess if the locals go it must be ok?

There are 2 types of fireflies here: ones that blink and ones that shine steadily. The constant shiners are pretty fascinating. They have 2 bulbous protrusions on the back of their heads that look exactly like eyes and shine bright neon green at night. You can distinctly make out the ‘eyes’ from several feet away and the green light from at least 100 meters, like tiny flashlights moving in the night. The insect itself is about 2” long.

Unlike in the States, Paraguayans do not name their animals. Most animals here have a lowly status and are simply called what they are: perro (dog), gato (cat), vaca (cow), lodo (parrot), especially when being shooed out of the house or yard. Also, cows are only milked once a day as opposed to twice a day in the States and the time can vary according to the day’s events and priorities. My grandfather was a dairy farmer most of his life and insisted on a firm commitment to his cows: that they be milked twice a day at exactly the same time every day. PY cows do not give much milk and perhaps this is why the farmers can have this schedule (or perhaps the opposite is true?) It is unusual for Paraguayans to have much drinking milk in the fridge; instead it is used for cheese, “queso paraguaya”. Next week I am planning to make yogurt to ensure I have a steady supply since I eat so much of it. It’s the perfect snack for my speedy metabolism.

My village is too small to be considered a pueblo and is instead called a companía. Liken it to a township in Maine.

Did you know that teachers and engineers in PY are called by their title by everyone in the community whether they are in school, on the job, visiting a neighbor, at church, etc? (Professor Victor, Ingenerio Julio) The titles are highly regarded, similar to the way we address doctors, priests, etc in the US.

That’s all for now.  Smile and enjoy every breath. Pass along your joy simply by being joyful. You never know when your actions might inspire another.

2nd post. Date: 12-25-12
“Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”  – Tao de Ching Stephen Mitchell

Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah everyone!

I’m fortunate to spend Christmas Day with a couple other volunteers in Caazapa where we’ll make a traditional U.S. Christmas meal, decorate, play Christmas music and try to feel as much at home as we can. Skyping with my family today was the most wonderful thing of all and while we chatted I opened their gifts from last week´s package. Later other volunteers and their local Paraguayan friends as well as two from Canada joined us in a traditional US Christmas feast, a spontaneous bout of dancing, and a late night movie. It truly was a wonderful day. Christmas here is not the huge holiday it is in the US. Nearly all of Paraguayans celebrate on Christmas Eve with a late dinner fiesta going to midnight or beyond. It is not common to share gifts or, if they are exchanged, they are small.

Since I wrote the blog above, which didn’t get posted as planned, here are some highlights from my second week insite:
I visited Caazapa the other day for a meeting with the other volunteers in the area. To get there, I walk one hour (at a rate I’ll call “Let’s break a sweat”) to catch the bus in the nearest pueblo then have a 20 minute bus ride to town. By the time I got to the bus stop at 7am it was already hot and my shirt was sour against my backpack. Great. Nice way to introduce myself to the group. The day went well and we ‘newbies’ learned our way around town. I celebrated Christmas Day with this group but since there were no buses running on Christmas Day I borrowed a bike and rode it home last week so I could get back in town for the holiday. It’s about 11 miles (17k) each way, which wouldn’t normally be a problem but three things didn’t help: lack of exercise since I’ve been in PY, soft sand, and riding in the heat of the day. It was memorable. And fun. I left Caazapa for my village at 2pm- possibly the hottest and worst time of day. Oh yeah, and I was in a skirt. I always wear a skirt, whether visiting neighbors, hoeing in my field, etc. It’s the best thing for the heat but not a fashion statement widely used among my female villagers. Most wear pants. But more on that later. I hadn’t anticipated borrowing the bike or I would have been better prepared (refer to my Preparedness Strategy in the post above). The skirt worked well though. I headed down the main drag which was nothing more than a bumpy, dirt road… bumpy being the operative word here. I’m sure I was a sight for the few vehicles that passed: ballcap, oversized long-sleeved white shirt (works great to protect from sunburn and for working with bees), flowy skirt and my Keens. I pedaled at a clip fast enough to look strong so no one would mess with me but measured enough to ensure I’d make it to my village. It was another 100+ hot, humid and dusty afternoon. Every vehicle that passed blasted dust between my teeth, into my lungs, and covered my eyelashes. My shins were rusty red from the soil spitting from behind the front wheel. The ride was a constant search to pick my way between hard pack and soft sand and time the transitions with the traffic. I have never ridden a mountain bike in my life and this was so different from my beloved racing bike back home! But it handled great and I felt great for a long time. Eventually a headache and fatigue settled in and I was aware of the heat and the effects it could have on my body. The little water I had left was very WARM by now. I was wishing my backpack full of food would teleport itself home. When I finally saw a lone tree on the horizon offering potential shade, my heart dropped when I saw I’d be sharing the shade with a bull. Thanks but no. They are normally pretty tranquil here but this week they’ve all been quite feisty. Not taking my chances. I stopped many times to rest, stretch, drink, and apply sunscreen. It’s disappointing to feel how much the heat can knock you down. About ½ mile from my house the road was filled with a herd of cattle, probably 100 of them. Just in time, I heard a moto approach behind me. Timing my speed just right, I motioned for her to pass, using her to carve a path through the cattle for me, then I pedaled like hell to stay right behind her. The cattle wasted no time in filling the gap once she’d gone through so while I was pedaling furiously to take advantage of the space I also had to shout to the cows to stay out of the way. Some of the mamas are aggressive and gave me a shake of their heads but overall it was pretty fun actually. Until I hit a patch of soft sand that almost wiped me out as I was passing a bull. Fortunately, he was the gray bull – a tranqui guy- and I stayed upright and made it home without incident.

Love is in the air….On my morning run the other day, I had noticed the same gray bull alone in the road making eyes at the ‘girls’ in the pasture as he sidled up to the fence. I had hesitated whether or not to continue my run past him. As I said, the bulls have been a bit feisty this week. Usually the entire herd is in the road and it’s easier to zigzag my way through the group to avoid the bulls. But it was early morning and the herds were still fenced in. I looked for escape options in case I needed them: jumping the fence was all I had. I looked in his eye to gauge his mood. He was more interested in love right then so I continued on. Later that day I watched the same gray bull as well as two others chase a small group of heifers around the futbol field for 2 hours. The roosters are doing the same. Is it the moon? Looking for a date for Navidad? Sheesh. It’s quite hilarious watching a rooster run full tilt across the yard after a hen who is trying to avoid him. It’s like watching Roadrunner cartoons. And it’s just a bit awkward sitting in the yard in a group of mixed company when the rooster finally catches the hen. The people just laugh, take a swig of terere, and continue the conversation. No big deal.

I had a couple ‘firsts’ this week. Isabel and I made yogurt, which came out very well, using milk from her cow. The two older girls liked it so much both have made batches of their own and yogurt is quickly becoming the snack of choice in this house…much healthier than white bread or mbejy (a tortilla of mandioca flour, hog fat, water, and Paraguayan cheese with the consistency of a gumdrop). Another day I had my first taste of fresh sugarcane. The cane is first peeled with a big knife or machete. The inside is quite fibrous so you bite off a piece, chew and suck the juice out of the fibers then spit out the fibers.

We’ve had a couple days of rain this week which was welcomed as the road near the house gets impossibly dusty, billowing great volumes of red dust as each vehicle passes, and I’ve quietly watched the water level in the well lower a couple inches each day and its color become more yellow (thanking my friend Caron back home for my handheld water sanitizer right now!). Last year was widespread drought (sequia), causing significant shortages in the mandioca and other crops. Also, I realized this week I’ve been fighting a daily battle with dehydration even now with a plentiful supply. It’s tough to keep up given the amount of sweat I lose in a day.

I visited another neighbor on the edge of the village named Celso, a visit delayed a couple days due to rain and mucho hot weather. I decided to stop using rain and heat as excuses and headed down the road. After a day of rain the red clay was as slick as ice and provided enough suction to have me tightening my Keenes for the first time in the 5 years I’ve owned them. The cows watched from their yards with a curious horror as I slipped and slid my way down the road in my bright orange LL Bean raincoat, local handwoven handbag, hiking pants rolled up to my knees and my Keenes now full of mud. At some point, I was overcome with joy and the ridiculousness of it all and started laughing hysterically at myself. I’m not sure anyone in my village owns a raincoat; most wear ancient, threadbare clothes well-worn from years of hard living. And if I was going to feel mud ooze between my toes wouldn’t it be far more fun to simply remove my shoes? – oh the temptation – but the risk of glass and rusty metal was too high so I settled for a ½ mile of slip-sliding away until I arrived at Celso’s house. It’s always awkward to arrive unannounced and expect folks to stop and accommodate you but it’s what they do here. Hospitality is the utmost in virtually every household. I chose Celso because I’d met him on my initial visit to the community in November and found him very welcoming and warm. This boosted my confidence. It became immediately clear this day that he and fellow villager/visitor speak primarily guarani, fast, and much of our conversation was me saying ‘Nantendei’ and ‘Ikatu, rerepeti?’ (I don’t understand and Could you repeat that?) Somewhere I mentioned that prior to coming to PY I spoke no guarani and little Spanish and had only been studying guarani for 7 weeks. His eyes lit up with a new understanding and suddenly he realized how much I’ve accomplished in very little time. The magic moment came after a while when I realized he had changed the way he spoke to me to accommodate my language skills. Not only was he speaking slower and more simply and explaining in Spanish when guarani totally failed me but was also taking the time to repeat words I clearly didn’t understand. And when I pulled out my great little notebook (thank you Emily!) to write down the word and show him I really was trying to learn, he ensured I spelled it correctly, then used it again later in the conversation for practice. I was grateful and felt a special kinship. Despite how we started out, we had many a fantastic laugh and an agreement that I’d teach him to make yogurt on my next visit. I called the afternoon a vibrant success and left with a skip in my step.

In my tiny village, not much changes from day to day, month to month except perhaps the gossip (chisme, CHEEZ-may). It doesn’t take much to become gossip and I’m trying to make it work FOR me. I’ve already mentioned a few things I’ve done or said that have gotten the locals talking, including my language barrier, that I ran to the rio (only a loco norte would do something that ridiculous), biked from Caazapa, or pronounced a word so WRONG in guarani that they found it hysterically funny. The list goes on. But seriously, things really don’t change here. I cheerfully asked a couple people last week “What’s new?” and they looked at me like I was nuts. Nothing is new. There are only 35 families here and no jobs until you are hired to work in someone’s field. The school employs 4 teachers – all of whom come from the next pueblo- and the principal, who is my contact and in whose house I currently live. Otherwise, people must leave the community for work. Most of the boys either quit school to work in the field or move to Asuncion to find work. Some of the girls make it to high school then become housewives and moms. Unfortunately, when it comes to feeding your family vs going to school, often school falls by the wayside.

Isabel has discovered that I love popcorn and she now frequently makes it for me as a snack. Delicious cooked over the fire in the fagone (fah-GOHN…outdoor brick stove/oven, not to be confused with the tatakua cave-like oven).

I mentioned laundry in an early post. Most Paraguayans, except perhaps those in the choochier sections of Asuncion, do their laundry the traditional way: by hand, in a basin. Even those who have washing machines often use them only for the larger items like sheets and towels and do the clothing by hand. I have enjoyed this practice of handwashing my clothes. It has a meditative quality to it. Even when it takes an hour or two, it is a time to slow down and focus on the task at hand. To practice being present. I’m confident ingredients in the soap here and especially the popular detergent, “OMO”, are probably banned in the states. Stains nor the skin on my hands can resist either one.

Random facts:
Currently, clocks in Paraguay are 2 hours ahead of EST. Daylight is from 5:30am-8pm.

Apart from birds, insects, and venomous snakes there’s not much wildlife in this part of PY. There are no large game animals except in the Chaco region in the NW part of PY. There you’ll find jaguars, crocs, very large snakes and more. Yes, there are venomous snakes where I live and …tarantulas.

Saffron is quite expensive in the U.S. but here you can purchase a sizable amount for $.25!

Paraguayans use a lot of sugar. This is evident in the ice cream. It tastes like frosting.

In the pueblos you can find rotisserie chicken cooking on the sidewalk. Open air, no screens for insects, no shields from the public. Initially I was horrified. Now, not so much. Amazing what we get used to.

This culture focuses and values ‘fitting in’ rather than ‘standing out’ or ‘differentiating’ like we do back home. Perhaps this is why there are so many tiny shops and pharmacies offering identical products or services. My friends and I question how one decides where to shop. Everything is the same. Why should I choose one over the other? They don’t WANT to stand out. At bus stops, 3 vendors sell the same chipa, 4 sell Coca Cola, etc. Every pharmacy has medicine, gifts, and shampoos. Sometimes the despensas will differ in what they offer and cater more to the local community. It’s so different from the US culture.

There is a fantastic, bitter herb here called ‘boldo’ which is perfect for curing an upset stomach. Locals often put it in there yerba mate with mint.

Many of the buildings here use posts made from trees. They cut the tree just above where it splits and use the crotch to hold the cross beams. Pretty clever really.

The nighttime sky in PY is brilliant and many a fellow volunteer has commented how many ‘other’ constellations one can see in the southern hemisphere. And it’s super dark here in the campo without light pollution.

My ‘local’ internet café costs 4,000 guaranies/hour to use the web, equal to $1/hour.

That’s it for now. Again, wishing you and yours much joy, health and happiness now and always. Lots of hugs and love to my family – without them I could not be here, living out a dream. So grateful and blessed.

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 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

Struggles and Perspectives: Testing Our Mettle

“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.

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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