Posts Tagged With: family

The First Goodbye

“It’s always the right time to be happy.” – WW

October 1, 2014

During my first 10 weeks in Paraguay I stayed with the wonderful Gomez Silguiera family. They coached me with my infantile language skills, fed me, taught me to milk their cow, included me in their weekly Sunday family lunch with all seven grown children and mounds of food, and my first weekend there, brought me along to my host mother’s sister’s wedding. The bride was 81 and her new husband was 82.

 

I’ve been back to visit only a handful of times since moving to my community because the 10 hour journey makes more frequent visits difficult. However, I am always welcomed like royalty and quickly settle into making myself comfortable, no longer a guest, just another member of the family.

 

Over the weekend, I returned to attend my host sister’s wedding, held on the two year anniversary that I landed in Paraguay (and the same weekend that her aunt married two years earlier!) It was a grand and lavish affair of 200 guests, created solely by the family: my event-organizer-brother did all the decorations; the bride owns a bakery and she and staff made the cake and the hundreds of cupcakes and other sweets; her sisters made her dress; the entire extended family pitched in making giant trays of various salads, beans, mandioca and more (I counted 20 pans of sopa paraguaya -corn bread- and I’m sure there were more that had already been loaded into the truck).  We danced until 3am and, after about 3 hours of sleep, the gang was starting a new day by sharing morning máte. I have no idea how many people actually stayed at the house but emergence of ever more people rounding the corner into the kitchen seemed endless but joyful.

 

Finally came the time to catch my bus home. For the road, Mama tucked some sopa paraguaya into my hand and I embraced her. That’s when the realization hit that this would likely be our last hug. Ever. The last time I will see this loving woman who opened her heart and her home to me and treated me like her own flesh-and-blood daughter. Who worried over me when I was sick. Who learned I love watermelon and made sure there were always two in the house at all times. Who made my favorite breakfast everyday as if it was the highlight of her day. Who attended my Swear-In ceremony and cried happy-sad tears when it was time to move away to my new community. Who poured through my photo albums as if it was the greatest honor to know my family. Her soft belly absorbed the shudders that my tears brought. I held her and tried to brand the moment into memory. I couldn’t speak. When we finally separated she knew too and spoke for me. “If this is the last time I see you before you return to your country, please know that my home is your home. You will always be welcomed here. Please stay in touch.” We hugged again and I really let loose with the tears. The others nearby took their turn afterward: my host dad, an elderly aunt from Buenos Aires that I’d known for about 15 hours and with whom I’d shared a mattress the night before but nonetheless told me how she adored me, a brother, cousins. This family knows how to make people feel loved.

 

With a mere seven weeks remaining before my service ends, time is flying and there will be many more goodbyes. As I start down this path of closure I can’t help but reflect and appreciate all that these last two years have brought me.  My heart is swelling with gratitude. It hasn’t always been easy but, damn, it sure has been worth it!

Photos by Luis Ramon and Pedro Gomez Silgueira

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

Meet My Community: Ña Ester and Family

“All you need is love. ” – The Beatles

August 9, 2014

I’m excited to share with you the story of Ña Ester and her family. This 47-year old woman has been a loving supporter of my service from the moment we met. She’s been patient and forgiving with my language shortcomings, always has a smile for me, invites me to new meetings she thinks I might find interesting, is encouraging and open-minded when I want to introduce new concepts, calls or sends messages every birthday and all holidays, and is always sending me home from my visits with plenty to eat. She’s a strong, take-no-shit woman, rare in my community, and such a great model for the others. Most women here are submissive to the men except in matters of child rearing, cooking, and activities related to cooking like how much of each crop to plant. In other families, the man rules the house. In hers, she wears the pants and they are loud.

Ña Ester had a birthday this week and invited me to the house to partake in the feast of BBQd pork, sopa bread and cold rice salad. All of her four children were present, ages 14 to 29. Three of them live in Asuncion and generally only make the trip to the campo (countryside, where we are) 2-3 times per year for the holidays so this was a big deal. I referenced this family’s invitation and hanging pig carcass in an earlier blog this week called Friendship on Every Doorstep where the daughters and I had some great conversations. This is a beautiful, loving family whose care, love, and ease with each other is palpable as they move through the house doing the work of the day, braiding nieces’ hair, taking turns watching the toddlers, preparing food, setting the table, catching up on stories.

 

Recently, after she finished building her family’s solar food dryer with me (which allows them to use the sun to make dried fruits, veggies, and meats), super guapa (means ‘hardworking’) Ña Ester shared her bread recipe with me, which I encourage you to try. Find it In The Kitchen.

 

Na Ester (background) and her sister Na Olga and Olga's daughter Sofia making solar food dryers. Materials supplied by a grant.

Na Ester (background) and her sister Na Olga and Olga’s daughter Sofia making solar food dryers. Materials supplied by a grant.

Her oldest daughter, Rumi, works from home sewing uniforms for Paraguay’s military personnel; the other, Maria, is a stay-at-home Mom. The oldest son, Jorge, is an electrician (who was installing wiring in the new addition before lunch on this day), and the youngest son, Gerardo, is a go-getter-blossoming-leader like his mom who participates in my Kids’ Club, excels in English, is skilled in practical matters of living beyond his 14 years and who I see “taking names” every afternoon on the soccer field. The husband, Elvio, is a character who LOVES the camera and can be seen returning their cattle from grazing near the river late each morning. Whether walking barefoot or riding his bike, he always looks for me at my house and gives a big smile and friendly wave hello. At any event where he and my camera are both present, he’s happy to sit for a photo.

 

I’m grateful to have this warm family in my community and to call them my friends. They have worked hard to make me feel welcome in this tiny town and are part of what has made my service so satisfying here. Gracias a todos!

 

The family of Ña Ester y Don Alvio with grown kids home for the semana santa holiday, one of the most joyous weeks of the year for Paraguayan families.

The family of Ña Ester y Don Alvio with grown kids home for the semana santa holiday, one of the most joyous weeks of the year for Paraguayan families.

 

PS- If you haven’t yet voted in the Peace Corps’ Blog It Home contest – YOU HAVE ONLY UNTIL TOMORROW!! Click here and “LIKE” my photo to place your vote. Thank you for reading and voting!!!!

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

Loro Wants a Boda?

“You get from this life what you have the courage to ask for.” – Oprah Winfrey

June 20, 2014

 

During a recent visit to my host family, I was finishing dinner and talking affectionately to the cat when the pet parrot, Loro, yells “BUENO!” to me with a quantity of undue authority. In Paraguay when said like this, it is the equivalent of “shut up” or “enough!”, though it’s usually spoken by humans to animals, not the other way around. Then he whistled, lowered his voice, and gave me a most seductively drawled “Hola…” (English translation: How YOU doin’?) I expected a marriage proposal by breakfast. Polly may just want a cracker, but I think Loro wants a wedding!

Loro's favorite words: Hola (Hello), Ocho (8), Si (yes or if), Mama, Cuatro (4)

Loro’s favorite words: Hola (Hello), Bueno (enough or ok), Ocho (8), Si (yes or if), Mama, Cuatro (4)

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

Meet My Community – Ña Celia, Mother of 12

June 19, 2014

 

I first met Ña Celia in November 2012 during training on what was called “Future Site visit”, my brief, initial visit to meet the community a few weeks before I was to actually move here. The current volunteer introduced me to neighbors and the projects he had worked on and one afternoon we went to Ña Celia’s house for a rezo. It was the one-year anniversary of her husband’s death. That day I also learned she’d lost her home and everything she owned to a prairie fire just months before losing her husband. Despite these tragedies and me being a complete stranger, she welcomed me with outspread arms and a radiant smile as if she’d waited her whole life to meet me. With the top of her head coming to just my chin, I leaned down to exchange the traditional double-cheek greeting kiss and was offered a seat on the rustic bench made of a single plank between two tree stumps alongside other neighbors. After the service as we began taking our leave, she urged me back to visit once I moved and got settled in.

 

One day while waiting together at the bus stop I asked about her husband. They’d been married 35 years and she spoke so fondly of him. I asked if she missed him and she nodded with a wistful, longing smile. But when I asked if she planned to remarry, her eyes flew open with a mischievous twinkle and firmly answered with a chuckle, “Oh No! I loved my husband and we had a good relationship but I’m enjoying my freedom! Husbands are a lot of work!” I roared with laughter.

 

Like most Paraguayans this gentle woman in her mid-50s is light-hearted and friendly, seemingly unphased by anything. I guess after bearing 12 children (ages 14-39) and being blessed with 18 grandchildren you’ve seen it all and no longer sweat the small stuff. When I heard that her entire family was coming to visit for semana santa in April I made a plan for a group photo of her with all of her children. Printed photos are so rare here that I thought it would be a lovely surprise at the end of my service to give to her. I went to visit the Friday of semana santa, which is like a day of rest here. On this day, Paraguayans eat nothing but chipa, which would have been made on Wednesday or Thursday. I arrived to another warm, heart-felt greeting, and was introduced to all those present and available, which unfortunately was not the whole clan. When we finally settled down for a cool drink she began naming and describing all of her family: children, their spouses, grandchildren, in order of age. I commented how she had enough family to make her very own pueblo right here. “Pueblito!” she shrieked with laughter and tears stinging her eyes, nearly falling out of her chair from the hilarity of the idea. It’s now July and I continue to hear her tell the story of her pueblito. Here are some photos we managed of the day, her little house on the edge of the prairie, full of love and family.

 

Ña Celia with several of her 12 children and 18 grandchildren!

Ña Celia with several of her 12 children and 18 grandchildren!

Daughter showing off their pet parrot, known as Loro, which traveled on a motorcycle to join the family for semana santa.

Daughter showing off their pet parrot, known as Loro, which traveled on a motorcycle to join the family for semana santa.

Semana santa - Na Celia 010

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

A New Perspective

“Acknowledge someone’s gifts as if that person were your brother or sister, have compassion for their struggles, see them as connected to the same fabric as you instead of a separate entity that is somehow a threat.” – Padhia Avocado

June 28, 2014

I got the idea for this blog after reading an online story by Chelsea Fagan called “American habits that seem insane after you’ve lived abroad”: http://thoughtcatalog.com/chelsea-fagan/2014/06/6-american-habits-that-seem-insane-after-youve-lived-abroad/

After living in PY for nearly two years, I can relate to these sentiments and wanted to add a few of my own. For you North Americans who have never lived anywhere but the USA, consider that we have some opportunities here for personal growth. Of course I’m generalizing for both cultures and I realize not all of these are easy to cut and paste from one culture to another on their own but it’s worth giving them consideration and perhaps a try…

1. Acknowledging people when you walk by them.
It’s an instant feel-good. In PY, it is rare to walk past someone, whether a neighbor or complete stranger, and not have them greet you in some manner. As a reserved Maine Yankee, this took some getting used to but now I really love it. Paraguayans are often stone-faced when not engaged in conversation but the moment you smile at them or offer a greeting their faces light up. I made their day. They made mine. We’re good. It’s magical and gives you energy to throw into the rest of the day. Smiles are contagious no matter what language you speak.

 

2. Neighbors
How many of us really know our neighbors? Care about them? Or even speak to them? Of course in the US we proudly live very different, independent lives, ones where we do not necessarily NEED our neighbors to survive (except perhaps in the case of the Ice Storm of ’98 but that’s another story) but in this lack of needing and knowing we create isolation and often a sense of apathy to those around us. We’re so busy with our own important lives that we have no time to care for or share the successes and struggles of our fellow human beings. Can we do more to bring our community together, to celebrate our collective humanness, to start knowing each other?

 

3. Living life in balance.
Work, children, entertainment, volunteering, exercise, friends, extended family. We have this idea that the more we work, the busier our schedules, the ‘cooler’ we are. We call it ‘driven’ or ‘motivated’ or ‘achievement’. Other cultures just think we’re crazy because we’re too busy to actually enjoy our success and have no time for…family. Because here in PY, family is EVERYTHING. On Sundays, life of the workweek stops, the extended family congregates and spends the whole day together, simply enjoying each others’ company, sharing meals and their preparation, talking about the prior week’s tales, sharing plans for the upcoming week, celebrating successes, sharing the burdens, recalling stories from childhood or silly things that the Norte said.. And Paraguayans know the importance of resting and relaxing even on a work day. They start the day with a relaxing hot maté and the rest of the day is interspersed with regular occurrences of their famous terere (yerba mate) breaks, where sitting, sharing and talking in a circle of friends, family or co-workers are part of the tradition. They are not afraid to ask for help for the smallest to the biggest projects or tasks and easily accept it. We could give ourselves a break by doing a better job of this in the US, eh? Put your stubborn pride aside and let someone give you the gift of assistance. It makes the giver feel good and the receiver gets a hand. Win-win.

 

4. It is good to work for your food.
Meal prep is an important, and often time-consuming, part of each day. “Fast food” is an empanada. Otherwise, a senora will spend hours preparing lunch which will be savored at the table together with the family. Preparing a single meal usually means building a fire on the ground from scratch using firewood gathered days prior, plucking corn kernels from the cobs by hand, grinding kernels into corn meal with a hand-cranked grinder (this alone is a workout!), making cornmeal into corn bread in a cave-like oven- also fired by wood-  plus preparing a soup with vegetables and meat bones or a chicken which would have also been killed and dressed that morning in her spare time. The family would have worked months in the field to grow the corn and mandioca for the meal, sugar cane and different varieties of corn for the horse who pulls the wagon full of the harvested cane and brought home… and a flock of chickens and the cows which are milked by hand every morning. Thus, meal times are to be savored for each one is the fruit of months of labor.

 

5. Forgive and Forget
In my community, people quickly forgive and forget the transgressions of others, especially neighbors. In a community as small as this (35 families), they need each other for survival. Fighting and holding grudges would put them all at risk. You need my well when yours goes dry every summer, I need your help killing a cow to feed my family. So they’ve learned to pretend it never happened and I’ve done the same when offended by someone as well. It’s beautiful. We can all just relax and move forward and life is so much better. I’ve discovered tremendous beauty in this. Being on the receiving end of forgiveness is such a gift. Whether unknowingly displaying a cultural faux paz or use of an inappropriate word that I thought had a different meaning and then being filled with fear or guilt of offending my neighbors, I am greeted with a “Tranquiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiilo, Wendia!” that puts me at ease. They have no use for holding grudges, shaming or embarrassing the other party (making them “pay” so to speak), or making me feel awkward for my slip-ups (except that they LOVE to talk about them with each other in a lovingly joking way). The fact that they look past my mis-steps and shortcomings by lovingly poking fun at me makes me feel all the more supported and loved. And not just with me but with each other. They fight one afternoon and they’re laughing with each other a few days later. I’ve learned that this is something I want to bring home with me and make a regular practice in my life in the US; I’d love to see more of it and less of “it’ll teach her a lesson”. Can we do this together, please?

 

6. Taking care of family
I’m talking extended family. Chelsea points out in her article how North Americans are so eager to get away from family. In Latin America, extended families live together gladly, comfortably sharing small spaces and resources, a family of eight sipping from the same glass of water or sharing beds: from newborns to great grandparents they all care for each other without a complaint, passing on traditions and wisdom learned over the years. And when all the kids are grown, at least one family member stays at home to care for aging parents or a widowed mother, usually a younger son or married daughter. Unlike the US where there’s a stigma for young adults living at home, here it’s an honor to care for one’s elders. No woman, especially an older woman, would be left to live alone in PY’s campo.  This includes extended family too. Here in my community I have several examples: a younger male cousin caring for older female cousin, a 50-something nephew caring for an 83 year old aunt and her ‘adopted’ son of 33 years, two single men – one 26, the other 48 –  caring for their mothers and one single woman of 50 who lives alone but between two sisters with large families who act as her own children, growing food and helping her with chores.

 

7. The need for speed
North Americans are addicted to a fast-paced life. Some would argue there’s no alternative in this age of full family schedules, work demands, and a spectrum of irresistible recreational activities at one’s disposal. When you bring that hectic energy to a culture like Latin America it stresses out the locals! They don’t understand what the rush and urgency is. If I need to go to the despensa for eggs but the senora is eating lunch, it might take 30 minutes to be waited on while she finishes but she also is likely to offer me a plate of my own while I’m there. Or someone says they’ll be over “en seguida” which might be a couple of minutes, 4 hours, tomorrow or never. Tranquilo. Or your 10am bus doesn’t arrive for 45 minutes or 2 hours or at all– that’s normal so don’t get your knickers in a bunch (ok, perhaps there’s room for a middle-ground here). Or you go for a ‘quick visit’ to see a family until you realize…there is no such thing as a quick visit. Relationships are important. ENJOY the connection whilst there. If you have a specific mission in mind you must first socialize and only then get down to business. Anything less is rude. I think we would prosper a lot from practicing a little patience and building more breathing room into our lives.

 

8. Less is more
Paraguayans are among the poorest of the world, yet consistently rank among the happiest people in the world (see my News and History page for examples). They work hard, rest hard, love fiercely. They don’t stress over things out of their control and laugh about everything.

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We can learn a lot from Paraguayans.

 

More ‘stuff’ does not produce happiness. Quite the opposite, I would argue. Can we do better with what we already have (reuse/recycle?) Can we just stop with the excess? Can we stop robbing the world – and taking more than our share- of its resources for our frivolous and soon forgotten pleasures (and subsequent garbage heaps)? Can we stop raping the environment today to preserve it for a better tomorrow (do you really want to live and breathe in an environment the equivalent of a toilet in 40 years? Do you want that for your kids and grandkids?) Spend one week considering every purchase you make: Is it necessary for your happiness? Is there a better alternative? Could you live without it? Have you ever asked yourself what REALLY makes you happy over the long term? Is your ‘stuff’ a mask to cover a lack of fulfillment? Does that really work for you? Would foregoing a purchase and trying on forgiveness work just as well?

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What if we took better care of ourselves, each other, and the environment we live in? What if we got back to knowing our neighbors, dropping in on friends, lingering regularly over meals like our lives depended on it (um, yeah, cuz they do), laughing regularly, sharing hugs and I Love Yous freely, forgiving instead of begrudging (including ourselves!), offering love instead of envy, lifting others up instead of tromping them down. Wow. What a world that would be.

Stepping off my soapbox now. Let’s hear your thoughts.
 

 

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

This Is Peace Corps

“Showing up is worth it 100% of the time.” – Wendy Ward

June 25, 2014

 

One afternoon recently I sat on my patio shelling seeds with one of the local girls and reflecting on the events of the prior week, which I would have to classify as one of the best weeks of my two-year service thus far, the memories of which are due in large part to a particular favorite family with whom I’ve spent many days. It wasn’t part of my plan to spend part of nearly every day together; it just worked out that way. Slowly building from a self-invitation for morning maté which would then lead to staying for breakfast and sometimes lunch, I’ve somehow managed to spend the better part of the week there. Among the first days the señora mentioned that her biodigester was no longer working. We spent two days on it until it was functioning once more. These anaerobic biodigesters produce methane gas which is used to cook food, instead of the customary open fires on the ground that fill the room with smoke and cause a number of health and environmental problems.

On the last day of my visits for the week, I went over to buy cheese and also learned she sells milk so I brought home a liter of that too. A half kilo (1.1 lbs) of her cheese is the equivalent of US$2.25 and a liter (a bit more than 1 qt) of milk is $.60 (that’s not a typo, folks). In exchange, I brought her a baked stuffed pepper made the other day at the Women’s Club to reheat and try, as it’s a healthy, easy recipe using all locally available ingredients.

Women's Club - this day we made stuffed peppers and cut bottles into glasses and wine glasses using wire. These will be used in the women's homes instead of buying new glasses. See the bottles to the right with tape wrapped around, which acts as a guide for the wire. The wire is moved vigorously back and forth until it scores and heats the glass, then the bottle is plunged into ice water to break the score. Take sandpaper to the edge and Voila! you have a new drinking glass.

Women’s Club – this day we made stuffed peppers and cut bottles into glasses and wine glasses using wire. These will be used in the women’s homes instead of buying new glasses. See the bottles to the right with tape wrapped around, which acts as a guide for the wire. The wire is moved vigorously back and forth until it scores and heats the glass, then the bottle is plunged into ice water to break the score. Take sandpaper to the edge and Voila! you have a new drinking glass.

Her husband, daughter and I shelled dry corn while the senora made corn bread for lunch. We raced to see who could clean more corn cobs of their hard, dry kernels the fastest. The husband won despite me stealing his cleaned cobs, pretending they were mine for the count. hee hee. While there I also taught her and her two daughters to make roasted squash seeds. Unfortunately, we were so engrossed in our delicious lunch of spaghetti and beans with chipa quazu that we forgot about the seeds in the oven and burned them! Every day I have visited she has sent me home with bags of oranges and mandarins and pleas to take more. Giving away fruit during citrus season is the equivalent of giving away chipa during semana santa. Every household has more citrus than they can eat and will beg you to take as much as you can carry. Mandarines are the size of baseballs, grapefruits (called pommelos here) are so sweet you can make juice and drink it straight with no added sugar (I’ve never been able to eat a grapefruit in the US – too bitter!) Oranges are best made into juice because they are super JUICY! Actually, Paraguayans drink the juice straight from the orange by peeling the orange zest and a thin layer of pith, slicing off an end, gently squeezing the fruit with your hand and drinking from the sliced end. Today I declined another motherload of fruit but received a hunk of squash for soup I’d be making for dinner. Just because she felt like sharing.

While visiting this señora this week, we’ve had the most engaging conversations covering everything from kidney stones, ovarian cysts, menstruation (“Do women in North America menstruate?”), how our cemetaries and funeral proceedings are similar and different, why she leads the prayer for most of the local funerals (rezos) and if she gets paid for it (answer: no), and her asking me how flatulent I will be after eating the lunch of beans she prepared (this followed two days of working on the biodigester and many jokes about gas). This family has a great sense of humor.

I boiled my milk purchase (I’m all for raw, fresh and unpasteurized but due to lack of cattle vaccinations and common diseases here it has the potential to carry harmful pathogens so boiling is a necessity in PY) and made THE most delectable, homemade-from-scratch chocolate pudding I’ve ever eaten. Not bad for my first attempt.

It’s these kinds of days that make this the Peace Corps experience I dreamed of.

****Check out lots of new photos on my “Eye Candy” page!!!****

Fun  Facts: Did You Know?….

Most people are completely unaware of the existence of the Paraguayan Venomous Duck.  Belonging to the genus Dendrocygna, its full scientific name is Dendrocygna peligrosa.  Very few people have seen the Paraguayan Venomous Duck  in the wild, though it is well known to the indigenous peoples of the Paraguayan rainforest who use its venom to coat their arrowheads for hunting and warfare.

The venom of the Paraguayan Venomous Duck (PVD) is a neurotoxin which quickly causes its victim to lose control of its muscles, rendering it powerless to defend itself.  The PVD then swiftly devours its prey, which includes ducklings of other species, frogs, and, ironically, venomous snakes.

There is no known antivenin for the PVD.  It rarely attacks humans, only doing so when startled or threatened.  There have been accounts of humans surviving a bite by a PVD, but most victims die within hours.

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

Father’s Day

Be present and count your blessings. -WW

June 15, 2014

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there and a special note of thanks for my very own, very special Dad:

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Thank you for all these years of love, guidance, and being there through thick and thin. Thank you for being a model of integrity, generosity, kindness, gentleness, and accepting others as they are without judgement. Thank you for showing me that we need make no excuses for who we are. Thank you for teaching me that quietness is not weakness, but rather strength lying in wait. Thank you for making your family a priority. Thank you for offering a safe, nurturing home where respect, values and hard work were emphasized. Thank you for marrying Mom. Thank you for participating in our lives and our children’s lives and for creating beautiful, grounding memories along the way. Thank you for all you have been and are. You mean the world to me. Lots of love today and always. Wen 

 

Today is Father’s Day in both the US and Paraguay. I honored the husband of my host family with a large pan of chocolate brownies with which he was ecstatic and slightly possessive. This earned me a lunch invitation where we feasted on BBQd pork, sopa, and cabbage salad. Two of his older kids (seven total) made the long journey from Asuncion to join us. This family is always joking, laughing, smiling and loving each other and today I reveled and found comfort in that love, grateful to be included.

 

After lunch I made a visit to one of the poorest families in my community. I think for the first year, the kids were afraid of me but one day as they returned from the local despensa with flour and sugar and our paths crossed while I was out for a morning run, they joined me. Barefoot and hair askew they ran alongside me, occasionally racing me despite pounds of food in their arms. We laughed and giggled the whole way. It was our breakthrough and they’ve smiled, waved and said hello to me ever since. My heart smiles at the thought every time. And so I watch them as we slowly come to know each other and it is clear the family doesn’t have much. Though it is winter, I’ve seen these kids come to school without shoes or warm clothes. Their clothes appear to be handed down through many siblings. I have refrained from giving gifts or give-aways in my site for a variety of reasons but today I made an exception. I received some great toys and socks from friends in the US and decided this family would be the recipient of that generosity. The mother was delighted and the kids were initially apprehensive, afraid to believe luck might allow them to possibly keep these goodies. But then the smiles came. Big broad smudgey grins, twinkly eyes, giggles and squeals. The four-year old held a tiny doll in her grubby hands and stared, fascinated. I don’t think she’d ever had a doll before and didn’t even know how to play with it. I took it and showed her how to move the legs and arms to make her appear to dance and twirl. Her eyes lit up. Her whole face smiled. Her shoulders hugged her ears in a bashful display of excitement. She paraded back and forth past me every couple of minutes, looking me straight in the eye with her radiant face as if to say thank you, because she had no words. The older siblings aged 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15 (yes that mama is GUAPA) took turns trying out their toys in the privacy of the tiny, run-down house and then eventually running around the yard with them. Wow. Talk about feel-good, warm fuzzies! I wish I could see this happen every single day.  It’s not the kids’ fault they are poor but there are plenty of things I can do to lift them up and make those kids’ lives a little brighter, material goods aside. A kind smile and a bit of encouragement goes a looooooong way.

 

Finally, to end the day I went to a neighbor’s rezo. Immediately, a man in his 60s began asking if I knew him. Whoa – Of course! When I first moved to my community in December 2012 I joined my host family for a New Year’s Eve party at this house where he and I danced and laughed ridiculously for HOURS until the rain drove us under cover (We made our own version of Dancing with the Stars, or better yet, Dancing Under the Stars). And then in true Paraguayan fashion, everyone at today’s rezo began affectionately recounting the story of how he’d stole me from my younger dance partner after just one dance, and how we danced barefoot that night on the cool grass in the yard inside a seated circle of about 80 amused and enthusiastic family and friends, and then how we danced under the breezeway when the rain came and never sat down until the lightning brought that party to a halt. He’d worked hard to copy my style of ‘tango-accented-freestyle” while I’d done a terrible job mirroring his practiced Paraguayan dance moves. He promised to come back to dance with me again in November before I leave. I asked why he was waiting so long. Everyone had a good laugh and are looking forward to our finale.

On the way home, I paused in a secluded turn in the road and just stood still. I could hear my heart beat, the occasional snap of a branch breaking as a bird hopped through the canopy, the zippy buzz of a hummingbird behind me, the trickle of water making its way through the mud-laden ditch, the wind rustling the roadside leaves, the chirp of a cricket in the sugar cane field, the wooden knocking of tall bamboo against itself. I felt the hardness of the packed red soil under my feet, the weight of my empty backpack freed of its children’s treasures, the breeze lifting my hair, the smile creasing my eyes and the pressure of my heart swelling with joy and gratitude and love for the gifts of today. Some call it “stop and smell the roses.” I call it “be present and count your blessings.”

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Meet My Community – Celso Benitez, A Story of Humble Intelligence and Kindness

April 20, 2014

 

Celso

Celso picking oranges from backyard trees for his nieces’ afternoon snack. While still green, they are sweet! And thorny!

Celso is one of my favorite people in the community. An honest, super hard-working man he exudes respect and kindness. Despite having no more than a sixth grade education he is immensely intelligent and one of the more open-minded, progressive farmers with whom I work. I don’t visit Celso as often as I’d like since it’s socially taboo for single men and women to visit each other and guaranteed to generate gossip but I’d like to think at this point I’ve generated enough professionalism and credibility to override these taboos. However, when I do visit we always have a great time. While he speaks almost entirely guarani and I understand only a fraction of the words he uses, somehow I usually know what he means. It’s sorta magical that way, like “I can’t translate your words but I understand your point.” We can talk the whole afternoon like this and I’m completely transported to another world. He’s incredibly patient with my language and never shows impatience with my requests to repeat his sentences until I understand, as he is eager to help with my learning and knows it doesn’t happen in a day.

 

I was invited to his 52nd birthday party in early April, a party consisting of his dad and one male neighbor friend. It was an honor to be included. As opposed to how we generally do it in the U.S., in Paraguay, the birthday person puts on the party, does all the cooking, preparations, and clean up. Attendees simply come, eat and enjoy. So Celso made spaghetti with chicken, which he killed that morning and boy it was the best ‘tallarin con pollo’ I’ve ever had here. In my community, it is not common to share gifts but I brought supplies for him to make his own kombucha, since he had tried mine in the past and loved it.

 

Celso has seven siblings and a 15-year old daughter named Lucía who recently moved from the next town to Buenos Aires (BA) with her mother. I originally thought it was a vacation trip and on this day learned it’s a permanent move, breaking his heart as he doesn’t know when he’ll see her again. He is devastated with the idea of having his daughter so far away even though he knows it’s in her best interest. As is so common here in the campo, many of the young people move away to Asuncion or BA because there are no opportunities for work other than subsistence farming. He knows she is intelligent and will do well but he cannot join her. He will remain in this house where he has lived since birth. Though she did totally make his day by texting him a birthday message. He lives across from his cousin, Felicita, her grandson, and her sister Flora. Together, they share the work of living. The men work the fields, the women prepare and preserve food, and they all share the profits when crops are sold. This type of working together is common, and often essential, to survival in rural PY.

 

Celso driving the guei (ox and cart) laden with belongings from the latest visit of extended family - Easter week. This is the way they move quantities of materials here!

From far left: Celso, daughter, his dad, young cousin, older cousin (senora), her grandson, other cousin (sister of first senora)

 

Celso has a huge garden of his own, the extras from which he sells to small despensas (stores) in the next town. He has tried every new technique we volunteers have introduced to the community including a biodigester (which produces methane cooking fuel), regular and worm composting, using green manures to improve his soil and thus increase yields from his garden and crops, and will soon be the recipient of a solar food dryer to preserve fruit and vegetables in season. In the past he grew castor beans and sold them nearby until the buyer closed the market. Castor beans produce castor oil, which has a long list of uses worldwide including health and beauty care, industrial products, and is where the name for Castor Oil motor oil originated. Before my community received electricity in 1986, people used to burn the castor beans like lamp oil. Simply spear beans with a piece of wire and light with a match. I’ve been looking into how to make a small oil press to make use of this local resource and generate new income in the community but some of the by-products are highly toxic (as in this is where ricin originates!) So that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon but we’ll keep looking. The process needs to be sustainable to receive any type of consideration. If any of you readers have experience with this crop, its markets, or the oil pressing product I’d love to hear from you!

 

I was invited back for lunch on Holy Thursday this Easter week (called semana santa in PY) to join his family visiting from Asuncion and other parts of PY. It was so nice to be included as an extension of the family and practice my guarani all day! His sister-in-law prepared chipa, a Paraguayan tradition for semana santa and Celso fired up the tatakua, an outdoor cave-like oven used for cooking chipa and breads. However, the project was abandoned when a sudden thunderstorm arrived pouring buckets of water. I’d gotten a funny feeling that I should go about 10 minutes before the storm arrived but was assured I was better off to wait it out. After waiting 90 minutes with no end in sight, I headed home through torrential downpour, thunder and lightning, crossing a quarter-mile of pasture with water to my ankles, and wading through a road-turned-river for over a mile. At times I was up to my knees in water, other times I was a-slip-slidin’ through slippery mud. It was one of those times you can’t think about the situation, you just have to get through it. My mental commentary was something like this: where do all the tarantulas and snakes go when the rain floods their underground tunnels? Are they hiding in the same high ground clumps of grass I’m stepping on? Will I step on one only to have it catch a ride on my sandal or bite me? Wendy, don’t think about that til it happens. How much poop is in this mud anyway? And what else? Don’t go there…whatever it is will wash off. Will I get struck by lightning before I get home? Def not – the light poles are taller than you. This is going to make a great blog post…We need a title. I can’t believe I forgot to put out the rain buckets in my house…it’ll be raining inside too! Those 3 guys staring from the doorway must think I’m crazy but I’m scheduled to visit that family tomorrow and we’ll have a good laugh about it! Actually now that I’ve committed to being wet, this is kinda fun!) And of course, I laughed…a couple days later. The craziest adventures are always as worth it in the end as the warm fuzzy memories I make with the families.

Celso driving the guei (ox and cart) laden with belongings from the latest visit of extended family - Easter week. This is the way they move quantities of materials here!

Celso driving the guei (ox and cart) laden with belongings from the latest visit of extended family – Easter week. This is the way they move quantities of materials here!

 

 

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Meet My Community – The Espínola-Romero family, Angels by My Side

November 11, 2013

“What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.” – Albert Pike

Recently, I was invited to make chorizo with the Espínola-Romero family (in PY and perhaps much of Latin America the husband’s name is written first followed by the wife’s maiden name; many women keep their own family name but the kids will have both; it is important to acknowledge your family). Chorizo is a type of very popular sausage here in PY and can be bought commercially or made at home. Sadly, the family needed to slaughter one of their two breeding sows because they ran out of crops due to two consecutive years of summer drought and could no longer afford to feed them both. This adult pig was thin from lack of food and didn’t provide much meat so the family got only a few cuts to BBQ and a large kettle’s worth for sausage. Day 1 consisted of chopping the meat into very small pieces and adding garlic, lime juice and salt then cleaning the intestines. Day 2 had us filling the intestines with the mix from Day 1, tying off the ends and hanging to cure for a couple days outside. I will never look at an intestine or a sausage the same way again but it was fun and tasty.

The family's only son dressing a freshly killed pig.

The family’s only son dressing a freshly killed pig.

This family hosted me in their home during my first three months living in this community. Already bursting with four kids still at home it seemed to me such an imposition. But Tranquilo! They gave me my own room and the four sisters moved into a room partially shared by their parents, Victor (46) and Isabel (43). In the campo, it is extremely common for an entire family to share a bedroom. I have seen five or six beds in a room. Privacy and space is not needed or valued. The girls Irma (17), Irene (goes by Rocio, 14), Hilda (11), and Ingrid (6) shared two beds among them. The family was enormously generous and patient during my stay (and beyond), helping me with language, inviting me to meetings, helping me find my way with bus schedules, meeting the community, keeping me safe, teaching me to cook local foods, etc. Victor is the most educated person in the community with degrees in Education Administration and Ministry (most people in my community have no more than a 6th grade education). He is the town pastor, Director of our elementary school, well-respected community leader and my contact, my Go-To for most questions, developing work plans, or general help (Ex: **Where will I live? Where can I have a garden? The shower is dripping and I can’t fix it…Who do I call? I had a big misunderstanding with a teacher and I think I hurt her feelings…Can you help me explain to her? What time does the bus come on Sundays? Is this person safe to visit? Will you teach me to plant yerba? When is the next committee meeting and who do I talk with to see if I can give a workshop for them that day? Can you teach me to kill a chicken? Where do I buy paint/wire/glass/popcorn/laundry soap/get my mail/? Is there a carpenter nearby? Who sells cheese and milk in the community? I’m catching a wild hive of bees tomorrow…where do I put them???**…. You can see this is no easy job for him!!!). Quiet, tranquilo, wise and forever forgiving of my language and faux pas he is the number one reason I function at the level I do here. PS – He let me put my bees on his property, even though it sometimes meant they followed me back to the house after harvesting their honey and we had to close all the windows and doors to keep them out! Haha.

Isabel with five of her six daughters.

Isabel with five of her six daughters.

The couple has seven children (only one son) and the three oldest work in Asuncion and study auto repair, administration and physical therapy. I owe the kids of the family A LOT for, at times, they were able to understand my VERY BASIC language skills (6 weeks of guarani when I arrived– eeek) when no one else could and would then translate for me. This is also one of the reasons they frequently accompanied me on my early introductory visits to local families when I first arrived. At home, the oldest, Irma, is graduating high school in December and plans to study allergy medicine. She is sad to finish school and head into summer vacation, partly because her chores at home are far more laborious than her schoolwork. While all the family has a fantastic sense of humor, she really keeps it going and doesn’t take too much to heart. She is also her mother’s right hand, doing much of the household chores of cooking and laundry for six people, which take hours every day. She and her sister, Rocio, help with the care and butchering of animals and Rocio’s role is to clean the house and yard every day. When I asked Rocio where she wanted to live after high school, in the campo or move to the city, she just stared at me blankly as if this question had never occurred to her, nor did it seem to even warrant discussion. She noncommittally gave me an answer of “I dunno. I’ll probably live right here.” Paraguayans are known for living in the moment and there’s a lot to be said for that. But I also wanted to get her thinking about her future, perhaps doing something more with her intelligence and expanding her world view than settling for a (mediocre) high school education. Art and writing are her favorite subjects and with school coming to a close later this month, she’s facing 10 final exams. Her younger sister, Hilda, is a sweet, smart mousy little thing, efficient, helpful, and an occasional tutor for me. She also was a natural yogi when I taught on their front lawn.

Hilda practicing her best "Tree" pose on the soccer field beneath a stellar rainbow.

Hilda practicing her best “Tree” pose on the soccer field beneath a stellar rainbow.

She and her youngest sister, Ingrid, don’t have many responsibilities around the house yet, other than to be generally helpful. If their Dad or guests need terere on the patio, it’s the girls’ job to prepare it. Sometimes they help herd the animals to the house in late afternoon. Ingrid is perhaps the most competitive of all her siblings, never wanting to be left out or out done and as such she is incredibly gifted in her intelligence, cunning, and athletic ability. She knows how to wrap people around her little finger with the right expression and those huge, adorable brown eyes.

Future Site visit 11-20-12 045

See what I Mean?

Isabel is one of nine siblings, two of whom live next door. She visits her deceased parents at the cemetery early every Monday morning with her sisters and is the president of the agriculture committee. She oversees the household, spends every morning on domestic duties with her children as well as manages an enormous garden and several acres of crops for the family and animals. Mid-day she milks two cows and makes cheese on days when she has accumulated enough. An excellent mother, her children are among the best mannered in the entire town. She exacts a loving discipline that demands respect, immediate action to her requests (the proper response when your name is called is “Yes, Ma’am?”), NO WHINING, NO BACKTALK, NO dilly-dallying with chores, NO half-assed work. Her children emanate excellent manners, intelligence, humor, a willingness to be helpful at all times, and to lead. Yes, they are all leaders.

Isabel cutting up a pig for an asado (BBQ) to celebrate my arrival in the community.

Isabel cutting up a pig for an asado (BBQ) to celebrate my arrival in the community.

This humble, loving family has seen me through my best and worst. They’ve sacrificed space, time, patience and so much more to see me through. (It’s not easy inviting a stranger to your town and working with all their shortcomings!) They cultivated within me a vague sense of humor and tranquilo attitude toward the daily happenings in campo life. I owe them so much but most of all, my sanity and undying gratitude.

The family (back row, L to R):  Victor, Isabel, Rocio, Hilda, Irma. (front row L to R): an uncle, Ingrid, favorite aunt

The family (back row, L to R): Victor, Isabel, Rocio, Hilda, Irma. (front row L to R): an uncle, Ingrid, favorite aunt

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El Dia de Los Muertos

In Paraguay, November 2 was El Dia de Los Muertos or “Day of the Dead”, a day where families remember their deceased. Despite it’s name, it focuses on celebrating rather than mourning the lives of one’s ancestors and can be a bit of a party in some communities. Families hang out at the cemetery for hours or all day, handing out candy, lighting candles, saying prayers, laying fresh scarfs over the crosses at the headstone, telling jokes, laughing. In the days leading up to the event, grave sites were cleaned of trash and weeds, several tombs were freshened up with a new coat of paint. Even the outhouse looked spiffy (outhouse in a graveyard? yup- people spend a lot of time here). In my community, families visit their ancestors every Monday morning. Family is everything.

Size and location of a grave is an indicator of wealth. The wealthiest have large tombs above ground, often accommodating many bodies or entire families, while the poorest bury their dead in the earth with just a simple headstone to mark the grave.

While talking to families at the cemetery this day, I asked many questions about the tradition and also explained that there is no equivalent in the U.S.  Sure, we have Memorial Day for veterans but there is no day formally set aside to remember and pay tribute to our ancestors (one of the teenagers asked me if Halloween counted; um, no.) This has prompted me to consider adopting a new tradition for myself when I get back to the States to remember and honor my own ancestors regularly, whether through a visit to their graves or a ritual of some kind. Afterall, they have all contributed in myriad ways to this life I am currently living. The idea seems fitting and right, especially as this year’s Day of the Dead celebration fell on the one year anniversary of my grandmother’s passing, the last of my grandparents to leave this world.

Local cemetery during Dia de Lost Muertos (Day of the Dead) where families honor and celebrate their deceased.

Local cemetery during Dia de Lost Muertos (Day of the Dead) where families honor and celebrate their deceased.

Symbolism of remembering their dead, examples found in a tomb during Dia de Lost Muertos (Day of the Dead)

Symbolism of remembering their dead, examples found in a tomb during Dia de Lost Muertos (Day of the Dead)

Paraguayan cemetery. Here you can see the full range of graves, from the basic simple cross headstone marking the body in the ground, to the more extravagant tombs built to hold entire families.

Paraguayan cemetery. Here you can see the full range of graves, from the basic simple cross headstone marking the body in the ground (top right), to the more extravagant tombs built to hold partial or entire families (orange  and green building). Note the outhouse stage left.

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