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Life is busy and every week it seems harder to find the time to write (sound familiar?) I thought I’d start today’s post by sharing logistics of what’s about to happen in the coming weeks. Not as entertaining perhaps but I know many of you have had these questions….
The first 10 weeks in-country are strictly training (language, culture, safety, technical skills, etc) and during this time trainees live with host families (more on my awesome host family to follow). Week Ten, in a mere 2 weeks and after passing all exams, is when we officially Swear-In as Peace Corps Volunteers: Friday, December 7. That following Monday we travel to our new communities where we’ll live the next two years and do the work we came to do. (Over the weekend, I plan to explore Asuncion with friends.) For the next 3 months I’ll again live with a host family but thereafter, I can live on my own or continue living with a family. I plan to live alone.
A community must request a Peace Corps Volunteer (the PC doesn’t just randomly send us to villages in the middle of nowhere) and identify a Contact as part of that process who will help me integrate, meet people, answer my questions, and find my way. This past week, I received my assignment and spent a few days in the community where I will live for the next 2 years. I’m soooooo excited!
It is a wonderful, tiny village of 35 homes (~150 people) in central southern Paraguay, a 5 hour bus ride to Asuncion, far enough into the campo that it’s quiet but close enough to a large town called Caazapa (17km or ~11 miles) that has everything I need. The ‘village’ has one school, a despensa, and a church. All other means of survival are agriculture. It is an hour’s walk to the bus on a quiet, dirt road. Road signs do not exist in the campo and every fork in the road looks the same to me. Roads range from all dirt to a grassy-dirt path that looks more like a cow trail. I don’t know how the locals find their way around! The road into our village ends at a river about 4km down the way so the village is superbly peaceful, enjoys minimal traffic, and is fairly safe by Paraguayan standards. My Contact and host family is Profesora Victor and his wife, Isabel. Victor is a well-respected community leader, the school principal and town pastor. They are a friendly and welcoming family, with 7 amazing and respectful children, 5 of whom live at home, ages 6-15 or so. They live in a 4-room house and several of the kids had to share beds during my stay so I had a bed of my own. Paraguayan families are incredibly generous, even when it appears they don’t have much to give. As the guest, I am given my own bed, seated at the head of the table, given the first and largest plate of food, the best cut of meat, not allowed to help clean up, given a chair when others must stand or sit on the ground if chairs are lacking, etc. It’s hard not to feel guilty. But I loved the family and they invited me to stay with them through March, which I agreed. And Victor was incredibly helpful and proactive in introducing me to members of the community, inviting me to committee meetings, classes at school (grades pre-school to 6), his church service, a rezo, etc. While there, I picked out my future house for March: an adorable little one-room, thatched-roof place about ¼ mile away from Victor and Isabel. It has 2 huge mango trees in the back (a major selling point for me), a guava tree, beautiful veggie garden, good fence to keep out the animals and needs a few repairs but should be up and running in short order. I just need PC approval to deem it safe (in terms of isolation, personal safety at night, etc) and agree on the terms with the landlord. Safety is a priority for Peace Corps (and me!)
My goal during the week was to meet as many people in my community as possible and begin to get a feel for the area. Since my community speaks primarily guarani, I also got to practice a lot (or at least practice the look of non-understanding, which they quickly learned to recognize). They do speak some Spanish but nearly all of the real sharing happens in guarani. I already have a nickname: Wendía… because Wendy is hard for them to say but Wendía sounds like Buen Día (good day) and is much easier. Plus we all think it’s hilarious. So now I’m Wendía. Overall, the week went well. The site has had a volunteer for the past 2 years so I am his follow up. We were able to spend quality time reviewing his projects, discussing the community, and having him introduce me to various community members. I am fortunate to follow such a strong and productive volunteer who made a positive reputation for himself and Peace Corps. A great tee-up to begin my service!
Back at ‘home’ my current host family is truly fantastic and has treated me so well these past few weeks. Recently host mom bought me a mortero (like a mortar and pestle) for crushing my own herbs for terere. She also knows I love the watermelon here (always perfectly ripe and sweet) and ensures I have a constant supply. I think I have eaten my weight in watermelon since arriving in PY and am the envy of my groupies, many of whom never see a veggie or fruit, as much of the food here is meat and bread. When they learned that one of the things I miss most from home is good, dark chocolate (without wheat) – I have not been able to find decent chocolate here at all – they bought some for me in Asuncion! ‘Sweet’ – haha! My host sister makes gluten-free cookies for me using mandioca flour and, a new favorite, Arroz con Leche (rice pudding). Oh yeah, and there is a plentiful supply of ice cream at the bakery onsite (I had kiwi ice cream last week). If I don’t gain 15 pounds before I move in December it’ll be a miracle.
In my time here, I’ve only met two Paraguayans who have heard of a wheat-free diet. Most others 1) don’t think or realize they eat wheat at all or 2) once they understand how pervasive wheat is in the diet, they cannot comprehend how I survive without it…”what does she eat if she can’t eat ‘trigo’?” they ask. Few people in my new community wanted to host me because they didn’t know how to feed me. Fortunately, Isabel was courageous and quickly realized I’m not really extra work and has been quick to share her positive experience with others, which I appreciated. Admittedly, I’m already tired of my diet being the primary topic of conversation everywhere I go (because clearly I must be a freak of nature if I can’t eat wheat) but the community IS very interested in learning more about nutrition and the ladies want to lose weight (but don’t know how) so perhaps this is a sign and a springboard for the work I’m meant to do with them.
The vast majority of health problems in this country are diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, caused by the Paraguayan diet heavy in sweets, salt, and red meat. This week my host Mom told me that she was inspired by me, making the connection that perhaps my wheat-free and otherwise healthy diet is related to my small size, and once she realized I still eat a wide and interesting variety of foods, she was inspired to talk to her doctor about changing her own diet to help combat a series of health problems. Fortunately her doctor was very supportive and she is now eating wheat-free, sugar-free, less salt, minimal meat and feeling better already without feeling deprived! I feel honored to be her inspiration and, if I make no other impact while here, this one will be worth it. Also, my host sister and I have been walking in the evenings and she recently asked me to teach her some yoga. Yay! Many Paraguayans are overweight and make poor food choices, partly due to 1) unhealthy food often being less expensive for already-tight budgets, 2) availability of vegetables and fruits is very seasonal, 3) families, especially in the campo, don’t leave their communities much and therefore seldom travel to larger towns where fresh veggies and fruits are more available, and 4) roads are unpredictable and not always suitable for delivering delicate produce, often closing after a good rain. It is not uncommon to see families feeding soda to infants, as it is cheaper than formula. But I’m super psyched to begin this conversation with them, grow a better understanding of nutrition, and discuss options to help!
Two of my host nephews had their First Communion recently and to celebrate with them and their fellow students were over 250 people, standing-room-only, in the small church. While not Catholic, I went out of respect for my family and as a cultural experience, wondering what would transpire. I expected a solemn service but one look toward the altar assured me this would be an entertaining event. While the priest spoke, I noticed dogs wandering in and out of the church and a particular vertically-challenged Dachsund occupying the center aisle. As he trotted away from me toward the altar I almost burst out laughing watching his knock-knees and turned out feet paddling along as his belly bulged in one direction and his fanny swayed the other. He even got in line with his master for communion! The entertainment value of this dog was priceless for me. To the locals, it was just another day in church. Best Communion ever.
Thanksgiving is my all-time favorite holiday though this one was bittersweet. My group of trainees was invited to the Ambassador’s house in Asuncion for a traditional Thanksgiving meal (how cool is THAT?!), fun in the pool (oh wow- I got to SWIM! First time since September and it was heavenly. Heavenly! Luxurious, delicious, magical. I love the water but we’ll talk about that another time.) And while I very much loved spending the day at the Embassy I really missed my family more than anytime since arriving in PY. Fortunately, we got to call home and it was such a treat to talk with everyone. Overall great day of 102 degrees, good fun, good food, good company.
Now, time for my typical random facts and observations:
How does one eat a watermelon (sandia in Spanish) in Paraguay? Grab the whole family or as many friends as you have nearby, distribute spoons to everyone, cut melon in half lengthwise, politely fight for your piece as you scoop fruit with spoon. Eat with spoon or fingers and spit seeds to the chickens if desired. Repeat until satisfied or watermelon is devoured. It’s great fun. You are a freak if you cube it, otherwise cut it neatly, or eat with a fork (I speak from experience here).
As we head into summer, the television alerts begin for dengue fever, a sickness caused by a particular mosquito. Fortunately, it’s most prevalent in the city so it’s unlikely I will need to worry too much but I still have my mosquito net handy nevertheless. The first time one gets dengue it’s more akin to the flu but can be extremely serious and often deadly if contracted more than once. This has never happened to a PC volunteer in Paraguay. I mention it because hearing things like this is so different from what we have to consider in Maine (Nor’Easters, hurricanes, Lyme disease, but a dengue alert? Never)
I saw my first pink pineapple this week. Yup. Pink on the outside anyway. It was still growing so I don’t know about the inside but am totally curious. There are several people in my new village who grow pineapples and it might be fun to experiment with pink ones. Pink. Who knew?
While visiting my site this week, I also attended an agriculture extension day where workshops were given on sustainable farming methods with examples for dry beans/abono verdes/green manures and sugar cane plus an interesting discussion on soils and nutrition. It was another “scorchah” of 102 degrees and the nutrition talk was thankfully given under the shade of an ancient mango tree. Not only does this tree provide fantastic fruit, but it’s shade is so dense it lowers the ambient temperature 15-20 degrees. Tolerable on this day. It has already become my favorite place to be (except when an early mango falls rudely on your plate and nearly feeds your lunch to the scavenging chickens but it’s all good!)
One of the beauties of having a brick floor throughout your house is that they are easy to clean. Forget mops and brooms; you can simply hose it down. That’s right. I saw it firsthand with our housekeeper this week! Drag the hose from the barn into the house and spray away. It’s all about simplicity. I’m beginning to see the benefits of some of these practices though I also forget that these folks have cement walls, no basements and no mold issues.
The currency in Paraguay is called guaranies (gwa-rah-NEE-ace) and the coins come in 50, 100, and 500 gs or 1 mil (= 1000), plus bills of 2, 5 10, 20 50, and 100 mil. With the exchange rate at approximately 4.500, the bus ride from my house to the training center is 2.3 mil which is about 50 cents.
A Paraguayan teacher earns the equivalent of $500/month, which is considered pretty good income here.
Other than the national police, my fellow aspirantes and our medical staff, everyone here wears flip flops…..on motorcycles, plowing with oxen…no matter. Tranquilo.
During a recent trip to the closest ‘despensa’ (mini mart) I purchased some soap. On the tiny checkout counter, our cashier had just dished out his lunch of a soup-like meal with chunks of beef and some sopa paraguaya (cornbread). He left his meal on the counter while he waited on us. There are no cash registers here except the larger supermercados. Everyone uses calculators to determine your purchase total and even then you want to double check. There is no tax. This culture continues to impress me and impress UPON me how much we have to learn from them. Mi amigo and I were fortunate to have a despensa open, as most businesses on the street were closed for siesta (annoying when you want to shop but otherwise perhaps my favorite part of Latin America! haha) We passed a construction worker taking his siesta on a brick wall next to the sidewalk while his teammates forged ahead on his behalf. I totally love this.
When meeting a Paraguayan for the first time, it is customary for them to ask: how old you are, if you are married or have a ‘novio’ and if not, why?, how old your kids are, comment on your age when your children were born (young in my case which can sometimes be a personal sore spot and I have to filter my reactions carefully), how much money you make, how much a certain item of yours cost to purchase, comment on your weight (you are fat [gorda], you are skinny [flaco]), etc. … all the things considered politically incorrect/rude back home. This takes some getting used to!
One of the most popular sayings in PY is “en seguida” (ayn-se-GEE-da) which means: in a couple minutes, in a couple hours, in a week or two, next year, or never. If someone gives you an ‘en seguida’ don’t hold your breath! When will you get my next post? En seguida!
Until then, live out loud and make every moment count.