Posts Tagged With: language

Things I Never Thought I’d Do (but do in Paraguay)

“Be ready at all times to venture into the unknown.” –  Ron Rubin and Stuart Avery Gold

And venture I have. In keeping an open mind to as many experiences as possible during my service, here’s a few things I never thought I’d do but do in Paraguay:

Language – Stateside, I’d always prided myself on my ability to communicate well and to understand others. Upon learning I was joining the Peace Corps, I heard lots of stories and warnings from people who, while traveling abroad, had inadvertently agreed to something they didn’t realize or mean to because they didn’t want to admit to the speaker that they didn’t understand. I always thought that was ridiculous and vowed I would never fall victim to that. Promise broken. More times than I can count. Here, I think I’ve agreed to a whole lot of which I have no idea. Sometimes I think I understand and, turns out, I don’t. Other times, I ask the person to repeat the question and, after the 3rd or 4th time and I still don’t understand, I just pretend I do to put us both out of our misery. Sometimes I fake it well, sometimes they see right through my wall of pride with a “Nontendei” (she doesn’t understand).

TMI (too much information) – What’s that? No such thing among volunteers. For someone who used to be very private, I’ve come a long way in the ‘sharing’ department. Whether by blog, phone, text or in person if you’re surprised to suddenly learn the status of my GI tract or the diaper rash I have from sitting in sweaty clothes on the bus for 6 hours in 104 degrees, you don’t know me very well. And don’t look so shocked when I ask about yours either.

Food – eating the same wonderful thing for breakfast nearly every day. Usually I like to mix it up and have a broad variety. Mandio chyryry rocks!

Iffy food – It’s less about ‘is it iffy?’ than ‘how iffy is it?’ I take more chances when it’s from my own kitchen than when I’m buying from others, especially those street vendors

New foods
*Pommelos – Never could stomach a grapefruit in the states but here I can’t get enough of them during citrus season – so sweet!
*Head cheese – actually pretty good if you ignore all the fat and cartilage that’s included.
*Rolled, boiled pig skin – the flavor isn’t bad what with all the onions and garlic but you might break a tooth trying to eat it. I bent the knife. Try biting a football and you’ll know what I mean
*Cow feet – Excellent with beans
*Blood sausage – Tried it but actually won’t eat that one.
*Cow stomach – also known as mondongo. Nope. Nope.
*Handmade pork sausage – Yup, that was a trip but chorizo casero rules. I even helped make it.

Hygiene – Consolidating trips to the toilet and rewearing clothes for a week in winter because 1) it’s impossible to dry laundry in winter and 2) it’s too cold to expose skin, changing clothes three times a day in the summer, not bathing for days in winter or showering three times a day in summer, foregoing a mirror, making a pointed effort to wash feet everyday because they get DIRTY!, collecting my own urine as a nitrogen source for the garden, comparing bathing notes with friends and actually congratulating them on days they bathed, high-fiving friends for a successful bowel movement after days of constipation, talking among friends about said movements in the airport cafe as casually as if it was the weather.  Bathing and BM convos could sometimes be the highlight of a friend’s day. A real accomplishment. I’m serious.

Loneliness – I don’t get lonely in the states but I get lonely here. And then I talk … a lot. And it might be to ask about your latest BM.

Sounds – I can differentiate between pig squeals meaning 1) being hungry, 2) fighting over food with a pen-mate, 3) fighting in general, 4) getting one’s nose pierced to prevent rooting, 5) being surprised/scared by an animal bigger than it (curious cow), 6) being killed for dinner.

Unannounced Visits – No need to call ahead. Here you just show up at the gate! Someone is always home and guaranteed to welcome you. They love visitors and I love this custom and local hospitality.

Handwashing clothes – I always hated this in the states but here, though it takes a little planning to coordinate weather patterns and laundry schedules, I find it very relaxing and meditative. And it tones the arms nicely.

Transportation – Not allowed to ride motorcycles (the main form of transportation here in the campo) or drive cars, we rely on the bus to get everywhere. While my bus line is less than ideal, I’ve learned to enjoy the time for reading or napping instead of having to drive! We do not have public buses in my hometown USA.

Snakes, spiders, and insects in general – No. Big. Deal anymore (says she who keeps her mosquito net tucked in tightly 24/7!) Wendy the Viper Slayer prevails. Smush bugs barehanded? Yup. Unknowingly step on spiders barefoot and find wiggly legs still moving later? Weekly, sometimes daily.

Manners and Custom Confusion– I didn’t mean to slip on this one but when in Rome…. Apologies in advance to family and friends if I bring home a few of the following without realizing it (please call me on it if you catch me!): Burping out loud. Wiping hands on the tablecloth or common towel in the center of the table. Borrowing your cup at the table, maybe silverware too. Offering you a bite of my food without getting that look of “But it has your germs on it!” Eating meat with fingers. Saying “You!” to get someone’s attention. Asking very personal questions like your age, weight, how much you paid for something. Staring at something I find interesting. Showing up at your house uninvited and unannounced (see above) and expecting you to stop what you’re doing and visit with me.

Texting friends at 1am because they can’t sleep either.

Reading novel after novel because I’ve had the time to rediscover my love for reading; winter nights are long, dark, and cold; and summer heat requires a siesta, perfect for reading in the hammock.

Burn trash – Don’t hate. I used to be a serial recycler/composter/let’s be light on the earth do-gooder. The lack of trash management here offers 2.5 options: burning, burying or disposal by wind (for plastic bags). I compost what I can, burn my paper and sneak the plastics to the pueblo for incineration. Composting is the only thing I can feel good about.

Swear – I’m not usually a fan of the Swear Words but after catching neighbors’ cows eat my freshly washed laundry right off my porch because they were thirsty, yeah, I let a few expletives fly. Or the day the piglets uprooted the garden because someone didn’t close the gate well. That too.

Lie – That’s right. This is so not me and I use it sparingly here, but it developed as a survival mechanism when Paraguayan men would ask if I’m single. For a long time, my answer was the honest ‘yes’ which always lead to follow up questions and the occasional marriage proposal. Eventually I smartened up and began making up fantastic stories of non-existent husbands with names, lives and careers of whatever popped into my head first. Sometimes these spouses were American, sometimes Paraguayan. I began to relish the thrill of creating a story on the fly and adding new details based solely on the way my counterparts were responding to my answers. This became exquisite fun and reduced the awkwardness and probability of those ‘singledom’ questions and curious probing.

Bee stings – Pre-Paraguay Wendy sought to avoid a bee sting at all costs. Now on beekeeping days, if I get stung only 5 times I consider it a good day. They don’t call these killer bees for nothing! My last honey harvest earned me 40 stings at a whack and I didn’t bat an eye. I couldn’t walk for two days and my neighbors were horrified but with my new perspective, 40 stings were well worth the best honey I’ve ever had.

Well, that’s all I can think of for now. I wonder if someday I’ll have a list titled “Things I Never Thought I’d Do (But Do in the USA)?”

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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)

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Best of Today

Better to have a life filled with “oh wells” than one filled with “what ifs.”

June 21, 2014

 

Best of today: not this morning’s 5-gallon pail of newly harvested seeds, not the shower I spent 4 days longing for, not the passion-fruit-flour pancakes I created and smothered in honey from my own bees…

 

It was when the 7-year old next door came to visit, just because, and laughed out loud at my pronunciation of a particular Spanish word, forcing me to say it 5 times before nodding her approval, all the while helping me shell my new seed pods without being asked.

 

This was a humorous reminder of our last interaction over the weekend when I had to buy some TP at the despensa, which came with a line of questioning and a forced admission that, yes, I had a serious case of the chivivi. She tried SO HARD to stifle a smirk and offer a polite, serious, faux-sympathetic face, but I could see her eyes just glimmering with all those suppressed giggles. I’m quite sure as soon as I left she updated the whole family on my condition and by the next day the entire community would know of my ‘situation.’ “Oh well,” I thought. “What’s a little diarrhea between friends?” But 6:30 the next morning one of my favorite señoras called to say she was worried about me, made sure I had medicine, and told me that she loved me. That was better than any medicine. It was the hug I needed. Even with GI upset, my life in PY is pretty darn awesome.

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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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Why Curious George is My Hero and Other Short Stories

“The simple life is one in which there is always time to remember the divine purpose behind each of our tasks, time to listen for a possible divine amendment to the day’s schedule, and time to be thankful for the divine presence at each moment of the day.” – Lloyd Lee Wilson

 April 12, 2014

Because this blog is as much a diary for me as it is entertainment and cultural exchange for you, I’m including some short, random, unrelated stories here that I don’t want to forget.

 

Curious George book from my local Paraguayan elementary school  ("Jorge el Curioso" in Spanish)

Curious George book from my local Paraguayan elementary school (“Jorge el Curioso” in Spanish)

Curious George is my hero. Especially today. Known in Spanish as Jorge el Curioso, I have fond memories of my brother devouring every Curious George book available. He even had a stuffed monkey with a plastic mouth to whom I used to try to feed bananas and Cheerios. Last year while living with my host family I was delighted to find Jorge el Curioso in the local school library and brought it home to practice my Spanish. While preparing for today’s Kids’ Club I thought it would be fun to read this book to them. Reading is not popular in PY and I have never seen or heard children being read to by their parents in the 19 months I’ve been here. When I suggested the idea to the kids, they eagerly agreed as if I’d just offered them an entire cookie jar. As we sat on the floor together I was aware of them inching closer, even the teenagers, completely enveloped in the story like a group of kindergarteners. Some of them quietly read along with me and helped when I stumbled over a complicated Spanish word. Occasionally, I would pause and ask if they were enjoying it. “Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!!” they replied, brimming with enthusiasm and smiles. We kept going. As a mother who read to her child every night for years, it made me sad to think this might be the very first time an adult has ever read a book to these children (ages 7-15), but I hope it sparked a desire to do it on their own in their homes as well, just for fun. Either way, it was a huge hit and we’ll definitely be doing it again!!!! Plus, check out the animal crafts we made from toilet paper rolls. Tigers, owls, cats and a pirhana, oh my!

Crafts -toilet roll animals 003

 

What’s with Ws? Because the Spanish language generally doesn’t use the letter ‘w’ except in names (like Wendy) and rarely do words end with the letter ‘d’ (like ‘ward’), Paraguayans have a difficult time saying and spelling my name. Here are some actual examples I’ve seen or heard during my service: Buendi, Guendi, Wendía, Wendy Wart. The kids love to call me Wendía and it’s always accompanied by giggles because it sounds like ‘Buen dia’ which is an abbreviated version of ‘Buenos Dias’ or ‘good morning.’

 

Still laughing as I write this. Back in March during our vacation in Argentina my friends and I returned to the hostel from grocery shopping (where we almost got robbed) and they asked me for a lesson in cooking meat because some had been vegetarians or never had much experience cooking meat before now. In the hostel’s spacious kitchen, I donned my best Julia Child’s accent and proceeded to flail and instruct with an overdose of enthusiasm. They responded in kind, including some occasional, accidental words in a Spanish or Guarani, until we laughed so hard it felt like we’d just finished a Jillian Michael’s workout, and our accents somehow morphed from French to Irish to Southern to unidentifiable. Later we took our wine poolside (we did our own fun ‘wine tastings’ at the hostel with two new wines every night) and shared our answers to my infamous “100 questions”, designed to get to know others at a deeper level. The 100 questions accompany us on every vacation or extended outing. Since it takes time for four people to answer each question thoughtfully, sometimes with curious or loving inquiry from supportive girlfriends, there’s a question of whether or not we’ll actually finish them all before our service ends in December! Super fun night bonding and making good memories with friends.

 

My morning runs usually take me east directly into the sunrise, a great incentive to start the day early. This morning the sky was 360 degrees beautiful so I ran west for a different perspective. Down the sole road onto the prairie I witnessed a breathtaking sky kissed with pastels of pink, blue and mint green, a thin fog floating over the vast grassland and hugging the base of the forested hills, and the golden spray of the day’s new sun yawning its warming light up and over the treeline. The goal was a morning run for my health. The outcome was sheer bliss for the soul.

 

misc 019

Enjoy your day!

 

 

 

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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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Meet My Community – The Benitez-Esquivel Family

October 29, 2013

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain

Writing is a funny thing. Some days my stories tumble out of me and spill onto my keyboard effortlessly, as if pre-made. Other times, I struggle to make a story interesting and have the ideas flow from one to another. This month I have struggled. But from that came a new idea I’m going to try: starting today some of my blog posts will feature a new family from my community so you can have a more intimate glimpse of Paraguayan life and the individuals with whom I interact regularly. Leave me a comment how you like the new feature or if there are other aspects of family life you’d like to hear about. Here we go…

The Benitez-Esquivel Family

As a Peace Corps volunteer working in agriculture, I am expected to have a ‘demo plot’, a small tract of land to experiment with crops and green manures (called Abonos Verdes in Spanish) and by which to showcase alternative growing and fertilizing techniques for Paraguayans. Green manures are plants that enrich the soil and sometimes also have secondary benefits like producing food for humans or animals, providing seed for sale, being good for bees, etc. My plot of land is owned by Luciano Benitez (56) and Eligia Esquivel (‘Ellie’, 38; note – it is very common for older men to marry much younger women) and is surrounded by their own field (about 10 hectares or 25 acres), which they work daily. Like most in my community, they are subsistence farmers, meaning they exist primarily by growing most of their own food and do not have regular ‘jobs’ or income. Any income they generate may come from the occasional sale of firewood, cheese, or excess mandioca if they have it. This family is poor but fairly progressive in their interest to try new things. Their livelihood depends on the weather, hard work, and their expertise in knowing their land and crops.

I frequently see one or both of them while working my own land and sometimes they are accompanied by some of their children: Vicente (16), Lucia (11), or Luz Maria (6). In the summer, Luciano often arrives at the field at 5am and works until 10am before the heat of the day. His wife wakes about 5am to prepare and enjoy her mate then brings a breakfast of deep fried tortillas and mandioca at 8am. Sometimes she stays and works with him for a time, other times she returns home to start preparing lunch. Every other morning she also charges her biodigester with a bucket of fresh cow manure and water. A biodigester is a long plastic tube about two feet in diameter that sits in a hollow in the ground and decomposes organic matter (in PY this is usually cow or pig manure). The methane gas produced by the biodigester provides several hours of free fuel for some of her cooking needs. Both husband and wife are incredibly guapo (normally guapo means handsome in Spanish but in PY it means ‘hardworking’) and generous beyond measure. Luciano is respectful, patient in answering my questions and interested in teaching me what he knows. Ellie and I frequently exchange recipes and are brainstorming project ideas for the Women’s Club I hope to start soon. After lunch and a mid-day siesta to avoid the heat of the day, he will return to the field for most of the afternoon. Many times they bring the horse and cart when harvesting larger amounts of sugar cane, mandioca or corn.

Vicente, 16,  returning to the farm with the horse and cart full of mandioca and sugar cane.

Vicente, 16, returning to the farm with the horse and cart full of mandioca and sugar cane.

Ellie is also an avid terere drinker, stopping to refresh with this popular Paraguayan tea (also used for medicinal purposes with the right herbs) several times throughout the day. In late afternoon, Ellie goes to their other field (also known as a kokue) to harvest sugar cane to feed the cows at night. She brought me with her the other day for my first-ever sugar cane harvesting experience. I was inappropriately dressed for mosquito and snake habitat in a skirt and flip flops, thinking we were just going to visit on her patio. This can be back-breaking work as each stalk of cane must be cut with a machete, then tied and put in a wheelbarrow and carted 1/4 mile back home; some of the canes are 12′ tall! However, back at the house she taught me to make ‘mosto’, a sugar-water-juice made from crushing sugar cane in a grinder. At the end of my visit she sent me packing with an armload of peaches, eggs, and a bottle of mosto.

Bottle of mosto, a sugar-water drink made from crushed sugar cane. VERY sweet!

Bottle of mosto, a sugar-water drink made from crushed sugar cane. VERY sweet!

Luciano and Ellie were married and moved to our town in 1996 where Luciano’s family has lived since the town originally formed in the mid-1800s. She is one of nine children (with two sets of twins, including herself). He is one of six. His sisters live next door and his mom and youngest brother are across the street (note- it is customary and honorable for at least one grown child to live at home and take care of the mother; often it’s an unmarried son but sometimes a married daughter and her husband will be the caregivers; a man is needed to grow crops for food and animals). Two years later they built their own place and started a family. When not in high school in the next pueblo, Vicente helps his father in the fields or with the animals. Both girls attend primary school here in my compania during the afternoon session (school here consists only of half-days, either 7-11am or 1-5pm).

The family recently invited me to lunch for Lucia’s 11th birthday and asked me to come early so I could learn how to make tallarine con pollo (spaghetti with chicken). I arrived around 9am with a container of my mandio chyryry for them to try and a pile of carrots for the spaghetti sauce. Ellie had just killed two chickens for the occasion and cut them up while I prepared vegetables.

Eligia cutting up fresh chicken for her daughter's birthday lunch

Eligia cutting up fresh chicken for her daughter’s birthday lunch

These were cooked over an open fire on the ground in the ‘kitchen’, which is just a wooden shed. She also made delicious sopa paraguaya (like cornbread) in her new electric oven located in the bedroom. And, yes, all of this took over four hours. Birthdays are not a grand celebration here unless it is a girl’s quincinera, or 15th birthday…then it’s like a wedding. This day, there was no cake and only one gift brought by two visiting relatives. This is normal. All through the morning I observed piglets running between the patio and backyard, a day-old foal sticking close to its mother’s side, kids sulking when asked to help, birds flitting amongst the fruit trees beside the house, chickens greedily scooping up scraps of vegetables during lunch preparations and dogs dutily watching for anyone or anything that didn’t belong. When Ellie was busy working the fire in the shed, the youngest pulled out her guarani schoolbook and read to me (this was excellent practice for me too!) While this family speaks primarily guarani (and super fast!), they do understand Spanish and will sometimes use a Spanish word to explain for me when I don’t understand. Each time I visit, I can see my language improve and, in turn, the family becomes more comfortable in my presence (you can’t imagine the awkwardness that happens when you try and fail repeatedly to have conversation and can’t understand each other). Luciano keeps it light by ALWAYS asking for an update on my relationship status and, because the answer is always ‘no, I do not have a boyfriend’, he questions why and pleads for me to get myself a man. While many Paraguayans don’t understand how a woman can be happy without a man in her life, since deciding to ‘go with’ the joking instead of being defensive or avoiding the topic, it makes for good conversation and lots of joking around. I’m grateful for this family and their willingness to share their land, their lives and their sense of humor with me.

Benitez-Esquivel family (L to R): Carlos (farm hand), Luciano, Louisa (Luciano's sister), Wendia (guests are always seated at the head of the table), Clara (niece), Luz Maria, Lucia- birthday girl, and Eligia (she looks unhappy but really wasn't; in fact she looks like this in her wedding photos too, which we had a good laugh over)

Benitez-Esquivel family (L to R): Carlos (farm hand), Luciano, Louisa (Luciano’s sister), Wendia (guests are always seated at the head of the table), Clara (niece), Luz Maria, Lucia- birthday girl, and Eligia (she looks unhappy but really wasn’t; in fact she looks like this in her wedding photos too, which we had a good laugh over)

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

Life is a Cascade of Moments

October 10, 2013

The Wing

I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear of falling
Or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
To allow my living
To open me,
To make me less afraid,
More accessible,
To loosen my heart
Until it becomes a wing…
choose to risk
My significance,
To live
So that which
Comes to me as seed
Goes on to the next
As blossom,
And that which
Comes to me as blossom,
Goes on a fruit.

— Dawna Markova (resharing from my friend Anne Davis Klaus)

This is a collection of random reflections on life as a PCV in Paraguay after one year and with one more to go. I know in the years to come I will forget many of the details that make my experience truly incredible so here is a drop in the bucket of the things that make up this adventure-filled journey of a lifetime and fill me with gratitude for this opportunity every single day:

What it takes to welcome a stranger. How good it feels to be welcomed by strangers. The perfumed air of blooming flowers on jasmine and fruit trees. The hum of bees in those trees. The sound of baby goats bleating for Mum (and subsequently eating my rose bushes). The aroma of cow manure and burning trash. The sight and sound of kids playing happily -very happily- skipping, laughing, commanding each other’s actions. Large families where infants, many siblings, parents, aunts, grandfathers all share a roof and who wouldn’t dream of sending grandma to a home (even if they existed) and where a son or daughter will live forever at home to take care of their mother. Prairie fires. The huge, sapphire blue, cloudless sky. The screech of tero-tero birds. The knocking of woodpeckers (campo flickers) on the window in the next classroom or sparrows pecking at my own window. The way the sun splashes down my patio in the morning. The way the cows all migrate to the village soccer field in the afternoon. The way a señora invites me to lunch of cow stomach like it’s the most gourmet meal I could have. Drying my hair in the afternoon sun on my porch during language study. The rustle of my prayer flags in the breeze. The frustration of cows or chickens raiding my porch and eating harvest of mandioca, new seedlings, or drying seed pods.  The rooster that crows outside my door at 6am every morning. Hot chipa or sopa right out of the tatakua. Hospitality. Ducks bathing in puddles and ditches. The sight of vast prairie. The wind before a rain storm. Tiny frogs that hang out under the toilet rim. Those diamond-shaped snail things that crawl up the walls. Mean dogs. Mean cows. The sweetness of baby animals nursing. Public breastfeeding.

Flip flops – the footwear of choice. My 30-day exercise challenges. Time to think. Time to read. Time to indulge The Planner within. Time to foster my creative side. Skyping with family. Gifts from family and friends. Red soil. Red dust. Droughts followed by new running water system and hot showers. Trying new local recipes. Amazing tropical fruit: grapefruits, mandarins, mangoes, passionfruits, guava, papaya, kumquats, pears. Fire ants. La cigarra insects that sound like fax machines. The buzz of hummingbird wings in the lime tree just outside my window. Hot summers. Ceiling fans. How everyone invites you to ‘sit down’ as soon as you arrive. Coordinating non-winter trips to town with quick-dry clothing knowing each 3 mile journey between my house and the bus in blazing temps and no shade will generate clothes soaked in sweat. Generosity of my community. People’s (im)patience with my language. Steady doses of humiliating myself. Regular opportunities to question myself and my abilities. Joy in seeing my small accomplishments. Washing laundry by hand and planning laundry around the weather. Being unphased at seeing pigs or chickens mating on the soccer field. Rainy days that give me a guilt-free, stay-inside day. Tarantulas. Beekeeping. The one bee that came to visit every day and would sip honey from my finger. The satisfaction of having bottles of honey from my own bees.

Winters – with cold that insisted on hot water  bottles to pre-warm the bed and prevented me from bathing for days on end. The hilarity of watching cute piglets or baby goats run. Identifying fears I never knew existed in me and seeing them fade or fall through this PC experience and the personal growth and strength that has come from it. Learning two languages and, as a rite of passage, making an ass of myself. Being the Queen of faux pas. Occasional gunshots in the distance (especially New Year’s Eve!). Never forget dancing in the circle New Year’s Eve. The night sky, Milky Way, southern hemisphere constellations. Bamboo fences. Barbed wire fences. Creative gate solutions. Homes of cement, wood or coco trees. Cooking over open fires. No trash management. Paraguayans’ creativity when they need it as well as inhibiting customs (you can’t have terere and watermelon together unless you want to blow up; you can’t have both cheese and beef in your mandio chyryry-must be one or the other). Frogs crying in ditches. Dengue fever. Mosquito nets. Stingless bees. Glassless windows with shutters or security bars (rejas). Life on the patio. Terere and mate. Strange insect invasions. Black ants in the house by the thousands. Ox carts and oxen (gueis). Asado bbq. The sound of animals being butchered. Killing and dressing my first chicken. Learning to make chorizo. Chickens in the kitchen. Pigs in the kitchen.

The amazing ability of a bus driver’s assistant to remember who has paid, who owes fare, and who gets off in which town. Signs of Catholicism everywhere. Seasonal shifts in birds and insects, weeds and daylight, weather and food supply. The level of poverty. The level of happiness among locals (sometimes in inverse proportion to poverty). The level of corruption. How I dislike the clothing styles and television programs, especially game shows that objectify women. Three showers a day in summer. How spiffy men look in traditional po’i shirts. Upbeat Paraguayan music. Radio shows that won’t play an entire song start to finish without commentary, sound effects or simply starting a new song in the middle, just when I was getting into the groove. Soccer and volleyball. Kids’ fun with simple makeshift ‘toys’ of stumps, rope, scrapwood, rocks, marbles. Playing volleyball with kids at recess. Motos and motocarros. Incredible sunsets. Simple lives. Simple thinking. Community’s dedication to each other. Sharing. There is no concept of germs, hence the sharing. The ‘lindo’ factor. Missing my family. Amandau ice cream. Super friendly national police, unless they are guarding the Presidential Palace. Getting money at the bank. Shopping for fruits and veggies at the Mercado and getting Norte, rather than local, prices. Dancing tango alone in my house at night. The squawk of guinea hens.

Sand trucks going to and from the river. Paraguayans’ non-confrontational style. Chisme (rumor mill, known as radio so’o).  How much meat I don’t eat here. Poor soil. Running to the sunrise. Morning yoga. September is “cut and sell your firewood” month. Showers at night. Five to six hour bus rides to Asuncion with no bathroom onboard. Hazardous sidewalks in Asuncion. Treating myself to a nice hotel when staying in the city. The abundance of hostels. Mercado 4. Watching the movie “Siete Cajas”. Shopping Mariscal Lopez (can you say McDonald’s French fries and sundaes?) and Shopping Del Sol. At the supermarket, having to bag, weigh and sticker your produce in the department before getting to the checkout (and how many times I forgot to do this). Making soup on cold, rainy days. Mandio chyryry every morning. Popcorn almost every day. Cheddar powder for said popcorn.  How everyone uses oregano for flavoring their food but wouldn’t dream of putting basil or rosemary in a dish…they are only for tea! Paraguayans who mumble and will never be understood by me. How much I promised myself I would never pretend to understand when I didn’t but yet I still do it (how many times can one reasonably expect a person to repeat?). Spending weeks planning the perfect workshop to teach a new skill only to have no one show up, but often something good comes of it (we get to try again!)

All the things you can carry on a bike or moto (moto: 5 people, birthday cakes, live pigs, sheets of plywood or glass, filled propane tanks, hoes, chainsaws, bags on the handlebars up to the driver’s eyeballs of freshly butchered beef, etc). Weekends are for drinking but especially Sundays, all day. Sunday soccer tournaments where the winning team earns a pig carcass to BBQ. ‘Modern’ outdoor bathrooms with toilet and shower in a 3’x4’ space just big enough to stand in but not actually move. Termite mounds dotting the prairie. Diesel fumes. When the church was repainted from pink to red-orange. Friendship, support and regular talks with special PCVs. Rezos. Monday morning custom of visiting deceased family at the cemetery. Cool looking cemetaries. Crime. If you see it and want it you take it but it’s not stealing. Purple blooming Tajy trees. Lapacho trees are bright yellow and have matching butterflies that visit it. The neighbor’s Illuvia de oro (rain of gold) tree of dripping yellow blossoms. Grape arbors. Snakes. Giant beetles. The giant chalkboard in my ‘school’house. The view of hills from my front door. Watching the sun set from my hammock. School kids conjuring up any reason to peek or come into my house. Compost piles. Using worms to compost organics in the garden or in the kitchen. Experimenting with green manures (cover crops) to nourish the soil. Agricultural experiments, some go well, some are disasters, all are lessons.

Wide-brimmed hats. Long sleeved shirts. Carrying groceries in my backpack. The most plentiful thing in the freezer is ice, in tube-like bags that fit one’s thermos. Buying cheese from a local señora. Drop-in visits. Drop-in visits that yield goodies to take home. Outdoor lights affixed to trees. Roofs of tile, chappa, metal, thatch. Animals free-range and never need their hooves trimmed. Animals that sleep in the road. Buses that come to a stop, horn blaring, until the cows move out of the road. Things that are used for many purposes (one knife is used to kill a pig, weed the garden, cut carrots and rope). All parts of the animal are used and cherished. Wealth is measured in cattle. Sunflower oil is the most common oil for cooking but soy is very popular with cottonseed more expensive. Every store has at least ½ an aisle dedicated to yerba mate. Paraguayan diet is based on fat, meat, salt, and sugar, there are few fresh veggies much of the year. Veggies rarely eaten raw except as shredded cabbage salad or lettuce with tomatoes. Sweets, soda and artificial juice are popular (cheap too) despite all the fruit trees here. Palm trees. Pine trees. Wild pineapples. Chickens pecking bugs off cows’ legs. No mail delivery and no mailboxes. Buses are used to deliver packages long distance. Electrical and running water systems not dependable.

Inequity between womens’ and mens’ roles and work load. Horses that willingly stand up to their knees in water to eat grass. Eucalyptus trees. Bean ‘trees’. How people don’t eat many eggs as a stand-alone food source but rather as an ingredient. Making candles. Drinking wine in the privacy of my house. Rain blowing through the windows on a stormy day. People working barefoot even in the cold. Kids wearing jackets and snowsuits to class because there is no heat or insulation. Cultural practice of asking personal questions like your age, income, weight, cost of an item, marital/significant-other status, and not understanding how your life could be happy without a man in it. Pigs scratching their rumps on a light pole. Everyone has a cell phone. Men think it’s sport to share your phone number with other men. Dueling is legal if you are a blood donor and there are medical staff on hand. School days are either 7-11am or 1-5pm depending what grade you are in; in winter the afternoons are shorter because it gets dark early. Only 50% of kids finish high school. Ladies- long hair and ponytails, men- no facial hair. Plunging necklines. Tight pants and clothes. Skinny jeans on men. Sparkly accessories. Very high heels. Teacher strikes. School uniforms. School cancellations for rain, if it looks like rain, if it’s too cold, or there is a community function held at the school. Harvesting green manure seeds that then sit in my house for months waiting to be shelled. Herding cattle with moto, bicycle, horse or on foot. Leaky roof. Indoor gutters. Siestas. Paraguayan soap operas.

Teaching something new. Seeing others grow. Learning something new. Seeing myself grow. Making a difference in someone’s life. Making a difference in my life.

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

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

October 6, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

Church decorated for Fiesta Patronal 2013

Church decorated for Fiesta Patronal 2013

Newly painted one-room church in my community

Newly painted one-room church in my community.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy the culture all around you.

Until next time,

Jaotopata

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

A New Level of Tranquilo and Reminders in Gratitude

August 26, 2013

“Don’t worry about what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” -Howard Thurman

Since returning from my stateside vacation earlier this month, I’ve noticed a big change in me. Somehow, in the span of a week, I mellowed. After being gone for nearly a fortnight  I didn’t check my bed for spiders before crawling inside, a ritual I’ve cultivated for 11 months now. Despite knowing that anything that doesn’t get moved every 24 hours in my house becomes potential housing for a creepy crawly, I didn’t bother to check all their regular hangouts before diving a hand into bags or clothes on the shelf (I know by  now you’re asking “where is Wendy and what have you done with her?!”) In fact, I found a thick black hairy arachnid on my hand yesterday and simply shook it onto the floor, not bothering to see if there were others on me. And it’s not just the spiders. Mini beetles in the popcorn stash are harmless once fried in hot oil, right (probably a delicacy somewhere too)? You know you’ve reached a whole new level of tranquilo when your answer is “yes” as I had to admit this week. I consulted my best PCV friend with this question. She agreed wholeheartedly and added that it’s simply a source of more protein (at least I don’t have to carry this protein 17k from the grocery store!) and said “Wait til you start eating off the floor!” My reply: “Ummm, that started last week.” For the germ-a-phobe I used to be, never did I see myself submitting to the 3 second rule in PY. Ever. Even though I have a fancy, fairly clean, tile floor, unlike many PCVs whose floors are hard-to-clean-cement or straight soil, I did not think I’d ever be so nonchalant. This, in the same week I was picking dead bugs out of my stash of beans given to me by a generous neighbor. Not exactly the self-development progress I’d hoped to make during my time in PY but I’m sure it’ll serve me somehow. We work with what we’ve got.

Last week all the volunteers in my group traveled with our community contacts to the Chaco (the Northwestern chunk of PY) for a few days of training. I was so excited to realize that my language skills had improved significantly since our last gathering two months ago. I pretty much was able to follow most of the conversations – ooooh what a feeling, halelujah! At the end of those few days of intensive Spanish conversation, however, my brain started to feel like a 20-car pile up with all those new words and phrases overflowing my mental parking lot, backed up waiting for a parking space in the memory banks. I’ve learned this is a good sign…it means things are getting in there! Hopefully the valet driver can also retrieve these when the time calls for it. haha

Despite being assured winter is almost over, today’s high in my site was a raw, rainy 45F. I try to ignore this fact and focus instead on the week’s forecast which promises temps in the 80s and 90s. It’s been raining for days and it’s been equally as many days since I’ve had a shower, washed dishes, taken my hat off, or opened my front door except to shoo away cows trying to eat the oregano on my porch. It was so raw even the cows were shivering! I will welcome the sun and sweat with open arms. Bring it. And hurry. These warm clothes I’ve worn 24/7 really need a break. In an effort to walk my own talk and focus on the positives in life, I sought gratitude in phone calls with friends, hot chocolate with honey harvested from my own bees, lingering over a fresh cup of Starbucks coffee (ok, it might have been 4 cups today), the luxury of reading, skyping with my mom, eating my fill of hot, freshly made soup from the bounty of my garden that has gone totally gangbusters since a week ago (did you realize carrot greens smell like carnations?), then rounding out the day with popcorn sprinkled with fried beetles (if you add some dry basil it helps camouflage the bodies). I’m a lucky gal.

I haven’t made too many faux pas in a while (that I’m aware of), perhaps because I’ve been cooped up in the house (there’s an upside to everything) but I did make a good one related to my birthday (go big or go home, I always say). While visiting a family the week prior to my birthday, the husband and wife were commenting on my special day coming the following week and kept saying something about “invitado” this and “asado” that and was I going to have that cake made from beans that I love so well? (It tastes like chocolate but has not a speck of chocolate in it. Deelish!) What I didn’t realize is that in PY, it’s the person celebrating the birthday who puts on her own party, cooks the food (asado means BBQ), bakes her own cake and invites the town to the fiesta at her house. Oops. I had been expecting my host family to put on a lunch for me and bake the famous bean cake since they’ve been talking about it all year (or so I thought!) It wasn’t until the day AFTER my birthday and the birthday-celebration-that-never-happened that another volunteer explained the custom. Oops again. I had let them down. NOW I understood that they were actually telling me to be sure to invite THEM to my party at my house and the family had given me a kilo of beans so I could make the cake for this fiesta that never happened. Oops…again. Fortunately, as an outsider I’m forgiven for most of my missteps. But I think they all felt a little embarrassed that I didn’t get a party at all. No worries though! We’ll make up for it next year!

Here’s something I threw out to my friends this week:

What stories do you tell yourself about you, your abilities, your worth? Have you checked their validity lately? How many are so negative you wouldn’t dream of saying them to your best friend or beloved? Maybe it’s time to tell some better stories.

I love this. I think all of us can relate to how easy it is to beat ourselves up over our perceived shortcomings and point out areas where we lack. Interestingly, we may not even realize this habit but we do know we would never want to treat our friends and loved ones the way we often treat ourselves. My Peace Corps service has brought my own self-defeating habits to my stark attention and it’s been an incredibly humbling experience. Your pride gets taken down a notch or two or four. You realize you have far more to learn from your host country nationals than they have to learn from you. Sometimes, it is far better to listen and learn than speak and never be wiser. Language barriers can infantilize a person. When you’ve led a life feeling fairly competent in your everyday work, tasks, and understanding of your culture and surroundings then suddenly find yourself feeling completely inadequate on sometimes even the most basic levels, it is disconcerting. It makes you question yourself, your worth, your ability, your stamina to see this through. It holds up a mirror that reveals facets of yourself you never knew existed. You must look at it everyday. Sometimes we are proud of what we see. Sometimes not. Even though you might have been going through life working really hard on your problem areas, being kind, being aware of your wake, striving to grow and learn, extending compassion and loving kindness, sometimes those blind spots just hit you upside the head and you never saw them coming. Peace Corps is hard this way but it is one of the best damn eye openers I’ve ever had the good fortune to be gifted. So I invite you to consider the questions above. While there’s always work to be done on ourselves, is there room for you to be more loving and gentle as you go about it?

This week’s takeaways: pride in standing up for myself and and my principles with courage to speak my peace without flinching coupled with the strength to extend compassion during a difficult situation; joy in having someone tell me my words made a difference for them; assurance that the universe delivers who and what we need exactly when we need them (including a cheap taxi that appeared out of nowhere and really was an angel of mercy on a rainy day); grateful for opportunities to practice in areas where I struggle knowing it will make me stronger and wiser; appreciating people in my life who really have my back when I need them; knowledge that I’ve made great progress in loving myself and the gifts I have to offer, blessed with a great mom who’s always there; appreciative of a super boss; never again in my life will I take for granted good coffee, indoor plumbing, an indoor stove, central heat, or electricity. Even on the hardest days, I consider myself blessed with the privilege of being here, sculpting my life, writing my own script, and making my dreams come alive.

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