Posts Tagged With: machete

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

Make your own happiness

,Date 1-16-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Random facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have an excellent week!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah everyone!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t be sad that it’s over. Smile because it happened.

Wow. I have so much to share since my last post.

First and most importantly was my grandmother’s passing. Today’s title reminds me to be grateful for what we’ve had instead of focusing on what we’re now missing. Can we rearrange our grief into delight for being blessed with her life and presence? We were blessed with time to say our goodbyes and her forever cheerful and courageous spirit through it all. We were blessed in knowing she was ready. We are blessed to be part of a large, wonderful, loving, close-knit family she created for, and within, us. When she left, neither side had any doubt they were loved and cherished. Little did she know that she taught me through her own actions to be thrilled by the tiniest things: watching the birds out the window and marveling at their colors or the way they were bickering on a particular day, admiring the swirly composition of a small stone, really savoring the flavors of a dish at her Thursday family potluck, seeing the wonder and possibilities within everything appearing before her. In the busyness of our modern lives she reminded me to slow down, be present in the moment, and never forget that awe is at your fingertips in everything you do if you choose to see it. Staying true to her positive nature, she asked not for a funeral but a for Celebration of Life party….and (I love this) requested that attendees wear bright colors. She always loved wearing bright, cheerful colors. So the day we celebrated, I did just that here in Paraguay. And when my time comes, I want that too. We already miss her terribly but the lessons and love she left behind will forever remain within us.

The morning of the Celebration party provided yet another chance to witness the ‘fruit’ and sweetness of life that I learned from my Gram over the years. My 60-year old host mama, machete in hand, gave me a tour of the ‘back 40’ (as we say in Maine), slashing a walking path through the undergrowth as easily as she cooks a chicken or hangs the laundry. (I’m told you never go anywhere in a field, woods, etc without your machete [except maybe the bus]…just in case. It is pretty common to see people walking down the street here with a machete in hand and not really think much of it. Afterall, EVERYONE has one and because most people are farmers, it’s a necessity for work. But if you are caught with a pocketknife on the bus, they will confiscate. Umm…. But I digress.) I’ve been here for 6 weeks and had no idea that ‘back there’ amongst all those trees was a veritable orchard of tropical fruit trees and herbs. Wow! Our house is nestled into its own mini rainforest, an oasis of beauty and bounty. I had asked her for a yuyo tour, yuyos (pronounced ‘JOO- johz) being the fresh herbs used in terere. Today we focused more on identifying fruit trees but next time will be more herbs (though many fruit trees have incredible medicinal properties.) We found starfruit, mandarin, oranges, bananas, a cinnamon tree (wow!), pomelo, lemons, limes, sweet lime, durasno (like a mini-peach), laurel (bay leaf), manzanitas (cherry-like fruit), café, guava, and my two favorites: passionfruit (mborukuja) and mango-mango-mango! I was in heaven. This didn’t include the papaya and Heart of India fruits growing over the extensive arbor by the backdoor. Host Mom picked some fresh eucalyptus leaves for flavoring my water bottle. Refreshing!

For training earlier this week I experienced what we call “Long Field Practice” where we visit a current volunteer’s site in the campo (countryside) to help us get a glimpse of campo life first hand. I traveled with my 4-person language group and our profesora. We each stayed with a separate host family that spoke only guarani and did activities with the community’s volunteer during the day. I was initially quite intimidated, ok semi-terrified, at the idea of spending 4 days with a new family who spoke neither English nor Spanish. I mean seriously, I’ve only been studying guarani for 2 weeks! How was I going to communicate other than rudimentary sign language? AND my group was expected to give a charla (ie presentation) on soils to a group of local ladies…in guarani. Huh? Are you kidding? I can barely say ‘Hello, my name is Wendy. It’s hot today. Yes, I like what you cooked for dinner. How many chickens do you have? Do you grow mint? I like to read. I will sleep now.’ Though I’m really good at saying, “I don’t understand. Can you repeat that?” and “Do you have tarantulas here?” Haha. But it was all good.

The trip was full of fun things: we learned to cook sopa paraguaya (cornbread from dry cornmeal), queso paraguaya (cheese), and chipa guazu (cheepa wahSOO) (cornbread from fresh corn and sometimes onions), toured a successful garden, got a mini yuyo lesson, did hoeing in a farmer’s field, and all had a reading from a deaf fortunate teller which was translated from sign language into guarani then English. Haha. Campo life tends to be more extreme than where I live now and offers a wonderful perspective on the many layers, definitions, and faces of poverty. Natives in the campo are much poorer but it is beautiful to see how happy (and resourceful!) they are overall (another reminder that stuff doesn’t make us happy and I am more and more grateful for the opportunity to live simply and happily without all the frills from home… WHILE still always grateful for my daily internet access for now. Wink.) Paraguayans are known for their abundant laughter (usually at my expense, tranquilo).They are present, mindful, and prideful in every step of their work and daily lives. One of my favorite people I met this week was the 63-year old woman who taught us how to make chipa guazu: vibrant, spirited, strong, happy, and bold, with missing teeth, the best laugh and most beautiful wrinkles I’ve ever seen. Her advice: “It is important to work for your food.” So we did. How do you make chips guazu? You begin by plucking every kernel from the cob…by hand, then grind the kernels in a hand-cranked molina (like one of those old fashioned meat grinders that bolts to a table; we took turns because it’s tiring but the guapa ladies to it all themselves) which makes a liquid corn mush, add veggie oil, lots of eggs, salt and sometimes onions. Cook in the tatakua (outdoor cave-like brick oven) for 15 minutes. Yum! Yes, we worked for our food that day and it tasted all the better. In the end, I experienced so much growth from working through the difficulties of the week and was really glad for the experience. My language vaulted to new levels and, by day 4, my host family and I were learning to communicate with each other. I came ‘home’ feeling much more confident and prepared for when I arrive at my own site in a mere 4 WEEKS!!! Yes, this Wednesday I receive my site assignment where I will live for the next 2 years and will go there on Friday for 5 days to begin meeting people and getting a sense of my new community. My entire training group is so excited for Wednesday! In September this time seemed very far away but it’s almost here! The next four weeks will be a blur of activities starting with next week’s site visit, then Thanksgiving at the Ambassador’s house (how cool is THAT?!), final exams, swearing-in on December 7 and then I’m off to my community! In the meantime I am frantically spending every possible moment on my language skills to be as prepared as possible for the transition (which will still leave me superbly underprepared but every bit will help.)

Tonight my host sister and I walked about 3 miles, returning home just as a gorgeous sunset slid below the treeline. We chatted easily and filled the spaces with comfortable silence. There’s a lot to be ‘said’ for comfortable silence. I’ve always been a fan myself but it’s amazing how UNeasy people in the States are with pauses, silence, quiet within a conversation. Silence is common in Paraguay though when the talk is juicy there is no shortage of chatter! Along the way I admired a full moon rising over a crest of waving sugar cane and a sky streaked with pinks and oranges that turned the red soil into a vibrant salmon glow. We walked through a swarm of fireflies dancing along the roadside and listened to frogs singing their chorus in the background. The frogs sing very different tunes here and locals describe them by the sound they make: cien, cien (which is 100 in Spanish), or cuatro cuatro cuatro (which is 4 in Spanish.)

Tonight we had 2 kururus in the kitchen, which are giant frogs the size of grapefruit. They are a bit freaky looking when you first see them though not poisonous and local tales say that, if you pick one up, it will pee in your eye. Haha! Ikatu – it’s possible! Tonight, one was stalking a lembu (big beetle) and actually attacked it but the beetle was too big! Yeah, I never walk through the house at night without a flashlight and shoes!!

In addition to walking, I’m running more frequently now and find my energy level has skyrocketed and my body much happier (though a full night’s sleep continues to elude me). Running on anything other than paved roads is more akin to trail running, requiring intense focus to avoid slipping or turning an ankle on the smooth bedrock, sharp cobblestones, eroded channels, or soft, beach-like sand, all of which can be found in a single 30 foot stretch. I’m looking forward to doing more training once in my site and perhaps entering the Asuncion or Buenos Aires half-marathons next October. I was surprised to hear how many races can be found in Paraguay…something to aim for.

Random stuff and more firsts:

Recently I: had my first juggling lesson from a classmate, ate my first passionfruit (now one of my new favorite fruits which I plan to grow once in my site!), ate my first honeycomb with pollen (if I were a bear, yeah I’d raid a hive to get at it too. Wow – deeeelishhh. More incentive to become a beekeeper while here!) and found a Paraguayan woman who makes fine cheese (like Brie, mozzarella, swiss, etc…her French husband taught her and we discovered her place on lunch break this week – what a find!!! It’s nearly impossible anywhere but Asuncion to find any cheese other than the single standard Paraguayan style, queso paraguaya, which is fresh and fairly bland)

For Halloween, some of the ex-pats on staff carved watermelons for jack-o-lanterns because we either don’t have pumpkins here or they are out of season.

November 2 was Paraguay’s Day of the Dead where locals honor their deceased loved ones. My class went to a cemetery to observe – I have never seen so many people in a cemetery at once…hundreds praying, playing, chatting, honoring; flowers on graves, candles on altars, scarves on crosses. Most burials are above ground with tombs ranging from petite to the size of a cottage. Those whose families can’t afford the more expensive and preferred above ground accommodations are buried in the ground.

My yoga mat is laid out next to my bed, a constant invitation to practice or stretch. Because of this, my host family’s 6-year old niece, Maria Clara, has discovered it and runs into my room every Sunday to practice and learn new postures with me. I love her enthusiasm and I have to admit that listening to kids speak Spanish is so cute! It’s not something I encounter in Maine and was quite a novelty for me when I first arrived.

Guinea hens are rampant here, easily identified with their loud squawk and great for insect control. The noise seems not to be a problem. No one minds barking dogs, 2am roosters, or smelly pigs either. It’s quite refreshing to have neighbors not bickering over these things. Everyone is simply tranquilo. Speaking of birds, one of the female geese was hit by the bus today and both the human and goose families are grieving over her. Her mate and their baby spent the afternoon calling pitifully for her and looking everywhere. It was really sad and my heart went out to them. I’ve never been a fan of geese but I really love the geese here on the farm, parading around like they own the place, and very protective of their babies.

There is a major ‘lindo factor’ here (lindo meaning beautiful or good). Of course, most people anywhere are drawn to pretty things but here you can make significant headway on something the more attractive it is. For example, we were building lombriculture bins (composting bins where red worms do most of the work) and were advised that people were more likely to use it if it was ‘super lindo.’ Ditch the scrap wood, pull out the tiles and bamboo. Paraguayans take tremendous pride in their appearance, even if it’s simply wearing their cleanest flip flops when company arrives. Small things like sparkly barrettes, glitter on shirts, bows on bags….all carry far more importance here than back home.

Did you know that Paraguayans clap at someone’s front door instead of knocking?

Did you know that instead of greasing a pan for baking you can simply line it with banana leaves to prevent sticking? Way cool!

My favorite guarani-isms of the week:

Nandu=spider

Guasu=large

Kavaju=horse

Nandu+guasu=ostrich (huh? Large spider is an ostrich? Apparently!)

Nandu+kavaju= tarantula (horse spider? Yup.)

Like I said, random but too interesting not to share. What are you interested in reading or learning about Paraguay in the future?

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

My Road is a River…and the Rooster that Raced the Bus

“It is preferable to think of a course of study not as a series of classes but as a series of planned experiences.” – Two Ears of Corn

Paraguay has not disappointed me in my ongoing quest for adventure.

This morning, after a 6-hour tempest of rain, hail, wind, and more in the hours leading up to, and including, my journey to the bus stop my road was literally… a river.

I was wet as soon as I stepped from the porch. Our normally-dry driveway had turned into an angry brook. Quickly realizing I would spend the day with wet feet despite my rubber boots and best intentions, I sloshed my way toward the road leading toward the bus stop. What was normally a 30 foot wide, grassy shoulder was underwater, forcing me into the road, deserted save for the occasional public bus and moto drivers taking their chances. Here schools close when it rains (not kidding), but not Peace Corps training! I made my way to the Cruce (a crossroad with a bus stop and despensa) through ankle-deep water, torrential rain, lightning and booming thunder with my backpack of lunch and books snuggled cozily under my raincoat. Instead of the regular soft, dry red dirt road I found a roaring red river. It had rapids, it carried discarded Coke bottles to new destinations, and, with a current strong enough to pull my feet from under me, was impassable. .. perfect day for a kayak, if only I’d had one! A look around provided today’s architecture award in what mimicked the Mississippi Delta pumping silt into the road, producing a striking fanlike arrangement on the pavement. Of all days, I wish I’d had a camera. It was perhaps the most interesting scenery of all my four weeks here. Power, destruction, beauty: nature rearranging itself.

The day quickly turned beautiful – blue sky, hot, humid, and oppressive. We have a saying in Maine: “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute”. I think Paraguay has Maine beat. It, too, provides weather extremes in a single day and makes planning a day-long excursion worthy of a Girl Scout badge. Always be prepared. We toured a government-run agricultural operation in Ca’acupe that offers services similar to the US Cooperative Extension. They test varieties of tomatoes, melons, potatoes, and garlic and are currently growing macadamia nuts! Did you know that garlic doesn’t grow well in Paraguay because the heat is too intense and it prefers more hours of daylight than found here?

The day continued to improve with what became a breakthrough in my language training. Something clicked in my brain and I was unstoppable. Haha. Finally! Just in time for language assessment interviews next week…

The week provided many more ‘firsts’, including a rooster that began racing our bus every day! No joke. He was boss and cocky and I think he truly believed he would win…except for that darned fence. But he keeps trying. Then came my first experience in beekeeping –everyone should try it once, even if you decide it’s not for you. Being witness to bees working inside a hive is nothing short of a miracle. However, I don’t recommend starting with the Africanized bees we have here. EEEK! These guys are aggressive! It was intense having hundreds of bees pinging off my veil, climbing over my body, not knowing if or when they might sting through my clothes..and really hoping it didn’t happen when I pulled a panel of honeycomb from the hive and held it delicately in the air. No stings for me this time, though others were not so lucky. This week the jasmine trees are blooming and smell divine, similar to lilacs. I tucked the little white flowers behind my ear so every time I turned my head I would get a whiff. Heavenly! My host Mom and sister also taught me to hand-milk a cow for the first time. While we were milking, her baby was nearby playing HeadButt with the dog. Haha – adorable! Next on my list: killing a chicken for Sunday dinner. I’m in no hurry for that one. And I finally went running – my first real run since arriving. While I didn’t get as far as I’d hoped, my body was thanking me every step of the way. Pure luxury. Lastly, host Mom is teaching me the art of herbalism, second nature to Paraguayans, super useful for me in the campo (along with milking cows, killing chickens, speaking guarani, and wielding machetes… I’ll be super Guapa by the time I arrive!)

As part of my training each person recently had to research a type of Abonos Verdes (green manure/cover crop). A classmate outdid himself by composing a rap on Kumanda Yvyra’i (ku-man-DA u-vra-E)—similar to a black bean–, in Spanish, perfectly rhymed, making complete sense and absolutely hysterical. If he ever gets it on YouTube I will share. Never dreamed an Abono Verde could be so funny. There is no shortage of entertainment in my group of trainees.

This week was the ultimate combination of intensely taxing and extremely rewarding. Working in the kokue this week I paused and took inventory: I felt both exhausted yet fully, exuberantly alive, aware of the slip of my shoes against my bare feet, the sun warming my arms, the dry clay soil desiccating my hands, each nerve cell in my body like mini antennae, soaking up every sensation, my heart full of appreciation and gratitude that I am here as well as sadness that my Grandma is quickly slipping away and I can’t be with her. I looked across the road and admired the vista: miles of Paraguay, campo, and Argentina in the distance. Tranquilo.

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

Machete lessons with Wendy the Elder

Today was my best day here so far, except that I was sick this morning, I forgot my deodorant and it was 95 degrees. And of course it was our first day of physical labor that had us making compost piles and vermiculture bins (for red worms) all afternoon. But I loved it and everyone else was smelly by day’s end too. However, the highlight was…wait for it… machete lessons! Cool, eh? We learned how to cut bamboo with our machetes and explore the many handy ways it can be used (fence posts, compost piles, etc). That stuff is tough as nails, especially once dry.

I also learned that I am officially the oldest in my group of trainees though there are a couple of folks not far behind me. Most are between 22 and 26. I overheard an interesting conversation among some of the younger, just-out-of-college volunteers who were discussing that Peace Corps was the first time they’d had ‘colleagues’ instead of ‘peers’. I had to laugh inwardly as that revelation for me seems like a million years ago.
There is an Olimpia Club soccer field 2 doors down from our house and a volleyball area set up across the street. Though I’ve not seen anyone (other than cows) use the soccer field, complete with official-looking goal nets, I plan to ask my host family about its use. Could make for great space to get my fellow trainees together.

Mama took me out back a couple nights ago to proudly show me about 20 baby ducks that recently hatched. Some are following their mama around, others are not quite ready. All are too adorable.

Oxcarts are a popular mode of moving sugarcane or other goods from the fields of small farms to the barn or to market here. I hope to get a photo for you soon so you can enjoy the sight with me. Sugarcane is typically harvested by hand with a ….machete. Yup. It is a lot of work. There’s not a lot of mechanized agriculture here and farming provides employment for 60% of the working population. There are 260,000 small family farms throughout the country which provide all of the variety of foods needed for families throughout the country (unlike larger farms with monocultures of soybeans, cotton, etc, much of which is exported).

Every day is an adventure. We’re putting in long days at school, 6 days a week, and coming home to practice more Spanish with our families. It’s tiring but fabulous. I’m so blessed with this opportunity!

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