Posts Tagged With: mango

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

Date 1-4-13

“Everything is a reflection of the condition of your own heart.” – How Yoga Works, Geshe Michael Roach & Christie McNally

On a very personal level, some of the lessons I’m meant to learn while here have become clear to me. This awakening has already stirred some deep and profound awareness. Some things are part of an ‘old, lost’ me from years ago being reignited, others are matching a ‘knowing’ from an unknown me that I always wanted to experience but haven’t, and others are simply pushing me outside my comfort zone. My resourcefulness is tested on a daily basis. I feel like a new part of my brain is waking up and it’s all so exciting.

Some of this awareness rose the day I realized I’d reached what I’ll call “Phase I” of Tranquilo. I don’t know exactly when this transition occurred but I noticed the other day while eating a mango. Mango season is in full swing, fruit is literally falling to the ground all day, and I am a happy camper with mangoes (or passionfruit) for a snack every day. Mangoes in PY are extremely fibrous and therefore can’t really be sliced so I peeled it and realized it was the gooiest, juiciest mango I’ve ever had. Thick juicy goo covered my hands and dripped down my wrists, it was on my face, my clothes, everywhere, but somehow I was enchanted and delighted and spent a full half hour in complete bliss working every last drop of mango pulp off that fruit. It was then I realized that I don’t usually have the time or patience to experience my food like that. Yes, it was an experience. I highly recommend it. Similar experiences are becoming more numerous. Even walking down the road, I’ve begun thoroughly enjoying the feel of the uneven surface massaging the soles of my feet, noticing the various prints in the sand (mostly cattle but also pigs, horses, goats, futbol cleats, and once…. a snake trail!) One of my favorite new tasks is shelling dry beans and flipping dry corn off the cob to make sopa. I spent two hours with the girls shelling beans one day. It’s mindless but meditative, we can sit there in comfortable silence or we can chat. It feels good to work for my meal. Many of the tasks that are not quick or efficient – and there are many to be had here in PY- provide similar tranquility.

I’ve always been amazed how books come to me when I’m ready for the messages they contain. This has happened innumerable times to be mere coincidence. I’ve bought books that sat on my shelf for years and out of the blue one calls me to read it. It’s uncanny how its lesson is so obvious when I begin reading. My most recent ‘Aha’ came while reading “How Yoga Works” by Geshe Michael Roach & Christie McNally. I believe this book was required reading for a teacher training class at one of my favorite yoga studios in Maine, Greener Postures Yoga in South Portland, so I bought it because someday I want to be a yoga teacher. Once again, just in time, and part of the insights from Paragraph 1 of this blog post.

Let’s talk about local attire. Women of all sizes and ages: tight clothes, skinny jeans, leggings, occasionally long shorts (short-shorts on teens and single twenty-somethings), scooped necklines with breasts ready to burst forth, very high heeled sandals or dressy or plain flip flops depending on the setting, LONG hair. Men: sporty shirts as if everyone is always ready for an impromptu futbol game, jeans or long basketball shorts, flip flops or plain sneakers. People don’t have fancy sneakers here. The vast majority of men are clean-shaven. In fact, male trainees were not allowed to have facial hair for the first month out of respect for the host national locals. Also, I’ve seen very little smoking and few tattoos or earrings on men.

As we neared New Year’s Eve, I’m realizing this Fin de Año is a much bigger deal than Navidad. On Christmas Eve, the countdown to midnight rivaled a US New Year’s excitement culminating in at-home pop-rockets, sparklers or fireworks and later I learned….firing guns into the air. The sounds all seemed the same in my village. In Asuncion on Christmas night a horrific outcome was a falling bullet that drilled through a 5-year old’s shoulder and heart, killing her. It was in the news for days and absolutely heartbreaking to watch the video of her Mom. So unnecessary but I also learned it’s quite common. A friend of a friend was shot in the back years ago after a bullet ricocheted off the sidewalk. NYE this year also brought bullets into the sky but without incident. There were two full days of preparations for the big night in addition to two weeks of spring cleaning around the house and yard. Mattresses aired, sheets in the doorways washed, furniture rearranged, yard cleaned. Isabel had told me there would be a major fiesta and many people here for NYE. There are three homes in our corner of town; one is ours, the others are two of Isabel’s sisters, one of whom has nine grown kids, more than half of whom still live at home. I thought all the food being prepared would be for visitors across the three homes. No, it was just for our house: Sopa, chipa guazu, beef and pork asado (BBQ), rice salad, champagne and cake, which we consumed just after 11pm. All seven of Isabel and Professor’s kids came for the holiday. People were sharing beds, sleeping on the floor, or on a sofa on the patio. It was crazy funny. All three homes had similar guest situations. The prior day, a sister killed a large pig and a cow for the holiday and shared with all of us, hence the asado. She presented my family a cow hoof and foreleg to cook with my beans (from the look on her face you’d think she was giving me the tenderloin!). “Que rico!” (delicious), they tell me. Oh joy…another first, along with the blood sausage. At least I can say I tried it. My experience with this delicacy will end there. While awaiting dinner, I walked to the futbol field out front to stargaze. The sky here looks so much bigger than back home, day or night. Perhaps the prairie makes it seem vast. This night it was black and clear with fantastic heat lightning in the distance and the stars were brilliant and closer than I ever remembered seeing them, like they were only a cloud’s distance away. After the stroke of midnight the families across town set off firecrackers and guns and visited each others’ homes to bid a “feliz año nuevo”. At 1am our family migrated two doors down where music and dancing ensued. Frankly, it was the last thing I felt like doing at that hour. I was anxious about my language and carrying a conversation and hoped the cultural experience would keep me awake. It certainly did.

Henceforth came yet another reminder of a popular recurring lesson for me: the best experiences often arrive when you least expect them and seldom in the form you might have anticipated.

We arrived to loud music in the front yard and about 40 people sitting in a large circle, socializing. Based on what I’ve seen so far, Paraguayans nearly always socialize while sitting. One of the first things said to you upon your arrival anywhere is an offer to sit (“Sentate”). I struck up a conversation in Guarani/Spanish with a friendly woman visiting from Ciudad del Este, on the Brazilian border, and bobbed in my seat to the beat of the music. She called over a friend to dance with me. I never sat down again. The crowd whooped and cheered that I was among the first to dance, throwing down some freestyle with lots of tango steps in the mix. This was very different from typical Paraguayan dance but they loved it. I don’t remember the last time I laughed so hard. Traditional Paraguayan music is cheery, bouncy and upbeat and eventually most of the teens and twenty-somethings joined in. Among bystanders, it was interesting to watch the divide between genders: men stood on the sidelines and the women sat collectively in chairs, too bashful to kick up their heels. More fun for me! The next day, the entire town determined that the Norte can DANCE.

I’m not a fan of New Year’s Resolutions but instead I took some advice from Portland’s Chris Brogan and began in recent years to list three or four words that will guide me for the upcoming year. I post them on my bedroom wall, where they’re the first thing I see in the morning. This year’s words will be: Stretch, learn, serve. It has worked well for providing ongoing reminders that keep me on track with current goals. What words might you choose for your year?

People in PY spend a lot of time, money and effort to remember their dead. As is common in PY, Isabel visits her families’ graves at the local cemetery every Monday. Recently, I attended a rezo for the father of a villager who died a year ago. It’s common to have such a service at significant anniversaries- 6 months, 1 year, 18 months, etc. Take 1/3 of the village, many of whom I have yet to meet, add a language barrier, and it was surely intimidating and a bit awkward. But I was so glad I went. I got to introduce myself one-on-one to each of those unknown residents and chat with those I’ve already met, learn some new names and have a few laughs. The villagers are always so impressed when you make the effort to know them and especially if you remember their names. Rezos can be costly, in part because of the food and drink provided after the ceremony. To offset these costs, families will often raise a hog and sell the meat when the times comes. Raising hogs is akin to a rainy-day fund. It’s great income for emergencies. Isabel’s aunt died last night so I’ll be going to other services in the near future. It’s an interesting experience to be a foreigner in the home of a grieving family. What to do? How to help? How to stay out of the way and let the family do their thing together without giving the appearance of disinterest or distance? How fast can I look up in my dictionary the words I need to express my condolences? I read their reactions with a U.S. culture filter but am I correct?

Speaking of getting to know the community, it’s very sweet to walk by a house and have people wave to me and say “Mba’echapa, Wendia!” Sometimes the kids will run to the road to say hi, as opposed to a couple weeks ago when I’d wave first and they’d wave back politely but wonder who the heck I was. This is happening more as I’ve taken to walking and running with more frequency.

Timing is everything if you don’t want the cows drinking your laundry water. Note to self: have the laundry done and water dumped by 5pm. When the cows come in from the prairie they are thirsty and will drink your laundry water if you leave it unattended, whether or not your laundry is finished. Did I tell you cow noses are slimy? Cute but slimy. That makes your clothes slimy too. Yeah.

It is summer here and too hot to easily grow veggies in the garden unless they have shade (just the opposite from back home where we fight to get enough sun and daylight). Local veggies currently available in the market: green peppers and carrots (on a lucky day), onions and tomatoes (anyday), corn (though not for eating straight up), hard squash, and mandioca (though this might fall in the ‘starch’ category). There are also lots of peanuts grown here, pretty much the only nut available unless you go to Asuncion. Most peanuts here are fresh, not roasted, and taste like raw peas. I’ve discovered that I can eat these peanuts and now almonds again too, after not being able to eat nuts for two years — I am slowly healing — sooo happy!! Fruits available in our backyard right now include pineapple, bananas, peaches, pears, manzanitas (flavor cross between cherry, apple and?), mangoes, passionfruit, limes, and oranges. Apples are always imported (usually from Argentina) and there are also papayas and guavas though I’m not sure if guava season has already ended. “Jugo” (juice) is either a powdered artificial drink or made fresh frequently from one of the above fruits, especially manzanitas.

Random facts:
In my village, pink pineapples grow wild along the road! How cool! Unfortunately, the cattle get to them before they can be harvested for people.

If it rains during the day when the cattle are free-ranging, they RUN for the trees. If it rains hard or long enough, my road is impassible by vehicle.

It is common for students to attend school for only 5 or 6 years. Others sometimes up to 9 years. Less than 15% of students attend university as most don’t feel it necessary or sometimes family obligations take priority. Both Spanish and Guarani are taught in the primary school here as well as dance, nutrition, gardening sessions, health and more. It’s pretty progressive for PY. The high school is in the next pueblo and is grades 9-12. Girls who finish high school and leave the campo looking for work frequently work as maids for families in Asuncion.

There are lots of palm trees in PY but virtually all produce tiny coconuts the size of a gumball. Locals shell them and eat as snacks.

What do I eat in PY? Oatmeal, yogurt and fruit, or eggs for breakfast. Lunch is always a stew with meat, rice, and tiny diced veggies, if available, served with a side of sliced cucumber drizzled with lime juice. Sometimes I get beans. Mandioca is always served with every meal. Dinner varies. My family eats very late so sometimes I prefer to eat early and alone and just have yogurt again. Several evenings a week I get popcorn. Once a week we make sopa or chipa guazu (cornbread).

“Peligroso” is Spanish for ‘dangerous.’ My first week here, one of the girls passed gas as we played dice and, jokingly, I pointed to the front door and said “Peligroso! Afuera!” (Dangerous! Outside!) The girls nearly fell off their chairs laughing and now the term is used daily by the jokesters in the house. Someone trips, another burns my popcorn, another tosses the fireworks onto the patio instead of the lawn (blowing a small hole in the cement wall). The list goes on. Today, I was labeled Peligroso when they invited me to play futbol and saw how terrible I am. My skill-less efforts (supplemented by lots of sound effects and crazy hand waving to distract my opponent as well as non-traditional moves that probably should have been fouls) had us laughing so hard we could barely breathe.

I mentioned earlier that mango season is in full swing. They are literally dripping from the trees. Lesson 342: don’t sit under a ripe mango tree on a windy day. (wink) The pigs and chickens fight over the drops. I discovered that instead of slicing a fibrous mango one can scrape the pulp with a knife, making a thick, ready-made juice to drink or add to homemade yogurt. Deeelish! Speaking of fruit: a popular holiday punch-like drink is clerico, which is essentially a tropical fruit salad (tiny pieces) with orange or Sprite soda and red wine added. Quite yummy. Soda is called ‘gaseosa’ here.

You know those white plastic patio chairs you have back home? Well, they are popular here too. At my house, most of the backs were split down the center. In true, frugal Paraguayan style, my contact actually sewed the split back together and they are good as new! A little tip to consider before throwing yours away next time… (wink)

Our little post office in Caazapa is tiny and totally informal. It has a lobby and one room with a single desk and 12 ‘boxes’ for sorted mail. Usually, my letters simply sit on the desk until I pick them up. She will call or text me when a package arrives for me. I was recently awaiting some mail and stopped by in the morning before they’d had a chance to sort the 2 bags of mail. The post mistress brought me to the single room in the back and let me pour through the mail looking for mine. On the one hand, it was nice to just be free to do that and not have so many rules getting in the way of my pursuit (I really like that about PY on so many fronts), yet I also appreciate a little more discretion as to who is handling my mail!

I saw my first Paraguayan snake this week- in the trees in the family huerta (garden). Called Mbo’i Huvy’u, it has a green back and white belly. Nearly all snakes here are poisonous so the family was eager to see it leave. But to where? Perhaps looking for the pile of guinea hen eggs in the cute little hidden nest they built under the squash vines? We found 14 eggs there this week.

Another first: Have you ever seen fire ants come pouring out of their nest when disturbed? It’s quite a sight to behold, especially when it’s in your garden. One tiny disturbance of the nest and literally thousands of the critters flood out of the opening and toward anything that lives or moves. Fortunately, my contact was with me and had warned me before he made them angry. Note to self: check status of hole in ground near sorghum before commencing hoeing.

One of my strategies for continued language improvement is visiting the school library and practicing with the kids’ books. “Curious George” (or “Jorge El Curioso”) is a little advanced for me but I brought it home anyway. I also snagged some sweet simple reads with text in both English and Spanish. This has been a great way to learn new words….and the kids like helping too!

Jajatopata! (until next time)

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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

Ode to the aftershave and If you feel like you have a bug on you, you probably do

“When you do something noble and beautiful and nobody noticed, do not be sad. For the sun every morning is a beautiful spectacle and yet most of the audience still sleeps.” ― John Lennon

Today’s quote is a good reminder that generosity need not be acknowledged in order to be worthy. And, with the holidays upon us, there is a bounty of opportunity for such giving that will warm you all over. For me personally, some of my most satisfying moments are those deeds I’ve done or gifts I’ve given anonymously and for which I can never be thanked. It helps ground me in knowing I am giving from my heart, not for the recognition.

In thinking about content for this post, I had decided to write a piece on appreciation for my adventures on the micro (public bus, aka ‘collectivo’), which have been many and positive or at least humorous. However, after yesterday’s ride home, my experience took on a whole new level. The micro has an amazing capacity to expand itself. Invisible to the eye, a bus already bursting at the seams and seemingly impossible to accept a single additional passenger somehow continues to stop for passengers and manages to squeeze them in (not one, but 15-20 more). At one point I counted 9 of us on 2 stairs at the rear exit, hanging out the door. Riding the stairs is a major safety no-no but it was a better option than taking a bus after dark. After 10 minutes I worked my way 2 feet inside the door, into a pressing mass of hot, sweaty bodies and lingering diesel exhaust. Freshness was not a term that could be used today. Despite all windows being open, ventilation scored a zero in the aisle, an aisle made for 2 abreast but currently accommodating 3. We were grateful for oncoming traffic to refresh our air supply (perhaps more accurately stated as reorganizing diesel exhaust, BO, and carbon dioxide) and I was secretly praising whichever hombre it was who remembered his aftershave this morning.

Last Friday I practiced my juggling again and almost got it. Getting closer. But I did learn to build a solar dryer to make dried fruits, veggies and meat jerky. I’ll need it to preserve all the mangoes (dry mango slices anyone?) from the trees at my new house! Coolest thing of the week. Well, until I helped capture a wild bee colony a few days later. That was TOP SHELF. These bees, called Africanized bees, are typically much more aggressive than those we have in the states when you work them in a hive but I learned that when you are capturing them from inside a coconut tree and giving them a new home, they are much more tranquilo. There were hardly any stings in the group despite me cupping them into my hands from the tree and moving them into the new box hive. This is only my 3rd time working with bees in my life and I can’t believe how much more relaxed I am with them now.  I was able to take off my gloves and touch them with my bare hands. So cool to be just me and the bees, checking each other out. The feeling of bees covering your skin and the vibration of their wings is nothing short of incredulous. It has become somewhat of a meditative experience and I’m very much looking forward to helping my host family harvest some honey when I’m at my new site. The bonus is snagging and eating honeycomb/honey/pollen that was warmed to hotness by the sun. OMG. I think it’s my new favorite thing. If I were a bear, I would try and steal it too.

Speaking of new site: we Swear-In on Friday and I move to my new site on Sunday. I’ll spend the weekend with friends in Asuncion, shopping for skirts and a guitar in a sector of the city called Mercado 4 ( super cheap stuff and the site of the famous movie “Siete Cajas”), swimming at the Embassy, buying some beekeeping equipo, and hopefully finding a Shambala or Hindu meditation temple to practice. I’m very much looking forward to getting to know my community and beginning my work. Much of extension work takes month to get underway, as it must be based on solid relationships and trust with locals. So that is my first task and the people in my village seem great. ****Also, I have a new mailing address for friends who wish to send letters or packages and they’ll arrive much faster than the old address. However, for security reasons, I can’t post it here so, if you’d like the address, send me an email. ****

Thought for the day: If you feel like you have a bug on you, you probably do. Back home the sensation of a spider crawling along my arm or stomach was always just a long strand of hair falling loose down my arm or into my shirt. In PY, my hair is now longer than it’s been since my daughter was little and the sensation of a bug crawling on me is greater than ever…. Oh wait, that’s because it usually IS a bug crawling on me…. Yeah, like the other night. I was lying in bed, updating my journal by flashlight, having gotten fairly used to the feel of my hair blowing on my arms from the fan. Suddenly something was definitely crawling on my skin. The flashlight revealed  a small spider on my arm. I quickly squished it and went back to writing. Before long, same thing on the other arm, then another and another. By now, I’ve got my glasses on, flashlight in hand, out of bed, and striding for the overhead light to see WTF is going on. I had dozens, yes dozens, of small spiders in the bed – even though I had done my thorough nightly ‘tween the sheets check and found nothing. And they were crawling all over my headboard, sheets and blanket. Eeeeeewwwww. Fortunately, they were small and easily squishable but, at 11pm, I just wanted to sleep. Once I’d calmed down about the spiders, I finished re-tucking the sheets and blankets tightly around the bed and turned around in time to spot a baby lizard (gecko?) flash across the floor toward my shoes. Sigh. They don’t bite do they? And the baby spiders are too small to bite. Right? Yeah, that’s what I’ll tell myself.  And of course, I left my mosquito net in my new community (one less thing to carry on moving day) but it would have offered some semblance of protection. At least in my mind. At this point, I was too tired to care. The thought of spiders or geckos crawling over my face at night, like a lot of things…. I just can’t think about it. Oh yeah, and this happened twice in 3 days. I’d be lying if I inserted a ‘Tranquilo’ here. Lol.

Last Friday was a celebration in training: all exams are done and our fellow trainees and professors teamed up to offer fun classes, one of which was salsa dancing. While you know tango is where my heart is, we had a blast. The music is fun and people were really enjoying themselves. The other cool thing we learned (perfect for the holidays or to spice up your milonga) was how to make a candle from a juicy orange (yes, the fruit). Simply cut the orange in half lengthwise so you’re cutting through the stem end, scoop out the fruit but not the pithy white part. Take a piece cotton and stretch and twist into a tight, thin wick (the tighter it is, the longer it lasts). Coil into bottom of one orange half (you might need to prop up with another piece of cotton for height), then add cooking oil to the orange (vegetable, olive, whatever you have) so cotton is saturated and there is plenty to burn for a while. Light cotton with a match and – voila- you have a candle. To make more interesting, use the other orange half for the ‘top’ and cut a hole or interesting design in the center of it (for ventilation and adornment). Do not let candle run out of oil and center your wick with the hole in the cover so the flame doesn’t burn the orange. Beautiful and smells good too.

Last week I learned to build a thatched roof….one of my favorite new skills lately (lots going on lately – hard to choose!) I’ve always been curious how straw can keep out the rain but it’s pretty simple and durable. My new house has this type of roof. They are the best at keeping a house cool and I love the hay-like smell when it rains. Three drawbacks to thatch are 1) sometimes they leak in a hard rain, 2) those in the shade can mold (I think mine’s in the sun), and 3) they can provide habitat for the kissing beetle that causes Chagas disease, a heart and/or GI condition that appears in 10-20 years but preventable with use of my mosquito net (don’t worry, Mom! Wink wink.)

 I don’t know what it is about Paraguay but I, health nut extraordinaire, have craved Coca Cola since arriving in this country. Previously, I’ve had exactly 1 soda in the past 5 years.  Since September, I’ve had 1 every other week. Is it the heat? Is my diet lacking? Is it the effectiveness of their marketing everywhere I turn? Is it because I’ve had to relax so many old standards (diet, health, clean air, co-existing with bugs) that it’s become a coping mechanism? (of course, I jest). LoL. Those of you who don’t know me well may wonder why this is newsworthy but, to my family and closest friends, this is simply shocking. I’ve fallen off the wagon. But it could be worse. I could start burning my trash as is customary here. Wait, I’ve already had to do that too. Where is Wendía and what have they done with her???

My host family owns a despensa in the front of their house where they sell many basic necessities like laundry soap, toilet paper, cornmeal, wine (wax cartons of wine and shelf stable juice and milk are very popular here) cheese, and more. Locals simply walk up to the house, clap (instead of knock), and await someone to answer the door. In ‘Paraguayan time’, these things cannot be rushed. Customers do not approach any despensa expecting prompt service. In fact, there is a chair outside the despensa door for customers to sit while they await the Señora. At other despensas I have witnessed 30 minute waits while the Señora finished her breakfast and completed other ‘pressing’ household functions. My family never leaves a customer waiting that long but shortly after my last post where I talked about the infamous term “enseguida” , host Dad used it on a customer who came a-clapping. I answered the door with my “Uno momento, por favor” and went in search of host Dad because often the family is out back tending animals, etc and can’t hear the claps. He was at the kitchen table texting on his cell pone when I mentioned there was a client at the door. “En seguida” was his answer, meaning ‘Ok, I’ll get to it.’ For some people (not my family) this might mean anything from a couple minutes to never. Imagine the reaction this type of service would stir in the States? Wait, actually, sometimes we DO get this kind of service. Hee hee. But people here are totally tranqui about it. Sometimes they don’t want to wait and just leave after a few minutes, no hard feelings, but usually they hang out in the chair until someone is free to tend the store. I wish we had this back home! And the despensas are open at the convenience of the Señora or her family. No one here has regular business hours except bigger stores.  Last Saturday, one insistent clapper woke me up at 6am while others come up the walk at 8pm.

This past Sunday I, and 4 of my closest fellow trainees (aspirantes), enjoyed a final Sunday luncheon with my host family. I’ve mentioned before that Sunday is family day at my host family’s house. All 7 of the adult kids and their families congregate to make food, converse, laugh, drink terere and enjoy each other. My friends are amazed how well the family gets along and we noted how amazing it is that a family of 20+ people make a priority to be together every week. Nothing else matters. Nothing else takes priority. Sunday with family is sacred. It’s been an honor to witness this and remind myself how lucky I am to also have a wonderful, loving family back home. I very much miss them and will be glad to reconnect when my service is done. However, I am fortunate to feel the spirit of our connection even when we are so far apart. My host family asked me a couple weeks ago if I’d be willing to make my favorite dish from los Estados Unidos (United States or E.E.U.U. for short) for this final meal. Of course, I agreed and they’ve been hyping it up amongst themselves ever since. No pressure! I decided on shepherd’s pie, one of my favorite dishes from childhood…I loved the way my Mom made it. It came out well, they all liked it, and asked for the recipe. However, in the process I discovered why Paraguayans never eat kernelled corn. It is eaten only freshly ground and cooked in sopa or dried and ground for cornmeal. The corn here is not sweet and crunchy like back home. It is very starchy and chewy – more like feed corn for cows. I couldn’t fix the chewiness factor but a little sugar in the cooking process helped bring my recipe one step closer to home. Oh, also, my host brother just returned from vacationing in Buenos Aires and brought me an apron for when I cook in my new community. So thoughtful!

Because I am headed to my site in a few days and unsure of my internet access for the foreseeable future, I will leave you with a few more random facts of Paraguay.  Enjoy your holiday season, family, and friends. Tranquilo!

Paraguay boasts the 3rd largest Peace Corps post in the world, second only to the Ukraine and Phillipines. It also has the lowest crime in the region.

99% of all yogurt is PY is liquid. It is sold in cups like the states but most people drink it instead. I hope to make my own once in my new home.

I discovered what we affectionately call the loofa plant: a squash plant that produces a sponge as a fruit. It dries on the vine in a thin shell and looks exactly like a sea sponge though I hear it’s much more durable. Volunteers use these for bathing, dishes, cleaning, etc. I scored a couple seeds from a volunteer and will give it a try. Pictures next year. Or google it.

Sugar cane harvest  (caña de azúcar or takuare’e) is done and fields are planted with the next crop which takes 2 years to mature.  Mandioca (yucca root) is also a 2 year crop but most people begin harvesting slowly at 18 months and finish at 2 years. Mandioca is a staple of the diet here, served boiled and plain with every meal as a starch. If you don’t take a piece of mandioca to eat with your meal they look at you like you must be a french fry short of a Happy Meal. Afterall, who would refuse mandioca with their meal? Duh. This year’s crop is severely short due to last year’s drought  (sequia). The passionfruit and mango harvests are just about to begin. Heading for the bus I scored a fresh mango today as one dropped right behind me. YAY! The mango trees are laden and drooping, ready to yield their fruit, like a heavy wet snow bends the pines back home.

Volleyball (volei) is very popular here, second only to futbol (soccer).

A favorite paraguayan snack is the empanada. You cannot take a bus to Asuncion without consuming at least two.

Corn is currently waist to shoulder height in most places.

Sweet potatoes are much sweeter and more moist than in the states. Deep purplish brown on the outside, white on the inside. I love them.

The most popular vehicle brands here are largely due to their low purchase price for already-tight budgets (in no particular order): Nissan, Datsun (remember those?), Mitsubishi, Kia, Hyundai, and somehow also Mercedes (mostly for trucks).  More popular than any car or truck is the infamous moto, of course.

It seems everything is opposite South of the equator: the seasons, the way the wáter circles down the drain and the way people keep their animals. Paraguayans fence animals OUT and houses, gardens, and trees IN. In my new site, all the livestock are free-ranged, grazing randomly throughout the community by day, returning to the futbol field at dusk. Neighbors graze their animals together as well. I graze my horses, cows, goats, and pigs with yours. They are free to cross the road, lay down and block traffic, and often raid your garden if your fence is insufficient to keep out the strong, curious and hungry. If they get into your garden, it’s your fault, not theirs. You shoulda made a better fence.

I have found the national pólice to be very friendly. They are everywhere and helpful when you need directions to the baño. Perhaps because they drink terere on the job. It’s a pretty funny sight watching pólice drink terere under the shadeof a mango while on duty. Tranquilo.

Don’t wait for tomorrow to follow your heart. Even if the journey cannot be completed today, small steps are possible every day. Before you know it, you’ll be there. Poco un poco.

Chau for now. xoxo

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

How to eat a watermelon in Paraguay? Ask Wendía.

Be bold or Italic. Never regular.

Life is busy and every week it seems harder to find the time to write (sound familiar?) I thought I’d start today’s post by sharing logistics of what’s about to happen in the coming weeks. Not as entertaining perhaps but I know many of you have had these questions….

The first 10 weeks in-country are strictly training (language, culture, safety, technical skills, etc) and during this time trainees live with host families (more on my awesome host family to follow). Week Ten, in a mere 2 weeks and after passing all exams, is when we officially Swear-In as Peace Corps Volunteers: Friday, December 7. That following Monday we travel to our new communities where we’ll live the next two years and do the work we came to do. (Over the weekend, I plan to explore Asuncion with friends.) For the next 3 months I’ll again live with a host family but thereafter, I can live on my own or continue living with a family. I plan to live alone.

A community must request a Peace Corps Volunteer (the PC doesn’t just randomly send us to villages in the middle of nowhere) and identify a Contact as part of that process who will help me integrate, meet people, answer my questions, and find my way. This past week, I received my assignment and spent a few days in the community where I will live for the next 2 years. I’m soooooo excited!

It is a wonderful, tiny village of 35 homes (~150 people) in central southern Paraguay, a 5 hour bus ride to Asuncion, far enough into the campo that it’s quiet but close enough to a large town called Caazapa (17km or ~11 miles) that has everything I need. The ‘village’ has one school, a despensa, and a church. All other means of survival are agriculture. It is an hour’s walk to the bus on a quiet, dirt road. Road signs do not exist in the campo and every fork in the road looks the same to me. Roads range from all dirt to a grassy-dirt path that looks more like a cow trail. I don’t know how the locals find their way around! The road into our village ends at a river about 4km down the way so the village is superbly peaceful, enjoys minimal traffic, and is fairly safe by Paraguayan standards. My Contact and host family is Profesora Victor and his wife, Isabel. Victor is a well-respected community leader, the school principal and town pastor. They are a friendly and welcoming family, with 7 amazing and respectful children, 5 of whom live at home, ages 6-15 or so. They live in a 4-room house and several of the kids had to share beds during my stay so I had a bed of my own. Paraguayan families are incredibly generous, even when it appears they don’t have much to give. As the guest, I am given my own bed, seated at the head of the table, given the first and largest plate of food, the best cut of meat, not allowed to help clean up, given a chair when others must stand or sit on the ground if chairs are lacking, etc. It’s hard not to feel guilty. But I loved the family and they invited me to stay with them through March, which I agreed. And Victor was incredibly helpful and proactive in introducing me to members of the community, inviting me to committee meetings, classes at school (grades pre-school to 6), his church service, a rezo, etc. While there, I picked out my future house for March: an adorable little one-room, thatched-roof place about ¼ mile away from Victor and Isabel. It has 2 huge mango trees in the back (a major selling point for me), a guava tree, beautiful veggie garden, good fence to keep out the animals and needs a few repairs but should be up and running in short order. I just need PC approval to deem it safe (in terms of isolation, personal safety at night, etc) and agree on the terms with the landlord. Safety is a priority for Peace Corps (and me!)

My goal during the week was to meet as many people in my community as possible and begin to get a feel for the area. Since my community speaks primarily guarani, I also got to practice a lot (or at least practice the look of non-understanding, which they quickly learned to recognize). They do speak some Spanish but nearly all of the real sharing happens in guarani. I already have a nickname: Wendía… because Wendy is hard for them to say but Wendía sounds like Buen Día (good day) and is much easier. Plus we all think it’s hilarious. So now I’m Wendía. Overall, the week went well. The site has had a volunteer for the past 2 years so I am his follow up. We were able to spend quality time reviewing his projects, discussing the community, and having him introduce me to various community members. I am fortunate to follow such a strong and productive volunteer who made a positive reputation for himself and Peace Corps. A great tee-up to begin my service!

Back at ‘home’ my current host family is truly fantastic and has treated me so well these past few weeks. Recently host mom bought me a mortero (like a mortar and pestle) for crushing my own herbs for terere. She also knows I love the watermelon here (always perfectly ripe and sweet) and ensures I have a constant supply. I think I have eaten my weight in watermelon since arriving in PY and am the envy of my groupies, many of whom never see a veggie or fruit, as much of the food here is meat and bread. When they learned that one of the things I miss most from home is good, dark chocolate (without wheat) – I have not been able to find decent chocolate here at all – they bought some for me in Asuncion! ‘Sweet’ – haha! My host sister makes gluten-free cookies for me using mandioca flour and, a new favorite, Arroz con Leche (rice pudding). Oh yeah, and there is a plentiful supply of ice cream at the bakery onsite (I had kiwi ice cream last week). If I don’t gain 15 pounds before I move in December it’ll be a miracle.

In my time here, I’ve only met two Paraguayans who have heard of a wheat-free diet. Most others 1) don’t think or realize they eat wheat at all or 2) once they understand how pervasive wheat is in the diet, they cannot comprehend how I survive without it…”what does she eat if she can’t eat ‘trigo’?” they ask. Few people in my new community wanted to host me because they didn’t know how to feed me. Fortunately, Isabel was courageous and quickly realized I’m not really extra work and has been quick to share her positive experience with others, which I appreciated. Admittedly, I’m already tired of my diet being the primary topic of conversation everywhere I go (because clearly I must be a freak of nature if I can’t eat wheat) but the community IS very interested in learning more about nutrition and the ladies want to lose weight (but don’t know how) so perhaps this is a sign and a springboard for the work I’m meant to do with them.

The vast majority of health problems in this country are diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, caused by the Paraguayan diet heavy in sweets, salt, and red meat. This week my host Mom told me that she was inspired by me, making the connection that perhaps my wheat-free and otherwise healthy diet is related to my small size, and once she realized I still eat a wide and interesting variety of foods, she was inspired to talk to her doctor about changing her own diet to help combat a series of health problems. Fortunately her doctor was very supportive and she is now eating wheat-free, sugar-free, less salt, minimal meat and feeling better already without feeling deprived! I feel honored to be her inspiration and, if I make no other impact while here, this one will be worth it. Also, my host sister and I have been walking in the evenings and she recently asked me to teach her some yoga. Yay! Many Paraguayans are overweight and make poor food choices, partly due to 1) unhealthy food often being less expensive for already-tight budgets, 2) availability of vegetables and fruits is very seasonal, 3) families, especially in the campo, don’t leave their communities much and therefore seldom travel to larger towns where fresh veggies and fruits are more available, and 4) roads are unpredictable and not always suitable for delivering delicate produce, often closing after a good rain. It is not uncommon to see families feeding soda to infants, as it is cheaper than formula. But I’m super psyched to begin this conversation with them, grow a better understanding of nutrition, and discuss options to help!

Two of my host nephews had their First Communion recently and to celebrate with them and their fellow students were over 250 people, standing-room-only, in the small church. While not Catholic, I went out of respect for my family and as a cultural experience, wondering what would transpire. I expected a solemn service but one look toward the altar assured me this would be an entertaining event. While the priest spoke, I noticed dogs wandering in and out of the church and a particular vertically-challenged Dachsund occupying the center aisle. As he trotted away from me toward the altar I almost burst out laughing watching his knock-knees and turned out feet paddling along as his belly bulged in one direction and his fanny swayed the other. He even got in line with his master for communion! The entertainment value of this dog was priceless for me. To the locals, it was just another day in church. Best Communion ever.

Thanksgiving is my all-time favorite holiday though this one was bittersweet. My group of trainees was invited to the Ambassador’s house in Asuncion for a traditional Thanksgiving meal (how cool is THAT?!), fun in the pool (oh wow- I got to SWIM! First time since September and it was heavenly. Heavenly! Luxurious, delicious, magical. I love the water but we’ll talk about that another time.) And while I very much loved spending the day at the Embassy I really missed my family more than anytime since arriving in PY. Fortunately, we got to call home and it was such a treat to talk with everyone. Overall great day of 102 degrees, good fun, good food, good company.

Now, time for my typical random facts and observations:

How does one eat a watermelon (sandia in Spanish) in Paraguay? Grab the whole family or as many friends as you have nearby, distribute spoons to everyone, cut melon in half lengthwise, politely fight for your piece as you scoop fruit with spoon. Eat with spoon or fingers and spit seeds to the chickens if desired. Repeat until satisfied or watermelon is devoured. It’s great fun. You are a freak if you cube it, otherwise cut it neatly, or eat with a fork (I speak from experience here).

As we head into summer, the television alerts begin for dengue fever, a sickness caused by a particular mosquito. Fortunately, it’s most prevalent in the city so it’s unlikely I will need to worry too much but I still have my mosquito net handy nevertheless. The first time one gets dengue it’s more akin to the flu but can be extremely serious and often deadly if contracted more than once. This has never happened to a PC volunteer in Paraguay. I mention it because hearing things like this is so different from what we have to consider in Maine (Nor’Easters, hurricanes, Lyme disease, but a dengue alert? Never)

I saw my first pink pineapple this week. Yup. Pink on the outside anyway. It was still growing so I don’t know about the inside but am totally curious. There are several people in my new village who grow pineapples and it might be fun to experiment with pink ones. Pink. Who knew?

While visiting my site this week, I also attended an agriculture extension day where workshops were given on sustainable farming methods with examples for dry beans/abono verdes/green manures and sugar cane plus an interesting discussion on soils and nutrition. It was another “scorchah” of 102 degrees and the nutrition talk was thankfully given under the shade of an ancient mango tree. Not only does this tree provide fantastic fruit, but it’s shade is so dense it lowers the ambient temperature 15-20 degrees. Tolerable on this day. It has already become my favorite place to be (except when an early mango falls rudely on your plate and nearly feeds your lunch to the scavenging chickens but it’s all good!)

One of the beauties of having a brick floor throughout your house is that they are easy to clean. Forget mops and brooms; you can simply hose it down. That’s right. I saw it firsthand with our housekeeper this week! Drag the hose from the barn into the house and spray away. It’s all about simplicity. I’m beginning to see the benefits of some of these practices though I also forget that these folks have cement walls, no basements and no mold issues.

The currency in Paraguay is called guaranies (gwa-rah-NEE-ace) and the coins come in 50, 100, and 500 gs or 1 mil (= 1000), plus bills of 2, 5 10, 20 50, and 100 mil. With the exchange rate at approximately 4.500, the bus ride from my house to the training center is 2.3 mil which is about 50 cents.

A Paraguayan teacher earns the equivalent of $500/month, which is considered pretty good income here.

Other than the national police, my fellow aspirantes and our medical staff, everyone here wears flip flops…..on motorcycles, plowing with oxen…no matter. Tranquilo.

During a recent trip to the closest ‘despensa’ (mini mart) I purchased some soap. On the tiny checkout counter, our cashier had just dished out his lunch of a soup-like meal with chunks of beef and some sopa paraguaya (cornbread). He left his meal on the counter while he waited on us. There are no cash registers here except the larger supermercados. Everyone uses calculators to determine your purchase total and even then you want to double check. There is no tax. This culture continues to impress me and impress UPON me how much we have to learn from them. Mi amigo and I were fortunate to have a despensa open, as most businesses on the street were closed for siesta (annoying when you want to shop but otherwise perhaps my favorite part of Latin America! haha) We passed a construction worker taking his siesta on a brick wall next to the sidewalk while his teammates forged ahead on his behalf. I totally love this.

When meeting a Paraguayan for the first time, it is customary for them to ask: how old you are, if you are married or have a ‘novio’ and if not, why?, how old your kids are, comment on your age when your children were born (young in my case which can sometimes be a personal sore spot and I have to filter my reactions carefully), how much money you make, how much a certain item of yours cost to purchase, comment on your weight (you are fat [gorda], you are skinny [flaco]), etc. … all the things considered politically incorrect/rude back home. This takes some getting used to!

One of the most popular sayings in PY is “en seguida” (ayn-se-GEE-da) which means: in a couple minutes, in a couple hours, in a week or two, next year, or never. If someone gives you an ‘en seguida’ don’t hold your breath! When will you get my next post? En seguida!

Until then, live out loud and make every moment count.

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 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

On Puppies and Piglets

Sorry this is a lengthy one but there’s so much coolness to talk about everyday!!
Last night I had the best evening yet with my host family. I told my ‘sister’ that I needed exercise so she took me for a walk in the back 40 where I learned my family owns a large sugar cane plantation and significant acreage in cow pasture (I’ve been here a week and just learned this and that we have about a dozen cows and a bull). Two things: 1) the sugar cane is fed to our cows and also harvested for table sugar for extra income; 2) you can always tell a cow pasture from other pastures by the clumps cows leave behind. In this pasture, the clumps are actually a popular herb Paraguayans use in their matte that I learned about in class. This one is called Malva and used as an anti-inflammatory and expectorant. Also tonight, my host Mom showed me the ‘traditional’ way to grind corn before the electric mills were invented. It looks like a tall mortar and pestle and you pound dried corn kernels to fine powder with what looks like an oversized baseball bat then put it through a sieve to make cornmeal. Very hard work. Pics forthcoming of host Mama gettin’ it done.

Two totally cool observations from the bus today: I noticed for the first time a beautiful mountain range in the distance. I believe it is Argentina as we are impressively close to the border and people from this area go there like people from Maine go to NH to buy groceries and cigarrettes. Stay tuned for more details on that topic another time. As for the other: puppies and piglets hanging loose and tranquilo on the roadside. No one watching over them, they weren’t phased by the bus whizzing by, and the cutest sight ever. I’ve gotten accustomed to seeing horses, cows, goats, and even grown hogs tethered (or not) on roadsides, in ditches, pretty much anywhere the grass grows… or walking down the middle of the road. Piglets, that’s a new one.I realized I haven’t talked much about my family or the environment in Paraguay so here goes. My family is large (Mama had 7 kids who all visit on Sundays) but only 2 of the kids (brother and sister) live at home. Mama rules the home and ensures everyone is taken care of and all is in order. Papa works long hours and takes care of the ‘manly’ things around the house like killing chickens. My sister is 32 and a baker at the family’s roadside bakery in front of the house as well as an accountant in Ascuncion. My brother (don’t worry, Bub, he’ll never replace you) is 25, a college student and event planner for a hotel in Ascuncion. They are a very close, proud, hard-working family and treat me better than I could have imagined. After being a ‘grown up’ for a number of years now, it is a bit strange to be waited on, have someone make my lunch, serve me breakfast and keep me company at the table while I eat, ensure I never go hungry, and show me how to wash me clothes (the traditional way on a washboard sink, by hand)….very sweet actually. More detail on laundry another time when I have less to talk about.As for the environment, the scenery here looks like a combination of Maine and Florida. Very interesting. There are red pines growing beside coconut-bearing palm trees. Spear plants and tropicals next to bushes closely resembling New England species. Semolina and mango trees next to what looks like sumac. All growing in the red soil. Fascinating. PS – the semolina trees bear this totally cool pod that is nothing short of an overgrown, flattened vanilla bean and when they fall to the earth, they are dry and make great noise-makers when shaken. Yeah, the guys in my group discovered this the first day. Go figure. 🙂

One of my fellow ‘aspirantes’ (trainees) and his host mother had a tarantula in their kitchen last night. Apparently his host mama, a tall woman of ample mass, jumped on the arachnid with a serious stomp but the spider was nonplussed and collected itself to continue it’s journey toward her kitchen chair. It was finally suppressed by application of boiling water. I have nothing against spiders as long as we each stay in our own space but I really hope I never find one of these in our house. No tranquilo!

Though my brain is totally fried from 6 hours of Spanish class today (that’s right, 6, six, seis) plus 2 interviews with my assistant country director and field supervisor, I found myself in uplifted spirits, feeling like a switch flipped yesterday and things are settling and coming together. My host family commented on how much my Spanish has improved suddenly in the last two days! WOOHOOOO – something is finally clicking! I think I have not given myself enough credit to acknowledge how much change I’m actually going through right now. At home, I thought I had prepared to the nth degree. I thought I had considered a full spectrum of changes I’d undergo and adjustments I’d need to make. I practiced conversations in my head I thought I might have. Little did I know how UNprepared I would be despite those efforts. They told me this would happen but today they also told me I was right where I should be and that I will be just fine. No matter that I want to ask your name in Spanish and am probably inadvertently asking how many keys you have instead. But it’s nice to see progress. Tranquilo.

Jajotopata
xoxo

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

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