Posts Tagged With: Quince Año

Meet My Community – The Benitez-Esquivel Family

October 29, 2013

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

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

The Benitez-Esquivel Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Struggles and Perspectives: Testing Our Mettle

“You never doubt your anger, your depression,
your sadness, your sorrow, your misery;
but you doubt all the positive qualities that you have.
You doubt in your capabilities –
You don’t doubt your incapabilities.
Doubt the incapability in yourself, doubt your limitations,
Then the faith in your capabilities grows.”
-The Honorable Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

This weekend was a struggle. I am resenting my pride that squirms and resists admitting this, but I am feeling fully human and frustratingly inadequate.  Every volunteer and every Peace Corps staff member has said the roller coaster is typical- to be expected- with highs and lows often happening in the same day. Yes, I have already experienced this multiple times in the past three weeks. This is part of the journey and is what tests our mettle.  And, yeah, part of my being here IS to test my mettle…some days though I wish my test had cliff notes. I know these feelings will pass and that I can help this process by practicing gratitude because, no matter what, I have MUCH for which to be grateful; afterall I AM here making a dream come true, here to help others and to learn from them, I have the support and love of a wonderful family and tribe of friends, I am healthy; I need to stop doubting my capabilities.

I find these emotions particularly disappointing after sharing several wonderful days earlier this week with a fantastic volunteer currently working in a tiny pueblo in the Department of Cordillera. The intent of the visit was to help me understand and participate in the real life of a Peace Corps volunteer. The Monday morning, 3-hour bus ride was more nerve-wracking than any race-day morning butterflies back home. All my Spanish vocabulary seemed to evaporate out of my head the instant I needed to ask if the bus driver was going where I needed. I hoped I would not find myself in Argentina at day’s end! But I arrived safely and without incident, passing beautiful scenery and an ostrich farm en route. Score one for me.

My volunteer, Emily, lives among some 200 homes spread over a few square miles, in a tiny one-room, thatched-roof cottage with a single light bulb, cement floor, no bathroom and an outdoor shower stall by which she can ‘bucket bathe.’ She draws her water from the nearby well, one small pail at a time.

Together we visited the local school (with a total of 20 children, grades K-6) and made beet and carrot juice so the kids could see the ‘fruits’ of their labor using veggies from the school garden they created with Emily. L ater, she and Itrekked a half-hour to work in her kokue (ko-KWAY), a field where she has a demo garden and experiments with various crops to see what new techniques or crop combinations might increase yields and income for farmers in her community. One of Emily’s students, 11-year old Gloria, took a shine to me and joined me on a long evening stroll down a red dirt road lined with eucalyptus trees, watching the sun set behind a pasture of race horses, and teaching each other words in our native language. Kids are wonderfully patient teachers (but don’t hesitate to laugh at you either). The night that followed produced a fantastic storm of torrential rain, thunder and the most fabulous heavenly show I’ve ever witnessed:  more than 2 hours of non-stop lightning that colored the entire sky and threw eerie shadows in every direction.

On my final day, we visited with some neighbors and drank terere, talking of everything and nothing. I sat in awe as my fellow volunteer and a friend practiced their guarani and spoke, laughed and cajoled effortlessly in Spanish. I felt like a child, focusing fiercely on every syllable and watching my companions converse animatedly but still unable to comprehend the bulk of the conversations, much less contribute to them. However, my redeeming moment came when the husband patted me on the shoulder and told me I was mucho Guapa, more Paraguayan than my fellow volunteers, because I listen and watch …like a typical shy Paraguayan. I beamed. And I vowed to remind myself to check my perspective…frequently. (And remind myself I’ve only been here 3 weeks. Tranquilo!) Eventually we toured one of their kokues where they grew pineapples, bananas, watermelon, peanuts, beans, guava and papaya trees, mandioca (yucca root) and much more. We wrapped up the day by attending a rezo, a multi-day religious tribute, in honor of a neighbor who died unexpectedly from a heart attack. This country is largely and fiercely Catholic and one is hard-pressed to not see signs of devotion everywhere, including mini chapels fit for dolls along ditches to memorialize accident victims. Unfortunately, these are numerous.

Friday brought my first day of guarani (pronounced gwa-rah-NEE) class, a very old and native language of Paraguay. It and Spanish are Paraguay’s official national languages. It is a difficult language to say the least but absolutely necessary for integrating into my community once I reach my site. Fortunately, my host family is quite eager to help me learn so here we go… and here’s a sample:

Mba’ eichapa! (How are you?)

Iporaminte ha nde?  [or]   Tranquilopa ha nde? (I’m well, and you?)

Iporaminte avei  [or]  Omarcha avei (I’m well also)

Mba’eichapa nde rera (What is your name?)

Cherere Wendy (My name is Wendy)

Mooguapa nde? (Where are you from?)

Che estado unidogua (I am from the United States)

Mba’epe remba’apota? (What do you do?)

Amba’ apota agriculturape (I work in agriculture)

Adio!  [or]  Op! (goodbye)  [or]  jajotopata (See you later)

[and my 2 most commonly used:]

Nahaniri nantendei. (No I don’t understand)

Ikatupa rerepeti ? (Could you repeat please?)

I knew I was making progress this week when realizing I was taking notes in Spanish instead of English! A good sign indeed. Score two for me.

Another first was attending with my family a ‘Quince Año’, the traditional birthday bash, like a Sweet 16, given to girls turning 15. In Paraguay, a girl becomes a woman at age 15. Boys don’t get this credit until age 18. This was not your average birthday party but rather a gala that rivaled the best weddings. And I got to dance! Not tango but it still felt great to get my boogie on nonetheless. The 1 am ride home proved quite harrowing in yet another torrential downpour, our only saving grace being the tiny reflective flaps fastened to the center and fog lines. Otherwise visibility was zero as there are no street lights outside large towns and significant intersections. Just when I thought it couldn’t rain harder, it did. And again and again. I learned that October and November is the ‘rainy season’ here. We definitely needed it, as the country has suffered from drought all year.

I am closing this segment with some random but interesting observations: Did you know KISS and Lady Gaga are performing in Paraguay in the coming weeks? Did you know that Tuesday’s official forecast calls for ‘tons of rain’? Did you know that Coca Cola so strongly dominates the Paraguayan soda market that many locals think Coke is a Paraguayan company? Did you know that most trucks larger than a pick up are Mercedes though it’s rare to find a Mercedes car outside the larger cities and universities? Did you know you can find popular US brands here like Huggies, Colgate, and Proctor & Gamble (and even McDonald’s in Asuncion)? Did you know that gasoline is sold here by the liter and costs the equivalent of $4-7 US dollars per gallon? (Yes, we are on the metric system here and it’s very fun to talk in kilometers, meters, kilograms, liters, degrees Celsius, etc) Did you know that cell phones are so popular here that only 25% of Paraguayans still use a landline?  (though fortunately the smartphones are not as common as in the US, nor is the sight of seeing a table of people all staring down at their smartphones instead of talking to each other). Did you know that Paraguayan time is currently one hour ahead of the US East Coast until US Daylight Savings in a couple weeks?

Enjoy your week. Tell your family and friends how much you appreciate them. Be grateful for the abundance in your life. Make every moment count.

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

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