Posts Tagged With: school garden

What’s the fastest way to jump start your morning? Awaken a hive of 40,000 killer bees!

Date: 2-6-13

“The first time you share tea… you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family… You must make time to share three cups of tea.” – “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

The Dustbowl of 2013: I’m writing on a Thursday with the promise from neighbors that it will rain tomorrow. The village is very excited. Storm clouds gathered tonight at sunset and the wind picked up. It was suffocatingly hot today, 103 degrees, and like breathing through a warm wet blanket. Even at 10pm the fans (ventiladores in Spanish) are earning their keep and relief is finally coming with the wind whipping ahead of the storm, cooling temps a bit and keeping mosquitos at bay. The power falters repeatedly. The Professor, with his connections, arranged for a tank of water to be delivered today and filled the well higher than I’ve ever seen it. I wanted to do a happy dance. No laundry in the rio afterall and the continued assurance of daily bucket baths and clean drinking water.

A couple weeks ago I made my way to Asuncion, PY’s capitol. I had business and errands at the Peace Corps office and needed a little time away from the campo. I called a nearby volunteer who also lives in the Department of , and is my favorite traveling companion. Lucky Sagittarius that he is, this Kentucky mountain man with the preacher’s hat is a people magnet who casually turns any mishap into the best adventure. He agreed some time in the big city would do him good after a rough week. My one hour walk to the bus stop entailed watching ominous clouds gather, sure that it wouldn’t possibly rain TODAY, since it hadn’t rained in two weeks. Rain it did but, with impeccable timing, held off until the exact second I reached the awning of the bus stop. Then it poured. And the wind picked up and made it impossible to stay if I wanted to maintain any dryness. I ran across the street to a beautiful overgrown bush resembling a giant Easter lily with yellow trumpet-shaped flowers which provided fantastic shelter as I hovered under it, crouching over my backpack and the laptop hidden within to keep them dry. The rain lasted only 10 minutes but it gave me time to pause and be present. With my head bowed I watched the water collecting on my curls, slowly sliding, gathering, building into droplets as they slipped toward the ends, like kids on a waterslide, then gracefully fall onto my ankles. My ankles were quickly speckled with dust and raindrops. I lifted my foot outward into the rain hoping to wash off the dust. When the rain subsided I tried rinsing my feet in a shallow sidewalk puddle. Stupid. Before the rain, the sidewalk was dirtier than my feet from the road dust. It was essentially a warm, watery puddle of mud.

Shortly thereafter the bus arrived and took me through new parts of prairie, past plantation after plantation of pines and eucalyptus trees and others I didn’t recognize, all standing in perfect formation like obedient soldiers. The tallest had foliage only at the very top and reminded me of giant rows of harp strings with cattle grazing beneath and between. We continued for two hours down this never-ending bouncy dirt road where the prairie stretched to an endless horizon, reminding me of the ocean back home, then closed in and became familiar smaller pastures like you’d find in any quaint New England country town. The smells of rain, rotting fruit, manure, and the bus’ ancient vinyl and polyester seats filled my head. The road became ugly as the rainstorm made friends with the clay soil and played games with the wheels on the bus. One moment we’re slip-sliding down a small hill and the next spinning our wheels at the slightest incline. It was a bit harrowing so I did what any logical person would do: went to sleep.

In Yuty (pronounced joo-tu), officially the most southern place in the world I have visited thus far in my life, I saw an employee at the bus terminal using crutches because his feet had grown backwards but bless him for working and the terminal for hiring him. The other volunteer and I arrived in Asuncion at 4:30am and found rooms at a beautiful new hostel downtown. I was so excited for a hot shower. We filled the day with errands at the Peace Corps office, lunch of great Chinese food, a friendly and random chance meeting on the sidewalk with an alchemist who gave us mounds of fresh fruit from his home, and catching up with a Paraguay friend, Ernesto, who lives and owns a leather goods shop in Mercado 4 and who took time away from the business to show us around. He’s super sweet. We treated ourselves to massages and headed back to the hostel where we met a Russian-German man who speaks 8 languages, has lived in Brazil a number of years and moved to PY only two weeks ago. This is what I love about hostels. You meet interesting people. We were joined by another volunteer friend and sat around sharing stories into the night.

The next morning I was refreshed and ready to rejoin my community. In a cab ride back to the bus terminal we were surprised to find ourselves in a new car in mint condition complete with new-car smell and lace seat covers….a rarity in PY, or anywhere for that matter!

My host Mom, Isabel, and I were chatting recently about food. She confessed that PY doesn’t have much in the way of food preparation education. Recipes and cookbooks in the campo are rare. Most recipes are passed on by family, hence why one family’s sopa may be very different from another’s. She added that many women in our community are eager to learn how to prepare healthier food and lose weight but don’t know how. I see some nutrition workshops and cooking classes in our future!

This last week of January has been packed with bee projects from which I finally obtained my own hive of bees. Having this work has greatly improved my overall satisfaction and minimized the normal ups and downs, at least for now. It feels good to have solid work and make a tangible contribution through beekeeping for those families. Most bees here are Africanized or the infamous “killer bees.” I did three wild-hive captures (trasiegos) with various members of my community and a honey harvest with my host family. Now that my community knows I can help them with bees, invitations keep pouring in from families wanting help and folks are eager to tell me where to find the next takuru (termite mound). Let me clarify: invitations come from families with whom I’ve built relationships. Like most places in the world, nothing is accomplished here without first building relationships (and building toward your “Three Cups of Tea” as it were). And even the most pressing matter may still take a backseat to first sharing terere with a circle of family or friends. A simple walk down the street always involves saying hello to everyone and asking about their family.

A trasiego involves moving the bees from their wild hive and putting them into a wooden hive that is managed by the family on their property. Wild hives are often found here under termite mounds, in coco trees or in holes in the soil. Often you can also harvest some honey during a trasiego, depending on the time of year. We are nearing the end of honey harvest season but were able to collect some honey in all three cases. Bees tend to be much more tranquilo during a trasiego than during a honey harvest because in a trasiego you are destroying their home, they are confused and go into survival mode rather than their typical defensive mode when you simply steal their honey. This is not to say they won’t sting because they will but overall they’re much more tranquilo. In fact, we often handle them with bare hands while scooping them from the wild hive into their new box! It’s incredible how much heat they produce in the depths of the hive and the vibration of their wings on your hands is amazing and, at first, quite unsettling.

The first trasiego was a subterranean colony living under a termite mound on the prairie. I had three volunteers who visited for the weekend to help and get additional practice for themselves. The family didn’t originally want to participate at all, the husband citing an ‘allergy’ to bee stings (I think every man in my village conveniently has an ‘allergy’ to bee stings). But ultimately the entire family was an integral part of the process, from rebuilding an old wooden hive to sewing honeycomb onto the frames of the new hive and scooping bees into their new home. Even the teenage boys came up close and helped with the smokers to keep the bees calm. The family was very proud of themselves and their new hive in the end. The second trasiego was the first on my own and I felt pretty confident. I worked with two ladies in their 50s, their first trasiego each. Again, neither wanted to be hands-on originally but, with a littIe convincing, they were cracking open the fallen coco tree with a machete, sewing comb onto the frames, keeping the smokers going and the bees calm, and learning the difference between cells containing honey, pollen and baby bees. In fact, we witnessed three ‘newborn’ bees hatching from their cells that day. Incredible because they come out fully grown, walking perfectly and ready to work. When we pulled a pristine, three foot chunk of honeycomb from the tree we all smiled and posed for a photo taken by one of my host family’s daughters, standing a ‘safe’ distance away in the brush. They realized handling bees was actually quite fun and finished with a new sense of confidence and accomplishment. Personally, I find working with bees very meditative because you can’t think of anything else when you are with them. The final trasiego was another, huge, termite mound on the prairie. A neighbor had planned to harvest the honey and invited me to keep the bees for myself afterward. Score. The final piece of a trasiego after putting them in the box is to leave the box there for a day or two so the bees who aren’t yet inside will find their way there and you take as many from the old hive as possible. Then the following night after dark you move the hive to its permanent location on your own property. Since I don’t have a property my host family offered a spot in the forest on their property for my new bees to live. The problem with this hive is that the days were so hot the bees wouldn’t stay in the box so we could move them off the prairie to their new home. Instead they were clustering outside and underneath to stay cool. So we got up at 5am the third morning and took what we could. Wrapping the hive in a sheet to prevent escapees and stings, we trekked the bumpy mile across the prairie and crop fields to their new location. As we put the box in place, we could hear the angry buzzing of 40,000 pissed off bees now loaded for bear from being so rudely jostled and awakened so we quickly removed the sheet and ran like hell. It was a fantastic week and the unanticipated benefit of this work is that my villagers insist I take home some honey for helping them.

I’ve been trying to move my bin of California red worms from the old volunteer’s house to the school garden for lessons in using worms for composting when the school year begins later this month. It took two attempts as the first try was thwarted by fire ants. I heard them before I saw them. I looked up at the sound of rustling thinking a horse or cow was moving through the bushes nearby. Initially I saw nothing but then the leaves on the ground started moving and I realized an army of fire ants was headed straight for us. Because ants don’t like wet conditions, we made a temporary barrier by emptying two buckets of water around the area but it wasn’t enough to stop them. We fled and finished the following week. During that attempt, the 10-year old from my host family told me to stop and listen to the birds. They were really squawking and she told me it was because a snake (serpiente) was near. With this newsflash I just wanted to finish the damn project and get outta there. I cursed myself for forgetting my machete this day. We worked faster, walked carefully and were glad to finish after a few trips with the wheelbarrow. Pay mind to the birds’ song for they speak when the serpent is near.

Speaking of insects and dryness, we’ve been hit with a sudden onslaught of new insects who either prefer the dry conditions or are looking for water as desperately as everything else. Many of these insects are stinger types like wasps, clinging to wet laundry on the line and sucking the moisture from it.

It’s “carnaval” season in PY. There are two types of carnaval. One is the infamous fiesta scene such as that in Encarnacion and Asuncion with fireworks, festivities, and scantily-clad dancers donning heels and plumage like a Victoria’s Secret runway model. The other meaning for carnaval is ‘water fight!’ haha Isabel encourages me to carnaval her daughters, normally Irma, when they joke with me. The other day the family was on the patio chatting away and I snuck up behind Irma after she’d given me a ration of joking and gave her a good squirt with my water bottle. Water fight and peals of laughter ensued!

February 12 is my site presentation which means my supervisor and our technical guru will visit my site to meet with my villagers, explain Peace Corps, my background, expectations the village should have of me and Peace Corps has of my village to support me. During this time, they also inspect my future living space: a classroom in an old, unused school building. I love my host family but can’t wait to move, have my own space, and make my own food again! I’m busy finishing my family visits and ensuring everyone has an invitation to the gathering.

Recently my family made chipa, a very popular bread made of corn and mandioca flour and usually shaped like a bagel or baguette. We enjoyed a breakfast of chipa and hot chocolate in the coolness and sunrise of one early morning. This reminded me of the croissants and delicious hot chocolate I had years ago in a tiny French café while chaperoning my daughter’s eighth grade class in Quebec City.

Random additions:

I recently finished reading “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen (couldn’t put it down and read it in one day) and “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. “Three Cups” portrays Greg’s life as a mountain climber who went on to build schools for children in the Himalayan mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan. If you’re a climber, interested in other cultures and/or the politics pre-and-post- 9/11 of Pakistan and Afghanistan this one might peak your interest. Next is the sequel to “Three Cups” called “Stones into School” which I am liking even better.

“Air tissue” is a popular practice here. Plus it helps with trash management. I’ve never seen a Paraguayan use a paper tissue.

It is common for Paraguayans to cook meals in a single pot. This is why stews or “caldo” is so popular. It is also very common for vegetables and meat to be cut into tiny pieces. Fewer pans, less clean up, faster cooking and thus less fuel used.

One day at the bus stop I met a woman with 14 siblings, 11 of whom were living. But she doesn’t take the record. Last week I met someone whose cousin had 17 kids and none were twins!

On my walk home from the bus one day, courtesy of a fantastic view of the prairie, I counted the smoke from 11 prairie fires. Our normally cloudless, bright blue sky was hazy for the next couple days. Everything is dangerously dry from the drought.

When you visit a Paraguayan family, their hospitality second to none, they always end the visit asking when you will visit again. At first, I just thought they enjoyed the visit and wanted me to come back. Later I realized it’s what they all say to conclude a visit. Haha!

Condiments here like mayo and ketchup are sold in small, single serve squeezable pouches, convenient for those who have no refrigeration. Spices are sold in small plastic sleeves but I’m not sure why this convention is popular. Perhaps to be used more rapidly to prevent insect infestation? I remember while working for Hannaford that our Latino populations in the US prefer the same type of spice packaging over the flip-top or screw-top canister style with which I grew up.

Don’t forget to tell your favorites that you love them.

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The day the well went dry and the cow gave powdered milk

Jan 22, 2013

“…explore the beauty of silence, and get your friends to appreciate it too…It’s amazing how refreshing it can be to share silent moments with people you really enjoy.” – How Yoga Works, Geshe Michael Roach & Christie McNally

We officially have a sequia (drought) on our hands across PY. The ground is cracking, trees are limp, the cattle are irritable for eating crunchy, brown grass and all of their usual watering holes are dry. We cringe when the trucks pass the house on their way to or from the river to buy sand as dust billows in massive red clouds in their wake, rolling across the pasture, into windows, onto clean laundry drying on the line. On Saturday our well went dry. One might think a family of 6 plus guests might be nervous about such a situation but they are quite tranquilo indeed. They’ve done this before and spoke matter-of-factly that the Professor would take the tractor to the next pueblo and bring back drinking, cooking and bath water as long as they would let him. It seems he is friends with the owners of the sugar cane factory who have this extra water. Every drop is precious. I guess it’s a good thing I’m no longer fazed with moss, fern bits or the occasional beetle floating in the bucket of drinking water in the kitchen. I’ll take what I can get. Though the 40 liter barrel is the same one used to catch rainwater from the roof and I question its cleanliness. It’s a tough spot to be in- needing water but having no control over the hygiene of the containers. In the meantime, kids were asked to consolidate bathroom trips to minimize water use, waste water from dishes is tossed on the pasture to preserve what little green is struggling to survive and we’ll be doing our laundry in the rio (river) along with several other families. Since I can’t ride the moto, which is how the rest of the family will get there, I’m negotiating with the neighbor, Isabel’s sister, to let me take her ox cart instead of walking that six mile roundtrip in the sun with a bag of clothes. The ox look like they’re going slow but they’re actually faster than my fastest walk. We’ll see. Over breakfast Isabel joked that it is now so dry her cow is giving powdered milk. Personally, I’m waiting for the chocolate! Haha

In the meantime, the beautiful pear tree near the house is having no difficulty raining fruit into the backyard. After wondering what a family might do with dozens of pears, I was delightfully surprised to be served “Peras Dulce” or Sweet Pears. OMG. Who needs apple pie when you can have THIS? (Perhaps I can convince my uncles to favor this instead of my apple pie over which they salivate at Christmas.) Isabel peeled and sliced or sometimes chunked the pears, cooked until soft with some water and sugar. Serve hot (my favorite) or cold. I like it with plain yogurt and a sprinkling of oatmeal to make it an instant pear crisp-like tasting dessert. Because of their abundance I am currently experimenting with drying pears in the solar dryer (as well as garlic). So far the pears have turned out beautifully and are super sweet, a hit with the family.

Despite the lack of water the rainstorm last week provided just enough water for mosquito breeding and there is an outbreak of dengue fever here. The entire capitol city is under alert and my neighbor and her husband are both recovering from it. The country’s 911 system has received 2 million calls from panicked residents and hospitals are overflowing with patients. Until this week I’ve not seen many mosquitos in weeks but I still use my ‘mosquitero’ nightly as it also keeps spiders and other insects at bay and allows me a peaceful night’s sleep in not worrying about critters.

Bees. I talked about them a bit last time and how I suddenly have a lot of bee work on my hands. This is very exciting and I’ve outfitted myself with new equipo (equipment) and a hive. Now I just need bees. I’ll catch a wild hive for the box later. Until then, I’ll work with other families’ bees. What I’ve discovered in my discussions with these families is that while most Paraguayans love and want honey, the majority are afraid of bees. Especially the men. So “bee-having” in my community is often relegated to the women. Paraguayan women are fearless. I love this about them. And I understand the whole fear of bees thing. I, too, was fearful for many years until I came here. And I will never forget the first time I actually worked in a hive…I was terrified. Certainly I was scared of getting stung though I’d resolved myself to the fact that, if you work with bees, you WILL get stung. Get over it. I was more scared of dropping the comb after pulling it out of the hive. Bees are highly sanitary and putting any part of their hive on the ground subjects them to insects and diseases. But with every visit to the hives, I get more comfortable and, now, downright tranquilo. Not to say I don’t get a few butterflies when I look down and see them crawling all over my clothes and my veil but the secret is remaining calm and moving slowly. Usually they just want to check you out. If they find nothing to worry about they’ll often leave you alone. When you start swatting is when you piss them off and invite trouble. Other days, they’re just grumpy for no apparent reason and you’re better off leaving them alone. The bees in PY are Africanized bees (also known as Killer Bees), hence named for their aggressive nature, and the commentary above is especially important to remember to keep them as calm as possible. This weekend we are doing two wild hive captures and a honey harvest and I’ve invited 4 other volunteers to help. Should be great fun and lots of learning. One of the hives is in an old termite mound underground, the other is in a fallen coconut tree. Bees love the coconut trees because they’re very fibrous inside and provide lots of space.

I visited three new families one day last week. My last stop was with a woman who owns a large cattle operation with her husband. We connected easily and my visit lasted longer than I expected. Just when I was planning to take leave her three daughters came home. About that time, the señora disappeared into the house for what I thought was to tend the three year old. I stayed and chatted with the girls (15 and 20) and their amiga (26) for quite a while. They talked of how they struggled to learn English in school, delighted in my family photos and asked about my work here in this tiny town in the middle of nowhere. I realized the señora had been gone a while and thought perhaps she hadn’t enjoyed our visit as much as I had. A moment later she waltzes into the kitchen with a bag brimming of dry beans, a pound of cheese, two dozen eggs, a container of freshly made Peras Dulce, and a wine bottle full of her own honey! Wow. What to say?! I’d say she wants me to come back. The honey alone is an expensive gift and potential income generator. When I got home my family asked if I was going to visit again tomorrow. Haha. We opened the bottle and sampled the honey. Two tablespoons later I was transported to heaven. To my delight, it had not been filtered but contained bits of wax, pollen and tiny, bee parts (did you know you can eat literally everything inside a hive including bees and bee larva?)

As I was walking home from the bus this week, I took a shortcut across the cattle pasture and, on the same rise where the owl and I had our mysterious connection last week, I suddenly realized how quiet everything was. The prairie, usually dotted with bellowing cattle, squawking birds protecting their nests and the occasional cowboy, was empty. At 2:30 in the afternoon everyone and everything was seeking respite from the sun’s baking heat. No cows, insects, birds, motos, people, airplanes… only a hushed wind in my ear and the massive expanse of cloudless, brilliant blue sky over a browning prairie sprinkled with palm trees and termite mounds. For a few moments, it seemed the whole world was silent.

And I counted my blessings for being here.

As many people have done a friend of mine from Hawaii asked if he could send me anything. I asked for a hacky sack. Toward the end of training I had started playing this simple game with some guys from the group and really loved it, though I also really stink at it. But no matter. So last week what arrived in the mail? THREE hacky sacks! Thanks, Joe! (and thanks to everyone who has asked…I will let you know suggestions as they come up; perhaps in March when I move into my own place?) No sooner were they sitting out of the package than the kids’ toy radar went off and they appeared at my bedroom door, wide-eyed and full of questions. In minutes we were on the patio kicking futilely and laughing hysterically. It was a scream and the fun continues. The youngest, at six years old, is fearless, bold, impressively independent, sometimes amusingly bossy in her friendly and helpful way, and full of unstolen confidence and self-esteem often already lost by other girls her age. She doesn’t stop to think whether or not she can do a certain task. In her determination not to be outdone by her five older sisters she is well skilled on many fronts from pumping up a tire to well-honed hospitality with guests. There is nothing she won’t attempt and with a maturity that leaves me in awe for her age. There are days I feel she could run the household and other days I am well-reminded that she is only six.

Rules for Dating in Paraguay. I thought you might be curious for a peek behind the dating scene curtain in PY. The complexity of the spoken and unspoken dating ‘rules’ here warranted its own class during training. Because I am here to work, I have no intention of dating during my service, thought you’d find it interesting if not humorous. For example: 1) if you look a guy in the eyes ‘too long’ then you are dating (he becomes your ‘novio’), 2) if you drink terere on a patio alone with a man then you are dating, 3) if you dance ‘too many’ dances with the same guy then you are dating, 4) if you kiss a guy then you are dating and of course 5) if you go to the kokue alone with a man, even if you are talking ‘shop’ and nothing happens, then you are dating. The list goes on. In many ways, it’s easy for the Norte men because men call the shots on relationships here. They decide when a relationship is over, however, if you are dating a Paraguayan man, he is assuming you will marry him, even if you’ve only dated once. And if you break up, which is hard to do for a woman, he may very likely still consider you ‘his’ girlfriend for years to come. In my opinion, the dating scene here is not for the faint of heart. And volunteers are strongly discouraged from dating in their communities. You can see how it could get complicated quickly. Maybe I’m just showing my age. Isabel has been laughing for a week after I shared my new Paraguayan motto that sums up my thoughts quite simply: no motos, no novios, no problems!

Random thoughts:

Things I’ve seen on a moto: family of five (including infants), two-layer birthday cake held in one hand, rolled up mattress, live pig, propane tank and spare tires on the driver’s lap, garden hose dragging behind, luggage, mounds of groceries, weed whackers, hoes, large stack of plastic patio chairs, terere termos, 55 gallon barrel, construction materials like lumber, strapping, bags of cement, and sheets of glass.

My host family is really fantastic. Every day I am reminded how fortunate I am. Lately, they’ve been making cakes for dessert and the house is filled with luscious aromas, much to my dismay because I can’t eat wheat. In the past I had to settle for cake-eating fantasies. This week however, they made a cake with ground beans and corn flour. OMG. It tasted like chocolate cake and didn’t have a hint of chocolate in it! No kidding! And served with a drizzle of my new honey, I was a happy camper. And maybe some peras dulce on the side. Yum!

Because there is no mail delivery system here bills such as an electricity bill are delivered by moto and tacked to the light pole near the house. The vast majority of cell phones use a pre-pay plan where you buy more ‘saldo’ (minutes) when you run out.

PY is primarily a cash economy. It is not common for shops outside Asuncion to accept debit or credit cards of any kind unless they are hotels or sell big ticket items like appliances. Quotas are also common. A quota is essentially a payment plan. Vendors using quotas often sell their wares via moto. They visit your home and offer you an item, say a thermos for your terere. A thermos might normally cost 100 guaranies but the vendor offers three monthly payments of 50 gs each. The Paraguayan educational system not does teach much long-term, forward-thinking and analytical skills so many people don’t realize they are paying more for the thermos using the quota than they would if they bought it outright in the beginning. They are attracted by the idea of having the item today and paying less money today than considering the overall cost.

Did you know Daffy Duck, Tweety and Scooby-Doo now speak Spanish? Yup, they are on cartoons here in PY. Funny to watch the dub-overs on a duck.

Breastfeeding is very popular here and there is no modesty in nursing publicly. Very publicly. I think this is why low cut shirts are the fashion here. When you need to nurse your baby you simply pull a breast out over the top of your shirt. No concealing it like back home. Nothing left to the imagination. There must be a certain freedom in this lack of modesty…to sit on a park bench, at the table with the whole family, at a rezo to honor the dead, or on the bus, all the while chatting away with family or friends or strangers. I think there is nothing more beautiful than watching a baby nurse (babies of all kinds, people or animals, in fact the baby goats next door are so big they get on their knees to nurse these days and when finished, simply continue grazing the grass on their knees…hilarious) though admittedly I felt a little awkward the first time a member of my previous host family suddenly decided to nurse in front of me. I’d only met her once and there we were chatting away and before I knew what was happening the breast was there in all its glory and I didn’t know where to look. Away? In her eyes? At the person next to her? Take a sudden interest in the clouds? Admire the sweet baby without gawking? But now I’ve seen enough breasts that I no longer stress. People look or don’t. The mother never cares and if she does she turns away.

Did you know a large grain bag full of dry bean pods yields only about 10 lbs of beans? It’s a lot of work to shell and clean those beans free of debris and insects. And as I was helping to shell the beans from Isabel’s harvest one evening, the insects begin their nighttime serenade. I sat there trying to think how I would describe the sound to you. It’s not chirping, buzzing, clicking or other common insects sounds. What WAS it? Then I realized. It’s a chorus of fax machines. Yes, they sound exactly like a fax. And it is deafening. If I’m on a phone call, I have to go inside and shut my door and window. The insect is called la sigarra in Spanish or ñakyra in guarani. They are about three inches long and ‘sing’ day or night, but most loudly just as the sun is setting, just when the evening glow fades and darkness nestles into the village.

Most dogs here are male and never neutered. Most other animals (cows, horses, goats, pigs) are female. Well, there are a number of male cattle including oxen and young bulls. I haven’t quite figured out the system yet but it appears young bulls are left uncastrated to see how they mature and, if they grow into a desired bull, they are used for breeding. Otherwise, they are either sold for meat or castrated for oxen (much messier and more painful when they are older!)

In my last weekly visit to Caazapa’s internet café I wrapped up my business and clapped into the backroom to get the owner’s attention so I could pay and leave. Out comes a teenager who heard two syllables of my Spanish and muttered something to the effect of “Great, your Spanish is terrible” and proceeded to tally my fee. Unfortunately, she was impossible to understand thereafter and I couldn’t figure out what she’d calculated for a total. I asked her to repeat. She rolled her eyes and muttered something incoherent. I asked her to repeat again. She looked at me incredulously as if I was trying to cheat her out of an hour. While frustrating and slightly embarrassing, it was totally hilarious watching her responses. Inside I’m laughing, wondering what she’s really thinking vs what I think she’s thinking and really just wanting this ordeal to be over for both of us. She kept looking toward the back room as if to say, “Don’t make me bring my brother out here.” My internal thought train: Sweetie, I’ve met your brother, he’s totally tranquilo…and he understands me just fine. Finally, I just handed over what I thought she wanted plus a little more and put us both out of our misery. I’m learning to find the humor in these situations!

This must be prime fishing season. I see people fishing in rivers, in culverts, in ponds in the cow pasture. There is an eel-like fish here that’s common with these fishermen and I came home recently to find my host family cleaning some in a bucket outside. The conversation started from a distance as I approached from the futbol field with them telling me it was a snake and we’d be eating it for dinner. From a distance it looked exactly like a snake. I paused to decide how I felt about that. The girls, jokesters that they are, burst out laughing, finally telling me these were fish.

There is a type of ant here (tahyi ara ra’a) that, instead of biting, actually slices your skin open and does so in a flash. I discovered this first hand as I was preparing to move the worm bin to the school garden. The drought had dried it out more than I expected, perfect conditions for ants who don’t like moisture. When we lifted the cover the ants immediately spread like wildfire…they are fast! Avoid these if you ever come to PY. They hurt! Worm bins, or lombriculture, are an important part of our work here, helping to recycle nutrients and enrich the soil by making beautiful, rich compost. The worms are simple red worms. Back in the day I used to keep some in my house under the sink, sofa or in the closet in old dishpans. People thought I was loony but it was the perfect solution for food that would otherwise go in the trash and if you do it right, it never smells. The worms don’t bite, make any noise, need a babysitter or need to be walked and require only something to eat once a week and regular watering. Perfect.

Jajotopata!

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

Make your own happiness

,Date 1-16-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Random facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have an excellent week!

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

“There´s a frog in my toilet” and other tales from the tropics

Date: 1-9-13

“…we can’t leave ourselves out when we undertake to make the whole world happy. Because we are part of the whole world too!” – “How Yoga Works”, Geshe Michael Roach & Christie McNally

A chicken walks into a bedroom… No this is not an impending joke. Those of you who know me are relieved, I know. I can’t tell jokes. This is my actual life. As I’m editing the last bits of this post a chicken walks into my bedroom. (It is far too common in this country to have chickens or guinea hens wandering freely throughout the house when no one’s paying attention.) We try to shoo her out but instead of turning around and heading back out the door like a good little chicken, she freaks out and starts flying around my room like she’s lost a propeller. She lands on the back of my neck, my pillow, the sheets, the floor. We shoo her again and she does a repeat, crashing into the wall and seemingly blind to the big open doorway. You don’t know how dirty chicken feet are until they’ve been on your neck. Eeeew. Three of the girls were in my room reading with me and we were shrieking and laughing until Isabel came running in the house to see what the bluster was all about. When we explained she burst out laughing, devoid of all sympathy. I changed the sheets and showered… I mean bucket bathed. Promptly.

I was blessed to Skype with my daughter and parents for hours last week. It was wonderful to catch up on the news and just hear their voices. I look forward to skyping, their letters and catching up each week when I get ‘in town’ (though I don’t think the owners of the internet café love me so much on days I stay through siesta hour and they don’t get their nap.) While I love the campo, I find I really need a bit of ‘in town’ once a week. It’s also a good time to do errands, grab some great chipa and groceries, have a meeting with the other volunteers in our area, etc. Last week I got the latest letters from my Mom that included the family Christmas cards and newsletter. My Mom is great that way…always thinking of others. Every year my extended family writes a newsletter with stories recapping the year’s events for each family. There are about 70 people on this side of the family and it was an amazing year of great achievements as well as much suffering and angst. In the end, we all agreed our greatest gift was each other, having an incredible family on which to lean, celebrate and love. It never ceases to amaze me how little I know what goes on in my family until I read the newsletter at year’s end. What makes it worse is that most of us live next door to one another!

Speaking of family, my very sweet and thoughtful 18-year old nephew has been having dinner with my parents every Tuesday and on one of his recent visits he told my Mom he wanted to get me something for Christmas. Mom asked him what he had in mind. He pondered intently throughout the evening and finally decided on the perfect gift. “Deodorant!” he said proudly. “I think with all that heat she probably needs deodorant. I think she would be very happy with that, Gram.” I would be happy with anything from this gem of a kid…even deodorant.

I’ve begun drying mangoes to savor for the coming winter and to begin showing the señoras here how they can improve and extend nutrition through more parts of the year by drying food in-season. I discovered that the previous volunteer in this site had already built a solar dryer so I got to work peeling and slicing, chatting excitedly with my señora in the house about the possibilities and benefits of having real, dried fruit off-season. The one thing I forgot to account for was the weather. I got a ½ day of sun followed by 2 days of rain and clouds. Half my precious mangoes that didn’t dry the first day got moldy. It has been cool and rainy since Christmas. I haven’t seen weather like this since I first arrived in PY and while it’s a nice break from the heat, it isn’t helpful for drying fruit. “Util”, meaning ‘helpful’, is one of the vocabulary words the kids gave me recently and we use it jokingly ALL the time, usually in the negative such as “Oky (rain)- no util”, “Pelea (fight)- no util”. I’ve got that word down for sure. Speaking of rainy weather, I seriously thought we were in for a tornado the other night. The sky was an eery, mysterious caldron of black swirling clouds wreaking havoc with the light of the sunset in a way I’ve never seen. The family was outside watching curiously. I was watching for a funnel. There was no tornado- at least not in my village- but the sky opened up to dump its water on us all at once, while thunder crashed and lightning flashed non-stop for two hours.

With intermittent help from the Professor and a couple of his kids, we’ve started cleaning up the school garden. We want it ready for when the kids resume school at the end of February. Plus he has agreed to let me add onto it for my own garden. This is convenient now that I’ve decided to live at the school when I leave my host family in March. This new plan is for security reasons, though I really love that cute little thatched roof hut but it’s far off the road on the edge of the forest. The school has two buildings: the new school which is the one currently being used and the old school, in which only one room is used as a library. It is in the center of the village, near my host family and very visible, which is great for security, maybe not so great for privacy as time goes on, but it’s a trade off that seems to make sense. My village is pretty safe by Paraguayan standards but after arriving here I decided I felt more comfortable with this option.

In the afternoon, the free-ranging cattle converge on the futbol field/pasture out front waiting for their owners to herd them into the paddocks for the night. Sometimes they’re still there when the daily futbol game begins. Like the other day. The guys shooed the cattle off to the sidelines where the animals simply turned around and watched the game, all lined up like parents watching their kids. There is one boy who herds his cattle with a bicycle, some people use dogs, others walk or send the kids, still others use horses.

The other thing about rezos is that they are typically carried out for six to nine days in a row, always in late afternoon. Isabel’s family is holding the rezo series for the aunt that died last week. The first day the two of us walked to and from the rezo in the next pueblo, about 3 miles each way. On subsequent days she took the moto. I am not allowed to ride motos so I continued to walk. I’m hoping to buy a bike this week which will make events like this much easier. Anyway, each day after the ceremony, it is customary for the family to serve bits of food and drink (now you know why they often raise a large hog to help fund these events. The food alone can get expensive!) Often this is candy and chipa, a bagel-shaped bread of cornmeal and anise seed. On Day 1, I politely refused the drink, candy and a stick of what looked like either rolled meat jerky or chocolate profiteroles. On the walk home Isabel offered me one of the sticks; that’s when I discovered they were hand-rolled cigars! Glad I decided not to bite into one at the service!

Many families in the campo use fagones as their heat source for cooking. These are outdoor, wood-fired brick stoves for boiling or frying food. Some have built-in brick ovens. My family has a fagone as well as a methane gas burner, fueled by a biodigester. Basically, the Professor adds cow manure to a giant bag that lies in a trench in the ground. The manure decomposes, releasing methane which is then captured by hoses and fed to a small burner for cooking. No manure, no gas. But, if carefully managed, these can produce up to two hours’ of gas a day. It’s a great option for things that cook quickly and when you don’t want to start a fire in the fagone only to fry a single egg. Also, firewood is at a premium here because much of eastern PY has been deforested for agricultural use. While we have some trees, much of our ‘forest’ is brush and vines. Every scrap of burnable wood (or other material including plastic and cardboard) is carefully collected and stored like gold.

History of PY:
From 1864-1870 Paraguay waged the Triple Alliance war between Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina, during which all but 5% of its population was decimated. It’s population has since recuperated to 6 million people, with a number of immigrants from Germany and Japan. From 1932-1935 Paraguay fought the Chaco War against Bolivia. They won but gave up part of their land. From 1954-1989 dictator Alfredo Stroessner ruled until democracy overturned the dictator with the election of General Andres Rodrigues in 1989. Paraguay continues to be a democracy though there are residents here who prefer the old ways of dictatorship because the country was more orderly and crime lower. Most Paraguayans (90%) are Catholic while only .6% practice indigenous religions. Many men work in Asuncion or Argentina to provide for their families. Divorce is only .3% but infidelity is rampant. Spanish and Guarani are the two official languages of Paraguay, despite dictator Stroessner trying to abolish Guarani throughout the country during his rule. Less than 50% of youth speak only guarani in their homes while about 28% of youth speak only guarani in urban areas. In rural areas, youth attend school an average of 6 years while in urban areas the average is 9 years. The cost to send a student to school is the equivalent of about $100 US dollars/year in urban areas and about $50 US dollars in rural areas. Uniforms are common but can be a deal-breaker for some families. It can be difficult for families to afford this education for their children so often children will alternate who will go to school (every other year or every other child). Other reasons for not attending school: kids feel they are ‘done’, there is no school nearby, and the biggest reason…they don’t want to go. Illiteracy rates among youth are relatively low: 3.6% with most of these being in rural areas. Dating days for youth are Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays with permission from the female’s parents. Unfortunately, 83% of youth have no medical insurance and even those with insurance may still struggle to afford bus fair, the doctor’s consultation fee, medications, and costs of check up visits. Many Paraguayans self-medicate using locally grown herbs or other remedies. Naturopathic healers are plentiful here, though not regulated. Youths spend as much as 4 months looking for work. (All data sourced from “La Juventud de Paraguay”, Elizabeth Covarrubias.)

Agriculture has been an important part of PY’s history for centuries, In the ‘old days’ it was customary for farmers to incorporate crops with trees, maintaining good diversity of plants and wildlife. In addition to having very acidic soils, adoption of modern monoculture practices (growing a single large crop) and deforestation are the major contributing factors to the current decline in soil fertility. The most common monoculture crops here are sesame, cotton, sugarcane, and soybeans. Sesame is sold almost exclusively to Japan. Deforestation continues but has slowed in recent years. Burning one’s fields to clear old debris, however, is still a popular practice and is one among many of my missions to help educate farmers otherwise.

Yet another tradition here is the Three Reyos Magos (Mejor, Gaspar, Valtasar) on January 6 where children place their shoes on the windowsill and Jesus leaves a gift in the shoes during the night. It’s similar to hanging stockings for Santa. Two of my family’s kids got a small plastic train that makes noise when you pull the string. The girls have been thrilled with this single, simple gift and ran excitedly throughout the house showing all of us the following morning.

This week´s headliner was a small tree frog peeking out from under the rim of the toilet as I entered the bathroom. If it hadn’t been for someone leaving the seat up as well as the newly implemented “clean shoe policy” I might not have noticed. I did pause long enough to get my camera and wonder what else might be living under there! Eeek. Tranquilo? Ummm, maybe not. The clean shoe policy, where you change into an awaiting pair of clean flip flops before entering the bathroom, came about because the shower drain clogged from all the soil collecting from from sandy shoes. Many bathrooms in PY consist of a toilet, sink, shower head and floor drain in a 4’x6’ (mas o menos) space. Unlike the U.S., showers here have no walls separating them from the rest of the bathroom so typically the entire room gets wet when a shower is taken. Understand that my house does not currently have a working shower but it is plumbed and awaiting completion of the running water project. In the meantime it is where bucket baths happen and people walk in with their flip flops from outdoors and the soil washes off down the shower drain. Fixing the plumbing and digging a 50’ trench in 100 degree heat was enough for the Professor to declare the ‘clean shoe policy’ henceforth. But I’m still checking the rim of the toilet every visit. Especially now that it´s snake season…

Yup. The day before publishing this post we found a snake in the front yard called Kyryry’o, coiled and ready to strike. Right under the clothesline. Some visiting family friends killed it but it definitely heightened my awareness, being the second one in a week. Like most snakes in this country, it was a venomous kind. (Gulp.) And especially that, coiled, it looks very much like a plop of cow manure, of which there is much here. This morning´s walk through the cattle prairie to the bus stop was not my usual stroll. It´s exhausting enough having always to be on alert for people with mal-intent, traffic, horned grumpy cattle and big spiders. Now snakes too. What worries me most is that I only know two varieties. Hard to find something when you don´t know what you´re looking for!

Random facts:
This week I was smitten with some beautiful white flowers on the roadside called Ysypo. Smelling different flowers in different stages brought some surprises: The freshest ones smelled like coconut, the older, spent ones smelled like coffee.

Did you know the leaves of a lime tree smell like lime if you tear them? Limes are everywhere here and used in a variety of dishes. Citrus trees here are thorny on the trunk and branches.

The budding beekeeper in me got my hands on my current read, “The Honey Trail”, by Grace Pundyk. Grace travels the world in search of the best honeys, learning more about bees and the history of beekeeping, and the inner workings and ties within the industry of which I was never aware; a bee education, history lesson and summary of the world’s political climate all in one.

Did you know Paraguayans serve red wine with ice? And sometimes soda like Sprite?

Did you know sorghum looks a lot like corn?

It is not common (at least in the campo but I’ve heard it’s true throughout PY) for Paraguayans to read books. Could be because many older residents in the campo are illiterate, books are not a ‘necessity’ when choices must be made between needs and wants of feeding nine kids, there isn’t enough down time to read books (though many adults find time to watch ‘soaps’ during siesta and in the evening, the most common being “Maid in Manhattan”, a daily soap filmed in Portuguese but dubbed over in Spanish), and it isn’t part of the culture. I’ve already read four books in the month I’ve been insite and Isabel commented on how much I read compared to the average Paraguayan, including herself. Downtime is social time, not reading time.

After our Swear-In Ceremony last month I was chatting with the Ambassador, a man in his 60s? and our guest of honor. He was asking about my ‘story’ and how I came to Peace Corps at this point in my life, the oldest member of my training group. After listening- really listening -he offered some great advice, inspiration and encouragement. He mentioned some close friends of his who rose to the peak of their careers in their 60s and 70s and left me with a squeeze of the shoulders saying he had a feeling I would do great things in my lifetime and that perhaps my best was yet to come. I think he’s right.

Gentle words are daisies.

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.

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