Posts Tagged With: school

Meet My Community – The Benitez-Esquivel Family

October 29, 2013

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

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

The Benitez-Esquivel Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life is a Cascade of Moments

October 10, 2013

The Wing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where Has The Time Gone?

8-11-13

“Life loves to be taken by the lapel and told: ‘I’m with you kid. Let’s go.'” – Maya Angelou

It was supposed to be a simple two-week respite from blogging back in February while I prepared to *finally* move from my host family (who I adored, but…) into my own house. Obviously, that turned into a six month hiatus as life got busy and Facebook posts became the ‘easier and quicker’ method to share the latest news of my Peace Corps adventures (oh, did I tell you? I now have internet at my house. Daily. And running water. And a hot shower. Daily. OMG). A lot has happened during this time, which I’ll try to summarize now and make a better effort to regain my regularly scheduled posts here.

In mid-March I moved into my own ‘house’, my ‘schoolhouse’ as I call it, because it is literally a classroom in an old school, residing on the same grounds as the new school. This has worked out beautifully; it is the nicest casa in the community and of course all my neighbors, especially the kids, were dying for a look inside. I am exquisitely happy in my classroom, the kids have been respectful (even inviting me to their daily voleiball games during recess), and I make fantastic use of the giant chalkboard that covers one of walls for my infamous list-making fetish, drawings, reminders, and even tallies while I do my 30-day ab and squat challenges – the only form of exercise I can get during what is currently winter of cool-to-freezing temps and sometimes rainy conditions. (Wow- that was quite the sentence!) As soon as I’d settled into my new space, I began work on my garden. The school Director, Profesor Victor, who is also my contact, gave me a space adjacent to the school garden. It was cow pasture when I started and five weeks later began to resemble a garden, complete with bamboo fence that I helped cut and build with assistance from about a dozen locals. The bamboo was delivered via oxcart from the far end of town. Unfortunately two weeks later, one of the oxen (called ‘guei’ …sounds like whey) swallowed a whole grapefruit and died. I never knew cattle love grapefruit.

Also this autumn (springtime in North America), some fellow volunteers came to visit my site to produce a documentary on biodigesters because, at the time, I had half of all biodigesters in the country right in my community. That same week I participated in a biodigester Train the Trainer workshop to learn to teach Paraguayans how to install biodigesters. Cool! I think I might want one when I come home. These biodigesters are 20 foot plastic tubes that lie in a trench and to which you add manure daily. In three weeks, this starts producing a daily delivery of amazing liquid compost for the garden and methane which the locals use for cooking… all using FREE materials!

In May, my cousin and a friend came to visit. Unfortunately, it rained…no, poured… the first three days. And it was cold. Instead of visiting locals and seeing sites around my community, this offered a great indoor bonding experience and many experiments in cooking that, after they inventoried my ‘pantry’ shelves, defied all bets we would go hungry before we ever got out of Dodge. It’s amazing what you can do with cornflour, mandioca, sweet potato leaves, beans and eggs. Ultimately, the rain broke and my cousin and I were able to play in my beehive; her first, but not last, foray into beekeeping.

Throughout this time I’ve made a couple of attempts to host beekeeping workshops but, for various reasons, including three days of rain, they keep getting postponed. As does the yogurt-making sessions I promise to my neighbors who seem very interested but are impossible to pin to a date and time. Such is Paraguay.

Most recently, I returned to Maine for a quick one-week vacation. I did not plan to visit the states until my service was over, however, Maine summer weather beckoned me after freezing my tail off in PY for a week, and all the other beautiful things of Maine including my daughter’s 25th birthday celebration, reuniting with family, swimming in the lake, tango dancing in an oceanside gazebo with friends, toes in the sand at the ocean and shared meals or walks with old friends. It was also the easiest vacation of my life in terms of packing since I was going home to my ‘stuff’. I had only the necessities: toothbrush, passport, tango shoes, a book, camera, tiny travel pillow, sunflower seeds for snacking, calendar of plans for the week, and a gift for my daughter. This was a liberating travel experience! Oh, and if you’ve never heard an American belle speak Portuguese with a deep southern twang over the airplane intercom, you just haven’t lived. I came back with a better perspective and appreciation for both cultures. What do I miss about the states? Besides the obvious answer of family and tango dancing (if you don’t know this about me, well then, you just don’t know me! I’m a tango addict), natural BBQ chips, feta cheese, fresh Maine air, seeing people exercise and trying to stay healthy, generosity and kindness of Mainers, being able to show my money at the cash register (or technology of any kind in public) with little risk of being robbed afterward, walking alone at night, full bodied complex conversations – in English-, dressing up all fancy for special occasions. What don’t I miss? The never-ending busyness, schedules going full tilt, attitudes of entitlement and rudeness, impatience, excess, and incessant marketing for stuff we don’t actually need.

After living in a culture which has the 144th worst GDP in the world but ties for first as the happiest people across the globe, I think there’s a lot to learn from the people of Paraguay. While Paraguay has its shortcomings in serving its people, a short visit with locals will undoubtedly convince you that wealth and stuff does not necessarily bring happiness. I live among very poor people who, despite the barriers they face and the limitations of their country’s systems, laugh and joke, skip and play, sing and show content in their everyday work more than any group of people I’ve ever met. They are resourceful, creative, and make the best of what they have. Want to play volleyball but don’t have a net? No problem, just balance a stick over the top of two chairs. Got a big rock and a plank? These kids will readily make their own teeter totter with such awesome materials. Or just play for hours in a pile of sand. And their generosity is second to none. A neighbor hears that I’m out of cheese and brings me the last of what she has. Another neighbor offers me unlimited access to her grapefruit tree. Others bring me popcorn grown in their field or eggs from their chickens even though they may have barely enough for their own needs.

So I’m sure I’ve forgotten some significant details but I’ll close here and save a little storytelling for next time. Feel free to leave comments, ask questions, or list things you’d like to know more about!

Until next time….jajotopata amigos!

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

… the only control we have is choosing how we are going to respond to the ride (we call life). – Madisyn Taylor

At the heart of every transformation, no matter how chaotic, there is substance. When we no longer resist change and instead regard it as an opportunity to grow, we find that we are far from helpless in the face of it. – Thedailyom.com

2-17-13

This quote seemed to fit the mood of my week quite perfectly. It’s been a difficult collection of misunderstandings, feelings of incompetency and disappointment with myself wondering if I’ll ever master communication in Guaraní. The Professor, at my pleading, agreed to let me join the kids’ Guaraní class when school starts next week (they’ve been on summer break since mid-November). I asked “You’re putting me with the Pre-School class, right?” He said, “No, no, no. You go straight to Second Grade!” We had a good laugh.

This week I killed my first chicken. Back in December I ‘chickened’ out in doing this task, but I finally did it. My boss visited on Tuesday for my site presentation where she formally introduced me to my community, talked about Peace Corps, and expectations for all involved. I was determined to serve chicken that I had prepared myself and indeed I did, start to finish. Can’t say I loved the task but given that I will need to feed myself somehow while I’m here, it’s a good skill to have. Inside was a fully developed egg and two egg yolks on their way to being the next eggs. I never knew the yolk was the first thing to develop. During my presentation I served some of the dried fruit I’ve been making in the solar dryer to ‘plant the seed’ among attendees of new ways they can feed their families healthy ‘real’ food during the off-season. They loved the bananas and pears. Plus my housing was approved after security bars are installed on the windows and a bathroom is added. I will be living in an old, unused classroom in the ‘old school’. A new school was built last year near the old school and the only activity in the old school is the library at the far end. While it might sound odd, it seems like a nice set up. The space is larger than most volunteers’ homes at about 20’x20’ with a long patio perfect for tango dancing (hint hint if any dancer friends want to visit), a shed in the back for my chickens, and the ability to expand the school garden for my own use. Rent free. Yay! Plus it’s in the ‘center’ of the community and very visible from a number of homes, which adds to my safety. There are currently some masons living there who are working on the running water project until March so I’ll move in after they leave or after the upgrades are complete, whichever comes last.

I came home from a run yesterday morning to find the neighbors had just killed a cow to honor the 2nd anniversary of their mother’s passing. I grabbed my camera and snapped photos of various stages of the processing. Still in my shorts and revealing skin that doesn’t normally see the sun (can you say ‘blindingly white legs’?) folks thought my white skin was beautiful. I laughed and replied that in my country people pay a LOT of money to have brown skin like them. They looked at me like I was crazy. “Why would anyone want BROWN skin?” they asked incredulously. In other skin news, admittedly my skin has remained fairly nice for this time of year. Back home in January, it would be dry with the cold winter weather. Here, it is normal and mostly healthy, save for the dirt, bug bites and bee stings. So the other parts of the honoring-mom’s-passing include nine days of rezo next door, which is a 20 minute prayer service held by the family and open to the community. On Day 8 we feasted on stews, courtesy the cow from the morning’s slaughter, where the men did the butchering and the women prepared the meat, made blood sausage, and stew. Day 9, we feasted on mounds of barbecued ribs, sopa and chipa.

I was reflecting on what a difference a year makes. A year ago last December I was told I wouldn’t be serving in Peace Corps Asia afterall but somewhere in Latin America IF I could pass a Spanish test. So I bought a Rosetta Stone and studied. I reunited with my best friend from high school. My daughter and I vacationed in Costa Rica, one of the best vacations ever. All of my neighbors were family, spoke English and had hot, running water. I had a paying job. I shoveled snow. And I was doing yoga, tango, running and swimming several times a week. I felt guilty for taking siesta in my car at lunch. Today, the only similarity is that I still study Spanish. Haha. I celebrate that I can flow with the changes, adapt and grow.

I’m in Asuncion this weekend for a little R&R after a rough week. The bus ride is interesting if one chooses to make it so. We stop at two terminals along the way to pick up new passengers and there are always a bounty of vendors selling their wares to passengers in the bus. Some sell from the ground through the window, others come aboard. Often they will literally run to the bus to be the first sale, as many products are duplicative like soda, chipa, cold water, milanesa, and bags of fruit. There is little variety other than the occasional gent selling cheap jewelry or porn DVDs. Sellers range from kids to elderly folks. It’s got to be a tough way to make a living.
My next series of projects will be a beekeeping workshop series to teaching hive building from scratch, making value-added products from harvested beeswax like candles, salves, and skin creams, as well as teaching about honey harvest and trasiegos. Looking forward to it!

Random facts:
Other firsts: ox cart ride

Lesson 445: When traveling, always BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper), just in case

I’ve seen no sign that people here use hand sanitizer. That’s also BYO.

Hand cream is super expensive.

Because there is no real mail system here, one cannot buy stamps and simply drop your envelope into a box on the sidewalk. You must visit the post office, or correos. Office hours can vary from day to day. I’ve mailed a few things back home and never seen the actual stamp.

Paraguayans love tablecloths. It is a standard cultural practice to always put a tablecloth, even a towel, over the table before setting down your plate or serving a guest. No self-respecting Paraguayan would serve a guest on a bare table.

Did you know calf stomachs contain the rennet needed to make cheese and are widely used here in Paraguay for this purpose? Simply take a stomach and stir it in some milk for two minutes. Remove, rinse, and hang the stomach to dry for use again later. They can be reused many times. Amazingly, the flies won’t go near it.

There is an ice cream chain here called Amandau that has the best ice cream I’ve tried thus far, pretty similar to home. And they have passionfruit ice cream that tastes like the real thing. OMG.

I recently went to a large town about 90 minutes north to buy a bike and discovered the ‘caballo’ or horse taxi. They congregate at the bus terminal, lined up along the sidewalk in the shade. This horse and buggy set up looks like something from 100 years ago and is quite a novelty for the Nortes here. While I didn’t ride in it, I put it on my list for my next visit. And, yes, I got the bike, also called a ‘bici’ here (short for bicicleta). During this visit I also found “Village Candle” brand candles, made in Maine! I was floored.

The equivalent of my regular type of toothpaste costs 75% of a day’s pay for me. Sending three letters is a full day’s pay. Yes, both are expensive and yes, I don’t make much as a ‘volunteer’.

One of the girls in my family taught me how to crack the small coconuts found here. Paraguay doesn’t have large coconuts, only massive clusters of golf-ball size ones. To get the pea-sized fruit inside, one must smash with a hammer to crack the hull, then peel the hull and pop out the center coco fruit. My family has a perfect rock with a slight depression for holding the fruit while smashing. Good therapy if you’re in a bad mood. Haha

Paraguay is the place to be if you’re a dental provider. Every town has a multitude of clinics specializing in dental and orthodontia care. False teeth, gold or silver teeth or no teeth are common here due to a diet high in sugar, lack of dental hygiene education, and the occasional rock that finds its way into food due to hand processing. In fact, it’s so common that when meeting someone new I rarely even notice now if they smile and display a mouth full of gold teeth.

The news channels have some significant differences here. First, instead of many very brief stories, the station will air fewer longer stories. By longer, this includes repeating footage of film and photos many times for 10-20 minutes depending on how provocative the story is. They don’t hesitate to show photos of sick, injured or dead people, photos directly from a hospital bed or bleeding bodies in the street after a shooting or moto accident. The other major difference is the dress code for female news anchors. They show far more skin than we are used to back home: halter tops, sleeveless shirts, off-the-shoulder shirts and short dresses are typical. And, unlike back home, all women on TV have long hair, anchors and reporters alike. Of course, long hair is typical for women across PY. The final difference is that while our anchors in the states might drink water or coffee on air, here they drink terere (yerba mate) in a guampa with a bombilla, which is a tea-like drink usually served ice cold during the day. In early morning it’s served as a hot mate.

Many newsclips and commercials on tv and radio use American music. I get excited when I hear the music but, unfortunately, I never get to hear the whole song. Another chance to practice letting go!

My family built a tatakua this week, which is a cave-like outdoor oven. It is used for cooking sopa and chipa, typical Paraguayan breads. First the tatakua is heated by building a hot fire, then the coals are removed and replaced with many pans of breads. Admittedly these breads are far superior when cooked in a tatakua rather than an electrical oven. It was built using brick and held together with local clay-like mud.

I’ve seen many things with English words on them from potholders to tshirts and even products on tv I recognize from home (Sprite, Coke, Nivea hand lotion, to name a few).

Practice the art of letting go and embrace change. Clinging is natural but letting go is liberating!

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

“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

How to eat a watermelon in Paraguay? Ask Wendía.

Be bold or Italic. Never regular.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, time for my typical random facts and observations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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