Posts Tagged With: skyping

A New Level of Tranquilo and Reminders in Gratitude

August 26, 2013

“Don’t worry about what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” -Howard Thurman

Since returning from my stateside vacation earlier this month, I’ve noticed a big change in me. Somehow, in the span of a week, I mellowed. After being gone for nearly a fortnight  I didn’t check my bed for spiders before crawling inside, a ritual I’ve cultivated for 11 months now. Despite knowing that anything that doesn’t get moved every 24 hours in my house becomes potential housing for a creepy crawly, I didn’t bother to check all their regular hangouts before diving a hand into bags or clothes on the shelf (I know by  now you’re asking “where is Wendy and what have you done with her?!”) In fact, I found a thick black hairy arachnid on my hand yesterday and simply shook it onto the floor, not bothering to see if there were others on me. And it’s not just the spiders. Mini beetles in the popcorn stash are harmless once fried in hot oil, right (probably a delicacy somewhere too)? You know you’ve reached a whole new level of tranquilo when your answer is “yes” as I had to admit this week. I consulted my best PCV friend with this question. She agreed wholeheartedly and added that it’s simply a source of more protein (at least I don’t have to carry this protein 17k from the grocery store!) and said “Wait til you start eating off the floor!” My reply: “Ummm, that started last week.” For the germ-a-phobe I used to be, never did I see myself submitting to the 3 second rule in PY. Ever. Even though I have a fancy, fairly clean, tile floor, unlike many PCVs whose floors are hard-to-clean-cement or straight soil, I did not think I’d ever be so nonchalant. This, in the same week I was picking dead bugs out of my stash of beans given to me by a generous neighbor. Not exactly the self-development progress I’d hoped to make during my time in PY but I’m sure it’ll serve me somehow. We work with what we’ve got.

Last week all the volunteers in my group traveled with our community contacts to the Chaco (the Northwestern chunk of PY) for a few days of training. I was so excited to realize that my language skills had improved significantly since our last gathering two months ago. I pretty much was able to follow most of the conversations – ooooh what a feeling, halelujah! At the end of those few days of intensive Spanish conversation, however, my brain started to feel like a 20-car pile up with all those new words and phrases overflowing my mental parking lot, backed up waiting for a parking space in the memory banks. I’ve learned this is a good sign…it means things are getting in there! Hopefully the valet driver can also retrieve these when the time calls for it. haha

Despite being assured winter is almost over, today’s high in my site was a raw, rainy 45F. I try to ignore this fact and focus instead on the week’s forecast which promises temps in the 80s and 90s. It’s been raining for days and it’s been equally as many days since I’ve had a shower, washed dishes, taken my hat off, or opened my front door except to shoo away cows trying to eat the oregano on my porch. It was so raw even the cows were shivering! I will welcome the sun and sweat with open arms. Bring it. And hurry. These warm clothes I’ve worn 24/7 really need a break. In an effort to walk my own talk and focus on the positives in life, I sought gratitude in phone calls with friends, hot chocolate with honey harvested from my own bees, lingering over a fresh cup of Starbucks coffee (ok, it might have been 4 cups today), the luxury of reading, skyping with my mom, eating my fill of hot, freshly made soup from the bounty of my garden that has gone totally gangbusters since a week ago (did you realize carrot greens smell like carnations?), then rounding out the day with popcorn sprinkled with fried beetles (if you add some dry basil it helps camouflage the bodies). I’m a lucky gal.

I haven’t made too many faux pas in a while (that I’m aware of), perhaps because I’ve been cooped up in the house (there’s an upside to everything) but I did make a good one related to my birthday (go big or go home, I always say). While visiting a family the week prior to my birthday, the husband and wife were commenting on my special day coming the following week and kept saying something about “invitado” this and “asado” that and was I going to have that cake made from beans that I love so well? (It tastes like chocolate but has not a speck of chocolate in it. Deelish!) What I didn’t realize is that in PY, it’s the person celebrating the birthday who puts on her own party, cooks the food (asado means BBQ), bakes her own cake and invites the town to the fiesta at her house. Oops. I had been expecting my host family to put on a lunch for me and bake the famous bean cake since they’ve been talking about it all year (or so I thought!) It wasn’t until the day AFTER my birthday and the birthday-celebration-that-never-happened that another volunteer explained the custom. Oops again. I had let them down. NOW I understood that they were actually telling me to be sure to invite THEM to my party at my house and the family had given me a kilo of beans so I could make the cake for this fiesta that never happened. Oops…again. Fortunately, as an outsider I’m forgiven for most of my missteps. But I think they all felt a little embarrassed that I didn’t get a party at all. No worries though! We’ll make up for it next year!

Here’s something I threw out to my friends this week:

What stories do you tell yourself about you, your abilities, your worth? Have you checked their validity lately? How many are so negative you wouldn’t dream of saying them to your best friend or beloved? Maybe it’s time to tell some better stories.

I love this. I think all of us can relate to how easy it is to beat ourselves up over our perceived shortcomings and point out areas where we lack. Interestingly, we may not even realize this habit but we do know we would never want to treat our friends and loved ones the way we often treat ourselves. My Peace Corps service has brought my own self-defeating habits to my stark attention and it’s been an incredibly humbling experience. Your pride gets taken down a notch or two or four. You realize you have far more to learn from your host country nationals than they have to learn from you. Sometimes, it is far better to listen and learn than speak and never be wiser. Language barriers can infantilize a person. When you’ve led a life feeling fairly competent in your everyday work, tasks, and understanding of your culture and surroundings then suddenly find yourself feeling completely inadequate on sometimes even the most basic levels, it is disconcerting. It makes you question yourself, your worth, your ability, your stamina to see this through. It holds up a mirror that reveals facets of yourself you never knew existed. You must look at it everyday. Sometimes we are proud of what we see. Sometimes not. Even though you might have been going through life working really hard on your problem areas, being kind, being aware of your wake, striving to grow and learn, extending compassion and loving kindness, sometimes those blind spots just hit you upside the head and you never saw them coming. Peace Corps is hard this way but it is one of the best damn eye openers I’ve ever had the good fortune to be gifted. So I invite you to consider the questions above. While there’s always work to be done on ourselves, is there room for you to be more loving and gentle as you go about it?

This week’s takeaways: pride in standing up for myself and and my principles with courage to speak my peace without flinching coupled with the strength to extend compassion during a difficult situation; joy in having someone tell me my words made a difference for them; assurance that the universe delivers who and what we need exactly when we need them (including a cheap taxi that appeared out of nowhere and really was an angel of mercy on a rainy day); grateful for opportunities to practice in areas where I struggle knowing it will make me stronger and wiser; appreciating people in my life who really have my back when I need them; knowledge that I’ve made great progress in loving myself and the gifts I have to offer, blessed with a great mom who’s always there; appreciative of a super boss; never again in my life will I take for granted good coffee, indoor plumbing, an indoor stove, central heat, or electricity. Even on the hardest days, I consider myself blessed with the privilege of being here, sculpting my life, writing my own script, and making my dreams come alive.

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

Live and go ‘live’

Today I officially make my blog public and am excited to share my journey with you!  I arrived in Paraguay, South America on September 27, 2012 to begin my Peace Corps training, a dream 25 years in the making.

If you are just joining the adventure let me give you some context on how the Peace Corps process goes now that I’m incountry: My cohort is a group of 54 individuals, some destined for the agriculture sector (like me) and the rest will work in the environmental sector. Our first 10 weeks in Paraguay are strictly training, learning language (Spanish and guarani), culture, technical skills, health, safety, and more. Training 1) prepares us for life in the campo (countryside) where each of us will be assigned a community do the work we came to do, 2) gives us a chance to examine our reasons for joining Peace Corps and question and explore if this continues to be the right choice for each of us and 3) is also essentially a 10-week job interview. Throughout this time we are continually assessed and tested to ensure we meet minimum competencies that will support our success in the community. If we do not measure up or decide this isn’t really what we wanted afterall, we go home in December. Few people do this. Otherwise, in December we will be sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) and be in our sites by mid-December where we’ll live and work for the next 2 years.

Recently, my host sister gave me a pile of magazines in which her Paraguayan recipes had been published; her gift to me for when I’m on my own in the campo. I knew she was a baker (the family owns a bakery here on the property) but apparently, she ‘s a regular contributor to, an ‘ABC Color’ magazine known throughout this country for its quality and reputation. This gift was really personal and meant a lot to me. Now I can make my own chipa (looks like a bagel but made of mandioca flour, cornmeal and anise) and other culinary delights!

Yesterday finally brought relief from the heat with cooler temps, periods of drizzle and a lovely breeze. It also brought my second round of rabies vaccinations, standard practice for all Peace Corps Volunteers in this country, and about 50 new Spanish words. My host family continues to comment that my comprehension is rapidly improving (well, it could only go up!) They are wonderfully supportive of my journey, my language training, and ensuring I have a great experience in Paraguay.

Last night I was treated to Skyping with several family members including my daughter. Hearing her voice was the most precious thing in the world and she was able to hear mine for the second time since my arrival. (My internet connection here is a bit too slow for my audio to work most of the time.) The hardest part of all this is being away from my wonderful family but we are all adjusting.

This morning, following a super yummy omelet with fresh tomatoes, beans, and Mom’s homemade cheese, my training group traveled scavenger-hunt-style to Ascuncion, the capitol, where we eventually met dozens of volunteers currently serving in various parts of the country. On a bend for good chocolate, my secondary mission was to stock up on premium dark chocolate as well as find a good sombrero, some dice, and maybe some extra clothes. While did find some chocolate in the supermercado, the choco-snob in me was underwhelmed and unsatisfied…it’s not the same as home but, alas, it must suffice. I also learned that the US Embassy has a  fabulous swimming pool and, once sworn in as Volunteers, we can use it while in Ascuncion. December can’t come fast enough!!!

Today’s National Geographic (NatGeo) moment:  this morning I watched a young boy (maybe 5 years old?) ‘riding’ a stick as if it were a horse, galloping across the red dirt and cobblestone road in his little bare feet, hair tousled, clothes askew, unconcerned of our oncoming vehicle and seemingly happy as could be. My heart skipped, my eyes smiled, and I was again reassured that I’m exactly where I’m meant to be.

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

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