Posts Tagged With: sugar cane

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

Stories on Cultural Exchange – We are more alike than we realize

October 6, 2013

“Every time you write, something valuable will occur.” – Sark

It is my hope that today’s writing will inspire you to be curious of other cultures, even beyond Paraguay. (Or even to consider your fellow humans in your own community who happen to be different from you on whatever level.) Hopefully, if you’re reading this blog, you already are. Consider the juiciness of our cultural differences but remember the similarities. Despite our different ways of going about life, recognize that we are all humans, regardless of skin color, languages spoken, foods eaten, emotions felt, living conditions, freedoms, privileges, religion, sexual preference, economic status, education, customs. We all breathe. We all feel. We all struggle. We are all connected.

Paraguayans commonly follow traditional ways and are often hesitant to try new things. Nowhere is this more evident than with food. A perfect example: me trying to spread the word earlier this year that leaves of our sweet potatoes here are edible. I thought I’d struck gold at this revelation and was eagerly telling everyone about it. Who wouldn’t be excited about a free vegetable supply (nutritious leafy greens no less!) that you previously considered a waste product? Despite my enthusiasm and offers for samples and to teach them recipes, whenever they see me returning from the field with a bucket of something they ask if it’s ‘jety’ leaves (‘jety’ is guarani for sweet potato or batata) and laugh at me (“The Norte eats sweet potato LEAVES! Can you believe it? She’s weird! And crazy!”) In fact, today I learned one of the older community members has been telling people my eating those leaves is going to make me fat. If anything is going to make me fat, it’s my first-ever attempt at making orange marmalade this week (and I’ve never liked marmalade). A la pucha! With a touch of cinnamon and ginger, I served it at my workshop with three variations of banana bread along with carrot sticks. Unlike Jety leaves, THAT went over super well, even the carrot sticks, as Paraguayans in my community rarely eat raw veggies except shredded cabbage or tomato on lettuce. As for the leafy greens…that’s like convincing a good, old-fashioned-meat-and-potatoes-loving-Mainer to trade in his favorite meal for a lentil-burger on gluten-free bread. But I’ll win them over before I leave.

Orange marmelade with banana bread - a treat for the hard-working cooks

Orange marmelade with banana bread – a treat for the hard-working cooks

Every community in PY has a Patron Saint and last Friday, October 4, was the birthday of my community’s Patron Saint: Saint Francis. And so it is celebrated with a traditional Fiesta Patronal, a day-long, community-wide party. Our day started at 7am when the señoras began preparations for the traditional lunch of spaghetti with chunks of beef, a side of mandioca, and a large cake (actually the day began at 2:30am when some families first ignited their fireworks and continued hourly until sunrise). Everything was cooked in giant kettles over an open fire on the ground behind the church. The church had been newly painted in honor of the day. Previously a pale pink, a common homestead color here, it was freshly updated with a fiery orangey-red, as close as they could get to Saint Francis’ color brown. At 10am, we gathered inside the well-flowered and candlelit one-room sanctuary for the rezo to celebrate St. Francis as well as witness a marriage and child’s baptism. I didn’t need to be Christian to appreciate their faith, devotion, and tradition of coming together in this way. It was amazing. Spaghetti lunch was served at noon, another rezo at 3pm followed by hot chocolate and cake. Of course, futbol (soccer) was an ongoing event throughout the day by kids and adults alike. I was sugared out but so grateful to be included in their important day.

Church decorated for Fiesta Patronal 2013

Church decorated for Fiesta Patronal 2013

Newly painted one-room church in my community

Newly painted one-room church in my community.

Señoras cooking lunch in large kettles over open fires for Fiesta Patronal

Señoras cooking lunch in large kettles over open fires for Fiesta Patronal. Yes, they are stirring with long sticks.

As part of the Fiesta Patronal ceremony, a statue of Christ is carried around the futbol field followed by a procession of singing worshippers.

As part of the Fiesta Patronal ceremony, a statue of Christ is carried around the futbol field followed by a procession of singing worshippers.

The following day I taught a workshop on how to start a seed bank and gave an introduction to green manures (these are not actually green feces but cover crops that nourish the soil). It was well received and concluded with each attendee receiving some seeds to grow at home and later harvest the new seeds to contribute to the seed bank at the end of the season.

It’s amazing what knowledge and understanding we take for granted in the US. Recently I had a chat with a local señora where she asked if women in the U.S. menstruate. This conversation evolved to include breastfeeding, emotions, and much more. She was shocked to learn that US women’s bodies and emotions work the same as Paraguayan women’s bodies and emotions. We bleed and have cramps, we nurse our babies, we get PMS, we get sick, we love, we mourn, we get frustrated with life and those we love, we celebrate, we worry, we support, we cry, we laugh, we joke, we are strong, we give, we demand, we have needs, we are often taken for granted, we screw up occasionally, we’re brilliant occasionally. We are the glue that holds a family together. Yes, there are differences between us, but at the most basic human level, we are more alike than we realize.

I was visiting with my host mom this afternoon, arriving without an agenda but fully enjoyed the splendor of robust conversation that covered a gamut of topics. During the visit she relived a story from months ago when I was living with them: “Carbon” is PY’s equivalent of charcoal and is great to start the smoker for working with bees. I had been visiting another family together with whom I was about to work their bees. To get my ‘smoker’ fired up I asked if they had any carbon, knowing that most houses have a cooking fire going at any given hour and a chunk of carbon readily available. Instead of ‘carbon’ (pronounced car-BOHN in Spanish), the señora thought I asked for “jabon” (pronounced ha-BOHN) and brought out a bar of soap instead. I held the soap while laughing “mas tarde!” (later!) and “despues kava!” (after we’re done with the bees!) Once she realized the miscommunication the whole family was laughing hysterically. By the time I got home, my host family had already heard about it and were making showering gestures when I walked up to the house. Never a dull moment.

There is a five year old girl who lives next door and attends pre-school in the afternoon. She seems to like me quite well, always saying “Hola Wendia!” One day during her recess I decided to make conversation. It was here I began suspecting that she couldn’t really understand me because she answered every question with “Sí” (which is ‘yes’ in Spanish). So after some small talk that generated additional predictable “Sí” answers, I started asking questions like “Do you like snakes?” and “How many brothers do you have?”  The “Sí”s continued with varying amounts of emphasis for convincability. I realize this is what my community sometimes experiences when they talk with me and I pretend to understand: How many brothers do you have, Wendy? Sí! How big is your garden, Wendy? Sí! Sí! What time is your workshop next Thursday, Wendy? Sí! Sí! Sí! Hahaha.

Another Latin American tradition that is certainly no stranger to PY is the despensa, or PY version of a convenience store, as frequently there is not a major food store for miles (my nearest supermarket is 1.3 hours by bus). Despensas are often simply a front room in people’s homes. The larger ones are sometimes stand-alone though it is very common for people to live where they work. Despensas rarely have regular hours and are open when the señora is available (if she sleeps in, takes a siesta or goes to town, the despensa is closed and you come back later). She might be the only show in town but more likely there are several others nearby. Many of them carry similar items with little individuality within a community. Imagine if we tried to run a business like that in the US? But here it works.

In PY, it is customary to ask for what you want or simply take what you want, even if it’s not yours. For example, last week a local señora came to visit and asked if I would give her some saldo (like minutes for her phone, shared by texting it to her) and if she could borrow bus fare until Monday. This is asked with no sense of hesitation or embarrassment. It’s simply the culture. Also, if people see materials lying around in a field they are considered free for the taking even if on someone else’s property. In the US it would be considered stealing. Here, it’s fair game. If you don’t want it “shared”, lock it down.

Did you know?

*People often scavenge containers to store seed, food or miscellaneous things, start seedlings plants, etc. It definitely helps with the ‘reuse’ part of trash management.

*Sunflower oil is most popular cooking oil here. Soy oil is also popular. Cottonseed is readily available but more expensive and olive oil is out of the question for most families in the campo due to its high cost in comparison: 1 liter of sunflower oil is about $2.50; 1 liter of olive oil is $16.

*I have never seen infant formula for sale in my area. I’m sure it’s available somewhere but breastfeeding is widely used to feed babies until they are ready for prepared food.

*If a merchant does not have exact change they will give you candy or a box of matches instead of money

*There are three main drinks made from cane sugar here: mosto, jugo de miel, and caña. “Mosto” is the raw form, where the sugar cane stalk is cranked through a press, and the liquid that comes out is mixed with water and consumed. “Jugo de miel,” or “honey juice” is that same liquid, cooked down to a syrup, then added to water. The third, caña, is a rum-like alcoholic beverage that costs about fifty cents per little bottle. Most people mix caña with soda; (Date courtesy mi amiga LauraLee Lightwood-Mater)

*We have these plants in my community and they are fun to play with! Plus the baby goats love to eat them: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=723488321010902

Enjoy the culture all around you.

Until next time,

Jaotopata

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

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

Jan 22, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I counted my blessings for being here.

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

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

Random thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jajotopata!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corn is currently waist to shoulder height in most places.

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

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

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

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

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

Chau for now. xoxo

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

Don’t be sad that it’s over. Smile because it happened.

Wow. I have so much to share since my last post.

First and most importantly was my grandmother’s passing. Today’s title reminds me to be grateful for what we’ve had instead of focusing on what we’re now missing. Can we rearrange our grief into delight for being blessed with her life and presence? We were blessed with time to say our goodbyes and her forever cheerful and courageous spirit through it all. We were blessed in knowing she was ready. We are blessed to be part of a large, wonderful, loving, close-knit family she created for, and within, us. When she left, neither side had any doubt they were loved and cherished. Little did she know that she taught me through her own actions to be thrilled by the tiniest things: watching the birds out the window and marveling at their colors or the way they were bickering on a particular day, admiring the swirly composition of a small stone, really savoring the flavors of a dish at her Thursday family potluck, seeing the wonder and possibilities within everything appearing before her. In the busyness of our modern lives she reminded me to slow down, be present in the moment, and never forget that awe is at your fingertips in everything you do if you choose to see it. Staying true to her positive nature, she asked not for a funeral but a for Celebration of Life party….and (I love this) requested that attendees wear bright colors. She always loved wearing bright, cheerful colors. So the day we celebrated, I did just that here in Paraguay. And when my time comes, I want that too. We already miss her terribly but the lessons and love she left behind will forever remain within us.

The morning of the Celebration party provided yet another chance to witness the ‘fruit’ and sweetness of life that I learned from my Gram over the years. My 60-year old host mama, machete in hand, gave me a tour of the ‘back 40’ (as we say in Maine), slashing a walking path through the undergrowth as easily as she cooks a chicken or hangs the laundry. (I’m told you never go anywhere in a field, woods, etc without your machete [except maybe the bus]…just in case. It is pretty common to see people walking down the street here with a machete in hand and not really think much of it. Afterall, EVERYONE has one and because most people are farmers, it’s a necessity for work. But if you are caught with a pocketknife on the bus, they will confiscate. Umm…. But I digress.) I’ve been here for 6 weeks and had no idea that ‘back there’ amongst all those trees was a veritable orchard of tropical fruit trees and herbs. Wow! Our house is nestled into its own mini rainforest, an oasis of beauty and bounty. I had asked her for a yuyo tour, yuyos (pronounced ‘JOO- johz) being the fresh herbs used in terere. Today we focused more on identifying fruit trees but next time will be more herbs (though many fruit trees have incredible medicinal properties.) We found starfruit, mandarin, oranges, bananas, a cinnamon tree (wow!), pomelo, lemons, limes, sweet lime, durasno (like a mini-peach), laurel (bay leaf), manzanitas (cherry-like fruit), café, guava, and my two favorites: passionfruit (mborukuja) and mango-mango-mango! I was in heaven. This didn’t include the papaya and Heart of India fruits growing over the extensive arbor by the backdoor. Host Mom picked some fresh eucalyptus leaves for flavoring my water bottle. Refreshing!

For training earlier this week I experienced what we call “Long Field Practice” where we visit a current volunteer’s site in the campo (countryside) to help us get a glimpse of campo life first hand. I traveled with my 4-person language group and our profesora. We each stayed with a separate host family that spoke only guarani and did activities with the community’s volunteer during the day. I was initially quite intimidated, ok semi-terrified, at the idea of spending 4 days with a new family who spoke neither English nor Spanish. I mean seriously, I’ve only been studying guarani for 2 weeks! How was I going to communicate other than rudimentary sign language? AND my group was expected to give a charla (ie presentation) on soils to a group of local ladies…in guarani. Huh? Are you kidding? I can barely say ‘Hello, my name is Wendy. It’s hot today. Yes, I like what you cooked for dinner. How many chickens do you have? Do you grow mint? I like to read. I will sleep now.’ Though I’m really good at saying, “I don’t understand. Can you repeat that?” and “Do you have tarantulas here?” Haha. But it was all good.

The trip was full of fun things: we learned to cook sopa paraguaya (cornbread from dry cornmeal), queso paraguaya (cheese), and chipa guazu (cheepa wahSOO) (cornbread from fresh corn and sometimes onions), toured a successful garden, got a mini yuyo lesson, did hoeing in a farmer’s field, and all had a reading from a deaf fortunate teller which was translated from sign language into guarani then English. Haha. Campo life tends to be more extreme than where I live now and offers a wonderful perspective on the many layers, definitions, and faces of poverty. Natives in the campo are much poorer but it is beautiful to see how happy (and resourceful!) they are overall (another reminder that stuff doesn’t make us happy and I am more and more grateful for the opportunity to live simply and happily without all the frills from home… WHILE still always grateful for my daily internet access for now. Wink.) Paraguayans are known for their abundant laughter (usually at my expense, tranquilo).They are present, mindful, and prideful in every step of their work and daily lives. One of my favorite people I met this week was the 63-year old woman who taught us how to make chipa guazu: vibrant, spirited, strong, happy, and bold, with missing teeth, the best laugh and most beautiful wrinkles I’ve ever seen. Her advice: “It is important to work for your food.” So we did. How do you make chips guazu? You begin by plucking every kernel from the cob…by hand, then grind the kernels in a hand-cranked molina (like one of those old fashioned meat grinders that bolts to a table; we took turns because it’s tiring but the guapa ladies to it all themselves) which makes a liquid corn mush, add veggie oil, lots of eggs, salt and sometimes onions. Cook in the tatakua (outdoor cave-like brick oven) for 15 minutes. Yum! Yes, we worked for our food that day and it tasted all the better. In the end, I experienced so much growth from working through the difficulties of the week and was really glad for the experience. My language vaulted to new levels and, by day 4, my host family and I were learning to communicate with each other. I came ‘home’ feeling much more confident and prepared for when I arrive at my own site in a mere 4 WEEKS!!! Yes, this Wednesday I receive my site assignment where I will live for the next 2 years and will go there on Friday for 5 days to begin meeting people and getting a sense of my new community. My entire training group is so excited for Wednesday! In September this time seemed very far away but it’s almost here! The next four weeks will be a blur of activities starting with next week’s site visit, then Thanksgiving at the Ambassador’s house (how cool is THAT?!), final exams, swearing-in on December 7 and then I’m off to my community! In the meantime I am frantically spending every possible moment on my language skills to be as prepared as possible for the transition (which will still leave me superbly underprepared but every bit will help.)

Tonight my host sister and I walked about 3 miles, returning home just as a gorgeous sunset slid below the treeline. We chatted easily and filled the spaces with comfortable silence. There’s a lot to be ‘said’ for comfortable silence. I’ve always been a fan myself but it’s amazing how UNeasy people in the States are with pauses, silence, quiet within a conversation. Silence is common in Paraguay though when the talk is juicy there is no shortage of chatter! Along the way I admired a full moon rising over a crest of waving sugar cane and a sky streaked with pinks and oranges that turned the red soil into a vibrant salmon glow. We walked through a swarm of fireflies dancing along the roadside and listened to frogs singing their chorus in the background. The frogs sing very different tunes here and locals describe them by the sound they make: cien, cien (which is 100 in Spanish), or cuatro cuatro cuatro (which is 4 in Spanish.)

Tonight we had 2 kururus in the kitchen, which are giant frogs the size of grapefruit. They are a bit freaky looking when you first see them though not poisonous and local tales say that, if you pick one up, it will pee in your eye. Haha! Ikatu – it’s possible! Tonight, one was stalking a lembu (big beetle) and actually attacked it but the beetle was too big! Yeah, I never walk through the house at night without a flashlight and shoes!!

In addition to walking, I’m running more frequently now and find my energy level has skyrocketed and my body much happier (though a full night’s sleep continues to elude me). Running on anything other than paved roads is more akin to trail running, requiring intense focus to avoid slipping or turning an ankle on the smooth bedrock, sharp cobblestones, eroded channels, or soft, beach-like sand, all of which can be found in a single 30 foot stretch. I’m looking forward to doing more training once in my site and perhaps entering the Asuncion or Buenos Aires half-marathons next October. I was surprised to hear how many races can be found in Paraguay…something to aim for.

Random stuff and more firsts:

Recently I: had my first juggling lesson from a classmate, ate my first passionfruit (now one of my new favorite fruits which I plan to grow once in my site!), ate my first honeycomb with pollen (if I were a bear, yeah I’d raid a hive to get at it too. Wow – deeeelishhh. More incentive to become a beekeeper while here!) and found a Paraguayan woman who makes fine cheese (like Brie, mozzarella, swiss, etc…her French husband taught her and we discovered her place on lunch break this week – what a find!!! It’s nearly impossible anywhere but Asuncion to find any cheese other than the single standard Paraguayan style, queso paraguaya, which is fresh and fairly bland)

For Halloween, some of the ex-pats on staff carved watermelons for jack-o-lanterns because we either don’t have pumpkins here or they are out of season.

November 2 was Paraguay’s Day of the Dead where locals honor their deceased loved ones. My class went to a cemetery to observe – I have never seen so many people in a cemetery at once…hundreds praying, playing, chatting, honoring; flowers on graves, candles on altars, scarves on crosses. Most burials are above ground with tombs ranging from petite to the size of a cottage. Those whose families can’t afford the more expensive and preferred above ground accommodations are buried in the ground.

My yoga mat is laid out next to my bed, a constant invitation to practice or stretch. Because of this, my host family’s 6-year old niece, Maria Clara, has discovered it and runs into my room every Sunday to practice and learn new postures with me. I love her enthusiasm and I have to admit that listening to kids speak Spanish is so cute! It’s not something I encounter in Maine and was quite a novelty for me when I first arrived.

Guinea hens are rampant here, easily identified with their loud squawk and great for insect control. The noise seems not to be a problem. No one minds barking dogs, 2am roosters, or smelly pigs either. It’s quite refreshing to have neighbors not bickering over these things. Everyone is simply tranquilo. Speaking of birds, one of the female geese was hit by the bus today and both the human and goose families are grieving over her. Her mate and their baby spent the afternoon calling pitifully for her and looking everywhere. It was really sad and my heart went out to them. I’ve never been a fan of geese but I really love the geese here on the farm, parading around like they own the place, and very protective of their babies.

There is a major ‘lindo factor’ here (lindo meaning beautiful or good). Of course, most people anywhere are drawn to pretty things but here you can make significant headway on something the more attractive it is. For example, we were building lombriculture bins (composting bins where red worms do most of the work) and were advised that people were more likely to use it if it was ‘super lindo.’ Ditch the scrap wood, pull out the tiles and bamboo. Paraguayans take tremendous pride in their appearance, even if it’s simply wearing their cleanest flip flops when company arrives. Small things like sparkly barrettes, glitter on shirts, bows on bags….all carry far more importance here than back home.

Did you know that Paraguayans clap at someone’s front door instead of knocking?

Did you know that instead of greasing a pan for baking you can simply line it with banana leaves to prevent sticking? Way cool!

My favorite guarani-isms of the week:

Nandu=spider

Guasu=large

Kavaju=horse

Nandu+guasu=ostrich (huh? Large spider is an ostrich? Apparently!)

Nandu+kavaju= tarantula (horse spider? Yup.)

Like I said, random but too interesting not to share. What are you interested in reading or learning about Paraguay in the future?

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Paraguayan Texting, Daylight Savings, and Nescafe

Never did I think I’d have a class on how to send a text message (much less in Spanish!) but all that changed today. Peace Corps actually trains volunteers on Paraguayan texting norms! For example, ‘Adios’ is a2, ‘Todos’ is to2, ‘Que tal’ is Q tl?, ‘Fuerte’ is simply ‘furt’ (my favorite of all!). Pretty fun, actually. Except the part where class was taught 100% in Spanish. I didn’t realize Paraguay participated in a form of Daylight Savings but tonight we move our clocks ahead 1 hour. Instead of being in the same time zone, in a few weeks we’ll be 2 hours apart from the US when you move your clocks back. I’m looking forward to more daylight at day’s end! Many people associate Latin America with delicious coffee, complete with organic and fair trade options. In Paraguay, Nescafe is THE coffee of choice and readily available at every grocery despensa (I have fond memories of those coffee commercials from childhood!) You will be hard pressed to find a whole-bean gourmet coffee anywhere in this country except perhaps Ascuncion. Paraguayans like to keep things simple and prefer their terere or matte over coffee.I miss music. I knew I would. Once at my project site I hope to learn to play a Paraguayan musical instrument but last night I really needed a music fix and was especially longing for some tango tunes (while my house has many amenities, television is my family’s entertainment of choice and they do not listen to music). I brought no MP3 player as I planned to rely on Pandora. To my dismay, Pandora is not licensed in Paraguay. Major bummer. However, just in time for the weekend, the neighbor across the road is playing a danceable, throbbing Latin number that will fill the void. My curtains are drawn and I’m relying on the TV in the next room to drown out the sound of my flip flops sashaying across the brick floor.

Today’s temps were in the high and humid 90s but it felt more like 100+. A perfect day for siesta but it was not in the cards for me. Each day at training, lunchtime becomes this wonderful adventure of my fellow G-mates comparing our mystery meals (EVERYone’s host Mom prepares their lunch for them, including mine). Most of us are still learning the various typical Paraguayan dishes and we’ve made it customary to try a bite from everyone’s lunch around the table. The majority of dishes are primarily meat and starch so when a classmate brings something resembling a vegetable or fruit, the negotiations begin! My family bought watermelon for me this week (wow-so grateful!!) and I was the envy of every trainee onsite. Those who helped translate this morning’s texting class for me got extra slices! 🙂 I’m spoiled because a typical lunch for me includes a large portion of meat (or something resembling meatloaf soup), plus beans, boiled potatoes and carrots, a couple leaves of lettuce, and sopa (cornbread) or chipa (a bread made of tapioca or mandioca flour and anise). This is popular with me since I need a gluten-free diet and can’t have regular wheat-based foods. Now THAT is something Paraguayans really don’t understand (the gringa from norteamerica who doesn’t eat ‘harina’/’trigo’ quickly became the topic of conversation in the neighborhood)- it’s virtually unheard of here – but my family has been wonderfully accomodating. Breakfast is always a slice of quesa paraguaya (cheese) with peach jam, yogurt, fruit, and sometimes meat and chipa. Today I got ham and eggs upon request! This week my sister made delicious galletitas (cookies) with tapioca flour and chocolate chips just for me! Chocolate… aaah.

Usually we are chauffered to and from class by our Peace Corps bus. Tonight’s commute was my first venture on the public bus, affectionately referred to as the ‘micro’ or ‘colectivo’. It was packed with people, spooned in like sardines, bellies to backs, making the ’97 degrees’ soar to ‘soaking wet’. But the sunset along the way was spectacular; the kind when you can see the actual sphere of the sun, glowing on the horizon, shining it’s last furtive rays across harvested sugar cane fields, peeking between palm fronds and glimmering off the last copper strands of my youth amongst my graying hair. I love those sunsets and today’s brought the broadest, most natural, straight-from-the-heart smile to my face. I’m here. I’m doing this. I was pure happiness in that moment.

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Machete lessons with Wendy the Elder

Today was my best day here so far, except that I was sick this morning, I forgot my deodorant and it was 95 degrees. And of course it was our first day of physical labor that had us making compost piles and vermiculture bins (for red worms) all afternoon. But I loved it and everyone else was smelly by day’s end too. However, the highlight was…wait for it… machete lessons! Cool, eh? We learned how to cut bamboo with our machetes and explore the many handy ways it can be used (fence posts, compost piles, etc). That stuff is tough as nails, especially once dry.

I also learned that I am officially the oldest in my group of trainees though there are a couple of folks not far behind me. Most are between 22 and 26. I overheard an interesting conversation among some of the younger, just-out-of-college volunteers who were discussing that Peace Corps was the first time they’d had ‘colleagues’ instead of ‘peers’. I had to laugh inwardly as that revelation for me seems like a million years ago.
There is an Olimpia Club soccer field 2 doors down from our house and a volleyball area set up across the street. Though I’ve not seen anyone (other than cows) use the soccer field, complete with official-looking goal nets, I plan to ask my host family about its use. Could make for great space to get my fellow trainees together.

Mama took me out back a couple nights ago to proudly show me about 20 baby ducks that recently hatched. Some are following their mama around, others are not quite ready. All are too adorable.

Oxcarts are a popular mode of moving sugarcane or other goods from the fields of small farms to the barn or to market here. I hope to get a photo for you soon so you can enjoy the sight with me. Sugarcane is typically harvested by hand with a ….machete. Yup. It is a lot of work. There’s not a lot of mechanized agriculture here and farming provides employment for 60% of the working population. There are 260,000 small family farms throughout the country which provide all of the variety of foods needed for families throughout the country (unlike larger farms with monocultures of soybeans, cotton, etc, much of which is exported).

Every day is an adventure. We’re putting in long days at school, 6 days a week, and coming home to practice more Spanish with our families. It’s tiring but fabulous. I’m so blessed with this opportunity!

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On Puppies and Piglets

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

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

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

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

Jajotopata
xoxo

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