Posts Tagged With: sustainable

Make your own happiness

,Date 1-16-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Random facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have an excellent week!

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

How to eat a watermelon in Paraguay? Ask Wendía.

Be bold or Italic. Never regular.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, time for my typical random facts and observations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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