February 14, 2012

The perfect goodbye

As I sit in the airport and begin to worry about losing the things that I have so loved about this country, it surprises me once again.

The man playing traditional harp in a full suit noticed a backpacker passing with a banjo on his backpack. He stopped mid-song and tried to ask him about it. In broken spanish/portuguese/english, the two switched instruments and tried to play a song together. The guard in aviator sunglasses watched, and the woman selling chipa gave them both a free piece for their efforts.


Heading Out

Twenty-four hours from now I will be home. My Peace Corps service will be over; 2.5 years complete, and Paraguay will begin shifting from reality to memory.

Its not the way I wanted to end my service. With and unsolved stomach mystery, a useless month of medical exams, and many weeks of uncertainty. But while not ideal, the time was right. With weeks of uncertainty and waiting, I had time to think, to process, and to prepare for the end of what has truly been an incredible Peace Corps Service.

When I applied to Peace Corps, I sincerely hoped for any country but Paraguay. Yet ironically, that is exactly where I ended up. Two days after I swore in as a G-31 beekeeping volunteer for Paraguay, I developed a severe bee allergy, had to switch sectors without additional training, and began waiting for a site all over again. But despite the ironies and hard times, on January 8th, 2010, I moved to Caroveni Nuevo/Cocuere Guazu. Though it wasn't what I thought I wanted, there I ended up was exactly where I needed to be for the past 2.5 years.

I wish this was a post about the Peace Corps, but while I met many amazing people in the Peace Corps, had some wonderful bosses and mentors, and learned a lot in their trainings, the Peace Corps did not define my time here. Instead, it was Paraguay. The cultural quirks, the incredible landscape, and most of all the people of Paraguay turned a foreign land into a comfortable home for the last 2.5 years.

Summing up this experience would be impossible. I know in four short days I will resort to a simple, "It was incredible" when questioned about my service. But inside I will smile, and remember the amazing-ness that is Paraguay. The countryside, the people who are willing to share anything/everything, the calmness and constant lack of rush, the willingness to try new things, the many gloriously plain afternoons spent reading in a hammock under a grove of mango trees, and finally, my fellow volunteers, who I know will mirror my smirks at the same memories.

As I left my site for the last time a few days ago, I was surprised when the bus stopped in front of my friend's house. Soon she marched on, told the driver to wait, and without talking to anyone else, walked straight to the back of the bus, handed me a platic bag wrapped around an undetermined amount of money and said, "this is for your chipa, my daughter. I love you and will miss you. Good luck." She kissed my cheeks, thanked the driver and told him he could go again.

I came to Paraguay with two families (my own, and my college family), and I leave with another 4 or so. The goodbye’s have been hard, with random swings of sadness, excitement, fear, and more, but I breathe a little easier when I realize that inside, I know I’ll be back. When? How? Who knows? But I’ll be back Paraguay. It’s the end of Peace Corps, but its not the end. Jajotopata.

August 20, 2011

Almost there,,

Wow! From 27 months of service down to 4! Everyone said that the second year went faster… they were not lying. I think it’s the comfort element. I am comfortable here (barring the occasional tarantula invasion), and the Paraguayans in my community are comfortable with me. The result is a sort of normalcy that makes days pass quickly, and a new appreciation for the oddities that have woven themselves into my life over the past almost-2 years.

I was drinking terere at my neighbors house the other day, and it was business as usual. Then suddenly, the neighbor said, “let’s do it,” and stood up and walked toward the trunk of his truck. Before I knew it all the men were involved in lifting a baby bull from the trunk back and slapping it to see if it would stand. Then of course, since I was the tecnica, I was asked to inspect the bull and tell them if I thought it would live. Since it was only skinny, and seemed to have energy, good skin, and healthy feces, I said that with the right vitamins and plenty to eat it should be fine. Then we watched it take a nap as we finished our terere.

It wasn’t until later that night that I even thought about the ridiculousness of the situation. First off why did nobody mention the calf to me until they were dragging it out of the back of the truck? And second, why was I suddenly the local vet? I have never demonstrated any capacity or knowledge about animal health, yet everyone, myself included, played along with my new role just fine.

Along with comfort has come a new demand of my skills. As I cuddled into my blanket ready for a relaxing afternoon of reading this week, my friend pulled up on her motorcycle and said “come to my house in 15 minutes, I need to learn how to make a cake for this afternoon. Oh, and bring your cake pans, I don’t have any. See you soon!” So I trudged down the street and spent the afternoon making a cake for (by together she meant that she would watch) my friend’s daughter. Suddenly I realized I barely had enough time to make it home before the sun disappeared.

I’ve finally adjusted. I am no longer shocked by Paraguay. Paraguayans are no longer shocked when I don’t want to eat cow stomach. My community and I have found our equilibrium.

And so, I stopped writing my blog. But I have stories I have been collecting, and before I forget I will start posting them again. Because while the shock value has faded, the incredible nature of my life has not, and its all because of this country, Paraguay. The “guay” that nobody really knows anything about. But it’s a country with a traditional culture full of fun quirks, a pretty good soccer team, and almost oddly unwavering pride.

So as my work in site begins to come to a close, I’ll turn to goal 3 of the Peace Corps: Sharing Paraguayan culture with the states. I’ll begin with some photos:

January 7, 2011

Fantastically Normal

When living in the country-side of Paraguay, my life becomes the countryside of Paraguay.

When I have nothing to do, I can now sit for hours and simply appreciate life. When I look for excitement, I cross the street anxiously to my neighbors house to hold her baby and gossip about how rude the senora down the road acts in committee meetings, and watch the road for new traffic. When I look for natural beauty, I sit on the porch as the sun sets below the palms. When I thought about New Years resolutions for 2011, they all involved my site; from getting to know new family’s, making my garden more environmentally friendly, and finally trying some sort of tongue. For all intents and purposes. My life in this town.

And oftentimes last year this fact began to bother me. I did not want to be that small-minded, that small-town, or that potentially ignorant to the parts of the world that existed far away from our daily happening. Which is why when Christmas vacation time came around, I was anxious to re-discover the world, or at least parts of Argentina.

And discovering I did. First San Carlos de Bariloche, where nature’s wonders continually surpassed my minds predisposed notions of beauty and shocked my system’s ability to handle extreme fluctuations of temperatures. Days were spent frolicking along snow-capped peaks lining a lake whose sheer size and fairly consistent whit-capped waves were reminiscent of the ocean.

After a delightful (and meat filled) parrilla dinner on Christmas eve, it was off to Mendoza, where dirt roads were actually maintained, mountains were even higher, wine flowed freely, sushi actually existed and was delicious, and even rainy days could not keep city life from happening.

It was a good vacation. Full of new experiences and so visually stimulating that I find my photos, although beautiful, disappointing in comparison. When I left for vacation I planned on a re-adjustment period in Asuncion, and worried it would not be enough time to be ready for site. And yet, despite myself, after so much discovery, fun, excitement, newness… etc, upon arrival at the hotel in Asuncion, I was antsy to get home.

Finally, I made it back. And the first thing I did was cross the street to hold my neighbor’s baby, hear about the gossip I missed, and watch the sun cross below the palms with her. Instead of feeling small-minded or trapped this time, I felt happy. This is what we do in the Paraguayan countryside. This is the life I chose, or rather, the life that chose me, and which I accepted.

Vacation was amazing, wonderful, an experience that widened my perspective and inspired my future, but I think so did my hours of starting into the fields, chatting about the weather or neighbor’s bad behaviors, and sitting through black-outs in the countryside of Paraguay for the last year. So for 2011, I am going to embrace the amazing-ness that somehow develops despite a lack of incredible natural beauty, fairly temperate weather, unexciting social lives, and too much free time. Even though full of the traditionally unappreciated, the small-town life of my Paraguayan community provides me a plethora of wonders and surprises. I will be sure to keep you all posted about the un-incredible, yet amazingly intriguing, inspiring, and exciting happenings of life in the campo!

Its good to be home!

December 8, 2010

The Chicken Project

My relationship with chickens in this country would be best defined as Love-Hate. I do love eating the home-grown chicken soup, and the beautiful orange-yolk eggs they sometimes lay in my compost pile. But I also do so hate those chickens that have figured out how to fly, and manage to clear my 3-foot tall garden fence and munch on all my red tomatoes, cabbages, and baby pepper plants before I realize what’s going on, as well as their sticky droppings they love to leave on my front porch.

And then, a few months ago, chickens became much more.

Almost every family in my community already has chickens. They are all over. They eat everything they can find, wander to far-off places, and when they decide to lay eggs, they do so wherever they see fit before climbing high into a mango tree to sleep for the night. But in July the agricultural committee randomly received 10 well-bred chicken babies sponsored by the mayor. I’m still unsure when the inspiration hit. It may have been the moment I saw those boxes of fluffy chicks being passed out to the agriculture committee. Or maybe when people started talking about how the chicks were dying. But I think it finally hit when one lady, chicken-less after only 4 weeks, recognized out-loud that she had no idea how to raise those chickens or why they died.

The committee had been hankering for a project, and after these chicken stories I couldn’t escape the opportunity glaring me in my face. I would teach my women how to care for their chickens. But they needed a reason. Other talks with them had established that beyond the winter-garden season where they could sell vegetables, they often lacked a steady income. Recent trips to the local store demonstrated that the local economy also lacked eggs. And so, it was born: the chicken project.

After watching to many easy projects fail in arriving, in their implementation, or in sustainability, I worked with all my resources to protect my project from a sad and unfortunate fate. Rules were born:
1) To be involved in the project, each woman had to be a long-standing and participatory member of the women’s committee.
2) Each person must attend a series of 4 talks about chickens in order to receive the project.
3) Each woman must contribute an equal percentage of crops from their fields towards the production of home-made chicken feed.
4) Each woman must work equally to raise the money for the community contribution.
5) Each woman must plant at least 5 lines of pigeon peas, a green manure, in their fields to go towards future chicken feed.
6) Each woman must have their chicken house built within a month of the materials arriving.
7) Each woman must keep at all times at least 6 chickens in her chicken coop.

At first things were hard. Despite constant reminders, good friends in the community tested my rules by skipping the first talk. When I had to kick them out of the project committee, I worried that everything would go downhill. I lost faith.

Slowly, faith returned. The 24 women that came to the first talk, came to the last 3 as well. When chicken-feed ingredients were requested, they took their time to make feasible promises that equaled what we needed. Women have already shown up at my house with contributions towards the chicken feed that may be months away in the making. And at every house I visit, something clicks in the minds of the women about mid-way through the visit, and they jump up excitedly to go show me their pigeon pea seedlings and show me where their chicken house will be built.

As of now we are waiting for the money. The application for a SPA grant through Peace Corps is in, thanks to great help from the president of the women’s committee, and hard days of cooking and selling chicken and empanadas has us only a few dollars away from our community contribution goal. And now we wait.

And now, though the chickens that get into my garden still piss me off, I see in them an opportunity. The ‘chicken chatter’ around town is positive, women are even putting some of the practices learned in talks to use with the chickens they have. The room underneath my guest bed is almost full of corn, beans, and coco waiting to be ground for future feed.

They did it. They followed the rules, and have astounded me with their progress. As I work to ensure that my part in the project pulls through as well, I notice that the women walk into meetings a little taller and laugh a little louder. Those garden destroying chickens have already begun to empower a capably group of people looking for a chance to prove themselves. And prove themselves they will continue to do, I tell them. Because though we may have to wait, when those chickens finally get here, are well fed and well kept, and start producing lots of eggs, I will be over at each of their houses to try one.

First came the chickens, then the eye-opening empowerment of the women, and now comes my time to learn patience in the funding process. We finally got confirmation of funding! But red-tape keeps its from materializing too soon. The day will come though, I hope, when its all about the eggs, and six months after, a few plates of home-made chicken soup as we watch baby chicks chirp away the beginning of the cycle.

November 21, 2010

Thanks for Coming

Sorry for the lack of blog posts recently.. internet in the countryside sometimes fails. Here is a little note I wrote to myself a while ago... I hope you enjoy! I'll do a photo update when I get to better internet!

From the first day I arrived in Paraguay, Peace Corps mentioned the importance of visiting families to get to know them. In training it was simple: I visited the families that the other Peace Corps Trainees lived with, and then we all left together to play Frisbee.

It was not until I got to site that I realized how complex the simple task or visiting families could become. My initial visits were easy, introductory, full of simple questions, temperature commentary, and the periodic meal or gift of fruit to welcome me to the community. It was pleasant.

Once the first visits to all the families were over, disaster struck. Apparently you visit once, and you have to keep going, fairly frequently, meaning about once a week. If you fail, you will know you did, because they will hound you with “Where have you been?” “Why don’t you want to come back to my house?” “When are you going to visit me again?” “Why haven’t I seen you in a while?” To answer: “Because you never come to my house,” is inappropriate, and so an immediate promise of a visit to come and excuses of a heavy workload is the only way to excuse yourself.

Then you realize that with some families you simply have nothing to say. Maybe it’s a personality difference. Maybe it’s a lack of patience allowing for the conversations to go anywhere. And these visits slowly die, because you leave feeling bored, and they stop asking why you never come around.

But other families just click. You have fun with them. You can sit and talk about things other than the rain last week. You can make funny noises together. They order you right inside if you arrive past ten am to help them make lunch and expect you to stay for it. They also have a tendency to give you things. None of this is solicited and yet so far I have walked away from various family visits with, but not limited to: a pumpkin, bag of hot peppers, sweet potatoes, a cup of sugar cane juice, a bowl of mandioca, roasted pig skin, a bag of beans, a floor mat, a large hair clip decorated with 2 yellow poinsettias and brown feathers, and several delicious meals (normally already in my stomach).

It’s awfully nice of them. I guess they are just so happy to have a visitor that they want to thank them for coming. I have seen them do the same with Paraguayans. I try to return the kindness when I can, baking and distributing cakes and breads periodically to the heavy gifters, or even the ones with the kindest or strangest offers (I have an outstanding offer to bring my towel and bathe whenever I want at one family’s house. Even when I told them I had a hot shower, they replied that they just wanted to let me know that if I wanted to bathe at their house ten minutes away from my own and then walk home on a dusty or muddy dirt road, I was welcome to).

I have already decided that this is something I am going to miss about Paraguay. It really brightens your day. Not only do I accomplish something each day I go and talk with Paraguayans for 3 hours about their lives, mine, and mention some gardening tips amidst it all, but I also walk home with something like a large pumpkin to eat.

Maybe I will continue this in the US. I think I should. I will have a bowl by the door of long-keeping vegetables and dollar-store treasures, and depending on my mood as I walk my guest to my front door they will get a yam, an onion, or a leopard print snap-bracelet.