Monday, September 28, 2009

Returning and Staying

Friends and Family,

It has been some time since I updated this blog, business and lack of feedback on the blog (it turns out people were reading) made me slack a little bit here. With this post, I hope to begin updating this blog at least monthly. The reason for this is the topic of today's post.

I have been accepted to extend my Peace Corps Service and stay for a third year as the ccoordinator for the Environmental Sector here in Paraguay. That means come December I will move to the big city, Asuncion, and start working in the Peace Corps headquarters here. My job will be to support volunteers in the field through technical support, peer support, and by assisting the Environmental Sector Director with site development and followup. In addition, I will assist with the implementation and presentation of a number of training sessions throughout the year.

I am excited for this opportunity to gain a certain amount of professional experience that may be valuable when I eventually do return to the US. It is an honor to be selected to support my fellow volunteers and do what I can to continue the success of the program here in Paraguay. After over two years, I have come to feel comfortable and not always completely lost here in this country, and with another year I will get to know a whole different side of it as I move from the deep countryside to the capitol city.

Extending for an extra year means that I get one month of home leave which I plan to take from the middle of December to the middle of January. Since I have yet to return home since arriving here, I can't wait to get back and eat all the foods that I have craved and see all of the people that I miss.

Tentatively, I plan to fly into North Little Rock to spend Christmas, then travel North to spend New Years in Springfield, and then continue North to spend the rest of my time in Fairflield before returning to Paraguay. If anybody would like to hang out, shoot me an Email of Facebook message. I don't have phone numbers anymore... or a phone.

Things I want to do/eat (while being with family and friends) (in no particular order):
Silverdollar City (Chile, and, everything else)
Papa John's Pizza
Pop Tarts
Movies in Theaters (All of them)
Indian Food
Cashew Chicken
Play Ultimate
Watch Football
Eat Vegetables
Drive a car

Friday, May 8, 2009


Mba'etekopiko che angiru kuera?

Life in Paraguay is going. These days I am as healthy as I have been since coming here. That means no strange insects living in my feet or hands, no scabies, no intestinal parasites or giardia... as far as I know. Really though, we all live with a low level of giardia down here, sometimes it decides to act up and sometimes we get a break.

I am staying pretty busy working in my two schools. I wish I could be doing more and lately there has been this nagging thought in the back of my head that soon I will be running out of time. Despite the long list of activities, presentations, and assorted projects for my last 3-month review, I feel like I should somehow be doing more. Part of my percieved slowness is totally in my head, another part is due to the very relaxed cultural attitude toward work, and the final part is the monkey on my back.

No, I'm not referring to alcoholism or a weakness for beanie babies. The monkey on my back consists of the personal baggage that I brought to South America, and which I continue to add to and subtract from. In Peace Corps, life tends to be magnified. Little faults that I have delt with or ignored in the past become demons that I battle daily in my head. Home in the US, it is easy to live with and accept our little personal flaws. Ignoring a problem is as easy as flipping on the TV or going to the movies or jumping on the internet. That is not the case here. With a relatively short time frame of only two years in which to make an impact in a place I may never return to yet nevertheless has accepted me as an adopted son, I cannot afford to take things too lightly.

Life here is bittersweet. We build up amazing memories and accomplish so many miraculous feats, but when we return to the US who will care? This 2 year experience sometimes feels so untreal when I put it in the context on my life as a whole. It almost feels like a game sometimes, and other times it seems like nothing in the future will really matter like this does.


The Legend of Juru Puku

This is a short story that I wrote and had published in the tri-monthly Peace Corps Paraguay Volunteer magazine.

The Legend of Juru Puku
(vocabulary list at the bottom)

Stories are things that we all carry with us. They are personal and cultural, private or public. They can describe a whole culture, or give a glimpse into the heart of somebody you have never met. When time, imagination, and superstition mix there can be some interesting results. This is a story that was given to me by an old lady who lives just outside of my site, alone, in a small wooden house. I call it the Legend of Juru Puku.

Today, all that remains of the community once called Juru Puku is a well full of dusty trash surrounded by kokue, divided by a thin dirt road, and a lonely hill crowned by the survivors of what was once an indistinguishable part of the Alto Parana Atlantic Forest. The previously mentioned well marks the boundary between the German soy and the Japanese soy, who together bought and sold the local life until all that remained was a desert of monoculture. Ña Nancy says that at one time about 20 years ago that area was home to a small but guapo community much like many others all over Paraguay. They had a church and a small school and once a week the dispensa truck came through to fill up the small stores. Like most people in the campo, the people of Juru Puku were superstitious. Back then, the forest was still very much alive and there was even an indigenous tribe close enough to the town for the people to trade occasionally. Still, there was little contact between the campesinos and the natives.

One day a male rural health volunteer arrived in Juru Puku. He had been requested by a profesora in town who had heard about Cuerpo de Paz at a partido hapé. His name was William Sentacious and he was your typical early 20's fresh out of college bright eyed bushy tailed all American kid. Ña Nancy says he started learning Guarani right away and soon became fluent. He was guapo and drank gallons of tereré, hoed lines in between mandi'o, and kept his floors swept. At some point William developed an interest in the indigenous tribe and began asking people about them. Ña Nancy says that people told him that they were dangerous and not to go into the forest. Eventually, his curiosity won out over his neighbor's warnings about forest spirits and giant snakes.

At this point in the story, Ña Nancy told me that William was living at her house. Once he started going into the forest she worried about him, but he always came back. That is, until he stopped. At first he was very excited to be talking with the indigenous tribe. He would tell his friends in site about them, telling stories about the children or the hunters. Ña Nancy was reluctant to go into more detail, but I too was curious about this tribe and asked her to tell me more about them. It turns out that they had preserved a tradition of a magic of sorts. It seemed fairly harmless, mostly nature oriented spells or chants intended to bring desirable weather or deter dangerous animals. At specific times of the year they held spiritual ceremonies. This is all fairly unsurprising as far as indigenous cultures go. Specific to the region was their belief that the great forest shrank and grew in great natural cycles. Interestingly, and perhaps uniquely, the elders devised certain objects of power that could subtly influence these natural cycles. I can not guess what purpose they could have had for the creation of such items, and Ña Nancy was not able to shed any more light on them.

Judging by the amount of time William Sentacious spent in the forest, I would guess that he learned something of their secret practices. Ña Nancy told me that at some point during his second year, he stopped returning regularly. He would stay out for days at a time and when he did emerge he refused to talk in detail about what he had been doing. By now the PCV had also completely stopped his trips to Asuncion (which at that time were a monthly necessity). This, my old story teller assures me, is what eventually lead to the decline of Juru Puku.

It was a hot and dusty day when William was taken away. He was staying with Ña Nancy at the time when a large and dirty, but clearly brand new, truck rolled in. Two tall North Americans emerged and began speaking to their PCV. Of course Nancy was not able to understand what they said, but the effects of the exchange were dramatic. William became angry and shouted at the two men. They were trying to get him into the truck but he refused. Finally they physically put him inside. Then they were gone and William Sentacious was never heard from again.

The story doesn't end there. That evening Ña Nancy went in to clean William's room. His few personal belongings had been hastily taken by one of the North American men, but one thing had been left. They probably hadn't recognized it as belonging to their PCV. It was a small bundle wrapped in soft leather, and upon opening it she discovered an ornately carved wooden bombilla. It was a striking shade of dark red, and she could not tell from what sort of tree it had been made. Knowing something of the secretive tribe, Nancy recognized it as an item of some importance. She was afraid of the power that it may hold and did not know what to do. She feared that the indigenous people would be angry to discover that an outsider was in possession of a sacred item. She didn't know why William had it, but she decided that she needed to get rid of it.

That very night Ña Nancy took the ornate red bombilla outside, bundled it in the soft leather, and dropped it into her well. A few weeks passed and she had almost forgotten about it until her two small children became suddenly ill and died. Shortly after that her husband went out to work and never returned. In despair, Nancy moved away and never returned. Within three years of her move, all of the land in and around the town of Juru Puku had been purchased, cleared, burned, flattened, and turned into a sea of whispering soy plants. All that remains is the old well that used to belong to Ña Nancy.

Quietly, the old woman finished her story. I sat and thought. Several questions were quickly being translated in my mind: What happened to the tribe? Did they come looking for their bombilla? Why did she think that it was the cause of the disappearance of Juru Puku? She only looked at me and shook her head silently, refusing to answer any of my questions.

All I know for sure is that the well is still standing.

Asuncion - capitol of Paraguay
kokue - field, farm land
guapo - hard working (in the rest of latin america it means pretty)
campo - country side
partido hapé - soccer game
mandi'o - mandioca, also maybe called yucca? A tuber similar to a large potato.
Ña - Mrs.
bombilla - Metal straw with filter on the end used to drink Terere and Maté
Juru Puku - Long Mouth

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Day of Love or how I almost lost my little toe

We were sitting in the hard sipping terere when I discovered my pique, right on the edge of my right pinkie toe. I casually said something like "hey I think I have a pique." Immediately everybody was crowded around my foot to have a look. "Yep, sure is" they said and offered to take it out for me. Profesora Gladis said that her 7 year old daughter Marta is an expert and always takes out Grandmas pique. I really didn't feel like I could refuse and besides, what could go wrong? Besides, the chipa guasu was already in the oven.

I started to have second thoughts when Marta pulled a needle off the shelf that obviously wasn't clean. "That thing is going inside my toe, we should..." I am sitting in a little tiny chair with my foot propped up and Marta is going to work like an expert surgeon. It turned out the eggs had been in there for a while and before long she was pulling out little white eggs about the size of the tip of a pen.

Everything was going pretty well, Marta was pulling out the eggs and wiping the puss off with a rag. I was trying to be as calm as possible because there was a little boy about 4 years old that kept asking me questions like "Does it hurt yet?" "Whats wrong with your face?" He kept sticking his face in my gaping wound and saying "guakala!"(gross!)

Just as the kid was getting annoying with his questions I forgot all about him because he was right, it did hurt. I looked down and blood had filled the hole in my toe and Marta was saying that she couldn't get the whole thing out. By this point the sun had gone down enough that her brother Juan had to bring in their little flashlight. I was surrounded by little kids asking me weird questions and digging trenches in my toes with sewing needles.

I really wanted to just leave but it would have been rude and besides, I really cant pass up a chance to eat chipa guasu. Marta is wiping away bloody puss with her rag and all I can think about is eating.

Before long Profesora Gladis came over, took a few stabs herself and declared the job done. We all knew it wasn't but the flesh was too raw and swollen to keep working. I followed them outside into the cool night air, staggering, and enjoyed a plate of delicious chipa guasu

Happy Valentines Day

Food of Paraguay

(Disclaimer: This is not a food list, sorry, that will be another post. I am also mostly speaking for the Paraguayan country side, not large cities like Asuncion where more money and resources are available.

I figure my average meal in site, at my home, costs about $1.50 to $2.00. That doesn't include the cost of transportation (other than basics, I try to bring in slightly higher quality food from the city) but that gives an idea of how my neighbors are eating. Even at prices like that, many poor families here have trouble putting a decent meal - if anything - on the table twice a day. In the States, we can easily spend $30 on a decent non-fast food meal at a restaurant. That's what, 20 meals which would feed somebody for ten days if you forget breakfast (most people here do).

In my community here in Paraguay, people aren't starving like they are in Africa but without being a doctor I can say pretty confidently that we do have major malnutrition problems. There are several reasons for this:

- Lack of tradition -
Paraguay has a very bland culinary tradition. Traditional foods are almost always fried or extremely fatty. Vegetables simply aren't generally considered a necessary part of the diet. Even in cities big enough to have restaurants, almost all of them will serve the same thing. A fast food joint will have burgers and pre-made sandwiches and empanadas and milonaisa (fried breaded meat). A sit-down restaurant will serve the same soup/pasta/fish/meat dishes with little variation as well as all of the fast food options. The only real foreign food that has become popular is pizza.

- Poverty -
Meat or roots like mandioca are more filling than salads. You get more for your money when you have to chose one or the other. Many poor farmers in the country cannot afford to travel to the nearest town where a variety of vegetables would be available.

- Intestinal Parasites -
While not a diet issue, the endemic problem of intestinal worms greatly influences the health of people, especially children, and can exacerbate the effects of malnutrition. Parasites can cause quick fatigue, chronic abdominal pains, chronic diarrhea, and malnutrition. In extreme cases they can even lead to death. More commonly children with parasites may be less likely to pay attention at school or do homework because of lack of energy.

How do we eat our veggies in Paraguay?

Some families will plant a garden, generally consisting of lettuce, green onion, carrots, and tomatoes. A fresh garden salad will be made of a mixture of those vegetables mixed with vegetable oil and salt.

Often a stew or soup will include green onion.

Me? I take my vitamin every day and look forward to the time when I will again have access to the incredible variety of foods that we naturally take for granted in the US.