Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Last winter in Paraguay, I was freezing most of the time. It was hard for me to leave my sleeping bag and all I thought about was going into the city to take a hot shower. Not so this year. While there have been a couple short cold spells, the majority of the time has been like a New Mexico Fall. Blue skies, bright warm sun, taking cold showers in my outdoor shower place (granted, they're rather quick, but still...), getting up early and going to bed late because I'm not freezing to death. I know I shouldn't be complaining, but come on Paraguay! I like my seasons to change! I also shouldn't be complaining while all of you are suffering through the a particularly hot, dry northern hemisphere summer. I do feel your pain.

But speaking of seasons, this time of year is citrus season galore. At any time, starting around June and still in progress, I can walk out my door, walk 15 m and pick my fill of tangerines (called mandarinas), oranges, pomelos (similar to grapefruits, but much sweeter), and limóns (which are orange in color and look exactly like the mandarinas--don't confuse the two and accidentally eat a limón like a mandarina. That's not fun.) And when Paraguayans eat citrus, they really eat some citrus. Not just one or two tangerines or oranges at a sitting, but more like 5 or 6 or 7 or more. They'll go out, pick an entire bucket full of their choice of citrus, and then the whole family sits around and eats them all. ALL. They think I'm so weird when I only want to eat one per afternoon. Well, that's at least one of the many, many, many reasons why they think I'm weird.

In addition to having these citrus trees around the house, some families also have citrus orchards that they harvest when they're producing well. This year, my family's young pomelo orchard did much better than last year and we harvested it at the end of June. I was psyched to help out because 1)it didn't happen last year, 2)doing stuff in the field always makes me feel productive, and 3)I love doing the hard stuff with other females. At 7:00 in the morning, my host dad Cristino, host sister Cari, two neighbor girls Blanca and Mariela and I set out to pick and bag the pomelos. Cristino doesn't have any sons to help out with the physical labor required to maintain a 10 hectare farm, so Cari and I are his go-to girls. Getting the neighbor girls to help was a bonus this day and just added to my strong, female power feeling. I was initially told that that was all the work was going to entail because then a truck was going to drive into the field, pick up the bags and take them to the road where a bigger truck would then come by at noon to take them to the purchaser. But lo and behold, the field was way too muddy for a truck to drive into so instead we were going to have to manually carry the bags up to the road. With about two hours to complete this new task, the 5 of us began the slow process of carrying the 40 45-50 lb bags the 500 m uphill to the road. One (per person) at a time. I didn't think this was going to be so bad, but the combination of awkward cargo, muddy trails, slippery stream crossings and a time crunch totally wore me out! It was a good worn out though and I was really proud of all of us for getting all the bags up to road just in time to eat a few pomelos, take some pictures, and weigh the bags before the truck arrived. I was completely exhausted and took a hard core siesta after lunch. Poor Mariela and Blanca had to spend the afternoon in their 8th grade classroom! There's no way I could've stayed awake for that. Cristino was happy about the ~600 kilos of pomelos he gets to "sell" this year (it's complicated, the trees were initially given out for free from this company with the agreement that the grower when then pay them back through the harvests over the next however many years. i'm not sure of all the details, and i'm never quite sure if this is a good system, but it happens all the time here). I was appalled to learn that they were being sold at around 600 Guaranis per kilo. That's about $0.15/lb. Good thing I'm free labor.

This season is also winter break time for the schools, and I took advantage of the kids' free time and free school space to have a mini art camp. As things generally don't go as planned when you're a PC voluteer in Paraguay, my art camp plans of course did not work out. It poured rain the night before and morning of the first scheduled day, so that didn't happen. The next day was still really cloudy and wet (translation: no one leaves their house), so that didn't happen either. The third day, however, we were up and running. I purposely didn't tell many people about my plans because I didn't want to deal with 5000 kids. No, let me rephrase that. I cannot deal with more than about 20 at a time, and that's pushing it. But I told my favorite families, and I told a few more on my way to the school that morning, and it was perfect. About 15 kids showed up and we made bird/animal masks. I brought the photocopies of the outlines from the PC office (it's a very common environmental education project here) so they spent the morning coloring, cutting, gluing and then wearing their new masks. They really loved it and I had a wonderful time hanging out with [most of] them! Especially the younger ones, whom I enjoy more and more everyday. And a big thanks to everyone out there who was sent/brought markers and crayons!!! I could not have done this project without them!

Even though the next day was Saturday (due to all the rain-out days), the kids wanted to do some more fun art projects with me so we met again for Day 2. Word spread fast the day before about how awesome me and my art projects are, so as Day 2 class got under way, there were close to 25 kids! Way too many for my liking, but what can you do? I can't blame them for wanting to hang out with me! But I can constantly tell them to "Wait!", "Be patient!", "You have to share!", "Stop yelling!" and "That's not your problem." All in Guarani. I'm fluent when it comes to disciplining children. I don't mean to make is sound like it wasn't fun, because it was. Just a little more stressful than the day before. First, we made wallets out of old milk cartons. This is an awesome and very easy recycled art project that another volunteer taught me. And thanks to the super cool colored duct tape my parents recently sent to me, their wallets are a classy blue and purple (adorned with lucha libre stickers I brought) instead of weird old milk box label colors. After the wallets came the long-awaited making of play-doh! Ever since Liv brought me a pack of play-doh when she came to visit (and I mentioned we could make our own), they've been dying to make their own. Probably so they don't have to come to my house to play with it because that means following my "no mixing" rule. I don't like my colors mixed. That's just the way it has to be. Anyway, both the making of and playing with the play-doh went wonderfully. Even though their colors aren't as cool as mine (we used food coloring and it didn't turn out very bright), they could mix away if they wanted! And normally Paraguayan children have a very difficult time being creative (creativity is severely stifled and NEVER encouraged in their school system), but they were doing great that morning! No one asked me what they should make, ideas were flowing freely and it kept them entertained for a good 30 minutes. That may not seem like much, but trust me, it is.

They left happy and content and wanting to have more art classes with me. I'm all for this, but I'm quickly exhausting my supply of low-input art projects. The one I have left is home-made paper. We'll do this soon. But I would love for anyone and everyone out there to give me their input! What else can I make with these kids? Ideally, recycled projects are the best, but anything that doesn't require a whole lot of "new" stuff would work. Just remember that I live in rural Paraguay. Help us please!!!!!!!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

She's Alive!!!

(forewarning: the fonts on the post are totally funky. I can't help it. I tried...)

Hello all.
Do I need to introduce myself again after that incredibly long blog break? I’m not sure what happened there…too much idleness and/or laziness? It was also so dang hot for a while that there was no way I was going to sit inside my little “shack that turns into an oven in the summer” and write anything. But now, thankfully, it’s not so hot so I can’t use that excuse anymore. I could say that I’ve been too distracted with visitors (my wonderful family came to visit in February), vacation (then we all went to Uruguay for a week of pure beach fun), and Shakira (that’s right, Shakira came to Asuncion in March), but if those things aren’t worth writing about, I don’t know what is.

I could also say that I’m just not doing much of anything in my community (as in “real” volunteer work), but, lo and behold, that has not been the case. This spring, Cristino (my main contact and host dad) and I built a ka’a vivero. Ka’a is the guarani word for yerba, the plant they harvest the leaves from to make yerba mate for drinking tereré and mate. We made two large seed beds to start with, which will hopefully produce anywhere from 1000 to 6000 seedlings. There’s a certain way to make the ka’a seed beds that involves about 7 different layers of forest soil (that has to be collected from where there is still native forest left standing…..hard to find in these parts), sawdust, organic material from a decomposing log, ash and grass to cover the top. After 5-6 months, we’ll start transplanting the seedlings into containers and our newly built, chicken-free area will become a full-fledged yerba tree nursery. Yerba saplings are selling like crazy right now, so this will hopefully be a sustainable, future income generator for my family.

When school started up again in March, I decided to suck it up and do some more work with the kids this year. My favorite thing has been brushing my teeth with the preschoolers. First I talked to them (briefly) about the importance of brushing your teeth, then I gave them all toothbrushes, and now I make sure to be at the school at least once a week so we can all brush our teeth together. It’s very cute. They all get really excited everytime they see me walking up and come running over to jump all over me. I think those ages (4-6 yrs) are my favorite. Contrast that with working with 8th graders, who are not nearly as much fun as the little ones. I try to do cool things with the 8th grade, mainly environmentally related activities, but it is a constant struggle. When we work in the garden, I can keep their attention for maybe 10 minutes but after that it’s all over. We did successfully make a compost pile that will eventually become a worm farming area, but I’m pretty sure that only worked because their sweet professor was hovering around keeping them all in line. She, unfortunately, could not make it the day we we’re celebrating Earth Day a month ago. That left me with 15 13-15 yr olds, 50 native tree saplings, 2 shovels, 1 hoe, and A LOT of attitude. I can’t believe how much complaining and whining I heard that day because we were planting trees around the futbol field. Somehow, despite their protests and with promises of “prizes” if they helped, I managed to corral and direct enough of them to successfully plant 20 trees. That was good enough for me and the Earth!

The last few weeks (before vacation), I’ve been working on a different ka’a project with the other volunteer, Brian, who lives near me. He wrote a project proposal to give away 50,000 yerba saplings to people in our communities who were willing come to a series of meetings discussing the merits of soil and forest conservation, reforestation, agroforestry practices and the technical aspects of planting yerba. They also have to agree to plant other native trees on their property,
which we will also be giving them. The yerba companies out in this area are always on the lookout for more product to buy, so having them plant 500-1000 yerba plants will hopefully lead to 1) a decrease in the amount of acreage devoted to soy and wheat production, 2) more trees in the ground (although yerba is a fairly small tree, it is a native Paraguayan forest species) and 3) provide them with an additional, sustainable way to make more money and thus improve their living standards. I’ve spent weeks walking/riding my bike around talking to every single household in my community to see who is interested and trying to encourage more participation. Check out this link for an article in a local Paraguayan newspaper about the project:

Last, but not least, in the beginning of May, I took my Cristino to a project development workshop put on by Peace Corps staff. He's really wanting to start a youth group in our community, so I thought this workshop could really help make his plans actually happen. It turned out to be a great experience for both of us and I wrote about it in our little Environmental Sector Peace Corps newsletter. Here's the uncut version of my "article". Please forgive the cheesiness.

We Are All Leaders

After being in site almost a year and a half, I finally took advantage of the Project Development Workshop (PDM) that Peace Corps Paraguay organizes at least once a year for any volunteer (and a contact) who is interested. Over the past 6 months, Crisitino (my contact) and I have been discussing his grand vision of developing a youth group in our community and surrounding communities that will, essentially and eventually, provide them with activities and work that encourage respect for themselves, the community and the environment. I’ve been overwhelmed just thinking about how we can make this happen, and didn’t know where in the world to begin to help him transform all his thoughts and ideas into an actual plan with obtainable goals. Then I remembered hearing very positive things about PDM from other volunteers and realized that this was the exact tool we were both needing to progress beyond the discussion stage. So, after lots of persuasion on my part, Cristino and I headed out of Itapua the first week of May for the 12 hour trip to CAFASA outside of Ypacarai.

Through the talented facilitation of the language teachers from the Peace Corps Training Center, the PDM workshop teaches how to think about and implement the steps necessary to successfully carry out a community project. It is not a requirement to attend with a project in mind, but since we had one, I felt it gave Cristino and I more motivation and direction than we may have had otherwise. Already having a general project idea to work with also allowed me to modify some of the workshop activities that seemed a little redundant, or inapplicable to our ultimate goals. This way we could focus on the parts that kept us both engaged and that helped maintain the connection between some of the more abstract concepts to the tangible reality of our community. They teach the process of project development in a fairly simple and straightforward manner, but the amount of critical thinking and attention to detail it involves is not familiar to many Paraguayans. Cristino, who I consider one of the most aware, curious and intelligent Paraguayans I have met (yes, I am biased), was unexpectedly frustrated and intimidated at times over the course of the 2 ½ days. It was just a completely new way of thinking for him that he had to quickly adapt to in order to make the most out of our time there. I adapted to his frustrations by being very strong willed and not giving in when he just wanted to stop thinking for a while. Instead, during the hard times, I realized that by giving him a little more encouragement and a little more input from my point of view, we could almost immediately get the ball rolling again.

And roll it did. Cristino and I came out of PDM with a definite plan of how he is going to accomplish the creation of a youth group. What happens after this initial creation will require more planning, critical thinking and evaluating which he will hopefully be able to do on his own, and teach others to do with him, with the tools he learned last week. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and feel that it was an extremely productive experience for both Cristino and I. I knew things were going well when, after the end of the 2nd day’s activities, I walked past his room a couple times before dinner and he was sitting at his desk, glasses on, pen in hand, in full concentration mode, going back over the work we had done that day. My heart wanted to burst, I was so proud. My heart almost did burst the next day when, after breakfast, I heard that Cristino had given a mini-speech at his breakfast table about how he had been a little scared and very unsure of himself at the beginning of the workshop and had never thought of himself as a leader before. But now, after only a couple days of really thinking and learning and being around others in the same mindset, he realized that anyone could be a leader, including himself. For the first time in his life, he had the courage to acknowledge not only that he CAN be a leader, but that he WANTS to be a leader for his community.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Feliz Navidad!

Happy holidays to everyone back home! I miss you and love you all. I'm headed to Chile tomorrow for some backpacking in Torres del Paine National Park, followed by some beach time outside of Valparaiso. It's going to be a great break from my time in Paraguay, having recently reached the '1 yr left to go' mark. But I'm also excited to get back and start some real projects during this last year. Overall, I'm really loving my time in Paraguay. As always, there is an open invitation to come visit me to see what it's like!

As we bring in the new year, I'll leave you with some photos that capture my time spent during these last few months. It's been a wonderful year for me and the people and places in these photos are what has made it so special.

Blanca, Lupi and Tati cleaning the cake batter bowl in my "kitchen" window

Upclose of my 4 yr old friends after eating cake batter

Eating with the family and neighbors for the big Virgin of Caacupe Day, December 8

Our new tatakua (brick, wood fired oven) cooking sopa paraguay,
Paraguay's delicious version of cornbread

Putting the 4 yr olds to work cleaning my patio. It was their idea, I promise.

The 'before' photo of the area behind my house

Pouring the cement floor for my new outside shady sitting area,
with the help of my host family, of course

The almost 'after' photo of my awesome new, chicken free, outside place. I haven't finished painting yet, but the hammock is already getting lots of use.

One of my legacies: the hula hoop. Since I made this one, it's been the talk of the town.

Swimming at the nearby forest reserve with my agforester friends who came to
visit after Thanksgiving

Crossing the sketchy bridge along the long walk from the reserve to my house

Along the same walk, surrounded by soy fields

My favorite cow picture. That's one of my host sisters, Andresa, doing the milking

My favorite picture of Tati

Best buds

This pretty much sums it up

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Paraguayan Harmony

Yet another blog post long over due. But this one's a good one. Worth the wait. However, before we get into the heart of it, I would like to plug a project that's going on here in Paraguay through a group of very hard working and dedicated Peace Corps volunteers. It is not a project of mine, but that's not important. I thought that some of you would like to get an idea of what's going on down here and have a chance to help out, if you so choose. So check out this link and poster if you're interested:


And now back to the Leah Show...

One of the many things you can’t escape in campo Paraguay is the sound of life. The outside world and the inside world become one, separated only by thin wooden boards, constantly infiltrated by the noise of the present moment. With the electricity constantly going off and the existence of noisy technological gadgets at a minimum, the sounds around me keep me company. Sometimes they’re soothing and make me truly appreciate this strange land I’m temporarily inhabiting. Other times, however, they’re infuriating and make me long for a place with insulated houses and fenced off, designated animal areas. Either way, the sounds of Paraguay are a unique part of my experience here, deserving of at least a simple blog post. The following descriptions (unfortunately I don’t have sound bites to accompany them) are written as part of a David Letterman-inspired top 10 list of noises that keep me from sleeping when I want to. Because sometimes sleep is the only escape. But I think it is really just the top 10 sounds of Paraguay. Period.

Top 10 Sounds that Disturb My 10 Hours of Sleep a Day in Campo Paraguay

(in no particular order, except for #1 which deserves the honor of the worst sound imaginable)

#10. Roosters.

Remember how we were taught as kids that roosters crow when the sun comes up? Lies. All lies. Roosters crow whenever they feel like it. Maybe at 4 am. Maybe at 2 pm. Maybe at midnight. And when one rooster crows, all roosters who hear it answer with a crow, and then others answer them with a crow. Since everyone here has chickens and roosters, this progression of crowing rarely stops once it begins. Lying in my bed well before sunrise, wishing I was still asleep, I can follow the chain of rooster calls as it moves up and down the line of my community like a wave of nausea rolling in and out and back in again. At this point, I have thankfully developed quite the talent for falling back asleep after being annoyingly awakened. I’ll always have Paraguay to thank for my amazing ability to sleep anywhere at anytime.

#9. Snorting, Squealing Pigs

Pigs may be highly intelligent animals (so I hear… this has yet to be confirmed by my experience with them) but they are also extremely dirty and loud. To the point of being disgusting. If I or anyone else walks anywhere near their pens, they start snorting and jumping around like crazy, creating quite the racket all for the hope of more food which we do not have. These are not skinny little pigs, either. They have plenty to eat, especially when they’re allowed to just roam free like the dogs and chickens. They eat anything and everything and are very loud in the process of getting it all into their bellies as quickly as possible. I don’t observe them a whole lot because they disgust me so much, but I do know that they are noisy at all hours of the day and night. It doesn’t help that our pig pen is about 15 meters behind my house. Way too close.

#8. Full Uddered Cows

The cows usually aren’t so bad, but recently, after their recent birthing season, they cannot wait to get milked in the morning. The momma and baby cows are tied up to different stakes at night so those udders are nice and full when morning comes. And those babies are nice and hungry. Unfortunatley, the cows don’t start moo-ing about this when my morning starts, but instead at around 5 am. Or right now, at 9 pm, right behind my house, as I’m writing about them. The other thing about the cows is that their moo-ing often sounds like the noise elephants make. Where am I again?

#7. The Same Reggaeton/Polka/Kachaka Mix CD Blaring out of the Neighbors Crappy Speakers

I’ve written about this before in a previous blogspost, but it must be brought up again now that I’ve had more time to analyze the situation. In such a rural, tranquilo place, campo Paraguayans love to have their music blaring from the moment they wake up to…..sometimes it never goes off. And we’re not talking about quality songs, chosen to capture the mood of the moment. We’re talking about the one or two CDs most families own or the local radio station, which I think owns the same ones. It’s the same songs, over and over and over and over again. I frequently hear the popular Christmas songs all over the place...in September. To make matters worse, most families own little, crappy, all-in-one tape/CD/radio/speaker stereos that were not made to be turned up full blast. Seriously, I love music but not like this.

#6. De-mufflered Motos

No, this isn’t a sexual reference. I’m talking about motorcycles (‘motos’ here in P-guay) that are custom-made to sound as close as possible to a gigantic airplane. “Oh,” you’re probably thinking, “people do that here too.” Yes, they do, but I bet there they have more than one road to drive on. And it’s probably paved. In good ol’ 4 Linea of Libertad del Sur, we have one, yes one, rocky dirt road that spans the length of the community. And everyone lives about 20 m off of said road. So on Friday and Saturday nights, after they drink a few beers, what do all the young, sexually frustrated, Paraguayan males do? Drive up and down the road, of course, because then all us single ladies can admire their huge...motorcycle engines. If only I wasn’t trying to sleep!!!

#5. Thunder Storms

I have no complaints about the storms here, except that sometimes they scare me to death. My volunteer friend Amy claims her house was recently struck by lightening while she was inside cooking. I’ve also heard that P-guay has one of the highest incidences of lightening strikes in the world (?). And this intense lightening produces some extremely intense thunder. I’ve never heard thunder crack and rumble like it does here. One lightening strike can produce a deafening rolling thunder that goes on for a good 15 seconds. I tend to hide under my covers and hope for the best when they get really close, but the storms are usually way too intense for me to sleep through. But for you storm lovers out there, they are incredible. Especially sitting (or hiding) under a tin roof, listening to the full force of the pouring rain.

#4. Mita’ikuera

Mita’ikuera is Guarani for ‘little kids’. These guys are the light of my life here, but they know no boundaries when it comes to playing. Tati and Lupi (4 year olds) are my closest little buddies, living right next door and one house over respectively. We spend a lot of time playing together, dancing, hoola-hooping, Frisbee, etc. That’s right, I recently made a hoola hoop (which has become the hit of the neighborhood) and I taught Tati to throw the Frisbee I brought with me. The downside is that they have a knack for asking for these toys just as I am laying down for a nap. And they don’t bother with the clapping (see below) but instead just yell at me (in a cute 4 yr old way) through the walls. They also find other ways to amuse themselves, usually in my front patio area. A couple days ago, right at nap time, I heard them making lots of noise outside my door. I tried to ignore it, but after a while it was too much and I had to get up to see what was going on. Lo and behold, they were in the midst of building an elaborate fort out of all the bits and pieces of plastic and metal lying around. Instead of doing this at either of their houses, they of course had chosen the strategic position of my little shack. I guess I kind of take that as a compliment.

#3. Mangy Dogs

As many of you know, I am a dog lover in the states. As many of you may not know, I have become a dog despiser here in P-guay. Dogs are gross here. They’re dirty and mangy and full of fleas and very poorly trained. They also bark constantly, especially at night. Barking = good work for a guard dog, but constant barking = never knowing if they’re really barking at a danger or just another dog. Neighbor dogs love to bark at each other and chase each other of their respective properties. I’m assuming that’s the reason for most of the late night barking, but who knows. I just know that they drive me crazy and I wish they were scared of me so they would stay away from my house. But throwing rocks near them apparently isn’t nearly as scary as actually hitting them, which is how Paraguayans get the upper hand.

#2. Clap Clap Clap

No, not the STD, but the Paraguayan equivalent of the doorbell. Rojepopete (‘we clap our hands’) to let people know when we’re standing outside of their house and want to come in or just say hi, and in front of the almacens (mini grocery stores usually in the front rooms of people’s homes) when no one is at the window ready to take your order. It was a little weird for me to get used to at first, but now I fully embrace the custom and put my own little rhythm into my claps so they always know it’s me! The problem with the clapping is that when you have an almacen in the front of your home, as my host/neighbor family does, there is no break to the claps. Clappers don’t observe siesta time, bed time or have not yet woken up in the morning time. If they need something from the store (and yes, cell phone minutes count as a desperate need), they will clap at any time of day. If drinking is involved and they’re there to buy more drinks, the clapping may not stop for a good 15 minutes even though all windows and doors are closed, all lights are off and no one is acknowledging them. ‘Taking a hint’ is not a phrase that makes any sense here.

#1. Guinea Fowl aka Satan’s Little Helper

Oh, the guinea fowl. How I loathe thee. I had never heard the call of a guinea fowl before I came to P-guay and I hope to never hear it again after I leave. It is awful. And relentless. The funny thing is that my family has only 1 guinea fowl (thank god), while many other families have upwards of 15 to 20. I don’t know what I would do if we had more. I don’t even like to imagine it. I’ve tried to come up with an adequate description in words of their cry/call/scream for those of you unfamiliar with the sound, but I don’t think it even comes close to capturing the essence of it. The best I’ve got is a cross between nails on a chalkboard and ‘the most annoying sound in the world’ that Jim Carey makes during the movie Dumb and Dumber. But in an up and down, wavelike rhythm. Waves that never stop and feel like they’re prodding your eardrums with their colliding swells. Over the last year, motivated by both my hatred and admiration of such a horrible sound, I observed and practiced and can now imitate the guinea fowl with high precision and accuracy. It’s my Paraguayan party trick. Don’t worry, I’ll bring it home to share with all.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Almost Spring

I have no idea how 6 months turned into 11 months so quickly. And without a single blogpost (sorry!). I think I was so miserable during the winter that I chose to ignore it completely, and that included talking about it here. But now that we´re finally moving into spring, I can tell some of the stories of the past few months.

Although Paraguay has very little altitude and lies in a subtropical region, it still gets cold here in the winter. There´s no snow or sub-zero temperatures, but there´s also no heat or any way to escape the coldness that dominates July and August. Like I´ve said before, I live in a shack, like everyone else in my community and like many other volunteers here. The shacks generally have cracks in between boards and almost always a space between the top of the walls and the roof, allowing for ample wind to blow right through. The coldest nights we had hovered around 0 Celsius, with the days not getting too much warmer. My sleeping bag was my best protection against the cold. And every layer of clothing I brought with me. It was so cold in my little shack that my bottle of olive oil would solidify overnight and not thaw out for days at a time. Showers were totally out of the question because we only have cold water, so I willingly turned to bucket bathing instead. At least that way I could heat up the water beforehand, but it was still a miserable experience to pour water on myself in my outdoor shower in freezing temperatures. Luckily, it was not just me who was chilled to the bone. I could commiserate with my neighbors and fellow volunteers because we were all feeling it together. Sometimes I would go to my family´s house next door for a couple hours before bed and sit in front of their wood burning stove with them, drinking mate and watching novelas. The schools here take a two week winter break in July but this year they extended it for an extra week because it was too cold for the kids to sit in unheated classrooms at 7 in the morning. I read in the newspaper that during the height of the coldness, somewhere around 8 people died in the country of hypothermia. And this is in a place that will soon be so hot that I won´t be able to think straight! The good news is that most of us made it through and now we get to enjoy the extremely pleasant, albeit brief, spring weather before the heat becomes suffocating.

But don´t get the idea that the winter was all bad. The cold and early darkness allowed for a lot of down time which equals lots of yoga and reading for me. I figured out that doing an hour or so of yoga when it started to get dark kept me warm for a while and kept me from getting into my sleeping bag at 5 pm with a long night ahead of me. I was also able to read quite a bit, disovering two of my new favorite authors: Isabel Allende and Haruki Murakami. (I highly recommend The House of the Spirits and The Wind Up Bird Chronicles, respectively. ) My garden held up like a champ, aside from my tomatoes which have some sort of virus or fungus. I´m harvesting a ton of broccoli and cauliflower right now, the cabbage is just about ready (for those of you out there who know an easy recipe for kimchi and/or sauerkraut, please please please send it my way!), there´s lots of peas waiting to be picked and the spinach is doing great. My favorite part of all of this is getting Paraguayans to eat new vegetables. They get really stuck in their ways (don´t we all?), especially when it comes to food, so they generally only plant carrots, cabbage, lettuce, radish, tomatoes and sometimes beets and swiss chard. I didn´t plan well with my broccoli and cauliflower so I had about 4 heads of each all ready at the same time. That meant vegetable giveaway time. I found families who weren´t completely opposed to trying them out and got to spread the joy of vegetables. This happens with my lettuce a lot as well, because there´s no way I can eat all that I planted. A lot of my Paraguayan buddies are really intrigued by the spinach I have growing when the come over to check out the garden, so I´m always handing out spinach leaves for them to try. And they usually like it so much that they want to plant it in their own gardens, so I also have a lot of spinach seeds on hand. My family next door planted a bunch of beets but they don´t really know what to do with them, so I made them a Russian salad (?) recently with a lot of other veggies from the garden and they loved it! So far, the garden is my one of my favorite parts of my job.

But back to the good parts of winter. For me, the most wonderful part of the cold season was the bananas. Apparently, bananas are ready to harvest around here in the winter. And when they´re ready, lots and lots of them are ready. My family has a good little banana orchard to the side of the house so I would help them cut down the banana bunches when it was time. Every few weeks or so we would trek on in there and find the ones that were ready, chop the huge banana bunch off, and then machete that whole part of the tree down. Banana trees are strange, barely trees at all and more like a huge, water filled grass stalk that produces delicious fruit. When one stalk produces a banana bunch, it´s life is over in terms of fruit production. You machete that stalk down, and another stalk begins to sprout up almost immediately. In these tropical and subtropical areas where bananas grow, decomposition happens rapidly, so the downed banana stalks are just left in place, quickly becoming incorporated into the soil. Needless to say, with small, family banana producers, the banana orchards are very fertile places. With every banana harvest with my family, I was given at least one huge bunch to hang up in my house. We cut them when they were still green, so we would hang them up inside until they were ready to eat. One downside of this is that all the bananas on one bunch ripen within a week or so of each other, and we´re talking about at least 50-80 bananas per bunch. When they start ripening, all I eat are bananas: in my cereal or oatmeal, with peanut butter, banana bread, banana pancakes with banana topping, just bananas. I do everything I can to eat them before they go bad, but it´s almost impossible on my own. Fortunately, chickens and dogs enjoy overripe bananas (as does my compost pile) so they help me finish them off. If you haven´t noticed from this long paragraph about bananas, I absolutely love them. It makes me extremely happy to eat them when they´re grown 20 m from my house and not shipped half way around the world. It´s going to be a sad summer without them, but I of course have a huge ziplock full of them in my freezer waiting to be made into smoothies when the heat starts to become oppressive.

Another great thing about this winter was my recent trip to Buenos Aires. That is one great city. I´m going to save the stories and pictures for my next blog post (I promise it will be soon), but wanted to put the idea out there for all those potential south american visitors. If you don´t want to come to Paraguay, I´ll totally meet you in BA. Think about it....

Ciao, Leah

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Happy 6 month anniversary to me!

Hello all. Once again, I have taken way too long to update the blog. Such is life when living in campoville, Paraguay. Which, by the way, I have now officially been doing for a full 6 months!!! There were the 3 months of training in the beginning that don't really count and since then, I have been living in the strangely beautiful Libertad del Sur for 6 months. When reflecting on this initial time as a volunteer, I can say two things for sure: 1) I don't have nearly as many tangible results to prove my existence and work here as I thought/expected/imagined I would and 2) My guarani skills have greatly improved (but there's still a long way to go to being fluent) while my spanish skills have, unfortunately, have vastly diminished. On the scale of Peace Corps volunteer greatness, I would say I'm at about a 5. Right in the middle. I actually feel really good about this because I have a year and a half left to ramp up my work and effectiveness here and because I am still here giving it my all. Our agroforestry group started out with 8 and now we're down to 6. Not a great completion rate so far, but I'm pretty certain that the 6 of us left will be here to the end.

Back to Reflection #1 - How I Spend my Time. The last couple of months I've been working at the escuela basica (elementary school) in my community a couple days a week. They really want me to teach the kids English, so I've been working at this with the 5th and 6th graders. I enjoy teaching the kids because they're so forgiving and helpful with my language barriers and most of them think I'm pretty funny, which eases any tension I may have. However, I feel like teaching them English is not the most relevant thing I could be doing with them, especially when I realized recently that a lot of them cannot read. Can't read at all! The Paraguayan school system loves having the teachers write things on the board that the students copy down into their notebooks. And that's it. So these kids can copy words like no other, but they have no idea what they mean. It's very sad. So, I humor them for a while with the English and then try to get them outside by working in the school garden or planting trees.

June 20 was Dia del Arbol here in Paraguay and there was a big campaign to plant thousands and thousands of trees across the country. I jumped on board and had the 5th graders plant some trees with me at the school. There's a community vivero (tree nursery) down the road from the school so the students and I walked down there, picked out our trees and carried them back to be planted. There were only 6 kids there that day (it rained the day before so nobody showed up, very typical here) so there was a lot of interaction between all of us and I think (hope) they got a sense of ownership for their little arbolitos. They loved getting out of the boring classroom and actually doing something, as you can see from the pictures. I had them all working at once, hoeing, shoveling, planting, watering, whatever. I, at least, had fun and am planning on doing this more often with other grades. At the end of the morning, I even got them all to pose in a picture with and for me!

In addition to the work at the school, I also spend large fraction of my time in my kick ass garden. As I've written before, I'm sharing the garden space with the family next door (I pretty much consider them MY family here in Paraguay) so Cristino (the dad, who is the only one of the family who has any interest in actually gardening) and I hang out there quite a bit, exchanging ideas, experimenting, weeding, watering, etc. It is by far the best garden in town and we get compliments all the time. Cristino loves this, as do I, but what I love even more is that their family is eating more vegetables than they ever have. We're also providing an example to others in the community that this type of family garden is possible and can provide a substantial amount of the family's diet for very little cost. I am also growing some vegetables that no one's ever heard of or that no one knows how to eat (like spinach, arugula, broccoli, and zuchinni) but my willingness to grow and eat them is piquing some interest around town. As for my personal benefit, I no longer have to haul loads of vegetables back from the city with me or sustain on beef and pasta for weeks on end. I frequently make salads with at least 5 different greens in them. I have carrots, radishes and beets ready to be pulled whenever I want them. My peas are just about ready to pick. There are a lot of green tomatoes that I'm hoping will ripen before the threat of a frost heads our way. I have so much cilantro I don't know what to do with it. And I managed to pick one huge, delicious zuchinni already (pictured below, along with a giant radish) and there are more on the way. I am absolutely loving this part of my life here.