Friday, July 25, 2008


Latrines, wells, outside showers, coconuts, home-made bridges…you might be wondering where I went.

I spent last week at a volunteer’s site in Alto Paraná. We went in a group of four, three trainees and our language professor. I was worried it would be more class (All of us are ore kuerai – fed up – with class by now. We just want to get out to our sites.), but it was anything but. There was a great moment when I squatted in front of an outside spigot in the dark to wash vegetables and I thought “This is Peace Corps.” There were actually several of those moments, especially the afternoon we spent sawing and sharpening sticks of bamboo and peeling Brazilian coconuts, all with our Swiss Army knives (I actually cut my finger pretty badly, which I’m sure the whole town is still talking about using “ploos,” the Paraguayan noise for when a person loses a finger). We actually spent a lot of the week lying around in a hammock reading or playing with our Swiss Army knives. I don’t want to give the impression that Peace Corps volunteers just siesta and T-re all the time, because that’s not true at all. The truth is that it’s not a 9-5 job, it’s a 24/7 job. Our host volunteer may have read a ton of books since arriving in his site, but many of those are work-related. How many people do you know who spend the time they’re not in the office reading up on pisicultura or agro-forestry? He spends days at a time hashing out finances and coming up with project proposals, but he also spends a lot of time bonding with his neighbors and integrating into his community. Sitting around and drinking tereré is actually the time when most coop or comité members talk business and make decisions. Integrating into the community is not only part of our job, it’s necessary for us to make any contributions. To that end, this experience wasn’t great just because it was super tranquilo, it was also a chance to practice integrating into a community. Instead of having a four-hour language class each day, we practiced speaking with our host families and the coop members. And I was amazed at how much Guaraní I’ve learned! I can actually hold a decent conversation if the people have patience with me and are willing to listen to my slow speech and comprehension. The nice thing is, they are. I’ve learned how important Guaraní actually is. Sure Spanish is the official language of business, but Paraguayans (especially in the campo) tell jokes, they tell their stories in Guaraní. Knowing a little bit of Guaraní makes them much more ready to open up to you.

Now here are the fun details about living conditions in the campo you’ve all been waiting for: latrines, wells, and outside showers. We’re talking a hole in the ground and a separate caseta (wooden hut) for the shower. This actually wasn’t too bad, I have a latrine in my host family’s house and by now am used to bucket bathing in all temperatures. They did have running water luckily, though it was sparse and they had no sink. And the water we drank definitely had little red worms floating in it (hope those don’t come back to haunt me later…). It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be (though man, that latrine did stink!), though it did make me realize how my current town is much more of the suburbs than the actual campo (countryside). It was easy to see that just looking at the chacras (farm fields), which were mixed in with the wilderness instead of being ordered and neat rectangles (of course that may also be because the town we visited has only been around since 1984). One field is divided in sections by a stream, which the farmer can cross at two points, either by way of a thick branch (not a log) or a homemade bridge. Think Indiana Jones and you can imagine what this homemade bridge looked like. It was made out of bamboo ready to snap at any point. The funny thing is how the farmer once planted watermelon on the other side of the bridge and had to carry it all back across!

And finally, for mandio-bindi. As many of you know, there’s a wonderful Indian dish called aloo bindi (potatoes and okra). Well, this volunteer has been trying to get his neighbors to plant okra because it grows very well in Paraguay, so he essentially used me as the tool to convince them. Being resourceful (as every PC volunteer should be!), I substituted mandioca for potatoes, fresh cilantro for coriander, and ground mustard for mustard seeds, and added cumin and lemon…and voila! Mandio-bindi! It wasn’t quite Indian, but it definitely wasn’t Paraguayan either. And they loved it! It was actually quite interesting because the volunteer set me up with the host mom that loves to cook vegetables. So the last night she brought over vegetables, pots, pans, plates, cutlery, and the whole family to the volunteer’s house and prepared an amazing Indian meal. That’s right, Indian. She mixed together red peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, cumin, peas, the water from the peas, and a ton of ginger. The volunteer suggested curry powder and unlike most Paraguayans who would have been hesitant to try a new spice, she readily agreed (a Paraguayan with actual taste!). And so we had Indian curry! (And it did really taste exactly like aloo-mutter) Talk about a cross-cultural experience!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Call For...

I find out about the next 2 years of my life on Friday (meaning I finally get my site). Please pray for me.

This is also a call, more specifically a plea, for packages or letters...yes, snail mail. Please brighten up my life with some love from the States :)

My address is:

Pooja Virani, PCT
Cuerpo de Paz, CHP
162 Chaco Boreal c/Mcal. López

Asunción 1580, Paraguay (South America)

Run around, get dirty, climb over fences, get hurt for crying out loud!

The other day I returned home from school early. I saw my host dad riding in a carro (bull cart) with one of his helpers, so I asked for a ride. Cristhian, my host brother, and his friend scrambled up the wheels into the cart. I tried the same, failing miserably and scraping up my arm in the process because the cart had started to move. I got up the more conventional route, sitting down on the back and hoisting myself up. The two bulls were new and the two men were testing them out, with success. They even let me steer the cart for a while, which is much harder than it looks (and that ride is much bumpier than it seems!) After the ride, I went out to the fields with my host parents where I helped them pick mandioca, while my mom mocked me for covering the back of my pants in red dirt (from trying to get into the cart). I broke the mandio off in pieces, covering my hands in dirt. I then walked with my dad through the farm while he talked about the cows. I returned to the house, my hands and pants dirty, my feet scratched up from walking through the chacra in my sandals, and my arm bruised, but completely content. I realized that this is why I’m in Paraguay, I want these experiences. I want to get dirty, scrape my arms and legs, work and learn in a farm. It’s like being a kid again, unafraid of anything, especially getting dirty or a little bruised.

P.S. Anyone who can tell me what movie the title of this blog is from wins a prize.

Una Finca Urbana (A Farm in the City)

Recently I visited an urban farm, by which I mean a farm smack in the middle of a city. That might seem unusual for the U.S. Believe me, it’s unusual for Paraguay as well. The farm has been around since the 1970s, but the area has only developed into a city over the past 10 years or so. It’s a small farm, less than a hectare, but it’s amazing what you can do with that little land. This farm is particularly remarkable because it’s an organic farm, or to be more specific, perma-culture. What is perma-culture? It’s similar to organic (no reliance on chemicals) in practice, but the theory is a closed system that reuses everything. For example, they use the manure from the cows as fertilizer for the fields. That’s actually common in Paraguay, but what isn’t as common is the idea of feeding animals entirely with home-grown food. Paraguayans, though they do grow some food for their animals, will often buy a ton of food from outside. Not only does this not make economic sense, but it leads to a loss of energy. Our guide, Fernando explained to us that perma-culture farm tries to maximize its energy. When plants and animals are raised in a natural way, they have a higher level of energy. When they sell products from the farm, it’s almost as if they were selling energy. As they sell mostly dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt) and jams, they lose very little energy. Coming from the U.S., where we’re either suffering from an overdose of cancer-causing corn syrup in our food or tasteless and nutritionally-drained genetically-modified vegetables, this concept may be strange. This isn’t as abstract or as crazy as it sounds, however; look at how the quality of soil and plants goes down as a result of overuse of fertilizers and pesticides. Imagine land that’s never been exposed to poisonous chemicals. The soil there was darker and richer, and full of nutrients. Consequently, the food is richer, tastier, and more healthful (we ate the most delicious chipa I have ever tasted, along with rich, creamy yogurt, sweet strawberry and hibiscus jam, and drank hibiscus punch).

We also learned what a biodigester is, and it’s a fascinating thing. It functions by taking organic matter and through an anaerobic process, facilitates its decomposition it into biogas. Translation: you put cow or pig shit into a long tube that’s partially underground, where it’s transformed into gas. One of the components of biogas is methane gas, which means that they have tubes from the biodigester leading directly to a stove. The liquid residue can be used as a biofertilizer for plants, while the solid residue can be used as animal food; they use it to feed their worms. One man’s (or animal’s) waste is another’s alimentation. All this from a plastic tube, heat, and water.

Speaking of worms, they have a ton of worm compost. I was impressed. Worm compost is pretty much unheard of here, but man, is it effective. Worms are amazing creatures: put them in dirt and they put air holes in it and enrich the soil. They can also speed up the decomposition process in a pile of trash, hence, the effectiveness of worm compost. This farm had California Red worms because they’re much more effective than Paraguayan worms. They also had three huge, enviable piles of compost. Compost is a beautiful, beautiful thing: decomposing trash that turns into mulch and acts as a natural fertilizer. They had the idea of building a shower near the compost piles, and this is wild, heating their bath water with the compost piles. You heard me right. Decomposition is an exothermic process, it gives off heat. Stick your hand in the middle of a compost pile and you’ll feel an intense heat. So the idea is to stick a spiral tube into the middle of the pile where it will heat water.

I don’t think this entry can do justice to how amazing this farm was. It was inspiring to see an organic farm in a country where too often farms suffer from excessive chemicals and people suffer health wise because of a lack of vegetables and poor nutrition.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Una Americana en Aveiro

That’s the name of my radio program. Yup, that’s right, I have a radio program. Every Saturday from 3-5 PM on a local radio station I get to host my own radio show. Translation, people have to listen to me talk and I get to play whatever music I want. How did I get such a sweet deal? Well, there’s a housing coop down the road from us, which we visited during class one day. The coop has a community radio station run by volunteers. One of the founders of the coop invited us volunteers to do a radio show, but the rest of the volunteers tenían mucho miedo (were very scared) of speaking live on the radio in Spanish. But, as my Colombian friend told me, I am sin verguenza (without shame) when it comes to speaking Spanish. I figure, my Spanish is never going to be as good as hers so why don’t I use her to practice? So two hours of speaking Spanish on the radio doesn’t phase me too much, especially since most of that time I’m playing music, not talking.
I had my first show this past Saturday. I was actually pretty worried because I’m never done radio before (and of course the first time I do, it’s in another language). It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be, however. After giving an introduction (“You are listening to 101.9 FM…”), all I had to do was introduce the songs. The boy controlling the music would cue me with my very own theme song, and after I was done speaking I would signal to him, it would fade out, and he would play the next song (my theme song, btw, is “Carolina” by Seu Jorge, though I’m wondering if that was the best idea picking a Brazilian song when everyone confuses me for Brazilian…). I played a mix of everything: bachata, reggaeton, Franz Ferdinand, Ok Go, Shakira, Justin Timberlake, Usher. And because I like talking, in between the music I talked about the artists, the songs, what’s popular in the U.S. Halfway through the show, I even gave a brief bio, explaining what exactly an American is doing in Aveiro: that Í’m in the Peace Corps, my project is Rural Economic Development, there are 6 volunteers living here, and we love Aveiro. I said all this in Spanish and then in Guaraní. They loved it! The moment I started speaking Guaraní, the highschoolers who were doing the music started cracking up; they were rolling on the floor with laughter. It remains to be seen whether the rest of the coop liked it, but for now “Soy Pooja y voy a ser tu locutora para las próxima dos horas.”

Saturday, July 5, 2008

I went to the U.S. for one day!

As you all know, yesterday was Independence Day. One advantage of being here is that the American Embassy invites all the Peace Corps members to its 4th of July party. I honestly thought that it was going to be lame as all. I´ve been to several embassies in my life, including the American Embassy in China, but most are just compounds full of office buildings. The American Embassy in Paraguay, however, is the 2nd largest in the world! That´s right, in the middle of Paraguay, of all places, is the 2nd biggest American Embassy (after the one in Iraq of course). This goes back to Stroessner, the dictator who ruled over Paraguay for 35 years. The US had great relations with him (of course) during the Cold War, because he was anti Communist and would use the ¨Cuba threat¨ to his advantage. Also, Paraguay has a very strategic location in the middle of Latin America, with Brazil, Bolivia, and Argentina as its neighbors. The point of this story is that the American Embassy here is huge! It honestly is more of a country club than an embassy, complete with a basketball court, a volleyball court, and 2 swimming pools! So I officially left Paraguayan soil yesterday and entered US territory for the 4th of July party, and it was a blast! They had hamburgers, hot dogs, veggie burgers, mac&cheese, potato salad, and brownies, all prepared American style. The lawn was decorated with American flags and red, white, and blue (for the American flag, not the Paraguayan one which has the same colors). Even the radio statio was straight from the U.S. We played in a volleyball tournament where we were absolutely demolished by the Paraguayan police team (Paraguayans are absolutely amazing at volleyball, in part because they cheat by carrying the ball and playing with their feet...but still they´re gooooood). I know they say cultural sensitivity, but it was nice to celebrate Independence Day the American way, with a picnic and beautiful weather (it´s been unseasonably hot for winter). We ended the day by squeezing 19 people (18 volunteers and one technical trainer) into one van. So here´s wishing everyone a belated happy July 4th!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Farm Life

For a city girl, I´m learning a ton about the campo and Paraguayan farm life. Paraguay is known for the quality of its produce (a fact not known by the rest of the world because it doesn´t have the infrastructure or the regulations to make it a major exporter like Argentina or Brazil). As part of my technical class, we visited my host dad´s chakra (kokue in Guarani). He grows a little of everything: mandioca (yucca), corn, tomatoes, sugarcane, and pasto camerún. He also raises cows (we have 12 including 3 milking cows), chickens, ducks, rabbits, and pigs. His farm is a microcosm of the spectrum of Paraguayan farms, which is a good thing. Most farmers will only grow one or two crops, a cash crop and mandioca. Everyone grows mandioca, despite the fact it has no nutritional value and is all starch, because it’s easy to grow and is a traditional crop. When I visited Guayavbi in San Pedro, I saw mostly bananas and pineapples. In my village they grow sugarcane because of the sugar factories nearby, this despite the fact that sugarcane is not a profitable crop. It’s labor-intensive and takes a while to harvest, so the farmer lands up working for six months to a year to harvest a crop and in the end gets paid a low price which doesn’t adequately compensate him for all his months of work. Mainly farming families squander their income in a matter of weeks because it’s a large amount of cash all at one time (more than they see for the rest of the year). Paraguay doesn’t have a functioning system of credit and survives mainly on cash, meaning that rural families often have to turn to loan sharks that charge anywhere from 10-50% interest per day to get by the rest of the year. This is where cooperatives come in. Savings and loans cooperatives aim to provide Paraguayans with access to affordable credit, while production coops can provide education about better farming practices, better the quality of goods, provide access to expensive technology, provide access to the world market (exports), and so on. My host dad is the ideal farmer because he does the things most Paraguayan farmers don’t. He rotates the crops from year to year to cut down on the number of insects (it also prevents against soil erosion). He diversifies his crops (meaning he doesn’t just grow one crop) because he understands that if his tomato crop fails or if he gets a low price for sugarcane, he always has other crops to fall back on. When you talk about diversification here, most farmers will agree with you but then go back to doing the same old thing. I met another farmer in Guayavbi who was impressive because he saw a Dole banana plantation in Costa Rica where they were growing the bananas in circles instead of lines, so he said, “I’m going to experiment and grow my bananas in circles.” Experimentation and change is natural to the American mind, but not so much to the Paraguayan mind. My host dad raises animals because if he needs cash in a hurry (because of a failure of either his crops or a sharp drop in the price of commodities) he can always sell one of them. That doesn’t mean that he treats his animals badly though; he treats them like his own children, not like animals that he’s just taking care of for a little while. My mamá and I often make fun of him actually: “Where’s papa?” “He’s with his cows.” So my host dad is the ideal farmer because he 1) works hard, 2) works smart, and 3) works in groups. Paraguayans, in general, do not know how to work in groups. This is because while Americans have been taught since grade school how to work in groups, for 35 years Paraguayans lived under a dictatorship in which a gathering of more than 2 or 3 people was prohibited or repressed. That’s the beauty of coops, teaching them the benefits of and how to work in groups. My host dad is a relatively well-to-do farmer (he’s certainly not rich, not even middle class, but he’s not subsistence level either) and he has workers that help him harvest his crops. But he has taught these farmers everything he knows about farming: his methods, about his fields. Most farmers are afraid of doing this because they view other farmers as competition, and this is in fact what happened to him when he was learning how to be a farmer. But he’s smart in that he realizes the fact that if he gets sick, his workers need to know how to farm his land in order to take care of his family. Besides the economic rationale, he cares about their well-being. His family used to live in a much bigger house with two-stories and a modern bathroom when he worked as a day labourer farming and as a night watchman at the hospital. They moved because he didn’t like that style of life where he wasn’t at home and couldn’t spend time with his son. He told me that he could have a modern bathroom now, but he doesn’t because (for one thing he built the house from scratch a couple of years ago) “How can I have a modern bathroom if my workers don’t even have food to eat?” My host dad is very impressive. He’s the guy who my technical trainer said he would teach so that he could be a leader in the town and teach others. I’m really lucky to be the only volunteer living on a farm with a smart farmer who encompasses all of the ideal qualities that RED volunteers hope to teach to other Paraguayans in our sites. As we’ve learned, it’s not about helping people have more, it’s about helping them be more.

Pictures from my visit to a banana farm/coop in Guayavbi in San Pedro