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!


Bob Bailey said...

Wait a second, someone gave you a Swiss Army knife?? There is no way this is going to be good. I imagine you squatting in some dark Paraguayan shed every night, methodically cleaning your knife over a filthy tub of brown water, smiling creepily.

Bob Bailey said...

Seriously, this is great stuff, and the dinner sounds delicious.