Thursday, December 31, 2009

I Don’t Want No Bitches and HOES*

*(Horny Overly Excited Strays)

Well, one bitch in particular, my bitch. I came home to find a pack of stray dogs pursuing my puppy Bon Bon. Apparently the doggy birth control which I had injected in her 3 months ago had expired, against all claims by the vet that it was supposed to last for 6 months. In the day and night I had been gone from my house, my yard had turned into the dog pound. Usually the sight of Bon Bon trotting happily down the street, tail wagging, cheers me up. Now, however, I was worried. The dogs that were following her were no longer friendly neighborhood dogs wanting to play with my dog, but wild beasts (Wild: untamed, undomesticated, feral, rowdy, ferocious)! And like all males thinking with their penises instead of their heads, they turned their lust into a fierce competition to conquer the sole female. Any attempt on my part to approach Bon Bon led to several mad dogs, aggressively charging me with their teeth bared. It would be an understatement to say that I was scared. I was terrified. At the same time, my maternal instinct (or maybe just adrenaline) flared seeing several mad dogs trying to rape my baby girl. I charged back, with a large stick in my hands and screaming all the while like an enraged Scot in a Mel Gibson movie. Grabbing my dog’s rope, I dragged her inside the house. For a week, the poor girl was confined my dog to a tiny corner of my house (she’s a campo dog who lives outside and is normally not allowed in the house). When Bon Bon wanted to go outside to use the bathroom, I had to take her out her rope in one hand, armed with a broom in the other. I used that broom too (fear leads you to do crazy things, including beating animals with brooms), not that it helped much.
The first night I couldn’t sleep. I thought that Bon Bon was responsible for the whining keeping me up all night. Only later did I realize that it was the male dogs, lying outside my house, and whining about their blue balls. Whining was the least of my worries. I had dogs ramming themselves against my house walls at all hours of day and night. One even jumped through my kitchen window! These dogs were insane! The results of one hellish week are as follows:

List of Damages

2 broken doors
1 broken shower
1 caged puppy
1 mentally-precarious dog-owner

Why is my life so crazy??? I’ll never take lightly the expression “like a dog in heat” again!

Book Chuck!

Confessions of an Economic Hitman - John Perkins

The Secret History of the American Empire: The Truth about Economic Hit Men, Jackals, and How to Change the World - John Perkins

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle - Barbara Kingsolver

Handy Machete Tip #37

The best way to cut a coconut isn’t with a pocket knife (says the girl who still has a scar), but with a machete.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

They Are like THAT because We Are like THIS

When I’m in a bad mood (often a result of some jerk whistling at me or frustration in general with my Paraguayan colleagues for seemingly being unable to get work done without me), I tend to become bitter. I rant, I rave, I curse the Paraguayan people (all in my head of course). As I grow ever more delirious every step that I take in the blazing Paraguayan sun, I’m seething on the inside as well. I fume about Paraguayans lack of education, their dumb questions, their poor manners, their misconceptions of the U.S., their poverty, everything I can think of at the moment. I look down upon them all the while feeling superior because of my university education, my knowledge of computers, my proficiency in several languages, my productivity, my class.

And then this morning I read a parable by Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. He tells the story of a 14-year-old prostitute in Manila.

It is true that in the city you can make money more easily than in the countryside, so we can imagine how a young girl may have been tempted to go there to help her family. But after only a few weeks there, she was persuaded by a clever person to work for her and to earn perhaps one hundred times more money. Because she was so young and did not know much about life, she accepted, and became a prostitute. Since that time, she has carried the feeling of being impure, defiled, and this causes her great suffering. When she looks at other young girls, dressed beautifully, belong to good families, a wretched feeling wells up in her, and this feeling of defilement has become her hell.

But if she could look deeply at herself and at the whole situation, she would see that she is like this because other people are like that. ‘This is like this, because that is like that.’ So how can a so-called good girl, belonging to a good family, be proud. Because their way of life is like this, the other girl has to be like that. No one among us has clean hands. No one of us can claim it is not our responsibility. The girl in Manila is that way because of the way we are. Looking into the life of that young prostitute, we see the non-prostitute people. And looking at the non-prostitute people and the way that we live our lives, we see the prostitute. This helps to create that, and that helps to create this.

I realized that if Paraguayans are the prostitutes, we are the pimps. Who are we to condemn the way they live their lives, they way they act, the way they are? They are that way because we are this way. They are that way because we are this way. They live in poverty because the American consumer refuses to pay more than 50¢ for a bunch of bananas. Those bananas contain a delicious fruit, nourishing, full of potassium, delicious. In those same bananas are the sweat and tears of the Paraguayan farmer, the days, the weeks, the months spent in the hot sun planting, hoeing and weeding the land. The American consumer demands big, yellow, spotless fruit. We don’t see the fertilizers that double the size of the fruit, the pesticides that ensure that the fruit has no black spots; the vast expense the family must bear to pay to spray fruit ever-more resistant to chemicals. We don’t see the yellow puddles after the rain, chemical runoff from the fields that seeps into the ground and the wells and the water; the miscarriages caused by the women’s exposure to the toxic chemicals on their husbands’ clothes. Looking at their poverty, we see our non-poverty. And looking at our non-poverty, we see their poverty. Paraguayans are that way because Americans are this way.

What I Do: Part II

What I Do: Part II

Recently I was in a meeting between the Consejo de Administración (Board of Directors) and the Junta de Vigilancia (Supervisory Committee/Auditing Committee), when all hell broke loose. The Presidents of the Consejo and the Junta launched into a shouting match. Ever watched a WWF wrestling match? It was a lot like that. Here’s how it went down:

[translation by Pooja Virani]

PRESIDENT OF CONSEJO (PC): We’ve invited the Junta here today to this meeting of the Consejo to keep you informed of our decisions. We’d like to talk about X …

PRESIDENT OF JUNTA (PJ): We don’t like who you’ve chosen. Why did you choose them?

PC: It’s very important that the Consejo and the Junta work together.

PJ: You say you want us to work together, but how when we participate when the Consejo makes all the decisions?

PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER [in this episode featured wearing a cape and a large PCV imprinted on her shirt]: Excuse me…

PC: We chose them because we taught they would be an appropriate match for the job.

PJ: How come the Consejo made that decision? Why didn’t we get a say in it?

PC: Because we made it.

PCV: Excuse me…

PJ: You only care about yourselves!

PC: No. We think that they are doing a great job and are very trustworthy.

Member of Consejo: “I’d like to apologize on behalf of the Consejo…”

PC: Maybe if you did your jobs…

PCV: Excuse me…

PJ: You all are stupid and you smell! [ok, I’m embellishing here]

Member of Junta: “Can’t we all just get along?”
PC: Well my daddy can beat up your daddy! [still embellishing]

[After half-an-hour or so of these back-and-forth accusations, I was finally able to get in a word. I pulled out one of my handy-dandy guides to cooperatives and read from it.]

PCV: The principal tasks of the Consejo, among others, are to make administrative decisions and to hire all cooperative employees and assign them responsibilities. The role of the Junta is to control the social and economic activities of the cooperative. In other words, their job is to revise the finances and the Consejo’s decisions and ensure that they comply with the cooperative’s by-laws. Under no circumstances, should the Junta interfere with the administrative decision-making process.

[I was so riled up that I couldn’t even properly pronounce the three-four-syllable Spanish vocabulary and had to have the Secretary read these passages]

PCV: [to the Consejo] Your job is to make administrative decisions. [to the Junta] Your job is to make sure that the decisions of the Consejo comply with the by-laws. If by chance they do not or you believe they will not benefit the cooperative members, you can bring your objections to the Consejo’s attention through your monthly report [which of course they have never actually written or submitted in all their months of service].

[Stunned expressions on the faces of both the Consejo and the Junta members. Of course, that only lasted a moment before the fighting resumed.]

PJ: We can’t participate in your decision-making, but that doesn’t mean we agree with the people you chose.

PC: We don’t care, we’re sticking with them.

PJ: You’re still stupid and you still smell.

[Once again, the PCV saves the day…?]

A large part of my job focuses on cooperative education. How do you run a cooperative if you don’t know what your job is? A Peace Corps Volunteer has the opportunity to train local leaders in managerial skills. I accomplish this goal through several approaches, including attending the cooperative’s directors’ meetings, conversing with the directors one-on-one, and directly teaching the directors. I hold classes with the Education Committees of both cooperatives, in which I teach the members about “cooperativism” and the functioning of cooperatives, among other things. The aim is to teach these members to teach the other members of the cooperatives. The same way that Paraguayans feel the need to share how I don’t eat meat with every new Paraguayan that I meet; wouldn’t it be great if they repeated the 7 principles of cooperativism or how great crop diversification is to every new member who attended a cooperative meeting?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Handy Machete Tip #23

Machetes are incredibly useful for cleaning off the bottom of your shoes. One quick swipe, and all the dirt/mud falls away. Just be sure not to accidentally hit your ankle with the blade.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

What I Do

While I was at home, a lot of you asked me the question “What exactly do you do?” The short answer is “I live on a banana island and work for two banana cooperatives.” If you want the long answer, read on.

I spend my days running between two cooperatives, literally running. One is located 2.5 km from my house; the other is 6-7 km. Sometimes I bike there, sometimes I walk, and sometimes I walk there and run back. Whichever way – between the burning hot sun, which has me arriving at my destination soaked in sweat, and the alternating hard as hell and swampy dirt roads, which have me either pushing my bike through waist deep sand or mud or screaming as every bump hits me in such a place as to hinder future generations of Viranis –, it’s not a pleasant journey.

Of course, there’s always the occasional adventure to get to work. A few weeks ago, I was returning from Asunción in the van of ACDI-VOCA, a development organization that works with cooperatives. They had arranged for an American volunteer to act as a consultant for two weeks to my two cooperatives. As I am the resident American in town and am well-versed in Spanish, Guaraní, and Paraguayan culture, I was to act as translator for the duration of his stay.

Back to our journey: as is usually the case whenever I want to come home after a few days in Asunción, it rained. “What’s the big deal?” you may ask. There are no paved roads where I live, only dirt ones, meaning that a heavy downpour will wash them out. As we drove down the road, our bulky van began to slip and slide in every which direction. Supposedly the van was 4x4, but not AWD. Brave adventurers that we were (or just foolhardy), we kept on going. At one point, the driver was driving along the side of the road when the car started to spin. Each attempt to move us forward only moved the back wheels over the edge of the road. Finally, the three of us sitting in the back of the car started screaming for the driver to stop and jumped out of the car. One more attempt and the car would have fallen over into a ditch! The driver hadn’t realized how dangerous a position we were in.

We were stuck. The driver couldn’t drive another inch without risking the car flipping over. Because of the car’s position, not to mention the mud into which it slowly seemed to be sinking, we couldn’t push it. The driver told us not to worry and went to find help. He came back with two oxen that he hooked to the front bumper. The oxen calmly pulled the car through the deep mud like it weighed nothing. We hopped back into the car and continued on our journey. Hardly a minute later and the three of us had leapt out of the back again. The driver had to call back the oxen to pull us out of danger again. Needless to say, we didn’t make it to my site that night.

The next morning the road was still awful, but at least we made it in one piece to my site. The challenge then was to visit both cooperatives. After enduring a grueling journey to the farther one, we returned to the first cooperative – which is located past my house and back towards the river – for lunch, only to realize that we had forgotten to drop off the volunteer’s bags at the hostel near my house. The staff that had dropped us off in my site was in a rush to get back to Asunción (plus she was absolutely terrified of the swampy roads), and took off without as much as a glance in our direction. She arranged for a ride, however, a tractor. And so it was that with Michael perched above one wheel, hugging a six-pack of bottled water and hanging on for dear life, and me, grasping a two-liter bottle of water and balancing on the bars on the back (where they usually attach a platform), we arrived in the center of town. It was easily the roughest 2 km ride of my life!

Our adventure didn’t end there. We needed to get to the cooperative if the volunteer was to make his two weeks in town worthwhile. Yet, with the roads in the horrible condition they were in, we could hardly walk. Our solution: ride a tractor to the cooperative. As a now experienced tractor-rider, let me tell you something: it’s not as fun as it sounds! First of all, you have to keep your legs slightly bent in order to bounce with the tractor (and not have it break your legs). Then you have to grip whatever is in front of you with all your arm strength and pray to God that the tractor doesn’t stop suddenly, flinging you in whichever direction like a sack of potatoes. We arrived at the cooperative every day, doubled over with pain, clutching our backs and knees.

The physical rigors aside, after two weeks of working with the ACDI-VOCA volunteer, my brain was ready to explode. There were days on end of cramming numbers into my brain. Not only did I have to crunch them, but I had to translate them. The worst part was the phone call to another cooperative’s accountant. We were having trouble reconciling the books and decided to solicit her help. To say that was a stressful conversation would be putting it lightly. While the cooperative’s Secretary talked on the phone and wrote down numbers (1. talking on the phone can be a challenge and though I know how to do it, I don’t like to and 2. numbers can be especially challenging to translate quickly), I asked her questions and she translated the accountant’s responses. Needless to say, using the Secretary as a go-between caused several time delays which annoyed the hell out of the accountant. After she angrily hung up the phone, the Secretary sheepishly looked at me and said “I think she’s mad at you.” I had to agree.

The numbers portion aside, we also had several meetings with both cooperatives’ Board of Directors to a) figure out what they were doing b) explain to them what they were supposed to do. While I’m quite familiar with the banana production process, having spent the past year learning steps A-Z from the planting to the selling of the crop, and while I’ve spent a significant amount of time explaining the proper role of management to the directors, it never hurts to have another person, especially an “Expert in Cooperatives,” to reinforce what you’ve been preaching all along; all the better when you’re transformed into the authority figure by your ability to converse in the languages of both groups of people. I, for example, used the opportunity to insert much-needed suggestions into my translations of the consultant’s commentary and thereby, force the hand of the directors. I jokingly told them that they had ten minutes to decide on the members of a long overdue Education Committee, otherwise the consultant would come back from the U.S. and kill me. 15 minutes later, that issue was resolved, a matter that had taken the other cooperative and I nine months to settle (they were oblivious to my poking and prodding for most of that time).

You would think that I would be relieved when the consultant left after two weeks. In a way I was as it meant an end to the horrific tractor rides and nightmarish calls to Asunción accountants. At the same time, it signaled a start of the actual work, work that I was in charge of. I don’t mind, knowing that my work is steering both cooperatives in the right direction. Besides, too much work is better than no work at all (which often happens when as a result of the Paraguayans’ tranquilo attitude I’m left waiting around for months for them to come to a decision), although writing that 18-page business plan in Spanish was not fun. Sure, it’s a job that it has its challenges, and sometimes may just seem downright mundane, but who else do you know who rides a tractor to their accounting job?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Handy Machete Tip #11

Machetes are useful for landscaping the hell out of your lawn. Forget gardening gloves, use a machete to hack down weeds!

Hoyo de Basura

I dug myself. It's 1.5 meters deep by 1.5 meters wide (for all you non-metric people, that's almost 5 feet), it comes up to my shoulders

My Healthy, Little Shoes

Ever have a moment when you take a step outside of yourself for a moment and wonder if that is really your life? I’ve had several of those recently, while travelling through Argentina, trying to explain that I live on a banana island in the middle of Paraguay and work for a banana cooperative; while translating marketing terms into not just Spanish but Guaraní for a radio show; and most recently, while singing about hookworm in the school where I teach once a week (both the Guaraní and English versions reproduced below):

Nati’s Zapatu Song
– by Nati Sarafconn
(To the tune of “Mr. Golden Sun” by Rafi)

Moõpa opyta che sapatu, sapatu
Ajuhuse che sapatu
Opreveni py sevoí
Che sapatu, sapatu
Ajuhuse che sapatu
Pende pepytyvomi
La sevoí chembareko la chivivi
Haé oiko yvype
Akyhyje hegui
Che sapatu, sapatu
Ajuhuse che sapatu
Opreveni py sevoí

Where are my shoes, shoes?
My healthy, little shoes
To prevent py sevo’i (hookworm)
I need my shoes, shoes
My healthy, little shoes
Want you help me please?
I’ve got to find my shoes
So I don’t get loose stools
’Cus parasites are squirming in the dirt and pools
Where are my shoes, shoes?
My healthy, little shoes
To prevent py sevo’i!

Gastronomy, Gluttony, Gilbert*

When I lived in Buenos Aires, I remember complaining about the blandness of the food, the lack of spice, and the limited Asian food options. Returning to the U.S., I mourned my loss of homemade pastas swirling in creamy sauces; thick pizza slices overflowing with cheese; light, buttery, and yet sweet medialunas (croissants); and chocolate alfajores bathed in chocolate and snuggling dulce de leche. The truth is, I relished in these culinary delights then too (the 10 pounds I gained while there could fully attest to that fact). For four years, I have been dreaming about the large, baked, triangular Arab empanadas stuffed with spinach and blue cheese; the savory crepes filled with soft white cheeses, avocados, mushrooms, and walnuts; the sweet crepes dripping with dulce de leche and chocolate, overlaid with bananas, and sprinkled with shredded coconut; the cappuccinos and espressos served piping hot with cookies on the side. Living in the food black hole that is Paraguay (no offense to any Paraguayans) for the past 10 months, my food cravings have only intensified. Consequently, I decided that my recent trip to Buenos Aires would center on food: it would be a gastronomical quest to, in one week, eat 6-months’ worth of meals – revisit all of my old favorite haunts –, as well as sample dishes at new places that had cropped up in the intervening years (as Elizabeth Gilbert referred to it “the pursuit of pleasure”).
My first two meals in Buenos Aires were, frankly, quite disappointing. Remembering my obsession with the crepe chain Carlitos, I had dinner at the new Carlitos LNG in Recoleta, only to learn that the LNG (La Nueva Generación) in actuality stood for higher prices, fewer options, and less quality. My lunch the next day at a fancy-schmancy Italian restaurant in the new restaurant-strip that has appeared in Recoleta was no less disappointing. I should have known because that area has become way, too touristy in my opinion. At the same time, I can’t say that I wasn’t left just a little bit dissatisfied by the Styrofoam-like ravioli or the dearth of sauce that barely served to hydrate it. I was disillusioned and on the verge of giving up hope. After all, this was Buenos Aires, city of culinary pleasures, a well-deserved inheritance passed down to it by its Italian ancestors.
For dinner Sunday night, I went to one of my favorite places, a vegetarian Chinese buffet known as Los Sabios. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was not only still around, but it had doubled in size. I guess I shouldn’t have been; I should have known that unlike the short-lived trendy, pricier restaurants that the guidebooks espouse, the authentic establishments never die. My porteño friends and I each ate three plates of succulent soy, bright green broccoli, and golden gluten; followed shortly thereafter by coconut custard and lemon meringue pie. The delicious food was accompanied by even better company, a delightful Sai couple from Buenos Aires who regaled me with stories that were just as side-splitting as the three plates of food I consumed. As fellow gourmets (self-acclaimed gormets that is) they also proved to be a valuable resource, pointing me in the direction of the culinary delights of city. With their guidance, I was able to continue my week-long quest for good food.
To those of you who may doubt the single-pointed focus, with which I pursued better and better cuisine, know that I spent the whole of Monday strolling through my old-neighborhood of Palermo in search of my favorite Arab empanandas place. Time (or the economy) had taken its harsh toll, and the small, walk-by-window had closed down. I did find, however, another Middle Eastern place. The empanadas there more closely resembled calzones. While they could not match the perfection of those triangular empanadas, they served a flavorful rice pilaf with toasted almonds and two shades of raisins as well as crispy, sweet walnut-covered baklava.
After my Middle Eastern meal, my friends and I paid a visit to my formerly favorite ice-cream chain, Volta. When I studied abroad, my Italian friends and I made it our personal aim to discover the best ice-cream in all of Buenos Aires. We visited one to two heladerías (ice-cream parlor) a week, always ordering Chocolate Amargo (bitter-chocolate, our favorite flavor) and another flavor. After all, in any experiment you need a constant, as well as an x variable. They liked Freddo, while I preferred Persico. One day, leaving our capoeira class, we stumbled upon Volta. Let me tell you, it was love at first site (though it kind of defeated the whole point of going to a gym in the first place). Although Volta was a rare commodity in those days, it has proliferated during the past few years. Unfortunately, as the number of locations has multiplied, the quality has gone down. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy my American Cookies and Dulce de Leche Tentación though!
As if we hadn’t eaten enough, an hour later we decided we needed a snack to hold us over until dinner. We ordered milanesas de muzzarela (essentially fancy mozzarella sticks) and mushrooms sautéed with spinach from a bar in Belgrano. The crowning meal of the day, without a doubt, was dinner. I convinced my friends that their entire stays in Buenos Aires would be for naught if they did not sample the ever-so-wonderful Carlito’s. My savory spinach crepe with Roquefort, mendicrim (a type of soft cheese), spinach, onions, and walnuts was offset by a thick and tangy kiwi licuado (smoothie). Even more heavenly was my dessert crepe filled with Crema Americana ice-cream, chocolate sauce, and raspberries.
To top of the night, I insisted that we stop at a bakery on the way back home. The bakery was located near my former university and had the best scones around. To be fair, I only bought the scones to please mom who fell instantly in love with the scones during her visit.
Tuesday, after an hour-long trip to the Basilica of Luján and an hour-and-a-half actually looking around, I spent the next hour in search of the ingredients necessary to make a sandwich (good bread and cheese are a rarity in Paraguay). I had to stop at two panaderías (bakery) and a quesería (cheese store), but the fresh bread with its hard-crust and soft inside and sharp cheese were the exact items needed for a picnic in the plaza.
Returning to the city, I had time for a quick stop at Freddo, followed by long, luscious licks of its deliciously creamy ice-cream. I was greeted at the hostel by the aroma of delicious Asian cooking. In search of the perfect Asian meal, one girl had bought curry powder and couscous from the Middle Eastern place and then raided Chinatown for the rarest, most potent ingredients that set Asian cooking apart from the blander Latin American and European cuisines. The resulting concoction was a type of Thai curry with coconut milk, pineapple juice, peanut butter, baby corn, water chestnuts, and potatoes, served on top of couscous and complimented by cold aloe and hibiscus Chinese teas. After almost a year of being deprived of Asian food, I was grateful for – maybe not the most authentic – a sincere replication.
Two words: fuggazetta and faina. El Cuartito is one of the most famous pizzerias in Buenos Aires. Their thick cheesy, onion-topped pizza – the fuggazetta – served with a slice of chickpea patty – faina – reminded me of why I once thought that the pizza in Buenos Aires was some of the world’s best. That wasn’t the end of my pizza adventures; I actually chanced upon another one of the city’s famous pizzerias later that day, Pizza Guermes. I didn’t order pizza though, instead enjoying a cheap, but rich and creamy piece of strawberry and ricotta cake. That was after having dinner at the classic Argentine parillada (grill) Pippo. Pippo may lack ambience, but there is a reason it is an Argentine establishment. Its pasta casera (homemade pasta) was the best pasta I ate during my entire trip. The stuffed vegetable Canelones swirling in a pink sauce I ordered were rivaled by my friend’s gnocchi covered in a Bolognese sauce. Gnocchi is a difficult dish to master, it tends to be overbearing, too chewy or too heavy, but hers were the perfect consistency: light, but filling.
Thursday I decided I needed to relax from all the sight-seeing (or maybe it would be more appropriate to refer to my adventures as food-seeking). I sat at my favorite confitería (pastry place) Quebec and indulged in two passion-fruit-themed desserts: a marakuja soufflé and a marakuja and ricotta cake. I had discovered Quebec returning from an outing in Recoleta on Saturday. When I passed by a window full of cakes and pastries, I couldn’t help but go in (the desserts were calling my name, I swear!). I ordered a strawberry and ricotta cake just because I could; I was on vacation, why not treat myself at every opportunity possible?
For lunch that day I prepared a simple lunch of vegetarian spinach and Swiss-chard milanesas (breaded beef, but in the vegetarian case, soy) topped with melted cheese and balsamic vinegar and squeezed into a fresh baguette. The minute the milanesas hit the pan, I was transported back to my days as a student in Buenos Aires where this was my daily meal.
Spring is a new Chinese-vegetarian restaurant that has popped up in Palermo (am I sensing a trend towards vegetarianism in Buenos Aires?). Like Los Sabios, their vegetarian-only buffet was healthy, diverse, and delicious.
While on an excursion to Tigre with some girls from the hostel I was overtaken by a panic. We were discussing the delights of ice-cream in Buenos Aires when I stopped mid-sentence, startled and began to ponder “What did I eat yesterday?” After a few moments, I answered my own question: “I ate two pastries and an alfajor but no ice-cream. What a waste of a day! I didn’t even eat ice-cream!” I was truly ashamed of myself in that moment because how can you let a day slip past in the city of good food without sampling another flavor at one of its heladerías. Alfajores, by the way, are cookie sandwiches with dulce de leche. They come in several different varieties including plain, covered with powdered sugar, and my favorite, bathed in chocolate. I was so crazy about alfajores when I lived in Buenos Aires that I would often run out of my apartment to the kiosk next-door in order to satisfy an urgent craving for chocolate. My obsession didn’t stop there; I filled half of one of my suitcases with Terrabussi alfajores (in the gold wrapping) on my way back to the States. My new favorite brands are Jorgito and Cachafa. As my porteña friend put it: Jorgito alfajores are “cheap and rich.” As for Cachafa, there is a famous Argentine café and brand name, Habana, known even in Paraguay for their alfajores. As the chains have multiplied, the quality has plummeted, leading its creators to introduce Cachafa, or the return to the original flavor of Habana alfajores. It’s the most expensive alfajor available, but also the best.
The highlight of the trip had to be La Mezzeta, undoubtedly the best pizza place in all of Buenos Aires. I took two buses to get there, but it was worth it. Buenos Aires may have changed, but La Mezzeta hasn’t. The prices are the same and the pizza is just as good. They have been preparing pizza the same way for years, although it may seem unorthodox, upside-down. Baking the pizza facedown gives the cheese an ethereal quality that I have yet to find anywhere else. They sell pizza by the slice and immediately after extricating a slice from a pie, they have to replace it with a wooden wedge to halt the gooey cheese from swimming towards the newly-formed gap. If you ever go there, order the muzzarella; there’s no need to order anything else. That thick, doughy crust topped with even thicker cheese has haunted my dreams for years.
For my last meal in Buenos Aires, I decided I needed a meal at an actual Indian restaurant. We went to Tandoor. Objectively, it may not have been the best Indian restaurant, but the butter naan, green chutney, paneer tikka, palak paneer, and gulab jamun were exactly what the doctor (probably Indian) ordered. The navrathan korma I had ordered “as spicy as possible” had me crying and my insides burning, but it was delicious all the same.
Oh, I almost forgot. Well, I guess I didn’t forget; a meal for the road that is. On my way to grab a cab to the airport Sunday morning, I made a quick stop at a kiosk to buy an Oreo Bañada, an Argentine twist on the classic Oreo cookie. Unfortunately, I forgot it at the hostel on my way out to the door. Oh well, I guess there’s always next time!

P.S. My friends suggested that the next time I will be visiting Buenos Aires, we take advantage of the summer heat “to make pilgrimages to the divine temples of Volta, Persicco, and Freddo [the three most famous ice-cream chains in Buenos Aires].”

*Other possible titles included “Pizza, Pasta, Pastries” and “Deliciousness, Decadence, Diarrhea”

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Mi Querido Buenos Aires

Walking into the airport last weekend, full of eager anticipation, I was immediately greeted by her strong porteño accent. I felt like bathing in the cool spray of her heavily-accented words, the hard break tide of ll’s and y’s, the wave-like expressions of “por allá” and “bárbaro,” the refreshing shower of Spanish spoke well and with flavour. At once I slipped back into the rhythm of the language like sliding in between the sheets of an ex-lover’s bed: a little tentatively at first, but reminded with each kiss and caress of a former familiarity, an earlier ease with lovemaking.
Upon leaving the airport, however, barely-contained excitement turned into brutal sock and bitter recoil. Skyscrapers towered above my head, traffic roared around me, and the hovering spectre of a Starbucks made its imposing presence felt. I realized that Buenos Aires had found a new lover: globalization. In my long absence, high-rises had sprung up, prices had soared, and international franchises had appeared. Taking one look at me, the natives bombarded me with English, the city’s new language of love, one that had never entered the bedroom during our relationship (Like any liberal-minded offspring of a conservative family, Buenos Aires always had trouble fully accepting the interracial nature of our relationship. I was always a little dark for her tastes and our friends often remarked with surprise at seeing us together).
I suppose that I had taken advantage of the city’s earlier naiveté, her cheap prices, global aspirations, and growing ego. I had assumed that she was young and innocent and had taken on the role of the older, more experienced partner. But instead of acting like a guide, I exploited her inexperience. I couldn’t help but inwardly sneer every time she peered up at me out of her young eyes, knowing that I’d have to pay so much more for the likes of her in Europe; fully aware that the tender caresses she eagerly showered upon me would only be obtained by diamond rings, dozens of roses, and humiliating grovelling at the feet of more sophisticated, much more experienced Europe.
In spite of this, it seemed that Buenos Aires had matured over the past few years. My darling girl had changed. She was more physically confident for one, charging for those flashes of skin and passionate kisses that she had been willing to give me for free. She had discovered her worth, how much money she could actually make by selling her body to the new, growing line of international clients, but had lost a bit of her soul in the process. Her elegant floor-length, black dresses had been replaced by gaudy, shimmery slip-ons that barely covered her thighs.
At first I didn’t recognize this ripe, full-bodied woman as my teenage sweetheart. The stench of the perfume that she’d taken to wearing and her shiny skin revolted me, and her empty promises, her meaningless flirtations left me unsatisfied. I made up my mind to keep up my distance (I had spent too long mourning our last relationship, for months I cried out for her at night. Like any first love, she was impossible to forget and I couldn’t help but compare every following lover to her), but I quickly discovered that she had learnt new tricks along the way, tricks that left me hungry for more. I gorged myself on every form of pleasure she had to offer, every succulent morsel, every tantalizing embrace. I make myself sick by my overindulgence, but I can’t slow down, I can’t control myself. She humours me for now; we both know that this tryst will only last until the end of this week.
Still, it’s not enough. I want her for the long haul, I want to take possession of her; I don’t want to share her with anyone else. I know I should cherish the little time we have together, but with every passing minute I can only cling to her more desperately. I came crawling on my knees, begging her to take me back, but she no longer has a place for me. Besides, business has been so good that I just can’t afford her (It took me a while to find out that she’s still living in that dilapidated apartment that she can barely afford, with its sky-high rent and the constantly rising prices. She’s afraid that her beauty won’t last and is trying to earn as much as possible now, even if she ruins her health in the process). So I make the most of our few days together, dreading the moment when I will have to leave her again. Despite the distance and the years separating us, she will live on in my memories and my heart. We both know that she will forever remain, Buenos Aires, mi querido.


Mi Querido Buenos Aires

Mas Buenos Aires

Cemeterio de Recoleta

How to Tereré

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Gardening in Paraguay

Staring down at the scarred wreckage of my body, it’s hard to recognize it as my own. As the scar from climbing – in reality sliding down – the Great Wall of China fades from my wrist, it’s being replaced daily by all manner of new marks: the misshapen flap of skin from cutting my finger with my pocket knife, the red streaks on my ankles and flaking skin from desperately scratching mosquito bites, the cracked heels from the combination of flip-flops and pothole-filled red-dirt roads constantly eating away at the soles of my feet. The most recent source of cuts and bruises has been building a fence for my huerta (garden). The problem with making a garden here is not the soil – which is incredibly fertile – or the monsoons and droughts that alternatively nourish and ravage our crops, but the animals. I have many frequent visitors in my yard in the form of dogs, cats, chickens, pigs, horses, cows, and even a goat. People in my community often ask me if I have animals. I reply by listing the above animals. When they look me inquisitively, I explain that while I may not, my neighbours do, which means that for all practical purposes, I do. And while I may have learned the correct noises with which to scare away pigs, shooing away chickens and roosters is nearly impossible. Hence, I decided to build a fence.
Now, building a fence large enough and strong enough to guard against the smorgasbord of animals in Paraguay is a lot of work. Let me tell you what my fence has entailed so far: first, I had to obtain material for my fence. I built mine out of takuara (bamboo) because I did not want to contribute to deforestation by chopping down more trees and bamboo is a grass, meaning it regenerates itself. Unfortunately, the man who has a large supply of bamboo lives 2 kilometres away from me (this is 2 km across bumpy, dirt roads). I consequently found a Señor who had a horse-cart to help me bring the bamboo back to my house. He chopped down 30 bamboo poles – each 8-10 meters high –, while I ¨cleaned¨ them off with my machete.
After bringing back the sticks, we spent the day sawing them to size (about 1.5 meters) and then splitting them in half with my machete. For those of you who have never seen this done, it’s a fun process to watch. After positioning and inserting the machete in the middle of one end of the pole, you grab both ends of the machete, thus lifting up the pole, and hit it against the ground until the machete reaches the ground (Kids, don’t try this at home! To be honest, it’s perfectly safe as long as you pull apart the two halves and let the machete fall to the ground). A day’s hard work left me with a veritable mountain of takuara, 435 some sticks in my backyard.
The next step, and this was the hardest one in my opinion, was hoeing almost 300 feet2 of earth, in order to clear it of knee-high weeds. The hard ground, baked by the summer sun and not made any softer by the lack of rain, along with the blistering hot sun beating down on me, made this a miserable task. I was exhausted after only an hour or two. I couldn’t help but marvel at the farmers who do this day in and day out all-year round.
I have spent the past week, with the help of a Paraguayan friend (Always get a Paraguayan friend, they know what they’re doing), actually building the fence. We dug eight large holes into the ground into which we inserted posts. For the posts we used leftover wood found around my yard. We then used long rods of takuara as rails to which we could attach the sticks by tying them on with fine wire.
Staring down at the blisters on my hands formed by days of hoeing and the scratch on my arm from where extremely sharp takuara sliced it, I just wanting to stretch my aching back and massage my sore calves, I feel proud of all the work I’ve put into my garden. Now all I have to do is hoe the area once more, dig raised beds and furrows, build a seedbed, and plant my seeds. I am so ready!

P.S. On a positive note, my calf and upper-arm muscles have never been so toned in my life! Apparently hauling buckets of water out of a well, hoeing hard dirt, squatting over a latrine, and digging a two-meter deep trash pit will build amazing biceps and toned calves. If I’d known that, I’d have moved here years ago!

Pictures of My Huerta

Monday, February 23, 2009

Jopara Guazu

On a recent day trip to buy blenders and computer accessories, my friend exclaimed ¨That was so cool Pooja!¨ ¨What?¨I responded. ¨In that last store, you had a conversation with a woman about Portuguese!¨ The saleswoman had spoken entirely in Portuguese, while I had spoken Portanhol, a combination of Spanish and Portuguese. Living near Brazil and being accustomed to speaking more than one language on a daily basis, it did not even strike me as unusual that I had negotiated the prices and technical specs of hard-drives in another language. My friend continued, ¨Most volunteers have to learn to speak two languages (Spanish and Guaraní), but you are speaking three!¨ The Paraguayans call their two-language combination Jopara, meaning mixture, but I speak Jopara Guazu (English, Spanish, Guaraní, and Portuguese = big mixture)!

The Mecca of Chuchiness

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Intimate Lives of Strangers

I was sitting next to a beautiful pool, in a wealthy suburb of Asunción, discussing the tourist sites in Europe with a Paraguayan who’d returned from a whirlwind sightseeing tour. The next day, I watched the latest gossip about American celebrities on the E! Channel – straight from the U.S., in English –, while listening to my Argentine friend talk about the problems with her previous cable-provider. Yesterday I returned to my site, where the thrilling thought of having an inflatable pool in my backyard is tempered by the reality of the excruciatingly-slow process it would be to filling it bucket by bucket, with water from my well; where only one channel comes in clearly on television, two, if we’re lucky. Usually I spend my days in Asunción lazing around, enjoying the air-conditioning of a decadent three-story house, located within a gated-compound resided in by multi-millionaire bankers and U.S. Embassy staff, while my friends’ children attend classes at the American School. After these visits I return to my wooden campo house, crawling with insects and teeming with vermin, the tin roof that traps heat making the inside even more unbearable than the 40° outside would suggest. In Asunción, I’m served tea throughout the day, biscuits and snacks, by empleadas (maids) who live in the same towns where my fellow Peace Corps volunteers work. Sometimes I feel more comfortable hanging around the kitchen, chatting with them in Guaraní, talking about life in the campo, than discussing the challenges wealthy Indian housewives face living in Paraguay. On some level, I feel like they are more “my people” that the Paraguayan elite who I probably have much more in common with. In no way am I criticizing any of these groups of people: the Paraguayan businessman with origins in the interior of the country, made rich by working for global MNCs; the Argentine living in Paraguay who only knows the challenges of life in a cosmopolitan city; the Indians who have never experienced poverty – moving from Bombay to Asunción –, coping with raising their children in a different country and the lack of a cultural social-support system; the empleadas who leave the poverty of the campo behind 5 days a week for the prestige and pay afforded by working for a wealthy family in a wealthy city. Each group inhabits its own universe, a separate orbit intersecting intermittently with other orbits, but still its own self-contained universe, largely ignorant of how the people in other universes live. Somehow, I’ve been given the opportunity to inhabit all of these universes, if only for a brief time.
Travel, unlimited access to media and entertainment, the comforts of a three-story house, these are luxuries that I’m grown up accustomed to, mere slices of the universe that I’ve inhabited thus far. In spite of this upbringing, my universe is now expanding to include the faceless mass of the underrepresented, the ignored, and the powerless poor: their worries, their problems, their needs. In choosing to live poor, I am making those very people my own, or rather; I am becoming a part of them. I am becoming a part of their community: their hopes, their aspirations, their births, their deaths, their birthdays and weddings. Their illnesses, the cycles of debt and depletion, the quincianeras, the official unions under God, the not-so-secret affairs and broken marriages, the joys of new life, the life-threatening accidents, the lifting of hope and the grinding despair, these all touch me in a way that I didn’t think the lives of strangers could. Maybe this is a reason I feel more at home here talking to Paraguayans about life in the campo than the problems of the city I only know from monthly visits to the Peace Corps office.
How am I able to transcend the immense socio-economic gaps among groups and, in fact, inhabit several different orbits at the same time? The key for me is the ability to accept a new culture, with all the connotations that word suggests: to consent to a new culture; to agree to a new way of life; sometimes to tolerate, even endure, alien beliefs and inedible foods; but above all, welcome new perspectives with as little judgment as possible. The willingness to strike up a conversation in Guaraní, to compliment my hosts on the richness of the Paraguayan food they’ve prepared, bland by the ordinary American sense of taste, excruciatingly boring to the refined Indian tongue; to relate to them on their level, within their realm of experience; and above all, an adaptable sense of humor mostly aimed at myself. And so I’m able to relate to the rich Paraguayans who, although they have left lives of poverty behind, have not left their culture behind, who although they may not share the lives or fates of common Paraguayans, embrace their language; the Indians who know all too well what it is like to leave their country and their culture behind; the Argentine who searches for someone to share her love of world music with, and the empleadas who long for someone to converse with in their native language. My determination, and sometimes stubborn insistence, to speak in Guaraní, even though I’m much more comfortable with Spanish, secured me an open invitation to my friends’ cousins’ house, after only meeting them once. It’s also prompted my friends’ empleadas to extend invitations to stop by their houses in the campo anytime.
Still, even living amidst poverty, I will always be different, marked by my years of living in one of the wealthiest countries of the world. As much as I try to deny my former life of privilege, there will always be a gap, in knowledge, in access, in the ability I have to return at a moment’s notice to the land of opportunity and riches. Consider my salary, although I make minimum Paraguayan wage I am relatively lucky: I do not have 8 children to feed, I do not have to work and sweat all day in a chacra (though I am planning on it) to make enough money to feed my family, I am not at the mercy of wildly fluctuating world prices. Though I may live in the isolation of the campo, I can always escape to the (at-times) glorious chuchi-ness of Asunción with a variety of foods, cable TV, and out-of-season vegetables and fruits. I am very, very lucky.
Nevertheless, Paraguayans continue to invite me into their homes and lives as in I am the one who needs help and taking care of, not them. And for this, above all I have to thank Paraguayan hospitality. How is it that one family after meeting me only once, felt the need the second time I visited to treat me to an expensive dinner and gift me with several new ao po’i shirts? Or that the Indian family, since the day I have met them, has looked after me like one of their own, taking me to nice restaurants and movies? Or that my neighbors in the campo, lacking enough money to properly feed their families, but concerned about the money I would have to spend to buy expensive vegetables, have on more than one occasion sent me home with bags of fresh fruits and vegetables? I’ve had offers as considerate as sending a son 2 km to my house with a bottle of fresh cow’s milk to offers as extravagant as constructing an additional room to a house, so I wouldn’t have to pay the expensive monthly rent on a house of my own. Even during day-visits to friends’ houses, I am offered a place to eat, to shower, to take a nap if I so desire. And so, as my very own country has become a stranger to me, so have strangers become my own.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Book Chuck!

Check them out!

Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit - Daniel Quinn

A New Earth - Eckhart Tolle

Is this your 1st or 2nd time?

One of the great things about being in Paraguay is having friends respond to you telling them, "It's official, I have girardia" by asking you "Is this your 1st or 2nd time?"

P.S. For those of you who don't know what girardia is (no wories, I never did before being here), girardia is a microscopic parasite that lives in your large intestine and is accompanied by such lovely symptoms as sulphuric-tasting burps and yellow diarrhea.