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 Se├▒or 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