November 26th, 2013
Saying Goodbye

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80In less than a week I will leave Guido Almada—my home for these past 2 years—but today feels like any other day. I woke up to the birds calling—kiskadees and caciques and thrushes—and a calm eastern breeze that I soaked in over a cup of Brazilian coffee. My mangy campo mutt Lobo is sitting at my side, waiting patiently for breakfast, and I am as content as one could ever hope to be. The realities of transition from a Peace Corps life deep in the Paraguayan countryside to a life in the states are the farthest thing from my mind. Tranquillopa, as Paraguayans always say; that quiet mantra and the lifestyle it signifies are among the things I will miss most about this place. That, and all these beautiful people who have taken me under their wings and made me family.

Mario carves the main dish at his despedida, or farewell party. The traditional Paraguayan dish akague yvygu'u is a cow’s head slowly roasted for half a day over buried coals.

Mario carves the main dish at his despedida, or farewell party. The traditional Paraguayan dish akague yvygu'u is a cow’s head slowly roasted for half a day over buried coals.

The end of Peace Corps service is always a difficult time. Volunteers are confronted with the pragmatic difficulties of upending their lives and, in many ways, starting over from scratch. At the same time, there is the existential challenge of evaluating one’s service, the successes and the failures, and coming to terms with what has been a trying and significant experience. What has it all meant? Have I made enough of a difference? What will the work I have done here look like in 10 years? 20 years? More? How will this community remember me? Have I given enough of myself to this cause? How can I take the things I have learned and use them to make great social change in the future?

This introspection is not easy, but it’s necessary. I have found that it really helps to make lists of all the projects, big and little, that I have done while I was here. As always, visiting with my neighbors and friends is a great way to feel good about my service. Regardless of the development work I have done, I have made a lot of great, genuine friendships and built some very meaningful relationships in my time here. To a certain extent, that might just be the greatest thing a volunteer could hope for. Still, the profound self-critique and doubt continues. There is still so much need, so many issues that need to be addressed, so much more work to be done.

One of Mario’s projects during his Peace Corps service was to provide technical assistance in the construction of anaerobic biodigesters as a sustainable energy source. Here, Mario poses with a Paraguayan family that benefitted from that project.

One of Mario’s projects during his Peace Corps service was to provide technical assistance in the construction of anaerobic biodigesters as a sustainable energy source. Here, Mario poses with a Paraguayan family that benefitted from that project.

Emotionally, I feel all right. Really, none of this leaving nonsense seems real at all. Occasionally and unexpectedly, however, I will feel the heavy welling-up of an ocean in my chest and know that I am about to break down into tears. So far, I have done well enough to suppress that and keep my cool, but I know that sooner or later, my levees will not be able to hold back the tide and I will go from proud Peace Corps volunteer to blubbering little child in an instant. I just hope nobody is around for that. Saying goodbye to neighbors and friends has been heartbreaking, but I think that living alone and becoming almost entirely self-sufficient for these 2 years has made me a greater master of my fickle emotions. Peace Corps service can be unforgiving at times; by necessity, one is forced to persevere, and for me that has meant the careful management of otherwise intense and unproductive emotional crises.

If everything that returned Peace Corps volunteers have told me is correct, the next few months will be the hardest of them all, harder still than the past 27 months in Paraguay. My hope is to capture as much of my thoughts and reflections in writing so that I can better understand and appreciate all that has happened and all I have learned from Paraguay and its beautiful people. Hopefully this transition, difficult as it will undoubtedly be, will represent not the end of my service in Peace Corps but instead an important step in a lifetime of service to communities and people around the world, in Paraguay and beyond.  —Mario Machado

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October 17th, 2013
Now We’re Cooking With Gas

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80When I was about 13 years old, I decided to enter the local science fair. It was my third year entering the competition and I was intent on having a unique project—so intent that I didn’t mind getting a little dirty (literally) to do so. At my father’s suggestion, I began the assembly of an anaerobic biodigester in our basement. A biodigester captures methane gas produced by decomposing animal feces, which can then be burned as an alternative energy source. In the end, this project earned me first prize at the local science competition and would stink up our basement without disciplinary recourse for well over 4 months. It was decommissioned at my family’s unanimous request sometime after New Year’s Day.

Flash forward to 2013. I am now 24 years old and serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in the country of Paraguay. My work here has been with composting, bio-intensive gardening, and other projects to help improve household production, nutrition, and sustainability. This work is rewarding, but I felt as if there was some next step that I might be able to take with my community members to give them a better appreciation of the potential contained within their small parcels of land.

The biodigester consists of a long plastic tube, its ends reinforced with modified plastic shipping drums. The pitched roof protects it from the elements. Every day, the system is charged with a fresh bucket of cow manure and water.

The biodigester consists of a long plastic tube, its ends reinforced with modified plastic shipping drums. The pitched roof protects it from the elements. Every day, the system is charged with a fresh bucket of cow manure and water.

My idea was simple, although nothing new: I wanted to build a biodigester with members of my community. In reality, this was almost the same project I did when I was 13, except now it could be put to use helping impoverished farmers provide for their families instead of just stinking up my parents’ basement.

I began the long process of applying for a micro-finance loan to help fund the project in my community. While a biodigester can be built relatively inexpensively (about $125) with local materials, such up-front costs are out of reach to the people in my community. After receiving the money, we held educational sessions with 15 adult members of my community in which we discussed the basic steps of constructing a biodigester. Through this, we successfully installed two biodigester systems with two different families in my community.

This homemade security valve system releases pressure from the biodigester. One line goes to the kitchen and the other back to the biodigester.

This homemade security valve system releases pressure from the biodigester. One line goes to the kitchen and the other back to the biodigester.

In a country such as the United States, which has access to an abundance of cheap fossil fuels (natural gas, petroleum, coal, etc.), most of us wouldn’t waste the time handling animal manure if we could help it. But in parts of the world where manure is more accessible than disposable income, alternative energy sources can make a huge difference.

The biodigester serves to produce biogas, a methane-hydrocarbon mixture that can be burned to cook food or heat a home. This fuel source means that families do not need to use their limited financial capital to buy propane gas or be forced to slowly deforest their small properties to cook over wooden stoves. Additionally, and just as importantly, the biodigester produces a super-charged organic fertilizer that helps to boost garden production. The fertilizer itself is actually so strong that it can be diluted one part to 20 with water and still be extremely effective. Other secondary benefits include human and animal disease reduction and cleaner water supplies, a byproduct of proper management of animal wastes.

I can already tell that this project did as much for the sense of pride and motivation of the two families than it did for their material disposition. No doubt, it has helped them in a number of tangible ways, but more than that, it has given them something else to be proud of; it has planted a seed of inspiration in their minds. For people who have been farming and subsisting the same way for generations, the simple idea of the biodigester has opened their eyes to future possibilities that had never before been considered.

Gas from the biodigester fuels a kitchen burner.

Gas from the biodigester fuels a kitchen burner.

In developed countries, it might seem silly to think about what proper animal waste management and simple technologies can do for us. Something like the biodigester might seem a good solution for a poor rural farmer in some far-flung corner of the globe, but the reality is that we are facing a lot of the same problems right here at home.

As a kid, such alternative energy possibilities fascinated and intrigued me. A decade later, they have done the same thing in an isolated, rural Paraguayan community. It might just be a smelly mixture of manure, but in the right hands, with the right mentality, it can make a huge difference.

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September 5th, 2013
Bolivia, Part 3: Farming in the Highlands

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80Even after two years living in Paraguay, I can’t help but be amazed at the year-in, year-out survival that I see my neighbors carve out of this tangled jungle. Their agricultural practices tend not to be too advanced; more often than not, they are quite rudimentary. I don’t mean to belittle the skill and aptitude of these farmers, most of whom have been working the land and surviving off of it for longer than I have been alive. Their perseverance alone is a marvelous feat.

But it came as a surprise, on a trip to the Bolivian highlands, or altiplano, to find farmers following the same agricultural practices that I’ve seen in Paraguay, except in Bolivia’s merciless landscape of harsh, dry winds and rocky soils.

It was almost inconceivable to me, as I bundled up in layer-upon-layer, that anyone could survive out there, precariously balanced on the edge of mountains just barely below the tree line. It made the sub-tropical Paraguayan climate seem like a paradise, even with Paraguay’s wretchedly hot summers and moist, chilling winters.

What does one grow in a place where only the hardiest, most resolute wild plants struggle to grow? The answer, I would come to find, is as much about the crops themselves as the location of fields and the techniques used.

This field on a Bolivian valley floor has been left fallow for the winter after producing a crop of wheat. It will be tilled in preparation for planting before the first spring rains come.

This field on a Bolivian valley floor has been left fallow for the winter after producing a crop of wheat. It will be tilled in preparation for planting before the first spring rains come.

Large parcels of agricultural land are hard to come by in a country bisected by mountain ranges. Fields are usually small (an acre or less) and spread out, located on the flattest pieces of land on valley floors. This means that farmers automatically avoid the complications of large-scale monoculture; any one farmer is cultivating in a number of small locales separated by natural barriers. If pests or disease appear in one location, they are unlikely to reach others due to the chaotic topography, and therefore will threaten only a portion of the total harvest.

Additionally, Bolivian farmers are experts in contour planting. With the help of their sturdy oxen, they till beautiful cursive lines into the rocky earth. Soils that at first glance appear unforgiving are in fact rich in deposits of volcanic minerals. During the wetter summer months, temporal streams carry these mineral deposits into small valleys, gorges, or the rare expanses of flatness, where they accumulate.

My time in the Bolivian highlands took place in the depths of winter. During the brief summer, which in the southern hemisphere happens between November and February, significant rains bring with them great opportunity. Bolivians take advantage of this fleeting window by growing their yearly supplies all at once. The surplus harvest is then stored in small stone silos and is kept fresh during the winter by the constantly frigid temperatures. It is natural refrigeration at its best.

Contour planting is an absolute necessity when cultivating the sloping terrain above 10,000 feet elevation. The small stone silo in the background is used to store crop surpluses—usually potatoes, wheat, and corn—over the dry winter months.

Contour planting is an absolute necessity when cultivating the sloping terrain above 10,000 feet elevation. The small stone silo in the background is used to store crop surpluses—usually potatoes, wheat, and corn—over the dry winter months.

Still, crops need to be hardy themselves, for even the summer months are quite chilly and unpredictable. Quinoa, a small, round, grain-like seed, is a staple crop that grows well (and almost exclusively) at high altitudes. Other staple crops include corn, beans, wheat, and more than 1,000 varieties of potato, which are used for human as well as animal consumption.

While I did not see any household gardens while I was in Bolivia, I have trouble believing that they are very productive in that climate. It seems that even during the summer months a garden could be a challenge at altitudes of 10,000 feet or more. Perhaps some root vegetables might fare well, but I get the feeling that the Bolivian highlands don’t see many tomatoes or peppers. But if I have learned anything from my time in Paraguay and now Bolivia, it is that people are capable of absolutely extraordinary things. Their resilience and survival are a testament to this, in spite of the immense hardships of poverty and social marginalization. Their warmth, hospitality, and kind outlook are even more so.  —Mario Machado

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August 15th, 2013
Bolivia, Part 2: Cholita Style

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80International politics, especially as of late, would paint Bolivia as a rogue leftist nation continually butting heads with American economic imperialism. And on one level, perhaps that is correct. But such things are the playing fields of politicians and policy makers. On the ground, with the people in the cities and towns, one gets a very different impression. Bolivians are a proud and beautiful people whose traditional cultures have survived while in many other places around the world such history has either withered into obscurity or become unrecognizably commodified. Bolivia is considered one of the most traditional countries in Latin America. That is more than evident in the brightly colored, Quechua-filled marketplaces.

Bolivian homesteads on the altiplano are traditionally made of stones or mud brick.

Bolivian homesteads on the altiplano are traditionally made of stones or mud brick.

Many women of Bolivia still dress in the iconic cholita style (although these styles differ greatly in detail and name in different parts of the country). This style includes knee-length or longer plain skirts, often worn in multiple layers to combat the cold mountain winds, as well as 19th-century English bowler hats. This specific “style” is not traditional in the sense of being indigenous in origin; instead, it was the mode of dress imposed on many Bolivians by the British, who unofficially filled the power vacuum left by the defeated Spanish colonial rulers following independence. Still, it is ironic that the world’s largest market for industrial-era European headwear exists today in the most isolated and culturally diverse country of Latin America.

My favorite aspect of cholita style is the hair-braiding. I am not sure whether this is British in origin as well, or whether perhaps this aspect reaches deeper into Bolivian history. Regardless, it is gorgeous. Bolivian women traditionally grow out their silky black hair for almost their whole lives. It is fashioned into two elegant, long braids—one on each side—that often stretch below their waist.

As with many fashions, there are communicative subtleties woven into the tradition that are not decipherable to outsiders. The length of the braids is a mark of experience and age, for example, and the exact angle and jaunt of the bowler hats indicates marital status, among other things.  —Mario Machado

This Bolivian campesino is leading his burro, oxen, and sheep through the countryside.

This Bolivian campesino is leading his burro, oxen, and sheep through the countryside.

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August 6th, 2013
Bolivia, Part 1: The Plurinational State

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80The country of Bolivia tells a story. Those who fly into the capital of La Paz and then skip across the terrain quickly and efficiently will miss the whole tale. The best way to soak it all in is slowly, on marathon bus journeys through deserts and jungles and mountain ranges, across white-knuckle roads that wind along cliff edges with careless indifference towards plummeting death only a few inches away on either side.

Bolivia stretches from the mind-numbing expanse of the Chaco desert in the south and the depths of the most impenetrable Amazonian rainforests in the east to the very heavens itself. Most of the country rests on the altiplano (or high plains) above 10,000 feet of altitude. Its borders with Chile and Peru are flanked by the Andes Mountains, whose frosted peaks stand like sages on the distant horizon. Bolivia is often called “the Tibet of the Americas,” a nickname that has as much to do with its geography as its physical and cultural isolation.

The twisted, folded terrain that is typical of the Bolivian highlands.

The twisted, folded terrain that is typical of the Bolivian highlands.

The country is officially titled the Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia (the Plurinational State of Bolivia), and for good reason. In pre-colonial times, due to the steep and treacherous topography, almost every dip and valley in the mountains played host to its own cultural traditions and unique social groups. The Incan empire of the Peruvian highlands never penetrated most of the country and therefore, such independent cultures were able to persist until well after the Spanish conquest. While there was undoubtedly much communication and trade among these myriad of cultures, especially between the altiplano and the low-lying tropical areas (where the infamous Bolivian coca plants are cultivated), cultural diversity best defines Bolivia.

Coca leaves serve as a mild stimulant, similar in effect to caffeine. The leaves are chewed like tobacco except the juices are swallowed, not spit out. The stimulation from chewing coca helps the body deal with lack of oxygen at high altitudes.

Coca leaves serve as a mild stimulant, similar in effect to caffeine. The leaves are chewed like tobacco except the juices are swallowed, not spit out. The stimulation from chewing coca helps the body deal with lack of oxygen at high altitudes.

In the latest census, there were still 35 different languages (other than Spanish) being spoken throughout the country, most of those being preserved in far-flung and isolated mountain villages. There are several dialects of Bolivian Quechua and Bolivian Guaraní, which differ greatly from the Quechua and Guaraní spoken in neighboring Peru and Paraguay, respectively. When I tried to speak Guaraní (the dialect I have learned over the course of 2 years living in Paraguay) with a campesino woman from the Chaco lowlands, it was as if we were speaking two entirely different languages. In reality, we were. Some of the sounds, specifically the nasal intonations and inflections, were the same, but the vocabulary and the words couldn’t have seemed more different.  —Mario Machado

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July 12th, 2013
Mud Season
Mario’s feet sunk deep into the red Paraguayan mud on his way to town. By foot and without shoes was the only way this trek was possible.

Mario’s feet sunk deep into the red Paraguayan mud on his way to town. By foot and without shoes was the only way this trek was possible.

One of my favorite things to do on sunny evenings here in Paraguay is to sit on my porch and smoke a hand-rolled cigar. I like to watch the caciques (a tropical blackbird) play in the trees and listen for the lonely call of the whistling herons as they fly overhead. But it seems like a lifetime since I’ve seen the sun at all. In fact, it’s been nothing but rain and clouds and wetness for so long that the humidity has risen through my mind like a fever and fogged out my memories of sunshine altogether.

During the hot summer, rains are a blessing. They come rolling through like stampedes to break the heat, tossing bolts of lightning and dumping their atmospheric oceans on grateful crops. In summer, the rains are a respite, an excuse to lie in the hammock and sip tea.

In winter—which seems cold only because the summer was so hot and there is no way to escape the elements—the south wind charges up from Tierra del Fuego and across the Patagonian steppe to blanket the Plata basin in dense, moist air that hovers just above freezing. This is the rainy season, good for the crops that, come spring, will be ready to harvest. For those of us trying to go about normal life, however, it can be difficult.

My community is located down a 30-kilometer dirt road. When it rains, the road becomes a 30-kilometer muddy river. There are few drivers, let alone vehicles, brave enough to make the journey. This means several things. First, no goods can be brought in. Only locally grown fruits and vegetables are available—at a time when gardens have just started producing and the only in-season fruits are the citruses. Basic items, like soap and toilet paper and flour, become increasingly scarce as the rainy days continue. Second, no person or product can leave. Nothing comes in, nothing goes out, not without a struggle.

The washed-out road leading to Guido Almada is being slowly overtaken by the rising waters of the surrounding wetlands.

The washed-out road leading to Guido Almada is being slowly overtaken by the rising waters of the surrounding wetlands.

When it rains heavily, like it has for the past 2 weeks, there is little else to do but wait in the house and try to keep dry. The humidity gets into everything and, along with the slight breeze, chills you to the bone. Clothes become soggy, everything imaginable starts to mold, and you can almost feel the droplets of water condensing in your lungs with each breath. Laundry cannot be dried with the sun acting so timidly, and the growing pile of dirty clothes adds to the already stale smell of mildew and musk hanging on the saturated air.

When the ground gets this wet, this waterlogged, it is unwise to work in the fields. Not only is it slippery and muddy, but simple things like weeding between rows of corn or mandioca opens up the land to erosion.

One thing I have learned during my time here in Paraguay is that farming requires as much patience as hard work. Holding out for conditions to improve can make all the difference, but in some ways the waiting is infinitely harder than any amount of physical labor. It seems to me that Paraguayan campesinos are masters of this art.

I have struggled against the geographic isolation of my community in my efforts to reach development goals. Everything takes longer and is more difficult to coordinate when you are dealing with terrible roads and challenging weather. It has taken me long enough to realize, but slowly I am getting better at just letting things go and not swimming too hard against the current. Still, as I get better and better at waiting, I can’t help but think that this skill will not serve me nearly as well when I get back home to the states.  —Mario Machado

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June 13th, 2013
Paraguay Verde

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80One thing I have learned in my experience so far in the Peace Corps is that, while people from different parts of the world might appear immensely different in many ways, in the end we are more similar than we realize. This is true for all people, but in my opinion, especially so for young people. They are always some mix of serious and silly, sometimes shy, other times outgoing, but still very curious and with an inexhaustible amount of physical and intellectual energy. In my efforts over the past 2 years as a Peace Corps volunteer, my work with the young people of my community has been the most rewarding and has made the greatest difference. Young people are the future; that is an inescapable reality and an amazing opportunity for every nation on the planet.

The Peace Corps program in Paraguay has a long tradition of leading initiatives that aim to engage young people. While development at many levels and with many different types of people is necessary, if we truly desire to invest in the future, we must start by investing in our youth. One of the newer and more exciting efforts to reach Paraguayan youth has been the establishment of a program called Paraguay Verde (Green Paraguay), which recently completed its third successful youth camp in the city of Aytra. The camp was an amazing experience, as much for the 80 Paraguayan youth who attended as for the Peace Corps volunteers and Paraguayan organizations that helped to plan and run the event.

Paraguayan youth listen to a presentation on deforestation by Lucy Aquino, a local World Wildlife Fund representative. Photo courtesy of Matt Vaughan.

Paraguayan youth listen to a presentation on deforestation by Lucy Aquino, a local World Wildlife Fund representative. Photo courtesy of Matt Vaughan.

The long-term goal for this program is to establish a sustainable and locally run organization that promotes environmentalism, youth leadership, and development within Paraguay. So far, Peace Corps has been organizing and partially funding the youth camps, but several other local organizations, such as A Todo Pulmon and Green Living (both Paraguayan environmental groups) as well as the Paraguayan chapter of the World Wildlife Fund, have been taking a bigger role—with amazing results.

A Peace Corps volunteer demonstrates worm composting to a young Paraguayan. Photo courtesy of Matt Vaughan.

A Peace Corps volunteer demonstrates worm composting to a young Paraguayan. Photo courtesy of Matt Vaughan.

A Paraguay Verde conference attendee plants a native tree in a reforestation project in Aytra. Photo courtesy of Matt Vaughan.

A conference attendee plants a native tree in a reforestation project in Aytra. Photo courtesy of Matt Vaughan.

This year’s camp covered many topics, from conservation to creating recycled art to composting and healthy eating. There were presentations, guest speakers, and a youth panel in which young leaders from around the country shared their experiences of starting youth groups and leading local initiatives. The camp concluded with a service project in the local community, during which the youths planted more than 100 trees and built several benches in a park using recycled materials.

More exciting than the camp’s accomplishments, though, was the attitude of each youth that attended. Over the course of three days, 80 young kids from different economic and social backgrounds, from different parts of this diverse and overwhelmingly impoverished country, were able to come together and form strong and lasting connections. The connections were both practical, useful to the youth as they work to organize and engage in local projects and activism; and psychological, exposing them to others with the same enthusiasm and motivation to seek a brighter future.

It’s hard to overstate the impact that such a simple program can have on the lives of young people. Especially here, where creating a better future is made that much harder by political instability and endemic poverty, sometimes the smallest amount of hope and inspiration makes all the difference. So to all those youth who helped make Paraguay Verde an amazing success this year, my hat is off. Thank you for your enthusiasm, your energy, and how much you continually inspire me.  —Mario Machado

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May 7th, 2013
Painting a Map of the World

mapSeveral months ago I began a simple project with the school in my community: painting a map of the world to be used in geography classes and for general reference. The project was almost immediately delayed by a teachers’ strike, then put off till the next school year as summer vacation took effect, then it was further postponed by lack of materials and finally some technical difficulties. This seems to be the norm for trying to get anything accomplished in the Peace Corps. More specifically, this is par for the course for even the most basic of things in Paraguay. But after months of waiting and stutter stepping, the project is complete.

The world map project is a classic Peace Corps initiative to help broaden the world view of students in often isolated, rural communities who attend schools that lack resources and other educational opportunities. There have been hundreds, likely thousands, of world maps painted by Peace Corps volunteers over the 50-year history of the organization in countries and communities across the globe. While I always liked the idea of the project, I wasn’t sure if it was worth the time and effort in Guido Almada, seeing as there were so many other obvious areas of need. This all changed last school year when I was invited to teach a geography class with the students.

To begin the class, I asked the students to trace an outline of the continents of the globe on a blank piece of paper. This request was met with vacant stares, a few giggles, and the inevitable shuffling of papers as kids at the back of the classroom began inconspicuously searching for a picture they could copy out of a notebook. When not a single student could fulfill this request, I decided to narrow the question. Can anyone trace a rough outline of South America? Again, nothing. How about just Paraguay? This I thought for sure would yield some better results. Not so much. I persisted, insisting that they try to produce something—anything. They begrudgingly obliged.

What the students lacked in actual knowledge of maps, they certainly made up for in creativity. At the end of the class, I received papers filled with any number of indescribable forms, all of them showing a misshapen Paraguay at the center randomly surrounded by neighboring countries (Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina) and occasionally other distant nations as well (China, the United States, Russia, Germany, etc.). After this experience, it seemed quite obvious to me that the world map project was not only quaint and novel, but entirely necessary. So began the long process.

The idea behind this project is simple. For students that will likely never venture far from their homes in rural Paraguay—maybe to the capital on occasion, or over the border at some point to look for work—gathering a more realistic world view is still an important part of their personal education. It will help them to visualize their physical location on Earth, which is part of a much bigger process of understanding their position as human beings. Concepts such as historical events, global warming, and modern-day geopolitical changes (all of which affect the lives of these people every day, whether or not they notice) take on a whole new meaning when you can point to places on a map.

This is Paraguay. This is the United States. This is how big the oceans are.

Of course, as a student of geography, I am perhaps biased in my interpretation of this project. For some, painting this world map is likely just an opportunity to do something different and create a pretty picture on the otherwise dull and drab whitewash of the crumbling school building. But even that has its merit.

As students in the United States, I think we are often spoiled in our comparatively well-funded schoolrooms with seemingly infinite resources and opportunities. It is hard to even imagine not knowing what the world looks like. Once again, like all of the projects I have done and am doing in Paraguay, it seems as if I am getting as much, if not more, out of the experience than those people with whom I am working. But as far as making a small difference is concerned, I know that I have already accomplished at least that much: The students have been eager to share with me their newfound knowledge of the globe at every opportunity.  —Mario Machado

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April 1st, 2013
Summer Has Broken

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80On fall evenings, after the mosquitoes have hatched in biblical droves, the campesino houses of my community are thick with smoke and the smell of pine and earth. The locals burn tin pans full of palo santo, an aromatic wood, wagering lungs full of ash and bloodshot eyes in a bet to deter the hordes of bugs and flies. The dirt roads fill with smoke, like valleys full of fog, while the last strands of sunlight dance through the forest haze. It is a smell and a feeling that will forever bring me back to this place. At this time of year—after the heat of summer has broken and the groundwater has cooled to the point of being perpetually surprising on the lips—I feel cradled and loved by this country.

Summer in the Río de la Plata Basin is a harsh and sadistic time; it sucks the life out of your pores. The South American sun taps you like a maple tree and drains the sap from your veins, drinking it up one bead of sweat at a time. But once summer has faded, the breezy, beautiful days of fall lounge comfortably on the land. Then it is only the passing rains that provide a break in this pulse of autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. In fall, each morning blossoms from the horizon with yellow petals that unfold between the trees. The air is cool, like crisp apples, and you can almost taste the cinnamon in your chest as you breathe.

Winter days will be cold, sometimes frosting the grass and chastising those hopeful crops either left in the ground too long or planted too early for their own good. Yet, even these days are so much more manageable than the peak days of summer. When you wake to a summer sun, you know that the already hot morning will only lead to an even more unbearably hot afternoon; in the winter, you can sip your maté and bundle up by a wood fire, knowing that the afternoon will inevitably bring with it ideal hammock-napping weather.

When I really center myself in this place, when my little brick hovel feels most like my home and my neighbors more like family than friends, I settle into a rhythm and a mindset that is the closest to inner peace that I have ever known. It’s a combination of the lifestyle, the pace of life, and the calm with which the bird-sung days pass into cricket-sung nights. Within this cocoon I am aware of the smallest details, like the changes in the breeze or the variable retorts of the each and every farm animal, and I sense them with my whole body. My actions are smooth, my thoughts are light, and these strange tongues that I am still learning to speak slip easily from my lips to jumble naturally with the rivers of conversation that flow around me. This place is teaching me to see, to smell, to hear, to listen all over again. It’s teaching me what is really important and daily showing me how beautiful life can be, no matter what material things I might lack.  —Mario Machado

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March 21st, 2013
Eel Stew

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80On hot days after strong rains, almost every able-bodied man and boy from my village takes to the winding cow paths that meander carelessly through the surrounding marshy lowlands. They are seeking any one of a number of calm, muddy pools, and they are willing to brave hordes of mosquitoes, poisonous snakes, intense heat, and life-sapping humidity to reach them. The prize at the end of this typically Paraguayan ordeal is a heap of minuscule fish, in the end all bloodied and tethered by the gills to a strong reed, which is then slung over their shoulders to carry home. If they are lucky, they might catch a few marsh eels.

Several days ago, on a dusty walk home under a peak noonday sun, I passed a group of neighborhood youngsters intently engaged at one of the ponds that line the wetlands. From the look of things, they wouldn’t have much to eat for dinner that night—a small catfish-like thing, a few half-palm-sized sunfish, and various other assorted pond treasures, each one seemingly smaller than the one before. Perhaps my arrival brought some good luck, or maybe it was just the heat of midday that drew better prospects for the boys. Either way, soon we were no longer dodging empty hooks as they orbited our heads, but instead foot-long marsh eels that wriggled madly at the sudden shock of being mercilessly ejected from their aquatic home.

A boy from Mario’s neighborhood displays a day’s catch of marsh fish.

A boy from Mario’s neighborhood displays a day’s catch of marsh fish.

One boy, the unusually small and high-pitched Willy, was the expert eel-smasher. The moment an eel would exit the muddy shallows, he went into action, grabbing the line and unhooking the poor creature in a matter of seconds, then quickly ending its life by bringing its head down onto a large stone. Once several eels had been dispatched in this manner, the boys seemed satisfied with their haul and triumphantly invited me to dinner.

I spent that evening hunched over a few small bowls of eel stew with the 12 members of Willy’s family, making quick work of that day’s catch. For those who have never eaten eel, it has all the flavor and texture of fish without the infinite little spines that typically irritate efforts at eating other aquatic animals. Once one has cut the flaps of ligaments around the head, the rest of the eel’s slimy skin slides off easily like a coat. Sometimes, to loosen up the outer layer so that it can be more easily stripped from the body, the whole eel is placed on the ground and rolled like a rolling pin, which not only helps to release the skin from the flesh but also to tenderize the meat.

Once the skin is peeled and the organs removed and tossed aside (unless of course, the eel is full of eggs, which can be eaten as well—Paraguayan caviar), the whole eel can simply be sliced into segments and cooked as is. The final product, a thin and salty fish soup, is a prized favorite of rural Paraguayans who live far from the riparian borders of the country. The soft eel flesh can be effortlessly slurped off the bone—a single continuous spinal column that runs the length of the creature but without the additional eating hazards of tiny ribs. In my humble opinion, and speaking with the authority of my extensive experience with other Paraguayan rarities, I must say that eel stew is quite delicious. —Mario Machado

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