August 20th, 2012
Little Bean Tree

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80The kumanda yvyra’i (“little bean trees” in Guaraní, the local dialect) I planted last summer as a living fence and green manure have finally begun to flower. They are quite large now and are really helping to keep the berms surrounding my gardens from washing away. Not only are they leguminous (and therefore, replenish the soil with nitrogen) but they can also be used for animal forage, firewood, shade, and human consumption. The beans are delicious and beautifully colored—pictures will be soon to come. I will likely let these few plants go to seed and use this year’s haul to plant some more in my garden or field for the next season.  —Mario Machado

Flowers of the kumanda yvyra’i trees that surround Mario’s vegetable garden.

Flowers of the kumanda yvyra’i trees that surround Mario’s vegetable garden.

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August 14th, 2012
Worm Compost

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80My garden has really taken off in the past few weeks. The relatively mild summer helped by keeping the frost away even if it also meant significantly less and unpredictable rainfall. The vegetables I planted came up with varying success. Squash, Swiss chard, onions, green onions, tomatoes, beets, carrots and peppers are all on their way, slowly but surely, to becoming delicious meal items in the next few weeks or months.

vermicompostI have added several things on the technical side of my garden in order to help with future production. First, using recycled wood and brick, I constructed a worm bin (above), called lombricultura in Spanish. With an underlying bed of dry, leafy material and kitchen scraps for food, California red worms can produce wonderful organic fertilizer in the form of worm castings. These castings are rich in nutrients that are readily available for absorption by plant roots. In a month or so I should have excellent organic fertilizer to add to my plants.

Scrap lumber and discarded bottles form the sides of raised beds in Mario’s garden.

Scrap lumber and discarded bottles form the sides of raised beds in Mario’s garden.

Also, to increase the diversity of my garden, I have planted several banana plants and a line of pineapples along the outside fence. These will grow and produce fruit in about a year or so, but in the meantime, the flowering fruit trees will help attract bees. And thorny pineapple plants work wonders against curious chickens.

I was experiencing some problems with erosion during large storms and watched several of my meticulously formed raised beds wash away. To prevent this I have used old soda and wine bottles, as well as scrap wood, to create more permanent sides for the beds. So far this seems to have helped hold the soil in place.  —Mario Machado

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July 31st, 2012
A Climate Debate in the Developing World

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80Winter has been mild so far here in Paraguay, where seasons are reversed from those in the northern hemisphere. Usually, temperatures hit lows in the mid 30s to upper 40s on a regular basis; this year, we’ve seen only a few scattered weeks like this. Right now, in the dead of the Paraguayan winter, some days are hot enough to wear sandals, shorts, and a T-shirt out in the sugar-cane fields. This is not necessarily a bad thing, seeing as we have had only one night of frost this season so far, but the noticeable changes in the weather underscore a profound climatic issue.

The farmers here in the village of Guido Almada notice it; they can tell the weather is changing from year to year. Average temperatures are increasing overall. The rains come later, or earlier, or not consistently, or all at once. The pulse of the seasons, the pace by which the life of a Paraguayan campesino is set, has been gradually thrown off beat. For now, the changes seem manageable. My neighbors grumble and complain as we pick tobacco leaves or cut sugar cane, but they have so far managed to get by. Still, even the slightest changes in their crop yields can affect their ability to provide for their families in the coming year. As global climate change continues on its dismal trajectory, it is only a matter of time before the typical yearly agricultural gamble for impoverished families becomes more like a bid to stay or leave, to invest in their land or sell it, to eat or starve.

For those of us who live in developed countries, climate change might seem little more than no more “white Christmas” or slightly higher produce prices at the local food market. But for the people of the developing world, especially those who subsist directly from the land—the farmers and fishermen—their livelihoods sway with the seasons. These are people with small carbon footprints who bear little responsibility for the environmental neglect that has led our world to the precipice of climatic disaster. Regardless, they will shoulder a share of the burden that a gradually warming planet will bring.

This year, Paraguay was hit with a one-two punch of severe drought followed by intense rains, which then combined to cause massively destructive flooding in the northern and western parts of the country, displacing thousands of peasants. While this made national headlines, other climate-related damage is not as noticeable. Sometimes it is as subtle as a family forced to skip meals because the mandioc crop is failing. It may be higher instances of anemia, malnutrition, and other diseases among children. It may be a quiet depression among parents who, despite their sweat and toil and love, cannot feed their families.

On a large scale, the issues surrounding climate change, its causes and effects and its potential fallout, are continually debated by politicians and global leaders as if they were part of a campaign strategy or bid for political leverage. Science, even at its best, cannot adequately convey in humanistic terms the social impacts of rising global temperatures. To grasp this properly, ask a third-world farmer how his crops have been in the past few seasons. Ask his wife how far she must walk for water or what she does to care for her sickly child. Notice their calluses as they pray that their hands will always feel as rough as sandpaper, for the day these scars of the trade have faded is the day that the land has nothing left to give.

In this sense, and perhaps many others, the campesinos of Paraguay are proving wiser than our elected officials; they see what is happening to our planet and feel the changes in the seasons. They understand better than we the true gravity of our collective future.  —Mario Machado

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July 25th, 2012
The Festival of San Juan, part 2

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80In Monday’s post I described some of the antics of youthful celebrants, called cambâ, at the Paraguayan festival of San Juan. The cambâ engage in a variety of activities involving fire and a sort of slapstick comedy routine. For example, before the festival, a large post about 5 meters tall is sunk into the ground, topped with an array of traditional Paraguayan food. This post is then greased with pig fat. In an intentionally comical manner, the cambâ compete to scale this post. After their humorous conquest of the post, a pair of boys draped in a cow’s hide, donning a cow skull with flaming horns, charge at the group of triumphant cambâ. The masked men then run in feigned fear, only to return moments later to taunt the fake bull.

A series of other events will then occur. A hoop made of forest vines is doused in gasoline and set on fire. The cambâ proceed to dive through this loop with varying success. Another common part of the festival is called tata pelota in Guaraní or pelota del fuego in Spanish—in English this translates to “ball of fire.” A ball is wrapped in gasoline-soaked rags, ignited, and then used in a game of soccer between the cambâ. Needless to say, all of these practices tend to be fairly dangerous, however, I should mention that the dried banana-leaf costumes are not worn everywhere and many of these events take place with the cambâ wearing masks and regular clothing only.

The last part of the festival is something that could only be described as a sort of Paraguayan drag show. The very cambâ who before were playing with fire and demonstrating their comical masculinity by taunting a bull then change their costumes into female clothing and stuff their buttocks and chests with cloth to represent exaggerated parts of the female body. What commences is a dance in which the cambâ imitate female dance moves (which takes the form of “grinding” in our modern age) with other male cambâs. Again the idea here is comedy, a sort of mockery between the sexes that is equally as irreverent to males as it is to females. The fluidity between the genders and the gender roles represented here is especially fascinating given the overt machismo typical of Latin American cultures.

The Paraguayan celebration of San Juan includes cambâ in flammable banana-leaf costumes dancing around a central fire with young girls wielding torches. Photo courtesy of Kristen Whitmore.

The Paraguayan celebration of San Juan includes cambâ in flammable banana-leaf costumes dancing around a central fire with young girls wielding torches. Photo courtesy of Kristen Whitmore.

In short, that is the festival of San Juan. I would hardly call it an entirely Christian tradition. The reality is that such a mixing of religious belief systems is more the norm than the exception in the world. This type of hybridization occurs almost invariably along with colonization, conquest, and cultural interaction. Perhaps it is particularly evident here in Paraguay because of the strength and prevalence of the indigenous culture, but less obvious examples can be seen almost anywhere if one has the mind or eye to look for it. From an academic perspective, it is extremely interesting; from a personal perspective, it is a really good time. There’s nothing like dancing Paraguayan polkas with my Guaraní neighbors into the wee hours of the morning.  —Mario Machado

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July 23rd, 2012
The Festival of San Juan, part 1

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80To the casual observer, the Paraguayan festival of San Juan appears to follow the typical Paraguayan paradigm for parties and holidays: loud polka music; people dancing, drinking, and playing card games; and traditional foods. On second glance, and especially as the evening gets moving, things take a surprising and curious turn. By the time young masked men can be seen jumping through flaming hoops made from forest vines, a little voice inside one’s head can be heard in the midst of the hooting and hollering: “What in the world is going on here?”

Paraguay is a predominantly Catholic country. The festival of San Juan, like many other Paraguayan holidays, is Catholic in origin. It celebrates Saint John, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples in the biblical New Testament. In this country, however, the story does not end there, as the unique cultural history of Paraguay comes into dramatic play. While Paraguay may be mostly Catholic and a part of the largely Christian Latin America, it also stands alone for its thriving and ubiquitous Guaraní Indian tradition. The reason for this strong indigenous tradition, especially while most other such religious customs in Latin America were wiped out during the conquest, is a history in and of itself. Suffice it to say that modern Paraguayan culture is a strange mix, a sort of hybrid that is neither fully Latin American nor fully indigenous. The Guaraní language is still the first language of most Paraguayans and is even more widespread than Spanish. In regards to holidays and celebrations, the situation is much the same.

From an anthropologist’s standpoint, the Paraguayan festival of San Juan represents a textbook example of how ideologies and beliefs interact when cultures clash. The nominally Catholic festival has been combined with ancient Guaraní celebrations that venerate fire and the fluidity of gender roles. In reality, the only really Catholic elements of the festival are its name and the typical mass or prayer session that occurs in the morning.

The traditional costume worn by cambâ includes a mask and a drape constructed of dry banana leaves. Photo courtesy of Kristen Whitmore.

The traditional costume worn by cambâ includes a mask and a drape constructed of dry banana leaves. Photo courtesy of Kristen Whitmore.

I have had the privilege of seeing this festival twice this year in different parts of the country. The main event involves characters called the cambâ, played by teenage boys dressed up in masks (traditionally of local wood, but also commonly of cloth or face paint) and wearing costumes made of dried banana leaves. While these boys perform a sort of exaggerated dance around the outside of a circle, young girls dance in the middle around a fire wielding torches of dried grass. One by one, the masked cambâ rush into the center to grab one of the girls while the girls attempt to ward them off with their flaming torches. This is, of course, incredibly dangerous given the open fire and dried banana-leaf costumes. The exact performance of this ceremony varies slightly, but the idea is usually the same: fire, masked men, and animated dancing. I’ll describe more of the festival and its gender-bending aspect in my next post.  —Mario Machado

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July 5th, 2012
The Wonders of Paraiso Gigante

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80I have been working a lot recently with individual families in my community to introduce organic methods into household gardening as a means of creating sustainability, increasing production, and helping household nutrition. So far I have worked with about eight families, doing things from bed preparation to companion planting to homemade, organic insecticides and fertilizers. This week, I had my first great success story that really made me realize how small ideas can sometimes change how people think and work.

Last week, I was showing some families how to double-dig garden beds and add organic matter to the soil in the process to help with soil recuperation and nutrient availability. After working with one family, I proceeded to demonstrate how to make a homemade insecticide using garlic, onions, and leaves from a local tree called paraiso gigante. These ingredients are mixed together, steeped in water for about 2 days, and then applied to the plants. The smelly garlic and onions deter pests; the paraiso leaves have a strong odor as well as other natural insecticidal properties.

A few days later when I revisited the garden, the mother of the family proudly told me of her newest horticultural conquest: As she double-dug a new raised bed in her garden, she found if full of ants. Using leaves from the paraiso gigante tree as her organic matter, she mixed the material into the soil. The next day when she returned to plant the bed, the ants had all left and the soil was ready for planting.

As she told me this story, I couldn’t help but smile. Here was a local mother who not only learned well enough to be able to repeat the whole process on her own, but she was also willing to experiment and try new things. Such willingness is rare for people who usually have little room for error. Without much financial backing, with little capital, and often faced with the problem of providing enough food to survive, impoverished farmers often hesitate to try new things, lest they jeopardize their ability to provide for their families.

Working with farmers in this capacity means that I must be understanding and cautious and always remain cognizant of this fact. It is important to impart knowledge in a way that manages and minimizes risk and optimizes benefit. This is not always perfectly possible and there are always unknown variables, but hopefully (if this situation is any indication) the work I am doing will have a tangible impact both in the gardens and in the thought processes of my Paraguayan neighbors.  —Mario Machado

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June 21st, 2012
Organic Gardening, Paraguayan Style

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80After returning to Paraguay from my trip to Cuba several weeks ago, I had an entirely new perspective on the issues facing my community and the issues that I address as a Peace Corps volunteer. The first thing I came to realize is how absolutely possible it is to produce almost all the food one needs to survive (and thrive) in a home garden. Not only that, it is completely possible to do so organically.

In the past few weeks I have been working with families in their home gardens to introduce, bit by bit (poco a poco, as my neighbors say in Spanish), some organic techniques to improve production and also introduce some different types of veggies that will hopefully contribute to overall household nutrition. I have thrown myself into a school gardening project, which I have been part of for some months now and where we use many of the same growing techniques.

First, I have been helping families to understand the idea behind deep-bed systems for growing vegetables. These methods have been used for centuries, sometimes called “French intensive” or the “Chinese method” or simply “double-digging.” Deep cultivation in raised beds loosens up hard soil for improved root growth, introduces organic matter directly into the soil, and provides for better water infiltration. The method is explained in detail in John Jeavons’ aptly named book, How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine. The idea here is that, with a little more work up front in bed preparation, your plants will grow better, grow healthier, and produce more, and your soil structure will be maintained for years to come.

The next idea I have been introducing to families is plant associations. In other words, instead of planting large sections of one veggie, a gardener can intercrop (but on a small scale). This creates a sort of mosaic of plants that is aesthetically appealing and helpful in reducing the spread of pests and diseases and maximizing nutrient use. Certain plants do very well next to each other and the characteristics of some plants are complementary and/or beneficial to others. Onions, garlic, marigolds, and other smelly plants are good as pest deterrents; certain plants like Swiss chard can act as pest “barriers,” or in the case of squash and cucumber, weed suppressors.

In the past week, I have been working with homemade organic fertilizers with several families. Once again, I should point out that living in a community in the middle of rural Paraguay that already puts an emphasis on organic techniques is quite rare. I am lucky, given my background, but also given the attitude of my neighbors—willing to experiment, try new things, and in general, take my word for some of these seemingly crazy ideas. I really hope they work out (fingers crossed)!

In the end, this is all part of a process—a long and drawn-out process—to hopefully increase nutrition, household productivity, and general livelihood for the members of my community, Guido Almada. I will keep you posted!  —Mario Machado

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June 12th, 2012
Home at Last: Cuba, part 4

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80Santa Clara’s streets are narrow, flanked by single-story homes built so that no room is left for alleys or porches. It is horizontal space conservation to the extreme. Even in this tiny car, in which I am riding with my grandfather and father, it feels a little claustrophobic. We arrive in front of 84 Martí Street—a house that looks almost identical to all those around it except for a roof that has long since collapsed. Standing in front are two older women and several younger adults, roughly my age. We park the car on the street and step out. Within seconds I am smothered in repeated and unrelenting hugs; I am being kissed on the forehead and cheeks; I feel hot tears as they are dropped haphazardly. This is my family. They have been waiting for my grandfather to come home for almost 60 years. They tell me that I look like a Machado.

The house at 84 Martí Street in Santa Clara, Cuba, has been home to five generations of the Machado family.

The house at 84 Martí Street in Santa Clara, Cuba, has been home to five generations of the Machado family.

The following interactions seem strange to me. We fall easily into a familial atmosphere: welcoming, inviting, loving, accepting, and comfortable—as if we have known each other our entire lives. In reality, we are almost complete strangers, but strangers bound by something infinitely more profound than the politics, cultures, and countries that had separated us. Although I need to continually be reminded of names, the smiles and laughter of familiarity fill the small house to its capacity, straightening the old, wooden columns and raising the sagging roof for the first time in a long time. It is as if the walls and the rooms and my aunts and cousins and father and grandfather can all breathe a huge sigh of relief, 60 years in the making. “Home at last” sounds quietly on the breeze, lazily meandering its way through the halls.

My grandfather walks slowly through the home, here and there relating a story of things that he remembers from his childhood. The tile floors are the same; the room he used to sleep in seems so much smaller; the mango tree still curls its gnarled, prolific arms towards the courtyard’s square window of sky. It is a living artifact and yet a home still, being occupied by a family—our family—just as it was when my grandfather was a child.

I spend the night sleeping in the room that my grandfather once shared with my uncle Hilberto. I sleep in one bed while my aunt Marucha and cousin Yanet doze in the other. My cousin Yandy sleeps by the door. Someone snores all night, but I don’t know who. I dream about the past that surrounds me.  —Mario Machado

This is the Machado family tomb in the Santa Clara cemetery. Five generations of my relatives are buried in this communal plot, as is common in Cuba.

This is the Machado family tomb in the Santa Clara cemetery. Five generations of my relatives are buried in this communal plot, as is common in Cuba.

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June 6th, 2012
The Road to Santa Clara: Cuba, part 3

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80I am with my grandfather and father in a little Korean-made car, hurtling down the crumbling central highway on the way to Santa Clara, Cuba, my grandfather’s birthplace. He has not visited this home in almost 60 years, although the actual house he was raised in still stands. In his half-century of absence, his grandparents, parents, and sisters have passed away. We are going to this place so that my grandfather can finally pay his respects. We are going to meet family that I have always had, but never knew. We are going so that my father and I can finally realize our own history. We are going to find something for ourselves.

Endless fields of sugarcane and tobacco sway like calm oceans, gentle waves lapping up to the acacia- and palm-lined banks of the forests. In brilliant reds and yellows, flamboyant trees rise like islands in the midst of these green seas while cattle escape the late-morning heat and humidity by dozing in the shade. Farmers’ hovels dot the landscape. They look almost comical, with grass roofs and wooden planks that have been warped and animated by passing time, the elemental cycles of rains and droughts, highs and lows. Ancient sand dunes create natural levies along the coast, while truer mountains rise cautiously to misty heights further inland. This place is gorgeous. The old Cuban tune “Chan Chan” strums slowly away on the radio as we wind our way to my grandfather’s long-lost home.

Santa Clara Libre hotel, on Santa Clara’s central plaza, is the site of a major skirmish during the 1959 Cuban revolution. It sits just two blocks from the house in which my grandfather grew up.

Santa Clara Libre hotel, on Santa Clara’s central plaza, was the site of a major skirmish during the 1959 Cuban revolution. It sits just two blocks from the house in which my grandfather grew up.

Entering Santa Clara is like driving through a living museum. The battle of Santa Clara, the last major guerilla offensive during the Cuban revolution and the battle that made Che Guevara famous, seems written on every surface. Memorials, statues, and murals greet visitors at every corner. Bullet holes from the battle are still visible in certain areas, especially at the Santa Clara Libre hotel, where a major skirmish took place. If one didn’t know better, they might think that the revolution happened just yesterday. It’s a proud and also desperate attempt to hold on to history. The world is moving into the future; Cuba (in more ways than one) seems to be holding blindly to those early years of revolution.  —Mario Machado

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May 31st, 2012
The Old Regime Trembles: Cuba, part 2

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80Driving out of Cuba’s capital city, La Havana, one immediately encounters the chaotic bustle of a developing country. Having just come from living in Paraguay for 8 months, I was much less shocked by the people and landscape than my father and grandfather seemed to be. Still, Cuba hardly fits the mold; it is a country like none other on Earth. As many Cubans will tell you, through hushed whispers and barely parted lips, this is the land of contradictions.

For those still preoccupied with Fidel Castro, I would like to offer this bit of solace, though it comes perhaps 50 years too late: Cuba is not Fidel’s island. Cuba is growing up and finding itself full of a younger generation that doesn’t remember the communist revolution of 1959. This generation is becoming increasingly tired of the intellectual and social restrictions imposed by the very state that has given them an education that is equaled by few countries in the Americas. (Cuba’s literacy rate is higher than that of even the United States.) Dissent is brewing, fueled by the regime that it will one day topple or otherwise transform deeply. Castro represents the old, tired, and variably successful politicians of communist Cuba. He and his numbers are aging, soon to be replaced by an unknown future. There is still one potent symbol for this next generation, however, and especially at this time in Cuban history, it seems both extremely appropriate but also quite ironic: Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

The likeness of the revolutionary guerilla leader Che Guevara can be seen virtually everywhere in Cuba.

The likeness of revolutionary guerilla leader Che Guevara can be seen virtually everywhere in Cuba.

Driving around Cuba, one thing is almost immediately evident: Che is the symbol and the martyr of the Cuban revolution. He was memorialized idealistically, like a delicate flower in amber, at a time when the guerillas were still young, progressive, and shaking up the modern world. On every available surface on the island—on the walls of aging, Soviet-era factories, on streets and dumpsters, in homes and on tourist souvenirs—the face of Che appears in defiant, immortal glory. The man whom Jean-Paul Sartre once described as “the most complete human being of our era” reigns over an island that is sauntering into an uncertain future.

It is curious to wonder what the revolutionary would think of modern day Cuba, were he alive today. As members of this young generation flex their well-educated minds (which, according to Cuban communist philosophy, are actually the property of the state), the old regime trembles. And yet, the world continues to move on.  —Mario Machado

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