May 24th, 2012
Así Es La Vida: Cuba, part 1

I recently took time off from work in Paraguay and spent 10 days on the island of Cuba with my father and grandfather. It was a very intense, if also brief, trip that took these three generations of my family back through our personal history—my grandfather was born in Cuba—as well as through the maze that is Cuba’s political, economical, and cultural reality. My next several posts will represent an honest, though inadequate, attempt to put that story and my experience into words.

street-view

My grandfather stands in front of the house where he was born, on Marti Street in Santa Clara, Cuba. He lived there until moving to the United States in 1946. He is standing with my cousins, who still live in the house.

The humidity feels like a blanket. At the Jose Martí International Airport in Havana, basset hounds make up the K-9 unit. The whole situation is like organized chaos: “locura con orden” (madness with order), as my grandfather says. The inside of the terminal looks like a makeshift import-export business with hoards of expatriate Cubans running neon-plastic-wrapped bundles of goods past ambivalent customs agents. In quantity, it would alarm and enrage those remaining stubborn proponents of the United States embargo. In principle, it makes all too much sense. Economics is simply running its course.

The great Cuban experiment, which has played out on this small island just 90 miles off the U.S. coast since the revolution of 1959, is as tangible as ever. Low, sea-swept clouds play games with the tropical sunlight as we drive across rickety roads. In typical developing-world fashion, horse-drawn carts and hopeful hitchhikers crowd the shoulders, sometimes wandering between the lanes of a sparsely traveled and sluggish freeway.

Cuba is swarming with 1950s-era automobiles. Some have been modified, some have decayed, and others are running just like new. Here's one license plate.

Cuba is swarming with 1950s-era automobiles. Some have been modified, some have decayed, and others are running just like new. Here's one license plate.

A monument to Che Guevara, the Marxist guerilla leader who helped lead the Cuban revolution, towers over Santa Clara, the second largest city in Cuba and the site of the last great battle of the 1959 revolution.

A monument to Che Guevara, the Marxist guerilla who helped lead the Cuban revolution, towers over Santa Clara, the second largest city in Cuba and the site of the last great battle of the 1959 revolution.

For those with a mind to history, a certain feeling is quickly evident—the smell of saltwater and fumes from ancient automobiles (running on aviation fuel) fill the lungs with it. It is the need to figure it all out. The island seems to echo, enveloping one’s mind with this great imperative to understand the reality of the forbidden country of the Americas before it crumbles under the weight of time and economic inevitability.

I have family on this island—great aunts and uncles, their children and grandchildren, who have waited 60 years for my grandfather to come home. They have heard stories about me, seen my pictures, and heard about my life and the life of my family. And though we are connected by blood, we are separated by worlds of politics and culture and economics. Just 90 miles away, but somehow, our lives could not be more different. Where in the world am I?  —Mario Machado

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May 14th, 2012
The Fine Art of Making Chipá

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80In preparation for Semana Santa, or Holy Week, Paraguayan families prepare gratuitous amounts of chipá, a traditional Paraguayan food I described in a previous post. Such a quantity of chipá is necessary because, in addition to the fact that it is consumed all week, it is also the exclusive food eaten on Good Friday—a Paraguayan version of fasting.

On the Wednesday before Easter, the chipá bonanza begins. It starts by firing up the tatakuaa, a large igloo-shaped mud-brick oven used for baking chipá and only chipá.

Next, the chipá batter must be mixed. Several kilograms of pig fat (both solid and liquid) are put into a large wooden tub and stirred into a soupy blend. Dozens of eggs are mixed with the batter while cheese is crumbled in as well. Then, several packets of anise are added. I had never seen or used this spice before coming to Paraguay, but here it is extremely common in almost all types of bread.

Next come fresh milk and almidón, flour made from cassava roots. Ground corn is the last addition before the mixture’s moisture content is adjusted slightly with more milk. Family members—kids included—work the pasty, speckled dough into shapes, usually circles or loaves, but also into birds or crosses or other such shapes with religious symbolism in reference to the coming Easter. The dough is baked and in 20 minutes the chipá is ready.

Chipá, a cheese-flavored bread eaten in Paraguay during Holy Week, is baked in a wood-fired, domed oven built of mud bricks.

Chipá, a cheese-flavored bread eaten in Paraguay during Holy Week, is baked in a wood-fired, domed oven built of mud bricks.

The first bite of chipá is delicious, I discovered during this year’s observation of Holy Week. It is warm and gooey on the inside, crispy and crunchy on the outside, and very filling. After two or three pieces, however, things go downhill quickly. Chipá is heavy on the carbohydrates and fat (pig fat, to be more precise). Therefore, eating it in huge quantities feels (to me at least) like eating a comparable number of McDonald’s cheeseburgers. I learned to draw my limit at one or two, knowing that each family I visited would insist that I try some of their chipá (despite the fact once you have tried one, you really have tried them all). I spent the week after Easter recovering from the food shock my body had experienced.  —Mario Machado

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May 8th, 2012
Guitar Lessons

kids

A group of kids from my community, Guido Almada, has made a habit of joining me when I play my guitar. I try to teach them a few notes and chords, but they much prefer to just strum away or yell along with whatever it is I am playing. It’s all part of integrating.  —Mario Machado

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April 26th, 2012
My Dog, the Wolf

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80When I first arrived in Guido Almada, my host family had experienced a death on the evening of my arrival. The older couple with whom I was to live for my first 3 months in the community with was suddenly cleaved when Don Zaccarias lost his wife of more than 50 years. I moved into a household consisting of Don Zaccarias and his daughter and her family, who had moved from Guarambare to help with the transition.

There were two dogs in the household—Tony, the Don’s dog, and Lobo, who had belonged to his wife. It was quickly evident that Lobo (the name means “wolf” in Spanish) was grieving along with the rest of the family. He was quiet and dejected, passing his days moping around the house as if he were a person who had lost his way home.

After I moved into my own house, a small brick building next door (less than 20 feet from Don Zaccarias’s house, in fact), a relationship began to build between Lobo and me. Within a month, Lobo began to follow me to the bus stop in the morning when I was heading into the city. More than once he had to be turned away sadly by the bus driver at the door. When I visited neighbors, he would follow me at a distance and wait for me at the gate, making sure not to enter so as to avoid upsetting neighboring dogs. This past weekend, when I went for a 10-kilometer hike into barely penetrable marsh, trudging through knee-deep mud, wading through water to my chest, and even swimming some parts, Lobo followed me the entire way, braving the cold and the obstacles despite his clear and vocalized protests at points.

Every morning now, I wake up to find him curled up under the table on my patio, nestled in a little depression where the concrete has broken away and only dust remains. We drink our coffee together and he gets a sausage or two from my breakfast. He waits at my house when I am gone to the city or to teach a class and his tail is always wagging on my return. In the evenings, we listen to music, drink wine, and smoke a cigar together…or at least I do those things while he lies under my hammock. At night, he is the vigilant, if not comically undersized, guardian of my house.

Make no mistake: Lobo is the mangiest, dirtiest dog I have ever met. His fur is matted and dreadlocked and falling out in places. He smells pretty bad, although this usually goes away after a big storm (this is the best Paraguay can do for giving dogs a bath). Still, I cannot deny that in him, I have found a best friend, an unquestionably and unwaveringly loyal companion. He asks nothing more from me than food scraps, a scratch on the belly, and friendship. Lobo is just another way, another immensely special and irreplaceable way, that this strange foreign country is beginning to feel much more like home.  —Mario Machado

Here's Lobo taking a break after he accompanied my neighbors and me on a tiring 10-kilometer hike into the local marsh.

Here's Lobo taking a break after he accompanied my neighbors and me on a tiring 10-kilometer hike into the local marsh.

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April 18th, 2012
Cheeseless in Paraguay

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80The week between Palm Sunday and Easter is one of the most important holidays in Paraguay. In this predominantly Catholic country (reputedly between 80 and 90 percent of the population), the celebration of Semana Santa or Holy Week occupies a position of utmost importance for families. Like all Paraguayan parties and festivals (including Christmas; quinceañeras, the coming-of-age celebrations of 15-year-old girls; and festivals of patron saints), the drill is mostly the same: large gatherings of family and friends, huge amounts of traditional Paraguayan food, singing and dancing to Paraguayan polkas, and drinking in circles as a designated server refills and passes the cup.

Unlike other holidays, however, Holy Week continues for almost 5 days (culminating in Easter Sunday, or Domingo de Pascua in Spanish). In a country of farmers and laborers, Holy Week represents the only real time off for people who work seven days a week, every week, toiling in the fields or working around the house. Another important aspect of this holiday, which sets it apart from others, is chipá, the traditional Paraguayan cheese-flavored bread that can be delicious if consumed in moderation, but if consumed in excessive amounts can feel like a slow death.

The entire family (usually not including the males, unfortunately) enters chipá-preparation mode weeks before the holiday arrives. Tens or even hundreds of pounds of materials need to be saved up to produce the massive amounts of chipá necessary for an entire week of parties. For a month before Holy Week, I could not find cheese for sale within a 5-kilometer radius of my house. Usually, the matriarch of a household prepares several pounds of fresh cheese after milking the cows each morning. Prior to Holy Week, however, this supply is not sold but instead guarded jealously. Those people lacking milk cows, such as myself, remain cheeseless for weeks on end.  —Mario Machado

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April 12th, 2012
Cold Showers

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80As we move into autumn in the southern hemisphere and the weather turns colder (yesterday peaking around the mid 60s, today starting out in the low 40s), my outdoor shower without hot water has become a bit of challenge. It takes a certain frame of mind to motivate oneself to bathe in 50ºF weather when the water in the lines is no warmer. There is nothing like the feeling of being nice and clean, but this fall and winter, that feeling is going to come at a price.

I always told myself that losing my hygiene would be the first step toward losing my sanity. Therefore, I promised myself to maintain both while serving in the Peace Corps. It seems that this commitment will not be easily fulfilled, especially while living in a brick house without a heating system or insulation and with a thin wooden door.

My irreparably warped windows do not close all the way. This was not a problem in summer, because the windows were always open. Now that the weather has changed, the draft is, how would you say it ... noticeable.

My irreparably warped windows do not close all the way. This was not a problem in summer, because the windows were always open. Now that the weather has changed, the draft is, how would you say it ... noticeable.

This morning, with the temperatures so low, it is once again raining in my house. The warm, moist earth seems surprised at the sudden cold and leaks its condensation over every possible leaf and blade of grass. My tin roof acts like a greenhouse in the morning sunlight and thousands of small droplets of dew trickle down my walls. In a way it is beautiful, so long as I am properly bundled and tucked away in some dry corner of my house (hard to come by when you are living in a brick box that measures 10 feet by 15 feet). It is crazy to think that just 2 months ago, I felt as if the heat might kill me. I can’t say which extreme I like more, but give me a few more months of the cold and I will be sure to let you know.  —Mario Machado


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April 4th, 2012
My Roof Leaks—Still

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80 It’s raining inside my little brick hovel. Two days ago, the biggest storm I have yet experienced in Paraguay charged across the rolling hills during the course of a long day and an even longer night. My tin roof, which I had previously attempted to fix several times, leaked like a sieve. This inevitably led to what I imagine would have been a comical scene to any onlookers: a wildly cursing, laughing Peace Corps volunteer running his bed and furniture between the house and a covered patio in response to the arbitrary leakage patterns, which seemed to change as frequently as the strong winds. By the end of the storm, my house had been turned inside out.

By 9 or so in the evening, I realized I hadn’t eaten all day. During the confusion of the storm and my frantic attempts to stay dry, the water lines had been shut off. This meant that I was without both drinking water (meaning without coffee as well—possibly the greatest crisis of all) and a means to wash food or dishes. That night was cold and wet, but certainly one I will not forget. These are the kinds of experiences that one gets in the Peace Corps.

The weather took a splendid turn yesterday, however, as the Antarctic winds have begun their surge northwards, heralding fall (and eventually winter) here in the southern hemisphere. The sun broke through yesterday around noon, giving way to what I could only compare to perfect autumn weather in the northeastern United States. The only things missing were leaves changing colors and apple cider. It was a perfect day—not too hot, not too cold; just right. The ample midday sunshine dried all my clothes and sheets. Last night I slept snug as a bug.  —Mario Machado

This is a picture of my house with its wonderful (and leaky) tin roof, called “chapas” in Paraguay.

This is a picture of my house with its wonderful (and leaky) tin roof, called “chapas” in Paraguay.

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March 30th, 2012
A Paraguayan Perspective on Pork

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80I woke up this morning to what might possibly be the most hellish sound on the planet: that of a pig being slaughtered. The death of a pig is of no more or less consequence than that of any other animal, but the drama of hearing a pig scream and squeal its last living breath away weighs heavy on the heart. Pigs don’t die quietly, that is for sure. At least I know that I won’t be eating any more pork when I get home to the States.

This is life in the country, though—your food is walking around one day, eating scraps from the table and rummaging through your garden, and is served up for dinner the next. It is quite a strange experience to eat an animal’s meat on the same day I have seen it living and breathing. Sometimes it is easy to remove yourself from the equation, but a wake-up call at six in the morning in the form of a weeping and wailing pig does help to keep it all in perspective.  —Mario Machado

My neighbors recently bought these two piglets to raise. They will be slaughtered and eaten sometime next year, probably for a holiday or other special occasion—a common practice in Paraguay.

My neighbors recently bought these two piglets to raise. They will be slaughtered and eaten sometime next year, probably for a holiday or other special occasion—a common practice in Paraguay.

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March 23rd, 2012
Acculturation (a.k.a. cross-cultural exhaustion)

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80 I have been living in Paraguay for almost 6 months now. I no longer question things that I would have questioned when I first arrived—perhaps because it is exhausting to try to rationalize or challenge everything in this foreign culture on a daily basis.

One way I find this to be most concretely manifested is with regards to food. For example, food safety and sanitation are almost unheard of in this country. Refrigeration is too expensive for many people. For the few that do own a fridge, they are lucky if their food stays cooler than lukewarm—unacceptable by the food standards of the United States.

People cook with reused oil, using pots and pans that are blackened from years over an open fire, unwashed utensils, and cutting boards that are warped and moldy. Food is left out all day, vegetables become soggy and wrinkled, and meat is strung up to dry in the open—easy prey for flies and the like. Cheese is placed on the table to “age,” as Paraguayans claim; others might say “mold.”

Despite all of this, I have yet to get sick in this country. Either my body has acclimated to the myriad bugs I have been ingesting or I arrived in this country with a much stronger immune system than I thought.

It is hard to say what comes first, the mental or the physical acclimation to a new place and a new culture. Either way, the act of acceptance is something special. Brief doses of a new culture only serve to provide the traveler with a sense of novelty, never forcing one to delve any deeper than surface. On the other hand, the experience of living in a place for an extended period helps to cut back on the idealism and instills instead a dose of realism. Immersion in a culture brings a greater depth of understanding. One must eat the food, no matter what sanitation standards it may seem to violate. One must learn the language, no matter how useless it may seem in any other context (Guaraní certainly applies to this category—it is spoken nowhere else in the world but Paraguay). One must dress the dress, walk the walk, and do as his new countrymen do. One must reach the point where he is no longer living among foreigners but among friends and neighbors. I am still in the long process of seeking the latter.  —Mario Machado

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March 12th, 2012
English Lessons

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80by Mario Machado—The weather has finally started to turn. Instead of the blistering heat of summer, reaching well over 100°F daily, fall weather has gradually taken over; it is pushed north from the Argentine border by the almost constant cool autumn breeze. Temperatures still top out in the upper 90s, but compared to the summer months, this feels like air conditioning. The mornings in particular are spectacular. The air is moist and dense, the dew finally able to collect on the grass before it is mercilessly evaporated again. Rain has become a more frequent and welcomed guest. Some of the recent large storms have ripped up large trees and broken tile and thatch roofs. Still, the water is needed if this season’s crops are going to yield anything significant.

Following a big rain, the roads are impassable for 2 to 3 days—markets are inaccessible, food is undeliverable—but this suits the pace of rural life. Most farmers in my community have begun harvesting their tobacco and have loads ready to run as soon as the road-obstructing ponds and marshes dry up. The infrastructure to work around the weather doesn’t exist here. People don’t try to fight it, they just adapt their lives to work with it. I keep wondering whether the tranquilo way of Paraguayan life (i.e., laid back, slow moving, always late, etc.) is an inherent aspect of this culture or a response to the fact that the terminal velocity of anything is determined by so many unpredictable, insurmountable factors.

This past week, I began one of several projects in my community of Guido Almada. Unbeknownst to me at the time, when I visited the school building to observe a class last Wednesday, I was actually walking into my first teaching experience in Paraguay. The teacher, who introduced me briefly and explained what I was going to be doing in the community, promptly turned the class over to me and left the room to drink tea with some other professors before I had time to protest. Therefore, I taught an hour-long class in basic English on the fly. The students, at least, seemed interested and eager to learn. To be honest, however, it might have been the novelty of having an American in their community that sparked the students’ curiosity. I can’t begin to believe that my teaching was even remotely that engaging (or useful, for that matter).

Tomorrow I begin with physics and chemistry classes, which should prove interesting indeed. I am excited to be working more, to be doing more projects, but of course, this is not without its own set of questions and doubts. How applicable will basic chemistry and physics lessons be to students who (in all likelihood) will never leave their community, let alone be put in a situation in which this knowledge is useful? There is always the thought that at least it should bring about awareness, opening their minds to thinking about the world in a different way. Still, I am not sure how I feel about this whole endeavor. As they say in Guaraní, jahechata (or “we shall see”). —Mario Machado


Mario Machado is a Peace Corps volunteer serving as an agricultural educator in the rural Paraguayan community of Guido Almada. The Allentown, Pennsylvania, native and 2011 Penn State graduate spent the summer of 2011 volunteering at the Rodale Institute and the Organic Gardening test garden.

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