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December 20th, 2011

The Tropical, Concrete Jungle

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80by Mario Machado
Asunción is a city like no other. Its setting, nestled in a sharp bend of the Rio Paraguay, provides both access and isolation for its residents. The city is not far removed from the seemingly infinite Paraguayan countryside (called in Spanish the campo). Daily, thousands upon thousands of merchants make the pilgrimage to the sprawling marketplaces, such as Mercado Cuatro (Market No. 4) and Mercado Abasto. Here, shops are thrown up in shantytown manner—leftover and pilfered materials are hastily fastened to other shacks, buildings, electrical lines, or anything else that might seem to offer support (irrespective of however false an assumption this may be).

The merchants peddle their wares, ranging from secondhand electronics to herbs to clothes and even animals (advertised as mascotas or pets, but in reality just wild birds, snakes, and lizards that have been caught and thrown irreverently into cages). There is nothing that one can’t find in Asunción’s markets, except for maybe a non-pushy salesman. These places are infamous for vendors that aggressively pursue all potential customers, often with words that get stronger and more profane the farther a shopper wanders, and occasionally resorting to physical means to capture shoppers’ attention. Best advice: Walk tall and confidently, avoid eye contact, and don’t even feign interest unless you really, really mean it.

Other than the few islands of modern, Americanized shopping malls and the ever-expanding business district, the rest of the city seems to occupy a time mash. Caught somewhere among the ornate Spanish Colonial architecture of the older buildings, the crumbling infrastructure dating to the Stroessner dictatorship of the mid-20th century, and the resourcefulness that has crept to life in its stead, Asunción certainly feels different. The entire socioeconomic spectrum can be viewed within one city block. Mercedes-Benzes drive side-by-side on the main roads with horse-drawn carts and other haphazardly re-assembled vehicles that look like the Frankenstein monsters of the automotive world.

One thing is for sure: In Asunción, if you can make it work, then “it lives!” There are few regulations in place and even fewer that are enforced. Many intersections are left without street signs or even lights. Far from anarchy, however, the order of this city is maintained by the culture, by the people who follow basic principles regardless. Paraguay is perpetually a tranquilo country where freedom itself has assumed a unique non-Western form. While police carrying assault rifles and shotguns patrol most every corner (most are on private salaries as a deterrent for violent crimes and bank robberies), this is not what keeps the peace. Asunción is a comparatively safe city and, despite a reputation for police corruption, order is maintained in a very tangible way.

From Paraguay, still,
Mario


Mario Machado is currently studying in Asunción, Paraguay, prior to serving for two years as an agricultural educator with the Peace Corps. 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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December 15th, 2011

We cannot protect what we do not love

Painting the way to plant conservation.
by Alex Norelli

alex-StudentsPainting
There are many ways to conserve knowledge in the face of environmental destruction and change. As healthcare in developing countries moves away from traditional methods, the plants that make up most treatments are at risk of losing the significance that has protected them and their habitat for ages. For one American watercolorist and a club of school kids in Kenya, a solution lies in painting. “The act of observing and responding brings one into the world,” says Deborah Ross, the founder of Olcani, a water-coloring club at an elementary school in Kenya.

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“By focusing the children on painting plants and connecting the images with the plants’ medicinal functions, the project was able to showcase and give value to the community’s traditional knowledge.” The name of this group, Olcani is the Masaai word for both plant and, coincidentally, medicine, a fact that reveals the deep-seated value of medicinal plants to their culture.

The genesis of the project began more than two decades ago when Deborah was illustrating a book on Baboon behavior for the Usao Ngiro Baboon project in Kenya. “The local people were generous with their knowledge of the region’s ecology,” says Ross. “The idea for the project came to me as a way of giving back to the community and in 2008 the painting club came into being.” The club that Ross founded at the II Polei Primary School brought watercolor painting to Masai students’ fingertips. While beadwork and Ochre body painting are common in their culture, painting on paper is an imported art form. “The children who participated in the project had never painted before,” said Ross. “I did however view images of animals and hunters in the cave in the area.”

At first the kids chose plants growing around their school to paint, but they soon started bringing cuttings from their walks to school. And then there were guided trips by the community’s herbalist to identify, paint, and learn the uses of a colorful array of plants in their area. “They were particularly attracted to the bright colors of the tiny flowers that covered the semi arid landscape after the rains,” said Ross.

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The over-exploitation of trees, the over-grazing of cattle, and sand harvesting all threatened the ecology of Kenya, but Deborah also asserts there are underlying causes, such as a lack of alternative means of revenue, lack of education and occupational training, as well as poverty. “In addition to land protection, the future of conservation in Kenya depends on improving the standard of living and economic opportunities for people in the region, creating economic incentives for conservation, and raising awareness and pride for the region’s unique natural and cultural heritage,” said Ross. “The need for conservation, conservation education, and local empowerment in Kenya is extreme. Olcani is a vehicle”

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Deborah’s own work is an example of art’s place in the conservation of nature. Her great appreciation of plants and animals comes from decades of closely observing wildlife in their natural habitats, even leaning from plants how to paint animals better.

“The animals were always on the move, and out of frustration, I started looking for less mobile subjects to learn the craft,” said Ross. “Numerous little flowering plants appeared after the rains and I soon became engrossed in painting them. I was able to concentrate in a much more leisurely manner on color and form. This process honed my skills and enabled me to turn back to the animals with greater focus and precision.” However her great attention to the flora and fauna did have consequences. “Unfortunately while I lingered with the flowers,” said Ross. “I often lost my study troop and was left to wander alone for the rest of the day.”

Working in a technique derived from Oriental painting, with “broad sweeps of color” laid down to be followed with “a fine and telling detail—the arch of a wrist or the angle of brow line,” Ross prefers working directly from life to “portray the essence of a subject distilled during the moments of observation.”

“Once the moment is past, I stop.” says Ross.

“Once the moment is past, I stop.” says Ross.

As for the future, this upcoming summer Deborah will be teaching several water coloring programs in Madagascar funded by the Lemur Conservation Foundation. Her goal will be to teach water coloring to Malagasy artists on the island as a vocational skill for natural history illustration. As for Olcani, Deborah hopes that it will become a permanent part of the curriculum throughout Kenya with Kenyan teachers running the program. She hopes the project will continue to be a vehicle of environmental conservation through art, particularly in our time when computers seem to distance us from nature instead of bringing us closer to it. The unforeseen consequences of this may be that we forgo the experiences that make nature valuable to us, and make us care enough to want to conserve it. “In the long term biodiversity will suffer,” says Ross. “We cannot protect what we do not love.”

In the near future you will be able to see project updates at Olcani.com

All images courtesy of Deborah Ross.

You can see more of her work at www.DeborahRossArt.com and if you would like to purchase one of the Olcani booklets ($15, shipping included) you can contact her at tokounou@mindspring.com


ARtist, poet, Gardener www.AlexNorelliARt.com

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December 2nd, 2011

It’s the Heat

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80by Mario Machado
The days are passing, but just. I woke up again last night drenched in my own sweat. One hundred and ten degrees during the day makes the 90 degrees at night feel like an air conditioner. Still, my body doesn’t quite agree with this heat. The local Paraguayans say that it’s the sun in this part of the world that really gets to you. In reality, it’s not just the sun, but the stifling lack of wind, the latent heat trapped in the thick tropical forests, the fact the running water shuts off at random, and that, with houses so small, most of one’s life must be spent outside anyway.

Nobody works in the fields during the hottest parts of the day; to do so would be virtual suicide. Siestas get longer during the summer (Paraguay is in the southern hemisphere, so the seasons are switched). Tereré, the national beverage and cold version of Argentina’s yerba mate, is consumed around the clock. People are smart—they stay hydrated, stay out of the sun, and wake up at 4 a.m. to finish tending their crops before the sun hits its peak.

In this country, tomatoes are often scorched by the sun. As a boy coming from eastern Pennsylvania, the notion of tomatoes getting too hot seems almost silly to me, however, in Paraguay anything and everything can burn. Winter squashes, watermelons, and melones (halfway between honeydew and cantaloupe) all have the benefit of beautifully broad leaves to shield them from the intensity of the midday heat. Tomatoes, sweet peppers, cabbages, and other vegetables require artificial shade structures (in Spanish called a media sombra or half shade) to survive the critical months of December and January.

Crops suffer from the heat almost as much as people do. When rain is needed, when the heat becomes intolerable, when the will of the land and the fields and the farmers seems to ache for salvation, the Guaraní phrase okyse (which translates directly as “it wants to rain”) is often muttered, half as an observation and half as a sort of invocation. And while hot days can string together repetitiously, the rain eventually comes, usually sweeping across the gently undulating hills in an instant. No sooner can those dark clouds be spotted on the horizon than golf ball-sized droplets are cascading from a terribly flustered-looking sky.

As the storm passes, as the heat is broken, the infamous viento sur (southern wind) comes charging up from the Argentine border. The following days are cooler, calmer. The plants can once again fill their veins and straighten their spines. The farmers return to their fields. The weight of anticipation has been lifted, and the land can release its humid sigh of relief. The nights, now bearable, feel a little more like home. But this isn’t home to me—not yet, at least. To me this is still Paraguay and I am still trying to set my rhythm to the pulse of this strange, new place.

From Paraguay,
Mario


Mario Machado is currently studying in Asunción, Paraguay, prior to serving for two years as an agricultural educator with the Peace Corps. 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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