by 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
by Mario Machado—The life of a Peace Corps volunteer is strange and, at times, seems like a completely maddening existence. As an outsider living for 2 years in a foreign village halfway across the world, one is never quite here nor there, never regarded completely as a professional but never quite as a neighbor either. Here in Paraguay, I occupy an awkward realm that feels a lot like being a stranger in one’s own home. My job as a volunteer is quite varied and undefined. I must simultaneously integrate into the community, facilitate developmental projects, and carry out daily necessities of survival—three tasks that constantly blur and transcend typical social lines. So when it comes to actually carrying out a project, the challenge usually has less to do with the technical aspects and more with the myriad social elements and barriers that must be navigated.
As I am initiated into this crazy world with the start of my first projects, the tenuousness of the line I must walk becomes clearer. The director of the local school approached me last week, asking if I had any experience with chemistry and physics. I said that I did, having studied both topics in college for several years. He was delighted and informed me that although chemistry and physics are a required part of the Paraguayan school curriculum, the local school lacks science textbooks and teachers. I was initially delighted by his proposal that I teach the two subjects, eager to get working in the community, but it seems the task is perhaps much larger than I had expected.
The school building, a simple brick building composed of three classrooms with broken windows and crumbing walls, resides directly in front of my house. The school children, who currently knock on my door and steal from my garden or porch at all hours of the day, certainly don’t see me as their teacher any more than they see me as their neighbor. I am just the strange norteamericano (North American) living in their midst with my fancy bicycle and strange foods and tendencies. It will be a task within itself to get them to take me seriously, let alone to learn a subject that most of them will likely never use again once they become rural farmers or the wives of farmers.
Along with teaching in the schools, I have also been propositioned by the local farmers’ committee to start an organic permaculture garden in the community. Again, excited at this opportunity, I immediately offered my technical assistance with the project. The members of the committee, who stopped just short of laughing, informed me that they were already well versed in matters of organic farming and simply needed my connections to procure the necessary funds to front the capital for this project. I tried to explain that my organization was Peace Corps, not Money Corps, but that sort of thing just doesn’t fly with people who are used to working with non-governmental or governmental groups that show up with promises and fail to deliver. Trust extends only so far in these situations, and I am still trying to earn mine with this community.
These issues can’t be beaten by fancy tricks or the right set of tools; the only cure for overcoming these obstacles is time. I am uniquely positioned to become involved in this community in a manner that other organizations cannot. By mingling and mixing in the mess of it all, I should (in theory) come out with a better and more practical understanding of this context. At least that is what I keep telling myself. —Mario Machado
by Mario Machado—
Summer gardens here in Paraguay face a unique set of challenges. For one, the heat in this country is oppressive and, at times, completely unbearable. People have trouble enough staying hydrated and cool; plants are another business all together. While there are summer garden crops that work well even in this climate, they usually require attentive watering and a half-shade structure (called mediasombra in Spanish) if they are to survive, let alone produce fruit. Far out in the countryside, where life is hard and the days are already packed with work, it is common for farming families to allow their gardens to revert to patches of weeds over the summer.
Unfortunately, such practices do not help in promoting household productivity, nutrition, or diversification—my mission as a Peace Corps volunteer. Here in the Southern Hemisphere, where seasons are reversed from those in the United States, summer runs from December through February. During those months, family diets are limited to foods they can purchase and not what they can produce. Additionally, allowing a garden to lie fallow for several months requires no labor input, but makes for several strenuous days of work before the garden can be planted again in the fall. Promoting summer gardens, or at least the productive use of garden space in the summer months, can do wonders for helping families in many aspects of their lives. And so, with these things in mind, I have started working on my own garden in the dead-hot days of midsummer in hopes of providing community members here in Guido Almada a few ideas or alternatives.
I have begun by starting a compost pile, an easy practice here in the countryside where food scraps, dry organic material, and cow droppings are all too common (sometimes regrettably so—especially in the middle of a soccer field). In the several weeks to months that this little pile of goodness is getting ready for use with my fall vegetables, I have decided to take the garden space and begin a little soil recuperation. Soils here in Paraguay range from very rich and hearty, to very sandy and dry; where I happen to live, it is a little of both. Considering as well that the space I am using has already been used as a garden, I thought that a nice infusion of organic material and nitrogen into the soil were in order.
The raised-bed structures in my garden (called tablones in Spanish) help in retaining water and providing space for root growth. I have double-dug each of the five raised beds, a technique that breaks up dirt a foot or more deep in the soil. In this practice, organic material can be mixed in to buff up the topsoil. I have also dug a trench around the perimeter of the garden to encourage water to soak into the ground instead of running off. The idea behind such a trench is based on the principles of permaculture and the aims of creating a more sustainable and complete gardening system.
Surrounding the garden, I have planted a living fence of kumanda yvyra’i (literally translating from Guaraní as “little bean tree”), a leguminous tree that will reach a few meters high. These will grow fast, add nitrogen to the soil, provide light shade to future plants, and produce beans that can be consumed by humans and animals alike. Also, I have planted on each tablón a cover crop of Canavalia, another nitrogen-fixing plant in the legume family. Unfortunately, I seem to have received bad seed as none has germinated, but one can never be sure that it’s not simply the heat and sun that are preventing proper growth. For now, things are going as smoothly as one might expect in a developing country. As always, I am keeping my fingers crossed for some rain.
by Mario Machado—
I awoke at the earliest of dawn, the hours of the morning that are still indistinguishable from the night except for the flickering of sunlight over a very distant horizon. I left my house and mounted my bike, clipping along the dirt road with my stiff, unwashed hair folding and flipping in the surprisingly cool morning air. As I reached the home of Don Ramón, the town butcher or carnicero, he appeared at the front his wooden hovel. [Editor’s note: “Don” is a title of respect used with a man’s first name; the equivalent for women is “Doña.”] His feet bare on the dirt floor, he smiled and remarked how happy he was that I decided to come.
The act of butchering a cow is a process not to be taken lightly or quickly. We began the morning by sipping maté and observing our quarry tied to a tree off in the shadows. He told me about this particular cow and why he decided to purchase it for slaughter. It was a smaller milk cow, about 3 years old, that had not shown any signs of producing milk or young. It had had a nice life wandering the Paraguayan campo, grazing on the thick and abundant vegetation. Now, that which had been fed will feed, and the Don placed his empty cup of maté on the table and disappeared into the house.
Two other men arrived to help us with the process. We approached our prey, Don Ramón standing in the background silently sharpening his knife. One man lassoed a leg, while the other grabbed for the tail. He jerked the tail and spun around the cow’s side, catching the animal off balance and pulling it to the ground. With the cow now on its side, the other man continued to tie up all four legs to the effect that the animal was quickly unable to move. We held the ropes to steady the struggling cow as Don Ramón moved in quickly with a bucket in hand to catch the blood. He was going to cut its throat.
Using a small machete and infinite poise, he leveled the blade to the cow’s neck, located the jugular vein, and plunged through the skin. The cow gave an initial cry of pain and surprise and began to breathe heavily, blowing dust from the front of its nose. It was a lost cause, however, as the blood from the wound flowed freely with a color that I cannot forget in its brilliance of red.
The animal gave one, maybe two other strong efforts of escape before surrendering to the inevitability. Its breathing became more steady as the loss of blood, I am sure, inhibited any more mental function. Its head moved around a bit on the dirt ground, almost as if finding a more comfortable spot upon which to lie. The animal, which moments before was living and breathing, was dead within 3 minutes. The Don made one final cut to the spinal column to rid the animal of any more pain and to ensure its death. The butchering could then begin.
The rest of this process took only an hour or so. As the neighbors began to arrive, the meat was sold as it was cut from the bone. The entire animal was almost gone by 9 a.m. Each and every part of the animal was used (except for the contents of its stomach). The meat was most expensive and sold in small quantities. The intestines and blood were saved for making blood sausage, while the stomach (being the cheapest part of the animal) was used to make mondongo. The head was bought by a family in order to make akágue yvygu’û, a popular Paraguayan dish prepared by wrapping the head in foil and cooking it on coals under a thin layer of dirt. On this day, the entire community, the dogs included (which rarely get a decent meal), got a much-needed dose of protein.
The farmer who lost his wife just 2 months earlier stood before me in his tan slacks and open blue shirt. His disheveled cowboy hat was cocked back on his brow. He squinted in the sunlight as he explained that here in this quiet, windswept cemetery lay his wife, her name carved into a small cross at the head of her tomb.
He hadn’t shaved in a few days and I thought could sense sadness in his words although, if this was true, he did little else to betray his feelings. Paraguayan men don’t really cry, or at least that’s what they say. Maybe it’s the machismo—or maybe it has more to do with the nature of death as it manifests itself among Paraguayan people. In this culture, dying is a process that continues long after one’s heart stops beating.
If one visits a Paraguayan cemetery, several features stand out immediately. The rows of tombs are wide and long, more like streets than aisles. And, seemingly as a way to solidify this similarity, Paraguayans will sometimes label the rows with street names written on street signs—at least in the larger cemeteries. The tombs (called pantheones by Paraguayans) are much more than just carved headstones laid in the ground. Each tomb resembles an aboveground altar. For the poorer families, this is often little more than a small brick or wooden structure, possibly even a dirt mound, adorned with a casita (“little house” in English) at its head. In the months following a death—usually on the one-month, two-month, or three-month anniversary—the family will revisit the pantheon to decorate with colored tiles, flowers (in the case of this farmer, small flowers placed in makeshift pots made from recycled soda bottles), trinkets, or other small items.
For the wealthier families, or at least those with more to invest (financially or emotionally) in such an endeavor, the pantheon can assume great prominence. Socioeconomics, it seems, plays out even in the afterlife. Some pantheones resemble mausoleums, rivaling both in size and structural integrity the very houses in which many Paraguayans live. While most rural homes are made of mud bricks or wood slats, the cemeteries are often mistakable for communities themselves with towering concrete rooms dedicated to dead family members. The priorities between the living and the dead are skewed in a way that differs largely from other cultures I have experienced and particularly from U.S. culture. This may relate to the religious tendencies of these people, as this country is predominantly Catholic. It may also have something to do with the connections of many Paraguayan people to indigenous practices or histories.
Regardless, it reflects an amazing reverence that people in this culture hold for death—the allocation of resources (especially in a country with a large portion of the population living in poverty), the regard in which people dedicate time and energy toward post-death rituals (for months and years, even decades following), and the way that all of this falls in stride with the daily lives of most Paraguayans. The anniversary of one’s death and birth are observed during weeklong events for the first few years following his or her passing. Then, for the next several decades, smaller but still significant observances are continually held to commemorate these important dates. The dead do not die—at least not until their living memory is lost with the passing of the next few generations.
The north wind is blowing hard through the palm trees when we finish working. It is late morning and the sun is now playing kaleidoscope between the branches and through the grasses of this tropical landscape. It is going to rain tomorrow, the farmer tells me. His wife’s tomb looks only slightly better than it did an hour before—the weeds have been cleared, a fresh layer of concrete added to the exterior. He wants to add tiles to the outside; he thinks that blue would look nice. We leave the cemetery and the mood is not solemn or melancholy. There is more work to be done. The fields must be hoed, the crops harvested, the beans dried, and the garden tended. And so our day continues, only an hour later than it would have otherwise, and with my head pondering the matter-of-fact nature in which we visited death for the morning.