by 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,
by 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.
by Mario Machado—
Last week, the long-awaited news was finally released to our group of anxious Peace Corps trainees. On Wednesday, we were assigned our future sites, the places in which we will be living and working for the next 2 years. Over the weekend, 34 trainees dispersed across Paraguay for our first encounters with communities that range in character from dense, semi-urban barrios to remote farming villages. My site is one of the latter.
The road to Guido Almada is not short and is certainly not easy. The initial bus ride from Asunción goes east for about 150 kilometers to Coronel Oviedo before turning north for another 50 kilometers to the small city of Carajao. The intersection with the 30-kilometer dirt road that leads to Cleto Romero (and, eventually, Guido Almada) is unmarked and almost undistinguishable, unless you know what you are looking for. Once in Carajao, one must hitch a ride on the once-daily bus, a taxi passing by chance, or one of the ubiquitous ox-drawn carts that regularly make the excursion to market. The dirt road quickly becomes mud at even the thought of rain and is utterly impassable for days following the stronger storms.
I arrived in Guido Almada last weekend with a packet of information on potential projects, community contacts, and a general orientation to the region. Quickly, however, and as I have come to expect in this country, all plans and preconceptions were soon obsolete as the conditions on the ground curiously toppled along in a rhythm all their own. The family with which I was to live for my first several months in site suffered a terrible loss the night of my arrival: The matriarch of the family, suddenly sick, passed away shortly after dark. In such isolated areas with the conditions of life being as harsh as they typically are, sickness and death seem to take on a much different and almost routine character.
The community itself, despite its geographic isolation, is surprisingly well connected and organized. Guido Almada and the surrounding communities have a strong history of resisting oppression and fighting for rights as a result of Paraguay’s 35-year Stroessner dictatorship, which ended in 1989. The farmers’ committees have established a strong leadership and actively express a desire to diversify to more sustainable methods. While agriculture provides a large part of family subsistence in Guido Almada, the community members are extremely interested in converting to organic farming methods (in both home gardens and possibly in some larger agricultural plots). My job over the next 2 years—along with teaching English classes, helping in the schools, and providing any and every amount of technical assistance that I can—will be to help promote and instill organic farming methods in the community.
This desire to convert to organic techniques is far from the norm here in Paraguay, where many people survive on what they can manage to grow and trade for. The fact that I have found myself in such a situation, with a community that sees the benefits and need for sustainability so clearly, is truly amazing. I am just beginning to realize how big my task will be in the next 2 years. I am also realizing what a lucky accident it was that found me working in the Rodale Institute’s organic vegetable gardens last summer. Who could have known how these things would work out? Thanks to all my friends at the Rodale farm and office; I really owe you a big one.
On the edge of my Paraguayan seat,
by Mario Machado—
Textbooks have been written on the topic of culture shock, its various manifestations and its particular trajectories. But there is no prescription for how any one person may experience this phenomenon. For me, culture shock has so far existed as a nebulous notion somehow grinding its gears in the recesses of my mind. Perhaps I am being short-sighted and a bit naive, but it seems to me that the trauma of living in a new culture is really just a product of one’s attitude. It’s amazing the things you can acclimate to, given the necessary time and space.
Moving to Paraguay to begin my Peace Corps service was an initial shock that dramatically altered my life in many immediate ways. I began speaking Spanish and Guaraní daily instead of English; I moved in with a Paraguayan host family; I lost most communication with my family and friends; and I was surrounded by things that were new to me. Still, the excitement of being away from my home in the United States—from being pushed out of my comfort zone and into the adventure zone—was thrilling. For about a week, the blog words flowed like water and I could barely contain my thoughts. Each meal was new, carb-rich, fried, and delicious. The language was a challenge that I rose to meet with debatable success. My host family soon became like close friends.
Soon, however, the novelty of it all began to wear off. I became riddled with writers block. I craved veggies and greens as opposed to mandioc and fried dough. I could barely organize thoughts in one language, let alone transition between three on a daily and almost inter-conversational basis. My host family remained warm and wonderful, but as one would expect, had lives to lead and went about doing so.
And yet, while the stresses of acculturation come in waves, the overall trend is toward positive adaptation. Sure, I am living with a family below the poverty line, out of contact with things that are comfortable and familiar. Yes, I am eating foods like mondongo (cow’s stomach), kidney, giant lizard, horse, and incredibly huge amounts of mandioc almost every week. Absolutely, my brain simply shuts off at times, leaving me without any words at all. And certainly, I shower from a bucket and use a hole in the ground as my toilet.
While all of these things are different and strange, taking time to get used to, none of them make life in Paraguay unbearable. In fact, they make life in Paraguay infinitely more real and more colorful. It hasn’t taken long to embrace the crazy foods; I have learned to eat first and ask questions later. The seeming difficulty of cultural differences is overshadowed by the fact that as you live in a place long enough, eventually that place begins to feel like home. I have been here for only a month and a half, and it simultaneously seems like forever and no time at all. Over the next two years, despite the changes and challenges that I will undoubtedly continue to face, Paraguay will only become more and more like my home.
Until next time,
by Mario Machado—
Yesterday I wrote about a fish soup served by my Paraguayan host family, and today I’ll continue on that theme. Disclaimer: This meal is not for the weak of heart. When the meal begins, the situation resembles more or less a familial version of culinary anarchy. Utensils lurch forward, every man for himself, grasping at chunks of fish and mouthfuls of broth. Each bite brings the inevitable crunch of bones, which must then be “fished” out of one’s mouth and tossed to the ground. The family dogs dodge expertly between legs and under the table; for animals that don’t get fed often, fish soup is the best meal of the week.
Inevitably, when the level of broth has dropped disproportionately to the level of piled fillets, family members reach for full sides of the fish and eat them by hand. My host father then does something that will never cease to amaze me. Somewhere in the mix and mash of fish anatomy, he locates the first fish head. Removing it from the bowl with his favorite ladle (which he prefers over a small spoon on fish soup nights), he begins to literally suck the face off of the underlying fish facial bone. Nothing is spared—lips, brains, eyes—everything is sucked dry in less than a minute. When he is finished, a stark white fish skull is left resting in his hand. The dogs never flock to my host father—he doesn’t waste a thing, not a single slice of flesh. He tosses the skull, the ultimate trophy of his fishing and consumptive prowess, and continues the wildness that is fish soup. Viva Paraguay.
I have tried eating a fish face and I must say, it is much more difficult than it looks. One must carefully navigate the small bone structure and strip away small pieces of flesh from around the eyes and mouth. When it comes to internals such as brains, sucking usually works best. As for lips, they are easy to figure out, for one only need give the fish a light kiss and breathe deeply and the entire front of the face slides right off the bone. The eyes, oh the eyes, I have never quite been able to get my head around—it might take a little more time to work up to those. From what I hear, the eyes are quite salty and taste wonderful with a slice of Paraguayan cheese. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
Fish soup represents the best of Paraguay. Although they live in one of the poorest countries in South America (in front of only Bolivia), Paraguayans have risen to the occasion and created a culture that embraces challenges and remains perpetually tranquilo. The nation itself has gone through drastic changes throughout history—losing 90 percent of its male population in the Triple Alliance war, suffering under 30 years of the Stroessner dictatorship, and, currently, finding its way with a fledgling and often faltering democracy—but this has not dampened the Paraguayan spirit. Despite everything, fish soup brings families together to eat and laugh after long days of work and following brief games of soccer, played in haste before the sun sets over the palm trees. No matter what the future might have in store for this beautiful country, there will always be fish soup and everything else uniquely Paraguayan on which to rely.
Feeling well fed today,