Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Passing 3rd Grade

Last week I found out that my host brother passed third grade! I am still beaming from ear to ear for him. While passing the third grade might seem to be an easy feat, for Gustavo it has been an accomplishment three years in the making, because this past year was the third time that he repeated the grade. Not only is Gustavo 10 years old and just finishing 3rd grade, but his 9 year old brother surpassed him and this year completed fourth grade.

Gustavo passing third grade was tangible evidence that my time in Paraguay has made a difference. Last fall when I learned that Gustavo was going to be repeating third grade again I started to worry that he would ever be able to move forward in his studies. I saw him eventually not finishing school because it would become too frustrating and the demand to start work and make money for his family would become more important, leaving him illiterate. I took it upon myself the task of helping him pass.

I brought books to his house and started to read with him almost every week. It was challenging at first. I started to realize that perhaps the reason that Gustavo couldn’t read is because he has dyslexia. I asked fellow volunteers that have dyslexia tips for teaching him to read. It was not only the teaching I did, but also the access to books. Reading became something fun that Gustavo and I got to do together. A couple of months into the school year Gustavo started to tell me that his teacher was noticing the difference in his reading level, and a couple of more months later he told me that he read the bible at the community mass, something a few months earlier he refused to do.

It’s hard to say that my reading with Gustavo is the reason that he passed, but I would like to say that it played a part. As Peace Corps volunteers we constantly question whether our efforts make a difference and we don’t often get to see results. I know that I made a difference in at least one life in Paraguay. Gustavo will enter the 4th grade next year and I helped him get there.


Saturday, July 21, 2012

Learning to Mourn in Paraguay

During my time here in Paraguay I have been to countless rezos. For me it’s not so much a spiritual experience, praying a rosary is not how I choose to connect with my maker, as it is a way to socialize in the community. The majority of these rezos commemorate the 6 month and annual anniversary of loved ones who have passed and to pray for their soul. But going to so many rezos has raised my awareness to the differences of how cultures understand and grieve death. When my host grandmother passed suddenly in May I got a unique inside perspective of the mourning customs that added to my understanding of cultural differences here. While I have been to a few Paraguayan funerals, none were as intimate or dear to me as Ña Elida and because of my relationship to the family I was welcomed into the mourning process as another daughter or granddaughter. But being a foreigner I also naturally express my grief differently and I began to compare and contrast the two cultures as I mourned and observed. I have not had a family member close to me pass during my adult life, so I don’t have a great breadth of experience to compare it to, nor does one death in Paraguay characterize all cultural norms.
Of course in all cultures death and the afterlife are a mystery that we will never fully understand until we experience it. Ña Elida’s life was cut short by an infarto cerebral, or literally a brain attack (instead of a heart attack). In past Paraguayan funerals I am very shaken up by the wailing that occurs, often to the point of fainting, and the suddenness of Ña Elida’s death only intensified the wailing. In the states, while there is sadness and emotion is displayed, what I have observed is often loved ones fighting tears back in public, or quietly weeping. No matter the age or suddenness of death this wailing occurs. When one of her daughters arrived from Argentina and spoke more Spanish I was able to catch the types of comments that are said during the wailing. She was especially expressive and upset and what she said was: “Fatima, tell me this is not my mama and that she is coming later. Where is my mama?” “My mama is not in heaven because heaven doesn’t exist because it wouldn’t allow this to happen to her.” She was in complete denial and upset that her mother had been taken from her. Although, while the physical signs of grief are more accentuated in Paraguay (wailing, fainting, etc.) after the final rezo on the ninth day life moves on with little acknowledgement that a person is grieving. In the states we realize that a person has lost someone they love and will continue to “check-in” and see how they are doing long after the burial.
The time between when a person dies until they are buried is a lot shorter than in the states. Mostly I think it is because Paraguayans don’t preserve the body and it is necessary to bury it before it decomposes too much. Until the burial it is said that someone must be up with body every hour and it can never be left alone. This time is called el velorio, and is probably similar to a wake. During Ña Elida’s velorio I became very aware of the customs. While even though the family is grieving, they are still expected to play host and offer refreshments to the multitudes of people that show up in their house. When a guest arrives they approach the family members and will say me pesame, or literally translated “it grieves me.” When I realized that this is what they were saying I chuckled a little to myself because at other velorios I have said lo siento mucho and in turn have received startled reactions.
A mourner will also turn their attention to the casket. When this happened I was always a little shocked at how much physical interaction there was between the mourner and the deceased as they caressed the face and held the hands of the loved ones while they wept and conversed with her. In the states I am more accustomed to maintaining distance between the deceased and the mourner. I think the best way to explain this difference is in what an aunt said to Ña Elida’s children the morning before she was buried. “Wake up. These are the last moments you will be able to spend with your mom.” They are saying the most final goodbye that they will ever say to her.
I interacted with many people at the velorio and the discussions I had with them all carried similar themes. The first were people sharing what they were doing when they heard that Ña Elida had died and how they were involved in the events leading up to her death. The second was people sharing how they knew Ña Elida. “She always came to visit me and drank térere. ‘Hola mi socia,’ she would say to me. She would always bring me things from her house.” Very rarely did I hear what I would call an obituary. They didn’t share about what kind of a person she was, her worldly accomplishments etc. In mourning rituals in the states we spend time celebrating the life of the deceased, while in Paraguay it is much more about saying goodbyes and grieving the loss.
As a foreigner I stood and watched these rituals, and partook in a few, and felt a little out of place, as I am accustomed to feeling. I didn’t weep over the casket or wipe my hand across the face of Ña Elida. Of course her death greatly affected me. I spent those 48 hours in shock and tried to be as helpful as I could when the family was so obviously a wreck. I shared stories of Ña Elida along with everyone else. She always called me her muñeca and her princesa and I would always ask for her bendición. I was at a birthday asado when I first heard that she had her attack, and then an hour later we found out that she died. The next morning I woke before the sun rose and went to her house to be with the family. Although I watched people around me grieving and I too felt their grief, I was not able to personally mourn the death of Ña Elida until they were laying down the bricks to close her into the panteón and I shed silent tears. And of course I continue to mourn her loss when I am with her family, pass by her house, visit with her social, or catch her face in a picture. She left behind 15 children and 11 grandchildren who deeply love her. She will be missed.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

6 months is too long to go without blogging

A recent update e-mailed to friends and family in the states. Blogging has not been a strong point.

Dear Family and Friends,

A couple of weeks ago I turned 25 and I received several birthday wishes from friends and family where you all asked how I am doing. I started to realize that I have fallen behind on writing regular updates (I think it has been 6 months since I last wrote, and I thought that I ought to write one. So for those of you who sent birthday greetings, I apologize for the informality of a mass e-mail, but please know how much I appreciated the thoughtfulness.

So where have I been, where am I now, and where am I going? Summers in Paraguay are hot! Almost miserable, and this summer there was a drought. From around Christmas until the end of February it didn’t rain. This affected the crops and the pace of life, since there was no work. It was a slow summer and I spent it building fogones (a  cookstove and oven made of bricks for cooking with wood) with a nearby volunteer in her community, encouraged the women to plant crops for homemade chicken feed (the drought made this difficult), had a summer art camp for elementary students, and  picked cotton. I also started working with another women’s committee in a nearby community. I began working on a grant for a pig project, which recently has been set aside due to lack of funds from the NGO and my own perception that the women were not very invested in the project. I was very excited about the possibility of the project which would have included the installation of biodigesters, an alternative technology to animal waste and the creation of fuel, and was a little disappointed to not continue with it, but also relieved because I felt like already in the grant writing process I was carrying most of the work, and knew that this is how the complete project cycle would begin to look like. These women recently were able to put in a request to the local government for pigs.  I am hoping to be able to follow this up with sharing information with them about proper pig raising techniques as well as encourage them to plant and make their own pig feed.
Making Masks at Art Camp

At the end of February I made a significant decision about my living situation. As the relationship changed with the family where I had constructed my house and as I felt a need for more privacy and independence, I decided it was time for me to look for other housing opportunities. The reason that I chose to build my house in the first place was because of lack of housing, so I felt very stuck. I explored some mediocre options that fell through, and then a very ideal situation opened up near the end of March, and I moved in the first week of April. I am very happy that I made this decision. I am overall happier and more comfortable and it has impacted my relationships in the community for the best. I finally started my own garden, which has been a lot of fun to work in and experiment with. I just transplanted my tomatoes this morning!
My new house, a "typical" Paraguayan house, very old, but well taken care of.

I rent the room on the left. 

I am enjoying having more space!

Home Sweet Home!
 School started in February, which was a welcome to the slow summer, I started working in the garden with the students, teaching about composting and proper seed bed preparation. Shortly after I started my work with them, the school received funds for the 7th, 8th, and 9thgraders to attend a special agriculture class in the afternoons. I now attend this class with them 1-2 times weekly and assist the teacher in the garden. The students learn aviculture, horticulture, natural resource management, rural administration, and rural engineering. They are also required to have a garden in their homes and the school. I have enjoyed this class and with the teacher and another volunteer we are exploring how to overlap our objectives.
Making seed beds!

At the end of May my host grandma passed away suddenly. She was a very dear woman who always called me her ‘princess’ or her ‘doll’ when I saw her. She left 14 living children. It was a very hard time for my host family as well as for me. I also learned and observed the differences between the Paraguayan death and grieving culture, and the one that I have known. I am working on a blog post to share what I learned. http://Maddieinparaguay.blogspot.com

I continue to follow up on the chicken project. Checking in to see if the chickens have started laying, what kind of food the chickens are eating and giving tips where I can. My chickens started laying the end of April! I now find 4 eggs in the nest every day. I have eggs coming out of my ears…and the women have plenty more than I do! There is a very distinct difference between the women who feed their chickens a complete protein diet, to those who feed a carbohydrate heavy diet. There are still chickens who have not yet laid and I am encouraging them to make more homemade chicken feed, which has a complete nutritional diet.
Making homemade chicken feed!

I have been talking to the women about proper nutrition for themselves and their families. I hope to follow this up with cooking classes. We received garden seeds from the local government and hope to also receive additional garden implements in the upcoming months. We are also working on planting trees throughout the community for reforestation. Yesterday a national organization, Refopar, brought 5 trees per woman and talked about the importance of the environment.
My puppy, Jasy, is no longer a puppy, she is about 20Kilos and likes to bark at everyone that passes, leaving them completely afraid of her, but she is the sweetest thing. She makes for a great companion and keeps my life exciting, especially as she chases Ara, my cat, through the house, or barks at the baby cows and tries to catch chickens. (She actually caught and bit my rooster so hard that I had to put him down.)
My time in Paraguayan is flying by so quickly. I only have five and half months until I complete the 2 year commitment. While a part of me would love to stay longer, I feel as if in 5 months my work will be complete, so at this moment my plans are to return to the states to celebrate Christmas with my family and new nephew (by then he will be over a year old!) for the first time in 2 years!
I thank you again for all your prayers, encouragement, and communication.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

"Te agradezco muchisimo

Today I had one of those Peace Corps days. The kind where nothing goes the way that you planned, everything seems harder than it is, and you end up blaming the whole country for your problems. Ok, well it's not Paraguay's fault that I currently have blisters on my feet, but it feels like that. Because when I start to think about the good things about the day, I remember how many times I wanted to say "te agradezco muchismo" or "I really thank you" to a Paraguayan. Here's how the day went:
I was visiting my friend Barb in her site to create a world map at her site. I would love to write a whole post about Barb and the nice time we had together cooking, laughing, and drawing the world together, but words cannot describe. Anyways, Barb recently tried her hand at keeping bees. She had the beebox built and tried to capture a wild hive, but the bees didn't stay in the bee box. I currently have my eye on a hive of bees next to my house that I want to raise. So Barb offered me her really beautiful bee box. The problem was getting it back to my site since Barb lives a taxi ride, two 1/2hr bus rides, and a 3 Kilometer walk from where I live. But I said, "no problem, I will figure it out." Oh, let me remind you, today starts Semana Santa, or Holy Week, in Paraguay, which in this Catholic country is a big deal and everyone is traveling home for the week starting...today.
The taxi ride and the first bus ride were a breeze. I arrived in the town 1/2hr bus ride from my community (Ayala) by 10am and split up with 2 other friends I was with the run into the grocery store for some dog food and other goodies that I can't buy in my community. I met up with my friend (one had already caught a bus) and waited...and waited...and waited. Ayala's bus stop is in town and not directly on the ruta. It seemed that the buses that I needed to take chose not to enter town but keep on going on the ruta today. I waited until 12:45 (almost 3 hrs) when I decided that it was better to take a bus that would get me to the town outside of my community and wait for another bus that would take me to the entrance into my community. I put the beebox underneath the bus and hopped on. I was hungry and tired, and found a seat. When I arrived in my town I got off the bus and picked up my beebox from underneath the bus. I couldn't close the latch and nobody was coming to help me. I kept trying to slam it, finally some women helped describe the problem to me and I figured it out.
I then was in my town. I had mail that I wanted to pick up, but didn't want to miss any chance at getting a bus, so I called the mailman who came and met me at the bus stop and even brought me my mail. Then one bus passed, one the usually will pick me up and drop me off at my site, but they told me they wouldn't take me. I tried to be as pushy as I could, which isn't very pushy for me, but the location of my site along with the site of that big bee box didn't help persuade them. They closed the door to the bus and sped off. I stomped around and complained in my head for a while and told myself that I couldn't wait to get home and sit on my bed and cry about this horrible terrible day.
Finally a bus came that was willing to take me to my site, and without complaints loaded my bee box under the bus. When they dropped me off they gave me back my bee box and I went in search of my bike, that I had left at a home on the ruta. Once I had my bike I tried to attach the bike to the rack on the back, but my whole bike tipped over and made a mess. Luckily a boy and the woman at the home where I had left my bike came over and helped me load up and send me off. I had to walk and push my bike in not very supportive flip-flops, which gave me blisters, but I finally arrived home with a smiling puppy running out to greet me.
So did you catch the moments where I said "te agradezco muchisimo": When the women gave me advice as to how to close the latch on the door underneath the bus where I stored me beebox, when the mailman brought my mail to me from the post office, which was closed today, when the bus picked me up when no other buses seemed to want to pick me up, when the family stored my bike in their house without even knowing me and said "we stored it really safely for you" even though before hand she had seemed hesitant about letting me leave in there for so many days, and then when she and the boy helped me secure my beebox to my bike, and when my puppy ran to meet me, always making my days brighter.
There are hard days, good days, bad days, and easy days here and its hard not to blame the hard and the bad ones on the whole country of Paraguay, because when I sit back and look around, I see smiling Paraguayans looking back at me willing to lend a helping hand and they are the ones that make the days easier to get through. I didn't go home and sit and cry on my bed, instead I cuddled with my puppy and thought of all those kind faces that got me through a rough day.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Art Camp

If you have been trying to be a faithful follower of this blog, I am truly sorry. It has been months since I have posted. Hopefully I can post some more blogs to catch you up on what I have been doing since August (I know, its pitiful). But instead of trying to play catch up let me fill you in on what I have going on right now, this week. Its an initiative I have taken on my own, but one that I think is important. It is summer right now in Paraguay and the long hot summer days were starting to wear on me. Oh the boredome of trying to stay cool. And I watched as children mostly watched television and tried to keep themselves occupied as well. Something I have wanted to do since I arrived was art with kids. Well this idea started to take shape as I sat in my shade sipping Terere. A week long art camp for kids!
So after a few days of planning, asking the local libreria to donate art supplies, and inviting kids from two communities I was ready to go. This morning was the first day and I am off to a good role. The Peace Corps office had an art camp curriculum that I am following and it really gets at the goals that I am trying to accomplish. In the schools kids have art classes, but creativity is rarely emphasized, or it is creativity within a rigid set of requirements. What I want to do during art camp is help kids think outside of the box and use their creativity. The curriculum uses mediums of song and story to help lead into appropriate art activities. For example: today we sang "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" or La Arana Chiquitita and then the kids made masks of the different things included in the song: the spider, the tree(water spout), the rain, and the sun. Later I read a story about homes and then the kids drew pictures of their homes. Tomorrow we will spend time working on drawing self portraits and parts of the body by singing "Head, Shoulders, knees, and toes" and reading "Where the wild things are." I am having a lot of fun helping these kids tap into their creative sides!

Sunday, August 7, 2011


So I don't think I have ever taken the time to explain the Terere/Mate culture in Paraguay. Maybe briefly in a blog mixed with other information, but not separetely. The difference between Terere and Mate is that Terere is cold water and Mate is hot water. What you are drinking are plant leaves that have been dried and cured over a long period of time from the plant called ka'a or Yerba Mate. In Guarani if you want to say let's drink terere you say "jaterere" and for Mate you say "jakay'u." The word for let's get drunk is "jaka'u" and can easily sound the same, so be careful with this distinction.
When drinking Terere you have your equipo, or your equipment which includes:
1. Guampa (a cup made out of wood for mate and a cow's horn with a wooden "plug" for Terere)
2. Bombilla (a straw that has a filter at the bottom that looks similar to a tea ball.
3. Termo (a thermos. For Terere you usually use just a pitcher, but for Mate the Termo is important so that you can have hot water the whole time)
4. Yerba Mate (The Yerba goes into the Guampa with the straw. You fill the Guampa up almost all the way with the Yerba.
5. Yuyos (Herbs. Found in the garden, in the forest, around your yard, in the street. Lemongrass, or Cedron Paraguaya is one of my favorites along with Burrito and Anis seed. You put the yuyos either in the water and sometimes in the guampa.

Now that you have your equipo invite some friends and sit in a circle. Start conversing about whatever you want. The weather, your day, a good story, some new information about farming. One person is the server. They pour the water into the Guampa and pass it to a person in the circle. That person will drink all the water in the guampa before passing it back to the server. The server will then continue serving all around the circle and will develop an order in the serving. When you no longer want to drink anymore it is polite to say "gracias" or "Thank you" so that the server knows.

Its a beautiful custom that has a lot of ceremony to it, but is surprisingly simple.

A Subtropical Rainforest Winter...explained

Do you know that a large majority of Paraguay was or is a subtropical rainforest and that it is the only subtropical rainforest in the world? It is fun to be able to say that I live in a rainforest and I love the vegetation that is here as a result of the climate. The trees are so different than the trees that I grew up in my frozen tundra of Minnesota. The weather in Paraguay is usually hot. In the summer it reaches 100 degrees F almost everyday. Starting in May we began to experience "Winter" weather.
Coming from the Minnesota cold that I know, I wasn't sure what to expect. They said that it would get down to 32 degrees F, or 0 degrees C occasionally during the winter. So yes, winter in Paraguay is cold. It is at its worst in the mornings, in the evenings, or when its cloudy and rainy. If there aren't any clouds and the sun comes out during the day it will warm up and I can sit in the sun and drink Terere with my neighbors. If its cloudy and rainy the day is miserable and I usually spend my day sipping hot mate and cooking banana breads or, my new favorite, Mexican Lasagna in my house. But then there are weeks where its as if we have an "Indian Summer." It gets hot again. Reaching back into the 90's. I stay cool in the shade sipping ice cold terere and aprovechar the nice weather by working in my garden, washing my clothes, or getting out and visiting a friend I haven't seen in a long time because its been so cold. I still haven't bought a fan for my house so these Indian Summers really kill me. I am waiting until it is more consistently warm and I have the money to purchase one. I know it will be necessary when the heat picks up again. For now I enjoy the cold on the good days, and dread the cold on the bad days. Its a love
hate relationship and it makes me miss those hearty Minnesota winters where on the coldest days you run between the car and the house and then sit in front of the fireplace until you thaw out. Unfortunately my house doesn't have any insulation against the weather so this makes the winters harder.
I recently tried to explain "winter sports" to my host brother and that when it snows it makes winter fun. You can go sledding, skiing, snowboarding, ice skating, play a good game of hockey, make a snow man, throw snowballs at your neighbor. Unfortunately there is no snow, so I put up with the cold weather and make winter enjoyable by cooking and drinking yummy mate!