Bike Rides With Nati

There is something about Paraguayan sunsets that can take you hostage.

While anyone can fall victim, my own captivation isn’t just from the view, it is everything that accompanies this time of day.

Just as the leftover heat from the afternoon begins to settle, the breeze rustles just barely. Teenage boys gather together outside of the church for their daily soccer scrimmage and the women on the side of the road prepare chipa to sell to passers by.

As all this is coming together, my friend Nati passes by my house to go on our evening bike ride.

Nati is one of my best friends in the world and though she’s only 17, don’t be fooled by her youth. She is one of the most intelligent human beings I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. She is sarcastic and witty and fully of laughter. She balances a youthful spirit with wisdom beyond her years. Her mind is open and accepting to new ideas and viewpoints, yet she holds true to her morals and individualism without falter. Too often I wonder which Ivy League university she would be attending next year had she been given the opportunities the US hands out on silver platters to its unappreciative residents.

Each evening Nati and I cycle our way out just past a neighboring companía.

As the sun nears the land we make our way out of town leaving any asphalt behind us. We break off on to a road less traveled; ranging our discussions from life, culture, and dreams only two girls with their heads in the clouds can come up with; to high school drama, my continuing language mistakes, and jokes that are only funny to us.

On our ride we wave to the farmers herding in their cattle, smile at the children climbing trees, and role our eyes at the cat calls of the construction workers. She laughs and tells me to calm down when I complain of their vulgarity. As we climb further out, to our right are coconut trees as far as the eye can see and to my left is a pasture speckled with native trees and framed in the distance by a few miniature mountains.

Once we reach our destination, we take time to examine the magnificent sight. Some evenings I swear the sun halts for just a moment to give us time to set the image as best we can in our conceptual box of memories.

From where we stand we can see San Salvador in the distance. We watch for a few fleeting moments as the sun sets perfectly on the church steeple validating the splendor we see in our tiny little town.

These evening bike rides with Nati are without a doubt, one of my most valued rituals in this country.

Each evening is a reminder of the wonder my life holds here and now.

I am, by nature, programmed to worry about my future, to focus on my work, or to preoccupy myself with world affairs, Stateside gossip, and the more-than-occasional 90s classic sitcom episode of Boy Meets World. But my evening bike rides with Nati, force me to stop and feel the raw and present beauty this world offers us.

After we have gotten our fix we set back out on the red dirt road, we near the asphalt, we pass the teenage soccer game, we buy some chipa, and we return home as the sun finishes its work for the day.

 IMG_3222 IMG_3221

 

Oh Me! Oh Life!

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

 

                                       Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
~Walt Whitman

A Missing Peace in Paraguay

Two nights ago, a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer passed away. As far as I know, there are not words in any language to express the shock, confusion, and sadness felt by so many here in Paraguay. Porter Knight was humbly selfless and amazingly dedicated to his work, his community, and his passion for the environment.

Below is an excerpt  from the official statement from Peace Corps about Porter´s life and service. I urge you to take the time to read Porter´s peace.

I post this not for people to recognize his death, but to celebrate his life. Thanks to Porter , this crazy and unpredictable world in which we live is a better place.

Porter worked as an environment conservation project volunteer in the rural community of “3 de Noviembre,” in the department of Guaira. There, he collaborated with Paraguayans to create environmental awareness in their country and inspired them to take action to address local environmental issues. He worked closely with local teachers, students, subsistence farmers and neighbors.

As a volunteer dedicated to the environment, Porter led numerous conservation and sustainability projects that promoted renewable fuels, gardening and composting, as well as tactics for improved crop production. Peace Corps Paraguay staff described Porter as “very well-regarded as a true professional and well-respected in the community.”

Porter’s love of nature and commitment to preserving and protecting the environment began long before his Peace Corps service. He worked as a natural resources specialist at the Virginia Department of Forestry and, as a trained wildland firefighter, volunteered to help fight wildfires in Virginia. He also designed and coordinated the installation of a sanitation system to provide clean drinking water in Puerto Rico and studied livestock in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. He took every chance he could to travel abroad, including trips to South Africa, Costa Rica, and throughout South America.

For the full statement and a picture of Porter that truly is worth a thousand words, please refer to the following link:

http://www.peacecorps.gov/media/forpress/press/2354/

Housewife Bootcamp

I am starting to get the feeling that a significant number of people in my community are concerned about me. After a number of discussions and passing comments I have finally accepted the fact that I am not getting any younger. At the ripe old age of 24 it is about time I start preparing myself to be a respectable wife.

For anyone who´s keeping track, I currently hold no suitable housewife qualities. My ability to do housework is minimal. My refrigerator contains nothing more than raw vegetables, coffee grounds, and organic face cream. And to make matters worse, I own a cat, which means that I am walking a fine line if I don´t want my future child to be born with an arm protruding from his or her forehead.

So, in hopes to not die old and alone, with only my cats and memories to keep me company, I signed up for a four-month cooking class offered in my community.

That´s right, from now until the end of May, my Thursday and Friday evenings will be spent with Profesora Maria Estela Meaurio de Santacruz. And if anyone can whip me into housewife shape, it´s this woman.

Her tough outer shell suggests that it may be in your best interest not to cross her. She is a strong and direct woman who commands respect using nothing but natural grace. Profe Maria rarely smiles but when she does she can warm a room with the goodness of her soul.

And holy street cow, can she cook.

In just few classes she has made a vegetable quiche, chipa, alfajores, garlic sauce, Paraguayan Easter Bread, and about 7 different types of cakes and breads.  While I cannot deny I am gaining some valuable pointers – which I will undoubtedly use in the kitchen – that is not what keeps me coming back to this class.

Maria Estela, is fun to watch.

Perhaps it´s the stubborn, head-in-the-clouds, single girl in me that loses sight of the recipes and allows my mind to wander, but Maria´s passionate concentration and uncanny ability to create spectacular food out of such mundane ingredients is unintentionally distracting.

Two hours into the class yesterday, Maria was nearly elbow deep in her Peach Cake batter as I looked around at the 30 other women in the class and realize I must be the only person distracted in such a way, as they are all on the edge of their chairs drinking up her every word and noting her every movement. Though I am not sure they are conscious of it, it is Maria´s rightful confidence – not her teaching ability – that allows my fellow classmates to feel secure in recreating these dishes on their own.

Though I admit to spending the majority of each 4 hour class paying exclusive attention to Maria´s performance, I am excited to gain a better idea of how to make some of my favorite Paraguayan eats; which, incidentally, have been the most pronounced mediums in forming the relationships I have here in Paraguay.

Which is one reason I value this class so much.

I have always loved how food seems to be a universal vehicle for human connection. It was when I was learning how to make Paella when I laughed with my 81-year-old Spanish host grandmother about our mutual attraction to Antonio Banderes. From Reuben sandwiches on Christmas Eve, to fresh Tilapia in Uruguay, to the Mexican Taco stand on 2nd street, to hot-off-the-stick kabure; the food is great, but it´s the people and memories it represents that I cherish.

Along with wanting to spend more time with Maria and the women in this class, these recipes will forever act as a link to all of the friendships I have made here in this goofy little country.

And while I will undoubtedly introduce any American I can to the glory of alfajores, I can´t promise I will be introducing these recipes to my day-to-day diet. So, it looks like either my community´s fear of me never finding a mate will come true, or my future husband will just have to put up with my cat and love of veggies.

Curious Kitty

When it rains in San Salvador, my water and electricity almost always go out. So, to keep myself occupied during the storm today, I put some chicken feed outside my screen door and waited. Mia was not pleased with me, the chicken, nor the screen door.

 IMG_2948

Eating Cow Head

I still can speak hardly a lick of Guaraní.

So, while I sat sipping terere, sweat engulfing every inch of my body, my mind couldn’t help but wander as my host family sputtered off in heaps of indigenous sounds I can only dream of producing.

The past two months had been a whirlwind of traveling, camps, visitors, meetings, and classes. This meant that I was long overdue for a family meal.

Dinner for the night was fresh fish my cousins had caught in the river the day before and cow intestine.

Nothing out of the ordinary.

Halfway through their conversation (or at the end, I’m not really sure) my host mom got up and told me to come with her. I assumed she wanted me to come help her prepare the food, but as we walked into the kitchen she went straight for the refrigerator and opened the door.

Then I screamed.

There, at the bottom of the refrigerator, lay an entire cow head; skinned mind you, but whole nonetheless.

Eyeballs and all.

My host mom was off to the side doubled-over from laughter. To which I followed suit. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) for you, I didn’t have my camera on me at the time.

But I did, however, bring it the following day when we cooked and ate cow head for lunch. So while you won’t get the full, disturbing, and questionably unsanitary effect of a skinned cow head shoved into a bottom of a refrigerator, you will get to see what a cow head looks like hot off the grill.

It was udderly delicious.

IMG_2843

My Community Doesn’t Need a Peace Corps Volunteer

What Dr. Ari Kohen lacks in girth, he makes up for in vast cognizance. For my last two semesters in college, I sat in the front row of his political theory classes terrified out of my mind but drinking up his every word.  He had a way of gracefully pissing every one of his students off by his ability to adapt every angle of an argument as if it were his own; it was his art form. No student left Dr. Kohen’s classes with the same world view as when they entered. He didn’t just teach us facts, he taught us how to think.

One thing that was clear to all political science students was that one did not take Dr. Kohen’s classes to boost one’s GPA. He set his expectations high, fostered an environment for healthy debates, and changed how we saw ourselves and the world around us. Those who took his classes did so because they forced us to yearn for a greater understanding of our own humanity.

So, in December, when I began my Acción Juvenil class, I tried my absolute best to model it after Dr. Kohen’s classes. That is to say I wanted my students to have a space for critical thinking and trying out new ideas.

Accíon Juvenil is actually a Peace Corps manual of lessons designed to motivate youth to take action in their community. I taught it as a Monday, Wednesday, Friday course during the month of December. The themes in this class ranged from self-esteem, leadership, communication, teamwork, human rights, social responsibility, and we ended by brainstorming ideas for community projects.

In addition to these concrete lessons, we also touched on other more informal lessons such as why Alecia doesn’t buy your excuses regarding your supposed inability to achieve your goal. And how telling Alecia you will be in class and not showing up is much more disrespectful than just letting me know ahead of time that your brother’s 3rd grade graduation this Friday conflicts with class. Cultural literacy lessons, if you will.

Now, one cannot model a citizenship class after Dr. Kohen’s political theory courses without addressing human rights (and as it just so happened that was one of the class options in the manual). So, as we sat in our 6th class the pending  assignment at hand was, “This class just discovered a new country and is now the government of the country in question. Each government official [aka. student] must come up with three rights they think everyone in the country should be entitled to.”

After each student wrote their human rights on different pieces of paper, we presented them. Their answers were impressive to say the least.

Once they presented, I told them to prioritize the rights. This lead to one of the most intellectual and fulfilling conversations I have experienced since arriving in Paraguay (never underestimate the abilities of teenage girls).

They debated between whether health or education was more important; one girl arguing if you don’t have health, you can’t function properly, including attending school to get an education. While another pointed out, “yes but without education you have no doctors which means you have no way to improve your health.”

They debated the meaning of equality; which ranged from socioeconomic, to gender, to age, to language (a problem in some areas of Paraguay).

They got frustrated at me for making them prioritize the rights. To which, I am proud to say, that in complete Dr. Kohen fashion I just smiled, said nothing, and they had no choice but to continue their conversation.

In the end they decided each of these rights were crucial to live in a society and they refused to prioritize them.

As selfish a comment as this may be, I have never been so proud in my life.

Their debates were mature and educational; so much so that I recommend the Fox and MSNBC news anchors come to San Salvador to take some pointers on maturity from these teenage girls. They were able to recognize the importance of such topics in which even an accredited US university can’t seem to find the full value. And, to top it off they landed on a completely out of the box decision by refusing to place the rights in order.

After our class on human rights, we had four more classes and each proved just as educationally stimulating as the last. The students seeming more confident in voicing their opinions, as I mostly sat silently with a quirky Kohen smile on my face.

I recently took a quick vacation to Uruguay and was asked by another PCV what it would take for me to leave Paraguay feeling successful in my Peace Corps service. I am not sure what my answer was at the time, because when you spend an evening drinking wine with close friends in a beach house in Uruguay, you start to lose count of how many glasses you’ve had. But I have had the time to think about this and I now have a soberly thought-out answer.

I will feel successful if I can prove to the youth of San Salvador that they don’t need me.

Or any Peace Corps volunteer for that matter.

I have gotten to know many of them well enough that I  know they don’t need me. But I also have had enough conversations with them (and the adults) to know that they think they need me.

I want the youth to discover their own capabilities and view their weaknesses as opportunities. I want them to own their identity with confidence. I want them to hunger for a purpose, and boldly attack every obstacle along the way. I want them to think critically and try new things. But more than anything I want them to never question the possibility of acheiving their dreams.

I want to change their way of thinking so that they set their expectations high. I want to foster an environment for healthy debates, and change how they see themselves and the world around them. I too, want them yearn for a greater understanding of their own humanity. Only then will they be able to change their community, their country, and their world. Only then will they see me as no more than just a silly Peace Corps volunteer who runs around town taking pictures of cows while the youth do all the work.