Fuerza

Asunción, Paraguay

I quietly drank maté in the morning with my mother, just the two of us. She has always been the most defining person of my service, taking care of me, feeding me, advising me, loving me unconditionally, despite the extreme differences between us. We sat, listening to guaranias on the radio and silently passing the guampa between us. These are the moments I always relished with her and I could tell that both of us were breathing in this exchange, this last time when it would be just her and me, doing what we’ve done for two years and enjoying the presence of one another without anything really needing to be said. She stood up to walk to the stove and as she passed by, she reached out and simply smoothed out the hair at the back of my head. In that effortless, motherly action I realized that everything I had thought about saying goodbye to her, to my family, my house, my community was wrong. It would not be easy.

I have never let tears fall as easily as I have in the last two weeks of my service in Oga Ita. They started when I put my key in the door for the last time and it seems as though there has always been something else to say goodbye to since then. I could barely choke out “gracias” to my host brothers and Lalo looked me right in the eyes and said, “fuerza, hermano”. Strength, Brother. Twenty minutes later, as I stood on the bank of the stream in between my house and Chara’s, I dropped my bags and turned to see my mother already sobbing and shaking and I have never hugged that woman as strongly as I did then. “Che memby… che memby…” was all she could say. My Son. Two years is a long time and I spent every day with these people. They are my family in a sense that no one else could possibly understand except for another Peace Corps Volunteer. I have never felt such sadness saying goodbye to a group of people and to know that they too, felt sadness to see me go makes it all the harder to do so. However, I am Chance Wilcox and I lack grace and tact, so such a sad and elongated goodbye was immediately interrupted as I grabbed my bags, sobbed a final goodbye and promptly slipped and fell into the mud. My mother and sister-in-law could barely decide if sobbing or laughing was appropriate, but I consider it an extremely appropriate final moment of my service, considering all of the ridiculous mishaps they’ve watched me get into. That was it. It was the finishing, the goodbye, the despedida and what seemed like the end of the most incredibly powerful experience of my life. Oga Ita is now part of my past, but also part of who I am today. And for that, I’ll never forget it.

But it’s not entirely over.

I enter the third year of my service. I am one of the few and the brave to apply to stay for another year with Peace Corps.The last two years have been a rocky road with some very low moment, but, more memorably, some incredible highs. Paraguay is beautiful, its people have shown me nothing but love, given me everything they could have possibly given, and filled me with so much fuerza that it seemed the obvious choice to extend my service for a third year, give back, continue the momentum from my service, and stay in the country I’ve grown to love. However, my work will be different. I am now the volunteer coordinator for the environmental sector, providing support for both environmental volunteers and the environmental sector staff. No longer will I live in my tiny shack backed up against my family’s yerba plantation in Oga Ita. There are no more runs down red dirt roads or mid-morning terere sessions with my host mom.  I am now an Asunceno, with an apartment near the Peace Corps office, a desk and a user account, a commute to the Guyra office one or two days a week, and real scheduled days. This isn’t terrible. After two years of my normal service, I welcome a little bit of structure, of normalcy, especially in a city that I love. Asuncion is not Oga Ita. They are antitheses, functioning at different levels. But I’m excited for this opportunity. Oga Ita gave me so many adventures, life-changing experiences, relationships, good days, bad days, emotional roller coaster rides, and so so much love. But so will Asuncion. New people. New Paraguayan customs. New adventures and roller coasters and experiences. I embrace it. It is not time for me to leave Paraguay, but it is time for a change.

Note: With this change in my service and my life for the next year comes a change in my blog. It has a new look and I might change the tone or subjects of my posts, as well as frequency, as I have better access to computers and internet. Here’s to more chance encounters in 2017!

 

 

Opatama

Opa: to be finished. -ta: future. -ma: already, or soon. -ta and -ma together make a strange pairing that mean “almost” or “about to”.

It’s almost over.


Oga Ita, Alto Verá, Itapua

I have four bags sitting at the foot of my bed. All four are slowly being filled with ratty clothing, books, sun-bleached bandanas, a gathered assortment of medications and remedies, letters sent from a world away, memories, pieces of this life. I’m taken back to over two years ago, when I sat between four bags on the carpet of our living room in Alaska. Those bags were filled with different things: expectations, an appetite for adventure, more intact clothing that’s now two sizes too big for me. That me, surrounded by those four bags, was much different than this me, looking at these four bags.

I’ve always said that this entire experience, Peace Corps, was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Learning Guaraní, learning how to live slow, learning how to love people of a completely different background, learning how to love myself, learning how to get my hands dirty; it’s been rewarding, amazing, awe-inspiring, yet so much more difficult than anything I ever imagined. Until now. Learning to walk away. Learning to leave it all behind. I’m moving to Asunción for a third year extension, but it still feels tragic. These are my people. This is my community. I’m not leaving Paraguay, but I’m leaving Oga Ita, a place that has filled me with such a sense of life and sharing and humility and beauty and love. I haven’t loved every minute, but I’ve loved. And been loved. And fallen in love. I’ve fallen in love with little moments, little instances in which my heart swells and I take in a breath and realize where I’m at and what I’m doing and who I’m surrounded by. Moments in which I think, “how can I leave this all behind?” In honor of this love and this life and this experience coming to a strange end in two weeks, I give you my favorite moments. Not necessarily stand-out moments of my service, but those little day-to-day things with which I’m struggling to come to terms that they’re going to be taken away from me.

  • My mother, coming to my door at 7 AM, worried that I’m sick or dead because I’m not up yet. In her hands is usually a mug of fresh cow milk, a recently baked loaf of bread, fresh eggs, some home grown remedial herbs, or a loaf of radishes that she has no idea what to do with. She laughs when I open the door, my eyes groggy, hair every which way.
  • I ask Ña Angela what’s for lunch. “We ate all of the dogs” she jokes, “so I boiled the cat.”
  • Sitting by the stove after the sun has set at Teodoro’s house. Ña Lucia stokes the fire to heat maté and asks me about my day. Teodoro starts to tell jokes, first attempting in Spanish, but quickly shifting into his toothless, mumbly Guaraní that I’ve come to love, his huge belly shaking with every resonating laugh.
  • Hearing a screech as I walk home and seeing parakeets soar to the nearest coco palm.
  • My hammock, strung up on my patio for mid-morning terere sessions, afternoon readings, and evening glasses of wine to watch the sunset over the trees.
  • Chile, his wet nose always poking into whatever I’m doing, his tail wagging ceaselessly. But the moment my fingers find a good scratch behind his ear, all movement stops, his eyelids droop, and he falls into bliss.
  • Sebastian, standing in my doorway, too timid to come in, while Elvin sits at my table coloring on huge sheets of paper. Sebastian jabbers away to himself, or probably to me but I don’t understand the Guaraní of a four year old, and Elvin proudly displays every scribble, which I praise every time.
  • Eating lunch with Ramón and Ña Cele, sitting at a low table under a mango tree, shoveling food into my mouth because Ña Cele is the best cook in Paraguay, leaving me in a food coma after lunch to lie back and listen to Ramón regale me with stories from his childhood.
  • Rooster crows. Bird chirps. The terrible squawk of a guinea fowl. Crickets, frogs, cicadas.
  • Hearing my name called in twelve small voices as I pass by the school. Twelve grubby faces pressed to the window and peering around the door.
  • My weekly trips to Suni’s despensa. As I lean on the counter because the window is too low for me to stand up straight, she laughs at me for timidly asking for a bag of cookies, we trade baking tips, she laughs even harder when I timidly ask for wine, and she tells me stories about growing up with Kathy, a health volunteer who lived nearby in the 90s. She gives me Rosemary and carrots from her garden and burrito from her patio. I run around with the dogs and laugh with her daughter and tell her husband Silvio what the forecast says about the week to come.
  • Walks to Chara’s. Through a mandioca field, over a muddy trail under a forest canopy, across a stream, through a field of orange trees, and down a red dirt road all the way to Jovere, cerros on all sides and music in my headphones or thoughts lost in my head.
  • Hot days. Days when there’s nothing to do but drink terere in front of a fan. Days when a cold shower is a dream come true. Days when I meander back into the woods and lay in the arroyo, looking up at the leaves and feeling relief in the cool current as it surrounds my body.
  • Fruit, available anytime, anywhere. As mango season blends into watermelon into pineapple into pear into grapefruit into mandarin into orange into peach into grape, with bananas and limes and avocado and guava all thrown in all the time, the basket in my house always stays full.
  • Asuhaga, greeting me, always looking me in the eye and firmly grasping my hand with both of his, pulling me into the shade and giving me a chair. Always happy to see me. Always.
  • Evening runs on dirt roads. Watching the sun set over cow pastures as I sweat, from the heat, from activity. Getting smiles and shouts of encouragement from every community member. It’s easy to be present. You can hole up in your house all day, but to run past and smile and wave makes up for it. They know you’re there. They know you’re present. You’re a part of the community.

There are more moments. In the last month, little things have caused tears to well up. Sunrises. The wave of a field of grass on a breeze. A gale of laughter in a terere circle. The look on someone’s face when I tell them how much time I have left here.

This is hard. It’s drawn out. It’s a countdown that sometimes feels like it’s for something better, but at times feels like it’s for the apocalypse. I could walk away from this stoically, putting it behind me and moving on to the next adventure of working in Asuncion. But what’s more likely to happen is that I’ll walk away from Oga Ita, bawling like a baby and unable to even say the word, “goodbye” in any of my three languages.

Tomorrow I find out exactly which Peace Corps trainee will be moving here to do their two years of service and continue my work. I love that they get to have this experience, that they get this beautiful place as their own, but it’s harder knowing that someone else gets to live this life. And I don’t get to anymore. I’m trusting this newbie with my life, a life I’ve grown so used to. I’m trusting him to love these people and to love my little shack and to take care of my garden and to tell my mom that her food is good even though it’s not and to love and care for Moritz and to continue planting Yerba and growing vegetables and be a good volunteer. I can walk away from this knowing that someone else is willing to take it on and that Oga Ita is willing to take in another gringo to love.

It’s still hard, but I take deep breaths and remind myself that I knew this was coming. I have another year of terere and mangos and polka and Guaraní to soften the blow. I’m packing those four bags again, with different things. Different expectations, ready for a different adventure.

Chanceicha

Chance: Me. Pronounced Chaun-say here in Paraguay. Also the Spanish word for opportunity. –icha: like, or such as.

Like Chance.


Oga Ita, Alto Verá, Paraguay

“Only if you give us another volunteer just like Chance,” Abundio said. Eli looked at me in humorous disbelief and I gave her a half-grimace/half-chuckle. Abundio has always been my biggest critic, my least friendly brother, and yet here he was in front of my bosses and the entire community, saying the nicest things I’ve ever heard about myself here in Oga Ita. Eli and Alistair came down from Asunción on Tuesday to discuss with my community the possibility of a follow-up volunteer and how the next two years would look. Mainly, that the next volunteer would NOT be me. That maybe the next volunteer wouldn’t laugh like I do, or go running every other evening like a crazy person, or love ryguazu vori as much as I do, or have the same relationships, or do the exact same work that I did. G50 arrives in Paraguay in just under two weeks for training and hopefully, somewhere in their midst, there’s an unknowing trainee who Eli and Alistair think will love it here. And he/she is NOT me. They will live in my house. They will wake up to my mother asking if they want warm milk or cheese or pea vines or random yuyos she found in the field. They will take their visiting volunteer friends to the Oga Ita cave. They will discover the vista from Asuhaga’s fields on top of the hill when they unknowingly ask to see his crops. They will be given lettuce and carrots from Ña Celedonia, eggs from Ña Chumi, cheese from Ña Angela, homemade soap from Ña Claudelina. They’ll spend a year and a half not understanding a single word of Guaraní that Alejandro says because of his constant mumble. They will run past the school to a chorus of their name being yelled from the windows. But it won’t be “Chance”. Someone else is going to live here and it’s a weird feeling. My time in Oga Ita is in its last three months and I can’t help but to feel a little sadder everyday. But to sit in a meeting, with my bosses and my community, and to hear people say things about my two years here. About the work I’ve done and how guapo I’ve been and how they’ve enjoyed having me as a part of the community, has been one of the most fulfilling experiences. I know I wasn’t alone. I had a community of people who worked alongside me, who wanted to change Oga Ita for the better and who want to keep doing so with another volunteer. And who appreciate everything I’ve done. Little do they know how much I appreciate everything they’ve done for me.

On Wednesday, we visited four families who participated in my gardening project in order to see their gardens (and for Eli to collect a bag of oranges from every family) before moving to Perlita for the afternoon. I taught in both the high school and elementary school in Perlita for brief moments, but when my work picked up in Oga Ita, I had to abandon teaching there. However I had proposed the idea of the community requesting their own volunteer from the next group. We had lunch with the potential host family that I had previously talked to and then wandered over to the Elementary School for a meeting with parents and professors. The meeting was to decide if the community actually wanted to request an environmental volunteer, not necessarily assuring that they would, but it was surreal to be there in that moment. They debated and discussed, Eli asked if they wanted one, they said yes. She asked who the main contacts would be, to be the volunteer’s guides and counterparts, and three señoras raised their hands alongside the Vice Director of the school. She asked who the host family would be and Ña Juana and Karai Demetrio, who we had visited and eaten an amazing lunch with and saw their beautiful fruit-tree studded patio and large accommodating house, raised their hands. Eli asked for an applause and in that moment, Perlita became a potential site. Somewhere in the US, there’s a soon-to-be Peace Corps Volunteer, who’s frantically trying to decide what to pack within their 80 pound limit, they’re saying their goodbyes and mentally preparing themself to leave for a two year service in Paraguay, come September 21st. And this unknown person may just end up living in Perlita. This community that just said, “Yes, we want a volunteer” is going to impact their life in so many unknown ways. And it was amazing to be there for that moment, when a whole lot of unwritten history and relationships and lunches and terere sessions were just decided.

The next three months will fly by. There are trainings for the new G50, one last vacation, one more Ahendu. But more importantly, there are three more months of lunches, of walking down these dirt roads, of terere sessions mango guype, of getting my hands dirty in the garden, of lazy hammock afternoons, of laughing with Ña Angela, of ooohing and aaaahing at Ña Cele’s cooking, of reminding Asuhaga what my name is, of watching Teodoro quietly and skillfully make brooms, of sitting just outside my house on clear nights looking at the stars, of Ña Benita’s chipa, of coming out of the bathroom to find Sebastian had laying and giggling in my hammock. Three more months of little moments.

Tajy Poty

Tajy– Technically means ‘daughter’, but is the Guaraní name of the Lapacho, Paraguay’s national tree. Poty- flower.

Lapacho flowers are everywhere.


Oga Ita, Alto Verá, Paraguay

As I walk downhill towards the other side of town, I can see it standing tall overlooking fields and forests and houses. Its bright hues of pink are extremely noticeable and almost indescribable. You can’t miss it. Nor can you miss seeing any other Lapacho for that matter. They’re stunning, rising high above the landscape, bursting into intense pink blossoms, dotting the dry countryside with color. You can stand on the highest part of my little valley and look all around you, lapachos visibly transforming Alto Verá from a bleak dry winter into a lush spring. In Asuncion, the transformation is even more dramatic, as the city seems to be practically built around lapachos. From above, it is a sea of pink, swarming around the buildings, overtaking the urban jungle right up to the edge of the Río Paraguay. From below, the sea of pink is just as noticeable, not only from the eternal canopy of cotton candy and bubblegum, but also the ocean of blossoms under your feet, covering the ground, parked cars, benches in the plaza. Occasionally, you can see a Tajy Sayju, the yellow Lapacho, its little brass trumpet blossoms exploding into as much fervor as its pink sister. Or as you peer out of the bus window along Avenida Mariscal Lopez, you can look up into the branches of the Tajy Moriti, its white blossoms the product of a genetic mutation, yet considerably beautiful still. Paraguay in August is bombarded with color. The Mby’a indigenous people say that when the lapachos bloom, spring has arrived. Already, after I saw that very first Lapacho bloom here in Oga Ita, just over the rise, the weather has warmed and the other trees have followed suit, a strong scent of orange blossoms in the air and my nasturtiums blooming into color in my garden. It’s warm again. Paraguay is full of life. Full of color. Full of fun and energy. It seemed to know that this was what I needed.

Jajotopata ro’y arã. Ndarohechaga’umo’ai. Tereguahê porãiterei poty arã.


Asunción from above: a sea of lapachos

Asunción from above: a sea of lapachos


Pink and blue. Paraguay in August.

Pink and blue. Paraguay in August.


Photo Cred to Chara Bouma-Prediger, who always captures Paraguay so beautifully

Photo Cred to Chara Bouma-Prediger, who always captures Paraguay so beautifully


Gilded Hummingbird feeding on Lapacho blossoms. Photo Cred to Rodolfo Ruiz López, quien siempre agarra la belleza de la naturaleza y biodiversidad en sus fotos

Gilded Hummingbird feeding on Lapacho blossoms. Photo Cred to Rodolfo Ruiz López, quien siempre agarra la belleza de la naturaleza y biodiversidad de Paraguay en sus fotos

Sasõ Ára

Sasõ– Independence, Ára- Day

Happy Fourth of July!


Potrerito, Pacheco, Paraguari, Paraguay

Dear Readers, I can see it now. You’re grocery shopping for the Fourth. You’ve got your BBQ staples in your cart, meandering along the aisles. You’ve picked up finger foods and a veggie platter and a carton of eggs to be deviled. Beer. Soda. Boxes of jello. Sugar cookies frosted red, white, and blue. Watermelon. Strawberries. With a full cart, you’re missing only one thing. The main dish. You find yourself at the back of the store, facing a glass case, white wall, a hair-netted employee, and an important decision: chicken, ribs, steak, burgers, brats? You choose. It’s weighed. It’s wrapped. It’s added to the smorgasbord in your cart. You pay. You head home to have a wonderful Independence Day BBQ with friends and family.

Bloodless.

My posts seem to revolve more and more around pork somehow. And fortunately enough, my Fourth of July festivities were filled with the delicious Kure ro’o. I had two Independance Day celebrations: one with fellow volunteers who also happen to be some of my best friends, and another with Chara and her host siblings, in what we’ll refer to as “cultural exchange”. They are equally as entertaining.

Story 1: Pork

With nine volunteers converging at Jenn’s site to partake in Fourth of July festivities, we decided to uphold the age old tradition of “murder for sustenance”. Grocery shopping mainly consisted of finding a pig big enough and at the right price and naming him Avery. While you chose between chicken and beef, we were laying a squealing pig onto a board and holding its feet. While you decided between rib-eyes or a whole rack of ribs, we were shaving a now-dead Avery with boiling water and spoons in the dark. While you decided if the kids would prefer hamburgers or hot dogs or both, we were watching Ña Valentina saw down the middle of the pig and let all of the organs fall into a bowl. And while you were idling in the beer aisle, choosing between Bud Light and Coors, we were putting Avery’s cute little head in the oven for dinner. Sorry to all of you PETA supporters and vegetarians…

So Avery is dead. Ña Valentina helped us butcher him and really did most of the work after Donovan kind of sort of botched the job of killing Avery (again PETA supporters, is my blog even worth your time?) and as a thanks, we regretfully gave her the feet, ears, and organs, as well as a huge plate of asado the next day. It may seem like a dark deed to kill a pig, but with good company, it’s bearable. I love this group of volunteers, who always seem to fill a room with laughter. We put both of Avery’s halves in the fridge for the next day and his head in the oven with French fries and BBQ sauce. I’ve gone into detail about asado before so I won’t do so again, but I will stress that this may have been my favorite Independance Day celebration I’ve ever had. There’s more to it than just meat. Jenn’s site, Potrerito, sits on the edge of a large wetland that extends into Lago Ypoa National Park. She and I got up early with Alyssa and Hannah to tromp through the swamp in search of birds. Our birding excursion took us knee deep in mud with a pair of curious cows right on our tail. In my haste to find a way out of the mud, clambering through barbed wire fences, mimosa branches scratching at my arms and hands, water getting into my socks, and Hannah trying to get away from the most perplexed of our two new friends, we kind of forgot to look for birds. Whoops? Muddy and scratched up, we returned back to the house to a morning of mate, bananagrams, and mbeju, a delicious mandioca flour and cheese pancake and Ñande Ru‘s gift to mankind. We all put our boots on to brave the mud and headed out again for more swamp adventures. We saw toucans and howler monkeys, got good and muddy and found ourselves looking up into the branches of the Tajy Guazu. The Tajy Guazu is a gigantic Lapacho (Tajy in Guaraní and the national tree of Paraguay) and it had previously been recorded as one of the largest trees in Paraguay. The gnarly, twisted branches are a perfect spot for nests and you can hear parakeet screeches from above. It’s a beautiful tree. Old and gnarled. Rough and calloused. We measured it and fulfilled our status as tree-huggers, peering up into the branches one more time as we tromped back into the woods, headed to the house to slather a pig in lime juice and cumin.

Story 2: Opivo (naked)

On the actual Fourth, I headed to Chara’s in the afternoon so that I could catch the early morning bus to go pick up gardening supplies for my project. That morning we had come up with the brilliant idea of doing a mini BBQ celebration: Chicken and French fries, chocolate cake, maybe some low-grade Paraguayan fireworks from the despensa. We sat on the porch drinking ice cold terere perfect for the sunny afternoon. It was poised to be a tranquilo afternoon, but Chara’s host brother Juancito always has other ideas. He’s the four year old with the biggest personality I’ve ever seen. This is the child who pretends to be a drunk Indio on a regular basis. This is the kid that likes to call me Chancho instead of Chance. This is the kid who runs screaming, barefoot through the yard towing an empty caña bottle on a string behind him. And I this day, the Fourth of July, he decided to put on a show for us as we sat on Chara’s patio, escaping from the house, completely naked and dancing up a storm on the dirt patio. As we laughed, it only fueled the fire and he was taking quick steps, hands high above his head, swing every object he could find, from sticks and flip-flops to an old hubcap and a rope above his head. Between fits of laughter at his nude exposee, Chara would yell, “Careful! Papa is coming!” And Juancito would freeze, looking every which way with a worried expression on his face before realizing that it was a lie and returning to his strange naked jig. He was soon covered in dirt and dust and we laughed even harder when Chara’s host mom found him and dragged him inside.

We began the cultural exchange by telling the kids about “America’s birthday” as we waited for it to get dark. As the sun set, I turned on Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful” and each of us got to light a firework (50 cents each at the despensa) and watch the crackles and shimmers above Chara’s house. She and I feasted on fries and chicken slathered in barbecue sauce and passed bites of my home-made chocolate cake until we couldn’t eat anymore. The real cultural exchange, though, was probably her family getting to hear our American soundtrack of Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith and our fits of laughter as we toasted to America and Paraguay and regaled each other with stories from the last year and a half.&
An Independance Day has never been so Paraguayan, but I love the Americans that I get to share this experience with. It’s a beautiful thing to be a Peace Corps volunteer, with one foot in America and the other in Paraguay. I get to serve my country by serving the people of Paraguay, with huge pride to be a part of both cultures. So as always, God bless the USA and thank you for providing me this opportunity, this adventure, this life-changing two year terere circle.


Chillin with Avery

Chillin with Avery


Group photo with Avery

Group photo with Avery


Preparing to do the deed

Preparing to do the deed


Selfie with Avery

Selfie with Avery


Shaving with spoons and hot water

Shaving with spoons and hot water


The guapa Ña Valentina

The guapa Ña Valentina


Before

Before


After

After


The Squad: Donovan, Nicki, Chara, The Narrator, Jenn, Hannah, Ruby, Alyssa, and Mya

The Squad: Donovan, Nicki, Chara, The Narrator, Jenn, Hannah, Ruby, Alyssa, and Mya


A girl and her tree

A girl and her tree

Ja’u Kure Mbichy

Ja’u- We eat, Kure-pig/pork, Mbichy- grilled/asado

Let’s have a BBQ!


Oga Ita, Itapua, Paraguay

“Oima!” Ceferi shouts. It’s ready! A bowl of blackened meat fresh off the parilla is placed on the table, next to a large platter of boiled mandioca and another bowl of rice salad. Everyone converges on the table, appetites ready, fingers waggling over the bowl of meat, hesitating before choosing the prime piece. This is not a country for germaphobia. Paraguay is for sharing. BBQ’d pork in one hand, mandioca in the other, sometimes both in one so as to manage the spoon that’s being passed around the circle for the salad. Greasy hands, reused plates, passed around spoons, shared cans of beer, not to mention a wealth of passed around terere/mate. There’s only two degrees of bacteria between me and every man/woman/child within Paraguayan borders. But that’s out of mind. This is an asado. I can taste the lime juice and cumin that Ceferi used as a marinade. I can smell the orange, still burning amongst the coals, perfuming the air and the meat. I rip into the well-done piece of meat with no knowledge of what part of the pig it came from. Meat is meat. In this land, there’s head, feet, blood, organs, fat, and meat. Maybe the ribs are special, but otherwise, meat is meat.

In the Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay), asado is more than a BBQ. It’s culture. It’s practically religion. In Paraguay, pork is common fare and easy to obtain. Juicy chicken legs with crispy skin are also a favorite, as well as chorizo sausage, plump and fatty and sizzling. If a pig was killed that day, morcilla makes an appearance, my favorite (truthfully), crispy on the outside, soft coagulated blood and herbs on the inside. Mandioca is always present, sopa paraguaya as well, as something for the other hand to latch onto and to nibble on every other bite.

In most areas, asado brings the family together every Sunday. But in places like Oga Ita, where meat is scarce and money is even scarcer, it’s reserved for special occasions. Today was two: Fathers Day and the Oga Ita Football Club had won a big game yesterday. The prize was 20 kilos of fresh pork, hence the big asado. Immediately after arriving, I was greeted by everyone telling me “Happy Fathers Day!” slightly jokingly, but also realizing that it was entirely possible for this 24 year old gringo to have children somewhere. “Neira” I just replied. Not yet. Asado is special here. It’s reserved for days of relaxation. For conversation. For volley and eating and sitting in the sun drinking cold Polar and just letting the labor of the week wash away. Work is not brought up. No one asks me about my gardening or Yerba projects and I don’t ask about field work. It’s for joking and laughing and ripping into a piece of pork. It’s for listening to polka and laughing at failed spikes and feeding the gristle and bones to the dogs, who have been attentive and ready ever since the charcoal was laid out on the ground and the parillas were set up. It’s for cake on extra special occasions and sitting in homemade Adirondack chairs with a three year old on one knee and a five year old on the other. Asado is the smell and taste and sizzle of meat. It’s a celebration. And I’m always happy to celebrate with those in my community.

All seven of my host brothers are fathers. My “host father” died ten years ago, but I’ve never felt lacking for a male figure in my life here. They’ve been brothers and fathers and friends, teaching me more than I could ever teach them. And I always have my dad back home, Andy Wilcox with his big mustache and his even bigger support for me during this weird and amazing journey. This day was for all of them, all of the fathers in my life. So I raise my chunk of pork, grease dripping down my wrist, and say “Feliz Día! Ja’u asado!”


Arsenio and Ceferi, my brothers and master asadors

Arsenio and Ceferi, my brothers and master asadors

Che Roga’i

Che- Me/My. Roga- House. ‘i- diminutive, to say something is small/tiny. My little house.

My Paraguayan Style Studio Shack with Outdoor Spaces. Listed at $40/month.


Óga Ita, Itapúa, Paraguay

It’s a slow morning. In the schools, exams have started in preparation for winter break and my services as environmental educator aren’t really needed until the new semester. We haven’t started planting Yerba yet because it’s too dry and hasn’t rained for awhile. We’re waiting for a downpour. So I can breathe for a second. I can sit on my patio with a cup of coffee, wrapped up in my thick red sweater, and just look out at the grazing pasture that surrounds my little house. I hear polka on the radio from my family’s house and can see the flicker of light from the fire in the kitchen. I smell neglected apepu/naranja hai/sour oranges, decaying on my lawn, fallen from the tree in front of my house, and ignored because of their bitter taste.  Guinea fowl screech, chicks chirp from the kitchen, Moritz yowls, a cow bellows, the neighbor’s dog barks, Sebastian cries from somewhere around the property, probably because Rolando tackled him. It’s 7 AM on a chilly winter morning and I go back inside to make Mbeju for breakfast.

Many volunteers in Paraguay do their mandatory stay with a host family at the beginning of their service and then move into their own homes. Some find existing houses or apartments, some build their own. For me, in such a small community, there was only one option and I continue to love where I live almost a year and a half after moving in.

My house is a small 12′ x 12′ shack, situated just off to the side of my host family’s house. It’s up against a small parcel of forest and borders the grazing pasture that keeps our five cows busy during the day. The distance between my house and that of the Baez family is perfect. I have privacy and can choose to have days without interaction, if I want to, but it’s close enough that I can hear my name being called to come fetch a plate of food. Generally I interact with my host family on a daily basis and I’ve now become so integrated as Chance Baez that I kind of waltz in and out of the house and property whenever I want. I borrow things from the kitchen, take ice from the freezer, eggs from the chicken house if my mom doesn’t need them, and steal the occasional chipa from its ever-present bowl above the oven. I can come for breakfast or lunch any day of the week, for terere or mate. I’ve helped my family dig for mandioca as my post-run workout, I’ve shucked corn with them, kneaded chipa dough with them, celebrated holidays with them, shared my culinary endeavors, like banana bread and zucchini cake with them, loaned the occasional pepper or onion to them, and have called them my family since Day 1. I am proud to called Ña Benita “Mamá” and my heart sings when I hear my brothers call me hermanito. I do not regret continuing to live with a host family and am so thankful for their presence in my life.

My actual house is what I’ve described as “a wooden tent”. Small. Breezy. Haphazardly thrown together five years ago. Perfect for one volunteer, one campo cat, and 8000 spiders. It’s one room with a covered dirt patio in front. Orange trees surround it on all sides and I’ve made my garden right up against the house and patio for easy access. I have an outdoor shower that Lalo and I built when I first moved in and a small, recently installed, modern bathroom with an outdoor sink to do my dishes and laundry. Inside, I have a bed, refrigerator, gas oven, small table, and a collection of fruit crates that house books, clothes, technical manuals, dishes, dry goods, medical supplies, and even stranger items, like my collection of cow horns, a manta ray egg sac from Uruguay, a dead bothrops jararacussu in a jar as part of the volunteer snake kit, jars of dried eucalyptus, rosemary, anise, dillseed, burrito, and siemprevive. Below a large physical map of Paraguay hangs my banjo, passed down from another volunteer. Beside my map of Important Birding Areas of Paraguay hangs my weirdly expanding collection of backpacks. My yoga mat seems to always be on the cement floor, less for yoga, more for working on charlas and lesson planning while I sprawl on the ground. One window opens to my patio and another looks out over my garden with a perfect view of the sunsets over my neighbor’s parcel of forest. Nails act as hooks for my hammer, machete, huge straw hat, hammock, duct tape, and the hand-made broom given to me by my neighbor Teodoro. A Carapegua style woven blanket covers my bed, situated under my mosquito net. On my table I always have my planner, journal, folders dedicated to teaching, Yerba, and gardening, my Spanish dictionary, and my running list of Guaraní verbs, as well as a bowl of bagels or a loaf of bread. My fridge holds the strangest variety of objects. Staples like vinegar, mayo, veggies, and eggs are there, but also oddities like a jar of spicy bean paste with a label all in Chinese, Camembert cheese acquired from a Swiss cheese maker by my friend Ruby, an unlabeled jar of homemade dulce de leche, freshly boiled cow’s milk, a handful of wild cilantro that I found yesterday, fresh ginger root, wasabi paste, a bottle of homemade BBQ sauce, a plate of boiled mandioca, a frozen box of Thin Mints, and an abundance of green manure and garden vegetable seeds. Some of these things have their place in a campo fridge. Some most definitely do not.

I live in 144 square feet. Call me part of the tiny house movement, but you most certainly will not find solar panels on my roof. My electricity comes from the illegally rigged connection (Don’t tell anyone) to the street power lines that connect to Paraguay’s 100% hydroelectric power source. My water bill is $3 a month. My rent is $40. Today Lalo told me his plans to eventually put another two rooms onto my house and I honestly couldn’t imagine what I’d do with that much space. 144′ is all I need and I still have extra space! When it gets hot, I plug in a fan and drink terere. When it’s cold, I put on extra layers and drink mate. The only cleaning it really requires is a daily sweep and a weekly spider check in all the corners. Living is simple.

It’s a chilly evening and I put on an extra pair of wool socks. I can hear the news on the radio from my family’s house and a beautiful Paraguayan harp ballad from the radio at the neighbor’s house. Crickets are chirping and the stars are already coming out at 6 PM. I smell smoke from my mothers kitchen and hear Elvin rattling on inside while he watches her fry tortillas. Evenings are so tranquilo. I light incense, feed Moritz, clean up my house a bit. I sit on the patio with mate or plan lessons, drawing up large presentation papers while sitting on my yoga mat. I heat water to bucket bathe in order to actually get clean. I cook up eggs or pasta or probably Mbeju and listen to podcasts or music. At some point, it all goes quiet except for the crickets and the occasional screech of a burrowing owl. My family goes to bed and I take in the quiet of the campo before going to bed myself.

Che Po Jare

Che- My, Po- Hand(s), (also the Guaraní word for five, considering the amount of fingers you have), Jare- Dirty. My dirty hands.


Oga Ita, Itapua, Paraguay

I popped a slice of mandarin in my mouth as we walked down the path from Silvio’s kokue to the road. Amongst the sweet tang of the orange was the earthy flavor of dirt that was now caked all over my hands and thus the mandarin as well. My once khaki work pants had taken on the dark red color of the soil on the thighs, cuffs, butt, and knees. We walked down the road and I listened to all of the farmers in my community, equally as caked with dirt, laughing and joking and singing a chorus of nde tavy and nde rakore and the always-rowdy “caña call”. I tasted the dirt and looked at my hands and listened to my laughing neighbors and smiled at this moment of happiness, the likes of which I’ve been experiencing day after day lately.

In March I happened to meet with Rodrigo, the Supervisor of Protected Areas for Guyra Paraguay, in his office in Asuncion. My ultimate goal was to find project opportunities with Guyra, an amazing conservation organization that is the Paraguayan equivalent of the Audubon Society. They have a huge presence in my region, with a biological station in San Rafael and a history of reforestation projects throughout the surrounding communities. Rodrigo instantly began discussing a project to plant Yerba Mate near San Rafael that had just been funded. The theme was shade-grown, organic yerba and its socioeconomic effect on the smaller, poorer communities in the area, as well as the effect on biodiversity as a reforestation and conservation project. During the meeting, we added Oga Ita to the project and started immediately.

Yerba is native to the region. It loves shade and forest soil. The Jesuits originally found out from the Mby’a Indians how to cultivate it and prep the seeds, rather than waiting for the jaku, a large turkey-like bird, to come eat the Yerba berries and defecate the seeds, as is done naturally. It takes five years for it to mature before one can harvest it by pruning the branches. Its value is immense, both to those who sell it and to the culture of Paraguay, Southern Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina, as well as those who frequent Whole Foods and fancy themselves “fun and experimental” in the US. It can be the difference between living in poverty and being well off in this district, the most impoverished in Itapua. As part of this project, I’ve been doing socioeconomic surveys with the farmers receiving yerba. It’s been saddening and humbling to hear how much they make per year on agricultural products, sometimes as low as $100 per year. This is their entire income. Otherwise they must turn to the government, whose money gets transferred from pocket to pocket and doesn’t really amount to much for the lower class. But there were a couple farmers who happened to have much larger annual agricultural incomes and for awhile I couldn’t understand why it could be so much higher than their neighbors’. Until yesterday. Looking at the completed surveys, I realized that the difference between those who had practically nothing and those who had enough to get by comfortably was yerba. Full grown, mature, harvestable, sellable, consistent, reliably in-demand yerba. It has an impact and is visibly changing the quality of life in the area.

Today we started. 30,000 yerba mate seedlings are being delivered to Oga Ita. At each house, we count out thirty plants, put them in a box and pass them to be placed in a shady spot on the grass until we’ve reached the right quantity for each family. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a lot of work, especially considering there are 1,000-2,000 plants per family and I was kneeling all day, knees in the dirt, leaning seedlings up against each other in their plastic containers. At the end of each load at each house, the farmer would have to sign a letter of agreement and then I watched as each one stood back and really looked at their new sea of yerba on their lawn. The looks of happiness on their faces, the smiles just then, the joking throughout the day, the laughing, the passing of a liter bottle of sickly sweet honey and caña in celebration, the comments of rovy’a and omba’apokuaa Chance made it worth it. They make this whole experience, every up and down in the last year and a half, every struggle with Guaraní and every bus breaking down and every vegetable planted and every chipa eaten and every rainy downpour and every loss of electricity and every bite of asado and every handshake, kiss on the cheek, hug, and smile worth it. Because I know that in ten years I’ll be able to come back and see huge lines of yerba in their parcels of forest and tung trees, big and beautiful and pruned and harvested, and I’ll know that it’s making a difference in their lives. And that maybe, just maybe, that somewhere in that bag of yerba mate that I’ll have to import from Paraguay to the US, is just one leaf or one stem or one little fleck of ka’a that came from Oga Ita that I helped deliver and plant and got my hands dirty in the process.


Karai Asuhaga with his new yerba!

Karai Asuhaga with his new yerba!


Unloading the truck at sunset

Unloading the truck at sunset


This is what 10,000 plants looks like

This is what 10,000 plants looks like


Beautiful plantitas!

Beautiful plantitas!

Tekoha Guazu

Tekoha Guazu- Grand Nature. Also the Guaraní name for the San Rafael Reserve.


Oga Ita, Itapua, Paraguay- World Biodiversity Day

Walking south of Oga Ita, you find yourself in the community of Santa Ana. It’s just as hilly as every other town in the area and just as friendly. It’s simple, like Oga Ita, but it has a larger school and even a small chapel. As you round the corner toward the school, headed uphill again, you see a sign with a large bird on it. It’s the red-throated, blue-eyed, white-crested Jaku (Pava de monte in Spanish, Guan in English). The sign says “Welcome to Santa Ana: Gateway to San Rafael”. If you pass the school and walk up up up the hill beyond, you find yourself overlooking a stunning vista. You can see the two even cerros that separate my community from Chara’s. You can see Santa Ana laid out in a small valley. But the most beautiful part of the vista is the deep green of trees, unbroken and seemingly eternal, that extend north toward Oga Ita and Jovere and further east. You’re looking at one of Paraguay’s largest last standing expanses of untouched Atlantic Forest- La Reserva Para El Parque San Rafael. 

San Rafael is a natural treasure of Paraguay and sometimes I can’t believe I’m fortunate enough to live along its border. The reserve is not a federally managed park, but rather a mixed bag of privately and publicly owned land that many people and organizations work to protect and others would like to see turned into a National Park, hence the official name, “Reserve for San Rafael Park”. San Rafael is special. It’s beautiful. It’s a hotspot for biodiversity and one of Paraguay’s Important Birding Areas due to the high concentration of bird species. It’s a wealth of tree and plant species as well, including an endemic arboreal fern called chachi that reached heights of 15 feet. It’s the home of the Mby’a Indians who still rely on its natural resources to live. And it’s really one of the last places of its kind in Paraguay.

That expanse of green is more than just trees. Go to most other parts of Paraguay and there’s very little forest, if any at all. The green sea extending out from Santa Ana is a symbol of life and wilderness in a country where wilderness stands in the way of producing more soy. The protection of San Rafael is important to the future of Paraguay’s relationship with the environment. It’s important to the chachi and the jaku and the jagua rete’i (ocelot) that live there. It’s important to the Mby’a and their culture. It’s important to me, a volunteer who has seen other parts of Paraguay, treeless, flat, covered in soy and red, bland dirt, where there used to be what I see from the top of that cerro in Santa Ana.

So today, on World Biodiversity Day,  I give thanks that I live next to the Reserve. I get to be a part of the efforts to protect it and all of the beautiful biological diversity that hides inside. I get to teach my students about birds and snakes and I get to show my community members the photos from my trap camera. I get to work with NGOs who care, who want to change the way Paraguayans look at nature. I get to make a difference and have a ton of fun while doing it.

Looking up through the chachi

Looking up through the chachi


Chachi

Chachi


Chara and I at the entrance to San Rafael

Chara and I at the entrance to San Rafael


The entrance to the biological station in San Rafael, managed by Guyra Paraguay. More on my relationship with Guyra another day!

The entrance to the biological station in San Rafael, managed by Guyra Paraguay. More on my relationship with Guyra another day!


A volunteer from Guyra came to teach with me about parrot conservation. Here are my students with their parrot drawings!

A volunteer from Guyra came to teach with me about parrot conservation. Here are my students with their parrot drawings!


A Teju, or black Iguana, as seen on my trap camera on my family's property

A Teju, or black Iguana, as seen on my trap camera on my family’s property


A Jagua rete'i, or ocelot, speeding past the trap camera

A Jagua rete’i, or ocelot, speeding past the trap camera

Jakay’u

Jakay’u- Let’s drink mate. Not to be confused with jaka’u (let’s get drunk).


Oga Ita, Itapua, Paraguay

What seems like a very long time ago, I wrote a post entitled Daily Rituals. It was about the ins and outs of terere and mate, two of Paraguay’s greatest cultural treasures. I described how to make it, what the differences were, all the equipment necessary, and the general process (go ahead and read it if you haven’t yet!). It was informative. I was new to yerba. I was fresh out of training. I wanted to share. I was naive. Things were different.

Mom…. Dad…..

I’m an addict.

I need yerba.

Those little green flecks and small brown stems, looking like lily pads and sodden logs in a clear pond, have become more than just a daily ritual. The taste of tin on the tip of that straw before the burst of bitter leaves and sweet petals and refreshing herbs is what I appreciate with rigor in an almost hourly fashion of my woken state. Mate at 5, terere at 9, again at 2, mate again at 5 like clockwork, unless it’s winter, in which case I refill my termo with hot water every hour on the hour. Or in the summer when I wake up sweating at sunrise and the only answer is a brick of ice, a pitcher of water, a horn of bitter herb, and a perspiring straw. Pour, drink, sweat, repeat. I don’t see it as a problem. Only a solution to my problems. Hot? Terere. Cold? Mate. Bored? Terere. Tired? Mate. People on your patio that most certainly are overstaying their welcome? Terere. But I never need a reason. The handle to a pitcher or termo form-fits perfectly in my left hand and the guampa seems to have fused to my right. Give me Yerba normal, in its beautiful paper packaging, bird or blonde gracing the front, dusty, dry, pure yerba on the inside. Or give me compuesta, mint and boldo and burrito and moringa and rosemary and amaranth and dill and anis and chamomile and coconut and eucalyptus all making appearances throughout my day; not all at once, but in all the right combinations. Give me my sleek, blue plastic, red-spouted, black-capped, steaming-hot thermos. Hand me my brown leather, cowhide wrapped, stitched up, wide-mouthed, artisanal cold thermos. Pass me a pitcher, perspiring clear glass, simple yellow plastic, tall and thin, short and wide, smooth or patterned, normal or shaped like a pineapple, filled with water, clanking with a large brick of ice, sweetened with the taste of tall green lemongrass and wide-leafed, stubby rooted tarope and fairy flowered Santa Lucia, all mashed up and mixed together until you can no longer see your hand through the glass and swampy water of the sweaty pitcher. Give me a tin cup, a wooden cylinder, a wide mouthed gourd, a long cow horn, a silver chalice, a tooled leather Recuerdo de Paraguay, a handcrafted, sweet-smelling piece of Palo Santo. It’s what matters on the inside, what flavors the water, is filtered and flows up the straw, ultimately ending up on the tip of my tongue and swallowed with satisfaction.

I’m an addict. It’s more than a cultural tradition. It’s a ritual I crave. For the taste. For the feel of the guampa in my hand and the straw on my lips. For the satisfaction of icy cold on a hot day or steaming hot on a cool one. For the sound of sucking the last drops out, the clank of the ice, the chatter and laughter of conversation that passes around the circle faster than the guampa. For the gossip and news. For the company. For the feeling of inclusion. For the permittance to partake in a piece of Paraguay.

I’m addicted to Yerba. I’m addicted to tradition. I’m addicted to Paraguay.

Jakay'u! Let's drink mate!

Jakay’u! Let’s drink mate!


Roli understands my love for yerba

Roli understands my love for yerba


Bus Station Mate

Bus Station Mate


Terere is always better with good company

Terere is always better with good company