650 Days

My 650th day in Paraguay seems as good a day as any to finally publish another blog post. (That’s 650 days since first getting to Paraguay; I’ve spent around 50 of those days traveling elsewhere.) It has been a while.

There are now fewer than five months until our official “close of service” (COS) date! Most volunteers take a few weeks or a few months after COS to travel before heading back to the U.S., but since I have a cat to transport, a boyfriend waiting for me, and – most importantly – no money, my plan is to be home by the end of November. Speaking of which, if anyone has a job opening for me, I am now accepting applications for potential employers!

Of course, despite my increasingly frequent daydreams of city life, hiking opportunities, an office job, and access to great food, five months is still a decent chunk of time. I have a lot left on my to-do list for Paraguay.

Before leaving my community, I want to finish a scientific method/science experiment project I’ve been doing with 7th, 8th, and 9th graders. Ideally, we will do a science fair with them and/or have science professionals come to the school to talk about college/career options. I want to continue organizing a reading buddies program with the 1st, 2nd, 5th, and 6th graders and to figure out the best way to leave the books with the school so that they’ll actually be used after I leave. I want to implement some better waste management practices in the school that could potentially be replicated in homes. I want to make an educational video with the kids to teach them and others about caring for the environment or better managing waste (while also inspiring creativity and story-telling). Finally, I want to paint a world map on a wall of the school and do some activities with the kids to learn about geography. This last project is one we’ve been trying to start for a while, but we are waiting on funds from the municipality to buy paints and other supplies.

Honestly, if all these things can be accomplished before I leave, these next 5 months will be more “productive” then the last 21.

I frequently worry about whether I’m doing enough here. I think we all do. Feeling unproductive is common in Peace Corps service. Most organizations and individuals are results-driven and achieve great things by setting a series of small goals and moving forward be accomplishing each in turn; Peace Corps service on the other hand takes volunteers who want to change the world or at least a couple lives, gives them very few ways to measure their progress toward these lofty goals, and then defines success as still being in-country and mostly sane after two years. I think it’s beautiful that we have a government organization devoted to sharing cultures, building international relationships on a local level, lending a hand here and there, and hoping everyone grows from the experience, but it’s a frustrating job.

For example, if I saw widespread household trash burning, I would want to change laws or devote resources to building state-of-the-art incineration and recycling facilities rather than just asking people to stuff all their trash into plastic soda bottles and use these to build crappy benches. (This is obviously just a random, hypothetical example and not something that keeps me up at night in my house filled with piles of my trash and clouds of smoke from neighbors’ trash fires.)

Foreground: an eco-brick. Background: bags of trash to be stuffed into future eco-bricks

As I reflect on what it means to be successful as a Peace Corps Volunteer/world citizen/human, I often think about what our APCD (basically the leader of the environmental sector here at Peace Corps Paraguay and also a lovely and intelligent Paraguayan woman) says: that a successful service is one in which the volunteer is happy and the community is happy. I think about this philosophy mostly because I disagree with it, but I can’t seem to decide whether I disagree because it’s too low a bar or too high. This experience has made me feel grateful, challenged, and humbled, but it has rarely made me happy. Besides, I want something to show for my time beyond emotions.

This same APCD visited me a few days ago for a routine second-year visit. We went to the school and visited an important family so she could ask how things are going and gauge the community’s interest in getting another volunteer when I leave. I was a little nervous before the visit because I didn’t feel like I had anything concrete or impressive to show off from my recent work, but everyone told her how good a person I am and raved about how much they appreciated my talents and hard work. (Note: when they talked about my talent and hard work, they were not talking about my abilities as an environmental volunteer or literacy educator. Rather, they are talking almost exclusively of my ability to make decorations for their classrooms. They described in great detail my ability to cut animals out of colorful paper without using models.) The APCD said those positive reviews were important and a sign that my service is going well.

Of course, hearing that people are impressed by my artistic talents and want another volunteer who can also do all the artistic work in the school wasn’t really the validation I was looking for. Nevertheless, this visit did provide another reminder of the value Peace Corps is bringing to me and my community. During the car ride to my site from the Peace Corps office in Asuncion, I was telling the APCD about some of the books I’d been sharing with the kids at the school and with my neighbors. I’ll get to the part of this conversation that stuck with me after providing a bit of background information.

Literacy education is not part of my job description, but it’s an area where I have a little bit of experience and a lot of passion, and it’s an area where this country has a lot of need. Paraguay does not have a strong reading culture (or really any reading culture) due to a number of factors including an absolutely abysmal primary education system, the relatively high cost of books, an absence of libraries, and the fact that many people’s primarily language is Guarani, which was only converted into a written language a few decades ago. I don’t have high hopes of significantly changing this situation as a Peace Corps Volunteer, but thanks to some people in the U.S. (mostly Grandma Betty) I have approximately 30 Spanish-language children’s books to share with my community.

I’ve been using these books for a reading buddies program, and about once a week I read to the preschoolers and kindergartners. Neither of these activities has produced dramatic results, but I’m noticing small hints of progress that give me hope; for instance, every time I read with the littlest kids, more of them know to start a book from its front cover instead of back.

I’m also trying to share the books with kids who come to my house regularly. Recently, I gave my neighbor a copy of The Giving Tree for his fourth birthday. He asked his mom to read it to him every single night for weeks and he can pretty much recite it by memory. I also gave another neighbor the first Harry Potter book for his 11th birthday. Later that day, I saw his mom sitting outside reading it.

“Wow,” she said “this is great! It’s like a story!” Less than a week later she called over the fence between our yards “do you have any more of those Harry Potter books? I stayed up late last night and finished it. I never really wanted to watch the movies, but reading it is so much better!” I think that was probably the proudest moment of my Peace Corps service and maybe my life.

As I was telling our coordinator about these small moments, she turned to me and said “see, they might not have these experiences if you weren’t here.” (Except she said this in Spanish and also she didn’t actually turn to me because she was driving, and having a conversation in a car without looking at the road is only possible in movies)

Of course, I didn’t do all that much work to make these experiences possible – I didn’t build a library or teach anyone to read – but it’s true that if I weren’t here my neighbor probably wouldn’t be reading Harry Potter and almost certainly wouldn’t be having conversations about Harry Potter with a woman from New Hampshire… and I wouldn’t be sitting in my hammock, drinking tereré and listening to my neighbors discuss Harry Potter in an indigenous language that 3 years ago I didn’t even know existed. I believe this is part of why Peace Corps service isn’t a complete waste of time. My being here in Paraguay has provided me and at least a few Paraguayans with experiences we would not have had otherwise. Not many of those experiences are dramatically life-changing, but they all add to our lives in some way.


Ending the School Year in Paraguay 

Celebrations are a big part of life in Paraguay, and this extends to the school year. School lets out at the end of November, but the celebrations marking its end begin months before and sometimes end weeks after. 

First there is the intergrado. This involves competitions between the grades (or in the case of universities, between the majors/programs of study). The main event is a series of fútbol games. For the elementary school, preschool plays against kindergarten, first grade against second, and so on. 

But before the grades face off on the field, they compete in a desfile. Each class coordinates outfits (even buying personalized jerseys and shorts), elects a queen, makes a poster, and writes a short speach to be read by an announcer at the event. (Honestly, it is actually the teachers who do all this.) The classes walk around a field and are judged on their presentation. There is also a sort of beauty pageant-style competition between the queens of each grade. I was somewhat confused as to how people judge 5 year olds against 15 year olds, but I guess it isn’t much more perplexing than the average beauty pageant. At the end of this year’s desfile, multiple groups of kids performed coreographed dances – all to the song La Bicicleta. 

In addition to attending the elementary school integrado, I was recruited to participate in a college level one with my neighbor who is studying ingeniera comercial (business). Their group decided to represent the 3 primary cultures of the area in their presentation. Ironically, I was the Paraguaya. There were also Brazilians and Germans.  

I’m the one in the pink skirt – the outfit women wear for performing “traditional” dances

After the intergrado, I attended a féria to celebrate the completion of the first year of Tikichuela, a new science curriculum for preschoolers which brings hands-on lessons into the classroom with audio tapes and other materials for the teachers. I had helped make a lot of decorations and recuerdos (souvineers to give the attendees) for the event. 

Little scientists presenting water filtration

It was great to see a celebration of an interactive program in a school system which is notoriously non-interactive (based almost exclusively around copying off the blackboard), though most of the “experiments” presented by the students were actually just them repeating memorized information about a topic. Groups from 5 to 10 local schools attended and one will end up going to present in Asunción. 

With one of the volunteers nearest to me. Her school was also in attendance.

After this féria was another for the school in my community. Each grade presented a project and there were some dance performances and lots of food provided. 

Fifth graders explaining how to make yogurt

Then there was the clausura (closing) to celebrate the end of the year with the preschoolers and kindergarteners. It was basically a graduation with certificates given to each student. The families came with food, cake, additional relatives, and gifts for the graduates. Again, I helped a lot with decorations and keepsakes.

The week after school ended there was also a ceremony to pass back exam grades and honor the students with the highest grades in each class, but as often happens I didn’t have my radio so’o (“meat radio,” a term for the way local gossip spreads… not sure of its origin) tuned to the right frequency so I didn’t find out this event was happening until the last minute. 

Grateful Because of and Despite…

Thanksgiving day, I went to another volunteer’s house about 2 hours from mine. Ten other PCVs brought food or cooked food there, and we had a delicious and more-than-satisfying feast. 

This is half the food

When I set out that morning to walk to the main route, I was already feeling a general sense of gratitude for life. Sure, I dropped a pan on my toe as I left my house, and my hastily applied bandage fell off about a half kilometer down the road (I passed it on my way home the next day), but as I walked along with my toe free-bleeding in my dusty Chaco sandals, I felt content. I sent a series of WhatsApp voice messages and was grateful for my ability to easily switch back and forth between English and Spanish. I was also grateful, as I always am on this walk, for the experience of living in a community where every house I pass offers a nod, wave, one word greeting, question about where I’m going, or offer of something to drink.

Later, I had to take a bus I’d never taken before, and my only confirmation that I was headed the right way came from a kid who looked about 8 years old. I was nervous, checking my phone for directions as the battery quickly drained. Then I stopped worrying long enough to remind myself that I was on a bus in rural Paraguay, thousands of miles from home, passing through land I had never seen before… while I looked down at my phone. Instead, I looked out the window and watched as we passed soy and corn fields, eucalyptus plantations, small clusters of native trees, and scattered houses. Admittedly, it looked pretty much the same as most places I’ve been in Paraguay, but I took a moment to appreciate how normal it now feels to look at this landscape as the other people on the bus passed around tereré and chatted in Jopará (the Guaraní-Spanish blend most Paraguayans speak). I though about how grateful I am that something I dreamed of doing for 15 years is now my everyday life. This experience isn’t always enjoyable, but it is certainly making my life more full and interesting. I felt gratitude for the opportunity to spend enough time in a foreign country for it to become so familiar, and also for me to truly appreciate my own. 

Not actually anywhere near where the bus was driving

My nerves returned when I noticed I was the last passenger on the bus, but just as I started to imagine worse case scenarios the driver asked “where did you want to get off? You’re another North American, right?” He dropped me off two blocks from my destination and pointed me in the right direction. 

Of course, when I arrived (around 1pm) there was no electricity and the anticipated meal time of 4 pm had been put on hold since the ovens were electric. But the time passed quickly as we chatted, and just when we got desperate enough to reach for bread and other pre-cooked items, the lights came on and we got back to cooking. 

We didn’t sit down to eat until almost 9 pm, but we were grateful for the delicious food, everything that went into making it, and all the experiences that brought us to that moment. We gave thanks for this past year of self discovery and growth; for the education and opportunities that allowed us and inspired us to do something like Peace Corps; for everyone who is there for us on the hard days: our fellow volunteers, Paraguayan neighbors, and friends and family back home; for the luxuries of life in Paraguay that we never expected to have as PCVs. Although much of what we were expressing included a “despite…” or “even though…”, the gratitude came easily. 

Friday, it wasn’t quite as easy. I got an 11 am bus from the other volunteer’s house, which meant I got to my community around 12:45 – the worst time of day to be walking the 2km back to my house along the dirt road with no shade. Every time a vehicle passed me, it kicked up a cloud of dust. One such vehicle was a tractor plowing the road. I groaned, knowing that these tractors hit a water pipe every single time they come. Of course, the driver still had the nerve to honk at me as he passed!

But when I got home, there was still water, so I put the tractor out of my mind and got to work preparing my second thanksgiving feast for the next day. I planned to share the tradition with my neighbors and friends in my community. 

I rode my bike to buy two gigantic frozen chickens. Luckily all the local dogs were enjoying siesta hour, so I didn’t have anyone following me as I rode back with one chicken in my backpack and the other hanging off my handlebars. 

As I got to my house, I noticed a beak poking out of the plastic bag. Not a promising sight 18 hours before I needed to put the birds in the oven! I was afraid they would still be frozen the next day and with some de-assembling work left to be done. This two, I decided to forget about. 

Spoiler: yup, there was a head

As luck (or lack of luck) would have it, the timeline on the meal was pushed back a day. An hour or two after I got back and put the chickens in a bucket of water to de-frost, the water went out. 

It stayed out until the following evening. I had enough water saved to take a bucket bath (very much needed) but not enough for my dish-washing and food-cooking needs. I sat around fuming (as in, I was irritated, but also emitting hot, smelly fumes) and snapped a few times at the kids who came over to play. 

But when the water came back around 6 pm Saturday night, I got cooking and by noon on Sunday I was able to prepare 4 pies, 3 trays of stuffing, a big bowl of mashed potatoes, gravy, sautéed ginger carrots, bread rolls, and one of two chickens. 

I didn’t have time to cook the other chicken because when I opened up the first one I discovered it did in fact still posses a full neck and head. I tried sawing at the neck but when it didn’t come off easily I chickened out (pun so intended that I added this sentence just to include it). I thought maybe there was some special technique or specific place where I should be cutting and decided to call for backup from someone more knowledgeable. Unfortunately, all my neighbors had decided to attend church that week, and I couldn’t find anyone to help with my post-mortem decapitation for an hour or more. When I finally did ask for help, my neighbor graciously only laughed at me for a little while, I don’t think word of my ineptitude has spread far since then. It turned out that I had been on the right track with my earlier sawing, and the job was more a matter of persistence than skill (at least when you don’t own any knives designed to cut meat and bone). She also reminded me to stab the bird repeatedly like it was someone I hate, which I did despite the fact that I don’t feel stabbing level hatred toward anyone. 

Not surprisingly, the chicken prep wasn’t the first time this neighbor saved my meal by sharing crucial information. Earlier, I had bought a packet of what I thought was an herb that would go nicely in the stuffing and on the chickens. I didn’t recognize the name and google translate didn’t help, so I asked my neighbor to see if she knew another name for it. 

“What are you going to use it for?”

“I was thinking of using it on my food…” 

“It’s to make teas that help you poop!” 

After a call to another friend and some more googling, I confirmed that I had almost included a fairly strong laxative in my thanksgiving feast. Given the persistence of Paraguayan food myths, I am quite sure that mistake would have led everyone in my community and maybe the country to believe that eating apple pie causes a gruesome explosive death for anyone outside the U.S. 

Luckily my thanksgiving lunch left many survivors. It wasn’t heavily attended, but the guests politely tried the strange new foods and offered numerous compliments of the salad (unbeknownst to them, this was the one thing I didn’t make, but I will admit my friend did a great job with it). 

After eating, we even got into a lively discussion of politics, gender roles, and family planning, which made it feel just like a true Thanksgiving gathering! 

Again, I was grateful – for running water when I have it; for the friends I’ve made here; for the dialogue across cultures, political parties, and fútbol clubs; and for the ability to semi-successfully cook an entire thanksgiving meal (without recipes) that didn’t kill anyone…

…At least that I know of… I haven’t seen one of the guests since. 

Two Weeks of My Summer Left

The following was written in early September, 2016 but not published until now:

 [PSA related to this post’s title: If you are a Harry Potter fan and have yet to listen to the Harry and the Potters wizard rock song about the last two weeks of Harry’s summer before his third year at Hogwarts, please do so before reading on.]

Two weeks from now, I will be in Paraguay.

There are many reasons I don’t want to go. First of all,  I have a boyfriend whom I love and get along with quite well. We’ve been dating for a little over 7 months, which is not very long in scheme of things but is significantly longer than my previous record of approximately 3 dates. Besides not wanting to leave him, there are a number of major life events I will miss in the next 27 months (2 and 1/4 years). For instance, I will be away for my sister’s college graduation, both of my grandmothers’ 90th birthdays, and my cat’s 18th birthday (roughly 90 in cat years). I am also very disappointed that I won’t be able to vote for our first female president in-person or attend her inauguration on the National Mall. (I’m not superstitious, but I knocked on wood after writing that just in case, because the universe seems to have developed a twisted sense of humor for this election.)  Last but not least, I don’t know whether the new Gilmore Girls episodes will be on Netflix in Paraguay, and that seems an awfully big risk to take.

Despite all this, I can’t wait to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. It is something I have wanted to do for at least ten years, and my intended roll (Environmental Education Promotor) seems pretty much perfect as far as I’m concerned. The fact that I know very little about Paraguay or what I will actually be doing there makes me even more excited, though I’ll admit I am a bit nervous about living in a hot, flat, and landlocked country and learning a third language (Guaraní). Other than actually packing, I am ready for the “toughest job you’ll ever love” everyone talks about.

Of course, as anyone who has experienced the medieval (?) execution/torture method where they tie you to two different horses can probably attest, being pulled in two different directions is a bit uncomfortable. Right now, half of me is tied to where I am while the other half is on a plane to South America.But I feel so lucky because I know how wonderfully fortunate I am that there is virtually nothing in my life I want to give up, and practically nothing in my future I want to avoid. Before I got my invitation to serve in the Peace Corps, I was in the exact opposite place. When people asked me if I was ready to graduate, my answer was “well, I’m definitely ready to be done with college, but I’m also not excited for the ‘real world.'”

I would much rather be pulled in two directions than pushed from one thing to the next, because it’s just love and joy at the end of those ropes right now.  



Cheese and Other Things I Really Missed

Greetings, friends! It is now autumn in Paraguay, which means somewhat cool weather and lots (and lots and lots and lots) of rain. I haven’t seen the sun in two weeks and haven’t been able to do laundry in almost as long since it is currently impossible to dry clothes or anything else. Everything I own is moldy, including my refrigerator (the outside of it), my pillowcase, and potentially my wrist… That rash I thought was some sort of bug was diagnosed as a fungus by a doctor in the U.S.

Speaking of which, I was in the good ol’ U.S. of A. for a week in May. You may have noticed from the excessive number of selfies on my Instagram account. This was the first time in my life that I used a round-trip ticket to the United States.

I don’t think I will ever not be amazed by flying. Anyone know where this land is?
It was so good to be back.

Selfies on the roof of the Kennedy Center
First of all, the air! The fresh, fragrant air! I spent all week sniffing and breathing deeply, and I am now even more determined to help my Paraguayan community find an alternative to household trash burning.

More importantly, the food! You doubt the greatness of America? In 8 days I ate, among other things: double chocolate cookies in the car on the way home from the airport, fancy homemade pizza, Afghan/Pakistani kabobs and sides, a turkey sub and 4 types of chips for a picnic in front of the Lincoln Memorial, a Thanksgiving-style turkey sandwich for another picnic in a park, homemade stir-fry, a mango-mint-pineapple pastry, a big bowl of pho, 15 types of cheeses, unlimited small dishes of gourmet Balkan food, ban mi and bubble tea at a Vietnamese shopping center, 2 shared pints of Ben and Jerry’s, many types of fruit, homemade sourdough bread and pancakes, sashimi, fried octopus and other Japanese dishes, a hamburger at the Watergate, salmon at a fancy French restaurant, Peruvian chicken, homemade seared tuna burritos with spicy pineapple salsa, and a chocolate Turkish coffee birthday cake baked by me (the other stuff was made by Shawn)

Eating seaweed and raw fish and stuff like that with Shawn, Claire, and my father… Wonderful picture (sarcasm is something else I missed from the U.S.)
Almost as exciting as the food was the fact that I got to see some of the most important people in my life during that week!

I attended two graduation ceremonies. My boyfriend, Shawn, completed his Master’s at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). We had the big Meeting of the Parents dinner afterwards, which was surprisingly painless. I am pretty proud of Shawn… and eager to get started on my own advanced degree because I’m not sure how long I can be happy in a relationship with someone who has more academic credentials than I do… Just kidding. Maybe.

I’m a big enough person to admit that I’m posting this picture mostly because I like how it makes me look, but I think that guy in the fancy hat is pretty handsome too.
I also got to celebrate my best college friend/roommate’s graduation with her family. You should keep an eye out for Kelsey in the world of government, law, or any other field she may set her sights on. (That sentence contained some really insensitive puns I hope she will appreciate). She graduated from Georgetown with a good GPA, a double major (Economics and Government), a minor (Math), and no vision (literally, not figuratively) – as if we needed another reason to be impressed by her studiousness, wit, and appreciation for the finer things in life (i.e. chocolate cake, dance parties, and the West Wing)!

Kelsey and I standing in “Red Square.” Not shown: the Jesuit cemetery down the hill behind us, or the reason she trusted me to hold her diploma.
It was strange being back at Georgetown. It felt like my time there was just a distant dream, even though it had only been a year since I graduated. I guess my life now is just so far away from the Hilltop in every sense – and not just because I’m living on flat farm land.

I’m a bit jealous they got to graduate with Healy Hall in the background and we had to be in the old gym because of rain last year.
I of course also got to see my parents and my sister during the trip. Claire and Shawn and I went to the Renwick Gallery (my favorite art museum – partially because it always has awesome content, partially because it is small enough to see all of in an hour).

Sure everyone looks either deranged or pained in this, but it’s the only picture I got with Claire in it – and we were standing between the White House and the Washington Monument, neither of which are pictured.
I stopped by the White House with a few different groups of loved ones. Fortunately the chief resident was away touching glowing orbs in the Gulf, so I could maintain my sense of distance from the current disaster that is #45.

In terms of other fun activities somewhat related to “the resistance,” Shawn and I saw a play by Vaclav Havel (playwright, dissident, last president of Czechoslovakia, first president of the Czech Republic, and one of my favorite recently-historical figures since elementary school). The play is called Protest, and it was the first play performed in the Dupont Underground, a new art space made from an old electric trolley turn-around tunnel.

This is not the entrance to the Metro.
I was also there for two important birthdays. My boyfriend’s 25th and my mother’s 25th 31st. Unfortunately her birthday festivities took a backseat to Shawn’s graduation on the same day, but I am very happy my mother was born and will make sure to throw a gigantic party in 4 years when she turns 15×4. Also, when I got back here, everyone asked me how my mom’s birthday was, so obviously the importance of the occasion was acknowledged internationally.

Me (left) and my mother.
As for Shawn’s birthday, I made him an ugly but delicious cake and we went hiking, which I appreciated very much since hiking is my favorite activity and he is relatively new to it. Also, last year when we hiked on his birthday he ended up being eaten alive by mosquitoes.

Far too soon, it was time to head back to the southern hemisphere. When I checked my bags for my flight back to Paraguay, the man at the ticket counter looked at his screen with a confused expression, whispered to his coworkers, and then asked me “when are you coming back?”

“I don’t know exactly. I have a two year visa.”

I mentally prepared for a difficult return, so the first week back wasn’t too bad. Now I am experiencing regular feelings of panic about needing to be here for a year and a half more, but I am also starting to reevaluate the work I want to do in my community and will hopefully get to a point relatively soon where I feel I am contributing in a meaningful way. It is also nice to hear my name called out (mostly by little kids) as I ride my bike down the street. And of course there’s my cat to snuggle and take selfies with.

Everything is a Bug 

First, an interesting linguistically/cultural observation: “everything is a bug” might be an exaggeration, but some people here in Paraguay use the word bug (bicho) to describe any type of animal. If someone says something about “those bugs over there” they could very well be referring to a herd of cows. Of course, bicho could also mean pest or vermin, so I think it works pretty well for certain birds and mammals. My closest neighbors don’t even have chickens and I’ve still had a chicken poop inside my house. Chickens are the primary reason I constructed a sturdy garden fence, though cows can also be a nuisance. Every week or so I hear rustling outside my back door and go outside to find a large hoofed manual licking my dirty dishes, or I sit up in my hammock to find a cow standing a few feet away from me, which is rather startling. 

A bovine visitor. Two minutes later my mute neighbor came to retrieve the cow. She brought a machete, but as far as I could tell that wasn’t related to the cow retrieval.

People also blame “bichos” for things that are definitely not the fault of any six-plus legged friends. For instance, many people insist my acne is bug bites. Since I don’t work with teenagers, I’m still trying to figure out whether this misunderstanding has anything to do with a miraculous lack of pimples in Paraguay. 

In terms of my environmental work here, I am trying to figure out ways to convince people not to kill all the bichos unnecessarily. It’s probably true for most of the world that people too often use excessive chemical pesticides as a preventative measure in farming and gardening or on lawns and in houses. In small-scale gardening at least, there are a lot of easy ways to reduce the necessity for putting poison on veggies, especially before the bugs even arrive. 

In my own garden, I had a major ant problem. Luckily these weren’t the big leaf-cutter ants who can carry away an entire garden worth of plants in a few days, but the little ants are destructive in their own way – and it stings like crazy when they bite! I took care of the problem mostly by applying soapy water, mixed with a bit of cinnamon, to my garden beds so the dirt and plants were less appealing to the pests. It wasn’t a controlled experiment by any means, but so far the ant population has dramatically decreased. A mix of garlic and ash is also supposed to keep off both bugs and fungi. Plus, I think it helps to use soil high in organic matter (in this case cow poop while I wait for my compost to compost). Ants seem to prefer sandy ground. Bonus: just like with humans, the best defense against all sorts of plant ailments is to have healthy plants, and good dirt is a key component of that!

My newest garden bed, which doesn’t have an ant problem, probably because the dirt is mostly clay to be honest

As far as other pests go, it helps to stagger or intermingle plants (as opposed to monoculture) so a bug can’t as easily eat its way through a patch of one type of veggie all at once. Companion planting can also pair type of plants that are more or less appetizing to different types of bugs. Marigolds are natural repellants for multiple types of insects. And again, companion planting helps provide good plant health from the beginning since different plants use different ratios of nutrients. My garden might not meet Paraguayan beauty standards, but I love the wild, jungle feel of having my plants all mixed up. 
The more developed garden bed. El Presidente Rutherford B. Hayes is taste testing a cucumber vine.

With a small, personal garden I also have time to look over all the plants on a regular basis so I can spot a problem before it becomes too serious. In the case of my sunflowers, I remove caterpillars individually every few days. Perhaps this would be a bit impractical if I had an industrial sunflower plantation, but I’m not about to add poisons to the environment just to protect my 10 decorative sunflowers from the ocasional caterpillar. By keeping a close eye on things, I could use pesticides in smaller amounts if it came to that, before something became a full-blown infestation. There are also a variety of homemade pesticide options made from naturally available ingredients like the leaves of certain trees. 
Also in ant news, the other night I was getting ready to sleep (at around 8 or 9 pm, naturally) when I heard a strange sound. It ended up being at least a few hundred giant ants covering the entire floor and one wall of my house. I was just starting to sprinkle a protective line of cinnamon around my bed in the hopes that I could at least save myself when my friends called to see if I wanted to hang out. I explained that I had been headed to bed but was currently in danger of being eaten by a swarm of killer ants (actual danger level unknown). A few minutes later they showed up at my house with a bottle of pesticides. I was feeling murderous  enough to abandon my morals, so we sprayed the poison around and shared some beers outside while waiting for the fumes to subside. I tried not to watch the obviously tortured deaths of what I actually find to be very interesting creatures when I am not battling them for food and territory. 

Please excuse my shoe/recycling/seed pile… those things on the ground among the mess are dead ants

In the category of things that may or may not be bugs, for more than ten weeks my right arm has been home to a pretty gross and very itchy rash. (I won’t share pictures here, but PM me if you like that sort of thing.) I first considered making this the subject of an entire blog post titled “it mite be scabies” (scabies is a mite, so this is a pretty clever title if I do say so myself). My googling lead me to the conclusion that it was probably scabies, perhaps contracted from one of dozens of children who haven’t learned the concept of personal space, but after two months the Peace Corps doctors were still telling me it was an allergy. I even traveled to Asunción and back in one day just to hear that diagnosis repeated. (The trip involved riding my bike to and from the bus stop in the dark on a dirt road full of deep holes). For weeks, I used various allergy creams and medicines and changed all my soaps and carefully observed what I came into contact with on a daily basis – all to no avail. Then I got to experience a Paraguayan (or rather, German/Canadian Mennonite) hospital when I went to see a local dermatologist, who told me that I don’t have scabies but do have another type of bug that can be picked up from the dirt or animals. I am blaming my neighbor’s puppy who has some itchy, hairless patches and won’t stay out of my house no matter what I do. I am currently waiting to see if an anti-bug treatment (with the same medicine used for scabies) has worked. I may see another doctor in the U.S. when I am back there for a visit very soon! 

Stay tuned for a blog post about my very first visit to the United States of America! I hear things have gotten pretty scary there, but I’m pretty sure it’s still home to delicious foods and wonderful people. 

Easters Past

This week, I’m excited to experience my first Semana Santa (holy week) in Paraguay! While I don’t believe in the religious miracle of Easter, it is one of my favorite holidays (from my own culturally Catholic background at least) because it involves chocolate, the start of spring time (in the northern hemisphere), and egg decorating. I’ve also realized that it’s pretty cool to think back to what I was doing on each of the past 7 Easters since it has happened to coincide with some pretty important life events that happened across 3 continents, 4 countries, and 5 cities/states…

In 2011, I was in Valls, Spain for Easter, celebrating at a Romanian Baptist church with my first ever host family during my first international trip without either of my parents, and first using the Spanish I started learning in high school. This was when I decided I definitely wanted to study abroad during college. 

In 2012, I headed to Washington, DC on Easter Day for a high school trip which convinced me I wanted to go to college in the capital (mostly because I wanted a library card for the Library of Congress). 

In 2013, around Easter time I decided I wanted to stay in DC but wasn’t happy at GW. 

In 2014, I had transferred to Georgetown and went home to NH for Easter because Jesuit universities give you a few days off around that weekend. 

In 2015, I was in Valparaíso, Chile for Easter, staying with another host family and having the time of my life during study abroad. This experience may have fully convinced me to work abroad after graduation. 

In 2016, I went home to NH for Easter and realized the amount I missed the guy I was starting to call my boyfriend, Shawn, might indicate some sort of feelings about him. I had already accepted an offer to serve as a PCV in Paraguay but decided to stay in DC for the summer before leaving. 

In 2017, I’m approximately 7 months into my 27 months (or approx. 205 of 805 days) in Paraguay and still feeling a whole range of emotions about being here.