Friday, November 18, 2011

Help Us Eat Our Veggies!

Kevin and I hit the Peace Corps foodie jackpot with our tiny commuter town.

Almost more than any other challenge, I hear my fellow volunteers complain about the availability of fresh vegetables in their sites.  Fruit grows in excess (and often goes to waste), but variety all but always only comes with personal gardens and lucky finds on veggie runs to bigger towns.  It comes down to demand.  Paraguay has some of the most fertile land on Earth, but why grow a crop that no one wants to eat?

As a country, Paraguay tends to favor beige meals.  Mandioca, breaded meat, pasta, cornmeal, and rice all contribute to a dinner table lacking color; color otherwise known as vegetables.  When the green (or orange or red or purple) stuff actually makes it to the table, it usually arrives beyond well done and with all the nutrients cooked out.  Although families will serve a little cabbage or shredded leaf lettuce along side lunch, most kids and adults do not eat three to five servings of vegetables in a week- let alone daily.

Upon arriving in our community, Kevin and I could not believe our good fortune to find the area agricultural high school just a few blocks away from our new home.  Kids come from a few towns over to focus their studies on farming, both raising crops and animal husbandry.  Students learn the tricky business of growing food on an experimental field adjacent to their classrooms.  Flush with leafy greens and hearty gourds, we quickly learned that much of this crop ends up eaten by animals.

Since traditionally Paraguayans do not eat a lot of vegetables, many have no idea how to prepare them.  In an effort to turn this around, the director of the school invited Kevin and I to teach a class regarding healthy eating and incorporating vegetables into daily diets.  Classes resume in February, so we will spend the next couple months experimenting with different main dishes, sides plates, sauces, breads, soups, and casseroles.

And we need your help.  Please send in your favorite veggie recipes and we’ll try and work them into our syllabus.  The following ingredients are readily available at the school:  

Milanesa de carne, mashed potatoes with mayonnaise, and sopa Paraguaya, with tomatoes and onions.
black beans

chili pepper
green leaf lettuce
green onion
green peas
green pepper
mandioca (a denser cousin to potato)
orange lime (less tangy than green limes)
red beans
red leaf lettuce
soy bean
white onion

As always, thank you for your support.  Please send suggestions via email or in the comment section under this post.  As we try out ideas with local ingredients and taste tasters, we will feature recipes and results on this blog.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Living the American Dream

The Río Paraná, from the front of our house.
Although a common mission runs throughout the Peace Corps, most posts operate a little differently from each other. In some countries, Peace Corps volunteers move into their own home the day they step foot in site. In other countries, volunteers live with host families for the entirety of their service. 

In Paraguay, volunteers live with a host family for training and then during their first three months in site. This gives the volunteer an automatic support network while they get acclimated to the community.  Some volunteers hop from one family to another in an effort to meet more people by staying with each for a few weeks. Other volunteers stay with the same family for six months, a year, and beyond.

In special circumstances, occasionally volunteers move into their own places sooner then others. For example, the other married couple in our G moved into their own place after only about a week in town. Among other issues, their host family’s pig kept getting into their luggage and leaving snout marks on their belongings.

After a mere five and a half years of marriage, Kevin and I have reached the American dream: a house in the suburbs. Granted, our suburb lies in southern Paraguay, but with four walls and a lawn it still counts.

From the moment we first starting talking about the Peace Corps, I knew that service would test me. I anticipated cold showers, bugs, and weird food. I expected the 5,000 miles separating me from my family and friends to make me ache. I assumed roosters would bother me while I tried to sleep. Peace Corps includes hardship in the deal. Never, though, in my many Peace Corps daydreams (or alternatively worst case scenario nightmares) did I expect to run into trouble finding a place to live.

In Paraguay, most children do not rush to leave the nest. Host families often do not understand why volunteers (single and married alike) desire independent accommodations. Here, multiple generations of the same family often live together under a shared roof. Getting married does not automatically mean a child will move out. More commonly, a spouse will move in. Most parents do not see their children as adults (and thus having the responsibilities of adults) until they reach their 30s- even if they have their own children. A lack of children (especially upon reaching 30) implies a lack of knowledge in all things domestic. Accordingly, if someone does not know how to take care of a house, they certainly do not need their own.

The delicate dance of finding our own home began with getting our host family on board. In this case, a little white lie did the trick. (The ubiquitous “Peace Corps makes us” also helps volunteers put up mosquito nets without offense and stay off of motorcycles.) Begrudgingly, our host mom accepted and we started the hunt. Naturally, she suggested the overpriced place directly across the street. Our contact, had leads on a few other places in different parts of town. Each one fell through at the last minute. (And the one that didn’t had no windows.)
Home, sweet home.
With every false lead, our contact would say “don’t worry, we’ve got plenty of time” and push my blood pressure up a few points. Finally, in true Paraguayan style, a nearly perfect option surfaced in the eleventh hour. Even our host mom, who announced throughout town that “Peace Corps is stupid and crazy” for forcing us to move out, approved.

We have shared living room and bedroom space, a modern bathroom, an over-sized covered patio, and an additional bedroom. Behind the house oranges, mangoes, grapefruits, orange limes, and grapes grow in the sprawling lawn. We even have two cats in the yard- although one struts around like a real jerk and the other apparently is in heat. (Developments on this to follow.)

We live about two kilometers from the main route, two blocks from the beach, and, not surprisingly, two houses down from our host family. To keep us from starving, our host mom visits daily and never empty handed. Slowly, she has started to believe that I know how to cook and clean after all. At about the same pace of acceptance, I have started looking forward to her visits.

Back in the saddle again.
Our backyard, cats unavailable for photo.
Who needs a medicine cabinet when you have a bidet?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Thank you for supporting the blog!

This week, not only do we have a new post below, but the lovely and talented (and with a travel CV to make Anthony Bourdain to a double take) Brittany Boroian invited me to write a guest post in her neck of the woods. To read all about our trip to drink magic water click here or visit Cheers!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Growing Pains

In many ways, Paraguay is the baby in a world of nations.  Yes, many of our towns have celebrated 400 year anniversaries (and usually that just marks when the Europeans started paying attention).  Yes, people often call our capital the mother city of South America, as the founders of many of great cities stopped in Asunción before establishing, for example, Buenos Aires.  And yes, Paraguay officially turned 200 this past May.  Nevertheless, merely 22 years back, Paraguay experienced a rebirth. 

The dictator Stroessner ranks in as the 14th longest serving non-royal state leader in history.  Coming from a country where presidents stick around for eight measly years, I find it difficult to wrap my brain around the idea that one person could act as the face of a nation for 35 years.  (Of course, Strom Thurmond and Ted Kennedy don’t even top the list of longest serving US senators, at 47 and 46 years respectively.  However, I hardly believe that most Americans considered these guys for even a moment when making daily decisions.)

In 1989 Paraguay initiated a move from closed society where very little from the rest of the world penetrated these borders, to a place where international trends could potentially take hold.  With time, cable television and the world wide web steeped in to take the country that sustained itself- intellectually and agriculturally- for decades, and introduce it to the rest of the world.

The transition from absolute power into democracy hardly ever goes smoothly.  When all a generation has ever known focuses on pleasing a tyrant, change does not come easy.  Beyond updating laws and recognizing human rights on a state level, personally people need learn how to live freely.  Dealing with choice does not always come naturally.  And through these awkward, finding oneself years, Paraguay struggles through comprises and contradictions arise.

Parents post photos to Facebook of their children performing traditional dances from smart phones.  Some areas surge forward with the speed of neighboring industrialized countries, others lag behind.  We live in a town with 3G internet coverage, but no standardized running water system.  A woman’s gaze or the way she crosses her legs may may invite something entirely unintentional.  Yet, since no one bothered to investigate the lyrics, second graders can whip up a dance routine to Lady Gaga singing about someone’s “disco stick” without any concern.

Halloween has become a point of contention.  Our town, which prides itself as one of the most Catholic places in an already very Catholic country, does not celebrate.  November 1st and 2nd mark special days in the local religious calendar and dressing up for October 31st indicates a partnership with the devil.  Despite this, elsewhere in Paraguay, stores stock up on fake spiderwebs and the second annual zombie walk recently marched through the capital.

On the other hand, you can dress up as Batman for the first day of spring.  Also known as “Youth Day,” our town hosts a week of celebrations including a children’s parade, some sort of princess contest, and countless asados.  Paraguay makes a big deal out of this particular change in season and an even bigger deal out of extolling the country’s youth.  Nearly every person in our medium sized town took part in the party.  Neither one of us had any idea the significance of the day before hand.  Other volunteers reported a wide variety in levels of observance in their own sites.

Accordingly, we navigate Paraguay in tandem with the rest of the population.  Our confusion takes a backseat as this nation finds itself.  I doubt we’ll figure it all out in just two short years.  Neither will Paraguay.  All the same, next year I will have my Godzilla costume ready a month early.