by Mario Machado—
Summer gardens here in Paraguay face a unique set of challenges. For one, the heat in this country is oppressive and, at times, completely unbearable. People have trouble enough staying hydrated and cool; plants are another business all together. While there are summer garden crops that work well even in this climate, they usually require attentive watering and a half-shade structure (called mediasombra in Spanish) if they are to survive, let alone produce fruit. Far out in the countryside, where life is hard and the days are already packed with work, it is common for farming families to allow their gardens to revert to patches of weeds over the summer.
Unfortunately, such practices do not help in promoting household productivity, nutrition, or diversification—my mission as a Peace Corps volunteer. Here in the Southern Hemisphere, where seasons are reversed from those in the United States, summer runs from December through February. During those months, family diets are limited to foods they can purchase and not what they can produce. Additionally, allowing a garden to lie fallow for several months requires no labor input, but makes for several strenuous days of work before the garden can be planted again in the fall. Promoting summer gardens, or at least the productive use of garden space in the summer months, can do wonders for helping families in many aspects of their lives. And so, with these things in mind, I have started working on my own garden in the dead-hot days of midsummer in hopes of providing community members here in Guido Almada a few ideas or alternatives.
I have begun by starting a compost pile, an easy practice here in the countryside where food scraps, dry organic material, and cow droppings are all too common (sometimes regrettably so—especially in the middle of a soccer field). In the several weeks to months that this little pile of goodness is getting ready for use with my fall vegetables, I have decided to take the garden space and begin a little soil recuperation. Soils here in Paraguay range from very rich and hearty, to very sandy and dry; where I happen to live, it is a little of both. Considering as well that the space I am using has already been used as a garden, I thought that a nice infusion of organic material and nitrogen into the soil were in order.
The raised-bed structures in my garden (called tablones in Spanish) help in retaining water and providing space for root growth. I have double-dug each of the five raised beds, a technique that breaks up dirt a foot or more deep in the soil. In this practice, organic material can be mixed in to buff up the topsoil. I have also dug a trench around the perimeter of the garden to encourage water to soak into the ground instead of running off. The idea behind such a trench is based on the principles of permaculture and the aims of creating a more sustainable and complete gardening system.
Surrounding the garden, I have planted a living fence of kumanda yvyra’i (literally translating from Guaraní as “little bean tree”), a leguminous tree that will reach a few meters high. These will grow fast, add nitrogen to the soil, provide light shade to future plants, and produce beans that can be consumed by humans and animals alike. Also, I have planted on each tablón a cover crop of Canavalia, another nitrogen-fixing plant in the legume family. Unfortunately, I seem to have received bad seed as none has germinated, but one can never be sure that it’s not simply the heat and sun that are preventing proper growth. For now, things are going as smoothly as one might expect in a developing country. As always, I am keeping my fingers crossed for some rain.
by Mario Machado—
I awoke at the earliest of dawn, the hours of the morning that are still indistinguishable from the night except for the flickering of sunlight over a very distant horizon. I left my house and mounted my bike, clipping along the dirt road with my stiff, unwashed hair folding and flipping in the surprisingly cool morning air. As I reached the home of Don Ramón, the town butcher or carnicero, he appeared at the front his wooden hovel. [Editor’s note: “Don” is a title of respect used with a man’s first name; the equivalent for women is “Doña.”] His feet bare on the dirt floor, he smiled and remarked how happy he was that I decided to come.
The act of butchering a cow is a process not to be taken lightly or quickly. We began the morning by sipping maté and observing our quarry tied to a tree off in the shadows. He told me about this particular cow and why he decided to purchase it for slaughter. It was a smaller milk cow, about 3 years old, that had not shown any signs of producing milk or young. It had had a nice life wandering the Paraguayan campo, grazing on the thick and abundant vegetation. Now, that which had been fed will feed, and the Don placed his empty cup of maté on the table and disappeared into the house.
Two other men arrived to help us with the process. We approached our prey, Don Ramón standing in the background silently sharpening his knife. One man lassoed a leg, while the other grabbed for the tail. He jerked the tail and spun around the cow’s side, catching the animal off balance and pulling it to the ground. With the cow now on its side, the other man continued to tie up all four legs to the effect that the animal was quickly unable to move. We held the ropes to steady the struggling cow as Don Ramón moved in quickly with a bucket in hand to catch the blood. He was going to cut its throat.
Using a small machete and infinite poise, he leveled the blade to the cow’s neck, located the jugular vein, and plunged through the skin. The cow gave an initial cry of pain and surprise and began to breathe heavily, blowing dust from the front of its nose. It was a lost cause, however, as the blood from the wound flowed freely with a color that I cannot forget in its brilliance of red.
The animal gave one, maybe two other strong efforts of escape before surrendering to the inevitability. Its breathing became more steady as the loss of blood, I am sure, inhibited any more mental function. Its head moved around a bit on the dirt ground, almost as if finding a more comfortable spot upon which to lie. The animal, which moments before was living and breathing, was dead within 3 minutes. The Don made one final cut to the spinal column to rid the animal of any more pain and to ensure its death. The butchering could then begin.
The rest of this process took only an hour or so. As the neighbors began to arrive, the meat was sold as it was cut from the bone. The entire animal was almost gone by 9 a.m. Each and every part of the animal was used (except for the contents of its stomach). The meat was most expensive and sold in small quantities. The intestines and blood were saved for making blood sausage, while the stomach (being the cheapest part of the animal) was used to make mondongo. The head was bought by a family in order to make akágue yvygu’û, a popular Paraguayan dish prepared by wrapping the head in foil and cooking it on coals under a thin layer of dirt. On this day, the entire community, the dogs included (which rarely get a decent meal), got a much-needed dose of protein.