I woke up this morning to what might possibly be the most hellish sound on the planet: that of a pig being slaughtered. The death of a pig is of no more or less consequence than that of any other animal, but the drama of hearing a pig scream and squeal its last living breath away weighs heavy on the heart. Pigs don’t die quietly, that is for sure. At least I know that I won’t be eating any more pork when I get home to the States.
This is life in the country, though—your food is walking around one day, eating scraps from the table and rummaging through your garden, and is served up for dinner the next. It is quite a strange experience to eat an animal’s meat on the same day I have seen it living and breathing. Sometimes it is easy to remove yourself from the equation, but a wake-up call at six in the morning in the form of a weeping and wailing pig does help to keep it all in perspective. —Mario Machado
I have been living in Paraguay for almost 6 months now. I no longer question things that I would have questioned when I first arrived—perhaps because it is exhausting to try to rationalize or challenge everything in this foreign culture on a daily basis.
One way I find this to be most concretely manifested is with regards to food. For example, food safety and sanitation are almost unheard of in this country. Refrigeration is too expensive for many people. For the few that do own a fridge, they are lucky if their food stays cooler than lukewarm—unacceptable by the food standards of the United States.
People cook with reused oil, using pots and pans that are blackened from years over an open fire, unwashed utensils, and cutting boards that are warped and moldy. Food is left out all day, vegetables become soggy and wrinkled, and meat is strung up to dry in the open—easy prey for flies and the like. Cheese is placed on the table to “age,” as Paraguayans claim; others might say “mold.”
Despite all of this, I have yet to get sick in this country. Either my body has acclimated to the myriad bugs I have been ingesting or I arrived in this country with a much stronger immune system than I thought.
It is hard to say what comes first, the mental or the physical acclimation to a new place and a new culture. Either way, the act of acceptance is something special. Brief doses of a new culture only serve to provide the traveler with a sense of novelty, never forcing one to delve any deeper than surface. On the other hand, the experience of living in a place for an extended period helps to cut back on the idealism and instills instead a dose of realism. Immersion in a culture brings a greater depth of understanding. One must eat the food, no matter what sanitation standards it may seem to violate. One must learn the language, no matter how useless it may seem in any other context (Guaraní certainly applies to this category—it is spoken nowhere else in the world but Paraguay). One must dress the dress, walk the walk, and do as his new countrymen do. One must reach the point where he is no longer living among foreigners but among friends and neighbors. I am still in the long process of seeking the latter. —Mario Machado
by Mario Machado—The weather has finally started to turn. Instead of the blistering heat of summer, reaching well over 100°F daily, fall weather has gradually taken over; it is pushed north from the Argentine border by the almost constant cool autumn breeze. Temperatures still top out in the upper 90s, but compared to the summer months, this feels like air conditioning. The mornings in particular are spectacular. The air is moist and dense, the dew finally able to collect on the grass before it is mercilessly evaporated again. Rain has become a more frequent and welcomed guest. Some of the recent large storms have ripped up large trees and broken tile and thatch roofs. Still, the water is needed if this season’s crops are going to yield anything significant.
Following a big rain, the roads are impassable for 2 to 3 days—markets are inaccessible, food is undeliverable—but this suits the pace of rural life. Most farmers in my community have begun harvesting their tobacco and have loads ready to run as soon as the road-obstructing ponds and marshes dry up. The infrastructure to work around the weather doesn’t exist here. People don’t try to fight it, they just adapt their lives to work with it. I keep wondering whether the tranquilo way of Paraguayan life (i.e., laid back, slow moving, always late, etc.) is an inherent aspect of this culture or a response to the fact that the terminal velocity of anything is determined by so many unpredictable, insurmountable factors.
This past week, I began one of several projects in my community of Guido Almada. Unbeknownst to me at the time, when I visited the school building to observe a class last Wednesday, I was actually walking into my first teaching experience in Paraguay. The teacher, who introduced me briefly and explained what I was going to be doing in the community, promptly turned the class over to me and left the room to drink tea with some other professors before I had time to protest. Therefore, I taught an hour-long class in basic English on the fly. The students, at least, seemed interested and eager to learn. To be honest, however, it might have been the novelty of having an American in their community that sparked the students’ curiosity. I can’t begin to believe that my teaching was even remotely that engaging (or useful, for that matter).
Tomorrow I begin with physics and chemistry classes, which should prove interesting indeed. I am excited to be working more, to be doing more projects, but of course, this is not without its own set of questions and doubts. How applicable will basic chemistry and physics lessons be to students who (in all likelihood) will never leave their community, let alone be put in a situation in which this knowledge is useful? There is always the thought that at least it should bring about awareness, opening their minds to thinking about the world in a different way. Still, I am not sure how I feel about this whole endeavor. As they say in Guaraní, jahechata (or “we shall see”). —Mario Machado
by Mario Machado—The life of a Peace Corps volunteer is strange and, at times, seems like a completely maddening existence. As an outsider living for 2 years in a foreign village halfway across the world, one is never quite here nor there, never regarded completely as a professional but never quite as a neighbor either. Here in Paraguay, I occupy an awkward realm that feels a lot like being a stranger in one’s own home. My job as a volunteer is quite varied and undefined. I must simultaneously integrate into the community, facilitate developmental projects, and carry out daily necessities of survival—three tasks that constantly blur and transcend typical social lines. So when it comes to actually carrying out a project, the challenge usually has less to do with the technical aspects and more with the myriad social elements and barriers that must be navigated.
As I am initiated into this crazy world with the start of my first projects, the tenuousness of the line I must walk becomes clearer. The director of the local school approached me last week, asking if I had any experience with chemistry and physics. I said that I did, having studied both topics in college for several years. He was delighted and informed me that although chemistry and physics are a required part of the Paraguayan school curriculum, the local school lacks science textbooks and teachers. I was initially delighted by his proposal that I teach the two subjects, eager to get working in the community, but it seems the task is perhaps much larger than I had expected.
The school building, a simple brick building composed of three classrooms with broken windows and crumbing walls, resides directly in front of my house. The school children, who currently knock on my door and steal from my garden or porch at all hours of the day, certainly don’t see me as their teacher any more than they see me as their neighbor. I am just the strange norteamericano (North American) living in their midst with my fancy bicycle and strange foods and tendencies. It will be a task within itself to get them to take me seriously, let alone to learn a subject that most of them will likely never use again once they become rural farmers or the wives of farmers.
Along with teaching in the schools, I have also been propositioned by the local farmers’ committee to start an organic permaculture garden in the community. Again, excited at this opportunity, I immediately offered my technical assistance with the project. The members of the committee, who stopped just short of laughing, informed me that they were already well versed in matters of organic farming and simply needed my connections to procure the necessary funds to front the capital for this project. I tried to explain that my organization was Peace Corps, not Money Corps, but that sort of thing just doesn’t fly with people who are used to working with non-governmental or governmental groups that show up with promises and fail to deliver. Trust extends only so far in these situations, and I am still trying to earn mine with this community.
These issues can’t be beaten by fancy tricks or the right set of tools; the only cure for overcoming these obstacles is time. I am uniquely positioned to become involved in this community in a manner that other organizations cannot. By mingling and mixing in the mess of it all, I should (in theory) come out with a better and more practical understanding of this context. At least that is what I keep telling myself. —Mario Machado