When I first arrived in Guido Almada, my host family had experienced a death on the evening of my arrival. The older couple with whom I was to live for my first 3 months in the community with was suddenly cleaved when Don Zaccarias lost his wife of more than 50 years. I moved into a household consisting of Don Zaccarias and his daughter and her family, who had moved from Guarambare to help with the transition.
There were two dogs in the household—Tony, the Don’s dog, and Lobo, who had belonged to his wife. It was quickly evident that Lobo (the name means “wolf” in Spanish) was grieving along with the rest of the family. He was quiet and dejected, passing his days moping around the house as if he were a person who had lost his way home.
After I moved into my own house, a small brick building next door (less than 20 feet from Don Zaccarias’s house, in fact), a relationship began to build between Lobo and me. Within a month, Lobo began to follow me to the bus stop in the morning when I was heading into the city. More than once he had to be turned away sadly by the bus driver at the door. When I visited neighbors, he would follow me at a distance and wait for me at the gate, making sure not to enter so as to avoid upsetting neighboring dogs. This past weekend, when I went for a 10-kilometer hike into barely penetrable marsh, trudging through knee-deep mud, wading through water to my chest, and even swimming some parts, Lobo followed me the entire way, braving the cold and the obstacles despite his clear and vocalized protests at points.
Every morning now, I wake up to find him curled up under the table on my patio, nestled in a little depression where the concrete has broken away and only dust remains. We drink our coffee together and he gets a sausage or two from my breakfast. He waits at my house when I am gone to the city or to teach a class and his tail is always wagging on my return. In the evenings, we listen to music, drink wine, and smoke a cigar together…or at least I do those things while he lies under my hammock. At night, he is the vigilant, if not comically undersized, guardian of my house.
Make no mistake: Lobo is the mangiest, dirtiest dog I have ever met. His fur is matted and dreadlocked and falling out in places. He smells pretty bad, although this usually goes away after a big storm (this is the best Paraguay can do for giving dogs a bath). Still, I cannot deny that in him, I have found a best friend, an unquestionably and unwaveringly loyal companion. He asks nothing more from me than food scraps, a scratch on the belly, and friendship. Lobo is just another way, another immensely special and irreplaceable way, that this strange foreign country is beginning to feel much more like home. —Mario Machado
The week between Palm Sunday and Easter is one of the most important holidays in Paraguay. In this predominantly Catholic country (reputedly between 80 and 90 percent of the population), the celebration of Semana Santa or Holy Week occupies a position of utmost importance for families. Like all Paraguayan parties and festivals (including Christmas; quinceañeras, the coming-of-age celebrations of 15-year-old girls; and festivals of patron saints), the drill is mostly the same: large gatherings of family and friends, huge amounts of traditional Paraguayan food, singing and dancing to Paraguayan polkas, and drinking in circles as a designated server refills and passes the cup.
Unlike other holidays, however, Holy Week continues for almost 5 days (culminating in Easter Sunday, or Domingo de Pascua in Spanish). In a country of farmers and laborers, Holy Week represents the only real time off for people who work seven days a week, every week, toiling in the fields or working around the house. Another important aspect of this holiday, which sets it apart from others, is chipá, the traditional Paraguayan cheese-flavored bread that can be delicious if consumed in moderation, but if consumed in excessive amounts can feel like a slow death.
The entire family (usually not including the males, unfortunately) enters chipá-preparation mode weeks before the holiday arrives. Tens or even hundreds of pounds of materials need to be saved up to produce the massive amounts of chipá necessary for an entire week of parties. For a month before Holy Week, I could not find cheese for sale within a 5-kilometer radius of my house. Usually, the matriarch of a household prepares several pounds of fresh cheese after milking the cows each morning. Prior to Holy Week, however, this supply is not sold but instead guarded jealously. Those people lacking milk cows, such as myself, remain cheeseless for weeks on end. —Mario Machado
As we move into autumn in the southern hemisphere and the weather turns colder (yesterday peaking around the mid 60s, today starting out in the low 40s), my outdoor shower without hot water has become a bit of challenge. It takes a certain frame of mind to motivate oneself to bathe in 50ºF weather when the water in the lines is no warmer. There is nothing like the feeling of being nice and clean, but this fall and winter, that feeling is going to come at a price.
I always told myself that losing my hygiene would be the first step toward losing my sanity. Therefore, I promised myself to maintain both while serving in the Peace Corps. It seems that this commitment will not be easily fulfilled, especially while living in a brick house without a heating system or insulation and with a thin wooden door.
This morning, with the temperatures so low, it is once again raining in my house. The warm, moist earth seems surprised at the sudden cold and leaks its condensation over every possible leaf and blade of grass. My tin roof acts like a greenhouse in the morning sunlight and thousands of small droplets of dew trickle down my walls. In a way it is beautiful, so long as I am properly bundled and tucked away in some dry corner of my house (hard to come by when you are living in a brick box that measures 10 feet by 15 feet). It is crazy to think that just 2 months ago, I felt as if the heat might kill me. I can’t say which extreme I like more, but give me a few more months of the cold and I will be sure to let you know. —Mario Machado
It’s raining inside my little brick hovel. Two days ago, the biggest storm I have yet experienced in Paraguay charged across the rolling hills during the course of a long day and an even longer night. My tin roof, which I had previously attempted to fix several times, leaked like a sieve. This inevitably led to what I imagine would have been a comical scene to any onlookers: a wildly cursing, laughing Peace Corps volunteer running his bed and furniture between the house and a covered patio in response to the arbitrary leakage patterns, which seemed to change as frequently as the strong winds. By the end of the storm, my house had been turned inside out.
By 9 or so in the evening, I realized I hadn’t eaten all day. During the confusion of the storm and my frantic attempts to stay dry, the water lines had been shut off. This meant that I was without both drinking water (meaning without coffee as well—possibly the greatest crisis of all) and a means to wash food or dishes. That night was cold and wet, but certainly one I will not forget. These are the kinds of experiences that one gets in the Peace Corps.
The weather took a splendid turn yesterday, however, as the Antarctic winds have begun their surge northwards, heralding fall (and eventually winter) here in the southern hemisphere. The sun broke through yesterday around noon, giving way to what I could only compare to perfect autumn weather in the northeastern United States. The only things missing were leaves changing colors and apple cider. It was a perfect day—not too hot, not too cold; just right. The ample midday sunshine dried all my clothes and sheets. Last night I slept snug as a bug. —Mario Machado