After returning to Paraguay from my trip to Cuba several weeks ago, I had an entirely new perspective on the issues facing my community and the issues that I address as a Peace Corps volunteer. The first thing I came to realize is how absolutely possible it is to produce almost all the food one needs to survive (and thrive) in a home garden. Not only that, it is completely possible to do so organically.
In the past few weeks I have been working with families in their home gardens to introduce, bit by bit (poco a poco, as my neighbors say in Spanish), some organic techniques to improve production and also introduce some different types of veggies that will hopefully contribute to overall household nutrition. I have thrown myself into a school gardening project, which I have been part of for some months now and where we use many of the same growing techniques.
First, I have been helping families to understand the idea behind deep-bed systems for growing vegetables. These methods have been used for centuries, sometimes called “French intensive” or the “Chinese method” or simply “double-digging.” Deep cultivation in raised beds loosens up hard soil for improved root growth, introduces organic matter directly into the soil, and provides for better water infiltration. The method is explained in detail in John Jeavons’ aptly named book, How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine. The idea here is that, with a little more work up front in bed preparation, your plants will grow better, grow healthier, and produce more, and your soil structure will be maintained for years to come.
The next idea I have been introducing to families is plant associations. In other words, instead of planting large sections of one veggie, a gardener can intercrop (but on a small scale). This creates a sort of mosaic of plants that is aesthetically appealing and helpful in reducing the spread of pests and diseases and maximizing nutrient use. Certain plants do very well next to each other and the characteristics of some plants are complementary and/or beneficial to others. Onions, garlic, marigolds, and other smelly plants are good as pest deterrents; certain plants like Swiss chard can act as pest “barriers,” or in the case of squash and cucumber, weed suppressors.
In the past week, I have been working with homemade organic fertilizers with several families. Once again, I should point out that living in a community in the middle of rural Paraguay that already puts an emphasis on organic techniques is quite rare. I am lucky, given my background, but also given the attitude of my neighbors—willing to experiment, try new things, and in general, take my word for some of these seemingly crazy ideas. I really hope they work out (fingers crossed)!
In the end, this is all part of a process—a long and drawn-out process—to hopefully increase nutrition, household productivity, and general livelihood for the members of my community, Guido Almada. I will keep you posted! —Mario Machado
Santa Clara’s streets are narrow, flanked by single-story homes built so that no room is left for alleys or porches. It is horizontal space conservation to the extreme. Even in this tiny car, in which I am riding with my grandfather and father, it feels a little claustrophobic. We arrive in front of 84 Martí Street—a house that looks almost identical to all those around it except for a roof that has long since collapsed. Standing in front are two older women and several younger adults, roughly my age. We park the car on the street and step out. Within seconds I am smothered in repeated and unrelenting hugs; I am being kissed on the forehead and cheeks; I feel hot tears as they are dropped haphazardly. This is my family. They have been waiting for my grandfather to come home for almost 60 years. They tell me that I look like a Machado.
The following interactions seem strange to me. We fall easily into a familial atmosphere: welcoming, inviting, loving, accepting, and comfortable—as if we have known each other our entire lives. In reality, we are almost complete strangers, but strangers bound by something infinitely more profound than the politics, cultures, and countries that had separated us. Although I need to continually be reminded of names, the smiles and laughter of familiarity fill the small house to its capacity, straightening the old, wooden columns and raising the sagging roof for the first time in a long time. It is as if the walls and the rooms and my aunts and cousins and father and grandfather can all breathe a huge sigh of relief, 60 years in the making. “Home at last” sounds quietly on the breeze, lazily meandering its way through the halls.
My grandfather walks slowly through the home, here and there relating a story of things that he remembers from his childhood. The tile floors are the same; the room he used to sleep in seems so much smaller; the mango tree still curls its gnarled, prolific arms towards the courtyard’s square window of sky. It is a living artifact and yet a home still, being occupied by a family—our family—just as it was when my grandfather was a child.
I spend the night sleeping in the room that my grandfather once shared with my uncle Hilberto. I sleep in one bed while my aunt Marucha and cousin Yanet doze in the other. My cousin Yandy sleeps by the door. Someone snores all night, but I don’t know who. I dream about the past that surrounds me. —Mario Machado
I am with my grandfather and father in a little Korean-made car, hurtling down the crumbling central highway on the way to Santa Clara, Cuba, my grandfather’s birthplace. He has not visited this home in almost 60 years, although the actual house he was raised in still stands. In his half-century of absence, his grandparents, parents, and sisters have passed away. We are going to this place so that my grandfather can finally pay his respects. We are going to meet family that I have always had, but never knew. We are going so that my father and I can finally realize our own history. We are going to find something for ourselves.
Endless fields of sugarcane and tobacco sway like calm oceans, gentle waves lapping up to the acacia- and palm-lined banks of the forests. In brilliant reds and yellows, flamboyant trees rise like islands in the midst of these green seas while cattle escape the late-morning heat and humidity by dozing in the shade. Farmers’ hovels dot the landscape. They look almost comical, with grass roofs and wooden planks that have been warped and animated by passing time, the elemental cycles of rains and droughts, highs and lows. Ancient sand dunes create natural levies along the coast, while truer mountains rise cautiously to misty heights further inland. This place is gorgeous. The old Cuban tune “Chan Chan” strums slowly away on the radio as we wind our way to my grandfather’s long-lost home.
Entering Santa Clara is like driving through a living museum. The battle of Santa Clara, the last major guerilla offensive during the Cuban revolution and the battle that made Che Guevara famous, seems written on every surface. Memorials, statues, and murals greet visitors at every corner. Bullet holes from the battle are still visible in certain areas, especially at the Santa Clara Libre hotel, where a major skirmish took place. If one didn’t know better, they might think that the revolution happened just yesterday. It’s a proud and also desperate attempt to hold on to history. The world is moving into the future; Cuba (in more ways than one) seems to be holding blindly to those early years of revolution. —Mario Machado