Parental Peace Corps Experience

A trip to Paraguay is full of the unexpected

David Feldman

Seeds collected on North Shore are planted in newly-constructed garden area in Redondo.

(EDITORS' NOTE: During the month of May the Melrose Mirror published a story by Nancy Brissette about her experiences as a grandmother who became a Peace Corps nurse in Paraguay. In this issue we present a parent's perspective of a visit to a Peace Corps daughter working in the same Latin American country.  Catherine Carney-Feldman and David Feldman of Ipswich recently returned and--without matching notes--wrote accounts of their trip. We are pleased to present his-and-her articles, one in this issue and the second in the August Mirror.)

By David Feldman


In late September, four months after her college graduation, our daughter, Liz, took a plane to Miami, met up with other Peace Corps volunteers and continued on to Paraguay for a three-month training period. There, they would improve their Spanish, learn Guarani the local Paraguayan language, figure out some of the cultural nuances of Paraguay and in general, learn how to cope in a new culture.

We planned our plane trip for a few weeks after Easter when the Paraguayan season would be autumn. The scorching summer heat of 100-degree days would be over and the winter rains would be a month away. The fee for the trip was to be about $1,200 but through good luck and an excellent travel agent recommended by the Peace Corps, we got it for $600. So far, so good. But we were well aware that most things that could happen probably would and we embraced the ordeal aspect of the adventure.

Our trip was scheduled to go from Boston to New York to Buenos Aires to Asuncion, the Capital of Paraguay where we would meet Liz at the airport. Including short layovers, we were to leave Boston at 4PM and arrive in Paraguay the next morning at 10AM, 18 hours later. An hour before we were leaving our house, the phone rang. "Hello, this Argentine Airlines. There is a strike in Buenos Aires, so your  plane will not leave New York for several hours. You will miss your connection to Paraguay and we don't know when you'll get the next plane. There are only a few each day." I called the Peace Corps to leave a message for Liz, but it quickly became clear that wasn't going to happen. The lady from the Peace Corps with good humor intoned "welcome to YOUR Peace Corps experience." Catherine and I rolled our eyes, laughed and eventually arrived in Paraguay 36 hours later at midnight the next day. And happily, Liz was there to meet us after her own major effort involving two separate trips to the airport.

One airport story. We brought two presents for Elizabeth's Paraguayan parents, actually grandparents: a tablecloth for grandma and a hammer for grandpa. We took very little with us so we only had carry-on baggage plus some "care" packages for Liz. When the baggage was scanned, the hammer was discovered.  It is an airline rule that hammers must be put underneath. As explained to me, I might take the hammer and hit the pilot on his head. So I went to a security guard who made a cute hammer-size cardboard valise. Miraculously, the hammer made it to Paraguay on a different airline than originally planned. When we eventually gave the tablecloth and hammer as presents, the hammer had acquired a story that would be told throughout Liz's village many times.    


The next day, we explored Asuncion, made plans and discovered some tricks about Paraguayan buses. The most important learning was that the buses don't ever really come to a full stop to let you off and begin moving before you get on. After the first close call, we got the hang of it and moved very gingerly. We visited the Peace Corps headquarters located in a beautiful compound near the American Embassy. It serves as a center and a refuge for the many volunteers who need a place when they visit Asuncion. Asuncion is not a beautiful city and reflects the lack of care people give to it.

We decided to visit Iguazu Falls (in Brazil) before we traveled to Liz's site. After a 5-hour bus ride to the border of Paraguay and Brazil, a long walk through a strange open air market, crossing the border (without visas--yikes!) and getting a ride, we finally arrived at one of the most beautiful waterfalls in South America called Iguazu Falls. It is a stunning sight with Niagara Falls-like power and grandeur. We spent the day luxuriating in the green, wet piece of heaven on earth. We returned to our hotel on the Paraguayan side of the border, had a great meal and went to bed.

The next day we began the trek to her site. Another 7-hour bus ride eventually left us in the closest town about 5 miles from her site.  It was about 7PM, and there was no easy way to get to her community. Where to sleep? There were many men (no women) hanging around the bus depot, and the idea of sleeping outdoors was out of the question. We inquired and were directed to a small store above which were a few rooms. Although Catherine and I have traveled quite a bit, this particular room was memorable for being probably the worst. However, there were two beds that were off the ground, and it was better than outside.  


The next morning we luckily got a ride to her site in the back of a truck (with an engine).  Slowly riding over red dirt roads, we got a good glimpse of the countryside. Liz's town (Redondo) has eighty houses with about six people per family. It's been about 20 years since the village has been "settling in" with all the problems of an agricultural life.  Four years ago electricity came to Redondo stretched over trees that don't look very sturdy. So not surprisingly, the electricity frequently goes off.

Liz lives in the house of Abuela 'Y (pronounced ah-bwella-e) Abuela means grandma and 'Y means little (little grandma) And this is an apt description because she is a thin 71-year-old woman, maybe 5 feet tall. She has sparkling, compassionate eyes and turns out to be one of those people who through her own culture and hard work has arrived at the place of loving those around her. Her husband is abuelo (grandpa) Shove. (pronounced show-vay) He is also in his seventies but looks about 50. Both abuela 'Y and abuelo Shove are in remarkably good condition due to the hard work they have done all their lives and continue to do. They have both lost their teeth. There is no fluoride in the water, and most Paraguayans lose their teeth early. Abuelo Shove worked on a nearby ranch for 40 years and now receives a pension.

Their house is small ranch-like dwelling with a bedroom and a rather large open space used for eating and living. There is also an additional room used for cooking over an open fire made on the floor. Part of the ceiling has been removed to let the heat out. There are no screens or windows so it is a combination indoor-outdoor house. This is typical in the village.

Liz's "house" is attached to their house and is a 13x13 room with a "shower room". Since there is no running water, a shower room is a small (3x5) room, slightly sloped so that the water which is drawn from the well and used for bathing will run out. Most beds are twin size, built on wood frames with a mattress. Catherine and I shared a twin bed and slept in Liz's room with her. We all used mosquito nets that worked very well.

Since electricity arrived in Redondo four years ago, houses are beginning to get electrical appliances mostly supplied by the children who have moved to the city to live and work. Abuela 'Y has a refrigerator and an electric stove, but mostly she cooks over an open fire.

The food staple is the yucca plant which looks like a large sweet potato. It is skillfully cut by Abuela 'Y (or anyone else) with a machete while holding it in her hand. Since most people have all their fingers, it is a learnable skill.  In fact, the entire culture allows people to learn very quickly about danger including sharp objects. The grandchildren who live at Abuela 'Y's have complete access to all the knives and machetes, and it was not rare to see a 4-yea- old "playing" with the machete cutting the grass. Compared to the protective New England culture requiring car seats, bicycle helmets, etc., this is another world. Speaking of bicycles, it is common to see three or even four people riding on the same bicycle over the dirt roads. And miraculously, most seem to make it.

MATE (mah-tay)
This is the Paraguayan version of tea-time, and it is a custom central to the entire life of the country. A mate cup is often a gourd into which is put a metal straw. The cup is filled with herbs (yerba usually), and the pourer puts hot water in the cup and passes it to one person. The person sucks on the straw until the water is gone and passes the cup back to the pourer who immediately fills the cup and gives it to the next person. The process repeats over and over again going round in a circle.  It can also be done with cold water and then it's called terere. This process can easily go on for an hour and can happen several times a day. It is an "activity", and people do mate and talk. I think that children need to be of a certain age, usually 12 or more to fully participate.  For those with hygienic concerns, this is definitely edgy.

The language spoken in the village is Guarani. Most people also know some Spanish, but they prefer Guarani. In the 8 months that Liz has been in Paraguay, she has learned enough Guarani to get by. She can even tell jokes which is most impressive.

So what did we do at her site? After settling in, we had mate with Abuela 'Y and Abuela Shove. We gave them their presents which they loved. In fact, as people visited over the next three days, out came the tablecloth and the hammer.  Almost every time someone visited, more mate.

Then we went visiting the people in town. And with each visit, more mate. So each visit takes time and people make time. The people in the town seem to love Liz and thus we were treated as "honored guests." We found the people we met to be full of life, funny and very interested to share what they had. We received a few chickens, (one already cooked), one which Abuela 'Y would kill and cook, a bottle of honey and many oranges picked from the local trees.

David, Catherine, Liz and their hosts

The first day stretched on with an afternoon siesta and more visits and a delicious meal from Abuela 'Y. She is a great cook. Dusk brought with it another surprise. This is when the mosquitoes arrive. This happens every day at dusk and dawn and lasts for a few hours. It is part of the life that nobody likes. Sometimes, they make a smoky fire and let the smoke go throughout the house, but mostly they swat them.  The smoke does help with the mosquitoes a bit but burns yours eyes a little. I preferred the smoke.

The next day we got a chance to work in the garden. Liz has organized a large personal garden for her family. Usually, most food is grown on large plots within walking distance. Liz organized a group of men from the village to build a wood fence (about 50x100 feet), and Liz and her family were in process of making raised beds for growing vegetables. The soil is baked clay and will take several cycles to make it more hospitable to growing. Catherine and I got the chance to put in one large raised bed for her. It is in this garden and in similar gardens throughout the village that wonderful seeds given to Liz by so many friends of ours will be planted. May all grow into delicious food!

Besides the garden, one of the Liz's most successful projects has been a woman's group that meets every other Saturday at her house for cooking classes. To organize anything in her village is a challenge and somehow she has succeeded in convening about 10 woman to come and cook. So in the early afternoon, women started arriving. Some walked 10 minutes, others closer to 30 minutes. Some were teenagers with babies, others were older, but all were there to learn and have a wonderful afternoon.

The menu was gnocchi and salsa each made from scratch. Gnocchi are small noodles made from potatoes. The process is very involved including boiling the potatoes, making the potatoes into dough, rolling out the dough, cutting the noodles, running each noodle over the tines of a fork and finally reboiling each noodle. For salsa, many vegetables were cut and cooked. Catherine and I got the opportunity to help running the noodles over the forks.      

To make the festivity even wilder, Abuela 'Y and several other woman had decided to make Chepa (bread made from cheese and corn meal) at the same time. This involves using an outdoor brick oven that needed to be thoroughly cleaned and heated before use. Every part of this production took time and was involved. So as the rhythm of the day progressed, many tasks were being accomplished at the same time. There was such a feeling of ease and happiness. As I stepped back, it appeared like a marvelous Broadway play set under a tree in the backyard surrounded with horses, oxen, chickens and cows.

After three fun hours of preparing and cooking, the supper was marvelous. The gnocchi was the best I can ever remember eating, and the chepa served hot is fantastic. At night, one of two TV stations was playing Paraguayan dances so we danced together. A lovely end to a beautiful day.

On Sunday morning, Liz was able to procure two horses, so Catherine and I rode them and Liz took her bike, and we went visiting more people. The villagers wanted us to take pictures of their families and their favorite animals which included large pigs and bulls. Of course, more mate, more visiting, another siesta and at supper, we sang a few songs in English (Amazing Grace) and Abuela 'Y sang to us in Guarani. It was a pretty scene.

One of the people in the village offered to meet us at 5AM the next day and bring us into town in his cart pulled by horses. We graciously accepted and said goodbye to Redondo as the sun rose. Then another 9-hour bus ride back to Asuncion.

We had planned to end the experience by spending a few days in Buenos Aires. The three of us took a short flight to Buenos Aires, a magnificent city in Argentina where we walked the streets, ate sumptuously, saw tango and even took in a great rendition of "My Fair Lady" in Spanish. Then Liz went back to Paraguay to continue her work, and we flew home.

A few thoughts inspired by the trip:

My admiration for Liz and all the Peace Corps Volunteers (we met about 10) has increased significantly. It is a very hard job in so many ways. They have to function in a new language, live in challenging conditions (no indoor plumbing, mosquitoes, heat, etc.), be the "outsider" in a village, dealing with the issues of loneliness, boredom, meaning, etc. And many of the volunteers are young, looking for adventure and worthwhile activity. I better understand the Peace Corps slogan "The toughest job you'll ever love."

Financial Poverty
So what is poverty? Obviously, this question presents itself with people who have so few material goods and so little money. Anything that cannot be gotten from the forest or grown is additional and costs money. Money is scarce, so their houses have almost no decorations, except what they use. Nothing goes to waste. Even the food leftovers, etc., go to the animals. There are no windows and no screens so the mosquitoes bite every morning and every night. Buying vegetables is expensive, and at the moment they exist on very few vegetables--mostly starches although there are some fruit trees. This is simply how it is. Many grown children leave Redondo and go to work in the smaller of largest cities. There is limited work in Redondo.

Time Poverty
This is a much bigger problem in our country than in Redondo. Can we really stop our lives and take a "tea" break whenever necessary? Everything moves much, much slower in Redondo. We joked that the "daily traffic report" in Redondo were the cows walking on the road one way in the morning and the other way at night. There is something extremely wholesome in a slower pace and a more expansive notion of free time. In this sense, the people in Redondo are "richer" than we are.

Possibilities Poverty
Perhaps this is one of the real gifts of the Peace Corps to people throughout the world. Simply living with someone from another culture opens you up. It takes you beyond your borders in so many ways. It expands your world and your world-view. Perhaps at its core, the Peace Corps volunteers are emissaries of good will. They listen carefully to what the people in their village want and try to assist them. How simple and how challenging.

Finally, a big thanks to Liz for creating the possibility for Catherine and me to go beyond our borders. It is wonderful when your children keep bringing you further. And also thanks to Liz and all the Peace Corps volunteers for being an inspiration to literally millions of people throughout the world!  
     NEXT:  The impressions of a wife and mother.


July 7, 2000

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