Mandio is the food of choice for breakfast, lunch and supper in Paraguay
(This is the last of three articles about Paraguay. This story is written by the director of the Council on Aging in Manchester and provides a different perspective from her husband after their trip there to visit a daughter who works for the Peace Corps.)
First things first. Paraguay is not a country in Africa. It is in South America. The only reason I am saying this is that I have been asked by so many people where Paraguay is, and so many people have guessed that it is in Africa. In fact it is the only land-locked country in South America, tucked under the immense country of Brazil with Argentina, Chile and Bolivia sharing its ample borders. However, along with one other country in Africa, Paraguay has the largest number of Peace Corps volunteers in the world.
Which now brings me to the topic of this story. Why would anyone go to Paraguay for a two-week vacation? In fact no one goes to Paraguay for a vacation. Paraguanians don't even stay in Paraguay when on vacation. They go to Argentina. The only reason that my husband David and I went to Paraguay for a vacation was to see our twenty-two-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, who is a Peace Corps Volunteer and who has been in Paraguay as a volunteer since last September.
I could have called this story, "Adventures In Paraguay", since indeed our adventures started even before we left our home in Ipswich. An hour before heading for Logan Airport, we received a call from Aerolineas Argentina to tell us that there was a transportation strike in Argentina and our flight from New York into Buenos Aires would be late. Late was an understatement. To make a very, very long story short, we arrived in Asunsion, the capital of Paraguay, thirty-six hours after we left Boston. Luckily Elizabeth, who had already walked five miles to the airport once, was able to figure out which flight we eventually would be coming in on. Did I mention that there are no phones within eight miles of where my daughter lives? We frantically tried contacting the Peace Corps, but they are not open on the weekend! So much for the emergency telephone number that the Peace Corps gives parents to assure them that their children can always be contacted.
Before going to Elizabeth's site, we decided to go to Brazil to see Iquazu Falls, the second largest falls in the world. Besides, on the map we had, it looked close to Asuncion, no more than two inches. As we soon found out, two inches on the map translates into an eight-hour bus ride (the toilet door was stuck shut and wouldn't open), We finally arrived at the border town called Ciudad del Este, which is a thriving city whose economy relies on the enormous black market that thrives there. We arrived at dusk and decided that this was not a city to take a pleasant walk in the evening twilight.
At daybreak, along with thousands of Paraguanians, we skirted the armed soldiers, which are a permanent feature on every corner in Paraguay, machine guns being the gun of choice, and tried to blend in unconspicuously with the natives from Paraguay as we all crossed an enormous bridge that goes over the Parana River and separates the countries of Brazil and Paraguay. Immediately we couldn't help but notice all the people throwing large boxes over the rail and into the water below where people on the Brazil side were waiting to swim out and retrieve this cargo. We decided not to ask what was going on. We kept looking over our shoulders for soldiers and kept trying to blend in. Did I mention that the size and height of this bridge makes Tobin Bridge look like a child's toy?
Iquazu Falls is just over the border in Brazil. I now know why we only saw about ten other people viewing the most spectacular falls I have ever seen. Everyone else is still on the bridge, throwing contraband goods over the rails. It must be the national sport in this area. After taking more pictures than I care to tell and thoroughly getting soaked, we spent a good deal of time taking pictures of the native coati. Coati are animals native to South America that are about the size of a raccoon and look like a cross between an anteater and a skunk. The ones living near the Falls are remarkably friendly and very cute which explains why we now have more pictures of them then we do of me.
After blending in again with the Paraguanians that were now going back over the bridge into Paraguay, we headed off by bus to the site that Elizabeth now calls home. It took us only two bus rides and ten hours of riding to cover two and a half inches on the map and to get us to the town nearest to her site, called General Aquino. We arrived at dusk, which was too late to walk to her site. After copious walking, we found the only hotel in town. In our exhaustion, we decided that, even though it looked like a south of the border brothel, with the same beds, sheets, pillows and blankets that it had started with around the turn of the century, we could sleep here or with the bugs and snakes. I don't particularly like snakes, so we kept all our clothes on and tried to put a buffer between us and the sheets and fell into a deep if not blissful sleep.
The next morning, after not brushing our teeth, nor washing, nor changing our clothes, not having breakfast and not using the local common toilet, we determinedly started out for Redondo, the name given to the area where Elizabeth lives. By the way, I now know why I have never been able to find any of these towns on any map that I have ever seen. After a local bus ride, we arrived at Redondo and the house that our daughter lives in.
My husband and I were relieved and happy to see that Elizabeth is living with an extended family that truly loves her and treats her like a daughter. The head of the household is an elderly couple in their mid-seventies who have eight children and lots of grandchildren. I soon gave up trying to keep track of how many grandchildren there are. On any day, there are between three and ten members of the family sleeping and staying there. Different members of the family float in and out without any warning. This is the way of life there, as in many parts of South America, after all with no telephones, it is impossible to let people know when you are about to visit.
We found that the openness and warmth of the immediate family that Elizabeth is living with was matched by all members of this eighty-household community that we had the good fortune to meet. For years Redondo has applied for a Peace Corps volunteer, and our daughter is the first. She is loved, respected and cherished. And with each family that we visited--and we met with about a third of the community--we were treated with all the honor and warmth that a high-ranking dignitary would receive.
Within five minutes of arriving, we were sharing and drinking yerba mate with Elizabeth's host family. Drinking mate is THE ritual of welcoming and sharing that is practiced throughout South America. Yerba mate is a concoction of boiling water infused with grass and herbs. At least that is what I think it might be. Elizabeth didn't seem to really know for sure what it was or at this point care, but had been drinking it for the past nine months and was still alive so we decided we would try it. I must mention that yerba mate is served in a common cup, actually an oxen horn, and with a common metal straw. This drink is passed along to each person in the group who drinks all of the liquid in the cup at their own pace and then passes it back to the server. The server than fills the gourd with hot water again and passes it to the next person in line. This drink is passed back and forth for the duration of your visit. During our two-week visit, we drank approximately one hundred servings of mate. And yes, we are both still alive.
Paraguay is a third-world country. Actually it is the poorest that I have ever seen. I had lived in Peru and Ecuador when I was in my mid-twenties and hence was aware of the level of poverty that is in South America. And yet, I was surprised at the level that I saw throughout Paraguay. The family that my daughter lives with shares five chairs, one table and five beds, all hand made by them. They cut down their own trees and hand plane them for lumber with tools that they hand make as well. We had brought a metal hammer that we bought at Sears to give the old man as a gift. A diamond would not be more treasured than this hammer we brought him. They have two plates: one good plate for company that the three of us shared and one that the family uses. We felt honored and were deeply touched when the good plate was put on the table for us to use. We shared a few forks and spoons. Machetes are plentiful and used from the age of four on up. There are no decorations on the walls except for a Christmas stocking that we sent our daughter for Christmas. There is no glass in the windows or doors in the spaces made for doors. The breeze comes and goes through the large spaces between the wooden slats that make the walls.
It did not matter to me that we had no indoor plumbing. Drawing water from the well was a unique experience. Since we were there for only a relatively short time, it was actually a fun thing to do. I looked at it, as I did so many other chores that I was now doing daily, as a substitute for all those machines at the YMCA that I usually use to keep in shape. We drew water from the well for washing our dishes, cooking, and watering the kitchen garden. After we made soap out of pig fat, ashes from the fire and some other substance that I couldn't identify, we also drew water from the well to wash our clothes. This simple event took all afternoon. Bathing was an event that one had to give much thought to. Not only did you have to draw water from the well to fill the one and only bucket, but you had to figure out when this bucket was not being used to haul water for something more important such as feeding the animals or getting water for food preparation. Also the time of day to take your sponge bath was very important. Would you rather be food for the millions of insects in the morning, afternoon or the evening? Do you use the home-made soap or do you try stretching the shampoo we brought to wash your entire body. Also, there was the small issue of pouring a bucket of ice cold well water over your head and down your body. What a luxury hot showers are. I wondered how many third-world citizens would never have that experience that we so often take for granted?
Our host family must have been quite well off. They had two outhouses: one with a wooden seat and one with a hole in the floor. It didn't matter which one you used. You didn't hang around too long because of the amount and variety of bugs and insects that kept you company. I quickly gave up the idea of going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. The outhouses were too far from the house, it was dark and who knows what animals or, in particular, snakes were waiting for the unsuspecting tourist. So much for drinking liquids after five in the evening.
You certainly wouldn't go to Paraguay for the food. For breakfast we had mandio, which I believe is the Yucca plant, sliced and fried in pig fat. For lunch we had mashed mandio grilled in pig fat. And, for supper we had mashed mandio in pig fat. I actually was surprised to find that this dish is very tasty. It reminded me of many dishes that I had eaten at my Polish grandmother's house when I was a child. We supplemented our diet with fresh grapefruit, bananas and oranges that grow abundantly throughout the area. The natives do not eat much fruit, but because it is so plentiful, they give it to the livestock to eat. Children eat more fruit than adults. And to the often asked question, we actually gained about five pounds and did not lose even one ounce on this unusual diet.
I didn't mind the small inconveniences from the lack of plumbing, monotonous diet, no transportation, except for one ride on a horse to see neighbors on the other side of Redondo, no communication with the rest of the world or the constant manual labor needed to do all activities. However, in the morning from about four to nine and in the evening from about four to nine, it seemed that every bug in Paraguay was bent on coming to our house and making a personal connection with us. Bugs literally covered the walls and ceiling of our modest abode. The 100% Deet bug spray that we brought with us seemed only to act as a basting to our bodies. I was in awe of the native Paragaunians, who seemed oblivious to all the insects and as they talked just blithely waved a piece of clothing around their heads. The children, however, took things a little more seriously. They would take their shirts off and try to swat and kill as many bugs on the walls as they could and with a vengeance. This small, but insistent detail of every day life in Redondo made me regard my daughter, Elizabeth, with some awe. How does she do it? Had she made peace in some way with the flying insects? I have absolute respect for anyone who can live daily under such conditions.
Besides ignoring bugs and other crawling creatures, large and small, Elizabeth is busy teaching the women of the area how to cook balanced and nutritious meals using a variety of vegetables that she also shows them how to grow. While we were there, she taught a group of about fifteen women ranging from fourteen years of age to seventy years old, how to make potato gnocci. I admired her spunk, especially since I knew she had never made potato gnocci in her life before and did not have exactly all the ingredients in the recipe at her disposal. Not to mention that she used an open fire to cook the gnocci instead of a stove. However, I must report, it was actually a great success and the best gnocci that her father and I ever had. Really! The women were quite intrigued by such a strange looking and tasty meal. However, they politely tried the meal and even brought leftovers home to try on their families. Elizabeth teaches this cooking class under a large tree on which she tapes the recipe. Each woman copies the recipe down and gathers around the wooden table that has been taken out of the kitchen to serve as the cooking table. Did I mention that Elizabeth speaks and teaches in fluent Guaranee, the language of the natives of Paraguay? In fact only a few members of the Redondo community know a little Spanish. Although I can speak passable Spanish, neither my husband nor I can speak Guaranee. We did learn about eight words, but basically smiled, shook our head yes and especially laughed a lot and, of course, drank yerba mate.
Whereas Elizabeth teaches the women how to cook balanced meals, she spends time with the men of the area in instructing them on how to make enclosed kitchen gardens that grow these new crops. She also shows them how to garden using raised beds and composting techniques including green manure. Up until recently, the typical approach to gardening in most of South America has been to farm an area until the soil is depleted of nutrients and then move on to another piece of land. The Peace Corps, through volunteers like Elizabeth, is trying to change this centuries old practice.
What I will remember most about our adventures in Paraguay is not the poverty, but the inner beauty of the people that we met. They are people of quiet dignity based on hard but meaningful lives, where family, friends and relationships are paramount in importance. There is no stress in their lives. Whenever a person visits, which is often, they have the freedom and the time to stop whatever activity they are doing and give that person their entire attention. I admire the simplicity of their lives and their deep connection to their religion and God. They always share with their guests everything of value that they have, even if they only have a smile to offer.
August 5, 2000