Friday, June 29, 2012


It`s about noon and I`m at the library. I´ve been working the lunch shifts so that we can be open continuously. The librarian works from 8 to 11, goes home for lunch and then works until 3, which is pretty standard. It is tranquilo here during the siesta but some kids do come in, or stick around from the morning until they run home at 12:30 not to miss their lunch.
Lunch is of course a hot, greasy, family meal. I love shocking Paraguayans by telling them that we eat sandwiches for lunch. Lately I´ve been enjoying making a big hearty sandwich at home and then eating it here with cheese puffs, sitting outside by the grass in the shade. The weather has been unseasonably gorgeous this week; it has been warm and breezy. I have no grass at my house, just mud and weeds, and I badly want to just lay down on this grass here in the sun, but that would also be scandalous.
I have just this week finally, after 16 months, assembled all the ingredients for a great sandwich. My new town has a bakery which makes surprisingly good whole wheat bread daily (though at slightly odd hours). I can get lettuce, tomatoes and red onions, sliced "sandwich" cheese and pickles (!) at the supermarket in the middle of town. I can get sliced baloney at the store next to my house.  Baloney is not my preferred sandwich meat, but the packaged sliced ham I bought at the supermarket was slimy and unsettling. I finally broke down and bought Paraguayan mustard last weekend so that Claudia, who was visiting, could make pollo a la mostaza. With some cheesy poofs and a coke it is a glorious thing. And I can lean my chair back against the brick wall and listen to the birds and the wind in the trees and breathe the good air.

The library has not too many books in it yet. We have a pretty okay kids section, thanks to Lizzy, and also a pretty okay Paraguay section, though it is lacking some important parts. Then we have the general collection, which is about 300 books on completely random topics, the majority of which are of almost no interest to anyone. We're working on looking for more book donations in the capital from organizations and from private citizens here in Natalio for more books. In addition I am working on a Peace Corps Partnership grant with the members of the library commission in order to buy a bunch of books and another bookcase with american dollars. More on that to come.

We also have 5 computers that work, and one that kind of works, from the gobernacion of Itapua, the department I live in. They have legitimate copies of Windows XP and run well. They have just a few programs installed, however, and we lack an internet connection in the library so far. They do have the 2007 Microsoft Office suite, but 98% of our patrons so far are just kids, and they have little use for Powerpoint or Excell. A program which I have installed on these computers is Google Sketchup, which is a free 3D modelling program. It is fairly easy to use, and some of the kids have done some impressive things with it already. I will post pictures of some of their creations when I get a chance. The other two programs they play around on are MS Paint, which is good for practicing mouse control, but is terrible for drawing, and Pinball, which I let them play as long as the sound is turned off.
looks like the Seattle Public Library

The kids that come in to the library spend about 70% of their time on the computers. I'm glad to get them in the door, and it is really great that any kid in town can learn the basics of using a computer now. In Paraguay plenty of families have computers, and plenty of people are obsessed with facebook, but this is something that is strictly divided upon class lines. If you're a kid and your family isn't able to afford one, chances are you've never used one. When I was planning my first computer class over at the elementary school I didn't even think to tell the kids how to use the mouse. Now I'm going to make a big color poster showing how to put your hand because Ramona's 3rd graders were so baffled by it. So I'm happy when they come in even just to play pinball, because you have to do some things with the keyboard and the mouse, and if you get a high score you have to type in your name with the keyboard, which is another byzantine apparatus for someone who hasn't used one. There is only so much time you can spend playing Pinball and Minesweeper or pretending to know how to play Spider Solitaire or Hearts anyhow.

y despues

Monday, June 18, 2012


I am a bit overly affected by beauty. Physically, emotionally affected, to the extent that some days I can barely stand to look out my front door, my street is so ugly. Yet if I walk two blocks East or West from here I am arrested by the sublime beauty of the rolling countryside. I love to gaze at the clouds and the stars and the sunset, and I know that people stare at me because I look so goofy while I'm doing it.

This is something I need to keep in mind when finding a place to live in the future. The most depressed I have ever been is when I live in a home that I find to be ugly. Convenience or comfort are not half as important as beauty.

I've harped on it enough already, but I found my neighborhood in Nueva Germania to be gloriously beautiful, even with the poverty and the inconveniences that it presented. It filled my heart just to walk around the block or sit on my porch as the sun went down behind the trees and the kids played soccer on the grass in the 'street' and the fireflies came out and the swallows and bats flew around eating them.
it was effing idylic

I am so sick of hearing motos drive by.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

okay and

here is a map I made of the climate zones of this part of South America. I wanted to paint this in the library or somewhere in Nueva Germania, maybe I'll get to do it in Natalio. I hate seeing maps of just Paraguay, because it is so small and is right in the middle of so many things. It seems like you have to put BA and most of Brazil, and Bolivia and the Andes on there for it to make any sense.
on the map, the greener areas have more trees, yellow are more grassy, and there's a desert there in the NE corner of Brazil. Redness is mountains.
ms paint for the win!

but really, I'm still on board

My apologies to Gma Mary for the language used in this post...

The prevailing theme of the last few months has been that meaningless bullshit without an overarching coherent story is just meaningless bullshit. Meaningless bullshit, however, which is part of a larger, meaningful story or sequence of events, becomes much more than mere shit. By which I mean to say, it is not the events themselves that matter, but rather the larger context in which they occur. I did not understand this well enough in high school, where there was so much that was clearly irrational bullshit. It was not the bullshit that mattered, despite what you would have been lead to believe from industrial media, Disney, etc.

Being here we are obliged to take part in bullshit so much weirder and more absurd than anything we've experienced in the States, but it all becomes important when it is felt to be part of a meaningful, overarching story of Peace Corps service. Though I'm still in the thick of the story of my Peace Corps service, the logic to the plot has gone out the window and the bullshit is now so obviously vacous and banal.

Maybe this is true for literature and art as well... the artist must present the mundane as existing within an onverarching story that is compelling. I like to think that the job of the artist is to show us why our mundane everyday lives are beautiful. Perhaps the way he does that is to invent a compelling story (just with colors and tones, perhaps) that gives meaning and beauty to our bullshit.

One of the hopes of cross cultural imersion is that enough meaningful bullshit piled up can create meaning ex nhilio, from nothing. I think it can work... I am thinking of a compost heap that creats highly enriched soil from a pile of trash or, of manure itself which is so valuable as a fertilizer. That is what I have to believe, to an extent anyhow, if the remainder of my service is going to be anything more than a melancholic counting of the days. That meaining can arise from meaninglessness; that shit piled up can fertilize new growth.

Monday, June 11, 2012

La tembiurehe (about food)

So, I'm reading Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. A review quoted on the cover of the book from The New Yorker says "The scope and the exlanatory power of this book are astounding", which I agree with. The book is not really about guns and steel, and is only sort of about germs. It's actually  about the rise of agriculture and plant and animal domestication and geography, and how it's not all random and arbitrary. There are a limited number of plants and animals that could have been and that have been domesticated in the world. There were only a handful of areas where this domestication was achieved independently and then those crops and animals were spread to other areas. Geography also determined the level of isolation of early agricultures, denying most non Eurasian societies the benefits of plants and animals that had been domesticated in neighboring regions.
It's related to the fascinating story of a few crops that Pollan tells in "The Botany of Desire" but expanded. Each and every domesticated food comes from somewhere and is tightly bound up with the history of the people that lived in that area.

So it's got me thinking about the foods that are avaliable here. South America was one of the few places in the world where agriculture arose independently. The Guaraní and Tupí native american peoples practiced agriculture in modern Brazil, Paraguay, Urugauy and Argentina. They obviously never reached the level of organization of the Incans, but one of Diamond´s theses is that food-producing societies benefitted greatly just by being able to adopt plants that were domesticated by thier neighbors, since the number of domesticable plants in any one area is generally very low.
Of the foods that are commonly eaten here many were domesticated in the Americas. Mandioca is of course the starch staple. Corn (domesticated in Mexico) is featured in many traditional foods: greasy cornbread (sopa paraguaya), gooey cornbread (chipa guazu), cornball and meat soup (boribori) and chipa (to which I have not yet paid proper tribute). Of the vegetables I can buy in most stores: tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and onions; only onions were not domesticated in the Americas. Peanuts were domesticated by the Tupí-Guaraní and are commonly eaten, roasted así no más, or as a peanut brittle style desert. Squash and beans (both domesticated in Mexico) also for parts of the traditional cuisine, but beans seem to have a stigma attached to them. Most folks don´t like to admit they eat beans.
Tonight I went up to visit Lizzy and talk about our grant application to buy books for the library. Her host mom served me a bowl of locro for dinner which is a stew whose orgins are pre-colombian. It´s made with a white, fluffy kind of corn and beans and meat.
I live in a highly productive agricultural region of the country, but mostly the crops produced are for export or for non-food purposes. In this area soy (China), sorghum (Africa), cotton (both Old and New World), corn (Mecixo), and tung oil (China) are grown especially. This land used to be part of the Atlantic rainforest, but in just the recent decades it has become the agricultural heartland of the country.
We take for granted the wonderful diversity of the plant and animal products avaliable to us, and I appreciate Diamond's book for getting me to think about the implications for farming peoples stuck with limited, or no, local varieties of plants appropriate for domestication. I also appreciated his explanation of how agriculture arose at first; gradually and without anyone knowing where things were leading at the time. It´s the first time I´ve been able to wrap my head around how people and thier plants could undergo the huge changes, in behavior and physiology respectively, necesary for the rise of agriculture.
Other South American domesticates
Eastern SA: mandioca, peanut, rubber tree, pineapple, yerba mate
Andes: lots of potatoes, sweet potatoes, lima bean, coca, tobacco, pumpkin, llamas, guinea pigs
Shared with Mexico: corn, tomatoes, beans, amaranth, guava, cocoa, cotton, dogs
Just Mexico: turkey, squash, papaya

the facts of life

There is a lot that I don't get around to mentioning in my longer posts, details of my life that I take for granted now but that are not taken for granted in the states.
First, an announcement: We opened the first ever public library in town on the 1st of June! The space is still a bit empty but we are working on getting more donations. Lots of kids have been coming in to check out all our lindo books and play around with the basic programs we have on the computers. I'm working the lunch shift, 11-1, which is fine with me. That's when a lot of kids come in, just after they get out of class in the morning. The librarian works 8-11 and 1-3.
I've been building nice warm fires in my version 2.0 woodstove. I built it in my kitchen out of bricks and a metal chimney and cooktop. It was a pain in the butt getting firewood, but I finally got the guys at the yerba roastery to sell me some of thiers. I don't understand why that was so hard, I must not know the right people yet.
The woodstove has been great this last week as it froze 3 nights in a row and was cold the rest of the time. A warmer rainy thing has come in, but we're still just beginning winter, and I am now 3 degrees latitiude further south (like going from Bellingham to Portland) than I was. Most volunteers and Paraguayans don't have any proper heat source in thier homes, which drives me crazy. Electric heaters are fairly common, but they just don't get the job done to my satisfaction. Fire and chimneys are pretty ancient technology, and since winter happens every year it seems like it would be worth the time and investment to build some damn fireplaces/woodstoves. The rich often have chimneys on their houses but I'm pretty sure that is just an ornamental thing. I have never seen smoke rising from one.

Two more things about the incredible mud here: you can use it, mixed with sand, to lay bricks. This is what my woodstove is held together with actually.
also: it turns white dogs orange, which is amusing.

I bought a hat! It's a blue paperboy style hat with ear flaps that button below the chin.
I've got a rockin' compost pile now that I've got a yard that chickens do not enter. It's a little weird to live where there aren't chickens running around everywhere. I'm going to plant a for real vegetable garden this spring.
I got a camera! Lizzy sold me one. So I'll have to start taking pictures.
Since I got to Natalio I've had a sitemate, Lizzy Greer, who got a 2 month extension to help see the library through to the opening. So she's been in Paraguay since January 2010 but is going home at the end of the month. There aren't any other volunteers within at least an hour's travel from here. I do miss Hannah and Leah, my San Pedro neighbors, and I wish Lizzy the best of luck in North Carolina.
My house has a tile floor! It's a squash soup and terra cotta checker board pattern. I want to have a dance party.