Friday, May 18, 2012


If you have heard that the Peace Corps is a good time to get some reading done, believe me, the rumors are true. Between frequent bus rides, rainy days when the campo shuts down, long winter nights, and even random days when the campo seems to be deserted (I am writing this May 6th, the day of a special election here in Misiones and all our Paraguayan neighbors have gone to town to vote), there is ample time to get to all those books you've been meaning to read. Today, with the advent of the Kindle and other E-book devices, even in the middle of nowhere, you can have hundred of books at your fingertips. Without further ado, please excuse the complete lack of cross-cultural analysis and enjoy Mateo's recommended reading list!

  • The New Kings of Non-Fiction, edited by Ira Glass. This collection of essays, while endowed with an unfortunately bland title, contains fascinating reporting on everything from stock trading to soccer hooliganism to an interview with Val Kilmer. The thread that holds the diverse collection together is the idea that “objective journalism” is an oxymoronic term. The pieces report from the perspective of the journalist and are infinitely more colorful and attention-grabbing for it. A couple of weak points in the collection (Lawrence Weschler and Coco Henson Scales's pieces are grass-growingly boring and an exercise in self-promotion, respectively) can be forgiven as they are overshadowed by fascinating pieces by Micheal Lewis, Jack Hitt, Susan Orlean, Bill Buford, David Foster Wallace, Dan Savage, and Micheal Pollan

  • David Foster Wallace. After reading “Host” in The New Kings of Non-Fiction, I began to seek out more of Wallace's work and have devoured all that I have encountered. Writing on subjects as benign as the Illinois State Fair or as abstract as the use of irony and self-reference in television and its effects on its audience, Wallace not only entertains, but offers up an alternative way to view society. If I had to choose a collection of his non-fiction work, I would offer up Consider the Lobster or A Supposedly Fun Thing That I'll Never Do Again. The fact that Wallace took his own life in 2008 and deprived us of more dispatches from his complex mind is a tragedy. (Note: this recommendation is for Wallace's non-fiction pieces. I am still working up the patience to tackle his incredibly dense fiction work.)

  • Chuck Klosterman. You could argue that Klosterman is the ideological heir to Wallace's work, although I would argue that at best he operates at 75% of Wallace's level. He also reports on benign issues, usually related to music or movies, but Klosterman's favored critical device is to take a contrarian view on something (romantic movies do more damage to the collective American psyche than violent movies, for example) and then logically argue his point. If I was at a party and began a conversation with David Foster Wallace, I would probably be glued to him for the duration of the shindig. If I was at a party and engaged Chuck Klosterman, I would probably want to break a beer bottle over his head; not because I disagree with him, but because he makes me angry for turning my world upside down. The best Klosterman collection is probably Eating the Dinosaur.

  • Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon. A must-read for any fan of the HBO serialized drama The Wire. Simon's first-hand reporting of his year spent embedded with the Baltimore homicide department is riveting true-crime reporting. Much like his show, the good guys aren't always that great, the bad guys sometimes never get caught, and flaws in the Justice System threaten to convict the innocent and free the guilty. I recommend reading a later addition, as his postscript and post-postscript contain excellent self-reflections and analysis.

  • In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote. Only the best non-fiction crime reporting ever written (in my oh-so-humble opinion). Capote single-handedly reinvents the genre in this fantastic 1966 work. The amount of research and interviews that must have gone into it is staggering. Just read it, already.

  • Birds Without Wings, by Louis de Bernières Moving on to fiction, I must admit that I read this book previously, but re-read it while in Paraguay. In the second reading, none of its power or beauty was lost. Telling the story of pre-, during-, and post-World War One Turkey, lives of numerous small-town citizens blend with world events and the rise of Mustafa Kemal (aka Ataturk) to form a tale so real that you cannot believe that it is fiction. One of my favorite lines in all of literature falls on page 7 *spoiler alert* by a Muslim Turk regarding the departure of his Christian Greek neighbors: “Without them our life has less variety, and we are forgetting how to look at others and see ourselves.”

  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon. Kavalier and Clay tells the story of two cousins in the 1930s, the success they find working in the new medium of comic books, and the personal, professional, and global tragedies surrounding World War Two that come to define them. Nothing I write here can really do it justice, I only want to say that the blend of humor, tragedy, and history tells a tale that seriously challenges Birds Without Wings for the title of “Mateo's Favorite Fiction Work”.

  • The Complete Calvin and Hobbes Collection (pdf), by Bill Watterson. We all know Calvin and Hobbes, and I've certainly read the thousands of strips dozens of times before, but I want to draw your attention to something else here. 20 years ago, the year was 1992 and I was 7 years old. I thought Calvin and Hobbes was hilarious. I would read, re-read, and re-re-read the anthologies when they were released. I would repeat my favorite catchphrases with my parents and laugh about Calvin's adventures with his best friend. Today, I am 27 years old, and I think Calvin and Hobbes is a completely different context. I see Bugs Bunny and Loony Toons here on Paraguayan TV occasionally. I still think some of the slapstick is funny, but I think it is funny in the way my 7-year-old self thinks it's funny. Watterson's parody of absolutely every major subject in late 20th century, covering global issues from the environment to art to politics to war (he even predicts the rise of online social networking sites), remains funny, poignant and wise 20 years later. I ask you, what artist, in what medium, can speak to the same person at 7 and 27, and gain their awe and affection for completely different reasons?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Che Peteï Kuña Paraguaya (by Mateo)

Our particular group of Peace Corps volunteers are scheduled to finish our service in April 2013. Shortly thereafter, I will return to the United States and very much hope to see many of you reading this blog post. When we have our next encounter, there will be something different about me. You see, I have become a Paraguayan woman.

Before we go any further, you should know that I am still in possession of my Y chromosome. I have not been surgically reassigned. I am not in the habit of wearing a skirt or bra. In fact, in our future encounter, there will be no change in my physical appearance whatsoever.

The fact of the matter is in rural Paraguayan society (which will be referred to as the campo from here on) has incredibly rigid definitions of what a woman does and what a man does. It just so happens, my skills and interests fall mainly in with those of the campo woman.

So you can get an idea of what I mean, let me outline a typical day in the life of our Paraguayan neighbors.

Man Woman
4:00 am Sleep Wake up, make mate & food to go
5:00 am Wake up, go to work Drink mate
6:00 am Work* Prep kids for morning school
7:00 am Work* Feed cows/chickens/pigs/sheep/dogs/cats
8:00 am Work* Milk cows
9:00 am Work* Clean House
10:00 am Work* Do laundry
11:00 am Work* Prep lunch
12:00pm Lunch @ work Feed kids/prep kids for afternoon school
13:00pm Work* Eat lunch/nap
14:00pm Work* Miscellaneous§
15:00pm Work* Miscellaneous§
16:00pm Work* Miscellaneous§
17:00pm Bathe Bathe
18:00pm Telenovela± Telenovela±
19:00pm Telenovela± Telenovela±
20:00pm Dinner Dinner
21:00pm Sleep Sleep

*”Work” almost always takes place a long walk/horse ride from the home and may consist of plowing fields, planting, harvesting crops, tending cattle, or clearing land for more crops/cattle. It should be mentioned that a good portion of “work” also includes socializing with other men, drinking mate/terere/caña (locally made, diesel-grade sugarcane rum), telling off-color jokes, and other pastimes men all over the world seem to engage in when left to their own devices (think the beans & campfire scene from Blazing Saddles).

§ This time could be spent doing any number of things. Most of the time it is a mix of morning chores that have spilled over to the afternoon but could also include activities as diverse as working the fields, attending a rezo (memorial service, more frequent and less sad than it sounds), or visiting a neighbor. Whatever it is, it will almost certainly involve drinking copious amounts of terere (if it is warm out) or mate (if it is cold).

± I'm not sure that I can overstate the importance of the telenovela (soap opera). Our otherwise incredibly outgoing and social neighbors will huddle silently around the television, watching the downright Machiavellian drama unfold on the screen. The novelas are so influential that while the program El Clon (a surprisingly original program with many Islamic characters and plotlines that took place simultaneously in Miami and Morrocco) was airing, children in our community would be heard saying assalaam alaykum and alaykum salaam to one another. A strange thing to hear in the campo, I assure you.

I will take this time to state some caveats to my campo schedule: obviously not every family is exactly the same; not every couple divides their time like this; there are exceptions to every rule. But to those of you who have not lived in the campo, I assure you that it is a culture that is more homogenous than you would find almost anywhere in the USA. Also, it should be said that this schedule is based on the Autumn (the current season) but will very greatly in winter (less daylight, less farm work, more time to sleep) and in summer (everybody working their butt off, sweating their butts off, and bathing the aforementioned butts multiple times a day).

Lately, Tegan has been spending 3.5 days a week in the elementary school assisting teachers and leading some lessons. Between the planning of these lessons and the time needed to execute them (in two languages we did not learn to speak from birth), she is often exhausted when she returns home at night. That has thrust me into the housework and role. Additionally, I have always enjoyed cooking and have discovered a passion for baking as well (which has endured me to the sweet-toothed children and adults of Paraguay alike) which adds to the whole campo woman skill set. (Sidenote: I am proud to report that after nearly one full year of offering to help cook, the women of my community are finally not afraid to have me chop a vegetable or two. Moral victory!)

I hope you can see from my chart that there are similarities and differences in how our neighbors spend their time. Both men and women work very, very hard, both find time to incorporate some socializing into their routine, and both groups drop everything when the telenovelas start. As far as the differences go: as a general rule, women do the housework and child-rearing, there is greater acceptance of men drinking alcohol, and these roles rarely overlap. In my personal experience, however, it is when these roles overlap that you find the most interesting people.

My strongest adult friendships here are with Mrs C, Mrs S, and Mrs L (full descriptions of these ladies can be found in the previous “Ore Gentekuera” post). I don't think it is a coincidence that all three of these women are single mothers and have no male partner to complete these traditionally “male” tasks. Mrs S will go harvest her family's fields. Mrs L can butcher a pig by herself (this task that traditionally requires two men). Mrs C lives alone so she literally does a little of everything. The fact that they themselves also straddle this gender line may be one of the reasons we relate to each other and, therefore, like each other so much.

So, the next time you see me, if I grab you and smash you into my bosom, its only because I learned it from my fellow Paraguayan women.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Holiest of Holy (Weeks)

Hello again, dutiful blog followers! Mateo here, deciding that your diligence in checking in on our sometimes-when-we-feel-like-it blog should be rewarded with a lengthy dispatch from the campo. This week we note that our Peace Corps service is 15/27th completed. By the complex arithmetic of everyday life, that leads me to believe that only one year remains. 12 months left in our beautiful site is a fact that is both tangible and ethereal. However, I leave that strange dichotomy for another blog post. I would like to focus today on the holiday extravaganza we just celebrated, Holy Week. In an attempt to immerse you in the experience, I give you the Holy Week Diary; dates and time of all our activities during this chipa-saturated half week of festivities. To hammer the point home even further, there are pictures on my Facebook page to accompany this post.


4:34 pm Countrywide, Wednesday afternoon is when Semana Santa (Holy Week) gets kicked into high gear. All schools and stores close until Monday morning. Family members matriculate back to the campo from their rushed lives in Asuncion, Buenos Aires, or other urban areas. The wine is broken out.

Specifically for the Carter Langes, Semana Santa starts when we go to our friend Mrs S's house to make chipa. For those of you who don't know, chipa is the traditional bread made in brick ovens (the famous tatakua) for special occasions. If chipa was sold in the USA, the FDA-mandated ingredient list would look something like this:

Ingredients: Manioc flour, corn flour, eggs, milk whey, cheese, pig fat, and anise seed (may contain trace amounts of ash).

Basically, chipa leaves the oven as a warm, palatable brick of carbs and fat. It should be mentioned that today families will make enough chipa to last all of Semana Santa and will continue to eat it through Easter Sunday. After a few hours, chipa chills and becomes a slightly-less-than-palatable brick. After a day or two, it becomes yet another creature: a rock-hard (yet surprisingly squeaky) fixture to every single meal that soon begins to haunt your nightmares.

Culinary qualms aside, getting together with the neighbors to make chipa is a great communal endeavor; getting the family together, stoking the fire in the oven for hours ahead of time, laughing, drinking terere, and rolling out this strange celebratory snack just makes the day feel special.

7:08pm Today we make 25 or so chipa. Mrs S gives us 5 to take home. It is 5 more than we will eat.


9:07 am Holy Thursday in Paraguay mirrors a famous Thursday in the USA; Thanksgiving. That is to say, more food will be made today than could possibly be consumed, you will talk, laugh, and relax with family, and it is guaranteed that somebody is getting too drunk and embarrassing everybody.

The Carter-Langes spend Holy Thursday with another neighbor, Mrs C, and her brother, daughter, son-in-law, and grandkids. We arrive early to help cook, clean, and take care of whatever preparations are necessary.

First order of business, Mrs. C says "Peguapy, perambosa." “Sit down, have some breakfast.” It is not important that we have already eaten. She sets in front of us cocido, a delightful drink of milk, sugar, and yerba mate, and...drumroll please...chipa! Ironically, it is the chipa we made last night with Mrs S, who then gifted it to her neighbor and friend, Mrs C. We choke down some of the now-hardened bread product with large mouthfuls of cocido. We get to work on the first order of business: making more chipa. Of course.

10:13am A hurricane-force wind strikes the campo! The food is covered up and we take cover. Sand from the road starts blowing sideways. The wind picks up the contents of the yard and deposits it in the neighbor's yard. Then picks it up again and deposits it in Argentina. This is a serious wind. Mrs C's family huddles together under the roof. The adults say prayers, the children cry, the weird nortes are standing in the middle of the storm taking pictures.

11:06am The wind settles down to just an occasional gust as the skies open up and dump a much-needed rain on the parched Paraguayan countryside. The rain will fall unceasingly until 9:00pm tonight. We move the food-making stations from Carmen's yard (where rain can soak you from three angles) to her kitchen (where rain can only soak you from one angle). We prepare Sopa Paraguaya (a savory cornbread with onions and cheese), a rack of lamb, a quarter of a pig, a huge fish, and coleslaw.

12:07pm We sit down to eat. No one will leave the table or talk without a mouthful of meat for over a half hour.

12:40pm A child is sent to fetch the wine and soda. Yes, believe it or not, the most common way Paraguayans take their wine is mixed 50-50 with whatever carbonated sugary drink they can get their hands on. This is not as sacrilegious as it sounds, as the wine is usually not great and the soda usually bad. Somehow, when they are mixed together it makes them better than the sum of their parts. I, for one, prefer wine with a fruit soda, but I won't turn down one mixed with cola.

1:38pm I stop drinking. I am the only male over the age of 8 to do so.

2:19pm We get back to making chipa, as the wind/rain storm threw off the original cooking schedule. I endure 2+ hours of heckling from the men in the room, who are now walking the thin line between tipsy and drunk. The heckling comes in two languages, but the main thread seems to be that only women make chipa. After nearly a year of bringing baked goods to neighbors and cooking most meals for lunch and dinner guests, this kind of gender-based heckling is not new to me. I have a few good-natured bilingual retorts I throw back at them and go about my business.

Tegan has become famous for her ability to craft lopi, which is chipa dough molded into (usually animal) figures and given to children. This week she made remarkably lifelike butterflies, birds, crocodiles, cats, capybara, ducks, toads, snails, even a likeness of her own face. She says the secret is to “just squish it with your fingers until something come out”. Thanks for the insight, Picasso. We make 30 more chipa.

4:12pm The rain has not let up, but Mrs C's son-in-law has decided that it is time to go. He tells me that the rainy whether puts him in a certain mood. He then gives me a mischievous look while arching his eyebrows suggestively and I feel sorry for his wife. Tegan innocently asks if he has had too much to drink to drive safely. He responds with “The more I drink, the safer I drive.” Needless to say, that kind of confidence is really all that you need (We found out later he did manage, through dumb luck and nothing else, to get his family home in one piece). We also walk home in the rain, but not before Mrs C can send us with three more chipa. This time, the spirit of Semana Santa must have been with me, as I eat half of one before feeding it to the dogs.

6:01pm A young woman neighbor of ours braves the rain to deliver us chipa she made with her mother that morning. As is the custom, we give her some of our chipa in return. Now, why we go around swapping chipa is beyond me. It reminds us of Fraggle Rock Fraggle Pebbles, where the community constantly regifts the same present in an egalitarian spirit of giving (to extend the comparison, I remind you that chipa also has approximately the same density as a rock).


9:09am We are invited back to Mrs C's house for breakfast. Chipa and cocido. Notice a theme here? As we prepare for breakfast, our neighbor and good friend Toad comes over. The precocious 8 year old is a little bored this week as her two sisters have gone to the neighboring town to visit relatives. We invite her to eat breakfast with us and she proceeds to tickle all of us, including Mrs C, her 64 year old, gruff neighbor lady.

Here in Misiones, it is tradition that on Good Friday families hike up the nearest hill and have a picnic at the peak. Due to yesterday's weather, we know of no families that are going. Toad mentions that she has never been and wants to go with us. She gets permission from her grandmother and we are off!

10:54am For Toad's first voyage on this annual tradition, she spends the first half hour of our hour-long trek asking if we can run up the hill, in order to arrive sooner. After we reply in the negative, she points to a closer hill, one which has sheer rock faces on all sides, and asks if we can climb that one instead. One could argue that she is very excited.

12:02pm We arrive at the summit of the hill. Toad, who talked non-stop while we hiked, is now silent. In her world, the one in which she travels only from home to school and occasionally to a family member's house, she hardly, if ever, encounters a stranger. In fact, besides Tegan and myself, most people she encounters on a daily basis she has known her entire life. Now, at the top of the hill, which is visited by people from all the surrounding areas, she is surrounded by strangers; a surreal feeling, no doubt.

We find a quiet place to eat our lunch, away from the crowds (there are actually not many people here, 100 to 200 perhaps. Last year there was about 1,000 people, as the weather was more hospitable). Toad regains some of her inherent silliness, although she is ashamed to be seen eating a raw carrot in public, as this is something people simply don't do.

1:20pm We take her to a secluded viewpoint (also crowded with strangers, at whom she will spend a quarter-hour gawking), buy some popsicles from a vendor, and head home. As soon as we are away from the masses again, she reanimates, complaining about how tired she is while running circles around us and yelling happily (she will also execute an incredibly beautiful face-plant into a dry riverbed that will nearly cause Tegan to wet herself).


11:23am Saturday is the Bermuda Triangle of Paraguay's Semana Santa. Tradition says Wednesday you make chipa, Thursday you eat your weight in meat, Friday you climb a hill, and Sunday you go to church. With no outstanding invitations (what, no one wants to feed us chipa today?!), we were feeling a bit lost Saturday. However, you can never be bored in the campo as something unexpected always happens. For example, today two girls from the other side of town walked a half hour or so to come see us. This pair of fourth graders, for some reason, have always attached themselves to us like velcro whenever we visit the school. We spend the next four hours playing soccer and volleyball, eating, playing Memory, throwing a Frisbee around, playing Go Fish, and even a little badminton (that's right, badminton). A wonderful visit, and a surprising amount of physical activity, given how hot it is (for those of you keeping track at home, this year's Semana Santa weather went like this: hot, windy/sandstormy, 10 hours of non-stop rain, cloudy, hot, cloudy and hot, and then rainy once again).

6:02pm Because we didn't run around with kids enough today (caution: previous sentence may contain sarcasm), we go to play soccer with Toad and a neighbor boy. Then we play Hide & Seek until the sun goes down. It should be mentioned that little Paraguayan kids are remarkably good at both Hiding and Seeking. Also, a 6'2” white guy with astigmatism is not nearly as good at either of those things.


6:16am We get up extra early today, not because it is Easter, but because Paraguay turned it's clock back an hour last night. The sky is dark and cloudy and thunder echoes around the hill. Here in the campo, even the threat of rain is enough to extinguish all plans for the day. Everyday that we live here, this reality seems less and less strange. When your only means of conveyance is a moped or a horse and your house has no heat, you really don't want to get drenched in a thunderstorm. Also, the roads turn to a few inches of mud in each rain, which even makes walking unpleasant. Especially when you have to spend the next day scrubbing mud out of your jeans cuffs.

9:58am We are in our own little world when we hear a bunch of little feet tromping up to our house. Our two friends from yesterday and Toad have come to tell us church is on. Oh. We frantically throw on respectable clothing and are a little late to the 10am service. Upon our arrival, the service stops so each person there can greet us with a hug and wish us Feliz Pascua (Happy Easter). It is exactly the kind of moment you can never imagine happening in the US.

Luckily there is no priest to interrupt, and the informal service consists of 20 or so women and children (adult men hardly ever attend church) singing hymns and then having a little snack to celebrate Easter. We bring a pumpkin pie to share that I made yesterday (swearing in three languages while peeling skin off of a boiling hot squash). I am unsure of how this strange dessert will be received by my community. When the women and children alike line up for seconds (Mrs S had thirds), I figure that I did alright.


And with that, another Semana Santa in Paraguay is concluded. Despite my chipa-related protestations, I really enjoyed this week in our community. After a year of watching our neighbors and friends work hard day in and day out, it is always fun when they get the rare chance to kick back and celebrate for an extended period. My personal highlights would be taking Toad on her first Good Friday hill summit and the unique feeling you get when little kids walk 30 minutes just to visit you or when a church service stops so everyone can give you a hug and wish you well.

Alright, enough of that sappy stuff. The morale of the story is that Semana Santa is a nice break in (what could be viewed as) the monotony of campo life. Thanks to processes I do not understand, Easter is March 31st next year, and so I am grateful that we get to spend one more Semana Santa before we say jajohechata (see you later) to Paraguay.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ore Gentekuera

Hello, patient blog readers! Matthew is reporting today's installment where I'd like to introduce you to some of the people (gentekuera, in Guarani) that make up our community and life here in Paraguay. After the description of each person, I will try to convey our favorite moment (thus far) with them. Due to some sort of security issues, I am unable to give you their entire names here, so I will use initials or nicknames instead. If it helps you, you can imagine a big black CIA-style line through the rest of their names.

Mrs. C: One of the first people we met from our community back in April 2011. C is over 60 years old, has shoulders like a linebacker and a thicker mustache than I could ever grow. This tough lady has provided for herself her whole life. She currently lives alone and maintains a beautiful garden area in her yard, a vegetable patch, a swath of land that she farms, and more geese, ducks, chickens, cats, dogs, pigs, cows and horses than anyone could ever hope to count. She continues to live in the wooden plank house her grandfather built over 100 years ago. Even on a social call, it is difficult to keep her from tidying, cleaning, or otherwise working around the house. She only stops working long enough to watch two hours of soap operas (telenovelas) each evening. Whenever we surprise her with a gift of cookies or cake, she always, always finds something to gift us in return, even if it is the last of the food in her fridge. She has a daughter who is a teacher at the local elementary school and two grandchildren (9 and 8) that attend school in the neighboring town but visit almost every afternoon during the school year. Mrs. C is one of our closest neighbors, both physically and emotionally. She always seems to know when we are awake or asleep, washing laundry or working in the garden. Favorite memory: There are many, but it's gotta be when we initially met Mrs. C, she gave us a big bear hug and her first words to us were “Hello! You are going to be my children!”

Toad (8), Snack (7), and Monkey (2): If you have been on my Facebook page, you have definitely seen a picture or twelve of these spirited sisters. Each have distinct personalities, but all three love to run around, laugh, swim/splash through the nearby creek, eat, learn to speak English, get dirty and, above all, climb things (including us).

Toad was probably the first person in the community we formed a bond with (by the three of us dancing around with ribbons in her yard at night). She is tremendously funny, incredibly clever, and a hard-worker to boot. When my parents visited, my Mom was shocked at Toad's beauty. She claims it doesn't come through in the goofy Facebook pictures. Don't tell anybody, but Toad is Tegan's favorite Paraguayan. Favorite memory: This one is a 2-in-1 memory; Toad came over one day while we were cleaning our room. She proceeded to root around in our dirty clothes bag, removing all the clothes and even pausing to smell my dirty underwear (the face she made after that is favorite memory #1). After she emptied the bag, she crawled into it, zipped it up, and pronounced “I am dirty clothes!”

Snack is the most introverted sister (aside: this does not mean much. Just last week she invited me into the bathroom to have a conversation with her while she went number two.). She is super smart, loves to read, and is the most fluent in Spanish of the sisters. She is really cute in a dorky way. At times, she reminds me of myself (except for being smart and cute). Favorite memory: Recently, she and her sisters were at our house. Snack wanted an ice cube so she called for me to come in the kitchen. I was busy and said that I'd be there in a minute. She then said, “Mateo, if you don't come here, I am going to whisk you!” I turned around and there she was, trying to hide her smile while waving our kitchen whisk at me in an intimidating manner.

Monkey is single-handedly the dirtiest child I have ever encountered. Her face is always smeared with a mixture of candy residue, snot, dirt, and drool. Her hair usually looks like she was electrocuted and then placed in a wind tunnel. It often appears to be a tornado of hair, twigs, and leaves. Monkey's favorite toy is any knife that she can get her hand on. Her favorite pastime is to be picked up, flipped upside down, and held/bounced/swung around in that way for as long as you can manage it. Needless to say, this wild child is one of our favorites. When we arrived, she was not yet two, and was a roller coaster of emotions: the highest highs and the lowest lows. These days, she has mellowed considerably and is equally happy washing utensils or sweeping the floor as she is being swung around upside down. Favorite memory: Monkey came to visit us one day during her Pato (“Duck”) Phase. She would point to absolutely any type bird and shout “Pato!”. Parrots flying by? “Pato!”. Chickens out in the field? “Pato!” The hummingbird on Tegan's shirt? “Pato!” We were holding hands as I was walking her home and we were counting “patos” as we went. Monkey paused, dropped her pants, and pooped right in the middle of the field. She then pulled up her pants, grabbed my hand, and went right back to counting “patos”. I like to tell people that's when we became family.

Mrs. S.: Is in her sixties, five feet in height and about as wide as she is tall. She has had 13 children, including Toad, Snack, and Monkey's mom. This lady is the definition of tough love. It took me a long time to warm up to her, as she spends most of the day yelling at any/all of the children and animals in her general vicinity. This behavior, along with a considerable language barrier, blinded me to how fiercely she loves her family. She has readily accepted Tegan and I into this already large family. Whenever we greet her, she usually grabs us in a big hug that ends up smashing us into her ample bosom. Favorite memory #1 (couldn't single one out): Early on during Toad's birthday celebration, we taught her how to say “happy birthday to you” in English. Later that night, we sang to her in three languages and then all enjoyed some cake. While eating the cake and sitting around the fire, Mrs. S barked out some instructions/advice/commands (we had no idea as it was in rapid-fire Guarani) to Toad. Toad paused, turned to her grandmother and shouted back “happy birthday to you!” in perfect English. Mrs. S looked bewildered for a few seconds, then tipped back her head and howled with laughter at these strange words coming out of her granddaughter's mouth. Favorite memory #2: When we were making chipa (dense bread product eaten during celebrations) into animal figurines for a children's celebration, Tegan made something that looked like a mix of a snowman and Buddha. Everyone wanted to know what that particular creature was. Tegan explained that is was a silhouette of Mrs. S while sitting. Mrs. S proceeded to laugh until she cried.

Mrs. L: If there is one reason why I am still in Paraguay, it is probably the generosity and warmth of Mrs. L and her family. If you recall our ancient blog posts of 8 months ago, you may remember that I had a tough transition period when we arrived in our community. It was at this point when Mrs. L offered us a room in her house. By providing us access to a calm environment, her wonderful family, and delicious food, she was just what the doctor ordered for two bewildered Nortes. Tegan has always said that someone should make a movie of Mrs. L's life so I will give you a brief outline of that yet-to-be-made film. Mrs. L is not yet 40, but has raised four children (two adult children live in Asunción; her son is in the army and her daughter is in college, and two kids live a home; a 15 year old girl and 6 year old boy). She maintains multiple tracts of farm land, while cultivating the largest vegetable garden we have seen. She can make crème brulee over a fire without burning it. She can slaughter and butcher a pig by herself. She brings all the water for cooking, drinking and bathing in from the well, as she has no running water. And she does all of this without her partner, who has fled the country after being accused of murder (depending on who you ask, he is either innocent or the other guy had it coming). She has told us numerous stories of her flaunting of “traditional” Paraguayan customs. She refused to marry her longtime partner as she thinks marriage diminishes a woman's power. She arrived at a soccer game on horseback and whipped a younger woman who was threatening to steal her partner. She also loves to laugh and is one of the few Paraguayans who can understand and employ sarcasm (I am not too proud to credit three months of living with us for her sarcastic talents).Favorite memory: Mrs. L's kids love to play Hide & Seek. One day we played with them. It is hard for us to find places to hide in her immaculately clean house. Tegan found a spot where she put her back to the wall and opened a door of a closet so it would shield her from view. Well, the kids never found her, but when Mrs. L went to go put away some freshly laundered clothes, she closed the door to the closet, turned to leave the room, and came face to face with a grinning Tegan. Mrs. L screamed with surprise and collapsed laughing and crying into Tegan's arms.

A: Mrs. L's 6 year old son continues to amaze me with his intelligence. He speaks Spanish well, despite it not being taught in his Kindergarten class or speaking it at home with any frequency (my guess is he learned it from TV). He is a bit on the short side but will steadfastly refuse any help recover things outside his reach. Instead, he prefers to build or re-engineer any number of tools to help himself. He seems to be made of stone; he is not fat yet weighs a ton and is very strong, He routinely tries to lift me off the ground; he will probably be able to before we leave. He also enjoys challenging us to arm wrestling. He is very ticklish and has a giggle that can light up a room. He has a If you have seen a small Paraguayan boy with a bowl cut on my Facebook page, that is him. Don't tell anybody, but he is my favorite Paraguayan. Favorite Memory: While we lived with his family, A and I would often be engaged in a wrestling and/or tickling competition after dinner and before bed. Whenever I bested him, he would shout “Let me go! Let me go!” and when I did, he would pounce right back on me. One night, he used his “Let me go!” routine but I did not comply. After squirming around trying to free himself, he finally shouted “Mateo, let me go because I am going to fart!” The speed at which I jumped from the bed is still a source of amusement for his family.

So that's it for now. Other things you should know are: we had the first rain in 40 days this week. Yay! Also, next week we will be hosting a married couple that just arrived in Paraguay this month. It seems like just yesterday we went out into the field to visit a volunteer, but that was nearly a year ago. Where does the time go? We will try to instill in them a sense of pride and honor that comes with working with Paraguayans, and also try and teach them to enjoy the mixture of pig lard, corn meal, and stinky cheese, in all it's myriad forms.

We will be back soon with more news from the campo. Until then, besitos.
Matt & Tegan

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Happy 2012!


Oh yes, them.

The Carter Langes are still alive in Paraguay! We are attempting to resuscitate the blog for 2012. Here it goes:

Backing up to 2011, in December we convened a group of women community members who were interested in making homemade soap. We held the first meeting to plan who would bring what ingredients, when and where it would take place, etc. The next week 10 women got together and made soap! It was great to some community members that otherwise may not cross paths working, laughing, and learning together.

Also in December, we spent two weeks seemingly doing nothing but celebrating birthdays and holidays in our community. Almost every day we were invited to a family's home for a big gathering, lots of wine, and of course, more food than we could possibly eat. However, we missed the Paraguayan celebration of Christmas and New Year's (watermelon and fireworks; sounds like the 4th of July) to return to good old Oregon!

Over three weeks we were ecstatic to see and catch up with family members and friends. We got to tell some of our favorite stories face-to-face and even taught a little Guarani to the people of North America. We were interviewed for the local paper and got a full-page writeup complete with color photos. We also enjoyed numerous delicious, comforting meals, Pacific Northwest wine and beer, and went three entire weeks without eating manioc. It was a lovely vacation.

In January, we returned to South America in the middle of Summer. While we were gone, Paraguay had suffered the hottest day in its recorded history, and was in the middle of what would be 19 days without rain (it usually rains about once a week in Paraguay). Needless to say, it was hot. We also learned that when your house is made of brick and concrete, although the sun has gone down, it does not stop the aforementioned bricks from radiating heat through the night. It was so hot that the supposed “cold” water in our shower came out hot, as the ground was hot enough to heat the pipes underneath.

While we were re-acclimating ourselves to heat, Guarani, and manioc, we learned good news: our group of women soap makers had met every week while were gone and had become a regular soap-making factory! This is a sustainable developer's dream scenario: a grassroots project that is carried on by the people of the community and is sustainable economically (the ingredients' costs are low and split between the group members), politically (it is not dependent on a certain politician or party in power), and environmentally (nearly all of the ingredients are available locally). Most importantly, it is self-perpetuating; meaning they are not dependent on Tegan and I to organize, resolve conflicts, etc. We are also proud that the group includes a cross-section of families and mini-communities in the area without being dominated by any one of them.

This week, we have enjoyed a refreshing change in the weather (temperature in the high 80s instead of high 90s) and finally have energy to do more than just sit in the shade, sweat, and complain about the heat. We have taken advantage of the weather to run around with our kid-friends, cook, do laundry, and finally buy chairs that weren't outlawed by the Nuremberg trials. We look forward to the start or a new school year this February, not only as that will signal a downturn in the daily temperature, but that we will be able to involve ourselves once again in the group of parents, teachers, and students that make up an active school community. Until then, we hope the best for you and yours, and thanks for being patient with our infrequent blog posts!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Striving to Thrive

Hello great big world! How we´ve missed you all! You wouldn´t believe how easy it is to forget there´s such a thing as the interwebs when one is surrounded by statuesque trees, rowdy birds, gaseous cows, friendly folk, and nearly machine-free living. Piece o' cake. Well, I finally remembered and have plenty of thoughts rumbling around in the ol' thinker to share with you, my beloved plugged in friends and fam.

Lately I find that Maslow´s heirarchy of needs has nearly continually been bashing me over the head with its applicability to understanding people and life. Little by little, I am striving to push forward in making the transition from just surviving (eating, sleeping, pooping), to adapting (feeling safe in body and resources, building relationships), to thriving (respect by others, confidence, spontaneity, creativity) . I have to say that I am finding the third stage to be by far the most challenging. Perhaps that's because I did not even conceive of thriving as being something I had to work on here. I worked so hard over the past seven years to learn how I personally could thrive in Portland that I think I figured I would just carry that over and continue on in my growth, picking up where I left off. Not so.

I am learning that every new incarnation of me must undergo the same struggle, the same process of surviving, adapting, and hopefully, eventually thriving. Now that I think about it, each of my overarching phases in life have involved that very process. Growing up in a home and town whose rules, manners of behavior, and culture were very different from my nature required surviving and at the most adapting, but I can´t say I ever reached the stage of thriving. That requires a level of self-knowledge and conscious intent that only relatively recently have I come to possess. I have gradually transitioned from subconsciously bumbling my way through my development as a person to a conscious, intentional search for books, friends, documentaries, outlets of expression, and lifestyle habits that assist me in my growth.

Some challenges here include very limited access to the greater world and its ideas, language and cultural misunderstandings which chip away at one´s confidence to express oneself, and reluctance to change (weird for me to admit, considering one of my great fears in life is stagnating in growing and changing, but I have found I am still quite enamored with the Tegan that Portland birthed). Fortunately, I still have some pretty inspiring relationships and memories from the other universe I used to inhabit and the search is well under way for sources of inspiration and catalysts for growth in Paraguay. I have a handful of close fellow volunteers who are undergoing similar struggles and epiphanies. I am surrounded by trees (although there are fewer and fewer every single day). And I have found friendships in strange places in example being the spunkiest, most bizarre nine-year-old girl, whom we´ve lovingly dubbed¨Toad¨in Guarani.

I hope this post finds you all happy, healthy in heart and body and mind, and growing as people.

So very much love,

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Longlost Carter Langes

Well, well, well. The wayward bloggers return, por fin. It has been a busy past few months here in our corner of Paraguay! We finished building our composting bathroom in time for a visit from the other Langes. We eased them into Paraguay by spending a few days in a cush hotel in a fancy part of Asuncion... then brought them down to reality for a week in out community. Sadly, they didn´t get to try any mondongo (cow innards that taste just like cow poop smells) nor any pig head for breakfast. But they did get to meet all of our friends and neighbors a well as attend two of our language classes. David´s big whoopsie was to tell the kids "aguamente" instead of igualmente after meeting them. That elicited a few minutes of laughter. Viki, on the other hand, took to Spanish like a fish to water! A week longer and she´d have been fluent. We made it up to Iguazu Falls on the Argentinian side and were blown away! It is spectacular! We went on a little boat that zips right under the spray of the falls and it was exhilarating! And cold and wet... Then, rather than put-put around Argentina, the Langes decided they´d rather hang another few days in our community, which we took to be a great sign. If you´d like to see the various furniture and tools and garden fence (half built) that we slaved away on with Dave at the whip, I recommend you peek at our facebook. A few other highlights: Viki and one of the town drunks lifting their pantlegs to compare calves; the Langes doing laundry by hand for literally 5 hours; successful communication with only wild gesticulating; and our two worlds colliding.

So, now you all know a visit is not only possible, but quite enjoyable (as evidenced by the Langes coming back for more time in our community)... so come! We´d love to show you around and introduce you all to tranquilo Paraguay.

Advertisement aside, we had a rather difficult goodbye with the Langes in Asuncion then started a week of training with our whole group and a community member brought by each. It was good to work side-by-side with a community member in planning all the phases of a project. I worked with Mirtha, the second-grade teacher in our school, meanwhile Matthew worked with Esmilcen, a nursing student who also co-leads our soccer team. We played American Football every afternoon, Settlers of Cattan in the evening, and a few rounds of hide and seek and sardines in the dark. All in all, it was a much needed transition from vacay with the Langes to rolling up our sleeves and diving into work in our community. We feel like a new page is being turned and it´s going to be a hell of a story!

Love and hugs to you all! Let us know what you´ve all been up to too!
The Carter Langes