The last lunch/summer harvest/Paraguayan Thanksgiving

I didn’t realize it was happening until we were half way into it. I don’t know if anyone else did, either. My last lunch with my host family. A daily act that I have participated in with this family for two whole years. First as a nervous observer, then as an eager eater, and finally as a part of the process of preparing and enjoying good meals together.

The day before had been Thanksgiving. For the first time in my life I spent a holiday completely alone. It didn’t have to be this way, there were lots of volunteers getting together to prepare and enjoy big holidays meals together, much like I did last year with my closest volunteer friends. But this year I chose to stay home and pack. I only have a few more days in Calle 20 and several going away parties planned for the weekend, and I felt like the best use of my time on that particular Thursday, which happened to be Thanksgiving, would be starting the intimidating process of packing up my house. I ate beans for lunch, sweat through several t-shirts, and compressed my whole life into a few bags for the second time in two years. I got to talk with my family on Skype, and most of the day I was frantic with organizing, sweeping, cleaning, and packing, and didn’t think much about the holiday, but I couldn’t help but feel it was not the greatest Thanksgiving I’d ever had.

The following day my host sister invited me over for chipa guasu, the traditional Paraguayan fresh corn bread that is a staple of the summer diet, when corn is plentiful. After a long, chilly winter I was giddy with the prospect of diving into the sweet hot bliss of homemade chipa guasu. As I walked over to my host family’s house I felt the familiar rush of adrenaline combined with fear as the sky turned black and the clouds twisted into funky dark shapes. A storm was coming. When I arrived the preparations were already in full swing. The tender new corn had been husked and chopped off the cob, and my host brother was working hard to grind it up. Soon the preparations shifted to mixing the ground corn in with fresh cheese, lard, a handful of salt, a ladle of fresh milk, and into the oven it went. And then we waited for it to emerge, ready for us to indulge in.

As I said before, I didn’t realize at this point that this would probably be my last lunch with my host family. As the chipa guasu emerged from the oven and we stood around the piping hot pan, each with a spoon in hand, shoveling heaps of steaming fresh corn bread into our hungry mouths, it dawned of me. I thought, I am thankful for this family that has taken me in as one of their own. I thought, I am thankful for this delicious corn, which comes to us marking the beginning of the harvest, and summer. And of course, my mind turned to Thanksgiving.

One day late, it turns out I got my Thanksgiving. Unlike ours in the United States, which marks the end of a bountiful harvest year, and the unofficial beginning of winter (at least to me,) my Paraguayan Thanksgiving marked new harvests, summer, and the beginning of what we all hope will be a bountiful year. In the United States, we eat root vegetables, turkey, and pumpkin, staples of the fall harvest, foods we eat in a sort of final celebration of a good year. In my Paraguayan Thanksgiving we gorged on foods we hadn’t eaten for months, in a celebration of spring and the beginning, again. While in the United States version it feels like a final act to stuff yourself before the long winter, here it was a ravenous indulgence, one that we’d waited for all winter long, one that induces gluttony for the pure joy of eating delicious fresh foods again. And of course, like Thanksgiving in the states prompts many of us to count our blessings, I was reminded again, of mine.

We finished enjoying our delicious meal and my host sister looked at me with a tiny smile spreading across her face. Mba’epiko? What?, I asked her. She hurried into the house and came out with one of the biggest watermelon’s I have ever seen. Everyone let out a small cheer and we sliced it open. Pink juice ran down our arms as we stood together around the two giant halves of melon, spitting seeds into our hands, grinning. We indulged again. At the end of this feast, I felt very much like I have often felt after Thanksgiving in the states; stuffed. I looked at my host mom and thanked her, for the food and the company, but I realized I was also sharing with her in the thankfulness for the beginning of the plentiful Paraguayan summer which would lift everyone up again, bring food and money back into the community, bring summer vacation for the kids and teachers, bring humidity and heat that begs you to sit under a mango tree, drink ice cold terere, and do nothing. And of course, I was thanking her for taking me in as one of her own, for loving me as her own child, and for taking care of me for the past two years.

We sat afterwards looking at the rain, which had burst from the sky in the midst of our summer meal. The rain fell hard and fast, and hail even slammed down for a few minutes, but then it slowed to a steady pour, soaking the dry earth and our sweaty heads. After sitting for a while, I decided to go home. I desperately wanted my Thanksgiving nap! I said my goodbyes and sprinted out into the cool, drenching rain. I took off my shoes and ran barefoot in the mud down my favorite street in Paraguay, Calle 20, and felt more thankful than I have on any Thanksgiving in a while.

27 months

It’s hard to remember who I was when I moved down to Paraguay 27 whole months ago. I remember being wide-eyed and excited, nervous, but ready. I remember that I was looking for something, to change myself or change someone else. I wanted to participate in something bigger, and see some good come of it. I wanted to help people live better. I wanted to live better. I was prepared for the worst, and hoping for the best. I had no idea what I was walking into.

You cannot see transformation happen. Or transition. Or transcendence. It happens late at night, tossing in an uncomfortable bed, unable to sleep through the heat. It happens while trudging through deep mud with a heavy pack as the sun rises in the east. It happens as you notice the brown grass has turned green. Or when you finally see your friends and realize how much you love these people you have known such a short time. The time spent alone in my small wooden house, working and visiting with Paraguayan friends and neighbors, and falling in love with some of the closest American friends of my life, these are when the transformations happened, right under my nose, though I didn’t notice it until they were long gone, or rather stuck on me forever.

Upon reflection, I can see some of the changes. My perspective has widened, my politics have radicalized, my heart has hardened, and softened. My anxiety level has plunged through the roof, and then completely disappeared. My patience have flexed huge, and stayed that way. I am more gentle with myself, and with other people. I am more willing to veer from the plan, I am more flexible. I pay more attention.

Mostly, my heart has filled up. When I left the states I had been through a difficult few years. My life felt complicated. I felt unsure about my future. I still feel unsure about my future, and things still seem complicated, but I have more faith in the world and in people. I have gained some stillness to my life that I can return to when it all starts to spill over and feel too much. It’s something I taught myself over the past two years, or something I simply learned.

Leaving Paraguay is heart breaking. It feels harder than a lot of other things I have ever had to do. Here I have created a life for myself from scratch. I showed up a stranger, and found love all over the place. I gathered together the things I liked best and constructed something good. A bamboo fence, a seed bed, green sprouts in the garden. A recipe practiced over and over again. The same conversations about weather and crops. The same road, leading to the same place, to the same people. I spent so much time alone, working and thinking, that I came to understand myself better. I spent so much time around other people, sleeping in piles, peeing without doors, hugging, that I came to understand friendship better.

As each American friend leaves, this space where we met, where we all created something new together, where we learned so much about the world and ourselves and each other, becomes the past. I will never know you again here, like this, I think. There is still a lot of growing and learning to do, for myself and for my friends, but there always will be, I hope. I know that this place and this time here has given all of us the courage, the tools, the power to do it on our own, anywhere we go, and wherever we end up. We’ve been filled up, we leave here with full hearts, with each other, and this place to still our minds and remind us to keep transforming, keep transcending.

Living on the edge

After living for two years amongst my neighbors, poor, rural Paraguayan farmers, sharing with them their homes, their beds, their meals, it becomes hard to separate my life from theirs. We live the same lives, yet they are totally different. We do the same things, eat the same foods, live in the same community, yet my friends and neighbors in Calle 20 were born into very different circumstances. They live on a few dollars a day. They have little access to credit or loans. The education supported by their government is poor. They do not have health insurance and live far away from the best public hospitals. Yet often these differences seem to collapse. I feel amongst family and friends where I live.

One of the things I have found myself thinking about most over the past two years has been the relativity of poverty. Usually, when I am hanging out with neighbors, working or drinking terere, poverty is not in the front of my mind. I am spending time with neighbors, helping them improve their farms, sharing stories and gossip. It is often easy to forget the abject poverty that my friends are living in. The latrine and the open cook fire on the floor start to feel normal. The obvious lack of health care starts to blend in. I see Calle 20 as my home, and my neighbors as my friends.

But then things always start to happen that bring me back to reality, reminding me of the poverty that encompasses life here. Someone comes to me looking for money. They ask if they can sell me a dozen eggs or a kilo of cheese. I know it’s not because they think I need the eggs or the cheese. It’s that they need the money. Or maybe it’s someone’s family member who suddenly falls ill. Instead of bringing them to the hospital, they care for them at home. Soon they begin to sell their cows. One after the next until they have enough money to bring them to Asuncion and pay for their treatment at the hospital. Sometimes it’s enough, sometimes folks die before they can get them there. It’s when meals without meat start showing up day after day, when chickens stop being fed, when nobody ever has minutes on their cell phones. There are small indicators that show me when things are getting bad, when the edge is getting closer.

Somehow, certain families seem to get a little bit ahead. They save up enough money to take out a loan on a truck. The payment is very low, over a very long time. They use the truck to start a small business traveling to communities and selling products from their truck. Things are going well, they are making lots of sales, and making their loan payment without much trouble. Then, the season changes. It’s late winter now and the money from the cash crops is gone, the last bit spent on seed for the new crop. People stop buying things, and the loan payment cannot get paid. Soon, the truck has to be sent back to the dealership and things seem to be back at square one, only sentiments seem lower after the business didn’t work out. I have seen this happen a few times during my time in Paraguay. People with good ideas start up small businesses with big plans, and they do well, for awhile. But they have such a small amount of money to work with, such a small fund to keep the business afloat in difficult times, that the business sinks at the first sign of trouble.

Most people here are living on the edge. They get by during most of the year, meaning they have food to eat and they have their land and their humble wooden homes. During most of the year, that’s all they have, but they make it work. But the smallest set back can bring that all down. Illness, bad weather, failed crops can mean the difference between staying on that edge and sinking deeper into poverty. The edge I write about exists in other economies, such as in the United States. The working poor often confront this kind of cycle of poverty where getting out always seems possible, but never attainable. The false possibility creates disappointment and crippling issues of self-worth. Falling off the edge leads to the disappearance of the possibility of getting out, of things getting better, of hope. Many families certainly fall. It’s then that I remember where my life seems to divert from my Paraguayan friends. When they fall they have no safety net, no health or crop insurance, no family with money to help them up. Then I am reminded of the stress, and the reality of living in poverty in rural Paraguay.

This one goes out to the (Paraguayan) ladies

To be a woman in Paraguay is a unique experience. Known as one of the most machista countries in all of Latin America, traditional gender roles are engrained in the culture and daily life, especially on the countryside. When I moved to Calle 20 as an agriculture volunteer I wondered how I would navigate the dichotomy of male and female spaces in rural Paraguay. I wondered if I would be able to navigate between work in the fields and work in the home, between working with men and working with women.

True to what I expected, I did become much closer with the women in Calle 20. But unexpectedly, this did not limit my work as much as I thought. I discovered that despite the general patriarchy and macho attitudes, women often hold a lot of power within the household and family. Women are often at the center of rural life, working hardest of all family members, dividing their time between the house and the fields. They often manage finances and make final decisions on all kinds of matters. While their husbands certainly assert power when they want to, reinforcing the patriarchal order that absolutely exists, during day to day life it is often the “duena de la casa,” or the matriarch who makes the final call.

It should not be doubted that both Paraguayan men and women work hard. I have worked alongside men harvesting cotton at a speed unfathomable to my bumbling hands, finishing two rows before I have made my way through one. In the hot sun they toil, day in and day out, relying exclusively on manual labor. One neighbor, an old man in his late 60s, still shocks me every time unbuttons his shirt as he rests at the end of a long day. Despite his age, his weathered brown skin and salt and pepper hair, his stomach reveals hard abdominal muscles, his arms bulging with tight biceps and forearms. This man has worked hard his whole life.

Yet, his wife has also worked as hard. She may not carry it on her body in the same way. Instead, her hips swing wide carrying weight left from decades of pregnancy and childbirth. Her long black hair is streaked with grey, twisted into a tight bun at the base of her neck. Her arms and legs are strong from years of harvesting cassava, carrying children, and milking cows. Unlike elderly people in the United States who struggle with mobility, many elderly people in the campo maintain their flexibility and strength out of necessity. They have no choice. They still have to squat over a latrine every day.

While Paraguayan men work hard in the fields, they often come home around noon, eat lunch, and rest. For many señoras, the work is never done. They rise early to gather firewood and stoke the fire. They boil water for maté and leave it for their husband as he rises. They go on to milk the cow and make coffee. While their husband leaves for the crop fields, she is making breakfast, preparing kids for school, harvesting manioc, already preparing lunch. She is tending to the garden, feeding the animals, washing clothes. When her husband returns she is serving lunch, cleaning up. Their days go on like this, hardly a moment’s rest. Sometimes I visit a woman and I can tell she is too busy for a visitor. She hands me terere and asks me to serve it to her while she continues on with her chores.

I have one friend in particular who is the most badass of them all. After not visiting her for a few weeks, I walked to her house the other day, knowing I would be playfully scolded for my absence.

“Nde!” she said, with a smile on her lips, “I dreamt of you last night and then you came. I’m making lunch.” I sat with my friend as she simultaneously bathed her child for school, boiled pig food over the fire, and began to de-feather the chicken she’d just slaughtered for lunch. I watched her gain focus on the task of making lunch as she switched from bathing her son to bathing the chicken, continuing to chop it into pieces with the quick precision of her machete. She dumped it into a charred pot of bubbling oil, sitting directly in the coals. “We’re having chicken soup,” she said.

Of all my friends in Calle 20, she is the most badass because she is raising an awesome family on a highly diversified and sustainable farm, while churning out wise (often feminist) remarks with the flick of her tongue. She always tells me that if you want to have things, you have to work for them. She tells me to buy land, it’s the only form of currency that will never lose value and never stop feeding you. She tells me that you don’t need a man for anything, except to keep you warm, and for that there’s always a small fire and a heavy blanket.

Her family doesn’t have any money, but they hold the title to their land, which is somewhat rare amongst Paraguayan campesinos. She and her husband are also good farmers, they know their land and work it well. When I spend time with her, she helps me remember why I came to Paraguay, and why I care about local food systems, sustainable agriculture, and community. Hanging out with her also reminds me how much brighter life is when you are with a friend. I always seem to leave her house weighed down with enough peanuts, milk, avocados, saffron, eggs, or whatever else is in season to last me a good while, and always feeling a lot better than when I got there, even if I wasn’t feeling particularly bad to begin with.

My friend has gotten along on her own for years, nursing a sick husband who eventually passed away, raising four kids on her own, before meeting her second husband and settling down again. She’s raised chickens, turkeys, pigs, and cows on her own for years. She always has a new endeavor in her crop fields, most recently a few varieties of grass for her cows, a few lines of saffron, a plot of purple sweet potatoes and peanuts. She keeps an incredibly messy but unbelievably functional kitchen garden close to the house where she grows onion, tomatoes, a few varieties of peppers, carrots, garlic, and herbs. She manages her avocado and citrus trees, her maté herbs, mainly by making sure the animals don’t get into them, at least not before the family has their fill.

Her husband works hard planting and harvesting sesame, cotton, and corn, which they sell once a year and which certainly provides an essential cash income to family’s complex and nuanced method of survival. Yet, it’s impossible not to notice that it is her subsistence crops that really keep them going. The income from the cash crops is used to repair the house, buy school materials and clothes, and invest in the next year’s cash crops, while her harvests feed the family. Her crops ensure that even when money is tight, the family will have beans and cheese for lunch, bananas and milk for dessert, and fried eggs and cassava for dinner. There will be oranges all winter, watermelons in summer, and peanuts to add some flavor (and protein) to meals all year long. There will be medicinal herbs for head aches and upset stomachs, corn and pork on birthdays, and always hot cassava to supplement every meal. She manages these crops as part of the complex dance that is survival in the Paraguayan campo, a complicated give and take, input of energy and time, output of food that gets the family through the long weeks when the money from the annual harvest is long gone. This is the role most women play, making daily decisions to ensure the survival of her family.

Perhaps I am partial to the señoras of Calle 20 because they have welcomed me into this community and into their lives, offering me a place to sleep, food to eat, and insights into the world based on their long lives. Perhaps I am partial because I know if I walk into their yard they will offer me a seat, some terere, and a listening hear. When I’m sick they will brew me up a stinky herbal remedy and when I am well they will offer me half of whatever they recently baked in their brick oven. I give these women all of my respect. They are the foundation of their families and community, orchestrating the complex balance of survival through their years of knowledge and experience, laboring day in and day out to ensure life keeps going. And they do it all from a small wooden kitchen, filled with hot coals and smoke, where I’ve spent my best days of the past few years.

Agriculture and community, some experiences from the field

From about a kilometer away you can tell that something is up. It’s the low roar of a diesel engine breaking through the usual quiet at this hour, or the normal rooster crows and dog barks. As you get closer it’s the vast red dirt, not a weed in sight. A monstrous John Deere tractor and cultivator sit idling in a bare field, a brand new sheet metal building stands imposing amidst one and two room wooden homes, strangers mill around.

When I first moved to Calle 20 in December 2011 I spent a lot of time observing. One of the first things I noticed were the tractor-trailer loads of timber being hauled out two or three times a day. When I inquired about where all that wood was coming from, and who was hauling it out, I got a lot of different answers. Some told me it was a Paraguayan from the community, others said he was a Paraguayan from somewhere else, others said it was a foreigner who had recently purchased the land. Some people told me a landowner was clearing the forested property to prepare it for pasture to raise cattle. Another told me he was only clearing out some trees, selling wood to supplement his income. Others said the land was being clear cut by a new wealthy landowner, in order to plant soy beans.

Industrialized soy plantations in Paraguay have a complicated history. I don’t know all of that history, but over the past few years I have figured a lot of it out by talking to people and observing. Paraguay is a small country, where most people’s main income comes from small-scale farming. Most of the population lives in rural communities where they grow food to eat, which they supplement with a small cash crop of cotton, sesame seed, tobacco, corn, or sugar cane. Where I live, in northeastern Paraguay, folks work plows with cattle and plant and clean by hand. This is the case in most of the country. Over the past ten years, it has become more and more common for foreigners to come to Paraguay in search of cheap land, to start large scale industrial farms, mainly growing soybeans and corn.

Like any nation in the world, but especially small rural counties like Paraguay, the global food system has a major effect on the lives of the people. While many people do not fully understand the policy details or implications, they know that there are systems and (wealthy) people, who work on a much larger scale, and make decisions which have drastic effects on their lives. Living amongst poor farmers, these conversations come up every day. People talk about low market prices, the risk of farming without agricultural insurance, the lack of support from the government, and the pressure to turn to bigger, modern, industrialized methods. People talk about the stress they feel to sell their land, to move to the city, to look for a better life. These are the central issues of people’s lives.

What these issues boil down to can in part be attributed to the global industrial agricultural system, which works to ensure that poor rural people stay exactly where they are, or worse, living in shantytowns on the outskirts of their capital city, poorer than  before. Living in poverty, without agency, with no voice, unable to access any method of upward mobility, people are desperate. The global industrial food system supported by most of the developed world takes support away from small farmers by giving government subsidies to big industrial agriculture. It controls the markets to ensure the large scale agri-businesses succeed, meaning people in the developed world can continue to heap our plates with mass produced soy and corn fed beef every single night of the week. And most of us just go along with it.

Many people participating in this system have very little understanding of the connection between the food on their plate and the suffering of farmers in the third world, as well as at home. Many don’t understand that despite common rhetoric about fighting starvation and hunger around the world, most of the developed world actively participates in this industrial agricultural system that is designed to inhibit food security, to keep people starving or unhealthy. It urges poor farmers to plant cash crops, to participate in a method of agriculture known to be unsustainable for people and the planet, to produce products that they cannot eat, forcing them to instead purchase processed foods to feed their families (thus, filling the pockets of agri-businesses). This is a system which works together with chemical fertilizer companies, genetically modified seed companies, and all the richest men in the world to ensure small farmers and rural people stay poor, and rich men stay rich. It’s not any coincidence that my friends and neighbors feel its affects.

And community members are concerned. The track of land that is already being planted with soybeans is big, it stretches as far as the eye can see. Unlike land tended to by hand, there is not a speck of green on the vast red plain, soil exposed to the harsh Paraguayan elements. People understand that the chemicals used in large scale industrial agriculture are dangerous, that they may leach into their water supply and poison their families. These folks have farmed their whole lives. They know the land here, and they understand that working such a large area with only one crop is a bad idea. It brings pests, it depletes the soil, it requires more and more chemicals to keep yields high. It is expensive and relies heavily on gas and oil.

Aside from these effects, people are starting to understand what it means when a large scale industrial farm becomes part of their community. A woman from a nearby community where soy has already been planted for several years recently came to talk to concerned community members. She explained that because her friends and neighbors were poor and desperate, many yielded to offers to sell their land to wealthy land buyers. Land is usually sold very cheap in Paraguay, but competition from foreign soy producers is leading to spikes in value. Many feel inclined to take advantage of higher prices, unable to refuse that kind of money. Some took the money and moved to nearby cities, others moved in with family members in other places. Some with nowhere else to go, or with no desire to leave their homes, stayed. Once soy production was in full swing, many people began noticing health issues, or feared for the health of their children. Slowly, the community began to disintegrate. People didn’t want to leave their homes or their land, but as more people began to move, the reasons to stay disappeared. There were no more teachers at the school, no more storekeepers selling goods, no more neighbors. Today, the community no longer exists. It’s simply a series of abandoned homes, and a vast monocrop.

I’ve been monitoring the situation since I moved to Calle 20, making a point to walk out and check in whenever I get the chance. First, it was truck-loads of trees going out, then heavy machinery coming in. On my latest journey I saw the tractors, I saw the tree-less expanse, I saw the shiny new building, the huge sacks of seed and barrels of fertilizer. I felt sad.

Some of the most hard-working people I know, people who labor day in and day out, who love their work, their homes, their land, have talked about selling their property. The price is good, and most people have a lot of debt from previous years of bad harvests, medical bills, education expenses. I ask them what they will do. Men and women who have farmed their whole lives, who have the incredible knowledge about this place and how to survive from it, how to raise families off of it, where will they go? Some people laugh at my question, others stare off, some say they will move in with children, the younger ones say they will look for new land. But ultimately, I know they don’t want to go. But they understand the backward, unjust global economy they live in, they face it every single day in ways so much more tangible than we ever feel in the United States. They know in their guts and in their tired bodies, this could just be their best bet.

Can we continue to allow this system that is destroying our environment, robbing hard working people of their livelihoods, feeding us unhealthy food pumped with chemicals? My neighbors have started looking for an alternative. They are organizing, trying to educate their fellow community members about the effects of industrial agriculture, trying to convince each other that their community and their lives here are worth more than the price tag on their land. We owe it to our planet, to ourselves, and to our fellow human beings to get on board.

A love note

You have given me more than I have asked for. You have asked of me more than I was prepared to give. You have pushed me further than I thought I could go, fascinated by your mystery, provoked by your challenge. You made me want to prove it to myself, and to you. You captivated me, then defeated me. You pulled me in, sucked me down, suffocated me, left me lonely and longing for another. Then you came back, more beautiful, shocking me again with your truth. You forced me into myself, then forced me out of myself. You left me always wanting it again, always staying.

This is my love note for Paraguay.

Clear blue sky, sun always strong. Crippled brown grass giving life to tall weeds. Life bursting into pure green.  Branches bending under the weight of plump fruit, falling from the sky into my mouth. Breeze on my skin, until the air stands still, turning to the hottest heat. More green than I thought existed. New life. A bloody, wet mound of fur in tall grass, a wobbling calf emerges. A strong proud mama offering her milk. A hen with her wings spread wide, beneath her, a flock of tiny fluff, a guide towards the new light. Fires burn into the night, hazy heat and smoke ignite the sky.

Your beauty catches me off guard. I don’t expect it, and it knocks me off balance. My breath catches in the back of my throat, I find myself standing for a moment, just looking at you, feeling you around me.

The warmth of the air as the afternoon bleeds into the evening. The way the sliver moon shines in the blue sky before dark, a billion stars bursting into the blackness. The coolness of morning, seeping into dry earth. The garden glowing in the dewy dawn light. Morning escapes into noon. Gold sun glares over palm trees, heat rises off red sand. The sun sinks again, low over billowing cane fields, the same sky, the same moon.

You stripped me of myself, and filled me up new. By falling in love with you, I fell in love with me, so leaving you feels like leaving part of me. But you remind me I must go on, you taught me that.

I don’t remember anymore if you’re the most beautiful, but I know you’re the rarest, the harshest, and the sweetest. My heartpiece stolen, or left behind.

A very dark week

A crack of lightening flashed across the sky at the exact same moment a deep groan of thunder felt like it came bubbling from underneath the very spot I was standing. And then the rain came pouring down around us. I sat under my small front porch with twelve women from the Calle 20 women’s committee, about to demonstrate how to make homemade bread and chicken salad as a part of our latest venture into healthier cooking with local ingredients, the last component of our chicken raising project. If you were listening at that very moment, you would have heard the tiniest inhale of breath into all of our lungs simultaneously, making a soft chorus of gasps, as the sky seemed to pour down on top of us. It came on so suddenly, as storms do in the fickle Paraguayan fall.

I didn’t know what this would mean for the presentation I had spent a week preparing for, gathering ingredients from near and far, locating enough chairs, dragging my big wooden table outside, drawing up healthy eating tips on giant paper. “Che dios” I muttered, hurrying to move the chairs further under the roof, “que vamos a hacer?” “My god, what are we going to do?” A few women glanced around, a few laughed, and one woman said, “We are going to make home made bread and chicken salad and eat it!”

And so began the rain. It poured all night, and when we woke up it had stopped pouring, but we were left with a steady, misty drizzle, just enough to keep everyone indoors. Then a cold front moved in and all the doors and windows up and down Calle 20 closed. And so it lasted for days and days. I closed my doors and windows too, I put all my warmest clothes on, zipped myself into my sleeping bag, and hunkered down. For the first few days it was nice. I drank coffee, I watched movies, and I read. Around day four I started getting antsy. I had ventured out a few times, with my raincoat and hiking boots, ready for the ankle deep mud I knew I would encounter. But by the eighth day I thought I was starting to lose my mind. I thought perhaps this was my end, closed up in a small wooden room in rural Paraguay, heaped in blankets, with a steady stream of Game of Thrones playing on the computer, surviving off of black beans and white bread.

Living in rural Paraguay has revealed to me that ultimately we humans depend on the weather, which is completely out of our control. When you live close to the land, depending on it for food and firewood, relying on it to allow for transportation and the ability to work, the weather has a much greater affect on daily life. The weather is always a common topic of conversation around town. It’s hot, it’s dry, will it rain soon? It’s cold and windy, will a frost come? These conversations are not awkward small talk as they sometimes are amongst strangers in the US, but instead important indicators for how life will be affected in the coming week. Too much heat and not much can be accomplished, not enough rain and the fields are drying up. Warm weather means everyone is outside, visiting, sharing terere,, working. Cold weather means the houses are closed, people are huddled at home around fires, unable to work. After a week shut in the house with rain and cold, the weather seemed to be affecting people’s mood too. Everyone around town seemed sad.

And then, the sun came out. It didn’t burst through the sky in a warm dramatic break, instead the dark clouds parted, giving way to lighter grey clouds, which parted to a tiny sliver of blue sky. If you looked hard enough at the light grey clouds, you could just make out the glow of the hot sun burning bright, somewhere up there. The tiniest bit of hope. Although most of the sky was still grey, my neighbor took the opportunity to come over exclaiming, “It’s passed! The sun is out!”

Each day a little more sun shone in the sky and the mist and greyness slowly receded. Slowly life picked up pace again and everyone’s mood started to lift. Upon reflection I was thankful to be reminded of our dependence on nature, of the cycles of the seasons, and ultimately, thankful to get the sun back.