Acuna Batata

My life in Paraguay as a peace corps volunteer. Check out pictures here And this blog does not represent anything official from the Peace Corps.

Sunday, October 22, 2006


I apologize for not having written in the last two months. At times I forget that my friends and family actually check this out occasionally. Life here has become so common for me that I unconsciously think that you all know all about it too. So what has been going on with me?

I last left you with a druken post. I know it may not sound like it, but at the time that I wrote that I was feeling pretty good. Every now and then I am able to sit back and just think about what the hell kind of a wierd situation am I in, and it cracks me up. Who in their right mind would ever go live in a rural Paraguayan community, if they weren't an anthropologist? At least they have clear reasons for being there. I feel like an anthropologist who went to live in another culture but not researching any specific thing. So I am left to wander about the culture as a whole, getting frustrated because I have no real objective other than ... to wander. Everytime I walk down the street in my community, people stare at me. My best geuss as to what they are thinking is something like, "What the hell is that gingro doing here?" I like it when my dog follows me when I go somewhere walking, that way, I am less of an outsider. The dog is part of the community - he's been there 11 years - and he has my back. Though he hardly has any teeth left.

I took some time off to travel around this part of the globe and it was a much needed break. It was good to get away but bad too because I got to see how other South American countries run things and it makes it painfully clear how much of a disaster Paraguay is. I really see no hope. The government is so corrupt, I am suprised there are paved roads, Though they likely came from the smugglers. The Paraguayan people have somewhat of a rebelious past, but I think that spirit has died. It has been accepted that the government is corrupt and that simply is the way it is.. whenever that agreement was made, this country was doomed.

My work basically now adays hardly extends beyond helping one person. There is only one person that I know whom has the will to strive, the desire to change his status, and it is for him that I am still a Peace Corps volunteer. Because he understands that yes while Paraguay is a distaster for economic development, he can still keep his livelehood in his own hands. So many people are chained by tradition, or apathy, or fear. I have tried to show people the sort of resource that I am - even down to saying "just present me with estimates on how much pipe you need to irrigate your field and I will see how much money I can get." And they never do it.

The question is how long can I continue to live for one person? The selfish reasons for me to stay are dwindling. I have learnt about as much Spanish as many people in my community know, I have gotten hands on expereince with agriculture, gotten to know another way of life, and so on. We will just have to see how things go ...

Friday, August 25, 2006

I can buy a bottle of liquor for 50 cents. In fact I just did. It’s really shitty, maybe it’s just cow piss. They call it cana. Made from sugar cane. Sugar cane is a horrible plant whose sole purpose is to rot teeth, why not get you drunk too?
Sometimes gardening doesn’t do it for me. I can garden in Texas. So then I go to the store and buy the bottle. There’s better stuff around, but hardly, and it’s a dollar more.
Tonight I mixed it with powdered strawberry juice, another quite disgusting invention. But what can I say without being a hypocrite – I am the consumer. Try not to shop at Wal-Mart.
I was sitting around the other drinking terere (big surprise) when ole grandma busts out with “A la puta!” Son of a bitch! She was thinking about how her son in law, the dumbass, stabbed his friend the other night while drunk off cana. The police won’t come because they don’t bother us here.
Every volunteer has such a different experience. How I wish I had a community that I could actually care about. Instead I get a bunch of idiots who don’t want to work and want to complain all day. No organization, no motivation, bunch of lazy assholes. If it weren’t for my host family, I’d have asked for a site transfer to try my luck in another part of this country. Maybe it’d be better elsewhere, but I doubt it. When my host dad finally smelled my drink while we were watching The Simpsons (an hour each night), he kept asking me to drink more because he wanted to see me drunk. “Tranquillo!” I told him. He’s too old to drink anymore. Maybe he has a bad liver or something. He always wants me to invite him when I have a beer but he never drinks any of it.
I hate this place. Most of the time. But don't worry about me, I don't dig a hole I can't get out of.
Oh and I'm zero for thirty-five with the rabbits now.

Sunday, July 02, 2006


June 27th, 2006
When it’s dark I always find myself ducking about 10ft early for the upcoming barbed wire clothesline (that's right, barbed-wire-clothesline). I know where it is, but I can’t see it at night and it’s just right at head level. I keep waiting for it to stick me in the eye or something. I walk under it many times everyday. It’s part of the reason I built a bathroom, as to not venture out at night and risk losing an eye just to take a crap. That and I had to dodge the oxen and all their crap too.
My two most played songs on my ipod are Comeback by Pearl Jam and Si Te Vas (If You Go) by Shakira (one song says, “If you go, don’t come back.” The other says, “Come back!!). I can hook up my ipod to the family’s homemade stereo system and then we can listen to Bob Dylan or Shakira while we hoe the tomatoes. One of the host brothers, Issac, is a wiz when it comes to speakers and electronics. He pieced together an impressive setup considering what he has to work with. Issac works in Asuncion as an assistant to a lawyer. He’s 20. His friend hooked up him with the job and what an opportunity it is. People here are always complaining about how there are no jobs here – no opportunity. Today I was talking with another host brother, Manuel, and he was saying the intelligent people always find jobs wherever they are. I agree.
I am sick of hearing people complain and whine about the lack of opportunity here. There’s opportunity everywhere you look. But the only ones taking advantage of it are those who want to work. The rest of the people just whine. “We’re screwed here in Paraguay. There’s no way to make money.” And then I say, “well we can begin by making your soil better.” But they don’t make the connection. Or, “we can plant some trees so that in 10 years you can cut them down and build a house.” But that’s just too far in the future to think about.
So I’ve pretty much had it with trying to work through that state of mind. I’d rather spend my time working with people who want to work, where I don’t have to convince them that they can do something. Time is precious and it’s one thing that no man will take from me.
Volunteers from my group are dropping like flies. I’m glad a few of them of left, because I didn’t like those people. Well, pretty much all of them. At the end of two years I’ve noticed that the group sizes tend to shrink quite a bit. Maybe the PC should take a look at that? Maybe fewer volunteers and more resources for them? But that would imply that the PC actually gave a flying rat’s ass about what is it their volunteers are doing. So as long as we are liked, the PC is happy. Work comes last. But shhh, you can’t tell them that because they work so hard trying to act like they care.
Who’d of thought that I’d join the PC and then lose what sense of altruism I had? I just see how it’s the decisions that people make which account for their situations. If a farmer is not even interested in making his soil better, then what do I care if he complains about having to eat beans everyday?
Wait a minute; am I actually saying that individuals are responsible for themselves in life, and that the actual responsible people don’t have to run around picking up the fallen pieces? No, no, a good Peace Corps volunteer would never say that! We’re supposed to reach out, spend our time (this is a 24/7 job) trying to convince the local drunk that if he joins a farmers’ committee, he could start improving his life. We’re supposed to tell him not to sell off his doors and windows to buy more sweet cana (liquor). And then we’re supposed to feel guilty about him, “what can I do to make his life better?” Who started this notion that the capable should feel guilty for the plight of the incapable? (Of course there are issues of violence, accidents, birth defects and the like which are often out of people’s hands – but I am not referring to these.) After all, we’re supposed to be good-natured altruists.
But I’m not.

July 2nd, 2006

I came back from the states with about 30 books. All by Graham Greene, Paul Theroux, and Ayn Rand. It’ll take me maybe till the end of the year to read them all considering how busy I am now a days. I went from such boredom that I was ready to pull my hair out, to being so busy that I hardly have time to read.
We have maybe 1000-2000 tomato plants in the ground. Soon we will have equal numbers of bell peppers, lettuce, and spinach. I’m tired of buying so many vegetables and besides, I like to grow things. We will eat whatever we can, and then sell the rest. The host mom takes a load of tomatoes to Altos, the little town near us, and sells them. Not for much, but it’s better than nothing. We have a lot of watermelon growing now too. The chickens got into the watermelon patch and ate like a quarter of it so we had to build a long fence made out of coco branches. These coco branches are thin and full of spikes. The tips of the spikes love to break off in your body when they stab you. So yeah it was a blast to build this fence.
I love to see progress in the fields. I hate to see the land sitting fallow with nothing going on. It looks so much better cultivated. The problem is that during summer, it’s too damn hot to do much of anything with the land. Unless you have irrigation or shade for your crops, there’s not a whole lot you can do in my part of the country. You can always grow beans. But we have enough damn beans…
My rabbit project so far is a complete disaster. None of the litters have survived past a month – I’ve had nearly 25 little rabbit deaths. The were a number of reasons the poor little buggars were dying predation, disease, and lack of nutrition. I took them away from their momma too early, so they didn’t get milk. The dog was crawling up under the cage and snatching them down, pulling them through the bamboo floor. One got decapitated. And there is a mosquito borne disease, which just claim the father. Also the mother and father were brother and sister, so that could have been contributing to the high death rate. So I’m going to build a new house for the rabbits, completely predator proof. Including mosquito protection.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Fish head soup

Things are starting to pick up at good ole Acuna Batata. We don't really eat enough sweet potatoes (batatas) to warrant the name, but it is an inside joke. If it's going to be based on food, it should be called Acuna Mandiocha, cause the Paraguayans (and I suspect much of the world) rely on the mandioch root for most of their subsistence.

In the start I had some work to jump right into. I worked on preparing a plot of land which I could demonstrate green manures in action. But then I started to get really, really bored. There was no clear work for me to do and the community wasn't excited about anything that I had to offer. But the longer I am here, the more things start to develop.

For example, a few months ago I was invited to join a farmers' committee. I went to the meeting, but no one else came. It was a sham. Working with organized groups allows me to do a little more in terms of finding resources - there are lots of NGO's out here who will give help (seeds, money, technical info) to groups of people but not to individuals. So when that fell apart and there was nothing particular the community was asking of me, I started my own projects - to raise rabbits. That's still in the works and I think it will be a success because they are easy to house and feed.

But now a new group has formed and they've actually come to the meetings. They are interested in fish farming. So while I work with them I can teach about modern fish farming techniques. The government will also give us money to fund the project. And now that there is an organized group, we can do more than just fish farming. They are also interested in beekeeping, raising chickens, and green manures.

The first time I was served fish here I nearly didn't even try it. I was served a plate full of fishy liquid with various fish parts - including the head. But I tried it, as I do most anything, and it was excellent!! So now I want to eat some more fish soup ...

I'm getting ready for a short trip back to the States and then I'll be back in the swing of things. I've also been thinking about teaching a class at the local high school, a culture class. I would like to expose the kids to some different cultures because they are very isolated and do not have the resources to learn about the world. Plus I think it would be fun.

Take care everybody!

Monday, April 24, 2006

Uh huh.

I never got to see the head get severed.

My contact flaked out on me. At the last minute, she called and said there was not room in the truck she rented for me. I don´t exactly care to go into why I think she ditched me, it doesn´t matter. What goes around comes around. She is a vendor in a market. I brought her lots of business. She sells trendy crap to my American friends. She sold things to my friends.


Okay well I have tried three times to write an entry for y´all and I erased them all. I am trying to keep this blog based on inspiration and frankly I don´t like anything that I´ve written. I at least wanted to say that I never made it to the festival incase anyone was interested.

Headed back out to site, so take care everyone!!

Monday, April 17, 2006


originally uploaded by Don Julio.
This is why I stay here.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Severing the Head

After the last posting I headed back to site rather stressed out. The night before, I couldn't sleep because I was too frustrated over the situation that I face with very conservative farmers. Then I got back to site and found something rather surprising which did a bit to change my mood for the positive. Something small, yet to me, incredibly important. But first I will preface it by explaining a little bit more about my work.

The first project that I started was a rabbit raising venture. Rabbits can help generate income, diversify diet, and their poop can be used to make home-ade fertilized soil. I built a rabbit cage out of local materials; bamboo, left over chicken wire, and spare wooden posts. The cage rests upon brick worm beds, which the last volunteer built. The rabbit poop falls between the bamboo floor and then the worms eat it, turning the poop into very good soil. I bought two adult rabbits, one male and one pregnant female for about $8 which is really rather expensive. I started this project with my money to make an example for my community to see with the hope that they would incorporate it into their farms.

When I came home from my last trip out of site, I came home to find our rabbit population had doubled. My host brother with his coconut money, bought another mother rabbit and a load of baby rabbits. Now there's about 12 rabbits. This might seem a very small step, but to me it means a lot. My 17 year old host brother took his own money and made an investment in a project that I started.

The rabbit house is still incomplete. They are at a constant risk of mosquito borne disease because there is no protection, they are in open air. We even lack a roof for them, so when it rains really bad, we divide the rabbits up among us and they sleep on our floors. Thankfully though winter is approaching so there will be fewer and fewer mosquitoes during the coming months. And a supply of old ceiling tiles just turned up because the family is doing some house renovation.

Some future projects with small animals include quail and egg-laying chickens. Quail are not really utilized by small farmers here in Paraguay and as far as I know no agriculture volunteer has worked with quail. My boss asked for a detailed report on the quail project for our technical library. So I'm really excited about that. I can buy two quail for one dollar and they are laying eggs after one month. And we can use their poop to make good soil for the garden. The egg laying chickens could really turn out to be a money maker, no one around us has any serious chicken projects so we could dominate the egg market.

It's small steps like these that will help my host family to have more options. A little bit of money down here goes a very long way.

I have started to develop a long term project, which is really cool because it gives me something to do (!!!) and it would be big. Big like 6 years of Peace Corps in a community should be. Basically what I want to do, through fund raising here and back in the States, is bring irrigation to the farmer's fields. As they are now, they might spend $1000 to buy cow manure, seeds, and spend weeks preparing soil and planting a cash crop yet be 100% dependent on the rain for water. But that's not all I want to do. I couldn't just bring in money from the outside, dump off lots of pipe, and leave. Instead I want to develop a year long series of lectures on sustainable agriculture and make attendance and practice criteria for acquiring the pipes. To get the pipes, the farmers will have to come to the lectures and practice what we talk about. The end goal would be a community of farmers practicing sustainable techniques who produce more crops of a higher quality while giving back to the land as much as they take from it. That way their children have a better future and will not inherit degraded soils to be split up amongst the children.

If that fails, I will probablly not stick around at my site for two years twiddling my thumbs wishing I had an organized community which wanted to work.

Okay. That's the work side of it. I'm doing well, I've made some really good friends so far and have changed quite a bit. Throughout college I wanted to work in development. I wanted to know poverty. I'll never know poverty but at least now I am here seeing it. And not just that. It's amazing to be outside of the states, not just traveling around, but sticking around long enough in one place to really learn about it. It's only been six months which is very very little but it has changed me none the less. If anyone of you is considering joining the Peace Corps, put the politics aside and take the time to experience another way of life. Development wasn't even in the original goals of the Peace Corps.

In the middle of this month I'm off to the Chaco region of Paraguay to go to a three day indigenous Indian festival. I have made a friend here in Asuncion, an artist who sells her own and various indigenous crafts at a small market. She is constantly going out to the Chaco to visit her friends and has invited me to go with her. This particular festival is to celebrate "severing the head" of outside cultural influence (namely religion). There are plenty of missionaries here in Paraguay representing different sects, and have been for a long time. So this festival is a revival of traditional culture. I have no idea what to expect. But I'm guessing that I will enjoy it. If my site plummets down the tubes, I will try to arrange a site change to go live with a group of native Paraguayan Indians. There are quite a few different groups of Indians and of different languages spoken out in the Chaco. Though while the Chaco takes up nearly 50% of the territory in Paraguay, it holds only about 3-5% of the population. It's hot out there and there is little to no infrastructure.

Well thats all for now, thanks to everyone who gives me support because sometimes this is just really hard.

Oh and why is this blog called Acuna Batata? Acuna is the name my community. Batata is Spanish for sweet potato. And maybe you might remeber the song from The Lion King sung by Timon and Pumba? Timon and Pumba appear from time to time on the small little TV that the family has, so we started singing Acuna Batata.