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Mario's Peace Corps Journal

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80The seasons are changing. The mild winter has long since passed and the fickle months of spring—one day boiling hot, the next crisp and chilly—are now on the wane. Here in the southern hemisphere, what comes next is a brutally hot summer. For those plants and crops already in the ground and well established, the summer months are like a hedonistic binge of photosynthesis, so long as the rains keep up, rushing in to break the tension of the heat just before things start to wither and die. Sugar cane sprints towards the sky, mandioca persists in its slow yet steady trajectory, and tobacco makes the most of those beautifully sticky, broad leaves.

Late November through March are typically months of rest for Paraguayan farmers. They have already put in the hard work of clearing land, preparing fields, and sowing crops. As the average temperature slowly rises, peaking sometimes at the unbearable, unworkable highs of 110°F or more, the only thing to do is wait out the heat in the shade with ice-cold tereré (an herbal tea) and chilled watermelon—never together, of course, for Paraguayans believe wholeheartedly that the combined refreshment leaves one liable to explode.

Mario’s ill-fated herb garden sits alongside his house, behind a bamboo fence.

Mario’s ill-fated herb garden sits alongside his house, behind a bamboo fence.

Needless to say, this is not an ideal time to start a garden (in my case, an herb garden). Almost anything that is planted now needs a media sombra (a half-shade structure), ample watering, and almost continual vigilance. But clearly, even after spending more than a year in Paraguay as a Peace Corps volunteer, I still find the need to push the envelope. Maybe this heralds to my inherent propensity to rebel against authority that my mother always scolded me for, or maybe I just want to spice up my food a bit. Either way, the takeaway lesson from this horticultural experiment is that the sun is no force to be ignored. I stand humbly corrected.

A few weeks ago, I began digging a bed along the side of my little brick house for an herb and flower garden. The moment my spade hit the soil, however, challenges seemed to emerge. The soil is unusually porous and sandy, the sun/shade ratio caused by my tin roof is far from ideal, and the chickens—those darned chickens! It soon became evident that this small, simple project would require a fence if it were to succeed (if for no other reason than keeping out lots of curious chickens). So I cleared the small parcel, double-dug and formed the bed, built the fence (this alone was a week-long effort that involved bringing bamboo from 5 kilometers away via ox cart), and constructed a gate.

One of the few surviving plants in the garden is a red pepper seedling.

One of the few surviving plants in the garden is a red pepper seedling.

Of all the herb seeds Mario planted, only the basil germinated.

Of all the herb seeds Mario planted, only the basil germinated.

After a few weeks, the garden was ready. I transplanted some basil and cilantro that I grew from seed, as well as a hot pepper plant and a few sunflowers. Everything, save for the hot pepper and basil, proceeded to promptly die. The other herbs I planted—thyme, lavender, rosemary, chives, spearmint, parsley, and more—have yet to germinate in their containers (it’s been over a week already) and I am beginning to lose faith. I have tried using some wonderful compost from a pile that has been going since I arrived here in Guido Almada, but so far, to no avail.

Watering is a constant concern. Considering that I travel to other volunteer communities and the capital of Asunción as part of my work, getting a reliable neighbor to take up the extra work in my absence is a must. Unfortunately, despite my lavish offerings of compensation to neighborhood kids (money, food, and candy), this has proven difficult as well. I am not sure if this speaks more strongly to the neighborhood children’s adversity for watering my garden or to the unfortunate quality of my food. Regardless, I now have a garden with almost nothing growing in it. The stubborn part of me wants to keep pushing and see if I can trick some of these seeds into bloom. The rational part of me knows that this is an endeavor that is best served by waiting for the cooler autumn months. Perhaps I should take the Paraguayan high road and just sit under a mango tree sipping some tereré in the meantime.  —Mario Machado