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As I blathered on yesterday about the inch-high puddles inside my house, several elderly ladies from our Mi Esperanza church were experiencing flooding up to their waists in their ramshackle abodes.

Take a minute to look around your bedroom, kitchen, and living room, and consider what would be submerged should you suddenly be inundated with water levels up to your belt buckle. That “*gulp*” is your reality check for the week.

Villa Esperanza is essentially an unwanted stretch of land that started as a squatters’ paradise and has since developed, over the last few decades, into a sort of pseudo slum. Most prominently, a murky river rambles its way through the neighborhood–the pungent odor and the dubious brown color hint rather blatantly at its contents.

The nearby meat-packing plant drains its waste into this river, feces of all types add further variety to its composition, and so much garbage has been dumped into it that the rubbish has formed a dam at one end that residents occasionally have to use hooks to unclog.

When the sky pours forth even a small offering of rain, it quickly becomes clear why the land was forsaken in the first place. Flooding is immediate and for many houses that barely merit so official a label, the damage can be devastating. After an especially hard-hitting storm like the one that struck yesterday morning, one can imagine the calamitous effects.

F took the interns and I over to spend a few hours assisting with clean-up today. Already much of the water had receded, or really, soaked into the ground creating one gigantic smelly mud pit, but the filth the water had dragged in remained strewn about. Of course, by water, I mean, reeking sewage. Not only had T and G’s homes been baptized with ungodly amounts of flooding in a matter of minutes, but their shanties has been slopped over with the cornucopia of savory bits I detailed.

I jumped into a small tiled swimming pool to begin raking out ankle-deep amounts of muddy sticks, trash, poop, and clothes enough to dress a full-grown man for winter. It smelled horrible everywhere. I was absolutely filthy within seconds. And that wasn’t even the start of it.

Glancing around, I saw dilapidated foam mattresses set out in the sun (because it was clear blue skies today) still sopping of the stinking liquid. Refrigerators were dragged out by male missionaries as torrents of dirty water came rushing out of them. And trash, so much trash, was piled, if not littered, all over.

Hours were spent sweeping, raking, mopping sewage, and collecting bags of refuse to be dragged across rickety wooden planks that unsteadily bridged over the potent canal of muck. At one point, I had to navigate my way across backwards while dragging a body bag weighing of a teenage elephant with F, and I almost fell in. There are no words to describe the petrified thoughts that flashed through my mind in that panic-stricken moment. But people had no choice but to slog through what I feared touching because it was inside their houses.

I also had the opportunity to traverse into the even more labyrinthine underwood of still more extreme poverty. Some places looked like card houses, others like ancient, worn patchwork quilts. We waded right into poo water and glerped through muddy walkways, soaking in living conditions that are so difficult to fathom amidst our standards of modern luxuries. I saw dish racks of mud-covered plates and silverware. I saw soggy cardboard forming outside walls. I saw the triviality of laptop chargers and planners and damp sweaters I’ve only worn once in my life.

One woman told us she had six bags of cement stacked outside her front door and still the sewage floods submerged her home. Another, who was eight months pregnant, spent the entire day shoveling mud and debris out of her bedroom (and I thought my back was sore this morning?). And still others hold countless untold stories of their version of thunderstorm travesty.

It really puts things into perspective.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe sewage canal flowing into the main road. You can also see the part of the wall that collapsed from the monumental flooding yesterday causing poo water to rush into T and G’s homes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis was a pond yesterday with water levels nearly reaching the volleyball net.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA wooden bench that washed in.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMattresses that got completely soaked in sewage.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou can see from the coloring on the walls where water levels reached.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe cleaned out swimming pool.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAClearing out trash with little helpers.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADon’t be deceived by the serene, glassy appearance.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe notorious bridge (and trash clog).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABankside efforts to remove debris.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA glimpse at some of the rubbish collected.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWalking towards uncharted territory.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA feeble barricade.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAgain check the wall stains.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn attempt at pitting a junk wall against heavy flooding.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATell me how such a residence withstands storms of any kind?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother world.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASomebody’s kitchen.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASchlepping the trash out to the dumpster to be burned.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAChildren fishing in the sewage with cut-off soda bottles attached to sticks.

OANSA: One Man’s Trash…

November 21, 2012

Despite the pressing need to throw away her napkin and rush to the bathroom to rinse off the dripping ice cream covering her hands, F paused in front of the trashcan and pondered. I impatiently urged her from across the room to toss the sticky tissue and follow T to the sink already. Still she made no further movement and continued to stare as if trying to understand the technical mechanics of waste disposal. Finally, after a puddle of vanilla liquid had pooled at her feet, she reached out and yanked open the lower door, dragged the trashcan out, and dropped the soiled napkin in.

Five minutes later, I watched E walk over to a separate trash receptacle and hesitate just as F did. After several befuddled and uncertain minutes passed, she also pried open the lower door and awkwardly tossed her trash in the bin.

My heart broke a little as I gathered the girls around and gently explained how to simply push in the top flap in order to dispose of their trash. E blushed, aware of her ignorance. F simply and bluntly stated, “I’ve never seen that before.”

Those humbling moments when you are reminded that you come from a completely different world and lead a wildly blessed life.

Not like this…

…but rather like this.

Two weeks prior to our planned community service event, Y spoke with the neighborhood blacksmith about assisting us with labor and materials. He assured her he could provide the necessary supplies and services for our project.

I went with Y to confirm a week later, and jovial as ever, the blacksmith volunteered all kinds of donations and several hours of manual labor. We were surprised by his unusually generous offer, but grateful nonetheless. He promised to be at the plazita by late morning that Saturday ready to work, and Y and I left feeling optimistic about the playground improvement efforts to take place.

The big day rolled around. We wrapped up our morning program, and sent the little kids back home. we rounded up a handful of older kids and the materials we had all scrounged up, and trekked out to the plazita. We were ready to work, 110 degree heat and all.

The blacksmith was nowhere in sight. Disappointed but not entirely surprised, we handed out bags for trash pick-up while we waited for him to arrive. 30 minutes later, there was still no blacksmith, so we pulled out the weed whacker and brooms, and commenced mowing the lawn and sweeping up. Machetes came out next for further weed removal, followed by more sweeping.

A phone call was eventually made to the MIA blacksmith, and he apologized saying that he had had to make a run to a nearby junkyard to collect materials and would be present at the plazita in no less than 30 minutes.

By this time, I had made numerous cauldrons full of gooey chalk paint with my bare hand, and the kids were well past fighting over who got to help paint the perimeter wall. And they were almost done covering everything in a brilliant white.

It was hot, really hot. We were sweating profusely. We were parched. And we were completely exhausted. Desperately, we took a break to buy ice cold cokes and find food.

(Side story: one kid’s mom had just killed a pig in her front yard, where the table was still dripping with pig juices and the feet had yet to be stashed away. There were buckets of bloody organs and bloody machetes lying out, and then the mom came out with an antiquated pan of something swarming with flies that resembled more children’s mud pies than lunch. A smattering of dark vegetables and pig heart were wrapped in undercooked, jiggly pork belly with the black gristle still intact, all lashed together with equally dubious-looking twine. It had been recently boiled and was fresh for the snacking. I’m just glad she didn’t make me take a bite while she was looking…)

In the end, the blacksmith never showed. But we did have a slightly nicer after product to show for our efforts, and while the following week, intended to be community service part two, did not pan out either (surprise, no blacksmith), there were still fruits to take away from the project.

For one, the kids who worked alongside us leaders took so much pride in their labor and were ecstatic about the playground improvements, however minor. Secondly, we had several parents express their gratitude for our positive presence and influence in the neighborhood, commenting about enthusiastic spiritual learning or even improved behavior in their children. More than sparkly playgrounds, I’d say that life-changing differences are the victory here.

Machete chops goodbye to gnarled weeds.

Sweeping up the scraps.

Possibly posing.

Painty painty.

Pablito hard at work.

Lunch time (and my favorite Paraguayan delicacy…).

Yum… :/

The hard-fought after pic!

Poop and Puppies.

November 15, 2012

The other morning, I hustled out the front door, hurrying to get to a meeting. Although I am forever serially early, it was a rare day when I had not a minute to spare.

Of course, this meant there would be a pack of SEVEN filthy (and I mean, I caught fourteen diseases just looking at them) stray dogs that had squeezed through the bars of my gate, dragging in a bag of somebody else’s trash, which they had conveniently torn to shreds and scattered all over my driveway in the most appetizing of ways.

Gag me.

I ran back into the house, raced down the hallway, and snatched the broom out of my kitchen. I charged back out front and commenced screaming like a banshee, swinging the broom wildly to shoo off the dirty vermin, and trying not to get any closer than necessary. I also feared that the dogs might run the opposite way and dash into the house, but thankfully that complication was avoided.

Though one dumb dog did try to come back in and snatch a snack for the road, but then he saw the look on my face (and the imposingly raised arm), thought better of it and slunk away. Hmph.

Surveying the buffet of leftovers I now had the privilege of collecting, I observed with disgust that the delectable selection included clumps of hair, chicken bones, rotten apple cores, and POOPED SMEARED TOILET PAPER. (By the way, why were these in the same trash bag??)

Life abroad…