My site is perched on a hill next to the last bit of Paraguay’s Upper Parana jungle. Twenty-five years ago, it consisted of little more than a handful of indigenous families surrounded by barely-accessible roads and intimidating rainforest, thick as a howler monkey’s beard. From the air, the forest would have resembled distant ruffled moss, polka-dotted pink and yellow by blooming Tajy trees. Today, the land is mostly red dirt. Bald. Deforested. Over the decades, my site transformed into a striking melting pot of European immigrants, Mennonite missionaries, and the same handful of indigenous families, but mostly mestizo decendants of Spanish settlers. The Road Without a Name is the only road that leads into town. It is well worn and wide enough that a bus and a car can pass one another if they are careful. Mandarin trees line The Road on each side.
During my first summer in Paraguay, Samuel y Walter taught me about the strength and flexibility of mandarin tree limbs. They climbed to the top—the tip tip top—allowing the tree to bend and slowly drop them to a lower point in its canopy. The higher on a branch they climbed, the more it bent. They raced gravity: climb the branch as quickly as possible, mind the thorns, and see how high you can get before the tree passes you to a lower branch. Samuel y Walter often traversed up and outward on a branch, planning their quick moves like seasoned rock climbers-- quickly, quickly. Then, their tree-branch elevator carried them, slowly, over and down to the neighboring tree.
In my first weeks, on days when my host brothers helped Papa with the soy harvest, I frequently walked next door to the small mandarin orchard to pick low hanging fruits. Even though I outweighed them by 100 pounds I eventually tried what they taught me; I climbed the tree that bore the most fruits and reclined against a limber vertical branch. It bent backward. A perfect 45 degree backrest. There in front of me, a footrest. And as a final touch, a few leaves in the fork of a branch for a rather comfy pillow.
I did this at sunset when time and weather permitted, often with one of my favorite books. More than a few times, I found an exceptionally comfortable branch and took an accidental siesta. When I awoke in the humid night, I had to grope my way carefully down the tree before stumbling home.
My site is home to avocados the size of large grapefruits, and grapefruits so big that children can only carry one at a time. There are bananas, grapes, juicy Mburukujas, and countless jujo herbs, but for my neighbors and me, the mandarinas were always the highlight of my host-family’s yard. There were so many mandarinas in the trees that I developed a habit of filling my backpack, feeding them to my dog, and gifting them to anybody who would take them. We had more mandarinas than anybody in town. And we could not eat them fast enough.
At the top of the hill, near a spot of forest, Paraguayos struggle to make ends meet. During my first summer in Paraguay, when everybody else’s mandarina supply began to dwindle, two barefooted, Guarani-speaking children arrived at my house carrying a cloth bag and a long stick with a hooked nail at the end. They asked shyly, “Ikatupa roguereko la nde mandarina?” I understood, “Mandarina.”
“He’e, claro que si, of course,” I said. True, the remaining fruits were not mine to give, but I sent the ninos away with dozens of mandarins anyway. They each took a handle and waddled back up the hill.
The next summer I made friends with one of the poorer families in town. Every Wednesday, the Benitez family invited me to their home for lunch, where they cooked over an open fire and we ate in the backyard alongside their dogs and a lone pig. Each week, I paid for the next: 5,000 Guaranies, or US$1.00, more than enough to cover the cost of the food.
One week, the pig was missing. In the kitchen –a small, smoky shed behind their wooden casita—the senora was heating an animal’s head over the fire. Just like every Wednesday, we sat together in the dark shed, lit only by the flickering light of the flames. Clearly, the meat had been eaten; little more than a scorched skull remained. But everybody was still hungry, especially the young boy, Josecito; unlike the rest of the family, he refused to eat whatever was bubbling out of the skull’s eye sockets. Despite the circumstances, we chatted and laughed just like any other day. After a few minutes, the youngest daughter called me over to the casita. “Koingo ne mba’era. This is just for you,” she said, presenting me with a small plate of meat—the spine, I think. The few bites of meat fell far short of a meal, but I was more thankful for it than any meal before or since. I was flattered, and humbled, and silent.
As I ate, I began to realize what had happened since our lunch last Wednesday. The family had sold the meat from their pig and eaten what small amount they may have saved. For a day or two, they had been scraping stuff from the animal’s head; any remaining calories were helpful. Despite their hardship, they saved the best plate for me.
The nina sat next to me smiling bashfully as I struggled to chew all the meat off the bone. I offered her some of the remaining pieces. She just said, “Gracias,” which means no in Paraguay. There was hardly any food, she reminded me.
After I insisted I was full, she shared the plate with me. I could not help but notice what a talented eater she was. How did she clean every last bit of meat from the bones? I, on the other hand, left valuable strands of meat in the hard to reach crevices. All I could do was joke that I only knew how to eat like a spoiled American.
When we finished eating, the nina left the plate of food on the counter and we went to work in the garden with Mama. We pulled weeds, watered the vegetables, and laughed about everything. Where was Josecito? I looked up. From behind the bambu fence I saw him sucking the last bits of meat from the bones we had left on the plate.
As we said our goodbyes that Wednesday afternoon, I remembered I had mandarins in my backpack. Dessert. Enough for everybody. The children cheered like they had just won the lottery. Half-smiles formed on the weathered faces of the adults. Then, mandarina peels, white and orange. They decorated the bald red dirt, and juice dripped from our chins.