Cultural immersion

Posted on July 14th in News

Taft Franklin recounts his Peace Corps experience in South AmericaTaft Franklin, left, and two fellow Peace Corps volunteers stand next to a completed oven built in one of the homes in Paraguay. (Submitted photo)

By Randy Parks
Burns Times-Herald

Joining the Peace Corps may not be for everyone, but it turned out to be a pretty good fit for Taft Franklin.

Franklin returned to Harney County this past April after spending 27 months in Paraguay, and the experience provided him with a new perspective of what other Americans might view as an under-developed nation.

“People down there are really proud,” Franklin said. “They don’t see themselves as needing help. They’re hard-working and proud of it. They didn’t see me as someone who could come in and teach them  how to do things in a better way. They went about their daily routines with another foreigner, me, in their community.”

After graduating from Burns High School in 2002, Franklin earned his degree in microbiology from Oregon State University (OSU), graduating in 2007. Soon thereafter, Franklin signed on with the Peace Corps and in February 2008, he was on his way to Paraguay.

Along with the other Peace Corps volunteers assigned to the country, Franklin spent three months in Las Piedras, in the department (or state) of San Pedro for training.

Following training, the volunteers were then dispersed around the country to various towns and cities, and Franklin’s destination was Calle 10,000 Santa Teresa. “It was a town of about 200 people, and about 15 miles down a dirt road from any substantially sized town,” Franklin said. “The road was so bad, it would take about an hour and a half to go by bus  to the bigger town. In good weather, I could ride my bike to the other town in the same amount of time.”

Even though Franklin had studied the equivalent of four years of Spanish in high school and college, it didn’t really prepare him for his stint in Paraguay. “Ninety percent of the people speak Guaraní, the indigenous language,” Franklin said. “A lot of them speak Spanish too, but Guaraní is used for everyday conversation.”

Franklin added that Guaraní is basically a spoken language and has only recently been put into print.

Not being able to carry on an everyday conversation was one of the hardest obstacles Franklin encountered during his stay. “It was like being 2 years old again. Pointing at things because I didn’t know the word,” he said. “It took about six months before I was speaking it OK, and in about nine months I felt pretty comfortable speaking the language. It was nice when the people complimented me.”

Calle 10,000 Santa Teresa

Upon arriving in their destination cities, the volunteers were paired with a community leader, and for Franklin that meant staying with Ramon Pereira for a couple months before moving out on his own.

Franklin’s degree from OSU had qualified him as a rural health and sanitation volunteer in the Peace Corps, and that meant some of his duties would include teaching dental health, nutrition and parasite prevention in the school.

His main project however, turned out to be building cooking stoves, or ovens in the residences around town. “Most families used open fires in their homes,” Franklin said. We built the ovens, which made it healthier because the didn’t have all that smoke in their home, and it enabled them to bake in the houses.”

Franklin said they shaped the ovens’ bricks from dirt, which was then baked in the sun and then in an oven.

For the mortar, they dug down about a foot or so into the soil until they found clay. “Mixed with water, the clay made a good mortar,” Franklin said. “It wouldn’t have stood up if it was outside, but indoors for the ovens it worked great.”

When he wasn’t working, Franklin said some of his time was spent reading books and visiting neighbors. “It was just kind of a custom to visit other homes in the community every couple of days or so,” he said.

Because Calle 10,000 Santa Teresa is in a rural area, everybody in the community was involved in agriculture.

Franklin said homes sat on five-to-10 acre plots, made with wooden planks that had been hand-hewn with a chain saw, with roofs of tile, tin or grass.

While the infrastructure may be viewed as primitive by some, one technology that has permeated Calle 10,000 Santa Teresa is cell phones. Franklin said that just about every family has a cell phone that allows them to stay in touch with family and friends. “They don’t use it to chat for hours, but you do see them everywhere,” Franklin said.

Food and beverages

Getting used to another country’s cuisine is always a bit of a challenge, and so it was for Franklin in Paraguay.

Franklin said his first morning in Calle 10,000 Santa Teresa, when he was with Pereira, they butchered a cow, and “sold the meat. We kept the innards, made blood sausage and ate the tongue. Nothing goes to waste. I ate everything because I didn’t want to hurt their feelings.”

One of the main staples is the manioch root, which Franklin said is similar to a potato and served with almost every meal. “It’s like Paraguay’s national symbol, and I got to like it after a while,” he laughed.

Other common foods included pineapple, banana and corn. Franklin said they would buy their meat fresh and milked their own cattle.

Other staples, such as vegetables, flour, sugar and eggs were available at markets.

The traditional drink is yerba maté, a Paraguayan tea. Franklin said it was usually enjoyed hot in the early morning, and served cold later in the day. “Served cold, it’s called tereré,” Franklin said. “And the people are so knowledgeable about herbal medicine, they would put the herbs in the tereré that would help if you had a problem.”

New language, new foods, new people might have presented challenges to Franklin, but he walked away with a host of experiences and a new outlook on other countries. “I think it gave me a different perspective of the world. Everybody thinks the rest of the world is just like where they’re from and it’s not,” he said. “They don’t know what they don’t have, they emphasize and use what they do have. They may be poor by some standards, but they’re proud and appreciate what they have. There’s a difference between needs and wants.”

After spending more than two years away from home, Franklin plans to spend the summer in Harney County and move to Portland in the fall, where he has applied for medical school at Oregon Health Sciences University.

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