Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Tropical, Concrete Jungle

        Last week, after 3 months of intensive in-country training, the new class of Environmental Education and Agriculture (the class to which I belong) volunteers swore into Peace Corps Paraguay to begin their 2 year stints of service. The entire swearing-in ordeal, while a logistical nightmare, was relatively short-lived and quickly left our new groups cut-loose and wandering the streets in the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion. We were told that all new volunteers must be in-site by the 12th of December, leaving 3 priceless days to explore a city of which we had only yet scratched the surface. Wasting absolutely no time, we boarded busses to all ends of the city, meandered across countless blocks of concrete and steel, and breathed deep the sweet freedom that was the intense, inner-city smog (in a country with seemingly no emission control to speak of).

    Asuncion is a city like no other. Its setting, nestled in a sharp bend of the Rio Paraguay, provides both access and isolation to and from the city. Its hard not to feel, especially when one considers that Paraguay lost its only sea port following the Triple Alliance War in the mid 1800’s, that geography has played an enormous role in molding, if not determining to a large extent, the culture and people that currently live here. I digress, for hopes of not walking to far down the road to environmental determinism, for that is certainly not my point. I do however think it is important to understand, or at least begin to understand, a very fundamental concept that has re-emerged many times during my experiences in Paraguay--these people, their lives and livelihoods, are very closely tied to the land.
    Perhaps the same can be said of many developing countries. Perhaps the same case can really be made for any country in the world. Perhaps even, this is simply the reason that the work of agriculture extenstionists is so important here in Paraguay. Regardless, in a country where 80% of the economy is agriculturally based, one can only assume (or maybe hope) that the means to development and progress might be somewhere along the very same rural, dirt roads.
    The city itself is not far removed from the seemingly infinite Paraguayan country side (called in Spanish the “campo”). Daily, thousands upon thousands of merchants make the pilgrimage to the sprawling market places such as Mercado No. 4 (Mercado Cuatro) or Mercado Abasto. Here, shops are thrown up in a similar manner to houses in the shantytowns--leftover and pilfered materials are hastily fastened to other shacks, buildings, electrical lines or anything else that might seem more stationary (irrespective of however false of an assumption this may actually be).
    The merchants peddle their wares, ranging from second-hand electronics to “jujos” (herbs) for terere to clothes and even animals (advertised as “mascotas” or pets, but in reality, just wild birds, snakes and lizards that have been caught and thrown irreverently into cages). Really there is nothing that one can’t find in the mercados, except for maybe a non-pushy salesman. These places are infamous for vendors that aggressively pursue all potential customers, often with words that get stronger and more profane the farther shopper may wander, and occasionally resorting to physical means that at least force someone look at whatever it is they might be selling. Best advice: walk tall and confidently, avoid eye-contact, and don’t even feign interest unless you really, really mean it.
    The rest of the city resembles an aging Spanish conquest. Other than the few islands of modernized, Americanized shopping malls and the ever-expanding business district, the rest of the city seems to occupy somewhat of a time-mash. Caught somewhere between the ornate, Spanish-colonial architecture of the older buildings, the crumbling infrastructure that seems to have been left to its devices after the demise of the dictatorship, and the resourcefulness that has crept to life in its stead, Asuncion certainly feels different. The socio-economic spectrum can be almost entirely transcended within one city block. Mercedes-Benzes drive side-by-side on the main roads with horse-drawn carts and other haphazardly re-assembled vehicles that look like the Frankensteins of the automotive world.
    One thing is for sure, in Asuncion, if you can make it and you can make it work, then “it lives!”. There are few regulations in place and even fewer that are enforced. Many intersections are left without street signs or even lights. Far from anarchy, however, the order of this city is maintained by the culture, by the people who follow basic principles regardless. Paraguay is perpetually a “tranquillo” country where freedom itself has assumed a unique and very non-Western form.
    It’s not that laws are somehow irrelevant, its just that they represent more of a formality than an ultimatum, more of suggestions than orders. While police carrying assault rifles and shotguns patrol every corner (a very impressive deterrent for more obscene and violent crimes), this is not the linchpin of modern Paraguayan peace. Asuncion is a safe city (comparatively) and, despite a historical and deserved reputation for police corruption, order is nevertheless maintained in a very tangible way. People certainly have much to fight for, to fight against, but in a blossoming democracy they finally have the means to express these grievances. In the absence of an oppressive dictatorship, the need for militarized law and order has largely abated; Paraguay for the people is sustained by the same.
    Landless peasants assemble for peaceful protests, displaced indigenous people stage decade long sit-ins on the city plazas, and demonstrations for human rights make their way through the city streets. This is an organized country and one falling very quickly into it’s global consciousness. Despite it’s cultural isolation, which seems increasingly more evident in the far-flung countryside, Paraguay is on the cusp of realizing the extent of its largely-untapped potential. Paraguay, forever the tropical South American enigma, has come very far in the past two decades and yet, still has very far to go. In the years to come, with critical elections and political change on the very near horizon, the path forward will certainly continue to stretch even further and endlessly ahead.

From Paraguay, still,
little hupo

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Pieces of the Puzzle: Paraguay

    First off, let me preface this blog by apologizing for my lack of attentiveness with keeping my site up to date. Not that anyone is hanging off my words or anything, but since I have also neglected to communicate with most of my friends any family in any other way in the past two months, I am sorry for the lack of news. For those I have not spoken to or e-mailed in quite some time, I am terribly sorry--I am still alive, still quite happy, and still trucking through the craziness that is training in Peace Corps Paraguay. Just for a brief update, our training class G37 will be swearing in as volunteers on December 9th and I will be heading out to my new site near Cleto Romero, Caaguazu, Paraguay the following week to live and work for the next two years. For more details and in case I renege, once again, to maintain this blog, you can always follow me more consistently (although only slightly) on my blog at Organic Gardening Magazine.com (http://organicgardening.com/blogs/theguestblog/).

    Life here in Paraguay has been a continuous mixture of emotions and thoughts. As ideas and feelings reel about inside my mind, assuming any one of 3 different languages (English, Spanish or Guarani), I have found myself almost incapable at times to actually sit down and form coherent sentences. This rare moment of clarity is following another week of culturally-integrating madness that ranged from visiting my immensely remote future field-site after catching busses across the entire south-eastern half of the country, experiencing my first of many classic developmental challenges (apart from language and cultural barriers), and dining in the mansion of the US Ambassador to Paraguay on the Embassy grounds in Asuncion. Other than passing my first major Thanksgiving holiday without any family and in 90 degree heat (which turned out to yield more home-sickness than I had originally expected), this week straddled such a range of social, cultural, political and economic strata that I am still trying to process it in its entirety.
    When it comes down to it, I have been trying very hard to get a good feel and an honest taste of this country to stick in my mouth. But, even as I continually push myself to distill the essence of Paraguay, I am finding it impossible to assume anything and immensely difficult form a single, reliable characterization of this country and culture. Far from stereotyping, I am simply hoping to have a better idea of what I am going to encounter every morning when I wake up and walk out the door. This has more to do with my psychological need to find some sort of familiarity in the life I am currently living (and will continue to live for the next 2 years) and less to do with an ignorant desire to generalize or idealize. Then again, maybe I am fooling myself.
    Paraguay really is a strange and wonderful place. It is a country that seems, even in this globalized and interconnected age, to be remarkably culturally isolated. This country is simultaneously extremely homogenous and yet immensely (and subtly) diverse. The natural beauty here is also less overt. One must sit and stare, wait and watch, or walk and contemplate to eventually realized that, you know what, it actually is very beautiful here. The mountains are not much more than slightly larger mounds, a vast, vast majority of the land choosing instead to remain distressfully flat. The lakes and rivers, quite numerous, are usually hidden by dense canopies or the fact that any topographical relief is hard to come by. Changes in landscape are gradual and often, unless someone is particularly detail oriented, difficult to recognize. This is a place where the true beauty, the immensity of wealth and diversity hidden in this land, only becomes evident when one can discern and dissect the innumerable species of trees and flowers and birds. The Paraguayan people, in their traditionally tranquilo manner, seem to have followed in suit.
    Certainly, this is one of the curious characteristics that has led to Paraguay’s strange disconnect with the rest of the world. For several hundred years, the Spanish conquerors of the 16th and 17th century did little more than found the city of Asuncion. Paraguay, without the obvious material riches associated with the high-societies of central Mexico and the Peruvian Andes, was largely left to its own devices. The Spanish did little to tame its interior or to disrupt its indigenous populations (other than Christian conversion) for far longer than many other areas in the Americas. Without a coastline and with a vast, desolate desert (the Chaco region) comprising almost the entire north western half of the country, the Spanish must have considered the few potential profits to be gleaned from this land drastically offset by the difficulties of its conquest. Evidently, they too failed to obtain a perspective that revealed what truly lies at the very core of this mystical land.
    And yet, Paraguay is still a country with an immense wealth disparity. The huge numbers of impoverished people either occupy shanty-towns in the few large cities or the vast expanses of rural land where most engage in subsistence farming. In this place, a fledgling democracy is set upon a unique and yet uniquely South American history. This is a country where ox and horse drawn carts wander the streets of the capital city, where modernization has come by strange and often non-linear steps, where the natural beauty is slashed and sold faster than it can be recognized and appreciated. This is a country where buildings crumble, but education is on the rise. Here, in the heart of South American continent, the pulse has been set to a rhythm to be found no where else on earth, fluctuating only with the heat of the summer sun.
    As I continue to stumble around this wild and strange place, I can only hope that a better understanding does come, however slowly, and hopefully not at the price of my sanity. These tropical forests and plains, these impenetrable marshes and vast deserts do have a funny penchant for swallowing both traveler and memory, a peculiar fact to which both history and legend will both eagerly attest.


From Paraguay,
Mario

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Simple Beauty of a Pit Latrine

    Its funny how quickly one’s standards can change. Before arriving here in Paraguay, there are many things I would have considered somewhat necessary, or at least fairly conductive, toward living in a relaxing manner. Amenities such as running water, electricity, a stove to cook on (as opposed to an open flame), a fan (or some sort of rudimentary air cooling system), a bathroom, a refrigerator or even a kitchen that isn’t periodically occupied by any number of barn animals all made this list. I have spent much time backpacking and camping, going without such luxuries for weeks at a time, however, living without some of the above (currently for a month, but prospectively for 2 years) presents a different sort of perspective. At no point will I be able to relish in a nice hot shower without hand-sized insects swarming around the 60-watt lightbulb and exposed electric wires that illuminate the outhouse--this is simply the conditions to which one must become accustomed. There is no porcelain throne awaiting me at the end of a long week in the field, only a hole in the ground and the continual honing of my ‘squat-and-aim’ technique. And yet, this does not highlight those things that make life in this developing country difficult--for those things are far more profound and fundamental--this is simply a different lifestyle that one must learn to embrace and appreciate. There is beauty to be found everywhere in this world, even in the simplicity of a pit latrine.

    I spent this last week visiting a Peace Corps Volunteer named Gabriel in the Paraguayan department (state or district) of Caazapa in a small town called San Francisco-mi. The point of this visit was to gauge our abilities to travel around a country with an ever tenuous grasp on both national languages and still come out safe on the other end. Additionally, this trip was intended as a means for us to begin constructing a better picture of what volunteer life in the field would be like. Both missions, I must report, were successfully completed.
    The trip to the field site was typical of a developing nation-- I paid for a ticket and boarded a Bieber-type tour bus, albeit a decrepit version of one with missing windows and an erratic driver. The ride was several hours to the south-east and as we disembarked from Asuncion I quickly realized that we were picking up more people than we could fit in the limited number of open seats. Soon, the aisles were packed full of riders, all intent on making the 5 hour trip whether standing or otherwise. As I stood up to give my seat to an older woman, I saw the ‘Maximum Occupancy: 49’ sign by the door. I couldn’t help but laugh; there were at least that many people in the aisles, not to mention those in the seats, jammed in the small bathroom at the back of the bus, and the last few riders sitting along the dashboard next to the chain-smoking ‘Rico Suave’-esque bus driver. Glorious.
    Around midday, I arrived at town of Maciel--a town large enough to warrant a municipal building but small enough not to require neither street names nor any other features of note. At one intersection of the main road, as if from an old wild-west frontier town, signs pointed off in twenty different directions giving approximate headings and distances to the nearest places of note (Asuncion, Ciudad del Este, Concepcion, Buenos Aires etc.). This seemed to imply that Maciel itself did not make the same list and that those few that might be passing through were only just.
    I met Gabriel at the bus stop and we began the six kilometer walk down a dirt road that led us from tiny Maciel to the community in which he was serving--even more remote and far-flung yet. The land was flat and featureless, a natural grassland dotted endlessly with termite mounds both new and old colored iron-red and dust-brown, respectively. We walked over the gently undulating landscape toward a grove of trees on the horizon in which, he informed me, his community was buried. Any way to find relief from the sun was a good thing, I thought, although I would later find out that the trees, while cool and shady, only meant armies of relentless insects. Pick your poison.
    Regardless, the three days I spent in San Francisco-mi were amazing. As far off the beaten trail as it may have been, its people were warm and inviting as ever. The ratio of Spanish to Guarani speakers changed dramatically and I realized that to serve effectively in such an area, one must learn to speak the language. It was a great impetus to invigorate my Guarani practice, although it will hardly make the task any easier. The lifestyle in the ‘campo’ (as Paraguayans refer to the country side) is also much different. People grow more of the food they eat and the diet is biased even more so with carbs and meat. The number of farm animals per house increased greatly and everything--from the cows, to the horses, to the chickens and goats and pigs-- were as free-range as could be.
    In addition, the amenities offered so far out in the Paraguayan campo also differed from the situation closer to the cities. Water was not free flowing and must be lifted out of wells; showers came from a bucket and the notion of ‘warm water’ involves lots of time and energy that most do not have. Electricity was variably available and several families chose to go without. Along the same lines, many people lacked refrigeration or even separate rooms for a kitchen. If lucky, most houses had enough space inside for most family members to sleep; otherwise, all activities were done outside.
    Some of this was different from my current situation with my host family, located more in the suburbs of a larger city, while some was not. There, close to Guarambare, almost all families had running water and most had electricity (to some capacity or another). Refrigeration was more of a necessity as less food was grown and more was purchased (as land-availability and incomes dictated). People here were still poor, but the face of such poverty changes slowly as one moves from more rural to more urban. This transition is subtle but evident; it creates small but significant changes in lifestyles that have the power to effect qualities of life in any number of ways. Life in the campo was not worse than life in the city, hardly. It was different, and those differences are neither bad nor good, but they are conditions to which one must make concessions and adaptations. Regardless, there is nothing with which any person cannot someday learn to live.
    As I returned back to my host community several days later, I felt the comforting feeling of returning home. While I wasn’t going to be back with my family in Pennsylvania, I was going to soon be showering in my own shower (with wires exposed and fist sized beetles to boot) and I was soon going to be squatting over my own latrine (it was still just a hole in the ground, but at least it was my hole in the ground). My host family would still be cooking outside over an open flame and doing dishes, washing clothes and shaving in an outdoor sink that is otherwise occupied by roosting chickens outside. But already, after only 3 weeks or so, this has become the norm. When I leave for my host site in another few months, my living conditions will once again change, but I have no doubt that no matter how I will be living, no matter what amenities are or are not available, I will certainly adapt to and learn to love wherever I am. Here’s to pooping in a hole. Cheers.


From Home,
Mario
   

Friday, October 21, 2011

Fish Soup

    When you don’t have a lot, you eat what you do have and waste nothing; rural Paraguay is no exception to this fundamental rule. In a country dominated by widespread poverty and weak infrastructure, the food culture represents a symptom as well as an antidote to difficult economic conditions. Starches are cheap and abundant, meat is of low-quality but high on everyone’s wish list, and vegetables and fruits (while fresh and abundant) are expensive and seasonal. Chicken, low-grade beef, and several types of game (including rabbit, birds) are all consumed often and in variable quantities with the rare treat of a slaughtered family pig thrown in the mix. Mandioc, a fibrous starchy root plant, is incredibly cheap and immensely resilient as a crop and therefore, finds its way easily onto every lunchtime or diner-time table; the one thing that there is no shortage of in Paraguay is mandioc.
    For my host family, living at or below the poverty line has meant that food must be adaptable, with recipes that can tolerate a number of substitute ingredients and do not rely on too many spices (as many are expensive and difficult to come by). Still, the food is delicious and extremely rich, with plenty of natural flavors and often times, an excess of salt. We must count ourselves lucky to at least be able to say that we never go hungry and that there is always something on the table--not all in Paraguay or in many places in the world can say as much. My host father, a wise and good-natured farmer, has taken to fishing as both a beloved pastime as well as a great way to supplement protein in the families diet. Twice a week, he clambers onto small-engine motorcycle with his brother and drives several hours along “paved” roads with fishing gear in hand. On these days, he wakes at 3 am in order to catch a few in the Rio Pirana and return home in time for diner with the family.
    This is where it gets interesting. There are several main ways that Paraguayans eat their fish: pescado milanese (which is lightly breaded and fried), pescado frita (which is just pan fried in oil) and the family favorite, sopa de peascado, or fish soup. Fish soup is less a meal and more an experience. My sisters spend all day slowly cooking a heavy broth with tomatoes and onions. Then the fish is added. The preparation of a fish for this meal involves several steps: gutting, descaling, then cutting the entire carcass into 4 or 5 large pieces (head, tail and everything in between) before tossing it into the broth. This stews for around 2 hours or so while family members gather.
    When the fish soup is ready, a table is brought out in front of the house; no chairs are placed around its perimeter. The entire cauldron of fish soup is then placed in the center of the table while eager family select and wield their respective spoons. Just a disclaimer, this meal is not for the weak of heart. When the meal begins, the situation resembles more or less a familial version of culinary anarchy. Utensils lurch forward, every man for himself, grasping at chunks of fish and mouthfuls of broth. Each bite brings the inevitable crunch of bones, which must then be ‘fished’ out of one’s mouth and tossed to the ground. The family dogs dodge expertly between legs and under the table like vultures at a christmas feast; for animals that don’t get fed often, fish soup is the best day of the week.
    Inevitably, when the level of broth has dropped disproportionately to the level of piled filets, family members reach for full sides of the fish and eat them by hand. My host father then accomplishes a task that will never cease to amaze me. Somewhere in the mix and mash of fish anatomy, he locates the first fish head. Removing it from the bowl with his favorite ladle (which he prefers over a small spoon on fish soup nights), he then begins to literally suck the face off of the underlying fish facial bone. Nothing is spared--lips, brains, eyes--everything is sucked dry and in less than a minute. When he is finished, a stark white fish skull is left resting in his hand. The dogs never flock to my host father--he doesn’t usually waste a single thing, not a single slice of flesh. He tosses the skull, the ultimate trophy of his fishing and consumptive prowess, and continues the wildness that is fish soup. Viva Paraguaya.
    I have tried eating a fish face before and I must say, it is much more difficult than it looks. One must carefully navigate the small bone structure and strip away small pieces of flesh from around the eyes and the mouth. Then, when it comes to internals such as brains, sucking usually works best. As for lips, they are easy to figure out, for one only need give the fish a light kiss and breath deeply and the entire front of the face slides right off the bone. The eyes, oh the eyes, I have never quite been able to get my head around--it might take a little more time to work up to those. From what I hear, the eyes are quite salty and taste wonderful with a slice of Paraguayan cheese. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
    Fish soup represents the best of Paraguay. As one of the poorest countries in South America (in front of only Bolivia), there is certainly no lack of poverty and no lack of need. And yet, with a simple grace and demeanor, Paraguayans have risen to the occasion and created a culture that embraces challenges and remains perpetually tranquilo. The nation itself has gone through drastic changes throughout history--loosing 90% of its male population in the Triple Alliance war, suffering under 30 years of the Strossner dictatorship, and currently, finding its way with a fledgling and often faltering democracy--but this has not dampened the Paraguayan spirit. Despite everything, fish soup brings families together to eat and laugh after long days of work and following brief games of soccer, played in haste before the sun sets over the palm trees. No matter what the future might have in store for this beautiful country, there will always be fish soup and everything else uniquely Paraguayan on which to rely.

From the land of fish,
-Mario

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Notes on a South American Democracy

    Paraguay stirs. A country that remained stable for almost thirty years under the oppressive hand of the Strossner dictatorship now finds itself stretching its fledgling legs of democracy in a fast-paced and globalized world. Since the military coup that ousted Strossner 1989, the Colorodo party (the same political party of the one-time dictator) has held on to power, albeit legitimate and democratically elected power this time around. In the last election, however, this single-party rule was finally disrupted by a multi-party oppositional coalition that installed a Catholic priest named Fernando Lugo as president. In a government still dominated by hard-line Colorado representatives, Lugo has come up against a strong conservative current. In the past few years, he has been widely criticized for failing to live up to pre-election promises and failing to achieve Liberal party aims. For the first non-Colorado party leader in almost 80 years, Lugo has been a controversial figure, but with the upcoming elections in 2013 the political tide is already starting to ebb and flow; the voice of the people, historically repressed, ignored and obfuscated under a veil of corruption and ignorance, is at last free to cast its judgement on the Paraguayan government. The messages are varied but the volume is almost always loud. Paraguay is a democracy flexing its popular muscle in a way comparable to the US in the 1960’s, that is, in a very big way.
    The news keeps bringing word of civil unrest--teacher strikes, transportation strikes, worker’s strikes--in major towns around the country. Large scale protests in the capital of Asuncion and elsewhere have been planned well in advance; in the past, these events have been known to shut down major roads and cause general confusion for the ill-equipped Paraguayan police. The EPP (the Paraguayan people’s army--a small Marxist/Leninist inspired militant group operating out of the northern departments of the country) has stepped up some efforts, killing several police officers around the are of Concepcion in the past few weeks and has also threatened attacks in the capital. Several Peace Corps volunteers working in or around these areas have been placed on a stand-fast (meaning that they are not allowed to leave their host villages) and some have even been recalled to consolidation points pending further social issues.
    In general, Paraguay is not a dangerous country. In the past, corruption was rampant, civil forces were weak and ineffective, and widespread poverty and isolation meant that millions of rural Paraguayans lived more-or-less off the grid. It seems that the major force offsetting an anarchic Paraguayan state (in the absence of a strong central government) was always the philosophy of Paraguayan lifestyle. People here are tranquilo, immensely thoughful and always happy. Still, there are parts of the country where foreigners should not wander (such as the Ciudad del Este--a new world haven for terrorist groups such as Hezbola), there are immense shantytowns in the major cities where people should be wary to navigate at night, and there is always the risk of the opportunistic moto thief or robber but, for the most part, people are warm, unquestionably welcoming, and willing to share everything they have, even with a complete stranger.
    Sometimes it seems as if this nation exists in an almost contestant state of potentiality--the potential for large-scale social change, the potential for a proletariat uprising, the potential for economic greatness, the potential to turn the fortunes of this developing country for the betterment of all its people. For one reason or another, this potentiality has yet to be tapped. The streets are cracking slowly, the infrastructure is crumbling, garbage collects in heaps under the dictates of the wind, and a majority of the people (with the small exception of the business and shopping districts of Asuncion) remain impoverished and unacknowledged.
    Whether due to corruption, exploitation, or just bad luck (likely, a combination of both), Paraguay remains confined to the third-world mold. But there is so much life here, so much natural beauty, so many wonderful people with the capacity and the motivation to make better lives for themselves and their children. This is nothing that can be imposed and certainly much more than can be delivered by armies of Peace Corps volunteers, NGO’s and development organizations. In their own way and according to their own terms, Paraguay is making a democracy for itself. It is carving out a place in this world, in this global economy and its people are rising to the occasion.


From the Heart of South America,
-Mario

Monday, October 10, 2011

Paraguayan Storm

The heat has broken, shattered while we slept and in a tremendous fashion by a storm that was as fierce as it was brief. Still, the land and the fields surrounding my new home outside Guarambare bear the scars of heavy clouds passing in the night and yet, my family and the rest of our Paraguayan friends remain ever-so tranquilo.
    Yesterday began as rather run-of-the-mill day of Peace Corps language and agricultural training in preparation for our two-year stint in the field. We finished class around 5, hitting up a small and only occasionally operational internet cafe in Guarambare before attempting to catch the last bus out of town to our homes in Santo Domingo. As we waited for the bus, our small group of 5 or so quickly grew to around 40 people, all trying to hitch the last ride for the evening. When the bus approached, it was already rather full but, in typical developing country fashion, we managed to pack the rickety bus to capacity, fitting every one of those waiting in the cramped and peculiarly smelly seats and aisles. Lesson one of developing naitons: no bus, taxi or car is ever ‘full’. I had no need to hold onto anything; my feet didn’t even touch the ground. I was suspended in a mass of people undulating to and fro with the less-than-smooth oscillations of the bus. Occasionally, the cool relief of a breeze meandering its way through the crowd would reach my face. Otherwise, it was being packed into a can, surrounded by the stale and sweet smell of sweat and work.
    Half-way through the trip, a friend looked at me with eyes that said one thing: he was claustrophobic and was clearly going to be very sick, very soon. We shoved our way to the front of the bus and pulled the chord in an attempt to get off at the next stop, still a ways from our house. But, as we rolled to a stop, the bus-driver either did not see or did not care, pausing only for enough time to let me disembark but leaving my friends behind. The bus sped off and I found myself standing alone in the middle of rural and unknown Paraguay. Awesome. I started walking in a direction that I vaguely remembered as being the direction of home but the sun had already started to set and I was way less than sure about my bearings. By the time I reached Santo Domingo I was drenched in sweat, severely dehydrated but laughing out loud to myself just as well. What a beautiful night to get lost in the Paraguayan jungle especially considering I had just beaten the oncoming storm. I showered and sat for diner with the family while we drank terere and watched the Paraguay versus Peru world cup qualifying match. This itself would have been enough to constitute an adventurous night.
    I awoke at around one in the morning to the sounds of chaos. Animals going off one-after-the-other, people outside scrambling and yelling and all the while a continuous chorus of wind and water and lightning and thunder. I left my room to find host my family huddled under the small awning in the front of the house as the rain came down like a sheet in front of our faces. Already several trees had fallen, the uuva’s (a small bush that bears delicious fruit) had been disinterred and strewn in shreds across the yard. The television antenna had also been downed by a wind that seemed quite pointed and quite strong. My host father mumbled something about his peppers being ruined and retired to the house to wait and hopefully sleep out the storm.
    The next morning brought some relief as the violent clouds receded on the horizon, surrendering the sky to a gentle morning sun. And yet, the damage had been done. Twenty rows of peppers had been tossed around in the night, leaving the entire crop in shambles. The net used for covering the peppers with shade had collapsed. The zapallos, zapallitos, tomatoes, mandioc, pesto and orange trees seemed to be alright, but it was the peppers that represent the biggest cash crop for my host family. This storm had certainly made a point.
    My family is lucky in the sense that my host father is a seasoned farmer and therefore, had the foresight to diversify his crops according to price, ease of maintenance and seasonality. The large-scale loss of the peppers is not crippling to my family, for there are other crops to rely on, however, none of them are currently ready for harvest. The peppers, being the best cash crop but also the crop of highest maintenance needs in the Paraguayan climate, provided a huge source of income for the family at several tens of dollars a week. Now with that loss, it seems it may be time to start over and begin replanting. For a poor farmer with limited financial capital, that prospect is daunting but certainly not available for unnecessary preponderance; this afternoon, my host father was already back in the field fixing the netting, salvaging the peppers and setting the ground for the next round.  The realities and the necessities surrounding farming change drastically when the food you grow represents not only your nutrition intake, but also the entirety of your livelihood and well-being. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
    The storm has since passed and all will return to normal in due time. The perpetually ‘tranquilo’ Paraguayan outlook will surely iron out any lasting damage as it cradles the simple lifestyles of these beautiful people. One should never idealize the situation of poverty or the challenges it presents to countless real people across the globe, but it does seem, and I have seen this over and over, that the less you have, the happier you are. Peppers or no peppers, we will talk and smile and laugh over diner tonight. So it goes.

From the other side of the storm,
Mario

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Host Families

    I can’t help but think we got it all wrong. All of us in the West that is. Sure, we have health care, social security, jobs with benefits and many other bells-and-whistles that are offered by lives lived within our capitalist distopia but, to a large extent, there is quite a lot of substance missing in our lives. At least, this is what I have felt for quite a long time. This has led me to become somewhat disenchanted with life Americana (and I am still skeptical) but coming to Paraguay is slowly helping me to understand the greater picture of life across the socio-economic spectrum--and I’ve only been here less than a week. I am officially living below the poverty line and I will be for the next 2 years and some odd months.
    I moved in with a Paraguayan family on Friday. Their house is a wonderful little concrete structure painted a tropical teal color and topped with interlocking, semi-circular ceramic shingles the color of sun dried tomatoes. The house is simple: only two rooms--one for me, the guest, and one for the rest of the family (thats 5 other people). Both rooms are the same size. My host father, a perpetually happy (or tranquilo, as the Paraguayans say) Paraguayan farmer sleeps in a small lean-too like structure out back next to the pigs that are busy growing fat in time for their annual Christmas feast. Its impossible not to feel like an imposition when I literally put someone out in the barn but, this is the nature of Paraguayan hospitality. No expense is spared, everything--from the soda, to the mate, to the laughs--is shared. It really is a beautiful disposition.
    The bathroom is less a room and certainly not a place to take a bath. It is instead simply a brick structure split in half by a thin concrete wall. The shower is “heated” electrically but is as difficult to get hot water as it is to get a shower without being covered from the knees down in the red Paraguayan dirt that is kicked up by the splashing water. Neither is a problem thought, because I get to watch the sunrise over the palm trees as I shower every morning regardless of how cold or how dirty it may actually make me. The toilet is simply a hole in the center of a concrete box which drops to an inclined plane upon which your ‘product’ sits until it is washed down into the nether-regions by a bucket of water. It is smelly, but does the trick just fine. No complaints here and thats even after experiencing my first bought at the receiving end of the unfortunate acclimation period one must go through to get used to Paraguayan water. In Costa Rica, they say ‘Pura Vida’ but in Paraguay, they say ‘Tranquilo’--and I must say, life here certainly is tranquilo.
    Paraguayans work hard. Very hard. My host father and his two brothers work a 2-3 acre farm with peppers (lacote), summer squash (zapillos and zapillitos), manioc (mandio), tomatoes (tomates), pesto (cattle feed) as well as a small orchard of orange (naranja) and lemon (limon) trees. Not to mention the fact that there is uva and mangos and oranges also growing in the front of the house which he tends as well. He works all day, finishes in time for diner (well after dark) and has only a few minutes to sit and drink yerba mate or terere (an iced version of mate) with the family. Truely, he is one of the hardest working and most genuine human beings I have ever met.
    The rest of the family is equally as wonderful. My two sisters (whose names sound an awful lot like Mario when said in the midst of rapid fire Guarani or Spanish) are both 24 and 15. The older sister is married and her amicable husband lives with us as well. Together, they have a son who is also the most adorable 4 year old Paraguayan I have every met. He is extremely bright and immensely entertaining for the entire family and he knows it. We usually finish the night in a circle, passing a cup of mate or terere and laughing while my little host nephew flips himself upside down in a chair or something. Here in Paraguay, life is simple, very simple. At the same time it is also immensely and unmeasurable fulfilling. People move slowly, always taking time to sip some terere with friends. Everyone says hello to everyone else, all the time. My host family, mi familia, is a collection of 5 extremely happy, honest, and good-natured people, all of whom have taken it upon themselves to bear the burden of hosting me for three months while I train for Peace Corps service.
    I have seen poverty before and I don’t mean to belittle its seriousness but, it usually manifests itself in similar ways regardless of whether it is in Africa or in South America or in Asia. This is the first time, however, that I have actually had the opportunity to live in it. What a luxury for a spoiled little American brat to have?--the luxury to ‘experience’ poverty like it is some sort of amusement park ride, some kind of dime-store novelty. Well, that is entirely another post in itself...I digress. But this makes me think, at what point do we sacrifice happiness for comfort, even for luxury? What do we really need in life? To be satisfied? To be happy? I have seen my Paraguayan family laugh more in the past few days than I have seen other families laugh in their entire lives. What are we missing? We seek solace in cold and disconnected things, we search for meaning in the vice of consumption and materialism disguised under the thin veil of modern necessity (which is really just a neuvo-version of the same old human narcissism).
    In my entire Paraguayan house, there is not a single mirror. Think about that, really, take a second and think about that. On a daily basis, for the majority of your life, you never see yourself. What would that change about who you are, how you define yourself, and what you consider to be beautiful and normal and whatnot? This is not to say that Paraguayans do not have their own standards of beauty, for they do, and if they think you are “gordito” they will not hesitate to tell you to your face. Its just that their ‘standard’ is completely defined by those who see you, not how you see yourself. I wonder what this means in regards to self-esteem and self-image issues, many of which  are far too prevalent in American society.
    Its very late now, the dogs are barking, the fan is lulling more-or-less soothingly. I have been trying to work on my Spanish and also learn an entirely different language, Guarani, while at the same time, orienting myself toward this new culture and this new world. It is not the easiest of tasks. Still, this is a gorgeous country of untapped beauty and history and I already have had a profound appreciation instilled within my heart. I miss my Jacqueline as well. I am falling asleep. Speaking in another language is mentally draining. Too much thinking. Too much to take in. There is always a transition period, I guess. Right now, two years seems like a lifetime.

Hasta manana,
-little hupo

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Arriving: Asuncion, Paraguay

Our layover in Buenos Aires wasn’t what I would call welcoming. Sure, we did not have time to get to know Argentinean culture in any real capacity but, other than the delicious espresso, the whole experience could have been much better. There was an overwhelming feeling of being labeled and judged as foreigners, not in an observational sense (for I am sure it was more than obvious) but in a very condescending manner instead. I am used to the whole ‘American’ stereotype and honestly, I pretty much agree with most characterizations of ‘Americans’ traveling abroad but, here was a group of Peace Corps volunteers and still, no mercy. It didn’t feel so good--trying to stumble through my Spanish to order a sandwich from a waitress who just didn’t seem to have the time for our ineptitude at all. There were a few old women remarking quite blatantly how we smelled (of course, anyone would after three straight days of plane hopping). And then, after some problems processing our sketchy Peace Corps visas, our flight attendants (who were Brazilian actually) did little to hide their annoyance at our obviously inferior Spanish speaking abilities.
    But in the end, I did hear 4 languages in under 4 hours. It was English, the Spanish, then Portuguese and then finally, I hear my first words of Guarani. It was a little much to take in all at once. Once leaving Buenos Aires, we flew northwest for a short ways before reaching Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay. The plane rolled to a stop and a couple from the back of the plane sprinted to the front, obviously in a hurry to get to wherever it is that they were going. As it turns out, the woman in the couple was actually a famous Paraguayan model/actress who made quite an international name for herself during the last World Cup due to her particular choice of cell-phone placement (search ‘Paraguay’ in Google and you’ll see what I mean). Welcome to Paraguay.
    As I get off the plane, the humidity and heat settle calmly over my body. Its less intense than in Miami but its also different. This evening heat seems to be the fading effect of an extremely hot day (the daytime temp hit 100 degrees for the first time in a few months--and this is still springtime in Paraguay). The group loaded onto buses to take us across the city to a small conference center/‘compound’ to spend the night. The sun was setting and the smog was smoldering over the poorly labeled streets with a combined effect similar to having a foggy lens being pulled over my eyes. Cars seemed haplessly oblivious to road signs--they drove up one-ways, across medians, or just fearlessly at merging traffic hoping that the opposing driver won’t call a bluff. Compact little coups and rusty old sedans jousted for position with over-sized and unbelievably overcrowded Mercedes buses while motorcyclists and mopeds weaved in and out at will. A police man was parked on one corner with his lights flashing but made no efforts to intervene; his presence, if actually intended as a deterrent, was in reality little more than a gesture of authority. This was motorized anarchy.
    And as street lights cycled through their colorful displays, it soon became obvious that these too were arbitrary in meaning. Not only was I in a country where I did not know the language, I now realized I did not even know how to interpret the road signs. As the bus sat waiting at a green light, several people started to shuffle past the bus. A few in military uniforms, a few kids trying to throw themselves on windshields and clean them for a few pesos, a few joggers. And then, an old woman walked past. Propped up on her hip and dangling over her shoulder was a small boy. He was emaciated--atrophied legs, swollen joints, a head that lolled aimlessly from side to side in concert with the bump-bump-bump of her hips--resembling someone suffering form some sort of muscular dystrophy. And she just carried him, seemingly with no particular destination, walking slowly along the median between two maddening sides of opposing traffic. She was unfazed, he was expressionless, and that’s just what it was. The light turned red and we drove on. Both were quickly swallowed by the smog.
    We drove through streets of a city unlike any I have ever seen before. There was a certain feeling of colonial architecture but underscored with an overwhelming feeling of passing time. It was almost as if each building were unusually prone to gravity and were therefore, slowly being pulled underneath the earth. There is nothing new here. No new cars, no new houses, no new sidewalks. Even the trees seem burdened with time. Shrubs hold precariously to a very dusty, iron-rich and blood-red soil that seems libel to blow away if one but breathes too heavily. Garbage itself constitutes its own unique feature in the cityscape. There are no large buildings, no skyscrapers. The few vestiges of American consumerism remain isolated and contained in small islands, each erupting upward with 4 or 5 billboards stacked together like sardines. The soccer fields display their true colors as the grass has been kicked away leaving behind only a large patch of red earth flanked by white-stained-red goal posts.
    Asuncion is a city with a flavor, and not in the figurative sense (although it does also have plenty of cultural flavor as well), but in a very literal sense. Farms just outside the city spent the day burning off brush from their fields, presumably to make room for new crops but also to recycle nutrients to the soil. The entire city smells of burnt rubber. The flavor of Asuncion today is ash. Tomorrow it may well be flowers and lavender, but today the air tastes like a city of coals.
    We arrived in our compound, were warned not to stray outside the gates, and spent the evening eating and relaxing from several days of travel. Showers were quite a welcomed treat as well. Tonight is the last night we spend alone. Tomorrow we move in with host families. Seeing as I might not get a good 8 hours in a while, I shut my eyes and roll over, sleeping sound with the knowledge that the guards at the gate, armed with a shotgun apiece, should take care of any troubles we might have. Till next time.


In way over my head,
-little hupo

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Arriving: Miami

    If anyone believes that sea level rise won’t really effect the United States, they have either forgotten about Hurricane Katrina or have never been to Miami. It is a city that doesn’t seem to rise out of anything--no great land mass defiantly projecting itself out of the ocean--just a mass of dark water, then lights and there you have it, Miami. The lights of the perfectly linear boulevards twinkle amidst great swaths of seemingly abysmal water, like a perfectly-architectured galaxy among the endless of expanse of deep-space. The absolutely perpendicular streets hint at an alarming degree of premeditation underlying the construction of this city; even from a plane at night I get the strong impression that there is not much of nature to be seen here. It’s almost as if a huge extension chord runs from underneath this city to an enormous plug somewhere in for less-glam regions of our country (perhaps the midwest). Some far away place that faithfully pumps electricity into these streets where it is illuminated, projected and then hopelessly swallowed up in the black-hole ocean that surrounds it. I find some sort of mechanical, almost industrial beauty in the site of the sprawling, well-planned switchboard that is Miami. Still, I don’t hold my breath.
    When I get off the plane the humidity hits me in the stomach. Its like a clamp has been placed over my entire body, each endplate has been padded with down pillows, but it applies considerable pressure all the same. I hear a man say to his friend, “In Miami, if you don’t e-speak e-spanish, forget about it,” and he is not mistaken. It seems that all I hear after I de-plane is rapid-fire Spanish. Even the Bangladeshi cabbie and the African doorman ‘e-speak e-spanish’. Tomorrow I am gonna buy me a Spanish-English dictionary, which should serve well until I get into my local village in Paraguay where they won’t be speaking much Spanish at all, but instead Guarani (a language I have no familiarity with). So it goes.
    This is the first leg, among the centipede that will be my journey, in my travel to Paraguay with the Peace Corps for the next 2 years and 3 months. I am currently staying at a hotel by the Miami airport. I have two days here, a brief training session on Wednesday, followed by a midnight flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Then it’s onto Asuncion, Paraguay where I will be living with a host family for three-months of cultural, lingual, and just general immersion into Paraguayan culture. On December 15th, I will be moving out to my host village finally where I will spend the next two years doing agriculture, educational, subsistence and development work with a local community. That’s the plan at least.
    Well, my mind is spinning with emotion--I can’t tell if this is me slowly loosing my grip (which may not be such a bad thing considering I am about to be thrust into something entirely foreign and unknown) or if this is just the result of several days of sleepless nights. To all my freinds and family at home, I love you and I will miss you, but I will keep in touch. To my love, Jacqueline--see you out here in the South American wilderness in 8 months, I can’t wait! And to everyone else who might unfortunately stumble across this blog, I hope you follow along with my adventure as well.

with love,
little hupo

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

My new, new Peace Corps assignment

Hello friends,
     Strange news from the "trying to plan my life" department: As of two weeks ago, my Honduras assignment was canceled by the Peace Corps due to budget issues and, presumably some large-scale cuts. Since then, I have been offered a variety of new positions from Sub-saharan Africa, to West Africa to South America. I have chosen the South American position and will now be serving for 27 months in Paraguay starting on September 25th.
      In the meantime, I have had to find a bunch of other endeavors to occupy this seeming "dead time" between returning from South Africa and leaving for the PC. For now, I will be volunteering several times a week at the Rodale Institute, an organization that works with organic farming and development initiatives. Also, I am working with the infamous Professor Petra Tshakert from Penn State (also part of the team in South Africa) to co-author a paper (or two) on gender/climate change issues. In additions, I will be working on a research proposal with Petra and several other professors in the coming months. In my free time, I should have some room for free-lance landscaping (the Plantique gig has run its course), and probably hanging out with my beautiful girlfriend Jacqueline. Life is crazy, but good indeed. Here's to budget cuts, bureaucracy and yet another gorgeous country. Paraguay, here I come...just not quite yet. In the meantime...

Much love,
little hupo

Friday, April 15, 2011

Peace Corps Assignment: Honduras

Hello Friends,
     As of this week, I have accepted an offer to be a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras for the next 2 and a half years. I will be serving as a Protected Areas Management Advisor somewhere within the cloud forests, or in the indigenous wilderness, or along the pristine coast. The assignment involves advising policy and management for protected areas as they interact and conflict with local farmers and livelihoods. It seems like I just got back from South Africa yesterday--certainly the entire experience is still reverberating in my mind--but its already almost time for another adventure. My current itinerary is as follows:

July 6th: Leave for Honduras
July 7th: In country trainging
September 23rd (2011): Project Assignment begins
September 20th (2013): Assignment complete

     Looking at the information I have received so far, I am not sure how much contact I will be able to maintain as Honduras is the 3rd poorest and least developed country in the Western Hemisphere (behind Haiti and Nicaragua). I may be able to keep the blog up (at best) and or may be limited to one or two phone calls home every month (or two), it really depends and I won't know till I am at "home" in country. Still, I will try to keep everyone updated as much as possible. Thanks for all the love and support.

excited, nervous and with no idea what to expect,
little hupo

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Leaving home for home

    I am departing Africa, in love, in awe, in confusion, in inspiration, in happiness, in sadness and with a great sense of something. I am not leaving Africa, surely, this would be impossible, for a part of me will remain here forever. I have left a part of myself along the journey through times and places and peoples, across an entire country that I still barely understand. A part of my heart lives in a thatch-roofed rondeval in the Transkei, along the Wild Coast of the RSA. A part of me floats effortlessly in the seas of the Indian ocean, in the quiet forests of Dwessa, across the immense expanses of Mkhambathi. I have left a part of my soul in rural schools in the Eastern Cape, in Cwebe and Hobeni, and with the many other people we have met along the way. There is a saying among the Xhosa people, ‘If you meet someone for the first time, they are a stranger. But if you seen them again, they are a friend’. So many new and beautiful people have become friends and and entirely new place has become a new home. A part of me has returned to mother Africa, the place from where we have all come. A part of me is now more complete.
    My experiences here cannot be described adequately or conveyed properly. Hell, I, myself, cannot even begin fully comprehend everything that has happened in the past 2 and a half months. Processing is taking place and my mind has slowly begun to make sense of life in the South Africa. Leaving is bittersweet. Many more adventures still await me. I am now a college graduate. Life is changing. I am changing. The way I view and understand the world is changing. I grasp tightly to very little. I am floating through a beautiful world and I am at the mercy of its waves. There are forces far greater than me. I am stronger than I once thought. People are beautiful, so beautiful. The world is tremendous and unbelievably huge and wild and so worth saving. There are so many things worth fighting for. There are so many things worth living for.
    In the beginning of the trip a friend asked my why my blog was titled ‘Tones of Home’. At the time, I didn’t really have an answer, but now I do. This is a travel blog, of course, to document my life and journeys over the next few years of my life. But it is also a blog about home, finding it elsewhere, in the strangest of places with the strangest of people at the strangest of times. For a number of reasons, I have felt my notion of “home” gradually changing since I began in college 4 years ago. I have reached a point in my life where “home” is no longer defined, it is nebulous and shifting and it assumes many forms. In this sense, my home is where I am, with whomever I am there with. With strangers and friends and by myself. As I wander, home wanders with me. As I seek home, my home seeks with me. It is a strange feeling, but one that I am eager to embrace.
    At the end of this journey, I tip my hat and raise my glass to the beauty of South Africa and its people. I cannot wait for the next great adventure. Thank you for all that supported me in this endeavor and shared in it with me. And so now, I am leaving home for home and yet, I remain here forever. So it goes, life is good.


from home,
little hupo

Sabonana Transkei

     This last week passed slowly and heavily with the weight of this morning’s departure ever present in my mind. We left the Haven, our home for the past 2 and a half months, in the early African dawn that peeked shyly through the trailing rain clouds. Our journey from this point will take us back along the coastal route of the N2, through the folded mountains and the tumultuous landscape, through the profound scenery and mosaic terrain that is South Africa, all the way back to Cape Town. This is not a journey out of Africa, however, and certainly not a trip back to the US only to leave this place behind. At this point, such a feat would be impossible. Instead, this is a progression (not a regression) throughout the continually unfolding contingency of my life. I cannot leave this place behind--parts of myself are held in the waters and soils and the woods and the people that I have seen and known and made a home with for the past months of my life. Regardless, the upcoming week still holds many adventures before we actually leave and many more stories to be told.
    Before leaving the Wild Coast and bidding a final goodbye to the Transkei, we made a serious point of making our farewell fittingly epic. After a few nights of “borrowing” canoes for nighttime river adventures and failed ocean excursions, after morning sunrises from the lighthouse, after bonfires and music and singing Xhosa songs on the beach, after fishing and tagging sharks in a storm, after crossing shark and crocodile infested rivers, after rum and local brews and dancing, we drove out through the same rolling hills and along the same dirt roads that had once taken us to this unfamiliar place. We now leave it as a home away from home, sometimes maybe even a home in its own right, with friends and people and stories and memories that will stay with us forever. To my new friends, I wish you all the love and happiness in the world. See you in time, surely, but not soon enough.
    This afternoon, we arrived just outside Ado Elephant Park, a national park on the southern coast that prides itself on housing the “Big 5” (that is white rhino, lion, jaguar, cape buffalo and of course, elephant) as well as a coastline with great whites and whales. Tomorrow, it is early morning and late night game drives through the park and relaxing in the beautiful aura of nature that has, at this point in human history, become exclusively confined to demarcated areas and national parks.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Contract Killing the Animal Kingdom: The Un-natural Nature of Modern Poaching

(written February 22nd, posting delayed due to issues with press statements and media release of information regarding the following incident)

            I wore shoes today for the first time in a long time. You see, unless one is trudging through the curious and unpredictable Eastern Cape forest, there really is no need for footwear in these parts. Today, however, this was not the case--shoes were required. As of 9 this morning, we were informed that the CEO of the Eastern Cape Parks Board was flying in by chopper and we were to meet him. The reason for his visit was two-fold: (1) to briefly meet and greet with us students and officially welcome us to the Eastern Cape nature reserves and (2) to deal with the white rhino poaching that was discovered in Dwesa (just a stones throw across the Mbashe) earlier this weekend.
            As I discussed in an earlier post, the white rhino discovered in Dwesa last weekend had been poached some months before. But between the large area of the park, the thickness of the Wild Coast forests, the relative elusive nature of the rhino, their small numbers and the reasonable limitations of constant patrolling, the carcass had gone unnoticed until just this Saturday afternoon while we were doing our field work in Dwesa. A forensic specialist was immediately flown in from Jo-burg in order to try and piece together the puzzle of how exactly these poachers got into the park, dodged the radar of the park rangers, and managed to get back out of the park with a rhino horn that could fill the back of a bakkie (that’s Afrikaans for pick-up truck).
            From talking to Park Ranger Jan Venter, I gathered several reasons as to how something like this might happen. Essentially, it has a lot to do with how the nature of poaching has changed over the past few decades. Since the infamous poaching of the 1980’s that brought the white rhino to near extinction, poaching techniques have adapted. As conservation management quelled the rhino genocide of the 80’s and gradually improved their numbers across the African continent in the 90’s, poaching efforts became much more organized and much more sophisticated. Even despite the great overhead costs involved in a rhino poaching operations, the money in this market has become so good that larger, well-organized syndicates are taking up the torch and bringing illegal poaching of critically endangered animals into this new century.
            The problem is an economic one: as the supply of rhino horns on the black market decreases, largely due to improved conservation efforts, the demand, and therefor the price, for the animal increases as well. Often times, this increase occurs exponentially until the cost/benefit equilibrium is thrown into another functional scale, one where the potential for profits greatly exceeds even the strictest penalties for such activities. The horn poached from Dwesa last week from one of the 3 remaining female rhinos on the reserve is estimated to fetch R500,000 (or somewhere just under $100,000 USD) on the black market (likely in China or elsewhere in Asia).
            No longer is it local people hunting for small financial benefits (as was largely the case in the 1980’s). Instead, it is now international cartels of powerful individuals with inroads into illegal markets--there is no point in killing a rhino unless one can get it to a willing buyer. These people have the capital to front the funding for the new-age technologies required to poach and transport these items. The players have changed, but, ironically, the game remains the same (pun intended). The money is just too good. At times, it almost seems that strong conservation might even be the worst fate to befall these animals, as very strict limitations on “wild animal harvesting” create such a strong demand and such an intense market for their goods.
            And yet, the most disheartening part is this: the individual who pulled the trigger on this lone, docile rhino might have turned a profit of R3,000 (thats somewhere just over $400 USD). This individual was likely a local farmer trying to make some extra money to put his kids through school. The way the system works is as such: the large cartels often hire (for very little money, i.e. $400 USD) local people to stake out, gather intelligence and actually do the dirty work of poaching in the park. The operation itself probably lasts for several weeks or months even. It is well planned and executed, as the penalty for getting caught is becoming increasingly more severe. When the time is right, the cartel organizers give the go-ahead, the locals go into action, do as their told, and an endagered rhino gets killed. Big people make money, the locals think their getting a great deal and of this all happens within the context of a poverty ridden community sitting on the outskirts of one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet.
            In a way, this entire system, in all its neo-liberal, top-down, hyper-capitalistic glory, is not only degrading to the environment but also to the livelihoods of people as well. The shortsightedness of poaching is this: a quick and big profit today looks great on the surface, but when considering how much revenue could be generated for a local community through a healthy rhino population within their community-owned nature reserve, it becomes evident that these people are getting exploited and robbed on a massive scale. This system circumvents local ownership of land resources and community investments into nature reserves in a very clever, extremely dastardly, but very clever way. Ultimately, it is only those already poor and marginalized populations that suffer.
            But this is not the only face of poaching--sometimes the facade is far more benign. For large, high-profile animals, poaching it is difficult. Often times, however, as with smaller animals (such as many antelope species), “poaching” is really just a conservationist word for “subsistence hunting” undertaken by local people to supplement their diet. One day, a person is a hunter on communal land. After the fences go up and the rangers come out, that same “hunter” has now become a “poacher”, but one with an absolute necessity to put food on the table for his family. The politics and intricacies of these issues are immense, and, unfortunately, it is often the local people that are caught in the cross-fire.
            The individuals involved in these problems--from the local people, to the cartel organizer, to the buyer, to the Parks Board, to the Parks Rangers, to all of us complicit in the same economic system--are extremely varied, making it so difficult, both legally and morally, to point the accusing finger. The tragedy is buried within the ambiguity, within the pervasive mentality of our profit-driven society (I don’t mean to sound so overtly like a Marxist, but the self-interests promoted by neo-liberalism might just be the root of the problem). In this situation, we are confronted by many issues: poverty, conservation, bureaucracy, equity, justice, and class-struggles, just to name a few.

            On a similarly sad note, this morning, just after the Parks Board CEO left Cwebe for Dwesa, we were informed of another tragic loss. Zebbie the trademark Zebra from the Haven (in Cwebe) was shot and killed somewhere in the local community. As the last of three Zebra that had integrated themselves into the horse herds here at the park, Zebbie had become the unofficial mascot of the reserve. He drank from the pool, grazed among his distantly related equestrian brethren and between the cotteges, and just last week, took a shit on the stoop in front of my rondevall. He had escaped several days ago through some holes in the fences of the reserve.
            The Haven staff, quite keen on Zebbie, sent out a call to the Parks Board for help in getting Zebbie back into the park. The Parks Board, already dealing with the rhino issue and with limited funds and resources, could not oblige. Zebbie was shot dead yesterday, the second casualty we have witnessed since we arrived here. Sobering, yet again, is perhaps the best word. So it goes.

            *Just as a final note, with the smoke clearing and the actual events of the poaching unfolding, the final death toll is as follows: all five remaining rhinos in Dwesa have been poached, sometime in the past year or so. It is not clear how this all happened, but somehow the remaining herd of these beautiful and endangered animals was systematically slaughtered without the Parks Board or the rangers having known. Also, Zebbie the zebra, as mentioned, was also killed. This is a truly unfortunate tragedy, that is striking very close to home for many people here at the reserve.

            These are the issues that modern conservation and development face. It is not as if these are solely animal issues or human issues, environmental or anthropocentric. They are inseparably both and undeniably intertwined. As humans on this planet, our fates are intimately interwoven within the fabric of the natural world. The future for our world is written in both tongues and we must learn to meander in both realms if we hope to thrive or even survive.


with love and hope from the still Wild, wild Coast,
-little hupo

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Bulungula, Place of Hope and a river overflowing

            The Mbashe is overflowing. This morning, we woke to another beautiful Wild Coast sunrise, except instead of being greeted by the normal crisp, blue wave breaks of the Indian ocean, we awoke to a turgid, dirt-brown sea-scape. The past week has been a week of heavy rains and thunderstorms and, at last, the river banks have forsaken their solemn duty, letting millions of gallons of Africa-stained waters spill into the ocean. Last night, we ate diner on the Mbashe shore, near the river mouth about a kilometer from the Haven. The walk along the beach toward the pre-set diner tables was ominous, thick fog setting in, black clouds slowly creeping over the sand dunes, distant thunder grumbling through the river valley. As we ate, another typical Transkei storm set in. Streaks of lightning, either speared into the rolling hills or spider-webbed across the endless sky, heavy rain like marbles falling from gluttonous clouds, winds from the south pushing moist air up the coast, only to be caught in the labyrinth topography, tossed about, and dumped right on our heads. The thunder rang constantly, circumventing my body's autonomous controls and dictating the inflation and deflation of my lungs through  its powerful, sound-induced pressure changes. An entire landscape, the entire world it seemed, was left muted and stunned after each epic charge. Even the bugs and moths sought shelter inside our small, thatch-roofed rondeval--we slept through the night cozily and calmly to the soundtrack of rain, thunder and the beating of small, furry wings.

            The past week was a trip. While not drug-induced, it was certainly people- and landscape- and life-induced. Everything kind of came to a head last night during the storm. We started the week on a 12 kilometer trek to Bulungula, a backpackers eco-lodge down the coast. After another extraordinary adventure down the mosaic that is the Wild Coast, we arrived at what appeared to be a glorified hippie commune. But as they say, never, ever, ever judge a book by its cover.
            Settling into Bulungula seemed a bit odd at first. It is entirely different from everywhere I have ever seen, let alone lived before, but within the last week, it became so much like another home to me. To start, the facility is almost completely self-sustaining--wind-turbine powered groundwater pumps, super-efficient (and eco-friendly) rocket showers (paraffin powered), artificially planted wetlands and banana tree circles for natural sewage and water treatment and purification, and an entire village to provide fresh grown veggies, fishes and meats. There are no locks on doors here, and everything (short of the shitters) are communal--showers are big enough for a few people (maybe you and a few very close friends), open-air lounge areas, honor-system run bar, restaurant and library, and pretty much everything else you can imagine. The local villagers mingle freely with the visitors (referred to not as “tourists” but as “trekkers” instead), giving the place a much different vibe than the normally ‘fortress tourism’ that is so typical of most of your usual resorts. There are no gates, no entrance fees, no requirements to be at Bulungula (you really don’t even need to pay to stay, its just the nice thing to do) except for being a human. It really is a special place.
            What makes Bulungula so special is, believe it or not, its business model. It is meant to be an eco-tourist sight run through a process of co-management--the founder, the one and only David, owns 60% of the lodge while the local community owns 40% (that means, 40% of all profits go directly back into the community). In some of the most impoverished and rural communities in all of South Africa, he has managed to develop a business that directly incorporates, educates, provides economic relief and empowerment to an otherwise terribly marginalized people. Locals run programs and tours, taking all the money they earn from these endeavors for personal income. The staff is all local people, much needed employment in a country with unemployment rates at almost 50%. David started this project as somewhat of an experiment to see what he could do, what tourism could do, to help alleviate the struggles of these villages. Five years later, he is still going strong with plans to eventually turn over the entire business to the communities, giving them 100% ownership and the long-deprived self-determination to succeed and thrive on their own terms.
            Not only is Bulungula an awesome eco-lodge (voted in the top 25 most ethical tourist destinations in the world), but it is also associated with another one of David’s side projects--the Bulungula Incubator, an NGO developed in concurrence with the business. So far, the Bulungula NGO, in association with several other international NGO’s, has built a beautiful pre-school for students in the middle of the Eastern Cape educational system, which is otherwise lacking in both resources and efficacy. So far, the pre-schoolers that are being turned out since the opening 2 years ago have exceeded the oldest, standard 9 students from the public schools in reading/writing comprehension (in English), creative thinking and other areas as well. This is a major step for this one small school in a poor community in a forgotten area of South Africa.
            In addition to the school, David and his staff use the Bulungula Incubator to provide micro-finance loans to local community members, to develop nutrition programs for children, and to begin getting clean water to the area. On top of it all, David also provides rides to the nearest hospital for the sick and pregnant community members who would otherwise need to travel 2 hours or more by foot or ox in order to receive any type of medical attention. Bulungula, an experiment though it may be, is an outright success on many, many levels. It is a model for poverty relief, ethical tourism and the human capacity to make change. David himself is an indescribable individual, passionate and open, loving and giving to an extent that is so rare in this world.
            After a week at the eco-lodge, after a pancake breakfast and sunrise on the sand dunes, after drum circles with local people with whom I could not speak, after eating raw shrimp and berries caught straight off the shores of the Bulungula estuary, after hiking the rocky coast, after riding dead logs down the river at high tide, after carrying water and firewood on my head, after just one week in the middle of Bulungula, I am a much different and better person.
            In addition to David and Bulungula, there are others doing wonderful work in these impoverished communities. Michael and Alex, a local German couple, moved to the village of Hobeni several years ago to open a facility called “Place of Hope” a eco-friendly, self-sustaining home for the mentally disabled. We met them the day before we left for Bulungula and were welcomed warmly into their amazing world situated in the rolling hills of the Transkei. Again, I was honored to be graced by such wonderful and compassionate people, seeing the time, effort and love that they have poured into their project. No one forced them to do this, no one even asked them--they could be living comfortable lives right now in their hometown in Germany. Instead, they are here, doing the work that they chose to do because they felt that the suffering and injustice in the world was not something to ignore, disregard or feel complacent about. I hope that one day, I may have the heart and mind to be able to do anything like the work being done by Michael and Alex and David.

Life is good, and there are so many bright and beautiful
people with whom we share this world.


with love and hope from Bulungula,
-little hupo

Saturday, March 5, 2011

An Afternoon in the Cwebe JSS

The same dusty roads we’ve driven before; winding through the same scattered fields of sorghum and maize, past the same patched rondevalls, the same paste-covered, local faces, and up to the same gate that leads through the same thick forests back to our home at the Haven. Dust is kicked up by the bakkie in front of us as the AC on the Land Rover spews clouds of dirt instead of cool air--windows up or down, it doesn’t really matter, there are tiny particles of Africa settling gently onto the beads of sweat that collect on my face. My foot aches and I can feel the swelling slowly surpassing the size of my shoe. My fingers are blistered, not from the usual steel strings I am used to, but instead, from otherwise soft nylon strings--this is either a testament to my fading calluses or to a day of constant music and guitar playing. The current comings-and-goings of my spent voice seem to favor the latter and I sit, squashed in that bumpy Land Rover with a smile on my face. Life is good.

            Today, for the first time since we arrived in Africa, I finally felt as if our presence here became truly meaningful for the local people we are living just down the road from. To this point, we have been engaged fully with academic material, conservation field work, personal reflection and understanding the complex lay of the social, political and physical landscape here in the Eastern Cape. Now, under the new and refreshing guise of a brilliant professor (Dr. Petra Tschakert), we will attempt to bridge the gap between the nature reserve and the local people, thereby living up to the second (and arguably, more important) half of our program title (South Africa: Parks and People).
            As I may or may not have discussed before, the dynamic that exists between the Dwesa-Cwebe nature reserve and the local communities is tense and highly political. Several years ago, after the fall of the apartheid administration of South Africa in 1994, a policy of land restitution began that allowed displaced people to file land claims for rights to their traditional homelands. This was accomplished successfully in several cases, some of which removed legal control of nature reserves from the hands of the government and instead, put it in the hands of local people. So was the case here in Dwesa-Cwebe, one of the largest and last remaining patches of indigenous forests on the entire eastern coast of South Africa. Through negotiations and the development of a land trust, the government was able to convince the surrounding 7 communities that it was in their best interest to leave the area as a nature reserve--in return, they would receive compensation and a portion of the revenues derived from the tourism.
            Several aspects of this negotiation were successful, others not at all and the result is a tense relationship on both ends. Local people are no longer allowed to use the desperately needed natural resources that are available in the park, although, according to the law and to the history, these lands belong to them. The situation is not quite so cut and dry, as the potential for this area to generate tourism (and therefor, economic stimulus to the communities) is immense and largely untapped.  However, such is the situation we have come to South Africa to study. Having covered all other bases (the politics, the park and the conservation), it is now time to turn our focus onto the people and deliver something tangible to this extremely marginalized and impoverished population. That is what we did yesterday.

            We arrived at the Cwebe JSS (a secondary school for students between ages of 5 and 18) around 9 am. Curious little faces poked out windows and around door frames as our dusty convoy arrived in the middle of their small courtyard. As we got out of the vehicles and approached the principals office for our initial meeting with the teachers, I am sure that not a single one of us had any idea what to expect. What we had planned were several well-thought-out lessons on climate change and global weather, primarily directed toward the older students. There were a few such activities on the drawing board, but all notions of premeditation and control soon flew swiftly out the window of those small, sun-lit classrooms.

One lesson to take away from Africa = go with the flow.

            It became quickly evident that, despite the fact that students in standards 8 and 9 were supposed to have a firm grasp on the English language, that this was not at all the case; my very limited ability to employ any relevant words in Xhosa only compounded the communication issues. It is not as if the concepts we were attempting to convey were overtly complicated, and surely, these students can (and did, to a large extent) understand the main ideas, but the language barrier was extremely challenging. Improvisation became the name of the game and my pride (rarely ever intact, as is) soon became an unnecessary restraint--so I did away with it along with my shame. The results were wonderful.
            Teaching about the greenhouse gas effect through such a pervasive language barrier was best accomplished with an animated persona, jumping about the room, making weird noises, speaking slowly, and yet super loudly. I started to act as if the students in front of me simultaneously understood everything and yet nothing I was saying. A translator was helpful, when available, but the shortage of teachers meant that there was also shortage of translators. It was me and two other fellow students in a room full of anywhere from 15-40 other students from the JSS, ranging in ages, in comprehension of language and vastly in personality.
            There were so many characters among these kids, so many smiling faces, so many funny moments--moments when I realized that we were communicating, but on a completely different and unimaginable level. We taught these students, without a doubt, but probably not everything we intended and probably many unintended things as well. And they taught us so much, about ourselves and about the world--the one we came from, the one we were now in, and the one which we were all a part of. I felt so at home, so in my element, wandering from class to class, trying to talk about greenhouse gasses with some of the older kids, teaching the young kids to sing “Old McDonald had a farm”, acting like a kid myself.
            At one point in the day, I pulled out my guitar and things changed entirely. Children swarmed, left their respective classrooms and congregated in whichever room I was in. Hundreds of little smiling faces packed into a small room with me in the middle, standing on a desk, playing the same chords over and over, singing made up lyrics and dancing around. I could barely hear myself over the yelps and excitement of these kids as they danced along and sang along with me. At points, I would place my fingers on chords and hold out the guitar to let them strum, a gesture that they loved entirely. This was probably the first such instrument they had ever touched.
            I soon made my way out to the courtyard where the crowd simply increased in size and excitement. It wasn’t long before I stumbled over a made up a song using three chords (G maj, C maj, D maj.) which I played over and over again, along with an easy to learn chorus (Lalalalala, Lala) that everyone caught on and sang along with me. Here I sat, in the middle of rural South Africa, singing a made up song in unison with hundreds of young students. Language barriers were broken. We sang and danced and I have never felt so alive, so at home, so right in the world.
            After this part of the day, we proceeded to play a pickup soccer game with the school soccer team. Needless to say, we lost pretty badly. In the end, as I decided to play barefoot like the rest of the students, I ended up with an accidental kick to my face and a broken toe--both of which were accepted with the wonderful territory and as well-earned trophies from such an amazing day.
            In the Xhosa language, when someone asks ‘unJani’ or ‘how are you?’ , you respond with ‘ntiphilile’. The phrase is meant to respond ‘I am fine’, but its literal translation is ‘I am alive’. And so, on a Tuesday afternoon during my final semester of college, just months before shipping out with the Peace Corps for 2 years, in the middle of an isolated and oftenwise disregarded community in South Africa, I can say that I truly felt ‘ntiphilile’.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Camping in the forest of Dwesa

         I continue to write inadequate words to supplement the inadequate nature of photography as a means of capturing moments and landscapes. There are some things that cannot be put in a 4 x 6 frame, and the entirety of Africa is one of them. We spent the last 5 days camping in Dwesa forests on the opposite side of the Mbashe river from where we are spending most of our time (at the Haven in Cwebe). We met with a group of students from the Rhodes University botany program and spent the days wandering through the woods, along the coast, through the grasslands and anywhere else we could find good plant specimens. Using old fashioned methods of pressing and drying, we made catalogues of indigenous plants for the Rhodes/Penn State herbarium. This seemingly innocuous activity turned out to be rather enlightening, opening my eyes to the subtle and profound details of nature within Eastern Cape flora. It was somewhat of a meditation, walking slowly between trees, gazing upwards at a mosaic of leaf patterns as the hot African sun played a silent xylophone on their creaking branches. The plant life, like the animal life, is so varied and unique--at almost any scale there is a painting of diversity, an inseparable intermingling of life that makes sense only as it can be seen through the kaleidoscope of the entire forest.
            As we meandered through Dwesa, we were often escorted by armed guards--as it turns out, this was a necessity for more reason than one. The main motivation for such a precaution is Cape Buffalo, notoriously smelly, ugly animals with females that wander in groups with young. It is the old, grumpy bachelor males that cause all the ruckus, as they will charge you and gore you to death if you happen across one and don’t make it up a tree in time. They are enormous beasts, about the size of an American buffalo, with bad temperaments and a propensity for hanging around on the outskirts of forest and grassland areas, just the spots we were searching for plant specimens. Dwessa itself is home to about 150 of these giants, who, apart from hippos, are among the most dangerous animals in Africa.
            Also on the list of concerns in Dwessa were the crocodiles, one of which I may or may not have encountered one night during an evening amphibian survey near one of the smaller tributaries that feeds the Mbashe. Small, murky pools of water are common throughout Dwessa and make ideal hideouts for the crocodiles in the area. On that night, as I made my way up this small creek, hopping rock-to-rock, I heard a loud splash and movement ahead in the dark. I flashed my light to see the surface of the pond in front of me fluxing up and down, presumably from the weight of a large animal--and one that didn’t want to be seen. I backed away from the pond slowly and made my way back to the safety of the bakkie. Best not test these waters--they bite back.
            The last reason that the armed guards were a necessity did not present itself until the last day and it did so in a sobering and rather disheartening manner. There were 5 endangered white rhino living in Dwesa, and, while they are not indigenous to the area, the park does provide a nice home for several rhinos from a species whose numbers are dwindling rapidly. On Sunday, we were informed by Jan, the parks board director and our friend and companion in the field, that one of the five rhino were found. Its carcass had obvious signs of poaching with a severed horn and likely a bullet wound. This is the first white rhino to be poached in the Eastern Cape in almost 20 years, and such an event has had, and is having, quite a fallout. That day, they flew in an expert forensic scientist to help put together the pieces of how this poaching happen (and managed to go unnoticed for some time, as the carcass was about 2 months old). The remaining rhino were scattered, three were supposedly accounted for and the final one was still missing, last we heard. From talking to Jan, he seems to think that it was likely poached as well--the park rangers are now really searching for another corpse.

*For more of my thoughts on poaching and this event, see my post on March 13th, 2011.

            The week of camping was wonderful, even in spite of the added effect of this event to hang over our heads. We got to know the local students well. Nothing like drinking, music and skinny dipping in the Indian ocean to help bridge cultural boundaries. Truly, there is not a single person I talked to (be they South African, Zimbabwean, Namibian or otherwise) who was not absolutely wonderful. In the best way possible, people are people, and Africans (regardless of country or skin color or anything else) are spectacular people. The students from Rhodes, whether they know it or not, represented their countries and their universities in a spectacular way. It really is nice to know that people of that caliber exist across the globe.

            On the last day, we decided to walk back along the coast, some 5 to 8 kilometers, back to the Cwebe side of the Mbashe. The river crossing would have to be done via canoes, as the shark populations and presence of crocodiles in the park would make swimming in murky, over-your-head water conditions quite dangerous. The hike itself, however, was excellent. Once again, we had no trails to follow, except for old game trails and beaches. We transitioned from rolling grassland knolls to thick-as-a-jungle forests, to open beaches and dunes, all within the course of a few kilometers. This hike, while relatively short and only one among a list of many hikes we have taken so far while in the RSA, was yet another epic testament to the endless natural beauty of South Africa. We crossed outcrops of grassland that dropped suddenly into vertical rock cliffs into the sea--hundreds of feet below, the waves crashed against the walls while we perched high and dry on the knolls above. Along the way, we came across the skeleton of a whale of some sort, having washed up and decayed long ago, only the bones remained. It was hard to keep a mind out for Cape Buffalo when the world around me was comprised of so many things that are so much larger than myself (both literally and figuratively).
           
            Now we are back at the Haven, this time for a longer stint of two weeks. Nothing like morning runs along the beach, local SA brews at night, and being surrounded by an immense forest wilderness. Life is good, sometimes leaving a funny taste in my mouth, but still, life is good.

wandering along the Wild Coast,
-little hupo