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,

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, 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,

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,

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,

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