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.