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,

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