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