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 (

    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,


  1. My dearest and only son,

    My Father, your Grandpa May, always wanted one of his sons to be a farmer and follow in his footsteps. Your Uncle Tim tried to do it but then developed farmer's lung and could not go on. I can't help thinking about my father as he is smiling down from heaven that he has his farmer in a city boy from Allentown. Your Dad and I were looking at a picture of you today, on the wall in our bedroom of when you were 4, in Preschool and you had a picture taken wearing Grandpa May's farming hat. I will have to scan it and send it to you. We love you and are praying that you have a wonderful, safe adventure. Love Mom

  2. I'm living vicariously through your blog as I sit here in Cincinnati studying for my finals. It's funny how all I wanted to do is go to grad school and now that I am here I would rather be anywhere else because I feel like I would be making a bigger difference, kind of like you are now. Mario, you are an incredible person and I look forward to hearing all about your adventures both on your blog and in person someday. After all, we are going to save the corals together! Best of luck with everything!