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

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