Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Morning in the Cemetary

    The Don who lost his wife just 2 months earlier stood before me in his tan slacks and open-chested, blue shirt. His disheveled cowboy hat, resembling something one might find at a rest stop on the US interstate, was cocked back on his brow. He squinted in the sunlight as he explained that here in this quiet, wind-swept cemetery lay his wife, her name carved into a small cross at the head of her tomb. He hadn’t shaven in a few days and I thought could sense a sadness in his words although, if this was true, he did little else to betray his feelings. Paraguayan men don’t really cry, or at least thats what they say. Maybe it’s the machismo or maybe its just the same sense of masculinity that has gendered emotions across the globe. Maybe, however, it has more to do with the nature of death as it manifests itself in this place and among Paraguayan people. You see, Paraguayans don’t bury their dead. In this culture, dying is a process that continues long after one’s heart stops beating.

    If one visits a Paraguayan cemetery, several features seem to stand out immediately. The rows of tombs are wider and longer, more like streets than aisles. And, seemingly as a way to solidify this fact, Paraguayans will often label these rows with street names written on street signs (at least in the larger cemeteries). The tombs (called pantheones by Paraguayans), are much more than just carved headstones laid in the ground. Each pantheon resembles an above ground alter. For the poorer families, this is often little more than a block of concrete or a small brick structure adorned with a small casita (or ‘little house’ in English) at its head. The deceased is placed inside on the day he/she is laid to rest. In the following months, usually on the one-month, two-month, or three-month anniversary of his/her death, the family will revisit the pantheon to decorate with colored tiles, flowers (in the case of this Don, small flowers placed in make-shift pots made from recycled soda bottles), trinkets or other small items.
    For the wealthier families, or at least those with more to invest (financially or emotionally) in such an endeavor, the pantheon can assume a much more prominent state. Socio-economics, it seems, plays out even in the afterlife. Sometimes, the pantheon itself can resemble more of a mausoleum that rival both in size and structural integrity the very houses in which many Paraguayans live. While most rural homes are made of mud-brick or wood-slats, the cemeteries are often mistakable for communities themselves with towering, concrete rooms dedicated to a dead family member or several. The priorities between the living and the dead are skewed in a way that differs largely from other cultures I have experience and particularly from US culture. This may be tied up somehow with the religious tendencies of these people (this country is predominantly Catholic). It may also have something to do with the connections of many Paraguayan people to indigenous practices or histories. This is entirely speculation on my part, but this also seems to be a reoccurring theme among the ideological clashes between Europeans and native peoples both during and after the conquest of South America.
    Regardless, it is amazing the reverence that people in this culture hold for death--the allocation of resources (especially in a country with a large portion of the population living in poverty), the regard in which people dedicate time and energy toward post-death rituals (for months and years, even decades following), and the way that all of this falls in stride with the daily lives of most Paraguayans. When one dies, the anniversary of their death and birth are observed during week-long events for the first few years following their passing. Then, for the next several decades, smaller but still significant observances are continually held to commemorate these important dates. The dead do not die, at least not until their living memory is lost with the passing of the next few generations.

    The north wind is blowing hard through the palms when we finish working. It is late morning and the sun is now playing kaleidoscope between the branches and through the grasses of this tropical landscape. It is going to rain tomorrow, the Don tells me. His wife’s tomb looks only slightly better than it did an hour before--the weeds have been cleared, a fresh layer of concrete added to the exterior. He wants to add tiles to the outside; he thinks that blue would look nice. We leave the cemetery and the mood is not solemn, not melancholy or even sad in the slightest. There is more work to be done. The fields must be hoed, the crops harvested, the beans dried and the garden tended. And so our day continues, only an hour later than it would have otherwise, and with my head pondering the matter-of-fact nature in which we visited death for the morning.

from the cemetery,
-little hupo

Friday, January 13, 2012

Sweet as Honey

     Every part of my better judgment was telling me that this was a bad idea and yet, there I was in my flip-flops, t-shirt and rolled jeans hunched low over a hollow log with my axe in hand, readying myself for the first swing. It seemed like only minutes before that I was casually propositioned to go gather some honey by several of my local Paraguayan friends. I had agreed enthusiastically, thinking that standard operating procedure including full bee-working gear (face mask, gloves, body suit, etc.) would be implemented to at least some degree. To my dismay, I was once again reminded of the fact that this is indeed rural Paraguay and such ‘standards’ have usually been left far behind once you reach the places and the villages that even four-wheel drive cars have trouble accessing.
    For those unfamiliar with the field of bee-keeping (technically referred to as apiculture), it is the relatively simple and very beneficial practice of housing bee’s in artificially constructed structures. For a skilled bee-keeper, the hives that the bees create and maintain inside these structures can be harvested several times a year yielding several liters of honey (depending on the hive size and conditions), wax (which can also be sold and used) as well as royal jelly (a substance fed to only a bee larvae that will become a queen bee--very expensive and highly prized for its medicinal and health benefits). Housing bees in conjunction with an agriculture system adds an important element to any farm by ensuring proper crop pollination helping to bolster the overall health of one’s crops. For poor rural farmer’s (like those here in Paraguay) the benefits are the same along with the added value of livelihood diversification. With little additional labor and low start-up costs, bee-keeping can provide another source of income while improving crop health and yield.
    Which brings us back to my story: Having spent the last month integrating into the rural Paraguayan community of Guido Almada, I have come to know that several members of the community already practice apiculture. I had assumed (wrongfully) that when asked to harvest honey, we would be doing so in the fashion that I have come to associate even with secluded, rural bee-keepers. Such wild assumptions (such as common safety precautions), I am quickly learning, often make one seem either overly-cautious or a fool; just don’t make a mistake and there is nothing to worry about. Right.
    After agreeing, I was led into a dense patch of tropical forest. Together, the three of us (2 Paraguayans and myself) gathered some wood clippings, sticks and dried tobacco leaves and placed them into a smoker (called a fumador in Spanish) along with some burning charcoal. This would be our only form of defense from a hive of angry African-ized bees (the stinging bees of South America, for the most part, have been unintentionally cross-bred over the centuries with bees brought from Africa--also called African killer bees) along with our fast feet, however, between these tangled, vine-laded trees, one would really only be able to get so far, so fast. We approached the hive, half-buried and barely visible in a hollowed out log on the forest floor. The incessant hum, that terrifying buzz of a thousand mindless insects could be clearly heard over the collective sound of the jungle birds and monkeys and frogs. I realized that this sickening bee symphony, despite its already alarming volume, was actually muffled slightly by the moist, dense earth covering the log. My mind began to race as I tried to imagine what kind of a collective monster we were about to intentionally agitate.
    The first swing was half-hearted, I must admit--I was in no hurry to run for my life.  But one can only swing a heavy axe at a rotting log for so long before pieces begin to break and splinter. It was only seconds before the roof of the hive was cleaved open. The hive was exposed. The sound, no longer muted but sharp and piercing, felt almost like a million little stings in itself. Angry bees began to drone above their home, searching for the source of the intrusion. My friends threw huge puffs of smoke into the air instantly confusing the bees but also clouding my sight. The thick, sweet smell of honey and fire filled my lungs as my companion kneeled down beside the broken log, grabbed it with both hands and wretched it from the earth. The cloud in front of me was a mixture of darting insects and smoke mixed with the latent steam meandering through the trees in the midst of our seemingly epic battle.
    Both Paraguayans at my side launched their bare hands into the middle of this swarming hive of bees, grabbing carefully and with surprising calm at huge golden cones of honey. After extracting several and only suffering one or two stings each, we began our slow retreat, using a constant screen of smoke to cover our tracks as we went. I was amazed as we exited the forest and I breathed the fresh and comparatively cool air (for it was still 100 degrees outside) that I had not suffered a single sting in this entire endeavor. We stopped to rest some meters away from the forest and began indulging ourselves on the sweet fruits of our labor: about a half-liter of fresh honey, still on the cone.
    Inevitably, especially with a wild-hive harvest, not all the cones collected will be honey; some will also be capped-cones of bee larvae. I bit off honey-cone, cautious not to bite off any of these white grubs. The Paraguayans laughed and both began munching away happily at the larvae-filled cones explaining between mouthfuls that eating the young bees provided protection from the sun. I was not in any position to argue and with a prior gulp of courage, I tucked-in with similar zest. The larvae were largely tasteless, their texture obscured by the hard cone structures. The fact that the taste of the sugary honey was still coating my mouth certainly helped it go down easier. As long as you avoided looking at the half-developed, bee-like forms, it was easy to forget that you were actually eating, well, larvae.
    And through this all, I couldn’t help but think at the potential in this entire experience to peruse a bee-keeping program in this small community. Here was a family with an obvious interest (and talent) and, judging from their socioeconomic position, a definite need. Its often the littlest things that have the power to lessen the hold of poverty over someone’s life--a small micro-loan here, a project to diversify livelihoods there, really anything that seems possible and beneficial. The honey was sweet, but the prospects for implementing actual change and development in this family’s life were by far much sweeter.

From Paraguay,
-little hupo

Friday, January 6, 2012

Half-Way There Is There

    I am stuck in a quiet hotel room in Cornoel Olviedo for the night, stranded (it would seem) half-way between where I was and where I was going. My little adventure started this morning when I entered the Asuncion terminal hoping to catch the next bus to Carayao. Fortunately, the ticket-vendor informed me, one would leave in only a half-an-hour and should arrive in time for me to catch my connecting bus across the dirt road that leads to my home in Guido Almada. I bought the ticket, grabbed a coffee and waited.
     The terminal bustled and bubbled in the early morning hours as the people congregated in the shade being cast by the soon-departing buses. A gentleman sitting next to me barked orders at his shoe-shine boy, who brushed and scrubbed his heart out, responding to the commands like a well-worn dog kept on a short leash. Both shoes lost their dull and shone like stars and yet, I wasn’t paying attention to the shoes. I could not help but notice this child’s expression: blank and defeated as he sat on the grimy floor without shoes of his own. The man tossed him two mil Guaranis (the equivalent of 50 cents USD) which clanged on the floor for the boy to pick up. As his ten-year-old self scurried away I realized that my bus, promised to arrive at 8 was now about a half hour late.
    When I asked the guard when to expect this bus he laughed. Apparently, I had been sold the wrong ticket by the wrong vendor. The bus to Carayao had left at 7:30 and the next was not expected for another two hours. I was cutting it close at this point--my connecting bus, the only one per day to reach my site, leaves at approximately 11:30 (Paraguayan time) and passes through Carayao close to noon. At this point, my odds of making the venture from Asuncion to Carayao on time were slim, but I played my hand anyway, boarded the next bus possible and for the first time, hoped that driver of my connecting circuit lived up to the Paraguayan reputation of being unnecessarily late for everything.
    The bus that I caught out of the Asuncion terminal, which sped across the city traffic like a stone across the automotive water, quickly lost its initial enthusiasm, sputtering out and then forcibly removing passengers, including myself, 30 kilometers short of their destination. As we reached the city of Coronel Olviedo, the driver informed me that this was as far as my money would take me. When the bus came to a rolling stop, people were told to disembark following their bags which had been virtually thrown out in front of them. In a country of hundreds of privately owned bus lines, the rules are dictated not by regulations or by customer satisfaction, but by the need to strike a balance (and a profit) between efficiency in an inefficient system and sufficient time alloted for tereré consumption.
    With the temperature reaching over a hundred degrees by this time of day, getting a taxi to Carayao and walking the final 30 kilometers home would be out of the question, posing more of a medical concern than a solution. And so, here I find myself tucked into a little hotel in the recesses of the alleyways of Coronel Olviedo. Its a nice day out--immensely hot--but still sunny and with a slight northern breeze (known by the locals as the viento norte), the typical premonition that rain is on the horizon. I have the luck and luxury of being able to spare the 80 mil (about 20 USD) to spend the night in a hotel instead of curling up on the sidewalks or sprawling out in the plazas like so many other seemingly stranded Paraguayans. I’m thinking of the shoe-shine boy, with his several mil Guaranis in hand at the end of a long, hard day of shining, buying a well-earned meal of mandioc and empanadas. I wonder if he has a place to sleep tonight. I wonder if his grumbling belly will ever permit or if his skinny, little arms can carry him far enough to actually buy some of his own shoes one day.
    This is a country where things do not work in a manner that I have come to expect in my years living in the comforts of the US. I have taken many things for granted: the mail system, public transportation, public services (police, firemen, ambulances), a reliable water supply, electricity that persists through all but the worst of storms (and then gets restored in a timely fashion following such), affordable energy (heating and cooling), functioning and paved roads, and so much more. And yet, the Paraguayans survive and even thrive despite the seeming lack and/or inefficiency of some of those things I have previously deemed necessities.
    If you think about it too long, as I am sure that I already have, you begin to realize that ‘development’ itself (that task to which I have set myself for the next 2 years) is such an ambiguous and almost unintelligibly relative notion that it seems at times to be absurd. What are we developing toward? Are United States standards of living only what we might consider ‘developed’? Surely, children should not be forced by economic conditions to employ themselves instead of going to school (as is the case with the shoe-shine boy). Certainly, people should earn decent and fair wages that can allow them to achieve a minimum standard of living. Absolutely, all persons should be able to cloth and feed themselves, access health care if needed, and maintain the hope of providing greater opportunities for their children. But where do we draw these lines?
    Paraguay is a wonderful country with so much to offer and so much to gain in this new, globalized community. But it is so important that we allow this development to be defined by Paraguayans and according to Paraguayan priorities and ideas. It cannot be imposed and cannot be sustained otherwise. This is a rule to be followed for all countries that the CIA factbook or the World Bank or the IMF have deemed (according to their own debatable and curiously variable methods) to be ‘developing’. Efforts by developmental organizations, NGO’s or even the Peace Corps must be continually geared toward promoting self-actualized development and against furthering thinly-veiled, manipulative endeavors to force imposed standards. Paraguay’s ‘development’, as with all countries, should be more of a maturation process instead of anything defined by starting and stopping points. In a way, all nations in this world are still developing across a spectrum that is constantly changing and fluctuating with time and history.
    This hotel room seems a little nicer, a little more spacious and a little cozier than it did at the beginning of this blog post. Hopefully, I can maintain this perspective for a while. Maybe even for the next two years.

From Coronel Olviedo (not by intention, but by fate and by Paraguay),
-little hupo

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Paraguayan New Years

     Asuncion last night was like a war-zone. If one had no idea of the date and didn't bother to look over the horizon, it would have easily sounded as if troops had invaded this otherwise sleepy capital city. In celebration of the New Year, Paraguayans set off fireworks (called in Spanish bombas) almost continuously from 10 pm until the early morning hours. Some of these bombas were imbued with the rare and beautiful effects of exploding lights, however, a vast majority were simply mortar or hand projected, small-scale explosives that cracked and echoed over the buildings and through the streets for hours on end. Fireworks launched from roof-tops exploded on top of or next to century old, Spanish colonial buildings, rattling windows and setting off car and fire alarms. There were no police patrolling the streets to reign in or direct the festivities. Any semblance of regulations seemed to have been forgotten or otherwise completely ignored. The rapid-crack and reverberation of a thousand explosions composed the Año Nuevo concerto under the tropical night sky leaving the pavement and skyline hazed by drifting wafts of smoke until the following morning. Today, the street vendors will sell off their remaining supply of bombas at half-price or less, meaning that tonight, the city will once again be under siege. It seems that this will be a good year for the informal sector.

     In the absence of the rocket's red glare and to the tune of a million bombs bursting in air, I was left last evening (my first New Year's eve away from home) to reflect on my life in the past year. Here I sit, in the midst of this intense and life-altering experience called Peace Corps, trying to recap, recall and reevaluate how exactly I got to this point in my life. The following are my musings:
     Last year at this time I was preparing for a 3 month trip to South Africa after which I would be graduating college and moving on with my life. I had already set into motion my plans for joining the Peace Corps following university and had received a tentative nomination to a natural resource management position in Southeast Asia. I was naive, single, and itching to break away from the comforts that had cradled me for most of my life. As things unfolded (as the rules of time dictate they must) my life changed trajectory unpredictably--I found myself no longer single but helplessly in love and yet, still naive (if not slightly less-so than before) and now heading for Paraguay as an agricultural extensionist. Now, over three months into my service as a Peace Corps volunteer, I can begin to take scope on the things that have transpired.
     In the last year, I have lived for extended periods of time on three different continents, bounced like a ping-pong ball between two developing nations and the supposed apex of Western development that is the United States. I have slowly begun to find a place and a way in which my knowledge and abilities can be applied to help improve peoples lives in a tangible way. Still, I have once again found myself stumbling through the mine-field of intricacies and difficulties facing development in our world. Dropped into a country where something as simple as language can neither be assumed or relied upon to sort through the detritus of daily life, things have begun to change, becoming both clearer and infinitely more murky. The rumble can be heard over the noise of my daily activities as the tectonic plates of my life shift and settle and shift and settle in profound ways.
     For starters, my daily experience has changed in so many dramatic and subtle ways. It really is amazing the spectrum of conditions to which one can become accustomed. I try to remember the words and the philosophy of my grandfather Reinaldo Machado as he would retell his stories about immigrating to America from Cuba: don't be pretentious, be willing to work hard, always do your best, and never forget who you are or where you come from. I think that my experience so far in Paraguay, with my lack of language skills and feelings of social (and personal) isolation, have really helped me to gather a deeper appreciation of just how difficult my grandfather's transition to the States really must have been. But if he has taught me anything in life it is this: anything is possible to those who are willing to work hard, stay positive and adapt to any circumstances life may throw in their way.
     And so, with that in mind, I now take time each night wandering around my Paraguayan house killing the fist-sized, flying, glowing roaches that live in my walls while listening to some good-old Bob Marley. I wake up each morning at 5 am for a run, some yerba mate with my neighbors, and then several hours of cow milking, or bean harvesting, or crop cleaning, or anything else that my Paraguayan community may have in store. If it needs to get done then I can learn how to do it. I might not be the best farmer in the world, but damn do I look good in a straw sombrero. I wrestle with the meals of heavy carbohydrates, piles and piles of mandioc, fried pig fat, knee cartilage, cow brain, stomach, tongue, giant lizard, blood sausage and as of yet several unidentified, chewy things. It is amazing what tastes good if you are hungry enough, tired enough, or just dumb enough not to ask too many questions.

     And at the same time, as I acclimate to this strange new life that I am living, I am also advancing professionally in directions that I never thought possible. I will, as of February this year, be a published co-author in an academic journal. Having received the news last night around midnight, I spent my New Years sitting in a hotel room in a developing country reading and re-reading the manuscript that will be sent off to the publishers. This is on top of the writings that I am currently publishing with Organic Gardening magazine online and the research proposal to which I was a contributing author that was sent off for review late this summer. If I thought things would slow down when I started living in the Paraguayan countryside, I was either being both short-sighted or naive; the world, as it turns out, doesn't stop spinning despite the fact that I am now isolated and removed.
     Still, despite everything else, the single most influential event in the past year has been my falling deeply in love. Regardless of whatever else may have transpired, finding myself inextricably connected the amazing Jacqueline Ryan simultaneously effects the greatest and the smallest details of my life, even from half-way across the world. I may still be a lost little boy, but at least now I have someone to wander with.

     For me, I can only see this next year as being epic, immensely life-changing on any and every level. I will be traveling throughout South America, journeying to Cuba with three generations of my family (my grandfather, father and myself), trying to help improve the lives of rural Paraguayans, bringing this entire experience home to the States, reading, studying, learning languages and exposing myself to any challenge that may cross my path. I will be falling even more in love, both with my girlfriend and this world. To all my friends and family, thank you for the love and support. As my other-mother Mrs. Holmes has said, "Mario is difficult to pin down". I love you all for many reasons, but especially for your patience, understanding and grace. I'll be home for next Christmas and will once again celebrate New Years in my boxers, dancing to 'Desert Rose' in the Holmes's basement.

From Paraguay,
little hupo