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),