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.