Monday, February 20, 2012

Two Years in Two Minutes

    The mornings here are like god. I live for the mornings. One thing that can be said for Paraguay, despite everything else unfortunate about this country, is that the mornings are beautiful. For me, perhaps it is the novelty of waking up at 5:30 am before the sun has even risen to sip slowly my cup of coffee and listen to the birds and the farm animals. Dawn seems to drag across the sky for most of the day, holding on to the atmosphere with the infinite potentiality that only the morning can possess. I do not wake because of the sun, I wake for the sun, to kneel briefly at its alter in sleepy reverence. The ripples of light echo across the ocean of sky, domed over this flat land, stretching from unseen horizon to horizon unseen.
    In the morning, my flaws are forgotten, my hope and love remain intact, the shortcomings not yet short and still to come. In these few hushed hours, I can revisit the calmness of the night. Yesterday is still a memory that I can taste on the cool air in my lungs. The overwhelming weight of life, at least the weight that I seem to be carrying as of late, has not yet been lowered onto my shoulders. I am light and free, if only for just a moment, to live in the illusion that perhaps I am at home. Perhaps the love that I feel I am loosing is in fact still waiting for me in the bed I have just left, keeping the sheets warm and longing for my return. Words don’t form in my mind at this time of day and instead I am left with just the feeling of being, a simplicity and a perfection that is somehow outside of the material, beyond the hollow, heavy mass of thoughts upon thoughts upon thoughts.
    By midday, all of this is gone, replaced instead by the oppressive heat that saps life from the land. The summer hours are far from that which I usually feel when my skin bristles with the heat of a full sun, dancing with the dose of ecstasy that only Vitamin D and warmth can provide. Instead, this heat goes to the mind and breaks the spell of the morning. There is an intensity to it, an endlessness within it, and a seeming loss of hope because of it. It drains energy. It forces one to see the monotony in this life, the distressful reality of a heat that never ends. It feels sometimes as if one will never be happy again, as if there is nothing more to this world than the sun and its subject. Somewhere above, there is a magnifying glass intent on burning me alive. It almost succeeds every day. The rain will never come. She, as well, is never coming back. Paraguay in the afternoons is depressing.
    The evening comes on quietly, sneaking under the tyrannical and sadistic eye of of the midday. The pools of sweat that have gathered where I laid to escape the inescapable sun slowly turn cool and moist. The sun dips below the trees. Stars begin to peek like timid animals from their shelter in the oncoming darkness. Their time is almost here, but they possess a fear it seems, a well heeded and well deserved fear of the sun. When night finally comes it is with relief but without progress. The lack of progress, the repetition, the feeling as if this same process will be played out again tomorrow weighs heavy on the mind. But at least it is not so hot.
    In this thought there is some comfort. The hope in the slow-coming morning gives light to the darkness. Tomorrow, nothing will change, but at least tomorrow morning I will once again be suspended and unaware of that reality. I can live for a few moments in the illusion of change and better-ness, in love and its strength in this world. I can feel again the patience that makes the difficulties of this world bearable, loosing myself in the bliss of naivety, idealism and a cup of coffee. I will toast the sun with through sleepy eyes and without words. I will be doing this for a long time. Two years seems like an eternity. I am lost within myself.

from Paraguay,
little hupo

Thursday, February 16, 2012


    Paraguay--this is not a paradise, this is a third-world country. Please take a moment to allow all illusions of simple lives lived by simple, happy people to dissolve. Reconstruct your images appropriately--poverty is not pretty or idealistic. There is no Rousseau-ian ‘noble savage’, there is just people and human nature. Sometimes, these people have more money and sometimes they have less. Sometimes they have more rights, and other times they have next to none. Notions such as freedom, rightness, wrongness, fairness equality, justice or even happiness are not defined by their absoluteness, but instead by their relativity. If you believe these ideas to be fixed (somehow divine and immutable), perhaps indulge in the momentary suspension of your misinformed reality and try, really try, to internalize and understand whatever picture it is I hope to paint in the following paragraphs. There is no spoon.

    To illustrate the aforementioned claim, I will try to explore one of the previous ideas: that of freedom. This word, in all its rhetorical glory, demands the allegiance of millions of die-hards across the world. Its meanings could not be more varied and, even between those who use it so resolutely, very few are even speaking of the same thing (although usually, they fail to realize such). A Taliban fighter, an American fundamentalist Republican (and an American fundamentalist Democrat for that matter), an EU-living, State-suckling socialist love-child, a prancing guru-hippy and a South American Marxist guerilla would all claim this word as their own, swear to be fighting for its realization (its true realization, that is), and die in defense of such an essential ideal. And yet, what in the world does this actually mean? Surely, if we are all fighting for the same thing, then that must mean we are fighting on the same side...but if so, then who is our enemy? Who is the oppressor that has imposed such a tyrannical rule upon us to the point that we must scream from the bastions of justice and liberty for our proper freedoms? Aldous Huxley had an idea about this, but perhaps this is best to be left for another time and another blog...
    The point is, precious little of the ‘freedom’ rhetoric in the world bothers to define such ‘freedom’ and if they do (which does happen occasionally, if only vaguely), then they fail to see the other side of the coin i.e. the other side of that freedom. See there are many types of freedom in this world. Most of this freedom will fit into one of two categories (such a generalization is, of course, being taken with great liberties by myself so please forgive me). These categories are: freedom from, and freedom to. Described in greater length in the book Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen (founder of the Grameen Bank, Nobel Prize winner in Economics etc. etc.), when someone invokes the name of ‘freedom’, they are essentially referring to one of two things--either the freedom to do something, or the freedom from someone else’s freedom to do whatever it is they want to do.
    For example, one could claim they deserve the freedom to trade and develop enterprise as they wish (a so called ‘free market’)--this being a freedom to. Someone else might claim the freedom from monopolies or the freedom from economic exploitation--this being the freedom from. These two ideas are not necessarily opposed, per se, but at some point within all societies, they will come into conflict at some level. One cannot be free to enslave others while others have the freedom from slavery (unless of course these freedoms are only of the privileged few, but I digress).  Essentially, the realm of these two freedoms must be constantly negotiated by the values of any particular society and culture. Therefore, invoking the name of freedom without further explanation (as the good-old US of A is so prone to do...constantly) is really just the recitation of a mindless creed made to rally the non-self-reflecting masses. Freedom is a war-cry that can be toted by bourgeois and proletariat alike. In reality, there is no spoon, there are many and eventually, we must all eat.
    Capitalism and Communism (and Socialism, although not as diametrically opposed as the previous two) are essentially grand economic schemes that attempt to distill coherence from these two natures of freedom. The rightness and wrongness of these models can be argued endlessly, both with their fair share of failures and shortcomings, but that is not the point. The point is (I think), that economics is only the attempt to make sense of human nature, a task which, as history will show us, is ever-so-hard to do. We must realize that to be free, we must be willing to be unfree to a certain extent. This is the nature of a ‘social contract’.
    Freedom itself would be irrelevant outside the context of society. Only within the constraints of our ‘social-contract’ (as dubbed by enlightenment-era John Locke), where other people have the opportunity to impinge upon our freedoms does freedom itself actually become a talking point. One might try to argue that “Aha! ‘freedom to do things’ is the only real freedom because this is the natural freedom that has arisen out of man’s primitive state”. This, of course, would be wrong and extremely naive--man never existed in a vacuum. Our state (primal or not) has always been within a social context, always within a ‘social contract’, if you will. Man is inherently a social being, a fact to which both our physiology and psychology will both eagerly attest. If you doubt this, consult any Anthropology textbook. Therefore, freedom has always been (since the beginning of our conscious species) negotiated between the to’s and from’s.
    Allow me to illustrate further. Here in Paraguay, people are very free. There is no affordable healthcare system offered to the poor (in a country that is almost entirely impoverished). The police and the government are corrupt. People live in dirt-floor hovels and die at young ages. There is little to no opportunity to change one’s circumstance and instead, people continue to scratch a marginal survival off of the land that often times, they are too poor to own. Still, one can build their house any way they choose--there are no zoning regulations. One can ride a motorcycle without a helmet and with one’s entire family of 5 in toe without being bothered by police or stop lights. The bureaucracy of the state is fairly slow, the people exceedingly poor, and the tiny bourgeois deals mostly in smuggling and the black-market, making tax collection a formality that is rarely even paid lip-service. This is freedom of a sort.
    So at the end of the day (and the end of this silly blog), reflect upon your own freedom. How could it be improved? How could it be degraded? In the great scheme of life and all things, how does your freedom measure to the freedom of others? Is it your freedom that needs the saving? Your condition that requires improvement? When you vote, do you vote for your interests or those of others? Whose freedom are you defending as you flex your democratic voice? Perhaps consider using your freedoms (which, if you are reading this, are considerably large and, well, free) to give such freedom to others. Use your free-voice for those that have no voice, those whose voice is drowned in the sea of freedoms that oppresses rather than empowers. Freedom is a terrifyingly powerful word. Use with caution and, when appropriate, with conviction.

From free Paraguay,
-little hupo

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Killing the Cow

    Animal rights activists and Hindus alike will surely not love me for it but, this week, I decided (for reasons that will be further expounded later) that I should participate in killing and butchering a cow. As a person who does not well abide mistreatment of living things, one who abhors abuses of both domestic and wild animals, and whom also cried for hours the last time he struck a deer in a car, the notion of being present, let alone assisting in the killing another living creature is daunting. I had previously worked up the stone to kill a chicken by my own hand several months ago, an experience which was less traumatic than I had expected. Since then, I have been giving serious thought to the nature of my food, my diet and the environment and the ethics surrounding the relationship between these things. From this, I determined that killing a cow would be a morally defensible way to justify my continual consumption of meat. The principle is such: one should only consume the food he/she is willing/capable of producing/acquiring--in the case of meat, one should only eat what he/she is willing to kill. Obviously, this is far from an absolute and given to infinite speculation and debate, but at least for me personally, I knew that this was a step the I must take to further understand and redefine my place in the food chain.

    I awoke at the earliest of dawn, the hours of the morning that are still indistinguishable from the night except for the flickering of sunlight over a very distant horizon. A cup of coffee--the stimulation necessary for what I was fully expecting to be an intense morning. Leaving my house, I mounted by bike and clipped along the dirt road with my stiff, unwashed hair folding and flipping in the surprisingly cool morning air.  When I reached Don Ramon’s house, I was immediately greeted by a chorus of angry dogs snarling and barking, muscles tensed and ready, before the Don could call them off.  He appeared at the front his wooden house, his feet bare on the dirt floor, smiling and remarking how happy he was that I decided to come.
    Don Ramon is a wonderful man and neighbor. His abode is simple enough to be considered a shack but happy enough to be called a home instead. He laughs constantly and smiles even more. His head is topped by a bed of unblemished gray hair, always well combed. He looks like he could fit into a business suit on some New York street corner, but alas, his dark, tanned skin and thick Guarani accent count him as Paraguayan, campo Paraguayan to be exact. This is a fact that he is proud of, however,   and I have the distinct feeling that it is more than just economics that have tied him to the life of a rural farmer and carnicero (or butcher). He is satisfied with the life he leads and is ecstatic to share it with me as I have shown an interest in learning about his trade.
    The act of butchering a cow is a process not to be taken lightly or quickly. We begin the morning by sipping maté and observing our quarry tied to a tree someways off in the shadows. He tells me about this particular cow, how old it is, why he decided to purchase this one for slaughter, and about how much money he can hope to make for the day’s work. It is a smaller milk cow, about 3 years old that has not showed any signs of producing milk or young. It has had a nice life wandering the Paraguayan campo, grazing on the thick and abundant vegetation. Now, that which has been fed will feed, and the Don places his empty cup of maté on the table and disappears into the house.
    Two other men arrive to help us with the process. We approach our prey, Don Ramon standing in the background silently sharpening his knife. One man lassos a foot, while the other grabs for the tail. He then moves so suddenly and forcefully that I almost can’t follow what’s going on. He jerks the tail and spins around the cow’s side, catching the animal off-balance and pulling her to the ground. With the cow now on her side, the other man continues to tie up all four feet to the effect that the animal is quickly unable to move. We hold the ropes to steady the struggling cow as Don Ramon moves in quickly with a bucket in hand to catch the blood. He is going to cut its throat.
    Using a small machete and infinite poise, he levels the blade to the cow’s neck, locates the jugular vein and plunges through the skin. The cow gives an initial cry of pain and surprise and begins to breathe heavily blowing dust from the front of its nose. I feel as if I can sense what is happening in this poor animal’s mind--such a trauma leaves one stunned so that the automatic bodily processes must assume manual function. Each breath must be premeditated, each beat of the heart is felt like an earthquake through the rest of the body, each consecutive one must then be willed with immense, seemingly impossible determination. It is a lost cause, however, as the blood from the wound is flowing freely with a color that I cannot forget in its brilliance of red.
    The animal gives one, maybe two other strong efforts of escape before surrendering to the inevitability. Its breathing becomes more steady as the loss of blood, I am sure, inhibited any more manual mental function. Its head moves around a bit on the dirt ground, almost as if finding a more comfortable spot upon which to lie. The animal, which moments before was living and breathing is dead within 3 minutes. The Don makes one final cut to the spinal column to rid the animal of any more pain and to ensure its death. The butchering can now begin.
    The rest of this process takes only an hour or so. As the neighbors begin to arrive, the meat is sold almost as it is cut from the bone. The entire animal is almost gone by nine in the morning. The eyes, which burned with life even for the first minutes after this animal’s death, gradually glean over in a bluish-metallic gray. Each and every part of the animal is used (except for the contents of its stomach). The meat is most expensive and sold in small quantities. The intestines and blood are saved for making blood sausage while the stomach (being the cheapest part of the animal) is used to make mondongo. Even the entire head is bought by a family in order to make akágue yvygu’û, a popular Paraguayan dish where the entire head is wrapped in foil and cooked on coals under a thin layer of dirt. On this day, the entire community, the dogs included (who rarely get a decent meal normally) are able to get their dose of protein.
    In poverty stricken countries (Paraguay being the second poorest in South America), it is hard to say whether food ethics have been given that much thought. Enough thought and effort is invested in acquiring just enough food to keep one’s family fed. The space rarely exists to begin exploring that slippery slope of morality in regards to food. Instead, food is a very practical calculation, one that is made in the interest of economic efficiency, but even so, one that is also not well informed due to lack of education in the most remote rural areas. Still, many members of the community in which I live practice organic agriculture and recognize the long term benefits of organic farming. While this may seem to approach notions of food ethics, these practices are still endorsed because of the benefits that farmer’s can expect to see--it is still an economic calculation after all. This does not necessarily mean that impoverished rural farmers are not good environmental stewards, just that the questions and the consequences are different in these parts of the world.
    I believe the following quote from the extended segments of Discovery Channel’s Planet Earth really helps to summarize here. A Costa Rican farmer is offered subsidies to allow his fallow fields to revert to rainforest. When asked what would happen if the government stopped providing financial assistance, the farmer replied, “I love the forests and the trees, but think about it like this: if you had the choice to cut down a tree or feed your children, what would you do?”

From here,
little hupo