Saturday, June 30, 2012

Paraguay as the Center of the World

    Someone once told me that Paraguay was the center of the world. Of course, the person who said this was only a little countryside schoolboy, maybe 10 years old or so, who--whether due to his young age and/or the fact that the Paraguayan public school system is usually somewhat lacking--had no notion of geography and the world. While this statement shows an obvious gap in perspective (completely understandable given the circumstances) it also reveals an idea that is, in itself, quite profound if also unintentional. It would be hard to defend the literal statement ‘Paraguay is the center of the world’, however, if I may tweak the sentence slightly, perhaps I may engage in that deeper meaning. Paraguay is an ‘economic’ center of the world...for the moment. Defend...

    Most people have never heard of the country of Paraguay (evident from the question often posed to me, “What part of Africa is that in?”). In the chance that they have heard of it, it is likely that they lack any further understanding past it’s approximate location. By any measure, it is not a well known or incredibly noteworthy country--tourists do not visit here, revolutions and political turmoil do not happen, and for the most part, the people suffer their moderate to desperate poverty quietly and humbly. By its own standards--the seeming political and cultural isolation, the lack of infrastructure and difficulty in traveling around, etc.--some may even consider this country quite obscure. An un-probed, un-tapped corner of the world; something exotic to talk about with friends at home. This is the surface, at least, but even the murky shallows of this little South American country paint a much different picture.
    Outside of Asuncion, the capital city, one will not see much of McDonalds or Burgerkings, and there are not many malls or shopping centers in the rest of the country. But as you drive out into the countryside, heading east along Ruta Dos, a different kind of economic infiltration can be seen (although it is not as easily intelligible as a big, blaring sign for a fast-food chain). Endless, rolling seas of sugarcane stretch to the horizon on either side of the road. As one gets farther east, or heads north, these oceans change in texture but not in size, now consisting of uncountable numbers of spade-shaped soybean leaves. In the south, the story is mostly the same, except this time it is sesame. Monoculture is the name of the game in this land and the players who toss the agricultural dice are, to an alarming majority, foreigners (Brazillian, Argentinean, Japanese, German, etc.). Economically, fertile Paraguayan land is a cornerstone of producing inexpensive biodiesel and bioethanol (biofuels made from soybeans and sugarcane, respectively) and for putting cheap sugar, sesame and food products on the tables of millions of people in countries around the globe.
    This might not seem like a great exploitation, especially when we know that good, old American companies like ADM (one of the world's leading perpetrators of international land-grabbing) are negotiating the prices of agricultural products for export. The reality, however, which involves coercive means to force impoverished farmers off their land and the terrible environmental and health effects of such large-scale production (with chemical pesticides and insecticides thrown in the mix), is a little more dark and scary. Right now, as conditions are just right and the business atmosphere in Paraguay is finely tuned for such foreign economic exploit, it may seem that Paraguay is getting a good deal--capital investment, a growing and developing economy, and a hand in the global market. While this may be the short term bubble of opportunity, the long term consequences are unfortunate. The land will not produce forever, the soils will become drained of nutrients and polluted by chemicals, the effects of Global Climate Change will deepen, the people will urbanize and leave the countryside deserted (once the big companies pull out on their 99 year leases from the government) and Paraguay will once again resort to its tried and true, bread and butter--contraband and smuggling.
    One reason that Paraguay has such a favorable climate for business, especially agro-business, is the same reason that Nazis fled to this country after the end of World War II. The government doesn’t ask many questions, they just don’t want to know. Following Paraguay’s own military defeat in the 1800’s at the hands of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, this tiny little country had lost somewhere between 60-90% of its population (historical estimates vary). Desperate for immigrants to replenish its economy and colonize its land, Paraguay opened up the borders to foreigners who brought both their culture and their economics. The incentive for these colonizers: cheap land, hands off government, no questions asked. The tradition has continued until this day.
    While Paraguay has always been an agricultural producing country, it has also seemingly always been a contraband country. It should be noted that Ciudad del Este (Paraguay’s “City of the East” which borders Brazil) is the third most important free commercial zone in the world following Hong Kong and then Miami. How can this be in a country that is the second poorest in South America and virtually unheard of otherwise? The answer: contraband. The goods that flow through this economic hub are, by and large, illicit, ranging from narcotic and prescription drugs or human traffic, to untaxed Brazilian cigarettes, pirated computers, and Scotch whiskey. Paraguay is one of the largest importers of Scotch whiskey in the world although very little of this is consumed in Paraguay. It is almost all imported because of low taxes and virtually non-existent tariffs, before it is exported (legally or illegally) to the other countries of the world. Such is the role of Paraguay in the modern, globalized capitalist economy. Such is the niche this tiny little country has learned from its own history that it fills so well. Agriculture and contraband spells ‘poor but getting by...still’ for Paraguay.
    So when that little child told me, “Paraguay is the center of the world”, I am fairly sure he did not mean all of that. Still, it is interesting to think that even a place as out of the way as Paraguay occupies a very essential, if not also unfortunate position, on the global stage. In the capitalist, profit-seeking fervor of the modern age, with the Walmart-driven thirst for cheaper and cheaper products, countries like Paraguay are employed, at least until something cheaper (and likely, even more exploitative) comes along. It is a sad fate, but it is absolutely a product of the decisions that each and every one of us make every day when we buy a cup of coffee or a new pair of shoes.
    Still, I sit here in my hammock, writing this blog and the wind is humming softly through the trees. The sun is shining. This is a beautiful country. Maybe the reality of the world is too depressing to begin to tackle. Maybe Paraguay really is, or should be, the center of my world. If not the country at large, then maybe just right here, right now, being swayed into a calm sleep by a southern breeze. It is naive to think that things will change, for better or worse, any time soon although, as we know, nothing is forever. Lets take comfort in the constancy of inconstancy, leave the fates to those who foolishly think they are writing them. The air is so warm. I think I’ll take a nap now.

From the Center of the World,
little hupo

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Morning After the Cold

     The cold has moved on. We are left with this morning, a morning like I have never seen in Paraguay. I woke up early, or was woken up at least, by the weight of the sky resting on my body--the clouds have come down it seems, descended from the Andes, corralled by the Arctic winds from the south, rolled across plains and deserts, only to settle here in the Paraguayan basin as a blanket of fog. I open the door to my house and peer outside. I can barely see past the edge of my patio. I can hear the daily hum of things waking--my neighbors converse as they sip maté and prepare for the fields, the roosters crow, children congregate slowly in front of schoolhouse--but I can see none of them. A Whistling Heron flies overhead on its way to feed in the marshes, offering a lonely, desperate call, not entirely unlike a loon, as it tumbles onward though the opaque daylight. Occasional water drips from my tin roof to keep an unsteady beat, a metronome of condensation and gravity, a tempo as warped in its timing as the air is obscured in its clarity.
    The sun has ascended over the horizon, tossing diffused light through the haze like a ship’s beacon standing at the helm of a boat slowly navigating the edges of a squall on its way to shore. There is a chill to this heavy, moist air, but the sun’s warmth is just as tangible. It tickles my clammy skin; my hairs stand on-end. As the minutes pass, the fog seems to part and bow in reverence, letting the light collect and shine through a newly formed hole in the low-hanging clouds. An hour or so later, a great scar lines the horizon, charting the path that the sun has marched, upward and unchallenged, through the morning sky. The fog dissipates and surrenders, breaking apart slowly, unevenly, but eventually, in its entirety. Daytime is no time for the dawn, and the mist seems to know its place.

From the clouds,
little hupo

Monday, June 18, 2012

What I Believe

    During a brief visit to the states several weeks ago (following my trip to Cuba), I received a certain amount of feedback in regards to my blog. While everyone was very encouraging and supportive of my work, there was also a certain amount of healthy criticism, which is both appreciated and expected, seeing as I am writing for a public audience. This criticism seemed to revolve around a particular theme, which I hope to address here--that theme is my obvious political leanings and its manifestation in my writings. It should be pointed out that on returning to Paraguay, I was informed via a Peace Corps official channel, that my blog needed to carry a clearly displayed disclaimer as the reader will now see is posted to the right of his/her screen.
    As a Peace Corps volunteer, who is both an employee (technically, we have ‘volunteer’ status, not ‘employee’) of the United States government and a guest in a foreign country (invited to serve by that country’s government), it is important for the success of my field work that I remain politically uninvolved. Therefore, I do not participate in any political activism here in country and I refrain from even perceived affiliation with political groups. Peace Corps volunteers can and do accomplish wonderful things, engaging in quality work while remaining apolitical functionaries in these situations.
    The problem arises not from the ambiguity of our mandate as Peace Corps volunteers, but instead with the murkiness of the worlds we inhabit for our 2 years of service. We live in some of the poorest communities and among some of the poorest people in this world. We are sent to the most impoverished areas of already poor countries, given limited training and resources, and asked to address the symptoms of often corrupt and unjust systems as they effect the lives of our neighbors and friends.  It is one thing to see poverty on a TV infomercial; it is one thing to visit a slum in a developing country. It is entirely another to walk to your neighbors house and find their already collapsing home pillaged and empty because they have sold off almost everything they own to buy the antibiotics necessary to save the life of their 4 year old child who lies unconscious from pneumonia on the dirt floor of their hovel.
    When a volunteer has time to step back and think, to thoroughly analyze the situation in which he/she is operating, it becomes very evident, very quickly that the problems we address are fundamentally political in nature. Poverty, development, environmental degradation etc.--these things are not products of local origin, they are the sickness from the national and global policies in this world. They involve many groups and governments, many competing interests, many clashing ideologies, and ultimately, they produce effects for real people that exist in our daily lives.
    I know that I have not endeavored too stringently to mask my own political opinions in my blogs, but as a reader, you must try to understand that I am currently living in a completely different world. As a middle class citizen living in the United States, you likely have an opinion on universal health care. As a person living in the middle of an impoverished South American community without any sort of health care program, I have an entirely different perspective on this issue. It is not because I am Democratic or Republican, it is because my daily reality sees the most abject cases where a ‘privatized’ health care system fails to meet the basic human needs. While a policy maker in Washington might say, “Well, there are always winners and losers,” I cannot write these things off any easier than you might be able to write off your next door neighbor as their house burns to the ground. Right now, I do not live in a world that debates the pro’s and con’s of free-market economics with hypothetical references to the human toll it may have on the lower classes. I live in a world that literally is that lower class, that experiences only the shaft’s end of a world that increasingly operates accord to profit-driven neo-liberalism. I live in a world of people that struggle to feed their families, not in a world that experiences the rise and fall of the stock market on retirement plans and mutual funds.
    Everyone is entitled to their opinion and it is precisely these variable opinions that make life in a democratic society (with freedom of speech and freedom of the press) so wonderful. Healthy debate is the cornerstone of democratic freedom and should be exercised continually and relentlessly. The challenge comes not in holding an opinion or defending one, but in understanding the true meanings and nuances of opposing opinions.
    Our great (global)-social experiment should not choose ideological sides, but instead, seek with full hearts and minds the truth which lies at the core of humanity. As individuals and as a society, we must transcend the group-think, tribalistic mentalities of competing factions and instead engage in an honest soul-searching analysis of what it means to be a human being at all points of the socio-economic, racial, gender, and global spectrum. We should not be seeking “fairness” or “equality” or “freedom” or any of these variably defined and often politically-wielded catch phrases; we should be seeking a way to alleviate the suffering for others and ourselves. Taxing the rich might not be ‘fair’ in an economic sense, but if it means helping African-American students to leave troubled urban areas and go to college, then I support it. Those millionaires might not like it, but they will not suffer for it.
    The problems of this world, both my world and your world--our world--may be inherently political in nature, but the solution is not. The solution is personal: it starts with empathy, being able to feel the suffering of others as they suffer. It becomes compassion, a yearning to alleviate that suffering as if it were your own. And it creates love, a self-sustaining system of emotion, philosophy and rationale that stifles greed and selfishness. It has absolutely nothing to do with religious or political opinion; it is humanistic. To achieve this perspective, it is necessary to be continually self-reflective and self-critical. It requires the highest degree of personal and social honesty. If we act or support actions that cause pain and suffering, we should be willing to modify, change or even surrender our affiliations with these ideas in an attempt to make our world a better place. We are culpable for the effects of the ideas that we support either tacitly or explicitly (as the Nuremberg trials clearly evidenced). Therefore, we all share a part of the burden for the fact that there is poverty in this world and that people do starve to death every day.
    My job as a Peace Corps volunteer (and I am speaking now personally, not for other volunteers or for Peace Corps as a whole), is part of my general attempt to faithfully trod the path towards alleviating suffering as I have outlined above. I am not perfect and I have (and will continue to) stray from this ideal, however, I would like to offer the fact that my political leanings and my expressed opinions do not arise from any thing other than empathy, compassion and love for my neighbors, my fellow man and my world. I am more than willing to discuss, debate, and if need be, modify my ideas and my opinions. I assure you that I am, above all, my harshest and most thorough critic. But no matter what I may support or what ideas I may espouse, I can assert with absolute and unquestionable certainty that I will only ever do so out of empathy, compassion and love, and for that, at least, I will always be political.

From our world,
little hupo

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Physics is Against Me...My Roof Still Leaks

     It’s raining inside my little brick hovel. Two days ago, the biggest storm I have yet experienced in Paraguay charged across the rolling hills during the course of a long day and an even longer night. My tin roof, which I had previously attempted to fix several times, leaked like a sieve. This inevitably led to what I imagine would have been a comical scene to any onlookers: a wildly cursing, laughing Peace Corps volunteer running his bed and furniture in and out of his house in response to the arbitrary leakage patterns which seemed to change as frequently as the strong winds. By the end of the storm, my house had been turned inside-out, there were plastic bags tied to my roof in order to catch the water (with buckets on the floor for back up). All of my clothes and sheets had been hung out under my patio to dry (a fruitless task as the air became both saturated with moisture and very cold immediately following the storm).
    By nine or so in the evening, I realized that I hadn’t eaten all day. During the confusion of the storm and my frantic attempts to mitigate the damage, the water lines had been shut off. This meant that I was both without water (meaning without coffee as well--possibly the greatest crisis of all that day) and without a means to wash my food or my dishes. That night was cold and wet, but certainly one I will not forget. These are the kinds of experiences that one only gets in the Peace Corps. I count myself lucky as well, seeing as a section of my community does not even own homes; there are a group of landless peasants down the road from my house who live in a sort of make-shift shanty town of tent-like structures made of plastic bags and recycled materials. In total, about 20-30 families live like this (I have been given different numbers by different residents). I cannot imagine that my experience with the rain is anything compared to theirs.
    The weather took a splendid turn yesterday, however, as the Antarctic winds have begun their surge northwards heralding in fall (and eventually winter) here in the southern hemisphere. The sun broke through yesterday around noon giving way to what I could only compare to perfect autumn weather in the US northeast; the only thing missing was leaves changing colors and apple cider. It was a perfect day--not too hot, hot too cold, just right. The ample midday sunshine dried all my clothes and sheets and last night I slept snug-as-a-bug.
    My only possible complaint is that, as the weather turns colder (yesterday peaking around the mid-60’s, today starting out in the low-40’s), my outdoor shower without hot water has become a bit of challenge. It takes a certain frame of mind to motivate oneself to bathe in 50 degree weather when the water in the lines is no warmer. There is nothing like the feeling of being nice and clean, but this fall and winter, that feeling is going to come at a price. I always told myself that loosing my hygiene would be the first step toward loosing my sanity and therefore, promised myself to maintain both while serving in the Peace Corps. It seems that this will not be a commitment easily fulfilled, especially while living in a brick house without a heating system or insulation and without a fellow cuddle buddy to keep me warm. If there are any takers back there in the US, feel free to join me--my thin, drafty, wooden door is always open (figuratively speaking that is; nowadays it is almost always closed, literally).

Dew on some leaves in front of my house.

    This morning, with the temperatures so low, it is once again raining in my house. The warm, moist earth seems surprised at the sudden cold and leaks its condensation over every possible leaf and blade of grass.

Water condensing on the inside of my roof in the early morning.

     My tin roof acts like a greenhouse in the morning sunlight and thousands of small droplets of dew trickle down my walls. In a way it is beautiful, so long as I am properly bundled and tucked away in some dry corner of my house (hard to come by when you are living in a 3 meter by 5 meter brick box). It is so crazy to think that just 2 months ago, I felt as if the heat might kill me. I can’t say which one I like more, but give me a few more months of the cold and I will be sure to let you know.

From Paraguay,
little hupo

Winter Time in Asuncion

    Winter-time in Asuncion and the air is less heavy. Only a few degrees and several months separate now from the oppressive heat of a South American summer and yet, there is a playfulness to the breeze today. Each breath comes easy in a way feels more like swaying gently than breathing. I am a human pendulum quietly rising and falling between two equally soothing points; I am a boat tied loosely at harbor, bobbing on even tides. The sky is clear and one can see forever--past the serpent convolutions of the Rio Paraguay, beyond the small islands that precipitate from the opposing banks of the Chaco Verde, all the way to the horizons of the Argentinean Plata basin.
    The streets bubble calmly, unthreateningly as people move and gather like sea-foam by the Indian vendors, that morning fresh from the forests, who sell their tereré and maté herbs to business men in suits. Little Guaraní boys pester and dodge, dodge and pester, looking for shoes to shine at a going rate of only few cents. People of all walks and ways of life coexist in the plazas, mingle in the streets, and crowd in the bus. Wealth here is sporadic; poverty is dressed in different clothes. Nobody is in a hurry.
    Down the sidewalk rolls a paraplegic, effortlessly pulling and pushing his way on a homemade cart. He is selling cigarettes and newspapers and seems to know everybody. The shop owners leaning on their doors wave as he rolls by. The sun is rising still, too early for serious customers, nothing to get excited about. They toss used yerba leaves into the streets. During the rains, torrents of maté and engine oil, in a dirty sort of Southern-Cone-urban tea, collect in the gutters and rush about madly, searching for their escape towards the river. Right now though, under the amicable warmth of a morning sun, it all just sits in wet, green piles and waits while being picked at by over-sized pigeons.
    The city feels Spanish-esque. It feels Latin American-ish. But it is neither of these things and it is both of these things. What ornate Spanish architecture remains is crumbling at rates that range from glacial disintegration to melting icebergs shedding huge rocks of ice onto pockmarked sidewalk oceans. Scaffolds rise in front of several buildings whose former beauty is both evidenced and mocked by these efforts to supplicate and conserve the artifacts of a lost empire. Like a movie star that has aged with curious grace, these buildings stand in bittersweet triumph as the rest of the city soldiers on into a new age.
    For many tireless years, the conquistadors tried to rebuild their Spain in a world that was not theirs, on this little bend in a river in the midst of the tropical forests. The city has been battling ever since against the forces of politics and cultures and mother nature. This place has not yet reached equilibrium. The silent war with its own destiny rages still. The seeds of European conquest are outpaced in this little corner of the world by the seeds of something infinitely more ancient and profound.
    Paraguay may walk the walk and talk the talk but it fools no one. This is not part of ‘Latin’ America; this is Guaraní Indian territory. Neither great amounts of time or space separate the city from the wilderness. And though draped in the effects of modernity, this fact is still obvious when the southern wind blows it’s skirt over it’s head. The jungle roots slowly rise through the asphalt to reclaim their turf as they have since the first stones of Asuncion were laid. In time, the trees will win and the city’s ashes will fertilize the young saplings. The buildings seem to know as much and so they fall apart with the ambivalence of old age, surrendering to their fate. Their roots are not as deep., their resolve not as strong. They are visitors on someone else’s continent.

From Asuncion,
little hupo

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Cuba (pt. 3)--Santa Clara

    I am with my grandfather, my father and myself and we are in a little Korean-made car hurtling down the crumbling central highway on the way to Santa Clara, Cuba, the birthplace of my grandfather. He has not visited this home in almost 60 years, although the actual house he was raised in stands still. In his half-century of absence, his grandparents, parents, and sisters have passed away. We are going to this place so that my grandfather can finally pay his respects. We are going to meet family that I have always had, but never knew. We are going so that my grandfather, my father and myself can finally realize our own history. We are all going to find something for ourselves.

    Endless fields of sugar cane and tobacco sway like calm oceans, gentle waves lapping up to the acacia and palm lined banks of the forests. In brilliant reds and yellows, flamboyan trees rise like islands in the midst of these green seas while cattle escape the late morning heat and humidity by dozing in their shade. Farmer’s hovels dot the landscape. They look almost comical, with grass roofs and wooden planks that have been warped and animated by passing time, the elemental cycles of rains and droughts, highs and lows. The ancient sand dunes create natural levies along the coast, while truer mountains rise cautiously to more misty heights further inland. This place is gorgeous. The old Cuban tune ‘Chan Chan’ strums slowly away on the radio as we wind our way as we return for the first time to my grandfather’s long-lost home.
    Entering Santa Clara is like driving through a living museum. The battle of Santa Clara, the last major offensive of the guerrillas during the revolution and that which made Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara famous, seems written on every surface. Memorials, statues, and murals greet visitors at every corner. Even bullet holes from the original battle are still visible in certain areas, especially at the Santa Clara Libré hotel where a major skirmish once took place. If one didn’t know better, they might think that the revolution happened just yesterday. Its a proud and also desperate attempt to hold onto history. The world is moving into the future; Cuba (in more ways than one) seems to be holding blindly to those early years of revolution.
     The streets are narrow, flanked by single-story homes built right on top of each other without room for alleys or porches. It is horizontal space conservation to the extreme; even in this tiny car, it can feel a little claustrophobic. We arrive in front of a house--number 84 Martí Street--looking almost identical to all those around it except for a roof that has long since collapsed. Standing in front are two older women and several younger adults, roughly my age. We park the car on the street and step out towards the house. Within seconds I am being smothered in repeated and unrelenting hugs, I am being kissed on the forehead and cheeks, I can feel hot tears as they are dropped haphazardly. This is my family. They have been waiting for my grandfather to come home for almost 60 years. They tell me that I look like a Machado.

From right: My grandfather, my cousin Yandy and my Aunt Maruchy standing in the foyer of the house that my grandfather grew up in. Maruchy and her family still live here, although the roof in the front caved in many years ago.

    This following interactions were strange. We all fell very easily into a familial atmosphere: very welcoming and inviting, loving and accepting, comfortable as if we had known each other for our entire lives. The reality was, we were almost complete strangers, but strangers bound by something infinitely more profound than the politics, cultures, and countries that had separated us. At the same time that I needed to continually be reminded of names, the smiles and laughter of familiarity filled the small house to its capacity, straightening the old, wooden columns and raising the sagging roof for the first time in a long time. It was as if the walls and the rooms and my aunts and cousins and father and grandfather could all breath that huge sigh of relief, 60-years in the making. “Home at last” sounded quietly on the breeze, lazily meandering its way through the halls.

The Machado family house for over 5 generations, 84 Marti Street, Santa Clara, Cuba. My home.

    My grandfather walked slowly through the home, here and there relating a story to those things that he remembered from his childhood. The tile floors were the same, the room he used to sleep in seemed so much smaller, the mango tree still curled its gnarled, prolific arms towards the courtyard’s little, square window of sky. It was a living artifact and yet a home still, being exercised and occupied daily by a family, our family, just as it was when my grandfather was a child.
    I spent the night sleeping in the room that my grandfather once shared with my Tio Hilberto. I slept in one bed while my Aunt Maruchy and cousin Yanet dozed in the other. My cousin Yandy slept by the door. Someone snored all night, but I don’t know who. I dreamed about the past that surrounded me.

From Santa Clara, from home,
-little hupo