You know when you see a completely different side to something that you have been staring at for a long time--that plus good wine is how I would describe the past 8 days or so. This week I was graced with a visit from the world-renowned scholar, the amazing individual, and my great friend (that also happens to be my professor), Petra Tshakert. I first met Petra, almost 2 years ago now, during a study abroad trip to South Africa. Since then, she has sort of taken me under wing on several projects and begun introducing me to the academic side of international development. The summer before I left for Peace Corps, I was able to work with her and a number of other academics on developing an NSF proposal studying biofuel land-grabs in Africa and the social impacts of such practices. In addition, a few months ago we co-authored and published a paper (my first scholarly publication) in the Journal of Ethics and Social Welfare.
Petra’s visit to the Paraguayan campo comes as a respite for her, a quick detour en route from South Africa, where she has been living as of late, to Buenos Aires, where she will be attending the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) conference this following week. For her, this time out in the field with no responsibility and no leadership role was a vacation from her otherwise demanding position as project leader and field-marshal on projects in places such as Senegal, Ghana, South Africa, and even into Nepal and Central America. For me, it was an opportunity to recharge my analytical batteries, gain a fresh new perspective on the little bubble-of-a-world in which I have been living for the past year, and to re-inspire myself for the next year of service. Plus, what better company could one as for than a lively, charismatic, profoundly-intelligent and well read scholar to talk, debate and drink tereré with?
Last Monday, Petra arrived in the Asuncion airport. We taxied downtown to the city center, stopping off to see some of the old Spanish architecture along the river and to buy some nice wine and cigars. Asuncion is always a funny and strange place when you first get here. That day happened to be an idillic sunny South American afternoon that ended with singing, dancing and free glasses of sangria courtesy of the managers at an adorable local restaurant with authentic, Old World-style Spanish food. The stage was set, the following morning it was off to the campo.
The alarm went off at 5 am. As I stumbled to get my bags together, all I could think of was that first sip of my first cup of coffee. We stopped for a little breakfast’i at the famous Bolsi bar, which takes after the classic American roadside diner tradition and also happens to be one of the few 24 hour eateries I have found in the capital. We got to the bus terminal by 7 prepared for a stop-and-go journey to Carayao by way of Coronel Oviedo. We arrive, tired and laden with our heavy backpacks only to find that, due to a moderate amount of rain the night before, the bus wasn’t running. We started out on foot on the 30 kilometer dirt road back to my site.
As it turns out, when you travel with an energetic and youthful Austrian woman, it seems anyone with space in their truck is willing to pick you up and share some tereré. After maybe an hour and a half of bumming along the dusty road, a couple of campesinos driving a logging semi gave us a lift. We got to my community around mid-afternoon, shared a glass of wine, made diner and called it a night.
These next few days turned out to be an awesome learning experience for me. While I was Petra’s unofficial tour guide and translator in my village (although her Spanish skills seemed to come back easily--although she did speak with a distinct French accent, I should note. Oh, the perils of being multi-lingual!), it was an awesome process to see Petra at work meeting the locals and being the cross-cultural expert that she is. From my perspective, it was a week long lesson in community interaction and integration, something that I had previously settled into easily but was in need of some new inspiration. There is a certain demeanor to people who are good in these sorts of situations. Such a capability can be as natural as it can be learned, but either way when you see a pro at work, it is always impressive to watch them effortlessly navigate all sorts of cultural and linguistic barriers. I am getting better at this myself, but as I have seen, I still have a lot more work to do.
Another lesson I took from this week wasn’t so much about anything new, but simply reaffirmation of a principle I have already assumed although never really articulated. While traveling with someone like Petra around a developing country, you realize that it is unbelievably imperative to go with the flow. For those people who have experienced the chaos and unpredictability of the third-world, it becomes essential to control those few factors you can (usually those pertaining to yourself) and yet remain willing to continually adapt to every circumstance as it evolves. You must always be ready just to let go. It is important to know your limits, whether explicitly or implicitly, and to be able to judge when a situation has crossed a certain threshold of safety that you are no longer comfortable with. But within those constraints, you must be willing and capable to accept whatever might come your way and to do so with a smile. Again, Petra is an expert at this. I am getting better by the day.
We spent Petra’s final night in Asuncion at a very nice German hotel called Hotel Westfalenhaus. This might be the fanciest sort of hotel I have ever stayed in my entire life, but seeing as it was close to the airport and it was Petra’s treat, who was I to object. Oh yeah, and they served real bacon for breakfast. What PC volunteer could turn that down? The contrast between this place, in all its clean and orderly glory, and the rural community we had just left couldn’t be more stark. But within that contrast lies the lesson.
For those working in modern development, it is becoming increasingly important to be able to transcend such boundaries, to engage in such different bubbles of existence in order to facilitate communication and progress. It is rare for individuals to be completely comfortable to one day be farming with poor campesinos, using a latrine, showering with a bucket and sleeping on the floor, only to turn around the next day and present important grass-roots research to a crowd of intellectuals and policy makers. That is one of the most important roles that we can play, however, so that the voice of those marginalized and disenfranchised people can be heard in a forum for change. It is a strange sort of life, but also unbelievably fulfilling and exciting.
After a week of intellectual discussion, debate, speculation about the fate of humanity and the constant sharing adventure tales, Petra boarded a plane this morning to Argentina. I remained at Hotel Westfalenhaus and made the most of their complimentary breakfast by sitting and eating for the entire 3 hours that it was open. I also must admit, I did steal a plastic bag full of bacon to take with me and munch on all day. Unfortunately, my supplies didn’t last nearly as long as I expected and now I am seriously craving some chancho asado. Peace Corps may be the ruin of me.
What an awesome adventure this week. And who could have asked for a better third-world traveling companion? I am very much looking forward to grad school and learning more of the ropes from my soon-to-be graduate adviser--Petra Tshakert. For now though, it is more than enough to be here, very much at home in Paraguay with the next year of service to enjoy and live to the fullest. And for anyone else that would care to visit my little corner of the globe, the door of my humble (and clean--ask Petra!) abode is always open.