Friday, November 30, 2012

Poverty and Population (Part 2)

In a previous blog (Poverty and Population, Part 1) I began to outline a general approach that I believe helps to confront, or at least frame, the issue of population in the context of environmental degradation and endemic global poverty. Part of this discussion included a brief (in absolutely no ways comprehensive or complete) overview of human history and the various distinct phases of the human species, specifically in regards to the increase of human populations across the globe. I ended that piece with a purposeful lack of resolution and an intentionally controversial claim that the key to achieving even a modicum of environmental stability and harmony lies not in the reigning-in of uncontrollable population growth (a proximate factor), but instead in treating the ailments of poverty and disenfranchisement (in my opinion, a few of the various ultimate factors responsible for environmental decline).
    I will once again make a necessary, if not also slightly conciliatory, caveat about these ‘ultimate factors’: poverty and disenfranchisement, in all their manifestations, do not exist in a vacuum. Instead they are imbedded properties of political and economic systems that, in many cases, require the general deprivation of human rights at a certain level in order to substantiate the very hierarchical structures that perpetuate the same cycle. The ability for an elite economic minority (bourgeoisie) to control, dislocate and oppress a large majority of working class people’s (proletariat) is a feat of intricate and momentous proportions that typifies capitalist systems (with the variably effective buffer of the middle class) and socialist systems alike (as they almost invariably schism into a ruling bureaucracy and a non-governmental citizenry).
    Therefore, the truly ultimate genesis of poverty and disenfranchisement, and by extension environmental degradation, lies within economic and political systems themselves. It is not my intention to ignore these systems (these ultimate-ultimate causes, if you will) it is simply that their full analysis and evaluation is outside of the scope of this blog. I will likely delve further into these issues in future writings. For now, however, I hope that by understanding the nature in which poverty fits into the scheme of environmentalism, I might posit a treatment for a symptom that will transitively serve as an entry point to further challenge the prevailing ideologies of faulty economics. Of course, I am also assuming far to much of myself. Still, I am sipping a cup of African coffee while sitting in the middle of rural Paraguay and listening to the birds, that’s gotta give me some sort of clout at least, right?

What we can say about Poverty and its effects on the Environment:
    Not much. Or at least not much definitively. Theory and speculation is the name of the game as far as this is concerned because, like every facet of our species and our world, the truth is far from the simplistic fantasy that Occam’s razor might hope. Especially in development theory, the nexus of poverty and environmentalism ranges from the seemingly idealistic “green stewardship” to an anarchic, suvival-at-all-costs type scramble. The reality is somewhere in between.
    Instead of dissecting any of the peculiarities of these competing theories, I will present only one and then tangentially ramble away from it in hopes of utilizing its principles without endorsing the entire spectrum of its objective or practical implications. I am taking such intellectual liberties for the simple fact that this is my blog and I can do what I want. I hope that doesn’t disqualify entirely what I have to say.
    To understand how poverty effects environmentalism, a good place to start would be the basic idea of Kuznet’s curve. Kuznet’s curve is a relatively straightforward illustration of a general trend that can be observed when measuring levels of economic prosperity (demarcated as “stage of economic development” or “income per capita”) against environmental degradation (pollution). See below:

    What Kuznet’s curve illustrates (and not without an immense amount of controversy) is that, generally it can be said that at either side of the wealth spectrum (that is, the very poorest or the very richest among us) are typically the worst stewards of the environment. The implications for this on class and economic structure, both domestically and internationally, are prolific, but one basic idea that can be gleaned from this over-simplification is such: poverty has negative environmental consequences.
    Such a conclusion could likely be logically deduced by most people. When one struggles to survive, to feed their family, to subsists on a daily basis, priorities are not necessarily focused on the long-term environmental impacts of their immediate actions. A hungry man will (likely) not think twice about using dynamite-fishing techniques on an endangered coral reef if it means a huge caloric return for minimal effort. Note: this is not at all an indication or indictment of laziness on the part of impoverished people. It is simply a reality of basic human/animal subsistence, that is, the optimization of thermodynamic (and/or economic) investment. It is present in every human culture at every level of economic development, most obviously manifest in our American culture through our un-healthy addiction to cheap, low-quality fast food.
    Unfortunately, there is a large body of academic development work that creates a seemingly proactive, but ultimately burdensome, approach towards rectifying such a discrepancy between poverty and environmentalism. As impoverished populations and communities with a very immediate interest in ecological preservation (those whose subsistence is most directly tied to the land, namely those at the lowest rung of Marx’s spectrum of ‘primitive accumulation’), the task of environmentalism and environmental recuperation can therefore be coupled with their daily livelihoods.
    While this framework is altogether not impossible, and certainly not inherently evil or dubious, it does place an incongruous amount of responsibility on the shoulders of already strapped and struggling people. Environmentalism can and should be integrated with development initiatives, but the alleviation of suffering, the enfranchisement and the empowerment of the most impoverished people should always take unequivocal, unquestionable ethical precedent, even in cases where it might be environmentally degrading. After all, the greatest culpability and the greatest burden of environmental degradation lies at the other end of Kuznet’s economic spectrum.
    As citizens of the wealthiest (monetarily) country in the history of the world, we should also be aware that we are the largest producer of greenhouse gasses on earth. As if it were not enough that we lead the charge to codify and perpetuate a global economic system that entrenches poverty both within and outside of our own borders, but we also contribute disproportionately to the dismal trajectory of environmental degradation on a planetary scale.
    While it is in our immediate interests to prevent further loss of ecological resources, functions and services, it is also our moral imperative to alleviate poverty and disenfranchisement. Luckily, these two issues can be coupled and confronted together. Surely, solving either one would be a great accomplishment, but ultimately impossible without also addressing the other--they are intimately linked through the structures of our economic, social and political systems. By rearranging such systems, we can undoubtedly bring both ends of the economic spectrum, Kuznet’s “worst environmental stewards”, towards the center of the bell curve. We will never be an environmentally-neutral species (in reality, no species could be), but we can at least strive to exist more responsibly within the natural limits imposed by our ecological thresholds and more equitably within our ethically-defined economic parameters.

What we can say about Poverty and its effects on the Population:
    It is almost taken for granted anymore the fact that reproductive rates decrease as economic levels increase. In other words, the number of babies per family decreases as their ability to provide for themselves economically increases. This can be measured in a variety of ways, either nationally as reproductive rates versus GDP, GNP or Income per capita, or through inter-group comparisons between different populations at various economic levels. Especially when one controls for other confounding variables such as cultural, religious, and social factors, the basic trend is undeniable. The question is why.
    The full answer, of course, is complex and extremely contingent upon contextual conditions, however, in general, reproductive rates among impoverished people represent an investment in the future, a sort of retirement fund for those who lack financial access or stability. Lack of family planning and education, improper or non-existent contraceptive use and rampant illness are all important factors that also play a heavy roll in large family size (among others), but these further issues are symptoms as much as they are causes in the cycle that is the endemic poverty.
    As people are able to more fully actualize their freedoms and rights, through development, enfranchisement and the alleviation of poverty, they can begin to consider not just the long-term effects of their actions in the light of environmentalism, but they can also begin to shape life-styles that are not founded in economic necessity. Absolutely, many people may still choose to have a large family and that is well within their rights to do so, but that choice should come from a conscious decision not a calculated reality that without sufficient numbers of children, one will be helpless and starving in old age, unable to provide for his/her family or his/herself. Even allowing for the the choice to have a large family, the trend still holds.
    In many developed European nations, the birth rates for the native Eurpoean populations has either plateaued or begun to decrease (Italy and Germany as prime examples). The overall populations for many of these countries, however, has still begun to rise. The reason for this is the birthrates for immigrant populations, those that tend to be overwhelmingly of a lower-class and impoverished, have continued to rise and remain growing positively. Such case studies illustrate perfectly the benefits of what is already our ethical responsibility: to provide for people, to actualize their fullest selves and agency, and to create a context of equal opportunity and justice on both a local and global scale.

    It is not only an act of human justice that should motivate us in such directions, but an act of environmental stewardship. By providing for the least among us, we are undoubtedly, unquestionably, undeniably providing for us all. Ultimately, as I hope that I have illustrated to some extent in this piece, the interests of all peoples at all points on the socio-economic spectrum are intimately linked. In a world that is increasingly understood as being ecologically interconnected, how could we possibly afford to be so socially, economically disconnected? Regardless of politics or party or entrenched belief, the only logical, objective conclusions are obvious. It is only our greed, our selfishness and our short-sightedness that stands in the way.

from Paraguay,
little hupo

Developmental Chaos Theory

    I am bathing in light, viscous and glorious as fresh honey, as I bike down a solitary dirt road. My skin tingles under the evening sun, enveloped by the smell of my own stale and sweat mixed with the heavy air of the coming rains. I feel like a god. Pedals whirr and puddles leap from my path. My breathing is calm and deep and full and I can see a storm looming over the hills but know that it will only come in the night. For now, the last bits of sunset burst from the open window that remains between the horizon and the slowly descending cumulous curtain. The rains may yet be a long way off, but the clouds are anxious, already tossing their splinters, their electric impatience, across their half of the deep-blue canvas still partitioned with the remaining daylight. Lighting spider-webs its way across the panorama, connecting the invisible dots of positives and negatives, jostling with the sun for prominence, brilliance in this bipolar sky. Its a silent climactic tumult and I feel like a deaf man watching some great battle. Only the sounds of the birds remind me that my ears are functioning just fine. The thunder is yet to come.

    Its for moments like these that my life as a Peace Corps volunteer is the best in the world. One could never say that this job is easy, or straightforward, or controllable, or in anyway following a predictable trajectory of development work and volunteer service. The reality is chaotic, a constant unfolding of days before you, sometimes with a calm and in slow transition between places and states, but other times its like un-calculated falling, tumbling from moment to moment, barely holding on but always (seemingly) turning up alright in the end.
    One thing I have realized about myself in Peace Corps is this: I thrive in two very different sets of conditions. The first condition is controlled--if I can plan things well and execute said plan, I tend to achieve a lot and feel useful and accomplished. The second is the exact opposite, the conditions in which plans have completely fallen apart. Between these two sets of conditions, there is a transition state where I tend to falter. Those moments when I try to hold onto the remnants of a slowly disintegrating plan, the desperate attempts to maintain even the facade of control while pushing forward with the stubborn determination of reaching whatever previously determined goal. I either require the order afforded by careful planning or the freedom and aimlessness that comes in the curiously comforting cocoon of disorder and madness.
    Lucky for me, Paraguay and life as a Peace Corps volunteer seems to cater to my disposition. There are times, rare and wonderful, where one can successfully carry out a plan. Its like the uncommon alignment of stars, a cosmic mishap that places everything just where it needs to be right when it needs to be there. Unfortunately (or fortunately), this is not par for the course. Instead, life-by-the-seat-of-my-pants is the operating paradigm I am most accustomed to at this point; the vague notion of direction and destination but with the flexibility to take any road no matter how arduous, or treacherous, or swallowed in untamed jungle it may be. Its chaos theory meets sustainable development. I am sure there are no scholarly articles about that quite yet.
    The best part about the madness, however, is that even though I hardly ever go where I think I am going, I always end up somewhere just as wonderful. Perhaps I don’t realize it at first, maybe that sort of perspective only comes with sufficient afterthought, but the best moments I have spent here in Paraguay have been completely unpredictable. I am over one-year into my service and never expected to be where I am right now. Who knows where I will be by the time this whole thing is over. That’s the journey though--embrace the chaos.

from Paraguay,
little hupo

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Poverty and Population (Part 1)

    A very wise man (my father) once told me: any practice is sustainable at a certain level. Whether it is driving a gas-guzzling SUV, felling forests for firewood, cultivating industrial monoculture, or burning coal to produce electricity, all such practices would be ecologically sound if there were only, lets say, a few thousand people on the planet. The implication of this statement is that current level of anthropogenic environmental degradation is really just a matter of scale; we could dump toxic chemicals into the rivers and the ocean so long as we remained within certain naturally defined thresholds of those ecosystems to processes and restore.
    I will immediately admit that this wonderfully idealized hypothetical situation is riddled with technical flaws, not the least of which is the fact that the most environmentally-degrading practices are not the products of solitary human innovation, but instead contingent products of human history and the aggregation of collective knowledge--hence, they are a function of a large population, not necessarily tied by causation, but still intimately correlated to the processes of civilization and industrialization. In other words, such a hypothetical is almost a ‘categorical error’ in which it almost makes no sense to even ask the question in the first place because the preface automatically nullifies the claim. If we choose to temporarily suspend our overly-analytical reasoning for just a moment, however (please indulge me), the statement does still serve to illustrate an interesting perspective on an important idea: the crux of population as it pertains to sustainability.
    The immediate gut-response to the query of ‘over-population’ usually seems to be something along the lines of, “If only, if only there were fewer people in the world.” The outrageous reality that almost 7 billion people currently inhabit the earth is an easy, if not also unhelpful, scapegoat for our current environmental predicament. Surely, such a monstrous population could not be maintained without these environmentally degrading practices, but on the flip side, environmentally degrading practices would not be possible (or necessary) without such a large population--hence my caveat in the previous paragraph. We would not even be asking the question of environmentalism without our enormous population, however, since few of us could or would or should begin making judgement calls about who in our world gets to stay and who has to go, population itself cannot be demonized and vilified too harshly or through such a narrow window. Ultimately, we must accept population size and growth not as a confounding variable to be eliminated at all costs, but as a fundamental element that must enter into the final calculation of our human ecology. To do so, we must first start with the understanding of such a phenomenon.

Phases of Human Population:

First Phase-
    Human population has gone through three distinct phases over the course of our roughly 100,000 year history in anatomically modern form. The first-phase, that of prehistoric humans living exclusively as small hunter-gatherer bands, corresponded to low population densities and limited environmental degradation. Humans affected their environment, of course, but no more so than any other naturally, ecologically-bound species. Note: this is an extremely debatable and not entirely accurate statement, but one whose controversy is not entirely relevant to this discussion. It is perhaps more appropriate to say, at least, that pre-agrarian humans were living in a state that was in the most ecological harmony (or minimally, in the least ecological disharmony) with their environment than any of the other proceeding phases in human history.

Second Phase-
    The second-phase of human population history is defined by the advent of agriculture and the rise of civilizations, a period in our history often termed the ‘biological old regime’. Through time and space, variable manifestations of the agrarian revolution have occurred at multiple instances and at multiple localities, ranging from roughly 8,000-9,000 BC in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia to approximately 1,500 BC in the Mesoamerica. This phase also corresponds to the rise of centralized bureaucracies, increased population densities (cities) and the general increase in size of the global human population.
    The knowledge of domesticating and selectively exploiting natural processes allowed humans to produce in excess of immediate needs, creating surpluses that took our species from living on the brink of constant starvation (the state in which most hunter-gatherers seemed [or seem] to perpetually dwell), to living more comfortable lives in cultures that were more stratified, specialized and permitting of recreational activities. While the first-phase of human history is undoubtedly more representative of our Rousseauian-esque “natural state” or the EEA (environment of evolutionary adaptiveness) for the Homo sapien, it is through the agricultural revolution that most of those things that define us as uniquely human (as in distinct from animals) were able to evolve and flourish.
    With the rise of agriculture, we also saw the beginnings (or at least the amplification) of one particular pattern that would soon become the hallmark of the human animal--environmental degradation. The archeological evidence for this is overwhelming, but even in its absence, such a result could be inferred from simply considering the thermodynamic nature of the practice of agriculture. As previously stated, agriculture harnessed the power of natural processes; it mimicked sufficiently the natural state of once-wild plants (and animals, in the case of animal husbandry), to maximize potential thermodynamic output (in the form of consumable calories) with only slightly more thermodynamic input (there is human labor involved--a caloric investment--but in reality, the constant thermodynamic input of the sun does all the real work). This slight disequilibrium tipped the scales in favor of civilization, undermined (at least on a superficial level) the classical frontiers of ecological limitation, and allowed for the rapid expansion of the human population.

Third Phase-
    The third-phase of the human population is that of industrialization. Everyone has heard the classic story of the steam engine, the steam-powered locomotive, the rise of textile factories in Britain, the genesis of the modern formulation of the capitalist economy etc. etc. What is less well known are the historical/ecological reasons (there are many, but I will reference only a few) that allowed such events to transpire and ultimately set the stage for the greatest population explosion of any large mammal in life’s 3.5 billion (roughly) year history on earth. Note: I am intentionally not considering or evaluating any of the complex political influences for the industrial revolution (the Chinese Opium Wars, the New World silver trade via Spain, British economic protectionism, or competing global markets and industries, specifically in India and the Americas). Again, these are very important factors to the overall narrative of the industrial revolution, however, they are not entirely within the scope of a discussion focusing on the aspects of ecology and population.
    Human population was on the rise for millennia as our understanding of the world, our mastery of agriculture and our ability to control certain factors gave us an increasing edge in favor of survival and longevity. After the intellectual renaissance of the Enlightenment, marked most notably by the French Revolution, reason by means of the scientific method became the modus operandi of Western societies. Religion took a metaphorical back-seat and technology thrived, not necessarily as a result, but certainly in congruence. Eventually, one particular technology was developed that opened the flood gates to enormous economic expansion (and by extension population expansion) by providing an energetic well-spring necessary to nucleate the industrial era: the steam-powered engine.
    Early designs for the steam-powered engine were so energy-inefficient so as to be completely economically inviable. Huge amounts of lumber were require to generate the heat necessary to create sufficient amounts of steam. Luckily for Britain, and in a huge historical-geological-ecological coincidence, coal was soon discovered as an alternative fuel source. For centuries disregarded as an effectively useless mineral, coal covered large swaths of the British Isles as opposed to once-widespread forests which had been subject to enormous deforestation by the early-1800’s (hence the rapidly increasing prices of lumber in London). Coal was so abundant and so readily accessible at the surface (a geological jackpot) that using it in place of wood to fuel the archaic steam-engines was a virtually free process. By an accident of nature, steam-engine became economically savvy and soon after, the modern textile factory was born.
    From here, the trajectory of the industrial revolution is exponential, restructuring culture and society as we know it as a sort of paradigm-shifting juggernaut that is seemingly characterized as much for its monolithic force as for its implications on human population. By interjecting in the epoch-slow process of carbon cycling, humans are able to harness geologically-stored solar energy (thank you Carboniferous period ≈ 350 mya) in a way that short-circuits the thermodynamic equilibrium of the earth. Most people in our overtly machismo and technocratic society would praise such ingenuity as the greatest achievement of our divinely-inspired, or super-natural, or otherwise special and unique species. It is this very aspect of industrialization, however, that is slowly spelling utter disaster for our natural world and our species.

    Industrialization is our latest step in the spectrum of learning to artificially outstrip natural resources. Certainly, it would be hard to picture us achieving such a population density as 7 billion worldwide according to the comparatively limited parameters of the biological-old regime. Still, the merits of industrialization are undeniable--increased standards of living, longevity, comfort and an enormous expansion of science, understanding, art and human culture. Of course, these benefits are far form equitably distributed across the globe and while many enjoy the fruits of this latest phase in human history, many others abjectly suffer as a result. In the end, however, despite this inequality, our fates are all intertwined, especially as the level of environmental degradation and ecological disruption has begun to reach critical levels.
    So where to we turn with such an ominous prospect? Once again, population appears as a glaringly obvious and tantalizingly easy bearer of the burden that is our self-made lot. But how accurate, how useful is such a verdict? Does this really attack the root cause of our environmental woes? Is the solution to this whole predicament simply a matter of pruning our over-abundant species? The answer is no.
    A more honest and holistic understanding of our history and our ecology, I argue, reveals that poverty and disenfranchisement are more appropriately recognized as the ultimate sources of environmental degradation, leading to the proximate factors such as unchecked population growth and large-scale, unsustainable practices. Most technocratic capitalists would vehemently deny this claim, choosing instead to invest their faith and suckle at the teat of the ever-bountiful goddess of human innovation (a little self-righteous, if you ask me), but the evidence to support my position is abundant. Before I explain further, I should say that I don’t mean to purport that if only we could eliminate poverty that our environmental issues would somehow disappear; there are an unbelievable number of other contributing factors to be considered as well. Instead what I am saying (and hoping to substantiate sufficiently) is that the alleviation of poverty, while also an act of justice and a moral imperative, is as well an essential investment in the environmental sustainability and future of our species.

From Paraguay,
little hupo

Saturday, November 10, 2012

My Mother Taught Me To Sing

   *This blog is not about Peace Corps or Paraguay or anything like that, but it is something I wrote this week and really wanted to share. I hope you enjoy.

    My mother taught me to sing.
    I grew up in music like a fish in water. From morning until night, there always seemed to be a song hanging somewhere on the air lazing through our quiet suburban house. My days ended and my nights began with my mother singing me softly to sleep. You see, my mother didn’t teach me scales, or how to breathe through my nose while projecting my voice, she didn’t teach me to control my diaphragm or to draw from deep in my body for every note. My mother taught me nothing technical about singing, she wasn’t that kind of a singer nor that kind of a person for that matter. It wasn’t about the physics of it all, it was about the feeling.
    My mother didn’t teach me how to sing, but she did teach me how to let music into my heart. She taught me to allow every thought and emotion to become entwined with a song like ivy, like smoke gently rising. She taught me that any time of day, any moment, any menial task is infinitely sublime if only accompanied by a tune. Like some mystic always at work in her subtle art, she sung the flowers to humble bloom, the plates to sparkling clean, the clothes to ironed perfection and the children to bed.
    My mother was not a perfect singer. She has missed many notes along the way, some sharp, some flat, but all of them just where they should be. You see, my mother taught me that it doesn’t matter whether you are Puccini or Cline or Sinatra or Holiday or even if you are tone deaf--if there is music in your soul, there is a divine obligation, a spiritual necessity to let it out. My mother sang sometimes as if her very life depended on it, substituting words to sooth her homesickness and holding on to each note with full-winded, white-knuckled tenacity. Other times, she would break rhythm and tone at will just to match her own whims and fancies. No matter the composer, each song was her own and she sang it for herself, for her family, for the world.
    Sometimes I hated my mother’s singing. If it was joyful when I wanted to wallow, or heartbreaking when I was otherwise carefree. Sometimes, my mother would sing the same song, over and over, in succession. But now I know all the words to all those songs and I sing them to myself sometimes when I am far from home and most alone. I pretend sometimes that it is not me singing but my mother, and it brings me home, to my youth, to waiting for my father to come home from work, to gardening on the weekends, to coming in from the cold, to washing up after a long day, to singing along quietly so she never heard me and she never knew that secretly, I loved her singing with all my might.
    I never learned how to sing but, I learned to sing, always and forever, whether silently to yourself or out loud for the world to hear. My mother taught me this. You see, there is so much music in my heart, in every thing I see and everything that I do, but it was not me who planted the seeds to these now glorious, musical flowers. It was my mother, sowing songs with such care into the evening dreams of her three sleeping children. I was so lucky to be one of them. I hope that one day I can give such love and beauty to my own children, that I can share with them the gift my mother has selflessly given me for my whole life.
    Still, I never worry, for I know that all I need to do is sing.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Transformation is Complete

    In Peace Corps training and service, us volunteers are bombarded with advice and guidelines of almost every flavor and every variety: health and safety, technical and practical, cultural and otherwise. Unfortunately, none of that means a goddamn thing in the end. Nothing really prepares you for service (and with all due fairness, nothing really could). You’ve just gotta get out there and let yourself get a little bit crazy, the rest just follow suit.
    Throughout time in the Peace Corps, during the slow unraveling of one’s cultural biases, as normal standards are gradually chiseled away, volunteers are at times confronted with the stark contrasts between the borders of comfort in which they once existed and the limitless frontiers that have come to take their place. I, for one, experience this on an almost daily basis. Oh, the things I now accept as normal (even expected), and oh, the types of food I will unquestioningly eat without skipping a beat. Oh, the stuff that I do (alone or along with my Paraguayan neighbors) that is just part of my life anymore. Most would petrify any of my suburban dwelling neighbors from back in the states. I would be willing to bet that if most of those said neighbors bore witness to even 20% of what I do on a daily basis, they would have me committed. And to be honest, when I get enough perspective and am able to step outside of my little Paraguayan world for a moment, I can’t say that I would blame them.
    A minor example would be as follows: the other day, my neighbor’s bull got loose and ran into the woods like some harmlessly rebellious teenager who just read Walden for the first time (like me at age 16, for example). He summoned me with what I could only describe as the local dialect of “campo calls” (basically, Guarani-infused whoops and hollers to attract attention or express any one of a number of emotions) to explain the situation. I immediately understood through a series of grunts and hand gestures that he was employing my help in retrieving his upstart of a young bull. Without question, I broke off the nearest sizable ‘cow stick’ from a tree and charged headlong into the forest. I ended up spending the next hour shoe-lessly crashing through thickets, chasing this bull back toward my neighbor who waited patiently on horseback smoking a cigar and occasionally offering yelps of encouragement.
    Little by little (poco a poco, as they say) I have watched myself become not just more comfortable, but totally at home in this new culture, in this strange place. Where over a year ago I felt like a fish out of water (and granted, at times, I still do), I now settle easily into any number of tasks and a myriad of otherwise ridiculous situations. If I have a bad day, I no longer seek refuge and time alone--I head to a neighbors house to visit, to bullshit with some friends, make some jokes, drink tererĂ©, play with the kids and unwind a bit. Its feels wonderful to be in this place, physically and mentally. It has been a long, hard process to get here, but I am glad I have arrived. Still, in other ways, my transformation into a Paraguayan campesino continues to nag at the old edifices of respectability and the limited understanding of my pre-Paraguayan self. Yesterday was a perfect example.
    I returned from visiting a neighbor to find Don Zaccarias curiously absent from the house. His grandson informed me that, “Ohoma kava hapĂ©, omba’apohina upepe”, ‘Don Zaccarias went to work with the bees, he’s over there in the woods’. I grabbed a hunk of mandioca off of the table to stifle my quickly growing appetite (I don’t know why, but I am always hungry in this country) and walked along the worn path through the trees. Soon, I found the Don, shirtless and shoeless, pumping calmly away at his humador (a smoker for working with bees), gently opening a full hive of incessantly buzzing bees. Realizing that he would need help with this and not wanting to go home to change into anything more suitable (bee gear wasn’t an option, but long sleeve shirt and pants would have been a definite improvement), I jumped right in. We proceeded to spend the better part of an hour, elbow-deep in an enormous hive of Africanized honey bees, working slowly to extract the honey and check the colony.

Don Zaccarias, at 80 years old as of today, just back from the apiary and harvesting some honey 'no shirt, no shoes, no problem' style.
    Here I was, top half-naked, in a pair of cut-off jorts (of my own making, if I may add) and sandals with my shirt slung over my head like to keep the bees off my neck, a piece of mandioca in my back pocket, just going to town on a hive as if it were simply a batch of harmless cookie-dough, every once in a while stuffing a chunk of raw cone in my mouth to chew and savor in between bites of my favorite starchy root. See picture below.

Working bees in rural Paraguay 'asi no mas'. Bee equipment is overrated. Or maybe I really am loosing my mind after all. Note: the awesome cut-offs that were, not too long ago, a rapidly disintegrating pair of pants.
    It was a surreal, almost transcendent experience to be totally honest. To be intently calming your body and nerves in the face of a swarm of angry bees as the sweet smell of sweat and smoke and sugar lull you into a half-asphyxiated, oxygen-deprived sort of trance. Raw honey running down your fingers like amber blood as you carefully investigate each panel, gently brushing away groups of your potentially-stinging bee friends to get a better look. The whole time with the evening sun shining through the trees in the middle of the woods, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of some third-world country, in the middle of South America. And that’s your life, that’s par-for the course, that’s what passes for a good, normal day anymore. How awesome is that?
    Then, of course, I get stung. It was inevitable, or at least should have been expected. But what wasn’t expected were the first words that came out of my mouth in this sudden moment of pain, my gut-reaction to these instantaneous emotions, the most honest expression of my subconscious bursting forth, “Nderachore, a la puta chera’a!”. That was it. This was me. Distilled, condensed and now freely flowing into the world, the Guarani inside of me rearing its ugly, guttural head to a chorus of excited hoots from my neighbors and from Don Zaccarias. And then I realized, the transformation was complete. I rubbed some honey on the sting to ease the pain (yet another herbal remedy, only indicating further the extent of my acculturation) and returned to the smoky apiary to finish the day’s work. Unfazed, ready for anything, totally at home.

    Its amazing how subtly such immense changes can come about. Sometimes I worry that people from home might not recognize me, or at least be very afraid of some of the new habits I have picked up (and rightfully so, they still scare me sometimes). But in the end, I realize that I haven’t fundamentally changed as a person, I have simply expanded my horizons indefinitely and expanded my comfort zone to include just about anything (with some notable exceptions, such as: voting Republican, S+M, crystal meth, and sitting through “Mean Girls”). That’s one of the greatest aspects of the Peace Corps experience, but more importantly, that’s one of the greatest aspects of life. For people who spend most of their time occupying their respective bubbles of comfort, I wish you the best. But there are a million ways that you can shake and challenge and ultimately reconstruct your foundations every day. Look for them. The experience will be terrifying, but so worthwhile in the end. I promise.

from Paraguay,
little hupo