I am sitting at 30,000 feet, somewhere over the Bolivian salt flats, in a plane heading for Miami International airport. Just this morning, I was sipping coffee in downtown Asuncion after having spent several days trouncing around the city from Peace Corps function to meetings to breakfast appointments and the like. Before that, I had spent the past few weeks straight living in my small home in an isolated, rural part of the Paraguayan countryside. My life out there, my life at home as I now like to say, consists of visiting neighbors, working in fields, teaching in the crumbling school house, and sharing any any every part of my knowledge, my culture, my corny jokes, and in general, every pat of myself that I can. When I am there, at home in my community, I know in some very profound part of myself that I am doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing. The world seems aligned, my soul feels full and bright and ready for anything, my mind is at ease and I am more comfortable, more at home than I have felt in a long, long time. It has been a long and difficult road to reach this point in Peace Corps, it wasn’t always this way, and I certainly have my off-days where things are just hard and lonely. But in general, I feel as though I have finally finished the process of landing in Paraguay, a process that took almost a year or more.
So what would be more fitting than throwing myself back on a plane to transcend, in a matter of 13 hours mind you, an almost incalculable, incomparable number of cultural, social, political, and economic strata to arrive home in the states for a holiday visit with the family. And why the fuck not? I love my family and friends, I am so incredibly happy to be seeing them, to spend Christmas in the cold (instead of the 45 degrees Celsius--112 Farenhight, and without air conditioning--that bathed me in sweat last year). I am so psyched for a brief respite, a nice few weeks to relax and enjoy the company of familiarity and my own culture. Since arriving in Paraguay 15 months ago, I had only visited home for a few short days after my trip to Cuba last May, but was so overwhelmed with the emotional, cultural, general shock of being on the island and then coming back stateside (really no places on earth could be be more different than Cuba and Allentown, Pennsylvania) that returning to Paraguay was, in many ways, such an incredible relief.
I guess what I am trying to say is that I am kind of freaking out a little bit right now. Having a sort of personal, existential crisis at a cruising speed of several hundred miles an hour, 6-miles up in the atmosphere. I really should stop pounding these cups of coffee, and should stop thinking about smoking a cigar. Those things only remind me of home, quite and traquillo home in the Paraguayan campo, where life goes on at a pace strictly dictated by the weather, and the winds, the moon cycles and the change of seasons. Right now, I am heading toward a frenzied, holiday shopping season in the Northeast. I’ll be sipping Starbucks and quibbling over aggressive drivers and bad traffic before I know it.
When you step outside of your native culture long enough--for me, having stepped outside of America for over a year so far--all aspects that one would otherwise accept unquestioningly as foundational or assumed elements of his/her culture are immediately questioned and laid bare. The extent of this process depends on the extremity of the change. Traveling from the States to Europe would likely not have as intense of an effect as, lets say, living in impoverished, rural Africa, Asia or Latin America. Still, it is an inevitable, essential and liberating challenge all the same.
I haven’t landed in the States yet, right now it looks like we are just passing over what might be some of the Peruvian or Brazilian Amazon, but I am not sure. But what is occupying my mind is one curious element of US culture: individuality. I am planning on writing a long post about this concept in the future, one with a much heavier political/social slant to it, but for now I am framing it more in regards of my own cultural experience. It seems to me that the American obsession with individuality in every single corner of life is ultimately debilitating and harmful. Not in any economic sense (necessarily), and our continual dominance as the major economic power on the world stage will attest to that, but in a much more personal sense. It is a subtle thing, and it would be hard to draw any quantifiable data to support this claim, but it seems to me that ultimately, such hard-fought, relentless individuality fragments social ties and spreads unhappiness. What is left is the terribly pervasive idea that material things, commodities can replace strong social bonds, although this notion often appears in so many strange and cleverly-disguised forms.
The people I live with in Paraguay are poor farmers. The entire community of several hundred people are all either related, through blood or marriage, and/or know each other well as neighbors and friends. The fabric of life is social, it is the greatest single asset that these people have and without it, their poverty would be impossible, unbearable.
So as I hurdle forward towards an All-American Christmas, I am thinking about the notion of presents and gifts, of the hypocrisy between Christian ideals and holiday shopping sprees (Black Friday), the oddness of a culture that has had to economically codify and legitimize interpersonal reciprocity on a national scale as opposed to allowing such social elements to develop naturally. I am thinking about children opening presents under a Christmas tree, in slippers and warm pajamas, in front of a fire, under the guise of the family video camera. And I am also thinking about little shoe-less children, a million worlds away, helping the family to butcher a pig and distribute it to the neighbors to celebrate a Paraguayan-ized version of the same holiday in boiling hot South America. I think I need to stop thinking before my head explodes. I should have packed warmer clothing.
from the skies, Happy Holidays,