Tuesday, November 19, 2013

My Last Post from Paraguay

Right before joining Peace Corps, I spent three months living in South Africa for a study abroad program. I remember waiting to leave at the Cape Town airport after weeks spent romping through the wild bush of the Eastern Cape: there had been so many adventures and so much excitement that I was as high on adrenaline as I was on the new-found girlfriend I was bringing home with me. It was an incredible experience and all I could feel was pure joy.

Right now, I am preparing to say goodbye to Paraguay—a country far less thrilling than the untamed wilds of South Africa, but whose absence I will feel so much greater. This is my last week as a Peace Corps volunteer. These are the last few days I will spend in this little slice of heaven and hell that I have made into a home. These are the last sips of tereré that I will share with a community of people that supported me and loved me and shared their lives with me for two years. These are the last nights I will sit on a porch with my little army of adopted Paraguayan campo dogs—Lobo, Tony, and Tyson—drinking cheap Argentinian wine and smoking hand-rolled black tobacco cigars that taste as sweet as the South American sun. It is in these quiet moments of reflection and appreciation that I can hear and feel my heart slowly breaking.

Leaving this place is going to kill me, but at least that's how I know that this was far more than just some fling, some adventure-seeking high-octane power-trip through a third world country where I got my kicks but missed everything else of value. No. For me at least, living in Paraguay has been a process of slowly getting this country, its culture and its people deeper and deeper under my skin. My life here has often been quiet and slow, sometimes maddening and almost impossible, and everything in between. But one way or another, of all the unlikely places in the world, Paraguay has become such an important part of my life and my development as a human being. It has seen me grow, it has challenged me at every corner to do so, and it has cradled me though some of the darkest and brightest times I have ever seen.

So much of what has gone on here during my Peace Corps service has been a private affair. Living alone in an isolated community means that, while my days were spent working with Paraguayans, most of my nights consisted of long hours alone in my home. In that sense, what has functioned as two years of service to this community, to Paraguay and to my own country has also functioned as a sort of personal, intellectual-spiritual retreat for myself. I am coming home soon but I am not the same person. I don't even know who I am sometimes, but then again, I have never known better. I have tried very hard to share as much of this experience with other people—friends from the states, fellow Peace Corps volunteers, even some close Paraguayan friends—but the reality is that so much of this is incommunicable and so deeply personal that sharing it is impossible.

Every travel and intercultural experience is valuable, no matter how long or how brief. All such opportunities serve the desperately important purpose of breaking down the cultural, social and racial barriers that hinder and harm our world so terribly. But few places or programs in the world offer what Peace Corps offers; there is no other experience in the world like a two year Peace Corps stint. None. I don't mean to come off as pretentious or self-important, and I am sorry if it reads that way. Allow me to make my case: Peace Corps is not tourism, it is not just a volunteer program and it is really not a traveling experience. It is a living experience where in order to even begin to accomplish any volunteer goals we must first integrate into communities and with people that have often never seen Americans before and rarely venture far from home.

“Traveling” and “tourism” are things that Peace Corps volunteers do as a break from this intense living experience; sure we go on trips to other places from time to time, but when we are in our communities, we are not traveling, we are home; we are not tourists, we are just another neighbor. In my community, for example, no foreign tourist could just wander in one day and set up a home and start living. Firstly, they would likely never even find the place and secondly, there are so many social and economic barriers to forcing oneself in the middle of such tight-nit, inter-related, and closed-off communities. The pretext of being a Peace Corps volunteers gives us the in and the experience we have as a result of that foot-in-the-door is like nothing else in the world.

I have mourned with families over dead loved ones. I have been there when babies were born and then watched them grow and eventually learn my name. I have harvested crops and shared in the seasonal bounty of these blood-red soils. I have hunted and foraged in these woods, grown my own food, killed my own meat, and, by necessity, become more in-tune with the weather and natural world than ever before in my life. I have sat at local political meetings and watched my friends speaking in defense of their future and the lives of their children. I felt me heart break with these people when some were thrown homeless onto the streets and I was unable to do anything. I felt the joy of sharing in successful development projects and great personal achievements with so many others. This place is the first community I have ever really felt a part of and I know that when I am here, whether today or in 20 years, I am home.

Have no fear friends and family, I am coming back to the states (at least for a bit), although I am sure you've all enjoyed the respite from my chaos in your own way. But it will be with a heavy, heavy heart; a heart so full of love for this country and its people, for all the incredible friends I have made through Peace Corps, and for two of the most personal and yet community-oriented years of my life. 

Re-adjustment will be hard, I know that, it doesn't worry me. What worries me the most at this point? What are the thoughts that have been keeping me up through these hot nights with just the sounds of the cicadas and night-jars for company? Whether Don Zaccarias will get better and have enough company. Whether someone will keep caring and loving my dogs. Whether there is a future for the youth of Guido Almada. Whether this next year and all its fickle weather will diminish the harvest. Whether Don Antonio's wife will ever recuperate and whether his daughter will be able to walk normally again. Whether the Brazilian soy producers will begin to displace these people as they push further west. Whether there will be enough land in the future or anybody left to work it. Whether the community water pump will make it through another brutal summer and who will pay to replace it if it doesn't. Whether Caesar will get a good education and have a decent life despite his disability. Whether the government comes through on their promise of milk cows and chickens for the community. Whether, when I come back, this place is as beautiful as it is now.

I do not mean to idealize it all too much. There are certainly things that I won't miss. But I love this place and these people despite all their flaws, in fact, I love them all the more because of these shortcomings. I know that I will never be Paraguayan and that I will never totally be a part of this community; at the end of the day everyday, I am an outsider. Still, I have come so far in my understanding and my genuine concern for these people that I think it kind of puts me in a different category altogether. I am not a member of this community even though I played a part in it for two years, but the community and all its members are a part of me. That's gotta count for something.

So it seems almost too fitting that this should be my last blog about my Peace Corps service as a volunteer. I will be writing and blogging extensively in the coming months, but as of next Monday, I will no longer be a PCV. This marks my 100th entry since I began this personal blog just before my trip to South Africa almost 3 years ago now. It also marks my final blog from the Paraguayan countryside and my final blog as a Peace Corps volunteer. For the next few months, I will be backpacking and traveling through Patagonia in Argentina and Chile then moving onto Peru and Ecuador. Thank you to all who have followed me thus far on my journey and supported and loved me the whole way. I love you more than you can possibly understand.

Maybe its not that I left my family in the states for 2 years or that I am leaving my family here in Paraguay. Maybe its just that my family has grown and expanded—across countries and continents and languages and socio-economic classes—and now there is just that much more love in the world. Que suerte.


from home, from Paraguay,

little hupo

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Oh, How Little I Understand

        Its dark in the house even though its midday. Sunlight doesn't get far though the forest canopy and the only source of light is a little flickering candle propped upright in a divot on the dirt floor in the middle of the room. A few rays peek through the gaps in the wall boards or though the hole in the roof where the thatch-grass has fallen away and it is silent. The mother of the family sits in the corner, breathing slowly, strained. She is dying of a brain tumor, I have been told, and today is a bad day.
        “I have faith in God,” the father tells me. He works harder and is poorer than any person I have ever met in my life. He is a remarkable human being.
        This family can't afford meat and so for lunch we are having Yaku po'i (Rusty-Margrined Guan) that the oldest son called out of the treetops earlier that morning and shot dead. In the distance, unheard by me, a Tuca sa'yju (Toco Tucan) trumpets an alarm call. We go outside and the littlest one points out a gorgeous bird sitting in an enormous tree across a tobacco field. It has a wine-colored breast and a long, fat beak.
        “They are good luck,” she tells me, “If you can catch one.” This is a typical day with the Garcia family. Learning more than any textbook could ever teach me about the local birds—their calls, their meanings, where they like to roost at night. 
        Today, we are building a roof with the family. We have been working on a worm composing project aimed at increasing the production of their two gardens, one of which we started together. This composting unit needs a roof to protect it from the coming summer sun. With his wife so sick, Don Antonio, the father, worries about straying too far from the house to work in the fields. Instead, he sends his sons out to tend the crops while he cooks and cleans and keeps up the gardens and feeds the chickens and pigs and milks the cow and cares for his love. Improving the garden is a priority of his, not just for family nutrition, but because he is dedicated to being as personally productive as possible even when confined to the small sphere around the house
        The building of a roof from forest materials happens in stages. First, we searched out the right kind of trees for the horcón (main supports), with the correct height and forked branches at the right spot. We took two adolescent yvyra'rô trees and one kurupa'y and trimmed them down to size where they fell.
        “This wood is strong,” Don Antonio tells me (ha'taitere'i in Gurani), “No insects will eat it, it will not rot.” He is confident and I believe him.
        Next we search for our main viga (crossbeam); this as well needs to be strong, for it will be bearing the weight of all the smaller beams as well as many layers of thatch. We find a beautiful and sturdy ba'avy tree in a clearing but Don Antonio seems reluctant to take it. He explains that they have already felled many trees from this area and he doesn't want to take more, lest the encroaching amba'y, which grows like grass through these woods, take over and choke out other more useful plants and trees in the underbrush.
        In the end we cut it down anyway and trim it to size. It really is a beautiful little tree. The rest of the morning we spend searching out smaller beams, yvyra'pepe and onde'ymi saplings ideally, to lay perpendicular to the load-bearing ba'avy. Then the final piece in this sub-tropical collage, la señorita, tree-lings so called for their slender, pale form and the fact that they grow very straight from the forest floor. These are needed to provide the parallel supports onto which the thatch is lashed by forest vines called ysy'po. We gather several bundles of these, tied together with vines and head back home with our quarry.
        I tried to be as much a part of the construction process as possible, but in reality, I had no idea how everything went together and this family was already an efficient, experienced roof-building unit. In the end, I could do little more than just watch and marvel at the skill and speed with which a small hut materialized before my eyes. The thatch-grass called ka'pi'i was brought from along a path that runs from the house to the fields. They grow it there like another crop and as a perennial grass, even once it is harvested, it regrows in the next few months. They always have a supply on hand for repairs to the house if needed. The piglets as well enjoy hiding and romping through the dense clumps.
        The main supports and crossbeams are put up in only a few minutes and each piece seems to fit together like a puzzle. I get the strong feeling that there was far more to the process for selecting trees in the forest than I was aware of at the time. As the barefoot 13-year-old son Rafael scrambles up a tree and across these wooden tight-ropes like a monkey (ka'i in Guarani), the other brothers hand him small bundles of grass which he spreads out over the web of señorita and ba'avy supports. He weaves this whole organic mass together with vines like I have seen Parguayan señoras stitch together old blankets and shirts. It takes only a few hours and the whole structure is complete.
        Afterward, we sit for a few hours and sip tereré and bullshit about the local fútbol clubs and the weather. It is calm and relaxed and I can hardly tell that night is falling around me. The jujos (herbs added to the yerba for medicinal reasons) are soothing and subtle. Fresh from the forest, I watched the youngest daughter grind them in a pestle, a mix of flower petals, mint, leaves, stems and fat, juicy roots. It tastes like earth and spice and greens and they say it will make my head feel better. They seem confident and I believe them.
        As always with this family, the conversation, in its effortless blend of Spanish and Guarani, gradually drifts towards more serious matters—the world, the future, the sad prospect of politics for the Paraguayan campesino, the tranquility of life for those few farmers who can still make a decent living off the land and the forests. It is sobering but also inspiring to hear the thoughts and feelings of a family who is living such an enormous cultural, political, and economic battle on a day to day basis. They are not under siege, but they can see that their world, isolated though it may be, is changing in ways that will soon threaten their already precarious livelihoods.
        Among this group, this small family, the most educated person has never even finished high school and yet I, with my bullshit college degree and my pretentious vocabulary, feel like the ignorant child. I have struggled little in my life and compared to these people, never had to work particularly hard just to survive. I have a college education, sure, but drop me in the middle of the Paraguayan jungle and I wouldn't last a week. 
        The sun is still shining, but barely; night is coming and so is a storm. You can feel rain here hours before it comes. The whole jungle world around you seems to turn upside-down. Maybe its subconscious at this point, but even I can feel it in my bones when a storm is imminent. The insects hum, the birds call differently, the winds blow with a temper, not their usual calm, and the air smells like earth, sometimes the ocean, depending on the direction of the winds. A cool wind blows up from the east and I know it is time to head home.
        I say goodnight, thank you, jajajopata. It is dark by the time I get home. The lightning is still far away and flashes without sound like fireflies on the horizon.

        I have realized something profound in these past few months working with my Paraguayan counterparts: what these people know, their knowledge of the forest and what it offers, what it can take away, their knowledge of crops and moon cycles and the seasons, these things are not written anywhere, but they are the culmination of thousands of years of indigenous wisdom that long predates Western culture and the associated paradigms that come with it.
        These people are not entirely indigenous in ethnicity, but almost everyone in Paraguay, especially in the campo has some indigenous blood in their veins. Regardless, their culture is abundantly indigenous in origins, a fact that becomes more evident the farther you wander into the countryside The historical isolation of Paraguay as well as it self-sufficiency for hundreds of years even after Spanish conquest, has allowed the survival of an entirely different source of knowledge about the world: that of the precolonial native populations. This can be seen in many parts of the world where indigenous cultures still exist, where they haven't been annihilated entirely, but it is here in Paraguay that it has entered the backdoor of the otherwise intolerant halls of Western tradition and established itself in the few empty corners.
        As Peace Corps volunteers coming from the great America, we are all initially taken aback by culture shock. In Paraguay, just like any other country, there is an adjustment period. We all find the ubiquitous rules of Paraguayan life and diet tedious and funny; I would be lying to say that we didn't all mock these guidelines at times. As Paraguayan insist that, certain plants will cure this illness, or that certain foods shouldn't be eaten together lest you explode, or that one shouldn’t mix hot and cold foods in a short window, of time or that one can acquire a deep muscle pain from particularly strong winds (golpe de viento), all of us Westerners sit back and laugh in our heads while we nod and agree. This does not fit into our carefully constructed parameters of reality, of scientific causality, of things you can read about in books and online.
        But I have slowly realized over the past few months: these rules and knowledge aren't arbitrary or borne out of ignorance, they are part of the indigenous tradition, a tradition that kept native populations across the American continents alive and thriving for literally thousands of years before us Westerners arrived at their shores. It may seem silly for us sometimes from our science-based cultural perspective, but how could we ever hope to understand and appreciate the wealth of knowledge and wisdom that Paraguayan campesinos possess without first analyzing and critiquing our own cultural baggage. If we are unwilling to let go of any of that, we will never fully appreciate the depth what Paraguayans and Paraguayan culture has to offer.
        I know I am stuck with the weight of my own cultural heritage, I know that my home is my home and my country is my country. No matter how much I may disagree with it or reject it, I will always be a Caucasian male born and raised in the cradle of suburban America. Sometimes, I yearn desperately for a more genuine tradition to be my own, some tradition with deep roots, a great understanding and a living spirituality. I have always found my own cultural heritage to be immensely lacking in all of those things, sometimes to the point of depression.
        I am not saying that the Paraguayan indigenous cultural tradition is perfect or without its flaws; certainly there are lots of them, many of which no doubt come from its synthesis with Western culture and ideas, many of which are no doubt inherent and endemic. I guess what I am trying to say is that there is something infinitely beautiful and more satisfying in indigenous understanding and appreciation for the natural world, in their acceptance of their place in the greater scheme of life, than I find in my own culture. I do not want to idealize anything, that would be a mistake, but I think we ignore the value and wealth of indigenous tradition around the world to our own great detriment.
        But for now, I count myself lucky for having lived long enough to see and experience and another different cultural modality. I know I cannot change myself or my history, but maybe by stretching my own personal boundaries, by forcing myself to dissect those pieces of my culture with the tools of another, I can slowly reconstruct a better perspective of myself and this world. Maybe buried deep in that mess of materialism and Western orthodoxy and empty spirituality, some seeds of truth and honesty still survive. With the right tools, with patience, with understanding, perhaps I may one day coax them into bloom.

from Paraguay,

little hupo

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Anaerobic Biodigester: Simple Technologies that Make a Big Difference

When I was about 13 years old, I decided to enter the local science fair. This was my third time in the competition and I enjoyed doing it each year not because I wanted the extra credit at school or because I particularly enjoyed the significant amount of extra work, but because it was always a great, school-endorsed excuse for me to make a mess in my parent's basement without their disapproval. My first ever project was the construction of a mechanical waterwheel which I fashioned by taking a hack-saw to my sister's bike (sorry Carmen). The second project had me making epoxy glue derivatives and testing their strength by hanging hundreds of pounds of dead weight on them until they crashed down onto the concrete floor (sorry Dad). There was also that famous epoxy mixture I created that ended up melting the cup and part of the table I had mixed it in (sorry again).

But that year, at age 13, I decided I wanted to try something different. I can't recall exactly what I was thinking at the time, but in retrospect it must have been something along the lines of “How can I fill the basement with animal manure and light things on fire without getting punished?” The answer was a biodigester, basically a fancy contraption that captured methane gas produced by decomposing animal feces which could then be burned for fuel. The project was a success thanks to my wonderful mother who went above and beyond the call of motherly duties by collecting the necessary stock (animal manure) from a local horse farm (sorry Mom). In the end, this project earned me first prize at the local science competition and would stink up our basement without disciplinary recourse for well over four months. It was decommissioned at my family's unanimous request sometime after New Year's day.

Flash forward to 2013. I am now 24 years old and serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in the country of Paraguay, still just as curious and troublesome, but now with a license from the US government to do so overseas. My position as an agricultural extension volunteer in a poor, isolated rural community had me working a lot with small-scale organic systems at the familial level. I had worked extensively with composting projects and bio-intensive gardening to help improve household production, nutrition and sustainability. All of this work was rewarding but I felt as if there was something more I could do, some next step that I might be able to take with my community members that might give them a better appreciation of the depth of potential contained within their small parcels of land.

One of the initiatives of the Peace Corps Paraguay agricultural sector is sustainable permaculture systems, which essentially means taking advantage of the energy available at all points of agricultural production. Included in this initiative was a great project called the anaerobic biodigester, an green technology used for generations by farmers in India and China, but nonetheless effective, simple and novel to my community. This small-scale biodigester was really just a mock-up version of almost the same project I had done when I was 13, except now it could be put to use helping impoverished farmers provide for their families instead of just stinking up my parent's basement.

The design we used was developed in part by my boss, Fernando Gonzalez, who has been using a biodigester on his family's farm in Paraguay for over a decade. With his guidance and experience, I began the long process of applying for a micro-finance loan to help fund the project in my community. While the biodigester can be built with local materials and is relatively inexpensive (about $125 a piece), such up-font costs are still quite out of reach to the people I live and work with. After receiving the money, we held educational sessions with 15 adult members of my community where we described the project and the theory and walked them through the simple steps to construct one at home. In the end, we successfully installed two separate biodigester systems with two different families in my community.

At first, the biodigester might seem a stinky and cumbersome way to produce bio-gas for fuel purposes but the impacts of such a simple concept for small-scale farmers can be enormous. In a country such as the US, with an abundance of cheap fossil fuels (natural gas, petroleum, coal, etc.) most of us wouldn't waste the time handling animal manure if we could help it, however, in parts of the world where manure is much more abundant and accessible than disposable income, the biodigester can make a great difference.

The biodigester serves to produce bio-gas, a methane/hydrocarbon/water-vapor mixture that can be burned to cook food or heat a home. This fuel source means that families do not need to use up valuable financial capital to buy propane gas or be forced to slowly deforest their small properties to cook over wooden stoves. Additionally, and just as importantly, the biodigester produces a super-charged organic fertilizer that helps to boost garden production. The fertilizer itself is actually so strong that it can be diluted one part to twenty with water and still be extremely effective. Other secondary benefits include human and animal disease reduction and cleaner water supplies, a by-product of proper management of animal wastes.

The first time we lit-up the bio-gas stove with my neighbor, he threw down his hat, put up his arms and started jumping up and down with joy. He looked at me and said, “Mario, this whole time, I didn't believe you when you said it would work. Now I believe you, you crazy American.” Within a month, in addition to the bio-gas, these families have also noted a substantial boost in household garden productivity thanks to the biodigester's fertilizer component.

I can already tell that this project did as much for this family's sense of pride and motivation as it did for their material disposition. No doubt, it has helped them in a number of tangible ways, but more than that, it has given them something else to be proud of, it has planted a seed of inspiration in their minds. For people who have been farming and subsisting the same way for generations, the simple idea of the biodigester has opened their eyes to future possibilities that had never before been considered.

In developed countries, it might seem silly to think about what proper animal waste management and simple technologies can do for us. We drive our own cars and plug into our iPhones and never give a second thought to the fact that we are living in a universe of energy and potential and yet, have only really figured out how to master one of those sources (and a finite, pollution-ridden source at that). Something like the biodigester might seem a good solution for a poor rural farmer in some far-flung corner of the globe, but the reality is that we are facing a lot of the same problems right here at home. Climate change, pollution, deforestation, crop-failure—these things are not strangers to the developed nations and as the world spins onward into this next millennium, they will only become more familiar.

I am not saying that every family should go out right now and start building anaerobic composting systems in their backyards, but we need to start thinking more seriously about how we are going to provide for our energy needs and the needs of our natural world in the future. Yet, we shouldn't look at this as some sort of doomsday scenario, but instead an amazing opportunity. 

As a kid, such alternative energy possibilities fascinated and intrigued me. A decade later, they have done the same thing in an isolated, rural Paraguayan community. Maybe the next step will be to bring it full circle, to bring it once again a little closer to home. One small step at a time. But at least this last step got me out of my parent's basement and into the open air.Thanks for the help you guys, sorry for all the stink over the years.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Limitations of the West

         This may be the longest period in my two years in South America that I have gone without writing a blog. I have been writing a lot, but just not the sorts of things that anyone would want to read—essays for graduate school applications, GRE studying, professional Close of Service paperwork for the Peace Corps. Here's what's crazy: all of Peace Corps has been a slow, sometimes-frustrating-sometimes-liberating process of meeting people, talking to them, working with them, learning, teaching, and just living; all of a sudden I am caught between this life, tranquillo-pai'te, and that other life, full of paperwork and propriety and professional clothing and bullshit. Its weird to say the least.
        These two years have been a day-in, day-out emotional and intellectual confluence set in the sprawling basin of sub-tropical Atlantic forests (Mata Atlantica) and pastureland that is Paraguay. I have learned so much. Its hard though—I can see how, from such a description, the wrong people would idealize this kind of life too much; their reverence for something they don't fully understand would project this life as something that it is not, and in that sense, actually be extremely irreverent. At the same, any person would be lucky to live the life I have had for these two years. I am eternally grateful for those people who made this possible. Thank you.
        One of the inevitable results of spending so much time outside of that western cultural bubble is reflection, not only personal and interpersonal but societal as well. Let me just acknowledge here the inherent limitations of me, Mario Machado, ever gaining a fully objective perspective on something like “western culture” considering that this was exactly the kind of medium upon which embryonic me was grown and baptized into this world. At the same time, stepping into the lives of half-indigenous, half-Spanish rural campesinos for two years has give me some perspective that I could have gotten no where else. I have been blessed to live such a life. It has opened, ever so slightly, my non-seeing, non-feeling, fixed-in-a-false-reality eyes.
I respect western culture for lots of things, lots of tangible reasons (medicine, science, human rights, etc.), but I understand, perhaps now better than ever before, its shortcomings.
        Look at our world, look at the west, look at the social-democracies we have created. Whatever their merits—be them concrete or philosophical—there is the undeniable fact that they are, in so many ways, completely spiritually lacking. I am not trying to sound funny or like some shallow-minded hippie, I am trying to say something important I have realized. The gods of the west, in the great historical tradition of the Greeks and Romans, are functional. They are pragmatic tools used to direct or modify social behavior, to be wielded like a bludgeon by those in power when the masses strayed like wandering sheep in search of true gods, or to be ingested like cheap alcohol to draw a curtain over the eyes of those with a propensity to seek something real. Western gods, Christian gods, the god whose name is sprawled like pornography across our money, is a placebo; it goes hand in hand with self-centeredness, self-righteousness, narcissism, commercialism, materialism, commodification, conspicuous consumption. These are the alters, please leave your money at the door if you wish to purchase your salvation.
        I am not a priest or a scholar but my whole life I have struggled with spirituality. For those who know me well, you will know that as a younger boy I was a very devout Christian. As a teenager, I used to drive myself alone to church early every Sunday. Whatever it was, I wanted, needed to understand it. And yet, in due time, I fell out with Christianity. I was too intellectually honest with myself, with the world, I asked too many questions, and most of all, there was nothing in this Christian god that slaked any of the thirst in my soul. I see now that I was searching for meaning within the meaningless paramaters of western religion; this has almost nothing to do with spirituality, and for those who have found such spirituality within the western paradigm, they have been almost always cast as pariahs and freaks. The west does not believe in anything it cannot see or feel. 
        Those ignorant fundamentalists who claim to know the Christian truth are as godless as those corporate Christians who use the scriptures to placate their guilty consciousness and justify their gluttonous greed. They would cringe at the thought of real Truth, it would unravel their carefully constructed world.
        In the west, we have not tried to seek truth on its own terms. Instead, we have created a god to fit what we want, all of our earthly, superficial, capitalist desires.
        Why do we fear drugs? Hallucinogenic plants that have been used for millennium by peoples to aid them in their day to day struggles within their environments and along their spiritual journey. Why do we fear something so natural? Because it is outside of our comfort zone, it threatens to challenge the thin-veil of the western gods that just barely hold these societies of sheep in place. Can you imagine what would happen if people just started meditating and practicing ancient tribal medicine in huge numbers? Can you imagine what would happen if people stopped listening to the Catholic church? Can you imagine how our world would change it people stopped participating in the sacrilegious orgy of consumption that is Christmas? The social and economic west would collapse.
        Listen, I know I must sound insane from all of this, and I am not trying to make the case that all drugs are good or that the west is some demonic, overbearing entity. But in a world of 6 billion people that is slowly corroding the underlying social and environmental fabric that supports us all, why should we not seek answers outside of what we already think we know. There are such great problems in the world, such suffering, such inequality. Sure, you might argue that the march of the west is also the march of slow, plodding, and yet inevitable progress, but at what cost and to what ends. How much longer can our planet sustain us? How much longer will marginalized and forgotten peoples be subjected to such inhumanity?
        There is a truth to be known outside of what us culturally, religiously western people think we know. We continue to ignore it at our own peril. It may take courage and difficulty to reach for it, but I believe that any such journey will be infinitely worthwhile.

from South America

-little hupo

Friday, September 20, 2013

A Case for Universal Healthcare: Sad Lessons from a Beautiful Country

Here is a practical situation to consider for you, the reader:

        You are a poor farmer somewhere in the developing world. You have one-hundred dollars. That is all that you have, your entire life savings. You have crops in the field that may be ready to sell in a few months, but more than likely, you will break even (at best) from all your hard labor. One-hundred dollars is all the disposable income you possess, stashed in a box underneath the family bed in your little one-room wooden shack.
        An elderly family member, let's say, your grandfather, then becomes very ill. As a caring grandchild, you take your grandfather to the local hospital where he is given a number of tests and treated with increasingly more expensive medications. You do your best with the limited funds you have, selling livestock and milk and the family TV when they prove insufficient. Soon these funds have been depleted almost entirely.
        Your grandfather's situation does not improve; in less than a month he has deteriorated to the point of being bed-ridden, stuffed full of drugs that make him hazy and nauseated, but that are at least able stop the pain radiating from his abdomen where an infection has slowly spread to his kidneys.
        The doctors inform you that they can and must operate in order to save his life, but that operation costs about one-thousand dollars. Your limited funds are almost gone, you have no where else to turn, no health-insurance or savings account somewhere. The box under the bed is all but empty.
         Now, your grandfather is 80 years old. An operation to treat him may buy a few more years of life, maybe a decade at best. At the same time, if it is even possible to gather the necessary funds, you will be in debt to any number of different people or institutions for the rest of your life, seeing as a “net yearly income” for a subsistence farming family almost does not exist. Not to mention the fact that, with what little surplus savings you had being used up, you will be just that much less able to provide for the rest of your family for the year. 

        So finally, here is the question: do you let your grandfather wither and die, or do you do everything necessary to save his life?
       A bonus question: which of your family members, brothers and sisters or aunts and uncles, gets to break the news to your grandfather that his operation cannot be funded, that he will be returning home next week to wait for death?
        Now imagine: this same situation, but with your parents, siblings, or your own children. How do you make this calculation? How do you determine to what extent the lives of your family members are worth to you on a very real and practical level? Imagine putting a monetary sum on the life of every member of your family? What are they worth?

        The answer, obviously, is that our family members are priceless in the greatest sense of the word. I would do anything, absolutely anything for my grandparents, aunts and uncles, mother and father, sisters and even my closest friends (who are as much of family to me as my own family). But I also have one great advantage, one amazing leg-up that gives me the ability to value them to an infinite monetary degree: I am an educated white male from a middle-class American family. In comparison to the majority of the rest of the world, I am orders of magnitude wealthier and more privileged. As middle-class citizens (as I imagine most readers are), we are more wealthy than over 92% of the rest of the planet.
        I have had healthcare and will have healthcare for my entire life, as does every member of my family. I will never need to decide based on financial considerations whether or not to save the life of any member of my family. I am wealthy enough (my family is wealthy enough) and, despite my significant amount of college debt, have the capability to command enough capital that I will never have to look at anyone in my family and tell them that their fate will be left up to chance because there is just not enough pennies in the piggy bank, or in the shoebox under the bed.
        The situation I described above is exactly what is happening at this very moment to my nearest and dearest Paraguayan friend, Don Zaccarias and his family. It is not, however, some heartbreaking anomaly, but instead the latest repetition of a vicious poverty trap that I have seen play out time and time again with many different families during my time here in Paraguay. It is also not a cycle that is confined to this country, but exists everywhere in the world that poverty exists, that is to say, everywhere in the world, developing and developed nations alike.
        So this is my case for universal healthcare. It is not an argument of numbers, or of political allegiances, or even one of morality. Is is simply an appeal to your empathy, your ability to put yourself in this situation and realize that it would destroy you, absolutely break your fucking heart to have this happen to you and your family. That is all. Empathize.
        For those conservatives and Republicans and anyone else out there that might say, “But they didn't earn it! Why should we pay for some lazy people to keep free-riding on the system?” I say that you are cold, heartless bastards who are desecrating and defaming the socialist values of your self-proclaimed savior Jesus Christ as you simultaneously use his words to wage war and further social injustice. Your morality is a sham, your sense of humanity is archaic and un-evolved at best, and you have no idea about the trials faced by those living in poverty, those under-represented, unheard minorities that we have relegated to the rank of second-class citizens, vassals in the racist, patriarchal hierarchy of our capitalist dystopia. You don't know hard work like these people know hard work. You know what feels like hard work to a privileged upper-class with soft hands and an overdeveloped sense of self-righteous entitlement.
        If you cannot understand and empathize with the unnecessary human suffering caused by simple situations such as not having basic healthcare, than you are not human or at least, you have hollowed out that part of your heart and filled it with self-congratulatory narcissism. Either that or you are just an ignorant snob.
        There is no reason in our modern world that anyone should have to experience this. If we are truly a progressive society, a progressive species, such things will someday soon be relegated to the past. That is my sincere hope. Its just continually surprising to me that, at this day in age, where the world is connected like never before, where technology has made the most miraculous things commonplace, where wealth exists in quantities that defy the imagination, that such injustice continues to thrive.

from Paraguay,

-little hupo

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Perspective of an American Expatriate

         Being an American is schizophrenic. It is a type of organized, controlled social madness that is just barely subverted by an incessant stream of cheap reality television, hyper-materialistic idolatry, skin-deep nationalistic sentiments, and other such platitudes. There is not an identity crisis in America, its just that our “identity” has always been a chaotic mess of people and places and things too numerous, too different to completely reconcile. So we just jam them together, swallow the racism and the sexism and prejudice and the inevitable delusion of home-grown fundamentalism, and go about our day wielding the biggest stick the world has ever seen. Its no wonder we look like a caricature of normality, a political cartoon come to life in all of our obtuse irrationality and fumbling foreign policy.
        We have a history half-full of greatness, progress and half-full of almost unspeakable heinousness against millions of people across the world who simply lacked the privilege of being able to call themselves “Americans”. And yet, only one-half of our already-muddled selves is ever discussed, acknowledged or claimed as part of our identity, as if one could leave a trail of blood and bodies, built first and foremost on the genocide of an entire continent of peoples, and have it be tastefully and justifiably inconspicuous. Even in spite of our personal, internal heterogeneity, it is also our inability or unwillingness to come to terms with our own historical reality that prevents us from ever creating an identity that could not otherwise be characterized as any number of sociopathic psychological disorders.
        Please don't get me wrong (I know how the above must sound), but I love my country. I love it in all of its madness and its calamity. But as an American who has lived abroad for a significant period of time, not only have I had the opportunity to reflect upon and dissect my American identity piece-by-piece, but I have also been faced with the constant challenge of having to explain that very identity to people from other countries. It is an impossibility and a constant struggle.
        No doubt, every country has its own history and identity, and there is hardly a single one in the entire world that got it all right or has all of their shit completely together. But none of them have assumed the great crown of global hegemony, none of them regularly hold the fates of millions in their grasp whether indirectly, through the setting of global economic agendas, or directly, through our seemingly relentless need to wage war. Whether we deserve such great clout and power in the world seems somewhat moot at this point.
        America, in its youth and idealism (more of a political tool than an actual belief at this point), is like the biggest kid in school, the jock who just learned about his own physical prowess over the rest of his peers, and finds a constant hormone-fueled need to impress that upon others. Maybe it all goes back to masculine dominance and this age-old patriarchy that shows us just how intellectually un-evolved we all really are, but who knows. As an American, like I was as a teenager wandering the halls of high school, I feel consistently embarrassed and very insecure about that identity. I am not that kid anymore, but when I say “Americano” to the people I interact with on a daily basis, I can tell that they all think something along those lines. It makes me cringe. Sometimes I just want to say Canadian.
        What worries me the most is that almost no one alive today remembers America not being top dog in the world. This post-World War II baby-boomer generation and their generations of offspring were all baptized in a world where America had already filled that space of global dominance, where the world was split into the false Cold War dichotomy of good America and bad Soviet Union. Our perspective (and I am including myself in this) is filtered by our short-term and selective memory. We too readily, too willingly capitulate to passivity and corporate-issued social pacification like sheep to the slaughter because they keep telling us we are number one and it feels good and it is just so easy to believe from the plastic-wrapped, self-indulgent bubble in which we live.
        News flash: America is not number one in anything except 1) Most powerful military (thank you military-industrial complex at the expense of egregious domestic needs), 2) Largest economy (soon to be eclipsed by China and not long after, likely India as well) and 3) Percentage of our population that is currently incarcerated (we won't get into how racialized our prison population is, but just as a side note...). In every single other category, such as life expectancy, standard of living, equality, freedom, education, health care, governmental transparency (i.e. level of corruption), we are not only not number one, we are consistently and increasingly lagging farther behind other more advanced and progressive countries.
        The Roman Empire held on to the illusion of the Republic right up until the end. They faded away, leaving their indelible mark upon history, and in the end surrendered to the closing walls of barbarian tribes, Muslim armies, and a corroding social system of unsustainable cosmopolitanism. In retrospect, it was inevitable. Some might say that it was that very illusion of their own identity that allowed them to survive as long as they did. My personal opinion, it was that illusion and its detachment from reality that stifled their ability to evolve, to accept change, to grow and adapt to the constantly fluid world around them.
        As an American, from where I am sitting right now, it seems like we are also in the midst of several closing walls. An inconceivably deteriorating environment, global climate change, continuous war and a still-expanding military-industrial complex, population growth, corporate infiltration of our political system, the general erosion of our domestic and personal freedoms, the dissolution of our democratic process, and our continual attempts to look outwards with our critical eyes instead of looking inwards. We act as if we are at war with the world, fighting for some ideal that we don't realize we left by the side of the road a long, long time ago because it was slowing us down in our pursuit of those true American values: greed and power. In reality, we are at war with ourselves.
        I believe there is so much potential and goodness in America; it is my country, my home and I love it dearly. But the first step toward historical reconciliation, a contemporary humbling of our role in this world, and our preparedness for the storms that sit just over our horizon, is to find a true, honest identity, to forge it out of our mass of parts and peoples and influences. Otherwise we are simply perpetuating the lie, sinking deeper into the delusion, falling faster into the night from which we may not awake. It is a personal task of every person, every American and it is a collective responsibility of our nation as a global leader. We should wield that power with genuine reluctance and in the faith of serving others as well as ourselves.
        So I will make this promise: I will always say I am an American and I will not feel embarrassed by it. I will understand that my country is not perfect, but I will continue to love it and support it anyway. I joined the Peace Corps in that spirit and I will continue to live in it. So for better or worse, here is to America.

From Paraguay,
little hupo

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Home or Elsewhere

         These full moon evenings are so fleeting, if not in their duration, then in the number of them I have left in this place. I will miss the southern sky. I will miss it desperately.
        Dusk came down around me tonight like a slow curtain, the drawing down of the final act of the day. I was sipping a glass of wine as I usually do because it reminds me of my father. I was smoking a cigar as I usually do because it reminds me of my grandfather and because my neighbors hand roll the tobacco and it is gorgeous to see their dark, driftwood hands delicately handling the leaves until they are no longer leaves but fine long braids of herbal, smokey, smooth meditation.
        I think I will cry when I leave Peace Corps, when I leave Paraguay, but I am still trying to figure out why.
        There is a home that I have some million of light-years away from this place. I know that. I remember that place in my bones; my muscle memory of suburban America may be dulled and confused, but I have no doubt that I will sigh when I finally lay back down in that same old bed in the basement that my dad carved out of wood all those years ago.
        At the same time, I could not be farther from that place, that home. I am farther from it than I have ever been and I wonder if I will have to make a decision eventually whether I want to go back to it, back back all the way back to the cradle of familiarity and ease of comfort, or to carry on farther away until I can no longer even see it or feel it on the horizon.
        I have a home here in Paraguay. I know that. I feel that in my bones every morning when I wake up. Whether it is a good day or a bad day, it is a day that will pass under this sun that I have come to hate and respect, next to these once-strangers that I have come to know and love, in this great expanse of red dirt and green grass and parceled-out forests that have stained my hands and breathed life into my tattered soul when I felt lonelier and emptier than ever in my entire life. I will miss the southern sky.
        Home is a strange idea. Some people always have it their whole lives, almost without respite. That must be a glorious feeling, it must also be paralyzing. Some people never have it and find no need to seek it. That must be a glorious feeling, it must also be lonely. Some people have it and then loose it, whether by fate or by choice, and spend their lives trying to recover it or to carve a new one out of whatever they find as they wander.
        I am of the latter category. I had a home, a lovely beautiful home with family and friends that loved me dearly and whom I loved back. The love is still there, but one day I chose to leave and once that decision has been made, there are inconceivable obstacles in any direction from that point onward. I will always love where I came from, if for no other reason than that it carried me though so many years without letting me fall too hard. I was the vessel that unaware traveled along the strange path of middle-class suburbia.
        Since then, that same vessel has crossed continents and climbed mountains, laughed and cried and soared and sunk. I have loved deeply, broken into pieces, thought about nothing and everything, and still I am that vessel but instead of being carried, I am carrying on myself. I will always love where I came from. But I will always love where I am going more.
        If the day comes where I must choose: home or something beyond, I think I will always choose to keep walking. Everything changes. Always. That home I left does not exist anymore. Only insomuch as I hold it in my head and my heart. There is nothing to go back to, there is everything stretched out ahead of me. It is hard and it is terrifying and I don't know if I have the courage or the strength sometimes. I doubt myself. But that is what the wine is for. 
        Adelante chera'a.

from Paraguay,
-little hupo

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Bolivia--Part 2: Maragua

        It's one of those images that just sticks with you forever, so much so that over time you forget whether it was real or imagined, whether it actually happened or if it is just some colorful fiction crystallized out of a cluster of hazy experiences and unresolved emotions. I guess time will tell and at least I have the photo to remind me and that small piece of cloth tied neatly around my wrist.

        A little ways outside Sucré, Bolivia there is a small rural village called Maragua that sits at the bottom of an enormous crater, once a great lake basin that was half-ripped apart by a volcanic explosion some bunch of millions of years ago. 

        The roads that lead through the mountains to Maragua are terrifying, if also pretty standard as far as the Bolivian highway system is concerned. At times these passes can be surprisingly pedestrian, wide and paved with fresh asphalt, a marvel of both engineering and government investment in national infrastructure. But whatever faith might be gathered from these fine sprawling sections of pavement is more than needed as the quality of roads deteriorates rapidly as distance from the city increases. Inevitably, these roads devolve into glorified cattle paths with only a few forgotten boulders as makeshift guardrails and even then only every few hundred meters.
        It takes a certain amount of courage and the sophomoric effects of the stunning landscape to give one the disposition necessary to take a blind, ninety-degree corner at about sixty kilometers an hour while the driver lays on the horn in an uncomforting (and in my opinion, ineffective) way of announcing its presence to whatever automobile (be it motorcycle, car, or 18-wheeler) may be approaching from the opposite direction. 

        White-knuckle was before the driver looked like he was falling asleep at the wheel; this is knuckling-under, knowing that with each switch of the switchback you take, the shear drop on either side of you only becomes longer, steeper, and fatalistically more absurd. But all of that becomes commonplace after the first week or so in the country. Its better to sleep on the long rides anyway.
        After a few hours spent weaving between peaks and an inevitable number of appeals to any number of deities, the road seems to level out. Small stone cottages begin to appear on the hills and fields tilled in elementary cursive seem to occupy every measly parcel of topsoil that hasn't been washed away into the valleys below. Then, the road becomes straight and is beckoned forward by a waist-high stone wall that leads to a small intersection with another winding path. Eventually, you reach the town center, the strange anachronism of a modern school building in the middle of a cobble-stone and mud-brick village seated at the heart of a great crater and flanked to the east by a great cordillera of red rock. 

        Maragua is gorgeous.

        The most hospitable people I have ever met are campesinos (the Spanish word for rural farmer), but such warmth is not necessarily dolled out to strangers without reserve. Bolivians, in general, tend to be more shy, perhaps a bit more wary, especially compared to their very laid back, tranqillopa Paraguayan neighbors. As we made our way through the town center, I felt that tension—it wasn't uninviting, or somehow malicious, it was just cautious and palpable, like something new that hasn't quite been worked into daily life yet.
        The community of Maragua has, in the past few years, opened its doors to tourism. Not only is the community situated in a breathtaking landscape with a vivid and dramatic geological history visible at every step, but it is also host to one of the world's largest concentration of petrified dinosaur footprints. While tourism could hardly be considered a bustling industry in Maragua, and while most of the control over the business remains in the hands of the local community, the notion of having strangers wander through their home has understandably taken some getting used to.
         Inevitably, as predominantly wealthy, white tourists and backpackers stumble through on their way to the dinosaur footprints, they also take measure of the relative poverty of the community itself and in the process, whether intentionally or unintentionally, make a novelty of the normal lives of the local Maraguans. I stand guilty as charged, although in a desperate bid to save face, I have been living in an impoverished Paraguayan community for the past 2 years. Such is the crux and burden of tourism in developing nations—the opportunity of financial progress at the expense of personal commodification.
        We hiked out from the town center heading west, crossing the entire length of the basin that gives way to the steep sides of the crater. The earth was a collage of volcanic silts and ash, reds-greens-yellows-blues-purples, and consolidated sedimentary rocks holding millions upon millions of fossilized shells and petrified animal remains. It is one of those rare places where you can literally feel the epochs of geological history right under your feet, whether from the surprising fluidity of eroding deposits on the basin floor or from the fact that with each meter of altitude you gain, another chapter of the grand narrative becomes evident. For me, it was like walking in a sort of daze—too much to try and understand, too much beauty to try and appreciate all at once, and too little oxygen in the thin mountain air for me to ever quite fully catch my breath.
        On our hike, we were followed by a small group of school children who were themselves making the five-kilometer trek back home. As we struggled with the loose earth along steep canyon walls, their persistence and dedication became clear. What was for us an almost three-hour round trip that scaled and descended some several hundred meters of altitude was for them simply the return journey from a day at school, a journey they had already made earlier that day to arrive on time for class at seven in the morning.
        The children spoke little Spanish although they seemed to understand enough. They chattered back in forth in rapid-fire, giddy Quechua of which I understand absolutely nothing. I guess our small group of foreigners was still strange enough of a site in Maragua to merit constant monitoring by the local kids and calculated, cautious inspection always undertaken from a safe distance. Still, the kids smiled and laughed at our bumbling antics and our obvious ineptitude across the slopes and terrain over which they skipped like mountain goats without breaking a sweat. One thing I noticed: they were never out of breath.
        On the ridge overlooking the town, the entire primordial story of the Maragua basin is evident: millions of years ago, a cataclysmic volcanic eruption decimated the opposing wall of what was once a tranquil mountain lake allowing the contents to spill out through a deep gorge. All that is left of that event is a small waterfall filled with mountain runoff that tumbles harmlessly down into the same ravine.
        And yet, even after you summit the crater itself and make your way onto the even more vertical topography of the surrounding mountain range, small communities and homesteads continue to dot the landscape, tucked onto small outcrops or at the peaks of intermittent hills.
        It is amazing to think that people survive out here—at 3,500 meters, it is not above the treeline, but nevertheless, trees are scarce and therefore, so is firewood. The temperature when we were there was cold and gets even colder at nights or when winter decides to be particularly harsh. There is an unrelenting wind that blows dry, thin mountain air from almost every direction at once, buffeting any person so that even the noonday sun can do little to shed that constant shiver. And as if that weren't enough, the weather itself can change in an instant—while we hiked, we experience 3 of the 4 seasons I am accustomed to from the US northeast: an overcast fall day, followed by a sunny, cool spring afternoon, and then ending with a mid-winter rain storm where the tiny droplets were whipped horizontally by a biting wind.
        Despite the fact that the beauty and difficulty of it all made a very profound impression on me, it was none of these things—this veritable slide-show of images and vistas that would be more than worthy of a National Geographic cover—that would catch me and hold my mind like the image of that small girl at the craters edge.
        She had come out of her house when she saw us approaching in hopes of selling us a few simple cloth bracelets as we passed by. The house was typical of the region, made of mud-brick with a thatch-grass roof surrounded by a loosely-stacked stone wall. It sat at the bottom of a small hill and seemed to be somewhat carved into the mountain side—maybe this was by design or perhaps it was just time and living that had sunken the foundations deeper into the ground than usual.
        She walked up to me and timidly offered a cardboard roll around which she had fastened a few colorful bracelets. There was no obvious theme to the selection and in fact, none of them were particularly appealing. But it wasn't the bracelets that I noticed anyway, it was her face. It was the wind in those mountains that had already begun to carve her young cheeks and opened great cracks in her lips like crevasses that she hardly seemed to notice. She was smiling, but it was uncertain, and I am sure that whatever it was, there was no salesmanship going on—she wasn't trying for my sympathy or attempting to win my heart with her charm. She was just a young child, sitting in her home when a group of us strangers walked by. But still, even that wasn't what struck me the most.
        She was beautiful. She had one of those faces: unassuming and quiet and yet complex and full like the entire ocean, and you could tell, even at this young age, that one day she would be a strikingly beautiful woman. Here she was, this young girl that will one day hold the power to rip a man's heart open and sew it back together again, living on this small forgotten piece of land just outside a tiny rural farming village in the middle of the Bolivian Andes.
        I bought a bracelet form her for the price of roughly one US dollar.

        Its strange how the mind works: as I flip through the pictures from my trip to Bolivia, I can hardly even believe that I was actually standing in some of those pristine, unearthly places. It defies the regular confines and rules of my otherwise standard memory. And out of all of that, the thing which has preoccupied me the most is that little girl.
        Maybe it was the contrast, the harsh environment and difficult conditions that she faces on a daily basis just to survive juxtaposed with the unexpected weight of her appearance. Maybe it was the fact that the surrounding landscape was so mind-blowing that I just needed something concrete in which to ground the whole experience. Maybe it was sympathy and helplessness; sympathy for having gained a better understanding of what impoverished rural life means for young women and helplessness for having spent two-years working in rural Paraguay only to get out and realize that there is still so much work to be done.
        Or maybe it was just that I saw something beautiful, something among the kaleidoscope of rolling mountains and endless skies that jumped at me and just wouldn't let me go. Perhaps she was just beautiful and that is just that. Whatever the reason, there is now a little Bolivian flag colored bracelet around my wrist that I have no intention of taking off anytime soon.

From Bolivia,
little hupo

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Bolivia--Part 1

        The country of Bolivia tells a story. For those who wish to fly into the capital of La Paz and then skip across the terrain quickly and efficiently, they will miss the whole tale. But in order to soak it all in, the best way is slowly--on marathon bus journeys through deserts and jungles and mountain ranges, across white-knuckle roads that wind along cliff edges with careless indifference towards plummeting death only a few inches away on either side.
        Bolivia stretches from the mind-numbing expanse of the Chaco desert in the south and the depths of the most impenetrable Amazonian rainforests in the east to the very heavens itself. Most of of the country rests on the altiplano (or high plains) above 10,000 feet of altitude. The borders with Chile and Peru are flanked by the Andes mountains that stand like frost-peaked sages on the distant horizon. Bolivia is often called “the Tibet of the Americas”, a nickname which has as much to do with its comparable geography as its physical and cultural isolation.
        The country is officially titled the Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia (the Plurinational State of Bolivia) and for good reason. In pre-colonial times, due to the steep and treacherous topography, almost every dip and valley in the mountains played host to its own cultural traditions and unique social groups. The Incan empire of the Peruvian highlands never penetrated most of the country and therefore, such independent cultures were able to persist until well after the Spanish conquest. While there was undoubtedly much inter-communication and trade among these myriad of cultures, especially between the altiplano and the low-lying tropical areas (where the infamous Bolivian coca plants are cultivated), it is cultural diversity which best defines Bolivia.
        In the latest census, there were still 35 different languages (other than Spanish) being spoken throughout the country, most of those being preserved in far-flug and isolated rural mountain villages. There are several dialects of Bolivian Quechua and Bolivian Guarani, which differ greatly from the Quechua and Guarani spoken in neighboring Peru and Paraguay, respectively. When I tried to speak Guarani (the dialect of Guarani I have learned over the course of 2 years living in Paraguay) with a campesino woman from the Chaco lowlands, it was as if we were speaking two entirely different languages. In reality we were. Some of the sounds, specifically the nasal intonations and inflections, were the same, but the vocabulary and the words couldn't have seemed more different.
        International politics, especially as of late, would paint Bolivia as a rouge leftist nation continually butting heads with American economic imperialism. And perhaps on one level, that is correct. But such things are the playing fields of politicians and policy makers. On the ground, with the people in the cities and towns, one gets a very different impression. Bolivians are a proud and beautiful people whose traditional cultures have survived while in many other places around the world such history has either withered into obscurity or become unrecognizably commodified. Bolivia is considered one of the most traditional countries in Latin America and that is more than evident in the brightly-colored, Quechua filled market places.
        Many women of Bolivia still dress in the iconic cholita style (although these styles differ greatly in detail and name in different parts of the country). This style often includes knee-length or longer plain skirts, often worn in multiple layers to combat the cold mountain winds, as well as 19th century English bowler hats. This specific “style” is not traditional insofar as it is not indigenous in origin; instead this was the mode of dress imposed on many Bolivians by the British bankers and opportunists who unofficially filled the power-vacuum left by the defeated Spanish colonial rulers following independence. Still, it is ironic that the world's largest market for industrial-era European head-wear exists today in the most isolated and culturally diverse country of Latin America.
        The last piece of the cholita style (and my absolute favorite) is the hair-braiding. I am not sure whether this is as well British in origin or whether perhaps this aspect reaches deeper into Bolivian history than that, but irregardless, it is gorgeous. For the traditional Bolivian women, their silky black hair is grown out for almost their whole lives. This is then fashioned into two elegant, long braids—one on each side—that often stretch below their waist. As with many fashions, there are communicative subtleties woven into the tradition that are not decipherable to outsiders—the length of the braids is a mark of experience and age, the exact angle and jaunt of the bowler hats indicates marital status, among others.
       So much more to say, but this should be good enough for now.

From Bolivia,

little hupo

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Turning In Circles

      Henry David Thoreau cheated. And while, like so many other wayward youth, I too dove headfirst into Walden and its mystical idealism, age has brought with it a more complete understanding of that book.
      Despite the beautiful portrait that Thoreau paints, the reality is that Walden pond was only a few kilometers (within easy walking distance) from a relatively established town; hardly the pure nature that Thoreau depicted with such Platonic zeal. Thoreau himself was heir to a quite substantial fortune from his parents, a privilege he never relinquished even as he shed the other material and monetary bonds of society. In the end, the rejection of established norms and the quiet rebellion that is the heart and soul of Walden is only skin deep and for me at least, it has been hard to read Walden the same ever since I began to understand the context of the book as well as the true disposition of its author.
      Still, Walden is a defining book of the transcendentalist movement (in the end I think that I prefer Emerson more anyway), a movement that in itself represents a deep yearning for authenticity and youthful angst that comes with its lack. It crystallizes a phase that I believe most thoughtful people go through at some point in their lives, although they may all encounter and experience it somewhat differently. But the failure for most people is that it never amounts to more than just that: a phase. Perhaps we are all caught up in the same web as Thoreau, with all the idealism and desire to taste a true reality, but too mired in the vines of society so that it is ultimately impossible to completely untangle oneself. We feel that urge, that primal instinct to flee our social captivity, but we are capable of only words, however eloquent, and pipe-dreams, however bold, and weak alcohol-induced tirades against something that most of us will never truly be able to escape, even momentarily. Maybe the fact is that most of us are actually too afraid to let go of that lifeline even though at times it feels more like a noose. In that way, we are all Thoreau. He is the archetype of privilege.
      And make no mistake, such a rejection of society can only come from someone who is in a position to reject such things. Put another way, you can only dispossess what you already possess; if you are hoping to shed the artificiality of material things, it is cause you are blessed enough to have them in the first place. There is hardly such existential crises among those struggling to survive; it may exist, but its manifestation is completely different as a result of the basic material conditions. The transcendental experience is coupled with privilege, some might even say it is a product of such privilege, and its fundamental meaning is derived in relation to privilege itself.
      Allow me a brief caveat: I am not using the word “privilege” in a negative sense, although there are many other academic usages in which it is certainly not invoked positively. Privilege, in the sense I am trying to use it (and forgive me if I am not doing so faithfully), is only the relative material comfort that some of use are lucky enough to have. Having such privilege does not make one inherently bad or ungrateful—though it most certainly can—but it is a position in life that many people (the majority of people in the world, as it were) do not have. As a typical middle class American citizen, I am privileged with the means to a good home, enough food to eat, I am a member of a relatively functioning and uncorrupted state with my rights and freedoms guaranteed. Many people in the world can only dream of such privilege.
      So what is the point of the transcendental experience? If those who of us who encounter that same calling as Thoreau are just privileged citizens of decent societies, is our existential yearning just nothing more than spiritual self-indulgence? No. Or not necessarily, at least that's what I think.
      To me, the undercurrent of transcendentalism is a turning inwards towards the self, towards a deeper spiritual understanding of one's soul through nature and solitude (hence, the emphasis on the rejection of society). For all of us, those of relative privilege or otherwise, such a journey is probably as essential to personal happiness as food is to the body. But for those of us who find that such an authentic experience is possible only by first turning away from privilege (people such as myself), I believe that we must also carry with us an extra responsibility along the way: the expectation of reciprocity.
      Allow me to explain using myself as an example. A lot of my Peace Corps experience so far has been spent alone, in a personal solitude where I have had the opportunity (i.e. little distractions and few other options) to cultivate myself and invest in my own personal and spiritual well-being. Sure, I have done development work and contributed innumerable hours of my life to helping people in my community, but 2 years is a long time and there have been many, many hours spent alone. Such is the nature of the Peace Corps.
      When I was younger, I used to have a goal of going off into the woods and living alone for some time to accomplish the same thing—my own little Walden-type experience. Now, I am quite satisfied that Peace Corps has provided me with more than enough of that sort of “turning inwards” if you will. At times, I feel guilty for spending such time on myself, especially as I am living in a situation where I am surrounded by such blatant, abject need. The reality that I have come to accept is that there is only so much I can do to address the problems in this community, many of them are systemic and quite beyond my capacity to influence as a Peace Corps volunteer. At the same time, I have come to realize that such time of personal growth is, in some ways, just as necessary as is my development work.
      The fulfillment of this process, the true realization of the transcendental experience, does not come simply from the “turning inward” but instead, once this phase is complete, an eventual turning outward as well. To a certain extent, society can be, maybe even must be, rejected at some point by those of us from privilege called to experience life in its raw authenticity—let's call this the spiritual baggage of the modern man in a consumerist world. But unless we eventually apply the deeper personal understanding towards alleviating the material need and spiritual lack in the rest of the world, we will have walked a selfish path and committed the great treason that is taking our privilege for granted.
      The Buddha, after achieving pure enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, did not choose to live out the rest of his days in spiritual solitude, though he would have most certainly been at peace had he chose to do so. Instead, he acted as a mentor to others, using his profound spiritual experience to give back to the world. In that simple choice, he defined the nature of Buddhism; to this day, compassion, through spiritual and material means, is a cornerstone of the Buddhist faith.
      I don't mean to say that we are all Buddha (although Buddhists would say just that), but the message is the same. We are all lost and wandering souls in a great, big, chaotic world—spirituality (and I am specifically saying 'spirituality' instead of religion) it is implicit upon the human condition. Our personal experiences with that spirituality may take many forms, go by many names, or perhaps even be entirely unnamed and indescribable, but at their core, they all derives from the same place.
      For me, as a child of privilege, the transcendentalist experience is what called to me most, what first caught my mind and captivated my imagination. After years of my own small and quiet rebellions against society, my many moments and hours of personally-reflective solitude, I honestly hope that I have begun the process of sharing part of myself with the rest of the world. I don't believe that the cycle of turning inwards and outwards with ever stop—it is a process that will likely continue until the day I die. But with every turn of that wheel, may it take me one step closer to being that much more at harmony with myself and that much more selfless towards the world.

From Walden,
little hupo

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Revolution for the Post-Modern Age

       The next revolution will certainly be televised, but when it is, it will already be old news. Long before the cameras and the reporters arrive in the midst of the action, it will have been Facebook-ed and tweeted and Instagram-ed around the entire planet, probably even before any one has any idea what's really going on. It will enter the incessant global data-dump alongside pictures of cats, status updates about "goin out wit da girlz", and news-feed sports statistics, where it will be left for the sifting by ordinary people, journalists and governments alike.

       In a way, this makes it all sounds cheap: the story of people in some distant country facing armed police repression being prioritized just below those comforts and mindless indulgences of privileged youth. But in another way, what could possibly be more authentic, more free? What has the capacity to generate more potential social-energy, and around the entire world, not just in some urban square or on a single university campus?

       What would Trotsky think?

       Speaking as a member of this young generation, a thoroughbred child of the technology age, it seems almost unimaginable to try and conceive of a world without such limitless capabilities. And yet, social media are simply the newest manifestations of the already explosive monster that is the internet. We've become used to having our news, whether merited or inane, in less than an instant and are enraged when it is not. 

       How quickly the world owes us something that didn't even exist 5 years ago. 
       However, this is more than just a technological surrogate for social interaction or another source of inexhaustible entertainment; or at least it can be. While yes, most of us are still preoccupied with the innocuous details of our everyday life, and while yes, most of the internet is pornography (perhaps the truest and most blatant representation of human priorities), there is a whole other facet to this phenomenon and that is how social media is being harnessed by youth as a weapon against oppression and injustice.

       The world is shrinking through globalization and commodification and neo-liberalism, but if we ever had any delusions that such comprehensive and unbalanced economic and social changes would spread across the world without a stir, let these past few years be our evidence to the contrary. We have felt such a backlash before, in any number of countries and theaters, and the mighty US military has responded in kind (with variable support form the UN, NATO and our allies). But the game is changing and there are not enough bullets or bombs in the world for what is coming.

       The internet is the Trojan horse of the new-age revolution, but instead of Troy, it is the household and the consciousness of any and every person with internet access that is being infiltrated. These are the new unexplored frontiers, the wild and uncharted depths of human democracy with no one holding the reins. There are no more gatekeepers.

       But don't get me wrong, it is not for lack of trying. The laundry-list of scandals, from Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, the work of Anonymous and now the latest with Edward Snowden, show just how easy it is for any person with basic knowledge of a computer and a legitimate bone to pick to severely disrupt the government's attempts to command and manipulate the flow of information. There is just so much information out there, being multiplied exponentially on a daily basis, that the only way to try and control it all is by adopting increasingly authoritarian and invasive measures. 

       In the old days, a government's propaganda department printed and disseminated just the information it wanted, subtly silencing those dissenting voices (union workers, communists, anarchists, etc.) by other means. Today, such a feat is absolutely impossible despite the best efforts of the Obama administration or anyone else. The number of "dissenting voices" has grown beyond the limits of activists handing out pamphlets in the streets. Dissent itself has been re-born in the modern age, baptized into the secular cult of the internet along with WikiLeaks and Facebook. Amen.

       The internet has opened a new arena, an Emma Goldman-type anarchist space in both structure and function, and, in that sense at least, perhaps the purest democracy in the world. It is building bridges across continents, connecting causes, creating relationships, and raising consciousness to the point that the traditional role of the state in this area and many others is being slowly renegotiated and not on its terms. On ours.

       For the powers that be, in the absence of effective top-down approaches to information control, the best alternative is a flanking maneuver that strikes at cultural and human weaknesses. It's a let-them-eat-cake sort of philosophy, and, in at least some cases, it does well to take up the slack that autocratic measures inevitably leave behind. By indulging our inclination for entertainment over self-awareness, our love of concise answers that don't challenge too radically our well-constructed and fragile world-view, this other method has proven quite potent. The idea is that instead of controlling the information-flow, any particular government, regime, or administration will simply add to it, but with a louder, more appealing, and well-funded voice of its own.

       In the US, it seems the major news agencies have been co-opted (hijacked and violated is more like it) by corporate interests, which by happy coincidence happen to mirror the government's own interests. They provide their castrated, doctored versions of news, call it thorough and impartial, and sell it like they would a cup of Starbucks coffee (and at as equally an absurd a price). The false controversy they present as "unbiased reporting" mimics the perverted and catty nature of our own bipolar political system, but like any reality television show where the caricatured participants fight over scraps of cheap, momentary fame, it adequately satisfies the needs for entertainment and so we go seeking no further.

       It is a coordinated effort between governments, corporations, and our own complacent dispositions, and it is very effective. Still, it is impossible (or at least imprudent) to ignore the fact that there are many corners of this world where such an inflated message is drowned out in the light of bigger forces. Take the recent protests in Brazil and Turkey, for instance.

       As opposed to the protests and civil disobedience that characterized the US during the civil rights movement and Vietnam war, and the independence movements of former colonies following World War II, this new age of protests seems to be less centralized on a specific issue, less organized and more spontaneous. These characteristics can be good or bad, depending on a number of factors, but regardless of their merit, this seems to be the reality of modern social upheaval.

       The protests in Brazil and Turkey were both set off by relatively minor issues (rising bus fares and the bulldozing of a park, respectively). These seemingly insignificant problems mushroomed into mob protests against government corruption, authoritarianism, globalization, poverty, inequality, racism, and oppression, literally overnight. It took a small crack in the government armor to open the flood-gates to enormous nationwide explosions of pent-up popular discontent. There was no planning, little warning, and hardly any preparation on the part of either governments or demonstrators. These protests, in both their spontaneity and comprehensiveness, would likely not have been possible without the communicative capabilities of social media and the internet.

       This is the power that an ordinary person now has at hand: a high school kid in the West Bank can video tape Israeli brutality against Palestinians on his cell phone and upload it to Facebook in an instant. Before that offending soldier even gets back to base there is an international scandal with human rights groups and a couple hundred thousand views. This is unprecedented individual power, unimaginable social potential, and we are all still learning, governments and citizens alike, how to capitalize on this largely untapped vein of energy.

       Here is another example, one a little closer to home for me. I am a Peace Corps volunteer serving in a remote and isolated community in the relatively unheard of South American country of Paraguay. In my community electricity is sporadic, running water unreliable, poverty ubiquitous, and education nominal at best. And yet, thanks to modern cell phones and cell phone towers, I can access the entirety of human history and culture without leaving my little brick hovel. Any one of my neighbors can do the same with a cheap Korean-made laptop and a jury-rigged internet modem. In the backwaters of underdeveloped and impoverished countries, people are coming online in huge numbers. The internet is no longer just a luxury of the privileged elite, it is increasingly becoming the forum of disenfranchised people as well, the very marginal populations onto which this world has externalized its most egregious costs.

       I am not trying to say that all the information being put out there on the internet is somehow inviolably valuable or true or inspired. But somewhere in that massive chaos of information sharing exist nuggets of clarity, of reality, of truth. It might be buried or obfuscated or overshadowed by an amazing amount of disinformation, but that is the case with any truth anywhere. History textbooks go out of date as fast as Science textbooks, and that is saying something.

       What we can say about this new information age is that never before has the truth existed with such abundance and variety and possibility; and at the same time, never has there been so much untruth heaped on top of it to cover it up. But combine that truth with the human-energy that social media has released, and the result is bound to be real Truth.

       What the Arab Spring showed us, what perhaps these new protests in Egypt are showing us (led by the fearlessness and defiance of art), is that while success is not a guaranteed outcome of these new-age, internet-sparked revolutions, it is a definite and undeniable possibility. The unstoppable reality is that the world is getting younger, smarter, and more connected; the future doesn't look bright for the dictators, autocrats, and entrenched powers of this world.

       The vanguard of political control has always been education, information indoctrination from the earliest age. As the US continually de-funds and destroys its educational system and as education in many countries remains locked in a traditional "pedagogies of oppression", the shackles are being circumvented in other ways thanks to the internet. It is fomenting a social-geology that thrusts up from the core a million little active volcanoes that aren't definitively going to erupt, that might not even be that dangerous if they do, but just as well they may lay waste to our political order like a modern day Pompeii.

       Whether this internet-phenomenon becomes complacent like Huxley's Brave New World or authentic and revolutionary is yet to be seen. One thing is for certain: it will not be contained. It will writhe against the bars of any Orwellian dystopia that might try to control it.