In the evenings in the fall, after the mosquitoes have hatched in biblical droves, the campesino houses of my community are thick with smoke and the smell of pine and earth. The locals burn tin pans full of Paulo Santo wood, wagering lungs full of ash and bloodshot eyes in a bet to deter the hoards bugs and flies. The dirt roads fill with the smoke like valleys full of fog while the last strands of sunlight dance with it through the forest and I know that it is a smell and a feeling that will forever bring me back to this place. It’s this time of year, after the heat of summer has broken and the groundwater has cooled to the point of being perpetually surprising on the lips, that I feel cradled and loved by this country.
The summer in the Plata Basin is a harsh and sadistic time and it sucks the life out of your pores. That South American sun taps you like a maple tree and drains the sap from your veins, drinking it up one bead of sweat at a time. But once those days have faded, once you have survived the harrowing ordeal of feeling your insides wither, it’s nothing but breezy beautiful days that lounge comfortably on the land. Then it is only the passing rains that provide a break in this pulse of autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. In the fall, each morning blossoms from the horizon with yellow pedals that unfold between the trees. The air is cool like crisp apples and you can almost taste the cinnamon in your chest as you breathe.
In the winter days it will get cold, sometimes frosting the grass and chastising those hopeful crops either left in the ground too long or planted too early for their own good. Yet, even these days are so much more manageable that those peak days of the deep summer. You see, when you wake to a summer sun, you know that the already hot morning will only lead to an even more unbearably hot afternoon; but in the winter, you can sip your maté and bundle by a wood fire, knowing that the afternoon will inevitably bring with it ideal hammock-napping weather. And there are precious few things in the world better than a cozy hammock nap with a good book. Weather like this is redemption. It keeps me grounded, it makes me feel more Latin American (that Cuban side of me swells and smiles), like I belong here or in the very least that I am welcomed as an old friend.
And yet, what a strange contrast that an internet connection can yield when you live in such a remote area as I do. Whatever efforts to be present in this place, no matter how accommodating the weather may be, are always at odds with that periodic reminder that I am living another life, that there is a whole other "me" out there whose home is in the northeast United States, whose mother cooks pecan pies when the leaves begin to change, and whose addiction to black coffee sets a stronger tempo than the seasons.
In my mind, I can easily reconcile that these are just different facets of the same person, and at the same time, I am well aware that straddling these two alter-egos is a torturous and unsustainable practice. In a way, I know that I must choose which vessel to inhabit at any one time, not because one is superior to the other, but simply for the sake of happiness and effectiveness given the outrageous differences between the two environments to which they are adapted.
On one hand, staying connected to that other person (via the internet and other such forms of communication) helps me maintain a grasp on reality. I am able to reach out and sense that distant and fast-paced world that in so many ways could not be more different than this place. Things are happening, the earth keeps turning, issues are being debated, and important events continue to unfold. I can at least observe it all even though it might feel as if I am watching from the opposite side of a plate-glass window.
Part of me feels left out as the world at home keeps passing by and it can be slightly disconcerting, especially considering that I am the kind of person who always wants to be in the thick of the action. I miss being that other “me”, I miss the thrill of intellectual discussion and libraries stacked endlessly with musty, age-scented books, I miss my friends and family, I miss walking through the woods that I grew up in, I miss picking up the morning paper, I miss the smell of bacon waking me up. And despite all of that aching nostalgia (made all the more poignant by a portable internet modem and computer), at this point in my life, I would choose to be this Paraguayan me any day.
I love this country and it loves me in it’s own strange way. And my days here are limited, so I am trying to drink each one to the point of inebriation. In so many ways, this is an indescribably greater education than I could have ever received in any university stateside. It is enlightening and real and a continuous lesson on perspective and understanding (as much so about the world as about myself). The ultimate result of living this sort of alternate-life is that I am discovering more about who I really am than I could have ever found if I had stayed “home”. These two awkward, wandering boys—the different parts of myself—are just faces of the same coin and it is infinitely more complex, resilient, and capable than I could have ever imagined. It’s just that I have had to travel halfway around the world to figure that all out.
When I really center myself in this place, when my little brick hovel feels most like my home and my neighbors more like family than friends, I settle into a rhythm and a mindset that is the closest to an inner-peace that I have ever known. It’s a combination of the lifestyle and the pace of life and the calm with which the bird-sung days pass into cricket-sung nights. It’s within this cocoon that I am aware the smallest of details, like the changes in the breeze or the variable retorts of the each and every farm animal, and I sense them with my whole body.
My actions are smooth, my thoughts are light, and these strange tongues which I am still learning to speak slip easily from lips to jumble naturally with the rivers of conversation that flow around me. This place is teaching me to see, to smell, to hear, to listen all over again. It’s teaching me what is really important and daily showing me how beautiful life can be no matter what material things you might lack. It is generous and selfless and it is helping me to become a better person with every passing day and with even the smallest of human interactions. Through this experience, through this crazy Paraguayan life I am living, I know that I will be given much more than I will give. But maybe at least, once the dust settles and I have gone back to being “me” again, it will be with a bigger heart and bigger hands, so that as I continue with my life, I can do so with a greater empathy, a greater resolve to help others, and a greater ability to carry my share of the burden in a world that is as abundant in its beauty as in its suffering.
But oh, how these evenings in the fall strum my soul like a song.