Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Family in Paraguay

         I have cried three times in my Peace Corps service. 
       The first time was during my initial months in site on the night that my long-distance girlfriend broke up with me. I cried, not because I lost her, but because I felt so completely and utterly alone. The second time I cried was a few weeks ago directly following my harrowing trip home across chaotic terrain without shoes that took me many many hours and at least one bottle of wine and all the determination I possessed. I cried because I was so relieved, so happy to have beat the storm, to have made it home. The third time I cried was two days ago when I walked over to visit my 80-year old neighbor and best friend only to find him on the doorstep of death. I cried because I was helpless to do anything about the excruciating pain he was in, because I realized how close I had gotten to this old man and how sad it would be to loose him.

       Don Zaccarias and I drink maté together twice a day, every day: for an hour each morning as the sun rises and for an hour every night as the sun sets. This has been his personal ritual for almost all of the 80 years he has been alive; it has become our ritual for these past two years. Occasionally, I miss a day here or there—on the mornings when I decide to sleep in because of the rain or on nights when I am too busy that I get home long after the sun already left—but I know that, no matter where I may be or what I may be doing, Don Zaccarias will be at home sipping slowly from his aged, wooden guampa and saving a seat for me in case I turn up. It is the sort of thing that makes this place feel most like a home, it helps to set a rhythm to my otherwise unpredictable life, it keeps me grounded in this place when I feel myself drifting.
       Topics of conversation during these calm hours sipping yerba can range from typical Paraguayan themes such as the weather and crops and futbol clubs, to much more profound issues like politics (most of my schooling on the Paraguayan political landscape happens during these times) or religion. 
       Over the course of two years, I have been privy to a narration, piece by piece, of almost his entire life: where he was born and the places he has lived and the work he has done, his siblings and their own stories, what life was like in 1930's Paraguay and during the wars (with Bolivia—the Chaco war—and the various civil wars after that) and then under the dictatorship. I have had the unique opportunity to listen to this man, to hear his thoughts on a life lived in a South American country, a life lived in poverty, a life of sweat and work and toil but a good life nonetheless with so much joy and fulfillment and happiness, real genuine happiness.
       Sometimes, we spend these hours in almost complete silence while we pass the yerba, listen to the birds, watch the sky. It is not awkward at all, in fact, it is these quiet hours that are almost the most comfortable of all.
       My relationship with Don Zaccarias has grown over the time I have lived here and what it has become does not surprise me upon further reflection. For those who know me well, they know that my father's father, my Grandfather Machado, my Cuban grandfather, is one of the most important and influential people in my life. I became so close to my grandfather by spending so many countless hours with him seated on the porch of that green house in the suburbs just outside of Washington DC while he told me stories of his life over a glass of wine.
       For those who know me well, they also know all of the stories my grandfather once told me, because I often retell them as if they were my own. In a way they are; sometimes I recall them for my own needs, when I seek guidance or wisdom or just a good, honest laugh, or when I am most homesick during my travels. They are a prism through which I can relate to my grandfather, and through him, a way that I relate to and perceive the world. So it is no surprise that after two years in Paraguay and a series of fateful events, I have come to view Don Zaccarias as my Paraguayan-grandfather; I regard him with the same respect and friendship as my grandfather at home. It would be hard to imagine my life without my Grandfather Machado; it would be just as hard to imagine my life in Peace Corps without Don Zaccarias.

       On Wednesday evening, after two days of missing our daily maté sessions, I went over to Don Zaccarias's house to catch up with him. He was seated by the hearth in that little wooden shack where we often share yerba on cold mornings when the fire is as comforting and necessary as the maté and the company. As I entered through the doorway, blackened by years of smoke, he looked up at me and immediately I could tell there was something terribly wrong with him: he didn't smile.

       “Mba'e la porte chera'a” How's it going, my friend.
       “Iva'itere'i la porte, iva'i” Very bad, very bad.

       Don Zaccarias was hunched over on a small stool, his face was swollen so that his eyes could barely open, his legs and feet as well as abdomen were severely distended and he could barely speak. His daughter, who was tending to the fire and cooking a diner explained that he hadn't been able to eat or drink for three days and that he was in immense pain.
       They had gone to the doctor a few days prior, the local clinica that they could afford, only a few kilometers away on a motorcycle, but across a treacherous and washed-out dirt road. The local nurse had given him some medicine that so far had not helped at all. Indeed, his condition seemed to have worsened significantly. They returned to the clinic the day before and the doctor had informed him that there was nothing to be done. So without the money or the means for more treatment, Don Zaccarias had returned home to wait it out, to wait to recuperate, or to wait to die.
        That night, the whole family (some ten members of it at least) and some neighbors and I sat with Don Zaccarias around the fire. He wasn't able to move from that spot due to the pain. It was a sort of surreal experience: everyone thinking of the inevitability, an inevitability that we could all see on the Don's face, but no one saying anything about it. There was nothing to be done anyway. We all sat and talked like we normally would, munching on mandioca, smoking cigarettes, drinking yerba. At a certain point, I didn't know what else to do, so I grabbed my guitar and just started playing for the group to lighten the mood, to ease the obvious tension masked by the facade of normality.

       How does one overcome death? When they accept its reality and carry-on in spite of it.

       Around seven in the evening, we received a call from the newly elected Senator of our Cordillera district, a close friend of the family who had visited our home several times over the course of the previous election season as well as one time since then. Once Don Zaccarias's situation seemed dire, the family had sent out a call to whatever sources they could draw from; the Senator was one of them. He was sending a car to pick up Don Z and take him to the capital of Asuncion to see a specialist. He was going to pay for his treatment or at least the care it would take to help the old man end his days painlessly and with dignity. It took several hours, but just after ten a mud-covered pick-up truck arrived. We laid Don Zaccarias across the back seat for what would most certainly be a very bumpy and painful four-hour ride back to the city across unpaved roads. It was no ambulance, but even this was service that most people in the campo, few people other than Don Zaccarias at least, would have access to.
       Don Zaccarias has been in the hospital for a few days now. We received a few calls from his daughter during this time. The first night and day seemed quite difficult, according to her, Don Z almost didn't make it. But since receiving some treatment, he seems to be pulling through. He will be in the hospital for two more weeks, but the doctor's seem confident now that at least he will survive. Thank god he is a devout socialist (the Senator who came to our aid was running on the ticket of Frente Guazu, the Paraguayan socialist coalition) and voted so in the past election, otherwise who knows where he would be right now.

       I have a lot of thoughts and emotions about this whole story, this whole situation. I am still processing many of them, but I feel it is important to share a few of them as I am going through them instead of waiting for them to pass and then reflecting.
       In the US, we seem to have this sort of pathological animosity towards universal health care and what the conservative world calls “socialism”. And even if I disagree with this conservative platform, I used to be able to at least understand the origins of their concern (even if I was still amazed at the way it became manifest in their rhetoric and their politics). Now I realize that there is no merit in this opposition to so called “socialism”. 
       Something like universal health care is not put in place to curtail freedoms, it is put in place to help people in society (and there are many people in American society as poor as Don Zaccarias) who cannot possibly do so themselves. It helps them to live with dignity, to survive with dignity and to die with dignity, instead of writhing in pain and agony until death mercifully takes them. Such policies are not about you or me, they are about other people, people without such privilege or opportunity, and if you oppose such measures you are either too selfish, too naïve or too indoctrinated to realize what it really means to not be able to afford medical care. I hope the above story helps illustrate at least a part of that reality.
       For those who contend that 'everyone can help themselves in America, with all it's freedom and liberty, and if they can't they are just lazy'--no, that is wrong, you are blind to the realities of the world, you don't understand poverty and the absolute abject conditions it entails, the cycle of helplessness it breeds, and you have such little compassion for your fellow man so as to refuse even marginal increases on your taxes to help provide the minimum amount of care to suffering people. What a good Christian nation we live in. Give me a fucking break. Jesus would be disgusted.
       On another note, and almost entirely unrelated, the shear emotional shock I received during this past week at the prospects of loosing Don Zaccarias have shown me how much this place has become a home to me. I miss family and friends from the states, but in their absence and in this once foreign-context, I have come to develop my own support structure, my own family of people I care about, of people whom I rely on, and whom I go to for help and advice. I have a family here in Paraguay. 
       I don't think I dwell too much on the prospect of actually leaving this place—surely I have considered the next part of my life after Peace Corps, but I in my mind I never went though the thoughts of having to say goodbye to these people, goodbye for a long time. I am realizing now that such a thing will not be so lightly undertaken, that perhaps it will be so much harder to leave this place than it was to come here in the first place.
       Just this morning, one of the grandchildren came over to my house to ask how I was doing. Fine I responded, why do you ask? He told me that Don Zaccarias had been asking about me from the hospital, he was worried that I might be upset and wanted to make sure I was doing alright. I was touched, happy to know my best friend was feeling better, but also that he was concerned for me despite his own condition. Like I said, I have a family here in Paraguay.
       Lastly, I have been thinking more and more about the idea of death and how we must all come to terms with it at some point in our lives. As I watched Don Zaccarias for those hours that we sat by the fire, I could tell there was worry in him, but that seemed to come more from the physical pain than the prospect of dying. No doubt, if it were not for that call from the Senator and the help he was able to give, Don Zaccarias would not have made it much longer without medical care. I don't know that for a fact obviously, I am not a doctor, but it was something that I felt in my bones as that night slowly dragged on. I think he felt it too and yet, he seemed full of a sort of calm and acceptance. At one point he told me that the previous Saturday, the last time we had shared maté together, was the last time he was able to drink anything at all. He smiled at me and repeated, “el ultimo vez”--the last time. It was a bittersweet and fleeting moment. But at least now I can rest assured that maybe it wasn't the last time, that perhaps there will be many more. Jahechata.

From Paraguay,
little hupo

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Closer Look at Poverty in Guido Almada

       Having lived in Guido Almada for almost 2 years now, its interesting to reflect upon those small details that I have come to use as indicators of any particular family's relative well-being. I haven't at any point tried to consciously compile this list, it is simply the product of fairly consistent observation. And with a limited amount of experience with poverty across other societies, I would be willing to postulate that at least a few of these indicators are somewhat generalizable, but certainly others are much more context specific to Paraguay, and even more so, to this community.  
       Before I start, I should note that everyone of my neighbors in this community is living below the poverty line as far as OXFAM or the World Bank is concerned, there is no doubt about that. Between the poorly constructed and negligibly maintained physical infrastructure, the inaccessibility of medical care and the absence of even minimal financial stability, one of the only things that people here seem to have in excess, other than yerba maté, polka music and hospitality, is basic material lack. But even in such a situation, no single prescription could be dolled out to alleviate the specific needs of each and every family or individual. Sure, there are certain universal needs, or at least many needs that could be addressed by a single particular initiative, but people's material dispositions are as unique to those individuals as those people are unique themselves.
       The point I am trying to make here is that even a seemingly straightforward concept such as “poverty” is deceptively difficult to define and infinitely multifaceted once you get to the household and personnel level. Yes, all my neighbors are living below the poverty line, but the nuance and variation even within this single community is startling—sometimes it is as clear as night and day, other times it is so subtle as to be almost invisible, at least to someone on the outside. Its for that reason, the variability, that certain indicators can be of enormous help when working with families and trying to understand their specific situation, although as with everything else, it is always important to regard any generalizations with reasonable skepticism.
       Typically, in Paraguay at least, I have found that the less Spanish that people are able to understand or speak, the more economically worse-off they tend to be (this is hardly an absolute fact, but I have found it a good general rule of thumb). Also, the number of ribs you can count on the family dogs tend to correlate quite well with malnutrition and poverty—if the dogs aren't eating enough, its a fairly safe bet that the children and parents aren't either—the more ribs you count, the more abject the condition. As well, the materials used to construct the home create a rough sort of spectrum of familial affluence. In the following list (1) is meant to represent the most relative affluence while (7) is meant to represent the least:
  1. Brick house with a tile roof and concrete floors.
  2. Brick house with a tin roof and concrete floors.
  3. Wooden-slat house with tin roof and concrete floors.
  4. Wooden-slat house with tin roof and dirt floors.
  5. Wooden-slat house with thatch-grass roof and dirt floors.
  6. Wood-brick house with tin roof and dirt floors.
  7. Wood-brick house with thatch-grass roof and dirt floors.
       A quick sidenote on housing construction: the materials used to construct each home also tend to indicate the relative time spent living in that particular location. In other words, families will invest in their homes over time and make improvements such as adding concrete floors or putting corrugated-tin (chapas in Spanish) over thatch-grass roofing. This, as well as affluence, are influential factors when considering the construction of the home.
       There are several others indicators as to a family's material condition as well. Students who show up to school without shoes are probably from pretty poor families. There are also plenty of neighborhood kids with only one pair of shoes (for the boys it is always soccer cleats) that they wear everywhere. Children with bulging bellies or disproportionate bodies indicate malnutrition, or at least improper nutrition, usually caused by too many carbohydrates and too few proteins, vitamins and essential minerals. Still, it's always better to have a full belly than an empty one, and even if it is just starchy, carb-rich, nutrient-poor mandioca, it is better than nothing.
       And while my community is lucky enough to have at least nominally running water (it only tends to work, and with unpredictable pressure, about 25% of the time), there are many families who live in areas where the pipes have not been laid or have broken and have not yet been fixed (there is no such thing as municipal water service). These parts of the community tend to be less well-off and as a result, also show a higher incidence of issues pertaining to poor hygiene and malnutrition. On some children, skin-borne parasites, especially of the feet and scalp, are quite common and can sometimes be attributed to lack of shoes and/or access to clean water. The same can be said for any number of quite obvious dental and/or oral diseases. Even in children as young as 5 or 6, missing teeth, gum diseases, and untreated cavities are commonplace. Among older teens and adults, it is fairly rare to have a full set of teeth.
       So that is what I have come to use as my general breakdown in understanding the relative poverty of people and families in my community. As I have said, it is far from universal and inviolable, but over the course of 2 years it has changed and evolved to better encapsulate the details and variation lumped together under the word “poverty”. Perhaps some examples would help in better illustrating this idea.
  •        There is a child in the school in Guido Almada and you can tell just from looking at him that the prepackaged rice and beans that they serve the kids for lunch is pretty much the only thing he gets to eat all day. I don't know this for a fact because he lives down one of the side roads of my community, several kilometers from the school building and close to the small cemetery, an area I don't often venture. In this part of town, the houses are hidden away in the trees and are as hard to find as they are spread out. El monte, the locals call it and the families who live down there hardly speak a word of Spanish. I don't think he owns a single pair of shoes because the sores on his feet are always raw and blistering, sometimes bleeding openly, but he loves it when I read story books to the class even though I am fairly sure he only half-understands it all.

  •        My neighbor is named Antonio Garcia and you would think that, being a Paraguayan male, he would be of the same stereotypical machismo mold as the rest. In fact he is quite the different. His wife has a brain tumor and despite her operation, which the family saved for many months to afford, she is likely living on borrowed time. There is not enough family income to afford the chemotherapy that a full treatment would require and as a result, the tumor is regressing slowly. As if that weren't burden enough, the youngest daughter of the family had an accident several years ago in which she broke her foot. Since she was not able to receive proper medical care at the time, the injury healed improperly with the bone setting at a terrible angle that makes simply walking difficult. Several weekends ago, Don Garcia finally took this child to have her ankle re-broken and re-set properly. Her recovery is at least more certain than her mother's although both have drawn heavily on the very paltry family finances. Their house is made of thatch-grass and there are gaps in the wooden-board walls big enough to fit entire other wooden boards. When I work at their home, either in the fields or around the house, we always eat vegetarian but not because of dietary considerations, just because meat is expensive.

  •        There are three cars in my community owned by three different families. Two belong to Don Martin and his brother, the community merchant and carpenter, respectively. Don Martin uses the vehicle as transport for goods that he buys wholesale from the nearest city. If it weren't for him, our very isolated community would be that much more cut off in terms of foodstuffs and other important items (light-bulbs, toilet paper, metal wire, flour, yerba etc.); most other people can't afford the trip to the city too often. The third car belongs to a family at the other end of the community, a tobacco growing family who had a few fortuitous years some time back and were able to sell off enough land and successful crop yields to fix up their home and buy a vehicle. The wife of the family came to me quite distraught one day because she was visited by a gentleman from the Paraguayan census bureau. He took inventory of the house and informed her, apparently to her surprise, that she was in fact living below the poverty line. She was unsure what to do with this news considering her perspective that, compared to her neighbors (one of which is Don Garcia), she felt their family was living quite high and mighty. It was certainly a very strange situation for me because, despite the fact that I am a privileged middle-class American boy, I have somewhat lost my own bearings after living here for so long. I always took this family to be quite pretentious and eager to flaunt their wealth but this was the first time it occurred to me that the appearance of their affluence was largely a function of contrast and that on a more absolute scale, especially in comparison to me, they were still living in poverty.

  •        The family in my community who I am closest to, the family that took me in when I first arrived, who always welcome me with smiles and open arms also happens to be one of the poorest. For a long while, it wasn't quite clear why the Viallalbas were so unfortunate, especially considering that other members of the extended family were doing relatively well all considering, but eventually the picture became clearer. Some people in my community own land, others only rent. Not owning land might seem like a small detail to those of us who do not rely directly on it for sustenance, but when that land functions as your only source of employment and income as well as your grocery store, you will find that having to pay rent simply for its use is like having to pay a tax every time you want to eat. One day, I went to visit this family only to find that their house appeared to have been ransacked. What had happened, in reality, is that their youngest son Lino has some sort of medical ailment (perhaps epilepsy, but I am not sure exactly) where he experiences severe seizures. The family, in order to pay for the costs of tests and medicine to treat their youngest son, was forced to sell off almost everything they owned—all livestock (pigs, chickens, cows), their ox-cart and oxen, their TV and radio, even a bed frame. After doing what was necessary to care for their son, the father Ines pulled me aside and asked if he could borrow 50,000 Gs. (approximately $12.50 USD) to pay off the remaining rent on the land for the season; if they couldn't pay the rent, they couldn't use the land, if they couldn't use the land, they couldn't plant anything, if they couldn't plant, they couldn't eat. I lent them the money.

       There are a thousand other stories from my community such as these, a thousand other incidences where I was fortunate enough to have an intimate view of not only these families and who they are, but also of their relative material disposition. All of this, of course, has happened over a long period of time that has afforded me the opportunity to earn trust, build relationships, and to begin the slow process of deconstructing my own personal biases and perspectives to gain a more full understanding of poverty and its many manifestations in this context and in general.
       But just as there is such variation within my community, there is also infinite variation between cultures and societies across the world. When dealing with poverty on a local level, it is always much better to assume nothing, to take the time to listen and understand and to engage people with an open mind and an open heart. While this is usually not the fastest way towards solving such problems, it is certainly the safest and most comprehensive way to address not only symptoms but also the underlying causes of poverty. In the end, this is the kind of change that is needed anyway, not just band-aids but actual systemic remedies.
       One thing that I can say is universal, no matter the community, the country or the socioeconomic position, is the fact that all people think and feel and love and hurt about the same; people are people and deserve to be treated with the dignity and respect afforded all human beings.

From Guido Almada,
little hupo

Monday, May 20, 2013

A General Breakdown of Time Spent in Peace Corps

      After countless hours and tireless research, the following breakdown of time spent in Peace Corps has been derived. Percentages were rounded to the nearest whole integer. Calculations allow for a 1% margin of error, plus and minus:

  •       48% of Peace Corps is spent surviving—that is going through the daily necessities of getting-by, preparing food, tending the garden and the field, washing clothes by hand, making sure there is enough water stored for drinking and bathing, extracting parasites from my feet, mending other inexplicable medical ailments, and other such menial activities that I once took for granted back when I had a decent apartment, good plumbing, socially-acceptable hygiene, reliable electricity and the ever present option of ordering food for delivery.

  •       18% of Peace Corps is spent traveling—traveling on shitty, overcrowded, lucky-if-you-can-get-a-seat, white-knuckle buses that leave at the most ungodly hours (if at all), stuffed full of assorted goods and live animals and Paraguayans and babies (how can there always be so many fucking babies?), with no AC and broken windows that don't open, all for the sake of accomplishing the most seemingly simple tasks.

  •       22% of Peace Corps is spent in conversation—endless conversation with neighbors and friends, trying desperately to understand and respond but realizing slowly that some days, even after almost 2 years, both languages are still unbelievably incomprehensible to me, conversations that are seemingly as unproductive now as they were so many months ago, conversations that invoke personal existentialist crises by rapidly descending the ladder of cultural relativity, challenging the absolute meaning of words and language and my very role in the universe, all of this just because I can't seem to figure out how to convey the message, “No, seriously, we are SERIOUSLY going to have a meeting this weekend at 8:00. Seriously. You better fucking be there this time.”

  •       11% of Peace Corps is spent smoking cigars and drinking wine—time for personal reflection on the madness that is life, both within the Peace Corps bubble but also more generally in the world as a whole. This is the time I spend by myself, in a kind of isolation that I had never experienced up until I came to this country, a kind of solitude that cannot ever be adequately described to someone who has never felt it, a loneliness that once terrified me and haunted me and weighed heavily on my waking hours, but has since become a sort of sanctuary for my soul.

  • And finally, slightly less than 1% of the time is spent in that kind of cross-cultural bliss when projects finally come together, when people in my community realize what they've been working for, realize what I've been working for, when I see and feel the difference, both big and small, that I've made in this little forgotten community in the middle of nowhere. This is the time for which I have sacrificed 2 years of my life, the time when the children are all giddy and singing (as opposed to stealing shit from my garden or just staring at me), time when I am playing a game of school-yard soccer with a deflated ball and everyone is happy and laughing. This is the time worthy of an infomercial, the time that they are going to want us to talk about (not the other 99%) when we are all disinfected, parasite-free, cleaned-up RCPV's trying to recruit bright-eyed college students to our ranks, asking with thinly-veiled sarcasm “Life is Calling. How far will you go?”

      People who join the Peace Corps are not saintly or selfless or anything like that. True, we do give years of our lives, our energy, our effort, our bodily health and personal sanity to this program and to thousands of impoverished communities around the world, but if I have learned anything about Peace Corps volunteers while I have been one it is that we all have our own reasons for being here. Sometimes these reasons are noble, or at least some of them might seem that way, but there are plenty of other motivations as well. Regardless, there is a world of difference between having noble aims and actually being able to act on them. Anyway, in Peace Corps, being a caring person who genuinely wants to make a difference in the world only gets you so far.
      I don't mean to sound pessimistic or cynical—I'll admit it right now, I absolutely came into Peace Corps as an idealist with the hopes of making change, and I still am—its just that when reality hits, the reality of what Peace Corps is and the reality of the scope of the problems we are hoping to address as a development organization, the sole and immediate response is a drastic lowering of expectations. Peace Corps volunteers do amazing work, there is no doubt about that (at least, most of us do—there are plenty among us that treat it more like a government-funded study abroad, spending 2 responsibility-free years living off of a monthly stipend). Its a difficult situation: if you try and sell the Peace Corps experience for 100% what it is, few people would likely sign up; if you sell it on that idealized 1%, then you get reasonably good recruitment, but a lot of “what the fuck?” when things get real.
      Not to be cliché, and it pains me to say this, but it is true that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Volunteers suffer through a lot of difficult situations—physically, emotionally, and psychologically—and it is incredibly hard and sometimes it hurts on every level but still, I have heard of no one that asserts that their time in the Peace Corps made them a worse person, that it took something away from them and gave them nothing in return.
      So many people live such lives of comfort (and there is nothing wrong with being comfortable, its just that it doesn't challenge you, it's too easy) that the very notion of living below the poverty line in an impoverished community is dismissed out-of-hand as so undesirable as to be absurd. But it is through just that kind of experience that your entire perspective changes, that you can truly come to understand what it is like to be isolated, to live without clean water, to lack the basic necessities of life, to be cold when it is cold and hot when it is hot and wet when it is raining and yet still find a reason to smile. I am not saying that everyone should go out and join Peace Corps (but if you want to, then by all means...adelante) but we shouldn't shelter ourselves so much in life as to be terrified of struggle, no matter how hard, or of failure, no matter how complete. Otherwise we are complacent and complacency never changed a goddamn thing.
      Peace Corps is not always the idealistic thing that they sell on the recruitment posters at college campuses or that thing all the RPCV's brag about when they get home and wash themselves up a bit. It is such a struggle, such a comprehensive personal challenge, but within that very nature resides all its merits and all its value.
      With 6 more months to go in my 27 month service, I am beginning to get mixed feelings about the notion of going home (although I am sure I will be writing more extensively about this in future blogs). In a way, I am happy to have passed through one more incredibly influential stage in my life—I am ready for the next adventure. But at the same time, I feel like I can never fully repay the debt I owe to the community that has cared for me and housed me and the program that has fostered my experience for the past 2 years. They say that you always get more out of Peace Corps than you put in. I like to think that I have given an awful lot of myself over the past 21 months now, but whatever I am has always been and will always be insignificant in comparison to that which has been selflessly given to me, sometimes by the people that have the very least in the world.

From Paraguay,
little hupo

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Road Home

       I haven't written a blog in several weeks. I don't know, I guess I have been pretty busy and all but its more than that—I've also been feeling a bit crazier than usual. You see, all my thoughts are always there, tossing about in my skull like bag full of marbles, its just that sometimes I find the words to go with them and other times not so much. Its not like writers block or anything like that, its more like loosing myself so much in this life, in the daily reality of it all, that I forget to take notes; some of those things that I once felt so compelled to put to song no longer seem as noteworthy. So at times, it takes a fairly ridiculous experience to jostle me out of the doldrums, to foment the calm waters of those horse-latitudes into the storms that lie just below the surface. And then all of a sudden I find myself at sea, holding-on to a toothpick to keep afloat. It's then that I am really present, really alive, it's then that the words come rushing back to me so I can barely hold back the tide.

       All over Paraguay, its been raining for several days. I had been in the capital, Asuncion, to run a half-marathon on Sunday which ended up being a very wet and drizzly occasion. It wasn't particularly auspicious, or at least not that I was aware of at the time—it was just an overcast race with some distant grumbling thunder thrown in for extra flavor. I got a free bottle of water and a medal for completing the race; afterward we ate pasta. It was fun, but otherwise uneventful, totally normal.
      For those who don't know, to get to my community on a good day takes approximately 6 hours. On a 7:30 bus out of Asuncion, we troll through the city for about an hour picking up passengers until every seat and the entire aisle is packed to the point of absurdity. Then, loaded with Paraguyans, at least one American (me), and always a seemingly improbable number of babies, we charge through San Lorenzo and up the cerro that over-looks Lake Ypucarai, making our way east along Ruta 2. By about 10:30 or 11 we arrive in Coronel Oviedo, the crossroads of Paraguay but an otherwise completely forgettable city, where we usually pick up even more people, luggage and occasionally small animals and livestock (buses in this country are never full). From there it is another hour and a half north on Ruta 7 until we reach the small town of Carajao.
      Here is where it gets tricky. I get off the first bus (which continues north) and need to catch a second bus, the Cleto Romero campo bus, some rundown, rusted-out shell of a vehicle that I have had to change tires on and/or push more times than I care to recall (and yes, the driver still makes me pay full bus fare). The biggest problem, apart from the general road-worthiness of the bus itself, is that the next leg of my journey is 30 kilometers along a dirt road—not a huge feat when it has been sunny and dry for a week or so, but an enormous accomplishment when it has rained even remotely recently, or when its even especially humid.
      On rainy days, and for days following the rain, this bus will not even attempt to run. For those who wish to make it from our little oasis of a community to the nearest paved road despite the weather, it is either on motorcycle, horseback, ox-cart (exceedingly slow) or on foot. I have had to walk that 30 kilometers (roughly 18 miles), in part or in full, as much as I have had to push that decrepit little bus. On a good day, like I said, the whole trip can about 6 hours. Up until yesterday my previous record was 10 hours (that was the one day I walked the entire 30 k carrying my backpack and a chair). As of yesterday, my new personal record for number of hours it has taken me to get home is 14. All of this, mind you, to cover total distance of about 160 kilometers (about 100 miles), all of this just to get home.

      My travels yesterday morning began normal enough with a bus out of the city on its way to Carajao with only the expected delays (picking up passengers, livestock crossing the highway, brief stops at jujo stands for the drivers to top-off their tereré thermos, etc.). Even though it had been raining on and off for several days, I figured that even if the campo bus wasn't running between Carajao and pueblo I might still be able to hitch a ride in the back of a truck that was courageously heading in that direction. I arrived in Carajao on the edge of that mud-road precipice at about noon.
      While I stood on the side of the highway waiting for any passing ride, what was just a cloudy day turned into an absolute deluge. I took shelter under a roof of a wonderful lady from whom I usually bought my produce on my trips back home. As is typical in Paraguay, the woman welcomed me in to share tereré with her family and eat some few-day-old chipa. They asked me about any number of things, discussed every other American they had ever known way-back-when, and of course, offered me their daughters hand (“todovia no tiene ni uno compromiso a otro”)--all the niceties that I have come to expect from the very hospitable Paraguayan culture. At one point even, when her husband had to go off to the field and she had to run an errand down the street, I was left alone to watch their one-and-a-half year old grandson for about an hour.
      But as wonderful as it always is to have a family open-up their home to me, my hopes of returning to my own house began dwindling as the light began draining from the gray sky. All rides turned me down or turned back promptly when they saw the state of the muddy roads. The only person to brave the 30 kilometer gauntlet was the local police office from pueblo, who offered a ride to about 20 other campesinos in the back of his pickup, but who was completely out of room by the time he passed me. I went with my gut and offered him a hefty bribe to use the government paid vehicle and pertrol and come back to pick me up, but he turned me down. 
      For those who understand this country, it should speak volumes as to the absolutely abysmal conditions of this road that a member of the Policia Nacional (the most corrupt organization in an already immensely corrupt country) refused a bribe. He did say that if for any reason he had to make the trek out to town later that day that he would call me and let me know, that I could hitch with him on the way back. Remember this part of the story, it comes up again later.
      I waited in town for a few more hours, eventually meeting up with some younger Paraguayans on their way home to Cleto Romero (my pueblo) from Asuncion. When the sun had all but set they informed me that they would be walking the distance from town to pueblo seeing as no other trucks were likely to pass once the night came. There was no other choice but to walk. I thought about my situation: I didn't have enough money to head back to the nearest hotel, much less to pay and stay the night. More rain was in the forecast until next Sunday, so the roads were only going to get worse. I hadn't eaten anything all day but a cup of black coffee for breakfast and a few pieces of chipa afterward. I was low on cash, low on calories, and low on options. There was only one direction to go—forward, along a precarious dirt road heading out west into the night, towards pueblo, towards the next oncoming storm, towards my home. We started walking.
      Before we left town, I made a decision that I don't entirely regret but was perhaps nonetheless pretty irresponsible. Like I said, I hadn't eaten hardly anything all day and there wasn't much to be had from the local dispensas except shitty cookies and grimy fruit. With my limited funds, I decided to go with the only thing that I knew any and all Paraguayan corner-stores have, the thing that would provide me with some calories to fuel my journey, but—and this is the best part—would make me not really give a shit about the fact that I was walking 30 kilometers barefoot at night and in the rain: wine. 1 dollar, 1 bottle. Off we went.
      We had left town behind, passing the inundated government housing projects on its outskirts at last light. As we passed, it was just bright enough to see the little indigenous campesino families huddled in those concrete structures, each one about the size of the living room in my home back in the states. The houses were built too close together and each family was fire-less, without a dry piece of wood or a dry piece of ground within a few miles, and looked oddly misplaced in those cookie-cutter buildings. 
      They were all barefoot and so was I at the moment and so maybe somewhere inside I felt some sort of kinship with them but more likely than not, that was just the wine talking, cause deep down I know that I am a privileged piece-of-shit and they are the latest manifestation of a once proud indigenous people that the world has fucked and forgotten. But its the same story everywhere, in Paraguay and every other country, sometimes it just catches me by surprise when that reality hits me so hard all at once. So we kept walking. Two more kilometers and the sky was a blackness anyway.
      Its amazing how well you can see when you find yourself in the middle of an utter darkness. On such a night, when the moon never shows up and even the stars are turned off, when the low-hanging clouds obscure any other heavenly light, and the nearest town has been lost over the horizon, the nighttime world takes on a power and life of its own. As primates, we rely heavily on vision and have evolved to be naturally good at seeing in the dark (hence the size of our eyes in comparison to our heads—although not as large as some of our close relatives, especially the nocturnal ones).
     When there is no light to speak of you can really get an appreciation for this, you can see outlines and shapes of things by even the most minute differences in shades of black. The other senses too begin to work in a sort of symbiotic unison, you begin to hear the most subtle things and detect the most delicate changes in wind and warmth, you begin to feel things more as a complete being, not just an information processing organism. The closest thing I could compare it to is scuba diving at night; the physical world around you still exists, but in takes on entirely new dynamic when you must operate more by feel than by reason.
      Still, even as I was marveling at this nocturnal world, I saw ahead of me something darker and more daunting at the edge of the eastern sky. The ceiling above already seemed to me as black as I could imagine, but as this storm started swelling from the opposite horizon I could see the difference between the clouds as if it were day and night; that mile-deep cumulus wall was the Marianas trench, the bottom of the oceanic abyss that we were apparently just going to walk right into. It didn't take long for the lightning to start dancing across the depths and the distant thunder to start rattling the bones. I was beginning to have second thoughts. My phone rang.
      The caller ID read 'Policia, Cleto Romero'. A glimmer of hope. I answered and was met with the sweet-angelic voice of my mostly-toothless local police officer.
      “Mario, moopa nde.”-- “Mario, where are you.
      “Puentepe, roguatahina.”-- “At the bridge, we're walking.”
      “Epyta nde upepe, che ajuhina camionetta ari. Eharo cheve.”--“I am coming in the truck, wait for me.”
      I told my fellow travelers that our salvation was imminent. We put down our bags to wait and I took a few more swigs of wine.
      Within a half-hour, which is a half-a-bottle of wine in my book, the police car showed up. What I had thought would be an empty pickup bed was in fact already full of muddy campesinos, other neighbors that had tried the harrowing walk only to be brought aboard by our own Paraguayan Noah. Hallelujia. We jammed in the back, I grabbed a hold of whatever I could find—a piece of metal framing that I hoped was attached to something but felt an awful lot like it was not. 
      Wine bottle in my other hand, we drove off into the night taking advantage of whatever parts of the road were not completely washed out by kicking it into third-gear and using our momentum to coast us across the parts of the road that were. At several points, we were sideways, at one point totally off the road, and at the other two streams where we had to cross narrow, makeshift-wooden bridges our Policia-messiah was acting more as a glider pilot than a driver. It was chaos and I thought, in all earnestness, that if this is how I go, then I have no one to blame but myself, but at least I have a belly full of wine and some serious adrenaline pumping through my veins. Thanks be to god.
      We arrived in the pueblo of Cleto Romero, my local municipality but still 5 kilometers from my house, at about 7:30 or so. The rest of my neighbors de-trucked and headed home, their journey was over. Not mine. I offered the police office another bribe, not as generous as the first, but the remaining distance was only a few kilometers more. Again he rejected the offer, telling me quite frankly that the next segment of the road was worse, significantly worse than the part we had just crossed. Fuck. I started walking, what other choice did I have.
      At this point, I was already quite muddy, pretty drunk and I could see that looming menace on the horizon—the lightning was getting brighter, the thunder louder. I knew that this was a going to be a timed event. If I was caught in the open when this thing hit, I was fucked fucked fucked fucked fucked. If I made it, it would be only by shear grace and deliverance. For the record, I am not religious nor do I believe in god, but on a night like this when fate and madness are weighing heavily on my soul, I do have a tendency to get a bit biblical. Amen.
      As I walked the road across the marsh the extends between pueblo and my community, I could hear something that I have only heard on a few other occasions during my time here in Paraguay. Under the deafening wail of mating frogs and singing crickets, in between the rolls and crashes of ever-nearer thunder, I could hear the sounds of moving water. You see, when it rains heavy, the marsh actually flows; it is part of a huge flat lowland that is actually bisected by a slow-moving river to the south-west. When its ill-defined banks are overwhelmed, the entire valley between the two communities fills and flows.
      The road was horrendous, I mean absolutely unthinkably impassable. At times, I was in mud, literally, past my knees. I could see the tracks where motorcycles had tried to pass but had gotten stuck and this helped me chart a safer course by process of elimination. It wasn't a perfect method, but the thunder and the lightning was motivation enough that I don't think I have ever moved faster in my life, even despite a huge backpack on my back and one on my front. Then, as I figure would eventually happen, I was confronted with the river itself, parts of the road where the water had nowhere else to go but straight across.
      As a sidenote, this marsh is home to quite a number of deadly snakes (and especially given the weather and road conditions, any bite would have absolutely meant loosing a limb minimally, death more probably). This is also the same marsh in which I had previously gone hunting crocodiles with my neighbors and been warned (after the fact, mind you) about the need to always carry two knives on my person while near the water in case an anaconda would happen to fancy a man-sized snack. The area where the road crosses the marsh is not typically inhabited by such beasts (except for the poisonous snakes) and in all likelihood I was not in any serious danger, but looking back on it all, this might have been a worthwhile consideration.
      None of this, however, was in my mind as I stood at the edge of this temporal steam—I was a little drunk, if you recall. The water was running fast enough that it didn't seem too deep and as I slowly waded across, it never went too far past my knees if I remember correctly. No harm, no foul. I was still about 3 kilometers from home. I crossed another such stream a few hundred meters later, again not much deeper than my knees. Within seemingly no time at all I was a the entrance to my community (thank baby Jesus for the wine to massage my brain into timeless oblivion).
      The storm was peaking in the sky about that time and I could feel and hear those occasional premature raindrops as the randomly pattered the earth around me. I was almost running now, trying to make my way home before the storm started in earnest. That last kilometer, up the slippery muddy hill which I kept sliding back down, and across the sandy-flat that is the highlands upon which my community rests, I was talking myself through the pain in my legs and the cuts on my bare feet. I was sweating like mad even though it was a cool night with a strong southern breeze. 
      I ducked under the roof of my house and tossed my backpacks onto the desk I had made, the desk upon which I am now writing this story. I turned on a light and just as I did, the heavens opened up, the rain came down in sheets, and the storm lit up the sky like the fucking Forth of July. I fell into my chair, my special chair that nobody else likes except for me, and I began washing the dirt and the caked-cast of mud from my feet with the rain water that rolled off the tin-roof.
      I made it. 14 hours later I made it. I was relentless and determined and I wanted so bad just to be home. So here I was. I sat back in my chair, still drunk, but happy and relieved and exhausted and I cried and laughed to myself for a few minutes. I was completely insane, but I was home. I was home.

      Its hard to describe what this little home in the campo of Paraguay means to me. I refinished this place, entirely on my own, fixed up the walls, built the shower and the furniture, ran the electrical. I came to it as a stranger and a foreigner and I made a place for myself in the most unlikely of locations. It is within these four little walls, these 40 square meters, that I feel most safe. This is the only place I wanna be on a rainy day, the only place I wanna wake up in on a sunny morning. It is my place, only mine. It is a sanctuary where I sing and create and write and come to understand the depths of myself. It is the place that has born witness to the greatest trials and greatest triumphs of my entire life. 
      It is the site of so many nights smoking cigars and contemplating the wonders and the terrors of this world, the academy in which I have read and studied and tried to find the place where I fit in this world. It has sharpened my intellect, deepened my soul, calmed my mind, and stoked the fires of my compassion for humanity. This place. This humble little brick box with mold on the walls and a terrible paint job that I did when I was heartbroken and its homemade furniture and chicken-shit covered porch. This place and this place alone.
      Sometimes I miss home in the States. I miss family and the fireplace and feeling at ease in a climate controlled environment where I can walk around without shoes and not have to scrub the bottoms of my feet afterward. I miss the ease of life in the US, the convenience of travel and the way everything just works the way it is supposed to. It is tempting and inviting in its comfort and its effortlessness. But right now, I wouldn't trade anything, even that other place I once called home for this place right fucking here.
      Because no matter how crude or dirty or simple it is, it will always be the place that held me together so many times when I was so close to falling apart, it will always be the place that challenged me and helped me grow in more ways than I could have ever imagined, it will always be the place that called me home and drove my feet along that terrifying road on that one night when all I wanted was to feel safe from the coming storm. This place will always be my home, in its own unique way, and a part of me, a part of my heart will always be here, live here, die here.
      That is one of the beauties of the Peace Corps experience, despite the hardships and the absurdity and the difficulty, that is the thing that so many people in this world will never come to know. Because to find a home like this, you must first leave everything behind, cast yourself into nothingness. Only by being totally lost can you every truly find yourself, find that road, find your way to a place to call home. The greatest homes are not inherited or given, they are earned, built, forged, created by the soul and its yearning, created by living, created by the body's need to rest, to rest, to rest.
      I am muddy. I am tired. I am still drunk. But goddammit, I am home.

From home,
little hupo