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


  1. I've been thinking about your friend and pray he is better.
    -Joyce M
    (my daughter, Kelley, is a PCV there in PY)

  2. My emotions usually ran high during bus rides. I guess there was something about those long rides where you just keep to your thoughts. I easily cried like 5 times on buses back to my site. I thought for a while that the bus service might have be institutionalized. Sorry to hear about Don Z, it's so hard when we begin to lose people, things that have normalized our service.