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


  1. Well, I probably didn't need to read that. Are you crazy? That was reckless and I will be really mad at you if you lose your life in Paraguay. Stop drinking the wine and smoking who knows what and finish your time there, safely. I will have my hands full whipping you into shape when you come home but we can do it, after I fumigate you!

  2. That description of your little home away from home reminds me of my house and gardens. I have put blood, sweat and tears into our home. I know someday I have to leave but until then, it is my castle.

  3. I am crying right now..I saw your post about your 14 hour adventure and I was waiting for you to write about it! Life is about doing what brings you joy, and I know how situations that may seem insane can bring the greatest joy looking back and seeing your courage & strength to survive. After reading it, I felt like I experienced it with you (minus the crazy storm and death-defying moments), but emotionally I was with you the whole way. Thanks for sharing :)