Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Oh, How Little I Understand

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

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

from Paraguay,

little hupo

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