One year down the road

A while ago I promised some accounting, and then never followed through. Sorry for the delay. For the four or five of you who read this, here you go.

I recently read a great blog post from a friend who just returned from South America. It left me reflective, which I guess is sort of a mixed bag.

A year ago this month I left Paraguay. There was little fanfare. It was the end of a week of goodbyes that was the forth in a string of a month of goodbyes. I gave my last hug and took a cab to the bus terminal. Sitting there, sharing tereré with only myself, I distinctly remember thinking, so this is how it ends, and how ironic, yet perfectly fitting, such subtlety was for the occasion. Three years and three months of my life.

That day, and the days that followed it, I thought at the time were a demarcation in the narrative of my life. A clear end to one story and the beginning of another, albeit unknown, thread. It’s taken me the past year to realize that pages are rarely flipped and new chapters simply begun so smoothly. There’s no new heading at the top of the page each time you start out – those are placed there years down the road to make sense of it all.

It’s taken me this same year, on three different continents and countless locations, to fully realize how much my time in Paraguay has shaped me into what’s here today.  And that’s where the accounting gets tricky.

There was so much learned in that time.  Some of it practical stuff I can look back and pinpoint. How subsistence agriculture works, how to keep bees, how to build an ox cart (just in case I ever need to make my way to Oregon in 1820), how to travel properly, how to cook a lot using very little, Spanish, Guaraní, how to raise animals…

Any list I could make of any of this of course fails to paint the whole picture, and that is the hardest part about this type of summary. It plays into that “how was it?” question in Tom’s post. It all can’t be summed up neatly. Especially the, let’s call them deeper subjects, that questions like that, or reflections like this, open the door for – a door that is usually tried to then be quickly pushed shut again. It’s usually this category where most of the things learned – most of those “takeaway experiences” people are looking for fall.

Like how to simply deal with yourself. It sounds crazy, but it’s a real thing. At some point something pushes all of us to have to deal with ourselves outside the distractions of modern life. No internet, not speaking the language, not knowing anyone, possibly being temporarily homeless, having everything you own in a bag or two, will force you to deal with you. It’s not that people back home don’t go through this kind of things too – life offers plenty of opportunity for it – but realizing it’s happening or happened I think is pretty unique.

You can see I’ve completely lost my ability to be succinct. Another mark left of those three years. But I’m pretty happy with it. During most of my first two years in Paraguay the round about way of handling things got to me a bit. I’d wonder, why is there a need for a ten-minute conversation before asking to borrow a hammer, or purchase some produce? But in time I came to realize, that other than just being the normal excuse of ‘the way people do things”, it turns out it actually enhances the richness of the interaction. It builds trust and confidence, and it fosters future growth in the relationship, making interactions down the line way smoother and more dependable. These are much needed qualities that I’d always just taken for granted. And there, is really the crux of it all. That thing most people probably know when they ask that, “what was it like?” or “what’d you learn?” question, but probably don’t want to have to confront: the enormous amount we take for granted.

“The futility of it all” would be an equally uncomfortable answer, but probably pretty good for a deadpan Andy Kaufman type moment at the next social gathering. The laugh would eventually be good, but it would miss the point, because it’s just not something people want to think about (again, back to Tom’s post, the news). During those three years the clarity of the uphill battle most of the world is facing was certainly put into perspective, but with the recognition of that struggle came something far more hopeful – a recognition of the kindness within people.

Which leads us nicely to the largest block on this balance sheet. It’s an entry that has me wondering a lot if it was my time in Paraguay or simply just three years of getting older that led me where I am. For certain, one of the most interesting parts of my time there was the exposure to such a huge variety of people and were it not for that, maybe I wouldn’t arrived with these views. So for that alone, I can only attribute this last lesson to my two years in San Blas and final year in Asuncion. I think it really takes a large and varied group like that to be able to see and witness the enormous capacity for friendship that people possess. For me, right now, that’s the biggest walkaway – people and the friendships we form amongst each other. Any empty porch and a few wooden chairs – if that – is all it takes to have a genuine experience. Everything else is just secondary.

So where does that leave me, one year back? Still trying to sum it all up. It’s just an impossible task – yet one I am enormously grateful to have.


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