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.


Hello, Goodbye (part ii)

39 months of Peace Corps service in Paraguay. I’m not even sure that’s a complete sentence – and it’s certainly not complete enough to even begin to capture the experience it has been. These three-plus years of writings have tried to give some sort of glimpse into my life here – not so much the daily goings ons, but some larger picture to place it all in. At times I feel I was able to convey that, other times I feel short, and even more often I ignored the goal because I thought there was something more important to say, but I’m still happy with the results.

I have so much more to say about my time here and what I’ve walked away with (if that could ever even be quantified) but packing up and saying all the goodbyes doesn’t leave much room for writing. Soon enough though. As I’ve said before, I hope you’ve all enjoyed reading all this as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. I hope you’ll keep reading, because I plan to keep writing.

The adventure continues, this time in Paraguay’s neighbor to the north, Bolivia, where I’ll be spending the next few months. In the meantime, I’m going to work on a more complete thought to say goodbye to Paraguay.

Until then.


Water -> Food

As a follow-up to the look at water in the previous post, last Tuesday, October 16th was World Food Day. I know it lacks the alliterative appeal of World Water Day, but as they say here, asi es.

Turns out World Food Day has been going on since 1945. This is the first I knew of it. It’s probably hard for the UN to find ad space.

One of things that caught my eye when I was reading through some of the statistics for the water post, was a section about sustainable agricultural practices and their importance in water conservation. For example the 1500 liters of water it takes to produce 1 (that’s right one!) kilo of wheat. Or the 15,000 liters of water it takes to produce a single kilo of beef. I feel like in the States people of my age have grown up with the concept of environmentalism and environmental stewardship all around us (choosing to partake is a whole other issue) – campaigns to save “the rainforest” or against littering or to recycle or images of mustached sea otters reminding us of the importance of clean waterways. The idea of preserving the environment has always been there in the background. More recently the sustainability movement and with it the idea of green everything has become not only en vogue, but also gone from being a mark of corporate savviness to an essentiality.

Agriculture has never been able to reach the level of hipness as environmentalism. Probably why we didn’t know it was World Food Day but all know for sure when Earth Day falls on the calendar. It’s a shame because they’re one in the same. Sustainable agriculture is the cornerstone of a sustainable future – especially in environmental terms. When will it get its Kermit the Frog?

So the World Food Day alarming stats say one in seven people suffers from undernourishment; 3.5 million children die every year from under-nutrition – one every six seconds.

What does this possibly have to do with Paraguay that I’ve taken the time to write about it? Small farmers. As impressive as Iowa is, it’s small farmers who are going to have to feed the bulk the rest of the world’s growing population over the next fifty years. The same small farmers that a very meager amount of Peace Corps volunteers around the world are working with demonstrating techniques on how to be more sustainable producers. The best argument for doing so isn’t even the environmental benefits – it’s that it works, is cheaper and in the long run easier. None of that though makes the effort less difficult.

In the early nineties, right around the time some of us in elementary were peddling those tee shirts in the name of endangered species, there was a brief period where we had these little white cardboard cubes, of some sort of origami construction, to collect change for the famine in the horn of Africa. We all know how that turned out. Ridley Scott jogged our memory and tired to open some eyes about a decade after the fact with Black Hawk Down. It’s a perfect reminder that the problems faced with thirst and hunger and extreme poverty don’t happen in a vacuum. They just don’t happen under our noses.  Or they do and we chose to smell brighter stuff.

I reckon to say we’ll hear a lot about Iraq and Iran in the final presidential debate on foreign policy tomorrow, but not a word about the larger scale issues standing to pose much greater problems and in desperate need of greater advocacy – everywhere.

We’ll see.


Good Good Water

I recently revisited a community I first went to on March 22nd. The only reason I happen to know I was there on March 22nd is because I later found out that happens to be World Water Day.

Like anyone else, I probably wouldn’t have thought twice (or even once) about that day’s moniker had I not been in a, how shall we say, uniquely ironic situation that day.

Several times on the drive, my boss and I found ourselves saying how we felt like we were in a different country. That’s how remote the settings were. I had a Paraguayan telling me it felt remote and removed. We were driving about as far off the beaten path as I’ve been in Eastern Paraguay – and by now I’ve been a few places. It’s definitely not the farthest away in hours or in kilometers, but in that other so hard to quantify measurement – feeling. Sometimes you just plain feel far from everything else. Most of the time it’s because it’s true. (Or because you’re lost).

The “road” (I use the term loosely) we were on cuts through the campo alongside the Parque Nacional Ybycui – the  borders of which seemed rather ambiguous, at least as far as the scenery was concerned. We were carrying with us, in the bed of the Hilux, a 200- liter blue plastic water barrel. For those of you reading in Liberia, Myanmar and  the United States that about 52 gallons. Like an oil drum. Only plastic. And filled with water.

On a side note. Water weighs 1 kilogram per liter. That’s convenient isn’t it. Or 8.35 pounds per gallon. Either way, there were 200 kilos worth of water standing up back behind our headrests.

The volunteer we were headed to visit had no water. When volunteers talk to each other and say they have no water, it means their community or their house doesn’t have running water. Some places do, some don’t. If you “don’t have water” you have a well. And bucket. And a pulley. Problem solved.

This particular fellow though, really didn’t have any water. His well dried up. Such an interesting expression. More like the land around his well dried up.

It hadn’t rained beyond a spit in certain parts of the country since before Christmas, almost four months earlier. The drought resulted in the nation’s soy exports falling by 60 percent this year according to one newspaper – a remarkable statistic given that it is the top export and the way this country earns its GDP. A very small handful of people lost several ocean freighters full of money, but the effects of the sequia reached well beyond crop production and began to hit families – ones with nothing invested in soy or anything else beyond the small plots of land they live on – directly.  Beyond personal consumption crops failing, wells in higher elevations began to dry up. Drinking water was carried from luckier, or lower-laying neighbors, or from the occasional meager and less-than-clean spring in the woods. Gardens, and with with them the source of any vegetables, shriveled in the sun. Laundry lines hung empty.

Turning on the faucet is something we take for granted, just like so many other things. Volunteers in Paraguay are spoiled you could say because lots of us have running water in our communities. Paraguay is a lucky spot in the world when it comes to h20 (I’ll resist the temptation to talk about the aquifer, again). In the Peace Corps you don’t expect to have running water – well let me rephrase, you shouldn’t expect to have running water. So you use a well. I won’t belittle it, using a well everyday for all your water needs (and they add up) isn’t easy or particularly fun. But you get used to it. You learn some of its benefits (always chilly drinking water that doesn’t rely on a pump to power it) and eventually you do the same thing as the rest of us: take for granted that it’s out there. Then one day, it’s not.

780 million people in the world lack access to clean drinking water. That’s two and half times the population of the United States. That’s one out of every nine people on the planet. Diarrhea – not heart attacks, not car crashes – is the leading cause of death in the world, mostly due to dehydration and lack of proper sanitation that relays on water. It claims the lives of 3.4 million people each year. That’s the population of Los Angeles. Drought has claimed more lives in the last century than any other natural disaster.

That was the alarming statistics section of this post. I’m not trying to say that the dried up well of a volunteer in Paraguay is causing kids to die of thirst. That wouldn’t be true. Or that the drought earlier this year caused any deaths. I don’t know if that’s true. I do know that it took me trying to unload a 440 pound barrel of water from the back of a pick truck four hours from nowhere, to begin to not take what comes out of the faucet for granted. Not sharing that seems like a disservice to those with buckets in their hands.

A few weeks after our delivery the rain returned and so did water in the well. As of this morning that volunteer’s well had again dried up.

One fine day (another one), Part ii

We’re taking on a good bit of water.
Yeah. Another stroke of the oars.
Seems like more then usual.
Yeah. Leans back, dips the oars, pushes forward. These boats are shit. And this is the shittiest one. You’re probably gonna need to start bailing in a sec.

I grab an old herbicide container – a plastic roundup bottle, cut in half and long faded by the sun, slowly decomposing in the bottom of the “canoe”.

Each time the rowers body leans back water pours through the seams of the wooden sides at the waterline. The tar covered rope used to seal the gap between the planks has rotted through. This will probably be it’s last crossing.

Nah. Not as long as it’s got the bucket. 

More on Beans and Government

A great piece was recently published, in the New York Times, by the director of Oxfam International, highlighting the role of that damned little bean we keep discussing, in the recent ousting of Paraguay’s president, Fernando Lugo.

Soy is neither a new or small topic in Paraguay. I often tell people that any work you’re doing in this country can be related to agriculture. By that standard I suppose it also wouldn’t be too far to say that nothing here is ever that far separated from the soybean. I can’t understate this relationship enough, which is why I’ve written here about it so many times. (You can find my previous ramblings on soy here, here, here, and here).

The Times article succinctly covers many of the ideas I’ve tried to touch and even comes pretty close to capturing some of the ridiculousness of the situation. I hope you’ll all read the article, but some of it bears repeating:

  • Paraguay is the world’s 4th largest exporter of soy in a time when there seems no limit to how much of the legume the world insists upon consuming
  • In the past 16 years, just short of 3 million acres have been deforested here in order to plant soy instead of something edible
  • Close to 9,000 rural families a year are evicted by soy production in Paraguay
  • 1.2 million acres of land are turned into soy monocultures in Paraguay each year
  • And one billion people – one-seventh of the world’s population – goes to bed hungry every night

I’m not a vegetarian, but one comes pretty close to a convincing argument when you look at how the world’s hungry aren’t being feed because soy is being planted instead of food. The argument has some virtue but needs a little duct tape to keep it afloat. There is currently a market for soy. There isn’t one for feeding the world’s poor. There’s no money in it. Rest assured, if there was, than people would be feeding them. While this is all very true, it’s still worth pointing out that if we didn’t all have such a hunger for grain-feed beef and fish (two species that don’t even naturally eat grain) than we wouldn’t need all this soy. Remove the market, the soy goes away. The idea is the conflict will too.

It would be nice if simple economic theory could be applied to such a complex problem and yield such a pleasant outcome. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem anywhere close to happening. People want land reform – that’s why they vote for people who promise it to them. Governments want development – which at this point is measured by GDP. The two are at odds and the common ground it would seem is shrinking for the landless and disenfranchised, while growing wider for governments and agribusiness. Wide enough to plant a sea of something no one even needs in order to line pockets and hold on to power. You can’t help but wonder when a government’s overthrow is not meet with anything more than a whimper by the very people it’s designed to protect, until you realize just how disconnected they feel from that government. Separated by so many things, including a desert of soy.


Fooled Again

Unless you’re reading this from South America, you may have missed some of the news coming out Asuncion this past week. The chances that you actually care about the news coming out of Paraguay – no matter where you’re reading from – are probably even slimmer. In any case, what’s gone on this week and in a larger sense over the past thirty years, is an interesting look at what actual corruption looks like in a political system. The “democracy” of the United States is far from perfect, but cases like this help to put things into clearer perspective.

Paraguay has a new president. No, there was no election. There was no voting. Whether or not there was any democracy involved at all seems to be up for debate as well – but then the term has always been used loosely when it comes to politics in Paraguay. A little presidential history might prove useful (if not entertaining).

Recently ousted President Fernando Lugo, the only Catholic bishop ever to be elected a head of state, was sworn in in 2008, ending sixty-one years of rule by the Colorado party and becoming only the second ever leftist to hold the office (and the first ever actually elected to it). In order to solidify a coalition to actually win in 2008, Lugo made Federico Franco, of the Liberal Party, his running mate.

Lugo’s predecessor, Nicanor Duarte, attempted to resign his presidency as his term was drawing to a close in order to be able to secure a senate seat for himself. This plan failed when Congress refused to accept his resignation. He completed his term and then was given the non-voting seat and title senator for life.

The presidencies before Duarte is where things really get interesting. His direct predecessor, Luis Macchi, was never even elected president. Or vice president for that matter. Macchi became president much the same way as Gerald Ford – through a series of promotions. In 1999, the then vice president, Luis Argaña, was assassinated. Macchi assumed the vice-presidency. Days later, then President Raul Cubas resigns and Macchi assumed the presidency.

Why would yet another President, this time Raul Cubas, resign? Well, it’s sort of complicated. Let’s jump back to 1989. In February of that year General Andres Rodriguez launched a successful military coup overthrowing General Alfredo Stroessner, a man who had been “president of Paraguay” for the previous 35 years – apart from Fidel Castro the longest ruling term of any person in the western hemisphere during the 20th century. Rodriguez and others felt that the presidency was likely to pass to one of Stroessner’s sons whom they and many others viewed as inept.  Rodriguez seized power, instituted some reforms and with the help of congress amended the constitution to limit the presidency to one, five year term. After his term ended, he stepped down and supported Juan Carlos Wasmosy in elections. In 1993, Wasmosy, becomes the first civilian president in 39 years, winning in what is considered to be the first honest election in the country’s history. That means since 1811. One hundred and eight-two years. He is later tried and convicted of defrauding the state and sentenced to four years in prison.

During Wasmosy’s term, another key figure, General Lino Oviedo, attempts a coup, and fails. During the 1998 primary elections, Oviedo had battled it out against Argaña (who as you might remember will later be assassinated). Oviedo defeats him in the primary, is about to move onto the general election, but is then imprisoned for his role in the 1998 coup attempt. His running mate, Raul Cubas, replaces him on the ticket, campaigns on freeing Ovideo, puts Argaña on the ticket to gain the votes he needs, and wins the election. Cubas is now president, Argaña VP, and Oviedo pardoned and released. The supreme court is outraged (understandably) by the pardoning of Oviedo after they put him in prison, and threaten to impeach Cubas.

If Cubas is removed from office, naturally the VP will succeed him. If you’ll remember though, the VP is Argaña, Cubas’ bi-proxy nemesis (via Oviedo, his mentor). As the impeachment is about to go down, Argaña (conveniently) is assassinated. Macchi moves up from the senate to become the new VP, Cubas’ impeachment goes through, he resigns, Macchi moves up again, this time to president, and Oviedo flees the country – given his seeming involvement in Argaña’s assassination and his pardon by a now defunct president, doesn’t bode well for him.

Macchi survives as coup attempt in 2000 and an impeachment attempt in 2001, staying in office until the election of Duarte in 2003. Macchi is later tried and convicted in 2006 on charges of fraud and embezzlement. Duarte is the guy who you’ll remember tried to resign the presidency between Lugo’s winning of the election and swearing in, in an attempt to hold on to power a little longer, via a senate seat.

So, 2008 sees Lugo, the bishop, ushered in as President promising the land reform that Paraguay and Latin America as a whole desperately needs. This proves to be an uphill battle in a system where more 80% of the land is owned by less than 1% of the population – many of whom are the very people in government who’s signatures would be needed to push through such a reform. Over the next four years support for him gradually erodes. The legislator threatens impeachment some twenty-odd times, but never carries through on the threat because the votes simply weren’t there.

In early June, police and landless campesinos clash in northeastern Paraguay, on land that of all things is owned by a sitting senator, given to him during the Stroessner rule. Six police and eleven campesinos are killed. This incident serves as the final excuse for Liberales and Colorados to join forces and impeach the president on a number of charges. Each party willing to work with the other only for the means of aligning themselves for the upcoming 2013 presidential elections. The lower house voted to impeach on a Thursday. The upper house held the trail and returned a verdict Friday afternoon with vice president Franco being swore in before the close of business that day. In comparison, the impeachment of President Clinton took 6 weeks, with the defensive given nearly a month to prepare just that, a defense. Lugo was given a few hours.

The swiftness of the entire process is where Lugo’s main argument lies, along with the sensation left in its wake that some sort of legislative coup d’etat took place. Legally, constitutionally speaking, he was removed from power according to the process outlined for measures. The ethics behind it, the manner in which it was carried out is where the problem lays. The way the system is set up, it appears as though a president can be removed simply for being unpopular, so long as congress can agree on taking that action. This raises the inclination to speak of things like disenfranchisement or a lapse of democracy, but really, do we not think the same thing would happen in the Washington tomorrow if the opposition could muster the supporting votes? Of course. But what wouldn’t be accepted is the speed at which the processes was rammed through.

On top of that, lays the recklessness of the decision to take such an action in the first place. Neighboring countries are withdrawing ambassadors, threading sanctions, refusing to recognize the new government, speaking of expulsion from trade organizations, the list goes on. Much of this is either empty talk or matters little for a country already heavily marginalized by any trade agreements already in place, but negative relations is never something to aspire to or dismiss as being of little consequence.

Protesting has been minimal (and non-violent), or less at least less than one would think when words like coup are being thrown around. This probably has root that in the last time the people protested the transfer of power in the wake of Argaña’s assassination, several protestors were shot to death in one of Asuncion’s plazas. Lugo has made several vows to appeal to various international organizations to reverse the decision, but Paraguay is not governed by Mercosur or the Inter-American Court of Human Rights or the Union of South American Nations, but by its own government, one that is now headed by Federico Franco and already made up its mind a long time ago that Fernando Lugo no longer has a seat at the table.