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.


The Plot Thins

Paraguayan politics is back in the news again, with the death of presidential candidate Lino Oviedo yesterday in a helicopter crash.

For a little background on Lino, check out this post on the shell game that often seems to be Paraguayan presidential politics. 

With Lugo ousted last June, his successor Franco unable to run in the upcoming election, and Lino now deceased, April’s election will come down to Cartes versus Alegre – red versus blue, Colorado versus Liberal. The current outlook is that Cartes – football-club-owning, banking, tobacco, soda and juice mogul – will prevail, even given his less than stellar reputation as what many might call a criminal and others might call a prerequisite to participate in this field.

That is of course unless the investigation takes an interesting turn. 

The Book I Read

I think I first read Into the Wild in 2007. To say I enjoyed it is to confuse it with saying I read it quickly and continued to think about – perhaps too much – long after I’d put it back on the shelf. It’s hard to “enjoy” a story like the one that book tells. It’s quite another thing to be moved by it, which I suppose is the closest I can come to describing the daze it seemed to put me in for the few days after turning its final page.

The difference between a good book and liking a book wasn’t something I was fully aware of until I joined the Peace Corps and was given more time to read than I’d ever encountered in my life. Struggling my way through The Sheltering Sky was when I had the realization. Paul Bowles’ book is no doubt quiet good, but I really didn’t enjoy reading it.

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is another interesting if not more complex example. At nearly 1000 pages it has its share of parts that are highly enjoyable and parts that you’d wish you could erase from your memory. A masterpiece surely, but “enjoyable”, definitely not.

Neither of those two books I’d comfortably say have had the audience amongst my peers as Jon Krakauer’s telling of a young man from Virginia who decided to see if he could make it on his own in Alaska and failed. That readership is probably why it comes as close to any other book I can think of to garnering the amount of strong opinions people seem to have about it. (Case in point: this post).

To me though, the synopsis above misses the larger part of the story. The process by which he met his ends, the realizations along the way and why we as readers – comfortably (or not so comfortably) sitting in our homes – find the need to pass a mark of success or failure upon a complete strangers endeavor.

Like the good book argument the discussion about Into the Wild in general seems to revolve around only part of what’s on offer. The main concern being the liking or hating of Chris McCandless. After a second read (something I’m not sure I’ve ever done – when you read as slow as I do, it’s really an investment) I maintain my original stance: disliking Chris and his decisions is not at the detriment of the story or the much larger themes it contains. It’s still a good book. And it’s still a great story.

The problem arises because it’s very hard to be neutral about where you ultimately stand on Chris’ decisions. You can either see why he did what he did, or you cannot. It would be unreasonable to argue McCandless wasn’t flawed in many of his actions, but it would be equally unreasonable to overlook that we are all flawed individuals – in McCandless’ view, many of us for the reason that we chose not to live out the convictions we tell ourselves we hold.  Where you come down on that decision seems to speak volumes.

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.


Otra vez?

(Something I wrote back when I moved to the city. Before I started following my own advice.).

A mentor, a friend – funny how the way we define our encounters with other people changes over time – once gave a talk on impermanence. It was a lesson that stuck with me and somehow seems to keep popping back up into my life.

The transient nature of everything around me seems to be, well, everywhere these days. Three groups of volunteers come and go each year here in Paraguay. So by that math, that means I’m about to see the sixth group of people I’ve come to know and come to be friends with, move on. My choice to stay here another year adds to this, but even if I’d gone home with everyone back in December, the point of the turnover still stands. The nature of being in the Peace Corps together forges some pretty strong friendships and as you see new people show up, you wonder whether the same type of bond can ever be formed like the one with friends who’ve moved on.

I’ve started to notice a tendency – one that I’m pretty sure doesn’t have anything to do with being here – but still pops up more then I think I’d notice it if I weren’t here, in this social loop of long periods of isolation from friends punctuated by short, fairly intense, gatherings. You hate to make a day long bus trip across the country not worthwhile, so the idea becomes – however inadvertently – to get as much out of your troubles as possible. That’s just the way it winds up happening.

But then something else winds up happening. You have a great trip to somewhere you hadn’t planned on going. Or a last minute birthday party turns into a great meal and an all-night campfire under the stars. Or a roof top drink watching the sunset turns into impromptu cocktail party twelve stories above the city streets with all the people you know, but never get to spend enough time with. And when those things happen enough, the tendency to think that the next time you can recreate one of these banner events that somehow manifested itself out of nothing, sneaks in.

And so you try. Only to find – or better yet, be reminded – you can’t mimic these things. You can’t recreate.

It happens over and over. And it’s not just parties and good times with friends. It’s a charla at the school that goes off without a hitch. It’s a predawn bike ride to the ruta to catch a bus through a sunrise of a thousand shades between red and blue. It’s a planting season in the garden or a toy carved for someone and wanting to make another. It’s a really good meal whipped up out of nothing. It’s a friendship that’s completely unexpected.

And eventually it’s everything. Friendships can’t be recreated when one group leaves and another shows up any more then the times and events that made that friendship in the first place can be recreated some day down the line back home. Yeah, you’ll see your friends and the people you’ve met again, and yes they’ll still be your friends, but it will not be the same. Perhaps better, perhaps not, but definitely different. And that’s the truth. People talk about how saying goodbye shouldn’t be as tough as some like to make it because, “you’ll see each other again”. And it’s true you will. But it won’t be like now and fooling yourself into thinking it would be, would be, well, fooling yourself.

Which brings us back to the impermanence. Unlike everything else, it doesn’t go away. What we’ve got is right now. We can long for the past and all the good times gone by, or sit and plan and ponder and try to grab onto the future. Or we can be present where we are. Once we actually get the hang of doing that, we won’t get so wrapped up in trying to make yesterday happen again, or tomorrow happen sooner. This need to recreate will slip away, because today is more then interesting enough.