Wednesday, May 25, 2011

El Lugar

Written 2/9/2011

An obstacle to my becoming excited about being in this place was how little I knew about it. I´d never learned much about Paraguay. Even while my own cousin was serving here and diligently writing a blog five years ago I failed to read what he wrote. Paraguay is an isolated country. For me to love being here I`ve had to locate it in the world.

I´ve been trying to better apreciate its geographic posistion, because I think this is very important in understanding this place. It is landlocked, and far from the andes, so one has no immediate geographic landmark to anchor our understanding of where it is in the world. The andes run like a spine streight north from Patagonia forming the entire border between Chile and Argentina. They then run into Bolivia and form a large plateau, but there the course changes dramatically; they shoot off to the West and begin the enormous crescent that runs through Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, to Venezuela. Paraguay lies to the South of Bolivia, so the Andes still form thier great wall far off to the the West of here, on the other side of Argentina. Paraguay is mostly flat with some hills near the Eastern and North-Eastern border that it shares with Brazil. This border runs along the Parana river which is heavily dammed, providing most of the power for this country, but also has one of the world´s most awesome waterfalls (Yguazu - y: water, guazu: big). In general the Eastern half of the country is green and wet. It´s in between jungle and grassland. Meanwhile the ¨chaco¨ covering the Western half is dry, and is excellent for ranching. The Paraguay river runs through the middle of the country, and like of spine of an offset-book, forms the western border for the South-Eastern part of the country, and the Eastern border for the North-Western part of the country. It is navigable and runs to the "river" Plate, which is just a glorified bay, and divides Argentina from Brazil and Urugay.

Paraguay has stood outside of the main courses of history. This is largely because of it´s geographic position. It`s capitol city, Asuciòn was the first Spanish Settlement on this side of the Andes, but it soon lost importance to Buenos Aires. To the extent it was colonized by the Spanish was because the Paraguay river was the best land route to take between Buenos Aires and Lima. Perversely, in the old Spanish Empire all trade had to leave America through either Lima or Mexico, so inter-american trade routes were more important than they otherwise would have been. Only once did Paraguay step into the spotlight of (South American) history, and it got severely burned. After the South American colonies became independent from Spain, they spent a good bit of the 1800s consolidating and unifying their territory. Argentina and Brazil (which was itself now a co-equal part of the Portuguese Empire) were huge and decentralized. Paraguay, possibly because of it´s small size and thanks to a competent but totalitarian ruler (Dr. de Francia) was able to consolidate far sooner than its larger neighbors. Paraguay became a true power in South America for the only time in its history. Two dictators later Paraguay still loomed large, but neighboring giants had succeeded in consolidating their power somewhat, and in a bungled attempt to play one against the other, Paraguay ended up at war with both, and with the Brazilian puppet Urugay to boot. The war dragged on and the dictator Lopez put every warm body he could between the enemies guns and himself. By the end 90% of Paraguayan men had been killed, and Paraguay would return to its place as a backwater and footnote to history in the Southern Cone.

History interests me because I have a boyish delight in old battles, amries, ships, and castles. It also interests me in a more mature way because it affects, subtly, so much of the mundane reality of daily life. When I am in Latin America I am struck both by how different our cultures are, but also by how many common foundations we share. My culture is founded in a Western European medley dominated by the English, and Latin American culture is simarly founded in Western Europe, but in Imperial Spain. There is much in both cultures that comes from the Romans. So while I get some delight in thinking of the Roman legions eastablishing themselves in France, crossing the Channel, battling the Celtic kings and building Hadrian´s wall accross the island, the more fascinating thing is how those actions lead to how I live my life, and how it is not so much different, in its foundations, from my host family here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Last night an army of army ants attempted to campaign accross our house. There were thousands of them. I think they entered the courtyard from the west side, which is open. They were trying to get out over the walls or through my room. When I got home there were lines of them scaling the outside wall of my host brother`s room, next to my door. This was not a great route for them, the wall was to smooth and almost all of them fell off before reaching the top. There was also a massive train of them entering my room under the door and following along the edge of my wall under my bed. When they reached the corner some attempted to scale the wall, which again was too smooth and they fell onto my bed and pillow, while the rest turned the corner, went straight past the bathroom door (they didn't seem to like the smooth tiles) and exited out a hole in the wall near the other wall. When I first entered the room I did not perceive the order of thier movements, and it appeared that a huge colony of ants had decided to make my room thier new home. If I`d realized they were just travelling through I probably would not have done anything to impede thier swift progess.

I sprayed some mosquito repellent on thier exit hole, and then Lola, my host mom, got some liquid poison that we splashed around a few places. This killed a few of them, causing them to convulse energetically, but mostly is served to block the movement of the train through the area where the poison had been splashed. The army was stymied. The train began traveling at great speed in a loop in front of my door and along the wall. For hours they went around and around. I wish I would`ve taken a video of thier sinous movement. Fluid, yet following closely a path laid down by the ants in front of them, unnecesary wiggles perserved by presedence. Meanwhile groups of ants that were apparently carrying eggs had climbed up to the overhang above my door. They sat there without moving, clutching eggs of various sizes.

The poison had had a greater effect than I`d realized. Before I went to bed I discovered that the train had disentergrated and that many ants were now writhing and moving wildly. There seemed to be fewer of them. Maybe the rest of the train did find a way out, perhaps through Prof. Laura`s room, which is next to mine on the other side. The egg carriers were still clinging to the overhang and to the outside of my door. In the morning they were gone, but many ant bodies remained, some still writhing weakly. All night I dreamt of ants. I hope the hens don`t hurt themselves by eating too many.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


I have reason to believe we all will be recieved in Graceland.

It`s autumn here. Today is warm again, but Monday was very cold. For some reason the people of Paraguay have never felt it worth it to put fireplaces in their houses. Whenever I mention my surpise at this people say it is because the firewood here produces too much smoke, unlike the firewood in Brazil. I respond that they could built chimineys too. My host family cooks most of its meals over a brick wood stove, even though they have an electric hotplate and small over inside the house. I love this, it gives my house what seems to me a "camp" atmosphere. Like many of my favorite things, it also reminds me of Pirate Camp.

Fireplaces with chimineys are pretty basic technology. How many hundreds of years have they been in use? And almost all the buildings are made out of bricks, so that can`t be the issue. Really I suppose it has never been an issue of survival, so people have learned to worry about other things. It was very cold here Monday and Tuesday nights, but I doubt it went below 40F (or roughly 5C). This wouldn`t even be worth mentioning in the states, but that is because we expect that all building are heated. It is quite cold otherwise, but with enough blankets (or in my case, a down sleeping bag) it won`t put a stop to much of anything, except perhaps daily showers.

Living in the "Croz Nest", the uninsulated, barely heated loft in the garage of my last house in Portland was a good preparation for Paraguay in several respects.

I have been amazed by the autumn air here; how it feels exactly like early autumn air at home. In my last post I wrote about living in a small town again. The evening air lately has just the same crispness, and the warm traces of the recent summer, as September on Vashon. I could have sworn the cool wind was coming right off the Puget Sound.

I of course neglected to bring much in the way of winter clothes, since I was going to SOUTH AMERICA, but I will need to invest in some here. I bought some sweat pants to sleep in, but I was heartbroken yesterday when I realized I had left my navy blue beanie, which I brought from the states and wore all last winter, on the bench in front of a store, and that it was gone.

I am heartbroken whenever I lose a hat. But this is just part of what I know I`m getting myself into whenever I aquire one. It is only a matter of time.

Monday, May 2, 2011

about town

I`m out at site! This is my second week! Everything new, unknown, different. Some things are mildly to quite inconvienient. I love being able to walk around to everything I need, and to buy a glass bottle coca cola to enjoy on a hot day just about anywhere. I love the library with fast free internet access. I love the mandarins, oranges, and grapefruits crowding trees everywhere just waiting to be picked and eaten.

It is a funny difficult process, as I think might be expected, to move somewhere completely new and foreign, and go about becoming a member of the tight-knit community. But I am glad to be part of a community again. The last 5 years I spent in Portland, and I enjoyed myself very much but did not feel that small town spirit I felt growing up on Vashon. Small towns have thier drawbacks, but to be a functioning member of that society, with relationships to so many people was very rewarding for me. When I visit Vashon now many of those old relationships remain, but they have not grown in 5 years. Every time I visit it is a weary rehersal of the past with everyone a little bit older.
I felt that again at the "clàsico" soccer game between the two local football clubs. There are 8 teams in the surrounding area that compete, but just these two are in-town. Everyone was there. It was a pleasant early fall evening. We were spared the powerful sun, and enjoyed white clouds blushing pink as the game came to its exciting but inconclusive finish (a tie, 1-1).
This all reminded me of the festivity and energy of High School Football games on Vashon. Since we never won it wasn`t worth it much to keep track of the game, which I did not understand anyhow. I was in the Pep band and we just had fun with music. Parents, grandparents, classmates, and younger siblings were all there, making it a kind of mixed-age shared experience that I think has become rare in the States. We at glorious hamburgers slathered with grilled onions.
I can be a part of the growing web of all kinds of relationships called a community again. I will wait on the hamburgers until I return home however. I have very fixed American ideas about how a sandwich should be, and I have yet to find a Latin American sandwich that lives up to them.

In those Vashon days I struggled to first figure out what was "normal" and then to figure out how to be "myself" in realtion to that normal. I unfotunately spent too much time trying to figure out what the normal was, but as I´ve gotten older I`ve become so much more comfortable and capable at figuring out how and when to break from the norm. This has been one of the most important things I`ve learned about living and being an adult.
Here what I have to do is very different. My MO is to find normal and to conform to it to the best of my ability. I am an outsider here. To be as unthreatening as possible I have to do my best to blend in. Figuring out how to do this while at the same time nudge people forward in certain ways (in teaching styles, in acceptance of diversity, in modern health and hygene practices) is one of the several balancing acts of my service here.