Saturday, December 29, 2012

doing my work for me

The Economist has an in-depth article linking the history of Paraguay and current events in the country. It's a great read and is really informative about this country in which I reside. I am very tempted to link to it in Spanish on facebook, but that might end up being too controversial.

Highly recommended.

edit 1/5/13

there's a follow-up based on the comments on the article!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

on the move

December! It's almost over.
I've been travelling a lot this month. It has been fun and good for my soul. The weather has been very hot, but unlike the endless hell of last summer's drought we are having occasional cooler rainy days, such as today.

This month I went a'visiting to Caazapa, Asunción, Gender & Development Camp in Caacupe, came back to site, and then spent Christmas in Carmen del Parana. 

I'd been wanting to go visit Travis and Sybil in Caazapa for some time. They are not too far from me to as the crow flies northeast, but they are located in probably the deepest darkest pocket of the interior of the country and it is not so easy to get there. It turns out there is a bus which leaves Encarnación once a day and passes the highway junction 50km from my site, heads up to Maria Auxiliadora, and then leaves the highway, crosses the rolling fields of that part of Itapua, and then descends into the valley of the Tebicuarymi river. The bus almost arrives in San Carlos, where Trav and Sybil live, but not quite, so it is necessary to hitch-hike the last 10 kilometers. 

I left a day early in order to avoid the storms forecast for Friday evening and Saturday. After the bus leaves Maria Auxiliadora the road is mostly dirt, with some particularly steep sections in cobblestone. After a heavy rain no buses come in or out for a day or two.

I met the bus from Encarn at the cruce (junction) Santa Clara around 2pm and the big storm clouds were already rolling in from Argentina. We went north and then east and seemed to be dodging squalls the whole way. The land and sky-scapes were breathtaking.

The first stretch out from M. A. was all cobble-stoned and looks just like the countryside around Natalio. There are vast tracts of emerald green soy fields, the dirt is deep purple-brown and many of the settlers appear to be of German descent. The terrain did gradually get hillier as we approached the "cordillera" (mountain range) San Rafael. We passed through the quaint town of Las Mercedes. The bus was old but comfortable enough, it was not very full and the storm-driven breeze was cool and invigorating. The rolling green monoculture continued on until we reached a stark cliff. The valley opened up before us, a rare sight in such a flat country. We began the descent and immediately the land changed. We left behind the potent fertile soil of Itapua. Instead of fields of soy, sunflower, or wheat we were now surrounded by forest, pasture, or small ragged plots of corn and mandioca. The soil was chalky and grey with lots of sand. Apart from the more varied topography it resembled old San Pedro in the north. 

As we worked our way into and through the valley it was clear the demography had changed as well. The homes were much humbler, there was no sign of tractors or farm machinery or fair-featured German descendants. 

Down in the valley it felt deeply, historically Paraguayan, in the sense of the original Paraguay, inhabited by humble mestizo homesteaders with just a tenuous connection to the outside world. It reminded me quite a bit of San Pedro, but in the valley one does not even feel the vastness of South America stretching dangerously out before you, as one does up north, but rather you feel the insularity of flowering yellow trees, grassy hills, and an not-too-distant horizon. 

Sybil I met in college and I admit that I followed her later movements across the globe with some curiosity on facebook. She grew up mostly on the north side of Seattle but also spent about half of every year for many years in Sayulita, a fishing/surfing/Seattlite tourist town in a lovely little bay on the Pacific coast of Mexico. I also had the pleasure of spending a short but beautiful and very memorable two months in that town with my family just after my 14th birthday. It is very likely that Sybil was there at that time but we did not yet cross paths, though we knew some of the same people.

We did meet at Lewis & Clark College, though she studied abroad twice and graduated a year before me. She spent her first year of college studying at the University of Guadalajara with her Mexican boyfriend, and transferred to LC as a sophomore when I was a freshman. Once again, we knew many of the same people. Sybil studied abroad in Munich and Moscow, and then went to live in Slovenia, the birthplace of her grandfather. She applied to Peace Corps from there and began the process of securing Slovenian citizenship. Last year she made a trip down to the Slovenian consulate in Buenos Aires to pick up her new Slovenian passport. She's also lived in Paris and Brazil, and speaks Spanish, French, German, Russian, Slovenian, Portuguese and Guaraní in addition to English. 

I also went to visit Travis, an old buddy from my training group, but he encountered some difficulties and had to head back into Asunción. Danny and Cherokee Hope are a Peace Corps volunteer couple who also live in town in San Carlos in a decidedly chuchi (fancy) but also affordable house and who are kind enough to play host to campo volunteers who live in the surrounding countryside (like Travis) and wayward travelers such as myself. Danny and Cherokee are exceptionally sweet and patient people. They hail from Colorado. 

The squalls gradually surrounded and enveloped the bus, but the rainfall was never heavy. I got off the bus at the last stop in a place called Enramadita with a grandmother, mother, and child on their way to San Juan Nepomuceno another 30km to the east. We crossed the road to an auto taller (workshop) to ask if they knew of anyone who could convey us in a private vehicle.

The shop was a ramshackle awning connected to a small brick house. There was a battered small SUV with plastic instead of glass in the windows beside a large pile of mysterious small machines, tools, and parts. Sitting tinkering behind a wooden table sat the mechanic, a round blondish man in overalls, his face and clothes colored by grease. He offered us seats in the other corner of the shop. To the north was a view of the green plain and the Ybytyruzú cordillera crossed by shadows and lines of rain, under rolling storm clouds. To the side of the house was the family's latrine, pig pen, and free-roaming chickens. The man's daughter came around from the back of the house, dark-featured and voluptuous in high-waisted blue pants and a squash colored shirt. Around her right eye she had a purple and black bruise from when the SUV had crashed last week. He sister emerged as well, her arm in a sling. 

My travelling companions and I inquired if there was someone who could be called to take them to San Juan, and I to San Carlos. A cellphone call was made, nothing was certain, perhaps a ride would be available in half an hour. I shared the macadamia nut cookies I had with me, wrapped in aluminum foil, sent by my Grandmother in a package I'd picked up from customs in Encarnación with my boss just two days before.

They all spoke in Guaraní, I smiled and stared off into the distance. The pretty daughter said in Spanish "since you don't speak Guaraní, you'll just have to agree to everything we say".

Then a yellow pickup truck came down the wet road. It was a government vehicle, though for which agency I did not know. They agreed to take us, but there was only room if we rode in the back. We shouted goodbye to the mechanic and his daughters and quickly jumped in.

Riding in the back of pickup trucks in mysterious lands is one of the singular pleasures of life in our modern world. We each ate another cookie and held on as we bounced over streams and past Eucalyptus plantations. The rain had stopped, the road was sandy and wet, but passable. 

In San Carlos with Sybil, her boyfriend Cecilio, Travis (briefly) and Danny and Cherokee we mostly cowered from the heat during the day. At night we all brought our mattresses up to the roof to be in the cool air and slept under the brilliant stars. After two days in town Sybil went out to stay with her former host-family a few kilometers outside of town. When she learned Travis had had to bail, she invited me to come out and stay a night with the family as well. I rode in with Juan Pablo, her host father, on his ox-cart as he returned from delivering 30 kilos of honey to Sybil's house for eventual sale to Peace Corps volunteers in Asunción. Travelling by ox-cart is an very slow but meditative way to travel. We arrived and met Sybil at the homestead just as darkness fell.

Not coincidentally, this was also the home of Sybil's boyfriend Cecilio. It is the most "campo" place I've stayed in Paraguay, yet they have strong cell phone service and electricity. Though I've seen it plenty of times before I was still struck when I saw Juan Pablo get a call on his phone, which is nicer than mine, as he was driving the cart.

The family was large and very welcoming. Their home is not small, but seems shockingly provisional to American eyes. The floor is dirt, the walls are rough boards, inside it resembles a dark maze. The family lives in modest self-sufficiency, mostly eating what they grow, occasionally selling cotton or honey or a tree for cash money. The proceeds from the honey sales will be the largest cash profit they will have seen in long while.

Sybil lived for much of her first year of service in a clean and simple cabin they built together near the family house. This is where I stayed the night, after hauling up my well water for my bucket bath, while she slept in the main house with Cecilio. We optimistically talked about the idea of getting up very early and helping plow one of the fields or thin the cotton, but no one was surprised when we opted to sleep in (until 6am!) and walk around the community instead. Later that morning we started walking back in to San Carlos, getting a ride in the dirty oily back of a truck after walking about an hour.

Danny and Cherokee (and me) at GAD camp
Another volunteer named Hunter came in to hang out for our last day in San Carlos, but he was laid low with a mild fever. The long-predicted rain finally arrived on the morning we were all to leave for Asunción and we had to call a taxi in San Juan Nepomuceno to come and get us. It was an anxious slog through the mud, but the way was mostly flat and the one hill was mounted successfully. Hunter, Sybil, Cecilio (with the 30kg of honey) and I arrived at the terminal just in time for the 1pm Asunción bus and enjoyed a long quiet ride on the asphalt highway. Danny and Cherokee came in four days later with 9 youths in tow for the national Gender and Development camp, while the rest of us enjoyed Ahendu, the thrice annual Peace Corps concert and party at a bar in Asunción followed by a weekend of silliness and extreme heat. After the camp, which was also attended by a precocious youth named Benito from my own site, I returned home, happy to find my belongings undisturbed after two weeks away.

Gender and Development camp crew

Benito, Ian, Sybil

Just a few days later I left again to spend Christmas and Christmas Eve in a town called Carmen del Paraná on the flooded banks of the Paraná river, not so far from the Yacyreta dam. Carmen is now  a narrow peninsula and is attempting to cash in as a tourist beach destination. The volunteer couple who live there, Kevin and Joanna Arnold live just two blocks from the new beach, are warm and generous people, and can get unlimited chairs and mattresses on loan from the municipality. They used to work in restaurants and are spectacularly capable of organizing and directing the preparation of delicious meals by and for 20 hungry and possibly intoxicated volunteers.

Now I´m back again. I´ve got no pressing work to do, but should plan and remind folks of my summer reading class and my English class, both of which will start after the New Year. It has been one hell of a year. I look forward to 2013 with guarded optimism (and excitement, despair, curiosity, etc.).

Friday, December 21, 2012

a million words

Hey folks, I was inspired by this video to make one of my own from the random snippets I´ve recorded on my digital camera.
feedback is appreciated.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Riding in a car

The most beautiful days are the ones when it rains and rains all afternoon and you set your buckets around the house to catch drips and then take a nap and then wake up about an hour and a half before sunset. Then the sun starts to come out before the rain stops even. It is all golden light and a (double!) rainbow lights up in the west. After the day of rain everything is clean and shiny and sparkly and the colors glow with an almost psychedelic brilliance. The puddles reflect the crazy-blue sky and the towering clouds which are at once white, black, yellow, pink and orange. Water trickles through the cobblestones of the streets and a chorus of cicadas and frogs begins as the sun goes down. People come out from their houses after a day shut inside to talk and cook and enjoy the cool evening.

Today was like that and also Thursday.

This evening my neighbors invited me to drive out to their parents' house about 8km outside of town. It is on a cobblestoned road and is passable even after the rain. My neighbors have a nice, clean new car. I wish they didn't park it on my lawn, but well, this is the urban life. But we drove out together in twilight lovely countryside. At the parents house we drank mate and ate honey comb found wild in the woods the day before and savory cornbread (sopa paraguaya). I was the only one who put the honey on my cornbread, which I said was an American custom. I saw fireflies and relished not hearing motorcycles, dogs, sub-woofers, water pumps.
The most striking part of the evening was the simple, nearly forgotten pleasure of riding in a car. In a nice, new, clean car like you would often encounter in the USA. We Americans are raised in cars, we go on so many of our journeys in cars. Tonight was the first time in probably 3 months that I've ridden in one. Nothing could feel more comfortable and correct than a satisfied ride home through the night in those fuzzy grey seats. That is a part of me that goes deep, deep down. It is striking that on such a Paraguayan day the swirling currents of the 21st century global industrial economy would send up to me an experience which was so profoundly familiar in such a distant place.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Since I left you

It really is amazing to me the change since I first got here. I remember the first morning I went out to the front yard of the retreat center just after dawn and just listened to the sounds, smelt the air, tried to figure out the trees...
The first six months I or so I had this persistent sense of wonder at just about everything I saw here. After I moved into my house and started to have more time to myself and to get into my homey habits this began to wear off. The breakup with Johanna, the receipt of a computer for my 25th birthday (a wonderful gift from my father), doldrums of my first summer in Paraguay started to blunt that sense further. I was reverting to my old self in some ways, which was satisfying also, because I found that I still mostly liked who I had been.

I fell in love with the campo life. I fell in love with the ease of mind, the casual beauty of daily life, the sense of disconnect from the rest of the world. I fell in love with Claudia, too.
In the crazy heat of the summer I made the mistake of acting on a feeling, began a romance with her and consequently had to leave behind the place and people I'd come to love.
I continue to count Claudia as one of my closest friends, but the relationship wasn't able to stand up the distances and lack of a future which my relocation to Natalio imposed.

I came to my new site demoralized, angry, confused. I've yet to really pull myself up out of this hole. I've made a lot of progress. It comes and goes. The worst thing is a closed off-ness in my soul which colors everything I think and feel about this second year of Peace Corps service.
I'm really trying to open back up. When I think about what things were like before and why they're different now I need to appreciate that the most important thing is in me, not in the circumstances. And that I can change it.
I wanted to be a Peace Corps volunteer for long time. People always told me that I would be a great Peace Corps volunteer. It felt a little like my whole life was leading up to it.
It is a habit of mind, it is luck, it is determination to get out the door and give things another shot. Today was a good day for me. Paraguay in general had a bad day, with intense rains and flooding in several parts of the country. Many homes destroyed, a few deaths.
But I met a couple of interesting people at the radio station, had a good on-air chat with the host Yanina about the summer at the library, worked in my garden and yard, cleaned and sharpened my tools. I planted the rosemary plant and a mysterious tropical shrub that I bought on Tuesday, when I decided that I will be staying in this house. I love and have missed the smell of fresh rosemary.

It is really something being gone for so long. I have thought maybe it was a mistake not to try and visit home after the site change or to ET (early terminate) and cut my losses. That would have felt like a mistake also. I am haunted by hypotheticals; it is best to stare them down and see my choices through.
And I marvel at how new and weird everything which now feels humdrum used to be. I think I will have been glad to have forced myself to experience being away so long and to know what that feels like. What is significant about it is how far back the chain of remembered feelings I have to go to get to that morning I left mom's house with a fever and her car bit the dust on our way to the airport at 4 in the January morning.

my fb status update for today:

1. It hardly rained at all here in Natalio, just a Seattle-drizzle
2. "damnificado" (left homeless due to some kind of disaster) is a scary word
3. new word of the day "raudal" (torrent)
4. really glorious sunset tonight
5. check out this video


Monday, November 26, 2012

recommended reading

A fellow PCVolunteer in Paraguay whom I have not had the pleasure of meeting wrote an article which was featured in the Huffington Post at the beginning of the month. It's a good read and breaks down some of the internal logic that is constantly going on as we volunteers think about what it is we're really doing here.

here's a picture of a cute kid:

Thursday, November 15, 2012


I am happy to announce the completion of my PeaceCorpsPartnership grant.

The principal reason that I ended up in Natalio is to work with the new public library. This library is the outcome of years of effort by various library commissions and Peace Corps volunteers, going back to 1990.
Lizzie Greer, my predecessor here, and the commission succeeded in constructing a new building for the library in the center of town, in addition to securing book donations from embassies and NGOs. The library opened in June of this year.
Before she left in July we worked together on the paperwork for a PCPProposal to help equip the still largely empty library. In August we sent out requests to friends and family for donations and I am thrilled to report that as of last week the entire $1,400 has been spent on Spanish and Gauraní books and locally produced furniture for the Municipal Public Library of Natalio.

The books were purchased in Asuncion by Felicia Lopez, the vice-president of the commission, and the furniture was built by Ernesto Delvalle, husband of another of the commission members. The books are mostly published in Paraguay, the rest are published in Latin America, and have a heavy focus on Paraguayan authors. We purchased approximately 150 books of many types: young fiction, classic fiction, poetry, theater, history, sociology, psychology, economy, education, law, math, biology,  anthropology, several books in Gauraní and several about the language itself.

The furniture built is one large bookshelf and four benches, which are useful for sitting on while removing muddy shoes before entering the building, and also for seating when whole classes come to visit.
¡Mil gracias para todos que contribuyron! A thousand thanks to everyone who contributed!

As long as I am here (until April 2013) I will continue to be able to accept donations to buy more books for the library, which can be sent to my paypal account with a note attached. I give my Boy Scout word of honor to see your money end up in the hand of a Paraguayan bookseller and a lovely new book in the hands of a kid.

And here's the furniture:

Go well!
Que se vayan bien

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


It's been a difficult few days, though I can't easily say why. The anxieties of my now-foreseeable end-of-service are compounding my existing dissatisfaction with my life in Natalio and the work I've done here. The work in the schools I've done has been fine but disorganized and not fully developed, meanwhile my work with the library has become very frustrating.

The school year is coming to a close and getting things done during the summer in Paraguay is difficult. The month of December was a complete wash last year in Nueva Germania. I'm not sure how things will be here down south, but I am hesitant to try very hard to organize anything before New Year's. Furthermore, my motivation and ingenuity for creating and organizing classes or clubs or events is at this point very low. It takes a lot of inspiration, intuition, organization and optimism to have even a chance of putting a successful activity or event or summer camp. I am in awe of the many beautiful projects my fellow volunteers have been putting together; I have not felt I have it in me.
I've been talking to people: Jonathan, Nicole, Claudia, my dad, my boss, Felicia the vice-president of the library commission. I'm grateful for their support. I'm not even sure what's wrong exactly - I tend to periodically wind myself up and then despair about everything. I'd like to be home now, but there's not so much time left to stick out here. The time I have left though is dominated by summer vacation and will not be productive in the traditional sense. I am already planning the workshops and activities I want to do with the schools and the library once life gets moving again at the end of February. I suppose I ought to be grateful to miss a dreary North-West winter.
my house is pretty funny-looking, huh?
I hate all these regrets and complaints I've built up. I want to smash them all and look at Natalio with fresh new eyes. I'd like to be overwhelmed and amazed and elevated again by the crazy-blue sky and the towering clouds.
I sincerely wish that there were some other volunteers nearby that I could visit to help me keep an even keel. To visit and do simple, boring Peace Corps things: cooking and washing clothes and watching movies. When I go out a-visiting it invariably becomes a grand romp which leaves me exhausted and broke and further estranged from life in my site.
What is more distressing is the conviction that all sites are essentially the same, a Peace Corps volunteer makes lemonade, or they do not. Dissatisfaction with a site is merely failure to find the way to make it satisfying. In Peace Corps there's not really such a thing as success or failure either of course, every volunteer has many successes and failures, but even so.
Even so.

The simple trick to summer anyhow is to relax. I suspect that my 24/7 internet access, which I enjoy compliments of my neighbor's unprotected wifi network, is not helping in this area.
Sorry for the griping. Let us hope that it has been helpful to vent.
It appears that Paraguay has beat Guatemala 2-0! Bombs are exploding in the street and overhead

Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Today!: was the 2nd International Congress of the Guaraní Language, in my very own town of Natalio.
This was an unexpected thing. It was sort of like a college symposium crossed with your standard Municipal acto cultural (traditional music and dance performances) and a boring MinstryofEducationandCulture workshop on top.
Speakers came in from Missiones, Argentina and Sao Paolo, Brazil to talk about the language. So it was kind of a big deal, but only kind of.

Teachers from the local schools performed a couple traditional dances in between lecturers.

I certainly didn´t understand a lot of what was going on. My Guaraní skills probably peaked last summer in Nueva Germania, or possibly while I was still living with the Alonso family the winter before. Since moving to Natalio I spend less time with families and neighbors and most of the people I do know are perfectly comfortable speaking Spanish to one another, a diferencia que el norte. There still is plenty of Guaraní going around, but I have really not felt the need to continue studying it, as enriching as I´m sure that would be. I´ve been making some efforts to hold my ground at least, and practice saying what I still remember. Seeing 7 Cajas (which I really meant to write a post about) and visiting Ana´s site last month partially inspired me to start working on my Guaraní again, but even so the general trend has been atrophy of my never great Guaraní skills.

So, it was somewhat embarrassing to conduct a short interview today with a videographer who was documenting the event. It ended up being mostly in English, but some of it was in Guaraní. I´m really bad at figuring out what people are saying when they ask me things in Guaraní, which is not so good for interviews, or most conversations really.

I also met a group of teachers from Posadas, Argentina, which is just across the river from Encarnación, the captial of my department. I talked with them during the lunch break. It was such a thrill to meet people that weren´t Paraguayans or Peace Corps volunteers! I can see Argentina from almost anywhere in town, it´s just 10km away, and I listen to Argentine Public Radio, but I´ve never been over there (except for 8 hours to see Iguazu Falls with dad) and I´m consumed with curiosity about our mysterious neighbors. From Paraguay, Argentina seems so rich and functional and developed, but not so intrinsically foreign as Brazil. They speak Spanish, albeit with a funny accent, and thier history is tightly bound up with the history of Paraguay. The histories of Itapua and Missiones are particularly close, both being initially settled (by Europeans) as part of the Jesuit region of the Paraná.

I´ve been working for some time on a geo-historical animation of the colonization and foundation of Paraguay. It´s not done yet (I´m up to about 1700) but I will certainly post it on the blog when it is. I am very happy with the work. It is all really part of an effort on my part to understand how Paraguay came to be the way it is.

The Guaraní legacy is one of the most interesting and fundamental features of Paraguay. If I look at a map of Brazil, there are places in the far North-East that I can translate from Guaraní. They covered a huge area, but Paraguay is the only part of their former lands where the language survives and flourishes. There are Gauraní speakers in northern Argentina, and some in Brazil. I imagine there are also some in Uruguay and perhaps Bolivia.

I have been very curious about the similarities and differences between my side of the river and the other. The provinces of Corrientes and Missiones share with Paraguay the legacy of the Guaraní, of the Jesuit missions, of Spanish colonial government and then of Latin American independence. Corrientes and Buenos Aires are just two of the cities founded by colonists from Asunción.
How did all the land south of the river end up on such a different course?
How much of the similarity remains?

I have been meaning to visit the other side of the river for months, and perhaps now that the school year is drawing to a close I´ll make it happen. I need to request permission 10 days ahead of time, and have itinerary information including phone numbers for each place I will stay (my Peace Corps phone won´t work). At the very least I will travel through Argentina and Uruguay before returning to the states. I would very much like to check out Urugauy. I´ve been imagining it as kind of like Paraguay, green, tranquil, mate-sipping, but with functioning government institutions... and beaches.

Friday, October 26, 2012

well gosh darnit

Hey, guess which country I live in! Guess which country I come from! They're the two orange ones!
Here's the economist's article about Latin America from their special report on inequality

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

breaking fast

"The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour. Then there is least somnolence in us, and, for an house at least, some part of us awakens which slumbers all the rest of the day and night."  - Henry David Thoreau

Breakfast is the most intimate meal because, as Thoreau reminds us, in the morning our souls are still glowing a little bit from the hours spent dreaming. We have yet to put on all the stuff that separates us from each other.

So I like breakfast. I like to eat it with other people. Being able to walk to a cafe is really my definition of urban living. My favorite part of a night of drinking with friends is breakfast the next morning with the survivors. My favorite part of living with Americans were big breakfasts with pancakes and bacon and coffee. The best part of living with a host family, I think, is that hot cocido in the morning. The coquitos/galletas are not so great. But the intimacy, and the cocido, while you watch the silly morning news broadcast is really special and really Paraguayan.

So I'm very happy that this morning I found a nice place I can go to (it's on my block of course) in the mornings to drink good hot cocido and watch the news and talk to Sandra (or possibly her sister Sofia). They run a hotel and restaurant and sell tickets for one of the two local bus companies, and have helped me in the past with movie-night fundraisers for the library. Who knows, I may even be able to find a newspaper to read. The cocido comes with a nice big homemade Paraguayan tortilla, which is not at all like a Mexican tortilla, but is yummy and greasy.

Cocido is a slightly mysterious yerba mate based beverage traditionally made by burning yerba and sugar with hot coals, adding milk, and straining out the burnt yerba and charcoal. There are various less hot-coal intensive ways of making it with varying degrees of efficacy. It ends up like a pleasant English breakfast tea and you usually eat it with these awful little stale bread balls, which are deceptively known as galletas (cookies).

I've been feeling pretty good the last couple of weeks, which has motivated me to really be more proactive about finding families I can spend time with. A good volunteer spends more time with families and Paraguayan friends than they do on facebook. A good volunteer would be better integrated with their community by this point  regardless of the circumstances of the site placement.  When I complain of boredom or loneliness I am just expressing failure to integrate with my community. With summer doldrums coming on I had better get to know some families or I am really going to be banging my head against the wall.

One cup at a time.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

water and light

Well, another thunderstorm followed by no power and then no water. The water here is so effed up, and I really don't understand why. The municipal water is all well-drawn, and the town is on top of a hill. Oops. I guess I should just be grateful it's potable.

I am impressed though with how fast the electricity comes back on. We had gusts last night that were I'm pretty sure as strong as anything I've ever witnessed. On Vashon that could mean days without power. I do lose power more frequently than back home, but almost never for more than an hour or two. People say ANDE is a bloated bureaucracy, but as far as bloated Paraguayan bureaucracies go, it might be my favorite.

they really wanted to use the computers, so they sat there and waited until the power came back on

Sunday, October 14, 2012

does it matter?

Okay so: the countryside here is beautiful, yadayada

There's a part of me that never wants to go back to the United States because there is so much ugly shit there: highways, subdivisions, sprawl, and ugly ugly buildings. There are also beautiful buildings of course, but it seems like we stopped building them 60 years ago for the most part.

When I am riding around the country roads here, I want to help preserve this beautiful landscape somehow. Paraguayans emphatically do not build beautiful buildings, and I imagine that it is just a matter of time before the scraps of forest that remain are added to the growing argo-industial farms here.

But the question arises, does it matter? Does beauty matter? Or is it just something to amuse first-world artistic-types? I decided that it does matter and that I would be an advocate for beauty just because there are so many advocates for other important things like economic efficiencies, freedom from regulation, the virtues of vegetarianism, the dangers of smoking, the convenience of smart phones...
But I wasn't really able to say why exactly it matters. These two blog posts (would it less lame if I said articles?) by Kaid Benfield develop two good reasons to value beautiful places that could stand up in a debate.

Says that beautiful places are more sustainable because they are more likely to last; they won't be torn down every few decades to built something new. This is also important in designing sustainable communities, that they at least place some priority on beauty, that people will continue to value the spaces after the newness and trendiness has work off.
Scott Dycon was quoted in another article by the same author, with a similar point about preservtion of historic buildings:

"Most would agree that, at some point, our built environment stopped responding to a shared, cultural understanding of what's beautiful and started expressing - at the upper end - the personal artistic ambitions of its designers and - at the lower end - the need to cut costs.

"Either way, the result has been buildings and places that often lack the one thing most likely to ensure their preservation - the ability to be loved and valued by the everyman."

The second article is a review of a book called The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment. One of the points the book makes is that beautiful places ought to matter to Christians because they inspire a sense of the divine and allow people to slow down and develop their relationship with God.
Benfield also states:

Central to The Space Between is the concept of shalom, which we usually translate simply as "peace" but which he believes contains much more meaning, including restored fellowship, human flourishing, justice, and relational wholeness for everyone. Jacobsen argues that, while each one of us carries a longing for shalom deep within, much of our recently built human settlement "bears not the slightest hint of that blessed condition that is described in the Bible."

One of the ways in which we fail to move closer to shalom, he continues, is that today we experience our world not with our bodies and senses at human speeds, as Jacobsen believes God intended, but through automobiles and a world designed almost wholly to accommodate them. He cites several biblical passages that suggest something quite different, that walking is central to observant living. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

opa gangnam style

Thanks to my neighbor's blessed generosity in leaving their wifi without a password, I have just been finally immersing myself in Gangnam Style, the Korean rap music video that's gone crazy viral in the last few months.

The video's popularity, even in Paraguay, is somehow instantly comprehensible upon watching. It's got an infectious drama and silliness which really makes you not care that you don't understand the language besides the words 'style' and 'sexy lady'. 

I just watched the video of the Today Show hosts and the artist (well, okay) PSY doing the whole song in Times Square. They are all just giddy. 

I think this is a moment for the United States. This video got hugely, irrationally popular, and suddenly swept everybody up. This is what pop culture is like for most other countries. 

Paraguay does produce quite a bit of its own music, more than you would think really, given the awfulness of most of it. But the vast majority of mass media, tv-shows, movies, music, telenovelas are imported from other Spanish speaking countries, Brazil, or the United States.

While the material developed in Hispanic America is obviously comprehensible it is still foreign and inherently a little bizarre. American consumption of British media would be the analogue.

Watching dubbed reruns of the A-Team, Fear Factor, Walker Texas Ranger, WWF Smackdown, and of course the Simpsons can't help but cause some questions about the logic and nature of reality.
More striking is the complete inappropriateness of music in Portuguese or English. Brazilian sertanejos, a style which borrows a lot from American country music, is extremely popular in Paraguay, despite few Paraguayans really being able to speak Portuguese. The hit "Nossa nossa" blew up here last summer. It's got that same unstoppable inevitable silly drama to it as Gangnam style. All we know about it is that it is about a girl, which is all you need to know really.
Before Nossa nossa hit it was that "Hello" song, with the lyrics in English, before that the Barbara Streisand song and that horrible Dirty Dancing remix (which I will not link to).

The point is, in Paraguay, as in most of the rest of the rest of the world, folks are used to basking in the bizarre glory of foreign pop-culture. (The United States of) America dominated 20th century pop-culture, not completely, but in a big way. Folks in Paraguay know about Creedence Clearwater Revival, okay? 
But in America people are not used to un-self-consciously digesting foreign hits. Americans are used to dominating pop culture, and to a really weird and harmful degree are blind to the rest of the world (except Britain). The real rest of the world, not just the charity/enlightened liberal/"world music"/International Film Festival rest of the world. The everyone-getting-irrationally-excited and dancing to music they don't understand rest of the world. The sincere, unironic, barely understood enthusiasm for something that comes from another culture. 
Gangnam style lets America be a part of the world again, for 4 minutes 13 seconds. 
It's a glimpse of the future. Hopefully it reminds us that the decline of America hegemony doesn't mean the end of all life and happiness. Everyone else gets long fine not being us, anyhow.

Saturday, October 6, 2012


It's hot and dusty again, just 5 days after heavy rain and thunderstorms. The weather has been exhibiting a degree of schizophrenia (you ever try to spell that word? I was stumped after the first letter. and yes I know it's not really appropriate to throw around neurological terms that I don't understand) in the last month, which I guess is a good thing. Beats monotony.
Let's see... its hot and dusty now, but this week we enjoyed clear, clean air and workable soil after an intense two days of thunderstorms last Monday and Tuesday. I was delayed coming back from Asuncion as a result of these storms. A couple parts of the country were hit really hard, with homes destroyed by the wind and hail.
The 36 hours before that storm was oppressively hot, but the five days or so before that was very pleasant, gradually warming after a week of bizarrely cold temperatures, which dipped down to about 50 degrees a couple of nights (remember: 50's outside - no problem, 50's inside - very uncomfortable). This cold spell came in after another round of thunderstorms accompanied by tornadoes (I think) which destroyed several blocks in a suburb of the capital and a few other areas around the country.

But at least we're getting rain. I was talking to a building contractor yesterday, he said it wouldn't be hard or expensive to fix the broken tiles in my roof to reduce the leaks. This will have to wait at least a month however, as I've already spent any discretionary funds for October on my lovely new window. My house is dark and cave-like, and the window, well, you know how cool windows are... light and air, not to mention that aesthetic quality of hominess they give a room.
It is a big improvement.

What is the point?
The point is that I love to ride my bike. I love to ride it out in the countryside in the evening, between rainstorms and dry spells, when the roads are not a horrible mud slurry or suffocatingly dusty. I love exploring and trying to link up a unknown country road to a known one, or to the "highway". I love finding little three-room campo schools and, at least, thinking about how I ought to visit. I really ought to. For next fall, at the very least.
I love the beauty of the countryside, which I have written about before. This was once all Atlantic rainforest, which stretched from here north-east to Rio de Janiero, roughly. What is left of it is in the awkward glens around streams. The wheat fields curve around these green outcrops with a geometric perfection. You can see the elegance of the forms of the land contraposed against the wildness of the forest. Perfect, endless wheat stubble and mad explosions of jungle.

Like I've said, I'd love to have a Bed & Breakfast out here. I think I could lure folks with money to a week of the simple life... charge rich Manhattanites loads of money to milk a cow, things like that. Just being a few miles out of town really does give one the relaxing and slightly dizzying feeling of having left the 21st century behind, even without leaving cell phone reception.
I think bicycle tourism could be a thing here, but there are a lot of impediments. First of all, how many bicycle tourists are even out there? Enough for Oregon, but...
Second, the country dirt roads can be good for biking, but the country roads that really go somewhere are often cobblestoned, which is impossible to bike on.
Asphalt roads are narrow and all vehicles are driven at the maximum possible speed. Might makes right is the rule of the road.

I would love to be able to go out riding with a friend! If anyone has been on the fence about visiting, te suplico, adelante! I very much hope that my brother will be able to come out just before I leave next April when he (.....finally...) finishes at WWU.
At a certain point my capacity to appreciate beauty is maxed out trying to take it in by myself. I take pictures but... I ought to be painting landscapes. I don't have paints. Should I buy some? I imagine they would not be cheap.
If you witness a beautiful thing and there is nobody there to share it with, was it really beautiful? I am truly energized when I make myself leave my ugly home and get out into the countryside. Still, I think I may avoid going out more because every time I do I am awed by the glory but saddened by my inability to share it, to make something more of it. I can't take it with me.

So it goes.

But I like to bike!

Sunday, September 30, 2012


Just one day left to get in a post for September. I'm not sure what happened there, though I have had less internet this month. Still....

It has been a good month. I've been travelling a lot, which makes me happy. When I'm happy I've got more ganas to do good work and more likely to connect with people in site.
The first weekend of the month we had a VolunteerActionCouncil (I'm not even sure if that's what is stands for, we just say VAC) meeting in Encarnación, the capital of Itapua which is my department. The meeting was at a really pretty decent pizzeria. Encarn is a nice little city and has what you might call nightlife, so we later went down to the waterfront to drink and run in the sand and be silly. I was with some of the more recent arrivals who aren´t cynical or jaded like too many of us are. I am feeling more at home in Itapua now and having been in my new site longer than both the G-38 and G-39 makes me feel less like the grumpy transplant ("In San Pedro we do things like this, in San Pedro we do things like that...").
Encarn just last year completed its amazing Costanera, which is the waterfront surrounding the city. This waterfront was created by the flooding of the Paraná by the recently built Yacyreta dam. When you´re down there you almost think you´re somewhere nice. You want it because it reminds you of a real beach but it afterwards is leaves you missing the ocean more than ever.
And we went dancing and the music was surprisingly not horrible and they didn't charge a cover to get in and they opened up the back area so there was actually room to dance. It was, in fact, a fun night out. !!

Then two weeks later I came in for Ellie's awesome street art project (let me know if that link doesn't work). She had kids from her high schools submit design proposals. The designs were posted on facebook, and the five most popular were painted in different spots around town. Lots of local youth and about 15 PCVolunteers from all around the country painted some really lovely works of art. It was great for youth development, one of our sector goals, and city beautification/tourism which is one of Encarn's goals, and just fun. I've always wanted to paint murals. This was the first time I've ever been able to.

BUT I wasn't able to stick around long. I had to head back to site for our Matinee de Cine, put on as a fundraiser for the library commission. The municipality lends us the equipment and the space, I do the technical stuff, and the commission members sell soda and homemade popcorn. It's a lot of fun, though not without its challenges. This time we showed the Pixar gem "Ratatoille".
I got a text message the morning of the show, while I was on a ladder painting in Encarn, that none of the commission members would be able to show up to help. This was very disappointing. That's the sort of glib unreliability that drives us mad as volunteers and makes us feel like we're just wasting out time. But I set everything up anyhow, and once people came I apologized to everyone that there wouldn't be popcorn or soda as advertised  Then some of the moms stood up and told me that they could make popcorn. The treasurer of the library commission also showed up, she hadn't heard that the commission was all bailing. So an hour in to the film we had an intermission, sold candy and soda, raised some 60 mil to buy books (sold the popcorn too cheap) and I learned who I could depend upon the next time around.

Then the next weekend was Ana's birthday. She's a volunteer that lives about 2 hours from my site, and is just about my closest neighbor. She lives in the town of Jesús de Tavarangue, famous for its glorious Jesuit ruins. Lots of volunteers came in and we partied for two days at her house, then had a lovely pork, beef and turkey BBQ up at the ruins with her community contact and the people that work at the front gate, then wandered around the huge ruined church in the holy moonlight, and then Monday spent all day at the high school giving info sessions about HIV/AIDS. It was a really fantastic group of volunteers to spend the weekend with and I'm very happy that we were able to have lots of fun and then be guapo (productive/hard-working) afterwards.
This is a picture of the Jesús ruins from when dad came to visit last year

This weekend I'm in Asuncion otra vez for my PTIP (the I is for interview I think) with Jeremy, our Program Manager (one of the P's is probably for program, huh). This means the busfare is paid for and I got one free night in a cheap hotel or a hostel. Coming in at the same time as a lot of other volunteers is always exciting, fun, awkward, confusing, expensive, and exhausting. Also I've got some GI issues going on. Tomorrow I'm heading in the Guarambare for Sunday Lunch with my host family from training which will be a love-fest. It has been far too long since I've visited. They are the sweetest people and love me far more than I deserve.

host fam

I'm going to try and get back on the blog-train. There are a lot of long posts that I only have half written that I want to do properly.

Here's another shot of the ruins framing the mythic rolling fields of Itapua

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

If you lived here, you'd already be home


After a year and a half in Paraguay the themes I want to write about begin to repeat themselves: Asunción, buses, the beauty of the land, the ugliness of the buildings, the kindness of the people and then general lonliness.

I am in Asunción again tonight, after a week of travelling in the department of San Pedro, which I perivously called home. It was just lovely to see my voluneer friends and to be in the north again, though I did not have permission to visit my former site. Once you go north from Santani you enter something like the Wild West. Santa Rosa is a boom town, expanding far faster than any services or municipal organization can keep up. The little towns of the countryside are tranquility itself, where the rumbling affairs of the capital or the outside world barely register. Then San Pedro de Ycuamandiyyu (uh-kwa-man-di-ju) which is the great corrupted outpost of civilization grown out of a region so long isloated and neglected.

Obi-Wan Kenobi's words about Mos Eisley echo in my ears when I walk down those old San Pedro streets "you will not find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy"

I do love it though.

It was so lovely to visit my friends Hannah and Leah, who live in and 21km from the town of San Pedro respectively. They are both technically Environmental Education volunteers but actually are involved in all sorts of projects beyond just environmental education. Leah's main focus is gardening (which is environmental, sure, but is really more of a priority for health and economic reasons) and has lately overseen a large project to build, stock and manage chicken coops  with families in her community. The vast majority of chickens in PY (of which there are a lot) just wander around wherever they like, which is nice and all, but they get sick or killed or stolen and you can't control what they are eating. Like the gardens, this is really a nutrition and economic project. She's also working the the tiny elementary and high school in her site teaching English, Computer skills, gardening, art, and probably all sorts of other great stuff.
My dad, Marissa, and Hannah in San Pedro. I don't have any picutres of  Leah :(
Hannah is one of the most guapa (the opposite of lazy) people I have ever known. Whenever I talk to her I always hear about cualquer other project shes been working on that I didn't even know about. She's been working with the municipality to flouridate the water and to build a new dump which won't leak into the ground water. She also teaches English classes at the elemenary school, high school, university, and for adults. Her greatest project, and perhaps her great white whale, has been a community center. She's been growing this around her home which is a big ancient family house on maybe an acre of land. She provides toys, love, encouragement and a rare positive role model to the street kids that frequently come to visit her. With the Agriculture students at the university and her neighbors she built a huge community garden on the property and has plans for sewing and cooking classes. This is the sort of sprawling project that I stay well away from, and which I think would sink a lesser volunteer. If there is anyone in Peace Corps Paraguay who could pull it all off it would be Hannah. Check out her website if you'd like to learn more.

I stayed with both Hannah and Leah and we spent a lot of time together the three of us. It felt so good to be out there. I'm so Paraguayan now in plenty of ways that I don't even think about and San Pedro feels as close to home as anywhere I've been in a year and a half. The best of all was simply to have fun! To laugh whole heartedly, with other people! With friends! What glory! I really felt the weight of the last months lifting from my shoulders; I was reminded that I am not a gloomy, solitary person by nature. I hope never again to go so long without spending time with good friends. It poisons one to do so.

And then endless hours in the bus, the buses, from the most janky wood-floored and barely operable campo buses to double-decked glistening space shuttles with AC and flat screen TVs. The buses are of course serviced by all manner of vendors, providing nearly endless opportunities for impulse buys. I kept a running tally of the vendors that boarded during the course of my first long bus ride from Natalio to Coronel Oviedo last Saturday:
Chipa (it's a thing): 5
milanesa (country fried steak): 5
Soda: 3
candy/gum: 1
roasted meat: 1
lottery: 1
pills (all sorts): 1
pirated movies and music: 2
fruit salad: 1
and a proper salesman who pitched a teeth-whitening cream to us, though his voice didn't carry well and I doubt much of the bus could hear him. I had bought a bunch of bananas before leaving, and was able to show some rare self control and refrain from buying food.

It was a pleasure to return to this crazy city again after a week in San Pedro and almost 3 months without visiting. I stand by what I wrote before about the defiant but charming urbanism which thrives beneath all the chaos, clouds of exhaust, slums, and upper class distractions. I love the connection to the land I see both in Natalio and San Pedro, but to see regular people living the city life, working, studying, shopping, eating, drinking, cultivating themselves and having fun, uplifts me. Something approaching interesting cuisine, quality in art and music, organizations beyond the family level. Cities are linguistically and as far as I'm concerned actually the root of the meaning of civilization. I would not say that the good people of San Pedro are not civilized, but just that civilzation in that area is sustained by the distant connection to Asunción.

And here I am again. I am the only guest at the Arandu hostel, which makes it the most luxurious lodging per dollar spent I have ever enjoyed. I have the run of the entire building, which is a former mansion in an old part of town that has been lovingly restored and converted into its current encarnation. It is also a block from the beautiful Chuch of the Encarnation.
And the weather is turning. I was sure that winter had one more week of cold weather left, though as August passed I began to question myself. Today a cold, powerful wind is coming in from the South. It is shrieking outside my window as I write. Rain is predicted the next few days and the lows may be in the 40s Sunday through Tuesday. I'll get a chance to use up the rest of my firewood, and wear my funny ear flap old man hat one more time.

It's been a good trip. I'm even getting to miss Natalio a little bit.

Friday, August 17, 2012


The weather has been glorious here. Windy and warm, highs in the 80s, lows in the 60s. It is like the best of summer in the NW and I have been bombarded with mini flashbacks to sailing, bike riding, baseball, picnics, lawn mowing, house painting... I actually was painting my ugly ugly house last weekend.
With the warmer weather people seem to be opening up a bit, myself included and I'd like to think that I'm finally making some real connections here in Natalio. One of the ways I've occupied myself this lonesome winter has been with various projects around the house.

Relative poverty means that in Paraguay people are often not able to replace something as soon as it breaks. Products are also often cheaply made, and so they break more easily than what I am used to. Folks push things just up to the breaking point, and then use their wits to hopefully keep disaster at bay. If folks are unable to buy what they need they often show an impressive but also depressing ability to simply ignore inconvenience or discomfort. More hearteningly, many people are also adept at jury-rigging all manner of things, or building machines and gadgets and gizmos from whatever they have available. I generally take pleasure in seeing the ingenuity with which people are able to solve their problems without the superfluous consumption we are accustomed to in (the US of) America. That the jury-rigs are often cringe-inducingly unsafe does make the American way more attractive, from a statistical stand-point at least.

I have learned a lot just by observing these various inventions and improvisations in daily life (I'd like to have more pictures but really, there are so many things it stops being remarkable), but most of all I have learned to ask myself anytime something breaks or I want something new if I couldn't just fix it or make it myself. I love this hands-on quality to daily life which is mostly missing in America after we leave elementary school.

Here are a few of the projects I've been working on around the house:

Rope + 2 pulleys + watering can = shower:
 For when I don't have enough water pressure to take a proper shower. As a result of reading large ammounts of historical naval fiction in my youth, I've always wanted to use pulleys for some practical purpose and I think this is the first time that I've built something with them in which they are really essential. I wouldn't be able to hoist the water up easily without the 2x1 pulley action.

table + drain pipe + wash basin with a hole in it = sink:
The outdoor sink I'd been using for the first few months was taken away by its owner a 3 weeks ago. It had been loaned to Lizzie when she lived in this house, but for me it just felt like part of the house. So I rode by bike to the lumberyard (which I really do need to get some pictures of, it is straight out of the 1800's) put some long 2x5s on my rack, rode back to my house and built my own sink using an old palangana (a plastic wash basin) which I cut a hole in for the sink itself. I still haven't figured out a good way to seal it, I may have to buy another palangana to cut a more perfectly circular hole in.

woodstove v2.0:
don't need to go into this again. I'm about 60% happy with this design, but I was a little disappointed by this winter. We only have one properly cold week and of that there was only frost on the ground three times.

library maps:
I already completed and posted about my South America map I made for the library. I've also been working on a "corzaon de sudamerica" map which just shows the area around Paraguay from La Paz to Santiago to Buenos Aires and southern Brazil. The initial energy I had for the first map has lessened, and I've made more than a couple labelling mistakes. The other night I labeled the Pacific Ocean as the Atlantic! blah

Shelves: though it seems simple, I am rather proud of the way I figured out to attach shelves to a regular brick and stucco interior wall. This is a good example of something that neverwould have occurred to me if I hadn't gotten going thinking about creative solutions to furniture problems. I put in four long nails, making the corners of a wide rectangle. The top two nails are angled upwards as much as possible. The bottom two nails stick out straight. I string metal wire very loosely from each bottom nail to the nail above it. Then I insert the shelf into the two loops formed by the wire. The inside of the shelf is suspended by the lower nails and the outside of the shelf it suspended by the wire hanging from the top nail. I just need to get more boards...

vintage paraguayan science textbooks >> home decorations:
some of the initial donations for the library which were stored in my house were too damaged or outdated to keep as part of the library collection. Two of these were classic old elementary school science books. The illustrations are all hand drawn and are block printed, black and white and then just one color depending on the page. This style of printing has an attractive simplicity too it and the drawings are endearing. This style of printing has made something of a comeback in the indie/portlandia/vegan-lesbian circles I was familiar with back home. I've made several posters out of some of the most interesting pages.

wine botle lanterns: a cool way to reuse glass bottles (mostly from wine or liquor because beer bottles have a deposit) that we learned during training is to cut them and make drinking glasses out of them. This is a pretty cool skill, though it is difficult and it is tiring doing more than a couple of bottles. What you do is wrap a length of fine metal wire around to handles (sticks), wrap the wire around the bottle, then run it quickly back and forth around the bottle. You put masking tape around the bottle above and below where you want the wire to run. The movement of the wire heats of the glass in this small area. Running the wire quickly and forcefully enough takes a lot of strength both for the person holding the bottle (leather gloves are nice for this) and for the person with the wire. Once the glass is judged to be hot enough (lots of times you can see a little smoke rise off where the heated area) you dunk the whole bottle quickly in a bucket of ice water. If you did it right the top of the bottle will easily separate from the bottom. You then need to sand the edges where the glass broke, and then you have a homemade water glass!

The top half of the bottle is an interesting shape and I am always trying to think of good uses for it, though few are practical. It could be a funnel, or if you just get the neck you could have a guitar slide. I've been making hanging lanterns out of them. I put the cork back in the top, invert the bottle, and insert a candle into the neck. Then I rig it up with a cord to hang from the beams of my back porch awning. The bottle protects the flame from the wind and gives the light a cool green color. As long as the candle is the same girth as the neck of the bottle it won't break the glass because the flame won't touch any part of it. The glass only breaks if one part is significantly hotter than any other part.

And I've got a bitchin' two tier compost. We'll see if I get much to grow in my shady garden though...

Sunday, August 12, 2012

La historia II

Our historical romp continues...

After writing the last historical post I found a page that explains almost everything I wanted to, but better written and researched. 

Well, as we noted in the last post, Asunción was founded in 1537. By 1550 the outlines of the Spanish colonial empire had already been laid out: Mexico and the Carribean, the Andes and the Pacific coast of South America, and the Rio de la Plata. By 1600 it was consolidated and organized politcally into two vice-royalties, Mexico and Peru.

The rivers of La Plata were initially explored in the interest of finding a convieninet route to the riches of Peru. The Pilcomayo, the Belmejo and the Rio Negro all flow from the Andes, but first cross the Gran Chaco, which is as inhospitable an envrionment as any in South America and which was populated by aggressive indigenous tribes. The Chaco remained essentially unconquered until the 20th century. Asunción became the center of Spanish settlement east of the Andes and south of the Amazon, but without easily extractable natural rescources the region attracted little attention.

The estuary that would become known as El Rio de la Plata (the river of silver) was first discovered for Europeans by a Spanish explorer Juan Díaz de Solís in 1516, before the Spanish had yet crossed the isthmus of Panama or passed through the straits of Magellan to reach the Pacific. Juan Díaz was killed by natives, and most of his crew sailed home, but one of his lieutenants, a Portugese named Aleixo Garcia was left behind near Santa Catarina on the southern Brazilian coast. Aleixo Garcia spent eight years living with the coastal Gauraní and from them learned of the Inca Empire and its riches to the west. He managed to raise a Guaraní army then crossed through modern southern Brazil, Paraguay, the Chaco, and successfully raided the Inca in modern Bolivia. Needless to say he was one gnarly dude. He looted copious amounts of silver and retreated with the spoils across the Chaco but was attacked repeatedly and finally killed on returning to the Paraguay river. He was the first European to have an encounter with the Inca empire.

Sebastiano Caboto was the son of the Venetian explorer in the service of the English, Giovanni Caboto (aka John Cabot). Sebastiano explored the estuary in 1526 for the Spanish, established two forts, and ventured up the rivers as far as the future site of Asunción. He encountered the survivors of Garcia´s army and thier silver treasures then spent the next 3 years searching for a river route to Inca lands and named the whole river system for the object of his serach. In 1529 his forts were abandoned and overrun and Caboto returned to Spain with a fraction of his crew and reported all he'd heard of the Inca and their riches.

After it proved difficult to reach Peru from the rivers of la Plata, the focus of the Empire shifted to the Pacific coast by the crossing at Panama. The seat of the Vice-royalty of Peru was Lima, and the colonies of the entire continent were administered from there until 1739, when Colombia and Venezuela were broken off to form their own vice-royalty. The Spanish occupied Incan cities and established new ones of their own. These mostly lay along the old Inca road, which ran from Quito to Santiago. The first permanent Spanish settlements in Argentina were founded near this route, which runs through the north-western part of the country to Bolivia. Santiago del Estero, Mendoza, Córdoba, Santa Fe, San Juan, and San Miguel de Tucumán were all founded before Buenos Aires was reestablished in 1580 by a party of Asucenos. Meanwhile Uruguay was left practically undisturbed until Colonia de Sacramento was founded 100 years later by the Portuguese.

Small numbers of Spanish settled in Asunción, took Guaraní wives, went raiding for indian serfs, established encomiendas, fought off the more aggressive Chaco indians, and sent out parties of settlers to found new cities. Attempts by Asucenos to extend Spanish rule to the north and east were short lived. The settlements were too remote to attract more settlers, and were ultimately swept aside by the increasingly aggressive Portuguese raids out of Sao Paolo in the 1630´s.

old Paraguay
The Asucenos were more successful with Santa Cruz de la Sierra in modern day Bolivia. Santa Cruz is now the second most populous city and the economic capital of that country. The initial settlement was twice forced to relocate to the west before it arrived in it´s current location. These initial settlements and indian reductions were often relocated due to hostile neighbors or problems with land. Villarrica, which became Paraguay´s second most important "city", was initially founded deep into what is today Brazil, but was relocated six times during the 1600's.
The most obvious direction for settlement by Asucenos would seem to be back down the Paraná river towards the Atlantic Ocean. Santa Fé was founded in 1573 five hundred miles south of Asunción on the west bank of the Paraná and seven years later Buenos Aires was finally reestablished.

By 1600, Asunción had already peaked in its importance. It was the chief town of a region sparsely populated by Spaniards, with no gold or silver or copper mines. Yerba mate became the province´s chief cash crop, but this was heavily taxed by the viceroyalty. Technically speaking yerba wasn't even a crop as it had not yet been domesticated and was rather gathered from wild stands. By the medieval rules of commerce in the empire, all goods exported or imported were to be traded through Portobelo, in Panama. So Paraguayan goods travelled by river to Santa Fe or Buenos Aires, put onto carts and drawn up to Perú or over to Chile, put on boats to be sailed to Panama, unloaded again onto carts to cross the isthmus, and then finally loaded into ships and sailed to Spain as part of a convoy. The natural attraction of Buenos Aires as a port lead to a good deal of smuggling, but this could only mitigate, not replace, the loss of legal trade.

Buenos Aires gradually ecplised Asunción in importance during the 1600´s, but the onerous economic regulations kept either city from pospering. Buenos Aires is today one of the largest and liveliest cities in the world and we might have expected colonial Paraguay to have prospered in some degree by its reflected glory. However, the region remained a distant and often forgotten province of Perú for 200 years. Not until 1776 was Buenos Aires granted its own viceroyalty and trading privledges.

And now, just in case you still didn't think I was a nerd, here is an animation I've made of the colonization of this part of South America: