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!