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.).

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