Friday, May 24, 2013

Other places

Three days after leaving Paraguay I´m in a town called Cafayate, south of the city of Salta, Argentina. This is wine-country, a high desert valley watered by mountain runoff. The mountains rise steeply rfom the valley floor and seem to come in all shapes and colors and forms imaginable. The town is tidy and peaceful, with many tourists, and is surrounded by wineries.

Yesterday I stayed in Salta, which is a lovely, sophisticated city. There are many differences between this part of Argentina and Paraguay, 800 desolate kilometers away, but what struck me most profoundly was the sophistication, the civilization even (if civilization is a measure of how good a group of people is at living in cities) of the urban culture, which could not be more different from Paraguay. In the beautiful central plaza, surrounded by interesting and historic buildings, with hundreds of pedestrians passing in all directions I was struck by the near silence of it all. There were hardly any motos, the buses do not roar like semis, many of the streets around the plaza are only open to foot traffic, there weren´t even any barking dogs.  The city operates with a casual, elegant earnestness.  

Between here and there lies the vastness of the Chaco. As we were crossing it the night of the 22nd, I could still see Paraguayan culture in the items for sale in the lonely little towns where we stopped. Here, though, Paraguay is completely absent, except in the practice of drinking yerba mate.I keep wanting to speak Guarani with people and being disappointed.

It was not so easy to get out of Paraguay. I think I was reasonable in not expecting it to be so difficult, but I´ve always been bd at these sorts of things. I was in Guarambare last Saturday night and Sunday, visiting the Benitez family one last time, then I came into Asuncion last Monday to complete my paper-work and swear out as a Volunteer. My phone broke on Saturday, making it hard to make those last goodbye calls, and I started having major gastro-intestinal issues Sunday. Peace Corps service doesn´t end without a fight.

I spent Monday morning trying to figure out how to get my readjustment allowance check into my bank account. With dad´s help, and at a cost of about 200$ I got that taken care of by about noon. I swore out Monday afternoon, turned in my broken phone, and stayed the night in my favorite hostel. Tuesday I went shopping for gifts for my family, which went well, and met Ellie and her fianceé Alexis in the plaza for tereré one last time. We got a good Paraguayan lunch in a nice little place frequented by working Asuncenos. One of the things I like about hanging out with Ellie and Alex is that they live in a much more Paraguayan way than most vounteers, because, well, he is Paraguayan. I could always count on an inviation to a hearty hot lunch when I was in Encarnacion, and here in Asuncion, instead of going to the same touristy/fancy restauarants that volunteers always go to they had sought out an authentic Asunceno lunch place as a matter of course. They will be married in the states as soon as they can get the paperwork processed.

I headed to the office to pack and ship a suitcase of things I didn´t want to take with me on my travels, and to finally pay my 170$ Argentine entrance fee (which was a pain in the ass, also). Once my suitcase was ready I went to DHL to send it. I expected a cost of $200 or so, hopefully less. I was told that it would cost no less than $600 to ship my 20kg suitcase home, and that was if I took out my laptop. Stunned, I returned to the office again by taxi. Generous as always, Ellie and Alexis agreed to carry my suitcase home with them on the plane and ship it from Tennessee, saving me about $430. I dropped off the suitcase with them to the bus terminal to buy my ticket to Salta.

I had inquired the week before about going to Salta and there hadn´t been any problem, I was told that buses head there at 9am daily. However it seemed that the Argentine bus companies had changed thier schedule, or that Argentina had changed its clocks, and that the connections no longer worked. After about half an hour we cobbled together an itenerary with two layovers with the second of which only 10 minutes, meaning I could easily be stranded in Formosa if the bus from Clorinda were late.

True to form I overslept slightly Wednesday morning. Granted, I no longer had a phone with an alarm clock, but I should have asked someone else to set an alarm to wake me. I got confused by the city buses one last time and arrived at the terminal frantic and wet from the rain 5 minutes after my bus to Clorinda was scheduled to leave. I hired a taxi to chase it down, and after about 15 minutes we caught up to the bus somewhere in the northern sprawl and I was able to board, relieved.

Arriving in Clorinda I had a hell of a time convincing the customs agents that it was fine that I have two passports: a peace-corps one (which I used to leave Paraguay and will not use again) and my old, regular one (which I used to enter Argentina). Fortunately it was not my Clorinda layover that was tight.

Clorinda was dismal, grey and muddy in the rain. I changed my Guaranies to Pesos with one of the many street corner money changers after searching about an hour for a proper Casa de Cambios and stocked up on bread and fruit for the long trip across the Chaco. So far things looked about the same as the other side of the river, but there were more bicycles and donkeys (I don´t think I ever saw a donkey or mule in Paraguay) and fewer motorcycles. The schools looked nicer. Though my bus left 20 minutes late from Clorinda we arrived at the large, clean terminal in Formosa with plenty of time to spare.

Clorinda, Argentina

During the night we stopped in many tiny towns in the Chaco. They all followed the same plan, a large double avenue with a park down the middle, turning off the highway to the south. Streets gridded out from the central avenue. The investment by the federal government was obvious in these otherwise poor, isolated towns. Around 11pm the bus stopped on the highway. There was a torch-fire burining and there appeared to be a tree across the road. The Chaco is partially forested, but the trees are not tall and mostly grow a good distance from the hiughway, so I was surprised thinking that wind had blown it down. It turned out that the road was being blocked by the indigenous tribes of the region, protesting I don´t know what, but the proper protest had not begun, so after ten minutes or so, they moved the tree and let us through.

In the night I searched for signs of the distant Andes. The near-full moon lit up the overcast sky, but everytime I opened my eyes the horizon was still perfectly flat. We didn´t begin climbing hills until 5am or so, after the moon had set. Arriving in Salta I still had seen just a few hills in the early morning light. I didn´t glimpse my long imagined Andes until Thursday morning. 

In Argentina there are more:
Donkeys, goats
Varieties of beer
Nice things
Wool hats and sweaters
Hot water tanks

in Paraguay there are more:
Toilet seats
Cows, chickens, pigs
Money changing houses
Mobile vendors
Cars with huge speakers
Stray dogs
Imported products
Plastic bags (with every purchase)
Medicinal herbs

bicycle fish vendor in Clorinda

Hope you´re well. I´m loving it all.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Visit to Nueva Germania

I'm in Guarambaré with my host family, Cristi and Artemio, again. I spent most of last week up in Nueva Germania visiting and saying goodbye. That visit was the most powerful part of my long Paraguayan despedida. Even after 14 months absence, 4 months longer than my actual presence, it was almost as if I'd never left. I was received warmly and enthusiastically as always. For the most part everything is the same, but there are new babies.

All the differences between Nueva Germania and Natalio make it hard to figure out what in particular it was that made it so hard for me to resettle in the South. The most important difference has to be in the smaller size and greater isolation of Nueva Germania. The warmth and hospitality that I always found is that of a very small town far from any city. The school I worked in was enthusiastic about working with me to improve reading competency; apart from receiving a Peace Corps education volunteer there was little they could do to jump-start change. I really do regret not having been able to work with them last year, they are a good group of people and seem serious about improving the quality of their school. Of course, their ganas de trabajar means that they don't really need me, they are able to make changes on their own if they are really serious about it. At best a volunteer multiplies and assists the efforts of already motivated counterparts. Without those ganas the volunteer would be irrelevant, as no amount of encouragement from an accented foreigner will get people to change in ways they are not interested in. This is roughly how I felt at the school I worked at most in Natalio.

Apart from the school however, there is an overwhelming passivity in the people of Nueva Germania, a serious lack of ganas, and a fatalistic attitude that makes any kind of real development project an exercise in futility. The community has received outside help over the years, mostly from the German government or philanthropic communities in Germany, but in every case that local officials have taken control of the sponsored institutions: the technical school, the municipal market, the hospital, the library; the institution has been closed and looted or quality of service has declined precipitously.

The passivity, la tranquilidad, is not such a bad thing in itself. People in Nueva Germania are generally quite content. They are vaguely aware that they are considered very poor by international or even Paraguayan standards, that there is a lack of work for young people, that local politicians use patronage to get votes and reward loyalty by giving out public-sector functionary jobs (which mostly involve sitting in a chair and drinking tereré) and are basically uninterested in the work of governing (not that it's that much work). But people don't dwell on these problems. Instead they swim in the rivers unpolluted by industry, drink beer, play soccer and volleyball, kill a hen for a big family lunch, slaughter a hog for a party, pick grapefruits or mandarins or mangoes from the trees with grow everywhere, the youth flirt and drive around on motos and get each other pregnant, adults drive around on motos and have affairs, grandmothers play with new baby grandchildren, dogs eat chicken and pork bones, life goes on and people are adept at ignoring or waiting-out their problems. This is a pretty sustainable way of life. Drugs are uncommon, family bonds are tight, the air is clean and fresh fruit is plentiful.

My friend Lyda and her family live in a ramshackle clap-board house. 

The flip side of all this is the attitude that acknowledges the poverty and the corruption and all the past attempts made to remedy these and then regards all new attempts as inevitably  doomed to failure. People know that their neighbors will not keep up their commitments, and that it would be foolish to not do the same. The only way to move forward is for a single individual, or at most a family, to invest and work to move themselves up in the world. If they are successful they will likely be regarded with suspicion and resentment by their neighbors or outside family-members.  This attitude I encountered again and again during my five days in town, and it stands in pretty stark contrast to the general attitude in Natalio and Itapua in general. Because of this different I'm thankful that I got the opportunity to work in Natalio, especially with the library. I now share this fatalistic attitude in as much as I think such a project in Nueva Germania is probably doomed to failure.

Tomorrow I'll go into Asuncion to conduct my final business in Paraguay. I've got to turn in my phone and medical kit and get various signatures to officially close my service (we say "COS", the O is for of) as a Peace Corps volunteer. I've got figure out how to get a chunk of money into my bank account to use while I'm travelling. There are a few more souvenirs to buy and then a big suitcase to send home with DHL ($$$$$!). I'll buy my bus ticket for 9am wednesday to Salta, Argentina and spend a last night with my chika'i asucena. Wednesday I'll board my 20 hour bus ride to Salta by way of Clorinda, Formosa, and Resistencia.

Ha sido divertido

Monday, May 6, 2013

tetâ hovy'û

What I love about Paraguay

I love long bus rides through the epic plains of Missiones and Paraguari, seeing the isolated forested rocky hills rise mysteriously in the distance.

I love getting warm chipa on those long bus rides.

I love the vigorous chaos of Asunción on a weekday morning.

I love drinking máte on a cool evening with friendly families, talking about anything, looking at pictures, making faces at the kids and walking home under the stars.

I love tereré. I love that people know about medicinal/yummy herbs to pick, mash up, and infuse in the ice water. I love tereré in the shade on a cruelly hot day after walking too far, which is any distance at all. I love mint leaves, lemon leaves, parsley, and other more mysteriously named yuyos in my tereré.

I love bus terminal comedors, where BBQ vendors compete to sell you a roast chicken or sausage and beer while you wait the hours for your bus. I find that a liter of beer makes the wait quite a bit more pleasant. I love the chaotic free-market of the terminal, and the travelers with their bags and their families.

I love the Paraguayan clouds.

I love the Paraguayan sunsets.

I love the ancient, green, slow, impenetrable, ethereal, infinite Paraguay which exists in my head. It's pieced together from all I've read about the history of the country and still exists to in some leeward pockets of hills and rivers away from the highways and cities.

I love being away from the self-obsessed, self-consuming media culture of the USA. I'm still too plugged-in to it, but at least I can just shut the computer and it all disappears.

I love working in a library and having near complete freedom to make it as awesome as possible.

I love being my own boss, mostly.

I love making things for schools or the library with markers, scissors, a ruler, and cardboard or charla paper.

I love inventing things in my house to solve problems that in the States would be solved by buying cheap plastic crap. I love not worrying about what my landlord or the government thinks about what I invent or do to the house.

I love drinking máte or tereré on my front porch, listening to the birds and the neighbors, especially when not-too-many motorcycles are driving by. 

I love the rolling-fields of soy or wheat or sunflowers and the curving green line where they come up against the wooded gullies and streams.

I love green hills and flowering trees.

I love bike rides in the country-side when I feel like I'm a million miles away and all there is is just vast spaces of land and sky all around.

I love family cows with their big beautiful eyes. I love goofy-eared pigs and piglets. I don´t have a lot of love for chickens and roosters.

I love the mostly-local, seasonal produce. I love, depending on the time of the year, watermelon, mango, pineapple or mandarin binges. 

I love passing warm evenings visiting other volunteers, cooking, drinking, laughing, watching movies, sleeping on the floor on foam mattresses borrowed from neighbors.

I love walking all around town, visiting the library, the school, the municipality, a grocery store, and some shops just in the morning. I love exchanging friendly greetings with everyone I meet in these places and everyone I run into in between.

I love the kids. I love it when they call my name when I pass by, when we give each other thumbs-up, all thier big smiles, their excitement, sincerity, and sweetness.

I love the hard-working people who do their job everyday, Saturdays too.

I love that all people want to do on Sundays is get together with their family and friends and have a barbecue.

I love the kindness and the hospitality: all the times I've been offered a meal (or have it just assumed that I would join the meal), been offered a bed to stay the night or sleep the siesta, the importance put in offering guests a place to sit, the times people have come after me to hand me whatever it is (purchase, hat, change, cell-phone, umbrella) that I've forgotten and left behind. I've almost never felt cheated in this country and certainly never because I was foreign.

I'm almost gone. This is my last week in Natalio, then I'll spend another in Nueva Germania and Asunción. I'm trying to take it all day by day and to be generous, thoughtful and grateful.