Wednesday, February 19, 2014

My First and Last Post After Peace Corps--For Ivan

        There is a boy who lived in Guido Almada. His name was Ivan Fariña and when I arrived in that place sometime in December of 2011, he was only 2 years old. At the time, he was just learning to speak and as he began juggling Guarani and Spanish, like most young Paraguayans do, he also began incorporating me into his daily life. I worked extensively with his family over my time in Paraguay and his home became one of my favorite and most frequented stops on my rounds through the community or for parties or during the holidays.
        Ivan was a troublemaker. He loved finding his boundaries, testing his limits and then stepping over the lines ever so slightly. He was an incredibly smart little kid although he never learned to pronounce my name properly. To him, I was always “Mano”, the name he would yell from his grandfather's lap every-time he saw me approaching. He knew how to endear himself to people, if at the same time also push their buttons. And he was a total ladies man.
        I cared deeply about this boy. I spent many afternoons watching over him while his parents were out in the fields and tending to the animals. I helped him eat and kept him in line during some meals when his mother was too busy to babysit. We played with his few little toy trucks in the dirt patch in front of his house. We kicked the soccer ball. He was a happy, bright, beautiful little boy. After two years and countless time together, I came to love him very much.
        Ivan was never a sick boy, at least no more so than any other poor Paraguayan children tend to be. Of the few times I remember him being ill, it hardly ever seemed to sap his energy and certainly never diminished his spirit.
        The week after I left Paraguay, Ivan became very sick. He was hospitalized for several weeks, then a month. It seemed like he was getting better although so much time certainly took its toll on his small 4-year-old frame. I imagine his body becoming worn and ragged by some disease that he just couldn't seem to shake, but his smile, his light, never dimming even for a minute. Then several nights ago I got the news: at 10 pm, Ivan passed away. A child, a little 4 year old boy, a beloved son and a grandson, my little buddy, fell victim to some illness, some terrible disease, to the poverty of his people. He was dead. That light had been irrevocably extinguished.

        The cemetery in Guido Almada is not large. The community itself is comparatively new and though many people have passed, the plots are modest, as much a product of economics as necessity. I have been there many times. I have prayed there many afternoons. It is a beautiful place, beautifully Paraguayan in its setting and the surrounding landscape. But it belies one subtle and yet heartbreaking reality: most of the graves are small. Child sized.
        Child mortality, something heartrendingly inconceivable to many in the developed world, is something much too common for children and families in the developing world. Out of all the families I lived and worked with during my time in Paraguay, all of them had either lost a son or a daughter, a brother or a sister, or a cousin at some point in their lives. In the absence of decent medical care and without the financial means to access the paltry facilities that do exists, people face death—real, tragic, human death—as a matter of their daily lives. Women must give birth to stillborn babies. Parents must watch helplessly as their children wither away. Brothers and sisters must say goodbye to their closest companions before the age when they can understand what death is all about.
        I don't mean to paint a picture of some sort of hell or holocaust. Surely, it is not so bad and for the most part, despite their poverty and circumstance, these people live happy lives. But we should not forget: the chasm between the developed and developing world still exists today and we should do everything in our power, especially in this modern day in age, to close that distance. I don't care with what religion or political ideology you affiliate; I don't care how you label yourself or what you feel your moral obligation is to the world: the fact that daily thousands of children die of preventable diseases, malnutrition, and neglect is simply unacceptable. In our own way, we all bare some of the blame and some of the responsibility for this state of our world. Even you. Even me.

        I wrote the preceding few paragraphs some weeks ago. I didn't have the words (and still don't) for so much of what this transition home from the Peace Corps has been like. I have almost decided to give up on trying to communicate it entirely. If anything, that is what two years in the campo have done for me: made me really good at dealing with my own shit without relying on others. Still, I have forced myself to write this story down and share it with people—for Ivan's sake and for the sake of the thousands of other starving, sick, dying children there are in the world tonight.
        When I received the news of Ivan's passing, I felt as if my heart fell straight down and out of my body. My lungs stopped working. I broke down into a pile of sobbing, chaotic tears. I didn't know what to do, how to help, and I couldn't begin to imagine the emptiness that my friends, my community, my Peace Corps family must be feeling. For them, I have few words except for I love you, I will always remember, and I am sorry I had to leave when I did. I wish I could be there to share the heartbreak with you. I hope you know how much I care.
        So as I exorcise these last emotional demons from a body and mind that has been so thoroughly (and thankfully) ravaged by two years of life in a poor Paraguayan community, I hope that I can move on with a purpose. That I can take the lessons I have learned, the lives I have shared, and the love I have been given and make a difference in this world. And even though I daily feel as if I am now living and working in his memory, it is too late for Ivan, but not for the countless thousands of others out there.

I love you, little buddy. I miss you. I will remember you always.

-little hupo

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

My Last Post from Paraguay

Right before joining Peace Corps, I spent three months living in South Africa for a study abroad program. I remember waiting to leave at the Cape Town airport after weeks spent romping through the wild bush of the Eastern Cape: there had been so many adventures and so much excitement that I was as high on adrenaline as I was on the new-found girlfriend I was bringing home with me. It was an incredible experience and all I could feel was pure joy.

Right now, I am preparing to say goodbye to Paraguay—a country far less thrilling than the untamed wilds of South Africa, but whose absence I will feel so much greater. This is my last week as a Peace Corps volunteer. These are the last few days I will spend in this little slice of heaven and hell that I have made into a home. These are the last sips of tereré that I will share with a community of people that supported me and loved me and shared their lives with me for two years. These are the last nights I will sit on a porch with my little army of adopted Paraguayan campo dogs—Lobo, Tony, and Tyson—drinking cheap Argentinian wine and smoking hand-rolled black tobacco cigars that taste as sweet as the South American sun. It is in these quiet moments of reflection and appreciation that I can hear and feel my heart slowly breaking.

Leaving this place is going to kill me, but at least that's how I know that this was far more than just some fling, some adventure-seeking high-octane power-trip through a third world country where I got my kicks but missed everything else of value. No. For me at least, living in Paraguay has been a process of slowly getting this country, its culture and its people deeper and deeper under my skin. My life here has often been quiet and slow, sometimes maddening and almost impossible, and everything in between. But one way or another, of all the unlikely places in the world, Paraguay has become such an important part of my life and my development as a human being. It has seen me grow, it has challenged me at every corner to do so, and it has cradled me though some of the darkest and brightest times I have ever seen.

So much of what has gone on here during my Peace Corps service has been a private affair. Living alone in an isolated community means that, while my days were spent working with Paraguayans, most of my nights consisted of long hours alone in my home. In that sense, what has functioned as two years of service to this community, to Paraguay and to my own country has also functioned as a sort of personal, intellectual-spiritual retreat for myself. I am coming home soon but I am not the same person. I don't even know who I am sometimes, but then again, I have never known better. I have tried very hard to share as much of this experience with other people—friends from the states, fellow Peace Corps volunteers, even some close Paraguayan friends—but the reality is that so much of this is incommunicable and so deeply personal that sharing it is impossible.

Every travel and intercultural experience is valuable, no matter how long or how brief. All such opportunities serve the desperately important purpose of breaking down the cultural, social and racial barriers that hinder and harm our world so terribly. But few places or programs in the world offer what Peace Corps offers; there is no other experience in the world like a two year Peace Corps stint. None. I don't mean to come off as pretentious or self-important, and I am sorry if it reads that way. Allow me to make my case: Peace Corps is not tourism, it is not just a volunteer program and it is really not a traveling experience. It is a living experience where in order to even begin to accomplish any volunteer goals we must first integrate into communities and with people that have often never seen Americans before and rarely venture far from home.

“Traveling” and “tourism” are things that Peace Corps volunteers do as a break from this intense living experience; sure we go on trips to other places from time to time, but when we are in our communities, we are not traveling, we are home; we are not tourists, we are just another neighbor. In my community, for example, no foreign tourist could just wander in one day and set up a home and start living. Firstly, they would likely never even find the place and secondly, there are so many social and economic barriers to forcing oneself in the middle of such tight-nit, inter-related, and closed-off communities. The pretext of being a Peace Corps volunteers gives us the in and the experience we have as a result of that foot-in-the-door is like nothing else in the world.

I have mourned with families over dead loved ones. I have been there when babies were born and then watched them grow and eventually learn my name. I have harvested crops and shared in the seasonal bounty of these blood-red soils. I have hunted and foraged in these woods, grown my own food, killed my own meat, and, by necessity, become more in-tune with the weather and natural world than ever before in my life. I have sat at local political meetings and watched my friends speaking in defense of their future and the lives of their children. I felt me heart break with these people when some were thrown homeless onto the streets and I was unable to do anything. I felt the joy of sharing in successful development projects and great personal achievements with so many others. This place is the first community I have ever really felt a part of and I know that when I am here, whether today or in 20 years, I am home.

Have no fear friends and family, I am coming back to the states (at least for a bit), although I am sure you've all enjoyed the respite from my chaos in your own way. But it will be with a heavy, heavy heart; a heart so full of love for this country and its people, for all the incredible friends I have made through Peace Corps, and for two of the most personal and yet community-oriented years of my life. 

Re-adjustment will be hard, I know that, it doesn't worry me. What worries me the most at this point? What are the thoughts that have been keeping me up through these hot nights with just the sounds of the cicadas and night-jars for company? Whether Don Zaccarias will get better and have enough company. Whether someone will keep caring and loving my dogs. Whether there is a future for the youth of Guido Almada. Whether this next year and all its fickle weather will diminish the harvest. Whether Don Antonio's wife will ever recuperate and whether his daughter will be able to walk normally again. Whether the Brazilian soy producers will begin to displace these people as they push further west. Whether there will be enough land in the future or anybody left to work it. Whether the community water pump will make it through another brutal summer and who will pay to replace it if it doesn't. Whether Caesar will get a good education and have a decent life despite his disability. Whether the government comes through on their promise of milk cows and chickens for the community. Whether, when I come back, this place is as beautiful as it is now.

I do not mean to idealize it all too much. There are certainly things that I won't miss. But I love this place and these people despite all their flaws, in fact, I love them all the more because of these shortcomings. I know that I will never be Paraguayan and that I will never totally be a part of this community; at the end of the day everyday, I am an outsider. Still, I have come so far in my understanding and my genuine concern for these people that I think it kind of puts me in a different category altogether. I am not a member of this community even though I played a part in it for two years, but the community and all its members are a part of me. That's gotta count for something.

So it seems almost too fitting that this should be my last blog about my Peace Corps service as a volunteer. I will be writing and blogging extensively in the coming months, but as of next Monday, I will no longer be a PCV. This marks my 100th entry since I began this personal blog just before my trip to South Africa almost 3 years ago now. It also marks my final blog from the Paraguayan countryside and my final blog as a Peace Corps volunteer. For the next few months, I will be backpacking and traveling through Patagonia in Argentina and Chile then moving onto Peru and Ecuador. Thank you to all who have followed me thus far on my journey and supported and loved me the whole way. I love you more than you can possibly understand.

Maybe its not that I left my family in the states for 2 years or that I am leaving my family here in Paraguay. Maybe its just that my family has grown and expanded—across countries and continents and languages and socio-economic classes—and now there is just that much more love in the world. Que suerte.


from home, from Paraguay,

little hupo

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Oh, How Little I Understand

        Its dark in the house even though its midday. Sunlight doesn't get far though the forest canopy and the only source of light is a little flickering candle propped upright in a divot on the dirt floor in the middle of the room. A few rays peek through the gaps in the wall boards or though the hole in the roof where the thatch-grass has fallen away and it is silent. The mother of the family sits in the corner, breathing slowly, strained. She is dying of a brain tumor, I have been told, and today is a bad day.
        “I have faith in God,” the father tells me. He works harder and is poorer than any person I have ever met in my life. He is a remarkable human being.
        This family can't afford meat and so for lunch we are having Yaku po'i (Rusty-Margrined Guan) that the oldest son called out of the treetops earlier that morning and shot dead. In the distance, unheard by me, a Tuca sa'yju (Toco Tucan) trumpets an alarm call. We go outside and the littlest one points out a gorgeous bird sitting in an enormous tree across a tobacco field. It has a wine-colored breast and a long, fat beak.
        “They are good luck,” she tells me, “If you can catch one.” This is a typical day with the Garcia family. Learning more than any textbook could ever teach me about the local birds—their calls, their meanings, where they like to roost at night. 
        Today, we are building a roof with the family. We have been working on a worm composing project aimed at increasing the production of their two gardens, one of which we started together. This composting unit needs a roof to protect it from the coming summer sun. With his wife so sick, Don Antonio, the father, worries about straying too far from the house to work in the fields. Instead, he sends his sons out to tend the crops while he cooks and cleans and keeps up the gardens and feeds the chickens and pigs and milks the cow and cares for his love. Improving the garden is a priority of his, not just for family nutrition, but because he is dedicated to being as personally productive as possible even when confined to the small sphere around the house
        The building of a roof from forest materials happens in stages. First, we searched out the right kind of trees for the horcón (main supports), with the correct height and forked branches at the right spot. We took two adolescent yvyra'rô trees and one kurupa'y and trimmed them down to size where they fell.
        “This wood is strong,” Don Antonio tells me (ha'taitere'i in Gurani), “No insects will eat it, it will not rot.” He is confident and I believe him.
        Next we search for our main viga (crossbeam); this as well needs to be strong, for it will be bearing the weight of all the smaller beams as well as many layers of thatch. We find a beautiful and sturdy ba'avy tree in a clearing but Don Antonio seems reluctant to take it. He explains that they have already felled many trees from this area and he doesn't want to take more, lest the encroaching amba'y, which grows like grass through these woods, take over and choke out other more useful plants and trees in the underbrush.
        In the end we cut it down anyway and trim it to size. It really is a beautiful little tree. The rest of the morning we spend searching out smaller beams, yvyra'pepe and onde'ymi saplings ideally, to lay perpendicular to the load-bearing ba'avy. Then the final piece in this sub-tropical collage, la señorita, tree-lings so called for their slender, pale form and the fact that they grow very straight from the forest floor. These are needed to provide the parallel supports onto which the thatch is lashed by forest vines called ysy'po. We gather several bundles of these, tied together with vines and head back home with our quarry.
        I tried to be as much a part of the construction process as possible, but in reality, I had no idea how everything went together and this family was already an efficient, experienced roof-building unit. In the end, I could do little more than just watch and marvel at the skill and speed with which a small hut materialized before my eyes. The thatch-grass called ka'pi'i was brought from along a path that runs from the house to the fields. They grow it there like another crop and as a perennial grass, even once it is harvested, it regrows in the next few months. They always have a supply on hand for repairs to the house if needed. The piglets as well enjoy hiding and romping through the dense clumps.
        The main supports and crossbeams are put up in only a few minutes and each piece seems to fit together like a puzzle. I get the strong feeling that there was far more to the process for selecting trees in the forest than I was aware of at the time. As the barefoot 13-year-old son Rafael scrambles up a tree and across these wooden tight-ropes like a monkey (ka'i in Guarani), the other brothers hand him small bundles of grass which he spreads out over the web of señorita and ba'avy supports. He weaves this whole organic mass together with vines like I have seen Parguayan señoras stitch together old blankets and shirts. It takes only a few hours and the whole structure is complete.
        Afterward, we sit for a few hours and sip tereré and bullshit about the local fútbol clubs and the weather. It is calm and relaxed and I can hardly tell that night is falling around me. The jujos (herbs added to the yerba for medicinal reasons) are soothing and subtle. Fresh from the forest, I watched the youngest daughter grind them in a pestle, a mix of flower petals, mint, leaves, stems and fat, juicy roots. It tastes like earth and spice and greens and they say it will make my head feel better. They seem confident and I believe them.
        As always with this family, the conversation, in its effortless blend of Spanish and Guarani, gradually drifts towards more serious matters—the world, the future, the sad prospect of politics for the Paraguayan campesino, the tranquility of life for those few farmers who can still make a decent living off the land and the forests. It is sobering but also inspiring to hear the thoughts and feelings of a family who is living such an enormous cultural, political, and economic battle on a day to day basis. They are not under siege, but they can see that their world, isolated though it may be, is changing in ways that will soon threaten their already precarious livelihoods.
        Among this group, this small family, the most educated person has never even finished high school and yet I, with my bullshit college degree and my pretentious vocabulary, feel like the ignorant child. I have struggled little in my life and compared to these people, never had to work particularly hard just to survive. I have a college education, sure, but drop me in the middle of the Paraguayan jungle and I wouldn't last a week. 
        The sun is still shining, but barely; night is coming and so is a storm. You can feel rain here hours before it comes. The whole jungle world around you seems to turn upside-down. Maybe its subconscious at this point, but even I can feel it in my bones when a storm is imminent. The insects hum, the birds call differently, the winds blow with a temper, not their usual calm, and the air smells like earth, sometimes the ocean, depending on the direction of the winds. A cool wind blows up from the east and I know it is time to head home.
        I say goodnight, thank you, jajajopata. It is dark by the time I get home. The lightning is still far away and flashes without sound like fireflies on the horizon.

        I have realized something profound in these past few months working with my Paraguayan counterparts: what these people know, their knowledge of the forest and what it offers, what it can take away, their knowledge of crops and moon cycles and the seasons, these things are not written anywhere, but they are the culmination of thousands of years of indigenous wisdom that long predates Western culture and the associated paradigms that come with it.
        These people are not entirely indigenous in ethnicity, but almost everyone in Paraguay, especially in the campo has some indigenous blood in their veins. Regardless, their culture is abundantly indigenous in origins, a fact that becomes more evident the farther you wander into the countryside The historical isolation of Paraguay as well as it self-sufficiency for hundreds of years even after Spanish conquest, has allowed the survival of an entirely different source of knowledge about the world: that of the precolonial native populations. This can be seen in many parts of the world where indigenous cultures still exist, where they haven't been annihilated entirely, but it is here in Paraguay that it has entered the backdoor of the otherwise intolerant halls of Western tradition and established itself in the few empty corners.
        As Peace Corps volunteers coming from the great America, we are all initially taken aback by culture shock. In Paraguay, just like any other country, there is an adjustment period. We all find the ubiquitous rules of Paraguayan life and diet tedious and funny; I would be lying to say that we didn't all mock these guidelines at times. As Paraguayan insist that, certain plants will cure this illness, or that certain foods shouldn't be eaten together lest you explode, or that one shouldn’t mix hot and cold foods in a short window, of time or that one can acquire a deep muscle pain from particularly strong winds (golpe de viento), all of us Westerners sit back and laugh in our heads while we nod and agree. This does not fit into our carefully constructed parameters of reality, of scientific causality, of things you can read about in books and online.
        But I have slowly realized over the past few months: these rules and knowledge aren't arbitrary or borne out of ignorance, they are part of the indigenous tradition, a tradition that kept native populations across the American continents alive and thriving for literally thousands of years before us Westerners arrived at their shores. It may seem silly for us sometimes from our science-based cultural perspective, but how could we ever hope to understand and appreciate the wealth of knowledge and wisdom that Paraguayan campesinos possess without first analyzing and critiquing our own cultural baggage. If we are unwilling to let go of any of that, we will never fully appreciate the depth what Paraguayans and Paraguayan culture has to offer.
        I know I am stuck with the weight of my own cultural heritage, I know that my home is my home and my country is my country. No matter how much I may disagree with it or reject it, I will always be a Caucasian male born and raised in the cradle of suburban America. Sometimes, I yearn desperately for a more genuine tradition to be my own, some tradition with deep roots, a great understanding and a living spirituality. I have always found my own cultural heritage to be immensely lacking in all of those things, sometimes to the point of depression.
        I am not saying that the Paraguayan indigenous cultural tradition is perfect or without its flaws; certainly there are lots of them, many of which no doubt come from its synthesis with Western culture and ideas, many of which are no doubt inherent and endemic. I guess what I am trying to say is that there is something infinitely beautiful and more satisfying in indigenous understanding and appreciation for the natural world, in their acceptance of their place in the greater scheme of life, than I find in my own culture. I do not want to idealize anything, that would be a mistake, but I think we ignore the value and wealth of indigenous tradition around the world to our own great detriment.
        But for now, I count myself lucky for having lived long enough to see and experience and another different cultural modality. I know I cannot change myself or my history, but maybe by stretching my own personal boundaries, by forcing myself to dissect those pieces of my culture with the tools of another, I can slowly reconstruct a better perspective of myself and this world. Maybe buried deep in that mess of materialism and Western orthodoxy and empty spirituality, some seeds of truth and honesty still survive. With the right tools, with patience, with understanding, perhaps I may one day coax them into bloom.

from Paraguay,

little hupo

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Anaerobic Biodigester: Simple Technologies that Make a Big Difference

When I was about 13 years old, I decided to enter the local science fair. This was my third time in the competition and I enjoyed doing it each year not because I wanted the extra credit at school or because I particularly enjoyed the significant amount of extra work, but because it was always a great, school-endorsed excuse for me to make a mess in my parent's basement without their disapproval. My first ever project was the construction of a mechanical waterwheel which I fashioned by taking a hack-saw to my sister's bike (sorry Carmen). The second project had me making epoxy glue derivatives and testing their strength by hanging hundreds of pounds of dead weight on them until they crashed down onto the concrete floor (sorry Dad). There was also that famous epoxy mixture I created that ended up melting the cup and part of the table I had mixed it in (sorry again).

But that year, at age 13, I decided I wanted to try something different. I can't recall exactly what I was thinking at the time, but in retrospect it must have been something along the lines of “How can I fill the basement with animal manure and light things on fire without getting punished?” The answer was a biodigester, basically a fancy contraption that captured methane gas produced by decomposing animal feces which could then be burned for fuel. The project was a success thanks to my wonderful mother who went above and beyond the call of motherly duties by collecting the necessary stock (animal manure) from a local horse farm (sorry Mom). In the end, this project earned me first prize at the local science competition and would stink up our basement without disciplinary recourse for well over four months. It was decommissioned at my family's unanimous request sometime after New Year's day.

Flash forward to 2013. I am now 24 years old and serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in the country of Paraguay, still just as curious and troublesome, but now with a license from the US government to do so overseas. My position as an agricultural extension volunteer in a poor, isolated rural community had me working a lot with small-scale organic systems at the familial level. I had worked extensively with composting projects and bio-intensive gardening to help improve household production, nutrition and sustainability. All of this work was rewarding but I felt as if there was something more I could do, some next step that I might be able to take with my community members that might give them a better appreciation of the depth of potential contained within their small parcels of land.

One of the initiatives of the Peace Corps Paraguay agricultural sector is sustainable permaculture systems, which essentially means taking advantage of the energy available at all points of agricultural production. Included in this initiative was a great project called the anaerobic biodigester, an green technology used for generations by farmers in India and China, but nonetheless effective, simple and novel to my community. This small-scale biodigester was really just a mock-up version of almost the same project I had done when I was 13, except now it could be put to use helping impoverished farmers provide for their families instead of just stinking up my parent's basement.

The design we used was developed in part by my boss, Fernando Gonzalez, who has been using a biodigester on his family's farm in Paraguay for over a decade. With his guidance and experience, I began the long process of applying for a micro-finance loan to help fund the project in my community. While the biodigester can be built with local materials and is relatively inexpensive (about $125 a piece), such up-font costs are still quite out of reach to the people I live and work with. After receiving the money, we held educational sessions with 15 adult members of my community where we described the project and the theory and walked them through the simple steps to construct one at home. In the end, we successfully installed two separate biodigester systems with two different families in my community.

At first, the biodigester might seem a stinky and cumbersome way to produce bio-gas for fuel purposes but the impacts of such a simple concept for small-scale farmers can be enormous. In a country such as the US, with an abundance of cheap fossil fuels (natural gas, petroleum, coal, etc.) most of us wouldn't waste the time handling animal manure if we could help it, however, in parts of the world where manure is much more abundant and accessible than disposable income, the biodigester can make a great difference.

The biodigester serves to produce bio-gas, a methane/hydrocarbon/water-vapor mixture that can be burned to cook food or heat a home. This fuel source means that families do not need to use up valuable financial capital to buy propane gas or be forced to slowly deforest their small properties to cook over wooden stoves. Additionally, and just as importantly, the biodigester produces a super-charged organic fertilizer that helps to boost garden production. The fertilizer itself is actually so strong that it can be diluted one part to twenty with water and still be extremely effective. Other secondary benefits include human and animal disease reduction and cleaner water supplies, a by-product of proper management of animal wastes.

The first time we lit-up the bio-gas stove with my neighbor, he threw down his hat, put up his arms and started jumping up and down with joy. He looked at me and said, “Mario, this whole time, I didn't believe you when you said it would work. Now I believe you, you crazy American.” Within a month, in addition to the bio-gas, these families have also noted a substantial boost in household garden productivity thanks to the biodigester's fertilizer component.

I can already tell that this project did as much for this family's sense of pride and motivation as it did for their material disposition. No doubt, it has helped them in a number of tangible ways, but more than that, it has given them something else to be proud of, it has planted a seed of inspiration in their minds. For people who have been farming and subsisting the same way for generations, the simple idea of the biodigester has opened their eyes to future possibilities that had never before been considered.

In developed countries, it might seem silly to think about what proper animal waste management and simple technologies can do for us. We drive our own cars and plug into our iPhones and never give a second thought to the fact that we are living in a universe of energy and potential and yet, have only really figured out how to master one of those sources (and a finite, pollution-ridden source at that). Something like the biodigester might seem a good solution for a poor rural farmer in some far-flung corner of the globe, but the reality is that we are facing a lot of the same problems right here at home. Climate change, pollution, deforestation, crop-failure—these things are not strangers to the developed nations and as the world spins onward into this next millennium, they will only become more familiar.

I am not saying that every family should go out right now and start building anaerobic composting systems in their backyards, but we need to start thinking more seriously about how we are going to provide for our energy needs and the needs of our natural world in the future. Yet, we shouldn't look at this as some sort of doomsday scenario, but instead an amazing opportunity. 

As a kid, such alternative energy possibilities fascinated and intrigued me. A decade later, they have done the same thing in an isolated, rural Paraguayan community. Maybe the next step will be to bring it full circle, to bring it once again a little closer to home. One small step at a time. But at least this last step got me out of my parent's basement and into the open air.Thanks for the help you guys, sorry for all the stink over the years.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Limitations of the West

         This may be the longest period in my two years in South America that I have gone without writing a blog. I have been writing a lot, but just not the sorts of things that anyone would want to read—essays for graduate school applications, GRE studying, professional Close of Service paperwork for the Peace Corps. Here's what's crazy: all of Peace Corps has been a slow, sometimes-frustrating-sometimes-liberating process of meeting people, talking to them, working with them, learning, teaching, and just living; all of a sudden I am caught between this life, tranquillo-pai'te, and that other life, full of paperwork and propriety and professional clothing and bullshit. Its weird to say the least.
        These two years have been a day-in, day-out emotional and intellectual confluence set in the sprawling basin of sub-tropical Atlantic forests (Mata Atlantica) and pastureland that is Paraguay. I have learned so much. Its hard though—I can see how, from such a description, the wrong people would idealize this kind of life too much; their reverence for something they don't fully understand would project this life as something that it is not, and in that sense, actually be extremely irreverent. At the same, any person would be lucky to live the life I have had for these two years. I am eternally grateful for those people who made this possible. Thank you.
        One of the inevitable results of spending so much time outside of that western cultural bubble is reflection, not only personal and interpersonal but societal as well. Let me just acknowledge here the inherent limitations of me, Mario Machado, ever gaining a fully objective perspective on something like “western culture” considering that this was exactly the kind of medium upon which embryonic me was grown and baptized into this world. At the same time, stepping into the lives of half-indigenous, half-Spanish rural campesinos for two years has give me some perspective that I could have gotten no where else. I have been blessed to live such a life. It has opened, ever so slightly, my non-seeing, non-feeling, fixed-in-a-false-reality eyes.
I respect western culture for lots of things, lots of tangible reasons (medicine, science, human rights, etc.), but I understand, perhaps now better than ever before, its shortcomings.
        Look at our world, look at the west, look at the social-democracies we have created. Whatever their merits—be them concrete or philosophical—there is the undeniable fact that they are, in so many ways, completely spiritually lacking. I am not trying to sound funny or like some shallow-minded hippie, I am trying to say something important I have realized. The gods of the west, in the great historical tradition of the Greeks and Romans, are functional. They are pragmatic tools used to direct or modify social behavior, to be wielded like a bludgeon by those in power when the masses strayed like wandering sheep in search of true gods, or to be ingested like cheap alcohol to draw a curtain over the eyes of those with a propensity to seek something real. Western gods, Christian gods, the god whose name is sprawled like pornography across our money, is a placebo; it goes hand in hand with self-centeredness, self-righteousness, narcissism, commercialism, materialism, commodification, conspicuous consumption. These are the alters, please leave your money at the door if you wish to purchase your salvation.
        I am not a priest or a scholar but my whole life I have struggled with spirituality. For those who know me well, you will know that as a younger boy I was a very devout Christian. As a teenager, I used to drive myself alone to church early every Sunday. Whatever it was, I wanted, needed to understand it. And yet, in due time, I fell out with Christianity. I was too intellectually honest with myself, with the world, I asked too many questions, and most of all, there was nothing in this Christian god that slaked any of the thirst in my soul. I see now that I was searching for meaning within the meaningless paramaters of western religion; this has almost nothing to do with spirituality, and for those who have found such spirituality within the western paradigm, they have been almost always cast as pariahs and freaks. The west does not believe in anything it cannot see or feel. 
        Those ignorant fundamentalists who claim to know the Christian truth are as godless as those corporate Christians who use the scriptures to placate their guilty consciousness and justify their gluttonous greed. They would cringe at the thought of real Truth, it would unravel their carefully constructed world.
        In the west, we have not tried to seek truth on its own terms. Instead, we have created a god to fit what we want, all of our earthly, superficial, capitalist desires.
        Why do we fear drugs? Hallucinogenic plants that have been used for millennium by peoples to aid them in their day to day struggles within their environments and along their spiritual journey. Why do we fear something so natural? Because it is outside of our comfort zone, it threatens to challenge the thin-veil of the western gods that just barely hold these societies of sheep in place. Can you imagine what would happen if people just started meditating and practicing ancient tribal medicine in huge numbers? Can you imagine what would happen if people stopped listening to the Catholic church? Can you imagine how our world would change it people stopped participating in the sacrilegious orgy of consumption that is Christmas? The social and economic west would collapse.
        Listen, I know I must sound insane from all of this, and I am not trying to make the case that all drugs are good or that the west is some demonic, overbearing entity. But in a world of 6 billion people that is slowly corroding the underlying social and environmental fabric that supports us all, why should we not seek answers outside of what we already think we know. There are such great problems in the world, such suffering, such inequality. Sure, you might argue that the march of the west is also the march of slow, plodding, and yet inevitable progress, but at what cost and to what ends. How much longer can our planet sustain us? How much longer will marginalized and forgotten peoples be subjected to such inhumanity?
        There is a truth to be known outside of what us culturally, religiously western people think we know. We continue to ignore it at our own peril. It may take courage and difficulty to reach for it, but I believe that any such journey will be infinitely worthwhile.

from South America

-little hupo

Friday, September 20, 2013

A Case for Universal Healthcare: Sad Lessons from a Beautiful Country

Here is a practical situation to consider for you, the reader:

        You are a poor farmer somewhere in the developing world. You have one-hundred dollars. That is all that you have, your entire life savings. You have crops in the field that may be ready to sell in a few months, but more than likely, you will break even (at best) from all your hard labor. One-hundred dollars is all the disposable income you possess, stashed in a box underneath the family bed in your little one-room wooden shack.
        An elderly family member, let's say, your grandfather, then becomes very ill. As a caring grandchild, you take your grandfather to the local hospital where he is given a number of tests and treated with increasingly more expensive medications. You do your best with the limited funds you have, selling livestock and milk and the family TV when they prove insufficient. Soon these funds have been depleted almost entirely.
        Your grandfather's situation does not improve; in less than a month he has deteriorated to the point of being bed-ridden, stuffed full of drugs that make him hazy and nauseated, but that are at least able stop the pain radiating from his abdomen where an infection has slowly spread to his kidneys.
        The doctors inform you that they can and must operate in order to save his life, but that operation costs about one-thousand dollars. Your limited funds are almost gone, you have no where else to turn, no health-insurance or savings account somewhere. The box under the bed is all but empty.
         Now, your grandfather is 80 years old. An operation to treat him may buy a few more years of life, maybe a decade at best. At the same time, if it is even possible to gather the necessary funds, you will be in debt to any number of different people or institutions for the rest of your life, seeing as a “net yearly income” for a subsistence farming family almost does not exist. Not to mention the fact that, with what little surplus savings you had being used up, you will be just that much less able to provide for the rest of your family for the year. 

        So finally, here is the question: do you let your grandfather wither and die, or do you do everything necessary to save his life?
       A bonus question: which of your family members, brothers and sisters or aunts and uncles, gets to break the news to your grandfather that his operation cannot be funded, that he will be returning home next week to wait for death?
        Now imagine: this same situation, but with your parents, siblings, or your own children. How do you make this calculation? How do you determine to what extent the lives of your family members are worth to you on a very real and practical level? Imagine putting a monetary sum on the life of every member of your family? What are they worth?

        The answer, obviously, is that our family members are priceless in the greatest sense of the word. I would do anything, absolutely anything for my grandparents, aunts and uncles, mother and father, sisters and even my closest friends (who are as much of family to me as my own family). But I also have one great advantage, one amazing leg-up that gives me the ability to value them to an infinite monetary degree: I am an educated white male from a middle-class American family. In comparison to the majority of the rest of the world, I am orders of magnitude wealthier and more privileged. As middle-class citizens (as I imagine most readers are), we are more wealthy than over 92% of the rest of the planet.
        I have had healthcare and will have healthcare for my entire life, as does every member of my family. I will never need to decide based on financial considerations whether or not to save the life of any member of my family. I am wealthy enough (my family is wealthy enough) and, despite my significant amount of college debt, have the capability to command enough capital that I will never have to look at anyone in my family and tell them that their fate will be left up to chance because there is just not enough pennies in the piggy bank, or in the shoebox under the bed.
        The situation I described above is exactly what is happening at this very moment to my nearest and dearest Paraguayan friend, Don Zaccarias and his family. It is not, however, some heartbreaking anomaly, but instead the latest repetition of a vicious poverty trap that I have seen play out time and time again with many different families during my time here in Paraguay. It is also not a cycle that is confined to this country, but exists everywhere in the world that poverty exists, that is to say, everywhere in the world, developing and developed nations alike.
        So this is my case for universal healthcare. It is not an argument of numbers, or of political allegiances, or even one of morality. Is is simply an appeal to your empathy, your ability to put yourself in this situation and realize that it would destroy you, absolutely break your fucking heart to have this happen to you and your family. That is all. Empathize.
        For those conservatives and Republicans and anyone else out there that might say, “But they didn't earn it! Why should we pay for some lazy people to keep free-riding on the system?” I say that you are cold, heartless bastards who are desecrating and defaming the socialist values of your self-proclaimed savior Jesus Christ as you simultaneously use his words to wage war and further social injustice. Your morality is a sham, your sense of humanity is archaic and un-evolved at best, and you have no idea about the trials faced by those living in poverty, those under-represented, unheard minorities that we have relegated to the rank of second-class citizens, vassals in the racist, patriarchal hierarchy of our capitalist dystopia. You don't know hard work like these people know hard work. You know what feels like hard work to a privileged upper-class with soft hands and an overdeveloped sense of self-righteous entitlement.
        If you cannot understand and empathize with the unnecessary human suffering caused by simple situations such as not having basic healthcare, than you are not human or at least, you have hollowed out that part of your heart and filled it with self-congratulatory narcissism. Either that or you are just an ignorant snob.
        There is no reason in our modern world that anyone should have to experience this. If we are truly a progressive society, a progressive species, such things will someday soon be relegated to the past. That is my sincere hope. Its just continually surprising to me that, at this day in age, where the world is connected like never before, where technology has made the most miraculous things commonplace, where wealth exists in quantities that defy the imagination, that such injustice continues to thrive.

from Paraguay,

-little hupo

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Perspective of an American Expatriate

         Being an American is schizophrenic. It is a type of organized, controlled social madness that is just barely subverted by an incessant stream of cheap reality television, hyper-materialistic idolatry, skin-deep nationalistic sentiments, and other such platitudes. There is not an identity crisis in America, its just that our “identity” has always been a chaotic mess of people and places and things too numerous, too different to completely reconcile. So we just jam them together, swallow the racism and the sexism and prejudice and the inevitable delusion of home-grown fundamentalism, and go about our day wielding the biggest stick the world has ever seen. Its no wonder we look like a caricature of normality, a political cartoon come to life in all of our obtuse irrationality and fumbling foreign policy.
        We have a history half-full of greatness, progress and half-full of almost unspeakable heinousness against millions of people across the world who simply lacked the privilege of being able to call themselves “Americans”. And yet, only one-half of our already-muddled selves is ever discussed, acknowledged or claimed as part of our identity, as if one could leave a trail of blood and bodies, built first and foremost on the genocide of an entire continent of peoples, and have it be tastefully and justifiably inconspicuous. Even in spite of our personal, internal heterogeneity, it is also our inability or unwillingness to come to terms with our own historical reality that prevents us from ever creating an identity that could not otherwise be characterized as any number of sociopathic psychological disorders.
        Please don't get me wrong (I know how the above must sound), but I love my country. I love it in all of its madness and its calamity. But as an American who has lived abroad for a significant period of time, not only have I had the opportunity to reflect upon and dissect my American identity piece-by-piece, but I have also been faced with the constant challenge of having to explain that very identity to people from other countries. It is an impossibility and a constant struggle.
        No doubt, every country has its own history and identity, and there is hardly a single one in the entire world that got it all right or has all of their shit completely together. But none of them have assumed the great crown of global hegemony, none of them regularly hold the fates of millions in their grasp whether indirectly, through the setting of global economic agendas, or directly, through our seemingly relentless need to wage war. Whether we deserve such great clout and power in the world seems somewhat moot at this point.
        America, in its youth and idealism (more of a political tool than an actual belief at this point), is like the biggest kid in school, the jock who just learned about his own physical prowess over the rest of his peers, and finds a constant hormone-fueled need to impress that upon others. Maybe it all goes back to masculine dominance and this age-old patriarchy that shows us just how intellectually un-evolved we all really are, but who knows. As an American, like I was as a teenager wandering the halls of high school, I feel consistently embarrassed and very insecure about that identity. I am not that kid anymore, but when I say “Americano” to the people I interact with on a daily basis, I can tell that they all think something along those lines. It makes me cringe. Sometimes I just want to say Canadian.
        What worries me the most is that almost no one alive today remembers America not being top dog in the world. This post-World War II baby-boomer generation and their generations of offspring were all baptized in a world where America had already filled that space of global dominance, where the world was split into the false Cold War dichotomy of good America and bad Soviet Union. Our perspective (and I am including myself in this) is filtered by our short-term and selective memory. We too readily, too willingly capitulate to passivity and corporate-issued social pacification like sheep to the slaughter because they keep telling us we are number one and it feels good and it is just so easy to believe from the plastic-wrapped, self-indulgent bubble in which we live.
        News flash: America is not number one in anything except 1) Most powerful military (thank you military-industrial complex at the expense of egregious domestic needs), 2) Largest economy (soon to be eclipsed by China and not long after, likely India as well) and 3) Percentage of our population that is currently incarcerated (we won't get into how racialized our prison population is, but just as a side note...). In every single other category, such as life expectancy, standard of living, equality, freedom, education, health care, governmental transparency (i.e. level of corruption), we are not only not number one, we are consistently and increasingly lagging farther behind other more advanced and progressive countries.
        The Roman Empire held on to the illusion of the Republic right up until the end. They faded away, leaving their indelible mark upon history, and in the end surrendered to the closing walls of barbarian tribes, Muslim armies, and a corroding social system of unsustainable cosmopolitanism. In retrospect, it was inevitable. Some might say that it was that very illusion of their own identity that allowed them to survive as long as they did. My personal opinion, it was that illusion and its detachment from reality that stifled their ability to evolve, to accept change, to grow and adapt to the constantly fluid world around them.
        As an American, from where I am sitting right now, it seems like we are also in the midst of several closing walls. An inconceivably deteriorating environment, global climate change, continuous war and a still-expanding military-industrial complex, population growth, corporate infiltration of our political system, the general erosion of our domestic and personal freedoms, the dissolution of our democratic process, and our continual attempts to look outwards with our critical eyes instead of looking inwards. We act as if we are at war with the world, fighting for some ideal that we don't realize we left by the side of the road a long, long time ago because it was slowing us down in our pursuit of those true American values: greed and power. In reality, we are at war with ourselves.
        I believe there is so much potential and goodness in America; it is my country, my home and I love it dearly. But the first step toward historical reconciliation, a contemporary humbling of our role in this world, and our preparedness for the storms that sit just over our horizon, is to find a true, honest identity, to forge it out of our mass of parts and peoples and influences. Otherwise we are simply perpetuating the lie, sinking deeper into the delusion, falling faster into the night from which we may not awake. It is a personal task of every person, every American and it is a collective responsibility of our nation as a global leader. We should wield that power with genuine reluctance and in the faith of serving others as well as ourselves.
        So I will make this promise: I will always say I am an American and I will not feel embarrassed by it. I will understand that my country is not perfect, but I will continue to love it and support it anyway. I joined the Peace Corps in that spirit and I will continue to live in it. So for better or worse, here is to America.

From Paraguay,
little hupo