“They have worries, they’re counting the miles, they’re thinking about where to sleep tonight, how much money for gas, the weather, how they’ll get there—and all the time, they’ll get there anyway, you see” –Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Imagine yourself in between rows of eucalyptus. Most people can’t imagine it, but try. Picture the tall, branchless trunks, marked by peeling grey-green bark showing of the rich browns and whites underneath, forming a natural camouflage. Picture the perfect rows, each tree exactly four meters apart. Picture the forest floor, grasses and yuyos interspersed with yerba mate shrubs and the occasional pile of cow manure, surrounded by leaves and seeds from the trees above. Look up at the sky. Look at the storm clouds moving quickly between the beautiful colors of the canopy above. Breathe in. Take in the soil, the smell after it rains, the refreshing, minty smell of eucalyptus, the earthiness of the cow manure, the humidity in the air. That’s the most intoxicating smell that I have ever experienced, and I don’t think anything could be better.
Firstly and most importantly, this post is dedicated to my dear friend Ian, who decided to terminate his service with the Peace Corps early this week. Ian lived with us in Nueva Esperanza and was an amazing person to have in our family of twelve. I commend him on the hard decision that he had to make after realizing that the Peace Corps was not what was calling to him in life and we will miss him immensely. Ian is a sage, a philosopher of sorts, and I will sorely miss the advice that he seemed to give so effortlessly. From Ian, we learned the term equanimity, or the concept that lows are low, highs are high, and that we all must comprehend that it is all temporary and will change without doubt. Thank you Ian and good luck to you wherever you find your life takes you.
The countryside of Paraguay is known as the campo and it is where a majority of agricultural and environmental volunteers are placed after training. It is a different world than the communities close to Asunción that we are in now. Life is slow. People are slower. There are more bugs. In preparation for this, the Peace Corps sends us on several visits to the campo throughout our training. Our first was this week, when all 50 of us went to visit our mentors or other volunteers and see their communities, the projects they’ve been working on, and the lives that they live. My mentor is an awesome guy named Mike Reiner, who lives in the tiny campo community of Tacaupity, which according to him, means “butthole water” in Guaraní, but I think that it’s still open for linguistic interpretation.
No matter where you travel in Paraguay, you go by bus and it doesn’t matter if there are enough seats on the bus, the driver still says that you’ll fit. On Sunday I hopped on a bus from my community to the city of Villarrica, just three hours east from Asunción. When I arrived with my friend Andrew, Mike and his two friends Jason and Adam (also fantastic volunteers and great guys) met us at the terminal and continued on to what Mike described as “the nicest supermercado in Paraguay” thanks to the large influence of German immigrants on the area who apparently brought their love of good cheese and better wine to Villarrica. God bless em. After another hour long bus ride to Mike’s community, it started to rain, right as we got to his house. Luckily I had arrived right before a serious storm, full of loud noises and bright flashes and the new knowledge that Mike has a leaky roof. This doesn’t faze us, we’re Peace Corps volunteers. So we cooked Italian food and drank wine. The power went out. This doesn’t faze us either. We simply sat on his bed and talked about music, service, and life in the campo, accompanied by a nice bottle of rye whiskey that his mom had sent him earlier. What else are you supposed to do when there’s a storm, your roof is leaking, and the power is out?
The next two days proved to be more productive. We planted trees with a family that Mike has gotten to know pretty well. Surprisingly, Selso was open to the idea of agroforestry, planting trees alongside his corn and mandioca in order to provide nutrients and shelter while preventing soil erosion. Later in my time in Tacuapity, we built a lombricultura, or worm box, with a señora who lives down the road from Mike in order to improve her soil and compost for her garden. We turned old, empty wine bottles into water glasses, as Mike was down to only one chipped and cracked mug as a drinking vessel by the time I left. I helped him repair his vegetable garden’s fence by putting in new posts and building a new gate, so that Mike could keep out the cows who so desperately wanted his veggies (this proved unfruitful. They found a way in the very next day). Beyond the physical agriculture and environment projects that a volunteer takes on, a big portion of an environmental volunteer’s service can potentially be dedicated to schools and teaching about issues. Although Mike doesn’t work with the school often, he took me to the colegio so that I could see the high school students and get a feel for the Paraguayan school system. We got there before school had started, but I talked to a profesora and listened as Mike spoke in Guaraní to a bunch of students. Most importantly, this visit earned me the nickname Thor, due to my long blond hair pulled back in a bun. “Tiene la fuerza de Thor”. Beyond the practicality of volunteer projects, Mike also tried taking me fishing in order to escape the heat, but due to the big storm just two days prior, we found ourselves up in water that went up to our chest and decided to turn back. With my newly acquired nickname and legs filled with bug bites (watch out for mbarehui(?), their bites itch more than mosquito bites), I’ve come to the conclusion that the campo life is a good life and that the life of a volunteer is always interesting, whether you’re working on your official project or simply trying to catch a few fish to fry.
After two days in Tacuapity and the last of the whiskey, we went back into Villarrica and met up with Jason and Adam again before we trainees hopped back on our bus to our training communities. This visit to the city mainly involved eating things, but they also took us to the plaza for a look at the wild capybaras that hang out there in the mud. As I was petting the coarse hair on top of a capybara’s head, I thought for the first time, and certainly not the last, that this is a strange life that I’ve chosen for myself. But I love it. It’s been full of unexpected surprises, but in three weeks, I’ve already learned to rid myself of all expectations and take this experience head on. Paraguay surprises me with its beauty in so many forms and I can’t wait to see what my own life in the campo will show me. But that’s not for a while and we have seven more weeks until we receive our site assignments. Until then, there are so many things to learn and more amazing moments to have with my training group.
To my readers, may you experience eucalyptus after it rains. To Ian, may you find a path, whether that path leads to something new and unexpected or familiar and comfortable. And to Mike, may you invite me back to Tacuapity to drink more bourbon and stuff chorizo. I’ll wait for the call.
As a brief postscript, I forgot to mention my quick trip into Asunción last week. We were assigned to go in groups to specific places and I was sent with Molly and Nicki to the “zoological museum” at the National University, which was basically a big room filled with bad taxidermy from the 60’s. Some photos for your viewing pleasure: