by Mario Machado—
Last week, the long-awaited news was finally released to our group of anxious Peace Corps trainees. On Wednesday, we were assigned our future sites, the places in which we will be living and working for the next 2 years. Over the weekend, 34 trainees dispersed across Paraguay for our first encounters with communities that range in character from dense, semi-urban barrios to remote farming villages. My site is one of the latter.
The road to Guido Almada is not short and is certainly not easy. The initial bus ride from Asunción goes east for about 150 kilometers to Coronel Oviedo before turning north for another 50 kilometers to the small city of Carajao. The intersection with the 30-kilometer dirt road that leads to Cleto Romero (and, eventually, Guido Almada) is unmarked and almost undistinguishable, unless you know what you are looking for. Once in Carajao, one must hitch a ride on the once-daily bus, a taxi passing by chance, or one of the ubiquitous ox-drawn carts that regularly make the excursion to market. The dirt road quickly becomes mud at even the thought of rain and is utterly impassable for days following the stronger storms.
I arrived in Guido Almada last weekend with a packet of information on potential projects, community contacts, and a general orientation to the region. Quickly, however, and as I have come to expect in this country, all plans and preconceptions were soon obsolete as the conditions on the ground curiously toppled along in a rhythm all their own. The family with which I was to live for my first several months in site suffered a terrible loss the night of my arrival: The matriarch of the family, suddenly sick, passed away shortly after dark. In such isolated areas with the conditions of life being as harsh as they typically are, sickness and death seem to take on a much different and almost routine character.
The community itself, despite its geographic isolation, is surprisingly well connected and organized. Guido Almada and the surrounding communities have a strong history of resisting oppression and fighting for rights as a result of Paraguay’s 35-year Stroessner dictatorship, which ended in 1989. The farmers’ committees have established a strong leadership and actively express a desire to diversify to more sustainable methods. While agriculture provides a large part of family subsistence in Guido Almada, the community members are extremely interested in converting to organic farming methods (in both home gardens and possibly in some larger agricultural plots). My job over the next 2 years—along with teaching English classes, helping in the schools, and providing any and every amount of technical assistance that I can—will be to help promote and instill organic farming methods in the community.
This desire to convert to organic techniques is far from the norm here in Paraguay, where many people survive on what they can manage to grow and trade for. The fact that I have found myself in such a situation, with a community that sees the benefits and need for sustainability so clearly, is truly amazing. I am just beginning to realize how big my task will be in the next 2 years. I am also realizing what a lucky accident it was that found me working in the Rodale Institute’s organic vegetable gardens last summer. Who could have known how these things would work out? Thanks to all my friends at the Rodale farm and office; I really owe you a big one.
On the edge of my Paraguayan seat,
by Mario Machado—
Textbooks have been written on the topic of culture shock, its various manifestations and its particular trajectories. But there is no prescription for how any one person may experience this phenomenon. For me, culture shock has so far existed as a nebulous notion somehow grinding its gears in the recesses of my mind. Perhaps I am being short-sighted and a bit naive, but it seems to me that the trauma of living in a new culture is really just a product of one’s attitude. It’s amazing the things you can acclimate to, given the necessary time and space.
Moving to Paraguay to begin my Peace Corps service was an initial shock that dramatically altered my life in many immediate ways. I began speaking Spanish and Guaraní daily instead of English; I moved in with a Paraguayan host family; I lost most communication with my family and friends; and I was surrounded by things that were new to me. Still, the excitement of being away from my home in the United States—from being pushed out of my comfort zone and into the adventure zone—was thrilling. For about a week, the blog words flowed like water and I could barely contain my thoughts. Each meal was new, carb-rich, fried, and delicious. The language was a challenge that I rose to meet with debatable success. My host family soon became like close friends.
Soon, however, the novelty of it all began to wear off. I became riddled with writers block. I craved veggies and greens as opposed to mandioc and fried dough. I could barely organize thoughts in one language, let alone transition between three on a daily and almost inter-conversational basis. My host family remained warm and wonderful, but as one would expect, had lives to lead and went about doing so.
And yet, while the stresses of acculturation come in waves, the overall trend is toward positive adaptation. Sure, I am living with a family below the poverty line, out of contact with things that are comfortable and familiar. Yes, I am eating foods like mondongo (cow’s stomach), kidney, giant lizard, horse, and incredibly huge amounts of mandioc almost every week. Absolutely, my brain simply shuts off at times, leaving me without any words at all. And certainly, I shower from a bucket and use a hole in the ground as my toilet.
While all of these things are different and strange, taking time to get used to, none of them make life in Paraguay unbearable. In fact, they make life in Paraguay infinitely more real and more colorful. It hasn’t taken long to embrace the crazy foods; I have learned to eat first and ask questions later. The seeming difficulty of cultural differences is overshadowed by the fact that as you live in a place long enough, eventually that place begins to feel like home. I have been here for only a month and a half, and it simultaneously seems like forever and no time at all. Over the next two years, despite the changes and challenges that I will undoubtedly continue to face, Paraguay will only become more and more like my home.
Until next time,