On fall evenings, after the mosquitoes have hatched in biblical droves, the campesino houses of my community are thick with smoke and the smell of pine and earth. The locals burn tin pans full of palo santo, an aromatic wood, wagering lungs full of ash and bloodshot eyes in a bet to deter the hordes of bugs and flies. The dirt roads fill with smoke, like valleys full of fog, while the last strands of sunlight dance through the forest haze. It is a smell and a feeling that will forever bring me back to this place. At this time of year—after the heat of summer has broken and the groundwater has cooled to the point of being perpetually surprising on the lips—I feel cradled and loved by this country.
Summer in the Río de la Plata Basin is a harsh and sadistic time; it sucks the life out of your pores. The South American sun taps you like a maple tree and drains the sap from your veins, drinking it up one bead of sweat at a time. But once summer has faded, the breezy, beautiful days of fall lounge comfortably on the land. Then it is only the passing rains that provide a break in this pulse of autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. In fall, each morning blossoms from the horizon with yellow petals that unfold between the trees. The air is cool, like crisp apples, and you can almost taste the cinnamon in your chest as you breathe.
Winter days will be cold, sometimes frosting the grass and chastising those hopeful crops either left in the ground too long or planted too early for their own good. Yet, even these days are so much more manageable than the peak days of summer. When you wake to a summer sun, you know that the already hot morning will only lead to an even more unbearably hot afternoon; in the winter, you can sip your maté and bundle up by a wood fire, knowing that the afternoon will inevitably bring with it ideal hammock-napping weather.
When I really center myself in this place, when my little brick hovel feels most like my home and my neighbors more like family than friends, I settle into a rhythm and a mindset that is the closest to inner peace that I have ever known. It’s a combination of the lifestyle, the pace of life, and the calm with which the bird-sung days pass into cricket-sung nights. Within this cocoon I am aware of the smallest details, like the changes in the breeze or the variable retorts of the each and every farm animal, and I sense them with my whole body. My actions are smooth, my thoughts are light, and these strange tongues that I am still learning to speak slip easily from my lips to jumble naturally with the rivers of conversation that flow around me. This place is teaching me to see, to smell, to hear, to listen all over again. It’s teaching me what is really important and daily showing me how beautiful life can be, no matter what material things I might lack. —Mario Machado
This week was a rude awakening—or maybe it was more like a sweaty, sticky, how-could-I-ever-forget sort of shock that brought me back to the reality of summertime in Paraguay. With temperatures consistently over 100°F, the world seemed to stop. Once-productive workdays have, in a span of two weeks, become endless afternoon hours spent sitting under mango trees, sipping slowly at tepid tereré (for any ice to be had melts faster than it can cool), mumbling little nothings in Guaraní with my neighbors. The only thing punctuating this monotony is the animated reference to our collective, obvious reality, the oppressive million-tons of atmosphere and sun weighing down upon people and animals alike. “Hakuiterei, chera’a” (It’s really, really hot out, my friend).
I have been a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay for over a year now (14 months) and have run the gauntlet of all four seasons. I use the word “seasons” loosely: Each year can more accurately be separated into incredibly hot summers followed by cold, wet winters with an awkward and unpredictable few months on either end. Still, it’s funny how easy it is to forget the burning intensity that comes with a noonday sun in the Southern Hemisphere. When you spend the winter months in front of a space heater, sipping maté, looking for every excuse not to shower in frigid water and a wind chill around freezing, one’s perspective gets a little confused.
In the States, life proceeds normally from season to season. Some people salt their driveways and put different tires on their car for winter, or prep their lawn mowers and clean the air conditioner filter for summer, but to a large extent, the pace of life remains the same. There is always talk of the “dog days of summer,” but Paraguay’s peak summer months make those look like a vacation. The reality here in the heart of South America is that it simply gets too hot, too dangerous to do anything. Farmers wake up at first light and get into their fields for a few hours, but by 9:30 they turn in for the day. Working any later is not smart and Paraguayans know it.
The pulse of life in my community is strictly set to the weather. This is most evident when a big storm rolls up and whole families huddle together under their thatch roofs to watch the rain. But it goes beyond that: Each farmer knows exactly when to plant what, what winds are favorable for what crops, the cycles of the moon, the number of possible mornings with frost in winter, the prospects of good rains. I guess that when you live so directly off of the land, when your livelihood and well-being are intimately tied to the natural world around you, the need to be keenly aware is inevitable.
Farmers and gardeners in the States must evoke this to a certain extent, but it is also very different. A typical U.S. farmer relies on crops for income; successful harvests translate into financial stability in the following year. For my Paraguayan compañeros, this can also be true, but on an even more fundamental level of subsistence. Successful crops mean a steady flow of calories into the bellies of the farmer’s family. Failures spell disaster for household nutrition, livestock, and prospects for saving seed to plant the following year. For that reason, it seems as if life in the Paraguayan countryside moves in lockstep with even the slightest changes in the weather.
And so as I sit and sweat, as I will be doing for the indefinite future, I am trying to appreciate the days for what they are: a break after a long season of sowing and clearing land, a chance to rest, relax, be with family and friends, read, write, and catch up on community gossip. At times like these, you really learn to understand the value of a good shade tree in your front lawn. —Mario Machado