Paraguay and the Peace Corp. People

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Paraguayan money has lots of zeroes. I change a hundred bucks with some old dude standing outside the immigration office at the border and he gives me four hundred and twenty thousand guaranis. In reality though, all those zeroes don’t make any practical difference. It’s the same as having a different picture or different color on the face of the bills. The common big unit of currency here is the 100,000 guarani note. At the official exchange rate, it’s worth about 23 US dollars. In terms of how you use it on the streets of Asuncion to buy food, drink and various other services, it functions more or less like a fifty dollar bill on the streets of the US. So the real value exchange rate between Paraguay and the US is approximately 2 to 1. The extra zeroes are just fun and games… entertainment value. Most humans don’t understand money at all. They have been trained to believe that the numbers on their currency represent an objective real value. But the numbers are an illusion… a metaphor. Money is not a thing it is a legal right. Money is the symbolic representation of your legal right to use value within the jurisdiction of the government that issues the money. All those rabid right wingers in the states are always whining about the re-distribution of wealth. What they don’t seem to understand is if “money” or the legal right to use value and resources in the country or community was distributed in a sane and rational and democratic manner in the first place, there would be no need to re-distribute it after the fact. But it isn’t. So there is… But I digress.

It’s a 16 hour bus ride from Buenos Aires to Asuncion and the only time we stop is at the border. But the journey is super comfortable . The “semi-cama” seats retract into a fully reclined position. They serve food and drink during the trip and there is a bathroom on board. It’s a bit like traveling first class on an airplane (but I’ve never done that). The only hassle is the border but all borders are hassles. This one has long lines, intense heat, bureaucratic absurdities and no official money change offices so I have to rely on the unscrupulous looking characters milling about who keep approaching me to say, “cambio, cambio, change money?” I change a hundred with an older guy who looks honest enough. When I get to the bus station, however, there are money exchange offices and the set rate is 4.6 to the dollar. So basically, I lost 40,000 guarani or about 7 bucks on my little black market border money exchange. No big deal. A fair price to pay for a lesson learned in international economics.

I find my way to a hostel in the center of town. It has a nice garden hang-out area with hammocks and even a small pool. There’s a decent kitchen and a good vibe. Unfortunately, they have no single rooms and the doubles are beyond my price range at 40 dollars US. Against my usual m.o., I take a bed in the dorm. It’s only 12 dollars and that includes breakfast. Will the pleasantness of the garden and pool make up for the inconvenience of dorm sleeping? We shall see.

Asuncion is a fairly nice city. It’s way too hot when I arrive but that’s because it is midsummer, the hottest time of the year. There are several shady plazas though that are nice to sit in and watch the locals in their day to day life. One day I sit beside a tirade booth and have myself a taste of the local tradition. Tirade is basically mate’ only they serve it cold along with several options of herbs that are supposed to help with various health issues. The lady who serves me is a delight and I am joined in the activity by two friendly middle aged men. I tell them that I just arrived and I am traveling in Paraguay for a month and I ask them what I should see. Admittedly they are difficult to understand because my Spanish is rusty and they mix in Guarani words as well. But one guy tells me about an annual festival in the Missiones district that is coming up soon and the other guy suggests I go up north to the Paraguayan Pantanal. Two options definitely worth considering. On another day, I am joined on a park bench in a plaza by an 87 year old man. He seems to have no teeth so he’s very hard to understand. But we chat for half an hour or so and I am able to decipher that he had a successful career as an athletic trainer and he once accompanied the Paraguayan national team to the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. It’s amazing how much fun you can have just talking to strangers in a plaza in Paraguay.

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In addition to the plazas, the city itself has nice old colonial buildings with wide sidewalks so its kind of fun to just amble about and look at things. There are a few good cafes and many inexpensive restaurants. You’d be amazed at how far you can stretch a 100,000 guarani note. A liter of beer at the famous expat bar, “Britannia,” only costs 15 grand while a great cup of coffee at the literary cafe is only 7 grand. No doubt about it, in Asuncion the living is good and easy on my traveler’s budget.

Back at the hostel in the evening, I discover that most of the other guests are peace corp. volunteers with only a few travelers. As most of my regular readers know, I tend to be very critical of the US government. Indeed, I have some rather mixed feelings about the noble peace corp. Over the course of my travels, I have met lots of peace corp. volunteers in various places around the planet and they almost all seem to be wonderful human beings who are out there working hard to make the world a better place. No doubt about it, most of the work they do improves significantly the quality of life in the communities where they work. I just question sometimes whether the peace corp. as a whole is but a smiley happy face that serves primarily to soften the image of the evil empire. And I ocassionally run in to peace corp. types who treat the culture in which they are working in a condescending or paternalistic manner. I guess I have the same perspective on all the NGOs working in foreign cultures. Are you there for a mutual exchange of cultures, learning and receiving as much value from them as you are giving in return or are you there to demonstrate the superiority of your way of doing things?

This particular group of volunteers lives and works in small villages in the countryside helping locals with sustainable agriculture and other basic service issues. They are in Asuncion for a few days to take part in a training and to get medical and dental check ups. They all work individually in far away villages and only get together as a group here in Asuncion every once in a while. It’s an interesting social dynamic to plop myself in the middle of. No doubt about it, there is a fair bit of drama amongst them like in all such groups; relationships go awry, hearts get broken, issues develop and growth of character occurs. In a place like Paraguay, however, far away from the normal American reality, all those typical human issues just seem to be a bit more intense. Truthfully, it’s a beautiful thing to watch unfold. The intense emotional bond that ties them together. The sharing of burdens and troubles between the closest and dearest of friends. The human communal instinct in all it’s glory. It’s funny really, the thing I find most disturbing about America, is the way that ideological capitalism destroys systemically the human communal instinct. Indeed, that very thing is what I admire the most about indigenous groups around the world. Yet here I am among the peace corp people who are supposedly here to teach the locals “the American way,” and they are, in a sense, demonstrating a beautiful example of community. I don’t really know “the Guarani way”, so I shouldn’t presume, but I can’t help but wonder if the teachers are being taught.

I start conversing with the group the first morning at breakfast. They are all very nice and full of useful information. Quite significantly, I learn from two women that Argentina has a bifurcated currency system. The official government rate is 6.5 to 1 while the international and black market rate is more like 10 to 1 or even 11 to 1. The economic implications of this I shall have to consider more thoroughly at a future time. No doubt about it, when I return to Argentina to meet Ms. B., traveling there is going to be a lot cheaper. They also tell me about good places to visit while I am in Paraguay. The Pantanal in the North of the country sounds more and more intriguing all the time. Indeed, some other volunteers went there on trip a few months ago and they will arrive at the hostel later that day so I should be able to get details.

I meet my hero in the afternoon. I probably shouldn’t say this because I gave him my website and he might read this. But the guy kind of reminds me of the main character or “hero” in my novel. Not the beginning of the novel… more like the middle. But the incredible thing is, he is one of the guys who went to the Paraguayan Pantanal and he tells me all about his trip there. I swear sometimes my life is like a pre-constructed plot line to a story. It must be my destiny to go to the Pantanal. The messenger appears to point the way. If only he gave me a little weed like the guy in my book would, the story would be too perfect for words.

I spend the next several days socializing with the peace corp people in the garden and in the pool at the hostel. They really are an amazing bunch of humans. They are all very knowledgeable in their respective fields and are dedicated to their work. Perhaps, more importantly, they seem very respectful of the culture they work in. They are quite enthusiastic about learning the local Guarani language and that makes me smile.  I don’t  want to live in a monolingual, monocultural, monoracial or monoeconomical world. For me, at least, variety is the essence of life. Seeing white American English speakers teaching sustainable agriculture methods while learning about community and trying to understand an indigenous language gives me hope for the future.

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I also meet a young American college student who is in Paraguay for three weeks doing independent research for her honor’s thesis. She is writing about the use of modern social networking techniques to advance social justice causes with a particular emphasis on food sovereignty issues. She conducts daily interviews with community leaders around Asuncion and diligently records and transcribes all the information. We spend a terrific morning together wandering the artsy neighborhood and going out to lunch. She tells me of her plans for law school and her desire to be a human rights lawyer. I am impressed by her intelligence, spirit and enthusiasm but I fear a future of frustration ahead of her. Practicing human rights law in the states is a bit like repeatedly slamming your head against a brick wall. Despite the lip service and propaganda, my country’s government does not believe in such things. But alas, perhaps I am biased. Not wanting to dampen her enthusiasm, I restrain my rant to a few little comments.

Later on, the conversations at the garden hostel just keep getting better and better. One of the volunteers wants to be a writer and he’s starting his first novel. His concept is a good one and he’s interesting to listen to. Meanwhile, the guy who reminds me of my novel character has that traveler’s gleam in the eye. He wants to see the world and find out what it’s all about. How much fun do I have floating in inner tubes in the refreshing round pool talking with these guys about places to go and things to do?

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On my last day in Asuncion, all of the peace corp volunteers have returned to their villages except for one. He has to remain in the city for a few more tests. I’m taking it easy around the hostel before my long night bus ride and I end up sharing a remarkable afternoon with this amazing young man. He’s a talented poet and a good guitar player and he plays me some beautiful original songs on the terrace above the garden. Im gonna have to get his album from ITunes. Afterwards, we shoot hoops with the inner tubes and the soccer ball in the pool and we build ourselves a plastic Buddha using all the floating toys available. Too much fun.  We also go out to eat a healthy lunch and share an evening meal at the hostel kitchen. The best part of the day, however, is the conversation. We talk about Buddhism a lot, and Ram Das and Hinduism, and Vipasana meditations and ayahuasca. The young man has had a difficult year. In mythological terms you might say that he’s passing through the tunnel of darkness that leads to the light. I sense some sort of spiritual crisis is at hand. But a crisis he can handle. As a matter of fact, with the help and support of his peace corp. community, I have a notion he’s gonna pass with flying colors and come through on the other side.  But hey, what do I know. I can only wish him luck on the journey ahead of him…

Speaking of journeys, it’s time for mine. I reserved a cabin at a place called Tres Gigantes. It’s some type of environmental station in the way north of the country in the geographical region known as the Pantanal. As a matter of fact, it’s located at the triple frontier where Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia all come together as one. My kind of destination. In order to get there, I’m gonna have to travel overnight on a bus, then four days on a cargo boat and another couple hours on a small motor boat. Wish me luck…

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