Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Yesterday I hugged my teary-eyed host mom Elena, gave a firm handshake to host dad Willy, and got on a bus to leave Acuña for good. It was the second time I had to say goodbye to a community; but unlike my departure from Sopachuy and Bolivia, which happened suddenly with no preparation and only a few rushed good-byes, this time I was well prepared. The preceding weeks had been filled with last visits to families and friends, gift exchanges, nostalgic conversations and plenty of logistical and mental preparation. In Bolivia I left so much unfinished, unsaid and undone; in Paraguay I leave with a sense of peace.
The beekeepers' committee threw me a despedida on Sunday, and lunch was a stew of chura: This means every part of a cow except meat, including heart, kidneys, liver, and intestines (a cow actually just has four stomachs, but if I said "stomach" you wouldn't get a sense of the taste. I've eaten this part, called mondongo, on several occasions, and if it's not well-cleaned beforehand it tastes strongly of feces. If it is well-washed it's only an aftertaste). Of course, I ate plenty and with gusto, with a big smile on my face, complimenting the cooks on the delicious meal. They threw the party just for me, after all, and paid for the "meat" themselves. Maybe for those reasons, the chura was actually almost tasty. Or maybe I've just been in this country for too long!
It's been a year and a half since I arrived in Paraguay, and I'm so glad I decided to come. When we were being evacuated from Bolivia we were offered the option to close our service then and there as Returned PCV's; I decided instead to come to Paraguay to finish what I started in Bolivia. I had learned a lot about beekeeping and wanted to continue that work - and in September 2008, as Lehman Bros. and AIG were crashing and it looked like Sarah Palin might be our next vice-president, I wasn't particularly interested in returning to the USA, either. But truly, I decided to finish this because I knew that deep down a fundamental change was beginning to take place inside me, and I wanted to see what it was.
I'm not going to try to describe my service and what I learned from it in a couple of paragraphs. I'm not sure I could do it even if I had ten pages, because some of the ways in which I've changed aren't even apparent to me just yet. But there are a few things I want to get down. Let me start with the idea of "development work" and its relation to PC. When I started this, I had (like many new PCVs) virtually no concrete idea of what a Peace Corps volunteer was supposed to do, but many naive illusions about helping the poor and making a substantive difference in my community (if you want proof of this you can scroll down to view the lofty mission statement I drafted as a trainee in Bolivia). But the reality is much different. Peace Corps volunteers, after an intense 3-month training program of language classes and technical training (for me, that meant beekeeping and some Ag. stuff), are assigned to their sites and basically cut loose: The organization assigns you a community counterpart, but you do not have a boss to report to, or a list of things to accomplish. You are on your own, and you have a great deal of freedom to decide what to do from there. Meanwhile, in your community there is poverty and there are possibilities for development. But most PCVs are recent college graduates, with (initially) little language ability, no cultural understanding, little training in their field, and are under a great deal of stress because of the radical life changes they are experiencing. Under these circumstances, for a PCV to expect to make "sustainable progress" in helping a large number of people improve their economic conditions is wholly unreasonable. That I expected to do so shows that I was naive and arrogant.
There are, however, lots of great things PCVs can do. As a beekeeping volunteer I trained a few people in Acuña in basic hive management skills, and did some neat work with green manures and soil improvement. It is not a great contribution, and no one's economic conditions have been radically altered by the work I did. But the Peace Corps is not a full-fledged development organization. We are not professionals; we're just volunteers. (Truly sustainable development work needs to be done by local professionals. Roland Bunch's Two Ears of Corn is an insightful and informative account of how this work should be done.) If I have overcome the obstacles posed by the set of circumstances I mentioned above, survived two years in a foreign culture living at a subsistence wage, made some lasting friendships with people in our community, and done some work that is of value, then I view my service as truly successful. And for those reasons I left Acuña yesterday with a sense of peace.
But not only for those reasons. A good friend of mine, speaking about her Peace Corps experience, used to say that living as a PCV showed her what her strengths and weaknesses were. I didn't know what she meant then, but now after having had a similar experience I think I understand. In the work I have done as a PCV, I have had as many or more failures as successes. I have not made the kind of difference I thought I could before. But I have been able to do a few things well. A square is only a square because it has limits: There are four sides which surround its area, bounding the square and separating it from what it is not. People are no different, and we must recognize this: We must understand what our limits are, what we can and cannot do. We must know who we are not to understand who we are. I think I'm starting to get that. Failure and success have taught me. Before I left the States, I was having doubts about whether I would be strong enough to do this, and my mom encouraged me, "Andrew, every time you have really wanted to do something, to accomplish something, and have given your best effort, you have succeeded. You'll do so again as a PCV." Well, no, and yes... in fact, giving it my best effort and failing is an experience I had in the Peace Corps, and I'm incredibly grateful for it. The trick is not to get disheartened, learn from your failure and try again, with a smile on your face, grounded by the belief in what you're doing and faith that God's grace will make up for your inadequacies. My failure has helped me have a successful PC experience.
I'll let my friends be the judges of how I've changed. People here tell me all the time how mellow and laid-back I am. I don't remember people ever telling me that before. Maybe it's the long hair. But I think all that has happened, the unexpected catastrophe in Bolivia, readjusting to a second foreign culture, has mellowed me out a lot. I don't get bothered or stressed out, or depressed as much as I used to. The turbulent experience has helped me learn to adjust and adapt to the circumstances without getting too upset. The tranquilo culture of Paraguay and the slow life in the campo have helped, too.
I will miss very much that atmosphere, the peacefulness, the lack of hurry and bustle. I will miss being awakened by roosters crowing in the morning, being surrounded by trees, grass, birds, animals. I'll miss ox-drawn carts, tattered straw hats, dirty, calloused feet, terere, the soothing Paraguayan polka music. I'll miss the sound and flow and spirit of the Guaraní language. I will miss working with angry Africanized bees. I'll miss the solitude. Most of all I'll miss Willy, Elena and Fernando, and the other friends in site I'm leaving behind. Life begins again for me in an exciting new chapter; for them, it will continue to unwind at its even, easy pace, in no hurry, headed nowhere in particular. Maybe that's the way life ought to be. Or maybe it's just another way of life, no better or worse than ours. I know that I'll carry part of that life with me when I go back to the States. I hope I don't lose it.
Many thanks to those who have followed my ramblings over the last two years. I'm sorry that in Paraguay the entries have been so sparse, but having no internet in site it was hard to keep updated. Thanks to friends and family for the support you have offered during this experience; even if we haven't communicated much, or at all during these two years, it is the memories and inspiration from the people I love, that keeps me going through all this.
Next stop is Chile for some hiking in Patagonia; I plan to spend a while wandering around down here in S. America in my new role as a tourist. Should be back in the States around mid-June. Then I'm thinking about grad school to study religions and social justice; but I haven't even begun applying yet and will probably spend the next year or so in Louisville, living with the folks, waiting tables or something. Hope to get a band together and test out the many new songs I've written down here. My music has grown up as much as I have, I think. Can't wait to see all of you, and listen to your stories of what these last couple of years have meant for you and your families.
Looking forward to starting something new. I'm sure many new surprises, successes and failures await. I'll try to meet them and stay cool. Tranquilo, that is.

A few last shots from the campo

Willy's cow had been pregnant since the day about nine months ago when Willy and I took her to visit the neighbor's toro. We thought she would come due as soon as February, but the calf was a no-show. Finally I prophesied to Willy that on the day of my departure the cow would give birth. Willy woke up the morning I left, went out to see his cows and saw that she had given birth during the night. He named the calf "Andres." It's a toro.

Gettin' my Spider-Man on on a sandy rock face in Tobati. There are some guys who go out there every Sunday and I've been practicing with them. I'm not very good at it yet but it's a project when I get back to the States.

Some kids and me after an environmental-themed summer camp in Altos.

Semana Santa 2010, making chipa in the tatakua.

Last day in site.
Elena, Abuela Dionisia, Willy and me.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A few new pics from U-Guay and the campo

Spent Xmas with a few friends from PC in
Punta Del Diablo, Uruguay, a beautiful little fishing village.
I didn´t take lots of pics here, but if you´re interested
check out Emily´s album which is posted on my Facebook wall.
If you don´t have Facebook, hats off to you, friend.

Christmas morning Peace Corps style.

And back in the campo for the New Year´s holidays...

Willy and his first grandson, Manuel David, drinking terere.

Chorizo, spicy sausage.
And me with a Bud.
Bud is really chuchi (high-roller) beer in PY
but sometimes you gotta live large.
Those $5 Cumberland pints I guzzled back in Louisville
are a secret from my friends in Acuña.

Willy and Elena.

Four little chickens, two roosters and two hens.
They were born about 2 months ago and the roosters are learning
how to crow, doesn´t come out very well for them yet but give it time.
They are also beginning to fight. White one always wins.

Can you see the bird in the middle of the picture? It looks like a tree branch but it´s a bird called a guai gui gue. Willy was pointing to it for like 5 minutes before I finally saw it.
It´s right there, for Christ´s sake!

Willy and his ox.
One time I asked him what would happen if you mated an ox and a cow.
He looked at me like I was a f------ idiot.
Turns out an ox is just a castrated bull. You cut off the bull´s balls
when it´s pretty young and it grows into a big strong ox.
So, stupid question.
Willy doesn´t think I´m too bright.


That last quote was from Charlotte´s Web, by the way.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Process and Vindication

Greetings from sunny Paraguay. I´ve just come back from Thanksgiving weekend, celebrated by about 100 PCV´s every year at the Hotel Tirol outside of Encarnación, Paraguay. It´s a great weekend filled with laughter, good food (even turkey and stuffing), swimming, music, dancing, good conversations and perhaps even a beer or two (Dad, you can edit that last part out for the Trinity Leader). Now it´s back to the campo, where honey harvest season is in full swing.
Recently we harvested for the first time with my beekeeping committee members, who began practicing beekeeping with me when I arrived last year and have now gone through all the essential steps of a season, from capture to harvest. The committee is a group of very special individuals. They collaborated with their own money to buy two brand-new bee boxes, contributing 36,000 Guaranies a piece. This equals about $7.20, but for poor small farmers in Paraguay, it´s a lot of money. Beekeeping is an almost perfect development activity, since it requires little work, is relatively easy to understand, conforms to local practices, is intrinsically interesting and enjoyable work, and brings in good profits. I say ¨almost,¨ however, because the initial investment to buy the equipment is sizable, and not practical for many poor farmers. But a group of 15 members putting their money together toward the project can begin relatively easily. Unfortunately many committees in Paraguay are reluctant to do this, perhaps because 1) They would prefer to apply for and receive government or NGO grants, 2) They don´t have enough trust in one another to contribute their own money, or 3) They just don´t feel they can spare the extra capital. However, when people put their own money into something, they feel they have a greater share in it and are therefore more likely to continue working on the project. Thankfully, the committee had enough trust in each other, and in me, to give it a shot. Last week´s harvest, a solid 12 liters, was for me a vindication, both of my work with the group and, in a larger sense, of my work with the Peace Corps in general. So much of what we as Volunteers do, the impact that we have, is unquantifiable, unmeasurable, and often that makes us feel uncertain or insecure about the value of what we´re doing. But when you hold a bottle full of pure, delicious honey you and your friends harvested, you see a tangible result of your hard work. I have done something good. After nearly two years of mixed results and adjusted expectations, it´s nice to just feel proud of myself.
Included below are some pictures of recent life, work, etc. Enjoy and Merry Christmas to all (you really think I´m gonna make another blog post before Christmas?) Peace...
Me and Hugo, drinking tereré and gearing up for a capture.

Inside a wild hive of Africanized bees during a capture.
I´m pretty hardcore. Bees don´t even sting me though because
1. They´re afraid of me, and
2. They can smell my Zen and they know I´m not a threat.

Honey inspections. The bees cap the honey panels with wax when they´re finished dehydrating the nectar they bring from flowers. This panel is about ready for harvest.

New life. Born in the middle of a thunderstorm. Can´t think of a scarier,
more jolting way to enter the world.

Me and Fernando leading an Agriculture workshop to a
mixed group of Acuña locals and new, green PC Trainees.

Host dad Valerio ¨Willy¨ harvesting honey.

Fruits of my labor.

Artifact from Jesuit ruins near Encarnación. The Jesuits may have had a quasi-colonial influence, teaching Spanish and converting the indigenous Guaraní to Christianity, but they also learned to speak Guaraní, lived in peace with the locals, taught them about agriculture and organized them into larger, sustainable communities. It still smacks of colonialism but it´s a lot better than what the greedy, murderous Spanish Empire was doing. There is a possible corrollary between Jesuits vs. Spain and Peace Corps vs. US Gov´t./Multinational Corp.´s.
At least the Jesuits were trying to do the right thing, and ultimately were on the people´s side.
Whose side are you on?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Back in Bolivia: Photos

Gringo in Bolivia. I took this same photo a year ago when my hair was much shorter and I was a whole lot more naive. Good to be back in Sopachuy, I love that town.


Cloud Forest, Samaipata.
What the difference is between a cloud forest and a rain forest I don´t know but I could probably come up with a dumbass answer real quick. Or you could check Wikipedia. Go ahead, do it.
If not it will bug you all day.


Dan at campfire.

Incan ruins at Samaipata.

Mi ahijado (godson) Antonio in Sucre. (Sucre, by the way, was a general in Bolivia´s war of independence, and his name was also Antonio.)

Dan and my comadre (mother of my godson) Roxana sippin´ juice.

Imitating the Rio de Janeiro Jesus statue.
It was Dan´s idea.

Don Tomas and his kid in Sopachuy.

Very dusty and therefore hazy, eerie day atop the mountain in Sopachuy.

Me, Elena, Jose Luis, lil Daniela, Valentina, and Dan.

Uyuni Salt Flats for a 3 day tour. They harvest it and it keeps coming back.

Tour guide decided to take a shortcut through the mud field.
Hey, good idea, tour guide.

...Stuck in the middle of the f------ desert, where it gets down to about zero farenheit at night,
no radio.
Driver went to get help, we stayed put cursing his dumb ass out.
And, naturally, hoping we would live to see another day.

Luckily another tour guide came to our rescue, and he immediately got stuck too. We hiked back to a nearby hotel (45 minute walk, after dark, freezing winds, about 15 farenheit) while the drivers stayed working on getting the SUVs out all night long (much more hardcore than us). They succeeded at about 4 a.m. the next morning.

Tour Day 2. Stuck again. In the sand this time, more easily fixed, 20 minutes.
I swear it must have been this guy´s first time leading a tour.
I think I could have done a better job myself and I can´t even drive a stick.

Me and mountain.

Untouched country except for the SUV tracks. And you might think, ¨oh, well, what a shame to have messed up the beauty of nature with those SUV tracks.¨ But of course the other option is having all of this beauty go to waste by not being shared with human beings.

Dan is eating.

At Uyuni it is very easy to be a good photographer.

Dan at the Laguna Colorada. If you go during the daytime it looks all red because of the algae that swim on the surface. ¨But don´t take my word for it! It´s in a book, on Reading Rainbow...¨

Sunset. But you already knew that just from looking at the picture. How? How did you know it wasn´t a sunrise? Why do they look different from one another? Can I get a scientist up in here?

Me, far away, in a big white salt desert.


Sunrise. But, you knew that, didn´t you?
Or did you?


Very hot water. Smells like rotten eggs (sulfur).

3 days without a shower and then I bathed in my underwear in the thermal pool. It felt great but my underwear was frozen 10 minutes after getting out.

The Takesi Trail, part of the Inca Trail. Translated in Quechua, takesi apparently means ¨suffering.¨ We suffered a bit on the trail for sure.

Yours. Truly. Admit it, you didn´t know that was a sunrise in the other photo. I´m just crazy. Oh well, I guess that´s what spending two years in solitude trying to be a hero keeping bees in the third world will do to you. Cheers!

I mean it´s not Everest but it´s some pretty sweet sh%t.

Lots of reflective lakes around these parts.

I promise not to make any baaaaad jokes about this photo.

We were much higher up than that dam, as you can see.

Dan and I weren´t exactly in our right minds but this seemed at the time to be the best lunch we had ever had.

...And the next day you´re in the jungle, having descended some 2,000 meters. That reminds me, did you check and find out what the difference between a cloud forest and a rain forest is?
Can you e-mail me and let me know? I don´t like Wikipedia.

My poor foot after all that hiking. Dan had waterproof shoes.

Lake Titicaca.

That is a dumb name for a boat.
Whoever gave that boat that name is asking for trouble.

Dan in front of Lake Titicaca.

La Paz, 3,600 meters. I don´t know how many feet that is but it´s a lot.

Back in the P-guay, my winter garden. Lots of lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, beets, cabbage, and kale

Might just look like grass to you, but this is the latest in organic agriculture! A field of black oats for soil coverage (see explanation in post below).

Mom´s resting after the first two came out. Two more were left to go.

¡Viva Paraguay! The annual festival in Altos, my neighboring town. Lots of flags and drums.

Cool! Hope everyone is doing well. Peace...