March 20, 2014

"The Most Beautiful Country You've Never Heard Of"

"Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone..."

I've lived my life seemingly avoiding this horrid realization. I've traveled all over the U.S. and seen many of it's natural wonders. And though I made a conscious decision to leave my country behind, I still wake up in the morning once and a while with a heartache so profound, I don't know how I can manage to face the day. Whether we were standing on the summit of Sentinel Dome watching a thunderstorm approach across Yosemite Valley or whether we were witnessing the setting sun turn the Colorado River into a thread of mercury at the Grand Canyon, my father always said: "Savor this experience. It's unlikely that we'll ever be able to come back." Well you try to imprint it, but somewhere in your brain there's a tiny  con artist, or maybe just an optimist, telling you you'll have plenty of opportunities to come back. You'll make it happen.

There's nothing like being far away - REALLY far away - to make you realize dad was right.

Nonetheless, separation proves to be a powerful memory-enhancer. Perhaps because the possibility of returning is that much more remote. And, incredibly, despite being in a completely foreign place, memories of experiences make their way to you - often in unexpected ways. Sitting in the quincho after a light rain, I suddenly smell the incense that emanates from various stalls at the Michigan Renaissance Festival, and something like a pot pie cooking in the oven - how can that be? Sometimes outside my window, I hear the wind caressing the leaves of the Pindó palm and imagine I'm alongside Lake Michigan listening to the dune grass sigh instead. 

There are also moments that call up past experiences because of their similarity, and you realize there are threads of commonality that run through the tapestry of Earth, making you feel less isolated, if not exactly at home. There are those rare nights here, temperate and breezy, when the moon is too bright even for the stars and fireflies bob in the long shadows cast by the tall eucalyptus trees. I can't help but remember those wild and carefree summer nights at Grandma and Grandpa's house, running barefoot in the lush, green grass and cupping fireflies in our hands for a brief, ecstatic moment. When I grew up those enchanting nights eluded me, but here in Paraguay I get glimpses of them again.

And that's part the strange, intangible charm of Paraguay. Its landscape is infinitely docile - a far cry from the rugged, majestic beauty of the western States. The flora offers a strange mix between temperate and tropical, giving both a familiar and exotic impression at the same time. You're never quite sure you haven't been here before, though you didn't know it was a country just a few years ago. On hot, sunny days, the countryside seems to sleep: cattle graze lazily along the side of the road, fields on their gentle slopes glitter beneath the sun, towering clouds drift across the sky like ships on a calm sea. But today it's raining. It's the first day of Autumn here, while back home my friends and loved ones are seeking out the faintest sign of Spring. The emotional swings inspired by seasonal changes are mine to cherish still, though they've been turned on their head 180 degrees. It makes for conversation, if nothing else.

So here I am. I'm getting to know the birds, the trees and the inconstant weather (how can the weather be so volatile over such a tame landscape?). When I think of landscapes that speak to my heart, I think of Michigan's western shore. I think of Antelope Canyon in northern Arizona. I imagine the rolling green hills of England, dotted with sheep. But I'm here instead, because a Paraguayan spoke to my heart. And if our landscapes mold us I have to believe that what has made him a rich human being will speak to me in time. There is no ocean, no Great Lake, but there are breezes that remind of a sandy coast. There are no slot canyons, twisting skyward, but the soil here is as red as the desert. There are no heather-laden moors, but there are sheep and large, undulating hills.

In the end, being able to find happiness in a place is seeing and appreciating the details that make it beautiful to you.

Paraguayan countryside.

March 14, 2014

An American in Paraguay

You know, it's funny. I think most of us try to live our lives with the big picture in mind. We try to take the long view. That's how you're supposed to do it, right? Yet it is never more clear than when you are out of place that details make all the difference. As much as I try to lay in bed at night and picture the cosmos and realize that the minutia of my daily life is completely irrelevant, I still find myself battling stress, anxiety and discomfort. Yet, at the same time, the smallest of gestures can change the dynamic in a relationship. The tiniest unexpected moment of joy can turn your day around for the better. Details make a difference.

That's how I want to open my story about living in Paraguay. Because everything that I like and dislike about living here boils down to details. At times I'm sure this story will seem more like a log of "first-world" complaints to anyone who has not truly lived in another culture, but I can't believe that I'm alone in realizing the details are what color every experience. Sometimes those details are just feelings. It's hard to describe. It's really not that strange here, after all. Sure, there are key natural and cultural differences. But at the end of the day, a table is a table and a chair is a chair. Many day-to-day objects look the same. In fact, there are a number of similarities. But when you put all the small differences together and take a step back, the picture is askew. There's a very slight but palpable distinction in everything that makes you're not in Kansas anymore.

Corralling cattle for their vaccinations. Barefoot and wearing a typical Paraguayan sombrero.