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California in size, Rhode Island in income

January 18, 2007

Where to begin.  I had such an exciting adventure in Paraguay with Chris and his fellow Peace Corps volunteers.  From Ciudad del Este to Horqueta to Concepción to Asunción and back to C. del Este, I absorbed every moment and every vibe of this forgotten country.

As I wrote in my last entry, Paraguay is about the size of the state of California, but it’s Gross National Product must be somewhere near that of Rhode Island’s, if not lower–or at least the part of it that escapes corruption.  Even in Bolivia, which is statistically poorer, I did not encounter so many blatant signs of poverty.  I think what most struck me was Concepción, Paraguay’s fourth largest city.  Concepción, despite having a population of over 25,000, had only a handful of paved streets, and its main market street–where fruit and veggie vendors, among others, set up shop each day–is dirt.  As Chris commented, it had an Old West feel to it:  a hot, dusty town with a lot of hustle and bustle but without the development that characterizes Paraguay’s other major cities.

Horqueta, the town Chris is living in, is even less developed, with only one paved street and a few cobblestone streets; yet the town is over 200 years old.  Nayeli, Chris’s girlfriend, is stationed in a still less developed town:  there isn’t even a paved road connecting her town to the main highway.  As we rode to her site one day, she recounted a time when the bus got stuck in the mud after a heavy rain and all of the passengers had to get off while a ditch in the road was filled with sand and while the bus driver gunned the engine to get the bus through the mess.  Nayeli said the bus was lurching so precariously from side to side as it forged through the ditch that she thought it was going to tip over. 

Despite Paraguay’s lack of development, I felt myself attracted to the country–or perhaps it was the lack of development that attracted me.  Rural Paraguay was tranquil, lush, and natural.  Animals roamed the land more or less freely as they grazed; people tended their crops, animals, and/or stores by day while sipping tereré (cold mate tea); and at night, the stars were more brilliant and numerous than I’d ever seen them before. 

I know I am romanticizing Paraguay’s reality–there are few job opportunities, virtually no advanced health care, and innumberable inconveniences–but people there do recognize their good fortune in living in a peaceful place.  Chris told me that on several occasions his neighbors have commented that he must enjoy the relative serenity of Paraguay compared to the hurried lifestyle they hear of in the United States, to which he always agrees.  Not much would be needed to turn Paraguay’s rural towns into truly liveable places:  a few more paved road (or even just better drainage); quality health care; better compensation for local livestock and produce; and probably a few other things that I’m missing.  It would be a shame, though, for development experts to come in and push Paraguayans toward an Americanized development logic, in which bigger is always better.   I think what I’d like to do in my career as a planner is to work with small, rural towns in Latin America to find culturally appropriate, community-specific ways to improve their municipalities; perhaps I could involve immigrants in the equation by helping communities to figure out how to best take advantage of the remittances being sent home to them from their spouses and children working abroad so that future generations aren’t forced to leave.  This would be a dream job for me, and given my experiences to date, I think I’m on a pretty good track toward doing it.

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