May the Circle Be Unbroken
At the customs area in the Asunción Airport, I wait anxiously for my luggage, loaded down with Christmas presents. At last, I pass through customs and greet my son, John, and his wife, Colleen, who are in Paraguay as Peace Corps Volunteers. We hug and kiss, even shed a few tears. I am proud of them and the commitment they've made. I'm glad to see them and eager to find out first-hand about their lives.
In a cab, we ride past fancy suburbs with high walls, past big houses, and European and American stores and auto dealerships to the old town, with its narrow streets, dirty gutters, and crumbling sidewalks. We enter the Shara Hotel, a Peace Corps crash house. Six bucks per person, a good price even if it doesn't include a working air-conditioner.
I remember my own days as a Peace Corps Volunteer thirty years ago in Ethiopia: cheap hotels in the old quarter of Addis Ababa; slow-moving ceiling fans stirring humid air; noisy patrons at the local bars across the street; narrow beds with thin mattresses that sagged like the backs of old donkeys carrying water in the village. Memories of Patti, my wife, a bright-eyed, eager woman lying next to me, unable to sleep as she analyzes the problems of our village and conjures up answers that dissolve in the swish, swish, swish of the fan blades overhead. But hope is miraculously restored the next morning. We awake eager to return to the village, to seize the day and get on with the towering task.
The next morning, John and Colleen show me Asunción, filling me in on its history, and I remember how Patti and I escorted my own parents through Addis Ababa when we were Volunteers. We, too, gave my parents a similar lecture.
To reach John and Colleen's village, I suggest we hire a car, but John shakes his head: "We'll take the bus, dad. They wouldn't understand if we came in a car."
Of course, in Ethiopia years ago, his mother and I did not have the luxury of renting a car either, nor would our villagers have understood if we arrived by Land Rover.
On the bus out of the capital, we travel through green, rolling country, passing the occasional small, tin-roofed house with a red dirt yard where children play football with deflated balls. When the bus stops, roadside vendors yell to catch our attention, holding up boxes of soda and candy.
At Caaquazu, three hours out of Asunción on the road to Brazil, we leave the bus again and unload our luggage. Colleen dashes to the supermercado while John negotiates with taxi drivers to take us the last sixteen kilometers to Sextilinnia, their village. At first, negotiations do not go well. The drivers protest. The road is impassable, they say. But my son's negotiating skills slowly overcome their reluctance and, finally, a driver agrees to give it a try.
Soon after leaving the paved streets of Caaquazu, we hit a deep sea of mud. Our driver swings past the pool, carving a new road across a field. We continue on, forging new tracks where necessary. We are halfway to Sextilinnia when the driver, his wheels churning hopelessly, surrenders: "No mas," he sighs.
Fortunately, there is a truck nearby belonging to people John and Colleen know -- John, in fact, is building a water system for the school in their village -- and they agree to drive us the rest of the way.
The village of Sextilinnia has only five houses. Corn and manioc plants grow in the rich soil that John tells me is fifty meters deep, thanks to run-off from the Andes. Years ago, in an attempt at land reform, the government gave the campesinos forested land, some tools, and a bit of hope. Now the forests are nearly gone, and the Ministry of Agriculture failed in an effort to cultivate citrus trees. The grind of poverty and subsistence farming goes on and on.
We unload the truck and carry the luggage into the house. "We can't let the neighbors know we have all this," John says. "They wouldn't understand such wealth."
After they open their presents, they take me on a tour of their village. Up the hill is the school where Colleen teaches health classes and John has undertaken a construction project. Beyond the hill we visit families. "This woman just had twins," Colleen explains, pointing to one house. "That was a month ago. I got her to the clinic in time to save the second child and the mother." She smiles sadly, remembering the event. "This is my work," she whispers.
And then my son continues, "Their father is my counterpart. He's a hoot. A strong leader. I took him into Asunción for counterpart day a few months ago, and he was so distracted he forgot to pay the school electric bill. That might cost him the PTA presidency," he explains, laughing.
We continue along the road, exchanging greetings with everyone who passes. Farmer after farmer. Family after family. We stop to talk with a strawberry farmer. "Too much rain, the crop is no good," he says as we sit under a barren citrus tree in his red earth patio. "But come see my latrine. I'm building it just like you said, away from the water well."
The two men stand on the mound of fresh earth and stare into the newly dug pit. Both voices speak with pride about the depth of the hole. We stay some time beneath the citrus tree. They talk of crops, children, the new school building, of health, of family, and of hope. The exchange is joyful, happy, boisterous, and good.
Later, back at the house, we sit on the porch, slapping ants that crawl up our legs and taking bets on when it will start to rain.
Eventually, it's time for bed and my son warns me, "Oh, if it rains really hard, you might want to move your bed over to that spot." He pointed across the room. "That's the only place in this room where it doesn't drip."
Shortly after midnight, a rooster is confused by the lightning and thunder and starts crowing. Down the hill another joins him. Soon roosters from the whole village are answering back.
At 5:45 a.m. the alarm rings. I knock on my son's door. Go back to sleep, he tells me. There will be no bus today. We'll have to walk to the main road.
When everyone is up, we shut down the house, load our packs, cover them with rubber rain gear and head off on the sixteen kilometer hike to Caaquazu and the bus to Asunción. It keeps raining and the mud gets deeper. There is no bus. No jeeps. Not even an ox-cart. The three of us trek on, keeping up our spirits by claiming to have the heaviest pack, to be the wettest. We stop at the house of another Peace Corps Volunteer, who offers us coffee and dry clothes. Like all Volunteers, thirty years ago and today, what we have, we share.
Back in the capital, we sit and talk most of the night. We reform the Peace Corps, straighten out the Department of Interior where I work, we restructure the White House, as well as the Paraguayan government. There is no problem we can't solve.
Thirty years ago, my wife and I talked the same talk. We had solutions to the problems of Ethiopia, the United States, and the world. Now I wonder: Did we do any good as Peace Corps Volunteers in Ethiopia? Will John and Colleen do any good in Paraguay?
The answer, I think, is in the smiles and laughter of those we left behind in our highland village and in our own lives, and what we made of each day's work. The answer is also the children that we raised. For us, a son who cares enough about solving the problems of the world to join the Peace Corps. The answer is the work that Colleen and John are doing today in Paraguay -- the same kind of work Patti and I did in Ethiopia thirty years ago.
There's a country-and-western song that says it best: May the circle be unbroken. That's the answer. May the circle of helping others go unbroken. In Paraguay, with my son and daughter-in-law, I realized I had come full circle. I had come home again to the Peace Corps.
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