He reminisced about the everyday rhythm of the place. Every morning a huge clock that hung at the train yards let out a blast an hour before work started. The workers stirred in their beds and soon rose to drink mate and sweet milk tea. A second blast sounded half an hour before work began. They hustled out of their houses to get to the yards, the clock whistling twice more as the beginning of the workday approached.
I asked him what he liked best, and he responded without even thinking. “My favorite thing was eating breakfast with my brother and my friends in the mornings,” he said. “It was like a big party. People went to sell things, they went for curiosity.”
My first memory of St. John (Santo in Paraguay) was shaking his hand through a mitten, but more distinctly I recall hauling giant chunks of metal through the plaza of my town to his bus for his Fogon project– a design for a cookstove that reduced smoke inhalation. I yelled, “Que guapa que soy, cierto??” (How hard working I am, right??) at all of the Paraguayan men whose jaws were dropped staring at the woman doing a “Man’s work.” Secretly I was thinking, ‘I’m so glad I’m not in the health sector, I don’t want to make lugging heavy metal around a regular part of my service.’ Luckily, my city was an obligatory stop en route to Santo’s tiny campo town, so I got to learn more about what was underneath his Boston exterior during the time our Peace Corps services overlapped (Also, luckily for me, that was the last time he made me haul heavy metal).
Turns out, he’s a great writer! He currently writes for The Gazette, but wrote an excellent article for his Alma mater about the trains of Paraguay that you can read here.
Here’s what he had to say when I interviewed him:
This is Santo (not in Paraguay)
Why do you think the trains are such a source of pride for Paraguay?
I can’t say for sure. Obviously, in the national lexicon of Paraguay, the country believes they were the first to have a transcontinental railroad in the Western Hemisphere, and that’s something to be proud of. And in a history where much of their past has been destroyed or has decayed into oblivion, the trains are a permanent, concrete example of something the country accomplished..
What was it like researching this story? What sort of feedback did you receive on the story? I wrote my story as a blog post initially. I knew I could probably get it published somewhere, but really just thought the trains were really neat and that it would make for a cool story. For the most part, I got all positive reactions. That was different from some other stories I wrote about other elements and places of Paraguay.
What do you miss from Paraguay?
I miss the physicality. I lived not far from the trains, maybe an 8 minute drive between pueblos. From there, I was about 5 miles inland, in a town called Potrero Pucu. It was incredibly rural and rustic. I was on the top of a hill with an incredible host family. I miss my thatch roofed house, the long walks, the presence of my host family. I miss the misadventures I got myself into, and the cool Peace Corps Volunteers I hung out with. I miss the buses, and the mate, and the heat and the mandioca and speaking Spanish and Guarani.
What’s your favorite train in the world– real or imaginary?
St. John Barned-Smith was a Rural Health and Sanitation volunteer for the Peace Corps in Paraguay from 2010-2012. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2008 and is interested in politics, the outdoors, and international issues. You can read more about his adventures on his personal blog here: http://sinjininparaguay.blogspot.com/