The Words of the Hyun Jin Moon
Not exactly the benediction we were looking for, but it seemed like the were always the first words we heard from people while organizing our Cattle Drive for Peace and Unity through the rugged outback of Paraguay.
I can't say I blame them. When you Google "Upper Paraguay's Chaco," words like "inhospitable" and "thorny forest" dominate descriptions of the terrain. Temperatures in the summer rainy season (November - April) can reach 115 degrees. Dirt roads, which barely exist in the best of times, turn into hazardous, boot-sucking goo, and mosquitoes are the slate bird. Weather in the dry season varies from 30 degrees (Fahrenheit) at night to 90 in the daytime. Jaguars, poisonous snakes, with gators and piranha in the rivers -- what more could you ask for?
We were proposing to drive 150 head of cattle, all of them pregnant, a distance of 170 kilometers (106 miles) over the aforementioned hostile landscape and iffy roads. June is winter in Paraguay, which is actually a good thing. Summer would be ten times worse. The drovers included people from Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Peru, Korea, Japan and the United States. About half the twenty riders were youngish (20s and 30s) Paraguayan businessmen and sons of leading political families, the emerging leaders of their country.
A cattle drive is self-explanatory, so why "peace and unity"? The drive was a run-up to the Global Peace Festival in Asuncion, July 2-5, celebrating the interfaith vision of One Family Under God.
Hyun-jin nim explained further; "Moving cattle is a way of learning, a way to tear down the curtain between the affluent sons of Paraguay's upper class and the country people who have very little in the way of material goods." Even most Paraguayans have never visited their country's Chaco and do not realize its economic potential for the country in terms of cattle, eco-tourism and biofuels. We wanted to help them have an intimate experience with a part of their own country most had never taken time to appreciate because it's so far from the capital and so hard to get into and out of.
It was also a spiritual offering to God -- hard work, performed in unity to ask His blessing on this land, to which we offer ourselves in service. We are all familiar with Jesus' analogy between fishing and bringing souls back to God. Well, we like to think that if Israel had been landlocked, Peter would have been a cowboy and Jesus would have told hint "I will make you cattle drivers of men."
Finally, it was part leadership education on horseback, with Hyun-jin nim conveying to us his father's experiences and teachings. The companion text was God's beautiful creation itself, mad and studied by the light of an enormous full moon.
We began in Puerte Olimpo on the Paraguay River, a couple of hours north of Asuncion by small plane. The first day's ride was the most stressful because we were all getting used to being on a horse all day, as well as getting acquainted with our mount's individual personality. Hyun-jin nim told us before we started, "You will understand that horses are living beings, each with a unique character. As it is with people, some are leaders; some arc followers. What works with one, will not necessarily work with another."
One of our relatively inexperienced riders had trouble with a horse that constantly tried to run away with him. He could barely keep the animal under control. After a while he swapped horses with Marcelo, a lifelong rider who owns a small cattle ranch in the Chaco. Under an experienced hand, the horse settled down, and the new rider did fine with the gentler horse.
The sun was brutally hot that first day, and in its own way it helped us get our priorities straight. When we began that eight-hour ride, I had all kinds of non-essentials in my saddlebags -- flashlight, jacket, mosquito repellent, energy bars, binoculars. After that first day, packing for the ride became real simple -- water, sunscreen, more water.
We helped each other as we rode, sharing water, horse advice and bits of information about ourselves. But it was around the campfire each night, staring into glowing embers under a star-filled sky that people said what was really on their minds and we got to know each other.
Arid, whose family owns a major sugar cane mill in Paraguay, asked Hyun-jin nim, "We are inspired about Paraguay, because we are Paraguayan. But we all want to know what inspires you about Paraguay."
Hyun-jin nim spoke about his childhood in post-war Korea. He sees comparisons between the Korea of his childhood and today's Paraguay. "This is a young country and though it isn't wealthy, there is idealism here. I hope they can keep their vision." People respond well to Hyun-jin nim because he makes Paraguayans proud to be Paraguayan. He recognizes their potential and tells them to believe in themselves as a nation that can be aligned with God and that will be blessed by God.
"What we're doing here," he told us, "is not just about moving cows from one place to another. This is about restoring a nation." He said we should apply the feeling we have of being responsible for all these cattle toward feeling a sense of ownership for this country. People took it to heart. There evolved a general understanding, largely because of elements infused into the discussion from Hyun-jin nim's perspective, that we were doing something for Paraguay. We started to think this ride was special, not just because of what we were doing, but also because of who was there.
The ride was not a cakewalk. One of our more experienced riders had his saddle cinch fail while galloping. The saddle rolled with him; hard and fast he hit the hard, gravel mad as the horse ran over him -- concussion, six cracked ribs, a cracked shoulder blade and a punctured lung. As he was also one of the ride's organizers, he had put into place a medical evacuation procedure for just such an occasion. He had done a good job; we flew him to a hospital in Asuncion by small plane. He's home now and recovering nicely.
Another rider was tossed onto his face when his mount came to an abrupt stop. It had simply had enough of carrying him all day in the hot sun. Scratches and a cracked rib. The injuries were sobering wake-up calls for the rest of us. Hyun-jin nim had been telling us, "Don't ride beyond your ability," and now we knew what he meant.
But even without putting horses, hooves and horns into the equation, the Chaco has its own perils. A radio call away we had a couple of medics who carried snake bite anti-venom for some species of viper. I asked one if he thought the anti-venom was effective. "Sure," he said, "If you get bit by the right kind of snake."
At least we had roads to use. Much of the moving of cattle in the Chaco is from one place to another on your land where there are no roads at all. Marcelo pointed to the wall of thorn trees lining the road, and said, "Driving cattle through this stuff is pure hell."
Among the lasting impressions are the Southern Cross constellation, the smell of horses and new leather, and how sounds carry extraordinarily well in the pre-dawn darkness -- a cough, quiet conversations in Spanish, English and Guarani, the unmistakable sound of teeth being brushed, somebody spitting.
One night, under a spectacular sky, Father Maldonado brought out his guitar and we discovered another side to our cowboy Catholic priest -- songs so tenderly rendered that it made even those who don't understand Spanish wistful. He sang love songs to God as well.
By only the beginning of the second day, we were all getting to know our horses. You quickly bond with someone who is willing to carry you all day on his back, under the hot sun.
We originally figured on twenty kilometers per day, but cooler temperatures and strong horses enabled us to do thirty-five to forty km on most days. Bottoms and inner thighs unaccustomed to saddles were another thing; we each spent some quality time with our Ibuprofen. But on day three when we did a full forty and nobody died or felt they couldn't continue, a pride of accomplishment settled over all of us. We knew we could do it again.
People who know horses can easily tell if someone else does too, and Hyun-jin nim won the immediate respect of the vaqueros by his obvious savvy and good horsemanship. Their respect increased when they found out he had jumped horses in the Olympics. But an incident on the trail made him a legend. His horse was fatigued; he and the vaqueros thought it was time to change horses. He took off the saddle and was preparing to put a bridle on another mount, when the horse he had unsaddled -- the one he been on since the beginning -- came over, pushed itself between Hyun-jin nim and the new horse. The horse got his rump against the new horse's chest and backed up, pushing him out of the way. He then walked over to Hyun-jin ram and laid his head against Hyun-jin nim's chest so that he could have his neck stroked. It was a tender moment that surprised and touched everyone.
Another thing the Paraguayans noticed and commented on was how Hyun-jin nin gave so completely of himself during the ride. After we took the saddles off each evening and took care of our horses, the urge to find a place to sit and pull into yourself, or lay down to sleep, was strong. It's these small moments, when nobody is particularly looking, that determine whether you really do live for others, or for yourself.
At nearly every meal Hyun-jin Min quietly took up his station by the pots and ladled out mystery chow to each cowboy. Only after everyone had theirs, did he fix his own plate and sit down to eat.
Other times he was showing individuals things that would improve their riding or drawing people out about their lives or plans for the future. We set up tin cans across a pond one afternoon and took turns shooting at them with a rifle. He took a personal interest in each one's shooting style.
After dinner or at breakfast, whenever there was a reflective moment, Hyun-jin nim laid out a vision of God's hope for Paraguay and all its families. It was relevant, and people were hungry for it. Wherever he put down a camp chair and sat, a circle of chairs naturally formed around him.
All during our time on the trail he was fully engaged with everyone, doing seemingly without effort what real leaders do.
Hyun-jin nim had given instructions that the meals should be simple and Paraguayan. Maybe a breakfast of peanuts and hominy floating in hot sugared milk (with cloves) can be called simple, but the cook was Brazilian, and very little we ate was Paraguayan.
Breakfast one morning featured baby pig parts, killed and cooked by Antonio, on whose land we were staying. Accompanying that was coquito, a hard, dry, flavorless bread stick that even when freshly made does a good job of imitating stale bread. Also, shredded raw cabbage and thick, black sweetened coffee. Delicious!
Another time, breakfast was two pieces of salty cheese, a couple of coquitos and half a cup of coffee. It took less time to eat than it does to read that last sentence.
So we foraged a bit. Someone caught a yacart (a cousin of the alligator) which the vaqueros cleaned and cooked. It was amazingly good. Juan, who is president of a university with eight campuses scattered around the country, stopped at a farmhouse along the road and bought some chips (cheese bread) from the lady of the house. It was still warm, and fresh from the oven. He rode up and down the line with it, handing a piece to each rider. A little country store had a couple of two-liter bottles of warm no-brand cola, which we bought and passed around as we rode.
After three days of such simplicity the very first question anyone asked when encountering a new life form was "can you eat it?" In the Chaco, the answer is always yes. Late one night someone caught a lane halite, an armadillo that rolls itself completely into a ball. But we had just finished woofing down chicken-fried reptile, so we let the little guy off the hook.
Food, which was not on anyone's mind as much as it might seem from reading this, led to a poignant incident in the tiny and very poor village of Maria Auxiliadora (Mary the Helper) on the next to the last day of the ride. Standing alongside the road were several mothers and children waiting for us. Word of the cattle drive had preceded us and they met us with a letter asking our help in improving their one-room schoolhouse.
Our Brazilian bag lunches had candy in them, so Hyun-jin nim, who has a house full of his own children, got off his horse and started fishing around for some candy to give to the kids. Then he just handed the entire lunch to one of the mothers. As soon as he did that all the rest of us dismounted, dug our lunches out of our saddlebags and handed them over to the mothers.
Not expecting anything at all, and partly in jest, Hyun-jin nim asked, "Since we gave you our lunches, can you make a real Paraguayan lunch for us?"
"Yes," they responded immediately. "Please come with us."
We were fourteen people. Their house barely had walls. It was an open shelter with beds scattered around. They had a handful of chickens and ducks in the yard. They butchered four chickens and a duck for our lunch. They set up a table and chairs in their living mom, which had only two walls, and cooked for us a delicious meal of boribori (chicken soup), mandiem bread and duck empanadas.
We were in heaven, but we knew they had fed us several days worth of food. Again, Hyun-jin nim was transported back to his childhood, where food was little but hospitality and community were large. Before we left, we gave them a contribution so they could replace their chickens and duck and the food they used for us, and a bit extra. But we had to offer it -- they asked for nothing.
Hyun-jin nim was very moved by this and later said he thought in that moment, "This is what God wants all His Paraguayan children to be like. If this nation can have the vision to allow this kind of character to come forth and lead Latin America, Paraguay will be a great nation. Out in the wilderness of the Chaco, among people who have nothing. I encountered the true heart of Paraguay!"
For people with a spiritual orientation the cattle drive was a five-day prayer for a nation. And everybody felt it.
When we got the cattle to Leda successfully, Hyun-jin nim donated a bull from there and nine cows to the upriver Indian villagers of Esperanza, who had promised to raise them as public property, increasing the herd for the funding of schools, medical care and college tuition.
During the ride, Marcelo got word that his wife's impending delivery of their first child had encountered complications, with the umbilical cord now wrapped completely around the baby's neck. We offered to drive him back to Puerte Olimpo, but he insisted on finishing the drive and the spiritual offering for Paraguay, of which he had now taken full ownership. All this despite his being in agony about the baby's delivery and burning up the satellite phone getting frequent updates. It looked like an emergency cesarean would be required. The operation was scheduled for the morning after we arrived in Leda.
But something interesting happened during the night. The umbilical cord slowly unwrapped itself from the baby's neck and the child was born by natural delivery. Marcelo burst into tears as he got the news on the sat-phone, with everyone standing around.
We told him, Marcelo, you sacrificed your own heart's interests in order to take care of God and this important spiritual offering. And while you were doing that, God was taking care of your wife and son.