On fall evenings, after the mosquitoes have hatched in biblical droves, the campesino houses of my community are thick with smoke and the smell of pine and earth. The locals burn tin pans full of palo santo, an aromatic wood, wagering lungs full of ash and bloodshot eyes in a bet to deter the hordes of bugs and flies. The dirt roads fill with smoke, like valleys full of fog, while the last strands of sunlight dance through the forest haze. It is a smell and a feeling that will forever bring me back to this place. At this time of year—after the heat of summer has broken and the groundwater has cooled to the point of being perpetually surprising on the lips—I feel cradled and loved by this country.
Summer in the Río de la Plata Basin is a harsh and sadistic time; it sucks the life out of your pores. The South American sun taps you like a maple tree and drains the sap from your veins, drinking it up one bead of sweat at a time. But once summer has faded, the breezy, beautiful days of fall lounge comfortably on the land. Then it is only the passing rains that provide a break in this pulse of autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. In fall, each morning blossoms from the horizon with yellow petals that unfold between the trees. The air is cool, like crisp apples, and you can almost taste the cinnamon in your chest as you breathe.
Winter days will be cold, sometimes frosting the grass and chastising those hopeful crops either left in the ground too long or planted too early for their own good. Yet, even these days are so much more manageable than the peak days of summer. When you wake to a summer sun, you know that the already hot morning will only lead to an even more unbearably hot afternoon; in the winter, you can sip your maté and bundle up by a wood fire, knowing that the afternoon will inevitably bring with it ideal hammock-napping weather.
When I really center myself in this place, when my little brick hovel feels most like my home and my neighbors more like family than friends, I settle into a rhythm and a mindset that is the closest to inner peace that I have ever known. It’s a combination of the lifestyle, the pace of life, and the calm with which the bird-sung days pass into cricket-sung nights. Within this cocoon I am aware of the smallest details, like the changes in the breeze or the variable retorts of the each and every farm animal, and I sense them with my whole body. My actions are smooth, my thoughts are light, and these strange tongues that I am still learning to speak slip easily from my lips to jumble naturally with the rivers of conversation that flow around me. This place is teaching me to see, to smell, to hear, to listen all over again. It’s teaching me what is really important and daily showing me how beautiful life can be, no matter what material things I might lack. —Mario Machado