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  • I spent last week roaming around the rural wilds of Paraguay with a team of medics from an organization called the Andrea Ritz Clinics. I’d been invited by George Ritz, a former director of the Peace Corps in Paraguay who founded the group fourteen years ago with his wife Sylvia, following the untimely death of their daughter from juvenile diabetes. The remote clinics are an admirable tribute to Andrea’s memory. First staffed by volunteers and gradually turned over to Paraguay’s health ministry, they serve a number of towns and villages otherwise out of reach of the nearest doctor. It’s a population that faces a number of unique health challenges, thanks to a combination of relative poverty, a physically demanding agrarian lifestyle, and the lingering effects of a thirty-five-year dictatorship (consider, for example, dictator Alfredo Stroessner’s ban on iodized salt, a calculated effort to “dumb down” the Paraguayan people that also led to cretinism and rampant hyperthyroidism).

    Each morning, we arrived by pick-up truck at a different community on the edge of the clinics’ reach. We lugged two suitcases filled with drugs and supplies into a school or a borrowed living room, and there we set up a makeshift health center. The heavy lifting fell to a young, volunteer doc from Maine, who worked together with George and the head nurse from the nearest clinic, treating anywhere from 80 to 150 patients a day. I lurked on the periphery, helping out where I could by splitting pills and distributing reading glasses. The medics were generous with me, answering my many questions and taking time out to interpret the guttural Guaraní that’s primarily spoken in the Paraguayan campo. In return, I tried to make myself as useful as possible.

    Hanging out with heroic third-world doctors can get a man thinking about his relative usefulness. There’s a line that Thompson wrote about the Peace Corps in 1962 that’s been bouncing around my head. The PC was only a year old then, and Thompson had met several of its very first recruits while wandering the continent. He wrote a friend back home to suggest that she join. “I came down here thinking the PC was a bag of crap,” he tells her, “but now I think it’s the only serious and decent effort the US is making in Latin American or anywhere else.” Elsewhere, he writes: “I would [join] myself if I weren’t such a reprobate, but then I can be twice as effective for the same idea by writing as I could by joining.” This is the line that sticks with me. What's the “idea” that Thompson is referring to here? And is it disingenuous or self-aggrandizing to suppose that he — a footloose, itinerant writer — might be as useful as the Peace Corps volunteers themselves?

    Recently, I made the acquaintance of a wealthy philanthropist who’s gradually donating much of her fortune to environmental causes and the arts. Not long afterwards, I found myself in a conversation about whether her charitable preferences were morally responsible. Isn't it feckless, I was asked, to give large sums of money to a museum or a conservation group while poverty, hunger, and disease are destroying lives? It’s a fair question. But if the answer is yes, then it’s equally irresponsible to have become a painter or a curator or an ornithologist when you could have been, say, a doctor or a nurse.

    This, of course, is an uncomfortable idea. But it’s hard not to feel a shadow of that discomfort while standing in the dim corner of a one-room schoolhouse, passively watching a team of medics treat a child with chronic asthma. Did Thompson feel some of this while crossing paths with the Peace Corps in 1962? It’s a question that I asked myself as I tied another baggie of ibuprofen, squinting in the light of the doorway as the next patient entered the room.

    To keep up with new stories from the Hunter S. Thompson Trail in South America, follow me on Twitter.
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