Our layover in Buenos Aires wasn’t what I would call welcoming. Sure, we did not have time to get to know Argentinean culture in any real capacity but, other than the delicious espresso, the whole experience could have been much better. There was an overwhelming feeling of being labeled and judged as foreigners, not in an observational sense (for I am sure it was more than obvious) but in a very condescending manner instead. I am used to the whole ‘American’ stereotype and honestly, I pretty much agree with most characterizations of ‘Americans’ traveling abroad but, here was a group of Peace Corps volunteers and still, no mercy. It didn’t feel so good--trying to stumble through my Spanish to order a sandwich from a waitress who just didn’t seem to have the time for our ineptitude at all. There were a few old women remarking quite blatantly how we smelled (of course, anyone would after three straight days of plane hopping). And then, after some problems processing our sketchy Peace Corps visas, our flight attendants (who were Brazilian actually) did little to hide their annoyance at our obviously inferior Spanish speaking abilities.
But in the end, I did hear 4 languages in under 4 hours. It was English, the Spanish, then Portuguese and then finally, I hear my first words of Guarani. It was a little much to take in all at once. Once leaving Buenos Aires, we flew northwest for a short ways before reaching Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay. The plane rolled to a stop and a couple from the back of the plane sprinted to the front, obviously in a hurry to get to wherever it is that they were going. As it turns out, the woman in the couple was actually a famous Paraguayan model/actress who made quite an international name for herself during the last World Cup due to her particular choice of cell-phone placement (search ‘Paraguay’ in Google and you’ll see what I mean). Welcome to Paraguay.
As I get off the plane, the humidity and heat settle calmly over my body. Its less intense than in Miami but its also different. This evening heat seems to be the fading effect of an extremely hot day (the daytime temp hit 100 degrees for the first time in a few months--and this is still springtime in Paraguay). The group loaded onto buses to take us across the city to a small conference center/‘compound’ to spend the night. The sun was setting and the smog was smoldering over the poorly labeled streets with a combined effect similar to having a foggy lens being pulled over my eyes. Cars seemed haplessly oblivious to road signs--they drove up one-ways, across medians, or just fearlessly at merging traffic hoping that the opposing driver won’t call a bluff. Compact little coups and rusty old sedans jousted for position with over-sized and unbelievably overcrowded Mercedes buses while motorcyclists and mopeds weaved in and out at will. A police man was parked on one corner with his lights flashing but made no efforts to intervene; his presence, if actually intended as a deterrent, was in reality little more than a gesture of authority. This was motorized anarchy.
And as street lights cycled through their colorful displays, it soon became obvious that these too were arbitrary in meaning. Not only was I in a country where I did not know the language, I now realized I did not even know how to interpret the road signs. As the bus sat waiting at a green light, several people started to shuffle past the bus. A few in military uniforms, a few kids trying to throw themselves on windshields and clean them for a few pesos, a few joggers. And then, an old woman walked past. Propped up on her hip and dangling over her shoulder was a small boy. He was emaciated--atrophied legs, swollen joints, a head that lolled aimlessly from side to side in concert with the bump-bump-bump of her hips--resembling someone suffering form some sort of muscular dystrophy. And she just carried him, seemingly with no particular destination, walking slowly along the median between two maddening sides of opposing traffic. She was unfazed, he was expressionless, and that’s just what it was. The light turned red and we drove on. Both were quickly swallowed by the smog.
We drove through streets of a city unlike any I have ever seen before. There was a certain feeling of colonial architecture but underscored with an overwhelming feeling of passing time. It was almost as if each building were unusually prone to gravity and were therefore, slowly being pulled underneath the earth. There is nothing new here. No new cars, no new houses, no new sidewalks. Even the trees seem burdened with time. Shrubs hold precariously to a very dusty, iron-rich and blood-red soil that seems libel to blow away if one but breathes too heavily. Garbage itself constitutes its own unique feature in the cityscape. There are no large buildings, no skyscrapers. The few vestiges of American consumerism remain isolated and contained in small islands, each erupting upward with 4 or 5 billboards stacked together like sardines. The soccer fields display their true colors as the grass has been kicked away leaving behind only a large patch of red earth flanked by white-stained-red goal posts.
Asuncion is a city with a flavor, and not in the figurative sense (although it does also have plenty of cultural flavor as well), but in a very literal sense. Farms just outside the city spent the day burning off brush from their fields, presumably to make room for new crops but also to recycle nutrients to the soil. The entire city smells of burnt rubber. The flavor of Asuncion today is ash. Tomorrow it may well be flowers and lavender, but today the air tastes like a city of coals.
We arrived in our compound, were warned not to stray outside the gates, and spent the evening eating and relaxing from several days of travel. Showers were quite a welcomed treat as well. Tonight is the last night we spend alone. Tomorrow we move in with host families. Seeing as I might not get a good 8 hours in a while, I shut my eyes and roll over, sleeping sound with the knowledge that the guards at the gate, armed with a shotgun apiece, should take care of any troubles we might have. Till next time.
In way over my head,