Winter-time in Asuncion and the air is less heavy. Only a few degrees and several months separate now from the oppressive heat of a South American summer and yet, there is a playfulness to the breeze today. Each breath comes easy in a way feels more like swaying gently than breathing. I am a human pendulum quietly rising and falling between two equally soothing points; I am a boat tied loosely at harbor, bobbing on even tides. The sky is clear and one can see forever--past the serpent convolutions of the Rio Paraguay, beyond the small islands that precipitate from the opposing banks of the Chaco Verde, all the way to the horizons of the Argentinean Plata basin.
The streets bubble calmly, unthreateningly as people move and gather like sea-foam by the Indian vendors, that morning fresh from the forests, who sell their tereré and maté herbs to business men in suits. Little Guaraní boys pester and dodge, dodge and pester, looking for shoes to shine at a going rate of only few cents. People of all walks and ways of life coexist in the plazas, mingle in the streets, and crowd in the bus. Wealth here is sporadic; poverty is dressed in different clothes. Nobody is in a hurry.
Down the sidewalk rolls a paraplegic, effortlessly pulling and pushing his way on a homemade cart. He is selling cigarettes and newspapers and seems to know everybody. The shop owners leaning on their doors wave as he rolls by. The sun is rising still, too early for serious customers, nothing to get excited about. They toss used yerba leaves into the streets. During the rains, torrents of maté and engine oil, in a dirty sort of Southern-Cone-urban tea, collect in the gutters and rush about madly, searching for their escape towards the river. Right now though, under the amicable warmth of a morning sun, it all just sits in wet, green piles and waits while being picked at by over-sized pigeons.
The city feels Spanish-esque. It feels Latin American-ish. But it is neither of these things and it is both of these things. What ornate Spanish architecture remains is crumbling at rates that range from glacial disintegration to melting icebergs shedding huge rocks of ice onto pockmarked sidewalk oceans. Scaffolds rise in front of several buildings whose former beauty is both evidenced and mocked by these efforts to supplicate and conserve the artifacts of a lost empire. Like a movie star that has aged with curious grace, these buildings stand in bittersweet triumph as the rest of the city soldiers on into a new age.
For many tireless years, the conquistadors tried to rebuild their Spain in a world that was not theirs, on this little bend in a river in the midst of the tropical forests. The city has been battling ever since against the forces of politics and cultures and mother nature. This place has not yet reached equilibrium. The silent war with its own destiny rages still. The seeds of European conquest are outpaced in this little corner of the world by the seeds of something infinitely more ancient and profound.
Paraguay may walk the walk and talk the talk but it fools no one. This is not part of ‘Latin’ America; this is Guaraní Indian territory. Neither great amounts of time or space separate the city from the wilderness. And though draped in the effects of modernity, this fact is still obvious when the southern wind blows it’s skirt over it’s head. The jungle roots slowly rise through the asphalt to reclaim their turf as they have since the first stones of Asuncion were laid. In time, the trees will win and the city’s ashes will fertilize the young saplings. The buildings seem to know as much and so they fall apart with the ambivalence of old age, surrendering to their fate. Their roots are not as deep., their resolve not as strong. They are visitors on someone else’s continent.