Thursday, December 25, 2014


You go for days without talking and when you do it’s in the wrong language. I keep hearing Spanish. I don’t know if I’m tuned into it, but I hear it and then my questions come flooding out. I used to use Armenian like that in Georgia and Syria. Wait until you hear someone speaking Armenian and then ask them how to get to the Citadel, better than making an ass of yourself in front of the Syrians, pointing and grunting and saying shukran over and over.

I guess I liked it better with Armenian. It was more exclusive; even in Batumi, the guy couldn’t hide his amusement. After I asked him where I could find a cheap place to stay he asked, “but where’d you learn Armenian?” or rather, “but where’d you learn Armenian?” I was always waiting for that question just so I could say, “I live there” all enigmatically and walk away.

No one cares where I learned Spanish. I don’t speak it particularly well. I use the conditional in the wrong places and I never use the subjunctive, but it doesn’t matter, I can talk with no problem. I can express most things. In French, in German, I can only say ‘hello’ or ‘ thank you,’ and badly at that. In Spanish I can say, “excuse me; could you tell me where the line is?” I actually say podria.  I say could.

Waiting in line for the Eiffel Tower, at the Paris bus station, I’m there eavesdropping on conversations. Sticking my beard right between two interlocutors and asking all sorts of stupid questions. On the bus to Geneva, for some reason, everyone is speaking English. It’s the first time I’ve really heard it in Europe. I feel like what I can say is too open, too unlimited, like if I start I might not stop. I make a comment, butting in again. Saying something like ‘yeah, it’s pretty cold,’ but all I get is a look. The other two, they’re already friends, travel buddies. I’m just some bearded guy practicing his English.

A few days later, I’m in Spiez, Switzerland. It’s not a big place and people keep trying to talk to me. It’s worse than French. I can’t understand a word. “Nien, uh, nien spreken.” People actually take a step back, as if this horrible way of speaking could somehow infect their own accent. I just smile and say danke over and over. Now I’m in the woods. I say guten tag to everyone that walks by; it’s a trail in the woods, you can’t ignore people out here. There’s no one else around. Luckily, no one pries into my horrible speech. They return my greeting and move on. Until a jovial dog walker passes by. He spots me sitting on a stump, looking over the marble-blue lake. The sounds issue from his throat like they’re sliding down a fire pole, some quickly, some slower. He’s directing this to me. He’s got a big smile. I shrug. “Spreken zie English?” He pauses. “No, uh, no speak very…” he says and trails off. We look at each other for a moment with regret, like we're trying to communicate through telepathy. “Would’ve been nice to talk to you, friend, too bad we don’t have a language in common.” Then suddenly he raises an eyebrow. “Espanhol?” 

“Si quieres,” I respond and there we are, in the middle of the Swiss Alps and I keep calling this guy ‘vos,’ and telling him to come down to Paraguay the next time he’s in Latin America.


Spanish works a lot better in Italy, but I feel like a bastard using it. The languages are close enough that there’s a kind of mutual intelligibility, but there’s a presumptuousness using it; like being the uncultured American who can’t differentiate between various romance languages and cultures and goes around saying ‘hola’ in every European country. But, for the people who don’t speak English, Spanish is closer. At least I’m able to pepper it with Italian words.

I used to speak Italian OK, but after living in Latin America for a couple of years, I’ve found it’s gotten adhered to my Spanish like two kinds of candy in a kid’s pocket. It all comes out in a clump. I start alright, but then an ‘esta bien’ will just fire out of my mouth. After you’ve said something like that it’s impossible to go back and correct it. It’s better just to smile and shrug. At least now you’ve thoroughly established yourself as an incompetent to the person you’re speaking with. Now they’ll speak slower and use lots of gestures that should make them easier to understand.

Luckily, as least my understanding of Italian is alright, even if I answer in my broken Italo-Spanish pastiche. In Sicily, the common language is a dialect of Italian so varied that it’s often considered its own language. Most people speak standard Italian, but in the countryside, Sicilianu seems to be more common. Before yesterday, I’d heard people speaking it a few times here in Modica, but I hadn’t had to interact in the language. I hadn’t had to try to understand it.   

Gina and I were walking through the baroquely ornamented town of Scicli. We had just come down from the rocky porch of a cliff-hanging church and were passing through the main square. Everything in Scicli is rococo. Heavy, snarling gargoyles hung above us. Every cornice was adorned with a Maria or a Gesu or a flock of cherubim. Fountains plashed over the worn and shiny cobblestones and the only people out all seemed to be over seventy and in no hurry to be anywhere or do anything. The old folks stood on the corners, leaned on their canes and looked around for each other. In groups, they talked while holding their hands flat together like they were praying and pulling them up and down as if they were trying to pull each thing they said down from heaven, yanking each word away from God himself.

The young people all seemed to be in cars, speeding away from the city like they were fleeing the crowds of the elderly on the plaza. Behind the windows of every small European car was a drowsy-looking and unshaven twenty-five year old, cigarette between his fingers and the window looking straight ahead, eyes focused on some vague and distant goal.

Every café had a few people standing around in it. Metal spoons rang like little bells with their solemn, ritualistic sound and children, who had complete run of the place, yelled for chocolate and cannoli in way that recalled the decadent aristocracy of ancient Rome.

Scicli is in a valley like most towns in South-Eastern Sicily. The town runs up either side of the rocky hillsides until it becomes too steep then topples back down upon itself in a baroque tide of yellowish stone and wrought iron balconies festooned in the long white flags of drying laundry. Above the houseline, the hill barred itself in a grey-rock corona that looked a billion years old. There was nothing up there but long yellow grass and perhaps a few tired snakes. From the bottom of the city, it looked like an amazing place to sit for a while.

“Let’s go up there,” I said, pointing to the hilltop.

The way at first was clear. We walked across town, stopped and bought some bread and olives and crossed an old bridge. On the other side of the river, the houses and streets rose up abruptly, almost reared up and the streets seemed to lose themselves among them.

A man with a pink backpack trundled past us singing something with a warbling, Arabic melody. "Salam," I said, when we overtook him on a narrow street. There was no one else around. He told us he was from Pakistan. We told him we were from the US and then he took off his backpack to sell us one of the bracelets he had inside. ‘No, Grazie,’ I waved my hand in the classic please-stop; you’re-too-kind motion. He shrugged his shoulders and as we walked on ahead, he took his patient, warbling song back up again.

A few minutes later, the man was gone and we were alone on a small street, about a single car’s width. When the street dissipated in a muddy two track, a parked truck and a tied up dog barking its head off, I decided that we should probably turn around. We had both come to a stop. Any second one of us would’ve said something like: ‘you want to go back?’ and we would’ve turned around, but before we could make any such directional suggestions, a man in mud-covered rubber boots and shapeless thick clothes (also mud-covered) and a mashed-looking baseball hat came out from behind a fence. He didn’t say anything, but his expression implied that we should probably explain what we were doing.

I brightened at the chance to find a clearer path up the hill, but instead of asking him for directions, I found myself pointing beyond the ferociously barking dog and asking him if we could pass through. “Where are you going?” He asked in a slightly accented Italian. “uhhhh,” I said, trying to summon an Italian word that mean something like, ‘to the top.’ Coming up with only ‘arriba,’ in my mind, I finally blurted out “there!” and pointed to the top like a kid pointing at a plane. “Can we pass?” I rephrased and made a sort of straight-line gesture toward that rocky hills in front of us. The man shrugged, his grey stubble seemed to undulate a little, as if he were shifting a weighty load of chewing tobacco under his lips. “Sure,” he said and shrugged. “Grazie, grazie!” I beamed, and began to stride bravely ahead as though I had grown up around this rocky patch of earth and knew the path perfectly.

With Gina behind me, I climbed straight up the rock behind the chained dog who was now producing rapid-fire barks in response to my climbing on what was clearly his property. It looked like it would be a straight climb. We might have to clear a little fence or two, but there would be no major obstacles and soon we would be at the top of the hill, eating our olives and bread and looking down on the quiet town.

There was a small cluster of bushes in front of us that obscured our view. When I climbed through them I noticed that we did not have a clear path to the top. Directly over us, stood a row of rambling cottages that I hadn’t been able to see from the road. They were all bordered by fences and I could hear barking coming from above us. I thought about the country dogs that lived up there, sheep dogs probably, and how they would probably not hesitate to bite someone who suddenly turned up in their backyard. I stood for a moment considering our options, waiting to see if I could make out anything barreling down the hill towards us. A movement drew my attention away from the top of the hill and the cottages to the hillside to the right of me. A cow was standing there regarding me in the patient way that cows do, but this cow wasn’t chewing anything, it was just looking at me. I noticed that it had horns and the longer we looked at each other across the rocky expanse, it began to dawn on me that I was looking at a bull.

I decided that we should go a different way and told Gina. “Yeah,” she said. “Maybe we should go to the left. Anyway, the farmer is yelling and waving in that direction.” I glanced back and saw that the man had not moved from his place below and did seem to be trying to communicate something to us. He yelled and jerked his arms around. As I watched, another man came out and joined him. We could see them both perfectly from our vantage on the hill as they yelled and waved. “Hmm, they must be warning us about the bull,” I declared, redundantly. “Let’s go back this way.”

We walked perpendicular the hilltop for a while until we came to a long loosely-cobbled fence. “Ahh, this must be the path,” I said. “We’ll have to find a way over this fence; maybe there’s a gate.” We started walking along the fence, but everything that looked like a gate turned out to be a section of something that was only a part of the hodge-podge fence: an old mattress frame, a sheet of plywood, even an old gate, but it was tightly wound into the rest of the fence with wire. Eventually, we came to the end. The whole thing looked to be closed off, but one part, made up mainly of bushes and tree trunks, seemed to be more surmountable. I didn’t want to give up and go back down to the farmer who still seemed to be waving and yelling below for some reason. “Let’s go this way,” I said, pointing to a pile of brambles and logs. Fearing that Gina would disagree, I bounded over the pile first and stretched a helping hand back out over the thorny, hazardous pile. Wisely, Gina ignored my hand and made her way over by stepping across one of the felled tree trunks.

Things didn’t look any better from the other side of the fence. Really, it looked even more tortuous than our original path had been. All kinds of housing debris was scattered around a dilapidated-looking shack and the ad-hoc walls that we had been trying to climb over now fenced us in with barbed and spiked piles of twisted fence posts and splintered and rotten boards that seemed to loom overhead. A lone white goat was standing about 30 feet in front of me. It watched me with curiosity or maybe complete vacancy. It looked like it had never seen a human being before and back in this rustic alley of refuse and torn branches, I could believe that it hadn’t. To me, the animal looked just as unfamiliar. Its white coat, a stark contrast to the mud and boards and the way it stood, with its knobby legs in a defiant ‘V’ alarmed me in some vague way. Maybe it was the memory of the bull, maybe it was the phantasmal white coat but I felt uncomfortable approaching the animal.

I suppressed my feelings and started walking up the rustic path, but when I heard barking nearby, I stopped. Just on the other side of the fence, two large dogs were running toward us. Neither of them were chained and they ran towards us with the intensity of a dog that’s been trained to protect something. I looked to the section of fence they were running toward. It was a loose pile of sticks about 4 feet high. It didn’t look like it would be hard to jump over or even to topple by merely trying to climb it. At the dogs’ advance, I took a few steps back. When they gained the fence and started jumping up and down and biting the air, I turned and started walking quickly back to where we had come in, stepping on Gina’s heels, unconsciously mumbling “c’mon, c’mon!”

We climbed back over the topped section of the fence where we had entered only a few seconds before. When I turned around to make sure the dogs weren’t behind us, I noticed the white goat, still staring his unconcerned, caprine stare.

The farmer who had allowed us to pass was still yelling, but now he was accompanied by another farmer and both of them were waving their hands around. Clearly, they were trying to get us off their property. At that point, I was quite willing to concede and said to Gina, “Well, I guess we should get out of here.” I said this to her back because she was already well on her way down.

“There’s a bull up there.” I told the farmer when we got back down to his backyard. I couldn’t understand exactly what he was saying, but I think it was something like, ‘of course there’s a bull up there!’ His friend just kept yelling in Sicilian, as if speaking louder and faster would make up for our inability to understand. After we got our lecture, I asked him how to get back to the road that would take us to the top of the hill. He pointed to the road we had been on. “It’s right there. That road goes to the top. That’s what I was trying to tell you.” We parted as friends and upon walking away, I turned to Gina and said, “I bet they’ll be talking about that for a long time.”


We exhausted ourselves in Palermo. We had been staying with some young volunteers and spent every night at a bar and never got home before 3:00 am. I was actually quite impressed with myself. I didn’t know that I was still about to function so well with no sleep. Every morning, we continued to wake up around 8:30 as though we hadn’t been out until 4:00, but after sleeping only two hours our last night, it caught up with me.

I thought maybe it would be OK because we had a twelve-hour train ride the next day. ‘No problem,’ I thought, ‘we’ll just sleep on the train back to Rome.’ But even as I thought it, I knew it wouldn’t work. The Saturday before Christmas, I knew the compartment would be crowded; even alone, I have a hard time sleeping on transportation in the middle of the day. It doesn’t matter how tired I am.

The ride to Rome was surreal. My fatigue kept pulling me down from my book, down from consciousness. My eye lids would fall so hard, they made a sound like stage curtains dropping emphatically after a long performance, but I never fell asleep. I just sat there with my eyes closed, listening to the rhythm of the train and thinking disjointed thoughts. Most of the twelve hours were like that. Read for 10 minutes, drift off, sit there holding my book like I was reading with my eyes closed for another ten minutes until something would cause me to open my eyes and the whole thing would start again. By the time we reached Rome, my eyes were burning, the inside of my mouth felt like old carpet and I had hallucinated twice. Once, the old man sitting across from me had shrunk in stature and had floated right up to my face. When I opened my eyes wider, I realized my perspective had only gotten screwed up somehow and that everything was where it should’ve been.  

We got to Rome at 8:00 pm with no place to stay. We could’ve left for Ancona at 8:50 and arrived there at 1:00 am or, alternately, we could wait until the 5:45 am train and spend the night in Rome. We had a place to stay in Ancona, so I figured staying out one night in Rome wouldn’t be such a big deal. We could sleep a little on the train the next morning (by then I knew I’d be tired enough) and we’d have beds in Ancona.

In the meantime, there were a few things we could do in Rome. It was Saturday night, so I knew there’d be people out. We could eat, walk around, get some gelato, maybe hang around the train station for a while. If we got really desperate, we could go to a bar, but the idea didn’t sound appealing to me after three nights out in Palermo.

There was nothing to do with our bags because the left luggage office at the train station wouldn’t take them overnight, so we had to shlep the damn refrigerator-size things around with us and look like total morons having to stand in doorways to ask people questions and maneuvering in the streets like drunken turtles. Around 11:00, we found ourselves eating another pizza on the stairs by the Cavour metro stop. More affluent tourists walked by and furiously ordered pizzas and cocktails in English. I watched them walk past our perch on the stairs and tried not to hate them, unfettered as they were by anything but their stylish winter coats, each with a hotel key card tucked into a silk-lined pocket. I thought of them having a drink or two, getting drowsy and going back to their rooms with their heavy comforters and high-pressure showers.

I had spilled tomato sauce from the pizza all over my jacket and lap and I sat there, drinking our of a dented plastic bottle that looking like something I’d fished out of the garbage and scowling. Bike rickshaws passed by; the night was young, but I was old. I looked at Gina, “‘d’you want to find someplace to lie down?” She looked up from under the scarf that she had wrapped around her head babushka-style, the expression on her face infinitely weary. “Yeah,” she said. I helped her up, we saddled our loveseat-sized bags and set off into the Roman night, as so many others had done before us, seeking a quiet corner to lie down and sleep a little.

We tromped around for a while, looking down blind alleys and inspecting various stoops. Everything was either too exposed or too hidden. I didn’t want to climb down into the sewer, but I also didn’t want to be lying in the middle of the sidewalk. There were no benches, no parks, nothing but endless streets and tiny European cars. We followed the stray cats to see if they would lead us to any good spots. We noted where the other homeless people slept and tried to draw inspiration from their choices. We stopped by a church having a midnight service and briefly discussed going in and asking for sanctuary; we reconsidered when we remembered the other homeless people we had seen that night. If Roman churches allowed people to sleep in them, no one would be in the streets. Obviously, they don’t let anyone sleep in them; they’re all full of gold.

“Right there up those stairs. Doesn’t that look like a good spot?” I said, pointing to a niche by a black iron fence. After we approached, I was overjoyed to find cardboard pieces carefully laid out in the opposite niche. “Look,” I said, pointing again. “Other homeless people sleep here. It must be a good place!” We agreed to try it, but just as we got everything spread out, a car drove up to the gate that, up until then, had looked ancient and rusted shut. The people got out and looked over at us, but said nothing. They said merry Christmas to each other and drove off leaving a man who went up to the gate, opened it and went inside. After he walked away we lay still for a while, trying to decide what to do. The sounds of the Saturday night continued. Cars honked, motorcycles revved and people yelled. I lay back down but couldn’t close my eyes. Every time headlights swept over me, I wanted to turn around and make sure they weren’t coming up the driveway. Once I opened my eyes to find Gina urgently glancing from my face to some area above where I was lying. “What?” I mouthed. “There’s someone standing there.” She whispered back, probably not realizing how terrifying it sounded. “What are they doing?” I asked in an almost breathless whisper. “He’s looking at us.” I lie there, unwilling to turn around and yet awaiting some kind of assault. Eventually, I heard the man’s footsteps receding back into the night. I should’ve gotten up and left, but I was too tired and a few seconds later I was asleep again.

A few minutes later, another man came up and stood directly over where we were sleeping. I woke up with a start when his shadow blocked out the streetlight. I thought he was a cop and hurriedly turned over to apologize or plead or something. But where I expected to find a mustache and a badge, I found only a baby-faced countenance and a key ring. He was trying to get into the door we were sleeping in front of. We moved aside and after he’d passed he wished us a merry Christmas.

“Let’s get out of here,” I said to Gina. “This has got to be the stupidest place to try to sleep in around here.” We repacked our sleeping bags and went stumbling half-awake and cold into the night. A block away we found a gap between some parking blocks and a wall beyond which was the Roman Forum. Besides waking up to cover myself when it got cold, I slept until 4:00 am when we had to start back for the train station. 14 blocks away, the grandiose building rose like a unadorned marble sepulcher into the cold and dark morning. There were people sleeping all around it; the place smelled like piss and there were boxes of wine spilled all over the cobblestones like some kind of unholy bum Sabbath had taken place since we’d left it earlier that evening.

Although the train didn’t leave until 5:45, it was already waiting at the platform. The lights inside were partially on, but the heat wasn’t. We pulled a door open and found some seats. I snuggled down into my coat, pulled my hat down over my face and fell asleep with no problem. When I woke up we were totally alone in the car and completely inundated in a shroud of Sunday morning fog. I could see nothing out of the windows and only the clacking sound of the train moving over the tracks indicated we were going anywhere at all.  

Friday, October 31, 2014

River Ghosts

I had gotten sick of coming to Encarnacion. I know it’s the holiday capital of Paraguay, but after ten visits, I was sick of the place. I never went there for vacation anyway. I went for work and when you go to a place for work, it’s just another city: grid streets and meaningless stores. Encarnacion was only made different by its costanera or boardwalk that ran along the river. The boardwalk in Encarnacion was longer and more pedestrian friendly than the one in Asuncion. I’d walked up and down it a few times. That was enough. When I visted Encarnacion, I never went down to the river anymore. I never went to the boardwalk. I stayed in the hotel.

The hotel had a lounge area with some grass and palm trees, but their coffee tasted consistently like soap and the beds were rock hard. A caged parrot lived in the outdoor lounge area; It was nice to hear him whistle and chatter to himself in the morning from the hotel room window, but, going to see him in his cage, with his frantic red eyes and whistled car-alarm refrains was a lousy way to start a day of work.

When I travel for work, I only have time for anything if I get up at dawn and go walking around. I like to walk around, but sometimes I have this feeling, before I set out, that I’m not going to see anything new. I try to shake the feeling, but once it’s there, it’s hard to get rid of. When I have that feeling the walk is an empty exercise and I know I’ve got some kind of pathetic look on my face the whole time.

I don’t have much choice though. The work demands that I arrive the night before and leave immediately after I’ve finished. Nearly half of a 24-hour period spent on a bus. Even if a walk around town denigrates into mindless exercise, I’ll take it and hope it will help me sleep on the bus.  

Encarnacion felt livelier when I came in last night. It was Sunday and things are always more relaxed on Sunday evening. No one broods on Monday morning and this halcyon weekend is undisturbed. People relax openly, unabashedly. Along the manmade beach there were people strolling up and down. Everyone had brought their folding chairs. Entire families sat around, not eating, not even drinking, just sitting there under the lights, feet up, looking out over the water.

I checked into my hotel with the soapy coffee and the hard beds and, finding it too early and too warm to stay in for the night, went out for a walk.

I walked across a construction lot, which is going to be a McDonalds, but last night, it was a swath of ripped grass, muddy holes and a structure that employed so many little boards it looked like a wooden mummy. The boards in the bright construction site lights looking like so many concealing bandages from far away.

On the other side of the future McDonalds, was a clean boulevard. The pavement shone under hundreds of streetlights which stretched all the way down the riverbank, to either direction. New and shocked palms grew from the median in green shoots with tattered leaves. The grass was neither new nor trampled, but had the cowed look of grass that has supported hours of someone’s picnic blanket.

Crossing the boulevard, I came to a tiled plaza with playground equipment and children running and yelling in diminishing circles while their parents chased them, knees bent, arms outstretched. This was the brightest cluster in a chain of lights, the Playa San Jose.

 I walked through the crowds, not knowing what to do with my face. What is the expression for a solitary man in a crowd of families? I have never been able to deduce it. Nothing fits. No matter what, there is something artificial in the smile, or something stupid about the abstracted look. The only safe option is to keep the expression as empty as possible and walk purposefully.

I made my way through the crowds to the western part of the boardwalk. A few times, I crossed to the water’s edge to listen for the river, but it was still and did not lap the large stones that tumbled into it. The only movement that could be discerned was where the lights crossed over the water in rolling beams.

The lights stretched out to the middle of the river from both banks. The lights from the far bank came from Posadas, Argentina.

Three years ago, while on tour with an acting troupe, I was in Posadas. I had been on the road working every day for three weeks at that point. I was tired. All of Argentina was starting to look the same to me: streets all named ‘Sarmiento’, Lomiterias, loose paving tiles and all of it grey. From Buenos Aires to Tucuman to Resistencia, everywhere seemed grey. It was the middle of winter, so it had been rainy and cold for a few weeks. The sun didn’t come out in Posadas, but it wasn’t raining and the red hillocks and green medians gave the appearance of a resurgent light. I walked down the esplanade and listened to the music and the clk,clk,clk of children skating on new, oversized rollerblades. I felt good enough to call home and say, ‘wait for me; when I get back, I’ll have a lot to tell you.’ Then after an hour of dark streets and cat shadows, I came into the warm light of a used bookstore, evaporating into the dark with an archaic fog of yellow lamplight, cheroots and book mildew. Inside, an old man smoked patiently and looked over a map spread out over a table.

From Encarnacion, I looked across the river into Posadas, all of Argentina and the past. I saw the jaundiced, floury light of the bookshop and I saw myself pacing up and down a street while talking on the phone. I saw the kiosk where I bought a Fanta and a pack of L and M’s. I imagined someone walking up and down the dark streets wearing the sweater I lost over there. But, it was too far away to see anything like that. From Encarnacion, Posadas is just a bunch of lights that reflect off the water. The brighter they are, the farther their reflection reaches across the river. I looked at some of the brightest lights—the ones that almost swam up to the stones under my feet—and tried to remember what buildings or parking lots they belonged to and what I was like when I stood under them years ago.

After a few moments, the memories of Posadas became indistinct. I stopped seeing myself walking in the city and just stared at the lights without thinking anything. I turned from the pier and continued walking west down the boardwalk.

Farther away from the Playa San Jose, the crowds thinned out. There were a few families, but they 
were quiet. The children looked out over the water or slept. Entire families were there, sighing after the water and not saying a word to each other. Younger couples used the benches that everyone else seemed to eschew—monstrous, bracketed things that looked like giant mousetraps ready to spring down. The girls’ legs, never long enough to reach the ground, kicked back and forth through the air, as if they hadn’t gotten the signal to stop walking.

The people began to diminish, but the boardwalk continued and the lights lit up nothing, more paving tiles, more rocks, more dark water, more flattened grass, but the sounds and the people making them were far away. There was an entire phalanx of benches no one was using, all facing the water. Most of them were in the dark, the lights being too far away to light up much more than their backs. The open part, the part of the bench that faced the water, was absorbed into the same darkness of the quiet tide.

I passed the end of the boardwalk. I crossed a bridge and startled two guys sitting on the ground drinking beers. They squinted up to me through the bright lights. “Adios,” I said, nearly whispering. “Adios,” they called back in the same conspiratorial tone.

I went up to a statue and tried to make out the inscription: some cardinal or bishop, benevolent smile, skullcap and chained glasses. Who could tell what he’d done? The raised letters of the plaque were impossible to read between the angles of the lights and their resulting shadows. Each letter was like a little chambered burial vault in a bronze necropolis.

Up alongside the river was another children’s park, this one quieter. A little boy raced around on a pink Barbie bike, the redundant training wheels banging off the ground at regular intervals. There was a whole parking lot, lit up by lights and filled in with benches. There were a few people there, talking to each other or lying down alone with their knees up.

I walked back across the bridge to the darker benches, with the lights behind me. I sat on one of the mousetrap benches and if I held it up above my shoulders, I could make out the words in the book I had brought. I was a few pages into a novel of a grim and pointless New York when someone stopped in front of me and asked me what country I was from. I told the kid and he sat down as if my country was an invitation. We talked for a while and when I asked him his name, he spun around and pointed to the back of his head. AXEL was vertically shaved into his hair. The symmetrical letters fit very well with the other triangular shapes and arrows shaved in the sides of his hair. It was the easiest way I had ever encountered of learning someone’s name. I didn’t even have to remind myself periodically. If we all had to show each other our names, I think we would remember them better and be more humane as a result.

Axel was from Brazil. His parkour troupe was visiting Encarnacion. His teammates were all out doing different things. He held a small key ring in his hand. Three keys the size of bike lock keys clicked together. He gestured with the keys. “I’m staying over there,” he said, speaking Spanish with a nasal Brazilian pronunciation, adding /sh/ and /ch/ to words that didn’t have such sounds. I asked him what he thought of Paraguay. How much chipa had he eaten? Did he know any Guarani words? I asked him all the things that Paraguayans ask me.  And every answer he gave me sounded excited. I asked him about his parkour troupe. He said they had been a few places in Brazil and Paraguay. “Argentina?” I asked pointing to the lights across the water. “No,” he shook his head, “but we drove through it.” We talked about Brazil. He was from somewhere near Sao Paulo. He told me he’d been to the most dangerous favela in Rio. I told him I liked the Botanical Gardens there.

We walked back together. Axel kept running off ahead to jump from bench to bench or to flip off a ledge. His flips were so fast and sloppy that I was nervous he was going to smash his head on something, but he always managed to tuck it under just before he landed—with the sound of a dropped stack of books—on his back. Before he made a jump or a flip or whatever, he’d let out a whoop and make a sound like a motorcycle with a bad muffler racing down the street. All these quiet Paraguayans would quickly turn their heads—What the f—and see this speedy kid come shooting out of the darkness. Reeeeeeeeaaaaahhhh! He puts his hands up like landing gear detracting on a plane, turns himself upside down and jumps with his hands. Fwhaaap. He lands on his back.

The entire way along the boardwalk, Axel took every fifth obstacle at a noisy run. The scenario was always the same. The people turned their heads and watched him until he was on his back, then they’d go back to their silence and their lights reflecting off the water.

On the artificial beach of San Jose, he showed me a few flips, which he did into the sand and then asked if I wanted to get a drink. I told him no, that I had to get back. So we walked back toward the town together, away from the reflection of Posadas on the water. Axel got a running start and jumped over the hood of a car parked on the street.

We shook hands at the door of the hotel. He said it had been nice meeting me. I agreed and he turned and jogged back into the night. A few seconds later, I heard his motorcycle noises again, already a block away, even up in my room, sitting on the hard bed with the window open, I could hear him running through the streets, wearing his name on the back of his head for anyone else who should ask. Should I find myself back on the other side of the river, back in Posadas someday, I’ll probably look out over the quiet river water to where the lights across the river fade in the west and remember that night, sitting there, talking to the Brazilian acrobat, the guys drinking beers by the bridge and the quiet children sitting motionless in their chairs that Sunday night.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Pass

The village of A— was the last village before the pass. In the early spring, it was the last place to lose its grey piles of snow. By late April, there were still crusty patches of white under the hanging eaves and in the shadow of some of the larger trees. The stream had swollen into a river, grey and swift with the snow melt from the mountains. The bridge that crossed the stream had no railings and children were cautioned against going anywhere near it, though in the summer it would be pacific enough to fish from, if there had been any fish.

A—was too far up on the mountain to become mixed up in affairs of the world as some of the villages down in the valley had. When the last war had come, the only indication that anything was happening was the military convoys that used the pass to take supplies to the front. Once or twice, one of these convoys stopped, someone bought something at the little shop or asked after a family that had come from these parts, but usually they continued on their course, barely slowing down on their way through the village.

The people of A—had their own way of doing things. While it’s true that most people living in this part of the country were seldom in a hurry, the people of A—were more contemplative and did things slower than the people in the valley. The winters were longer and the planting cycle was shorter so the people had become more pastoral. They only planted cabbages and onions; Carrots were considered excessive by some of the older people and the children pointed in awe when they traveled to the marketplaces of the valley and saw the incredible colors of the tomatoes and peppers. The pastures of A—were all up in the mountains where the sky was perpetually dark and brooding. The people attested to the fact that spending too much time up there with the flock, watching that dark sky and thinking precipitous thoughts drove people crazy, although it was likely that mountain babble, as the people called it, was more the result of moonshine rather than any vague environmental pressures.

When the snows did melt in A—, beautiful poppies grew all over the fields. In June, when everything in the valley had turned brown, the wildflowers were just beginning to bloom in A—. They grew the best in places where the snow had sat for the longest: where the rain had fallen from the roofs and in the damp shade of certain trees.

A slightly different dialect was spoken in A—. It was, for the most part, mutually intelligible with the dialect of the valley, but certain everyday phrases like “where are you going?” were radically different and sounded as if from another language. The lowlanders learned to laugh at the way they spoke in A—from a very early age. When they put on straw hats, old shoes or anything rustic-looking they would bellow out something in the dialect and everyone would laugh.

The only traffic that passed regularly through A—was that of the potato farmers on the other side of the mountains bringing their crop over the pass and down into the valley. Their cars were old and battered, but painted in pastels. The weight of the potatoes caused them to bottom out at every dip in the road. In the autumn, when the potatoes were harvested, the farmers would occasionally stop in A—to sell off any blighted-looking potatoes that the people in the valley wouldn’t want. Sometimes they just gave them away. When they drove down the street yelling ‘potatoes’ the children ran alongside the slow-moving cars, as they would run alongside ice cream trucks in other places.

Apart from the potato cars and the occasional military convoy that struggled up the pass, the village got no visitors. Even relatives who had moved away seldom visited. So it was quite out of the ordinary one nondescript and still slightly cold April afternoon, when a stranger came walking into the town. The young man walked alone with a small green backpack and a black bandana tied around his forehead. The kids saw him first. The closest village further down the pass was about 17 kilometers away so most of them had never seen anyone walk into town that wasn’t coming down from the pasture. As soon as the kids saw the stranger, they stopped their game throwing sticks and stood completely still, having no idea what the appropriate behavior was in such a situation. When the stranger was close enough to meet their gaze he called out ‘hello,’ only one child dared to respond and he did so in such a low voice no one heard him. The kids watched the stranger walk on toward the village and, when he had gotten a few paces down the road, they began to follow him.

As the stranger walked, he glanced back occasionally at his growing tail of children. Nearly every house he walked by brought another kid running to join the group. Predominately, they wore red, but there was quite a bit of blue and grey in their attire patterned with little footballs and smiling bears.

The kids darted in and out of the crowd, running into yards to tell mothers straining milk and grandmothers making bread what was on the road. As the kids ran down into the yards, they stirred up chickens and lambs that were too young for the pasture. The crowing and braying sounds of the village increased and people in A—, so accustomed to quiet, came out to see what was happening.

The grandmothers came out into the yards and the mothers stayed in the doorways. There were a few grandfathers that hadn’t gone up to the pasture that day sitting on a stone bench near the store. The grandmothers yelled out to the grandfathers on the bench.

“D’you see what’s coming down the road?”

“WhaAAAAT? Can’t hear a damn thing you’re saying!”

“I said look down the road, you old goats!”

The grandfather who heard the best, told everyone else what had been said and, at once, they all turned to look. The grandfathers waited until the stranger walked past them, when he lifted his hand in greeting they waved him over. As if by agreement, one of them did all the talking.

“Now where are you going?” The old man asked. The stranger, not understanding the dialect, was unable to answer, prompting the grandfather to turn his question into a statement. “Where are you going? It’s dangerous up there!” he yelled pointing to the road that led up the pass. “The whole damn place is full of wolves. I don’t mean little ones either. I mean those big damn yellow-eyed ones.” The stranger showed no signs of comprehension prompting the grandfather to simply shout “wolves!” and point up the road.

The kids still stood back from the stranger, but in the middle of their village and with these grandpas nearby, they felt emboldened enough to move up closer to the strange young man and inspect his frayed t-shirt and obviously self-mended shoes. In a place that prided itself on appearances, they had never before seen clothing treated with such an obvious lack of concern.

The grandfather continued telling the stranger about the mountain pass he was heading for. “It’s full of snakes this time of year, too. Huge ones, big as a house! Besides, it’ll take you the rest of the day just to get up there,” he said pointing to the place where the switchbacking road vanished at the top of the pass.

The stranger suddenly thanked the group of old men and tried to start on his way. “C’mon now,” the lead old man said, almost pleading, “Why don’t you just sit down with us and rest a while. I’ll get you a coffee, when you’re feeling rested you can start back down to the valley.”

The stranger put on his backpack and thanked the old men again before stepping around them and continuing down the road toward the end of the village in the direction of the pass.

The melt water was high in the stream and it could be heard rushing under the bridge and down from the mountains. Next to patches of old snow were patches of new grass where cows were tethered.
The children continued to follow the stranger until the foot of the first peak. A few of them even followed him around the first switchback, but when they looked down and saw their companions and their village so far below, they lost heart and turned around.

That evening, the sun set across from the pass so that its orange rays lit up bends of the curving road. The old men stayed on their bench watching, but the children had moved on to something else and the mothers and grandmothers had gone back inside to take care of more important things.
The old men watched the progress of the green backpack steadily until they saw it turn the last corner before the top of the pass. Then it was gone.

“I guess he’s at the top,” the talkative old man said and was quiet for a while before looking at the others and continuing in a quieter tone of voice, “I wonder what it’s like up there.” 

Friday, October 10, 2014

I Bet They All Think It's Dumb

Villa Hayes

We were having some people over for dinner. I was pissed because I had ruined a batch of falafel by trying to fit too many into the frying pan. The first batch had turned out all right, so there was enough food, but the boiling oil and sudden falafel crumb mess in the pan was depressing me. “Ahh, why do I always have to add a little more?” I asked the boiling mess. “Don’t worry about it,” Gina said from the sink where she stood chopping vegetables. “It’s no big deal; we’ve got plenty of falafel.” I knew it, but Gina knew that wasn’t why I was upset. It was the wasted food. Seeming to sense this, she said “I can make veggie burgers out of that” and gestured vaguely to the boiling pan that was no beginning to stink of overheated oil. I went out onto the balcony to smoke and get away from the mess for a moment. Inside I heard Gina’s phone ring. “I’ll be right down,” she said. Our guests had arrived.

The nicest thing about our building, which otherwise is sterile and cold—trying to look modern by emulating the utilitarian structure of a spaceship or a soviet-era kitchen—is the terrace. The terrace, like the rest of the building is white on white. Apparently white is the color of modernity here. I can tell you from experience it’s also the hardest color to clean.  The only things that aren’t white are the strips of chrome trim here and there marking boundaries such as doorways and cabinet edges. If it wasn’t for the chrome, I’d probably never be able to find anything; the white door would be lost against the white wall and I’d have to run my hand over the wall looking for it like I was hunting for a trap door or something.

The terrace is different because it’s entirely open under the sky. In the morning, the sun turns the white paint reddish orange and in the evening it is frequently haunted by a jagged opal-colored quarter moon. In Romanian mythology, you weren’t supposed to spin thread in the evening because Vampires would climb up it. They used the thread to climb to the heavens so they could eat the celestial bodies. They gnawed on everything up there, but their most harassed victim was the moon. It was said that the vampires would eat away at the moon, spilling her blood and thereby making her turn red. From our terrace, I have seen this vampire-eaten moon. If I hadn’t grown up with all this nonsense about lunar cycles, gravity etc., I would be inclined to believe that Nosferatu himself had gotten up there and had been chomping away on fair Diane.

We spend a lot of time on the terrace, eating on Sunday afternoons or reading or lying in the sun for a while. I’ve begun visiting the terrace every morning to watch the sun come up now that the time has changed and the hour is much more congenial. I close my eyes and wait to feel the sun on my eyelids as it comes over the terrace wall. I try not to think about anything and listen to the birds. All these things conspire to make me happy, sometimes in spite of myself.

We took our dinner guests up to the terrace. There’s a large table up there that seldom seems to be used, at least not at the incredibly non-Paraguayan hour that we eat. Despite the falafel disaster, we had a good spread. Gina has perfected her homemade bread recipe. There was no tahini, but we’d blended chickpeas, garlic and olive oil which, in my mind, is good enough for hummus. The two bowls of olives, which are becoming staples of our table—like salt and pepper elsewhere— were there, as was a bowl of tabbouleh, homemade crackers with rosemary, salad and flat bread.

The guests and Gina had wine and I had my Fernet and Coke which lately, I’ve begun to get a little tired of. We discussed disconnected topics, mostly relating to our time and foreign perspectives on Paraguay. While someone was making an observation about life in Paraguay, I thought of the countless times I have been asked how I like it here. I realized there was no way to answer that question. A society is not a whole, as much as people may want to believe it is. It is made up of widely disparate elements. Some are quite easy to be fond of while others are almost unbearable. It’s possible to speak in averages, I suppose, but rather than ‘do you like it here?’ the question should be ‘are you having more good experiences than bad experiences?’ This question makes one appreciate the absurdity of what they are asking. Usually, when the question is asked, it’s more in the way of a host asking a guest if they are comfortable. It’s a suggestion of hospitality, a slightly more specific ‘how’s it going?’

I finished my Fernet and went down to get a beer. A Peroni one of the guests had brought. I poured it into a glass and tasted, strangely, the exact flavor of my dad’s beer when I was a kid on a summer afternoon. On Saturdays and Sundays, if my dad wasn’t at work, he did various chores around the house. While he did things like cut the grass or drag bundles of branches from one place to another, he usually had a beer.

It’s a Sunday afternoon 25 years ago in Jackson, Michigan. Warm, but cooling, like end-of-August weather. My sister is upstairs playing Madonna records. The tinny warbling of Lucky Star is drifting out over the lawn, where I’m running around with a Batman figure in my hand. The green smell of cut grass is strong, but the lawn is only half cut. My dad, in ripped jeans and an old t-shirt is in the driveway hunched over the over-turned lawnmower. I run over to him to see what he’s doing. The smell of grass and oil is strong near him, like a potent summer cocktail. He’s got lawnmower grease all over his hands. “Hey,” he calls as I run by. “Hand me that crescent wrench.” I pick up one of the tools lying next to him on the driveway, hoping that I’ve chosen the right one. His grass-greasy hand closes over it and it disappears into the undercarriage of the lawnmower—the wrench tinkling against the metal of the lawnmower rather strangely like champagne glass toasting. Next to him is a green glass bottle of beer so beaded in condensation the label is becoming slightly puckered. He reaches over for the bottle and takes a drink. “You want a sip?” He asks. I reach for the bottle.  

I hated it, but the shock of entirely unexpected taste preserved the moment so well. Metallic, herbal and sunny. I tasted the Peroni again. It was the same taste. I held the beer in my mouth awhile, like wine, and dropped from the conversation, remembering.

When I came back, we were discussing places around the city. Someone mentioned the tourist barrio. “Wait, tourist barrio? There’s a tourist barrio?” “Yeah,” came the reply. “It’s all painted like La Boca and there’s a lot of recycled stuff around, they have some classes; it’s pretty cool.” We went downstairs and looked the place up on the computer.

The neighborhood had a Facebook page. Barrio San Jeronimo. It looked vibrant, interesting, like the sort of place that you would see while traveling and think ‘I wish my neighborhood back home was like this.’ Because no one had ever mentioned the place to us, I couldn’t help but to assume that it was much more one-dimensional that what we were seeing on the computer. “It’s probably just one little street,” I told Gina after our guests had left and we were clearing the dishes. “But we might as well go down and take a look at it tomorrow. You never know.”

The next day was warm. Even early in the morning, the wind on the terrace was like a sirocco. Around 11, the apartment got too hot and we decided to get out of the house and find the Barrio Turistico.

All we had to do was go a little ways further down a street that we’d always turned off on previous occasions. “I guess it’s over this way,” I said, kicking my chin out in the direction we were going. “I’ve never been down this street, have you?” “No,” Gina responded, coming up alongside me on her bike. “I always assumed there was nothing down here.”

“Me, too,” I said. Wondering why I’d ever assumed this.

About a quarter mile down the street, we saw a chewed-looking street and a sign. The street was slightly narrow, the houses crowded in so closely as to make their boundaries indistinguishable. Children played in the streets and men sat on the Sunday corners, talking idly. The sign was brightly painted and declared the street to be the entrance of San Jeronimo, barrio turistico. We locked our bikes up to the sign, and walked down the pulverized street, slowly at first. It felt like walking into someone’s backyard for a party you’re not entirely sure you’ve been invited to.

High treble-karaoke music was booming over the otherwise quiet neighborhood. Along with the, breathy, slightly off-key singing of someone who has just been dancing, people could be heard talking, laughing and moving things around. All this was just on the other side of a wall somewhere. Nothing of the party could be seen but almost everything could be heard.

The houses that lined the streets had been vivaciously painted. A yellow and green balcony, a bright red house front and a set of reaching concrete stairs changed colors with each step as they wound past papaya trees and portraits of Bob Marley and Jesus. With the palms susurrating overhead and the rolling cumbia music on the karaoke system, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see an ital shack selling tamarind drinks around the corner.

We settled for a guarana’-flavored Fanta instead. The stairs where we sat down to drink it were across from the barrio’s football field, also brightly painted. One poor kid caught a ball unintentionally with his head while talking with his friends. When he covered his face to cry, an older kid came over and rubbed his head and spoke in his ear. We were too far away to hear any of the conversation and after a while we turned our attention back to the vivacious streets.

“What a nice place!”

“Why did no one ever tell us about it?”

“I bet they all think it’s dumb.”

“Yeah, they probably do, huh? It’s intentional, so it probably seems fake to them.”

“I don’t care; I think it’s cool. All these little stores and the colors make you feel different.”

“Yeah. I like it, too. We’ll have to come back some day when some of this stuff is open.”

We wandered around barrio San Jeronimo for another half an hour. We went by the church and looked out over the rusty warehouse landscape below. We talked about how it would be nice to live in such a place and know all the neighbors. I thought about all the conversational gaps I could’ve filled with this place, all the times when I had talked with Couchsurfing guests, trying to think of one place in particular they could go see, something besides Mercado 4 and the Recoleta.

I thought about the impression I had of Asuncion. After all the walking and the traveling for classes, I thought I had the city mapped out. It seemed the corners I didn’t know could hardly contain anything so bright and beautiful as this, and yet, here is was. All those evenings I had looked out over downtown thinking, ‘I’ve seen most of what I’m interested in here.’ Somewhere underneath those grey walls and the light of the orange setting sun, Barrio San Jeronimo was quietly defying me, or perhaps loudly defying me, blasting its karaoke songs through the red, green and yellow streets.
After making two loops through the barrio, we decided to go. If there had been a café to plop down in, I would’ve settled for instant coffee just for a chance to appreciate the ambiance a little more, but everything was closed on Sunday. We walked slowly, though, nodding and saying ‘adios’ to those we passed. A man painting barrels stopped, looked up and said ‘gracias por su visita.’

We came down from the multicolored stairs and the little medieval hill that the barrio sits on like a Caribbean castle and walked down the street we had come in. Everywhere were signs for little shops, all of which had their bright doors closed against the Sunday afternoon languor in the streets.

Three little boys were playing parking attendant, emulating their older brothers who go downtown and point out parking spaces, for a small tip, by waving bright rags around. One boy stood down at the end of the empty street madly signaling to the other two boys that there was a place to park where he was standing. The other boys, fighting over control of their toy car, were completely ignoring him. They could park anywhere they wanted, furthermore, when you’ve got a toy car, who wants to park it? Still, I knew how the boy felt. Standing at the end of the street, waving your hands around, it’s easy to convince yourself that your way is the most logical and that your companions playing with the car are the ones who don’t understand the game.

As we were walking by the scene I heard running and turned around to see, gratefully, that the parking attendant had given up his post.

By the barrio’s entrance, the karaoke music rose in volume. The voice singing into the microphone was all treble-blurred. It was a love song, an I’m-so-happy-I’m-kinda’-sad love song. The chorus was repetitive. Gina and I began to sing it to each other, quietly at first and then loudly, almost as loudly as the kids yelling down the street and the woman singing into the blurry microphone. We danced our way back to our bikes in our clumsy way, repeating the chorus, even after the chorus was finished.

To anyone who had seen our entrance into the barrio and our exit only about half an hour later, we would look to have been radically changed by the experience. If everyone who went in came out dancing, maybe I would’ve heard about the place before.

Monday, September 15, 2014



There were no clouds. The periphery of the sky seemed darker than what was overhead, but it was hard to tell if it was distance, piled up and dark, or storms on the horizon that made it look that way. The light blue color was interrupted by mountains that still looked jagged under their snowy outcroppings, their peaks glowing in the winter-bright sky.

At the base of the mountains, the road from Vanadzor heaved itself forward to the capital, looking like it was quarried from the same rocks that loomed above it. The minibus driver did not drive fast; there were several places where the ice and rain and mud had previously torn the road away. To the west of the road, was a Kurd on a horse, a young man with a closely cropped hair. He rode parallel with the minibus, but a few hundred meters out, going nearly the same speed. The minibus driver glanced over and thought only: Kurd. There was no anger in the thought. It was just the first thing to appear. The though appeared before the plain, before the horse, before the snow-hooded mountains, because these things were constant. The rider’s blood was the only thing that stood out against the timeless background.

Continuing south, the dark skies in the distance agglutinated until an ashen rain began to fall, colored as it was by the white mountain peaks it fell against. The snow on the mantles of the mountains was tattered and yellowed by the friable rocks that seemed to be melting underneath and seeping a muddy color into the snow. At the base of the mountains, large black rocks stood out like roots. There was some lightening breaking in the eastern sky, but the sound of thunder was distant, across the border. The smell of melting snow filled the minibus for a moment as the driver rolled down his window to smoke a cigarette.

The wet gust of wind woke Shane up. Since the border, he’d been up three times, but kept falling asleep. The floor was cold, but all the people and all the winter clothes packed into the minibus made him feel like a hibernating animal in a pile of anonymous hibernating animals. He blinked his dry eyes a few times and was preparing to stretch and go back to sleep when he noticed the gloaming mountains through the window. He watched the monotony of the white peaks and grey fields. The Kurd was gone. The only man-made structure was a shack, at the base of a mountain. The windows and doorway were dark with emptiness. Between two points, a muddy path had been beaten into the wet snow. There didn’t seem to be anything at either end of the path. Shane watched the path and imagined a young woman walking it. He imagined the quick way she would walk the familiar path, stepping over the puddles that she knew would be there. A face slowly began to materialize over the scene. His own face reflected in the window. His green eyes were colorless in the glass, but the large pores on his nose and cheeks stood out like dark pin pricks. He frowned at his reflection and turned away from the window.

The mountains passing the windows began to crouch down and then there was nothing, just the cloudy outline of distant mountains looking vague and unfinished and, in the foreground, wet stone that reflected the stormy sky in a shattered mess of grey, blue and maroon. At the entrance of a village there was a sign with the name of that village and at the exit of the village there was the same sign only with a line struck through the name. No more Vernashen. No more Getap. No more Ani. The distant mountains looked like they were moving, grinding and sawing anything that stood among them too long. The huts were made of pulverized stone and the tin cars spraying through the light rain looked gnawed. They were boxy cars with flat paint jobs: hardy brick-reds and dock-worker blues.

Shane looked away from the window over to Peter, who was sleeping with one eye partially open and rolled back in his head, his mass of light-brown hair clashed with his pale face. His ears were very red-looking and the eye that was partially open disclosed the pink rind of the inner eyelid. He was breathing regularly, deep and raspy.

As the minibus approached the suburbs of the capital, the distant mountains sublimated into grey clouds on the horizon broken by massive Khrushchev apartment blocks displaying the same dark windows and doors as the mountain shacks. Everything was built with a roseate stone. The pink color of these stones was in no way feminine. It was stolid and hypertensive, like the face of an angry father. The stones leaned over their parapets to watch the passersby. The people seemed to feel the unseen eyes of these patriarchal bricks and hurried along. The rain began to fall harder. No one seemed to have an umbrella and faces, ears and eyes sunk down deeper into the dark coats. The stones took on the vermillion color of dried blood. Under these heavy visages, Shane rested his temple on the window and fell asleep.

He dreamed he was watching a young woman in a white dress sink down into a streambed. She didn’t say anything, but floated on her stomach with her arms and legs out and gradually sank down, like an alligator, until only her eyes were above the water. He had an urgent reason to get across the stream, but was afraid to step over the woman. He took a few steps back and tried to run so he could jump, but he ran slowly, like he was leaden. He tried to stop, but his momentum overcame him and he began to fall, slowly, toward the water. As he fell, he saw the face of the girl, upturned and watching him. Her white dress was drifting all around her like seaweed.

Shane and Peter were traveling together. Shane had been working in Greece when Peter had passed through. The two of them had stayed up late drinking raki and Peter had described the places he hoped to visit in the east. He was a descriptive speaker and heaped details onto the names of cities he had never seen. He built a storied world dropping minarets onto green plains and illuminating market places with candlelight and dust. In his Orient, Dracula was being shipped from Varna, Istanbul was a confusion of camels and Young Turks, Zaporozhian Cossacks were regularly running their plundering boats aground in Trabzon and the Caucasian mountains still belonged to Hadji Murad.

A few days after he met Peter, Shane packed up his clothes, quit his job and went down to the bus station and bought a ticket for Sofia.

After nearly a month of traveling, the two came to a city that had been festooned in glowing mandarins for the winter. The grey streets were partitioned from the grey skies by tables of the impossibly bright fruit. Shane and Peter walked from the train station and crossed a bridge over a river swollen with the reflections of slate-colored churches. Used household items had been laid out over the flagstones of the bridge. A set of blue glass bowls, a pile of leather-bound books, dull-looking knives and a collection of rusty Soviet pins.

The city looked deserted and was hazy with the hay-like smell of burning cow dung and the fog of snow melt. In the evening, even the lights that were burning seemed to be far above the city. Everything at the ground level had been extinguished. Down a narrow street, Peter noticed a glow that lit up the blue cobblestones. They followed it until they were in something like a rampart corniced by a metal shack about the size of an outhouse. A middle-aged woman sat inside listening to an unseen radio. The shack was the only source of light anywhere around. Peter walked up and greeted the woman in Russian. She returned the greeting with a weary gesture. He asked her if there was a place nearby they could sleep, mostly through pantomime. The woman nodded slowly. She yelled out a name, waited a few seconds and yelled it again. The third time she yelled, a teenage boy came running out of the darkness.

“Axper, artarsamatsiner kmanak ko mot,” the woman said to the boy in a tone that sounded like she was swearing at him.

The boy said nothing but gestured for Peter and Shane to follow him.
Shane turned to follow Peter and the boy and then turned back to the woman in the shack, pointed to a small bottle of vodka, then took out his money and tried to give his face a questioning expression. The woman’s tired-looking face gathered into a smile and she took the bottle down from the shelf and with her other hand held up four fingers “chetyri” she yelled and brandished her fingers.

Shane jogged to catch up with Peter and the boy. The city was so quiet. It wasn’t hard to hear their footsteps. A light caught his attention. He turned to look down the dark street and saw a woman running with a flashlight. She had dark hair and almond-shaped eyes that were wide with exhilaration. She locked eyes with Shane. He noticed a dark shape behind her, but couldn’t tell if she was being chased or if she had a companion. The two figures passed him without slowing and continued down the street. He listened to the light tapping of their receding footsteps for a while before continuing to catch up to Peter. He almost ran into him a block later.

“Hey, there you are.” Peter said. “Where the hell did you go? I thought maybe you got lost in back in that warren.

Shane was about to tell Peter about the girl and the other figure, but decided against it. He held up the bottle. “I wanted to thank that lady.”

“Ah, good idea. Besides, I’m sure wherever we’re going isn’t going to be very warm. That might come in handy.” He said, pointing to the bottle.

The next day, the snow began to fall early in the morning. The grey stones that lined the river bank and the bas reliefs of the churches were half obliterated by white. Only the dark metro stations looked the same. Dug impossibly deep, they were like caverns dripping with the river that crossed over them.

After Shane and Peter woke up, they were invited to eat and were served a grey bowl of buckwheat garnished with a pat of butter. They thanked their hosts and surreptitiously left some money under their empty bowls. They shouldered their packs and walked down to the metro.

The trains were the standard spaceship grey of metro trains, the seats and rubber floors worn down like pencil erasers. A garbled recording informed passengers about the next station. Two stops down the line, a group of children got on carrying Unicef Christmas presents labeled in English, for a Boy or, alternately for a Girl. One older-looking girl held a box labeled for a boy. Shane was afraid that she would open the box and that he would have to see her disappointment upon finding a muscly action figure while her friends all got dolls, but she held the box on her lap and stared ahead. Her face was reflected in the window behind Shane and reflected again in the window behind her. Shane looked into her reflection and the reflection looked back. He glanced back at her eyes and saw she wasn’t looking at him, but in the reflection, her eyes looked right into his. There was something familiar about her, something about that face and the darkness. The girl’s reflection smiled slightly and he realized it was the girl from the previous night, the one who’d been running down the street with the flashlight.

“Well,” he thought. “I’m glad to know that she’s OK and that guy wasn’t chasing her.” The girl rose from her seat at the next stop and her reflection was replaced by tired-looking middle aged man.

Three stops later Shane and Peter got off at the bus station and loaded their packs onto a minibus with a tattered red and white placard in the window that read EPEBAN.

In his dream, Shane continued to fall toward the girl in the river. He spun his arms to correct his balance, but found his body was at an acute angle to the water. He could only fall. The girl was floating on her stomach, but he watched as she tiled her head over her back until her forehead was parallel with his. She didn’t seem to see him. Her eyes were green, large and tapered at the ends. Her mouth was slightly open, expressionless. Shane tried to grab a hold of something, but his arms moved sluggishly and encountered nothing. The girl’s dress was floating everywhere. Her vacant face seemed to float up from the middle of the white expanse. There was a sound coming from her, something like the whine of a mosquito. The closer he got, the louder it became until there was no other sound. Her eyes continued to look past him and with horror he realized he was falling right into her face. He braced himself for the impact of their foreheads slamming together.

He woke up with a slight jerk, but either the woman sitting next to him hadn’t noticed or didn’t care. He turned back to the window to see a large rusted crane hanging over a series of apartment blocks in various stages of completion. Light shone weakly from some of the apartments in these skeletal buildings. The crane looked like a monster whose destructive efforts had been checked. Frozen as the progress of the machine was, it was no longer certain if it had been building or destroying, if its purpose had been good or evil. Now, it was only a ruin surrounded by ruins.

Beyond the false start of the crane and the floors and walls of the unfinished buildings, the city began. The streets widened to parade-ground width and little kiosks began to spring up like mushrooms after a rain, each with a woman, a dangling lightbulb and rows of bottles. Everything was hewn from the same roseate stones, in blocks so large they looked like something carted in by exhausted men in loincloths. The plazas were laid out with the same stone. The twilight mountains outside the city had been cut down like a forest, carted in and reshaped.

In the cold rain, the smell of stone was irrepressible. The rain mixed with the dust and made mortar. Hearth fires burned, baking the stones and sending their smoke into the sky.

The minibus stopped and everyone got off. Peter and Shane walked a few blocks through the rain until they looked up at a dark and oily bridge. “I think there’s a train up there,” Peter said. “It probably goes downtown.”

The station opened under the tracks. The darkness from the rain had piled up in the corners. There were a few buckets in the middle of the floor. Every few seconds one of these buckets would make a WOK sound as it caught a drop of water from the ceiling. A woman waited behind the yellowish glass of the ticket counter and another swept the floor. Peter and Shane paid their money and were given a plastic coin that served as a token. These were orange and pellucid, like lozenges, sucked to the point where they are brittle and craggy.

The lights on the train flickered. They burned so dimly even the rainy, late-afternoon sky outshone them. There were only a few other passengers on the train. They all looked straight ahead. Shane looked into the reflection in the window in front of him and thought about the girl in the last city, but his thoughts were vague and resembled harassed birds on a wire, flying up, resettling and flying up again.

The rain-smeared city clicked past the windows of the train in a cardiac rhythm: ___________ssstook__duk_____________ ssstook__duk. The lights bounced on and off. In a tunnel, the lights went out and did not come back on. The train was like a sunken ship, full of the same dark water that surrounded it. There was no commotion in the dark, no surprise. The lights came back on revealing the same stoic countenances, unchanged by the interval.

Five or six stations later, most of the crowd rose to get off and Peter and Shane followed. The station had an underground market. Men smoked and talked in front of their kiosks. Although no one spoke loudly, the place seemed to be filling up with a dull roar. Like a fog of smoke and static was roaring through the place unseen.

On the street, the rain had slackened but grown colder. A man pushing a handcart crashed into a pile of sodden cardboard boxes and scattered them down the sidewalk as he continued on his way.
In a dark shop window, a woman was peeling potatoes in the grey light. She glanced up for a second as Shane walked passed. He stopped “Hey, let’s go in here and get something to eat.”

Inside, the thick carpet muffled the external sounds of the rain and traffic. The silence felt like more like weight rather than the absence of sound. There were dark hulks of men seated around tables. Each was bundled up in a large coat with a pancake-flat hat smashed onto his head. They looked unfriendly under all their clothes, but they drank their coffee from demitasse cups and smoked slim cigarettes giving them the appearance of giants fumbling with a child’s tea set.

Outside the wind seemed to be pursuing the grey remnants of the setting sun like a pack of hunting dogs after a rabbit. The cornices and niches in the stone screamed and spat out rain. Someone in a room nearby was slowly playing a piano, taking a few seconds with each note, considering the next.

A waitress pointed to a table with an oilcloth cover and Peter and Shane sat down. A lightbulb shone above them, but the wattage was so dim it made no other impression in the damp room other than to cast a limpid halo on the ceiling. Shane stirred his feet under the table and encountered cold darkness, like water at the bottom of a lake. Everything was greasy to the touch. Peter looked out the window, and to the people on the sidewalk, his white face floated up from the darkness of the restaurant like a buoy. Shane pushed the fingerbowls of salt and paprika back and forth. The salt had absorbed the dampness and was clumped.

The piano playing stopped and a familiar figure walked past the dark frame of the door. “What the hell,” Shane said quietly to himself. “Huh?” Peter turned back from the window. “What d’you say?” “I’ll be right back,” Shane said getting up. “I’ve got to check something.”

He walked after the woman with the dark hair. He watched her go down a small set of stairs and push open a white door. “Izvenitsiya bashalusta.” He called out after her. She glanced back at him and continued to walk but slightly faster. He repeated his words, thinking he may have gotten them wrong, but the girl continued walking down the hall without looking back. Shane stood in the doorway for a moment and then went back to his table.

Back at the table Peter had ordered beers and something that looked like a donut for each of them. He looked up as Shane came into the room. “What the hell was that about?” He asked. “Here,” he said gesturing, “I got you a beer and a piroshky.” Shane sat down, picked up his beer and then sat it back down, not certain where to start. “I think I keep seeing the same person, this girl.”
“I noticed that.” Peter responded. “The similarity, I mean, the eyes, the hair. I’ve seen a bunch of people that looked just like each other. I think it’s adaptation.”
“What do you mean?”

Peter took a drink of beer. “The mountains we saw coming down here, the shepherds out on those rainy plains and the driver of the minibus, they all had a similar look. I can’t really describe it. It was more like a theme. They all sat there looking the same, even those little cars driving down the road. You didn’t notice that?”

“No,” Shane shook his head. “I guess I didn’t. I watched the mountains. You were sleeping and I fell asleep too. I dreamt about a river and a girl. Just now, I thought I saw that girl and even before the dream, a few nights ago, I saw her then, too.”

The waitress came into the room to bring an ashtray for the cigarette Peter had just lit. Shane looked up and saw the familiar almond shaped eyes, only they were beset with wrinkles and the darkness was gone from the hair that had been cropped short and dyed a Russian-looking light brown.

“Maybe it’s not so much the same face,” Shane said after the waitress left “as the same expression.”

“Yeah,” Peter agreed. “That’s it. Everyone’s got the same expression. Their mouths are set, their eyes are sad but their brows are, like, quizzical.”

Outside the rain had frozen to accommodate the night and though the streetlights were not bright, they illuminated the countenances of those who passed beneath them and riveted their shadows to the ground. In the chiaroscuro, the features on each face seemed more uniform than before.
Peter and Shane walked towards the city center. On the way, Shane saw the face of the girl from the night before, the metro, the café and his dream pass him again and again. Each time he stared at her, she stared back at him. The same eyebrows. The same ears. The snow almost seemed to have fallen into her dark hair the same way. No matter the number of repetitions, he remained shocked each time he saw her again. He must’ve betrayed some of his shock because at some point, Peter leaned over and said.

“I know. This is what Ur must’ve looked like.”

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Moving the Rain Around

La Entrada

I came into Asuncion in the dark, but the whole city seemed lively with music and the shadows of men in urinating postures. I was returning from Encarnacion to the southeast. We had been driving along the green plains, in and out of storms. The storms were lulling and I had often turned around to find myself the only one awake on the bus. At the end of the afternoon, the sky began to lighten with the return of the sun, only to darken again as it set on the other side of a town called Ita. The countryside began to produce villages again. They would start with a few straggling buildings trailing down the ruta which would then crowd into each other, as if seeking protection from the shaggy green plains. Outside each shop, a young man sat between the redolent crates of warm fruit and when our bus passed, he looked up to watch us go by, with the same uncertain look in every village. In the side streets, children played in the undecipherable ways of country children who must temper their reality with a lively imagination. Old ladies sat in various arrangements around doorways like they were waiting to scold someone who was late coming home.

The shadow of the bus, made long by the setting sun, fell on all these bucolic scenes like a falling curtain in a theater. This quiet, long-preserved scene was drawing to a close as the buildings began to grow more utilitarian, less personal. What was once the territory of the quiet fruit vendor became the haunt of stray dogs and rain-soaked plastic bags. The roads widened as did the parking lots. The old women took their chairs inside and the lights came on. The lights shone off walls that extended to the horizon, walls that the paint had abandoned or florescent lights had burned off. The advertisements were no longer hand-painted but precision-printed by a machine so that the clarity of their message could not be mistaken. The cars became more numerous as if drawn by the promise of the wider roads and more capacious parking lots. Their headlights stretched for miles from the city and their red taillights looked like electric red carpets.

As the light increased, so did the darkness. While the areas around auto dealerships and six-lane avenues shown with the intensity of a lightning bolt’s illumination, the areas immediately outside them: the trunks of mango trees, the interiors of abandoned cars and cats skulking near piles of trash were almost obliterated by preternatural darkness. In such darkness, sound seemed to carry better—the black roar of the bus engine, the yell of a disconcerted mother-in-law and the music. Even past the closed windows of the bus, the music sounded its frantic pulse: the cumbia rhythm that sounds like something going around in a circle—an engine, a washing machine, a ball—but it catches; it sounds like a wheel going over a very bumpy road.

Out in the dark places, the bumpy spin of cumbia music was everywhere. It came from cars with their windows open, young men hanging out like tongues lolling from a dog’s mouth. It came from the bright stores, still open in their islands of light and it came from some great unknown place, like a great temple of sound hidden by all these pretentious worshippers. A muezzin standing up in the sky was calling, evoking lumpy baselines and flirtatious lyrics, spreading them evenly over the city.

I got off the bus at the edge of town. The local buses passed by festooned with colored lights and the raised arms of standing passengers, looking like a curious group of people that all had questions but no one to ask them to. Ribbons of black smoke chased after the buses and then swum back into the tarry street in great spreading plumes. The people in the island of light, were quiet, despite the level of the ambient sound around them. A white and blue painted bus stopped and I got on. The driver took my bill, spooned a few coins from a wooden box and dumped them into my hand.

At the back of the bus there was an upturned face on a downturned body. The body wore the countenance of the unconscious or the dying. It sat across the seat with no regard for comfort, flung there like a sack, but the face that seemed to rise above it was like the face of a cobra floating above the innocuous rope of its body. The face, bruised and dirty, regarded me with malcontent.

The bus smelled like an overripe fruit, alcoholic but very sweet and sweaty, like several people among us had been drinking for a very long time, weeks maybe. The warmth of the sun was couched somewhere between all bodies. One window was wide open and the darkness blew in from the street and sought out the sun that was hidden between the people.

The buildings were industrial, warehouses and mechanic’s garages that slept behind barricades of old tires and radiators. The blocks were long. When the cross streets cut through, there was only a tiny aperture, not enough to let out any rival traffic. The bus didn’t wait for the lights to change. The street was full of holes and the bus jumped full of coins and bolts and musical notes. When it bounced up high enough it was like having your feet go numb, but only for a second.

The bus stops at a red light outside a radiant supermarket. A figure emerges from the dark cross street and steps gingerly among the heaps of bald tires and chunks of broken concrete. The figure’s shadow climbs of the wall, climbs until it reaches the top and reaches back to pull the figure from the darkness. The legs are long and thin but the torso is unnaturally bulky, like a spider. Two more thin legs step from the darkness. It is not a man but a horse a large, unsaddled horse stepping from the oil slicks and spent fan belts of a mechanic’s parking lot. There’s a rider on the horse, a young man in a t-shirt. He brings his hand to his mouth, something gleams, a can of beer flashes in the parking lot lights and right there with the rolling clunk of the cumbia and the honking horns the young man and his horse step from the parking lot and begin to move through the intersection, at first at a quick walking gait then a trot and, crossing the south-bound traffic, a run. The street lights pull at the figure of the rider and his horse like taffy and stretch them across the vacant walls and the grassy lots and the idling motorcycles waiting behind the red light until the image, as if pulled too tight, suddenly snaps from view and disappears like it found a black hole at the corner of Kubitschek and Ayala.

I got off the bus. The bass had swollen in the cumbia and sounded like audible blur. I heard an arena of people cheering. The rider and his mount had disappeared and the music had smothered the clatter of their retreat. Along the streets, I found no one who had seen the spectacle, only the strangely supplicant forms of men peeing into the niches of buildings and the places where the light had not intruded.

La Salida

There was lightening in the distance. From where we stood at the top of the arched bridge, we could see it running through the grey sky in long white streaks. The sky behind us, over Asuncion was smoky, but the sky over the Chaco was that roiling mass of near-purple clouds that purports days of rain. The river was turbid with sentiment and seemed to mirror the agitation of the skies. The green banks groaned over the water. The land here had been flooded and the tubers and roots were swollen with water; the large papaya leaves atop their scaly stalks dripped in dry weather. Being able to hold no more water, the trees, the scrub and the weeds hung heavy over the water satiated and exhausted.

It would’ve been a terrible idea to continue west across the bridge into the Chaco. We could see the streaks in the clouds where it was raining hard enough to make the greys and purples bleed into each other. The ruta that runs across the Chaco, all the way to Bolivia, has a crumbling shoulder and the estanicias, slaughterhouses and terracotta factories up the road produce a lot of truck traffic. If we turned around now perhaps we’d be able to beat the storm back to Asuncion. We talked about turning around, but as I stood there watching the sky, I felt less intimidated by it. It had been so grey in the early morning that we had almost stayed in, until we remembered another Sunday that we had given up because it had seemed on the verge of raining, when it never did. Near-tropical weather seems to bluff a lot. I realized I wanted to see the rain. If we started to get soaked and the road was miserable, we’d turn around. It wouldn’t take much longer than an hour to get home. We picked up our bikes where we had leaned them against the railing and coasted down into the melee of burning garbage smoke, light rain and the indifferent lowing of cows: the Chaco.

From the apex of the bridge, we came right into the Chaco without having to pedal. The eastern bank of the river is urban. There are shopping malls, abandoned housing projects, fly-by-night universities, motels with lascivious-sounding names like El Haram and six lanes of traffic, most of which runs north to south along the river bank. What traffic breaks west and crosses into the Chaco is squeezed into two lanes and split again on the other side of the bridge, with some traffic going south to the Argentine border and some of it going northwest along the ruta that runs through 100s of miles of emptiness before connecting to a road to Bolivia. The Chaco is immediately different. The city ends on the east bank of the river. The smoke-stained concrete structures give way to shacks and tarps on the west bank. Livestock stands in the medians, ruminating. The traffic is almost exclusively motorcycle. Kids with shorn hair and dirty bare feet are clustered around a rill with fishing lines they have tied around dowels of wood. The dogs have the self-assured air they acquire in places where no one has ever willingly given them food. Two bus lines serve the four communities that are placed on this swampy heel of land, the buses rattle and leave wakes of burning oil across the green scenery.

It starts to rain as we pass the first pueblito, but it doesn’t fall hard. The sky has darkened perceptibly and some of the cars and trucks turn on their lights. When they pass our bikes, though they are driving at highway speeds, they make no effort to give us any room, even in cases where the opposite lane is completely unoccupied. On bikes, we become poor, unworthy of consideration. The cars pass us as they would pass mailboxes or trees. We stay as far to the right of the shoulder as possible, but the rains have piled the dross up at the edge of the concrete. Stones, broken glass, exploded toads and banks of wet sand making the riding difficult. We talk over the roar of the pickups and the monotonous whir of our bike tires. The rain isn’t bad. It looks like it came down hard earlier, but we’ve missed the worst of it and only get wet by riding along the rain-glazed shoulder of the road, our back tries throwing up a fine spray of wet sand and water that lashes across our backs until we each have a damp fox’s tail from the bottom of our shirts to the our shoulder blades.

The rain is slow. It’s struggling though a saturated atmosphere and most of it dissipates before hitting the ground. The sprays from our bike tires have made the most uncomfortable parts wet, but the rest is almost dry. The town of Villa Hayes appears through the mist and rushes up to us. We take a right turn off the ruta and struggle down a residential road of wet sand dunes. Cows standing in the road regard us indifferently and continue on their course. People are under their porches, sitting and talking. I raise a hand and shout ‘adios’ and they return the greeting. We are out of the city.

Within an hour the rain clouds have evaporated and the sun is shining off the river drying the back of my shirt and my waistline for the ride back. We sit at the costanera for a while, watching the swollen river run past us and listening to the silence in a town where most people are sleeping, still with the impression that it is dark and raining.