Friday, February 28, 2014

Whited Lilies

Sunday, we went to the Recoleta cemetery. The walk was long down Mariscal Lopez in the sun, under the partial shadow of the security walls surrounding the villas, all with the same red clay tile roofs and white walls. Little purple flowers struggled through the security fences and dropped their petals into the piles of refuse, sand and plastic cups that had blown up against the wall. We had brought a bottle of water from the hotel. It was warm within minutes. I carried it in my back pocket and the water sloshed a little with every step. Every time I took a drink, I wanted to gulp down the whole bottle, but there wasn’t very much and very few places are open on Sunday.

We had to climb up a few stairs, Recoleta stood on an elevated block, like a platform. At first, I thought this was out of reverence, to raise it from the level of all the other city blocks around it; to set it apart as something that contained the mortal remains of the city’s former inhabitants, then I realized that it was probably just the accumulation of graves and material that had raised the area up, like the churchyards in England rising up around the church like leavened dough.
From the street, the Asuncion Recoleta looked more like a New Orleans graveyard than its Argentine counterpart. What could be seen over the concrete wall was nothing like the flights of angels and weeping maidens the guard and adorn the resting places of the Porteño elite. There was no solemnity. Even in the sun,the Recoleta in Buenos Aires, manages to look grey and somber. It induces reflection even in the casual tourist only there to find Evita’s grave between shoe store visits. What we were looking at as we approached the cemetery was an amalgamation of different tastes and designs, all of which were cruelly useless to the dead. The canary-yellow vault and the stained glass crucifix all the chiseled ‘cariñoso’s and the plastic flowers and ribbons were all too weak to form a sufficient façade to cover the reality of the aftermath of death; not what happens when the body dies, but when the very memory of that body dies as well.

At the entryway there were a few tired-looking people reclining under the shade of the trees selling small, withered bunches of flowers. On entering the cemetery, I found it to be bigger than I had imagined, probably near the size of its counterpart in Buenos Aires. There were even signs, made to resemble street signs that marked the lanes that led between the crypts. These were simply labeled Calle ‘A,’ ‘B,’ etc. if horizontal or Avenida ‘A,’’B’ etc. if vertical. The central Avenida, was wide and paved with flag stones. It led to the middle of the cemetery where a large yellow-ish crypt halted its progress.

This main thoroughfare was very nice. The crypts were in good repair on either side, the flags were even and there were a few trees growing among the crucifixes. We walked a little ways down this path, looked at some of the regal graves, such as that of Eliza Lynch’s daughter and then turned on to one of the calles.

The change wasn’t immediate, we walked for a long way among modest crypts, some of them made a little decrepit by time, but the corpses inside seemed to be in peaceful repose. We came to one in which a few errant bones were visible on the floor of the crypt. Somehow, they had been shaken loose, probably when the coffin had been moved for some reason, or perhaps it wasn’t clear to which coffin the bones belonged. We took in the momento mori . Each of us thinking about the bones in our own bodies and how some day they would be divested of their sapient attire. Bones are the easiest permutation of death, probably because they are the farthest removed from us. In life, we are aware of our bones as things that break or get weak or need fillings. They are a sort of reliable hardware. The skeleton is subservient to the viscera and the brain which are more human and more alive. We don’t think of the skeleton as that which will outlive everything else: our final corporeal presence in the world in the form of a pile of bones.

As we walked on, the crypts appeared older, broken down and even vandalized. Gina pointed out a few burnt logs surrounded by ashes here and there which seemed to imply that people stayed here at night, weather they were keeping vigil, squatting or grave robbing wasn’t clear, but from the look of some of the graves, I gathered it wasn’t entirely wholesome. Further down, we came to a very large crypt, which we mistook for a small chapel until we noticed a tiny coffin concealed inside. On the outside, the crypt had been splattered with paint. It looked as if someone had tested many different paint brushes on its walls. It didn’t look like deliberate malice but rather like a gross form of incompetence. There were also carbonized streaks where someone had rubbed ashes and charcoal onto the walls of the crypt. In some places, it looked like they had attempted to write something, but nothing could be made out. The door of the crypt was hanging open and under the shelf that held the tiny coffin there was a disordered pile of bones. Some of them about the size of a large grapefruit and rounded: skulls. Once I realized that I was looking at one, I noticed them all; there was even one next to the tiny coffin facing out. It looked very deliberately placed. I heard Gina gasp behind me and she pointed to one that still had a few locks of matted air clinging to it.

I began to feel somewhat unnerved by the spectacle; I didn’t think it right to keep peering into this grisly resting place. The long hair on the skull made it unmistakably a woman which took the psychological distance out of the experience. I was no longer looking at bones, but into the hollow remnants of faces.

In these kinds of situations, it’s always either drizzling rain or the moon is illuminating everything with a haunting sepulcher light, but now the sun was dazzlingly bright. The lack of mystery made the experience much more unnerving. It was like an encounter with death himself rather than with one of his tired ghosts. I took one more look at the pebbly orbital bones and the deliberate shape of the eye sockets and suggested that we go. I was beginning to feel like I was standing around the scene of an accident and my sudden lack of thoughts unnerved me. The only thought I had was death, even with the birds swooping overhead and the sound of the flower vendor’s radios outside the cemetery.

The other crypts now seemed to me artifices of fear, meant only to belie inevitable decomposition. The more ornate the crypt, the stronger the fear of physical death. As if by creating an inhabitable place to rest in after death would actually keep you alive somehow, like an old woman forever tottering around a one room apartment, never actually dying, but preserved by the cold marble walls around her.

We walked off the main ‘calle’ to a more remote part of the cemetery, where the crypts were smaller and disregarded. The friable walls seemed to close in around us, sometimes forcing us to squeeze through a crevice or confronting us with a dead end. Time had opened many of the doors here. The old locks had rusted off, the stained glass had grown brittle and shattered and the coffins inside had splintered and disgorged their contents. Inside each one of those ornate marble kilns there was a glow of exposed bone. Walking between the crypts was like walking between rows of bored spectators. I glanced about here and there, but tried not to let my gaze rest too long in any one place. There were no longer bodies, everything human and familiar had been effaced, what we were confronted with was limited to remains, remains and effects, the sloughed off and empty of personality.

Crypts doors stood partially if not entirely open, the windows were broken; everything was out in the open, in the sun. Gina and I were particularly thirsty and as we traversed the tumbled plots and tombs we occasionally encountered the shade of a grapefruit or mango tree. We slowed down to walk under the restorative leaves and the global fruit hung suspended before our faces, although not completely ripe, it was a temptation to break one open and suck out the juice, but when I unconsciously traced the branch back to the trunk of the tree, I found them all growing at the junction of several graves. I knew this to be the natural order of things, but I didn’t want to think of having the juice of those grapefruits all over my hands and dribbling down my chin.

Curiously, there was very little smell. I assumed that everything in this older cemetery had decomposed long ago. Everything had ossified and evaporated. Until we stepped between two crypts and the smell of decay seethed into the still air, like a drop of dye in a clear glass of water. I had expected people to smell like animals after death, but even in this they remain apart. Human decay has a greater sweetness, which is what makes it so much more choking. The smell is like ordinary decay combined with the smell of singed hair. It is a smell that is pre-cognitive; you might not know what it is, but there’s something incredibly unnerving about it. The further we proceeded down the calle, the stronger the smell became. Eventually, we came upon a crypt that seemed to be leaking a mixture of oil and melted candlewax. It looked like the marble structure was weeping out its resident.

We wandered around a little more after this, but after all we encountered, it began to feel ghoulish. I wasn’t there to look at the crypts and read the inscriptions anymore. There were only corpses and decomposition, everything else was flimsy scenery. Behind all the marble and candles, there was only one thing happening here and I was intruding upon it.

As we walked back to the street, I thought of the beautiful cemetery we’d stopped into before walking into the grisly one we had just left. How beautiful the place had been with narrow, green strips between the tombs and so many of them with large beautiful plants growing directly out of them. These people had accepted death and had peacefully gone back to the earth. Despite being a graveyard, the place had a feeling of being alive. It was like a riotous garden, where the bodies had lain a foundation for everything to fructify. By contrast, the marble and iron crypts of Recoleta had been perverse and morbid. They sought to convey their cargo directly to heaven but instead inextricably bound it to a grey limbo with neither the green of earth nor the white of paradise.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Mask of a River

I had forgotten about the uproar of the Sao Paulo airport. There are multiple terminals there serviced by buses. The gates are ground level doors. Outside, the concrete reflects the heat and bus exhaust directly up your nose. From the reading I had done, I imagined that most the people flying back and forth between Asuncion and Brazil would probably all be dealing in some kind of contraband, but the people on the bus with us looked much less adventurous. There were middle-aged women in large sun hats. Men freshly shaved with attaché cases. It may have all been to allay suspicion, but Gina and I looked like the most suspicious people boarding the flight; scruffy foreigners, but not tired-looking or sun burnt enough to be backpackers. The lingua franca on the plane seemed to be Portuguese rather than Spanish. It was comforting to be heading into a country where it seemed everyone else knew less of the language spoken there than I did.

When we began our descent, I turned across the aisle to look out the window. Everything underneath us was a deep forest green or a light clay-red. There were a lot of open fields and dirt roads. The sun beat down on everything mercilessly. The panoply reminded me of a park on a hot July afternoon, when all the kids have given up their games to go home and stand in front of their open refrigerators. There were people out, but things looked desolate. I turned to Gina and said “looks kinda’ boring, huh?” “Yeah,” she confirmed without saying anything else. There were no hills, no extensive-looking forests and all the rivers were turbid with mud. It didn’t seem like the greatest beginning. Landing only confirmed what we had seen from the plane. The runway looked like a baseball field; the airport like an old office building. The kids had all gone home for the day.

We came into the concourse and things were a little more hopeful. Everything was much more peaceful than it had been in Brazil. The people didn’t seem to be in a hurry. Even the security guards looked like they were going to fall asleep. There were two lines for immigration. One line was for nationals, which was short and single-file and the other was for extranjeros which was about five-times as long. “Damn!” I thought to myself. “Doesn’t anyone actually live here?”

While waiting in line, I heard someone call ‘hello,’ but thought nothing of it. My contact at the embassy told me she would pick me up, but I didn’t expect to see anyone until we had cleared customs and gotten our bags. I had, apparently underestimated the abilities of US embassy employees.

My contact introduced herself, while Gina and I stood there, quite baffled. We still had to wait in line, but they breezed us through customs and in a moment we were out on the roaring hot concrete, the dry palm fronds froufrouing in the hazy sirocco.

After we checked into our hotel and slept for the afternoon, Gina and I awoke to a much more languorous place of incarnadine skies and a smell like sweet, dried chili in the air, as if the sunset had a smell. We walked up Avenida España and compared Asuncion with the slightly baroque barrio of San Telmo in Buenos Aires; the city was like an extended version of San Telmo, only with more open areas and a lot more trees. All the houses had a look of faded grandeur to them, the columns were crumbling, the fences were rusting and from the look of the plants growing out of some of the roofs, there must’ve been several living rooms that had had their chandeliers replaced by dangling roots. Everywhere, plants had other plants growing off them: epiphytes grew from the trees, parasitic vines entwined around each other, toppled to the ground and lifted themselves lazily up from the red earth toward their photosynthetic goal and orchids grew like colorful explosions from the ashen bark of palms. After walking around for the evening, I felt good about beginning the program the next day. I felt like I had to earn my right to stay in such a beautiful place. Teaching, it seemed, would be even better considering where it would permit me to stay.

At the end of the week we went to Mercado Cuatro, the main outdoor market for the city. I had heard varying reports of this market. They had recently made a movie detailing the activities of the criminal underworld in Asuncion. I think the movie was shot entirely in Mercado Cuatro, so many people held the opinion that it was a dangerous place. Most of these people, when questioned further, would admit to never having gone anywhere near the place. When I talked to one of the drivers for the embassy, he told me we’d be fine, the only problem we should expect would be higher prices for everything based on our accents. Since everything is closed on Sunday and most businesses only stay open until noon on Saturday, I thought late Saturday morning would be a good time to go; the place must be at its most frenetic by then, and when you’re not going to a market to buy anything, you want to go when things are at a fever pitch.

The market was even more ad hoc than I had expected. It gradually began with a few stray tables on the outskirts, carried over into a few streets and then burrowed down a number of plywood and plastic tarp alleys. The heart of the market was easy to miss. It was an aperture nearly choked with bright Chinese clothes, ropes and the heavy smell of chicken grease and dust. We circled the area a few times in the larger, open areas of the market where there were palates of beer, 50-gallon drum barbecues and motorcycles weaving quickly through everything. The traffic, auto and pedestrian, bore down from every possible direction. Almost unconsciously, we made for the edge of the chaos and soon found ourselves out of the market. From the quiet, green borders we circled back around, caught our breath and then sought out one of the claustrophobic alleys from which the life of the market seemed to issue.
Do you remember the forts you used to build as a kid? Those blanket and chair constructions that you always had such great plans for, but somehow always turned out the same? The same comforter from your bed, draped over the same living room chairs; you were limited by your materials. If you had owned enough comforters and chairs, maybe you would’ve eventually created something like Mercado Cuatro. The market opened on a corner, almost by accident. It looked like someone had forgotten to put a wall in and seal the thing off entirely. We squeezed through the gap between the boards and stepped into a place wallpapered with t-shirts and bras with a dirt floor and a plastic roof. The structure was loose enough to seem to breathe with each gust of air that assaulted its plywood walls.

The market was full of people looking just as confused as us. Everyone’s eyes seemed to be darting around, looking for a way out, or a cheap, but quality pair of socks. Plastic shopping bags and items on display swept over us as we walked through the market, as the long, cephalopod brushes sweep over cars in the carwash. We stopped for a second to glance at a shirt. There was no place to move out of the stream of human traffic. The vendor called to us in vain as we were pushed along to another stall. Near a table, there was a dog’s bowl on the ground. Something furry dashed beneath the table cloth. “Did you see that?” Gina asked after we had been pushed beyond the stall. “A dog?” “No,” she glanced back longingly. “A monkey.”

There was no up, nor down, forward nor back; the same displays and tarps and packed dirt greeted one from every direction. We could’ve been moving in a straight line; we could’ve been going in a circle. Eventually, we came to a larger, midway-like section of the market. A little sun shone through the gaps between the tarps and the packed dirt was hard, like concrete. What extra room the opening afforded was quickly cancelled out by more people seeming to rush towards us to fill any free space. The smells were changing every few paces. The fading perfume on the people rushing by suddenly broke and grew sour-smelling, old basement-smelling. A new type of stall appeared the deeper we went into the market, a medicinal herb stall. Behind each sack of dried flowers or crushed leaves, sat an old woman. While everyone else in the market was talking, these women all seemed lost in their own thoughts. None of them paid the slightest bit of attention as we passed their stalls, even if we stopped to see what manner of roots and minerals they purveyed, we never even got a glance. Perhaps sitting among such rich medicinal scents, year after year in the sweltering heat has an analgesic property yet undiscovered.

The earthy flower smells faded and, from somewhere unseen, issued a dull whacking sound, like a heavy knife sinking into cork. The flies were increasing. They buzzed past your ears like someone offering an illicit product. My eyes followed their drunken flight pattern towards a large stool heaped high with what looked like necks, or maybe something’s floppy legs, cut into sections. Each had a sort of white rind on the outside. The inside was bleeding and wrinkled-looking meat. Mercilessly, there seemed to be more sun in this part of the market than elsewhere. The smell was gastric and hot. The blood seethed out of the meat, dripped down the stool and onto the packed dirt beneath it. People stepped into the blood and carried off a little bit of the smell, which seemed to crowd the senses. Even when I held my breath the bruised smell was there, I could taste it in my mouth and feel it like a pressure against my ears. The flies buzzed around frantically after being disturbed, before settling down again. I found myself wondering why gangrene only forms in living things. It seemed the pile of necks I passed and the other troughs of meat around it would be ideal receptacles for something so foul. Indeed, the smell that followed us into another sundry section of the market seemed to have a pestilential air to it, the same smell, I’d imagine that haunted battlefields and terrorized medieval villages.

At some point, we found ourselves back out on the street under the open sky. The difference between being inside the market and on the street outside was negligible as even on the street the thin strips of sky were crowded with tenuously-balanced towers of packing crates and there were still tarps strung out just about any place where one could be strung. It looked as if the goal of the neighborhood had been to blot out the sun and in some places that work had not yet been finished. You can always tell how much a group of people have to be in the sun by how hard they have tried to blot it out with whatever comes to hand.
Two or three blocks away from the market, the green clouds of mango trees drifted out from vacant property lots and the trammeled and bird-pecked fruit lay all around fermenting in the bright and unchecked sun.