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.

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