Saturday, March 29, 2014

Yanquis del Chaco

You can’t walk out of Asuncion, well, you can but it would take you all day. Depending on the direction, you probably still wouldn’t make it much further than the dusty periphery of a market suburb: the kind they set up on the outskirts of all cities now for the people coming in from the countryside. You would’ve walked all day, just to reach an area of sliding aluminum doors with product logos painted on them, where the streets break down into highways and the sun is still obscured by the roofs and the things piled on top of the roofs, scrap metal mostly, but who knows what else is up there.

This was my problem with, not only Buenos Aires, but all of Argentina. As long as I was in a town, no matter how small, I couldn’t walk out of it. Rosario, Jujuy, Resistencia, they all had nice parks and some trees but on occasion, you want to just walk off the map and not look at any more grey buildings or broken sidewalk tiles. I never cared about the outlying landscape. I’d be just as happy in mountains as forest or a valley. But it was impossible to find your way out. It didn’t help that the streets all have the same names in Argentina. San Martin, Sarmiento, I don’t know how many Rivadavias I walked down. I often thought there was probably just one long Rivadavia that stretched all the way across the country and that I had never escaped it.

The only place that I found that was any different was the north-eastern part of the country, the tiny Missiones province. After crossing the Parana River we seemed to leave the great, endless Rivadavia street behind. There were walls of forest on either side of the highway. The earth shown in large, tiger-orange patches through the grass. The towns were smaller, you took a few turns off the main street and you were out in the fields, in the campo, walking past occasional one-room school houses and grapefruit orchards.

Asuncion is at, roughly, the same longitude as this province and the climate is very similar, but as the original capital of the Rio del Plata area, the city has built its own Rivadavia that spins in hectic circles way out past the suburbs and their dusty warehouses. You’re practically back in the Missiones of Argentina before the city seems to end. But one flank was left unguarded and the cities developers with their blueprints and their T-squares were never able to entire subdue the lands across the river. So, although Asuncion puts up a good fight and hurdles concrete and iron and dust and old peeling advertising posters right to the edge of the river, it has yet to manage to get anything past its waters other than a bridge and then the green takes over.

It was here were we aimed our bikes one Sunday afternoon, looking for an escape from the city, a region called the Chaco’i. The’i means small in Gurani. The small Chaco is a little part of the Great Chaco that hangs down from the great desiccated mass of land that begins on the other side of the river and goes all the way into Bolivia. Paraguay and Bolivia fought a war over the Chaco in the 1930s. One of the ideas about the war over this patch of inferno verde (green hell) is that a rumor of oil in the Chaco was started and both countries rushed in to formally claim the land that, until that point, had about as solid a border as that between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. After the Paraguayans won the war, it was soon discovered that the Chaco was utterly empty of black gold. Most of it looks very much today as it did then: totally empty. In this sense the Chaco is utterly pristine. Although the Chaco makes up a little more than half the countries landmass, 98% of the population lives on the other side of the river.

As much as I would’ve liked to retire to such desolation, the actual Chaco is much further away than the Chaco’i, there’s no border between the two places, but due to the Chaco’i’s proximity to Asuncion, it is more populated than any other region of the Chaco. Who wouldn’t want to live in a jungle just a ten minute drive from the capital city’s downtown? Still, the Chaco’i is nothing like being in Asuncion. There are still more cows than people and the buildings are small and rough-hewn. The only street is the highway that stretches out to Bolivia or down to Argentina. When there is no traffic, there is nothing to hear but birds singing and cows lowing.

As a result of Paraguay’s victory in the Chaco war, there are myriad Asuncion streets names in honor of a group of people that fought in the Chaco war: Aviadores del Chaco, Musicos del Chaco, Defensores del Chaco or Choferes del Chaco. I’m still trying to figure that last one out. I can’t help but to picture tidy mustached guys driving Rolls Royces out onto a battle field. To get to the Chaco’i and the Remanso Bridge we were looking for Avenida Trans-Chaco. Unless you know the city really well, looking for any street with the word Chaco in it is a little confusing.

“Meet me on Aviadores del Chaco.”
“I’m on Choferes del Chaco.”
“Ok, walk over to Cruz del Chaco, if you hit Capellanes del Chaco you’ve gone too far.”
“Is that by the Estadio Defensores del Chaco?”
“No…del Chaco.”

I wrote the directions on my hand. I have a problem with maps: it’s not that I can’t read them or don’t like taking them out, it’s when I have one, I can’t stop looking at it. I want to keep referencing where I am to see what’s around me and I also want to constantly check and make sure I’m still going the right way. Normally, I’m not at all anal about directions. I like to wander and get lost, but there’s something about the color-coded areas and place names about maps that drives me nuts. I get seduced by the mental image Parque Mbuicao conjures up and before I even get over there, I’m looking for something else on the map.

I keep my directions simple: R on this street, L on this street. Although it had been a little breezy the evening before, it was warming up fast. We hadn’t been on our bikes long before I started to sweat off the directions on my hand. Luckily they weren’t too complicated, but there were some unexpected turns in the route that I hadn’t seen on the map and after following all these signs, I started to get confused. After about half an hour of riding, we came to a fork in the road and I had to confess to Gina that I had no idea where we were, let alone which way to go. Instinct told me left and after asking some guys on a corner for directions, we found our way to the Trans-Chaco. From there it looked like it would be nearly a straight shot to the bridge.

The Trans-Chaco is an incredibly wide street. Technically, I think it’s a highway, but the stretch through Asuncion, looks like the area at the edge of any medium-to-large-sized town in the States where there is an abundance of fast food places and gas stations and a median strip between the streets which are about 5 lanes wide in each direction. The Trans-Chaco is like this. There’s a McDonalds and a Burger King and a bunch of (hourly) motels, but there’s also a few malls, and a makeshift market set up outside one of them where people sell fruit from wooden crates. Sometimes the sidewalk disappears into drifts of sand that have been blown up from the river banks. Kids ride by on Honda scooters with flat tires. The innumerable parillas all seethe with that charcoal and wood smell. Normally, this would be a very crowded street and we would have a difficult time navigating it on our bikes without being hit, but on Sunday, nobody goes anywhere. Everybody stays home or visits someone nearby and fires up the grill. Sunday in Asuncion looks like Memorial Day in the States.

I’m a little nervous getting on this road with my bike. The other day Gina was coming home from a babysitting gig with her employer driving with two kids in his lap while he talked on the phone. I see a lot of driving as a peripheral attention-type of activity and there’re very few posted speed limits. People everywhere drive with reckless abandon, but here the system actually seem to favor it.

We get on the road and begin skirting the tarry drifts of blacktop and sand that pile up on the shoulder. Traffic is greatly reduced on Sunday, but there’s still a few people out here racing past us. Luckily, there are so many lanes, they give us a wide berth. We ride past the fruit stands and the desultory crowds at the bus stops. Since the malls are some of the only places open on Sunday, a few people have come out to do some shopping and probably just socialize somewhere that isn’t their front steps. On the left side, we pass what looks like an entire apartment complex—about six buildings, all over 10 stories—empty and sitting in a field. There are cows grazing at the bases of these empty monoliths, so utterly empty that you can see through one into the other. There’s a dirt road that runs alongside of them.

“Looks like a place that you’d be driven to in a car trunk,” I tell Gina, gesturing to the dirt road that runs through the field, along the abandoned hulks.

We take a left at a roundabout and climb a gradual hill toward the Remanso Bridge. The buildings here are pushed back farther from the street. There’s an Aloha Café across the street from either a vet clinic or a place that sells pet products. The distances between things and the random way they’re mixed together gives the appearance of a place no one lives in. The buses drive without stopping on their way to the bridge.
The bridge looks like the old Ottoman design that’s made Stary Most and other bridges so famous. The parapet looks like a book someone set down halfway through reading. The water is chocolate milk festooned by floating green vines. At the apex of the bridge, a bunch of kids have scratched their names into the railing. It’s a long bridge and at the middle, looking to the west, the skyline of Asuncion looks distant and metropolitan. Amongst all the palms and lapachos, the city looks like a jungle metropolis. It is the true image of Latin America that people flying into Lima or Buenos Aires, are disappointed not to see immediately.

The opposite bank of the river, which we can see far into from the height of the bridge, is green and endless. There are two roads, narrow and made of the friable concrete that is always crushed and grassy-looking at the edges. We go west, initially heading toward the village of Remansito. The traffic out in the Chaco’i was faster than it had been before crossing the bridge and there’s very little shoulder on the road. There are cows grazing right up to the edge of the road. They blink their long bovine lashes and assume curious looks as we pass by. There’s a white Brahman standing by a derelict bus shelter with skin so loose it looks a wrinkly blanket.

We turn around by the end of the village and ride back toward the Argentine border. We pass a ceramic factory on a road of shards of red pottery. We have to walk our bikes over the clay shards. They make an iron clanking sound as we pass over them, like heavy chains dragging over concrete. There are also lots of work gloves, leather, cotton and the kind with a field of rubber dots on the inside for grip. Gloves everywhere, mixed in with the pottery. I could almost hear some foreman yelling out.

“Ok, boys, listen, we don’t have enough broken pots for the whole road, so we’re going to have to use this here bag of gloves to fill in the rest. Try to mix ‘em in so it doesn’t look too obvious.”

But it was obvious and also, ancient-looking, this road of terra cotta and hands.

After the pottery shards ended, we got back on our bikes and rode past a couple of clapboard cantinas with cage-fronts. We continued down the road and large-leaved plants that seem to prefer thin trickles of water crept from the creeks on either side seemed poised to overtake the road. The dogs barely lifted their heads as we passed. They blinked and returned their heads to nest of their paws. But there was one dog who watched us intently. He looked from across a field where he stood among a flock of birds, large birds like turkeys. I looked at them, trying to understand the reason for this strange tableau. The dog looked back at me, with that apologetic look dogs have when they’re doing something they’re not supposed to. He was standing next to something white. A cow, no, a dead cow. A swollen white cow, surrounded by a black dog and a field of vultures, with the sun nearing the horizon and all the red dust in the air it was a haunting scene, like a landscape painting that for no obvious reason is unsettling to look at.

We decided to turn back at this point. The late afternoon streets were quiet and we didn’t say much. When we got back into the city, people seemed to be waking up from their seistas. Buses roared past, horns honked and the people of Asuncion yelled to each other, unaware that their world abruptly ended only 15 minutes away where the chocolate milk river cradles the buildings, but also holds them back.

Friday, March 14, 2014


On the bus, I start thinking about the ultimatum they gave me.The driver shifts after slowing down to avoid a huge pot hole. He uses a pole about four feet high, like something a boat swain would use to unmoor a raft. He cranks the pole around and the gears grind together. I can feel them grinding under my feet. For the second time this week, I’m coming back from San Lorenzo. San Lorenzo is one of those suburbs that makes going into the city unnecessary for anyone who doesn’t live there. In San Lorenzo, you can buy anything you could possibly want. The town resembles a soq of the Arab world, only much more impatient. Nothing is meticulously stacked. There is very little assemblage at all. Almost everything, from shoes to herbs to faucet fixtures, is spilled out like hot laundry on a table. An old woman stands by a table of pink and white cotton and taffeta. It looks like she’s running a confectionary and is sorting pink taffy and cotton candy and bubble gum. She’s got a cigarette in her mouth that’s burned all the way down to the filter. There’s a tiny corona of ashes at the tip. It looks like she’s been holding it that way for a long time. She’s got a hook out and she’s trying either to secure a little pink shirt at the top of her tent, or take it down. The bus passes before I can tell which.

The ultimatum they gave me was to decide if I want to stay here for another year. They told me I had until April 18th to make a decision. I’ve barely been here a month. April 18th is a month away.

The bus’s gears bite together again. The metal floor shutters. I notice that I’m seeing the same stands and advertisements I saw when I came into San Lorenzo a few hours ago. I idly wonder if we’re going in circles. I find it doesn’t really matter much. It’s nice to be sitting on this bus, looking out the window, after so many days spent sitting in my office wondering what to do with myself, staring at the reproduction of a mountain cottage painting. There’s snow on the roof of the cottage and the two-track that winds past is muddy with thaw. I look at that painting long enough and I can feel the weight of the mud on my boots and hear the crow of the roosters in the distance. The smell of burning dried manure hangs around the fringes of that fake painting.

The bus is moving quickly now, but a passenger appears from nowhere and hails the bus. The brakes lock in a way they wouldn’t do in the States anymore and everyone is thrown against the seat in front of them. No one says anything; everyone lowers themselves back into their seat and returns to their preoccupation at the window. We’re passing the woman with the cigarette again. It looks like she’s hung up a pink nightgown with a picture of Spongebob on the front.

We were driving through Oregon when I got the news that I had been accepted to work in Paraguay. We had stopped in Corvallis because I had been thinking about trying to find some adjunct work at the university there. We walked around a little. It was warm that day, warmer than it had been that summer in Costal California. There were fires to the south in places like Medford and you could smell the burnt pine in the air. We stopped into one of those cafés that something seems off about, but you can’t tell what it is. It’s always the carpet. Carpeted cafés are quieter and seem cultish, especially if the carpet is new, but it always takes a while to realize it when I walk into one.

After I had read the welcome e-mail from the US Embassy in Paraguay and we paid the bill and left the quiet cafe, Gina and I were driving past fields of mint. The sun was setting and the scent of the mint actually seemed to cool the air. We stopped to camp by a little lake, black with the boughs of an inverted forest. The water was cold.

After swimming out a ways, you could sink down until you felt the pressure building and see the peach color of light through your eyelids turn to grey then black. The water got very cold. The cold would climb up around your feet and ankles until it became a panicky feeling in your chest and you’d race back to the surface. That night, sitting by the fire with the feeling of well-being that comes with being warm and dry after swimming, ten months seemed like very little time.

The bus has been on an unfamiliar street for a while. I check each street sign, hoping to see something familiar. The buildings are all low warehouse-looking places with brand logos painted on their doors. I can’t tell if we are going farther out or coming back into the city. We’re driving toward a ferric raincloud. It’s gotten noticeably cooler. Instead of flip-flops and unwashed hair, the bus is beginning to smell like wet stone. “Another year,” I mutter.

The gears bite together again and there a smell like the singed tooth smell at the dentist’s office. As the bus drives faster, the engine roars louder. For the first year, the idea of going back to the States is appealing. It’s not until the second year that a place, no matter how foreign, begins to feel comfortable. The idea of home becomes mutable. Something keeps pulling me out here. I think I owe it to myself to really follow it this time, to stay long enough to find some new stories here. I’ve been telling the old ones for a little too long. But there are those wearisome afternoons when a cheap reproduction hanging in an office begs you, absolutely begs you to give it up and move to Bozeman or Moscow, ID and build a house, get a dog, cut a lawn, pay bills, drive a car, meet neighbors and plant a tree. It sounds like a sweet litany even now.

The bus finally reaches an area I know, down by the municipal market. I pull the cord and jump off. The streets are already becoming familiar to me, and as I make my way home it begins to rain these big silvery quarters of rain. The sun is shining just above a cloud. A single beam of light is focused right here, almost at my feet. The raindrops are so big and bright and the ground is so dry, the splash of each one is visible. I feel like I’m walking between them, watching the ground all around me dampen. It’s like walking through a room of grey curtains. I push them aside and for a moment there is stillness, like the stillness of being underwater. I can feel the cold around my ankles. I look up and see the trees like I am looking up at their reflections, but instead of being grey, the leaves are verdant with the rain and sun.

You've got to know what that's like by now.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Some Place to Believe in

Gina and I are sitting in a little Peruvian restaurant-cum-bar. There are two Peace Corps volunteers with us. It’s our first weekend in Asuncion. The PCVs have come to the capital to take their GREs and finished a few hours before I called one of them. “Yeah,” she said, “come over and see us. We’re at a bar on the same block as your hotel.” It was Saturday and Gina and I had nothing planned. We could always have taken another walk, but we’ve been taking walks all week. We decided to go to the bar. I didn’t know what the situation is here, but I decided to warn Gina anyway. “PCVs,” I told her, still in our beige hotel room, “drink when they come to the capital. Not always, not really even often, but sometimes, it’s like the capital is too much for them, maybe it reminds them of too many things they’ve nearly forgotten about. I don’t know. Somehow, it seems to remind many of them that they used to be college students and that they used to go out on Saturday night with their friends, friends that, mind you, that haven’t seen in, like, 14 months, friends they’re not entirely sure they still have. They get nostalgic and critical and it’s then that I think they realize they have no idea where they really belong anymore. Rather than think about it too much, I think it’s easier for them to keep socking away the booze and limp back to their sites in the morning, cursing the brashness of the capital and the former home it’s so rudely reminded them of.”

“You think they’re going to be drunk?” Gina asked.

“No, not at all, but I just wanted to mention it, just in case. But, we’re not in the CIS; these PCVs are probably much more accustomed to drinking terrere. They wouldn’t have the same nonchalant approach to booze that we did. I’m sure it won’t be a big deal. You about ready to go?”

I turned off the horizontal air conditioner, scraped the key card off the table and we walked downstairs on the slightly plush red carpet.

We know the guy who runs the restaurant-cum-bar, we’ve been here two or three times this week and spoken with him about his business, the Peru that he left and Paraguayan politics. He’s happy to see us and says ‘hello’ when we all enter. We sit down with the PCVs and order a liter of beer. For four people, this only permits about an eight-ounce serving. The beer tastes good and we continue our conversation where we had left it when we came in and ordered. We talk about Paraguay and listen to the PCV’s opinions. I feel a closeness with them. God, I feel like I’m back in Yerevan, talking with the new group that’s just arrived. Except, somehow, I’m part of the new group. I don’t know what’s ahead for myself in Paraguay, but I know what’s ahead for the PCVs when they return to the states, or leave after their Close of Service to spend their readjustment allowances travelling. I know how it’s going to feel when they step off the plane, or bus and see something they had nearly ceased to believe in and how long they are going to talk over that first meal at home and that first drink with friends and how, when they are alone, pouring over graduate school applications or looking for a job on the internet, they are going to have pangs, literal pangs remembering Paraguay and how for a moment, they will stare into space, remembering their first host family, the idiomatic expressions they learned and used in another language that don’t work in English and the sounds made by birds they might never hear again. These volunteers have five-months left; I remember exactly what five-months-left felt like. I let them tell me about Paraguay, because they tell it so well and with so much love and I don’t tell them a thing about what’s coming at the end of those five months.

We have a few more 8-oz. glasses of beer and a big plate of rice and fish appears on the table. The conversation has lost its focus; we’re at the point which comes in any conversation that’s gone on long enough in which we’re talking about anything that comes to mind. “Where’re you guys from in the states?” One of the PCVs asks. I love how we’ve gotten the special addendum reserved for people living outside the country ‘in-the-states.’ Travelers ask each other where they’re from. Expats have to specify what they mean. I tell them my California/Michigan thing. I’ve been going back and forth to California for too long to not consider it some kind of home, but I was born in Michigan; my family still lives in Michigan.

“Where in Michigan?” one of the PCVs asks.

“Jackson, it’s about 70 miles west of Det— ”

“Yeah, I know it; I’m from Michigan, too.”

We have our Michigan conversation. The same Michigan conversation I’ve had in in San Francisco bars, Chicago music stores, cheap European flights. I know this is a conversation everyone has, but I think people from Michigan come to expect it more, especially when meeting anyone under thirty. I’ve never looked into the statistics, but I would imagine more young people have left Michigan in the last thirty years than any other state.

“You know,” the PCV tells me, “I know someone here from Jackson; he’s a friend of mine you should meet him.”

Look, I’m used to meeting people from Michigan, but from my town, a sleepy, blue-collar place, set at the confluence of a river and a highway, well, it just never happens. Once it happened in San Francisco, only once, but here, in Paraguay? It didn’t seem possible.

“Oh, yeah,” the PCV continues. “He’s been here forever, came in the 60s or something. I guess he just really liked it.”

I ask a little more about the guy from my hometown, but we’re beginning to feel the heat and the conversation turns lackadaisical. Sweat drips into our empty beer glasses. No one makes a move to order more. Flies buzz around the few grains of rice left of the plate. The fish is so completely gone; I find myself wondering where the bones went. A few moments later, we’re awkwardly standing up and telling each other how nice it was to meet. Gina and I walk back across the street to our hotel. I shower and drop off to a nap immediately.

More than a week later, I’m at work, popping into the teacher’s room to see if there’s any coffee made. There’s an older man in the room alone. He looks like he wants to talk.

“Hola. Que tal?”

“Bien, y vos?”

“Bien, gracias, vos tenes clases aqui?”

I’m not sure if what I hear is an accent or just some kind of dialect. After he answers, I ask him in English where he’s from.

“A town in Michigan called Jackson.” The man says wistfully.

“Me too,” I say and he looks up at me with a slightly confused look and I fire out the next question before he can beat me to it.

“What part?”

“Fourth street.” He says with one eyebrow way up on his forehead.

“Me, too.” I say and it’s the most poignant, ‘me too’ of my life.

There but for the grace of God…me too.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Warm-Soda Sunset

It was Sunday, so there wasn’t much traffic. Before noon there is virtually none, but it was much later in the afternoon, probably around 4, by the time we left. We had been out briefly before, with our bikes, to the super market. I had been so hungry, that I decided I’d rather set the bikes up than walk all the way over to the Super Seis. There hadn’t been much to the ride. We went down along the embassy walls, which stretch for three or four blocks. Nothing goes through the embassy, so there are no cross streets and the ride is all angled slightly downhill. It hardly took any effort.

Now, we were going to take a longer ride. We planned to go across town to the botanical gardens, which for some reason straddle the border of Asuncion and the suburbs to the north of the city. Perhaps their central placement wasn’t deemed necessary because of the riotous flora everywhere in the city. In Buenos Aires, most of the city was grimy concrete walls and loose and broken paving tiles until you got to the botanical garden where the verdure seemed to wash over you. A palm-fringed refuge full of cats, I often found it hard to exit back into the dirty slab of a city after spending some time in the botanical garden. Here, where the primary difference is only the existence of houses, the contrast between parks and the city is often negligible.

There was some traffic, but no great deal of it. I was surprised at how many hills we encountered since Paraguay has a reputation for being so flat. Unlike San Francisco hills, they were all very gradual so that they were not very hard to ride up and could be coasted down for blocks. In the gutters, were large quantities of the red earth that is so common here. Along the streets, there were torn billboard advertisements, huge, dead palm fronds and squealing kids with no shirts or shoes. The passengers in cars and the people on the street turned their heads when we passed, but did not stare outright. We looked different, but there are other people on bikes in Asuncion, though none probably as odd-looking as Gina and me.

We went down a steep hill that entered another major street. Here, the tarry blacktop had been warped by the heat and pressure of the traffic. Where the lanes were, the tar and stone and been pushed away, but on the shoulders and, to some degree, in the middle of the street, there were great heaps of the stuff. Along the shoulders, the tarry blacktop eddied and ebbed in dark currents. In a great wave, it would bring you up on its back, with some difficulty, you tried to stay on its crest, until eventually, the whole thing would diminish into a gummy whirlpool, bringing you back down to the street. We must’ve looked ridiculous to the traffic behind us, trying to straddle that drifting ledge of tar on our bikes, our shoulders absorbing the shock and lifting up and down and our front wheels constantly tacking back and forth.

The botanical garden was a park and nothing like a botanical garden with its different biomes represented. There was no cactus garden, no Mediterranean garden, no succulent plot, not even any labels that I could see. It was just a place where no one had chopped down any trees for a while, so they put a fence around it and called it a botanical garden. Despite the misnomer, it was a nice place, a large leafy forest that, on Sunday, hosted all kinds of kids playing soccer and amorous couples sitting on blankets, terrere’ thermoses between them. There was a cobbled road that made a loop through the front part of the park. It was solid enough to ride a bike on, but the cobbles were hard on the wrists and thighs. We bounced down the road past families buying little bags of popcorn and empanadas and trees that I don’t know the names for. The sun was shining through the canopy of leaves overhead and dappled the cobblestones in a pleasant way. We followed the road past a paddock of goats and ostriches and stopped to watch the younger animals stumble around, the baby ostriches looking oddly like shaggy footballs from our vantage.

The serenity of the scene ended immediately at the exit gate. The park was placed at busy intersection and the petulant cars moved quickly and erratically. We got back on the melted road and road the crest of the tar wave for a while, but we didn’t stay on it as long. We took a side street most of the way back home where the neighborhood was nicer and the streets were quiet with Sunday languor: hoses dripped in front yards where people had abruptly stopped watering the flowers to take a siesta and the hoarse and pensive conversations that follow afternoon naps issued from back patios and plastic chair porches. The dominant sound on the street was the sound of bare feet idly tracing designs on dusty concrete floors.

“Yeah, I figured it out,” I was telling the woman in the office where I work. “It’s says 2,400 and a name.” At first, I thought it was some really obscure graffito. Something like what you always see in Latin America, the overlap between futbol and politics; two things foreigners seldom understand. In Argentina, if the writing on the walls wasn’t about Kristina, Messi or the Malvinas I had no idea what it meant. Just names and numbers, but this one I figured out.”
“Oh, yeah?”
“Yeah, so I heard someone talking about the buses. How the fee used to be 2,000 Guarani, but they raised it to the obscure amount of 2,400, which is really annoying because no one ever has four 100 coins, it’s about as likely as having four dimes in the States. Then I realized, ahh, 2,400 that’s the number I saw on the wall. Now the name above it, something like Japero or Japiro I don’t know who that is, but I’m assuming he (or she) has something to do with the increase in the fare, or maybe they’re going to lower it. I noticed from the way you winced when I said the name you must really dislike this person, too.”
“Japiro,” she whispered. “Japiro isn’t a name. It’s the Guarani word for ‘fuck.’”
“Ahhh, well, I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t go around asking who Japiro was.”

Yesterday, I had no idea what to do with myself, which is something that always happens on Sundays when you first move to a country. You sleep in, eat breakfast, read a little and around noon it becomes apparent that there’s a lot more day left that you’re completely unequipped to handle. You set your book down and look around the room for something suggesting a diversion. At this point you realize how very little you actually have in your apartment, given that you’ve just moved into the place. Ideally, you’re looking for a little project. It would be wonderful to knock together a birdfeeder or put some shelves up or even just organize a bunch of stuff you haven’t looked through in a while. But you’ve practically just finished unpacking. Everything is stowed neatly away and nothing has been able to degenerate into anything that would need organizing. It becomes clear that your apartment is not going to meet you half-way on this and the only other option is to attempt to make use of the city. Ah yes, the new sprawling city, right outside your door! All those avenues and alleys just waiting to be seen and strolled, all those interesting little shops, run by grandmothers who are waiting to have a long chat with you, all the bridges to pass over and restaurant menus to peruse, fruit trees to discover and vista points to climb. You pull down the maps and look them over carefully, trying to find a place that isn’t too far away that you haven’t seen yet. To the southwest, it looks like there’s an unexplored area, where a number of major streets go. There’s a hill way down at the end of it, too: Cerro Lambare’. I rouse Gina from where she’s sprawled out after just finishing her third book in a week, watching the Sunday sky drift by in the balcony window.

It’s warmer outside that it was yesterday, in fact, it’s gotten hot this morning. My legs still feel a little stiff from their first bike ride in months yesterday. My jeans start to cling to my tired muscles and my feet begin to swell. We’re walking down a street we know pretty well already. That’s probably why I haven’t really begun to enjoy this yet. It’s because I’m not looking at anything new. When we get off this street and head into the new territory, I’ll have so much to look at I’ll forget all about my aching legs and the general damp feeling that’s already developed. But the new area is a continuation of the area we already know, if anything it’s less comfortable because we don’t know anything about it. There a number of hospitals crowded together here. Motorcycles and dirt bikes and cars made across the Atlantic kick up dust and rev their engines. Fruit vendors sit humbly next to their wares on overturned buckets and various cashiers stand outside the small shops where they work to talk and drink terrere’ and pretend they’re free to go and do whatever they want. Maybe they watch us walk by and envy our freedom. I want to ask them what they would do if they could leave the shops, I’m sure they’d have some good ideas, but it seems like an impertinent question, because we’ve got the day off and they’re at work.

After the hospital, everything starts to repeat itself. There’s the same trio of moldering mangos kicked off the sidewalk. There’s the same empty house that’s on a raised level and has a wildly overgrown lawn. There’s the same peluqueria with the paintings of hombres and mujeres with very tight and neat-looking haircuts and very inept-looking faces. There’s the same white and brown little dog dozing in the sun. There’s the cheap-looking shoe someone has discarded. There’s the hedge in bloom with beautiful and fragrant white flowers. There’s the auto-servicio with refrigerators that don’t work full of warm 3.3-liter Pepsi bottles. There’s the red earth and the broken sidewalk tiles and the hot car exhaust.

After we’ve walked about a mile and a half down the street, we cross to the other side and turn back. The discursive loop has ended because we’ve stopped paying much attention. The walk is better this way, there is no expectation and we’re on our way home. Our fingers feel tight with dust and the heat. Everything that’s exposed feels hot and dry, everything that’s not feels like something that’s been in the microwave for too long, but I feel more carefree on the walk back. The sidewalk is a little less even on this side of the street and we repeatedly have to step over places where tree roots have broken through the tiles or where diffident neighbors have remodeled their section of the sidewalk, building directly over the old one, thus raising the level. A nicer home is obvious from the street by the fact that the sidewalk is always new and therefore raised. When there are several nice homes in a row, it’s like walking up and down a series of little ziggurats.

When we’re nearing our neighborhood, we pass before the fruit stands we saw earlier from the other side of the street. They have a pencil shaving and sucrose smell, like the moving boxes I get from the grocery store’s produce department: empty apple or waxy banana boxes, with the smell of the fruit still so strong inside. They’re selling ensalada de frutas from Styrofoam coolers. They give you a reusable cup, a stack of which stands near the cooler, none of which look very clean. Macerated fruit seems like too porous a thing to eat from a dirty cup; it seems like it would absorb all the dried flakes and dead seeds already in there. Still, as we pass by, I ask Gina if she wants to try some, I can’t pass any kind of street food that I can eat without at least contemplating purchase.

It’s a relief to get home. Our damp, microwaved clothes clinging to us, we turn the air on and collapse onto the couch. The all-white room of our brand new apartment is calming, it has the look of an airy cottage on Corfu or some place. We sit on the couch and read for a while, letting the fatigue drain from our swollen calves and sunburnt shoulders. We glance up from our books to look out the balcony doors, projecting ourselves out over the visa of thick-leafed Spanish Plum and willowy Lapacho. When the sun starts to go down we go out to the balcony and look out over the direction of where we walked earlier. We try to use the reference to feel a little more comfortable and familiar with our surroundings, but there’s nothing to be seen but trees and the tops of one or two buildings.