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.”
“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.