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.

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