Wednesday, June 25, 2014

August Morning/ September Afternoon


There are grocery-like kiosks, selling bags of cheap cookies with 2 grams of trans. fat per serving. The color schemes on the printing bags are all misaligned. Outside the illustration lines there are overlapping matrixes of cyan, magenta and yellow. The bags are slightly dusty. There are coolers of sodas. When you buy one, they put a straw in for you. If the straws are self-serve, they will remind you to take one as if it were impossible to consume a soda without a straw. They sell sandwiches that all look the same.

The other kiosks are last-minute gifts for the traveler. If you forgot that someone’s birthday had passed since you last visited, you could buy them a stuffed bear, soccer ball or soccer jersey depending on the recipient. There are also a few mass-produced-looking handicrafts. Paraguayan flags made with √Ďandut√≠ lace and different leather products—most of them thermos covers with soccer teams’ logos. Some kiosks sell nothing but the barrel-like thermoses for terere, each one wrapped tight in black leather with an attachment for the guampa—the cup that one drinks terere from, all made to resemble horns with a banana-like curve and a flare at the top. The women selling these thermoses or termos are either talking with each other or standing about five paces in front on their kiosk sort of ushering you into their battery of thermoses.

When you come into the bus station there are religious pamphleteers at the door. They have tracts that depict a cartoon Christ with an uncanny kindness in his eyes and a firm mouth. Other pamphleteers in less salient positions, say tucked in over by the bathrooms, have different tracts printed on rougher paper completely lacking in pictures. The proselytizers at the door are much more aggressive and speak English.
Standing within a few feet from the pamphleteers at the door are police with flak jackets, or something made to look like a flak jacket and blue camouflage pants tucked into their boots. Some of them have the modern equivalent of an elephant gun and berets overshadowing their inscrutable countenances. Most of the cops are not nearly so serious. Some of them smoke. Some of them sit with their terere thermos, passing a guampa back and forth. I don’t know if I should be reassured or disconcerted by the fact that none of them seem to know where anything is. Ask them where the bathroom is. They only shrug.

When I find my gate for Cuidad del Este, I sit down in a plastic scoop of a seat that looks like something a child would love to roll little toy cars up and down. The back of the seat flexes a little as I settle into it in a way that shocks something in my back. All the seats are the same dull orange plastic. Many of them are piled high with those massive plastic weave bags that are invariably blue and white plaid. Whoever made these bags should sell advertising on them. I’ve seen them all over the world. Where ever these bags are seen there is always a faint smell of lanolin in the air.

There is a man selling dulce de mani from a stool not far from where I’m sitting. In some places called Ka’i ladrillo (monkey [Guarani] and brick [Spanish]), dulce de mani is a rockhard conglomeration of peanuts and solidified molasses. Dulce de mani is the kind of candy that you don’t bite into, but rather allow your teeth to find purchase on and sort of ease back and forth against the resistance of your jaw until either the candy or your tooth breaks. It’s good stuff, but I get nervous eating it.

Most people are not incredibly trusting of bus station fare, but I’ve never had a bad experience with it. In Uzbekistan, I had some of the best piroshkis at bus stations; the bus station in Damascus, I remember, had some really good juice. The food items for sale at jerkwater bus stations reflect more culinary culture than any themed restaurant in the capital. What’s available in the bus stations is the absolute basic: the snack and the snack says more about a people than their most involved dish. The difference between the two is like the difference between home and Time’s Square. You recognize the latter as belonging to you in some vague national way, but the former is ingrained in you; it’s your identity.

I decided to grab a dulce de mani bar for the road. I knew it wouldn’t be much more than 50 cents and that it would be slightly filling. The seller was an amiable guy and our exchange was brief. I returned to my seat with my rock of peanuts and sugar. I took a look at it. It felt soft and had an uncharacteristic scrubbed look to it. It was opaque and the gleam of the hardened molasses didn’t shine through the plastic wrapper as it usually did. I opened it. The smell was slightly fattier than usual. The clean sugar smell was tempered with something slightly greasy. I took a little bite. The flavor was completely wrong. Rather than sweet, it was bitter. There was a soapy, fatty taste like it was made of glycerin. The texture was candle wax and sand. Like anyone who takes a bad bite of something, I looked down at what I was eating to try to determine the source of my disgust. I pocked around the bar until I noticed something dark secreted amongst the peanuts. “A raisin?” They don’t grow grapes in Paraguay and everything imported from Chile and Argentina is usually expensive. Considering the low price of my purchase, I dismissed the idea. ‘’What then? A burnt peanut?” This seemed more likely, but I had to satisfy my curiosity before I bit into the thing again. I began to pick away at the friable substance and had soon dislodged a sizable fly. It’s thick, membranous wings even popping out a little after the weight had been removed from them. I held the dead fly between my fingers for a second. It was about the size of a medium-sized horsefly, entirely black with garbage-catching cilia and a shiny carapace. Holding the fly between my fingers, I couldn’t help but to imagine biting down on the thing. I could feel its yielding, crispy quality and I had the alimentary sensation of this rough, black pill cracking open between my teeth and sliding down my throat.

Did the last bite taste so bad because it had contained another fly? Or was this one enough to spoil the whole bar? I still had the awful soapy taste in my mouth which, as time passed was reveling more or a lardy undertone. There was almost certainly some recycled frying oil in this thing or grease, white and clammy, scraped off the bottom of a pan somewhere. But even while considering these things, my revulsion settled. ‘’Perhaps I got a bad bite,’’ I reasoned. ‘’There’s probably only this one fly.’’ From where I was sitting I could see the seller of the bar. He wasn’t looking in my direction. He was chatting with someone. I wasn’t the victim of some obscure practical joke. What was I anyway? A wimp? Someone who was squeamish about finding a few bugs in his food? Such things had never bothered me before. Besides, we all eat bugs all the time when we’re asleep, right? I dropped the dead fly to the ground. It was large enough to make a little sound as it hit the tile floor. Pnk. I wasn’t just going to throw the thing away because it had one lousy fly in it and tasted like something that could’ve been removed from a McDonald’s grease trap. Besides, I hadn’t brought much food. If I could get this thing down, I probably wouldn’t be hungry later on. ‘’In fact,’’ I thought. ‘’I may not be hungry for a day or two if every bite tastes like that last one.’’

Before crunching back into the bar, I decided to look it over just to make sure there weren’t any more bugs couched between the peanuts. I spotted another dark object and pried at it. I hoped for the burnt peanut I hadn’t been lucky enough to find the previous attempt, but instead the bar disgorged another hairy fly, this one the size of a pebble large enough to make one have to stop and remove it if it had been in a shoe. I dropped it on the floor as well, imagining that the dulce de mani seller and his friend were watching me by now and laughing. I looked over the bar, 2, 3, four more flies. Damn! This thing was studded with flies. They looked like they had been added on purpose! I looked up expecting to see a camera or at least a finger pointed at me and a mouth or two opened in loosed hilarity, but there was nothing. The seller continued talking to his friend and no one around me seemed to notice that I had picked more than a few flies from my dulce de mani bar. As I looked back down at the damp grains and broken insects in my lap, I really wondered if I had unwittingly bought some treat from the campo that was supposed to be full of bugs. People in some places eat bugs. I never heard of it in Paraguay, but I think at one point in every people’s history they ate bugs, way not here and now?

I found a greasy nugget or two that seemed to be free of bugs and ate them quickly to save face. I couldn’t taste the gastric juices of a crushed insect, but neither could I detect anything like peanuts or molasses. The thing reminded me of goat, not goat meat, but the way goats smell after they’ve been out on the fields peeing on each other all day.

I threw the rest away and got a Fanta to wash the goat-piss-taste out of my mouth.



I went out skating yesterday. Thirty-one years old and still skateboarding. My friend Jason in Oakland used to call it geriatric skate club when Mikey and I went to the West Oakland skatepark on Sundays. He was right; usually, we’d get up and have breakfast at a particularly geriatric time like 8 am, when there was no one else in the restaurant and the light was falling almost vertically though the open blinds onto the dusty morning floor. The waitress knew us as regulars. Thank god we didn’t always order the same thing or she probably would just come up, with that world-weary air of so many good waitress and said, ‘what’ll it be today, boys? The usual?’ To which we would’ve shuffled our feet on the dusty tile and mumbled assent.

After coffee and biscuits and gravy, I was often too relaxed and too set in my Sunday frame of mind to much contemplate skating, but we’d go anyway, since after drinking that much coffee you have to do something in which you are moving around. The morning would pass into afternoon and find us still at the skatepark, attempting tricks both known and familiar to us and those entirely out of our ability-range. By mid-afternoon, we’d be back sweaty and dirty sporting shins slightly lumpier that we left with that morning and Jason would ask us how our Geriatric Skate Club had been.

On the BART, I would watch port of Oakland sink beneath the Bay with the sun setting over the waters, capping the chops and waves with a highlighter’s unreal orange. When I came back up from Civic Center in San Francisco, the streets would be cold, dark and windblown with that sweet-vague sewage smell that lies under every large city’s business district. Going west, it got quieter, cooler and foggier until I’d hit entrance to Golden Gate park with an almost audible splash, cannonballing into the wet gauze of fog, street lights and eucalyptus.

I went out into the afternoon yesterday, the sun way out but not with its usual tropical intensity. There was a veneer of clouds hanging low over the buildings like an old worn out blanket, grey but rent full of holes which the sun flashed through every few moments, a light wind escaped these tears as well and small piles of old leaves and candy wrappers were dispelled from their corners, like someone’s random thoughts being shaken off.

I went down to the little parking lot three blocks away. It’s a neighborhood place surrounded by homes, mostly. The parking lot belongs to what I think it a little college or vocational school of some kind. They must teach something specific because the building is really small; comparable perhaps to an unobtrusive church tucked back into an old American neighborhood—the type of church you’d drive by in Minnesota or Indiana and wonder if the place even had any parishioners.

I skated for over an hour making too much noise for the Sunday, but not feeling guilty for making a little of my own noise in a city that’s so frequently honking or firecracking for various reasons. Asuncion is a city that thrives on noise and the total absence of clamor on Sunday is faintly disconcerting. I slapped my board on and off the concrete and a few muffler-less motorcycles cranked by and the quiet hangover pall seemed to lift from the city.

A few people passed: families out for a walk, ranging groups of kids. I nodded to some of them, or waved. Most of them stopped for a moment to watch, but nothing like in Armenia where the slap and roil of my skateboard seemed to gather the big eye’d , dress shoe-wearing children in curious bundles and deposit them on the edge of the parking lot, intent to watch until I asked them to come and dirty their shiny shoes or ruffle their ribboned hair.

A kid stopped to watch me once when I was out skating months ago. I tried several times to get him to try the skateboard. He insisted he could not, but neither did he move. He just stood there, silently pleading with me to make him try it. I couldn’t do it. I’m not accustomed to talking to people here. I feel like a donkey when I open my mouth and it’s impossible to persuade anyone to do anything when you feel like that. After standing at the edge of the parking lot for about ten minutes, the kid walked up the street, but he kept turning around to make sure I hadn’t changed my mind.

Yesterday’s crowd was nothing like this. Some watched curiously without breaking their stride; others allowed themselves one backward glance just before turning the corner and one boy stood there giving me the thumbs up in such a pleasant way I had to ask him to try the board. He agreed, but wouldn’t put down his phone. He held that black rectangular piece of plastic like someone told him it was a magic feather. When he saw that it wouldn’t make him fly, at least not right away. I came over to show him the fundamentals of skateboarding. In his embarrassment, he buried his attention in his phone. He took a mumbled phone call, and after agreed to give the skateboard one more try. I held on to him so he could keep his balance, but in Asuncion, people are not so accustomed to being touched by strangers. Somehow, it’s possible to live in a city of 2 million people and avoid bumping into anyone here. There is no crowded subway and most of the buses are only half-full.

The kid tolerated my hands on his shoulders, but it was obvious he felt awkward. I backed off and told him to keep trying. He looked at the board and then returned his attention its proper receptacle in his hand. We said goodbye to each other a few minutes later and I went back to skating. More people walked by and watched me, but I couldn’t manage any more than a quiet ‘hola.’