“Dammit! Why do they have to do that!?”
I just smile. Every time a car goes by driving that fast at night, I’m always just glad we’re not on our bikes. He must’ve been going 100 MPH down a residential street. It’s not that uncommon. When Gina looks to me for indignation (which I’m usually full of) I just shrug. I don’t feel like caring about bad driving right now. It’s a nice night and the streets are otherwise quiet. I manage to say something affirming like “yeah, what a dick,” and we keep walking down toward the wider avenues that cross the city.
The greatest thing about living in a city that’s not mapped out on a grid is that it’s difficult to explore. It takes longer to find things. All the major landmarks of the city, everything that’s in the guidebooks, we went to within our first two weeks here and then, subsequently, walked past, every day for the last six months. When well-meaning locals tell me that I should visit the cemetery, I have a difficult time not telling them that I’ve been there and like them, I pass it on the bus very frequently. It’s nothing special anymore. After six months in the same city, no one is a tourist. The difficulty is that many people still expect you to be. I occasionally consider just acting like I’m still holding my luggage with a bewildered look and plane ruffled hair, I think people would find me much more amiable that way.
I have seen a lot here, but there are still little winding streets I have not followed through to the end. Or, meaning to follow a street to the end, I have started down a tributary alley and ended up, half an hour later, far from my intended destination. The backstreets are the heart of this city in that they betray its jungle origins. When the dense tangles of phone wire and electric cable unspool and disappear into the umbrella-sized fronds of a palmetto, when the houses diminish and crumble into chalky red brick, where the trash piles up at the end of a vine-sewn cul-de-sac that is the real Asuncion. It is also the Asuncion that no one visits. It is the Asuncion of the parrots and the stray dogs, the arm-wide climbing vine and the guava tree.
These little alleys, curvas and callecitos don’t connect to each other. You have to survey the neighborhoods to find them. You have to follow every street until it ends, until you find the tiny gap between houses that is barely still paved. On the other side there is a parrot walking along a fence squawking at an empty river bed full of plastic bags: this is Asuncion and you have to look for it. Six months means nothing to this side of the city. It is hardly any time at all. Even while the famous buildings downtown have become commonplace and the your motivation to interact with society wanes, the curving threads of the backstreets are still there, waiting to offer up their secret stories of the city before it was a city.
I thought I had followed this street before, but no. I haven’t seen this before. A giant gas station with a café and a restaurant? “Yeah,” Gina tells me she’s passed it before. “It’s a nice place, I guess. People get dressed up to come and eat here.” There are three parts: The café with bow-tied waiters, the restaurant that looks like a nice, pay-by-kilo place and the gas station portion that’s got its soda coolers and shelves of snacks. We go into the latter. It’s got imported food, not much but a competitive selection: Jalapeno Pringles from the US, Toblerone chocolates and a water bottle that Gina picks up. “26,000!? For this plastic bottle?” “It must be imported.” I say, shrugging and going over to look at the soda flavors. “Maybe they’ve got that Brazilian maracuya-flavored Fanta.”
We take a right out of the gas station, vaguely in the direction of home. I don’t expect to find much in this quiet night more interesting than the fancy gas station we just saw. I’m kind of hungry anyway. We keep walking up the street. I know it but I don’t know this part of it. “Hey,” I say to Gina. “Look at that place. Richards’.” We laugh for a second at the Keith Richards caricature on the sign. Gina reminds me that something about Keith has always freaked her out a little. I’m reminded of how my mom always said that she imaged all pirates running around back in the 18th century must’ve looked like Keith or Keith looked like them. The place looks nice, dark and bar-like. In Cono Sur, bars don’t really exist, they’re mostly restaurants dubbed as bars. If they have an actual bar, it’s small and no one sits there. They are conglomerations of tables with too-bright lights and too-loud music. They are places to eat or to camp out for the night with a big group of friends. They aren’t places you just stop into to get a beer because you’re walking by.
Richards’ was exceptional in a way that no place in Paraguay has been. There was no electronic music playing. There was no dance floor and there was no cover. The lighting was dim and the bar was long. We lingered for a minute in the doorway and decided to go in a have a beer.
All bars have palpable atmospheres. There’s way too much happening in people’s heads in those places to not leave some kind of psychic miasma hanging up in the ceiling with all the smoke-damp dust bunnies. Bars, contrary to popular belief, can reflect all kinds of moods. Sure, some are surly, but others are tired, some are braggarts, some are cheap (even when the cheapest beer on the menu is 7 dollars) and others are like old couches. These latter have no concern for their appearance, but they are comfortable, homely places. Richards’ was such a place and I was happy we had found it. Even though I could tell Gina was thinking the same thing, I told her anyway.
“This place is cool. Hey look you can even smoke in here.” And with those last eight words, I was sold. I had a bar, and it wasn’t even that far from our house. We sipped our beers, looked around the room and talked a little. The music was quiet and the smoke from the other cigarettes in the bar was drifting lazily up, giving one the feeling of slowly being lowered down. There were only a few other patrons. A group of kids at a table, it looked like two couples both with their chairs as close together as they could go without being stacked on top of each other and a lone guy in a black jacket at the bar who had a wine glass slightly smaller than a goldfish bowl next to him. I guess maybe it was brandy. One of the kids gets up and orders a picture of sangria. The waitress pours in sugar from sugar packets and stirs it in the fruit, wine and ice with stabbing movements.
There’s a stage and a couple of those roaming colored lights drifting over the walls, chairs and particles of dust floating in the air. There are two men, middle-aged, that both look like my Irish landlord from San Francisco. Gina declares that they must be British and possible twins. She seems to like this idea and repeats it a few times. “British twins,” like she’s trying to remember something. I agree that maybe they are and while we’re talking about it one of them moves over to the soundboard. A band materializes from the kids who ordered the sangria. They come on stage and suddenly there’s someone taking pictures. The singer asks if we can hear him OK and the (possible) British twin at the soundboard says “que?” over and over like he can’t hear anything. Everyone laughs at this, including me. I laugh at a lot of what I hear in Spanish just to show that I’ve understood the joke, but the way the guy at the soundboard says ‘que’ is actually funny and I really laugh.
The music starts and we listen to the first few songs before we go back to quietly talking. “It’s nice there’s music. There wasn’t even a cover.” We say to each other. The first band only plays about four songs before getting down. We talk about them for a while and I light another cigarette, wishing I had brought enough money to get another beer. I count my money again just to be sure. Gina tells me that maybe they have something for 9,000 Gs. I tell her they don’t, that I checked already.
Another group comes on, a girl with very long hair and a violin, a guy with a cello and another guy, in the middle, by the mic with a guitar. There’s no drummer. The group plays some vaguely familiar sounding instrumental songs and then goes into covers. The girl with the long hair keeps self-consciously flipping it over her shoulder. They start with Dust in the Wind, which I hold up a lighter for. I think about the violin player in the Kansas video with the beard and the wavy hair and I think about the book Mikey gave me where someone keeps playing the song over and over. Dust in the Wind ends and the group does something like a Beatles medley. Then there’s Hotel California. I think about the Brown Jug where someone was always playing that song on the jukebox. I had played it up really big the last time I was there. “Ok, listen to the songs. Before we leave someone will play Hotel California.” But without Mikey it didn’t seem to work and I was almost sad to leave a few hours later without hearing it, even though I’ve always disliked that song.
When I get back from the bathroom the band was doing another Beatles song. Gina and I exchange glances and we wait out the song before climbing down off our chairs, mumbling “that was nice,” more to ourselves than each other. It’s late and we’re tired. We’re hardly ever out past midnight, but it’s nice to do every once in a while even if it does make us tired the next day.
Richards’ had been such a great find that I had been thinking about something I could say to the guy at the soundboard to thank him. While I had been at the bar, I tried to work out what I could say to the guy to explain to him how appreciative we were to have found such a comfortable bar and the first I had seen like it in Asuncion.
As we make our way to the door the band is talking, getting ready for their next song. I consider talking to the guy at the soundboard to thank him, but he looks like he’s doing something with his computer, the group’s about to start their next song and just to cram all my appreciation into one word, I decide to just call out ‘gracias’ as we walk out.
What I intended to say to the guy at the soundboard, ended up as a thanks to the whole bar. I called out ‘gracias’ so loud that I thanked both bands for playing. I thanked the waitresses for the beers and I thanked the black jacket guy with the small globe of brandy. It felt good to let everyone know how I felt. My hand was on the door and I was almost out when I heard the voice in the mic say ‘que maleducacion!’ As he said it, the guy at the sound booth turned around and looked at me with a squint. Everyone in the bar looked at me and all their expressions repeated the expression. ‘que maleducacion!’ ‘How rude!’
Sometimes it takes a while for things to translate, but this was one of the instances when it happened right away. I hadn’t even finished walking out the door. “No,” I want to call out. “I didn’t mean to be rude. I just wanted to thank you. You see, I’ve never found a bar like this and I wanted to express my gratitude. Sorry to leave before your set is over, but you can see, we waited until you were between songs. I hope there aren’t any hard feelings.” But I can’t get any of that out. I just stand in the doorway for a moment longer, trying to find anything to say, but nothing occurs to me and after a few awkward seconds, I turn and let the door swing closed.
Outside the bar, I tell Gina what happened. I tell her how I’m upset because it had been such a good night. I tell her how I hate how being in a foreign context amplifies casual comments like that and how now that ‘que maleducacion’ is going to hang over the rest of the night.
We walk down the street until it becomes familiar again. I stop into a few stores to look for cigarettes and everyone seems to mock me. I see ‘que maleducacion!’ on everyone’s face and I just want to tell them all to go to hell.