I came into Asuncion in the dark, but the whole city seemed lively with music and the shadows of men in urinating postures. I was returning from Encarnacion to the southeast. We had been driving along the green plains, in and out of storms. The storms were lulling and I had often turned around to find myself the only one awake on the bus. At the end of the afternoon, the sky began to lighten with the return of the sun, only to darken again as it set on the other side of a town called Ita. The countryside began to produce villages again. They would start with a few straggling buildings trailing down the ruta which would then crowd into each other, as if seeking protection from the shaggy green plains. Outside each shop, a young man sat between the redolent crates of warm fruit and when our bus passed, he looked up to watch us go by, with the same uncertain look in every village. In the side streets, children played in the undecipherable ways of country children who must temper their reality with a lively imagination. Old ladies sat in various arrangements around doorways like they were waiting to scold someone who was late coming home.
The shadow of the bus, made long by the setting sun, fell on all these bucolic scenes like a falling curtain in a theater. This quiet, long-preserved scene was drawing to a close as the buildings began to grow more utilitarian, less personal. What was once the territory of the quiet fruit vendor became the haunt of stray dogs and rain-soaked plastic bags. The roads widened as did the parking lots. The old women took their chairs inside and the lights came on. The lights shone off walls that extended to the horizon, walls that the paint had abandoned or florescent lights had burned off. The advertisements were no longer hand-painted but precision-printed by a machine so that the clarity of their message could not be mistaken. The cars became more numerous as if drawn by the promise of the wider roads and more capacious parking lots. Their headlights stretched for miles from the city and their red taillights looked like electric red carpets.
As the light increased, so did the darkness. While the areas around auto dealerships and six-lane avenues shown with the intensity of a lightning bolt’s illumination, the areas immediately outside them: the trunks of mango trees, the interiors of abandoned cars and cats skulking near piles of trash were almost obliterated by preternatural darkness. In such darkness, sound seemed to carry better—the black roar of the bus engine, the yell of a disconcerted mother-in-law and the music. Even past the closed windows of the bus, the music sounded its frantic pulse: the cumbia rhythm that sounds like something going around in a circle—an engine, a washing machine, a ball—but it catches; it sounds like a wheel going over a very bumpy road.
Out in the dark places, the bumpy spin of cumbia music was everywhere. It came from cars with their windows open, young men hanging out like tongues lolling from a dog’s mouth. It came from the bright stores, still open in their islands of light and it came from some great unknown place, like a great temple of sound hidden by all these pretentious worshippers. A muezzin standing up in the sky was calling, evoking lumpy baselines and flirtatious lyrics, spreading them evenly over the city.
I got off the bus at the edge of town. The local buses passed by festooned with colored lights and the raised arms of standing passengers, looking like a curious group of people that all had questions but no one to ask them to. Ribbons of black smoke chased after the buses and then swum back into the tarry street in great spreading plumes. The people in the island of light, were quiet, despite the level of the ambient sound around them. A white and blue painted bus stopped and I got on. The driver took my bill, spooned a few coins from a wooden box and dumped them into my hand.
At the back of the bus there was an upturned face on a downturned body. The body wore the countenance of the unconscious or the dying. It sat across the seat with no regard for comfort, flung there like a sack, but the face that seemed to rise above it was like the face of a cobra floating above the innocuous rope of its body. The face, bruised and dirty, regarded me with malcontent.
The bus smelled like an overripe fruit, alcoholic but very sweet and sweaty, like several people among us had been drinking for a very long time, weeks maybe. The warmth of the sun was couched somewhere between all bodies. One window was wide open and the darkness blew in from the street and sought out the sun that was hidden between the people.
The buildings were industrial, warehouses and mechanic’s garages that slept behind barricades of old tires and radiators. The blocks were long. When the cross streets cut through, there was only a tiny aperture, not enough to let out any rival traffic. The bus didn’t wait for the lights to change. The street was full of holes and the bus jumped full of coins and bolts and musical notes. When it bounced up high enough it was like having your feet go numb, but only for a second.
The bus stops at a red light outside a radiant supermarket. A figure emerges from the dark cross street and steps gingerly among the heaps of bald tires and chunks of broken concrete. The figure’s shadow climbs of the wall, climbs until it reaches the top and reaches back to pull the figure from the darkness. The legs are long and thin but the torso is unnaturally bulky, like a spider. Two more thin legs step from the darkness. It is not a man but a horse a large, unsaddled horse stepping from the oil slicks and spent fan belts of a mechanic’s parking lot. There’s a rider on the horse, a young man in a t-shirt. He brings his hand to his mouth, something gleams, a can of beer flashes in the parking lot lights and right there with the rolling clunk of the cumbia and the honking horns the young man and his horse step from the parking lot and begin to move through the intersection, at first at a quick walking gait then a trot and, crossing the south-bound traffic, a run. The street lights pull at the figure of the rider and his horse like taffy and stretch them across the vacant walls and the grassy lots and the idling motorcycles waiting behind the red light until the image, as if pulled too tight, suddenly snaps from view and disappears like it found a black hole at the corner of Kubitschek and Ayala.
I got off the bus. The bass had swollen in the cumbia and sounded like audible blur. I heard an arena of people cheering. The rider and his mount had disappeared and the music had smothered the clatter of their retreat. Along the streets, I found no one who had seen the spectacle, only the strangely supplicant forms of men peeing into the niches of buildings and the places where the light had not intruded.
There was lightening in the distance. From where we stood at the top of the arched bridge, we could see it running through the grey sky in long white streaks. The sky behind us, over Asuncion was smoky, but the sky over the Chaco was that roiling mass of near-purple clouds that purports days of rain. The river was turbid with sentiment and seemed to mirror the agitation of the skies. The green banks groaned over the water. The land here had been flooded and the tubers and roots were swollen with water; the large papaya leaves atop their scaly stalks dripped in dry weather. Being able to hold no more water, the trees, the scrub and the weeds hung heavy over the water satiated and exhausted.
It would’ve been a terrible idea to continue west across the bridge into the Chaco. We could see the streaks in the clouds where it was raining hard enough to make the greys and purples bleed into each other. The ruta that runs across the Chaco, all the way to Bolivia, has a crumbling shoulder and the estanicias, slaughterhouses and terracotta factories up the road produce a lot of truck traffic. If we turned around now perhaps we’d be able to beat the storm back to Asuncion. We talked about turning around, but as I stood there watching the sky, I felt less intimidated by it. It had been so grey in the early morning that we had almost stayed in, until we remembered another Sunday that we had given up because it had seemed on the verge of raining, when it never did. Near-tropical weather seems to bluff a lot. I realized I wanted to see the rain. If we started to get soaked and the road was miserable, we’d turn around. It wouldn’t take much longer than an hour to get home. We picked up our bikes where we had leaned them against the railing and coasted down into the melee of burning garbage smoke, light rain and the indifferent lowing of cows: the Chaco.
From the apex of the bridge, we came right into the Chaco without having to pedal. The eastern bank of the river is urban. There are shopping malls, abandoned housing projects, fly-by-night universities, motels with lascivious-sounding names like El Haram and six lanes of traffic, most of which runs north to south along the river bank. What traffic breaks west and crosses into the Chaco is squeezed into two lanes and split again on the other side of the bridge, with some traffic going south to the Argentine border and some of it going northwest along the ruta that runs through 100s of miles of emptiness before connecting to a road to Bolivia. The Chaco is immediately different. The city ends on the east bank of the river. The smoke-stained concrete structures give way to shacks and tarps on the west bank. Livestock stands in the medians, ruminating. The traffic is almost exclusively motorcycle. Kids with shorn hair and dirty bare feet are clustered around a rill with fishing lines they have tied around dowels of wood. The dogs have the self-assured air they acquire in places where no one has ever willingly given them food. Two bus lines serve the four communities that are placed on this swampy heel of land, the buses rattle and leave wakes of burning oil across the green scenery.
It starts to rain as we pass the first pueblito, but it doesn’t fall hard. The sky has darkened perceptibly and some of the cars and trucks turn on their lights. When they pass our bikes, though they are driving at highway speeds, they make no effort to give us any room, even in cases where the opposite lane is completely unoccupied. On bikes, we become poor, unworthy of consideration. The cars pass us as they would pass mailboxes or trees. We stay as far to the right of the shoulder as possible, but the rains have piled the dross up at the edge of the concrete. Stones, broken glass, exploded toads and banks of wet sand making the riding difficult. We talk over the roar of the pickups and the monotonous whir of our bike tires. The rain isn’t bad. It looks like it came down hard earlier, but we’ve missed the worst of it and only get wet by riding along the rain-glazed shoulder of the road, our back tries throwing up a fine spray of wet sand and water that lashes across our backs until we each have a damp fox’s tail from the bottom of our shirts to the our shoulder blades.
The rain is slow. It’s struggling though a saturated atmosphere and most of it dissipates before hitting the ground. The sprays from our bike tires have made the most uncomfortable parts wet, but the rest is almost dry. The town of Villa Hayes appears through the mist and rushes up to us. We take a right turn off the ruta and struggle down a residential road of wet sand dunes. Cows standing in the road regard us indifferently and continue on their course. People are under their porches, sitting and talking. I raise a hand and shout ‘adios’ and they return the greeting. We are out of the city.
Within an hour the rain clouds have evaporated and the sun is shining off the river drying the back of my shirt and my waistline for the ride back. We sit at the costanera for a while, watching the swollen river run past us and listening to the silence in a town where most people are sleeping, still with the impression that it is dark and raining.