Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Moving the Rain Around

La Entrada

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.

La Salida

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.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Banner of Tooth and Claw

We sat in the sunlight and the soft dust of the storefronts, waiting for the bus. Dogs trotted down the street barking at each other. Very young boys went by on motorcycles that looked disproportionately large to their small bodies. In the doorway of the store behind us, two women had come out to talk in the sun and to escape the rusty smell of unrefrigerated meat inside. A motorcycle with a bad muffler roared by and all the sound was drown out for a moment except the frantic buzz. The few clouds in the sky did nothing to mitigate the effects of the sun that was baking everything on the street to indolence. From walking around Aregua all afternoon, I was coated by patina of dried sweat that felt like fruit juice had been spilled all over me and then dried with the dirt and flies stuck to it. It was siesta time; we were going to be waiting for the bus for a while.

We came to Aregua for the annual Strawberry Festival that turned out to be something more of an annual Strawberry Tent. The tent itself housed about 7 booths each with 2 or 3 proprietors all selling the exact same thing with different labels: Strawberry jam, Strawberry juice, Strawberry booze some crushed peanut admixture that I didn’t investigate too heartily and, of course, Strawberries. The prices were all the same. Perhaps we were expected to haggle. The strawberries were not exceptionally cheap, but they were the purpose of our trip to Aregua, so I was faily determined to buy some. At each booth, I casually asked the price per kilo, like I was asking for the time, afraid of exciting the seller into a frenzy of laudation on the merits of their strawberries when they were quite obviously all the same. I asked the question like I didn’t give a damn how much they were charging, like I was only asking the question to be civil. At each stand they were 25 mil a kilo. Not terrible, but nothing like the 10 pesos per kilo we once lucked into in Argentina. We bought over six pounds that day and ate strawberries on everything for about a month. In Aregua, we were being asked almost three times that price. After we passed the last stall in the tent we kept walking aimlessly up the road, we intended to turn around and buy a kilo of strawberries, but we ended up turning left somewhere and walking around a neighborhood. There was a nursery back there. We stopped and looked at the plants and next to it, in someone’s yard: a dead dog. He looked asleep but had an ominous hollow quality that indicated a much more profound slumber.

When we came out of the neighborhood, we were on the corner of a plaza with many small and brightly colored flags blowing in the wind. We walked in. It was a feria with semi-hippy products. Homemade skirts, bundles of herbs, a children’s reading area that looked particularly inviting with piles of kids’ books, carpets and pillows. We found a guy selling strawberries there for five mil less than they had been at the festival. He filled a small bag to capacity, he had no scale, but pronounced it a kilo. I raised an eyebrow to Gina and handed her the bag. “Is this a kilo?” I asked her. “I have no idea,” she said shrugging. We paid the man for what we assumed was a kilo and for the next few blocks, we took turns holding the bag and declaring “Yeah, that’s probably about a kilo.”

We toted the bag of strawberries around for a while, until they began to be crushed by their own weight in the small bag and the juice started to leak out of the bottom in a thin, red trickle. More and more, it grew to resemble the ubiquitous bag of meat that Paraguayans are seen everywhere carrying on Sundays, hurrying it off to some barbecue.

We stopped down by the lake and had a beer before leaving. Some event was scheduled for that evening and there was a stage set with rotating colored lights which looked farcical in the afternoon’s glare. We sipped our beer and felt good sitting in the shade and calling each passing stray dog over until our hands had taken on that sulfurous stray dog smell and our palms were grey from canine dandruff.

The bus back to Asuncion was slow in coming, but after 20 mins of sitting on the curb and drinking a water, it came to life around the corner, a diesel engine-rattling existential other.

I’ve always found it odd to look at an approaching bus and think ‘within a few moments, I’ll be on that thing and it will take me away from here, but if I were not to raise my hand and flag it down, it would pass me by and continue on its course.’ I have never really pondered this thought. It’s merely occurred to me a number of times that boarding a bus is a random thing. You don’t plan which one. If we wouldn’t have been in the store buying water when the first one went by, we would’ve gotten on another bus. It’s chaos vs. fate. Were we supposed to get on this bus or could we have gotten on any of them? The heat was getting to me and after we had stepped on to the bus and walked to the back, I let such ponderous thoughts drift away and watched the green leaves spin past the windows.

We stood in the back of the bus and as we made our way toward Asuncion, it became more crowded. Many times the bus stopped, no one got off, but several people got on. From the front came a kind of suitcase-packing motion. The people getting on, pushed into those at the front, who pushed into those in the middle and in the back we had nowhere to go. Every time more people got on the bus, the pressure gradually increased until it seemed even the hollow space in one’s armpits was being utilized.

A few times, someone came in the back door and rode hanging to the railing only partially aboard the bus, like a garbage man at the back of his truck. Invariably these people did not ride for long before theatrically jumping off with an exaggerated world-weariness. This was all normal. Asuncion isn’t a big city, people offer to hold your bags if they are sitting and you are standing and everyone is generally friendly: people smile at bewildered-looking babies, old ladies talk animatedly and as many as three children occupy a lap.

We were entering the semi-industrial outskirts of the city when there was a commotion. We had stopped at a storefront where there were about 15 young men in black and white. All of them looking sweaty and glassy eyed. First one of them approached the bus, stopped as it was at a light. Then they began to yell. Their intention seemed to be to board the bus, but the driver was reluctant to open the door. Their voices rose as one drunken protestation and in which could be heard the unchecked haughtiness of the mob. Perhaps it was an accident that caused the driver to open the back door. I prefer to think so, because after what happened to his bus, it would be sad to think that he had willfully permitted such a gaggle aboard.

At the squeak of the back door, the sodden mob cheered and ran, galloped toward the door. One by one they flung themselves up, heedless of the crowd already occupying the space they sought. Their hair was all wet as if they had returned from swimming somewhere. Their damp heads butted the arms and chests of other passengers aside. Sweaty elbows thrashed around and drunken exclamations roared from the mob as if from a single, brash voice. Eyes flashed by, hooded, vacant or leering. Teeth shown, some bright, some yellow-brown with decay. A burning cigarette was held aloft, almost to the filter and cheap-smelling. They packed in and hoisted their companions in over their heads. Steadying hands shot to the roof of the bus as we started to move, and yet they continued to pile in, they jostled everyone alike wanting only to find their place on the bus without regard for whomever already occupied that place and after they were all aboard and the back of the bus seemed to sag down they began to sing.

The mob sang as one choleric voice, pounding on the ceiling, stomping on the floors. They sang not of the greatness of their team, but of the foulness of their adversaries. Words like pendeja and puto punctuated their song and their beery breath seemed to intoxicate the over-crowded bus, like black smoke in an under-ventilated room. They swore at each other and joked. After each joke someone would take up another song. Each song had a similar tempo with a complex whistled melody. Rings tapped of the metal railings sounding like picks in a coal mine, the roof boomed a lusty bass. Everyone tried to squeeze away from these rowdy interlopers, but there was no room to squeeze into. Their elbows and knees and dirty ears were everywhere and attached to these things, drunken, leering personages. Wolves’ grins.

I was relieved each time they took up a song. I knew that they would be occupied with the words and the whistles for a moment and would not think about the foreigners who stood so obviously in their midst. Once or twice I heard them say something of the brasileros, the group for which, in Paraguay, Gina and I are frequently mistaken. I kept my eyes out the window and thought about how even kind people I know here have confessed very ardent dislikes of Brazilians. Hooliganism is a condensed version of nationalism. It is xenophobic and intolerant. It is the barrio and the team first, then the city and then, if necessary, the country. With no one supporting the rival team aboard Gina and I were the most deserving of their contempt. I kept my eyes to the window and maintained my position in front of the seat where sympathetic passengers had told Gina to sit down. We still had about two suburbs to get through and as much as I did not want to be on this bus with this drunken mob, I wanted still less to have to push through their teeth and broken fingernails to get to the door when it came time to get off.

We stopped at a traffic light and the song became louder, even more defiant. It was shouted to people on the streets. A few street vendors gave a vague thumbs-up, but others only looked on with nearly the same bewildered look of the bus’ passengers. I heard a shout at the back door and suddenly it was wrenched open and there was a wrathful yell. I expected police, but turned to see the bus being invaded by another group of hooligans. They were wearing the same colors, but yelled and punched as if they wanted to destroy the whole bus for hosting the mob that sang the songs that so reviled them. One mob surged back as the other surged forward through the door. Fists were clenched so tight, the knuckles that punched down were misaligned. Black shoes came kicking off the ground. The violet movement caused the dust dormant in the chairs and groove of the rubber floor to rise. The atmosphere turned yellow and through it could be seen the blurs of legs and torsos and there was a chorus of dull percussive sounds punctuated by the occasional soft crack.

The cacophony of the attack was so loud, I didn’t notice that the emergency levers had been pulled on two of the large window frames, each one about four by six feet. Bodies glanced off each other and there was yelling and ripping and the sound of connecting punches. The bus began to drive off again, as though oblivious to the riot taking place now all up and down the aisle. The dust was sucked out the side of the bus now completely exposed to the elements and the air cleared. Some of the attackers were kicked out the back door and when they hit the moving street below, they rolled like hastily packed duffle bags. One attacker remained for a while with his hands braced on the seat backs on either side of the aisle kicking toward his enemies with all of his weight until eventually he too was overpowered and pushed from the bus onto the grey blur below. I didn’t look back to see what happened to him.

After the attack, the mood lightened. The mob had spent their aggression. They leaned out the side of the bus where the windows had been, where now there was only sky and street, exhaust and a faint breeze. When they began to sing again, the wind from the wholly open side of the bus carried their voices and the smell of beer and sweat away and all that could be heard was the banging of their fists on the ceiling and the tinny clink of their rings on the metal railings as the bus bounded down Avenida Estubio Ayala like a dog trying to run away from its own fleas.