Friday, October 31, 2014

River Ghosts

I had gotten sick of coming to Encarnacion. I know it’s the holiday capital of Paraguay, but after ten visits, I was sick of the place. I never went there for vacation anyway. I went for work and when you go to a place for work, it’s just another city: grid streets and meaningless stores. Encarnacion was only made different by its costanera or boardwalk that ran along the river. The boardwalk in Encarnacion was longer and more pedestrian friendly than the one in Asuncion. I’d walked up and down it a few times. That was enough. When I visted Encarnacion, I never went down to the river anymore. I never went to the boardwalk. I stayed in the hotel.

The hotel had a lounge area with some grass and palm trees, but their coffee tasted consistently like soap and the beds were rock hard. A caged parrot lived in the outdoor lounge area; It was nice to hear him whistle and chatter to himself in the morning from the hotel room window, but, going to see him in his cage, with his frantic red eyes and whistled car-alarm refrains was a lousy way to start a day of work.

When I travel for work, I only have time for anything if I get up at dawn and go walking around. I like to walk around, but sometimes I have this feeling, before I set out, that I’m not going to see anything new. I try to shake the feeling, but once it’s there, it’s hard to get rid of. When I have that feeling the walk is an empty exercise and I know I’ve got some kind of pathetic look on my face the whole time.

I don’t have much choice though. The work demands that I arrive the night before and leave immediately after I’ve finished. Nearly half of a 24-hour period spent on a bus. Even if a walk around town denigrates into mindless exercise, I’ll take it and hope it will help me sleep on the bus.  

Encarnacion felt livelier when I came in last night. It was Sunday and things are always more relaxed on Sunday evening. No one broods on Monday morning and this halcyon weekend is undisturbed. People relax openly, unabashedly. Along the manmade beach there were people strolling up and down. Everyone had brought their folding chairs. Entire families sat around, not eating, not even drinking, just sitting there under the lights, feet up, looking out over the water.

I checked into my hotel with the soapy coffee and the hard beds and, finding it too early and too warm to stay in for the night, went out for a walk.

I walked across a construction lot, which is going to be a McDonalds, but last night, it was a swath of ripped grass, muddy holes and a structure that employed so many little boards it looked like a wooden mummy. The boards in the bright construction site lights looking like so many concealing bandages from far away.

On the other side of the future McDonalds, was a clean boulevard. The pavement shone under hundreds of streetlights which stretched all the way down the riverbank, to either direction. New and shocked palms grew from the median in green shoots with tattered leaves. The grass was neither new nor trampled, but had the cowed look of grass that has supported hours of someone’s picnic blanket.

Crossing the boulevard, I came to a tiled plaza with playground equipment and children running and yelling in diminishing circles while their parents chased them, knees bent, arms outstretched. This was the brightest cluster in a chain of lights, the Playa San Jose.

 I walked through the crowds, not knowing what to do with my face. What is the expression for a solitary man in a crowd of families? I have never been able to deduce it. Nothing fits. No matter what, there is something artificial in the smile, or something stupid about the abstracted look. The only safe option is to keep the expression as empty as possible and walk purposefully.

I made my way through the crowds to the western part of the boardwalk. A few times, I crossed to the water’s edge to listen for the river, but it was still and did not lap the large stones that tumbled into it. The only movement that could be discerned was where the lights crossed over the water in rolling beams.

The lights stretched out to the middle of the river from both banks. The lights from the far bank came from Posadas, Argentina.

Three years ago, while on tour with an acting troupe, I was in Posadas. I had been on the road working every day for three weeks at that point. I was tired. All of Argentina was starting to look the same to me: streets all named ‘Sarmiento’, Lomiterias, loose paving tiles and all of it grey. From Buenos Aires to Tucuman to Resistencia, everywhere seemed grey. It was the middle of winter, so it had been rainy and cold for a few weeks. The sun didn’t come out in Posadas, but it wasn’t raining and the red hillocks and green medians gave the appearance of a resurgent light. I walked down the esplanade and listened to the music and the clk,clk,clk of children skating on new, oversized rollerblades. I felt good enough to call home and say, ‘wait for me; when I get back, I’ll have a lot to tell you.’ Then after an hour of dark streets and cat shadows, I came into the warm light of a used bookstore, evaporating into the dark with an archaic fog of yellow lamplight, cheroots and book mildew. Inside, an old man smoked patiently and looked over a map spread out over a table.

From Encarnacion, I looked across the river into Posadas, all of Argentina and the past. I saw the jaundiced, floury light of the bookshop and I saw myself pacing up and down a street while talking on the phone. I saw the kiosk where I bought a Fanta and a pack of L and M’s. I imagined someone walking up and down the dark streets wearing the sweater I lost over there. But, it was too far away to see anything like that. From Encarnacion, Posadas is just a bunch of lights that reflect off the water. The brighter they are, the farther their reflection reaches across the river. I looked at some of the brightest lights—the ones that almost swam up to the stones under my feet—and tried to remember what buildings or parking lots they belonged to and what I was like when I stood under them years ago.

After a few moments, the memories of Posadas became indistinct. I stopped seeing myself walking in the city and just stared at the lights without thinking anything. I turned from the pier and continued walking west down the boardwalk.

Farther away from the Playa San Jose, the crowds thinned out. There were a few families, but they 
were quiet. The children looked out over the water or slept. Entire families were there, sighing after the water and not saying a word to each other. Younger couples used the benches that everyone else seemed to eschew—monstrous, bracketed things that looked like giant mousetraps ready to spring down. The girls’ legs, never long enough to reach the ground, kicked back and forth through the air, as if they hadn’t gotten the signal to stop walking.

The people began to diminish, but the boardwalk continued and the lights lit up nothing, more paving tiles, more rocks, more dark water, more flattened grass, but the sounds and the people making them were far away. There was an entire phalanx of benches no one was using, all facing the water. Most of them were in the dark, the lights being too far away to light up much more than their backs. The open part, the part of the bench that faced the water, was absorbed into the same darkness of the quiet tide.

I passed the end of the boardwalk. I crossed a bridge and startled two guys sitting on the ground drinking beers. They squinted up to me through the bright lights. “Adios,” I said, nearly whispering. “Adios,” they called back in the same conspiratorial tone.

I went up to a statue and tried to make out the inscription: some cardinal or bishop, benevolent smile, skullcap and chained glasses. Who could tell what he’d done? The raised letters of the plaque were impossible to read between the angles of the lights and their resulting shadows. Each letter was like a little chambered burial vault in a bronze necropolis.

Up alongside the river was another children’s park, this one quieter. A little boy raced around on a pink Barbie bike, the redundant training wheels banging off the ground at regular intervals. There was a whole parking lot, lit up by lights and filled in with benches. There were a few people there, talking to each other or lying down alone with their knees up.

I walked back across the bridge to the darker benches, with the lights behind me. I sat on one of the mousetrap benches and if I held it up above my shoulders, I could make out the words in the book I had brought. I was a few pages into a novel of a grim and pointless New York when someone stopped in front of me and asked me what country I was from. I told the kid and he sat down as if my country was an invitation. We talked for a while and when I asked him his name, he spun around and pointed to the back of his head. AXEL was vertically shaved into his hair. The symmetrical letters fit very well with the other triangular shapes and arrows shaved in the sides of his hair. It was the easiest way I had ever encountered of learning someone’s name. I didn’t even have to remind myself periodically. If we all had to show each other our names, I think we would remember them better and be more humane as a result.

Axel was from Brazil. His parkour troupe was visiting Encarnacion. His teammates were all out doing different things. He held a small key ring in his hand. Three keys the size of bike lock keys clicked together. He gestured with the keys. “I’m staying over there,” he said, speaking Spanish with a nasal Brazilian pronunciation, adding /sh/ and /ch/ to words that didn’t have such sounds. I asked him what he thought of Paraguay. How much chipa had he eaten? Did he know any Guarani words? I asked him all the things that Paraguayans ask me.  And every answer he gave me sounded excited. I asked him about his parkour troupe. He said they had been a few places in Brazil and Paraguay. “Argentina?” I asked pointing to the lights across the water. “No,” he shook his head, “but we drove through it.” We talked about Brazil. He was from somewhere near Sao Paulo. He told me he’d been to the most dangerous favela in Rio. I told him I liked the Botanical Gardens there.

We walked back together. Axel kept running off ahead to jump from bench to bench or to flip off a ledge. His flips were so fast and sloppy that I was nervous he was going to smash his head on something, but he always managed to tuck it under just before he landed—with the sound of a dropped stack of books—on his back. Before he made a jump or a flip or whatever, he’d let out a whoop and make a sound like a motorcycle with a bad muffler racing down the street. All these quiet Paraguayans would quickly turn their heads—What the f—and see this speedy kid come shooting out of the darkness. Reeeeeeeeaaaaahhhh! He puts his hands up like landing gear detracting on a plane, turns himself upside down and jumps with his hands. Fwhaaap. He lands on his back.

The entire way along the boardwalk, Axel took every fifth obstacle at a noisy run. The scenario was always the same. The people turned their heads and watched him until he was on his back, then they’d go back to their silence and their lights reflecting off the water.

On the artificial beach of San Jose, he showed me a few flips, which he did into the sand and then asked if I wanted to get a drink. I told him no, that I had to get back. So we walked back toward the town together, away from the reflection of Posadas on the water. Axel got a running start and jumped over the hood of a car parked on the street.

We shook hands at the door of the hotel. He said it had been nice meeting me. I agreed and he turned and jogged back into the night. A few seconds later, I heard his motorcycle noises again, already a block away, even up in my room, sitting on the hard bed with the window open, I could hear him running through the streets, wearing his name on the back of his head for anyone else who should ask. Should I find myself back on the other side of the river, back in Posadas someday, I’ll probably look out over the quiet river water to where the lights across the river fade in the west and remember that night, sitting there, talking to the Brazilian acrobat, the guys drinking beers by the bridge and the quiet children sitting motionless in their chairs that Sunday night.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Pass

The village of A— was the last village before the pass. In the early spring, it was the last place to lose its grey piles of snow. By late April, there were still crusty patches of white under the hanging eaves and in the shadow of some of the larger trees. The stream had swollen into a river, grey and swift with the snow melt from the mountains. The bridge that crossed the stream had no railings and children were cautioned against going anywhere near it, though in the summer it would be pacific enough to fish from, if there had been any fish.

A—was too far up on the mountain to become mixed up in affairs of the world as some of the villages down in the valley had. When the last war had come, the only indication that anything was happening was the military convoys that used the pass to take supplies to the front. Once or twice, one of these convoys stopped, someone bought something at the little shop or asked after a family that had come from these parts, but usually they continued on their course, barely slowing down on their way through the village.

The people of A—had their own way of doing things. While it’s true that most people living in this part of the country were seldom in a hurry, the people of A—were more contemplative and did things slower than the people in the valley. The winters were longer and the planting cycle was shorter so the people had become more pastoral. They only planted cabbages and onions; Carrots were considered excessive by some of the older people and the children pointed in awe when they traveled to the marketplaces of the valley and saw the incredible colors of the tomatoes and peppers. The pastures of A—were all up in the mountains where the sky was perpetually dark and brooding. The people attested to the fact that spending too much time up there with the flock, watching that dark sky and thinking precipitous thoughts drove people crazy, although it was likely that mountain babble, as the people called it, was more the result of moonshine rather than any vague environmental pressures.

When the snows did melt in A—, beautiful poppies grew all over the fields. In June, when everything in the valley had turned brown, the wildflowers were just beginning to bloom in A—. They grew the best in places where the snow had sat for the longest: where the rain had fallen from the roofs and in the damp shade of certain trees.

A slightly different dialect was spoken in A—. It was, for the most part, mutually intelligible with the dialect of the valley, but certain everyday phrases like “where are you going?” were radically different and sounded as if from another language. The lowlanders learned to laugh at the way they spoke in A—from a very early age. When they put on straw hats, old shoes or anything rustic-looking they would bellow out something in the dialect and everyone would laugh.

The only traffic that passed regularly through A—was that of the potato farmers on the other side of the mountains bringing their crop over the pass and down into the valley. Their cars were old and battered, but painted in pastels. The weight of the potatoes caused them to bottom out at every dip in the road. In the autumn, when the potatoes were harvested, the farmers would occasionally stop in A—to sell off any blighted-looking potatoes that the people in the valley wouldn’t want. Sometimes they just gave them away. When they drove down the street yelling ‘potatoes’ the children ran alongside the slow-moving cars, as they would run alongside ice cream trucks in other places.

Apart from the potato cars and the occasional military convoy that struggled up the pass, the village got no visitors. Even relatives who had moved away seldom visited. So it was quite out of the ordinary one nondescript and still slightly cold April afternoon, when a stranger came walking into the town. The young man walked alone with a small green backpack and a black bandana tied around his forehead. The kids saw him first. The closest village further down the pass was about 17 kilometers away so most of them had never seen anyone walk into town that wasn’t coming down from the pasture. As soon as the kids saw the stranger, they stopped their game throwing sticks and stood completely still, having no idea what the appropriate behavior was in such a situation. When the stranger was close enough to meet their gaze he called out ‘hello,’ only one child dared to respond and he did so in such a low voice no one heard him. The kids watched the stranger walk on toward the village and, when he had gotten a few paces down the road, they began to follow him.

As the stranger walked, he glanced back occasionally at his growing tail of children. Nearly every house he walked by brought another kid running to join the group. Predominately, they wore red, but there was quite a bit of blue and grey in their attire patterned with little footballs and smiling bears.

The kids darted in and out of the crowd, running into yards to tell mothers straining milk and grandmothers making bread what was on the road. As the kids ran down into the yards, they stirred up chickens and lambs that were too young for the pasture. The crowing and braying sounds of the village increased and people in A—, so accustomed to quiet, came out to see what was happening.

The grandmothers came out into the yards and the mothers stayed in the doorways. There were a few grandfathers that hadn’t gone up to the pasture that day sitting on a stone bench near the store. The grandmothers yelled out to the grandfathers on the bench.

“D’you see what’s coming down the road?”

“WhaAAAAT? Can’t hear a damn thing you’re saying!”

“I said look down the road, you old goats!”

The grandfather who heard the best, told everyone else what had been said and, at once, they all turned to look. The grandfathers waited until the stranger walked past them, when he lifted his hand in greeting they waved him over. As if by agreement, one of them did all the talking.

“Now where are you going?” The old man asked. The stranger, not understanding the dialect, was unable to answer, prompting the grandfather to turn his question into a statement. “Where are you going? It’s dangerous up there!” he yelled pointing to the road that led up the pass. “The whole damn place is full of wolves. I don’t mean little ones either. I mean those big damn yellow-eyed ones.” The stranger showed no signs of comprehension prompting the grandfather to simply shout “wolves!” and point up the road.

The kids still stood back from the stranger, but in the middle of their village and with these grandpas nearby, they felt emboldened enough to move up closer to the strange young man and inspect his frayed t-shirt and obviously self-mended shoes. In a place that prided itself on appearances, they had never before seen clothing treated with such an obvious lack of concern.

The grandfather continued telling the stranger about the mountain pass he was heading for. “It’s full of snakes this time of year, too. Huge ones, big as a house! Besides, it’ll take you the rest of the day just to get up there,” he said pointing to the place where the switchbacking road vanished at the top of the pass.

The stranger suddenly thanked the group of old men and tried to start on his way. “C’mon now,” the lead old man said, almost pleading, “Why don’t you just sit down with us and rest a while. I’ll get you a coffee, when you’re feeling rested you can start back down to the valley.”

The stranger put on his backpack and thanked the old men again before stepping around them and continuing down the road toward the end of the village in the direction of the pass.

The melt water was high in the stream and it could be heard rushing under the bridge and down from the mountains. Next to patches of old snow were patches of new grass where cows were tethered.
The children continued to follow the stranger until the foot of the first peak. A few of them even followed him around the first switchback, but when they looked down and saw their companions and their village so far below, they lost heart and turned around.

That evening, the sun set across from the pass so that its orange rays lit up bends of the curving road. The old men stayed on their bench watching, but the children had moved on to something else and the mothers and grandmothers had gone back inside to take care of more important things.
The old men watched the progress of the green backpack steadily until they saw it turn the last corner before the top of the pass. Then it was gone.

“I guess he’s at the top,” the talkative old man said and was quiet for a while before looking at the others and continuing in a quieter tone of voice, “I wonder what it’s like up there.” 

Friday, October 10, 2014

I Bet They All Think It's Dumb

Villa Hayes

We were having some people over for dinner. I was pissed because I had ruined a batch of falafel by trying to fit too many into the frying pan. The first batch had turned out all right, so there was enough food, but the boiling oil and sudden falafel crumb mess in the pan was depressing me. “Ahh, why do I always have to add a little more?” I asked the boiling mess. “Don’t worry about it,” Gina said from the sink where she stood chopping vegetables. “It’s no big deal; we’ve got plenty of falafel.” I knew it, but Gina knew that wasn’t why I was upset. It was the wasted food. Seeming to sense this, she said “I can make veggie burgers out of that” and gestured vaguely to the boiling pan that was no beginning to stink of overheated oil. I went out onto the balcony to smoke and get away from the mess for a moment. Inside I heard Gina’s phone ring. “I’ll be right down,” she said. Our guests had arrived.

The nicest thing about our building, which otherwise is sterile and cold—trying to look modern by emulating the utilitarian structure of a spaceship or a soviet-era kitchen—is the terrace. The terrace, like the rest of the building is white on white. Apparently white is the color of modernity here. I can tell you from experience it’s also the hardest color to clean.  The only things that aren’t white are the strips of chrome trim here and there marking boundaries such as doorways and cabinet edges. If it wasn’t for the chrome, I’d probably never be able to find anything; the white door would be lost against the white wall and I’d have to run my hand over the wall looking for it like I was hunting for a trap door or something.

The terrace is different because it’s entirely open under the sky. In the morning, the sun turns the white paint reddish orange and in the evening it is frequently haunted by a jagged opal-colored quarter moon. In Romanian mythology, you weren’t supposed to spin thread in the evening because Vampires would climb up it. They used the thread to climb to the heavens so they could eat the celestial bodies. They gnawed on everything up there, but their most harassed victim was the moon. It was said that the vampires would eat away at the moon, spilling her blood and thereby making her turn red. From our terrace, I have seen this vampire-eaten moon. If I hadn’t grown up with all this nonsense about lunar cycles, gravity etc., I would be inclined to believe that Nosferatu himself had gotten up there and had been chomping away on fair Diane.

We spend a lot of time on the terrace, eating on Sunday afternoons or reading or lying in the sun for a while. I’ve begun visiting the terrace every morning to watch the sun come up now that the time has changed and the hour is much more congenial. I close my eyes and wait to feel the sun on my eyelids as it comes over the terrace wall. I try not to think about anything and listen to the birds. All these things conspire to make me happy, sometimes in spite of myself.

We took our dinner guests up to the terrace. There’s a large table up there that seldom seems to be used, at least not at the incredibly non-Paraguayan hour that we eat. Despite the falafel disaster, we had a good spread. Gina has perfected her homemade bread recipe. There was no tahini, but we’d blended chickpeas, garlic and olive oil which, in my mind, is good enough for hummus. The two bowls of olives, which are becoming staples of our table—like salt and pepper elsewhere— were there, as was a bowl of tabbouleh, homemade crackers with rosemary, salad and flat bread.

The guests and Gina had wine and I had my Fernet and Coke which lately, I’ve begun to get a little tired of. We discussed disconnected topics, mostly relating to our time and foreign perspectives on Paraguay. While someone was making an observation about life in Paraguay, I thought of the countless times I have been asked how I like it here. I realized there was no way to answer that question. A society is not a whole, as much as people may want to believe it is. It is made up of widely disparate elements. Some are quite easy to be fond of while others are almost unbearable. It’s possible to speak in averages, I suppose, but rather than ‘do you like it here?’ the question should be ‘are you having more good experiences than bad experiences?’ This question makes one appreciate the absurdity of what they are asking. Usually, when the question is asked, it’s more in the way of a host asking a guest if they are comfortable. It’s a suggestion of hospitality, a slightly more specific ‘how’s it going?’

I finished my Fernet and went down to get a beer. A Peroni one of the guests had brought. I poured it into a glass and tasted, strangely, the exact flavor of my dad’s beer when I was a kid on a summer afternoon. On Saturdays and Sundays, if my dad wasn’t at work, he did various chores around the house. While he did things like cut the grass or drag bundles of branches from one place to another, he usually had a beer.

It’s a Sunday afternoon 25 years ago in Jackson, Michigan. Warm, but cooling, like end-of-August weather. My sister is upstairs playing Madonna records. The tinny warbling of Lucky Star is drifting out over the lawn, where I’m running around with a Batman figure in my hand. The green smell of cut grass is strong, but the lawn is only half cut. My dad, in ripped jeans and an old t-shirt is in the driveway hunched over the over-turned lawnmower. I run over to him to see what he’s doing. The smell of grass and oil is strong near him, like a potent summer cocktail. He’s got lawnmower grease all over his hands. “Hey,” he calls as I run by. “Hand me that crescent wrench.” I pick up one of the tools lying next to him on the driveway, hoping that I’ve chosen the right one. His grass-greasy hand closes over it and it disappears into the undercarriage of the lawnmower—the wrench tinkling against the metal of the lawnmower rather strangely like champagne glass toasting. Next to him is a green glass bottle of beer so beaded in condensation the label is becoming slightly puckered. He reaches over for the bottle and takes a drink. “You want a sip?” He asks. I reach for the bottle.  

I hated it, but the shock of entirely unexpected taste preserved the moment so well. Metallic, herbal and sunny. I tasted the Peroni again. It was the same taste. I held the beer in my mouth awhile, like wine, and dropped from the conversation, remembering.

When I came back, we were discussing places around the city. Someone mentioned the tourist barrio. “Wait, tourist barrio? There’s a tourist barrio?” “Yeah,” came the reply. “It’s all painted like La Boca and there’s a lot of recycled stuff around, they have some classes; it’s pretty cool.” We went downstairs and looked the place up on the computer.

The neighborhood had a Facebook page. Barrio San Jeronimo. It looked vibrant, interesting, like the sort of place that you would see while traveling and think ‘I wish my neighborhood back home was like this.’ Because no one had ever mentioned the place to us, I couldn’t help but to assume that it was much more one-dimensional that what we were seeing on the computer. “It’s probably just one little street,” I told Gina after our guests had left and we were clearing the dishes. “But we might as well go down and take a look at it tomorrow. You never know.”

The next day was warm. Even early in the morning, the wind on the terrace was like a sirocco. Around 11, the apartment got too hot and we decided to get out of the house and find the Barrio Turistico.

All we had to do was go a little ways further down a street that we’d always turned off on previous occasions. “I guess it’s over this way,” I said, kicking my chin out in the direction we were going. “I’ve never been down this street, have you?” “No,” Gina responded, coming up alongside me on her bike. “I always assumed there was nothing down here.”

“Me, too,” I said. Wondering why I’d ever assumed this.

About a quarter mile down the street, we saw a chewed-looking street and a sign. The street was slightly narrow, the houses crowded in so closely as to make their boundaries indistinguishable. Children played in the streets and men sat on the Sunday corners, talking idly. The sign was brightly painted and declared the street to be the entrance of San Jeronimo, barrio turistico. We locked our bikes up to the sign, and walked down the pulverized street, slowly at first. It felt like walking into someone’s backyard for a party you’re not entirely sure you’ve been invited to.

High treble-karaoke music was booming over the otherwise quiet neighborhood. Along with the, breathy, slightly off-key singing of someone who has just been dancing, people could be heard talking, laughing and moving things around. All this was just on the other side of a wall somewhere. Nothing of the party could be seen but almost everything could be heard.

The houses that lined the streets had been vivaciously painted. A yellow and green balcony, a bright red house front and a set of reaching concrete stairs changed colors with each step as they wound past papaya trees and portraits of Bob Marley and Jesus. With the palms susurrating overhead and the rolling cumbia music on the karaoke system, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see an ital shack selling tamarind drinks around the corner.

We settled for a guarana’-flavored Fanta instead. The stairs where we sat down to drink it were across from the barrio’s football field, also brightly painted. One poor kid caught a ball unintentionally with his head while talking with his friends. When he covered his face to cry, an older kid came over and rubbed his head and spoke in his ear. We were too far away to hear any of the conversation and after a while we turned our attention back to the vivacious streets.

“What a nice place!”

“Why did no one ever tell us about it?”

“I bet they all think it’s dumb.”

“Yeah, they probably do, huh? It’s intentional, so it probably seems fake to them.”

“I don’t care; I think it’s cool. All these little stores and the colors make you feel different.”

“Yeah. I like it, too. We’ll have to come back some day when some of this stuff is open.”

We wandered around barrio San Jeronimo for another half an hour. We went by the church and looked out over the rusty warehouse landscape below. We talked about how it would be nice to live in such a place and know all the neighbors. I thought about all the conversational gaps I could’ve filled with this place, all the times when I had talked with Couchsurfing guests, trying to think of one place in particular they could go see, something besides Mercado 4 and the Recoleta.

I thought about the impression I had of Asuncion. After all the walking and the traveling for classes, I thought I had the city mapped out. It seemed the corners I didn’t know could hardly contain anything so bright and beautiful as this, and yet, here is was. All those evenings I had looked out over downtown thinking, ‘I’ve seen most of what I’m interested in here.’ Somewhere underneath those grey walls and the light of the orange setting sun, Barrio San Jeronimo was quietly defying me, or perhaps loudly defying me, blasting its karaoke songs through the red, green and yellow streets.
After making two loops through the barrio, we decided to go. If there had been a cafĂ© to plop down in, I would’ve settled for instant coffee just for a chance to appreciate the ambiance a little more, but everything was closed on Sunday. We walked slowly, though, nodding and saying ‘adios’ to those we passed. A man painting barrels stopped, looked up and said ‘gracias por su visita.’

We came down from the multicolored stairs and the little medieval hill that the barrio sits on like a Caribbean castle and walked down the street we had come in. Everywhere were signs for little shops, all of which had their bright doors closed against the Sunday afternoon languor in the streets.

Three little boys were playing parking attendant, emulating their older brothers who go downtown and point out parking spaces, for a small tip, by waving bright rags around. One boy stood down at the end of the empty street madly signaling to the other two boys that there was a place to park where he was standing. The other boys, fighting over control of their toy car, were completely ignoring him. They could park anywhere they wanted, furthermore, when you’ve got a toy car, who wants to park it? Still, I knew how the boy felt. Standing at the end of the street, waving your hands around, it’s easy to convince yourself that your way is the most logical and that your companions playing with the car are the ones who don’t understand the game.

As we were walking by the scene I heard running and turned around to see, gratefully, that the parking attendant had given up his post.

By the barrio’s entrance, the karaoke music rose in volume. The voice singing into the microphone was all treble-blurred. It was a love song, an I’m-so-happy-I’m-kinda’-sad love song. The chorus was repetitive. Gina and I began to sing it to each other, quietly at first and then loudly, almost as loudly as the kids yelling down the street and the woman singing into the blurry microphone. We danced our way back to our bikes in our clumsy way, repeating the chorus, even after the chorus was finished.

To anyone who had seen our entrance into the barrio and our exit only about half an hour later, we would look to have been radically changed by the experience. If everyone who went in came out dancing, maybe I would’ve heard about the place before.