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.


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