Saturday, May 16, 2015

Fireworks in the Wind

I got out early, so I went to get the tickets thinking it wouldn’t be too bad. It was early in the day and most people were still working. 

I was going to take the bus, but then I got lazy and decided to ride my bike. This is how it is when you ride a bike all the time; the bus seems like the less comfortable option. With a bus, you’re usually crammed in the back with a bunch of other standing passengers. Besides, you have to walk four blocks to the stop, wait about 20 minutes for the thing to show up and when it does the driver is surly tempered and in a hurry. No. It’s easier just to ride your bike. You don’t have to deal with anyone that way.

When I got outside and saw all the cars jammed into the street and idling, I was glad I had chosen not to wait for the bus. I hopped on my bike and began to maneuver through the gridlocked traffic. Behind me I could hear motorcycles also maneuvering between the traffic, but in a much more cumbersome way.

The traffic was terrible everywhere. I rode over to Avenida Ayala which is a death trap. The concrete is laid out in massive slabs. The slabs are broken and no longer flush. At the seams where the slabs meet, they sit at different heights. It’s not much to a car, but on a bike a sudden drop or raise in the concrete by half a foot can mean a pretty bad fall if you’re not paying attention. There’re also partially destroyed manhole covers that have been hastily stuffed with a few long sticks to advertise them as hazardous and the cars are always blasting by like they’re all carrying pregnant women who’ve gone into labor. I rode most of the way standing up. The misaligned concrete slabs and the gummy waves of asphalt tar that had been pushed to the shoulder of the street, like padding in an old mattress, kept the bike hopping up and down. It was easier to control without sitting down and taking the shock of every bump and dip into my lower back.

Down Ayala, everything is oily and broken. Battered wrecks sit outside mechanics’ garages, leaking oil and shedding crystal pebbles of broken windshield glass. Further along, more conservative businesses crop up, but the atmosphere of wreckage pervades, the parking areas and scant sidewalks look shattered. When there is any grass, it grows in a crooked yellow way and just makes everything look more broken. Every horizontal surface is covered with a layer of downy black grime.

I turned right onto Avenida Argentina and began riding up hill. Behind me, the old buses roared and rattled down the street, heading in the general direction of the bus terminal, their diesel looseness rattling, wet and hollow like a deep sleep apnea snore that tugs at the air and cries it backwards into the lungs. On both sides of the median, the dog-whistle-high squeak of taught brakes sounded again and again as innumerable feet leap up from and stomped back down on the floor pedals.

Not long ago, Avenida Argentina was a cobblestoned street. The cobbles weren’t taken up but paved over. After the years of traffic, the tar from the asphalt has begun to mold itself around the honeycomb shape of the cobbles. In places where the tar was spread too thinly, it is like there’s no asphalt at all and the spaces between the cobbles are wide enough to ripple under the bike’s tires like choppy water under the hull of a quickly moving boat.   

I arrived at the bus terminal around 4:30. Some passengers, traveling for the holiday weekend, had already made it there with their bulging plastic burlap sacks and were sitting in tired piles with their feet splayed out in front of them. Others were lining up to buy tickets. Several companies were selling tickets to Pilar. I had read that the Pilarense bus was slow and uncomfortable. Having had my diverse experiences at this point with slow and uncomfortable buses, I tried the other companies first.

“Pilar? You want the Pilarense company. Two windows over.”

“Yeah we’re going to Pilar. You want to leave when? Oh, try Pilarense over there.”

“We’re sold out, but I think Pilarense’s got seats left.”

At the Pilarense window, the kid had a rosary tattooed around his wrist. The inked beads crawled up and down his arm like an impressive line of grey moles, holding up a crucifix. I asked him if there was anything for the evening. He told me yes. At 11:00 o’clock there would be a bus leaving. 

“Anything coming back on Friday?” I asked. “No,” he said without looking up. “Nothing coming back on Friday.” He seemed to think for a second and then added “nothing at all,” as if to quash any doubt. I went to another window. The company had a bus returning Friday, but nothing leaving today. I bought tickets to leave and decided to do the rest later, it was getting dark and I had forgotten the light for my bike. The pre-holiday traffic could be heard dog whistling, snoring and dragging all over town. I put my headphones back on and started out into the mess.

Heading towards Lopez from the bus terminal, the condition of the road was much worse. Cauldron-sized potholes had blended into the asphalt by filling up with black water. The headlights shined off them in an eerie way, like the light was spreading through them from some distant underwater source. The reflected light betrayed them and I managed to avoid falling into any potholes. Closer to home, in Villa Mora, the traffic was locked up again. The car engines idled uselessly under stationary hoods, occasionally kicking out irritable-sounding cooling fan blasts. “RUUUUUUGGGGHHHHHHH.” I rode down the shoulder, hoping no one would open their door.

The further I rode down the street the heavier the traffic became. At the intersections, cars were frozen in pointless configurations and the drivers blared their horns as if hoping that the sound would somehow blast the other cars out of their way. I tried to find solace on a side street, but the traffic had spread out like water seeking its own level. No matter which obscure turns I took, the engines were there chugging along, the taillights seething red and angry in the dark and the stereos clapped and whoomped their polka beats as if excited by the chaotic scene.

Despite all the noise and oily exhaust and the smell of the dead water in the potholes, the drivers leaned out the windows with bored expressions on their faces. Every car on the street, disclosed another tired and impatient-looking person, but they all looked at home in the mess. The drivers looked out their windows with the disinterest of someone looking at a mediocre doodle they did while talking on the phone. They recognized it and felt nothing. Sometimes they honked, but I saw the faces of those that had honked; they were completely unaware of having done anything.  

I came off the side street back on to Avenida Lopez. The traffic was being held back by police who were letting a motorcade go by. Amongst the traffic being held back was an ambulance with its lights flashing. The motorcade consisted of seven or eight motorcycle cops and a coach bus that sped through the intersection. I went through the intersection after the bus and, for some reason, I started to ride as fast as I could. I rode up Lopez with the sirens rising and falling from the motorcade with a wall of smoldering taillights before me and the gusting sound of several motorcycles steering quickly between cars. There was music playing in my headphones, but I didn’t have the patience to listen to it.

I broke away from the traffic and turned onto a two-way street. One lane was blocked and, as often happens, a Jeep had pulled out and was driving in the lane of oncoming traffic. Since there were no other cars, I was the only oncoming vehicle, the only obstacle. TheJeep didn’t slow down, and I continued as before, steering into the middle of the lane in attempt to assert my right to the space. I rode toward the boxy headlights, feeling like I couldn’t allow myself to be pushed out. This was a two-way street. I should’ve had a lane. I didn’t want to have to pull off the road just because I was on a bike. I hardly cared if I got hit, I just wanted to make my point. The bastard made no move to even slow down and at the last minute I snapped out of martyr mode and ceded the lane to the Jeep. He roared past. Behind the dark windshield, I never saw anything of the driver, just headlights.

I got back to my apartment sweaty and disorientated. I took a shower and got a Coke out of the fridge. I just sat down when I heard the muffled concussive sound of fireworks. I ignored it for a while but it continued: light pops and deep explosions, they came fast and the sounds piled up on top of each other, like when people applaud over a drum solo. I went to the window to see and caught the tail end of the Independence Day fireworks display. The last few great explosions left the ghostly imprint of withered grey lilies drifting across the sky. Down in the street, the horns began to quaver again and the engines rumbled and whirred and the stereos made bassy gulping sounds. On the next street over, the cars hurrying over the cobbles made sounds like the tide pulling back from a rocky beach.  

I stood on my balcony for a while, watching the traffic pile up. The engines ticked and rolled and the cooling fans sighed angrily on the street below. From overhead, it all looked absurd.      

We took the overnight bus that night. We were lucky to have picked a bus that didn’t play any movies. All night long, we drove through southern Paraguay in a fog of snores and holiday booze-breath. Nothing could be seen from the windows except the golden orbs of street lights which shone through the tinted windows in rapid succession as we passed through each town and then trailed back off into the night. I couldn’t sleep, nor could I stay awake. Each light weighed on my eyelids, forcing me to squint out the window, wonder vaguely where we were and roll over back into non-sleep.

I don’t know if I had been awake or if the light woke me up but I was sitting up and the horizon was lavender-grey as we passed under a Bienvenidos a Pilar sign. I stretched as if waking up and watched the fog-colored scenery drift under the windows.

The bus station was still dark. A single guard stood in front of the place with a stoic look on his face. I imagined the interior of the building being lit up with the glowing fronts of vending machines, but when we got off the bus, I saw that behind the locked gate there was only darkness.

We walked out of the parking lot. The sun was still just under the horizon. Something careened over us. “It’s an owl,” Gina said. And we turned to watch the progress of the squat bird. Two other birds were silhouetted on a nearby roof top. I pointed them out. “There are lots of owls around here,” Jeremy said. And we slowed our walk a little. The owls had returned a sense of strangeness to the place. Getting off the bus, it was easy to just assume it was another town in Paraguay with cobblestone streets and pharmacies shaded by billowing green mango trees. The owl had disrupted this idea from fully taking shape. I had never seen owls anywhere else in Paraguay.

We went down to the coastanera that ran along the river. In the dim light we could see there was very little trash. There were none of the metallic-sounding, tropical birds of the north and the river could be heard trickling through the weeds along the banks.  My face felt dry and stiff after the long bus ride and the cool air coming off the river was refreshing. We sat down by the water for a while, each of us retreating into our own contemplation of the morning. The sun came up through the clouds and the light on the river grew a lighter grey. In the distance, a marching band was warming up and flatulent brass honking occasionally stirred the river from its drifting reverie.

There was a parade for Independence Day. We went down to the main plaza and stood with our bags and slept-in clothes in a great ruffled pile amongst the little girls with ribbons in their hair and white knee socks that ran with tufts of cotton candy in their hands. No one paid us much attention. We lined up to watch the parade and were soon engulfed in a troupe of drumming majorettes that rapped out the same beat incessantly. The brass came in for a few shaky bars of Yellow Submarine and then nothing. The snares rapped and the bass drums boomed. The drummers were tight-lipped, staring straight ahead, twirling their drumsticks with precision between measures and constantly beating out rrrap—rrrap—rrrap-tap-tap. The horns went back up and a shaky Ode to Joy flubbered out. The drums and the horns together sounded like a very precise artillery shooting at a bunch of squawking loons. The horns dropped down again and a smiling group of grandmothers walked passed waving. Then nothing, just the drums. The horn players, who had looked so serious before, were beginning to grin a little, some fingered their values distractedly and others let go of all restraint and looked around wildly like they had just joined the crowd of spectators. The drums continued rapping out the same beat. We went off to get coffee. There was a place down the street with plastic tables and chairs on the sidewalk. A man in an apron served us instant coffee from a huge pot that he left on the table. We drank from tea cups with small plates as saucers. I drank the stuff until my stomach hurt. It was the usual thing.

We ambled around town the rest of the day, walking along the river bank and going around behind the cotton mill which has always been the town’s largest industry. At the end of the day, we were back on the river, in the same place we had been sitting that morning watching the sun come up.

We returned to our host’s and sat on a freakishly large balcony drinking wine and watching the night fall over the quiet town.  Large white birds wheeled in the sky overhead, the lights of the town glowing under their wingspans. Some of us said they were owls. Others disagreed but offered no further comment about else might be swooping around in the dark.

After the wine, we were all falling asleep and so decided to go off looking for an ice cream place that Jeremy remembered as being exceptional. He remembered the place being nearby and we went down the block looking for it. The first place we came to was not the right one. We walked on passing another place that was also not the right one. At the next corner, Jeremy went up to ask a group of men standing in front of a shop if they knew one. “Yes,” they told us. They did. One of the men’s cousin’s owned a place. Where were we from? Ahh yes. Well, he’d take us there. As we walked, the man talked to Jeremy about the town and life in it. He talked about the difficulty of finding work and how basically life was good, but, as one could see, slow and predictable, which was to say he liked it. Everyone who lives in slow and predictable places and talks about how the places are slow and predictable with visiting strangers will admit to liking the slowness and the predictability, if pressed.

We arrived in front of the cousin’s ice cream shop. We thanked the man and he went back the way he had come. Jeremy said it still wasn’t the one he was looking for. “It had a green sign.” He insisted and we went off looking for a green sign. We walked a few blocks before accosting a couple sitting in front of a rustic convenience store, with the appearance of a rural bait shop in the US. They pointed us back the ice cream shop we had come from. We mentioned the green sign. “Green sign?” They pondered. “Oh yes, El Tropi. Five blocks straight and one to the left.” We thanked them and went off nearly skipping. Of course this El Tropi was certainly the place. But as we began to draw near, I realized that we were back were we had started at the first ice cream shop. We circled the block making sure there was no mistake. When we walked past the one where we had started, I checked the name. “El Tropical,” I said pointing. This was it. Jeremy still balked, swearing the one he was looking for must be nearby, but we were no longer convinced it still existed and he admitted that he wasn’t either, so we decided to go into El Tropi.

The place was too big on the inside. The ice cream freezers were pushed back into one corner of the room in an ‘L’ shape and a few tables and chairs did what they could to fill in the resulting emptiness, but there was still a great amount of tile, light and ceiling empty and shining. A girl and an old man stood behind the freezers. The girl stood attentively and the grandpa liked an ice cream cone with a distracted air, more like he was smoking a cigarette than eating ice cream. When we approached the counter it was gramps who greeted us first and then the girl came forward, shyly, to take our orders. I asked if they had helado al agua, the water-based fruit sorbet that’s fairly common in ice cream shops in Latin America. Even in smaller towns they usually keep the lemon flavor on hand for anyone who wants it. The girl seemed confused by the question. She blushed a little and looked to the man who was lustily licking his ice cream cone. “Huh?” He asked, when he saw that his help was needed. I repeated my question. “No,” he said. He didn’t have any. It would be hard to find around here. Jeremy took advantage of the confusion and began drilling the man about the existence of the place with the green sign. Gramps continuing licking and shrugged. He waved at the ice cream freezer and offered us a free cone, surrendering to our bizarre requests the only hospitable way he knew.  We thanked him but told him we were only looking for al agua, although we appreciated his offer. He repeated again that it would be hard to find. We thanked him again and walked out of the monumental place with its vast tile floor gleaming like an empty dance floor.  

Outside, we weren’t sure what to do and just started walking, perhaps with the intent of looking a little more, perhaps with the intent of turning in for the night. A yell came from behind us. I turned to see gramps, who had finished his ice cream cone, waving us back over. He said something about another place and while we stood there waiting for more explanation, he waved us over to a car. We piled in the back seat. “What’s going on?” someone asked. “I think he’s taking us to another ice cream place.” We were introduced to his nephew, who got behind the wheel and we took off.

We stopped for gas about a block away, which made me wonder just how far we were going. After we got the gas, we drove out of town over the bridge from which we’d seen the sun come up that morning. On the other side there were a few dim stores, most illuminated by a single lightbulb outside. We stopped before a place called Bambino’s, an ice cream place. We piled out of the car like kids after basketball practice. Bambino’s also had a shy girl working behind the counter. The scene replayed itself. “Helado al agua?” I asked. The girl was confused. An older woman working behind the counter, apparently more accustomed to such absurd questions, answered for the young girl. “No,” she said, “everything has milk.” I looked up and noticed that one of the sizes on the menu was labeled piccole. Since the place had been called Bambino’s, I asked if anyone spoke Italian. The girl just blushed again. The woman shrugged. The menu also offed popsicles, I didn’t really want one, no one did, but we bought them anyway. They were less than a quarter each. I grabbed a green one. It was the first mint popsicle I’ve ever had.

When we got back in the car, gramps had his nephew drive us over to see his summer house. It was down by the river and its dark windows seemed to reflect the choppy water. He told us he would have his granddaughter’s 15th birthday at this house. The road we went over was rutted from the rains and as we drove, the car rocked gently back and forth. Gramps looked out the window and seemed to be imagining his granddaughter in one of those massive white dresses. We came up from the river bank and crossed the bridge. Gramps asked us where we were going and we told him just to drop us off at his ice cream place. We had no plans, and it seemed like as good a place as any.

When we got out we all shook hands. I asked the grandpa if his ice cream shop had coffee, hoping maybe we could repay his kindness by buying something the next day, but he only shook his head, probably leery in case I was now asking him to drive me to a café. We thanked him again and walked away. We left the next day without realizing we’d forgotten to go back and see him. I didn’t remember until we passed Bambino’s on the other side of the bridge, which looked like a place that had been closed for years.

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