Thursday, June 25, 2015

Tell the Truth

It’s usually quiet here on Sundays. Yeah, sometimes the guys from the construction company across the street are working, banging their metal pipes around and throwing stuff into the back of a waiting truck while they bawl orders and jokes at each other. When the truck pulls away, there’s that long, low ripping sound of a diesel engine whirring too quickly into life. And in the afternoon, down the block, you can here everyone’s music playing at once while they wait for their barbecue to finish cooking. Of course there are also the sounds of kids playing, mothers yelling and men laughing. In the evening, a few cars plod down the street with slow, bassy stereos. Now and then a dog barks. But these are normal, Sunday sounds, nothing like the Monday through Saturday crush of traffic that sits just below my balcony rumbling, honking, yelling zooming and calling into loudspeakers. With Asuncion’s preponderance of cheap motorcycles, nearly every 5th vehicle that goes under my windows produces an engine noise of at least 100 decibels. Because there are no stop signs, drivers on the street, especially motorcyclists, beep their horns going through four-way stops. In the early morning and the evening, when there is less traffic, every few minutes there comes a roaring of an unmuffled motorcycle pushing up the hill followed by two blasts of the horn, one at either end of the block. Then there are the ancient Mercedes-Benz buses that come roaring after them, belching black smoke, sounding like something burrowing under the ground at a rapid rate rather than something easily passing over it. The numerous nearby construction projects add to the cacophonous quality of the area. Heavy machinery backs up beeping incessantly, backhoes dump 1,000s of pounds of concrete and twisted rebar into a dented truck with a sound like tanks crashing into each other at top speed.

I can bear the noise because I know on Sunday the world will quiet once again and become beautiful. On Sunday, people you pass on the street are more inclined to return your greeting. On Sunday, neighbors down the block sit in the shade and pass the time. When I skate by, all sweaty and disheveled, I stop and talk about the weather with them. I go down to the park and watch the dogs, strays and pets, parade by with their tails up. Even the birdsong in the trees has something mellow about it on Sunday.

Last Sunday, I was enjoying the typical peace and gentle rhythm of the Day of Rest. Gina and I went out to brunch with some friends. At home, I made some Skype calls and then went out skating. I know I’m getting old as far as skateboarding is concerned, but I still enjoy the movement and discovery of it. Even as decrepit as I am, I occasionally surprise myself by suddenly doing something I was previously unable to do. Last Sunday was such an occasion, and the new trick stoked the fires of my interest and I stayed out into the evening, bounding across the parkinglot, up and down the curbs feeling like a 14 year-old.

When I got back in, I was exhausted, but it was a pleasant exhaustion. I took a shower, made dinner and stretched out to read. Gina had gone to work and I had the place to myself. By the drowsy lamplight, I was beginning to nod off when some pop music suddenly exploded above my head, like when you turn on a radio not realizing it’s at full volume. I sat up and grumbled. Directly above our apartment there is a rooftop terrace. There’s a grill and a picnic table and it’s a really great place to enjoy a nice meal or to have a drink if you have some friends over. Not everyone uses the terrace for such relaxed purposes. On Fridays, Saturdays and even the occasional Thursday, other residents of the building have brought their stereos up to this terrace and blasted music and yelled until after midnight. Usually if we shut our bedroom door it’s not too bad, but because of the closeness of the roof, it’s still annoying as it feels as if the people up there were partying in your living room—especially if they start trying to dance around. But, as I mentioned before, I can tolerate these things because I know Sundays will be quiet.

Although I’m still not entirely sure what the unspoken rules of Paraguayan society are, I was pretty sure that not partying late on Sunday was one of them. Sunday and most week nights after 10 pm, my neighborhood is almost eerily quiet. When I heard the music start from upstairs, I assumed someone had just gone up there to drink a few beers and say goodbye to the weekend with a couple of friends. I didn’t think there’d be any big party, but I thought I’d get my laundry (we put it out on a rack on the roof to dry) just in case things got a little rowdy. I didn’t want my clean shirts to be flapping around next to a bunch of chainsmoking drunks.

I went up the stairs for the laundry. As I expected, there were only three or four young guys on the roof. They were sitting around the table, looking like decent people. We exchanged ‘hola’s and ‘como te va’s and I went back downstairs carrying the laundry rack. I settled back into the couch with my book and was just about to forget about the music upstairs when suddenly, it was challenged by a much louder music coming from the street below. I thought it was just some kid out showing off his sound system, but the car stopped in front of my building. The music continued playing and then people started yelling. The guys on the roof responded, yelling back. Then the door below opened and what sounded like a heard of water buffalo moved up the stairs. “Great,” I thought. “This is turning into a party.” But I still felt protected by statistics. It was Sunday, things like this just didn’t happen.

I was glad I’d gotten my laundry off the roof because the crowd just kept coming. The front door of the building has this lousy pneumatic hinge and the thing slams shut unless you stand there and ease it closed. It’s a big metal security door so it seems to rattle the entire building when it shuts. As the party guests continued coming, the door was slamming every minute. Up on the roof, just above my head, people were stomping around. Not just walking around but actually jumping, galloping might be a better word. Occasionally something would impress them and they would all yell out at once in a chorus of wild abandon. I was beginning to get annoyed. This didn’t sound like anything suited to Sunday. People had to work in the morning and this was flagrantly disrespectful to the other people living in the building.

Unfortunately, this sort of thing is not uncommon in Asuncion, which is also known as the mythical land of do-as-you-please. Never before have I seen such an incredible class disparity. Elsewhere, I have seen the proverbial brand new Jaguar driving down a muddy village road. I have seen the rich man enter a building with his sunglasses and entourage. I have heard people whisper about the things the rich have gotten away with, but everywhere I have been, from Kosovo to Columbia, the rich had to live, more or less, in the same society as the poor. In Asuncion, the rich have created their own world. They live in mansions, in tinted Land Rovers. They have their own stores with armed guards posted at the door. When they drive through the streets, they drive with impunity and reckless abandon, like an army with a flank exposed. I have seen the rich at social events. I have heard them speak. They are people accustomed to having their desires carried out quickly and with no complaint. It’s in their bearing, in their walk and facial expressions. I have seen them bodily move people when they are obstructed. So accustomed are they to getting their way, I have seen them yell out their order while still waiting in line and walk away in the full assumption that it will be carried out. These are the adults. Imagine if people like this had children that they spoiled rotten and then imagine the children becoming selfish and semi-nihilistic teenagers and now you have some sort of idea who was on my roof that night. Disrespect meant absolutely nothing to them.

Gina came home around 10 o’clock and didn’t seem to mind the noise. She was happy to be home from work, but I, who had been lounging on my ass all day, was already beyond frustrated. The noise level was increasing. The music had gotten louder and the partiers kept getting worked up into chanting in that moronic ‘oooh, oooh, oooh’ way, jumping up and down while they did it, which just beneath them, sounded like a continuous crash, like something big falling over again and again. Everyone had to yell over the bass laden pop music. I was beginning to bristle. Just as I had closed the door behind Gina, another clot of these revelers came whooping up the stairs, I opened the door and went out to the landing to tell them to be quiet as they passed by. Just to say the equivalent of ‘hey, guys, come on people live here, ya’ know?’

Speaking a foreign language depends so much on your audience. When you sense your audience is receptive and forgiving of your mistakes, you don’t worry about making them. When you’re not worried about making mistakes, you tend to make less. Anyone who’s ever had their boss look over their shoulder while performing some task at work understands this concept. When someone is hovering, you tend to make ridiculously stupid mistakes precisely because you are worried about making mistakes. No matter how comfortable you become at speaking another language, when you are facing someone who seems even remotely hostile, language becomes a slippery thing that you have to wrestle down, as you try to pin it, you become aware that the person you are trying to communicate with is laughing at your struggle. This makes the struggle worse. The more frustrated you become, the harder the language struggles. It’s a vicious cycle. In order to avoid this, when being confrontational, it’s best to stick to single words so you don’t have to worry about grammar or syntax.

In my bare feet and my Adidas shorts, I stepped out onto the landing and hit the noisy group off as they came around the bend in the stairs. I did my best to belt out a well-rounded ‘tranquilo!’ with a local accent. The girl who was leading the parade glared at me and continued up the stairs. She might as well have walked through me, ghost that I was to her. There was a classic thick-necked lout behind her. He looked like a walking rectangle. When he kept yelling, I called for tranquility again, thinking maybe he hadn’t heard me, but of course he had, it’s just that he grew up with parents who bodily moved their servants around and laid on the horns of their Ranger Rovers at poor people walking across the street. This guy’s only way to relate to strangers was with ‘how dare you.’ As he rounded the stairs, he reached out and gave me a condescending pat, a pat like you would give a dog or a baby. I stood there, aghast, literally aghast. When she saw me to speechless, Gina started to yell from the doorway, but I turned and waved her inside “you can’t talk to these people,” I said. I tried to act calm, but my blood was boiling.

I went inside and pretended to read, but I was so angry I was having a difficult timeeven breathing normally, let alone making my brain process the words on the page. I wanted to go upstairs and just start throwing punches. First I’d punch that bastard that patted me. Then I’d punch all the guys that kept yelling and whooping up there like a bunch of damn gorillas and I’d kick over their stereo to rid the world of their stupid music.

This might sound a little extreme, but it was now after 11 and these people cared nothing for the other people in the building. They had just taken over like a bunch of sacking Vikings or something. The screams continued in the stairs. The front door kept slamming. The music was blasting and everyone was shouting in an unrestrained drunken way. And no one up there cared because they knew no one was going to do anything about it.

In the States, when this sort of thing happens, people go over and talk to their neighbors. Usually the polite thing to say is “I wanted to talk to you before I called the cops.” I have never spoken to someone who wasn’t at least somewhat appreciative of this courtesy. Of course, the implied threat is that if they keep making noise, you will call the cops. Not that I actually would, but the threat gives weight to your words. Or it would if I’d ever had to tell anyone in the States to be quiet. A little noise doesn’t normally bother me and usually there are neighbors much more sensitive than I to noise levels. As a result, by the time I’ve even noticed the sound of a party, someone else has usually already complained. In Asuncion, this doesn’t happen. I knew that there must’ve been many other residents of the building trying to get to sleep or just relax and enjoy their evening who were also annoyed by the party but I knew that none of them were going to go and tell these people to shut up. I’d never heard anyone ever complain to partiers before, even if they would complain about them afterwards. There’s a defacto rule here that you don’t get involved in things that don’t directly concern you. So in a sense that noisy brats on the roof had already won. They were free to terrorize us because their business didn’t concern us. They knew no one would complain. As for calling the cops, well I’ve never heard of anyone calling the cops for anything here.

I wasn’t exactly running up there either. From all the yelling, I could tell that everyone, or at least all the guys up there were pretty drunk. It was also apparent that they didn’t care what they were doing to the people in the building, so why would they listen if I went up there and told them to shut up? The rooftop terrace also had no door, so there was nothing to knock on, no neutral doorway from which to address the revelers. I would’ve had to just walk into the middle of their party and start yelling.

I don’t think the party was annoying Gina as much but she could tell that I was worked up. She kept saying that she would go up there and say something. I knew she would, too and I couldn’t stand to think of her talking to those drunken meatheads with me waiting downstairs. I realized I’d backed myself into a wall. I couldn’t stand to let those spoiled brats think that they could just come over and act like this whenever they wanted. None of our neighbors were going to say anything. I didn’t want Gina to go up there. The only option was that I go up there and try in shaky Spanish to tell them all to shut up or get out.

I worked out a plan, I’d find out which of them lived in the building and I’d talk to that person, who’d have perhaps slightly more invested in not pissing off the neighbors. I stood at the door, but afraid to hesitate too long, I was soon going up the stairs, moving into the dark, whooping torrent toward the roof.

The terraces lights were all off and in the darkness I made out a forest of moving bodies, most of them stood together in pairs. The table was covered with bottles, scatted yells punctuated the scene, like the partiers were using them to locate each other in the darkness. A grey female face swam up to me out of the darkness bearing a confused expression. “Quien tiene su departamento aca?” I asked. She pointed to a blue collared shirt standing at the edge of the terrace. I swam through the smoky, booze-sweet darkness to the shirt. “Estas viviendo aca?” I asked the blue shirt, already floundering with my Spanish. From somewhere just beneath his chin a female voice answered. “yo vivo aca.” I looked down and saw that the blue shirt had his arms wrapped around a bleached blonde with a puffy-looking face.  I talked to her a minute. I told her the party was too loud. That is was a Sunday and people had to work in the morning. I asked her which apartment was hers and finally her name. She said it and blue shirt lurched forward, finally coming to life. His eyes were all but rolled back into his head. “Y soy su novio!” His booze-soft mouth having a hard time with the consonants and leaking air, spittle and vodka and energy drink. “Y tu nombre?” I asked, looking the dope right in the eyes, trying my best to convey my contempt for him, hoping that he’d try to do something so I could punch his eyes the rest of the way into his head. Of course I knew that punching him would do no good and would probably get me killed before I got out of the party, but, damn, I was sick of these entitled-acting people. When I asked the girl to quiet down the party, she kept saying “ahora mismo” in this too-bright girl scout kind of way, but for the time I bought it and went back downstairs, thankful to have at least shown these people that not everyone in the building was going to tolerate this shit.

An hour passed before there were any signs of anything changing. The music and yelling continued as before. I lay in bed thinking about all kinds of things I could do to intimidate these people into leaving. Gina slept peacefully after her long day of work, but I lay there, still grinding my teeth when something finally broke and argumentative shouts spilled out onto the street. The roof emptied out like someone had pulled the plug on a bathtub full of jerks. Loud, argumentative sounds now rose from the parkinglot below. I went to the window and saw no girls. It was only guys, blue shirt among them, throwing a cooler around and running up and shoving each other. The shoves started as playful, but they seemed constantly on the verge of turning into fights. The language of the rectangles had degraded to ‘puta’ and ‘maricon,’ which was all they seemed to be saying. They were yelling at each other and at the puffy faced bleached blonde. Maybe even she could finally take no more of their lummox behavior and kicked them all out. Their protest in the street was too drunken to last long and eventually they got into their huge trucks and laid on their horns as they drove away. I could hear the bastards for blocks and blocks until they finally receded into the dark, bewildering night.               

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Artificial Light, Artificial Dark


I pulled on the spout and tested the coffee that came out. You can tell when it’s not very hot by the way the cup feels in your hand but I sipped it carefully anyway. I added some water hoping the water for tea would be a little hotter, but it didn’t matter. My room was just down the hall, but by the time I reached it, the coffee was already cold. A caged parrot clucked to itself outside my window. It ran through its repertoire of memorized sounds: “Hola,” it squawked, between whistles and then muttered something incoherent.

I came through a limbo to get down here. There’s a kind of long lacuna coil that spins around this country like a tornado on a Doppler Radar screen. About an hour outside the city, you get swept up in it. During the day, the sky dims. At night, the light of the occasional streetlight solders the horizon to the tree line in a bumpy line like something a mole dug through your backyard. A movie comes on the bus’s television, always a movie with gunshots and the muted landscape swirls past the windows in very heavy colors, like minerals: lead and magnesium, cobalt and sulfur. The bus’s windows are sealed and the passenger exhalations begin to cling to the glass. The condensation holds to the windows without running. Each bead of water holds a grey half and a black half: a projection of the night sky and the headlights glare reflected from the dark highway. The occasional streetlights radiate across the surface of the water-pebbled windows. The bus’s interior glows without being lit up. 

Passing through a town, the garish lights shine through in a mauve brilliance. It’s the impression of light rather than the sight, as it must’ve been in the womb: the feeling the beyond the rudimentary and paper-thin eyelids and the fluid and the sheathes of muscle of something busy and glowing.

An ambulance passed by and the bus’s interior pulsed with a poison green light. It revealed faces and lapels and tired hands and shoes propped up on canvas bags. Everyone was tangled and sleeping. Their eyes were closed but widened and the green light brightened the orbits of each one before steering off into the enveloping trees. The light smothered by distance.

It’s hard to believe you’re in a different place. The street signs are the same, the shredded palms, the  deep green teardrop leaves of the mango trees. There are unfinished structures of rebar twisting up from a chalky concrete block and everywhere is the red paint of the Colorado party that turns a raw meat pink after a year of sun. The sidewalks are done in tile, alternately chalky and glazed. 

Encarnacion is different for being built at the mouth of rivers. More money has been spent here and thousands of lights reflect off the water. Through the fogged windows, the city looks like something on bright stilts, braced between the earth and sky.

I stumble through a day and get back on the bus the same evening. Six more hours on the road, staring through the same night-begrimed windows, trying to parse something out of the landscape that I’ve traveled through without ever learning anything about it, like a businessman who frequently takes a NY to LA redeye, knowing nothing of the plains, mountains and deserts sweeping under his feet. At night, I bore through Paraguay like a tunnel; the bus is a part of the city, detached, floundering through the amniotic fluid of the raw countryside. When I get off the bus in Asuncion, I feel slightly clammy. I look around the quiet streets unable to believe that I have been anywhere at all.

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The next weekend I took another bus to Ciudad del Este, which is the other city I go to for work about once a month. Both Encarnacion and Ciudad del Este are atypical Paraguayan towns. They both have large immigrant populations and, as a result, exude a greater cosmopolitan feel. Encarnacion has a few sushi places, Ciudad del Este has a large rubbery-looking mosque. Encarn looks like a very intentional resort. CDE looks like border town, but slightly more schizophrenic than most.

I woke up early in Ciudad del Este with nothing to do until 1:30. The first time I came here, I walked the friendship bridge to Brazil’s Ponta Pora’, but I saw nothing interesting in the area except the bridge itself. Since then, I have been to CDE around 10 times and every time, I’m never sure what to do with myself. There seems to be something happening, but in the short amount of time I have, there is no way to get a true understanding of what it is.

It’s interesting: Look for Ciudad del Este on a map. Can you find it? Apart from being near IguaƧu (or Iguazu or Yguazu, depending on which country you’re in) Falls, the area is remote, days away from Buenos Aires or Rio and even six hours away from relatively unvisited Asuncion. It’s the sort of place you’d look at on a map and wonder what the hell the place was like. Like you’d hold your finger on the little dot on the map, wave a friend over with the other hand and then, when they’d gotten close enough, jab the dot with your finger and exclaim “what do you think they do in a place like that?” whereupon you and your friend would look at the dot and imagine all kinds of crocodile-orchid-parasite-jungle madness. Even now, I look at map points like Maputo or Osh and practically whisper to the names on the map “and what the hell do you have going on?” Ciudad del Este should be one of those places, but here I am and it doesn’t seem willing to divulge anything that’s not already incredibly obvious. In fact, like everywhere else, it seems perfectly happy to mascarade as something incredibly dull.

There was no mystery that I was going to solve, but I wasn’t going to stay in my hotel room all day waiting to go to work, so I went outside to wander the massive shopping complexes.

Because Ciudad del Este is a border town and has its goods priced according to Paraguayan customs (much cheaper than Brazil) the town is something of a modern day trading post. Crunched-looking metal stalls run up and down Ruta 7, crammed together like ingrown teeth. Most of these stalls are festooned with Chinese accessories: hats, towels and those fuzzy brown comforters that are attendant to almost any scene with Marlboro Lights, thick carpeting and the pale blue light of a 2 am television. When you walk by the stalls the attendants sweep their hands toward the products and say adelante as if there were somewhere for you to adeltante to.

To the north and south of the stalls, are the shopping malls. Due to the way that Spanish works (noun + adjective) when a collocation like ‘shopping mall’ is imported into the language and needs to be shorted the word that gets hacked off is the second word, rather than the first, therefore, what we call a ‘mall’ in English, is called a ‘shopping’ in Latin American Spanish. (I have also frequently heard the Rolling Stones referred to as ‘Los Rolling’ rather than, as we would say, ‘The Stones.’) I am happy to have a different half of the term to refer to the Paraguayan shopping mall, or at least the ones in Ciudad del Este, as they are nothing like the roomy showrooms of the States. In CDE, a ‘shopping’ is like a bunch of the aforementioned stalls that decided to split the rent on a big building and then got into some ‘I Love Lucy’-esque property dispute and drew a bunch of lines all over the place, cordoning themselves off from each other in bizarre ways. The ground floors often look normal enough, a little tight perhaps, but nothing unusual. It starts to get weird when you climb the stairs and suddenly come upon an attendant sitting on a stool for a store that you suddenly realize you have passed through between the first and second floors. What’s even weirder is that this store seems to specialize in sex toys, so while you walk up the stairs, you’re crowded by a bunch of glowing dildos.

After the stairwell sex toy store, I came out into a fore-foodcourt . One restaurant had a large buffet-style serving bar and commodious seating area, the other, a little shwarma stand, looked like an entrepreneurial parasite that had been attracted to the smell of the deep fryer. The rest of the building was floor after floor of clothes, all of which seemed to have too many pockets and logos. It looked like the kind of store a racecar driver would shop in.

I went into a classier mall to see what the difference was. The floor plan was easier to follow and they sold expensive watches and Afghan rugs, but there didn’t really seem to be much difference. Both places looked like airport dutyfree stores, only one was in the Shahjalal airport and the other was in Heathrow.

One of Paraguay’s most quoted statistics is that the country is one of the largest importers of Scotch Whiskey in the world (I read this in a book and have heard it many times in conversation although I’ve checked three scotch whiskey websites and have found nothing that actually confirms this). Down in the basement of this fancy shopping there was a sort of faux wine cellar that looked like a Disneyland version of the Poe story The Cask of Amontillado. Walking down the faux flambeaux-lit stairs, I imagined that I was sure to find some ridiculous cache of scotch whiskey at the bottom. The dim room had a rich, earthy smell, probably from the innumerable wooden boxes that lay open, disclosing bottles and magnums of all kinds of wines. There was a desk in the back and a well-dressed clerk who I expected to swoop down on me like Dracula with a goblet of brandy, but he never even glanced at me, moreover, for all the booze, there was hardly any whiskey to be found, a few bottles of Jura that had really stupid designs on them, making them look like a whiskey that Enya had designed.

After los shopping, I went over to the mosque on Boqueron st. I had noticed the place the last time I had been in town and meant to take a look around it to see if there were any Lebanese or Syrian stores nearby.

From faraway the mosque had a rubbery, Gaudi-like look that only increased as one got closer, which I think was due to the thick type of paint that had been used. The sluggish looking paint and the non-linear planes of eastern architecture combined to produce a solid building that looked like a giant inflated bounce castle. The mosque itself was unremarkable and without a minaret. It was positioned in front of an apartment block like it was standing guard. At the entrance of the building was a Lebanese shop with a bunch of nargiles in the window, plastic bags still wrapped around the glass bases and wooden mouthpieces.  I went in and puzzled over the unpriced food products. As elsewhere in CDE, the products were priced in US dollars when they were priced at all. I asked about the dusty cans of dolma. “Cinco dolares,” I was told and promptly put the one down I was holding. I walked to the back of the store and found a pile of ‘I love Lebanon’ hats. I considered buying one until I remembered that I wasn’t in Lebanon. I looked around for ‘I love Paraguay hats,’ but there were none to be found.

I left the mosque/store/apartment building swinging a bag filled with olives, cans of hummus and fava beans and tahini. I passed several more stalls and was adelante’d in to view the Ben 10-themed socks John Foos tennis shoes. The town was all torn up for the Pope’s impending visit. The few pedestrian areas had been obliterated, forcing everyone to walk over tangled orange plastic fences and heaps of sand. A large part of the central park had already been overhauled and was now studded by an obscene number of streetlights (like the new ones in Encarnacion).

For lunch, I ate a can of baba ganush in the park with some olives and bread. After my class was over, I wandered around under the blazing park lights which had come on by midafternoon. In the long shadows created by the stark white lights, the place looked brand new and manicured, absolutely unexotic, nothing like what it’s location on the map seemed to suggest. Children played on the playground equipment and people in spandex chatted and powerwalked past. It was just like everywhere else.

At 6 pm, I got back on the bus and went back across the countryside which, by then, was darkened like the wings of a theater where the actors wait to enter the spotlights. We rushed through these shadows and hanging curtains, seeing nothing but the TV screen scorching the darkness before us.  

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