Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Tyranny of Image

“This isn’t as big of a deal as I thought It’d be” I told Gina standing outside our apartment, looking at the crowd of people forming to see the Pope. “I thought there’d be really dense crowds and lines wrapping halfway around the city.” My point of comparison had led me astray. The last time I’d had any kind of papal involvement had been in Italy when John Paul II died. In hours, Rome had doubled in size, people slept on the streets, forming tent cities and the lines to see his body were interminable. For weeks, huge crowds gathered at St. Peter’s to watch the smoke from the papal chimney. We waited for the white smoke to announce that a new Pope had been chosen.   

When the crowds finally cleared the streets and returned home, it was as if the city had undergone some profound change. Even a city as timeless as Rome, that has witnessed the changing face of civilization nearly since civilization began was affected by the events in the Vatican. I assumed that a city like Asuncion would be absolutely shocked by Francisco’s visit. Teams of construction workers had been working overtime to repave certain crumbling streets. Volunteers were cleaning up the small piles of trash that accumulate here and there. The newspaper vendors were giving away free Pope flags (the kind you attach to your car) with the purchase of a Sunday paper and the supermarkets were selling t-shirts and souvenir coffee mugs featuring the Pope standing alongside the Paraguayan flag. The city, usually troubled only by the occasional roar of an unmuffled motorcycle or a late night karaoke party, seemed on the verge of exploding into sensationalism.

In many places, Asuncion looks fairly modern. There are collapsed buildings and shattered sidewalks here and there and abandoned cars rot in sidestreets, but in most places, the city looks fairly progressive. Most people, when thinking of the Paraguayan capital would probably expect much worse. But Asuncion’s progressive face belies the reality. When it rains here, everything floods. Minutes after the beginning of a heavy rain, the sewer grates are belching forth geysers of fetid-smelling grey water. In order to make the sewers more efficient, the grates are removed and cars frequently fall into them. Along the riverbank, the hovels are abandoned to the rising water and the poor move further into the city, setting up plywood shacks to sleep in, bringing their livestock with them. On the edges of parks and soccer fields, shanties hang at crazy angles, barefoot kids run around and horses tear at the grass. When it rains, most people stay in. The streets quickly turn to rivers, even expensive houses flood and, often, the power goes out. The city is not well equipped to handle the rains, even though they come every year. Based on this observation and what I remembered of my time in Rome, I wondered how it would fare with a flood of people. After all, Francisco is the first Pope from Latin America, born in neighboring Argentina, and this is his first visit to the continent. 

As he wasn’t planning on visiting Argentina or Brazil, I figured these people would be coming to him in the 1,000s or even 100s of 1,000s as it had been in Rome. Under this sudden deluge of people, I imagined Asuncion struggling like it does against the water but with a much more chaotic result.

A national holiday was declared for the Friday and Saturday that the Pope would be in town. The institute I work for was closed as was the cafĂ© where Gina works, to give you an idea of the scope of the event. Living near the Embassy of the Hold See, I expected the pilgrims and media to begin arriving by Thursday or even Wednesday, but by Thursday night, hardly anything had changed. There were a few more police out and some yellow and white flags had been strung up, but the streets were quiet. Friday, the people came out, but there didn’t seem to be too many. I’ve seen bigger crowds making their way to sports events. When the SF Giants were in the playoffs a few years ago, I saw bigger crowds walking around SOMA than I saw here on Friday.

It was easy to enjoy the day off. Even living at the epicenter of the action, we were able to go about our lives as if nothing exception was happening. But perhaps because we had been anticipating such massive crowds, or maybe just through sheer force of laziness, we spent most of the day inside, reading.

Saturday, Francisco was scheduled to be going out of town to visit the holiest cathedral in Paraguay in the town of Caacupe about 60 kilometers away.

In the early morning, when we went out to have our coffee, we saw the crowds assembled to see the Pope as he passed by. It wasn’t difficult for us to move through these crowds and soon we were in the park, drinking coffee and listening to the birds sing like we always do when we have a day off. The only difference was the occasional rumble of a helicopter passing overhead. The park even seemed more empty than usual. For the hour we sat there, no more than two or three cars drove past. Even the scratchy calls of the parrots seemed to have drifted off somewhere else.

After spending the previous day in and drinking too much coffee, we decided to take a long walk, down the length of the coastanera, through downtown and into the neighborhood of Sajonia. It was an ambitious plan, but with a mild and sunny Saturday stretching out before it, there seemed no better possible use of our time.

When we started out, there was still a light breeze drifting out from the shadows of empty houses and the dense, leafy canopies of the mango and jackfruit trees. I put on a long-sleeved shirt and was comfortable until we walked out onto the sun-exposed porch of Asuncion, the costanera.

I think ‘costanera’ might be a southern cone (Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay) term. They used it in Argentina as well, but no one outside this area seems to be familiar with it. A costanera is what we would call a boardwalk in the States. It’s a promenade that runs along a body of water, but while in the States we would usually associate such a thing with a beach, here there is usually only the walk itself. Many of them run along rivers and for, whatever reason, there is seldom anyone swimming. Part of Asuncion’s costanera runs along a wetland area that would be uncomfortable to swim in unless you liked brackish, methane-rich water and being poked by big clumps of reeds. 

Further down, they’ve constructed a man-made beach that looks like it would make for decent swimming, but there are signs posted forbidding it. The signs give no reason, but everyone tells me it’s due to pollution. Little kids are frequently seen ignoring the signs on hot days and although I would like to join them, I am not brave enough to face whatever might be in that water.

It was hot along the costanera and extremely empty. After walking for a while, I unbuttoned my long-sleeve shirt that had been comfortable back into town where all the empty homes and dead cars seem to seethe with cold, dusty air in the winter, despite the sun. Eventually, in the bright, unmitigated sun of the costanera, I just took my shirt off. I’m still adapting to wearing shorts and walking around with no shirt on, but living in Paraguay, where temperatures frequently reach above 100 degrees and humidity is high, I have had to make certain concessions. There comes a point where one just looks ridiculous wearing jeans.

There are usually guards posted along the costanera. Much of the area used to be a slum, and even now, much of the shanty housing as only been pushed back behind the sidewalks and cotton candy vendors to a thin strip of trees and stagnant water between the city and the river. On clear, windy days, kites made from garbage bags and other refuse items fly over this area and barefoot kids occasionally run into view with their arms raised and their faces turned up to the sky.

To keep the kids from bothering anyone who’s come to walk along the costanera, the guards stand there tirelessly with zoned out looks on their faces. I say ‘hi’ to them but they never return my greeting. Either they are not allowed to, or they’re just jerks. As we walked along, watching the ragged kites rise and fall before the city’s skyline we began to joke about the bored-looking guards. “Oh my God,” Gina suddenly said, “what if one of them told you to put your shirt back on?!” and the moment she said it, I knew it was going to happen. The next cluster of guards we passed (two sitting on a bench) one raised himself up a little and asked me, somewhat politely, if I would put my shirt back on. I complied without argument despite the fact that we were spitting distance from the beach.

There is more hypocrisy in authority here because the rules are much more vague. Yeah, in the States you might get pulled over for nothing, but here, cops will ask you to do anything they can think of. I really wouldn’t be surprised if one were to ask me to spit out my chewing gum. They function on whims and ideas of morality and personal interpretations of the law. I really doubt that there’s anything that says that I have to wear a shirt on the beach, but something about the situation seemed inappropriate to the guard and he had been sitting out in the sun for hours and probably no one had walked by (the costanera had been surprisingly deserted). He wanted to justify his presence.

I went along with the request, it was hot and I was tired. I didn’t want to argue with the guy, but the whole thing soured my mood a little. Nobody likes being told what to do, but being told to put your clothes back on by someone who’s barely old enough to shave is beyond irritating. We walked the rest of the costanera saying little. Everything started to annoy me: the military boat made from what looked like scrap metal bobbing in the polluted river, the cheap boots that swallowed the cuffs of the solders’ fatigues, the captain with his swagger and big belly, the unprofessional way the military guards stared at us. It all looked like a ridiculous farce and I wanted to say so. This is what I think tourists from developed countries will always be guilty of. No matter how hard they try to join the developing world while traveling, riding local buses, eating local food, etc., if the country they are visiting tries to flex its muscle over them, no matter if the country is Columbia, Morocco or Nepal, they will always reveal their lack of respect for the country’s laws. Developing countries are allowed to have their revered customs and traditions superior even to those in the developed world, but their soldiers and police will always be ridiculous and lamentable for their impotence.

We walked through downtown and into Sajonia. The sky had begun to darken and it looked as if it might rain. My resentment was waning, but I didn’t feel as good as I had when we had set out. The grey sky and the obstreperous freight of passing buses left me feeling bored and vaguely irritated with Asuncion. Gina and I started talking about San Francisco taquerias, tamarindo aguas frescas (sweetened, Mexican fruit juice drinks) and salsa verde. The familiar California day dream began, but I banished it before it could become anything worth entertaining.

We passed Carlos Antonio Lopez Park and the sun started to edge out around the clouds. Some little boys were crouched down by the fence, hiding from someone, presumable two teenaged girls who stood a ways off looking around confused. The boys gestured to us as we went past. They seemed to be saying “don’t tell them we’re here!” which was great. We went into the park and walked around the spiny palo borracho and the mottled guava trees. Little kids were playing soccer on a field with little goals, just above them, some teenagers were playing in the sand of a slightly larger field. The whole park seemed to rise to a point, amongst the trees. We climbed to the top, naturally to see what was there. As we came out of a grove of trees, we noticed a police officer in his authoritarian black, faux-Kevlar vest sitting at the pinnacle of the park. I wondered if perhaps he would tell us we weren’t allowed to enter, but we continued walking, thinking it best to wait and see what he said rather than give up before trying.

We got to the top, about 10 yards from where the cop was sitting. I said ‘hello’ to him and he returned the greeting. I noticed he was smoking, but as it’s common here, I didn’t think much of it and then, after we’d taken a few steps away, it hit me, the unmistakable scent of weed smoke. The poor bored bastard probably had to hang out in this quiet park all afternoon and with no shirtless people to bother, he’d fired up the joint he’d brought along to ease the boredom, right then, two meddlesome foreigners had to come traipsing over the hill. No wonder he’d been the first cop that day to return my greeting, we’d caught him and his guilt brought him down to our level. He couldn’t afford not to return my greeting. He wasn’t any better than me.

I guess that’s what I’ve always found so annoying about authority, in countries both ‘developing’ and ‘developed,’ everyone commits faults, everyone has weaknesses and no one is morally superior. Yet, humans seem to crave hierarchies and if they can’t use something natural (like strength) they’ll impose something artificial (like rank). In one’s own society, you obey authority because it seems natural, but try to go somewhere else and buy into someone else’s power structure and you quickly realize how ridiculous and artificial it is.

The cop seemed embarrassed to have been caught, but we didn’t make it too obvious that we’d noticed. We climbed down from the hill, rambled around the park a little more and then turned back toward home, where the crowds were already amassing to try to catch another look at the Pope.