Saturday, August 22, 2015

Endless Sunday Evening

Last Sunday morning was cool and grey, like it had stormed during the night, only there were no puddles and no vague, half-awake memories of lightening. We went down to the park for a while to drink our coffee and watch the birds flit through the trees and call out to the grey morning. It was Sunday and everyone was still inside. When I first moved to Latin America, I hated the feel of its occluded and penitent Sundays. Alone in Buenos Aires, I was continually distressed to wake up on my only day off and find that the clouds had moved back over the sky (even if it had been beautiful all week) and that everything had closed so utterly as to make the neighborhood look abandoned.  Even the sign boards seemed to come down and the shutters pulled over the shops were battered into anonymity. A walk through the desolate city would reveal nothing more than a few dying pockets of Saturday night: tired-sounding music echoing up from basements, empty Fernet bottles and an occasional gust of dead perfume and spilled beer from a barroom floor.

I have since adapted to the feel of what I have come to think of as a ‘true Sunday,’ after I came to understand the character of the day was not as grim and vacuous has it had initially seemed. Sundays here are like a Norman Rockwell ideal. Rather than the sort of tenuous pause we have in the US—an odd little gap usually filled with the fallout from Saturday’s parties and Monday’s work anxiety— Sunday here is entirely empty. It is a sort of weekly vacation.

In the US, I never tried very hard to choose between Saturday night and Sunday morning. No contest; Sunday was for sleeping through. You didn’t plan anything for Sunday. But the neglected aspect of the day, often dissolved into almost painfully sad evenings that didn’t end until Monday morning. In the US there is no Sunday night, only interminable evening and I spent these evenings trying to understand where the sense of failure was coming from the same way you try to locate a puncture in a bike tire. Somehow in having not changed my situation between Friday and Sunday, it was like I’d missed something important. I’d have to wait out another week before I could try again. But, whatever I was aiming for was never very clear.

In Latin America, Sunday is so universally dead, it’s like the guilt over the weekend is shared by everyone. The stores are all closed, the streets are mostly quiet, but, despite this, there is a feeling that Sunday is the focus of the weekend, like this quiet was all anyone was after and Saturday had been no more than a prelude.

Asuncion is a noisy city. Cheap motorcycles have flooded the streets and many of them have mufflers in poor states of repair, or missing altogether. Cars drive by with megaphones mounted on the hoods announcing that they are selling food or buying old car batteries. A guy rides by on a bike calling out that he sharpens knifes. Construction is consistent. Old diesel buses roar past on low, quasi-brown note gears. Something is always either going up or being taken down. My first year here, the noise got to me. I started to feel skittish, like a dog constantly darting back under the table from the Fourth of July fireworks. It took me a while to trust Sunday, I kept expecting it to turn sour and melancholy on me, but eventually I started to find relief in day’s quiescence.

I am now accustomed to the noise. I’m probably still more aware of it than everyone else, but it doesn’t shake me loose from my mental moorings the way it did after I’d arrived. I am much more aware of the absence of noise that its presence, thus Sunday morning dawns with a sort of beatific quality. Almost no one works and the only people who seem to get up before noon are the elderly. Walking through our neighborhood on Sunday morning, it feels different: dogs play in the empty streets, people lean over their fences talking to their neighbors, every greeting is returned heartily. It’s like waking up in a different city.

Last Sunday, we settled into an awkward wooden bench in the park and poured our thick coffee into our tin cups, a small measure at a time so it didn’t get cold. While still waking up, we attempted subjects of conversation, abandoned them and moved on to others, each more flippant than the last until I found I was soliloquizing on all the places I love again. Sunday here is mutable, it’s easy to imagine it as a Sunday in Siracusa, Italy or Batumi, Georgia on the Black Sea coast, but there is no coast anywhere, only the swampy boardwalk along the river, and I contented myself with going home after the coffee was finished, making a few phone calls and eating some pancakes.

After the pancakes, we went walking down the long avenues of the city toward the botanical garden, but this undeveloped diamond plot of land at the northwest end of the city should not be called a garden. For one thing, it is too large. It is also formless and savagely crisscrossed with sandy motorcycle and scooter treads. In the botanical garden you are more likely to hear stereos playing the latest pop songs rather than bird song. It is something like a sports complex/parking lot that has been pushed back into a neglected stand of trees. You can’t call the place a botanical garden because there is no garden in it, not really, but somehow, the title “botanical” still suits the place as an adjective. There are plants, animals and trees coexisting with the beer cans and the subwoofers. Behind a cyclone fence, I have even glimpsed a neatly arranged medicinal herb garden, in which each plant looks tenderly cared for and every sprout has an identifying plaque. However, this sole vestige of a garden seems to be firmly locked against intrusion. I have never seen it open or anyone else in its vicinity. A better term for the place would be “park.”  

The walk to the park is not pleasant, but after the previous day in the countryside, I felt my tolerance level for the more inane aspects of the city had been raised, or rejuvenated. It was also Sunday so I was expecting the traffic to be mild.

From our apartment, we walked down a street that looks like it has been blazed through a dense and humid jungle. The canopy of the trees still laces across the sky, parrots flit around and squawk in their metallic voices. The street goes nowhere and has been paved with the most haphazard paving stones. Most of them are not flush with the ground but dug in at an angle lifting a sharp corner to the sky. Imagine a street paved with imperfect and broken bricks and you’ll have an idea of what it looks like. The jagged street is uncomfortable to walk on and the cars that drive down it can’t go more than 15 mph without completely rattling loose. There are three mango trees growing up through the paving stones, in the middle of the street. The stones have simply been scattered around them, as if there was nothing to be done. Walking down this street, I am always tempted to envision an entire city built this way: small, narrow streets snaking around heavy tropical trees. The cars would be reduced to such low speeds that pedestrians would have a clear advantage. I think about this idealized city and imagine how quiet it would be, because even during Friday’s rush hour traffic, this street is quiet: no horns, no diesel engines, not even any dogs barking. If the world were more like this, it would make more sense to walk.

We exited this Eden to find ourselves on one of Asuncion’s most traveled thoroughfares. The lighter Sunday traffic allowed the cars racing down the avenue to move much more quickly and as the cheap motorcycles struggled to keep up with this increased pace, their engines screamed under their plastic housings.


As we walked down this wide and noisy avenue, I began to think about how everything masquerading as progress is so inordinately boring: steel skyscrapers, business English, wide streets, new cars, TGI Fridays. Progress blatantly favors those more money and less time. The environment progress creates is a wasteland with air-conditioned shopping malls and condominiums. You drive from one to the other. The stuff in between is just avenue. It is meant to be driven down. If you walk this landscape, you’ll find it has no imagination. The stores repeat themselves, advertising the same oil, soda and snack foods. The passing traffic is the same, it presents no spectacle, only repetition of certain makes and models and the dull thudding of pop songs turned up to maximum volume. Even the colors are hardly varied. Companies could make the cars any color they want, but they insist on using the same colors, like they were trying to get rid of all the extra paint left in the garage. Once in a while, walking, you catch the eye of someone driving by and you regard each other with the same curiosity with which one normally regards animals in the zoo.

The sidewalk is oil-soaked and broken. It seems to have been built on a heap of sand. Approaching the park, the neighborhood becomes more run down, until the sidewalk and even the streets are half-obliterated and covered with grass. The walls lean at crazy angles and while we walked down Sacramento, a chuck of a building front detached itself and slapped onto the sidewalk with a concussive report. After the initial door-sized piece, smaller chunks of plaster continued to rain down for a while and then even these stopped. It was like a demolition, but there was no one around, it was just an empty building collapsing under its own weight, the dust still pluming from where the plaster had fallen. We stopped and waited to see if more would fall, but the building was still. Only the dust of the plaster rose and settled. About ten feet up the wall, the scabrous wound of exposed brick already looked like it had been there for several years.  

“It’s a good thing we weren’t walking over there!” Gina said. I nodded, “Yeah,” and then looked up to make sure that there was nothing nearby that might fall on us.  

The entrance to the botanical garden is set back from a four-way intersection with no traffic light. No one knows where anyone else is going. Buses turn right, motorcycles blow straight through and cars make cautious U-turns. The intersection is managed with mettle, nerve and plenty of horn-honking. The cacophony of this congested park entrance is rivaled by the sounds of the park itself. Dirt bikes roar back through the trees and cumbia music plods like a dancing giant from every car parked out on the grass. The smells of barbecue, cut grass and stale beer abound.

We bought a bag of popcorn and immediately steered ourselves away from the masses. Large swales of bamboo laced together over the footpath like hands folded in prayer, the fingers interlaced. 

Beneath the bamboo, the earth had been trampled into sand, so fine and heavy it was like walking on a beach. When we came out from the swale, the character of the park had changed somewhat. More people were jogging and the cumbia rhythm pulsed from slightly farther away.

The footpath was wide and sandy and the trees had been scraped up recently in its construction.  To the right, was a dense stand of trees and to the left, the park opened up into its more spacious avenues of trampled grass and baby diapers. A small path opened up in the stand of trees and seemed to burrow into it. There was a sign proclaiming this path to be the Sendero Encantado or something like that, so we ducked under a few low-hanging vines and plunged into the cooler world of dense forest—something Asuncion often hints at but never quiet achieves. There are lots of trees here, but there are almost no places where one can stand in the midst of trees, feel the stirring of their manifold shadows and the leafy coolness that grows up around them: a feeling much like sinking down into a still lake, when the light and sound diminish and the temperature drops, first around your ankles and then rising up past your head the deeper you sink.

We were about half-way down the path when the silence retreated under an incipient whine which seemed to be growing toward a crescendo. Somewhere along our walk, we had disturbed a cloud of mosquitos that were now following us doggedly down the path, like the raincloud that followed Eeyore around in the Winne-the-Pooh stories. In a city where anti-dengue murals are everywhere and malarial warnings are given out as little cards on all arriving international flights, a cloud of mosquitos presents a more intimidating obstacle than it would elsewhere. If, statistically, one out of every, say, 1,000 mosquitos carries dengue or malaria than there was about a 100% chance that at least one of the mosquitos in the cloud was infected. I waved my arms in the general direction of the winged mass, but soon realized the futility in what I was doing and we had no choice but to run.

We broke back out into the clear light of the more frequented paths of the park within a minute or two. A woman, walking with her family, stopped to gawk at us, quite openly, as if by running, or coming out of the woods, we had committed some incredible faux pas that made it acceptable to stare at us, nearly open-mouthed.

We walked on and, unfortunately, soon came to the “zoo” section of the park. The full name of the place is Jardin Botanico y Zoologico. Nearly an entire pride of lions was penned in together in an area less than half the size of one of the soccer fields that are so common here. One of the lions was roaring in a choked way, repeatedly, as if trying to communicate a strangled protest to the people standing around pointing and staring. Nearby, was a lone grey elephant in an even smaller enclosure that had been made still smaller by a moat that had been dug around the unfortunate animal to keep her from knocking down the fence and trampling us all, as she certainly deserved to. I suppose for some, zoos are proof of mankind’s indisputable dominance of the entire animal kingdom, but for me, watching that elephant swing her grey truck back and forth in an area not much bigger than your garage, zoos are monuments to our incredible arrogance and total lack of empathy. Even if you hated elephants in the most passionate way, I don’t know how you could consider the fate of this creature and not feel overwhelmed with pity: stored in a box, like a curio in museum just for us to come and look at. How people ever thought such a thing would be acceptable is beyond me.

We could find no way to go from the zoo but toward the people and as lumpy sound of thudding bass grew I began to feel more annoyed with the whole idea of the park. Like so many other parks, it was just something different for people to drive to and park their cars in. No one was here to walk through the closeness of the trees or to listen to the winds stirring the leaves over their heads. It was a parking lot with trees, a shopping mall with birds.

We left soon after that and started the trip home, but I didn’t leave with the misanthropic impressions that had been stirring in me after the zoo. Rather, I thought of the small, mosquito choked path we had walked. Someone had created it, someone that appreciated the close feel of trees as we did and that someone had made a sign to point it out to anyone that might feel the same way.

And, who knows, maybe the path was created by the same people who stuck that elephant in that cage. It’s certainly possible for people to have dual natures. This thought seemed especially relevant as we exited the park and watched the peace and tranquility of Sunday torn away by multiple families rushing to get home before the traffic. The four-way intersection looked like it had been multiplied by about five. Cars were honking, breaking and peeling out in every direction.  That’s the problem with having a peaceful Sunday: no one is thinking about Monday until it’s already dark and then they’re all racing down the wide streets, headlong toward the beckoning chaos of Monday.

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